Spires

SPIRES

Mason arrived 8:29 a.m., as usual.

Morning messages littered his desk, stamped from 6:30 a.m. Through the open door to his office, Claims Manager Ed Michaels overheard McKenzie's angry outburst, and motioned for him to enter.

The previous day, McKenzie had once again "dropped everything" to handle another, in what was becoming an epidemic of fatalities. As he met with the chief, I glanced at his desk and found versions of the Murtaugh obituary, taken from each of the local dailies.

McKenzie collected obituaries, sometimes holding them the entire length of an investigation. He trusted "vibrations." Here, they told of a struggling father, age 36, with four children. The deceased was a utility worker. His obituary read like a testiment to philanthropy.

Worlds apart from the deceased, McKenzie was a loner. His family had grown, and his wife had long ago jettisoned his ever stalled career. Few knew that in fact, he had never married. During the war, he formed an alliance with a housekeeper, who then became his close personal friend. He brought her to the states, and, when the political winds settled down, he intended to return her home.

Nineteen years, three children, and ten years after the political winds finally settled, she announced "The time to go home had come."

McKenzie understood. Had there been a "home" for him, he would have gone long ago. The kids were in Singapore, visiting the mother. McKenzie was alone.

He left Ed Michael's office, shaking his head in disbelief. As Mason reached his desk, I heard Michaels hollar from behind, "Mason, I want you to take the kid with you...this will be a good learning experience for him."

McKenzie came to me and said, "Pack your bags kid. We'll be gone two days...I'll meet you back here at noon. I still have a few things I want to do on the Murtaugh file before blowing town."

He reached for the obituaries, and immediately noticed they were set in a pattern different than how he had left them. Looking over to me, he asked, "What did you learn kid?"

"Just that it's a tragic loss...bad things happen...even to the nice guys."

"Ponder this! Our insured's 16 year old daughter rolls along the highway at 50 mph. She becomes aware the vehicle to her front has slowed. There is contact between the front of her vehicle and the rear of the vehicle to her front. At almost exactly the same time, the front vehicle impacts head-on with a third vehicle in the oncoming lane. Our 16 year pulls off to the right shoulder, thinking she had just nicked the rear of the car to her front. Stopping, she looks behind to see two smoldering wrecks coming to a rest.

The vehicle in the oncoming lane sat folded back onto itself, the steering wheel driven deep into the front seat, impaling Andy Murtaugh."

"That should be an easy closure," I commented. "Our 16 year old rear ends the car to her front, driving it into the oncoming lane, where the fatal impact occurs."

"Not so fast kid...what about the possibility Murtaugh fell asleep at the wheel. Maybe he head on'd with the car to our front. Maybe that car was driven back into ours. Or, what about the possibility the car to our front suddenly turned left without seeing Murtaugh, struck Murtaugh, and kicked back into our vehicle?

I admitted, these were alternatives I hadn't considered. What McKenzie didn't say was he had already spoken to our 16 year old driver. She was young, inexperienced, and admitted outright she never saw the front vehicle until just before the impact. She couldn't remember whether or not there was a turn signal, or if brake lights flashed on. She was alone in her car.

McKenzie spent most of the evening before, working in the summer twilight, documenting the skid marks, and photographing patterns of oil and debris remaining on the roadway. Even before he telephoned his friend, Trooper Wilson, he had been able to establish that only one impact had occurred between the front car, and Murtaugh's car. There were no skids from Murtaugh's car, and the impact had been clean into its left front corner. Murtaugh never left his lane, and probably died instantly.

Our vehicle also left no skids, but the front vehicle left rubber from three tires, cutting across the center line, ending at the point of fatal impact.

McKenzie needed Wilson's help in locating the occupants of the front vehicle. According to Wilson, there was a middle aged female, and her Native American companion. They were seen at the emergency room, and released after examination.

Trooper Wilson couldn't make them out. He liked them, but there was something "off." "Off," as he used it usually meant that someone was a vagrant, a hooker, on drugs, or a pervert.

Trooper Wilson let it go at that. McKenzie could not. He was a "coon dog." He lived for the hunt. Not that he wanted to hunt, or even that he liked to hunt, but that he lived for it. Once he felt the call---it was not in his power to let it go.

He wanted to eyeball the two...today!

Within 30 minutes of leaving Trooper Wilson, McKenzie dropped in unannounced at the Evergreen Inn, where Joseph Jay and Charlotte Collier had spent the night. Invited into their room, McKenzie tasted the lingering aroma of booze and sex; and sensed a driving hunger for cash. These things escaped even Trooper Wilson, but McKenzie, whose early years were spent in the open spaces of the reservation, could instantly taste and smell things that others had long become insensitive to.

Closing on his quarry, McKenzie probed forward. He presented as a fellow Indian to Joseph Jay, and struck a quick but solid rapport. McKenzie pulled no punches as he explained to Jay his only goal was to protect the insured, and the insured's 16 year old daughter.

Jay related the accident happened so quickly it was hard to describe the sequence in exact detail. McKenzie nodded his head...knowing full well truth always came packaged in detail.

Both Jay and Collier were clear in recalling they were slowing to turn left, when they were rear ended by the 16 year old, and driven across the center line into Murtaugh's vehicle. Jay assured McKenzie the brake lights worked, and further added he had recently replaced the bulbs. He didn't have a receipt, but he was able to provide McKenzie with "Cascade," the name of the parts shop where he purchased the replacements.

Recognizing they were on the move, McKenzie explained he was willing to make some sort of settlement, to include their car and injuries, but only if they would sign releases. McKenzie knew they would, even before he finished his sentence...there was an odor in the room, one unfamiliar to McKenzie, except that, whatever it was, McKenzie knew it would cost money,...lots! These two transients would be willing to sign anything to get it.

We left with two signed releases. It had cost the company $2000 total. McKenzie would catch flack for making an injury payment without first obtaining medical records.

He did what was best for the insured. He could handle the heat.

At noon, he picked me up at the office. Our assignment would take us to the mountain community of Spires, Washington.

As I entered the car, McKenzie looked over to me and said, "We're making a stop along the way."

"The Murtaugh case?"

Extracting his hand from his breast pocket, McKenzie handed over a folded paper. It was the signed off title to Charlotte Collier's vehicle. Now it belonged to the company.

"What secrets does the vehicle hold?" I asked.

"Tail lights," McKenzie replied. "You see, if tail lights are on when a rear end impact occurs, and the bulbs are damaged in the impact, traces of oxidation will occur, confirming they were on in fact..."

"And if they're clean?"

"If they're clean, then it's no cigar."

The attendant at Jason's towing was a good old boy who wasn't going to cooperate without the benefit of some persuasion...i.e. a stick of dynamite under his seat. At first, he refused to tell McKenzie whether any cars from the accident were in the lot. McKenzie narrowed his interest to Charlotte Collier's car, but the attendant still refused to give any information, citing the privacy act.

Finally, McKenzie grabbed the signed off vehicle title from my hand, slammed it down on the desk, shouted out he was the owner of the salvage, and insisted on inspecting it immediately. If the yard wouldn't cooperate, our next stop would be to file a complaint with the State Patrol.

Though it wasn't a stick of dynamite, it was enough of an explosion to evoke a response.

"It's the black Fairlane in the second row."

We walked through a field of mud, carefully avoiding mounds of canine scat. As we approached the Fairlane, McKenzie cautioned I should keep an eye out for the dogs. He carefully photographed Collier's car inside and out. The front was pancaked, and the right rear tail light cover was shattered from the impact. Raising his crossed fingers toward me, McKenzie optimistically looked into the open tail light, then looked up shaking his head side to side. As McKenzie photographed, I came over and saw that the bulbs had survived intact. We turned to walk away when McKenzie said, "Hang on a second." He went back to the tail light assembly and removed the bulb.

Never leaving anything to chance, McKenzie wanted to double check the unit. What he discovered was the bulb sat in a socket lined with a chewing gum wrapper.

As he exhaled, McKenzie whispered, "Joseph Jay's handiwork no doubt." The other tail light, when opened, revealed similar foil.

"What does it tell us, Mac?"

