The sky was overcast white. The storm front had passed through, but it was barely above freezing all day, and little of the remaining road snow had melted. The plows had been working through the night, making most of the roads passable. It would be in the sixties for the next few days, and almost all of the snow would be gone within a week. It was opportune that Kennesaw and the sheriff weren’t waiting another day to see Turcot. The mountain roads would be too muddy, impassable by then.
They weren’t long on the road before they noticed they were being tailed by a black Tahoe, but the vehicle broke off when Kennesaw pulled over a driver for speeding. When those matters were resolved, they meandered through the valley for an hour, while Kennesaw checked to make sure they weren’t being followed. At last, they turned west, heading for Mahonville Pass by the back roads. It was late afternoon when the deputy and sheriff finally reached the gate. It was normally closed until May, but Kennesaw got out and unlocked it, pulled the cruiser through, and locked it again behind him.
Upwards they drove, rising out of the budding cottonwoods and into the tall pines. The air cooled and the ice hardened on the road. Kennesaw had to stop so he and Bear could chain up the tires. Soon, they were approaching the summit. An icy mist descended on the cruiser as it skirted the face of a sheer thousand-foot wall of gray granite. The higher they climbed, the harder and colder the wind blew. Near the top of the mountain, the road was a mere channel cut through five feet of snow. In sixty days’ time, it would all be gone, melted off into the rivulets and creeks, trickling down into the alpine valleys and filling the streams that feed the Arkansas River. The river comes out of the mountains and runs east through Kansas, by then rolling slow. It bends south at Wichita, then deepens and broadens, finally becoming navigable at Tulsa and eventually feeding into the Mississippi. All grand waterways begin this way.
The sky was clear at the summit, but the sun was sinking and would be down in an hour. Before them, under the tree line, lay the Matchless Valley, rimmed on all sides by pure white mountains. Nestled in the basin before them lay a reservoir. Most of the ice had melted off and now reflected the dying golden sun, an oasis surrounded by a desert of ice.
Ellison and Kennesaw descended into wilderness, winding downwards out of the tundra and back into the pines. The snow was less than a third of what it was on the east side of the Continental Divide. The road leveled and straightened on the valley floor as the cruiser emerged from the trees, gaining speed until it came to a junction. Turning south would take them towards the college town of Gunnison. Kennesaw turned north instead, meandering along the Mahonville River. Its banks were crowded by budding bushes and scrub, which concealed the dark pools and shadows where trout lurk and rise to suck mosquitoes from the surface. Glancing out the window, the deputy accelerated to make up time. The orange sun had touched the blue peaks to the west, and the temperature was already dropping. The last stretch of road would be unplowed, and they didn’t want to be cutting a trail through it in the dark if that could be avoided. They turned again after four miles, crossing a one lane bridge over the river and winding back upwards into the trees. As expected, no plows had cleared the roads there. The sun had finally sunk behind Castle Peak to the west.
The road rose from the valley in a series of switchbacks, rising some five hundred feet above the floor. The cruiser passed a waterfall, splashing and roaring in the gray twilight as the basin passed out of view behind them. They turned up a goat trail road, identified only by the corner of a range fence. It too was unplowed, covered with half a foot of unblemished snow, with no tire tracks or footprints anywhere. Beyond the fence lay a flat, treeless swath, a snow covered pasture which had once been beaver ponds that had silted in decades before. The last leg of the journey was only a mile, but it took them ten minutes to drive it. The cruiser pulled up to the cabin just as the last light failed. The sky above was clear and pristine. The stars had awakened – shimmering crystals affixed to the Prussian blue sky.
“Where is he?” Bear asked as Kennesaw shut off the engine.
“Maybe he left.”
The men looked at each other, each knowing the other was contemplating Turcot’s role in Stern’s murder. It was impossible, they knew, but they had to make sure all the same. Both got out of the cruiser and walked up to the cabin door. Bear stepped forward and knocked. No one answered. Kennesaw reached out and turned the knob, then pushed gently. The door creaked as it swung inward.
