Death Drop by John Klawitter

EXTRACT FOR
Death Drop

(John Klawitter)


Author Acknowledgements

This project probably began a long time ago when my Navajo brother, James Curtis Shorty, invited me to go with him from Silver City and the deserts of Southern New Mexico (we were on a geology field trip) to spend a few days on the reservation of his people. That was over a half century ago. I was a college grind, and I didn’t go because I was worried about my grades and getting into grad school…but if I had taken that trip with him, I think it could have changed my life forever. Those lands are special, magical, as they say, enchanted. And, in a way, I’ve been trying to understand just why ever since. A few years later, I did write and direct a short educational documentary on the Navajos in modern times, and Jimmy helped me do that film in and around Monument Valley. There had been some bad feelings about a spaghetti western shot earlier on the reservation, and without Jimmy’s help we’d never had gotten it done. And now, all these years later, his patience and his sense of humor, as well as his insights into the joys, the problems and the prospects of the people of the Southwest have been a huge contribution to writing this novel.
Taos, New Mexico, is a unique location, full of history, a rich heritage brought about by a mix of cultures, and lots of surprises. I have to thank Southwestern fine artist Bill Baron, a member of the legendary Taos Artists Group, for his understanding and his sharp and pitiless observations on the human condition.
Also, many thanks to educator, essayist and social commentator Richard Erlich, PhD, for his fine editorial services and his measured opinions that go above and beyond the normal call of duty.
And the last who is, in fact, always the first on my mind and in my heart, my deepest thanks to my best fan and my most honest and intense critic, my wife Lynn Jensen-Klawitter.



Chapter 1

My full given name is Alexia Georgianna the Third. Lexi, for short. I am a massive, shaggy-haired and perfectly formed wolfhound bitch, and I’m a champion. I’ve trotted the winner’s circle with the nice old lady who struggles to keep up with me. I’ve basked in the warm approval of dog lovers as they clap and cheer from the sidelines; I have been awarded the plaques and golden cups, and I have often felt big heavy medals carefully placed on my massive neck, the round prizes that shine golden under the bright lights.
My owner, a decent old lady named Cory Anderson, is proud of me, and I’ve been to breeder kennels for that experience of a lifetime, rewarded not once but four times. Joy, joy, joy and…well, this fourth time at Bornton Breeders, I have a problem and I think it is a serious one. The joy is still in the process of having some wonderful puppies, but also something very bad is here as well, something my mom-sense tells me I have to be on guard against.
It isn’t the stud dude they assigned to me. Manfred Arthur is young and proud and brave and he comes with top dog lineage, and he is quite up to his job. But after my three earlier breeding bouts, I know what I am doing and – not really bragging here – I have him huffing and puffing and in a bit of a whine before I lovingly wring him dry.
My worry doesn’t come from the food, either, and certainly not the kennels, which are in fact quite nice. It is something else.
In the short time I’ve been at Bornton Breeding Kennels, almost every bitch I see leaves with a sad look on her face. And from what I can tell, that’s because in each case one single puppy, the pick of the litter, goes missing before the owner shows up. It might be a day, it might be three or ten days, but that one little special pup is not to be found, and that’s not right. We lady dogs know it is too soon to be separated. We all know something at Bornton Kennels is very, very wrong.
I don’t need anything more than that to make up my mind. The same bad thing is going to happen to my own new brood. That is, unless I do something about it; and, as it happens, Lady Luck is giving me the perfect opportunity.


Chapter 2

Taos, New Mexico. Two in the afternoon in early December. One of those crisp, clear days with a no-forgiveness chill-your-blood wind hissing through the pines. Jessie Carter is in the driver’s seat of her dusty forest green Range Rover, a hand-me-down from Ed, her father. Jessie Carter; short blond hair, thirty-ish, pretty, bright, sensible, college degree in literature (one of the two not-so-sensible thing she’d ever done, might have been better to have gone into hotel management or bookkeeping if she’d wanted something practical, but then she’d have missed Keats and Shelly and Coleridge, and so she was happy with that choice. Chooli, the full-blooded Navajo girl who worked for Jessie’s father, was riding along to pick up a load of groceries she’d ordered from Cid’s Food Market. They \had stacked the cardboard boxes filled with food way in back and now they were going to pick up Jessie’s daughter Billie from middle school.
“You notice, the helpers disappeared when they saw us checking out,” Jessie flipped a careless thumb back at Cid’s.
“Yeah. Like magic.”
“Women as equals.” Jessie gave her friend a puckish grin.
“We been liberated. Get to vote now, and everything.”
Jessie pulled to a stop at the curb at the Taos Middle School. Chooli slid out of the passenger seat and moved to the middle seat to make room for Jessie’s daughter Billie. Chooli was a few years younger than Jessie; she’d come to Carter Cabins in an awkward and foolish time and, under the unusual circumstances, big hearted Ed hired her and she proved to be a hard worker, in charge of the main house kitchen and supervisor over the three Latina sisters who cleaned and made up the guest beds in the main house and the cabins.
“She’s usually waiting right here…” Jessie scanned the schoolyard, looking for her daughter.
“Over there.” Chooli pointed to the cement apron in front of the school. Billie was easy to spot, the center of attention as she yelled in her highest-pitched pre-teen girl’s voice at a boy about her age.
“Will too, dorky dork-brains!”
“Will not, crappy crap-head!”
She was arguing with Jimmy Flagg, both screaming kid curses with half the school watching. When she saw her mom and the Rover, Billie grabbed her book bag and hurried over. She got in the front seat and slammed the door hard so it wouldn’t rattle so much.
Jessie got back behind the wheel, shrugged at Chooli and gave her ten year old daughter a questioning look, “Jimmy’s not coming with us?”
“No, he is not. He called me a dork!”
“No, you called him that. He called you a crappy crap-head.”
“Whatever…”
“What were you arguing about?”
Billie lowered her dark eyebrows and pursed her young lips. With her brown hair and flashing eyes she took after her father, who had died in a racing car accident when she was just a toddler. “Jimmy says we’re gonna have to sell Carter Cabins. He says there’s a secret plan. His daddy’s gonna squeeze us out!”
“It better be a good plan. Believe me, Billie, Jimmy’s dad can’t squeeze anybody out. He’s only an employee. And we’re doing okay. And the people who own the lodge Jimmy’s daddy works for are in worse shape than we are.”
Jimmy’s family lived at the Taos Pines Lodge next door, just down the mountain from the Carter Cabins. They were newcomers, at least to the Carter way of looking at things, but so was nearly everyone else. The Carters had owned their big tract of land in the hills above Taos for generations. While it was true that Jimmy’s mom and dad, Art and Amy Flagg, had a sweet deal – free rent in a big manager’s suite and a nice salary – they didn’t own anything. They had moved up from Santa Fe two years before to manage the lodge. Jimmy’s mom handled the staff and his dad was general manager, both reporting to some big corporation in Los Angeles. But whatever their son had overheard had to be pure speculation; they were managers, not owners.
“Jimmy says he’s going to ride with Miss Paulson.”
Chooli smiled and shook her head. “He must really be mad at you. He hates to ride with Miss Paulson.”
“Aw, he’ll get over it. We’re best friends, you know.”
“I know. That’s the way best friends are.”
“Do you have a best friend, Chooli?”
The Navajo girl nodded, her dark eyes sparkling, her short clipped black hair close around her face. “Your family is my best friends.”
“Well then, you know how it is.”
“Yes, I do.” Chooli gave her a playful tap on the back of her head.