"It tells us there is at least one plausible explanation for what happened...i.e. our inexperienced 16 year old driver is following Charlotte Collier, going 50 miles an hour, two to three car lengths behind, when Charlotte decides to hit her brakes. Maybe she wants to make a left turn, maybe she's braking for another reason...maybe Murtaugh drifted into her lane. In any event, she brakes and slows, but because her brake lights are not functioning, our inexperienced driver closes quick upon her rear, and realizes the situation only as impact is about to take place. The impact, though slight, is enough to nudge Charlotte into the oncoming traffic where the fatal collision occurs.

"But didn't you just say that the brake light appeared to be operative?" I asked.

"I don't know what operative means, when the socket is lined with foil. But, we own the salvage, and we're going to have an expert extract the lamp socket, preserve it as it is, hot wire it, and run a couple brake applications just to see what happens."

As we headed out of the yard, the attendant stood by the doorway. Eying McKenzie, he said "Listen, I'm sorry I was such an ass...it's just that these fatalities make me so nervous."

McKenzie's temper was legendary, and he always gave better than he got...but he could forgive. He stared back at the attendant, and said, "No problem. As far as I'm concerned, it never happened. From here on out, it's a clean slate."

They shook hands, and we left.

Turning onto the highway, McKenzie stopped at a public phone, where he made two calls. First to Trooper Wilson, telling him about the brake light discovery. Wilson said the fatality investigators would have a look at it. McKenzie cautioned we now owned the salvage. The State Patrol could look at it, but shouldn't touch anything until after our independent engineering firm had analyzed the circuit.

McKenzie winced. Trooper Wilson didn't like restraints, unless he was the one promulgating them.

McKenzie then called Tim Anderson of Anderson Labs. Tim had worked with Mac on many past cases and knew exactly what Mac wanted when the situation was described. McKenzie said we'd be gone for several days, and would need a preliminary report immediately upon our return.

Within minutes, we were headed to Spires.

"What's the angle," I asked McKenzie.

"Well, we have a $100,000 liability policy on our car."

McKenzie was always good for the half answer. He took the Socratean method to the limit. Instead of answering a question with a question, he only half answered it, forcing me to play Socrates by internalizing the next question, and then vocalizing my own response as a hypothetical back to McKenzie.

"So, what you're saying Mac is that our insureds, Mr. and Mrs. Hartley, have their personal assets at risk, all because of their sixteen year old daughter's accident."

"Tell me kid, do you think the Family Purpose Doctrine applies here?"

I had to think for a bit, until I recalled that the Family Purpose Doctrine had something to do with whether or not the vehicle involved in the accident was a family-use conveyance. If it was, then the parents' assets stood at risk.

"Does it?"

"You tell me kid!"

Sometimes, McKenzie could be darned ornery. I grabbed the claim folder, then looked through the contents, including McKenzie's notes. Before long, I saw the vehicle was listed owned by Mr. and Mrs. Hartley, who were the named insureds, with young Helen being named as an "additional driver."

"I would say that the family purpose doctrine applies."

"Then what would you consider to be our ultimate objective on this file?"

"Get the Hartleys out of the claim, with a full and final release, while neutralizing any threat to their personal assets."

"Good thinking, Kid," McKenzie looked over and winked.

"Since you've already decided our Helen Hartley was the proximate cause of accident, what incentive could we possibly offer the Murtaugh estate to drop pursuit against the Hartleys?"

Though he didn't say it, McKenzie was signaling the estate would probably retain an attorney to go after the Hartley's, perhaps with vengeance in mind.

I thought, but turned up empty.

Then, like a glow from afar, a thought took shape in my mind. Murtaugh might have had insurance on his vehicle. If so, we would need to know whether he had underinsured motorist protection. If he did, the fact that Charlotte Collier had no insurance could work to everyone's advantage. My understanding of underinsured motorist coverage was rough. Basically, it worked by substituting your own auto policy, into the position of the person who caused your injury. In other words, your own company, for an additional premium, contracted to stand in the shoes of the at-fault party.

I looked over to McKenzie. "I think there's some sort of underinsured motorist angle here, but I'm not quite sure what it is."

"I'm not quite sure what it is either, but I have learned that Charlotte has no insurance whatsoever; and Murtaugh may have underinsured motorist coverage in the amount of $100,000.

I closed the file folder. Clipped to the outside were the obituaries, which I read several times, until I began to lose my consciousness. In a perverse way, it was like counting sheep, or perhaps, reciting a mantra, until the vibration carried forth on its own, and passed through me into the road below...like a stream reaching its finger to the sea.

CHAPTER II

Spires, Washington is a small mountain community...cradled between rolling hills. Except for Highway 41, Spires is virtually cut off from the rest of the world. Until the dawn of satellite dishes, it was pointless owning a t.v. Today's residents are descendants of the westward migrating pioneers; sprinkled with a "dropout" here and there; an occasional young family looking for the better life...and some retirees.

We rolled into Spires at the tail end of a long caravan of log trucks. Mountains of pulp filled both sides of the road. Along the railroad right of way, fields of cut timber were being readied for transport to market.

Spires was a logging town. Townsfolk worked the woods, as did their forefathers, and, but for the addition of chain saws, they worked much as their fathers had before them. It was backbreaking work, characterized by a frightening record of job injuries and early retirements.

But it was good work. Each day pushed one's body to its limit, and presented endless challenges to one's ingenuity and creativity. Imagine moving a 25 ton tree down a 45 degree slope with no education beyond 4th grade?

You could if you were a timberman from Spires. It was probably imprinted!

Staring out my window, I could see the adjoining ridges had been cut clean. That was something new. In the old days, it wasn't considered prudent to clear cut across a mountain side, leaving it looking like a mowed lawn for the next generation.

Controversy was brewing in the urban centers. Urbanites, while vacationing, couldn't help but to see these "eyesore" patches. It was only a matter of time before they organized political campaigns against the excessive cutting of timber, and the impact of overcutting on the environment. The problem was triply compounded by the spotted owl. That indigenous resident of the old growth forest had been placed on the threatened species list, and, as a direct consequence, the old growth forests were swarming with observers quick to report any and all cutting that might impact the creature.

The mill owners, of course, would do just fine. They had long since recouped their initial investment in land, timber and equipment. In fact, the extensive land holdings would only accelerate in value when, what was once exclusively logging land, became recreational, with more and more urbanites bidding for weekend retreats.

Even in remote Spires, land values had doubled over the past three years.

What we saw as we entered town was the logging companies' last big dash for timber gold before operations became severely curtailed. Anticipating the unfavorable political climate, they had been operating on double overtime for the past two years, taking out any wooded tract likely to fall under the influence of the coming legislation. Unintentionally, the environmentalists, and the protectors of the spotted owl, precipitated the abandonment of normally prudent utilization practices, by stimulating the mad scramble for everything that could be cut before the deadline. Old growth that might never have been attacked was gone, and a spotted owl was no longer safe in the woods, at least not from irrate lumbermen..

We didn't know it then, but it was these same issues which brought us to Spires.

At 4:00 pm, we arrived at the home of our insured, Betty Pearson. We had just enough time to pick up the background on her loss before finding lodging. Luckily, we found her at home to our unannounced call. After formalities, we sat down at the kitchen table where McKenzie proceeded to take her recorded statement.

A road weary, McKenzie instructed, "Mrs. Pearson, why don't you just take it from the top and tell us what happened as best as you recall. If I have any questions, I'll simply interject them as they pop into my head."

Mrs. Pearson understood and responded, "Well, it was about 11:30 p.m. last Saturday, and I was westbound on highway 41, heading into Spires. I was approaching the Mt. Jones cut off, going the speed limit, that is, about 50 miles per hour, when the body of a man appeared squarely in front of my vehicle..."

McKenzie interrupted, "Did you say the body of a man?!"

"Yes...Max Lindstrom...he's the man who was killed."

"Killed?"

For an instant, but no longer, McKenzie looked confused. I glanced down at the initial claim assignment and read a description of the loss...single car accident, insured traveling with children on mountain road, vehicle may be a total loss, rule out bodily injury. There was no mention of a fatality.

McKenzie, back on track, asked Mrs. Pearson, "Tell me about this 'body' on the road. Was it lying in the road? Crossing the road? Walking on the shoulder? Coming towards you, or headed away?"

"I really can't answer that. I saw it just about as I hit it. It was like he was dropped from the air."

