by Ron Sukenick
The cowboy was really only a part-time rancher and he was worried about plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs.
The investigator was in fact a part-time professor called in by the cowboy on the advice of a friend who'd heard about his expertise in the diseases of goats. Expenses paid, a small fee, at worst it was a vacation. The investigator had never been out West.
But as soon as the investigator got off the plane in Denver and started talking to his host, Jim Vaca, it turned out there'd been a misunderstanding.
Vaca had heard the investigator worked at a branch of Cornell's famous Veterinary School, but it seemed he was doing research at the Cornell Medical School in Manhattan, and that he was a Ph.D. not a D.V.M., and that his investigations ranged from divorce snooping to literary sleuthing and that his special interest was disease and the supernatural in Edgar Allen Poe and he was an expert on ghosts.
Embarrassment. Confusion. The investigator wondering about the next plane back. Then, to his surprise, renewed hospitality. The offer stood. How come?
"I'm not a rich man," Vaca in the cab of the rusty green pick-up, he could have been Mr. Marlboro but the look was more chiseler than chiseled. Crafty. Heading west and north, white peaks sawing into washed blue matched his eyes. "Just a part-time cowboy with a ranch up toward Wyoming, and a part-time auto mechanic with a restoration business in Boulder. But my heart's in the ranch, I got about a hundred head and expanding, I got a lot of money in it and I just leased some more land, when the cows started dying. That's why I was thinking of getting some goats, like a friend of mine is trying. I thought maybe they'd be immune. Or llamas, which is getting big, there was a bunch the last stock show in Denver. Believe it or not."
"Immune to what?"
Vaca didn't answer. Then, "That's the problem. I don't know." Uncomfortable. "Oh, I've had the experts out. Profs from the vet college at Fort Collins even."
"What do they say?"
Vaca sort of grinned. "What don't they say? Do a lot of talking anymore but don't say much at all. Meanwhile I got eleven head dead to here."
"It's not the mutilations?" On the plane a native had mentioned it genre tall story.
"You heard about that," Vaca. "Maybe, if you believe the stories." Looking uneasy. "But it makes as much sense as the vets. One of them profs was thinking Mad Cow Disease. Worms rot the brain, they got it in England. No, far as what I can see they could've just as likely been scared to death all I know. Ever seen a spooked cow?"
"You don't want to," Vaca.
He squinted, pulled stained stetson down, pulled the sun visor down, needed a shave. Blond five o'clock shadow. Jeans, silver and turquoise buckle, fleece lined denim vest, he looked like the real thing. About three in the afternoon, sun something ferocious from the west. The urban knot unraveled into small spreads, horse ranches, ponds, cottonwoods, black cattle grazing grassy sprawl, mesa slit by zig-zag ravines, hog back formations, layers of sliced stone, gold/brown prairie dipping away, breaking waves of rock running up to thrust of foot hills.
Vaca picked up a CB mike, "Vaca, coming home, any calls?"
"Vet called about the post mortem," from a speaker.
"What they find?"
"Nothing. Ears and tongue gone but could have been scavengers."
"Damn. Anything else?"
"Looks like you got something on that radiation study and a little girl's been kidnapped and killed in her own home."
"How can she be kidnapped in her own home?"
"That's the question. They're waiting on the post mortem."
"See you in five," hung up.
"I thought maybe their immune systems, what with all the plutonium at Rocky Flats. The nuke plant," Vaca. "Though cows around here are doing okay. Aside from glowing in the dark." A kind of shy grin.
Highway edged with prairie dogs upright at their holes, tiny fire hydrants guarding miniature volcanoes. A life-size giraffe peered at the mountains from a roadside roof.
"Taxidermist with a sense of humor," Vaca. "They say his house has two stories, the first and the tall. We'll pass the nuke plant, you won't see it but if it was night time you might see them cattle lit up. Some say that's why the cattle mutilations. To figure how much radiation was getting out."
On the plane the investigator heard how for years on and off they'd been having episodes of dead cows found with ears, nose, tongue and genitals surgically removed, nobody really knew the why what or how. But frequent reports of mysterious black helicopters. Way it was told could have been a joke.
"Yeah, some say ky-oats," Vaca, "but those aren't bites, they're incisions, and I never seen a ky-oat went to medical school. Some say it's a weird germ. Others say E.T.s, which is about as likely. It's a complete white-out to here. But anyways, the cows is just the beginning of the story."
