A blog where Stephanie M. Belser test-drives her fictional stories.
Expect the occasional
"stall, spin, crash & burn".

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Blood on the Range- Chapter 2

Lena woke up the next morning to nineteen pounds of purring cat lying on her torso. When she opened her eyes, Bucko’s face was about two inches from her’s. “Off”, she said as she pushed him over.

Bucko jumped down to the floor and stalked out of the room as he said: “Owp. Owp. Owp.” Translated, that meant: “Feed me now.” Lena swung her legs over the edge of the bed, found her slippers and robe, and went downstairs. She started her one-cup coffee-maker brewing before she opened a can of food for the cat. Priorities. For herself, Lena had some nukeable oatmeal with a bit of maple syrup dribbled over it. She had a contact in Vermont who sent her a half-gallon each year, fresh from a sugar house. After she had first tasted it, she swore to thrash the next person who offered her that crappy “maple-flavored” syrup.

After scooping out the cat’s litter box and getting dressed, Lena drove directly to her office. It hadn’t snowed in a few days; the snow alongside the roads was beginning to take on a brownish-black tinge from both road sand and oil leaks. Other than the local airport, there was nothing out her road other than large plots of land with nondescript houses. Some of the properties were working farms, right up until she got almost to downtown Petersburg. Some of the properties were hobby ranches, most had at least one barn that might or might not hold a few horses. More did before the big recession hit.

She parked her car in the back lot and went up the rear stairs of the office building. There were no court appearances on her calendar, so she wore what passed for “business casual” for women: A blazer, a nice top, jeans and work boots. If she had to go to court for an emergency, she had a skirt and dress boots in her office that would go reasonably well with what she was wearing.

Lena hung up her coat and started her coffee pot for her next cup. She loved coffee, but not like her Uncle Dimitri. He regarded coffee as a suitable drink before going to bed, though he had once revealed to her that he preferred to spike it with vodka. Dimitri was later amazed to learn that his pre-bedtime drink was also called a “coffee martini.”

She plugged in an ethernet cable to her laptop and booted the computer. Previously, she had a simple wireless network, but a previous case in which someone was running some pretty sophisticated wiretapping on her made her leery of using a wireless network. She logged into her bank to see if those people at Sierra Hotel Investigations were on the level or not. Their funds transfer was in her account, but not the $750 or $800 she had quoted. They had sent her an even thousand bucks.

Lena took that as a signal that they wanted results sooner rather than later. She wrote an email to Jocelyn Graham at Northern Range Title Research Corp. to ask that their title researcher obtain copies of the deeds into Last Light, Inc., as well as a copy of the PILOT agreement, and she added that she’d pay the “rush” charge for quick service.

It piqued her interest, though. While she officially did not care why a private detective firm in Virginia was interested in a company owning land two thousand miles away, it seemed like a good idea to spend a few minutes to find out something about that company. She started with the Secretary of State’s website, which listed Last Light, Inc. as a not-for-profit corporation, which was in good standing. There was an address for service of legal papers, which Lena recognized as a law firm in Grover City which made a specialty out of shielding companies from the embarrassment of process servers.

There were a number of filings. One was for a change of name from Together Brethren, Inc., then one to change the company from a foreign corporation to a domestic one, which meant that they had started out elsewhere. They had been a Nevada corporation, which didn’t mean much, as Nevada was not too far behind Delaware for being a corporate-friendly state. The Nevada listing was with another law firm, so that was a dead end.

An Internet search for the Together Brethren pulled down some interesting results. The group was a religious sect which believed in living apart from those they deemed to be non-believers, which apparently meant the other 6.999999 billion people on the planet. The founder of the sect, Amos DeLay had been a man who was charismatic or insane, or both. He had founded his personal religious sect in the 1960s, which seemed more centered around his personal fondness for frequent sex and drug use than any particular form of Scriptural scholarship.

DeLay had proclaimed that he was a lawgiver empowered by God Almighty. He did not recognize any other form of law, which probably was why he ended up being shot dead thirty years ago by rifle fire from four Arizona highway patrolmen outside of the town of Thatcher. It seemed that DeLay had taken exception earlier that day to being issued a traffic ticket by a deputy sheriff in some wide spot in the road called “Three Way”. He had punctuated his objection to the ticket by riddling both the deputy and his patrol car with .45 slugs from a M-3 submachine gun.

After DeLay’s martyrdom, his sect had passed through several changes of leadership over the following decades. The sect had toned down on its “drugs are sacramental” after it became clearly apparent that the resultant arrests and prison terms were causing a huge turnover in church leadership. The sect was heavily into home-schooling the children of the flock. They had a history of setting up shop in remote areas, only to move on when matters of excessive corporal punishment and polygamy made life too hot for them.