McKenzie hesitated momentarily, then said, "Where the accident occurred, is Highway 41 one lane in each direction?"

"Yes."

"Were you in your lane when the impact occurred?"

"Yes."

"Were your headlights on?"

"Yes."

"Both of them?"

"Yes...the State Patrol checked them both afterwards, and they were both operative."

"How did the Trooper determine that they were on at the time of the accident?"

"Well, basically, it's impossible to drive Highway 41 at night, going the 55 miles per hour speed limit without the lights."

A few seconds of silence passed as McKenzie carefully considered his next question.

"Mrs. Pearson, I want you to describe the entire sequence of events for me...from the point in time when you first saw Mr. Lindstrom. Think of it as though you were telling me about a movie, and wanted me to visualize the entire sequence of events as you remember them."

"That will be easy," said Mrs. Pearson. "He appeared just before impact. Applying my brakes before impact made little difference...impact occurred almost exactly as I saw him. The terrifying part came just after impact when he flew over my hood, and his head struck the driver's window, right before my eyes."

Mrs. Pearson's narration began to slow, as she struggled for the next words. "His head struck my windshield, then he flew over the top of my car. I kept my brakes on and skidded to a stop. I looked behind, out the back of my car, and saw nothing but the red and blue glow from the Alder Tavern. It was off the road on the right. The highway was empty."

"He was alone?"

"As far as I know."

"Were there any witnesses to what happened?"

"Just my children...that is, my 8 year old son, Michael, and my 4 year old daughter, Ruth."

"I didn't ask this before, but were any of you injured?"

"No, fortunately...unless you count the fact that I haven't been able to sleep since the night of the accident. My children saw nothing, and have pretty much been spared."

"And what happened after you stopped?"

"I ran into the Alder Tavern and asked for help. They immediately summoned the State Patrol and the ambulance. I was taken to the hospital by ambulance with my children, and later on that evening, the State Patrol Officer interviewed me. At that time, I learned Lindstrom was dead on the scene. The Officer said he had been drinking, and that a blood alcohol test had been taken."

"Were you told the results of the blood alcohol test?"

"No. In fact, at this point, you know everything I know."

McKenzie read Mrs. Pearson perfectly. He knew she regretted the incident, but also knew her primary concern was her damaged vehicle, which remained useless at the local junk yard. McKenzie got the identifying information on the Pinto wagon. Before leaving, he promised Mrs. Pearson we would inspect it the following day, and get back to her by late morning with our assessment. She was visibly relieved.

We left Mrs. Pearson at 6 p.m. and decided to check in at the Candlelight Inn before eating late supper. I had never had opportunity to chat casually with McKenzie, and was somewhat taken aback when, during supper, McKenzie spoke in less than flattering terms about the company. McKenzie, saw my defensive reaction and laughed. He mocked me, saying it was impossible for me to think clearly, since I was still tainted by the unbridled ambition of youth.

When I questioned what that meant, he responded that, "All one has to do to get blind commitment and 60 hours a week from a "me generation" employee was to point out his or her potential to manage their peers once they had a year or two of hard work behind them. That, and a strong positive attitude about the company almost always guaranteed success."

I struck back at McKenzie, "But Mac, what's your gripe against success?"

To which he responded, "What's your measure of success kid? Quick, tell me!"

I didn't say it, but I was thinking success for me would mean to be an examiner at the end of 3 years.

McKenzie looked across to me and added, "I know what you're thinking kid...but for me success is making sure people like the Hartley's don't lose their home because of some accident that fate ordained to involve their 16 year old daughter. And making sure that people like the Pearson's are spared the pain and anguish of an unnecessary trial from a fatality that could not be avoided."

McKenzie's comment surprised me.

"Whoa, McKenzie...what the hell do you mean 'Could not have been avoided!' Mrs. Pearson all but admitted never seeing Lindstrom until the point of impact."

"Kid, even a rookie like you should know exactly what happened from what Mrs. Pearson said."

"You mean you think that you already do?"

"I know what happened. But if I'm going to keep Mrs. Pearson out of litigation, I have to establish 'Why', and 'How'."

"You've lost me McKenzie!"

"Just think about what she said kid. While you're doing that, let's head over to the Alder Tavern, and make ourselves comfortable for the evening."

At quarter past nine, we arrived at the Alder Tavern.

By the time I returned from the washroom, McKenzie was calling me over to introduce me to Jeannie, the bartender, and three of the local loggers whose names went right by me.

McKenzie was sipping his usual glass of wine. Just red wine. It didn't matter what kind it was, just so long as it was red.

Seemed that Jeannie was from McKenzie's home state of New Jersey, and for the first hour, they talked, leaving me nothing to do but watch the big screen t.v.

By 11 o'clock, McKenzie was shooting dollar pool with some of the locals, and sharing war-stories with a Viet Nam veteran.

At the bar, Jeannie was telling some regulars about how McKenzie and I were investigating Max Lindstrom's death. Glancing over to me, she asked, "Is he really from New Jersey, or is that a line?"

"Cape May, New Jersey...he never stops talking about it," I responded.

McKenzie glanced back at us, saw Jeannie and winked at her. A few seconds later, he came over and asked, "Are you investigating kid, or are you watching the sports?"

Looking at Jeannie, he said, "Jeannie, I told this guy to pump you for all the information he could...how's he been doing?"

"You're from Cape May, New Jersey...and you never stop talking about it."

McKenzie, frowning, looked over at me shaking his head, "What's with you kid...we're supposed to be accountants from Duluth. I was from Cape May last month!"

He returned to the pool table.

By midnight, the weight of my eyes tugged my head downward, until it set itself down on the bar. The last thing I remember was Jeannie and Mac playing pool, matching themselves against the locals.

When my eyes jerked open, the morning sun was already slicing through the motel blinds, dicing a pattern of stripes across my bed. My clock read 5 am, but I couldn't get back to sleep. I got up to peek through the blinds and saw McKenzie taking advantage of the early summer light. In the northern latitudes, we are selfish about our sunlight, when we can get it. For most of us, the three months of summer mean spending every non-working moment outdoors. McKenzie was staking his claim.

Behind the Candlelight Inn ran the Ice River, so named because it served as a southern path for glacial run-off from Mt. Rainier. Also so named because it was damned cold. McKenzie had climbed over a fence into a horse pasture abutting against the river. There, he was practicing martial arts. I remembered now...when I first came to the office, Ed Michaels gave me some background on each of the employees. The standout was McKenzie, who had spent a good part of his adult life travelling the far east, and studying the fighting arts. Michaels said that McKenzie was considered to be a master. Frankly, I couldn't tell. As far as I was concerned, a grown man throwing punches and kicks around a field filled with horse dung looked a bit out of place, if not silly. I decided to focus on the matter at hand, and see what I could recall from the previous day's investigation that might help our purpose.

I was already at breakfast when McKenzie pulled in with his notebook.

Not wanting him to feel self conscious about my having seen him exercising, I asked benignly "What's on the agenda today Mac?"

"I saw you looking at me through the blinds...what did you think?"

"Were you able to get your shoes cleaned off?"

"No...I wasn't wearing any. I mean what did you think about the beautiful morning, the sunlight peeking over the hills, the rush of the icy stream, and the sounds of morning birds on the wind?"

"Sounds like Indian talk to me Mac."

Even as I said it, McKenzie stiffened.

I knew that my comment, ever so subtly, had offended that part of McKenzie's heritage which was Indian.

McKenzie, long accustomed to such slips, graciously changed the subject and focused on our agenda.

"First stop is Rick's Texaco...that's where the car's at. We'll see what it has to tell us. Spires doesn't have a State Patrol detachment, but there is a Trooper Sergeant Briggs who is appended to the local police force. He was in charge of the investigation and I've already got a call into him. Midday, I've got to come back to the motel for a few hours. Michaels called yesterday and left a message for me to turn in my month end subrogation and salvage reports S.T.A.T. I'll see if we can get another night"

"But how the hell can you do those reports from out here?" I asked.

"Kid, I don't think either Michaels or the company wanted for me to ask that question."

McKenzie continued, "Then we'll drop by Spires General Hospital. That's where the Coroner keeps his office, and it's also where local vital statistics and records are kept. With some luck, we'll be able to access the death certificate, and learn something about Max Lindstrom before we contact his wife tomorrow?"

