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

Monday, June 3, 2013

Blood on the Range

A draft of the first chapter of a work in progress:

Chapter 1

Lena Smirnova went out for lunch that day. She was jonesing for nice greasy burger, which meant a drive to Skipper’s Grill. The general opinion was that Skipper’s Grill was the equivalent of a vampire building. During the day, it was a terrific place for hamburgers, steaks and catfish. At night, it transformed itself into a notorious bucket-o’-blood. More than one sheriff had stationed a cruiser on the other side of the road to try and tamp things down, with little success.

The interior of Skipper’s was pretty dingy at night, or so Lena had been told. She wouldn’t have gone in there in the evening without being accompanied by a Marine reinforced rifle platoon. During the day, however, the interior was brightly lit and almost cheerful. The owners recognized the schizophrenic nature of their customer base, in that the daylight customers were different from the night-time customers. The changeover between the two was almost as well-defined as the shift change in a factory.

Lena had a one-third pound hamburger with Monterey jack cheese, lettuce and curly fries. Where she lived, no cook would give anyone grief for ordering a hamburger cooked medium. If you were crazy enough to order it rare or even raw, that’s what you got. Nobody would have put up with the state telling them otherwise, as the general consensus was that the state legislature, known colloquially as the “Lege”, was collectively too stupid to pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were printed on the heel. Her burger was done the way she wanted. Donna Hamilton, the waitress that day (and as Lena knew, one of the owners), was glad to hear it. Then she razzed Lena somewhat for having a tan in February.

The razzing was accepted in the spirit for which it was given. Yes, it was possible to find a tanning bed in Petersburg in the middle of winter. Not that there were that many, for it wasn’t that big of a town. Not to mention the fact that most people would have recoiled in horror at the idea of throwing away good money to brown one’s skin. Petersburgers in the main did not have the money to spend on something so foolish.

Lena had come by her tan honestly, on a Caribbean beach. She had been on vacation after a particularly grueling case. It had been nice to trade snow and temperatures of ten below for sandy beaches and temperatures in the upper seventies. But it seemed somehow wrong to not wear a heavy coat and boots in the winter. Winter was a season in Petersburg, but in the Caribbeans, it was just a period of time for harvesting money from tourists. Still, it had been enjoyable to go there, especially since she had taken her young cousin, Anna, with her. It had been Anna’s first trip out of the continental U.S. and it was fun to, in effect, see things through her eyes.

Enough musing for now, Lena had work to do. She put down the money for her lunch, waved to Donna and drove back towards town. Her office was on the second floor of an old four-story brick building in downtown Petersburg at the corner of Main and Third streets. The downtown was not very large, five blocks by four blocks. Main Street, also known as State Route 44, ran north and south rough the center of town. Downtown was supposedly laid out on a grid pattern, but the streets didn’t quite align at right angles and the blocks were not all the same size. Local lore had it that the surveying team which laid out the town in the 19th Century had spent far more time in the saloons than at their transits.

The southern edge of the business district ended at Depot Street and the double-tracked mainline of the Chicago and Seattle Railway, which was now part of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. The old depot had burned down fifty years ago; it had been replaced by a “transportation center”, so named because it also incorporated an intercity bus stop. Old-timers told stories about the small jail in the old station where marshals who were transporting prisoners by train would lock their charges up overnight while the marshals would partake of the saloons and the bordellos that bordered the rail yard. The new station had not needed a jail.

Lena had time to think about that as the gates at the grade crossing came down when she was two cars away from the tracks. The head of the slow-moving westbound train had four engines, all roaring as they tried to accelerate a lengthy string of freight cars. Lena figured that she’d be there awhile; she turned off her Subaru’s engine and just listened to music as the train ground past.

Finally the last car passed by. Lena started her car and drove across the tracks. She was half-a-block north when she heard the bells of the gates as they went down for an eastbound train. There were a lot of cars and trucks still waiting to get across the tracks from the last train, their occupants were going to be pissed.

