When the old man who is covered in dirt walks into the country honky-tonk and says “The Falling”, right before dropping dead, Bill Travis has to penetrate the gathering dark cloak of secrecy surrounding his death and get to the truth before a team of nuclear regulators can rake the entire incident under the carpet. Bill, with his former partner, Hank Sterling, who has now been “recalled to life”, must make a mad dash across the desolate West Texas landscape to save the life of Moe Keithley, a Harley-riding bankruptcy lawyer who is in over his head and may very well be the most radioactive man in the Northern Hemisphere.This is the sixth book in the Bill Travis Mystery series.
Things come in threes and it’s while reeling from the second that the third hits, as if the universe is saying: “I told you so, even though you didn’t want to believe me.” At least that’s the way it always seems to happen to me.
For instance my secretary, Penelope, had a fight with her live-in boyfriend, and I was at the police station with her and in the process of helping her get a temporary protective order placed on his skinny, ne’er-do-well ass, when I got a call from my wife telling me that she was having labor pains—and although that by no means is a bad thing, it’s a wonderful thing, it’s yet within the classification of a thing to be handled immediately in one fashion or another. So, I was on my way to meet Julie at the hospital, and worried sick (not solely about Julie, no—I was concerned about the whole troop: Julie with the baby trying to come into the world, our youngest little girl no doubt strapped into the back seat of Julie’s Ford Expedition, while Jessica, our adopted daughter, the ink not yet fully dry on her Learner’s Driving Permit, likely hunched over an unfamiliar steering wheel and grinning from ear to ear like the little demoness she is, dodging through traffic) when I got a call from Dexter “Sonny” Raleigh, who proceeded to fill me in—despite my avid protest—on the event of a dirty old man suddenly dropping dead at his roadside tavern way out south of town, in another county entirely.
“You won’t be held liable, Sonny,” I said. “Bye, Sonny.”
“You’re sure?” he said before I could hang up. I whipped around too-slow interstate feeder-road traffic and punched the gas. I could almost hear my twenty-five year old Mercedes say “Huh?” right before it kicked into a high whine and the squirrels underneath my hood started doing triple-time on their little habitrail wheels.
“Certain, Sonny,” I said. “Look, I’ll call you later. I’m in the middle of something.”
A horn blared as I dodged two lanes over and around an eighteen-wheeler, the driver having let loose with his air-horn.
“Sounds like you’re in a demolition derby,” Sonny said.
“Uh. Almost,” I admitted. “I gotta go, Sonny.”
“Come by my place tonight, Bill,” he said.
“May not be able to,” I said. “Julie’s in labor.”
Sonny guffawed loudly.
“Bill,” he said, when the laughter quieted and just as I squeaked through an intersection on a yellow light, “you should find out what causes that.”
“Very funny, Sonny. Here, talk to Penny. I’m driving.”
I tossed my cell phone in Penny’s general direction and her hands did a little juggling act with it for a moment.
“Mr. Raleigh,” Penny said, all business-like, which is upsettingly disarming and cute at the same time, “is it alright if Mr. Travis returns your call at some later time?”
“You go, Penny,” I whispered. She punched my arm.
“Ow,” I whispered, and made my right tire dance around a low curb. We were two blocks from the hospital.
I could hear Sonny’s laughter and his deep voice. “Fine. Fine. Tell that sonuvabitch to call me tonight,”
“Thank you, Mr. Raleigh,” Penny said and hung up. “Really, sir, where do you get these people?
“The same place…” I began, then let it go. It wouldn’t have been very nice. I had been about to tell her: ‘the same place you came from.’
“You were saying?” she asked, clearly understanding.
“Never mind! We’re here.”
There is something about being in the delivery room. No father should ever do it, despite what all of the nature-nurture holistic-approach people have to say about it. What those folks won’t tell you about is what it’s like to be in the same room with the woman you love as her insides are turned out for her, which is what it’s really like. They won’t mention the curtain of pain she radiates, nor the timbre of the ill-formed words she is likely to sling your way during the afore-mentioned inside-out process. Take a loving bundle of pure love and intimacy and transform it into a writhing, spitting wildcat in a burlap sack, and you’ve pretty well got the whole thing pegged. That is, before and during. Fortunately afterwards, the concerned husband having survived the unholy encounter with his wits intact and enough blood in his head to assure he stays on his feet, it’s different all over again. Needless to say, I turned my head when they cut the cord.
“Oh Bill,” Julie cooed. “She’s so precious.”