"His wife? You're going to contact his wife!" I asked.

"No kid...you are. And while you're doing that, I'm going to be driving around town, seeing what I can learn about the guy."

After breakfast, we headed over to Rick's Texaco. The 1977 Pinto Wagon stood alone, close to where the Ice River raked the boundary of the junk yard. The wagon was off-yellow, Ranchero style, with a luggage rack. From the corner where we stood, it appeared almost undamaged. McKenzie, like a hawk descending, circled the wagon two complete times before allowing himself to stop at the front left corner. He pulled two cameras from the briefcase, kept the 35 millimeter, and tossed the Polaroid to me. Take four pictures kid, one from each corner...make sure you get the whole car in each photograph. I did as he instructed. McKenzie, too, snapped shots from the four corners, but afterwards, he scrupulously inspected and photographed every square inch of the vehicle, starting with the roof, and ending with the tread on the tires.

On the roof, he fingered a dent in the luggage rack. It was on the rear bar, about one third of the way in from the driver's side. It looked as though someone had gotten a crow bar and attempted to bend the luggage rack backwards and off the vehicle.

Next, McKenzie scrutinized and photographed the windshield of the vehicle, from outside and from inside.

He made me sit behind the driver's seat to "feel the vibes." It could be hard to tell when Mac was serious. He told me to "just relax and listen to the car."

"Kid, it's something any person can do. Certainly, any Indian can do. It's about time your people picked up on it."

McKenzie was getting back at me for my morning indiscretion.

As I sat behind the wheel, he shut the driver's door.

That, I didn't expect!

I looked at the dash, saw the odometer reading, and as an afterthought, logged the 38,178 on a piece of scrap paper...obviously second time around for this vehicle. My eyes dropped right and to the floor where some toys sat abandoned. Then, my gaze crept to the front passenger door, then to the right corner of the dash, then slowly to the center, where the imprint into the windshield moved to the forefront of my visual field. The impact of the head into the windshield had been hard. Hard enough to leave a web of fractures imprinted onto the glass, which drooped lazily inward from its normal surface plane.

McKenzie was photographing the spot from outside. Unexpectedly, a lump began to swell beneath my sternum, and I was beginning to sweat and struggle for air. I had to get out of the car, and as my left hand fumbled for the door latch, I recognized that the door wasn't opening. McKenzie had locked it when he shut it. I pulled the lock open, then sprung outside, and walked over to sit beside the icy stream, where I could breathe some free moving air.

"What did the car tell you kid?"

I turned, and McKenzie, smiling half sarcastically, half compassionately, looked down at me with a knowing glance.

I couldn't put my finger on it, but it was a dark, heavy vibe.

"Why do you do this shit, Mac?"

"It's a living kid. For the most part, it's honest and truthful. That's all. But it's not anything I want my offspring to do. By the way, I got the picture...you'll love your expression."

We went back to the car to finish our inspection. The hood surface was undamaged, but the nose of the hood, just above the grille at the midpoint, had an impact dent. A section of the grill was out just beneath it, and the bumper had an impact notch further down.

Aside from that, the car was clean. The tire tread measured 6/32 throughout, meaning that more than half their useful life remained. The tires were not a contributing factor to the loss.

"Looks like the car's a total loss kid. While I'm back at the motel doing my month end reports, why don't you check the dealers and do up a total loss evaluation?"

I returned to the motel about midday, car figures in hand, only to bump into McKenzie on his way out.

"C'mon kid, I just got a call from Trooper Briggs. He's going to be at his office for another 15 minutes."

Shaking hands with Trooper Briggs, I thought how much he resembled Trooper Wilson in body habitus. In fact, if I mentally blanked out his voice, he became Trooper Wilson.

It didn't take long for Trooper Briggs and McKenzie to connect. Briggs was clearly sympathetic to Betty Pearson and the children. Mac was quick to point out she was our insured, and faced a potential claim from the estate of the deceased.

Trooper Briggs had not yet finalized his fatality report. Nor would he consent to a recorded conversation with McKenzie. However, informally, he talked to us at length. Trooper Briggs didn't know it, but McKenzie had the recorder running the whole time. Though a questionable practice, McKenzie had long ago learned the value of informal recordings. McKenzie's first rule of investigation was to "Preserve all pertinent information." After that was accomplished, the investigator, working much like a sculptor, could chip away at the body of information, eliminating the non-pertinent, piece by piece, until all that remained was the "explanation."

Of course, McKenzie was not so foolish as to believe the remaining explanation was the "truth." Sometimes, the "truth" simply didn't exist, or the "truth" might be locked away in some participant's mind. Then again, sometimes the "explanation" was so good, that anyone who heard it, would immediately recognize the "truth." That was the kind of "explanation" that won court cases. In this particular year of litigation, fourteen of McKenzie's cases went to the jury. All fourteen produced defense verdicts.

"And you felt that the car lights were on at the time?" asked McKenzie.

"Yes sir...I did."

"Why?"

"Because Mrs. Pearson had just come through East Pass, in the dark. That's one of the most treacherous stretches of road in the state, even in broad daylight. It would have been impossible to drive it at night without lights on."

"How do you know...rather, I should ask, how did you confirm she had just come through East Pass?"

"I think she said she had been visiting her sister or a friend, and was returning. I contacted the person, found out what time she left, looked at the distances involved, and, had she been driving the speed limit, she would have been positioned where the accident occurred, when it happened."

I looked over at McKenzie, thinking that the officer had given an answer that any jury would accept as "truth."

"And what was Max Lindstrom doing out there?"

"Lord only knows. He lives on the south side of Highway 41, about one half mile east of where the incident happened. I assume he was walking home."

"He was alone?"

"Yes."

"Then he must have come to the tavern on foot," said McKenzie.

"I don't believe so." responded Briggs, "His 1985 Ford pickup was found parked in front of the Alder Tavern; the keys were left at the bar."

"Who left them there?"

"He did."

"Was he intoxicated?"

"According to the lab people at the hospital, he blood alcohol was .21."

Both McKenzie and I knew that a level of .21 grossly exceeded the .10 level which the State defined to be legally intoxicated.

A period of silence passed, then McKenzie asked, "What else should I be asking you Trooper Briggs?"

Trooper Briggs looked McKenzie square in the eye, then said, "You might ask me whether I knew him from the past; whether he was dead at the scene, or conscious for any period of time when he might have said something; whether he had been drinking for any particular reason...a tragedy...a celebration; and why would anybody get that drunk in the middle of the week, knowing they had to work the following day."

McKenzie smiled at Trooper Briggs in obvious admiration...at least Trooper Briggs would have read it as admiration. In the car, McKenzie later explained he was gloating incognito because his "admiration" prompted Trooper Briggs to comment on issues that would never make it into his official fatality report.

Staring back at Briggs, McKenzie answered, "yes! I ask all of those questions," offering a contrite smile.

"He was dead at the scene, spoke to no one, no one was present. I personally didn't know him, but in years past, he was a regular guest at the drunk tank downstairs. I checked the records, and found he hadn't been there for the past six months. In fact...it surprised a few of the guys that he was intoxicated when the incident happened. They thought he was on the wagon. As to his being drunk during the middle of a work week, you might want to call over to Briar Mills, where he worked. I still have to do that before I close my investigation."

We both thanked Trooper Briggs for his time, and headed out.

"Well kid, I'm gonna make you an investigator."

Seeing the puzzled look on my face, McKenzie explained, "I'm going over to Spires General Hospital to visit the coroner, and pick up a copy of the death certificate. Your mission, should you decide to accept, is to proceed with caution to Briar Mills, infiltrate, and identify whoever it was that Max Lindstrom worked for. Start by asking for Max's foreman. See if you can access the man; and, I know this might be asking too much of you; try to strike up a rapport with him and see what he'll tell you about Max. Think of it as a fishing expedition. Remember, if you are caught, all knowledge of your assignment will be denied. In fact, it may be denied even if you aren't caught."

I dropped McKenzie off at the hospital, and within minutes, I was at Briar Mills, standing before Malcolm Bell, Max Lindstrom's foreman up until the day of the fatality.

When he introduced himself as "Mal Bell...no relation," I knew even I would be able to strike up a working rapport with this good natured old logger.