Chapter 3

That day Church Dickens came in to work early, driving in from his apartment in Santa Monica to the Verhu Financial building in West L.A., not to do actual work, but to get in some light morning exercise before his appointment at the nearby Veterans Hospital. Verhu had a great little workout gym – executive employees only – tucked in one corner of the lobby of the eleven-story building. The room was crammed with weights and machines, and now they’d added something new, a climbing wall.
Church was expecting to be alone, and he did have the place to himself for all of about five minutes. He was doing deep pulls on the rowing machine when Philby walked in: thin, wiry, ancient, a blinking vacant look on his face. Church’s boss Alan Philby, the quasi-legendary head of Verhu Financial.
The old man folded his ancient Brooks Brothers suit jacket and carefully placed it on the seat of a stationary bike. He took off his tie. He unlaced his shining Florsheim shoes and lined them up on the floor. He left his suit pants on.
“Hello, Dickens,” Philby said as he fell to the floor.
“Hi, Alan.” Church ignored the fall; he’d seen this move before.
Old Alan’s rigid palms smacked the polished cement surface and he started pushups, counting, “One – Two – Three,” until he got to twelve, on the last three pushing with enough energy to clap his hands together.
“Show off,” Church said.
Philby ignored the jab. He jumped to his feet, tried to hide that he was panting. “Real men – don’t use – machines.”
“You ever see that bit on TV with Jack Palance at the Oscars?”
A frown crossed Alan’s thin features and he blinked twice. He didn’t like not knowing things. “Jack Who? No, what was that?”
“It was in the early 1990s. Jack Palance was really old at the time.”
“Old as me?”
“Older, I guess. He was up for Best Supporting Actor – won it, too – takes the stage to pick up his statue and starts doing pushups.”
“Anybody can do pushups. I can do a hundred.”
“One-handed pushups.”
Philby’s frown deepened “I don’t see you doing any pushups.”
“Can’t. Docs at the VA won’t let me. Maybe someday, they tell me…”
But Philby’s mind had wandered back to the Oscars. “Those statues they give the actors … I bet they ain’t real gold.”
“You’re betting right. They’re just gold plated.”
Philby was putting his tie back on, having set aside the rest of the dozen warm-up exercises he’d been telling everybody he’d learned in the military in the 1950’s. “How do you know that about them statues?”
“I know metals. I have a B.S. in Geology.”
“I know BS when I hear it.”
That sent Dickens’ mind searching for some way to avoid confrontation. Annie, Philby’s old secretary, says he was supposed to be on meds, but confided he goes off them whenever he feels like it.
Dickens decided the metallic composition of an Oscar probably was a safe topic. “No, seriously, Alan. Last year around Academy Awards time, ABC Nightly News did a report. The Oscar statues are cast in heavy bronze. They plate that with copper, and after that, with nickel – and then that’s plated with pure 24 karat gold.”
“24 K gold!”
“Yeah, but just a thin layer.”
“Oh. Not expensive as it looks, then…”
Philby seemed to lose interest. He picked an imaginary string off his suit jacket. “You like my climbing wall?”
“Not really. It looks dangerous, cramped in here. Fall, you land on a bike.”
“Just don’t fall.”
“I guess…You climb it?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s nothing. Kid stuff.”
Dickens watched Philby glance at his image in a full-length mirror, straighten his tie and run his hands through his thinning hair. “I thought you did the military Daily Dozen. You still got eleven to go.”
“Measure twice, cut once,” Philby said. The old man blinked, looking around the empty room like he was seeing it for the first time. Then he headed for the door without another word, leaving the younger man to wonder what any of that was about. Had Philby stopped by just to do a few pushups? Did he have some other motive? With Philby there was no way to tell.
Church Dickens, who had only worked at Verhu for six months, went back to his rowing exercise. He’d learned a lot about his boss in the last few weeks, and some of it was very disquieting. A random comment by Annie, Alan’s former secretary, triggered his initial alarm; after that, some quiet digging turned up evidence that Philby was more than a tottering old fool; he was a serious financial renegade. This was, Dickens had solidly reprimanded himself, important background he should have looked up before he signed on. Back then the opportunity had looked too great to pass up, the chance to make junior partner in a year or two. And now Verhu was on his resume, and there was no way to delete that. Chances were good that old Philby wasn’t heading for Happy Times Retirement Village – he was going to jail; Church could end up down the hall in another room with bars on the windows and just one handle on the door.


