Authors: Gary Brandner
THE HOWLING III
Sheriff Gavin Ramsay stretched out a foot and nudged the switch on the electric heater to Off with the toe of his boot. The heater coils twanged as the red glow faded. The voters of La Reina County, all 4012 of them, would be proud of their sheriffs economy moves.
Ramsay hoisted his foot back to the top of the desk and resumed his contemplation of the view from his office window. Out in front ran S31, a two-lane blacktop with a flaking yellow centre stripe badly in need of repainting. S31 was also the main street of Pinyon, California, seat of La Reina County, pop. 2109, elev. 3550.
Across the road from the sheriffs office was Art Moore’s Exxon station, a Pioneer Chicken franchise, and Hackett’s Pharmacy. On his own side of the road, out of Ramsay’s line of sight was Yates Hardware & Plumbing, the Safeway, the boarded-up Rialto theatre, and the Pinyon Inn. That was about it for Pinyon, except for the library and La Reina County Hospital, which were built off the road on the high ground between S31 and the mountains.
The storm that had hammered the town for two days had moved on in the early morning hours, leaving everything wet and bedraggled. The landscape would need a couple of days of sunshine to dry out.
Gavin Ramsay was more than ready for some dry weather. The rain depressed him. Elise used to get poetic about the rain. Literally. She would go to her typewriter and turn out pages of tortured free verse whenever a few raindrops fell. Then she would show it to Gavin and ask what he thought of it. In the first year of their marriage he used to lie and say it was good, really good. After that first year he started telling her the truth. By that time it didn’t matter any more.
Today was the last day of March, and with luck there would not be another big storm until fall. Summer would bring its own problems - motorcycle gangs, irritable tourists, lost hikers, and campers with poison oak. Nothing he couldn’t handle as long as it was not raining.
Probably there would be fewer problems with hikers and campers this year. Thoughtful people were not eager to go into the woods since the Drago business. You couldn’t blame them. It was peaceful now, but sometimes on a quiet night you could still hear it. The howling.
In truth, there wasn’t a whole lot for a sheriff and two deputies to do in La Reina County. Well, one deputy and a trainee assigned here by the state to be accurate. Right now the prospect of a quiet summer suited Gavin Ramsay just fine. After the double trauma of Drago and his divorce from Elise he could use the time to reassemble his life.
The people of La Reina County were happy to see things calm down again. Drago was enough excitement for several lifetimes. It was kind of fun for a while; now the folks would just as soon not talk about it.
They still got a fair number of sightseers who detoured off Interstate 5 hoping to see something of the infamous village. They might as well have stayed home. There was nothing left to see.
The asphalt road connecting Pinyon to Drago had buckled and cracked with the heat of the fire, and there were wooden barriers put up by Caltrans to block it off. Still, determined curiosity-seekers could get through in a tough truck. Those driving something less rugged turned back to Pinyon where they searched in vain for souvenir shops. Some of the locals used to joke down at the Pinyon Inn about printing up a bunch of Drago Tshirts with bite marks and red splotches, but those jokes got old in a hurry.
Gavin Ramsay had functioned with his usual quiet efficiency during the Drago business. In a way it was a relief for him to get away from home at the time. Now, like the rest of the people in town, he didn’t want to talk about it. Not about Drago or Elise. That did not mean he had forgotten. Nobody who lived through Drago would ever forget. Elise, either, for that matter. You just didn’t want to talk about it.
He picked up a paperback novel from the other desk in the pine-panelled office, the one shared by his two deputies. Ed McBain: 87th Precinct. It must belong to Milo Fernandez, the trainee. Roy Nevins’s taste ran more to Hustler.
Milo was an eager kid, still excited by the idea of police work. Roy Nevins wasn’t excited by much of anything these days, except finishing up his twenty years of public service and living the rest of his life comfortably off the taxpayers of California.
They should be returning soon. It was after four and getting dark. Ramsay felt a little guilty about sending them out on what figured to be a wild-goose chase, but he could see Milo getting restless with nothing to do, and Roy had been on the verge of falling asleep, They were not likely to find Abe Craddock and Curly Vane in the woods. Those fearless hunters were more likely holed up in some saloon down in Saugus where everybody had a tattoo and a pick-up truck. Still, Abe’s wife did call to say she was worried about him, and it was three days, so Ramsay was more or less obligated to look into it. Anyway, Milo would probably enjoy getting out of the office, and Roy could sure as hell use the exercise.
The gravel crunched outside and Orry Yates’s panel truck pulled on to the parking area. Yates Pluming was painted on the side in no-nonsense black letters. Orry claimed the misspelling was done deliberately to attract attention. Ramsay had his doubts.
Orry got out of the driver’s side of the truck and two teenagers, a boy and girl wearing backpacks, climbed out of the other. Orry led the way toward the office.
Ramsay swung his feet down to the floor and waited for them to come in. A tightening in his gut warned him that this was going to be trouble.
Orry held the door open for the young backpackers then herded them over to Ramsay’s desk. “Got a little problem, Gavin,” he said.
“These kids think they found a dead man in the woods.”
“You know how sometimes the light plays tricks coming through the trees. A tree stump or a mossy log can look like something else.”
The boy shot Orry a dark look. “If that’s a log laying out there, I’m Beaver Cleaver.”
Ramsay studied the young couple. The boy was thin and wouldn’t be bad looking if he shaved off the apologetic little moustache. The girl wore a UCLA sweatshirt and elastic jeans that showed off her firm little ass.
The sheriff cleared his throat and got businesslike. “Tell me about it.”
“We were, you know, hiking,” the boy said. “On a trail that leads off the old Drago Road, and Debbie goes, “Hey, you smell that?” and I go, “Smell what?” and she goes, “Like spoiled meat,” and I go - “
“Never mind the dialogue,” Ramsay said. “Tell me about finding the dead man.”
