(1) "Aunt Cassie... slow down," Murphy Michaels calmed, disturbed by the panic in her voice. "I can't understand you." Murphy heard his aunt trying to control the tears.
"Oh, Murphy," Cassie Michaels began. "I don't know what to do." She paused, obviously reluctant to continue. "I can't get anyone to help," she sobbed.
"Whatever I can do," the Denver detective promised. "You know that."
"But...," she continued.
"No buts. Whatever!" he emphasized.
Cassie drew in a deep breath. "Jake's gone -- I know he's been kidnapped! But no one'll listen. They say he's just bein' Jake, but I know different," she blurted out in one breath.
"Oh," Murphy answered. "Oh," he repeated, suddenly reticent about the promise he'd just made to his aunt.
"You will help, won't you?" Cassie begged.
"Oh, um, well," he stuttered again. "Yeah... of course." He glanced around his den, but Sherry was nowhere to be seen. "I just need the details." He pulled out a pad of paper from his desk and began jotting down notes. "I'll call you back, Aunt Cassie. Don't worry," Murphy assured. "We'll find him."
Murphy ran his hand through his hair, rolling his eyes at the task ahead. "Never promise when you don't know what you're promisin'," he instructed himself, but he knew it wouldn't have mattered. As much as he disliked his uncle, he adored his aunt... and Jake was family...
But he was going to need help. Murphy grabbed the phone and punched in the first set of numbers.
Murphy paced the small airport waiting area, then stopped to watch a plane land. Lee had arrived a few minutes earlier and had gone in search of a working coffee vending machine, leaving him alone with his thoughts. Murphy had been able to get his cousins to show, despite the vagueness of the details he'd offered. He was pretty sure Lee and Skip suspected Jake was involved - but Andy was definitely in the dark. Their uncle and cousin had a history - a volatile history. Andy would have eventually agreed to come because of their beloved aunt, but Murphy just didn't want to deal with the hassles involved.
Of course, he really didn't have much in the way of details so the evasiveness wasn't really a lie.
"So what exactly did you tell Andy to get him here?" Lee handed a steaming cup to the detective. His grin told Murphy his suspicions were correct.
Murphy took a sip of the coffee, wincing a little at the hot liquid and a little at the question. "Family emergency," he sighed. "A flight number and time - and then my cordless phone's battery started to go out and the static got bad," Murphy admitted.
Lee chuckled. "And it worked."
The detective shrugged, a little pleased it had worked.
"Hey, look, it's Andy." Lee gestured towards the small group of passengers straggling through the departure gate. He sat down, nodding for Murphy to greet their cousin without him.
"Thanks," Murphy began. "Appreciate the support."
Lee laughed as he tried to get his tall body comfortable in the less than cozy airport chair.
"So, what do we know?" Lee steered the rented car around a pothole.
"Not much." Murphy shook his head slowly. "Jake was supposed to be home two days ago. He had a lotta cash with him to buy some equipment and he's still not home."
"What about Sheriff Paul?" Skip queried from the back seat. "Can't the family lawman help?" he continued in his best cowpoke drawl.
"Officially it's too early for a missing person investigation," Murphy explained in exasperation. Paul Ironhorse had been his first call after talking to their distraught aunt. "But unofficially he's got calls to all the surrounding law enforcement offices and a description of his truck and license and the clothes Jake was wearing."
"Hmph." Andy's crossed arms and scowl continued to declare his bad mood.
"Well, that's almost less than not much," Lee declared.
"I called Aunt Cassie while waiting for everyone to arrive. Paul may have a lead on Jake's truck." The detective stretched his leg a little, trying to get the circulation going again. "If he's got something, I'll call Laura to see if they can help."
"Uh huh," Skip agreed happily, ignoring the frowning figure beside him. "So -- Any other kinda disappearances happenin' 'round here? People? Dogs? Cattle...?" he suggested, waving his fingers in Andy's face in a spooky, mysterious manner.
Andy slowly broke his sulking gaze away from the desert landscape. "You aren't seriously going to try to make this about UFO's?" he asked incredulously, silently begging help from Murphy in the front seat.
Murphy tried to hide the threatening grin, refocusing his attention to the road ahead.
Purposely oblivious to his cousin's disdain, Skip continued, "Can't leave any stone unturned. I think Harry knows some people who are good with mysteries."
Lee nodded in agreement. "My film friends may be able to help."
"Whoever and whatever we have to do to get this over with." Murphy sighed heavily, then brightened. "Think of this as an adventure with treasure at the end."
"Uncle Jake? Treasure?" Andy snorted derisively.
"Hmph!" Skip added. "We'll have to work on the analogy."
(2)"Dang it!" Jake Michaels swore, wincing at the throbbing at the back of his head where he'd hit it on the rough plaster wall.
At the sound, the darkly stubbled man in flannel turned abruptly from his seat at the old Formica table to stare down at the rancher, lying on the floor in a corner.
"Shut yer trap, old man! Or do I hafta come over there and knock it shut for ya?!" he snarled.
Jake snorted, glowering right back. "I'm just tryin' to get more comfortable, is all. Why in tarnation're you keeping me tied up, anyway? What'd I ever do to you? You got my money -- this is the longest robbery I've ever heard of!"
Stubbles shook his head meaningfully. "Uh-uh, grandpa, that ain't none of your business. You just sit quiet 'til we tell you not to." He glared at Jake for another moment, then glanced across the room to its other occupant, who stood silently at the apartment's lone window. This man was tall, thin, with dark green eyes that searched the shadowy street below with slow deliberate sweeps. Sensing he was being watched, the man turned, graceful as a cat, to face the other two. Those jade eyes glittered in reflected lamplight as he spoke softly, with just a hint of concealed malice.
"That is correct. You do not need to concern yourself with matters beyond your control. Be patient, our wait is almost over. Soon they will come."
He turned back to the window, dismissing the other two from his thoughts. The flannelled man looked confused, but nodded hasty agreement with his superior and went back to his game of solitaire.
"Red ten, hmmm, goes on Jack'a Clubs, yup, okay, where's that nine...."
Jake Michaels settled in for another day on the floor, wondering irritably what was keepin' that worthless nephew-in-law of a sheriff.
* * *
The screen door banged open and Cassie came out onto the porch to greet her nephews as their car pulled up to the ranch house. Her worried face relaxed into a smile as first Skip, then Andy and Lee enfolded her in warm hugs. Murphy was slower to get out of the car, but soon he too had embraced his aunt.
"Now, now, Aunt Cassie, don't cry, we're gonna get to the bottom of this and get Uncle Jake back safe and sound," Skip reassured her as she wiped her eyes on her apron. He put an arm around her shoulder and steered her back through the door. "Let's go inside and have some tea and see what's what."
Cassie smiled gratefully at him. "I'm so glad you boys are here. 'Specially you, Andy." She beamed at her nephew.
Andy smiled sheepishly, "Aw, what's past is past. I may not like the guy, but I don't want him hurt. Heck, I need him here so we can argue some more!"
The others laughed.
Once back in her kitchen, with her nephews seated around the table gazing at her, Cassie's confident nature reasserted itself. She bustled about making tea and then sat down.
"I just got off the phone with Paul. He's found Jake's truck, out on Meade Hollow Road just outside of town. He went over it and found some odd clues he's not sure what to do with." Her eyes shone with hope.
Murphy exclaimed, "Great! I'll go down to the station and talk with him, see what he's found."
"I'll go with you, Murph," Lee stated, and he and Murphy got up to leave. "We'll phone you when we have something." The two quickly headed out to the car.
Andy and Skip looked at each other. "Um, and we'll just stay here, thanks for asking!" Andy called snidely to the air behind the departing duo.
Skip shrugged. "Let 'em play detective in their own way. Aunt Cassie, why don't you tell us exactly what happened up until you last saw Jake," he suggested. "Was he actin' funny at all? Gotten any strange phone calls? Were there any weird noises outside at night? Glowing lights?"
Andy elbowed Skip in the ribs before he could go any further with this line of questioning. Skip glared at his cousin.
Cassie sighed, oblivious to the cousins' antics. "Well, goodness, no, he wasn't actin' strangely. It was an ordinary morning. He said he'd finally decided to buy that well-drilling unit we were saving up for, and asked if I needed anything in town. I'd just done the shopping recently so I said no." She thought a moment. "Now you mention it, I did wonder why he seemed in such a hurry to leave. He hardly touched his breakfast."
Skip's eyebrows shot up. "A-ha! A clue!" he crowed.
Andy just shook his head.
* * *
(3)"Murphy, Lee, get your butts over here, I've been waiting half an hour!"
Murphy smiled in amusement as he closed the car door. "Hey, we got here as fast as we could."
"Not without a cup of tea and some of Cassie's cinnamon rolls you didn't," Sheriff Paul Ironhorse fired back and took Murphy's hand in greeting, brushing off some telltale crumbs from his friend.
"Guilty as charged," admitted Lee. "But she sent some rolls for you, so I hope we're forgiven." He tossed a bag filled with pastry over to the Sheriff.
"For this, I'll even put up with your Uncle Jake. Tell her thanks. But I am in a hurry." Paul led the way inside.
"Maria, can you bring us some coffee, please?" the Sheriff mouthed around his first bite of Cassie's roll to Maria Morales, Glorieta's volunteer secretary and dispatcher.
"Sure thing, Paul. Hi, Murphy, Lee. Where's the rest of the gang?"
"Keeping Cassie company for the moment. How are you?"
"Keeping busy," she said as she left to get the coffee from the break room.
"Have a seat, fellas," said Paul. "Nothing about this makes much sense, so I'm glad that you've decided to help share in my frustration."
Lee didn't doubt Paul's frustration as he looked about in amazement. The Glorieta sheriff's office was so different from the high tech atmosphere he was used to working in. He wondered how the sheriff managed to accomplish much at all. A phone, fax machine, radio equipment, and a very old computer system. Lee shuddered to think how slow his Internet access speed must be.
The sheriff noticed Lee's appraisal. "Not much to look at, I know. I'm only at this office one day a week. I rotate among several of the small towns in the County. Keeps my job interesting but it can be frustrating when I'm doing an investigation."
"We understand. What do you have so far, Paul?"
"According to what Cassie told me, Jake left Tuesday morning to go over to the McDaniel place to buy a drilling unit. You two know Zach McDaniel?"
Murphy and Lee shook their heads.
"He bought the old Brickford place last year. Old-fashioned fellow. Doesn't believe in modern ranching. Does everything organic. I can see why he would sell off the Brickford machines. He'd have no use for them. Not the image he wants to project. He insisted on Jake bringing cash instead of a check or money order, told me he doesn't believe in banks. Zach's a real throw-back. He's in heaven over this whole Glorieta Pass thing."
Lee frowned at the reference and looked to Murphy who shrugged. "What Glorieta Pass thing?"
