Authors: Michael Norman
Tags: #FICTION, #Mystery & Detective, #General
Books followed Darby to the EEWA office. The organization leased space in an old pueblo-style complex on the north end of town just off Main Street. He was struck by the security measures inside the office. The public entered a large, sparsely furnished foyer with an array of environmental publications stacked on a coffee table in front of a leather couch. The inner office was separated by a wall with a steel door at one end and a small plexiglass window in the center, through which a visitor could speak to a receptionist. Access to the inner sanctum was controlled from the window.
As soon as they entered the foyer, the receptionist buzzed them through the locked door and immediately gave Darby a tearful embrace. The two exchanged whispered words of comfort. The inner office consisted of a conference room and two small private offices, one of which had belonged to David Greenbriar.
Books spent the next hour searching the victim's office with Darby looking on. Citing privacy concerns, she refused to allow him to remove hard copies of documents or provide him with a list of EEWA members. For that he would need to get a warrant. He paid special attention to the e-mail messages Greenbriar sent and received as well as the files on his hard drive and on a CD Rom.
He hadn't expected the search to yield a smoking gun and it didn't. That's not to say that the search was for naught. Two things struck him. The first was the general tenor of Greenbriar's correspondence. During the past several months, he seemed preoccupied with the issue of road expansion into wilderness areas. When Books asked Darby about this, she confirmed it.
“The environmental issues we focus on shift periodically depending on what our political adversaries are up to,” she explained. “Around here, livestock grazing often becomes the focus of much of our time and energy. At other times, our emphasis shifts to logging, mining, or all-terrain vehicle use in sensitive ecosystems. For the last maybe six to nine months, our attention has been devoted almost exclusively to the roads issue. That's what you're seeing in David's correspondence.”
“What makes the roads issue so important?”
“The big concern is that if environmental groups lose on the roads issue, we risk forfeiting federal control of public lands to state and local government. That would be a disaster for the environmental movement. If states were to gain control of public lands, they'll open all kinds of sensitive wilderness areas to economic development.”
“Is that such a bad thing?”
“Depends on your point of view, I guess.” Darby glanced away looking as though she had lost interest in the conversation.
The other thing that attracted Books' attention was an e-mail that Greenbriar sent to one of his chief lieutenants, Barry Struthers, two weeks prior to his murder. Struthers was the EEWA member who Darby mentioned had been in conflict with the victim in the weeks and months before his death. The e-mail read:
I find myself increasingly frustrated with your angry rhetoric and outbursts during recent board meetings. In addition, you should understand that I will not be swayed by your personal attacks directed at me. Vague threats and innuendos will not change the direction of the organization.
If, as I suspect, your intent is to wrest control of the organization from me, then I urge you to follow the protocol established in our by-laws. You have the right to petition the board of directors for a special session in which you seek a vote of no confidence in my leadership. The chairman can be removed by a majority vote of the board.
You should understand that I am adamantly opposed to more radical forms of protest within the organization. To do so will further polarize the community and invite dangerous forms of retaliation from the other side.
David W. Greenbriar, Ph.D.
Escalante Environmental Wilderness Alliance
Books wondered what kind of “vague threats and innuendos” Greenbriar referred to. When he asked Darby about it, she shrugged.
Books had learned long ago that good homicide cops tended to have reliable instincts about people. His initial impressions of Darby Greenbriar were mixed. On one hand, she seemed cooperative, forthcoming, and genuinely distraught over the death of her husband. On the other, she seemed terribly uninformed about everything related to the family estate. That struck him as unusual, particularly in a marriage where a beautiful, young woman married a guy nearly twice her age. What did Darby stand to gain financially from her husband's death? And what about her weekend in Las Vegas?
Some murder investigations were straightforwardâphysical evidence connects a suspect with the crime, an eyewitness identifies a suspect, or a motive is so clear that it smacks you square in the face. That wasn't this case. Books could ill afford to ignore the chance that someone close to Greenbriar, an ally perhaps, had killed him and hatched an elaborate plot to cast blame on an obvious foe like the CFW.
Barry Struthers and Tommy McLain had become persons of interest in the Greenbriar murder. Both had motive and means. That left opportunity. Books also considered the possibility that Greenbriar's murder could, in some way, be connected to the EEWA's opposition to road expansion on federal land. He knew virtually nothing about who would have the most to gain if federal road expansion restrictions were eased? While Books couldn't answer that question, he knew who could.