"Yeah, when I heard about Max, I really felt bad. The Lindstrom's and the Bell's both came here with the western migration. Our families chose Spires, while others, seeking bigger dreams, headed westward, founding Portland and Seattle. Our people wanted homes and peace, and a place where two healthy hands and a strong body could build a life and provide for a family. Of course, the times have changed. Within 50 years of the westward movement, the same dream builders who owned Seattle and Portland, somehow managed to own all the land surrounding Spires. I never could quite figure it out, but it gives you a lot of understanding about how the Indians felt."

Smiling, I thought McKenzie would have enjoyed hearing that, and promised myself to relay it to him later.

"Well, by the third generation, that's mine and Max's generation, all that two strong hands and a healthy body could get you were the bare essentials. Now we too are working for the dream builders, and, because we knew nothing but our way of life, we're stuck. It isn't like we can pull up and go work at Boeing designing airplanes. Well, as you already know, I tend to see the humor in things..." Max struggled... "he comes from a family of drinkers, and, for years, he was sunk deeper than a 10 ounce bottom fishing rig. He'd been on the wagon any number of times, but it wouldn't be two weeks before he'd be deep into the sauce again."

"Well, what about you Mal...did you go through it too?"

I knew it was the wrong question, because it took us off track. But, as McKenzie would sometimes say, "Occasionally, it's the wrong question that gets you to the right explanation."

Mal, his eyes twinkling, smiled back at me. "Son, I'm sixty years old. When I was fifty, I married a woman twenty years my junior. It takes everything I got to keep up with her stone sober, and I sure as hell ain't gonna risk losing her to no whiskey devil."

"But there's one thing you should know son. Max was my friend, and we served together in Korea. It was me who persuaded his wife Edith to draw the line about six months ago. Yep, if he didn't dry up, she was leavin' him for good."

"And what happened?

"He dried out...couldn't believe it myself. I felt so good about it, I got him back his old job at Briar Mills. The plan was for us to open up another production line, and, with his experience, he had a clear shot at making foreman."

I had no further questions for Mal Bell. The lump had returned to my chest, and I was again beginning to find it difficult breathing. I made it outside just in time. It simply made no sense, a man had to end like this after turning his life around.

I swung back into town, and picked McKenzie up at the hospital. Actually, he was sitting with two nurses in the courtyard. By then, I was in a grim mood, and honked my horn for McKenzie to get moving.

Entering the car, Mac said, "Looks like you learned something kid. How about we go grab a bite, and compare notes?"

When he said it, I realized how famished I was. Not only did McKenzie work long hours, but he never took lunch, saying if he took an hour for lunch like everyone else, he wouldn't be able to leave the office until 8 p.m. Skipping lunch, he didn't feel guilty walking out at 7 p.m.

I nodded my head to McKenzie's suggestion and agreed.

CHAPTER III

Over supper, we attempted to sort out what we had been able to surface. Mac was certain the answer was somewhere between us. As we relaxed before dinner, Mac shared how he had been trained in the traditional native arts. He said everyone in his clan was required to learn about the plants. They were the healers, and the knowledge they guarded was a sacred trust. His family had trained him from early youth. First, during overland trips, he and his uncles would gather plants and shrubs from the wild. Mac remembered fondly how they had spent many winter nights by the fireplace tearing the dried stalks apart. First the leaves, then the stems, and then the roots. On some plants, all parts had value. On others, one part would have value, while another would be worthless, and sometimes even harmful. The elder clansman had a sacred duty to preserve and pass on the body of knowledge, but he had to be ever mindful that his young successor could be seriously injured by misuse of a specimen. For that reason, they were carefully taught what not to use, before learning what they could use. If for example, the value of a plant lay in its roots, the young apprentice would spend many months learning not to use the leaves and the stems. Only by default did he begin to suspect that the secret of the plant lay in the roots. In time, the child would begin to press for knowledge about the roots, questioning at every opportunity. One uncle would say they should be boiled. Another would hint they should be peeled before boiling. A third would suggest the boiling water be changed three times before the root was dried in the sun. Eventually, the tapestry would be complete, and the apprentice would be ready for the "awakening."

It was one thing to dissect a plant hypothetically by the winter fire. It was another thing to then accompany an elder stalking the plant. But to find a plant while alone was a skill unto itself. For every plant, there was an "awakening." When the young apprentice had earned the right to participate in the plant's hidden secrets, he was also asked to accept the obligation of gathering the plant for distribution to the tribe. Young McKenzie learned from the first this could be a daunting task. He had studied the mustards for six months, and, on his first excursion to find wild cress, had returned only with water hemlock.

His grandfather explained that until one had experienced the "awakening," there was no purpose served in attempting to gather any plant.

The child McKenzie, having experienced the humiliation of delivering a poisonous imposter to the tribe, pleaded for the "awakening." He prayed directly to the wood spirit, for eyes which would see true!

Touched by his earnest desire, his grandfather took him to the Great Cedar River, where he sat the child down before a patch of watercress, growing in the clear running water.

"Always be sure to pick it above the water...so that it is pure."

The child was left at the spot for three days and for three nights. He could not leave until third sunset. It meant many hours of sitting by the creek, studying the plant. McKenzie recalled the three days inevitably grew to an eternity. During that time, he had taken countless specimens of the plant, and studied each close up, tasting the young leaves, and the mature leaves...eating the plant raw and cooked...walking the banks of the creek and identifying the patches of hemlock and wild celery which, nevermore would he confuse with watercress.

By the third sunset, watercress had become a close friend that he could forever rely on to nurture his spirit in the wilderness.

McKenzie added that he had been "awakened" to one hundred and twenty seven plants. While this seemed a monumental achievement to me, he added it was fortunate others in his clan had dedicated more of their time and energy to perpetuating the ancient body of knowledge.

In a very real sense, McKenzie was doing the same with me.

He liked a long, slow evening meal. It was his period of rest, the time for recharging. As we waited for supper, Mac pulled out a napkin and suggested we reconsider everything we knew about the accident to see where truth lie hidden within. He said we should start by going back to the beginning. Anything that seemed important, we would call a "stone." Anything that seemed of no importance, we would designate as "air."

Mac decided he would summarize the information and present each item for me to decide whether it be rightfully "stone" or inherently "air."

"The sudden rash of fatalities."

For a second, I sat puzzled. As the waitress refilled my coffee, I blurted out "air!"

"Spires is a logging town."

I had to think about that one...however, the more I considered it, the more important it seemed. Not on the surface, but in essence.

"Stone."

"The Spotted Owl."

I thought about the naked hillsides, and the media coverage in Seattle. Many of the mountain communities were turning out en masse, seeking to gather public support and awareness for their plight. Even today, a logging truck caravan bottlenecking Interstate 5 through Seattle was front page in all the papers. But I saw no connection to Max Lindstrom.

"Air."

"Mrs. Lindstrom."

I had no reaction. Looking helplessly at Mac, I shrugged my shoulders.

"Darkness."

"Stone."

"Highway 41."

"Stone."

"Alpine Tavern."

"Stone."

"1977 Ford Pinto station wagon."

Surprisingly, I had to think carefully before answering this one. Why was the Pinto important? Any car could have caused the fatality. But...the Pinto bore the scars. What could they tell us? For that reason, I said "stone."

"Speed."

"It killed him...stone."

"Weather."

"Air."

"Faulty equipment."

"Barking up the wrong tree...air."

"Edith Lindstrom." It was his second reference to Mrs. Lindstrom...did I miss something the first time?

My mind flashed back to my visit with Malcolm Bell...when he said Edith was giving Max his last chance..."stone."

"Intoxication."

The autopsy reported a blood alcohol level of .21..."Let's pass on intoxication. There's something there, but I don't know quite what it is."

"The sequence of events."

I thought of Mrs. Pearson and her description that Lindstrom had appeared just before impact, with impact occurring almost exactly as she saw him. Lindstrom flew over the hood, head first into the windshield, then spun over the roof where his body contacted the rack.

"Stone."

McKenzie tossed out the polaroid shots that we took of the Pinto at Rick's Texaco. As I looked through them, I noticed McKenzie shuffling a new set of obituaries, this time from the Spires Mountaineer.

"Why did he topple, Kid? Did you think about that? I mean, how many accidents are there where the victim cartwheels over the car, front to back?"