"I guess we haven't made the national news yet. I hope that's a good thing," Maria said, as she brought Paul his coffee, but she couldn't refrain from making further comment. "You boys should be ashamed of yourselves. You spent how many summers in this town as kids visiting Cassie and Jake? Did you ever once stop and read one of the historical markers along the road?"
"Sure, we read 'em," Murphy blustered, "or at least I know we used to play around them. I remember one time I bet Skip that he couldn't climb up to the top of the statue of the soldier on his horse, you know the one I mean -- out on Highway 50?"
"You mean Major Chivington?"
"If I know Skip, I bet that's one bet that ended in a trip to the emergency room," Maria said smiling.
"No, just a couple of scarred knees."
"Quick history lesson then, boys." Paul broke in, scooting Maria back to her desk with a quick thank-you. "Congress sent an advisory panel to Glorieta last fall. A lot of local historians want to establish a National Park to commemorate the Glorieta Pass Battle during the Civil War. To make it simple, the panel is suggesting rerouting Highway 50, annexing about 700 acres of ranch land to the Pecos Park, and making a lot of what is now Glorieta into a National Battlefield Park, kinda along the lines of Gettysburg."
"That can't possibly be very popular," Lee surmised, knowing too well that Uncle Jake would be furious if anyone tried to take away his land, especially the government he blamed for the loss of his son in Vietnam.
"It would bring in a lot of tourists and federal dollars," advised Paul.
"What has Uncle Jake gotten himself into?" Murphy noted Lee's concerned expression mirrored his own. There was something very strange going on here.
"Don't go jumping the gun here. Your uncle's missing, that's all. We're not going to assume kidnapping, alien abductions, or worse until I have a good reason to."
Murphy nodded; he needed to treat this as he would any case a client might bring to him. He needed to establish some facts. "What did -- what was his name, the old-fashioned rancher -- say when you interviewed him?"
"Zach McDaniel," Paul supplied. "I just did a quick hello on Wednesday. He doesn't have a phone, so I had to drive over to his place. He had the machine all set to be hauled off. Confirmed he'd been expecting Jake. He seemed a little put off that Jake hadn't shown. Odd thing is that I found Jake's truck this morning over on Meade Hollow Road. It's not on the route from the ranch to McDaniel's. Way out of the way. And Jake hadn't brought a trailer with him. So I'm not sure how those two were planning on getting the drill back. It's too heavy for the pick-up."
"What would Uncle Jake want with a drill anyway?"
"Been kinda dry these last few summers. I'd guess he was just looking to dig some new wells. I'm sure Cassie can tell you. I'll tell you guys this, if I find out he was planning to drill for anything other than water, he'd better hope I never do find him."
"What?" Lee asked, surprised at Paul's outburst.
"The reason Brickford sold his place is 'cause the old coot's in jail. He was caught drilling for oil. Broke so many federal laws and regulations that he had to sell his ranch to pay for legal fees and fines. He's over 50 and he got 20 to 30 years."
I need a subscription to the local paper, thought Lee. "Aunt Cassie never mentioned any of this stuff in her letters."
"'Course not. She wouldn't want to worry you boys, would she? I'm treating this as an official missing person's case now. So I'll need one of you to declare himself the authorized family spokesman." Paul handed a stack of papers to Murphy. "You can start filling these in right now. Use the desk over there and feel free to call Cassie if you don't know any of the answers. Most of it I've been told informally."
"I have Raoul from the Texaco station towing Jake's truck in," he continued to Lee. "He was an MP in the army so he knows enough not to get too nosy and won't disturb anything. Tonya Muir and her dogs are out trying to pick up Jake's scent from where we found the truck."
"I told Cassie I found some odd things. The location of the truck doesn't fit with his expected route, no trailer hitch. There was no sign of an accident, the truck was off the road, but it's like Jake just pulled over for a better look at something. The engine and lights had been left on and the battery was dead. There was coffee in his thermos, and the windows were down. I took pictures -- when they're developed, I'll get you copies. No tracks at all around the truck, which I found very strange, and no sign of his rifle but you should check with Cassie on whether he routinely kept it in his truck."
"I can answer that. He did," Murphy acknowledged.
"Well, it's not there now. Word of Jake's disappearance is all around town," he continued. "So expect a lot of calls and visitors up at the ranch. Cassie's a very popular lady around here and she'll be receiving a lot of support. Stu Weissner over at KTI has made several announcements on his radio show and people know to be on the lookout. The official theory right now is that Jake may have hit his head when his truck left the road, become disorientated and wondered off. It's a standard line we give in a situation like this."
"Lee, can you grab that map over by Maria's desk?"
Happy to be doing something, Lee eagerly retrieved the map.
"Thanks. This is your uncle's ranch here. This is the Brickford place, sorry, the McDaniel ranch. Here is where we found the truck, right across from Pecos National Park. Now, I'm expecting that you boys are going to do some searching and investigating on your own. Heck, the whole town probably will, but you've got to remember that I'm in charge and try not to disturb any evidence you come across. Call me first if you find anything. If you fail to follow my orders, I will lock you both up and throw away the key. Cassie wants to believe that Jake's been kidnapped. Maybe so, but unless she's been holding out on me, there's been no ransom request and, let's face it, the Michaels are not the wealthiest people around. If he was taken, it wasn't for his money, unless one of you boys has won the lottery lately or something."
"The big mystery is who knew Jake was going to be driving around Tuesday with a big wad of cash?" Lee wondered. "Or maybe Jake just stumbled into something and the cash was a bonus. Besides the government group, any strangers hanging around town?"
"Hell, guys, you've got to be kidding me. This whole town is going crazy?" Paul asked. "Lots of new folks have been moving into the area, family ranches are struggling to staying afloat. Developers would love to turn this area into a bedroom community for Santa Fe."
"Well, speaking for myself, I think I'd rather have it become a park," Lee said, shaking his head.
Ignoring him, the sheriff continued, "I've got a meeting with Jose Sanchez, he manages the area, in fifteen minutes. Since the truck was abandoned so close to his land, and he has access to a helicopter and pilot, I'm going to do an aerial search. I think that's our best bet of finding Jake."
"I'm going with you," Lee said.
"I thought you might."
"I've finished the paperwork." Murphy handed over the completed forms to Paul. "You said someone was doing a search with their dogs?"
"Yup, Tonya Muir, she does dog rescues. She trains them to hunt and herd so she can place them with the ranchers. She's done wonders with some of the dogs she's found."
"What's she using as a scent marker?"
"Jake's hat. It was found in the brush beside the truck."
* * *
The man Jake Michaels referred to as Stubbles wandered his way through the market. He had never seen anything like it. It was a lot like what he imagined the old general stores his great-grandpa had shopped in. They had everything from saddles to baby food. Trouble was, nothing seemed to be in any order. He had been given strict instructions to go to Santa Fe and pick up some supplies. He had been told not to talk to anyone, to pay cash and to leave without attracting attention. Easier said then done, he thought.
He had found this store outside of Glorieta but not quite all the way into Santa Fe, and had been able to locate most of the items that he needed but there was one thing on the list that he just could not find and he'd been up and down every aisle in the store twice. He felt everyone in the store was staring at him and it made him uncomfortable. It didn't help that the radio station the store chose to broadcast was giving out information about Jake Michael's disappearance and the local efforts to locate him. It seemed to Stubbles that even the Boy Scout troop was planning a search. Probably could get a merit badge or something, he thought. He wasn't worried though, the hideout was safe as long as he didn't mess up and lead someone to it -- as long as he didn't draw attention to himself. He would be careful.
"Excuse me, sir, can I help you?"
Startled, Stubbles almost jumped out of his skin. "What?"
"You seem to be looking for something, and I know we're not as organized as we should be so I thought maybe I could help," said the young clerk whose name badge identified her as Sarah. She wore a bright red vest that read, "Ask Me! I can help!"
The clerk stood waiting and Stubbles began to get red and flustered. What would his boss want him to do? He wanted to run, but that would just cause attention and break the first rule -- mustn't draw attention to yourself.
"Would you like a cart?"
Stubbles looked down at his arms where he cradled all the items from his list, and he realized he looked odd. He decided to nod. Maybe she would go get a cart and he could sneak out.
She smiled. "You're with the survey crew, aren't you?"
Stubbles didn't know what she was talking about but he nodded yes again.
"I thought so. They send someone new almost every day to pick up supplies and they can never find anything either. Men! You're always too proud to ask for help." Sarah led the way to the end of the aisle where a cart was waiting. Stubbles followed her still wary.
"Do you know Ken Swanson? He's on the weekend crew?"
Again Stubbles thought it best just to nod.
"Good, could you tell him Sarah said hi?"
"Ah, sure," Stubbles said as he put his stuff into the cart.
"He's, ah, he's not dating anyone is he?" she asked.
"Ah, no. I don't think so," Stubbles said finding himself kinda enjoying this little game. He liked being the one with the answers, the one giving the orders. "The only thing left on my list is lithium batteries."
"Did you check in the battery aisle?"
"Let me look, too." Sarah took him two rows over where the batteries were lined up in neat little rows. "AAA or AA?"
Sarah paused, then a smile came to her face. "Oh, of course, lithium." Turning toward the back of the store, she pointed with both hands as if they were six-shooters and said, "That's next to the milk case, right above the tampon section." And with that she was gone.
By the milk, above the tampons, of course, thought Stubbles. Maybe I'll pick up a six-pack as well -- he needed a beer.
* * *
(4)Lee and Murphy had retrieved the rental car after the fruitless aerial search and were headed onto Highway 50.
Lee dialed up Amanda. "Amanda, I need you to run some background checks for me," Lee instructed from his cell phone.
"Lee! How's Cassie doing?" Amanda asked anxiously.
"She's hanging in there," Lee answered.
"Tell her I said hello," Murphy instructed, keeping his eyes on the road.
"Murphy says hi," Lee dutifully repeated. "The names are Zach McDaniel and Brickford. I don't know Brickford's first name but he's in prison for drilling oil on protected land. Check their priors, any known associates... you know, the usual drill."
"Right," Amanda agreed, writing everything down. "Who's McDaniel? And is it M-C-D-A-N-I-E-L or M-A-C?"
"M-C. Jake had an appointment and was on his way to his place with a load of cash when he disappeared. Murphy and I are headed there now."
"Are you sure I shouldn't come down and stay with Cassie?" Amanda offered.
"Absolutely not. I don't want you flying here in your condition."
"Lee, it's perfectly safe," Amanda explained with forced patience. She couldn't survive being treated like Dresden china for the next six months. "I checked with my obstetrician. He said that I can fly until I'm in my last trimester."
"No," Lee repeated firmly. "You can help me more there. I need access to the Agency's connections and we're imposing on Billy's kindness already. I don't think he'd be too thrilled with us asking him to have his personnel help us for personal reasons."
"I guess you're right," she sighed unhappily. "I just miss you."