Chapter 4

Jesse drove from town, heading back to the ski area. The narrow two lane asphalt road had been widened – and even expanded into four lanes in some areas – but as it headed steadily upward in elevation the switchbacks were still the narrow two lanes with steep drop-offs into canyons below.
“Beautiful, this time of day,” Chooli said.
“Yeah. But we sure could use some snow.”
Chooli had heard that complaint before, particularly the last couple years, and thought back for a moment. “Heavy snow that first season you came to the cabins.”
“You remember that, huh?”
“Hard to forget. Your daddy picked me up in a downright blizzard, Jess. I was hitching back to the rez; snowing so hard I was surprised he saw me standing by the road.”
“What happened, Chooli?” Billie said.
“You was just a toddler. Me, I was married to the sheriff.”
“You was married to Sheriff Joe, Chooli?”
“Yep. He wasn’t sheriff, just a deputy back then. And me, I was a child bride, thrown in the trunk of a rusty old Buick and hustled off to Vegas.”
“Nooo….” Billie gave her a wide-eyed look of disbelief.
“Oh, yeah. I had a mean old uncle, drunk, and we were living with him and my aunt in a mobile home in Tuba City, sleeping on the floor. Mom’s at work, Uncle Tony kidnaps me, shipped me off to Vegas.”
Billie looked from Chooli to Jessie, “I don’t understand. How did -?”
“Bad things happen to good people,” Jessie said. “You couldn’t have been more than two or three, Billie. My mom – your grandma - had died of cancer when I was ten, long before you were born. After that the years went by and I grew up and got married and we had you and then a few years later daddy died.”
“But I know all that.”
“I know, honey. But then the time came when Grandpa Ed got lonely and one night he was sitting around with two of his old high school buddies and they all three declared they were tired of the single life. So they did a really dumb thing. They piled into Grandpa Ed’s big old Cadillac convertible and headed for Las Vegas, looking for fun and romance.”
Billie gave out a snorting laugh. “No, they didn’t…”
“Oh, yeah, they did. And their crazy plan worked – at least it seemed to, at first. I guess they thought they were in one of those madcap adventures like you see in the movies, three free and single buddies in their mid-life crisis driving to Sin City to find true love in all the wrong places. Three single dudes headed out for Vegas that day, but a few days later three couples returned, their wild and crazy plans having succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. And then, as actual life would have it, the dreams changed themselves into nightmares.”
Billie, still not believing, shook her head, “Not possible.”
Jessie smiled, but there was a sad look on her face as she remembered how the adventure of the three amigos had played out, Grandpa Ed’s new bride turning out to be Kate, the mean money-grubber. Joey the cop, Chooli’s new husband was a wife-beater, so that wasn’t going to work. And the third was some tramp from Sin City, took one look at Taos, stole whatever cash she could lay her hands on and disappeared, probably heading right back for Vegas.
Billie’s Great Grandpa Frank was gone and Jessie’s dad Ed was getting on in his sixties now, still ornery as ever, still very much in charge of Carter Cabins, though Vegas Kate thought she ran things. Las Vegas Kate, thin face, cigarette in a corner of her wrinkled lips, not aging well, a case of obsessive/compulsive disorder or maybe something worse, never satisfied, always trying to put people and things in their proper place.
Jessie didn’t like to hide anything from Billie, but still … what had happened made the grownups she was supposed to look up to seem worse than kids. She paused, wondering how best to go on with the story – after all, Ed was too stubborn to admit his mistake and they all had to live with Kate at the cabins.
But then Billie screamed, “Mom, look out!”
The next moment Jessie heard the hard blat of an air horn, not so much a warning as a shriek of doom. And she saw the rusty-chrome tooth grill of a huge logging truck that crossed into their lane and was heading straight for them.

Death Drop by John Klawitter

EXTRACT FOR
Death Drop

(John Klawitter)


Author Acknowledgements

This project probably began a long time ago when my Navajo brother, James Curtis Shorty, invited me to go with him from Silver City and the deserts of Southern New Mexico (we were on a geology field trip) to spend a few days on the reservation of his people. That was over a half century ago. I was a college grind, and I didn’t go because I was worried about my grades and getting into grad school…but if I had taken that trip with him, I think it could have changed my life forever. Those lands are special, magical, as they say, enchanted. And, in a way, I’ve been trying to understand just why ever since. A few years later, I did write and direct a short educational documentary on the Navajos in modern times, and Jimmy helped me do that film in and around Monument Valley. There had been some bad feelings about a spaghetti western shot earlier on the reservation, and without Jimmy’s help we’d never had gotten it done. And now, all these years later, his patience and his sense of humor, as well as his insights into the joys, the problems and the prospects of the people of the Southwest have been a huge contribution to writing this novel.
Taos, New Mexico, is a unique location, full of history, a rich heritage brought about by a mix of cultures, and lots of surprises. I have to thank Southwestern fine artist Bill Baron, a member of the legendary Taos Artists Group, for his understanding and his sharp and pitiless observations on the human condition.
Also, many thanks to educator, essayist and social commentator Richard Erlich, PhD, for his fine editorial services and his measured opinions that go above and beyond the normal call of duty.
And the last who is, in fact, always the first on my mind and in my heart, my deepest thanks to my best fan and my most honest and intense critic, my wife Lynn Jensen-Klawitter.



