by Michael Mallory
This week we have another original, never before published, mystery short story by Michael Mallory. This one is set right here in the Valley. This story is rated PG-13 for some strong language.
As I let the cold brew slide down my throat, I gazed up at the trees that stood like sentinels in back of my tent. The last thing on my mind was murder. Right now it was just me and the trees, but I knew that was going to end. I’d been alone here at Tall Pines State Park since Tuesday, and loving it. But it was now Friday, so more campers would be showing up for the weekend.
Any new arrivals who think they’re coming to escape the heat, though, were in for a shock. It felt like summer in Afghanistan. I didn’t mind. I like heat, even at work. I like turning it up to watch a suspect sweat, while I stay as cool as a river stone. My partner Lou is the opposite. He’d run the AC in a snowstorm. Maybe that’s why we made a good team. We can play hot cop/cold cop.
I had just about finished my Bud and was contemplating reaching into the cooler for another one, when I heard the first sound of a car engine coming my way. I sat and watched as the beat-up Ford pickup pulled in, a young Hispanic guy behind the wheel. He parked a few spots down from me, but instead of making camp, he got out and sat at the picnic table. The guy wore old jeans and a tee shirt, and he had something with him. It was one of those radios whose battery you recharge with a hand crank. He switched it on and the low, driving pulse of Banda music started to drown out the bird sounds.
Maybe an hour (and a lot of Banda music) later, an SUV with Arizona plates arrived and pulled into the spot right across the road from me. A wiry guy about forty or so, dressed for the heat in shorts and a loose shirt, got out and looked around. Through the SUV’s windows I could see enough gear to keep Lewis and Clark going for a year. There was so much stuff that it seemed to overwhelm even him. After fumbling around for the rear hatch release, he looked like he didn’t know where to start unloading.
About forty-five minutes later, a third vehicle pulled in, an old station wagon. This one parked five lots away from me. Its driver was in his early sixties, I judged, but in good shape, like he still worked out. All his stuff was on top of the car, tied down under a tarp. He tried to undo the knots of the ropes, but seemed to be having trouble. Finally, he just pulled out a knife and sliced through them.
Three cars; three guys. Four guys total in the park, counting me. I was certain there would be more campers as the weekend progressed, some with families, but for the time being, Tall Pines was the site of a stag party. I looked up again at the trees and shrugged. It had been nice having them all to myself for a while, but there’s no sense being greedy.
I was starting to nod off in the collapsible beach chair I’d brought when I felt a buzz in my pocket. My cell phone. Shit. I was amazed that it even worked out here. Somewhere among these tall pines must be a disguised cell tower. Wouldn’t it be funny if one of the stately trees I had been admiring was a phony?
Glancing down at the phone, I saw it was from Lou. Man, you can run but you can’t hide. “This better be good,” I said, in lieu of Hello. “I’m on vacation, remember?”
“I remember, Phil, but this is important,” Lou said. “There was a prison break early this morning at Stanhope Penitentiary. Four lifers. They recaptured three of them but one, a murderer named Del Oro, managed to get away. He’s thought to be armed.”
“What do you expect me to do about it?”
“Isn’t that campground you’re at near Stanhope?”
“Yeah, I drove past it on the way up here,” I said.
“Staties are all on the lookout,” Lou went on, “but I thought you’d want to know, too. Just in case.”
“In case what? The guy shows up to make s’mores?”
“Phil, I’m just letting you know what’s going on, is all.”
I sighed. “Okay, you did. Thanks, Lou.”
“Keep your eyes open.”
“I will,” I said, and then hung up and went back to tree gazing. Sure, I’d keep my eyes open. But if by some bizarre circumstance I actually did run into this Del Oro, and he was armed, there wasn’t a helluva lot I’d be able to do about it. I hadn’t brought my gun with me. I wasn’t here to hunt. I was here to drink in the piney scent of the forest, the golden rays of the sun, and the hoppy goodness of the beer.
