Hidden Heritage: A Lottie Albright Mystery #3

Hidden Heritage: A Lottie Albright Mystery #3

After a gruesome killing at the Carlton County, Kansas, livestock feedyard, Sheriff Sam Abbot, Undersheriff Lottie Albright, and her ranching husband deputy know their resources are over-stretched. Still, none of ...

About The Author

Charlotte Hinger

Charlotte Hinger is an award-winning novelist and Kansas historian. The first book in her Lottie Albright series, Deadly Descent, won ...

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Chapter One

The call came at two. Usually, Keith, my husband, was the first to answer the phone. No, he had dropped into bed exhausted just an hour before. Although he tells our neighbors he wants out of the vet business, he never refuses a caller panicked over a sick animal. Tonight, he had gone down the road to the Sellers, knowing they could never pay the prices of the new veterinarian. He found a kid’s 4-H calf half-dead just five days before the county fair.

We have a special phone in our house when a 911 call comes into the sheriff’s office. The tone is intended to wake the dead. Deciding to pull rank, I leaped out of bed. Whatever the reason, I could handle it by myself. I am the undersheriff of Carlton County and Keith is merely a deputy. I remind him of that from time to time.

“Sir, slow down, where are you calling from?” The male voice was incoherent, broken. I couldn’t make sense of his garbled words.

“The feedyard. It’s terrible. Just terrible.”

Then I recognized his voice. “Chase? Is this Chase?” I know Chase Dudley. He is an off and on again bull hauler for our county’s largest truck line. They have a liberal hiring policy. Finding drivers with cattle experience was getting harder all the time. Anyone with a commercial driver’s license who knew a heifer from a steer, and could come up with an accurate head count, was looking better all the time to the owner.

“Chase. I’ll be there in a flash. Just hold on.” “No. Not you. Not by yourself. Send Keith.”

Keith was fully awake now, pulling on his jeans. I was close behind, cradling the phone to my ear so I could talk while I dressed. “We’ll both come,” I said. Chase was usually laid back, certainly not an alarmist. He hung up immediately before I could get any details. Our 911 system is informal. No need to trace locations. In this county, everyone knows where everyone else lives.

“What?” Keith was pulling on his boots.

“Don’t know, but it’s something bad. That was Chase Dudley. He wants you there, too.” I called Sheriff Sam Abbott from the OnStar as soon as we jumped in Keith’s Suburban. “Chase was terrified, Sam. He wasn’t even making sense.”

“I’ll call Betty Central to take over the 911 line and head that way.”

“Okay.”

“Poor old bastard.” Keith braked for tumbleweeds blowing across our path and drove as fast as he dared on the gravel road leading to the blacktop. Sam was an old man and needed a good night’s sleep. “We’ve got to get more reserve deputies.”

“Wouldn’t do a bit of good for these kinds of calls. Sam would come on out anyway.”

Keith said nothing. He knew I was right.

No letup from the record breaking heat this summer. Wheatland and pastures might as well have been set on Mars. Folks prayed for rain, then quit, figuring God had moved on to California.

A haze of dust dimmed the yard lights rimming the administration buildings in the feedyard. Dust mixed with the aroma of dried feed, manure, and diesel fuel seemed to draw the oxygen from the air.

Chase ran toward us as we came up the road leading to the feedyard. “Follow me,” he yelled. He dashed to a pickup and we followed him along the lane that led past large cattle pens and went deep into the vast feedyard. He stopped and gestured at the cattle truck washout, the “shit pit,” where the drivers used high pressure equipment to blast dirt and manure out of their possum belly trailers. The drainage from the initial pool led to one of four artificial lakes. When everything worked right, that is.

Chase parked, then loped over to the first rank lagoon and pointed. “In there. Jesus Christ.”

Even in daylight one couldn’t see through the water. Now despite the yard lights and spotlights we couldn’t see what he was pointing at.

And then we did.

“Son-of-a-bitch.” Keith whirled around and went back to the car. I stared at the spot where a body had bobbed up, then disappeared into the water.

Nauseated, I turned away. “Keith is calling EMTs,    Chase.

They’ll be here in a little bit.”

“Won’t do no good. That man is dead.”

“We have to follow procedures and they will take him right to the coroner’s office. Sam Abbott will be here shortly and we need you to stick around and answer a few questions.”

