Spires (Part 2)

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, or sometimes even harmful. The elder clansman had a sacred duty to preserve and pass on the body of knowledge, but he also had to be ever mindful his young apprentice could be seriously harmed or 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 earliest 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 impostor to the tribe, pleaded for the "awakening." He prayed directly to the plant spirits 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 our servings, 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." I agreed.

"The sudden rash of fatalities."

For a second, I sat puzzled. As the waitress refilled my coffee, I blurted out "air!" She looked puzzled as she walked away.

"Spires is a logging town."

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


"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.


"Mrs. Lindstrom."

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



"Highway 41."


"Alder Tavern."


"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."


"It killed him. Stone."


"Air. It was clear and dry. A beautiful summer evening.”

"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. He said Edith was giving Max his last chance. Ah, there it was. "Stone."


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


McKenzie tossed out the polaroid shots that we took of the Pinto at Rick's Texaco. As I sorted through them, I noticed McKenzie shuffling a new sheet 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 did have 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."

"Would it?  I say 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."

How about this, "Lindstrom's history?"

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


"Overruled. Let's make that one a stone. 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. His history is key."

By now, we were onto our main course. Digging into his steak, McKenzie looked across at me, "His keys," pausing for emphasis, 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 possible sign of foul play if the person leaps without taking his glasses off. For some reason, persons who genuinely leap on their own seem inclined 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. Bet you it had less than 5,000 miles on it."

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."


"Who knows? Say it anyway, it’ll get his attention."

"OK Mac. If we're done with the stones, let's take a few minutes and plan our course for tomorrow."

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

McKenzie had actually finagled a copy. He slid the coroner's report slowly out of the claim file. As he turned it my way, 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. For me, the sooner we were out of there, the better. Compared to running a rental vehicle office, this work extracted an emotional toll. 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 rightfully 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 Alder 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. He said as much to me on more than one occasion. 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 day to Ed Michaels' night. 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.

Some time passed. 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 Decimators on the big screen, 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 Alder 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 starting 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 available for deceased employees. Life insurance, death payoffs, things like that. And then, we’ll tell him what we know about the keys to the pickup. He'll talk then!"

As he drifted back to numbness, beginning his sixth glass of burgundy, McKenzie outlined our plan for the next day. 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 reached into his pocket and, not unexpectedly, pulled out the obituary. Studying it closely, he said “Look at that. The funeral’s tomorrow afternoon, that sure throws a wrench in our plans. We might end up having to improvise.”

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 paramour of Jeannie Sloan, our friendly bartender. She had already put us on to him, with a warning to keep a distance.

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.  I hadn’t noticed it until then, but I could hear the downpour outside, and the walls lit from the strobe like flashes of summer lightning. His companions positioned themselves strategically outside the circle formed by myself, Mckenzie, Jeannie, and Maxwell, in essence, boxing in McKenzie and myself. Thunder rattled the glasses behind the bar.

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 upward toward where he stood alongside McKenzie.

The look in McKenzie's eyes left no doubt that even the echo of his joke had silenced. He held his tongue, but stared hard and cold at Maxwell, whose logger's grip stretched Jeannie's arm over the width of the bar, bent backwards and twisted 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 freed her arm, facing the two in panic.

"Go ahead Dickweed, give me a reason. There's not a person in this town 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."

"That’s right! He's drunk!" I shouted, "That's what they'll say, You slaughtered a drunk helpless old man who threatened no harm."

Jeannie lunged over the bar and slapped the palm of her hand hard into the front of Maxwell's face, backing him off of McKenzie. He stumbled backwards, blood already dripping from his face from where she made sure to rake her fingernails. When Maxwell regained his composure, and advanced toward Jeannie, she was across from McKenzie, with her hand on the bar. There she fingered a .380 automatic.

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

Jeannie's hand rose from the bar, her .380 now pointed 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 you didn’t have 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 toy gun 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 Mac, 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 cycles on Charlotte Collier’s brake lamps, and they failed to light 50% of the time.

McKenzie immediately recognized the break that might keep the Hartleys 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 final 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 maybe they weren’t. We're not sure. Statistically, it's about 50/50 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 we found the brake light sockets on the Collier vehicle to be lined with tin foil. Add how you believe this unusual arrangement caused the brake lights to be functionally inoperative at the time, and stress this was the real probable cause of Helen Hartley's failure to detect the suddenly 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 me!

"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."

"OK 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 significance of the foil lined brake lights subject to the conjecture of the estate attorney, than 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 my hijacked 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 their own Underinsured Motorist Coverage, than it would do pursuing the Hartleys for moneys over and above their basic liability coverage."

"Yup, pass the comics will ya? Don’t forget to press Winslow for a covenant not to sue. He’ll have to get their own insurance company on board for that, but that’s his job, not ours."

Suddenly, I realized we had gone through our entire morning Pow Wow without once mentioning Max Lindstrom and Edith Lindstrom.

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 at the funeral home. 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. Like I said yesterday, now we have to improvise."

McKenzie and I drove out to the funeral home, where the viewing was underway.

Randy Maxwell and his cohorts were there, and their cold stares soon nudged 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 seeming to regret doing so at the same time.

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 who could only be Edith Lindstrom, 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 turn 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 the 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. She’s my insured, I protect her. I'll go the distance with that."

"It’s like this 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 tree cone to the ground.

"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 and the pickup 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 head. 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, then 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 trying to reconcile."

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. Then 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, or anyone else’s. 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 too. He had let everyone down. 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 Max. Have a good rest of your 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.


"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.


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."

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 raise objections, 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 for her 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. 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.

Now closing in on Mac’s side, Randy Maxwell lunged toward the open driver's window, his right hand shooting straight for McKenzie's coat collar as his left positioned for a full choke. His two buddies were approaching fast, one on each side.

In one motion, McKenzie's right hand reached above Maxwell’s arms and out the window, locked onto Maxwell's free-hanging hair, and drug him head and shoulders into the car. Maxwell’s left arm was pinned useless against his body, his right arm flayed wildly, reaching for the rooftop.

Meanwhile, McKenzie had both his arms leveraged onto Maxwell's head, pressing it hard against the steering wheel, sounding the horn, quick freezing Maxwell's two friends, as McKenzie dropped the car into reverse, floored and spun-turned, using the wheel like a tourniquet against Maxwell’s neck as his head dipped to the 6 o’clock position. I could see Mac’s knees leveraging upward, and wondered how he had even thought to do such a thing.  We accelerated westbound onto Highway 41. McKenzie's arms groped wildly trying to no avail to find McKenzie. It had only been seconds, but the logger was turning blue and dripping blood out the nose. McKenzie spoke softly at Maxwell's frozen head, whose labored breathing 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 side of the vehicle.

"I'll say this just 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!"

We accelerated into the setting sun, heading due west. I looked behind to see what became of Maxwell, but saw only that Spires receded in the distance.

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