Chapter 1

My full given name is Alexia Georgianna the Third. Lexi, for short. I am a massive, shaggy-haired and perfectly formed wolfhound bitch, and I’m a champion. I’ve trotted the winner’s circle with the nice old lady who struggles to keep up with me. I’ve basked in the warm approval of dog lovers as they clap and cheer from the sidelines; I have been awarded the plaques and golden cups, and I have often felt big heavy medals carefully placed on my massive neck, the round prizes that shine golden under the bright lights.
My owner, a decent old lady named Cory Anderson, is proud of me, and I’ve been to breeder kennels for that experience of a lifetime, rewarded not once but four times. Joy, joy, joy and…well, this fourth time at Bornton Breeders, I have a problem and I think it is a serious one. The joy is still in the process of having some wonderful puppies, but also something very bad is here as well, something my mom-sense tells me I have to be on guard against.
It isn’t the stud dude they assigned to me. Manfred Arthur is young and proud and brave and he comes with top dog lineage, and he is quite up to his job. But after my three earlier breeding bouts, I know what I am doing and – not really bragging here – I have him huffing and puffing and in a bit of a whine before I lovingly wring him dry.
My worry doesn’t come from the food, either, and certainly not the kennels, which are in fact quite nice. It is something else.
In the short time I’ve been at Bornton Breeding Kennels, almost every bitch I see leaves with a sad look on her face. And from what I can tell, that’s because in each case one single puppy, the pick of the litter, goes missing before the owner shows up. It might be a day, it might be three or ten days, but that one little special pup is not to be found, and that’s not right. We lady dogs know it is too soon to be separated. We all know something at Bornton Kennels is very, very wrong.
I don’t need anything more than that to make up my mind. The same bad thing is going to happen to my own new brood. That is, unless I do something about it; and, as it happens, Lady Luck is giving me the perfect opportunity.


Chapter 2

Taos, New Mexico. Two in the afternoon in early December. One of those crisp, clear days with a no-forgiveness chill-your-blood wind hissing through the pines. Jessie Carter is in the driver’s seat of her dusty forest green Range Rover, a hand-me-down from Ed, her father. Jessie Carter; short blond hair, thirty-ish, pretty, bright, sensible, college degree in literature (one of the two not-so-sensible thing she’d ever done, might have been better to have gone into hotel management or bookkeeping if she’d wanted something practical, but then she’d have missed Keats and Shelly and Coleridge, and so she was happy with that choice. Chooli, the full-blooded Navajo girl who worked for Jessie’s father, was riding along to pick up a load of groceries she’d ordered from Cid’s Food Market. They \had stacked the cardboard boxes filled with food way in back and now they were going to pick up Jessie’s daughter Billie from middle school.
“You notice, the helpers disappeared when they saw us checking out,” Jessie flipped a careless thumb back at Cid’s.
“Yeah. Like magic.”
“Women as equals.” Jessie gave her friend a puckish grin.
“We been liberated. Get to vote now, and everything.”
Jessie pulled to a stop at the curb at the Taos Middle School. Chooli slid out of the passenger seat and moved to the middle seat to make room for Jessie’s daughter Billie. Chooli was a few years younger than Jessie; she’d come to Carter Cabins in an awkward and foolish time and, under the unusual circumstances, big hearted Ed hired her and she proved to be a hard worker, in charge of the main house kitchen and supervisor over the three Latina sisters who cleaned and made up the guest beds in the main house and the cabins.
“She’s usually waiting right here…” Jessie scanned the schoolyard, looking for her daughter.
“Over there.” Chooli pointed to the cement apron in front of the school. Billie was easy to spot, the center of attention as she yelled in her highest-pitched pre-teen girl’s voice at a boy about her age.
“Will too, dorky dork-brains!”
“Will not, crappy crap-head!”
She was arguing with Jimmy Flagg, both screaming kid curses with half the school watching. When she saw her mom and the Rover, Billie grabbed her book bag and hurried over. She got in the front seat and slammed the door hard so it wouldn’t rattle so much.
Jessie got back behind the wheel, shrugged at Chooli and gave her ten year old daughter a questioning look, “Jimmy’s not coming with us?”
“No, he is not. He called me a dork!”
“No, you called him that. He called you a crappy crap-head.”
“Whatever…”
“What were you arguing about?”
Billie lowered her dark eyebrows and pursed her young lips. With her brown hair and flashing eyes she took after her father, who had died in a racing car accident when she was just a toddler. “Jimmy says we’re gonna have to sell Carter Cabins. He says there’s a secret plan. His daddy’s gonna squeeze us out!”
“It better be a good plan. Believe me, Billie, Jimmy’s dad can’t squeeze anybody out. He’s only an employee. And we’re doing okay. And the people who own the lodge Jimmy’s daddy works for are in worse shape than we are.”
Jimmy’s family lived at the Taos Pines Lodge next door, just down the mountain from the Carter Cabins. They were newcomers, at least to the Carter way of looking at things, but so was nearly everyone else. The Carters had owned their big tract of land in the hills above Taos for generations. While it was true that Jimmy’s mom and dad, Art and Amy Flagg, had a sweet deal – free rent in a big manager’s suite and a nice salary – they didn’t own anything. They had moved up from Santa Fe two years before to manage the lodge. Jimmy’s mom handled the staff and his dad was general manager, both reporting to some big corporation in Los Angeles. But whatever their son had overheard had to be pure speculation; they were managers, not owners.
“Jimmy says he’s going to ride with Miss Paulson.”
Chooli smiled and shook her head. “He must really be mad at you. He hates to ride with Miss Paulson.”
“Aw, he’ll get over it. We’re best friends, you know.”
“I know. That’s the way best friends are.”
“Do you have a best friend, Chooli?”
The Navajo girl nodded, her dark eyes sparkling, her short clipped black hair close around her face. “Your family is my best friends.”
“Well then, you know how it is.”
“Yes, I do.” Chooli gave her a playful tap on the back of her head.



