On Deadly Ground: A J. D. Books Mystery #1

On Deadly Ground: A J. D. Books Mystery #1

Kanab, Utah is bitterly divided by the politics of land management. When environmentalist David Greenbriar is found dead, County Sheriff, Charley Sutter, seeks help from newly appointed Law Enforcement Ranger, ...

About The Author

Michael Norman

MICHAEL NORMAN is a writer and retired journalism professor who lives in an absolutely unhaunted house near the Twin Cities ...

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Chapter One

Environmental activist David Greenbriar climbed steadily higher onto the Kaiparowits Plateau, unaware that this would be his last sojourn into Utah’s southern wilderness.

Greenbriar had departed well before dawn, hoping to reach camp before the worst of the afternoon’s fiery heat settled on the plateau. His rapid pace focused on the terrain ahead. The forty-nine-year-old retired college professor and president of the Escalante Environmental Wilderness Alliance (EEWA) prized these solitary journeys into the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

A fierce and dangerous place, summer heat and precious little water made the plateau one of the harshest terrains in the lower forty-eight states. Natural arches and conical spires colored in rich, earth tone hues formed millions of years ago by wind, water, and erosion, reached upward toward a cloudless blue sky.

As the sun climbed into the eastern sky and warmed the cracked, copper-colored sandstone, Greenbriar gave wide birth to a coiled Great Basin rattlesnake that had come out to warm itself on the sun-drenched rock. Overhead, an endangered peregrine falcon circled unhurried on the plateau’s windy updrafts, canvassing the ground below for its next meal. Greenbriar stopped periodically to catch his breath and mop perspiration from his sweat-stained face and neck. His tanned, deeply lined face was hidden behind sunglasses and a floppy nylon polyester hiking hat.

By early afternoon, he had reached his destination and quickly set up camp. The expensive North Face backpacking tent would provide a measure of relief from the unforgiving sun. He camped atop Nipple Bench, which afforded spectacular vistas of Lake Powell, Fifty-Mile Bench, and the small town of Big Water. Although a poster child for environmental exploitation and excess, Lake Powell was the most magnificent lake he had ever seen.

From the modest shelter of his tent, Greenbriar napped most of the afternoon and woke to find a whiptail lizard staring at him from just outside the flap. He lit his propane stove and prepared a dinner of freeze-dried food to enjoy while the evening sun slipped lower in the western sky, painting the red Vermilion Cliffs in contrasting shades of bright sunlight and deepening shadows. After dinner he cleaned up and took a short walk to a rocky outcrop overlooking a boundless valley that stretched as far as the eye could see. The lengthening shadows climbed ever so slowly up the cliff faces, until only the highest pinnacles remained bathed in sunlight. With full darkness came the recurring realization that the plateau was a foreboding place of overpowering desolation and solitude.

As always, his enjoyment of the breathtaking landscape gave way to worries about the perpetual and sometimes virulent battles for the protection of the West’s wild country from the shenanigans of groups like the Citizens for a Free West. He couldn’t imagine a more insidious group of morons than Neil and Boyd Eddins and some of their ranching cronies. Livestock grazing on public lands produced more environmental damage than any other form of land use.

The immediate battle involved the expansion of roads on federal land, particularly in wilderness study areas. If the CFW and groups like them prevailed, road expansion would jeopardize the likelihood of getting additional federal lands designated wilderness study areas. Increases in logging, oil drilling, strip mining, and all-terrain vehicle use always followed road expansion.

Environmental groups like his could not afford to let that happen. And while the EEWA was not into blowing up buildings, he saw little harm in shooting an occasional stray cow. After all, ranchers had little problem killing bears, wolves, coyotes—anything that threatened their stinking cattle. As Greenbriar saw it, the ends justified the means. He considered himself an environmental disciple of the late Ed Abbey. His bible was Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d read the book.

Greenbriar’s environmental activism began when he was a young professor at Berkeley. Several colleagues had invited him to the home of a charismatic political science professor, head of the California chapter of the Nature Conservancy. The two became close friends. In time, Greenbriar became fervently committed to a variety of environmental issues.

Youthful idealism gradually turned to cynicism. Increasingly, he found himself at odds with the policy direction taken by the Nature Conservancy. The organization seemed far too willing to compromise its principles with groups whose sole purpose was to exploit the land, water, and air for economic gain. These groups were openly hostile to people like himself who wanted only to safeguard public lands for the enjoyment of future generations. In the end, he parted ways with the Nature Conservancy and developed the philosophical foundation for what would eventually become the Escalante Environmental Wilderness Alliance. Now he was fighting some members of his own board of directors. He had become the voice of moderation and compromise instead of escalation and confrontation. The irony was not lost on him.

