It’s been decades since the Cold War ended—and just as long since anyone has been in the long-abandoned Tango-11 nuclear missile site in southeastern Wyoming—when Thurmond Giles, a decorated African American US Air Force veteran and warhead expert, is found murdered, dangling naked by his ankles inside a deactivated Minuteman silo.
OSI investigator and air force fighter pilot Major Bernadette Cameron is handling the security breach, but when her inquiries into the crime are stonewalled, she has to find out why. So does Elgin “Cozy” Coseia, a local reporter chasing a major story. But sifting through the victim’s complex life and sordid death yields a wider assortment of suspects than they counted on—including a radical nuclear-arms protestor, an ambitious air force cadet, a right-wing cattle rancher with powerful political ties, and a family still shaken by memories of Japanese internment camps.
To connect the past with the present, Bernadette and Cozy will have to follow an unforeseen path back to the dark days of World War II, through the legacy of the Cold War’s paranoid atomic age, and to the present-day all-American heartland, where old wounds are never forgotten, nor forgiven.
From the bestselling author of the C. J. Floyd series, Astride a Pink Horse is a mystery with a “refreshingly eccentric cast and elaborately structured plot. . . . Think Elmore Leonard, Brad Parks, and Craig Johnson.” —Library Journal
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Astride a Pink Horse
By Robert Greer
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Robert Greer
All rights reserved.
If Lyle Sudderman had been paying attention to his surroundings instead of twisting his grease-stained U.S. Postal Service letter carrier's cap nervously from side to side on his head and muttering obscenities to himself, he might have realized sooner that the brown lump lying between a knot of sagebrush and a small boulder just inside a sagging cyclone fence fifty yards away wasn't a dead steer or a mule deer that had somehow nosed its way onto the fenced-off patch of government land. Despite his current state of fluster, Sudderman, a longtime poacher, decided that the high cost of store-bought meat required at least a quick peek.
It occurred to him that the mysterious lump lying amid several industrial-looking steel-and-concrete structures could also be a human body. He swallowed hard, eased his postal truck onto the highway shoulder, and stared at the mile-square fenced-off parcel of Wyoming heartland just off Grayrocks Road, six miles northeast of the small farming and ranching community of Wheatland.
It was windless and a sweltering 98 degrees. He was a little ahead of schedule, it was almost time for lunch, and he needed to think for a moment. He stared at the lump in the field once again and realized that it hadn't moved in all the time he'd been watching it. Thinking, God forbid I should get accused of letting my freaking engine idle and use one extra ounce of precious U.S. government gas, he killed the truck's engine and jammed his bulky key ring with its fifteen keys, a penlight, and a Moose Lodge medallion into a pants pocket. He sat back in his seat, glanced across the highway at the Laramie River Station power plant with its sixty-story-high smokestacks, smiled, and muttered, "Been here before."
Over a quarter century as a faithful government servant, and what was he about to get as a reward for his loyalty? A fucking cut in pay. Come October, the Postal Service planned to eliminate a day of mail delivery from his route, and that meant a smaller paycheck. This time around, his twenty-six-year membership in the National Association of Letter Carriers wouldn't help, nor would his ass-kissing and glad-handing. Word had come down from the postmaster general himself, and Lyle knew he wouldn't be able to avoid being part of the cuts. Perhaps he shouldn't have been so quick to buy the twenty acres he'd purchased in the Laramie Mountains the previous winter.
Turning his attention back to the mysterious lump, Lyle stepped out of his truck after making certain that the warning flashers were on and headed across the thirty-acre patch of swampy river-bottom grass.
A two-mile-long stretch of finger canyons marked the northern edge of the river bottom. Rolling, treeless, tobacco-brown hills, seared by the August heat, rose above the canyons. Thinking that for some reason the mosquitoes seemed to be less pesky than usual, Lyle worked his way toward the fence that marked the northern boundary of the government parcel. When he was a few yards from the fence, a swirling wind tunneled its way from the river bottom through willows and cottonwoods until every tree and shrub seemed to quiver.