“Hell of a note.” Chase stepped away and blew his nose. He was greyhound-lean with an exaggerated Old West mustache. The pearl snaps on his western shirt gleamed in the glow of the yard lights. He removed his worn old Stetson and his black hair blended into the shadows. He was an old school bull hauler who didn’t hold with untucked shirts or fancy drivers who chromed up their trucks and blew all their settlement checks on LED lights. His truck was not his castle, and the lights were strictly utilitarian. He loaded on time, shunned the beer joints and arcade setups, got a decent night’s sleep when he could, and by God, got ’er done.

“Do you have any idea who it is, Chase?”

“No. He never turned faceup. I finished unloading and backed up here to wash out, and the water pressure made him bob up. He went under again, so I guess it was just luck I saw him at all. If you can call this luck.”

“Were you the only one unloading tonight?”

“No, some of the drivers picked up a load of feeders in Colorado and brought them here earlier in the evening. My load was in Missouri, so they were long gone by the time I got here.”

“The dispatcher will tell us who the others were,” I said. Then we heard the sirens from the approaching ambulance and the fire department truck. Silently, I thanked God I was not going to have to go in after this man. I’m a trained historian with a PhD, and had originally become involved with law enforcement to help our resource-poor county solve a crime quickly. I never dreamed it would become a full-time job.

My husband hadn’t either. It became a bone of contention between us. Then he became a deputy to protect me during ugly situations and he, too, was suckered in. That’s the way it goes in small towns. You volunteer for some little no-count job and soon discover you’ve sold your soul to the devil.

Other cars were coming up the drive now. I recognized the pickup driven by the owner of the feedyard. More people came. Sheriff Sam Abbott arrived before the dust from the fire truck settled.

“Everyone stay back. Every one of you,” he yelled. “Go home. Get the hell out of here.” The old man looked exhausted in the feedyard lights. He turned and barked at Keith. “Get the tape. We need to get on this fast. Just in case.”

The “just in case” meant a suspicious death, of course. We had bumbled in the past, and decided too quickly that deaths were accidental.

Word had already spread and now feed-yard workers were driving up.

“Ah, shit,” Sam muttered. But folks obediently moved behind wherever Keith staked the tape, and Chase stepped forward to help him.

Dwayne Weston, the owner of the feedyard, drove toward us like a mad man. He slammed on his brakes, leaped from his pickup and took charge the moment he banged the driver’s door shut. “Back, goddamn it,” he yelled at the growing crowd of gapers. His face was white under the lights. “Everyone stay back or I’ll, by God, sue each and every one of you for trespassing.” “Thanks,” I hollered, relieved that I could turn my attention to helping the firefighters. Crowd control is a nightmare for law enforcement in small towns or counties. Nevermind what is shown on TV about preserving the scene. We do our best, but we don’t have the manpower.

The fire chief, Barry Whitcome, drove up and parked his pickup next to Keith’s Suburban.

I hurried over. “The lagoon.” I pointed. “There’s a body there.” He whirled around and shouted at the responders. “You’ll need wet suits.” He turned back to me. “Tell Weston we’ll be using his office to change in.”

Three men ran over to the administration building and soon emerged wearing wet suits and masks. The fire truck backed up to the pit, and lowered a chain suspended slab.

The men went in the pit to locate the body. It had not been in long enough for natural body gases to produce buoyancy. As Chase said, it was sheer luck the water pressure from his hose had made the body bob to the surface. I shuddered as one of the men came to the surface, clutching an arm. The other fireman grabbed the platform and pulled it down into the water and maneuvered the lifeless form onto the slab and strapped it to the board. The operator in the truck winched the slab from the lagoon, rotated toward land, then lowered it to the ground. Keith knelt and loosened the restraining straps and carefully turned the body over. He stood up and glanced at the cluster of people forced to keep their distance, then called to the owner of the feedyard. “Weston, we need you here.”

Dwayne came over, knelt, looked at the drowned man, then rose so abruptly he nearly lost his balance.

“It’s Victor. Victor Diaz, my foreman.” Dwayne slammed his fist into his hand then walked back to the group, which was reluctantly complying with the order to stay behind the crime- scene tape. “It’s Victor Diaz,” he hollered. “Victor. Now go on home. Every last one of you. Get the hell off this property.”

He took off for his pickup with angry strides and had one foot on the running board by the time Keith caught up with him.