As he settled into his tent and drowsiness took hold, he missed his young wife, Darby. They’d met at Cal Berkeley seven years earlier. To her, he was the handsome, intelligent, and witty university professor. To him, she was his beautiful, flirtatious, and bright graduate student. He’d fallen in love with her the instant they met. Within months of Darby’s completing her master’s degree in microbiology, he had divorced his wife of sixteen years and married her. Now, six years later, the luster had begun to wear off. Darby had always been an insatiable flirt and was never very subtle about it. Lately, she acted more and more aloof, making excuses to spend time away from him. Was she cheating? He suspected so, but there was no way to know for sure. Perhaps he was foolish to believe that a man his age could hold the attention of a gorgeous, twenty-eight year old woman.

# # #

John David (J.D.) Books, new Bureau of Land Management (BLM) law enforcement ranger, should have felt elated at the prospect of returning to his home town. But for him, did Billie Letts have it right that home is Where the Heart Is? He’d spent all of his adolescence in the small Kane County town of Kanab, Utah. He still had family there. When Books had been offered the job, it seemed natural that he should return to his roots. The tragic incident that ended his eleven-year career as a member of the Denver Police Department’s elite robbery/homicide squad lay almost a year behind him, but it was still as fresh in his psyche as though it had happened yesterday.

Kanab is located in south-central Utah near the Arizona border. In the early 1920s, the town’s cattle-ranching industry received a boost when Hollywood film companies began making Western movies in the area. Since the first Tom Mix silent Western, more than two hundred movies and numerous television series had been filmed around Kanab, giving rise to the town’s nickname, “Little Hollywood.”

What was the old saying? The more things change, the more they stay the same. That was Books’ impression of Kanab as he arrived on a hot Friday afternoon in August, pulling a U-Haul trailer behind his Ford pickup. In some ways, the town had changed significantly in the years since he’d left. The main drag was a mix of old and new. Some old buildings had undergone a facelift, giving them a more contemporary look. In others, old storefronts hadn’t changed in decades. He noticed a smattering of new businesses, lodging, real estate offices, and a new bank or two. Many of these changes reflected the economic reality that ranching was giving way to tourism and that retirees were moving into the area in large numbers. T-shirt shops, a trading post, and gift stores that catered to seasonal visitors were scattered throughout the downtown business district.

He had spent the past six months completing the arduous BLM law enforcement training academy in Glencoe, Georgia. He wasn’t scheduled to report to work until Monday morning, but he had plenty to do before then.

Near the center of town, Books pulled into a crowded Chevron service station. He uncoiled his lean, six-foot-five-inch frame from the truck cab. The pickup was running on fumes, and he was in a junk food state of mind. He ate, gassed up, and on impulse, bought a mixed bouquet of flowers from a water-filled plastic bucket sitting on the floor next to the cash register. He drove across dried-up Kanab creek into the west side of town and cruised down the familiar street where he had spent his childhood. The old house hadn’t changed much. The burnt lawn and weed-infested flower beds seemed neglected, and the faded chocolate brown exterior hadn’t seen a fresh coat of paint in years. His dad’s beat-up Toyota Land Cruiser sat in the driveway. The old man was nowhere in sight, and that suited Books just fine. They would have their awkward reunion, but it needn’t be today. Next Books drove to the cemetery. The afternoon sun baked the landscape, but a gusty northwest wind made it feel cooler. He walked to his mother’s grave to leave the flowers, knowing they wouldn’t survive long in the intense heat. To his surprise, the area around the grave was neatly manicured. A vase contained flowers that couldn’t have been more than a day old. This struck him as odd, considering his father always avoided funerals and cemeteries. Somebody else, probably his sister Maggie, must be caring for the grave. Books added his flowers to those already in the vase, then spent a few minutes talking with his mother. Seven miles east of Kanab, off State Highway 89, lay the fifteen-hundred-acre Case Cattle Company. It was home to Books’ sister Maggie, her husband Bobby, and his two nephews. This would be his temporary home until he found something to rent. Unlike Books, Maggie had never left Kane County. She had married her high-school sweetheart, the son of one of the most influential families in Kane County.

Books had promised Maggie he would make it to the ranch in time for dinner. When he arrived, the smell of steaks cooking on the barbeque triggered memories of times long past when the family made a Saturday night tradition of grilling steaks during the summer months. Life was simpler then, or so it seemed.