Lyle glanced over his shoulder toward the power plant before jogging the rest of the way to the fence and scaling it, as he had many times with friends during his boyhood.
Inside the compound, he found himself staring at what was mostly vacant land — land that in his youth, he and his friends had laughingly dubbed "ground zero." He glanced around at the half-dozen "No Trespassing" signs wired to the fence until his eyes found a single rusted metal sign that defined with certainty where he was. The sign simply read, "T-11."
Making his way past a three-foot-high flat concrete structure that had always reminded him of a home-plate-shaped foundation for a home, he paused for a moment to glance around at the compound's seven telephone poles. Once during his teens, he and several friends, on a dare, had climbed every telephone pole inside the boundaries of Tango-11, laughing and challenging one another as the power-plant smokestacks across the highway belched clouds of orange smoke and steam. Even then, they knew what the government had at one time housed behind the cyclone fences.
Lyle looked at the concrete pad and rail spur that had once been the heart of T11, then swallowed hard before walking to within a few feet of what had brought him there. Suddenly he was laughing, fidgeting with his cap, and stamping his feet as he realized that what he was looking down on was neither a dead man, a steer, nor an antelope but simply a knotted-up, buckskin-colored blanket with a mass of tumbleweeds trapped inside. The Wyoming wind had blown the ratty old bedcover against a tire-sized piece of concrete.
Shaking his head and wondering how he could have mistaken a blanket and a bunch of tumbleweeds for any kind of animal, he mumbled, "Shit," tugged at the bill of his cap, and turned to leave. He'd retrieved his keys from his pocket when it occurred to him that, though his poaching venture had come to nothing, there nonetheless was something oddly out of place in Tango-11. It took him a while to zero in on it, although he realized later it should have been obvious to him the second his feet had landed inside the fence. As the azure sky seemed to swallow the entire abandoned Tango-11 nuclear-missile site, he could see that, less than thirty paces from where he stood, the hatch cover over the personnel-access tube, a twenty-four-inch-diameter shaft that rose from deep in the ground to poke its head three feet in the air, was propped partially open. The adjacent fifty-by-fifty-foot concrete slab that covered the site's more important nuclear-missile payload bore looked undisturbed.
Lyle removed his cap and scratched his head in dismay. Never once during his dozens of teenage late-night visits to Tango-11 had he seen that hatch cover raised.
With his heart racing and his left eye twitching, the forty-four-year-old postal worker strolled cautiously toward the charred-looking hatch cover. He'd once heard from a friend in the air force that a hatch cover like the one he was staring at weighed all of 2,700 pounds, and he knew from his mostly forgotten high school Wyoming history studies that the mobile concrete-and-steel slab that covered the missile silo itself weighed at least a hundred tons. Knowing full well that something that weighed over a ton couldn't have popped open on its own, he suppressed the urge to shout, in some strange homage to his youth, Buddy, Clint, Sammy, Will, come have a look! When he was a couple of feet away from the hatch cover, he could see that a rusted metal hook, the kind commonly attached to the heavy-duty chains that local ranchers and farmers used to pull their tractors and backhoes out of swampy pastures, was keeping the hatch cover open. He whispered, "Damn," as his eyes followed a chain that was attached to the hook down into the darkness of the access tube.
He had no idea how deep the access tube sank into the sandy Wyoming soil, but with a belly-up-to-the-bar, can-you-top-this tale now swirling through his head, he knew he was going to have a look down its throat.
Taking his penlight and keys from his pocket, he leaned against the hatch cover and tried to shine the light down into the access tube, but he couldn't see much beyond the V-shaped opening. Laying his keys and penlight aside, he tried without success to shift the cover until, winded and sweating, he decided he'd need a lever of some sort. When he spotted a five-foot-long tree limb, he ran to get it, returned, and jammed one end of the limb beneath the hatch cover, wedging it into place. With the concrete lip of the access tube serving as his fulcrum, he plopped all 245 of his portly pounds down on the far end of the tree limb and crossed his fingers.
