By Lori G. Armstrong
Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2007 Lori G. Armstrong
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-933836-18-8
My ass was asleep.
My thighs were as hard and cold as Popsicles.
My nose and Rudolph's? Too close a resemblance for my taste.
And I was so damn hungry I could gnaw off my own arm.
Oh, yeah. The glamorous world of private investigators.
I bounced my feet on the floorboards. A hundred hot needles jabbed my flesh, but didn't drive the numbness from my butt.
"You need a bathroom break?" Kevin asked snidely, without moving the binoculars trained on the ramshackle farmhouse.
"No." My breath puffed out in a little white cloud. Reminded me I hadn't had a cigarette in hours either. "This sucks. These seats suck."
"Can we at least shut the damn window?"
"Your whining will fog it up in about two seconds."
He sighed and rolled it up anyway.
Three hours of surveillance hadn't netted us one shred of evidence on this case. We were both a little cold and a lot cranky.
Kevin and I were parked in the midst of rusty cars and ancient farm equipment, in a cow pasture smack dab in the middle of Bear Butte County.
Technically we shouldn't be on the owner's property without permission, to say nothing of inside the fence and a 100 feet from the residence. But unlike law enforcement, as investigators we could toe the line without breaking fifty procedural laws and it wouldn't adversely affect our client's case.
I stared out the window. Milky gray clouds cast murky shadows across the grass, flattened and dead, courtesy of the first frost. With amber and scarlet leaves a distant memory, the stripped branches of cottonwood and elm trees in the distance added depth to the endless horizon.
"You see anything yet?"
"Nah. Same old, same old."
"Let me look."
"Have at it." Kevin passed me the binoculars.
I leaned forward and readjusted the focus.
The house was in sad shape; white paint aged to a cheerless yellow, the once red trim faded to pumpkin orange. Windows were coated with a film of dirt. Draperies of an indiscernible color blocked any view of the inside.
On the porch a mangy mutt slept beneath a three-legged resin lawn chair. Several scruffy cats strutted across the bowed porch railings, then dropped out of sight.
Spent oilcans, empty Busch Light bottles, warped 2X4's and a crumpled blue plastic tarp were scattered on the left side of the sagging foundation. Two black garbage bags sat forgotten by the torn aluminum screen door, ripped from the hinges.
And I thought the houses in my neighborhood were bad. "We know this guy isn't violating his worker's comp limitations by cleaning up his damn yard."
"That'd entail him bending over. Wouldn't want him to further injure himself and require additional therapy."
Wow. That was almost snarky, coming from Kevin, Mr. innocent-until-proven-guilty.
The man we were surveilling, Langston "Lang" Everett, was out of commission due to a work related injury he'd received at a local sawmill. Nothing as serious as an industrial-sized saw slicing off his thumb, or a limb getting pinched between run-away logs. Lang had injured his back sweeping. With a plain old broom and dustpan while bending over to clean up piles of sawdust.
His employer, Larson Timber Products, hadn't disputed the claim. Like any responsible company, they'd filed the appropriate paperwork with Rushmore West Insurance, their private workman's comp carrier, and with the proper state agencies.
An occupational therapist started Lang on an intensive physical therapy regiment. At the end of the eight weeks, Lang claimed there'd been no change in his range of mobility. He'd also asserted that because of the injury, he'd begun to suffer from constant, debilitating pain.
His absence put Larson Timber in a bind. Legally they couldn't fill Lang's position as long as he was collecting worker's comp due to an injury. No one was happy with the situation, except Lang, who (according to his employer) was enjoying an extended vacation on their dime.
After twenty weeks, Rushmore West Insurance had demanded a second medical opinion.
The second occupational therapist's diagnosis concurred with the first. Often, the most innocuous injury proved the most difficult to heal. The new expert swore Lang needed an additional six months of intensive therapy to gauge the severity and permanence of the damage.
I called bullshit on it, but I was hardly an authority or held an unbiased opinion. An identical situation had occurred in the Bear Butte County Sheriff's Department the first year I'd worked there. The night dispatcher, a woman named Rhea, injured her knee and elbow hauling out garbage. Poor baby suffered through four months of rehab.
When the insurance company received the all clear from Rhea's physician, she demanded a second opinion, which was in direct opposition to the first doctor's diagnosis. She couldn't return to duty because the injury had caused her to suffer from "chronic pain." Rhea expected the county to pay for permanent disability.
She'd been a whopping twenty-four at the time.