“Yeah,” I swallowed, throat-lump approaching grapefruit proportions the moment after I turned to gaze upon the new Travis. Julie held her, swaddling clothes, the whole bit.
“Her name?” an attentive nurse asked me, and placed a firm, balancing hand on my shoulder.
I looked at Julie and she looked up at me and began crying.
“Uh,” I said. “If it’s what we agreed on, then her full name is Michelle LeAnn Travis.”
Julie nodded, both smiling and boohoo-ing at the same time.
I leaned over and peered at the tiny, pinched face. Something happened then, something entirely unexpected. Possibly I dreamed it. Michelle’s eyes popped open, she took a look at me, frowned, and then sprayed my face with throw-up.
“Aww,” the nurses proclaimed in unison. The doctor laughed.
“Michelle loves her daddy,” Julie said.
The doctor patted my back and handed me a towel.
“It’s a good, healthy sign,” he said, which actually rang true with me. Sometimes you have to walk through hell to get a little slice of heaven.
Sonny Raleigh was chatting with Jessica in the waiting room when I came out to make the announcement. I acted as if he wasn’t there. Served him right.
Sonny was a short, barrel-chested fellow with permanent dark circles under his eyes and a knowing, mischievous grin painted on his face. He was about my age but looked ten years older, the result of hard and fast the-devil-may-care-but-I-sure-as-hell-don’t living. Sonny used to race stock cars back in the eighties. A maverick from the Land of Mavericks, which is to say South Central Texas. I liked the old sonuvabitch—that is, when I could stand his company. At least he paid he had a healthy account with me and usually kept his mouth shut. Usually.
Jessica had Jennifer on her lap. Jenny was wriggling and trying to free herself. She was in the toddling stage and the whole wide world was her playpen.
“Yay Mom,” Jessica said. “Mrs. Fertility strikes again.”
“Hush,” I said.
“Day Hom,” Jenny articulated, and wiggled her butt. Jessica let her slide to the floor and I reached down and snatched her up before she could toddle away. She could be pretty fast.
“Daddy,” Jessica said, “you smell like throw-up.”
“I said ‘hush’. Mom’s gonna be okay. You have a new baby sister.”
“Way to go, Bill,” Sonny said and offered his hand. I shook. He handed me a cigar. “That’s a Kinky Friedman cigar,” he said. “Slow burning, just like the Kinkster.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said. “Why are you here, Sonny?”
“Dirty old man?” I finished for him. “You’ve got nothing to worry about there, Sonny. He came in your front door and dropped dead. Ask any lawyer. You’ve got zero liability.”
“I already called a lawyer. He said the same thing.”
“Then why are you here?” I asked.
He gripped my arm, led me a few paces away from Jessica and whispered to me: “Because, this sort of thing is right up your alley.”
“I don’t have an alley, Sonny. I’ve got a green belt out back of my place, but no alley.”
“Har-dee har har. Look, the old man said something about ‘The Falling’.”
“Right before he fell?”
“Sonny, he was probably describing how he felt.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Take the case, dad,” Jessica said. I looked to my right and she was right there. So much for secrecy. She handed Jennifer off to me.
“Yeah,” Sonny said, “take it, Bill. I want to know who this guy was, how he wound up twenty miles from anywhere at my bar, and why he died.”
“And what he meant by ‘The Falling’, right?”
“I don’t have the time just now, Sonny. I’ve got a recovering mother to watch over, kids to raise up with moral fiber, and bills to pay.”
“Yeah, yeah. Heard all that. Great. Come on, you’d be doing me a big favor.”
“I’m sure I would. I’m no private investigator, just in case you’re forgetting.”
“I can help you, dad,” Jessica said.
Sixteen years old with an attitude, as if she could boss anybody around, including her teachers and her parents. And then I recalled an exploding house and Jessica and me being tossed across fifty feet of space by the shock wave.
“You can’t help me, Jess. No way.”
“Then you’ll do it? Thanks, Bill!” Sonny grabbed my left hand and shook it, as if doing that were the most natural thing in the world. My right held Jenny, busily attempting to shred my cigar. I wanted that cigar.
“Whoa!” I exclaimed.
“You won’t regret it, Bill,” Sonny exclaimed, a broad grin spreading across his face.
“Yay dad!” Jessica said and took Jenny from my arm and patted her diapered backside. Jenny very nearly succeeded in getting my cigar and it took both of us to pry her tight little fingers off of it, carefully.