The hatch cover rose with a squeaky, resistant groan until it was almost perpendicular to the sky, then stopped with a single loud click. Rivulets of sweat trickled down the back of Lyle's neck as, smiling and flushed with success, he tossed the tree limb aside and scooped up his keys and penlight. Standing just inches from the hook, he leaned over the open access tube and aimed the penlight's beam directly down into the earthy-smelling bore. At first he couldn't see anything, but as his eyes accommodated to the darkness and he followed the chain down from the hook, he was able to make out two dark, flat objects about fifteen feet below him. The objects, which reminded him of the wooden paddles he'd played paddleball with as a boy, were pressed tightly against the tube's curved steel wall. For several seconds he stared down at the oddly shaped objects, recognizing finally that they were touching one another. When he realized that they were much narrower than his boyhood paddles and that each one appeared to be attached to something long and stick-like that extended perpendicularly away from it and deeper into the access tube, he muttered, "Damn."
It was only when he poked his head, an arm, and the penlight deeper into the access tube that he realized that the chain next to him wasn't looped around paddles at all, or even around a couple of bizarre pieces of military hardware left over from the Cold War, but instead around two human ankles, and that the two flat objects he'd been staring at so intently were the soles of two human feet.
A rush of adrenaline shot through him, and the suffocating mucus of fear plugged his nostrils as he gawked at the unmistakable curvature of a man's buttocks. Thinking that he was staring at a kind of naked bungee jumper who'd decided to dive headfirst into an abandoned nuclear-missile access hole, he let out a guttural, primordial wail that belched up from the depths of his being and echoed off the access tube's walls as he sprang back from the hatch cover and bolted for his truck.
When pressed later by the Platte County sheriff, and then by the Warren Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations major who'd quickly arrived from Cheyenne to interrogate him about why he'd entered the Tango-11 site and what he'd found, Lyle Sudderman found it difficult to remember the exact sequence of events from his midday odyssey. He remembered rescaling the Tango-11 fence after finding the dead man, and he recalled tripping his way across undulating river-bottom pastureland to dial 911 from the cell phone in his truck. He remembered the hatch cover and the tree limb he'd used to open it, and of course he remembered the chain. But what he remembered most, he told his interrogators, was the strange, haunting, ghostly vision of a schoolyard full of children playing paddleball in the hot summer sun.CHAPTER 2
"Damn it, Cozy! I need you to get your laid-back Caribbean cruise of an ass in gear and up there to Wheatland right now. And I want the whole story — lock, stock, barrel, and bullets, if there're any involved." Frederick Dames frowned in frustration, moved the phone receiver from his right ear to his left, and muttered, "Friends!"
Elgin Coseia, known to his friends simply as "Cozy," a nickname the man fuming on the other end of the line had given him during their baseball-playing days at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, adjusted his lean, six-foot-four-inch frame against the cushions of his living room couch, tugged on the drawstring of his faded basketball warm-ups, and took a deep breath. "I'm headed that way, Freddy. I told you that an hour ago."
"Headed that way, my ass." Freddy ran a hand through his thick auburn hair, hair that made his head look too large for his stocky, five-foot-nine-inch fireplug of a body, and shook his head.
"I needed to tie up some loose ends before I left."
"Yeah," said Freddy with a smirk, suspecting that Cozy's loose ends more than likely involved some long-legged woman or, even better, a nap. "Time you got your Dominican butt moving, Elgin. I can get other people to play your position. I mean it, Elgin. Call me when you've got a handle on our Wyoming story. Do you hear me?" Freddy's normally ruddy complexion turned a deep shade of red as his temporal muscles twitched.
Aware that Freddy's use of back-to-back Elgins meant his best friend was absolutely and thoroughly pissed, Cozy said, "Got it."