"I miss you, too," he admitted softly. "Hopefully we'll wrap this up in one or two days and I'll be home before you know it."
"Lee, we're almost there," Murphy interrupted.
"Amanda, I've got to go," Lee said hurriedly. "Call me whenever you have that information, all right? I love you."
"I love you, too."
Lee sighed and reluctantly hung up the telephone.
"Why, Lee, I would have never thought marriage would have changed you so much," Murphy teased as they pulled up in front of the McDaniel's place.
"What do you mean?" Lee asked curiously, one hand on the door handle.
"You sounded downright mushy there," Murphy explained with a twinkle in his eye. "If I didn't hear it with my own ears I would never have believed it."
"Very funny," Lee grumbled, trying to hide the grin as he opened the door and got out. He pulled out his gun and held it at the ready. "You coming, wise guy?"
"I'm comin', I'm comin'," Murphy stated, eyeing the gun. "You really think we'll need that?"
"I hope not," Lee answered honestly.
Stubbles was driving back to the hideout, feeling very relaxed. He parked the car and he sauntered in a slightly unsteady gait into the house, tossing the keys in mid-air and catching them.
"And where have you been, genius?" Another voice demanded furiously from behind him.
"Charlie!" Stubbles stammered, whirling around. The keys fell to the floor. "I didn't expect you here!"
"Yeah, I figured that out," Charlie answered in a hard voice. "And is that liquor I smell?"
"Only beer. I only had one or two. I wasn't being followed or nothin', honest."
"You'd better be right," Charlie snapped, going to the window and peering out. "You get the supplies?"
"Yes, sir! Yes, I got everything on the list."
"See anything suspicious?" he asked in a slightly mollified voice, going over to a nearby chair and sitting down."
"No, sir, but boy, is everyone lookin' for that old coot!" Stubbles stated nervously.
(5)Charlie waved a hand in front of his nose. "You'd better gargle or somethin' before the boss catches you."
"Too late." Zachariah McDaniel stepped from the shadows at the back of the room, his green eyes full of anger. He started toward Stubbles, each movement slow and fluid, like a tiger stalking a water buffalo. "You know how I feel about alcohol."
Stubbles backed away, hands raised in front of him. "I needed somethin' to calm me down, boss. There were people crawlin' all over that store, lookin' at me, thinkin' things."
The tall man cast a glance at Charlie. "Check on our guest."
Charlie scrambled to his feet, eager to vacate the room. "Yes, sir. Right away."
Zachariah turned his gaze back to the unshaven man cowering before him. "Do you think any of them would remember you?"
Zachariah leaned down beside his ear. "Be sure."
Stubbles shrugged. "Mebbe this one girl."
The tall man shook his head. "One too many." He gave a tortured sigh and sank his fangs into Stubbles' throat.
Stubbles thrashed, his boots echoing hollowly on the wooden floorboards, but he wasn't strong enough to free himself from Zachariah's hold. His body went limp and the taller man let him slide down to the floor.
Zachariah shook his head again. "Disappointing." He pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve and dabbed daintily at the corners of his mouth. "Charlie! Come here. I need you."
Murphy followed Lee up to the front door. "So are we going to knock or just burst in?"
"You knock. If no one answers, I'll burst."
"Fair enough." Murphy positioned himself out of direct line with the weathered wooden door and rapped twice. He paused a few moments, then knocked again, a little more forcefully. There was no response. He glanced back at Lee. "What do you think?"
"My turn." Lee rushed up the steps and hit the front door full force with his shoulder. The rusted lock gave easily, the door swinging open wide at the first blow. Lee stumbled to a stop just inside, taking a quick glance around the living room. "Clear."
Murphy stepped through the doorway and wiped at a cobweb-covered lamp. "McDaniel isn't much of a housekeeper."
Lee looked down. Beyond the spot where he stood, the floorboards were covered with a thick layer of undisturbed dust. "And he doesn't leave any footprints either."
"All of which means that even if Uncle Jake had made it this far, there would have been no one here to take his money."
"It's a red herring." Lee slipped his gun back into the shoulder holster. "Someone wanted us to think this was the place we should be searching."
"Yeah." Murphy sank down onto the arm of the dusty sofa. "But who?"
Sheriff Paul Ironhorse frowned at his telephone. "I didn't hear all that, Ed. Could you say again?" He snatched up a pen and began scribbling on the back of the closest piece of paper. "Dead body? Off Highway 50? Near the Brickford place. Uh-huh, uh-huh. Okay, I'll be right out." He dropped the receiver back into the cradle.
Maria peeked in the door. "Bad news?"
"Ed Sanders found a body up on the highway." He grabbed his hat. "I hope it's not someone we know."
* * *
Edgar Benedek leaned out the passenger window of the rented Chevy, waving his arms at the scenery. "John-John, I'm telling you, this is perfect vampire country."
"Vampire bat country maybe." Jonathan MacKenzie caught Benny by the back of his blue and purple Hawaiian shirt and pulled him back inside the car.
"Bats, vampires. What's the difference?"
"Apparently none to the desperate reporter." Jonathan turned his attention back to the road.
"I am not desperate." Benny straightened his shirt. "A little between jobs maybe, but nowhere near desperate."
"Besides, aren't vampires a little mundane for you? Shouldn't we be looking for giant flesh-eating moths or something?"
"Vampires are hot now, Johnny Boy. Everybody loves them. The execs at Universal would kiss my feet if I could deliver a living, breathing vampire onto their doorstep."
"Vampires don't breathe."
Benny turned toward him. "But you are admitting they exist?"
"Certainly." Jonathan smiled. "At Universal Studios."
"Scoff if you will, but I think..." Benny paused, staring off into the distance. "Look at that, John Boy. Police activity at three o'clock."
"Police activity that does not concern us."
"I'm a reporter, Johnny. Everything concerns me." He waved toward the side of the road. "Pull over."
"I believe there are rules in this country about interfering with police officers."
"Who's going to be interfering? I'm just gonna look."
"If you get yourself arrested, I don't have enough money for bail."
Benny nodded. "Point taken. Pull over."
"I don't know why I ever left the university." Jonathan slowed the old Chevy to a stop behind the sheriff's truck. Benny was out the door before the dust had even settled.
Sheriff Ironhorse straightened at the sound of someone coming up behind him. He placed himself between the newcomer and the corpse at his feet. "I'm sorry, sir, but..."
"That's okay." Benny flashed an ancient card with the word "Press" written across the top in faded letters. "I'm a reporter." He pulled a small camera out of his sock and pointed it at the body. "Not much blood, is there?"
"That's for the coroner to decide."
"It doesn't take a coroner to see that the ground's dirt-dry." Benny leaned around the sheriff's body and took another shot. "Cause of death?" He held up his hand. "Let me guess. Coroner, right? Have you checked his neck?"
"That's it." Sheriff Ironhorse reached out and covered the lens with his hand. "One more shot and I'm running you in."
Benny grinned. "I have all the pics I need, thanks." He bounded back to the road and flung himself into the Chevy's passenger seat. "Vampire killing, pure and simple. Of course, the vampire himself didn't leave the body there. Too many footprints for that. He probably has lackeys." He held the camera up as if it were a sword. "On to the one-hour photo place!"
Jonathan sighed and started the engine. "Yes, master."
* * *
Zachariah looked up from the faded map in front of him. "Have you finished?"
Charlie nodded. "Yes, sir."
"And you left him in a conspicuous place?"
"Right beside the road like you told me."
"Good." He gave a small smile. "Very good."
* * *
(6)The first visitors for Cassie were two ladies from a local church. The thoughtful souls brought a delicious smelling casserole with homemade bread and still-warm-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. Skip and Andy excused themselves by volunteering to put away the food, which included sampling the gooey dessert. Wanting to make good use of their time, they went to the office and searched through Jake's desk.
The top of the solid oak desk was covered with a few necessities, a blotter, pens and pencils and two fine sculptured wood statues of horses fashioned in the classic style of Fredrick Remington. Andy started shuffling through a tray with recent correspondence, mostly bills. Skip concentrated on the drawers.
Inside the long, center drawer they found writing paper and other stationary items. The top left-hand drawer was deep, arranged with various file folders. The first one he pulled out was scrawled in Jake's bold handwriting:
Block The Pass
"Hey, look at this."
Skip showed him the title, then emptied the manila folder on the blotter. On the top were several issues of an amateur, type-written newsletter boldly protesting the intended plans to stop the "land grab" extension of Pecos Park.
Under the newsletters were several flyers warning against government intervention into private lives and vaguely suggesting radical opposition to the Pass takeover. One column had a copy of a letter to the local congressman, asking for help to block the maneuver. The Brickford arrest was mentioned as part of an overall government conspiracy to cheat and control the taxpaying public.
Several newspaper clippings were in the stack. One outlined the proposed takeover. Most of the other snippets were editorials, letters to the editor and commentary pieces opposing the idea of buying out the locals. Skip stabbed at one with his finger.
"No doubt where Uncle Jake stands on this issue," Andy pointed out when he showed the articles to Skip.
"Ah-ha, look here!" Skip cried and displayed the last clippings with an article proclaiming alien invasion, blaming the Pecos Park expansion as a plot for the government to build a landing pad for visiting space craft in an attempt to replace the overly-publicized Area 51. The piece came with blurry pictures and black and white sketches of UFOs and aliens. "Carl Kolchak! Do you know who he is? He's a famous reporter who uncovers incredible phenomenon."
Andy just scowled. "I think this might be more important," he suggested wryly as he pulled a small sheet of paper from the tray on the desk.
The paper was cream-colored and seemed expensive. The words were handwritten in beautiful penmanship with real ink, like from an inkwell, Andy guessed. The old-world wording of the note gave curt details on the price of the drilling machine and when it would be convenient for Jake to come by with the cash. It was signed "McDaniel."
"I think we better check this guy out."
Andy nodded toward the other end of the house. "What about Aunt Cassie?"
"She should be fine. Those nice ladies who know how to cook seem to be in no hurry to leave. Aunt Cassie said the McDaniel place was over on the other side of the west hills."
Andy called Lee's cell phone number but got no answer. "Probably can't get a signal with some of these hills."
He wrote a note for Lee and Murphy to let them know their plan. After making appropriate and polite good-byes, and grabbing more cookies, the cousins saddled two horses and rode west.
* * *
Lee and Murphy were driving back to town when Lee's cell rang.
"Amanda." Lee smiled, happy just to be talking to his wife.
"How are things going?" Lee heard the concern in Amanda's voice.
Lee glossed over the details of their frustrating day so far, he kept the personal comments to a minimum before he got down to business so Murphy wouldn't tease him on the way back.
"His full name is Anthony Stuart Brickford. He's associated with some radical anti-government groups," Amanda told him, disapproval in her tone. "I found him on an FBI list of potentially dangerous activists. Most recently it involves threatening letters to politicians and community leaders about the expansion to Pecos Park."