I had to think about that one.

"Well she was going 50-55 miles per hour Mac. That would be enough to make anyone's feet leave the ground."

"Not always Kid. The feet on the ground are like anchors...if that's where they were when the impact occurred, then his upper body might not have spun so dramatically."

"Lindstrom's history."

I thought Lindstrom's history was a moot point, after what Trooper Briggs had to say, as corroborated by Malcolm Bell.

"Air."

"Overruled...let's make that one a stone, Kid. First he's a drinker, then he's not, then he is again. There's a story in there somewhere, and we need to find it."

By now, we were onto our main course. Digging into his steak, McKenzie looked across at me, "His keys...," pausing, as though they were a pivotal point for the entire case.

"Air." Frankly, I couldn't see what they had to do with anything.

McKenzie elected to overrule me a second time.

"Why were they left at the bar?"

"Beats me Mac...why the hell were they!"

"When police investigate leapers, they consider it a sure sign of foul play if the person leaps without taking his glasses off. For some reason, persons who genuinely leap on their own, are compelled to remove their glasses beforehand, setting them safely aside."

"You're off base on that one," I told McKenzie, "Lindstrom didn't have glasses."

"You're right...but he did have keys to a parked 1985 Ford Pickup."

I thought a bit..."Your point...stone it is."

"Blood alcohol of .21."

"I already factored that into his history, Mac."

"Right. Then how about Briar Mills?"

"Air. Nothing to do with anything."

"Malcolm Bell?"

"Mr. no-relation-to-Ma-Bell. Air."

McKenzie was silent.

"Don't tell me you're going to overrule me on that one, Mac!"

"There's a connection there somewhere...I just can't see it. Bell comes across just too damned good, too damned positive, too damned candid and up front. It ain't natural."

"What the hell are you talking about Mac. He was the one breath of fresh air we've had this entire investigation. If he doesn't ring true, then nothing makes sense."

"Make a note Kid. Tomorrow morning, we pay Mr. Bell another visit. That'll be after you make a cold call on Mrs. Lindstrom, and get a handle on what she's thinking about doing."

"And what if she's represented by an attorney? What do I do then?"

"Find out who the attorney is, call him, and make an appointment for us to meet him tomorrow afternoon. Tell him we'll be leaving town at the close of business."

"Really!"

"Yup!"

"O.K. Mac...if we're done with the stones, let's plan our course for tomorrow."

"Well, there's one last piece to the puzzle. The coroner's report."

McKenzie slid the coroner's report slowly out of the claim file. As he turned it toward me, I saw in his knowing eyes that he had already somehow solved the mystery of Max Lindstrom. What was the purpose of the rest? Certainty? Protecting the insured? My continued training?

At first glance, the blood alcohol reading of .21 was officially confirmed. He was drunk by any standard. Reading further...cause of death was given as brain stem trauma, basal skull fracture. The left ankle was disintegrated, and there was a comminuted fracture to the distal right femur, as well as an open fracture to the proximal left tibia. The other notations were minor by comparison.

I glanced back at McKenzie and, looking at me, he whispered. "Stone."

Though Michaels authorized another night, by the end of the second day, Spires was beginning to wear thin. Part of it was the constant running around. Another part was the oppressive atmosphere that seemed to hover around us. It was as though wherever we went, a shadow tugged along. Just about everyone knew we were somehow associated with the insurance company that was investigating Max Lindstrom's death. Preceding us was the general impression that somehow, if it was at all possible, we were going to "screw" Max Lindstrom's survivors out of anything they might otherwise have coming to them. It didn't make our job any easier, and the many caustic stares left no doubt we were becoming the focus of people's idle animosity.

CHAPTER IV

We finished dinner, then headed to the Alpine Tavern, ostensibly to finalize the next day's plans. McKenzie's mood had darkened. On the way over to the tavern, we stopped by the hotel where McKenzie found a waiting stack of messages from Ed Michaels.

"Where is your fucking diary? When can I expect you back? Can you squeeze in a fire loss on the way out of Spires? Call me ASAP regarding a deposition you're supposed to attend!" said McKenzie as he conducted a "dime show" mimic of Michael's neurotic compulsiveness. McKenzie abhorred anything that caused him to loose center or focus. Michaels never had a center or focus. McKenzie was much like an arrow. Once released, it sailed true to its target. Michaels was fragmented, ruled by the prevailing wind, and careful to do whatever was necessary to ensure his position was covered. He was the vacuous tube through which crap passed from on high, down to on low.

To Michaels, McKenzie was a workhorse...a claims machine of the highest refinement. But, every compliment from Michaels was followed by the trailer that McKenzie had no management aptitude. On that point, he was wrong. McKenzie understood people to the core. If anything, it was his greatest skill. Time and again, he had managed to pull off the impossible during the course of an investigation. There was no doubt in my mind he would have been brilliant as a manager, at any level in the organization. But, there was the unsolvable riddle. As long as his superiors were unable to fill the empty shoes he left behind, he would never be permitted to step out of them.

Of course, McKenzie wasn't much help. He was always the wounded Indian, ever mindful of broken promises, shattered dreams, and failed destinies characterizing the lives of those with whom he choose to surround himself. Eventually, the vibrations covered over whatever opportunities for professional growth he might have had. He was friendly, but offish. He was positive, with pronounced exceptions.

As I saw him at the bar, making moves on Jeanne, I wondered where McKenzie would be in five years time. It was absolutely clear to me he had no future with the company.

It was comical...he was night to Ed Michaels' day. When asked once about his feelings regarding Michaels, McKenzie said that he couldn't stand anything the guy did, but then again, he sensed Michaels was a man who truly cared for people, and it was far easier to work with an imbecile who loved people, than with a genius who abhorred them.

I sat with some locals and watched pro-wrestling on the big screen t.v.

McKenzie, was on his fourth glass of wine. It was beginning to look as though I'd have to drive us back.

Coming over, McKenzie said I should gather the "stones" and put them in my pocket, where they would be safe and accessible.

As Hambone and Demon Seed tee'd off against the Destroyers, my mind pushed the stones over, letting each roll about or bump into the others as it might...Spires is a logging town...darkness...the Alpine Tavern...the Pinto wagon...speed...Edith Lindstrom...the sequence of events when impact occurred...Max Lindstrom's history...Malcolm Bell...the keys...and the coroner's report. What could be eliminated? What could not?

Something McKenzie once said began to take new meaning for me. "Sometimes the answer to the small question is the answer to the big question. Every sequence of events presents at least one small question, the answer to which will be a beacon to the truth of the large question. If you have a situation with many small questions, you are truly blessed."

In our case, we had three. First was the mystery of the keys. Second, was the mystery of Malcolm Bell. Mac was right...Malcolm Bell was too good to be true. He had conned me! Last, was the relationship between the sequence of events, and the injuries on the coroner's report.

If I could pick one question to focus my energy on, which one would it be? Is there one which would resolve all three?

"Malcolm Bell!"

McKenzie was drowning his fifth glass of burgundy when I walked over. He and Jeanne were laughing outrageously, each trying to upstage the other by telling the grossest, most disgusting joke imaginable. As I approached, I caught McKenzie's attention.

"Malcolm Bell...he's the key."

Mac glanced back, pulled himself sober for just an instant, then replied, "Yes...tomorrow, he will tell us all."

"How will we get him to do that?"

Mac let out a grudging belch, then expounded. "We'll ask him about insurance benefits that are available for deceased employees...and then, we will tell him what we know about the keys to the pickup. He'll talk then!"

As he drifted back to drunkenness, beginning his sixth glass of burgundy, McKenzie outlined our plan for the morning. He would take care of Michaels first thing up, while I visited Edith Lindstrom. After Edith, we would both meet at the hotel, then head out to Briar Mills.

He was telling Jeanne the only difference between an Irish wake and an Irish wedding was one less drunken Irishman, when some of the locals confronted him.

The centerpiece of the trio was Randy Maxwell. Until several days ago, Randy had been the self designated par a mour of Jeannie Sloan, our friendly bartender.

It was near closing time and Randy had come to pick Jeannie up. The two apes by his side had apparently come for the ride, or for the action.

