Spires (Part 1)

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 saw versions of the Murtaugh obituary taken from each of the local dailies.

McKenzie collected obituaries, sometimes storing them like family photos in his billfold the entire length of an investigation. He trusted "vibrations." In this instance they told of a struggling father, age 36, with four children. The deceased was a utility worker. His obituary read like a testament to hard work, outreach and self sacrificing philanthropy. His loss, another of life’s tragedies.

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 been married. During the war, he formed an alliance with a housekeeper, who then became his close personal friend. He eventually 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 stabilized, she announced "The time to go home had come."

McKenzie understood. Had there been a "home" for him, he would have gone there long ago. The kids were in Singapore, with the mother and her re-located family, found after several long years searching after the war. All were doing very well over there. McKenzie was alone.

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

The kid was me.  The year, 1986.  I had just finished college with a degree in history, and after managing a car rental outlet for a year had decided to make a career change. So after running the gauntlet of corporate schools, here I was working claims.

McKenzie came to me and said, "Pack your bags kid. We'll be gone two days. We’ll head out at noon. I still have a few things I need to do on the Murtaugh file before blowing town. You’re welcome to tag along if you want."

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 high school daughter rolls along the highway at 50 mph, going the speed limit. She becomes aware the vehicle to her front has suddenly slowed. She instinctively starts a quick lane change to her right but can’t avoid contact between the left front of her vehicle and the rear of the vehicle to her front. It’s a light contact, barely noticeable, but she’s a good girl and knows to stop and find out if there were any damages. At almost exactly the same time, the front vehicle impacts head-on with a third vehicle in the oncoming lane. Our young lady sees none of this, pulls off to the right shoulder thinking she had just nicked the rear of the car to her front. Stopping, she is horrified when 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. We’re on it. How much coverage do we have?"

"Not so fast kid. What about the possibility Murtaugh fell asleep at the wheel. Maybe he caught 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 at first was he had already spoken to our driver. She was young, inexperienced, and admitted outright she never saw the front vehicle until just before the contact. She couldn't remember whether or not there was a turn signal, or if brake lights flashed on. Actually, what she said was she didn’t recall seeing brake lights at all. She was alone in her car and had no injuries.

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 driver’s vehicle also left no skids, but the vehicle ahead 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. Nothing serious. He thought they would be fine.

Trooper Wilson couldn't make them out. He half-liked them, but there was something "off." As he used it  “off” usually meant someone was a vagrant, a hooker, on drugs, or a pervert. He said for now, they could be found at the Evergreen Inn, as though that explained everything.

Trooper Wilson let it go with that. McKenzie could not. He was a like a coon dog, once loosed, intent on 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 speaking with Trooper Wilson, we dropped in unannounced at the Evergreen Inn where Joseph Jay and Charlotte Collier had spent the night. Outside the door to their room, McKenzie said he tasted the lingering aroma of booze, and sex, and sensed a driving hunger for cash. It surprised me. These things escaped me and probably even Trooper Wilson. I learned later, 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, even when those things were little more than unhatched needs and desires.

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 our only goal was to protect the insured, and the insured's young daughter. I knew to keep my mouth shut. They agreed to provide their recorded report.

First off, they confirmed she had no insurance on the car. Jay then related the accident happened so quickly it was hard to describe the sequence in exact detail. McKenzie nodded his head, knowing full well truth often came wrapped in details unintentionally divulged. He listened closely.

Both Jay and Collier were clear in recalling they were headed to the Tall Trees Casino. The were not well familiar with the locale, and had just missed the casino on the right side of the roadway. The figured on turning left at the first driveway they saw and backtracking. When they slowed to turn left, they were rear ended by the 16 year old and driven across the center line into Murtaugh's vehicle. Jay assured McKenzie their brake lights and turn signals worked. He said he knew this because he had recently replaced the bulbs. McKenzie asked Collier if she had signaled to turn left. She affirmed. He then asked how far in advance of discovering the driveway had she signaled. She hesitated, then said nothing. Jay interjected that 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. Ignoring the distraction, McKenzie looked again to Collier, “Can you say under oath, with one hundred percent certainty, that you had activated the turn signal?”