“That’s what I’m doing, man.”
“Could you speed it up?”
The boy looked sullen and Debbie took over. “We found him a little ways off the trail. A big guy, you know. Smelled really bad.”
The girl shrugged. “It was hard to tell. He was laying down. Dead, you know.” She looked at the boy and giggled.
“What did he look like?”
“Like a dead man,” the boy said.
“His face,” Ramsay prompted.
“Who knows?” the boy said. “There wasn’t much of it left. Like something had chewed on it.”
“Gross,” the girl confirmed.
Ramsay levered himself out of the chair. “Think you can take me to him?”
They nodded without enthusiasm.
“You gonna need me any more?” Orry Yates said.
“Not now, Orry. Thanks for bringing them in.”
They walked out of the small wooden building that served as La Reina County sheriffs office. It was built twenty years before as a sales office for an optimistic developer who thought there would be a migration of Los Angeles residents to the mountains. He was wrong.
Orry Yates climbed into the Yates Pluming truck, waved, and drove off. Ramsay led the teenagers around to the back where the beat-up Dodge wagon was parked. His Camaro went to Elise in the settlement. La Reina County could afford only one sheriffs car, and the deputies were using it.
Ramsay wondered if the dead man could be Abe Craddock or Curly Vane. If so, he owed somebody an apology for mentally placing them in a saloon somewhere.
However, if it was one of them, where was the other? An argument? Too much booze and a gun goes off? Better stop building a crime until he had a look at the scene. He kicked the engine of the eight-year-old wagon to life and took off for the old Drago road.
Deputy Roy Nevins stopped to pull his trousers free from the thorns of a wild blackberry bush. He knew this drill was one big waste of time. Craddock and Vane could find their way around these woods as well as anybody in the county. The only trouble they were likely to get into was when they came back to town and started drinking.
He knew Gavin Ramsay had sent him and Milo out here just to keep them busy. If it hadn’t been for the gung ho trainee, Deputy Nevins would have sacked out in the back of the car until dusk, then gone back and told Gavin there was no sign of Craddock and Vane. That’s what their search would add up to anyway. Zip. Only difference was now he’d get all wet and scratched up from these fucking thorns and his shoes would be ruined.
“Roy!” Milo called unseen from off to the left.
“Just checking our positions.”
Yeah, great. Ten fucking four. Milo could be a pain in the ass sometimes. But what the hell. He was only twenty. When Roy Nevins was twenty he was gung ho too. The kid might grow up to be a good cop. Not in La Reina County where a couple of overdue library books was a crime wave; but it was a start. Three months from now the state would put him somewhere else. Nice gentle way to break in as a cop. Not the way Roy Nevins had done it on the grungiest street in the grungiest section of Oakland.
Roy had been a cowboy back then himself. No more. Now he was sitting on a pension, just putting in his time.
Couple more years and he could buy that mobile home down in Baja. Sit around fishing with a cool Carta Blanca in his fist. A man could still live pretty damn good in Mexico for peanuts. Until then he would have to pass the days as comfortably as he could, and put up with a certain amount of shit like slogging through these dripping woods.
“Hey!” he yelled in the direction of Milo Fernandez.
“Let’s take a break.”
Roy stuck a Winston in his mouth and lit it. He eased his broad butt down on a boulder that looked reasonably dry. Milo Fernandez, neat and slim in his uniform, pushed through the wet underbrush and joined him.
The younger man looked up at the patches of sky they could see through the thick tops of the pine and Douglas fir trees.
“Not more than an hour of daylight left.”
“You think we’ll find those guys before dark?”
“Craddock and Vane? No way. Not before dark; not before Easter Sunday. They gotta be lost before we can find them. Those two ain’t lost. Shitfaced somewhere, maybe, but not lost.”
“How do you know?”
“Cause I know them two assholes. Why Betty Craddock wants us to find Abe beats the shit out of me. Best thing that could happen to her, he falls down in the middle of S31 and gets run over by a camper.”
“Well… we can give it a try, anyway.”
“Sure. Old college try. You go to college, tiger?”
“Junior college, actually. I need two more years for a degree.”
“Waste of time. You want to be a cop, don’t you?”
Milo Fernandez nodded.
“They not gonna teach you that in college. Only way to learn about being a cop is to be one.”
Roy was about to launch into a war story from his days as a real cop in Oakland, but the young deputy’s attention strayed.
Milo looked around at the dark, dripping trees. “Roy, where’s Drago from here?”
Nevins pointed off toward the south. “That way. Four, five miles.”
“I’d like to see it sometime.”
“Nothing to see. Dozen or so burned-out buildings.”
“What was it like, Roy? The fire and all. Was it exciting?”
Roy shrugged. He pulled on his Winston, coughed, and spat on the ground. “Sure, if you get off on poking through ashes trying to make out which is human and which is… something else.”
The young trainee caught the older deputy’s hesitation and looked at him quickly. Roy studied the glowing tip of his cigarette and stopped talking.
Milo Fernandez looked off toward the south as though trying to see the burned-out village through five miles of forest. “What do you think was going on there, Roy? At Drago? Before the fire?”
“Who knows? Cult of some kind. Los Angeles types. The people living there never went much outside their own village.”
“There were stories.”
“Yeah, I heard the stories. Bunch of crap.”
“Not human, people said.”
“There was howling, they say. In the woods. At night.”
“So what? There’s lots of funny noises in the woods at night.”
“People still heard things out here after the fire. After everybody in Drago was burned up.”
“Look, amigo, some other time we’ll sit around a campfire and scare the shit out of each other with ghost stories. I’m not in the mood now, okay?”