"Good, because the next time we talk, I expect to be looking at a story on the Net," said Freddy, slamming down the receiver and wondering how he and Elgin Delonero Coseia continued to remain best friends. But best friends they were, odd-couple buddies since their freshman college year, when Freddy had first saddled Cozy with his nickname. Freddy had come up with the name not as a contraction of "Coseia," as most people thought, but rather in recognition of Cozy's uncanny, stealth-like ability to get himself into position from the shortstop hole and take a second-base pickoff throw from a pitcher to tag a surprised base runner out. The man's as cozy as cotton had been the way Freddy had initially characterized Cozy's slide-step move-in behind the runner. After that, the nickname just stuck.
Before his four-year college baseball career was over, Cozy would be credited with the highest number of pitcher-to-shortstop second-base pickoffs ever recorded in NCAA Division II baseball history. Three of them had come during the 2000 Division II college baseball championship series.
Twelve years had passed since Southeastern Oklahoma State had won the Division II college baseball title, and in that time all the adulation, hoopla, and promises of millions had also disappeared. It had all been lost for Cozy in a single improbable few seconds just months after his and Freddy's college graduation. For more than a decade now, a lackadaisical and often morose Cozy Coseia, his baseball dreams lost to him forever, had been trying to recapture who and what he'd been.
Sitting on the couch, he stared across the narrow, sparsely furnished room toward a photograph that hung slightly crooked on the wall facing him. The antique mahogany school desk where he wrote most of his news stories for Freddy Dames's web-based Digital Registry News hugged the wall beneath the photo.
"Regional news for the digital age," Cozy said, rising from the couch as he muttered Freddy's trademark business slogan. Easing his weight onto his emaciated, badly scarred left leg, he continued to stare at the glossy black-and-white photograph of him and his title-winning teammates. The photograph showed Freddy and half the team piling on top of Cozy moments after he had hit a title-clinching, game-winning, two-run triple.
Shaking his head as if the gesture might erase the heartache of the past eleven years, he limped over to the photo, straightened it, eyed it wistfully, and continued out his front door to head for Wyoming.
Wyoming Platte County sheriff Art Bosack, a onetime pro-rodeo saddle bronco rider who occasionally still rode his horse out on criminal investigations, arrived to begin his investigation into what would become known as "the Tango-11 murder" not on a horse but in a hail-damaged Ford pickup badly in need of new tires.
His deputy, Wally Sykes, a recent criminal justice graduate of a small college in Great Falls, Montana, was so wide-eyed when the county coroner and Bosack pulled the body of a rail-thin, six-foot-two-inch black man from the access tube that he hardly heard the crunch of sagebrush and the swish of grass that told him someone was approaching the hastily taped-off crime scene.
Seasoned and crime-scene-savvy, the coroner, who with Bosack was kneeling over the dead man, looked past the sheriff toward the crunching sound to see someone dressed in air force fatigues approaching. Nudging the sheriff, he said, "Looks like the wild-blue-yonder boys you've been expecting are here, Art."
Bosack barely looked up from examining the deepest of five stab wounds in the murder victim's back. Puzzled by the pattern of the wounds and the superficial nature of all but three of them, he ran a latex-gloved index finger from wound to wound, connecting them in the shape of an imaginary pentagon.
"Strange. Real strange." He grunted, looked up at Sykes, and said, "Wanna go meet our flyboy?"
The greenhorn deputy glanced across the Tango-11 compound toward a Jeep Cherokee that was parked fifty yards away on the highway shoulder. Recognizing suddenly that the person approaching them was a woman, he simply stared. Their visitor was still fifteen feet away when the sheriff stood, eyed the gold oak leaves on the woman's shoulder epaulets, flashed her a friendly smile, and said, "How do, Major? Heard we had an OSI officer from Warren headed our way." He stripped off a glove and offered her his right hand.
Excerpted from Astride a Pink Horse by Robert Greer. Copyright © 2012 Robert Greer. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc..
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