Jenny frowned at me.
“Is there any sign of foul play in this one?” I asked Sonny.
“I don’t know. But the coroner’s boys left right on the heels of a fellow who wanted to know all about it. I think I got his card somewhere.
“A cop?” I asked.
“Uh. I think so. Some kind of investigator.”
“‘Investigator’ does not always mean ‘cop’,” I said. Call me Mr. Worldly Wise.
“I know that,” Sonny said. “Like I said, some kind of investigator. I think maybe a cop.”
“Go home, Sonny,” I said. “I’ll ask around. It’s probably all I can do anyway.”
“That’s good enough for me,” he said. “How much do I owe you?”
“If there are any expenses to amount to anything, I’ll draft your trust account. I’m your trustee, after all.”
Sonny was already heading for the hospital exit. He flashed another grin over his shoulder and Jessica waved at him.
“Um, Dad,” Jessica said, turning to me, “Mom’s gonna be pissed you took another case.”
“You like seeing people in trouble,” I told her. “It’s a serious character flaw. And watch your language. And by the way, where has Penny gotten off to?”
“She’s making time with that doctor over there,” Jessica said and pointed.
I turned to look. Sure enough, my secretary was fifty feet away in a very close-bordering-on-intimate conversation with a young doctor, who appeared almost as interested in her as she decidedly was in him. At least her taste in men was changing. This doctor very likely had not a tattoo anywhere on him. Also, I was willing to bet he had bathed before coming to work, two little items at which Penny’s previous beau would have scoffed.
“It’s not polite to point,” I said.
“I think she likes him,” Jessica said. “Maybe they’ll get married and have a bunch of rug rats just like you and mom.”
“Great,” I said. “Give me your mother’s car keys.”
Jessica deflated. Sometimes being a dad is tough. Probably it’s as tough as being a daughter. “And go change Jennifer’s diaper, Jess.” I handed Jenny back to her.
“Ugh. Dad, this girl drips.”
I made a mistake.
I took a stroll outside the hospital in the late evening as the sun began the last few rungs of her downward climb. While walking along I very foolishly did what I’d told Sonny Raleigh I was going to do: I made a phone call. Just one little call which precipitated all hell breaking loose, which is how it usually starts. Some people never learn.
Many years before I met a fellow named Patrick Kinsey. Patrick was a green Sheriff’s deputy at the time. Over the years, through hard work, good instincts and a predator’s sense of patience, he made his slow but sure way up through the ranks to Chief Deputy. I had helped him out a time or two in the past and he was always ready to take my calls. That is, until the moment I asked him if he had heard anything about a certain old codger dropping dead a county over.
“Leave that one alone, Bill,” Patrick said.
I suppose there was a long pause there for a moment. You know, the kind that has it’s own quantifiable specific gravity.
“Earth to Bill. Repeat. Come in Bill.”
“What gives?” I asked.
“What was it in ‘leave that one alone’ that you did not fully understand?” Patrick asked.
“Oh, I think maybe it was the missing ‘because’, followed by the missing succinct explanation,” I told him.
“That ‘because’ is exactly why ‘leave that one alone’ was stated succinctly in the first place. But I know you, you nosy, persistent bastard. You’re now officially off and running. I used to have this dog—”
“That tavern is out of your jurisdiction, Patrick,” I said.
“You should read my badge some time,” he said. “If I’m not misquoting it, around the shield can be read the phrase ‘State of Texas’. You know how many square miles of jurisdiction that gives me?”
I hung up.
A minute later Patrick called me back. I flipped the cover of my cell phone upward, which automatically receives the call, then closed it with a slap.
Thirty seconds later it rang again. I needed to change my ring tone, which Jessica had changed to some weird Rap tune that was annoying as hell.
Flip open. Slap.
After two minutes I called him back.
“Okay, Goddammit,” he said. “What are you planning to do?”
“Nothing right now. I was just asking, Patrick. Julie just had the baby and—”
“Well, hell. Congrats. I need to give you a cigar.”
“Already got one. Look, all I want to know is, why is it I should leave it alone? You know, I can think for myself. I’ve got kids to feed, Patrick. I’m not going to go running off.”
“Okay. Alright already. Jeez. Okay, I’m coming down there. What I have to tell you can’t go out over the airwaves. You’ll see when I tell you why. Same hospital as last time?”
“Okay.” Patrick hung up. I have this way with people, you know. It’s really my only skill.