I tried to go back to relaxing, but Lou’s phone call would not go away that simply. I looked around at all three of the guys who had come in, wondering if it were even possible that one of them was the escaped con. Jacking a car to get away was certainly not unheard of, and if that were the case, hiding out in a campground while the CHP chased each others asses up and down the highway wasn’t the dumbest idea in the world. It was an awful long shot, but if one of them was Del Oro, and I just sat back and did nothing…
Oh, shit. Even on vacation I was a damned cop. Just making the acquaintance of these bozos wasn’t going to hurt anything.
Since my experience taught me that a good way to break the ice is with something ice cold, I opened up my cooler, pulled out a fresh six pack, and started making the rounds.
The first one to take me up on my offer was Mr. Station Wagon, who acted like he hadn’t seen a beer in years, though that might have simply been the heat. His name was Earl Dearing and he was from Santa Maria, which was only about forty miles away. “This just a weekend getaway for you?” I asked.
He shook his head as he guzzled the Bud. When he was done, he said: “Why do you ask?”
“Well, it’s just that Santa Maria’s only a jump over the crest, so you must be staying close to home. That usually implies a quick getaway.”
He mopped his weathered face with a handkerchief and smiled. “It’s a getaway, all right, but hopefully a long one. Are you married?”
“Lucky you. I have two exes, and they both still expect me to pay them alimony, even though I’m retired and don’t have the income I once did. So I’m taking a little holiday on that score.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“Until they or their lawyers find me.” He drained the rest of the beer. “But I don’t plan on that happening. Mind if I grab another one?” After lifting a second Bud from me, Dearing gave me a thumbs up, and then went back to unpacking his load.
Next I ambled over to the guy from Arizona, whose name was Ray Campion. He took the beer almost suspiciously, as though he expected me to pull it back. “Thanks,” he said, finally, and then went back to looking for his tent in the back of his SUV.
“How long does it take to drive here from Arizona?” I asked him.
“Oh, ten hours,” he replied.
“Really? That long?”
“Well, less if really gun it,” he said, “but I try not to gun it. Arizona state troupers get kinda particular about people who take the open road at ninety.”
“Sounds like you know that from experience.”
“Well, this baby likes to move, even fully loaded,” he said, patting the SUV. “Last year she moved a little too fast for a Troopers’ liking.” We chatted some more, but when he found his tent, he turned his attention to setting it up.
Last I approach the young Hispanic guy, who accepted a cold beer with a broad smile, but nothing to say. I quickly found out why: he appeared to speak no English. Since my Spanish was piss-poor (Lou was the fluent one among us) it meant that I wouldn’t be able to question him about the homemade machete I had spotted in the back of his truck, even if I wanted to. I was about to walk away when a voice from behind called, “You have any more of those?” It was Dearing, walking towards me, seeking another refill. He nodded to the young guy, and then said something in Spanish. That opened the kid up, and the two began conversing. I was able to catch a word here and there, chiefly the young man’s name, Hector Ramirez. Then Ramirez gestured toward me and asked Dearing something—something that made Dearing frown.
“What’s he saying?” I asked.
“He wants to know if you’re a cop.”
“Policía?” Ramirez asked, and I didn’t need a translator for that.
I have to confess it took me by surprise. “Why does he think I’m a cop?”
After another exchange in Spanish, Dearing said: “He says his brother is a policeman in Guadalupe, and that all policemen have a certain look about them. Are you a cop?”
“Bakersfield P.D.,” I replied. “But I’m on vacation,” I replied.
Dearing was regarding me suspiciously now, but before I had the chance to figure out what to do or say next, my cell vibrated once more. “Excuse me,” I said, stepping away from him as I took the call. “Yeah, Lou,” I said.
“Bad news, Phil,” he said. “CHP found a body ditched in the brush about twelve miles from your campground. Guy had been stabbed. Not only was his wallet gone, but his clothes were too. His proximity to the highway indicates that he’d been in a car, so the staties think he picked Del Oro up hitchhiking, and Del Oro took his clothes and ID, killed him and dumped his body, and took off in his car. Is there anyone there who might fit?”
“There are three guys here,” I said quietly. “Each with a vehicle. You know what the vic was driving?”
“No. Any of your three guys suspicious?”
“One seems uncomfortable with cops and one doesn’t speak English…hey, Del Oro, isn’t that Spanish?”
