PAIGE AND MEGAN’S COTTAGE
For the second time that day Drake awoke groggy, with Megan on his mind. Grief washed over him like an ocean wave, tumbling his emotions. For the life of him he couldn’t seem to remember why. His brain churned fuzzily, trying to make sense of unfamiliar surroundings. He found it difficult to concentrate at all, because his wandering attention kept semi-focusing on the harsh sounds of hysterical sobbing in the room. Vaguely, Drake found that odd because he wasn’t making any noise at all. Nevertheless the wailing continued, falling into low-pitched keening, then rolling shrilly back again, filling the room with overwhelming sorrow. After a long while he concluded that he lay kind of crumpled up in a careless heap on the floor. He was face down head to the wall, awkwardly jammed between an old upright piano and an enormous, overstuffed armchair. His vantage-point on the floor allowed him to see a crumpled potato chip bag in the corner behind the chair, tisk, tisk. When his ears began to coordinate with his brain, they informed him the brokenhearted weeping originated from somewhere behind him.
Drake’s mind continued to ponder, slowly struggling to make sense of the whole discombobulating situation, but his thoughts were still dazed at best. Finally, after summoning all his mental abilities and setting them to work on the problem, he came to the firm conclusion that he felt uncomfortable. Further reflection led him to the realization that he ought to do something to relieve his discomfort; but what? Oh, yes, of course! He could move his body into a more comfortable position. Brilliant conclusion, Holmes! Elementary my dear Watson.
When he tried shifting his head though, electric jolts of pain surged up and down his spine, stiffening his neck muscles and threatening to wrench the whole left side of his head off. The excruciating pain in his head triggered blinding multicolored flashes which began to dance in brilliant coruscation, mere inches from his eyes. He found the experience painful as well as confusing. Drake responded by involuntarily curling into a fetal position and screwing his eyes tightly shut. That didn’t improve matters to any noticeable degree. The wildly gyrating flashes continued to explode as if his head were stuffed into a bag of rocketing fireworks. The pain, the searing lights, and the incessant high pitched wailing all combined to so disorient him he passed out again.
When he came to, still huddled face down, someone’s hands were touching his shoulder. The invisible hands moved to his chest, gently feeling for a heartbeat. Then he felt himself being turned gently onto his back.
“Careful!” Drake hissed, his voice a harsh croak, “If my head pops off you’ll have to chase after it.” He heard a tearful gasp of relief followed by Paige’s choked voice asking him a flood of questions coming much faster than he could sort them out.
“Whoa, slow down,” he breathed, vaguely perceiving her tear-stained face above him. His mind wasn’t any less fuzzy and he still had difficulty with the demanding task of forming words and actually speaking them in proper order.
“Paige…? What’s going on…? Where’s Megan…?”
As he asked this final question he had a gruesome mental image of Megan lying lifeless on the floor mere inches away. The grief he had experienced earlier engulfed him again as comprehension dawned and this time he began weeping. His reaction set Paige off again too. For a time they clung to one another lost in mutual loss and individual sorrow.
They were not given much time to work out their grief. Without warning, shadowy figures began racing past the windows. The front door, standing half-open, bounced off the wall from an aggressive kick. The bottom hinge broke with a crack. The door hung crookedly, barely impeding the entrance of a hoard of shouting men brandishing guns. …As if there had not been enough of that kind of horseplay already. One of the men—he seemed vaguely familiar to Drake—dropped to Megan’s side, checking the corpse in a coldly professional manner. Two others cautiously approached the weeping couple in the corner, guns drawn. Their weapons were not pointed in any neutral direction either. They were trained dead-on at Drake and Paige.
Paige stared back, wide-eyed, incomprehension changing to ire, while Drake handled the situation with the aplomb born of experience; he was getting used to being a potential target for government agents.
The thought occurred that maybe he ought to say something. He should bring everyone up to date or something. But the moment he tried, he was silenced by a harsh command. It came from Super Agent Dexter, his bearded buddy.
“Don’t move!” Dexter yelled. “Just twitch once Father and I’ll blow your head off!”