The county refused to pay. The case had gone to court.
In response to their extra workload, two fellow employees had called Rhea one night after too many Budweiser's. Questioning the validity of her injuries supposedly inflicted additional trauma on Rhea, spurring her lawyer to seek extra compensation for her "mental anguish."
The county had lost face, money, and the employees involved in what'd been a drunken prank had gotten shit-canned. Rhea collected a pile of cash and was lazing around Florida with her winnings. Probably paid her cabana boy to take out the trash.
At times the perversity of the legal system stunned me.
In Lang's case, two weeks earlier, someone had called the employer with an anonymous tip, claiming Lang Everett was faking his injury. Larson Timber reported the incident to their insurance company and to the state insurance fraud division.
Most insurance companies, especially out-of-state conglomerates, maintain specialized fraud teams. But often it's cheaper for them to hire a private local investigative firm to validate or invalidate the claim.
Kevin had previously worked for Rushmore West on a similar situation. All we needed were two separate documented instances of Lang Everett's questionable behavior.
And what were Lang's supposed infractions? The unidentified caller had seen Lang ripping around on his ATV. Driving was a definite no-no on the list of activities that aggravated his injury. But that wasn't all. Supposedly Lang had been under the hood of his Chevy Blazer, wrenching on the engine block. And the source swore Lang raced his horse down the driveway every day to pick up his mail.
Sour grapes? Or was Lang Everett a big, fat faker?
In staking out the Everett abode, not only hadn't we seen Lang zipping past on a four-wheeler, a mud buggy, or a horse; we hadn't seen Lang Everett, period.
Rushmore West Insurance retained our services for fifteen hours of surveillance. If we didn't deliver the goods in the allotted time, we'd be off the case, unless they ponied up more cash. I was hoping for a quick end to this ho-hum assignment.
Bored, I fiddled with the screen on the video camera.
"Hey, be careful with that," Kevin said.
"I am. When was the last time you used this?"
"Couple of months ago on that employee theft case. Why?"
"Just curious. Don't remember seeing it in the supply closet at the office."
"That's because I had it at home."
Kevin looked at me strangely.
With guilt? "Ooh. Didn't know you were into making porn, Kev."
"Jesus, Julie. Get your mind out of the gutter."
I grinned. "But it's so happy there."
"Not everything has to do with sex."
"All the good stuff does."
He directed his scowl out the window. "Can't believe I'm saying this, but I'll actually be glad when Martinez gets back in town."
"You and me both."
Kevin didn't understand what I saw in Tony Martinez, my latest paramour, president of the Hombres - a motorcycle "club" - and an all-around, scary, badass dude.
Martinez had been in Colorado for two weeks on business. Pained me to admit I missed him, especially when I didn't know if the feeling was mutual. The stupid jerk hadn't bothered to call me. Yeah, yeah, I knew phone lines ran both ways, and it might be juvenile, but I sure as hell wasn't about to call El Presidente first.
"You up for doing anything tonight?" Kevin asked.
Since his girlfriend Lilly's death from cancer, I suspected Kevin spent most nights alone, staring at the ugly-ass walls in his condo. After being together eight hours a day, he didn't push for us to hang out after the 5:00 whistle blew.
"I guess. Wanna get a pizza and watch a movie?"
"Sure. As long as it's not a Clooney flick."
"Then no Cameron Diaz stinkers either."
"Maybe we should stick to TV."
"Great. I think Queer Eye is on at eight."
I smiled, readjusting my position. "How many hours are left on today's allotment?"
My butt would never recover. And my stomach rumbled like an empty cattle truck. "Got any Twinkies?"
"For the last time, no. God. Eat a protein bar. There's a whole box in the back seat."
"Nice try. But I don't see you eating those nasty things. Why didn't you pack Snickers bars?"
Kevin faced me. "What is up with you? You never care about food when we're on stakeout." His brows lifted. "Christ. You're not pregnant, are you?"
The look of horror on my face matched his. "Omigod, no, I'm not pregnant."
Sounds of an engine revving cut his retaliation short and brought our attention back to the Everett household.
Our suspect was finally out in the open.
Kevin swore, picked up the binoculars and rolled down the window as I fumbled with the video camera. Zooming in on the action, I poked the record button.
Lang's wife - June, according to our records - still wore a grubby pink bathrobe and bunny slippers at 2:00 in the afternoon. Even from our secret vantage point I could tell she was screeching at her husband like a barn owl.