Julie was stable, but her pediatrician wanted her and the baby to stay overnight. She was upstairs sleeping, the baby in a tiny bed right beside her.
Penny was about to drive Jessica and Jenny home when Patrick came into the waiting room. Jessica ran over to him and threw her arms around him. Patrick lifted her up off the floor.
“Dang, girl,” Patrick said. “You’re almost full grown.”
“I am full grown,” she said. “I’ve got breasts.”
“Hey!” I said. “That’s enough of that.”
Jessica smiled wickedly as Patrick put her down.
“A handful, aren’t they,” he said to me. “Uh, meaning the kids.” Patrick blushed.
“I’m surrounded by women,” I told him.
“Hello, Penny,” Patrick said to my secretary, who stood up.
“Good to see you, Deputy Kinsey,” Penny said. “But somehow I can’t help think this can’t be good.”
“Smart girl, Bill. Maybe I should hire her out from under you. Be doing her a big favor.”
“Take these rug rats home, Penny,” I said. “And if you could wait until I get there before heading out, I’d appreciate it.”
“What’s the matter, dad?” Jessica asked. “I have to babysit all the time, you know. I can take care of Jenny.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” I told her. “How about it, Penny?”
“Oh, sure,” she said. But I knew there was more. I waited and then realized she was waiting instead.
“Oh,” I remembered. “I’ll pay you for the extra time. Right after I give you my bill for helping you get rid of Rocky.”
“Mr. Travis—” she began, and then changed her mind.
I didn’t have to, but I folded. Women do that to me.
“Forget it,” I said. “Take an extra day of pay out of petty cash when you get to the office on Monday.”
Penny smiled. Jessica reached up and high-fived her.
“You’re a pushover, dad,” she said.
Goodbyes and waves exchanged fully and in abundance, Patrick and I were finally alone in a corner of the waiting room.
“Okay,” I said. “Hit me with it.”
“I didn’t tell you any of this,” he said.
“The old man, who didn’t have any I.D. on him, was one Dale Freeman of Liberty, Nebraska. Thirty-eight years old—”
“You heard me. You were right there two seconds ago when I said it. Thirty-eight years old.”
“Okay. That’s too weird.”
“That’s not half of it. As of a few four hours ago the NRC descended en masse upon a certain little roadside tavern—”
“Wait a minute. NRC? As in—”
“Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That place is now closed up tighter than a mouse’s ass.”
“You have such a way with words, Patrick.”
“Save it. The reason I’m involved is that I had to find the people who were in that bar. I was able to locate, um, most of them. They’re at a remote location being checked out and thoroughly debriefed.”
“Most? People are missing?” I asked.
“Yeah. But just one. A bankruptcy lawyer named Moe Keithley. He was last seen riding his hog off into the sunset.”
“West, I believe.”
“Hog meaning motorcycle, right? A Harley?”
“Yep. That would look sort of funny, a bankruptcy lawyer on a pig’s back.”
“Damn,” I whispered. “Are the others, the people… um…”
“You mean, do they have radiation sickness? No. Low level dosage. Fortunately they weren’t near the body for more than a few minutes. All except for Keithley. As I understand it, he hovered over the body from the moment that guy keeled over and up to the minute the coroner’s boys arrived.”
“How long?” I asked.
“About forty-five minutes, give or take.”
“Yeah. The body was being wheeled through County Hospital and downstairs to the morgue when machines started flipping out.”
“X-ray machines? CT machines? Stuff like that?”
“Yeah. Look, Bill. This one is strictly a stay-away-from. The Highway Patrol is looking for Keithley, state-wide.”
“What about the bar?”
“Closed till further notice.”
“Sonny’s going to call me.”
My phone rang. Sonny.
“It’s him,” I said.
“You’re clairvoyant, Bill,” Patrick said.
“No. I just know Sonny.”
I flipped my cell phone open.
“Sonny, this is Bill and I know your bar has been closed and the government is there and your bartender and some of your customers are in custody. I’m on it. Everything is going to be fine. Don’t go near that damned bar.”
A long slow sigh was audible over the phone.
I hung up.
“What are you going to do now, Bill?” Patrick asked.
“I’m going home to get some sleep,” I said.
And, of course, that never happened.
The night that never ended began with a simple internet search for Dale Freeman. There were six hundred ninety-two Dale Freemans in the continental United States. Once I limited the search to Liberty, Nebraska, a town I’d never heard of, there were only two of them.