Drake suddenly lost his aplomb and began to sweat. Covered by a second man, Dexter knelt before Drake, cruelly shoving the muzzle of his pistol against Drake’s forehead. Stan Drake closed his eyes for a quick prayer, then opened them to stare back into the agent’s tight, angry face. The situation felt unreal. Drake wondered if he had lapsed back into his former state of confusion.
“I want somebody to explain exactly what is going on here?” Drake demanded as calmly as he could.
“I told you not to move, clown!” Dexter reached across Drake, gingerly retrieving a large automatic pistol from the floor. Drake stared dumbfounded as Dexter bagged General Taylor’s .45, wondering what happened to the little Colt .380. Dexter noted the puzzlement on Drake’s face, taking it for guilt.
“That’s right!” he crowed. “We got ourselves a murderer, the victim, and the murder weapon all in the same room. You’re had Preacher-man!”
“What?” Drake and Paige exclaimed in the same tone of outrage.
Dexter’s senior partner, agent Baker appeared, standing beside the gloating youngster. Baker looked up from a small notebook in his left hand and said, “Reverend Drake, Ms. Mitchell, it looks like we’re going to have few questions you both. We will also need to thoroughly investigate this crime scene, of course. I hope you will save us all a lot of trouble by being completely honest and cooperative.”
“Are we under arrest?” Drake demanded.
Baker threw his arm warningly across his partner’s chest, forestalling Dexter’s obviously affirmative answer. “I am not placing you under arrest at this time, Reverend,” he said. “However, I do consider you a material witness and an obvious suspect in this investigation. For that reason I will take quite seriously your cooperation or, if you like, your refusal to cooperate. Please consider your situation; you were found next to a murder victim with a discharged pistol at your side. If you think about it real hard you will probably understand, this looks very suspicious from an objective point of view.” He gave Drake the benefit of his hard penetrating, investigator’s stare, “Well, Reverend, what about it?”
Drake restrained his annoyance, knowing the man’s reasoning was sound. “I’ll be happy to cooperate: Fully. But first, could you have a doctor take a look at my head please. It feels like it’s about to bust wide open.”
“And what happened to your head?” asked Baker, pen poised over his little notebook.
“I… I don’t know,” Drake stumbled receiving a cold look in return for this classic lamebrain answer.
“I must tell you Reverend,” said Baker, his face darkening, “I do not consider this kind of attitude a good example of full cooperation.”
* * *
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm’s interrogation room turned out to be one huge disappointment. Having watched years of Police dramas on television, Drake had predictably expected a starkly furnished cubicle, painted dirty beige, furnished with heavy, government-issue wooden tables and desks. A large two-way mirror would, as a matter of course, face him from across the table. Steely-eyed law enforcement types would stand, unseen, behind the mirror, secretly scrutinizing him while discussing his guilt out of earshot.
Drake found none of that stuff here.
In fact, Drake found himself in a large airy cafeteria; part of the employee services building in the larger Park Services complex, located in Yosemite Village. The recent influx of Federal personal had prompted the ATF to commandeer this space for their administrative needs. While he waited, Drake gazed idly out the massive floor-to-ceiling window wall. He watched yet another storm roll in. Heavy, moisture-laden clouds shifted across the lowering sky, intermittently blocking the sunlight as they passed through. The huge wall of glass and the minimal lighting inside caused the ambient light in the cafeteria to shift dramatically every few moments. Drake found it difficult to keep his eyes focused.
He sat at a long lunch table serving as a transient workspace for several BATF agents. At least that’s what he deduced from the distinct piles of official-looking debris heaped at regular intervals along the surface of the table. Across the room Paige sat enjoying the company of Super Agent Dexter, playing the role of Grand Inquisitor to the hilt. Seated directly across from Drake, Agent Baker conducted a more professional interview. At least he stuck to asking pertinent questions of Drake rather than drooling and giggling maniacally.
“How did you come to be in Ms. Cameron’s residence at such an early hour?” Baker asked for the irritatingly umpteenth time.
“I told you. Several times now; I went there to confront her about her odd behavior and the sudden appearance of an animal cage in the back of my vehicle. You are writing this stuff down aren’t you? Why do you keep asking me the same questions over and over again?”