Lang shouted back at her.
She stormed down the steps. Snapped off a mean comment, by the sneering set of her mouth. The bunny head on one slipper flopped as she tapped her foot, waiting for his reaction.
Lang's shoulders tensed. His hand shot out and connected with her face.
Not the reaction she'd expected.
She staggered, bringing her palm to her cheek.
"You fucking bastard," I said.
Kevin's hand gripped my thigh, an attempt to keep me from jumping out and kicking Lang's ass.
"He hit her. You saw it."
"What are we going to do?"
"Focus on why we're here."
I hated that he was right. I directed my anger on nailing this wife-beating asshole. Maybe I could convince his wife to charge him with assault, since we had proof.
"Come on," Kevin taunted him softly. "Turn around."
Almost as if he'd heard Kevin's directive, Lang spun. Bonus: he'd whirled around fast enough the movement should've caused excruciating pain to his "injury."
"Gotcha," Kevin said, as I clicked a still shot.
Lang climbed onto the dirt-covered four-wheeler, whipped a U-turn, spewing gravel at his wife's feet.
She ran back inside the house.
Without a backward glance, he sped through an open gate and across the field by a decrepit barn.
Kevin started the Jeep. "Whatever happens, keep that camera on him."
"How are we going to avoid him seeing us?"
"We can't." The Jeep lurched forward, hit a low spot in the pasture and bounced us like ping-pong balls. "I'll try to hang back only far enough he stays in sight."
We followed him along a rutted old wagon trail most likely last used by pioneers. The house and barn were no longer visible. But we were out in the open so clearly we should've been quacking.
Lang made a hard left.
"Hey, slow down. The camera is jumping all over the place."
"You've still got sight of him?"
Lang disappeared down a slope.
"Shit. I lost him." A flash of red. "Wait, there he is. I need to get up higher."
In a moment of brilliance, I said, "Can you open the sun roof?" just as Kevin unsnapped the latch with his right hand and slid back the glass partition.
He mumbled something about great minds thinking alike as I wiggled up through the opening and anchored my feet, one on each bucket seat.
Cold wind lashed my face. My ponytail became a thousand little whips. I ignored the sting and kept the video lens pointed at the red jacket bouncing across the bumpy prairie.
"Still see him?" Kevin shouted.
"Yeah. Think we've got enough tape?"
Easy for him to decide. He wasn't up here freezing his nose and ears off.
We zigzagged behind Lang for so long I was sure we'd crossed the state line into Wyoming.
The distance between us had increased. With Lang familiar with the terrain, and us trying to stay discreet, he could easily lose us. I was kinda hoping he would.
"Hang on, I'm speeding up," Kevin said. He didn't wait for my reply before stepping on the gas.
The Jeep struck a pothole the size of a meteor crater. I managed not to let the camera sail from my hands, which were getting colder by the second.
Tears streamed down my cheeks from the bitter wind. I couldn't feel my nose. My ears burned. I braced myself as the Jeep angled down yet another steep slope.
Yet, I kept taping.
Lang kept moving.
I didn't know how much time had passed, an ice age possibly, judging by the frozen state of my fingers.
During that time, Lang hadn't turned and glanced over his shoulder. Not once. Weird. How did he not know we were tailing him?
When he cut to the right I realized why: his hot-rod four-wheeler wasn't equipped with a rear view mirror. Or any mirrors at all.
Kevin narrowed the gap.
I figured we had adequate footage. Plus, I suspected I might have hypothermia.
"Back off," I yelled down at Kevin. Didn't care if he thought I was a whiner. I'd had plenty of fresh arctic air today and the wind burned cheeks to prove it.
"You got enough?"
"No. I've been filming the goddamn scenery," I snapped, remembering too late the camera was recording everything, including my colorful observations.
Kevin slowed down.
I don't know why I kept the tape running, even after we'd jerked to a complete stop.
But later, I was glad I had.
One second Lang was directly in front of us. The next, I watched on the viewing screen as the ATV hit a hole, pitched sideways, caught air, and sailed off an embankment.
Lang Everett popped in the air like a cork.
Everything in front of me switched to slow motion.
The tires on the four-wheeler spun madly mid-air, and Lang was windmilling his arms in the same manner.
Then both man and machine vanished with a loud crash.
Excerpted from Shallow Grave by Lori G. Armstrong Copyright © 2007 by Lori G. Armstrong. Excerpted by permission.
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