Rainwater dripped smoothly from Maxwell's beaverskin hat as he skirted past McKenzie, meticulously not glancing, almost as a challenge. His companions positioned themselves strategically outside the circle formed by myself, Mckenzie, Jeannie, and Maxwell, in essence, boxing in McKenzie and myself.

McKenzie was barely able to stand, and he was still howling over his little Irish joke, when he sensed the closing envelope around us. He fell guardedly silent.

"I never figured you for the kind of slut that'd kiss ass up to shysters like these..." said Maxwell. Reaching over the bar, he snared Jeannie's wrist, and drug her toward McKenzie.

The look in McKenzie's eyes left no doubt that even the echo of the joke had silenced. He stared hard and cold at Maxwell, whose logger's grip held Jeannie's outstretched hand over the bar, bending it down and twisting her backwards painfully.

"Hey asshole, you're hurting her," McKenzie hollered as he stepped hard toward Maxwell.

Instantly, the point of a knife was pressing underneath McKenzie's chin, lifting him high onto his toes. Anymore pressure would have drawn blood. Jeannie turned, facing the two in panic.

"Go ahead Dickweed, give me an excuse. There's not a person in this town that would say I did wrong by taking you out right now. Then the next time some insurance company sent a hired gun to screw simple folk out of what was theirs, they wouldn't send a drunk hole chaser like you."

"He's drunk!" I shouted, "That's what they'll say...you stuck a drunk helpless old man."

Jeannie reached over the bar and slapped the palm of her hand hard into the front of Maxwell's face, backing him off of McKenzie. When Maxwell regained his composure, and advanced toward Jeannie, she was huddled next to McKenzie, with her hand on the bar. She was fingering a .380 automatic.

The sight of it stopped Maxwell cold..."Choosing sides bitch?"

Jeannie's left hand rose off the bar, her .380 pointing squarely at Maxwell's chest, "Get out of here...get out of my life...you worthless piece of trash...don't ever come in here again...or your two goons will have to drag you out, dripping shit. And there's not a person in this town wouldn't say had it coming."

Maxwell and the boys backed out, still focused on McKenzie and me.

"You two are poison," Maxwell scowled, "You don't do good for anybody. You take from the poor and needy and give to the fat and bloated. You don't belong here. If you're not gone by tomorrow sundown, her .380 won't make a damn bit of difference."

"Thank God they're gone," I whispered to Jeannie as McKenzie's head dropped to the bar.

"I could have dropped the mother..." slurred McKenzie.

"Yea Max, you could have dropped the sucker...and we'd all be in the hospital," I responded.

Mac, defending his honor to Jeannie, said, "The kid doesn't know shit. I could have dropped Maxwell so fast, he would have forgotten he was even holding the knife. There's something else Jeannie...I would've dropped him because he's a liar. You're no slut...and we're no shysters."

"I know big guy," and looking over to me, she motioned for help as she got under McKenzie's arm and lifted him from his seat.

A heavy air of finality enveloped our morning planning meeting. For once, McKenzie skipped breakfast. Along with his morning messages was a memo from Tim Anderson to the effect that he ran 500 tests on the brake lamps, and they failed to light 50% of the time.

McKenzie immediately recognized the break that would keep the Hartley's out of litigation.

He briefed me on how to play the information to maximum effect. Then he said that prior to coming down for breakfast, he spoke with Ed Michaels and talked him into switching the Hartley file to me for further handling.

I told Mckenzie I would take it, but only if I had his expert guidance on what to do.

McKenzie had heard from Michaels that the estate had chosen Thomas Winslow to represent the fatality claim.

McKenzie further explained that, while we were in Spires, his stand-in at the office confirmed Murtaugh's vehicle did have Underinsured Motorist coverage.

"Do you know how to play that hand, kid."

"I'm not sure Mac...we hit the Collier vehicle, and push it across the center line into the Murtaugh vehicle. The Collier's brake lights were probably on at the time, but we're not sure. In fact, it's about 50/50 that they were on at the time. Doesn't that hang us?"

"It's like setting up a sting, kid...when you get back into town, contact Thomas Winslow...and tell him that you found the brake light sockets on the Collier vehicle to be lined with tin foil...that you believe this unusual arrangement caused the brake lights to be functionally inoperative at the time...and further, this was the real probable cause of Helen Hartley's failure to detect the slowing vehicle to her front. Then after you tell him that, remind him the Collier vehicle was uninsured, you have a statement to that effect, which you'll be glad to have transcribed with a copy for his file."

Then it hit!

"Jesus McKenzie...I think I've got it, and I'm trying to verbalize it, but I'm not sure if I can."

"Do the stone and air technique, kid."

"O.K. Here goes. The Hartley's have liability coverage to $100,000...stone! Collier has no insurance on her vehicle...stone! The brake lamp sockets were lined with aluminum foil...stone! Tim Anderson has determined that the brake lights worked only 50% of the time..."

"Now, don't rush kid..."

"...air! I mean to us, it might be important, but relative to the sting, it's air. We are better served leaving the impact of the foil lined brake lights subject to the conjecture of the estate attorney, then we are sharing the facts of Tim's analysis in free discovery."

"God kid, you're almost getting the hang of it!"

But then, my well ran dry...I knew I was close to something, but simply could not find a peg on which to hang my hat.

"The last step kid is that you offer the $100,000 liability money to the estate, in exchange for a full and final Release of all Claims against the Hartley's."

"But what incentive is there for the estate to go for it, especially in light of the fact that the Hartley's have personal resources which might be open to attack as excess over liability limits."

The gleam had finally returned to McKenzie's eyes when decisively, he responded , "Because there is a legitimate question as to whether Helen Hartley ever caused the accident to begin with."

I felt like I was locked into some sort of Zen test at this point. McKenzie simply sat silent, buttered his danish, poured through the coffee and began to read the morning newspaper.

Then it hit me like the wash from a fire hydrant.

"So...the estate will do better accepting our offer of liability limits, and then arguing for the limits of its own Underinsured Motorist Coverage, then it would do in pursuing the Hartley's for moneys over and above their basic coverage."

"Yup...pass the comics will ya?"

Suddenly, I realized we had gone through our entire morning Pow Wow without once mentioning the case of Max Lindstrom and Betty Pearson.

As we knocked down the last of the coffee, Mac glanced casually over to me and said, "Go on out to Mrs. Lindstrom's house and see what's on her mind. Depending on what she says, we'll know whether or not we have to see Malcolm Bell."

"But what if she's represented by an attorney."

"If she is, then we'll just have to go see him too."

I was back within the hour. When I went to the Lindstrom residence, Mrs. Lindstrom was still at the funeral services. The person I spoke to gave me the card of local attorney, Michael MacSparron. I called the number on the card, spoke with Michael, and surprisingly, was able to arrange for a meeting later in the afternoon, which, he promised, would be attended by Edith Lindstrom. He added that she would make her exact position known to us at that time.

McKenzie received the news warmly..."That gives us the time that we need to nail this down Kid."

McKenzie and I drove out to the funeral home, where the ceremony was wrapping up.

Randy Maxwell and his cohorts were there, and their cold stares soon spread to the rest of the crowd, which, before long was focused more on our presence, than on Max Lindstrom, lying in state.

"I don't like this Mac!"

I spotted Mal Bell, who twinkled his fingers in the air, shyly throwing a greeting, then regretting doing so almost at once.

McKenzie sensed immediately who the reticent stranger was. Walking up, introducing himself, he said, "Mr. Bell, My name is Mason McKenzie, and I need to ask you a few more questions, beyond what my colleague asked you the other day...can we step outside for just a few minutes?"

Bell looked to the front at Edith Lindstrom, who was stoically fixed in position, staring only at the coffin.

"How had it all come to this?" her puzzled stare seemed to say. Did the others also feel this? I glanced at McKenzie, who stared intently at Mrs. Lindstrom, then focused again on Mal.

I followed Mason and Mal outside, and found them sitting beneath an ancient cedar.

Mason broke the ice, "Mal, I came here to share some thoughts with you, because I know it will mean something to you that it would not to anyone else."

Mal Bell looked back at Mason, intently.

"What happened to Max Lindstrom was tragic, and I can't help that. But whatever script he was living within has passed, and he took that direction willingly."

Mal's left hand began to play at his chin, as he studied McKenzie more closely.