“Procedure, Reverend Drake, that’s all. Now, when you returned why did you feel it necessary to conceal your presence from Ms. Cameron? You did say that you were, let’s see…‘sneaking around to the back porch.’ Yes?”
“Yes. And you know the answer to that one too. I believed at the time, and as it turns out I was right, that the men I saw entering her house were those trigger happy, Mariposa Militia people.”
Undeterred by hitting a dead end, Baker changed his point of attack, “How did you come to acquire an animal transport cage in the rear compartment of your sport utility vehicle, Reverend Drake?”
“I’d like to know the answer to that one, myself,” said Drake. “It’s obvious that I’m supposed to look like the guy who brought that doomed mountain lion into Yosemite.”
“Yes Reverend, it does look that way,” said Baker. “Can you tell me anything which would make me think otherwise?”
“As a matter of fact, I can. Some of you government types looked over my truck at the intersection of Big Oak Flat and Tioga Road on the day I entered the Park; on… let’s see… yeah, last Thursday. There was no cage in the Chevy then. You can check with the guys who saw me.”
“So?” Baker seemed unimpressed, “What if you were cleared that day?” he asked reasonably, “What’s to keep you from bringing in the lion at some other time?”
“First,” answered Drake, “I can produce several people from my church in Zurich who can confirm when I left town. Second, I hardly think it’s reasonable for me to bring an illegal cat into a National Park, then remove the cage so I can drive through a Government check point—which, remember, had only been established ten minutes earlier—so I could demonstrate my innocence. Would I then go and put the incriminating evidence back into the Suburban—which by the way, isn’t even mine. And I’m still going to have to explain that mess to the owner.”
Baker stared at Drake for several moments and then asked, “Your church is in Zurich, Switzerland?”
“No,” said Drake, resigned to, but long since tired of the question, “Zurich, California. It’s a little town on the Eastern slope of the Sierras. The first station master for the old railroad was Swiss. And, by the way, in a small town like Zurich I can probably produce a bunch of people to confirm my movements over the last month or so.”
“How so, Reverend?” asked Baker.
“Zurich has a tiny population of right around fifteen hundred people. In a small town everyone knows everybody else’s business. And that’s not all,” he said, a new idea forming in his mind, “Some of that Lion dung looked pretty old to me; you know, hard and whitish? How long am I supposed to have kept the big hairy beast in someone else’s truck without anyone noticing? No sir;” Drake shook his head. “I was set up and I think you know it too.”
“I don’t know anything yet,” said Baker with a dogged air, “I’m merely collecting information at this point.”
Across the room a set of double-hung restaurant style doors banged open; “Hey Baker!” yelled a woman in another of those windbreakers, “S-A-C wants to see you! ASAP.” The woman abruptly disappeared and the doors flapped shut after her.
“Excuse me Reverend, I’ll return as soon as I can. Please do not leave yet. I’ve a few more questions for you.” Drake sighed in resignation and simply nodded his head. “Hold on a minute Mr. Baker,” said Drake. “It’s just occurred to me that I left my dog in the Suburban before I went back to Megan’s house. He’s been cooped up alone for several hours now. Could somebody go get him, please?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” said Baker, displaying a trace of human feeling. He walked across the room, snared Dexter and the two of them left by way of the swinging doors.
Drake watched them go feeling abused and persecuted. The scripture says it’s better to suffer for something you haven’t actually done, than to have done something deserving punishment. But it sure doesn’t feel any better. After the G-men left the room Drake stood, stretched, and walked to the service counter where he poured two cups of coffee into plain white enamel mugs. He carried them over to where Paige sat, offering her one. She accepted it in silence, the stony look on her face making him feel just the teensiest bit sorry for Agent Dexter.
In dreary silence they sat while time seemed to ground to a halt. Occasionally they sipped at their slowly cooling coffee, each grappling with the conflicting emotions attendant to violent murder and callous interrogation. At last Paige, voice rusty from disuse, broke the stillness.
“I keep waiting for you to say something shallow and religious so I can scream at you.”