Maggie prepared a big dinner in his honor. T-bone steaks, baked potatoes, corn on the cob, and home-made biscuits filled each plate. Apple pie à la mode completed the fare. After dinner, the kids ran off to play in the evening twilight while the adults sat on the front porch, happy to catch up after Books’ nearly two year absence. He hadn’t been home since his mother’s funeral. By the time dusk gave way to full darkness, everybody had gone to bed except Maggie and Books. They sipped brandy and reminisced. Eventually, the discussion turned to their father.

“How is the old bird?” asked Books.

“Health-wise he seems to be doing okay,” said Maggie. “But I’m worried about him. He spends too much time in Las Vegas. He’ll disappear for days at a time without telling anybody. I think he’s gambling and drinking quite a bit. I’ve started checking on him daily by calling Harrah’s—that’s where he always stays. I think he’s pretty annoyed with me—hovering, that’s what he calls it.” “Well, Sis, I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over it. What’ll you bet he’s got a bevy of women stashed away down there?” “Have you dropped by to see him?”

“Not yet. Hell, Maggs, I just got into town.” He sounded defensive, something he hadn’t intended.

She sighed. “You need to let go of it, J.D. It’s history now.

What’s done is done. He’s moved on, and so should you.”

Maggie’s remark angered Books. “I’m sure he hasn’t had any problem moving on. I think he managed to do that even before mother died. The old fart was screwing anything in a skirt for years, and everybody in town knew about it, including mother. She died of shame and a broken heart long before the cancer killed her.”

“Jesus, J.D., that’s not true. Don’t blame dad’s marital indiscretions for mom’s cancer. That doesn’t make any sense. The two aren’t connected.”

Maggie was right. “I know that, Sis. I guess I’m just angry at him for being so unfaithful for so damned long.”

There was a brief lull in the conversation before Maggie said, “Carrie’s called a couple of times now. I think she’s really feeling devastated. She says you won’t return her calls or answer the letters she’s sent.”

Carrie was Books’ soon-to-be ex-wife. “I don’t want to talk to her at all. The papers have been filed, and the divorce will be final in a couple of months. It can’t be over soon enough to suit me.” “I’m so sorry, J.D.” She glanced at him. “I haven’t told you this, but it’s really nice having you back home.” “Thanks, Maggs. It feels good to be home.”

They talked a while longer about life on the ranch with Bobby and the boys and how difficult it was trying to make a decent living in the cattle business. He thanked her for doing such a good job of tending to their mother’s grave. She gave him a sheepish look. “I’d love to take the credit, but I haven’t been to the cemetery since the Memorial Day weekend.”

Books was puzzled. Somebody was caring for the grave site. Could he have misjudged the old man? Maybe, but he didn’t think so.

After Maggie went to bed, Books remained on the porch for an hour. He watched a full moon rise and cast its dark shadow over the black mountains to the north. Stars filled the night sky in every direction as far as the eye could see. Soon, overcome by fatigue, he settled down on the couch in the ranch house for what turned out to be a restless night of sleep.

Books was up and in town early Saturday morning. He had plenty of things to do. High on the list was finding a place to live. On his way out of the post office, he ran into Ned Hunsaker, a longtime family friend. Without a word, Hunsaker broke into a broad grin and gave him a good old-fashioned bear hug.

“Nice to have you back, son. I was delighted when I picked up the local rag and read that you were coming home. It’s where you belong. Your mother would be pleased.”

Hunsaker had been the Kane County librarian for thirty-three years. Book’s mother had worked with him as the assistant librarian for twenty-seven of those years. They’d had a close friendship that had lasted until her death.

“Thanks, Ned. I’m not settled in yet, but it’s already starting to feel like home. The last year’s been tough.”

“I was sorry to hear about that. Have you found a place to live?”

“Not yet. For the time being, I’m staying with Maggie and Bobby until I find something to rent. I’m supposed to look at one place later this morning.”

“This might not interest you, but I’ve got an old double-wide mobile home sitting on my property. It needs a little paint, but it wouldn’t take much to turn it into a cozy little place. And I guarantee you won’t beat the price.”

That piqued Books’ interest. “How much do you want for it?” “How about $200 a month and utilities?”

“Done.”

“Geez, don’t you want to see it first?”

“Nope. I’ll take your word for it. When can I start moving in?” “Right away if you want. I can hook up the propane tank and fire up the swamp cooler this afternoon.”

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