"What's the rest?" the investigator.
"I heard para-military macho initiations, I heard federal research teams, I heard satanic cults with pedophile sex rituals, I heard drugs, I heard just about everything," pushing his hat back, scratching his scalp. "That's what we're trying to find out."
Sudden scab of cookie cut houses across the open range in a vast beige metastasis, "What's that?" the investigator.
"That's a mirage, ignore it," Vaca. "We always go from boom town to ghost town out here, that's the real joker. Right under Rocky Flats."
Huge red slabs of upthrust rock in the left distance.
"The other thing," Vaca, "I guess I could start a prairie dog ranch. Throw in a few cute marmots, panning gold, advertise for tourists. Free kiddie donkey rides, catch your own trout pond. Sway-back horses for the dudes. Skiddoos in winter. Hey."
"You're joking," the investigator.
"What's serious compared to that?" gesturing out the windshield with his chin. "We're the joke."
Cresting an overlook the whole Front Range laid out across the horizon, gleaming white, peaks like ghosts hovering.
"Purty as a pitcher, like they say," Vaca. "Like they say, the mountains don't care."
Off the highway, maneuvering through a fleet of cyclists from outer space, judging by their gear. Muscular jockbodies pumping uphill.
"Or sell the garage in Boulder to support it. Real estate's worth more than the business. Brokers knocking at my door." Vaca had a way of continuing what he said five minutes later. As if he were thinking. "More bikes around here than horses anymore."
The colors of the nearest mountains were white green red. White snow, green pines, red rock.
Edge of town end of a rutted road adjacent an auto graveyard, raw cinder block, galvanized iron, corrugated roofs. A quonset hut ramshacking a collection of car carcasses in various stages. Vaca walked in stiffly not exactly limping more like his whole body was gimpy. Waved hello as two auto surgeons looked up.
"This baby needs a universal," said one. "And a blow job," the other.
His office a stained desk clotted with piles of paper, old coffee containers, jar of pencils, chewed sub sandwich, empty Coke cans.
Sitting down, looking through some mail. Muttering. "Vet fees, I'm telling you. Eating jellied racoon by then."
"You say racoons?" The investigator.
"Yup. Got plenty a those. Mule deer. Ky-oats. Ghost chiefs. Tumble weed. Sage brush. Prickly pear. None of it good for cows. Uh-oh. Here we go." Heading for the door. "Let's go, we got some results."
The pick-up, on the bumper two stickers: SHIT HAPPENS and NOT FROM CALIFORNIA. Pulling out fast, "What results?" the investigator. In the cab, shock lurch wheel bounce.
"Hold on. Encar. Radiation in my cinder block."
"Encar?" the investigator.
"National Center for Atmospheric Research. Kickin shit up at the spread the other day. And they don't guess."
"Guess at what?" the investigator.
"Anything," hitting pavement and peeling out. "My place's smack between wind patterns from Fort St. Vrain and Rocky Flats."
"The nuclear plant."
"Ex," Vaca. "Both ghost plants now. They say."
"What were you saying about ghost chiefs?"
"Chief Left Hand. A Ute. They say there's a curse, once here you never leave. That's the least, you know about Rocky Flats, fires, plutonium pollution, coverups. Well Fort St. Vrain had to be closed too. Closest plant to it is Chernobyl. Same system."
A highway on the periphery wind shoving at the pick-up, pushing it almost out of lane, sunlight slamming through the windshield. Onto a winding road up a mesa, a low modernist castle on top, mule deer in the right of way. "Early I. M. Pei my buddy says," Vaca. "Says he screwed up some things because of the wind. The wind's a big player out here. I. M. Paid, my buddy calls him."
"What buddy?" the investigator.
"He works there."
Walked in through a court yard centered on a big fountain all boarded up. "The weather around here, dumb-ass easterners, it's like building a fountain in a wind tunnel," Vaca. "And when the Chinook comes through at a hundred an hour . . ."
"Who's your buddy?"
"He's interested in two things. One is computers. They're doing a wind pattern study. Been finding radiation in stuff made at a cement plant toward Lyons."
"Your cinder block."
"And the second thing?"
"The mountains," Vaca. "Lives up there."
When they found the buddy in his office, though, he was in no shape to talk about wind pattern studies. Pale, unshaved, rings under his eyes, pacing erratically.
"You look like a ghost, Leonard. This here's a professor from the east. Investigating my cows."