Drake looked bleakly back. “I can’t think of anything shallow for you right now. Go ahead and scream though, I deserve it. Megan’s dead and I’m the guy who’s responsible. I didn’t stop it.” Paige returned his look, unshed tears welling in her eyes, and said nothing.
Cocooned in his tight little world of grief and self-reproach Drake gradually became aware of growing activity in the hall. The commotion finally broke through his insulating shell of withdrawal. He looked around to see the cafeteria filling with people, mostly men in durable outdoors clothing with an overlay of black nomex harnesses. The harnesses were studded with hooks and straps supporting knives, ammunition pouches, flashlights, radios and other more esoteric items he failed to identify. They looked to Drake like a SWAT team suited up for action. The woman who had summoned Baker crossed the immense room to a large black chest. She unlocked a number of padlocks and began distributing military-type assault rifles to the milling crowd. Magazines were slapped into place and they began filing out the door to assemble in the large patio beyond the glass wall.
Through the huge window Drake watched as one of the by-now-familiar UH-60 Blackhawks touched down noisily outside. Up close like this, Drake was able to read the BATF logo on the sliding cargo door. Ten men ducked under the spinning rotor blades, mounting the chopper. It immediately lifted off to hover nearby while an identical helicopter landed in the yard. Drake and Paige stared in amazement. They watched a spectacularly filthy and beat-up Rudy Gutierrez dismount the second aircraft. His shotgun firmly clutched at port arms, he moved at a running crouch to the cafeteria. Gutierrez’s eyes noted their presence, but coldly swept every corner of the room before relaxing and returning to them. Despite the fact that his uniform shirt was raggedly ripped down one side and his coarse hair stood out in damp, irregular spikes, Gutierrez looked anything but ridiculous.
Paige stared, aghast. She stood and ran across the room to Gutierrez, flinging her arms around his neck. Weeping and sobbing she poured her heart out, demanding to know the meaning of his filthy, bedraggled condition. Drake stood back not wishing to intrude on their privacy. Gutierrez racked the slide back, safeing his weapon. He laid it on a tabletop and took Paige into the circle of his strong arms, comforting her and making light of his own condition. They stood that way, Paige weeping, Gutierrez speaking softly, for several minutes. Drake backed away but could not tear his eyes from the ranger as he looked back over Paige’s shoulder; his face an angry mask of stone. Drake found himself forcefully reminded of fiercely carved Olmec warrior heads he had seen on a long ago museum visit to Mexico City.
As they stood there the swinging doors at the other end of the assembly room flipped open again to admit three people. The first one through was the gal who had summoned Baker right before all the action started. The second was none other than Bill Gordon, Special Agent in Charge of the BATF’s Sacramento field office. He was the same giant of a man Drake remembered from Yosemite Falls.
“Wild Bill” Gordon was obviously in charge, unaffected by the fact that, his capture was anxiously desired by the high and exalted councils of the Mariposa Militia. The third person to enter was smaller, older, and completely unknown to Drake. Judging by the decorations on his uniform he appeared to be a fairly senior US Park Ranger. Paige gave their abrupt, unwanted intrusion the benefit of her cold blue eyes but said nothing. Gutierrez and Drake took in the angry look on Gordon’ face and braced themselves for the impending ordeal.
The senior ranger—Albert Fine according to the name on his uniform pocked—strode up to Gutierrez placing his hand warmly on his left shoulder. “Rudy,” he said, trying to suppress the very human emotion in his voice, “I’m sorry as I can be about Rod. Glad you made it out though. What’s the situation up there?”
“Chief.” Rudy straightened up and made his report, “Ranger Weatherly and I were caught in a fairly clumsy ambush. If those guys had been pros, well, both of us would have been stone cold dead,” he snapped his fingers, “just like that. They knocked Rod down with the first volley. He was still alive, but they just executed him where he lay wounded on the ground. Sorry Chief, nothing I could do. I managed to evade the ambush. I even popped four or five of ‘em, but I’m not sure if I actually killed any of them. I think I got two for sure in my own counter ambush—but you gotta understand Chief, I was facing a squad-sized unit and I only got to whittle on them some. I’m ticked I didn’t take ‘em all out,” he added darkly. Drake reflected that it seemed to be a day of foul ups, lost opportunities and harsh regrets.