"You don't think Uncle Jake is involved in that kind of thing, do you?" Murphy asked his cousin.
Lee shrugged noncommittally. He didn't want to think about having a relative in trouble -- serious trouble -- with the government he worked within.
"These same radical groups have petitioned the local congressman to intervene. They believe Anthony Brickford was framed by government agents," Amanda continued. "As for Zachariah McDaniel, I couldn't find a record of existence anywhere. Absolutely none," she emphasized each word. "It's like he sprung into being when he bought the ranch."
Murphy's eyebrows shot up. "Protected witness program?"
"Or an operative," Stetson growled unhappily. "The deeper we get into this, the more it sounds like anything but a simple robbery and/or kidnapping." He shook his head. "Too many unanswered questions that don't make much sense."
After Lee and Amanda said their good-byes, Lee pondered the information on Zachariah McDaniel and Anthony Brickford. He knew there were a lot of cowboys in these parts and New Mexico was known for its down-home sense of justice. Getting riled up and threatening the government was nothing new around there.
"Uncle Jake isn't a very social guy," Murphy reminded, his tone laced with irony. "Not exactly the type to join in on the local picket line."
"No, he's not," Lee agreed readily. "He might fit right in with these protesters, but not go out of his way to get himself noticed."
"Maybe we should check out this protest group. Paul should have some names and addresses."
"Good idea," the agent concurred with a slow nod. With a sigh he stared out the window at the passing desert scenery. "What in the world has Jake gotten into?"
* * *
The afternoon sun of New Mexico was hotter than either Skip or Andy remembered. They stopped several times to rest the horses under the meager shade of boulders, or scraggly Yucca trees. The water in their canteens was nearly depleted when they crested the rise of a rocky hill and were happy to spot a small gas station/market/bar on the nearby side road, far from the main highway. Three old and dirty pick-up trucks were parked in the gravel lot along with a light blue, classic Mustang convertible that had seen better days.
They rode the horses over to the side of the old building where there was a convenient hitching rail. In the shade of the dilapidated store, they let the horses drink from the trough and went inside to get some refreshment for themselves.
There were four people and two dogs in the darkened, stuffy interior. A shotgun was prominently displayed on the wall behind the bar. Near the beer taps stood an older woman with obvious Indian heritage. A dirty cowpoke-type leaned against a table near the grocery store/gas station cash register counter. A young woman sat at a corner table, two hound-mix canines lying at her feet. A man in his fifties, wearing an off-white battered hat and a tan stuck out at the end of the bar in his rumpled suit.
Skip took the lead and ordered two cold beers and decided honesty was the best policy under the circumstances. He shrewdly announced their relationship with Aunt Cassie and said they were there to help her out until Uncle Jake was found. As expected, the locals responded to Cassie's plight. The three people brightened and gathered around, more than happy to offer some neighborly advice and help if possible.
"Haven't seen Jake in a while," the thin man started out. His worn, stained cowboy hat was as filthy as his dusty clothes and boots. His teeth were brown from tobacco stains, his lean frame and parched, leathery-brown skin attested to a hard life weathering the elements. He looked at the barkeep. "Maybe last week or so at that meetin' at the grange."
The bartender, who introduced herself as Margery, confirmed that most of the ranchers and old timers had attended a rally at the farmer's grange to protest the government bid to extend Pecos Pass. Jake and Cassie had said very little, but supported the unanimous opinion to not only refuse to be bought out by the Feds, but to vigorously oppose the take-over.
Followed by her dogs, the woman came over and introduced herself as Tonya. She advised she had spent the morning tracking for Jake around his pick-up, but they had given up when there was no trace of him at all within a reasonable radius.
"It's as if he just vanished into thin air?" Skip excitedly concluded. "As if he was maybe lifted away from his truck? Have you ever seen any black helicopters around here?"
Her response was more cautious. "Vanished, yeah."
Andy hastily cut in before Skip could propose any more far out schemes.
"We're headed for Brickford 's old place now. That was where Uncle Jake was going when he disappeared. Have you been out there yet?"
"To talk to the new owner, McDaniel?" Tonya made a sour face. "I've never met him." "Don't come into town for nothin'," Margery supplied with disdain. "Must shop in Santa Fe or something. Keeps to himself."
"Unfriendly. Unsociable," the laconic cowboy offered with no trace of acknowledging his ironically self-descriptive statement.
The man in the battered hat slid over and pushed his way between the two taller, younger men. Skip noticed he had a camera and a tape recorder slung around his neck.
"What do you know about black helicopters, Mr. Carmichael?" he demanded. He smiled at the surprise. "Oh yes, I know who you are. The astronaut who flew to the moon and salvaged space junk."
"Kolchak!" Skip announced, amazed.
To his dismay, he held out his hand a little suspiciously. "Carl Kolchak. Independent News Service. You know me?"
"Sure. You did that article a few years back about the aliens in Chicago, right?"
Andy coughed and grabbed his cousin's arm. "Wish we could stay, but we've got to be looking for Uncle Jake."
"Why don't we jump in my truck and go out there," Tonya suggested as she reached down and patted the faithful dogs who were lounging atop her boots. "Maybe Luke and Han can pick up a trail."
Skip and Andy exchanged looks and both nodded in assent. It seemed like the next logical step in the investigation.
"I'll tag along, I think," Kolchak announced and followed them out. "Tell me what you know about the helicopters," he insisted. "Have you seen anyone with the FBI out here? Did you know they have a whole cabinet full of unsolved, mysterious cases? I know a young agent -- name's Mulder -- he's trying to get assigned to those files. Once he does, you can bet that headlines'll be made."
Outside, he steered them toward his Mustang, but Tonya practically pointed out that the truck would be better, but didn't have room for everyone. Unless one or two of the guys wanted to ride in back with the dogs.
Skip and Kolchak opted for the Mustang and they followed the little truck onto the narrow road leading into the hills. Skip hammered questions at the reporter, determined to find out everything he could about the aliens supposedly sighted in Chicago, while Kolchak countered with questions about knowledge Skip might have of secret projects in the desert and government cover-ups. Before they knew it, they had arrived at an old, out of the way, rundown ranch.
* * *
A stop to see Paul was not necessary. When the two cousins cruised into Glorieta, Lee spotted a large, hand-painted sign shoved inside the window of Chili Pepper Real Estate. "Block the Pass Headquarters" was printed in large, free-style lettering. Murphy pulled into the nearest space at the curb and they walked back to the office.
Only one man was in the modest office with two desks piled high with papers. The big, brown-skinned man had his dark hair tied back in a ponytail. He waved them in as he hastily scribbling up a finish to his work, then he jumped to his feet and held out his hand.
"Tony Greyfeather. Can I help you with buying a prime spot of New Mexico land, or enlist you in the army to block the pass?"
The overt welcome left Murphy a bit startled, so Stetson supplied the answer. "We'd like to find out more about your movement to stop the buy-out." They took seats offered next to the desk. "And why would a real estate agent want to turn away the obvious advantage of new people coming into the area?"
Greyfeather's eyes narrowed as he studied the two. "No secret. For a few decades my family's owned the biggest chili pepper farm in these parts. My sister and her family run the business and I struck out on my own. Real estate is a job. Glorieta is my home. Locals around here like it the way it is." He leaned back in his chair, as if gaining distance from the strangers. "Now, you want to tell me what kind of spies you are? Land management? Department of Interior?"
Lee cleared his throat to disguise the laugh that nearly erupted at the interesting turn of phrase. "We're nephews of the Michaels. We're here to help our Aunt Cassie find Jake."
Greyfeather's suspicions instantly vanished and his friendly demeanor was back as he flashed them a wide smile. "Why didn't you just say so? Sure sorry to hear about Jake missing. I called Cassie yesterday and told her I'd be happy to do anything to help."
"Thanks." Murphy assured him their interest was in finding Jake, but they did want to hear more about the protest movement to stop the government plans. He hinted they knew Jake was involved in the local effort and they wanted to know more.
Naturally gregarious, Greyfeather admitted he had claimed himself the leader of the grass roots rallies to stop the park expansion. Jake was involved in coming to meetings and talking it up around town, but had never actually been out to the park to carry signs, nor did he hand out flyers around town like some of the other members of their small group.
"What about this McDaniel guy?" Lee asked casually. "Uncle Jake was supposed to meet with him. What kind of character is he?"
That was all that was needed for Greyfeather to go off on a full biography of the newcomer. Little was known about him, except according to his bank in England, his credit was first rate and he had no trouble buying the Brickford place. The businessman pulled out a file and glanced through it.
"This is all confidential, of course," Greyfeather assured, "but if you think McDaniel is a plant by the government to sneak in here and spy on us, I doubt it." He leaned forward secretively. "At first I tagged him as a land-grabber. You know, out to buy cheap acreage now, then sell high to the government if the expansion goes through. But he's only bought three places. The Brickford ranch was the only one that was really inhabitable. The other two are just old shacks up in the foothills."
With a slight shift of his eyes, Lee silently indicated Murphy should shift the attention elsewhere. After a confused moment, Murph caught on.
"Hey, do you think you could give me some more information on this protest movement of yours? Maybe we can help while we're here."
Greyfeather practically leaped out of his chair and crossed to the other desk in the room. Murphy made sure their backs were to the spy while Lee flipped through the file on McDaniel. He memorized the two other pieces of real estate and replaced the file.
A few moments later, they were outside and heading to the car. Murphy leafed through the flyers in his hand, interested in the energetic effort to stop the extension of the park. They reached the car and the investigator noted how quiet his cousin seemed.
"One of the places McDaniel bought was a mine."
Murphy nearly dropped his papers. "A mine. That's a really good place to hide a body." He shook his head. "That's not good."
"No, it's not. I think we better get Paul and go check it out."
The drive down the street to the sheriff's station proved fruitless. Paul had been called out to a remote ranch for an emergency and wouldn't be back until around dark. Lee called the Michaels ranch, but the line was busy. Anxious to get on with their task, the cousins decided to go on their own to the check out the mine.
* * *
(7)The passengers, both human and canine, piled out of the vehicles. While the people stood looking around, the hounds began exploring. Alternately lifting their noses into the air and snuffling along the ground, the dogs trotted in haphazard zigzags but didn't appear at all excited.
Tonya wrinkled her forehead. "No sign of Jake. They aren't picking up anything."
"It's quiet," Skip intoned.
Andy grinned. "Too quiet."
"Quiet as the grave." Kolchak's cheerful tone belied his grim words.
"Or as a place where nobody's home," Andy pointed out practically. "Or maybe taking a nap."
"One way to find out." Skip bounded up the steps, then halted abruptly, staring at the door. "Someone got here ahead of us." Reaching out a finger, he tapped it against the wood. The door swung open with a rattle of its broken lock.
The others climbed to the porch and clustered around him. The reporter's shouted greeting died away without eliciting a response from the gloomy interior.