I called up the first one listed and once I confirmed his name, I tried to sell him life insurance. I don’t sell life insurance, but it seemed a good way to get him to hang up on me. It worked.
The next call rang and rang and was finally answered by a machine. A woman’s voice. She sounded business-like and to the point. I demurred leaving my name or call-back number.
I sat there, looking at the phone. When it rang thirty seconds later I nearly fell off my chair.
“Travis,” I answered.
“Mr. Travis, my name is Bertram Hague,” the deep voice said. “The Feds just let me go. I called up Sonny Raleigh after they dropped me off at home. He told me to call you.”
“You were there when the old man dropped dead?” I asked.
“Where can we meet?”
He named one of my favorite hamburger joints, a place Julie doesn’t like me to frequent because of my climbing cholesterol level. Sometimes I think that she thinks I’m getting old or something.
“I can be there in twenty minutes,” I said.
“By the way, what do you do for a living?” I asked
“I’m a doctor,” he said.
Waterloo Icehouse is an Austin favorite off of Lamar Boulevard north and west of downtown. The ‘Waterloo’ part is from the town’s original name, the sleepy little village of Waterloo that once sat on the gently sloping hills north of the Colorado River. When Mirabeau B. Lamar and a surveyor began platting out the town with survey stakes for the site of the new State Capitol around 1840s, they named the place ‘Austin’ after the man who was, by popular acclaim, the Father of Texas: Stephen Fuller Austin, and thereby hangs a tale. Waterloo Icehouse is nothing like any icehouse that could have ever been situated in the non-extant town of Waterloo. It’s a stylish hamburger joint with live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
At 10:30 that night business was slow. I waited at a booth not far from the front door, and when the man with the salt-and-pepper beard entered, I knew it was Bertram Hague. His appearance matched his voice.
“Dr. Hague?” I asked as he approached.
“Yeah,” he said. I motioned for him to take a seat and he slid in across from me.
“How radioactive are you, Dr. Hague?” I asked.
“Radioactive? Barely above background levels. I’m safe. I got to see the readings myself. Now Moe, on the otherhand—”
“Yeah. I’m worried about the old guy. After the coroner’s boys took that old codger’s body out of there, he headed out. Most of the rest of us stuck around but a few left. Thirty minutes later the Feds descended on the place and those who had left were rounded up and brought back. All except Moe.”
“Where do you think he went, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I’m not sure of the exact location, but I can guess within about thirty or so miles. It’s up in the Southwest Texas hills.”
There was more he wasn’t saying, and I guessed at what it was and hit the bullseye right off.
“But you didn’t tell the Feds that,” I said, not as a question. I was sure I was right.
“That’s right,” Dr. Hague said.
“You don’t have much use for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, do you, Dr. Hague? Are they too lax for you?”
Dr. Bertram Hague leaned back against his cushion seat, ran a large hand through his wavy salt and pepper hair and regarded me with steady eyes.
“There is a difference between licensing and regulation,” he said. “Back in the eighties I used to go to all the nuclear protests. I’d drive to Canada to protest one if I knew a nuclear power plant was going up. And now, after what happened in Japan, and after studying every earthquake fault in North America—”
“I get the picture,” I said. “You don’t have to explain further. You would prefer better regulation and stiffer licensing.”
“Exactly, although no licensing would be better.”
It was time to change the subject. “What are you drinking?” I asked.
“Beer. I don’t care what kind.”
I called toward the counter and asked for a glass of beer for Dr. Hague.
“Thanks,” he said. “By the way, do you ride?”
“Motorcycles? Nope. I had a friend once who got himself killed.”
“Yeah, I hear that a lot,” he said.
“It’s a funny thing about riding a bike, the surest way to get yourself good and dead is to be very careful. I’ve never even had a close call. I just putt-putt along minding my own business. I never was in a hurry to get anywhere.”
“Sounds reasonable,” I said. “Did those federal guys give you any clue as to what the deceased may have been exposed to?”
“Not a one. They were all het up about finding out for themselves.”
“I’ll bet,” I said.
The beer showed up. The bartender let me start a small tab. It felt almost like the good old days. I gave in to the low rumble in my stomach and ordered a hamburger. Dr. Hague demurred any food. He nursed his beer as if it were a small, very rare and perhaps endangered animal.
A silence ensued. In the background there was chitter-chatter and plates clattering together behind the bar as Dr. Hague and I studied one another.
“You know something,” he began.
“There was something wrong with that old man.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “What?
Copyright© George Wier. All rights reserved.