“Monte?” Bear announced, making his presence known. “Are you in here?”
There was no response from inside. It was dark, but warm.
The sheriff looked at Kennesaw, who shrugged his shoulders. “Monte, it’s Sheriff Ellison. I’m here with Deputy Kennesaw. Are you all right? We came to check on you.”
Something shuffled inside in the darkness. Both men reached down towards their holsters.
“It’s just me,” a voice called out. “Come in.”
“Is that you, Monte? Mind turning on some light?” Bear exclaimed.
“Hang on. I’ll turn up the lantern.”
Footsteps. Fumbling. A lantern hissed, and a yellow glow brightened the interior. Monte Turcot stood before them. He had grown a beard again.
“Evening,” he said, and brushed a few strands of matted hair out of his face.
“How are you?” asked the sheriff.
“What are you doing sitting here in the dark?” Kennesaw inquired as he closed the door behind them.
“I was just sitting here, waiting for the sun to go down, and I guess I fell asleep.”
“You didn’t hear us drive up?”
“I must have been out.”
“Your fire’s getting low,” the deputy observed. He stepped over to the stove, took a knee, and twisted the lever to open the steel door. The coals glowed orange with the burst of oxygen. Kennesaw pushed two splits of dried, gray aspen into the firebox and left the door cracked so the flames could breathe.
“So what can I do for you gentlemen?” Turcot asked. “Did you finally come to take me in?”
“Why would you think that?” asked the sheriff.
“Because there’s two of you.”
The stove flared to life as the splits caught and began to burn.
“You guys want some coffee?” Turcot pointed over his shoulder. “It’s instant. That okay?”
“Sure,” answered the sheriff. Turcot went to the cupboards and removed a steel kettle. Two five gallon jugs rested on the counter, one with its spout over a basin. He filled the kettle there, then brought it over to the stove and set it on top. Water droplets sizzled on the hot metal surface as Turcot returned to the cupboard and produced three plastic coffee mugs. He rinsed a spoon off under the spigot of the water jug, then unscrewed the lid on a jar of instant coffee.
Bear looked at Kennesaw, then turned back to Turcot. “Monte…”
“Yes Sheriff?” Turcot answered as he spooned coffee into the mugs.
“Have you been in contact with anyone?”
“I don’t get a lot of visitors up here, Sheriff.”
“Yeah,” Bear replied, “I guess I’d be surprised if you got any other than us. But you do have the radio.”
“I don’t listen to it much.”
“You ever run out of anything?” Kennesaw cut in. “Now that the pass is open, we can come up here every couple days.”
“I’m good,” said Turcot. “I’ve got plenty to eat. I’ve got T.P., water, gasoline for the generator. It’s plenty warm in here when that stove gets going, even when it gets down below zero outside. I’m assuming that the bitter cold is behind us, now.”
The deputy nodded.
“I’d like to have my truck. Could you maybe drive that up for me? It’d be nice to be able to go for a drive or go down to the lake or maybe Gunnison and see some human faces. I’ll be careful.”
“We’re not holding you, Monte. You can leave whenever you like,” Bear explained. “But I can’t protect you everywhere, especially outside the county.”
“I don’t figure you could really protect me in the county if they knew where I was.”
“I’ll do everything I can. You have my word.”
Turcot sighed. “I’m just getting cabin fever. I don’t know what’s going on.”
“You need to contact anyone?” Ellison asked.
“I should talk to my lawyer. Can you make that happen?”
The kettle began to spit steam.
“That’s not gonna be possible, Monte,” Bear said.
Turcot screwed the lid back onto the jar and set the spoon in the sink, looking resigned to his continued isolation. “Why’s that?”
Kennesaw took off his gloves and stuck them in his coat pockets, then began warming his hands at the door of the stove. He pulled the kettle off the center of the top to slow the boil. Ellison stood between them both.
“When was the last time you spoke to Stern?” the sheriff asked.
“Not since I’ve been up here.”
“Do you remember talking to him about anything not directly related to your case?”