Skip peered inside. "Maybe someone broke in to rob the place while it was deserted."
"Unless we're dealing with two kidnappings." Andy's brows lowered at the theory.
Kolchak pointed to the dusty footprints leading in and out. "Looks like there was more than one of 'em."
"Luke, Han." Tonya directed her dogs to inspect this new trail. "Must be the same bunch that grabbed Jake."
"Yeah, it's not likely two gangs hit Glorieta on a sudden crime spree at the same time," Skip agreed.
One of the dogs wandered across the open threshold, and with a yip its companion followed. "Maybe they're onto something." Tonya vanished inside.
Skip took a step into the doorway, but paused when Andy laid a hand on his arm. "Whoa, we should get Paul out here before we go messing up a crime scene."
"Too late. The dogs've already disturbed things, and I doubt we'll do any worse damage. 'Sides, we don't know for sure it is a crime scene yet," Skip reasoned. "C'mon, we have to give Paul more evidence than an empty house and a broken lock."
Kolchak settled his hat more firmly on his head. "I'm not about to pass up the chance to investigate when I'm right on the spot."
Andy nodded. "Guess it won't hurt to look around."
The cousins and the reporter trooped inside. They found Tonya shooing her dogs back into the dusty living room from the hallway beyond.
"They don't have a scent," she reported. "I think they were just checking the lay of the land."
"Figured we'd do the same." Andy looked critically around the room. "Apart from the door, nothing else looks damaged, just dirty."
"Place doesn't look lived in," Kolchak mused. "At least not the way ordinary folks would. It's not natural."
"We should search the rest of the house," Skip decided. "If we split up we can cover it faster, but it's probably a good idea not to roam around alone. Let's stay in pairs. Mr. Kolchak, you and I can take the upstairs."
"Okay, Tonya and I will search this floor." Andy strode carefully through the dust bunnies as one of the dogs let out a little sneeze.
Before long everyone met up again in the kitchen, having turned up nothing of interest.
"It might look like nothing, but there's more here than meets the eye," said Kolchak as they methodically searched this last room.
"Like aliens and UFOs?" Andy muttered skeptically.
"You'd be surprised at what the government keeps secret. I only want to expose the truth. It's not like I write about giant green hulks like some so-called reporters."
"I'd be surprised to find any secrets stashed in these old cupboards that a can of Raid won't take care of," Andy grumbled. "We don't even know what we're looking for."
"Clues, of course." Skip opened a door and gestured with a flourish. "And what better place to find some than in the basement?" He snapped on a light at the top of the stairs.
They descended single file, and when they reached the bottom, Skip let out a low whistle. "Who says Lee and Murphy are the only ones who can find clues?"
A science lab met their astonished gaze. In contrast to the grime upstairs, the workshop was spotless. Stainless steel gleamed and glass sparkled.
"Doesn't look very organic to me," Andy observed. "I thought this guy didn't approve of modern technology."
"I'd say he's hiding a few secrets." Kolchak clapped his hands together in anticipation.
Slowly they walked through the maze of worktables and equipment. While Skip looked over what appeared to be an experiment in progress, the others investigated cabinets and drawers.
Tonya unrolled a large sheet of paper. "It's a map. Looks like an old mine in the foothills."
"Maybe McDaniel's more interested in mining than ranching," Andy speculated.
"Mining what?" Skip waved a hand over the work spread out on the countertops. "These are ordinary rocks and soil samples. The papers are geology reports, including a geophysical analysis of this area, but there's nothing here that's valuable."
"Uh oh." Andy walked over to his cousin and held out a file. "Take a look at this, Skip."
Setting the file on a counter, Skip opened it as the others leaned over his shoulder.
"Newspaper clippings." Kolchak looked closer. "About your trip to the moon."
Skip shrugged. "It doesn't mean anything. It was in all the papers. Lots of people could've saved the articles, especially if they had scientific interests."
"Keep lookin'." Andy impatiently pushed the clippings aside to reveal the papers beneath.
"Notations about moon rocks, some of their locations in museums and...," Skip broke off as his skimming finger paused at a red circle on the page. "Harry's address." Flipping the page, Skip found a series of photos with more notes. "Harry... Harry and me... and a picture of Jake? Could someone be using Jake to get to me... and Harry's moon rock?" Worry tinged the puzzlement in Skip's voice.
"Ya gotta admit, it'd make a one-of-a-kind ransom." Andy frowned as he studied the pictures. "Maybe McDaniel wasn't robbed or kidnapped-maybe he's the kidnapper."
"It doesn't make sense," Skip objected. "What kind of research is McDaniel doing that he needs a moon rock for?"
"Who knows what kind of effect moon rocks might have," Kolchak said, "on, say, aliens or werewolves or vampires."
A loud slamming sound above focused all eyes upward. In the sudden silence, footsteps could be distinctly heard approaching overhead.
(8)Skip and Andy looked at each other, then at Kolchak, as the footsteps from above stopped.
"Great time to be without any weapons." Skip remarked laconically.
"Or cousins that carry said weapons," Andy retorted.
"Not to worry, boys," Kolchak murmured as he pulled out a small derringer "I always carry something just in case. Loaded with silver bullets, too."
"Silver bullets?" Andy asked curiously. "Why?"
"Never know when you might meet up with a werewolf or two, right?" Skip answered looking at Kolchak for confirmation.
"Exactly!" Kolchak agreed, quite pleased to find someone in this god-forsaken country who understood. Andy just looked at both of them in disgust, not sure he really wanted any more information along these particular lines.
"Who needs weapons," Tonya piped up scornfully behind the three men, startling them. "Not when I've got Han and Luke here to protect us."
"Shall we then?" Skip questioned as the group heard the footsteps start up again, headed in their direction.
Skip led the way carefully as he climbed the stairs out of the basement. He could hear the dogs whining, the sound more fear than aggression. He wondered what was coming at them from above that would get that sort of reaction from the animals. He had reached the top, Kolchak right behind him with his derringer at the ready, when the door to the basement was flung open. Having seen the doorknob turn, Skip prepared himself then grabbed the person who came through the door. His upward momentum carried them both through the door frame and onto the dirty floor.
Kolchak squeezed through the doorway, barely able to stay on his feet as he skipped over the two combatants.
Andy followed Kolchak, also avoiding the fracas by sidestepping. Realizing who Skip's opponent was, he burst out laughing. Tonya came out, followed by the growling dogs, still wary of the woman on the ground being held down by Skip.
The others were surprised to hear an English-accented voice comment from the front door. "Randi, I thought I asked you to wait for me to bring the torches from the car before proceeding into the basement?"
Still pinned down by her cousin, Randi glared up at the man, then she smiled and shrugging her shoulders in apology. "You know me."
The man sighed in mock resignation. "Only too well."
"Skipper, get off me," Randi ordered, shoving her cousin off and grabbing the hand that was extended out to her by her friend who'd joined the group.
Randi tried dusting herself off as she poked at Andy, who was still choked with laughter. "You can stop now, Andy, it's not that funny."
Andy tried to get himself under control as he greeted his younger cousin. "Sorry, Randi, but Skipper and Kolchak," Andy pointed to the reporter, "thought you were a werewolf." Andy started laughing again at the absurdity, missing the look between Randi and the Englishman.
"A werewolf, what a droll idea," the Englishman purred. "Still searching for the bizarre, are we, Kolchak?"
"Still debunking the paranormal, are we, Professor?" Kolchak sneered.
Skip jumped up off the floor, oblivious to the dust still clinging to his clothes. He studied the two men curiously. "Know each other, do ya?" Then, turning to his cousin, he added, "I thought you were at school in England."
"I was and now I'm not."
"What are you doing here? You lookin' for Uncle Jake, too?" Andy inquired, just as Skip also posed a question. "Who's you friend?"
Randi looked back and forth between her two cousins, wondering which to answer first. "Hey, one question at a time, sheesh, you guys just never change, do yah?" Randi moved towards her companion and grabbed his hand familiarly, introducing him proudly to her cousins. "This is Professor Ian Matheson. And what did you mean about Uncle Jake?"
"Might I inquire if this is the Uncle Jake I've heard you speak... so… hmmm...?"
"Yeah, Professor, that's Uncle Jake," Andy piped in, noticing the man's unfinished question. He realized Randi had already told her friend -- boyfriend? Andy wondered -- about how well she got along with Uncle Jake. About as well as he did, Andy reflected. "Uncle Jake's missing and we think this McDaniel guy might know somethin' about it."
"So that's why we're here, checking this place out," Skip confirmed.
"But that doesn't explain why you two are here." Kolchak eyed Matheson and Randi suspiciously. "If you're not looking for your uncle, young lady, what are you doing here?"
Having seen Ian's negative reaction to the man and not liking his condescending tone, Randi bristled at the older man's comment.
Realizing his cousin would probably tear a strip right off the guy if given half a chance, Andy intervened. "Not that we're not glad to see you, Cuz, but Mr. Kolchak's got a valid point."
"Actually, we were looking for Zachariah McDaniel, though that's not his real name," Ian told the others.
"What is his real name?" Skip inquired, curious.
"Jeremiah Tandoor. He's been linked to a number of murders across the European continent," Randi explained.
"Randi and I came across him in England after a series of unusual homicides and followed his trail to the US. Here in New Mexico, to be exact."
"I thought you were working on your doctorate, Randi? When did you get into law enforcement?" Andy asked his younger cousin, puzzled.
"Hey, Andy, forget that for the moment. We need to take them both back to the ranch with us. I'm sure Lee, Murphy and Paul'd love to hear the new information we got about this McDaniel/Tandoor guy."
(9)"Yeah, okay, but after this is all over, we need to sit down and have a real family reunion," Andy groused. "You wanna come with us back to the ranch?"
"We have our own car," Randi advised, with another glance at Matheson.
They definitely weren't just professor and student, Andy decided. "We'll meet you there."
A quick discussion and Kolchak agreed to stay behind to search the area around the house with Tonya while the three cousins and Matheson went first back to the bar to pick up the horses, then returned to the ranch.
As they left the house, Skip absently shut the broken door behind him as much as it could be, but none of them noticed the pair of green eyes glinting in the dusty room's shadows.
* * *
"There must be fifty mines in these hills. Lee, how are we going to find McDaniel's?" Murphy peered through the dust the car was stirring up, trying to see the road.
"Longitude and latitude?" Lee offered helpfully, then backed down at Murphy's glower. "Okay, okay. Uh, it was just west of Comb Point -- remember that? We used to go up there to watch the stars at night when we were kids."
Murphy had begun to smile. "How could I forget? Skip said it was closer to the stars so we could see them best from there." His smile faded. "At least, when Uncle Jake didn't catch us sneaking out."
Lee combed a hand through his hair and dragged out a long sigh. "Yeah. I almost forgot that part." He paused a moment. "You sure we really want to find Uncle Jake?" he asked wryly.