"You see Mal, I know how Lindstrom died...but, I'm not sure why he died! The funny thing is I think you know how he died too, but I also think you're one up on me, because you know why! The problem I have is I can't let it rest. If my only option is hanging Betty Pearson out to dry, that won't wash. I'm here for the distance."

"You see Mal," McKenzie came closer, almost whispering into his ear, "You and I both know Max Lindstrom committed suicide."

Mal Bell's head sank down into his hands, seeming as though, but for the platform of his palms, it would have dropped like a leaf, to the floor.

"I believed that Max was on the wagon, just like you told my colleague, but this went hard against the fact that on the night he died, he was drunk on his ass, having to go to work the next day. That's what I couldn't figure out. Leaving his car keys with the bartender was an unmistakable sign. He was leaving them for whoever would survive him...no more and no less. He may have been drunk to numbness, but from his long experience with alcohol, the rest of his plan was still clear in his mind. He left the bar, positioned himself in the darkness beside the road shoulder, and, at the opportune moment, ran out onto the roadway, jumping at the last second into the path of the Pearson vehicle. Because both of his feet were off the ground, his body toppled hard, head into the windshield, feet over the top, and off of the luggage rack. Yes...suicide it was...but why, especially if things were looking up like you said they were? They were looking up, weren't they Mal."

Proudly, Mal straightened himself from his folded position. He didn't look so cooperative anymore, so unsophisticated, or so amiable.

"You son of a bitch. Why do you have to bring this out. Especially at a time like this."

McKenzie sat silent, then added "It would help Mal, if you would fill us in on what it is I'm bringing out."

Nodding slowly in affirmation, Max opened up, "Yeah, we hired Max at the mill, and for a couple of months, he was just fine. Then one day, I saw him sleeping mid-shift, on top of a stack of chips. He was drunk and passed out. No one knew about this but me and Max. It was our secret. I told him if he could get his act together, I'd forget it, but that if he couldn't, I had no choice but to fire him. There was a second incident, when Max was working on the green line. Then there was a third, at the monster saw. He could have been killed. I didn't want my silence to be the cause of his death...no way. I saw the writing on the wall. Max had gone down again, and so long as I covered for him, I was in danger of going down with him. Last week, I took Max aside, and told him that if I ever caught him drunk on the job again, I would fire him, no more chances, no other considerations at all...just fire him! Two days later, he was drunk, on the timber line, with no wood feeding through. I took him out of the unit, told him what I thought of his idiocy, and fired him on the spot. I walked him to his time card, told him to punch out, no more work, no more benefits, no more welcome at the plant, you're on your own, have a good life, end of story."

"So that's why he got drunk...there wasn't any work on Thursday morning, and then, sometime during the course of the evening, he hatched his plan to end it all by a random encounter with a vehicle on Highway 41."

"He did it for the insurance," said Mal.

"Insurance?"

"Yea...part of our benefits package is a $50,000 life insurance policy. It would have been canceled with his formal discharge tomorrow. But, I guess the suicide makes it all pointless."

"Not necessarily Mal," responded McKenzie, "My job is to protect the Pearson's. Frankly, I'm not concerned with whether or not Max Lindstrom's estate is entitled to the benefits of a life insurance policy. Unless they make a big stink out of the Pearson incident, I think I can let certain things slide."

"I'm not sure I track Mr. McKenzie," responded a puzzled looking Mal.

"Listen Mal! Me and the kid are meeting with Mrs. Lindstrom and her attorney later this afternoon. It might not hurt for you to talk to Mrs. Lindstrom, and let her know that so long as there's no liability claim against the Pearson's, then my investigation leaves town with me. She'll be on her own with the life insurance company."

Mal Bell nodded silently.

CONCLUSION

The meeting with Edith Lindstrom and attorney Michael MacSparron occurred almost as an afterthought.

McKenzie's argument was convincing, if not foolproof, and all present at the meeting recognized the truth when it stared them in the face. Edith Lindstrom arose, and over her attorney's objection, spoke out to McKenzie, "Mister McKenzie, I know you and your colleague haven't received the best reception since you've been in our community. I want you to know here and now that none of that was my doing. I spent nearly 40 years with Max Lindstrom, and though I loved the man, I'll be the first to say that a cross has been lifted from my shoulders. I don't know how it is for you and your fold, but here in Spires, we're at the end of our rope. It won't be long before lack of employment forces the last of the pioneer families out, probably to live in some bleak hovels, lost forever in Seattle, Tacoma, or Portland, while the developers reach in to turn the last of our breed into real estate agents, apartment managers and gas station attendants. When you leave town today, you'll have no ill will from me. You did your job straight and true, and if you hadn't, I would have followed Mr. MacSparron's counsel and caused a lot of unnecessary hardship for Mr. and Mrs. Pearson. Go ahead and close your file. If I deserve the life insurance proceeds, I'll get them; if not, I won't. You do what you want with your investigation."

EPILOGUE

We finished up at attorney MacSparron's office, then headed back to the motel and packed. As usual, McKenzie had a slough of messages from Michaels piled in his box. He picked them up, then crumpled them into the first basket we passed...unread.

Mac wanted to say goodbye to Jeannie, and before I had time to object, her luggage was packed into the car, and she had displaced me in the front seat. Mac was right of course, it was a tailspin if she stayed in Spires.

As we gassed up on the edge of town, a 4x4 Blazer pulled into the service mart and Jeannie's shocked expression told me without looking that Randy Maxwell had somehow found us. McKenzie stepped out of the store, saw Maxwell, and, diplomatically, cleared a path. I hoped Mac would get to our car before all hell broke loose.

But it was not to be!

With two giant steps, Maxwell was upon McKenzie, and with one paw, spun Mac hard around, "You're still in town asshole...it's sundown!"

"Maxwell, I've got no bad blood with you...and I can live with last night. All I want to do is get out of town in one piece. If you'll look at the horizon, you'll see that the sun isn't quite down yet, so, I'm still doing everything I can to meet your deadline. Besides, I met with Edith Lindstrom and her attorney today, and you probably haven't gotten the word yet, but I'm a good guy again."

It was too late for diplomacy. Maxwell spotted Jeannie in the passenger's seat, charged around to her side of the car and screamed through the closed window, "Where the hell you going you two-bit whore? Open the door before I break the window and drag you out!"

McKenzie got into the car, started the engine, and with his hands griping the steering wheel, stared at Maxwell in utter amazement. "Jeannie, this guy's positively dangerous."

Maxwell looked thru to Mac, "Cut the engine!"

"Let's get out of here Mac," said Jeannie, still not acknowledging Maxwell.

"Yea Mac, let's get the hell out of here," I chimed in.

Closing in on Mac, Randy Maxwell lunged through the driver's window, his right hand grabbing McKenzie's neck as his left was about to slam on a full choke. His two buddies were fast approaching.

In one motion, McKenzie's right hand reached out the window, locked onto Maxwell's free-hanging hair, and lifted him head and shoulders into the car. There simply wasn't room for Maxwell's left arm to fit inside.

Meanwhile, McKenzie had both his arms locked onto Maxwell's head, pressing it against the steering wheel, sounding the horn, quick freezing Maxwell's two friends, as McKenzie dropped the car into reverse, floored and spun-turned, then accelerated westbound onto Highway 41. McKenzie's arms were planted so tightly onto Maxwell's neck and head the logger was turning blue and dripping blood out the nose. McKenzie spoke softly at Maxwell's frozen head, whose labored breath heaved in counterpoint, "Randy...my patience is beginning to wear thin."

Our speed was approaching 80 mph, and Mac was drifting close to the center line, with passing logging trucks barely missing Maxwell's free floating legs, suspended from the left side of the vehicle...

"I'll say this once Maxwell. To me, you're dead. That means I will never see you, or hear from you again. If you ever surface in my life, or if I hear of your name, or even if I bump into you by accident, you'll pay a price that your neanderthal mind can't possibly fathom. Remember me, remember what I said, and keep away...and forget Jeannie Sloan...you'll live a lot longer."

Maxwell was foaming. I screamed, "Jesus Christ Mac...you're killing him," at which point, Mac slammed hard on the brakes, not quite stopping, then catapulted Maxwell out the window. Turning hard away, he hollered, "It's sundown Maxwell...and I'm out of here!"

He accelerated into the setting sun, heading due west, out of Spires.

 

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