“You can’t leave yet, Dwayne. We have some questions.”

Obediently, he backed down. “Damn ghouls. I need to tell his wife before she hears it from anyone else. Damn ghouls.” He drew out a handkerchief and blew his nose. “What the hell was he doing here this time of night, anyway?” He choked back a sob. “Nothing like this has ever happened here before.”

Dwayne is a slim man in his early fifties. He has a gorgeous thatch of bright silver hair. With his rugged good looks and authoritative manner, he wouldn’t have been out of place in an old wagon-master western. His father and grandfather had passed down the feedyard, but he had greatly expanded the capacity.

“This will just about kill Maria. Victor has worked here five years and they just now bought their first house.”

“I’ll be the one to notify her.” My mouth went dry. It’s part of my duties, but it never gets any easier, this telling families that their husband, their father, somebody’s son had died in the middle of the night. Hard under any circumstances, but worse to tell a woman her husband had died alone in a stinking hell hole. “I’ll go with you,” Weston said. “It will make it easier on

Maria if I’m the one bringing the news.” “You don’t have to, Dwayne.”

Tears filled his eyes. “I don’t see how something like this could have happened. There was just no reason for him to be here.”

“Are there usually people here in the feedyard during the night?” I dug out my notebook. I was learning fast in this thankless job that seemed to spread into unexpected areas. Sam, Keith, and I were all naturally quick studies, but Keith had been the first to see that we needed to start proper procedures right from the beginning with any unattended death. Before data was lost or overlooked. Before we started making stupid assumptions.

“Just one. He’s an older man and more like a night watchman. If something comes up or there’s a real emergency he calls me. Like a real bad storm. Then I start calling the cowboy crew and we make sure the cattle don’t start bunching up.”

“One man doesn’t sound like much for a place this big.” The feedyard is enormous and accommodates about fifty-five thousand head of cattle. “I thought your security was tighter than a lot of hospitals.”

“They talked about it after 9/11. Everyone was worried about terrorists spreading anthrax to America’s beef supply, but nothing ever came of it. As to having only one man, nothing much goes on out here at night. During the day, there’s about fifty employees counting the office help.” He gestured toward the rows of front loaders, tractors, feed trucks, cattle trucks, bulldozers, tank trucks, conveyor belts, hay balers, and mountains of silage. Massive silver tanks store liquid grain. Even they are dwarfed by the water tower. On the way in, I had noticed about two acres of bales of hay. The feedyard sits on a section of land and uses every foot of it to get feeder calves fattened for market.

“This is like a city.”

“I can vouch for that,” Keith said. “Guess I’ve been out here often enough to know.”

My husband is a large man. People who like him find his square-shouldered stocky appearance reassuring. Those who don’t, resent his success, his landholdings, and his professional status as a veterinarian. They find his foray into law enforcement a bit much. He became a deputy to protect me, but I was by turns amused and then furious by his and Sam’s obvious unspoken vow to shield “the little lady.”

It should not be necessary. Carlton County is a small county in Western Kansas. But after a couple of bizarre cases had spiraled out of control, the three of us became edgy. On the lookout for shadows. For menace.

Dwayne turned toward Keith without so much as an apologetic glance toward me. A man doing a man’s business. Naturally, he wanted to talk to another man. I no longer smolder over such things. I took notes.

“Victor had no business here,” Dwayne blurted. “None whatsoever.” He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and blew his nose. “He’s my right-hand man. My foreman. I just don’t understand what the hell he was doing here at this time of night.”

“And he’s only worked here five years?” I broke into the conversation. “That’s a pretty good step up the ladder to become a foreman in that short a time.”

“He was great. Just great. One of those employees you can count on for just about anything. No matter how trivial. He cared and worked hard and…” Dwayne choked on his words, then embarrassed at his loss of control, turned away.

“We’ll talk more later.” Keith clapped Dwayne on the shoulder, then walked over to the EMTs who were transferring the body to the ambulance. The solemn crowd of onlookers was dispersing and heading for their cars. Victor’s identity was now known and whispered around. There was no need for anyone to stay.

Sam went over to the three firefighters still in wet suits and gestured toward the lagoon. They headed back toward it. Shocked, I looked at Keith.

“They need to make sure.” “Sure of what?”

“Sure there’s not another body down there.”

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