“Spelled D-E-L O-R-O, yeah,” Lou said. “Means ‘of gold.’ But D-E L-A-U-R-O, I think that’s Italian.”
“How does our perp spell it?”
“No idea. I’ve only heard the name spoken on the radio.”
Swell. “This isn’t a big help, Lou,” I said…and then I thought of something. “Wait, a minute. I just realized something about one of those three guys. Something that doesn’t fit. It might not be anything, but I think it’s at least worth checking out.”
“I’ll tell the staties to get down there. Phil, you don’t make a move until they come.”
“Tell them to come code two, no sirens,” I said. “Could be bad if the guy is spooked.”
I cut the line off and stood there for a moment, wondering if I really wanted to proceed in the way I was thinking. Hell. Vacation or not, I had a duty.
Sticking the phone back in my pocket, I stood in front of my tent and looked back and forth between Ramirez, Dearing and Campion, praying I was right; praying I wasn’t a goddamned fool. Praying I wasn’t soon to be a goddamned dead fool.
I walked straight to one of the men and then said, “You can run, Del Oro, but you can’t hide.”
I’ll give him this, the guy I knew as Ray Campion’s reflexes were of the caliber of a martial artist. He spun around so rapidly, with a deadly looking shiv in his hand, that I only missed getting sliced by a centimeter. Fortunately I had prepped for an attack, so as I spoke I also dove for the dust, so that the blade passed over my back. Had I remained standing, I probably would have been missing a liver by now.
The violence of Del Oro’s swing served to throw him off balance, which was good for me. I grabbed his right leg and yanked it forward as violently as I could. Del Oro went down swearing. In another second I was on him, using one hand to pound his wrist against the ground so he’d drop the shiv, while using the knuckles of my other hand to cut off his wind supply. The mother fought back, too. He fought with the experience of a convict. But I responded with the experience of a cop. I pressed my forearm into his throat and put all my available weight behind it, and held it there until he went limp. The shiv fell from his hand into the dirt. Del Oro—or De Lauro—wasn’t dead…I’m not one to lose control…but he was out.
By now Dearing was hovering over me wondering what the hell was going on, while Ramirez just looked alarmed. “Get me some rope, quick,” I ordered, and the older man rushed to his car and grabbed some, while I rolled Del Oro onto his stomach. After fastening his arms and legs with the rope, I pulled the wallet from his shorts pocket. It contained the driver license of Raymond Campion of Riverside, whose photo looked considerably different from the man tied up on the ground. I assume this was the poor bastard the highway patrol had found dead beside the highway.
Del Oro was conscious again by the time the CHP car arrived. Conscious, but pissed. Tough shit. After they’d hauled him away, more cars with genuine campers started to appear, unaware of the excitement they’d missed. Dearing seemed to be revel in it, though. “This calls for a beer,” he said, poking into my cooler and pulling another one out, and then tossing one to Ramirez. At this rate, I’d be out before sunset. “Mind if I make a confession?” he asked.
I tensed. Please don’t fucking tell me I collared the wrong guy! “What?” I said.
“When I heard you were a policeman, I thought you were following me, sent by one of my wives.”
I smiled and relaxed. “No. Don’t worry, I’m not following anyone. I really am on vacation. My partner called to let me know about the prison break, and after talking to all three of you…or at least, you and Del Oro, since I can’t talk to Ramirez…Del Oro did something to give himself away.”
“What was that?”
I opened a beer of my own, while there was still some left, and took a swig, hoping it would run all the way down and soothe my knee, which was abraded and throbbing from my dive onto the ground. “It didn’t hit me at first,” I said, “but he seemed not to be familiar with his vehicle. He had a hard time opening the hatch, and then he didn’t know where anything was packed, like he hadn’t been the one who packed it. Yet in talking to him, he claimed to have gotten a ticket in the car a year ago. How can you have a vehicle for more than a year and not know how to open the doors?”
“Boy, that’s kind of a small detail to catch a crook with.”
“Well, it’s the small stuff that gives you away. That’s why I like the big stuff.” I took a swallow of my beer, gazed up to the top of the tall, stately pines, and tried not to think about murder.
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