"Aunt Cassie would never forgive us," Murphy said pointedly.
"Ah. I knew there was a reason."
It was an old joke, and at the same time not very funny. Uncle Jake had been one of the most unpleasant people Lee had ever met, and that included a long career of dealing with unpleasant people. He'd been rude, bigoted, unloving, and terrifying to a young boy who'd just lost both his parents. But he was family, and that had always been more important. Over the years, an older Lee had also realized that probably part of the reason he and his cousins had grown so close in those summers at Glorieta had been their need to rely on each other and stick together in face of Uncle Jake. No matter how much he disliked the old man, he owed him for that.
A glance at Murphy revealed his cousin was also thinking, probably along the same lines. That wasn't unusual with the two of them. Lee smiled to himself, and began another visual search of the area, looking for the elusive McDaniel mine.
It was what wasn't there rather than what was that finally caught his eye. Unlike most of the deserted mines in the area, the dark hole to their left gaped open, unboarded. Lee frowned, leaning forward and pointing. "There. I think that's the place."
Murphy nodded, turning the car toward the mine.
Getting closer, Lee rolled down the window and peered through the dust. With a cough, he rolled the window back up. "Other tracks, fresh ones. Looks like McDaniel came up to check on his property."
"Or hide something in it," Murphy said darkly. Neither of them said it, but they both were hoping it wasn't a corpse.
Lee checked his automatic as his cousin pulled up to one side of the entrance of the mine, then glanced at Murphy. "We have a flashlight?"
"Try the glove compartment." He did and there was. It even worked, to Lee's faint surprise.
"As I'll ever be."
They moved like partners, in tune in a way Lee had never been with anyone except Amanda. Well, why not, Lee thought? Some of his earliest memories were scouting around with Murphy Michaels at his side. They moved silently up to the two sides of the mine, Murphy also armed now. At Lee's nod, they moved inside.
The mine was a welcome coolness from the early afternoon spring sunshine. It was also empty, to all appearances the deserted mine it was listed as being. Still, Lee had been in abandoned areas before, knew the feeling of a place that hadn't been visited by humans for some time. And this wasn't it. It wasn't necessary to see the scuffed dirt and partial footprints on the mine floor to tell someone had been there not too long before.
But it also felt unoccupied now, and while not letting down his guard, Lee lowered his gun a fraction and turned the flashlight on. Then, with another silent communique to Murphy, he crept forward.
The beam of the flashlight didn't illuminate much, mostly throwing circles of light onto unbroken dirt, rock, and crevices that glinted with traces of ore. Ten feet became twenty, then thirty, the light from the mine opening dim and distant. Lee was starting to consider that they were heading for a figurative if not literal dead end when the light suddenly caught on something metal. He slid the beam over, blinking in surprise at what it lit. "Would you look at that," he called softly over his shoulder to Murphy.
That was when the low rumbling began.
* * *
"Lee!" It was more a shuddering intake of breath than a name, but it woke her out of a deep sleep all the same. Amanda sat bolt upright in bed, clutching the blanket in terror. Tears streamed down her face. She wiped at them with her hands. It must have been a terrible nightmare, her blouse was damp with sweat. But already the details of the dream were fading in the soft afternoon sun that slipped through the closed blinds.
Lee was in trouble! She remembered that much of her dream. Something terrible was going on out there in the New Mexican desert. That impression had lasted beyond the faded edges of her dream. She could feel it clear through her being and it made her tremble with fright.
There was a soft knock at the bedroom door. "Amanda?" Her mother's voice was quiet, yet concerned.
Amanda forced herself to calm down. There was no sense in disturbing her mother with her fears. "Come in, Mother."
The door opened. Her mother stood there, her reading glasses threatened to slip off the end of her nose as she clutched her latest romance novel and padded softly into the room with those ugly, flowered fuzzies on her feet.
"I heard you scream."
"Pretty loudly." Her mother moved further into the room. "Is it the baby? Are you all right? Is something wrong?"
Amanda took a deep breath and made a conscious inventory of her person. "Nope, I'm fine. Really." She patted her stomach where the soft bloom of her pregnancy was barely beginning to show. "Junior and I are okay." She paused a moment. "I screamed?" she repeated in disbelief.
"Must have been the radishes. We shouldn't have had them at lunch. I told you that they always gave me nightmares when I was expecting you, but you wouldn't listen."
"Mother, I've had two babies..."
Her mother tossed her fashionably cut graying hair out of her eyes and continued, unheedingly. "I think you should be a lot more careful about what you've been eating, Amanda. It's not just for your sake, but for the baby's. And with Lee gone, well, it's just a good thing I was here."
Amanda pushed the light blanket aside and swung her legs over the side of the bed. "Mother, it was so wonderful that you could come stay with me now that Lee's out helping with his, uh, family emergency. I really think it was just a bad dream."
"You're sure?" her mother asked, as Amanda herded her from the room. "I don't mind taking you to the Emergency if you're having any problems."
"Mother, I'm just a little tired. I think I just had a bad dream because I'm worried about Lee. I'm okay."
"Well, if you're sure..."
"I'm sure, Mother. Thank you." She kissed mother lightly on the cheek.
Amanda closed the door and looked over at the tousled bedspread. In her sleep she'd pulled the cover every which way and one of the pillows was on the floor. She reached over and picked it up, tossing it back onto the bed. The feeling hit her strongly again. Lee. Something was wrong with Lee. Despite what she had said to her mother, all thoughts of calm had left her. She found the phone and dialed his cell. No answer. Then she frowned and dialed again. And again.
* * *
Edgar Benedek ran a hand through his short hair and looked at the thin, pimply teenager behind the 1-Hour Fotomat counter. "What do you mean, you don't have them?"
"Like I said, mister, your order must have been picked up already." The kid looked disinterested. "It's not here."
Benny turned to his tall companion. "John-John, this is a conspiracy."
"There has to be some mistake," Jonathan said brightly to the young man who now had his back to them and was busily sorting prints behind the counter. "We brought these in about an hour ago. Sheriff Ironhorse was in one of the shots. They would be easy to spot."
"Oh, you mean those pictures of the Sheriff?" the kid said with mock enthusiasm. "Never saw 'em."
"But we have this receipt."
"I've been through all the pictures. They aren't there."
"Go through them again," Benny said loudly. "Come on, you've made a mistake. They've gotta be there. There was a body and a big cactus and Sheriff Ironsides. Look again."
A tall man with a blue vest and a nametag that said, "Manager" suddenly appeared beside them. "What seems to be the trouble, sir?"
Jonathan pushed the volatile Benny aside and spoke up. "We dropped off some film about an hour ago and the pictures appear to have vanished."
The teenager from behind the counter came to life again. "Their receipt doesn't match anything that's here. I've looked twice."
The manager sighed and took the slip of paper Benny thrust under his nose. He turned back to the clerk. "Who else has been here picking up pictures today?"
"Since I started my shift, just Miz Thompson and then some old guy."
"They both had receipts?"
"Sure. I wouldn't give anything out without one. Except maybe Miz Thompson's order with the cat pictures cuz I know her. Only she had a receipt too."
The manager turned to Benny and Jonathan. "Well, I'm sorry, gentlemen. I don't know what else I can do for you. You're new in town. Are you sure you brought your film in here and not the photo counter over at the drugstore?"
Benny again shoved his receipt in the man's face. "It says 1-Hour Foto on here!"
"Yes it does, sir. But perhaps you are mistaken?"
"Mistaken!" Jonathan said in disgust.
* * *
Benny picked himself up out of the dirt of the alleyway and brushed himself off before he extended a hand to Jonathan. "He was stronger than I thought." Jonathan groaned as he stood to his feet.
Jonathan rolled his eyes at Benny, then began working his shoulder in a circle. "Oww!"
"Sorry there, John-John. Hope you're not seriously hurt." Benny bent to re-tie his tennis shoe laces and then muttered, "Oh, my my."
"What is it now?" came the irritated response.
Scattered on the ground around the trash bins behind them were photos -- lots of them. Benny picked one up. "Looks like Sheriff Ironsides to me."
Jonathan helped retrieve the photos. Some were badly scratched and torn. They looked like a car had run over them.
"See any pictures of the body?" Benny asked.
"No, just these of..."
"Exactly," said Benny. "Exactly. Somebody doesn't want us in on this investigation."
"Maybe the Sheriff," Jonathan muttered tersely
"Now do you believe me about vampire lackeys?" Benny exclaimed.
* * *
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Aunt Cassie shook her head and spoke evenly into the phone. "Amanda, dear, I'm sure everyone is okay. Really. Don't worry." She paused and listened, wiping her hands into her apron as she did. "No dear, I haven't seen them and don't know where they are. These boys don't really tell me anything." There was another pause and she nodded her head vigorously as she searched for a paper pad and a pencil. "What was that again? I got it. We're supposed to look in an underground place and I'm supposed to tell the local Sheriff there's what involved?"
Aunt Cassie began scratching her head with the eraser end of the pencil. "Oh my, sweetheart, I thought you just said vampires." She gave a hearty laugh then stopped abruptly. "Okay, you did say vampires. Okay, good enough. I'll tell 'em." She said her good-byes and stared at the notepad for a full minute before dialing Paul.
She hated talking into those durned answering machines, she thought with irritation as the Sheriff station's message came on. She braced herself and began slowly after the beep. "Paul, this is Cassie. You're not going to believe this, but I just got the strangest call from Lee's pregnant wife back east."
* * *
(11)Benny stood on top of a fallen boulder surveying the surrounding countryside. "Trust me, John-Boy, mines are a primo vampire hiding place."
"And an excellent place to get buried alive." Jonathan kicked at the boards on the mouth of the closed down mine. "Besides, look at these nails. Rusted in place. No one has moved these boards in years."
Benny waved his hands through the air. "Vampires can turn to smoke!"
"But his helpers can't. And I'm putting more stock in the henchmen than the vampire anyway."
"Johnny, you just don't..." Benny stopped, startled by a loud rumble on a hillside somewhere behind him. "What's that?"
"Cave in?" Jonathan ventured, climbing up on the rock for a better view.
A puff of dust rose from the cliff face on their right, rising lazily into the cloudless blue afternoon sky. Benny studied it a moment, considering.
"Maybe the vampire accidentally trapped himself." He hopped off the rock. "Or is trying to cover up his tracks."
"With a small, unobtrusive avalanche?"
"Rockslide, John-John. Avalanches need snow." Benny grinned. "Come on. I've got some shovels back in the car."
"Where did you get shovels?"
"Remember when you had to take that little pit stop beside the road? Well, over on the other side of the car..."
"No, stop, wait. I think it's better if you don't tell me."
Benny raced back down the slope to the dirt road where the car was parked and returned with two fairly new shovels clearly branded Property of the State of New Mexico. Jonathan pointed at the little Zuni sun burned into the wooden handles. Benny winked and shrugged. "They'll never miss 'em."