Chapter 3

That day Church Dickens came in to work early, driving in from his apartment in Santa Monica to the Verhu Financial building in West L.A., not to do actual work, but to get in some light morning exercise before his appointment at the nearby Veterans Hospital. Verhu had a great little workout gym – executive employees only – tucked in one corner of the lobby of the eleven-story building. The room was crammed with weights and machines, and now they’d added something new, a climbing wall.
Church was expecting to be alone, and he did have the place to himself for all of about five minutes. He was doing deep pulls on the rowing machine when Philby walked in: thin, wiry, ancient, a blinking vacant look on his face. Church’s boss Alan Philby, the quasi-legendary head of Verhu Financial.
The old man folded his ancient Brooks Brothers suit jacket and carefully placed it on the seat of a stationary bike. He took off his tie. He unlaced his shining Florsheim shoes and lined them up on the floor. He left his suit pants on.
“Hello, Dickens,” Philby said as he fell to the floor.
“Hi, Alan.” Church ignored the fall; he’d seen this move before.
Old Alan’s rigid palms smacked the polished cement surface and he started pushups, counting, “One – Two – Three,” until he got to twelve, on the last three pushing with enough energy to clap his hands together.
“Show off,” Church said.
Philby ignored the jab. He jumped to his feet, tried to hide that he was panting. “Real men – don’t use – machines.”
“You ever see that bit on TV with Jack Palance at the Oscars?”
A frown crossed Alan’s thin features and he blinked twice. He didn’t like not knowing things. “Jack Who? No, what was that?”
“It was in the early 1990s. Jack Palance was really old at the time.”
“Old as me?”
“Older, I guess. He was up for Best Supporting Actor – won it, too – takes the stage to pick up his statue and starts doing pushups.”
“Anybody can do pushups. I can do a hundred.”
“One-handed pushups.”
Philby’s frown deepened “I don’t see you doing any pushups.”
“Can’t. Docs at the VA won’t let me. Maybe someday, they tell me…”
But Philby’s mind had wandered back to the Oscars. “Those statues they give the actors … I bet they ain’t real gold.”
“You’re betting right. They’re just gold plated.”
Philby was putting his tie back on, having set aside the rest of the dozen warm-up exercises he’d been telling everybody he’d learned in the military in the 1950’s. “How do you know that about them statues?”
“I know metals. I have a B.S. in Geology.”
“I know BS when I hear it.”
That sent Dickens’ mind searching for some way to avoid confrontation. Annie, Philby’s old secretary, says he was supposed to be on meds, but confided he goes off them whenever he feels like it.
Dickens decided the metallic composition of an Oscar probably was a safe topic. “No, seriously, Alan. Last year around Academy Awards time, ABC Nightly News did a report. The Oscar statues are cast in heavy bronze. They plate that with copper, and after that, with nickel – and then that’s plated with pure 24 karat gold.”
“24 K gold!”
“Yeah, but just a thin layer.”
“Oh. Not expensive as it looks, then…”
Philby seemed to lose interest. He picked an imaginary string off his suit jacket. “You like my climbing wall?”
“Not really. It looks dangerous, cramped in here. Fall, you land on a bike.”
“Just don’t fall.”
“I guess…You climb it?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s nothing. Kid stuff.”
Dickens watched Philby glance at his image in a full-length mirror, straighten his tie and run his hands through his thinning hair. “I thought you did the military Daily Dozen. You still got eleven to go.”
“Measure twice, cut once,” Philby said. The old man blinked, looking around the empty room like he was seeing it for the first time. Then he headed for the door without another word, leaving the younger man to wonder what any of that was about. Had Philby stopped by just to do a few pushups? Did he have some other motive? With Philby there was no way to tell.
Church Dickens, who had only worked at Verhu for six months, went back to his rowing exercise. He’d learned a lot about his boss in the last few weeks, and some of it was very disquieting. A random comment by Annie, Alan’s former secretary, triggered his initial alarm; after that, some quiet digging turned up evidence that Philby was more than a tottering old fool; he was a serious financial renegade. This was, Dickens had solidly reprimanded himself, important background he should have looked up before he signed on. Back then the opportunity had looked too great to pass up, the chance to make junior partner in a year or two. And now Verhu was on his resume, and there was no way to delete that. Chances were good that old Philby wasn’t heading for Happy Times Retirement Village – he was going to jail; Church could end up down the hall in another room with bars on the windows and just one handle on the door.