“Did he mention anything you found peculiar?”
“He said he likes the Jets. He wants them to draft that QB from Virginia.”
“You found that peculiar?” inquired Kennesaw.
“I guess I figured him for a Giants fan.”
“Did he ever mention that he was concerned or fearful?” continued the deputy.
“No. He isn’t afraid, just a little paranoid.”
“What’s the difference?” Bear asked.
“You know…‘afraid’ would be like a fear that something specific is going to happen. ‘Paranoid’ is vague,” Turcot explained. “Stern has this cloud that hangs over him. He talks about how he worries that he can’t control everything.”
“So what made you think Stern was paranoid?”
“He records everything, every conversation with everyone. He talked about being listened to all the time. One time, he told me that his email was hacked.”
“By who?” asked the sheriff.
“NSA. DEA. FBI.” Turcot shrugged. “He’s convinced that the DA is doing it, too.”
“Did he say what made him think that?”
“He said he felt like the prosecution was one step ahead of him – that they knew what his motions were before he even made them. He said it was like they knew what he was going to do before he did it. He said the only way they could know what they knew is if they’d read his emails or tapped his phone.”
“He asked me once about getting a gun.”
“Did he?” Bear asked. “I mean, did he ever purchase one?”
“No,” said Turcot. “Not to my knowledge anyway.”
The boiling water gurgled in the teapot.
“Did he mention anyone out of the ordinary? Anyone that he was concerned about?”
“No. Yes. He told me that he was approached once; this guy showed up while he was at the Wagon Wheel and told him that he should really lose my case.”
“He was being threatened?”
“Sounded like a threat to me, or maybe just a drunk talking trash.”
“Did he tell you anything about this person?”
Turcot’s eyes went blank. “I’ve said too much, really. He told me this in confidence.”
“Monte,” Kennesaw spoke up, “If you can’t trust us, then what are you doing here?”
Turcot fumbled around with the spigot for a moment, then continued. “He said that the DA didn’t know that he knew they were spying on him.”
“When did he tell you this? During the trial?”
“Before the trial. We talked every day. When he would visit, we would chat about the case, but then he’d hand me a notepad with what he really wanted to say. We’d have one speaking conversation while we’d write down another.”
“What sorts of things did he write down?”
“That’s between me and my lawyer.”
“I mean, did he write down anything about his situation, anything not specific to your case?”
“No. Just the case.”
“Is there anything else you can tell us?”
“Yeah. He said he has a file that he’s saving for a rainy day. He keeps a copy of it on his phone….” Turcot studied the sheriff and Kennesaw for a moment. “Something’s happened to him, hasn’t it?”
The two men looked at each other. Bear turned back to Turcot, clearing his throat and preparing to speak.
The kettle whistled.
Turcot’s eyes darted between Ellison and Kennesaw. Kennesaw lifted the kettle off the stove. The whistling died.
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Turcot asked.
“Yes.” Bear took a deep breath.
“Fuck me!” Turcot shouted, slamming his fist against the table as he leapt to his feet. “Well, I can tell you who did it! Acevedo! He had one of his goons do it!”
“That’s quite an accusation,” remarked Kennesaw calmly.
“Oh is it?” Turcot whirled to face the deputy. “You don’t think Acevedo has people? You’re naive, man! He’s got junkies, tweakers, snitches, dealers that he owns! He could easily extort one into doing it by threatening them with prison. They’re going to kill me! I’m a dead man.”
“Calm down, Monte,” Bear advised. “Try to think of anything else you remember Stern telling you.”
“I can’t think of anything else now except that I’ve got to get the hell out of here,” growled Turcot. “They’re going to find me here, and they’re going to kill me. They’ll do it here or in custody or anywhere. They’ll do it. I’ve got to go. I’ve got to get as far away from here as I can.”
“They’ll find you if you run,” said the sheriff. “You’ll be in public. People will see you.”
Turcot threw up his hands. “What am I supposed to do? I can’t leave. They’re coming. I can feel it.”