Mr. Special Agent Gordon, who had been sourly eyeing Rudy during his monologue, arrogantly broke in at that point, “Ranger Gutierrez,” he snapped, “I’m curious as to why you chose to take on the Militia all by yourself, instead of calling it in as your standing orders read?”
Rudy gave Chief Ranger Fine the benefit of his sad-eyed, woe-is-me, Latin look. “Chief,” he asked in exasperation, “is this guy for real?”
“You better believe I’m for real, smart guy!” Gordon shot back, “and never mind lookin’ to your Chief for answers, Sucker! BATF has sole jurisdiction here,” he added hotly.
“Now hold on just one little minute there, Mr. Gordon,” replied Fine in a firm, calm voice, “The jurisdictional details have not yet been ironed out to my agency’s satisfaction. In the meantime, as loyal members of the great governmental brotherhood of arms, we are, of course happy to extend our professional cooperation. That’s cooperation, Mr. Gordon, not capitulation. Incidentally, my Rangers don’t report to you. They answer to me, Sir. I suggest you restate your request for information in a more positive tone. I’m sure Ranger Gutierrez will answer you in a cooperative, professional manner.”
The mild rebuke was not missed by anyone in the room. However, Gordon managed to maintain his composure, swallow his pride, and patiently turn his attention back to Gutierrez. This too, was a show of personal strength recognized by all present. “Officer Gutierrez,” He said calmly, “you did fail to call in a contact report until you had actually engaged in a running fire fight with elements of the Mariposa Militia. Your failure to do so has hindered my team from responding quickly and decisively. Why?”
Gutierrez now understood the bureaucratic situation. Like the ambush in the forest, he had encountered this kind of tactical situation before. He recognized Gordon as the kind of honcho so full of his own self-importance he invariably insists on being saluted, even under fire. The bottom-line issue for this kind of officer is the all important question, ‘who is to blame for this failure?’ Years in the Corps had taught Rudy how to act in such situations: stand at attention, stare at a fixed point in space and state the facts without any embellishment or excuse. This he did, earning himself another pointless tirade from Super Agent Gordon.
Finally, the BATF Field Boss turned his smoldering attention on Drake who had wisely spent the intervening time praying for patience and grace. Instead of a reprimand however, he was shocked to hear a humble apology coming from the BATF’s Special Agent in Charge. Hummm.
“Reverend, I’d like to apologize for the zeal of my men. We’ve just received the results of the Gun Shot Residue test we ran on you. GSR shows a negative presence of lead or powder residue on your hands. This indicates to us that you haven’t been shooting any handguns in the recent past. Also,” he added, “there’s the little matter of that big purple goose egg on the side your head. Fingerprints matching your right hand were found on that .45 caliber pistol. Yet the lump on your head is far back on the left. That makes it kind of awkward spot for a self-inflicted wound. We conclude that you are not a promising suspect in the murder of Megan Cameron. We had to follow the evidence. I hope you understand.”
“Of course,” replied Drake hesitantly. Something in Gordon’ manner had him waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Am I free to go then?” asked Drake.
“That’s right Reverend, you’re free to go. We haven’t got enough evidence to charge you with murder.” Drake heaved a sigh of relief which turned out to be premature, because Gordon hadn’t finished. “There is however,” the S-A-C continued, “the issue of that curious animal cage found in the cargo space of your vehicle.”
“That again,” said Drake, silently renewing his prayer for patience. “Look,” he said, “I understand the problem. That cage gives you physical evidence. But I think you would be wise to examine all of the evidence, including how long I’ve been in sole possession of the truck. That, as well as establishing my movements over the past month, should demonstrate that it would have been impossible for me to have transported that or any other mountain lion into this park.”
“We are checking, Reverend,” said Gordon comfortably. “You can count on that. In the meantime,” he added firmly, “I must insist that you keep yourself available and out of trouble. …Please,” He added less than graciously. “Thank you gentlemen. Ms. Mitchell. That will be all.”