She turned left on 2nd Street, then left again into the parking lot behind her building. Her office was over a shoe store. There was an entrance to the staircase in front, with the shoe store on the corner side of the building and a consignment store on the other side of the stairs. Lena went in the back entrance and up those stairs.

Her office had a view of 2nd Street and the parking lot. Lena pushed the code buttons on the lock to her outer office and opened the door. She left the lock unlatched, closed the door and went into her inner office. After she took her coat off, she reloaded her coffee maker and turned it on. The Arab world may get a lot of crap in this post-9-11 society, but they had invented coffee, for which Lena was profoundly grateful.

As the coffee was brewing, Lena opened her laptop. There was an email from a Sam at Sierra Hotel Investigations in northern Virginia. They wanted to know what properties were owned by an organization named “Last Light, Inc.” in Gibson County and how much it would cost to obtain deed copies. That seemed pretty strange to her, for they could have contacted a title company directly and saved themselves Lena’s fee.

She went online to the county clerk’s land records section and ran the owner’s name. There were ten entries in the grantee index, which listed who had received deeds. Lena cross-checked the grantor index, which didn’t show any transfers, but did show a “payment in lieu of taxes” agreement. The existence of a PILOT agreement suggested that the land was either for an industrial development or was a non-profit which agreed to pay something to the county in exchange for a formal exemption from paying real estate taxes.

Her reply email quoted an estimated fee of $750, stated that the price could fluctuate depending on the page length of the deeds, mentioned the PILOT agreement and remarked that if they wanted copies of that, to add another fifty bucks to the estimate. Fifteen minutes later, Sierra Hotel Investigators accepted the estimate with a request for bank routing information. Lena sent back the information for her lawyer’s trust account.

She spent the rest of the day working on an employment discrimination case. A judge had thrown the case out on a summary judgment, because he didn’t seem to think that there was anything wrong with a factory foreman extorting sex from his workers in exchange for overtime assignments. Lena was writing a killer appellate brief, but she didn’t have a lot of hope in it. Judges seemed to think that harassed workers should go find another job, which ignored points like vesting in retirement plans, seniority and the scarcity of good-paying jobs in general. Appeals court judges often were even more removed from the reality of blue-collar life. So even though she was putting her maximum effort into this appeal, she had very little hope for it.

Lena saved her work and backed it up to a jump drive, which she locked up. She donned her coat, slid her Bulldog into its holster, picked up her laptop and left her office, ensuring that the lock engaged on the way out. It took her fifteen minutes to drive home, where her cat, Bucko, was waiting for his supper. He was getting older and he was mellowing out as he aged. Oh, he still had a boatload of attitude, but he was slowly becoming more friendly.

After she ate dinner, Lena went through her mail. It was going on eight years since she had graduated and her law school kept sending her fund-raising stuff. One year, the school had bragged that their last graduating class was averaging $65,000 a year. That was a year that Lena had not done terribly well, so she wrote them and suggested that the school hit up those kids for money. That didn’t stop them from trying to get her to cough up donations.

Lena changed into casual clothing, jeans, a loose sweatshirt with a butterfly design and a corduroy coat. She chose those clothes because they concealed her revolver. Then she drove to her uncle Bill’s house to pick up her cousin Anna. Anna had been hired by the Doolittle County Sheriff’s Department to run alcohol stings to see who was selling to minors. That was probably a natural bit, since Uncle Bill was a lieutenant with the Grace County Sheriff’s Department. He had agreed only if either he or another family member would go along to watch out for Anna. Doolittle County chose “another”, so he asked Lena to act as the chaperone.

It was about seven when Lena pulled up at her uncle Bill and aunt Sue’s house. Anna ran out and jumped into Lena’s car. Her father followed and he came over to Lena’s side of the car. She got out of the car and closed the door.

“I’ll keep an eye on her, Uncle Bill,” Lena assured him.

“I know you will,” he said solemnly. He handed her a cell phone. “Call your own number on it and tell her to put it in her coat pocket when she goes it, so you can hear what happens.”

She took the phone. “Good idea.”