* * *
Kolchak stood up from behind Murphy's parked car and dusted his hands off. "Take that, you old bloodsucker." He glanced around, trying to find what had become of his hat. This was the same car he'd seen at the McDaniel place. Those two were obviously the vampire's minions. And now they were all safely sealed inside with their master.
The sound of voices brought him to attention. More? Damn. He ducked back behind the fender.
"Looks like we weren't the first ones to have this idea." Jonathan ran a finger over the dust on the car. "Although I'd say the car was here before the cave-in."
"Ah-hah!" Kolchak jumped around the front of the car, brandishing a stake and a mallet. "Take one step closer and you'll be joining old McDaniel there in the vampire hereafter." He paused, staring at Benny, then slowly lowered his weapons. "Edgar Benedek?"
"Carl Kolchak! You old dog!" Benny ran forward to give him a handshake and a slap on the back. He glanced towards Jonathan. "J.J., this is an old friend of mine."
Jonathan noted the battered hat, disheveled hair, and recording paraphernalia around the man's neck and sighed. "I never would have guessed."
"This is my friend and associate, Jonathan MacKenzie."
Kolchak gave a slight nod. "A pleasure, sir."
Benny gestured toward the mine. "So what's cooking?"
"Trapped them. I don't know if the prince of darkness is in there with them or not." He held up his arms. "Hence the stake."
Benny shook his head. "But vampires don't walk in the daylight."
Kolchak pointed a finger at him. "That's what they'd like you to think."
Jonathan circled the car thoughtfully. He climbed inside to check through the glove compartment.
Kolchak slapped the hood of the car. "I know this is the car I saw earlier. Maybe he's a vampire on the run."
Jonathan held a business card out the window. "Or maybe he's the Denver investigator who was following the vampire on the run."
Kolchak took the card from him and turned it over in his hands, his gaze shifting from the card to the pile of rocks at the mouth of the mine. "Damn."
* * *
Sheriff Ironhorse looked up as Maria peeked into his office. "What's up?"
"Fax from the coroner in Santa Fe."
She scanned the page. "They've ID'd him from his fingerprints. J.D. Ernest aka The Dancer. Small time thug from Houston."
"He hardly looked like a dancer."
"Apparently the nickname came from the fact that he was a great second story man. Cat burglar type. He could dance into and out of a building without getting caught."
"What in the world would a cat burglar be doing in Glorieta?" He swung his feet down off the desk. "So how did he die?"
"Loss of blood. No marks except..."
"Two small punctures on the throat. I know." Paul waved the description off. "I've already had some nutcase tell me it was a vampire killing."
Maria held out the paper. "The Santa Fe coroner says the same thing."
* * *
(12)Jake Michaels watched as the shadows in the back room grew longer and silently cursed to himself. Never one to sit still for long, this forced confinement was wearing his nerves raw. Trussed up like a calf in a roping contest, he was quickly running out of patience. He felt like a useless fool, waiting for someone to come to his rescue. The police couldn't find smoke in a forest fire.
His captives' plans had gone horribly awry and the tension in the air was stifling. Charlie was alone in the front room, waiting for McDaniel's return. Jake knew his only chance at staying alive till morning was to escape before then -- somehow. He didn't know if the people Zach was expecting had arrived yet in Glorieta, but he did know if McDaniel could kill Stubbles without a thought, that his own chances were slim to none. As a Japanese prisoner of war, Jake had survived captivity, but he had also learned that it exacts a high price He wasn't sure he could pay it again.
Taking advantage of the fact that Charlie had left him alone, Jake began slowly working his bindings free. Neither Stubbles nor Charlie were any kind of cowboy so their knots were not very intricate but by using plastic cord rather than a cotton rope, their attempts were annoying effective.
* * *
Lee Stetson and Murphy Michaels slowly let out the breaths they were holding. The cavern they were in remained stable. Lee cast the light from the flashlight through the dusty air and back to the makeshift laboratory. To his relief, a large portable generator stood against the wall; attached to it were several cords.
Murphy beat him to the switch. "Here goes nothing."
Light flooded the area. "All right!" said a very relieved Lee. "Hey, do I hear a fan?"
Both cousins stood very still as they tried to determine if the air was indeed moving. As the dirt from the cave-in settled it became easier to breath. To their relief, a stream of dust particles seemed to flow toward the wall. Oxygen would not be a problem.
"Any guess what this stuff is for?" asked Murphy hopefully as he holstered his no longer needed gun.
"Nope. Maybe we'll get lucky and find some notes. Looks professional. Someone knew what he was doing."
"Well, it sure isn't Uncle Jake."
"No, I guess not," laughed Lee.
"I'll let you look through this stuff, I'll work on a way to get us out of here," Murphy said, taking possession of the flashlight. "If our luck holds, we'll be able to dig ourselves out."
"Sounds like a plan," said Lee still laughing. "I'm just glad that we're professionals and would never walk into a dangerous situation like this without proper back-up."
"Or at least leaving a note."
"Yeah, I'm not looking forward to explaining this to Amanda."
"Or Sherry. Come to think of it, maybe we'd be better off not getting out of here," Murphy said as he picked up a shovel conveniently left behind by their mysterious scientist.
"No, we have to. I've got a dentist appointment next week. Wouldn't want to miss that."
"You're right. Maybe next cave-in," Murphy said as he headed out.
"Wait," called Lee. "Every five minutes, we need to make contact. Any suggestions?"
"I'll just, ah, yell."
"I guess that'll have to work. Be careful, Murph."
"You, too, Scarecrow," Murphy said, taking off back down the corridor.
Lee began going through the notebooks on the lab bench. Unashamedly enjoying the thrill of being in the field again. After about ten pages of nonsensical chemical equations and geological terminology, he found what his Cousin Skip would have happily called 'a clue'. Carefully folded and inserted between pages was an old, faded newspaper article from the Santa Fe paper. It featured a picture of Skip, his partner Harry and a moon rock. Skip's name was circled as was a quote from Aunt Cassie about how proud all of Glorieta was of his exploits.
From down the dark corridor of the mine, Lee heard Murphy call out. He couldn't understand exactly what his cousin said, but he thought Murph was making reference to a game they had played when they were kids. Lee yelled back an acknowledgment.
Further into the notebook, he found quotes taken from various scientific articles that Skip had written about possible practical uses for moon rocks and soil. Feeling a bit under-qualified, Lee looked at all of the scientific apparatus that someone had carefully assembled. Pocketing the notebook, he picked up one of the rocks lying on the counter. Was it a moon rock, or just an old stone? He needed to get Skip here.
* * *
"Aunt Cassie!" Skip tried hard not to yell, but it was useless. "Anybody home?" He ran into the ranch house leaving Andy to tend to both the horses.
"Lands' end, boy," Cassie said coming from the kitchen at as near to a run as she was able. "What happened? Did you find Jake?"
Skip pulled his aunt into a hug. "Not yet. I'm sorry if I startled you. We found some stuff though. You might be right. Uncle Jake may have been taken. Has Harry called? Has anyone contacted you about a..." Skip stopped, suddenly aware of what he was really saying.
"A ransom? No, nothing. Randi and her Ian are here, She's been telling us about your afternoon. I'm getting worried about Lee and Murphy, they're not back yet and they haven't called and it's late."
Skip pulled his Aunt into a tighter embrace. "I'm sure they're alright. We're gonna find Uncle Jake, and we're all gonna be okay. I promise." He kissed his aunt before he released her.
"Hey, Cuz," said Randi from the kitchen door. "Get your butt in here and eat something. Looks like we are going to have a busy evening ahead of us. Where's Andy?"
"He's taking care of the horses. He'll be in soon."
"I'll go help," Ian said also appearing from the kitchen. "We've already eaten. The Sheriff is on his way over to co-ordinate information. Seems things have been 'developing' as he put it."
"Thanks," Skip said. "I have to call Harry. If whoever did this is after moon rocks, he may be in danger."
* * *
Finally, the last knot gave way. Jake was able to stretch out fully for the first time in days. His legs burned as the circulation returned and his muscles cramped. He carefully massaged his arms and legs until he felt secure in the knowledge he could stand without falling over.
The back room where he was being held was now in total darkness. Standing slowly, he made his way over to the window. He carefully pulled the shade back and peered out, praying that he would recognize where he was being held. He was disappointed. He knew the location had to have been remote, he hadn't heard a car other than Stubbles' since he came to the building. Nothing around the building but rocks and scrub pines. They would offer some cover, but he'd have to move as quickly as possible.
His first hope -- that he could simply break the window and call for help -- was quickly dashed. Plan B required overpowering Charlie and making his escape. Going into the other room was too risky, he needed to lure Charlie in here and make a break for it. He tried to remember just what was in the room with him. Not much. The plastic cord, his belt. The shade. A smile slowly made its way across his features. He reached up and removed the shade from its fastenings. He slowly rolled up the paper shade until he had a nice padded club. Hopefully it would knock out Charlie without actually killing him.
Jake took his place along side the door and called out to Charlie. "Hey, can an old man go to the bathroom?"
* * *
(13)It was tedious, monotonous work and from the looks of things they were getting nowhere fast. Kolchak picked up a medium-sized boulder from the pile at what used to be the cave entrance and threw it over to one side, pausing afterwards to massage the growing ache in his lower back. He really was getting too old for this sort of thing. Cursing himself for jumping to conclusions, he sighed and bent down to pick up another rock.
"Don't go all blaming yourself, Carl, ol' buddy." Benny hefted another spade full of earth and rocks and dumped it onto a small mound a few feet away. "How were you to know that the bloodsucking fiend wasn't in that cave?"
"He could've checked out the car first," Jonathan muttered under his breath, stabbing his shovel into the debris.
"What was that, JJ?"
"Uh, nothing, nothing." Jonathan stopped, surveyed the pile of rubble, then calculated the odds of their success in digging anyone out. "This is never going to work with just the three of us. It's going to take an army to get through all this."
"Yeah, like that's gonna happen," Benny snorted. Just then, the sudden sound of squealing tires and flying gravel startled them all into silence. "Looks like you may get your wish after all, John-Boy."
A non-descript typical government-issue Jeep screeched to a stop a few feet from where they were digging quickly followed by two more vehicles. A tall dark-haired man dressed in olive drab fatigues got out of the passenger side, adjusting his cap as he walked toward them. "You mind tellin' me what you're doin' here?"
Benny looked down at the shovel in his hand, the grime and dirt on his shirt, and the pile of rocks and debris in front of him. "Well let's see. There was this rockslide. We're pretty sure someone's trapped. We're trying to dig them out." He paused for a moment, thinking. "Yep, that about covers it."
The man frowned. "We've had reports of an explosion in this area. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"
All three shook their heads, doing their best to look innocent. "Didn't hear any explosion, just the noise from this rockslide," Kolchak told him. "We were in the area so we came over to investigate. Saw the car, figured someone might be under all that, and started shoveling. But I am curious about one thing, Captain -- ? Major -- "
"Colonel Jack O'Neill, United States Air Force."