Chapter 4

Jesse drove from town, heading back to the ski area. The narrow two lane asphalt road had been widened – and even expanded into four lanes in some areas – but as it headed steadily upward in elevation the switchbacks were still the narrow two lanes with steep drop-offs into canyons below.
“Beautiful, this time of day,” Chooli said.
“Yeah. But we sure could use some snow.”
Chooli had heard that complaint before, particularly the last couple years, and thought back for a moment. “Heavy snow that first season you came to the cabins.”
“You remember that, huh?”
“Hard to forget. Your daddy picked me up in a downright blizzard, Jess. I was hitching back to the rez; snowing so hard I was surprised he saw me standing by the road.”
“What happened, Chooli?” Billie said.
“You was just a toddler. Me, I was married to the sheriff.”
“You was married to Sheriff Joe, Chooli?”
“Yep. He wasn’t sheriff, just a deputy back then. And me, I was a child bride, thrown in the trunk of a rusty old Buick and hustled off to Vegas.”
“Nooo….” Billie gave her a wide-eyed look of disbelief.
“Oh, yeah. I had a mean old uncle, drunk, and we were living with him and my aunt in a mobile home in Tuba City, sleeping on the floor. Mom’s at work, Uncle Tony kidnaps me, shipped me off to Vegas.”
Billie looked from Chooli to Jessie, “I don’t understand. How did -?”
“Bad things happen to good people,” Jessie said. “You couldn’t have been more than two or three, Billie. My mom – your grandma - had died of cancer when I was ten, long before you were born. After that the years went by and I grew up and got married and we had you and then a few years later daddy died.”
“But I know all that.”
“I know, honey. But then the time came when Grandpa Ed got lonely and one night he was sitting around with two of his old high school buddies and they all three declared they were tired of the single life. So they did a really dumb thing. They piled into Grandpa Ed’s big old Cadillac convertible and headed for Las Vegas, looking for fun and romance.”
Billie gave out a snorting laugh. “No, they didn’t…”
“Oh, yeah, they did. And their crazy plan worked – at least it seemed to, at first. I guess they thought they were in one of those madcap adventures like you see in the movies, three free and single buddies in their mid-life crisis driving to Sin City to find true love in all the wrong places. Three single dudes headed out for Vegas that day, but a few days later three couples returned, their wild and crazy plans having succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. And then, as actual life would have it, the dreams changed themselves into nightmares.”
Billie, still not believing, shook her head, “Not possible.”
Jessie smiled, but there was a sad look on her face as she remembered how the adventure of the three amigos had played out, Grandpa Ed’s new bride turning out to be Kate, the mean money-grubber. Joey the cop, Chooli’s new husband was a wife-beater, so that wasn’t going to work. And the third was some tramp from Sin City, took one look at Taos, stole whatever cash she could lay her hands on and disappeared, probably heading right back for Vegas.
Billie’s Great Grandpa Frank was gone and Jessie’s dad Ed was getting on in his sixties now, still ornery as ever, still very much in charge of Carter Cabins, though Vegas Kate thought she ran things. Las Vegas Kate, thin face, cigarette in a corner of her wrinkled lips, not aging well, a case of obsessive/compulsive disorder or maybe something worse, never satisfied, always trying to put people and things in their proper place.
Jessie didn’t like to hide anything from Billie, but still … what had happened made the grownups she was supposed to look up to seem worse than kids. She paused, wondering how best to go on with the story – after all, Ed was too stubborn to admit his mistake and they all had to live with Kate at the cabins.
But then Billie screamed, “Mom, look out!”
The next moment Jessie heard the hard blat of an air horn, not so much a warning as a shriek of doom. And she saw the rusty-chrome tooth grill of a huge logging truck that crossed into their lane and was heading straight for them.

EXTRACT FOR
Death Drop

(John Klawitter)


Author Acknowledgements

This project probably began a long time ago when my Navajo brother, James Curtis Shorty, invited me to go with him from Silver City and the deserts of Southern New Mexico (we were on a geology field trip) to spend a few days on the reservation of his people. That was over a half century ago. I was a college grind, and I didn’t go because I was worried about my grades and getting into grad school…but if I had taken that trip with him, I think it could have changed my life forever. Those lands are special, magical, as they say, enchanted. And, in a way, I’ve been trying to understand just why ever since. A few years later, I did write and direct a short educational documentary on the Navajos in modern times, and Jimmy helped me do that film in and around Monument Valley. There had been some bad feelings about a spaghetti western shot earlier on the reservation, and without Jimmy’s help we’d never had gotten it done. And now, all these years later, his patience and his sense of humor, as well as his insights into the joys, the problems and the prospects of the people of the Southwest have been a huge contribution to writing this novel.
Taos, New Mexico, is a unique location, full of history, a rich heritage brought about by a mix of cultures, and lots of surprises. I have to thank Southwestern fine artist Bill Baron, a member of the legendary Taos Artists Group, for his understanding and his sharp and pitiless observations on the human condition.
Also, many thanks to educator, essayist and social commentator Richard Erlich, PhD, for his fine editorial services and his measured opinions that go above and beyond the normal call of duty.
And the last who is, in fact, always the first on my mind and in my heart, my deepest thanks to my best fan and my most honest and intense critic, my wife Lynn Jensen-Klawitter.



Chapter 1

My full given name is Alexia Georgianna the Third. Lexi, for short. I am a massive, shaggy-haired and perfectly formed wolfhound bitch, and I’m a champion. I’ve trotted the winner’s circle with the nice old lady who struggles to keep up with me. I’ve basked in the warm approval of dog lovers as they clap and cheer from the sidelines; I have been awarded the plaques and golden cups, and I have often felt big heavy medals carefully placed on my massive neck, the round prizes that shine golden under the bright lights.
My owner, a decent old lady named Cory Anderson, is proud of me, and I’ve been to breeder kennels for that experience of a lifetime, rewarded not once but four times. Joy, joy, joy and…well, this fourth time at Bornton Breeders, I have a problem and I think it is a serious one. The joy is still in the process of having some wonderful puppies, but also something very bad is here as well, something my mom-sense tells me I have to be on guard against.
It isn’t the stud dude they assigned to me. Manfred Arthur is young and proud and brave and he comes with top dog lineage, and he is quite up to his job. But after my three earlier breeding bouts, I know what I am doing and – not really bragging here – I have him huffing and puffing and in a bit of a whine before I lovingly wring him dry.
My worry doesn’t come from the food, either, and certainly not the kennels, which are in fact quite nice. It is something else.
In the short time I’ve been at Bornton Breeding Kennels, almost every bitch I see leaves with a sad look on her face. And from what I can tell, that’s because in each case one single puppy, the pick of the litter, goes missing before the owner shows up. It might be a day, it might be three or ten days, but that one little special pup is not to be found, and that’s not right. We lady dogs know it is too soon to be separated. We all know something at Bornton Kennels is very, very wrong.
I don’t need anything more than that to make up my mind. The same bad thing is going to happen to my own new brood. That is, unless I do something about it; and, as it happens, Lady Luck is giving me the perfect opportunity.