Books caught up with Ned Hunsaker that evening working outside in his garden. Hunsaker was still a handsome man, Books guessed, although it was hard to tell. He was tall, maybe six-five, and slim, with a swarthy complexion, leathery-looking skin, and a full head of silver hairâthe direct consequence of years spent trekking across the southern Utah desert under a blistering sun. His solitary wanderings were the stuff of legend around Kane County. He knew the monuments and national parks far better than most people, because he'd spent a lifetime exploring them.
Since Books had neglected to leave the swamp cooler on when he left for work, the double-wide was going to be uninhabitable for the next half-hour. Ned interrupted his gardening and brought out iced tea. They sat in the shade of his covered front porch.
Hunsaker raised his glass. “Getting settled in the trailer?”
“Slowly, yeah, but it's going to take a little whileâmore shit to unpack than I thought.”
“Well, son, there's no rush. You got plenty of time.”
Ned sipped his iced tea before continuing. “The scuttlebutt around town is that you got yourself mixed up in Greenbriar's murder case. That true?”
“How're you feelin about that?”
“I didn't expect it, that's for sure. And talk about bad timingâfirst day on the job, no less.”
“Some things are just fated, I guess,” said Hunsaker.
“Maybe so. When I took this job, I assumed my days chasing murder suspects were over. I'd been trying to wrap my head around the notion of a simpler life commiserating with nature and being a good steward for public land.”
Ned frowned. “Not that simple, is it? The word is that the BLM has taken over the investigation. If it's true, I'm surprised Alexis would go along. I can't imagine what's in it for the BLM except a gut full of heartburn.”
“Tell you the truth, so was I. My sense is that Alexis saw a chance to improve relations with the county by working cooperatively on something instead of the usual bickering and conflict.”
“That makes sense. Hope she's right.”
“Me, too.” They sat quietly for a couple of minutes enjoying the evening shade and the cold, berry-flavored tea.
“Let me ask you a question, Ned. It appears in the months leading up to his murder, Greenbriar was focused on trying to prevent road expansion into wilderness areas. Who are the major stakeholders on that issue? Who stands to gain the most from road expansion?”
Ned pondered the question. “First off there's the ranchers. They're going to oppose most environmental initiatives just on principle. Many of them hunt and fish using their all-terrain vehicles. If they're running livestock, you can bet your britches they're on federal land, using grazing permits that have been in their family for generations.”
“Welfare ranching, that's what the environmental groups call it?”
“They do. Then there's the off-road vehicle organizations. They're always whining about more access to back-country. They'd love to see state and local government win on that issue. Greenies want to restrict ATV access to wilderness areas because of noise, air pollution, soil erosion, and damage to plant and wildlife.
“Then you've got anybody holding timber or mineral rights on public lands. Look at the number of logging operations around the West that have gone out of business in recent years because it's no longer cost-effective. What's the point of cutting timber in remote areas if you can't easily get in or out because you don't have roads?”
“So there's plenty at stake with several different groups having something to gain,” said Books.
“Or lose, as the case may be.” Hunsaker went into the house and came back with the pitcher of iced tea and refilled their glasses.
Books continued. “What's the legal basis for state and county governments to demand more back-country roads?”
“You're full of good questions tonight; hard ones, too. State and local governments are using an old federal law known as Revised Statute 2477, dating back to 1866. The statute granted public right-of-way across federal land. The problem is that when Congress repealed the law in 1976, existing roads were grand-fathered in. So the question becomes, what constitutes a road?
“Conservation groups believe that these so-called roads are nothing more than dirt tracks, and, in some instances, game trails. Greenbriar and his EEWA cohorts argue that this isn't about highways or transportation at all but a plain-and-simple land grab by Western states. In the end, I suppose the federal courts will have to sort it out.”
“What about you, Ned, what do you think?”
“For what it's worth, I tend to agree with the conservation groups on this one. Mind you, I don't claim to have seen all the so-called roads Utah is claiming under RS 2477, but the ones I have seen hardly seem like roads to me. There isn't one I've been on that wouldn't require a substantial four-wheel or off-road vehicle to get you through.”
Ned paused, took a large swallow of tea then belched. “You think it's the road issue that got Greenbriar killed?”
“I wish I knew. Unfortunately, it's only one of several possible theories.”
Early the next morning, Books stopped at the Ranch Inn & CafÃ© for breakfast. It was a small mom-and-pop motel with an attached restaurant that had been part of the Kanab scene for as long as he could remember. The restaurant was unofficially off-limits to BLM employees, because it catered to the local ranch community and, presumably, to the CFW crowd. He wasn't sure what kind of reception awaited him, but he figured that it might be a good place to hear the local scuttlebutt about Greenbriar's murder.