"Listen," Leonard, "they found a friend of mine last night dead up near Sugarloaf."
"Fall off a cliff up there?" Vaca.
"No. O.D. maybe."
"It happens, buddy. Oughta lay off yourself."
"Listen," Leonard. "I'm going to."
"Yeah, tomorrow," Leonard. "Look I'm having a little problem, can I talk to you a minute?"
"I think I know some things I'm not supposed to know."
They went out on a terrace. The inspector could see them through the window, walking back and forth, massive red rock slabs in the vertical background. Leonard waving his hands, agitated. They came in after a few minutes of animated conversation, Vaca looking annoyed. "Let's go," he said. They left without saying goodbye, "Well, call me about it at least," Leonard saying as they went out the door.
"He wants to use some of the grazing land I leased." Back in the pick-up.
Back down into town, past red sandstone college buildings and left into a narrow canyon, dark pines, high red walls.
"Where now?" the investigator.
"I loaned my cabin to couple of his friends. He can't reach them. He's thinking foul play."
The road winding around, a swift stream a fisherman casting, cyclopean rocks, massive maroon walls closing in. "I needed to get out of the city," the investigator.
"Burned out?" Vaca.
"Out for good."
"What are you doing out here, moonlighting?"
"Sunlighting. Tired of it," the investigator.
"The city is tiring?" Vaca.
"Tired of the way things are going. For me and people I know. We've been folded in, spun off, down-sized, out-sourced, bought out and handed lead parachutes. So I re-structured. I temp. Pick-up college teaching jobs, research for hire, free-lance investigation." He was also a part-time high school sub, a part-time bar tender, a part-time cab driver, a part-time dope dealer, definitely part of the surplus labor pool, but he thought it better not to mention that.
"So. Time to recycle?"
"Right," the investigator.
"Well, anything is possible in the People's Republic of Boulder. What the cowboys call it. One time the city gave a marriage license to a couple a queers. Next day a cowboy showed up demanded to marry his horse."
"Maybe I'll become a Stalinist."
"Your timing's a little off," Vaca.
"No kidding. I'm still waiting for the revolution," the investigator.
"Things stink, huh?" Vaca.
"Not counting politics? My ex-wife, my ex-house, my ex-kid, my ex-dog, my ex-investments, my ex-bank account . . ."
"Cheer up. Maybe things always stink."
A sharp turn out of the canyon, fast, steeply up. The investigator felt his ears pop. Pines growing out of rocks. Soon they were on a dirt road.
"What's he want to use it for?" the investigator.
"Air planes," Vaca.
"Because it's flat."
A clearing in the pines, rocks steeply up behind it, the cabin, two or three windows, small entry porch, brownish clap board, stone base and chimney.
"Just winterized it," Vaca. "What's that."
Out of car over to an animal lying in front of the steps, a dog. Dead. "Shot," Vaca. He took out a key. Knocked on the door, "Hello, anybody there?" simultaneously thrusting the key in the door shoving it open, the smell, the floor sticky with blood, one body spread legged on a couch nude waist down, the other curled naked on the floor guts hanging out. At first hard to tell which was the man till you saw one had been emasculated, the bloody parts next to the woman's head. The investigator backed out the door and puked.
Vaca came out in a minute, dead pale. "They been shot too. I think afterward. Because it looks like they near bled to death first."
"Did you know them?"
"Christ, I didn't think a couple of bodies had that much blood in them," Vaca. "Friends of Leonard."
"What do you think happened?"
"Let's go, the phone line's been cut."
Vaca got in the truck, grabbed his CB. "You don't look so great," Vaca.
"Neither do you," the investigator.
Into the mike, Vaca, "Yeah, there's been some killings up Sugarloaf, yeah, meet you on the road."
Bumping down the dirt road, Vaca silent, the investigator his head out the window. After a while the investigator, settling back into his seat, "What are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking how am I going to get that mess cleaned up? Ought to make Leonard do it."
Vaca had to go back with the marshal. He arranged a friend to drive the investigator down to Boulder. The friend talked a lot about the drug scene in the mountains, about isolated little mountain towns especially in winter, things getting ingrown and sour, red necks, mountain men and old Hippies all pissed off at civilization and not liking one another much either, about how Patty Hearst was kept as a sex slave in one of the communes back up there.
"But things get pretty weird in town too," the friend. "This little Miss Colorado child found dead in her parent's basement. JonBenet."