Chapter 2

Taos, New Mexico. Two in the afternoon in early December. One of those crisp, clear days with a no-forgiveness chill-your-blood wind hissing through the pines. Jessie Carter is in the driver’s seat of her dusty forest green Range Rover, a hand-me-down from Ed, her father. Jessie Carter; short blond hair, thirty-ish, pretty, bright, sensible, college degree in literature (one of the two not-so-sensible thing she’d ever done, might have been better to have gone into hotel management or bookkeeping if she’d wanted something practical, but then she’d have missed Keats and Shelly and Coleridge, and so she was happy with that choice. Chooli, the full-blooded Navajo girl who worked for Jessie’s father, was riding along to pick up a load of groceries she’d ordered from Cid’s Food Market. They \had stacked the cardboard boxes filled with food way in back and now they were going to pick up Jessie’s daughter Billie from middle school.
“You notice, the helpers disappeared when they saw us checking out,” Jessie flipped a careless thumb back at Cid’s.
“Yeah. Like magic.”
“Women as equals.” Jessie gave her friend a puckish grin.
“We been liberated. Get to vote now, and everything.”
Jessie pulled to a stop at the curb at the Taos Middle School. Chooli slid out of the passenger seat and moved to the middle seat to make room for Jessie’s daughter Billie. Chooli was a few years younger than Jessie; she’d come to Carter Cabins in an awkward and foolish time and, under the unusual circumstances, big hearted Ed hired her and she proved to be a hard worker, in charge of the main house kitchen and supervisor over the three Latina sisters who cleaned and made up the guest beds in the main house and the cabins.
“She’s usually waiting right here…” Jessie scanned the schoolyard, looking for her daughter.
“Over there.” Chooli pointed to the cement apron in front of the school. Billie was easy to spot, the center of attention as she yelled in her highest-pitched pre-teen girl’s voice at a boy about her age.
“Will too, dorky dork-brains!”
“Will not, crappy crap-head!”
She was arguing with Jimmy Flagg, both screaming kid curses with half the school watching. When she saw her mom and the Rover, Billie grabbed her book bag and hurried over. She got in the front seat and slammed the door hard so it wouldn’t rattle so much.
Jessie got back behind the wheel, shrugged at Chooli and gave her ten year old daughter a questioning look, “Jimmy’s not coming with us?”
“No, he is not. He called me a dork!”
“No, you called him that. He called you a crappy crap-head.”
“Whatever…”
“What were you arguing about?”
Billie lowered her dark eyebrows and pursed her young lips. With her brown hair and flashing eyes she took after her father, who had died in a racing car accident when she was just a toddler. “Jimmy says we’re gonna have to sell Carter Cabins. He says there’s a secret plan. His daddy’s gonna squeeze us out!”
“It better be a good plan. Believe me, Billie, Jimmy’s dad can’t squeeze anybody out. He’s only an employee. And we’re doing okay. And the people who own the lodge Jimmy’s daddy works for are in worse shape than we are.”
Jimmy’s family lived at the Taos Pines Lodge next door, just down the mountain from the Carter Cabins. They were newcomers, at least to the Carter way of looking at things, but so was nearly everyone else. The Carters had owned their big tract of land in the hills above Taos for generations. While it was true that Jimmy’s mom and dad, Art and Amy Flagg, had a sweet deal – free rent in a big manager’s suite and a nice salary – they didn’t own anything. They had moved up from Santa Fe two years before to manage the lodge. Jimmy’s mom handled the staff and his dad was general manager, both reporting to some big corporation in Los Angeles. But whatever their son had overheard had to be pure speculation; they were managers, not owners.
“Jimmy says he’s going to ride with Miss Paulson.”
Chooli smiled and shook her head. “He must really be mad at you. He hates to ride with Miss Paulson.”
“Aw, he’ll get over it. We’re best friends, you know.”
“I know. That’s the way best friends are.”
“Do you have a best friend, Chooli?”
The Navajo girl nodded, her dark eyes sparkling, her short clipped black hair close around her face. “Your family is my best friends.”
“Well then, you know how it is.”
“Yes, I do.” Chooli gave her a playful tap on the back of her head.



Chapter 3

That day Church Dickens came in to work early, driving in from his apartment in Santa Monica to the Verhu Financial building in West L.A., not to do actual work, but to get in some light morning exercise before his appointment at the nearby Veterans Hospital. Verhu had a great little workout gym – executive employees only – tucked in one corner of the lobby of the eleven-story building. The room was crammed with weights and machines, and now they’d added something new, a climbing wall.
Church was expecting to be alone, and he did have the place to himself for all of about five minutes. He was doing deep pulls on the rowing machine when Philby walked in: thin, wiry, ancient, a blinking vacant look on his face. Church’s boss Alan Philby, the quasi-legendary head of Verhu Financial.
The old man folded his ancient Brooks Brothers suit jacket and carefully placed it on the seat of a stationary bike. He took off his tie. He unlaced his shining Florsheim shoes and lined them up on the floor. He left his suit pants on.
“Hello, Dickens,” Philby said as he fell to the floor.
“Hi, Alan.” Church ignored the fall; he’d seen this move before.
Old Alan’s rigid palms smacked the polished cement surface and he started pushups, counting, “One – Two – Three,” until he got to twelve, on the last three pushing with enough energy to clap his hands together.
“Show off,” Church said.
Philby ignored the jab. He jumped to his feet, tried to hide that he was panting. “Real men – don’t use – machines.”
“You ever see that bit on TV with Jack Palance at the Oscars?”
A frown crossed Alan’s thin features and he blinked twice. He didn’t like not knowing things. “Jack Who? No, what was that?”
“It was in the early 1990s. Jack Palance was really old at the time.”
“Old as me?”
“Older, I guess. He was up for Best Supporting Actor – won it, too – takes the stage to pick up his statue and starts doing pushups.”
“Anybody can do pushups. I can do a hundred.”
“One-handed pushups.”
Philby’s frown deepened “I don’t see you doing any pushups.”
“Can’t. Docs at the VA won’t let me. Maybe someday, they tell me…”
But Philby’s mind had wandered back to the Oscars. “Those statues they give the actors … I bet they ain’t real gold.”
“You’re betting right. They’re just gold plated.”
Philby was putting his tie back on, having set aside the rest of the dozen warm-up exercises he’d been telling everybody he’d learned in the military in the 1950’s. “How do you know that about them statues?”
“I know metals. I have a B.S. in Geology.”
“I know BS when I hear it.”
That sent Dickens’ mind searching for some way to avoid confrontation. Annie, Philby’s old secretary, says he was supposed to be on meds, but confided he goes off them whenever he feels like it.
Dickens decided the metallic composition of an Oscar probably was a safe topic. “No, seriously, Alan. Last year around Academy Awards time, ABC Nightly News did a report. The Oscar statues are cast in heavy bronze. They plate that with copper, and after that, with nickel – and then that’s plated with pure 24 karat gold.”
“24 K gold!”
“Yeah, but just a thin layer.”
“Oh. Not expensive as it looks, then…”
Philby seemed to lose interest. He picked an imaginary string off his suit jacket. “You like my climbing wall?”
“Not really. It looks dangerous, cramped in here. Fall, you land on a bike.”
“Just don’t fall.”
“I guess…You climb it?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s nothing. Kid stuff.”
Dickens watched Philby glance at his image in a full-length mirror, straighten his tie and run his hands through his thinning hair. “I thought you did the military Daily Dozen. You still got eleven to go.”
“Measure twice, cut once,” Philby said. The old man blinked, looking around the empty room like he was seeing it for the first time. Then he headed for the door without another word, leaving the younger man to wonder what any of that was about. Had Philby stopped by just to do a few pushups? Did he have some other motive? With Philby there was no way to tell.
Church Dickens, who had only worked at Verhu for six months, went back to his rowing exercise. He’d learned a lot about his boss in the last few weeks, and some of it was very disquieting. A random comment by Annie, Alan’s former secretary, triggered his initial alarm; after that, some quiet digging turned up evidence that Philby was more than a tottering old fool; he was a serious financial renegade. This was, Dickens had solidly reprimanded himself, important background he should have looked up before he signed on. Back then the opportunity had looked too great to pass up, the chance to make junior partner in a year or two. And now Verhu was on his resume, and there was no way to delete that. Chances were good that old Philby wasn’t heading for Happy Times Retirement Village – he was going to jail; Church could end up down the hall in another room with bars on the windows and just one handle on the door.