He nodded. “You armed?”


“OK.” Uncle Bill opened the driver’s door and Lena got in. “Good luck to you both, and call when you start back for Petersburg.”
Lena said “sure” and Anna said “`Bye, Dad.” Bill shut the door, he stepped back, and Lena put it into gear.
Lena glanced over at her cousin as she drove. Anna had on Ugg boots, jeans and a silver down jacket. She was a high school junior and the proud possessor of a shiny new driver’s license, though she had been driving farm vehicles since she was tall enough to reach the pedals. Lena thought that Anna barely looked to be fourteen. These would have to be the dumbest store clerks in the state if they thought that Anna was old enough to buy beer.

When they got to the sheriff’s department in Edgartown, the two deputies running the sting were ready. They wired Anna up so they could hear what was going on. They briefed Anna on what to do: Drive up to the convenience stores and grocery stores on the list and try to buy a bag of chips and a six-pack of Budweiser, but not to whine or argue if they wouldn’t sell her any beer. They even had a beater of a tan Nissan pickup for her to drive to the stores and they gave her buy money. If the clerk sold her beer, Anna was to say a code word as she left the store; they’d pick it up and come in for the bust.
One of the deputies looked at Lena and said: “You can wait here at the station, ma’am.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” Before the deputy could say anything else, Lena showed him her state police badge. She had the badge because she was a certified contractor to the state police, known colloquially as “the Staties”.

He drew himself up. “What’s the Staties’ interest in this?”

“She’s my cousin. And since she is Grace County Sheriff’s Deputy Lieutenant Bridge’s daughter, you either get him or me.”

The deputy conceded. “OK, you can ride with us in the van.”

Lena shrugged. “Yeah, this should be quick. You’ve got to have some brain-dead store clerks here to sell beer to my cousin.” She handed the cell phone to Anna, but didn’t use it to call herself. The wire should be good enough.

“You’d be surprised,” he muttered.

Lena got in the van with the two deputies. Anna followed the van with her loaner truck. Three more deputies followed in individual marked cruisers. They stopped a block or so away from a place that had a sign: “23½ Hour Mini-Mart”. The lead deputy got out, went over to Anna’s truck, then Anna drove to the store, parked and went inside. She was in and out in less than ninety seconds with only a bag of Doritos.

At this point, Lena suggested they could speed things up if they worked with Anna by cell phone. Anna couldn’t buy beer at the second store. At the third store, she came outside with a six-pack. She spoke the code word. The lead deputy, Kendricks, detailed one of the deputies following in a cruiser to go in and issue a summons to the clerk. Anna gave the beer to that deputy for evidence.

They used Anna to check fifteen stores that evening, quitting at ten pm. She was able to buy beer four times. Back at the station, they added up all of the receipts and reconciled that against the cash Anna had left over. Lena was sort of curious as to what the deputies intended to do with all of those bags of chips and cookies, but she didn’t ask.

Anna gave the deputies back their wire. Kendricks thanked Anna for her service and told her that they would send the necessary affidavits to her father for her to sign. Lena called her uncle to let him know that they had finished and were starting back.
As Lena pulled onto the highway, Anna asked: “Do you think I’ll get to testify in court?”

Lena snorted. “Not hardly.”

“But why?” Anna sounded disappointed.

“Because you’re a sixteen year old kid. They’re supposed to card everyone who appears to be under 25. No defense lawyer’s going to waste the court’s time by arguing that you look to be 25, Anna. They’ll plea-bargain all of them out.”

“Oh.” Anna pulled an iPod from her jacket pocket, popped in the ear buds and started listening to something. Lena sighed and turned on the radio; she was able to tune in a news program on one of the CBC AM stations.

That passed the time for the trip back home. When Lena drove up Anna’s driveway, she saw Uncle Bill step out the side door. Anna said a quick “ThanksLenaBye” and went inside. Lena smiled. She told her uncle that Anna had his phone, she gave him a quick rundown on how the operation went, then she went home. It was late, she was tired and she could feel that her bed was calling her name.

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