Kolchak's eyebrows climbed into his hair. He hadn't been expecting that. Glancing at Benny and Jonathan, he saw they were as surprised as he was. What was an Air Force Colonel doing out in the middle of nowhere investigating explosions and rockslides? "I beg your pardon? So tell me, Colonel, why's the Air Force interested in a little ol' rockslide?"
"In case you didn't know it, you're on government land. That makes it my business. Tell me about the explosion." The Colonel's brusque, no-nonsense attitude was starting to get on Kolchak's nerves
"Sorry, don't know a thing about it, Colonel," Kolchak reiterated. "Like I said, we're just trying to help the poor soul who's trapped under all this."
"And what makes you think there's anyone under there?"
Benny motioned toward the dusty car parked by what used to be the cave entrance. The car was being thoroughly searched by a couple of airmen. "That doesn't belong to any of us. It's got to belong to somebody who could be inside."
One of the airmen came up to O'Neill and handed him a slip of paper. "Nothing much in the car except this, Colonel. Registration says it's an airport rental car but this business card was on the floor."
"The name Murphy Michaels mean anything to you?"
Benny and Kolchak shook their heads. "I don't recognize it." Jonathan frowned. "But I remember hearing in town about a man named Jake Michaels who's been missing for the past few days. I wonder if they're related?"
O'Neill's eyes narrowed and he studied them all a little closer. "Jake Michaels? Maybe we'd better start over again and you can tell me everything you know about Jake Michaels."
"We don't have time for this, Colonel," Benny declared. "Every moment we stand here answering questions someone could be dying in that cave. We've got to get back to digging and we could use some help."
O'Neill stared at Benny then turned abruptly to one of the soldiers. "Break out those shovels in the back of the Jeeps, airman, and call headquarters. We're going to need better equipment than this if we're going to get anyone out alive."
"Yes, sir," the young man said, hurrying to the back of the first jeep. He returned minutes later and handed the Colonel a small breakaway shovel.
The Air Force officer snapped the pieces together then looked at the trio of trespassers. "What're you waiting for?" he asked them. "We've got work to do."
"Yes, sir." Benny poked Jonathan in the ribs as they returned to the cave entrance. "Hey, Johnno, who says you can't count on the government anymore?"
(14) Jake Michaels wasn't exactly in the best of physical shape. Short and on the stocky side, he was never as athletic as his taller, leaner brothers. But now he made demands on his body, he never would have expected.
It had been far too easy. Charlie had come into the room totally unprepared for the assault, and the window shade had sent the man sprawling to the ground, where he lay unmoving. Jake hadn't wasted any time. He climbed over the unconscious kidnaper and quickly made his escape from the house.
That had been more than two hours ago. He'd been walking the entire time, not quite sure where he was, but knowing he had to get as far away from his enemies as possible. He had no water, no food, but he'd suffered hardship before and knew he could push his body to the limits when the situation demanded.
His determination was rewarded at last, when he came across a dirt road and a landmark he remembered. The large rock formation that jutted up to the sky could only be the same one that bordered the Kendricks place.
Jake felt a smile break out onto his face. He now knew exactly what direction he needed to head.
The number of workers digging at the mine entrance had nearly doubled. Skip and Andy, followed by Randi and Ian, pulled up to the site, moments after Paul and several of his deputies. It didn't take long to fill them in on who was trapped.
"Damn, what is it with Murphy and mines?" Andy muttered as they all manned shovels and bent to their task.
Lee squinted in the dim light. The writing in the notebook was more chicken scratch than when it started out and he was having trouble making heads or tails or it. He thought he could make out the words "black oil," and his thoughts went again to wondering if Uncle Jake was into something illegal. But if he was trying to drill for oil, what would that have to do with Skip and moon rocks?
He shook his head and laid the book down, rummaging around the table and the equipment there. All the tubes and beakers reminded him of high school chemistry, but there was one thing he didn't recognize. A long cylindrical metal object with no apparent use or purpose.
He picked it up, surprised at how light it actually was, and then nearly stabbed himself when a sharp, pick-like shaft shot out of one end with a whoosh. He dropped the object back on the table and the wicked barb retracted at once.
"Holy... " Lee didn't complete the obscenity. This was getting too bizarre for his tastes. "Hey, Murph!" he called. "Any luck on your end?"
"Yeah," came the faint reply. "C'mon over here and help, wouldja?"
Lee gladly left the table of evidence and trotted down one of the tunnels to help Murphy.
Word had spread that Lee Stetson and Murphy Michaels were trapped in a caved in mine and nearly every neighbor had shown up to help with the digging. If any of them took note of the increased number of military volunteers, no one said anything. And no one ever noticed the tall, lean figure standing out of sight, watching the entire operation.
The man known as Zach McDaniel stared at the workings with no emotion visible on his face. Things would go according to plan, he was confident. There was enough presence of the military to assure that anything in the cave would be properly disposed of.
True, they hadn't found what they were looking for. The so-called moon rocks had been truly just that. Rocks brought back from the moon. There had been no trace of the Black Oil. He supposed their intelligence had been faulty in that regard. The man Brickford and his search for oil was of an entirely different nature than his people's. They could rest easy. Their fear that the Human's had found their precious substance were unfounded. The project was still safe.
As for Jake Michaels... the man knew less than nothing and no one had seemed over-anxious to come find him. Another flaw in their intelligence. Someone would have to answer for that, he was glad it wouldn't be him. He'd done all he could to avert suspicion. That wasn't an easy thing in this state, where every bright light in the sky, or every unexplained event was blamed on "little green men." He chuckled at that. If they only knew.
He'd taken care of that, he was sure. The silly vampire ruse would throw off the scent. The locals would be more than willing to attribute these happenings to folklore, rather than some dire plan. That was a weakness in most Humans, gullibility.
As much as he would like to stay and be sure of the end, he knew it was taking too big a risk. Too many people in this bunch had seen his face. He would have to go and trust his allies to cover his tracks.
Jake was panting heavily as he reached the outlying fences to his own pastures. He paused for a moment, to take in his ranch. He was home. He'd done it. He'd outsmarted the bastards.
Triumph added vigor to his weary muscles and somehow he climbed up over the white rails and trudged across the meadow. He imagined how it would be to walk into the house under his own steam -- to show up and show all the would-be rescuers that he'd done it without their help.
Yessiree, that would be something to witness. That injun in-law sheriff would sure look stupid, and whoever else Cassie would have called in to help. He'd show 'em all that Jake Michaels was better'n any of 'em when it came to smarts.
He finally reached the house, only then wondering why there weren't any police cars at the place. Maybe they were keeping a low profile.
"Cassie," he called loudly as he banged through the back door into the kitchen. "Cassie! Pa! Where the hell is everybody?"
"We're through! We're through!"
The shout went up from the tunnels and the cheering started like a ground swell, sweeping out from under the earth to reach out to the crowd above.
Deep inside the rescue tunnel, Skip paused only long enough to wipe the sweat from his brow, before shoving his way forward, Andy at his heels.
"Are they there? Did you find 'em?"
He didn't need an answer. Up ahead, covered in dust from head to toe, stood Lee and Murphy, their happy grins the only answer Skip needed to know his cousins were okay.
"Everybody needs to move out," a brisk voice ordered.
Skip suddenly realized that all the neighborly volunteers had somehow been replaced by men in uniforms -- and guns.
"What's the meaning...?"
"Move it out now!" came the order and the four men found themselves being hustled out of the mine.
You just didn't argue with the business end of an assault weapon. They marched along until they found themselves squinting up in the bright afternoon sun. Only then did Skip turn to protest their treatment, but before he could open his mouth, he heard a muffled booming.
"Down, everybody down!" someone shouted and at once everyone dove to the ground as a cloud of rock and dust erupted from the rescue tunnel.
When things had settled, people got to their feet, brushing themselves off. Skip paused in his efforts when he saw a stern-faced colonel standing in front of him.
"Sorry for the scare. We had to blast the interior."
Lee got to his feet as well, his face indignant. "There was a lot of valuable information in there," he began, but the officer held up a hand to stop him.
"There was a report of hazardous material," he informed them, but his face suddenly lost some of its "official" expression.
Skip wasn't sure, but it looked like the man wasn't quite convinced of the veracity of the orders he'd been given. The moment was brief, then his military mask returned.
"We couldn't take a chance on anyone being hurt," he offered brusquely, then turned on his heel and headed back over to where the soldiers were sealing up the tunnel.
"You guys okay?"
Skip turned to see Paul standing beside them. He'd obviously heard the entire exchange.
"Can he do that?" Murphy asked the sheriff in disbelief.
Paul nodded grimly. "This is government land," he told them. "Most of New Mexico actually belongs to the federal government in some capacity. They can do what they want."
They watched a while longer in disbelief, then joined the rest of the family who had helped in the rescue. All they really wanted was to go home, shower and eat.
Jake sat on the front porch, fuming. The longer he sat here alone, the madder he got. Didn't anybody even care that he'd been missing?
Suddenly a cloud of dust appeared on the road and Jake stood to see a line of cars headed out this way, led by the sheriff. It was about time, he reasoned. Maybe they'd been out searching. Yeah, that was it. They'd all been out scouring the desert for him this whole time.
The cars pulled up and people piled out. Dirty, dusty, ragged looking people. Some he recognized and others he didn't, but they all appeared happy and smiling. And none of them were noticing him.
And suddenly there was Cassie... his wife. She was walking next to... His eyes widened in outrage. Damn it, if it wasn't those know-it-all nephews of his. Cassie had her arm around one of them... it appeared to be Murphy, and they all shone like they'd just conquered the world.
He stomped up to them, halting everyone in their tracks.
"Uh... Uncle Jake!" Skip stood blinking at him. "Hi," he finally stammered.
"When did you get back?" Lee asked, sounding suspiciously like he'd forgotten Jake was gone.
"You won't believe what happened to Lee and Murph..." Andy began, but paused at the site of Jake's beet-red face. He took a judicious step backward, behind his other cousins.
"To Lee and Murphy? To Lee and Murphy...?" Jake sputtered indignantly. "What about...?"
Cassie choose that moment to step up and take hold of her husband's arm, giving him a loving squeeze.
"I'm so glad you're here, Jake," she soothed, and prodded him forward, back towards the house. Her kind and loving words could be heard as they disappeared into the kitchen. "Wait'll I tell you what happened today."
Jake's shout of outrage could be heard across the entire meadow.
(2) Christina Getrost
(3) Bonnie Bills
(4) Bridget Frawley
(5) Robin Cloward
(6) Gina Martin
(8) Maura Kelly
(9) K Hanna Korossy
(10) Marianne Evensen
(11) Greedy Ro
(12) Research Bonnie
(13) Sharon Dickerson
(14) Jill Hargan