Chapter 4

Jesse drove from town, heading back to the ski area. The narrow two lane asphalt road had been widened – and even expanded into four lanes in some areas – but as it headed steadily upward in elevation the switchbacks were still the narrow two lanes with steep drop-offs into canyons below.
“Beautiful, this time of day,” Chooli said.
“Yeah. But we sure could use some snow.”
Chooli had heard that complaint before, particularly the last couple years, and thought back for a moment. “Heavy snow that first season you came to the cabins.”
“You remember that, huh?”
“Hard to forget. Your daddy picked me up in a downright blizzard, Jess. I was hitching back to the rez; snowing so hard I was surprised he saw me standing by the road.”
“What happened, Chooli?” Billie said.
“You was just a toddler. Me, I was married to the sheriff.”
“You was married to Sheriff Joe, Chooli?”
“Yep. He wasn’t sheriff, just a deputy back then. And me, I was a child bride, thrown in the trunk of a rusty old Buick and hustled off to Vegas.”
“Nooo….” Billie gave her a wide-eyed look of disbelief.
“Oh, yeah. I had a mean old uncle, drunk, and we were living with him and my aunt in a mobile home in Tuba City, sleeping on the floor. Mom’s at work, Uncle Tony kidnaps me, shipped me off to Vegas.”
Billie looked from Chooli to Jessie, “I don’t understand. How did -?”
“Bad things happen to good people,” Jessie said. “You couldn’t have been more than two or three, Billie. My mom – your grandma - had died of cancer when I was ten, long before you were born. After that the years went by and I grew up and got married and we had you and then a few years later daddy died.”
“But I know all that.”
“I know, honey. But then the time came when Grandpa Ed got lonely and one night he was sitting around with two of his old high school buddies and they all three declared they were tired of the single life. So they did a really dumb thing. They piled into Grandpa Ed’s big old Cadillac convertible and headed for Las Vegas, looking for fun and romance.”
Billie gave out a snorting laugh. “No, they didn’t…”
“Oh, yeah, they did. And their crazy plan worked – at least it seemed to, at first. I guess they thought they were in one of those madcap adventures like you see in the movies, three free and single buddies in their mid-life crisis driving to Sin City to find true love in all the wrong places. Three single dudes headed out for Vegas that day, but a few days later three couples returned, their wild and crazy plans having succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. And then, as actual life would have it, the dreams changed themselves into nightmares.”
Billie, still not believing, shook her head, “Not possible.”
Jessie smiled, but there was a sad look on her face as she remembered how the adventure of the three amigos had played out, Grandpa Ed’s new bride turning out to be Kate, the mean money-grubber. Joey the cop, Chooli’s new husband was a wife-beater, so that wasn’t going to work. And the third was some tramp from Sin City, took one look at Taos, stole whatever cash she could lay her hands on and disappeared, probably heading right back for Vegas.
Billie’s Great Grandpa Frank was gone and Jessie’s dad Ed was getting on in his sixties now, still ornery as ever, still very much in charge of Carter Cabins, though Vegas Kate thought she ran things. Las Vegas Kate, thin face, cigarette in a corner of her wrinkled lips, not aging well, a case of obsessive/compulsive disorder or maybe something worse, never satisfied, always trying to put people and things in their proper place.
Jessie didn’t like to hide anything from Billie, but still … what had happened made the grownups she was supposed to look up to seem worse than kids. She paused, wondering how best to go on with the story – after all, Ed was too stubborn to admit his mistake and they all had to live with Kate at the cabins.
But then Billie screamed, “Mom, look out!”
The next moment Jessie heard the hard blat of an air horn, not so much a warning as a shriek of doom. And she saw the rusty-chrome tooth grill of a huge logging truck that crossed into their lane and was heading straight for them.