She answered, “No.”

Joseph Jay protested, “I’m sure you had it on.”

McKenzie froze him, “She drove, she’s the one who knows. Did you see her turn it on? When? How many seconds in advance of the turn? How far before the turn? Did you hear it ticking, or see it flashing on the dash panel? I’m all ears, tell me what you specifically remember.”

“I’m just sure it was on when we turned, that’s all I can say, Charlotte is a cautious driver, she wouldn’t forget something like that.”

Recognizing the two were on the move, McKenzie explained he was willing to make some sort of settlement, to include their car, a total loss, and something for injuries, but only if they would sign releases. McKenzie knew they would, even before he finished his sentence. There was another odor in the room, one unfamiliar to McKenzie, except that, whatever it was, McKenzie knew it would cost money, more than they had! These two transients would be willing to sign anything to get it. He explained how he was going out on a limb, liability remained uncertain, and there was more here than met the eye. But the young lady hit their vehicle from the rear. On that basis he could justify settlement with them, but it would have to be reasonable.

We left with two signed releases. It had cost the company $2000 total. McKenzie would catch flack for making injury payments without first obtaining medical records. Worse, the releases included the company’s promise to reimburse the emergency room expenses if submitted within 180 days.

He did what was best for the insured, but he wasn’t going to shaft the two transients. He could handle the heat. He dropped me off at my place to get my trip gear together.

At noon, we hooked up again 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 chair. 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 navigated 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. Our inexperienced teenage 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 too quick upon her rear, and realizes the situation only as impact becomes unavoidable.  She swerves right to evade, and almost does. 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 exactly 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 series of 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 get to me sometimes. I was there when they pulled the guy from the wreckage. I can’t stop seeing it."

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. Water under the bridge. From here on out, it's a clean slate."

They shook hands, and we left.

McKenzie 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. He’d be agreeable for everyone doing it together if Wilson would set it up. He figured the State Patrol would probably impound the vehicle.

McKenzie winced unexpectedly. Trooper Wilson didn't like constraints, unless he was the one promulgating them. I could hear his blowback from where I sat alongside.

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 on our return, or sooner if possible.

Within minutes, we were headed to Spires.

"What's the risk angle on Murtaugh," 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 its limit. Instead of answering a question with a question, he only half answered, forcing me to play Socrates by internalizing the next question, and then vocalizing my own response in the form of a hypothetical directed 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 16 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?" I asked.

"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.

"Now kid, 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 tentative. 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 party at fault. It might even be triggered if the limits of our own policy were inadequate to compensate the loss.

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 we have learned that Charlotte has no insurance whatsoever, and our good folks probably don’t have enough. Wilson seems to think Murtaugh may have underinsured motorist coverage in the amount of $250,000. That’s a lot of money these days.”

I closed the file folder. Clipped to the outside were the obituaries, which I read again several times, until I began to drift from 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 in the high alpine. 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 TV. Its residents are descendants of the westward migrating pioneers, the ones who didn’t make it to the coast, sprinkled with a "dropout" here and there, an occasional young family looking for the finer, simpler life, and of course the retirees. I always struggled with why retirees would live in a place where real medical care was still 70 miles away.

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 to the east, fields of cut timber were being readied for transport to market.

It was a logging town. Townsfolk worked the woods, as did their forefathers. But for the addition of chain saws, and modern loaders, they worked much as their fathers and grandfathers 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 genetically imprinted!

Staring out my window, I could see the adjoining ridges had been cut clean. This was something new. In the old days, it wasn't considered prudent or smart to clear cut across a mountain side, leaving it looking like a mowed lawn for the next generation. Old timers would have questioned what remained to temper the frigid winter winds descending the slopes?

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 arguing 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 creatures.

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, would 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 the irate 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, well, maybe a little less, 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? Standing? 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."

"You’re sure of that? 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 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 and behind me on the right. The highway was empty. I mean there were no cars."

"He was alone?"

"As far as I know."