Their term for the leader of the sect was “Master of the House”; at least three former Masters had served lengthy prison sentences. That did not work out terribly well for the authorities, as a number of ex-cons had joined the sect. Two groups that tracked extremist religious groups had concluded that the Together Brethren was more of a criminal enterprise than a religious association.

But all news coverage of the group had faded away seven years ago. Lena concluded that the group had changed its name and once more relocated, this time staying quiet, or at least under the radar. But it appeared that somebody was interested enough in them to hire a private investigation firm in Virginia.

It was all interesting information. But it wasn’t going to help Lena pay her bills. She had a surveillance job coming up in Hopkinton that afternoon. It was pretty dull work. The job was to watch a diner and keep track of the number of times that customers paid. The owner was convinced that his workers were skimming sales. Lena had a spot picked out that gave her a clear view of the register through the expansive glass windows of the diner. So she had to sit there for six hours a day for four days of her choosing (over a two-week period) and watch. It was dull as hell, but the owner had paid her fee in advance and without quibbling.

Six hours was a long time to do keep watch without a break. But this wasn’t like watching a person, it was possible to take a quick bathroom break if necessary. Winter surveillance was not fun to do. You can’t sit in the car and run the engine to keep warm. If you do that to keep warm and keep the windows clear, then the one warm car on a street or in a parking lot sticks out for anyone who knows what they should be looking for. It is even worse if it is cold enough to condense the water vapor in the engine exhaust. So the person running the surveillance had better be prepared to deal with cold. And it would get cold, because you had to also keep a window cracked open to keep your own exhaled breath from fogging the windows.

Better if you could find an indoor location for an observation post, not that Lena had one available to her. She just had to suck it up and work from her car. At least Hopkinton wasn’t a small town where her car would be noticed. Not that it was a big town, but as it was the closest town to Hopkins Air Force Base, which had been the original reason for the town’s existence. Military base towns were used to a significant transient population. People came and went, between those rotating in and out for what the Air Force called “permanent duty” and those there on “temporary duty”. Only the military regards staying in one place for just over a year as “permanent.” Lena knew places where if your grandparents weren’t born there, you were regarded as a “newcomer.”

Lena broke the transactions down by hour, making a tick-mark on a tally sheet ever time she saw a customer at the register. While she couldn’t determine every time whether they were paying by cash or plastic, she could see whether or not something changed hands. It was no longer reliable to watch for a customer signing something, as the credit card companies were not requiring signatures for purchases less than $25. Somebody would really have to pig out at a diner to eat more than $25 worth of food. It was a long and cold night for this, but it might not have been possible to do this surveillance in the summer, for somebody would have been more likely to spot her sitting alone in her car.

When six hours were up, she gratefully started the car and drove home. The roads were nearly empty. Hopkinton was two exits west of Petersburg, it took her a half-hour to drive back. Or it would have if pressure on her bladder hadn’t required a stop. She stopped at a gas station on Rt. 44, used its bathroom and topped her car off. It was only courteous, after all, to buy something from a place when you had used their bathroom.

A mile from her home, Lena had to slow down to get around a gaggle of emergency vehicles. Someone had center-punched a utility pole with a very large pickup truck. The pole must have been old or rotted, for it had come down. A State Light & Power truck was there, along with the cops, a fire truck, and an ambulance. Whatever curiosity Lena might have had was evaporated from the lateness of the hour. She was tired and she only wanted to get home.

Her home, as it turned out, had no power. She went to what looked like a garden shed, only it housed her propane-fired generator. She started it, then she went to the electrical panel in the basement of her house, switched almost all of the circuit breakers off and threw three switches. One switch disconnected the panel from the incoming line from the road, the second fed power from the generator and the third linked a light upstairs to street power. If that light was on, then she knew main power was available. She turned on the circuit breakers that powered the water pump, the furnace (which immediately kicked on), the refrigerator, her deep freezer and some strategically-placed lights. Not for the first time did she rue not paying an electrician to install a gizmo that would have done all this automatically.

There was a clock on one of the essential circuits. According to it, the power had been out for thirty minutes, which meant that she could take a hot shower. Before that, Lena started a fire in her wood stove. By the time that she was ready to go to bed, she would choke down on the air feed to the stove, so that the wood would burn slowly and the stove would work for several hours. More importantly, it would keep her house from getting too cold when she went back outside to shut off the generator.

She fed the cat and ate a small snack. While she was hungry, she knew better than to eat a full meal just before going to bed. After she ate and showered, Lena sat down on her couch for a little bit to read. Bucko jumped up next to her and laid down against her. She scratched his belly, he stretched out and purred. In a half-hour or so, Lena pulled on a pair of boots, put on a coat picked up a flashlight and went outside to shut off the generator. It was past midnight and she was tired.

1 comment:

Frank Van Haste said...

"Six hours was a long time to do keep watch without a break."

Only typo I noticed. Lookin' fwd to Ch. 3. So far, I like!