Rusty and Dixie Steed, who owned the business, had at one time operated a large cattle ranch a few miles outside of town. The Steeds had always treated Books well, even though his father worked for the federal government. He had seen them only once since he left town.
As a kid, Books remembered hearing that the Steed Cattle Company ran upwards of eight hundred head, mostly on BLM land, using federal grazing permits. Over time, the ranch, like many others in the area, became less and less profitable. Eventually, the Steeds purchased the motel and restaurant in town. They gradually reduced the size of their herd, sold off most of the grazing permits as well as some of their land, and became business owners instead of ranchers. Many locals, including the Steeds, blamed excessive federal regulations for the demise not only of the cattle industry but of an entire way of life.
Books took a seat at one end of the counter after a quick scan of customers scattered around the restaurant. He spotted Tommy McClain sitting in a corner booth with a guy he hadn't seen before. The man was younger than Books, with a beer belly that made him look nine months pregnant. Books wondered if it might be the same clown who had threatened David and Darby Greenbriar outside the Stagecoach Bar in the months before the murder.
The years hadn't been kind to McClain. Only a year older than Books, he looked closer to fifty. While still lean, he had thickened noticeably in the face, neck, and upper torso. Books guessed his present weight at something around two-thirty. His wrinkled skin was typical of a hard life spent outdoors laboring in dry, hot summers and windy, cold winters. The scowl on his face only deepened the lines on his forehead.
Books nodded. McClain ignored him. Then, Trees and Fatso gave Books the most hostile stares they could muster. A guy on the stool next to him nodded as he sat down but didn't speak. Rusty interrupted a conversation he was having at the other end of the counter and sauntered over to Books. He smiled and extended a hand.
“Hello, J.D., good to have you back in town, even if you are workin for the feds.”
Books ignored the feds comment. “Thanks, Rusty. How have you been? I don't think I've seen you and Dixie since Mom's funeral.”
“Think you're right. Oh, for a couple of old geezers, we're gettin' along just fine. About my only complaint these days are these arthritic old knees. Some days they just ache like hell, but that's mostly during the winter months.”
“You know the old saying, Rusty. Getting old isn't for sissies.”
“Ain't that the truth.”
Rusty stayed long enough to drop a menu in front of him, pour his coffee, and take his order. He then shuffled back to the other end of the counter and resumed his conversation. It was loud enough to overhear. No mention of the murder, but plenty of complaints about the price of hay and other commodities.
A few minutes later, Rusty brought him a plate of huevos rancheros and tortillas and refilled the coffee.
“What's the local gossip about the murder, Rusty?”
“Mining for information, are you, J.D.?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Really haven't heard much of anything. Everybody's being pretty tight-lipped about it. That said, you'd have to be a moron not to have a pretty good idea who the authorities are going to come looking for, don't you think?”
“What makes you say that, Rusty?”
“It's no secret that most people outside of the Greens hated the guy and his organizationâno tears being spilled over his demise, that's for sure. But it's still hard for me to swallow the notion that anybody in this town hated the man enough to bushwhack him.” Steed glanced up and slid down the counter muttering, “Speaking of moronsâ¦â¦”
The strong hand of Tommy McClain gripped Books' right shoulder and squeezed hard. Would Trees prefer to use those beefy hands around his neck? McClain stood on one side with Fatso on the other. Both wore silly-assed grins.
“Well, if it isn't Beavis and Butthead,” said Books. “Do you mind removing your hand from my shoulder? I think you forgot the Right Guard this morning. What brings you boys to town anywayârun out of glue to sniff?”
The stupid grins disappeared. “No reason to act hostile, Ranger Books. We just came by to say hello and welcome you back to town. We were also hopin' we might run across that pretty young widow of Greenbriar's so that we can extend our personal condolencesâand I do mean personal, right, Chase?” McClain said, slapping Chase on the shoulder. Both men laughed.
Still grinning, McClain continued. “Now if there's anything I can do to help catch this nasty criminal, Ranger Books, you don't hesitate to ask, ya hear?”
“I'll remember that. There is one thing you can do to help me out.”
“Yeah, what's that?”
“You can confess to the murder right now and save me the time and trouble of hunting down the lowlife bushwhacker who did this. And if your friend here helped you out, there's plenty of room in the jail for him too.”
McClain frowned and headed to the door. Without breaking stride, he said, “Be seein you real soon, Ranger Books.”
“Sooner than you think, moron,” said Books.
McClain stopped and turned. His friend Chase grabbed him by the arm and pushed him out the door, muttering, “Leave it, Trees. There'll be plenty of time to catch up with him later.”