"Were there any witnesses to what happened?"

"My children were with me, that is, my 8 year old son, Michael, and my 4 year old daughter, Ruth."

"Forgive me for not asking 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 saw the body on the road and ran into the Alder Tavern to get help help. They immediately summoned the State Patrol and the ambulance. The State Patrol arrived in short order and took control. I was taken to the medical center by aid car with my children, and later on that evening, the State Patrol Officer in charge interviewed me. At that time, I learned Lindstrom was dead at the scene. The Officer said he had been drinking, and that a blood alcohol test had been ordered."

"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 having a late supper. I had never had opportunity to chat casually with McKenzie, and was somewhat taken aback when, during dinner, McKenzie spoke in less than flattering terms about the company we worked for. 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 career ambitious new employee was to point out his or her potential to oversee their peers once they had a year or two of hard work under their belt. That, and a strong positive attitude about the company almost always guaranteed success."  In fact, he declared it to be a formula which never failed, just in case I wanted to take advantage of it.

I struck back at McKenzie, "But Mac, what's your gripe about 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 already 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 being targeted for a fatality that could not be avoided."

McKenzie's comment surprised me.

"Whoa, McKenzie. What the hell do you mean 'Couldn’t be 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 the Pearsons 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. We might run into somebody who knows something."

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 seem to 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 TV. Turns out she wasn’t working the night of the incident, but knew the bartender on duty had cut Lindstrom off at three beers. Lindstrom had been in a sullen mood. “We’re all friends around here, nobody wants trouble.”

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 eyekuds tugged my head downward, until it set itself to rest 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 its way through the motel blinds, dicing a pattern of stripes across my bed. My clock read 5 a.m., 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 meant 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 the river. There, he was practicing some sore of martial art.

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 traveling 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 spied on 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 innocent, had offended that part of McKenzie's heritage which was native American.

McKenzie, long accustomed to such quips, 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 STAT. 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 Community Medical Center. That's where the Coroner keeps an 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 side 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. Get a dog’s eye view, low to the ground.  Then snap away at anything else you think is interesting. 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 sometimes 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. Somehow the windshield held firm.

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 found the door wasn't opening. McKenzie had locked it when he shut it. Damn him! I reached to pull 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 for you, you'll love the expression on your face."

We returned to the car to finish our inspection. The hood’s top 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. It wasn’t a lot of damage, but enough to finish off the old Pinto.

Aside from that, the car was clean. The tire treads 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. Even if it’s only for your own use." After that was accomplished, the investigator, working much like a sculptor, could chip away at the constellation 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 it as truth. That kind of explanation won court cases. In this particular year of litigation, fourteen of McKenzie's cases went to the jury. All fourteen produced defense verdicts. He was a very popular guy with the defense attorneys.

"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 precisely when it happened."

I looked over at McKenzie, thinking that the officer had given an answer that any jury would accept as truth. He smiled and nodded, saying nothing, but making his appreciation evident.

"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.

“But the folks at the bar told me they cut him off at three beers.”

“They told me that too, and I believe them.  Seems Lindstrom was packing a hip flask. It was nearly empty when we found him, smelled of whiskey inside.”

“Sitting off to the side making his own boilermakers?”

Briggs nodded.

A period of silence passed, then McKenzie continued, "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. Cleaned up. 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 the Medical Center. The coroner’s in town, and I want to lock onto 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. I know this might be asking too much of you, but 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’re 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 clinic, 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 to Ma Bell," 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. A safe place. 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 around here. I never could quite figure it out, but it gives you a lot of understanding about the way things work, and 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 fourth 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 know 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 suspect, I tend to see the humor in things.  Max struggled. He comes from a line 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. "Young man, 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. She was gonna leave him, but we worked it out so she’d give him one last chance. Yep, if he didn't dry up this time, 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. Was I missing something? I made it outside just in time. It simply made no sense, a man ending like this after turning his life around.

I swung back into town, and picked McKenzie up at the medical center. Actually, he was sitting with two nurses in the courtyard. By then, I was in a grim mood, and impatiently 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 rarely 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.

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