From CleanPosts

Jump to: navigation, search


When the third day of the symposium wrapped up early Victoria "Vic" Felton elected to bypass hobnobbing with the Pacifica National mucky-mucks and headed directly home in a generic silver electric squad car. Driving west from Moses Lake over arid flats she cursed the nameless cubefarm idiot who scheduled training in the short week before a holiday. Most of the attend- ees were distracted the whole time.

By the middle of the second day even Victoria had set her mind on cruise control and recorded the rest of the proceedings clandestinely with her phone. All those precious Lessons Learned and Tricks of the Trade went right down a bottomless drain of forgetfulness as officers and deputies from seven provinces nodded, muttered yeah, sure, and let their butts in the seat check off this requirement mandated from on high.

She drove directly into the mid-afternoon sun of autumn with her window cracked just a bit to let in the crisp air. In an hour the flats gave way to long golden hills carved by water into cleavage decorated by gigantic spinning white sentinels of clean wind power. In two hours the conifers turned on again like a light as the grassy hills became the eastern flanks of the jagged Cascade Range itself.

A huge cluster of cars at least a mile long had been piling up behind Vic- toria for almost an hour, drivers who would normally be speeding along through here at twenty per over, but were afraid to pass her. It was a familiar occurrence. Vic decided to pull over and let the crowd of vehi- cles break up and spread out.

There was a gravel turnout between the eastbound and westbound lanes of the freeway marked with signs forbidding civilians from banging a U-turn. Vic- toria noted the Provincial Patrol was not using it for a speed trap at the moment, so she slid quietly and neatly into that spot and came to a crunch- ing stop. Sitting here for a little bit might slow down some of these idi- ots without bunching them up, she thought, as she dug her phone out of a black leather case on her belt next to her flechette gun.

Victoria idly imagined telling Alexander Graham Bell, sitting in the seat right next to her two hundred years after inventing the telephone, that she needed to make a phone call with what appeared to be nothing but stylish reading glasses. Vic imagined that Mr. Bell's reaction would be to panic and beg to be sent back to where he came from. She slipped the glasses onto her face.

As required by statute, the act of turning on her phone simultaneously pow- ered down her vehicle. Glowing three-dimensional data was superimposed on the lenses which she could drag and drop with lingering glances and smooth eye movements, a blink substituting for a mouse click. More than once dur- ing the seminar she had slipped these glasses on to unobtrusively read whole sections of a bodice ripper from the Grid.

Vic checked her vidmail inbox. There were a few minor details from the of- fice which she would attend to later, and one missed call from her ex- husband David Felton.

Now that was damn interesting. They had been divorced for just about nearly a year now, and they shared joint custody of their twelve year-old girl Hope (who was really just seven years old, long story), yet Vic and David had managed not to make direct contact over that entire time.

Hope alternated full weeks between her parents, and Hope herself functioned in the role of go-between when it was necessary. That's what divorce did to a child, Vic knew. Hope was left suspended between two worlds which moved further and further apart, even as Hope herself remained fully im- mersed in both of them.

But the arrangement worked, so what was David doing now? Vic called him back, and turned the rear view mirror vertically so David could see her whole face when he answered. She knew the forty-threeish woman staring back at her with those to-die-for cheekbones had quite a luxurious mane of red- brown hair back in the Day. She was still a girly-girl deep down, but the exigencies of her current job forced her to keep it, and her neatly painted nails, far shorter than she liked.

A flurry of movement swept across her vision. "Hello Vic," David said, rushing into one of his bathrooms to face a mirror for the call. David's bespectacled face was superimposed on her own but Victoria, like nine bil- lion other people on the planet, was thoroughly practiced at focusing on one image and ignoring the other. After a lifetime of such calls it was second nature.

David's face had faded just a bit in her mind over the last year, but her mind had stored memory triggers such as his small nose and nearly complete unibrow. And there was the same classic gravelly husk in his voice when he said, "I know this is unusual, Vic, but this is bad. Hope is gone."

"What do you mean: 'Gone?'"

"Hope came home from school early, and then she went into the backyard to play on the swing set. Now she's gone. She didn't come back into the house and the side gate is still locked."

"Why did she come home early?"

"It's Turkey Day tomorrow, remember? School's out early. One PM. That's when they bussed her home."

"What time did you see Hope last?"


"And it's four-thirty now. Why'dja take so long to call me?"

"Well first, at maybe three o'clock, I went into the woods behind the house for a little bit and called her name. She's definitely not supposed to go into the woods, and she knows that, but I didn't know where else she could be. Then I called the parents of some of her friends in the neighborhood, and I asked my neighbors, but no one had seen her. That's when I panicked and went back into the woods a second time but there's thunder clouds and it's almost too dark to see in there now. So I came back here and called you."

Vic turned the rear-view mirror back to the horizontal so David could not see the funny jagged line of scorn her mouth was about to make. "Maybe she's with Phyllis."

"Phyll's been with me the whole time. I'm packing her off to her mother's now so she won't be here when you get here. You are coming here, right?"

"Does Phyllis know how...special Hope really is?"

"Not in the way you and I know. Do you think they took her?"

"You work for them, so you tell me, David. Did you contact them?"

"Not yet. You and I should face them together if it comes to that. But it's been a year, and that whole time they never said anything. They never said our divorce was a deal breaker."

"Okay. Don't panic. This isn't an official missing child report yet. I'll be there in an hour. That gives you an hour to contact Astrodyne and see if they know anything. Then we can sort this out."

For many years the Green River valley west of Stampede Pass was an invio- late watershed, source of the drinking water for all of south King County. Only those who went about on four feet were allowed in there.

Growth and population pressures finally caused the Water Authority to re- lent and allow a spur freeway through, but only after an important conces- sion was made. The highway was constructed using special "green" methods that doubled the (already outrageous) cost per mile. And not a single exit was allowed to be built. There would be no gas stations, motels, or devel- opment of any kind. Interstate 86 was just a sweet shortcut that bypassed the heart of Puget Sound City and routed traffic to and from the south end.

Vic Felton thought it was the prettiest forty miles in Cascadia, or possi- bly the whole North American Union.

The six-lane freeway rode high on the northern wall of the valley as an elevated viaduct more often than flat roadbed. Far below the highway was the reservoir behind Howard Hanson Dam. There were very few ups and downs or sharp curves on I-86, it was simply a gentle descent from Stampede Pass through ancient cedar forest and mountains of such rugged beauty they would be the heart of a full-up National Park if they existed east of the Big Muddy.

In 2037 the tangled human carpet of greater Puget Sound City washed right up against the steep front of the Cascade Range, which on the "wet" side met the lowlands the way a wall met a floor, with very little in the way of foothills. The richly forested valley of the Green River narrowed around I- 86 where the freeway, a railroad, a giant water pipeline, and the river all squeezed between twin behemoth mountains and delivered Sheriff Vic to the sprawl of so-called modern civilization.

Victoria left the freeway in a Gordian knot of overpasses, underpasses, and spiraling viaducts that finally smoothed out onto a landscaped eight-lane byway at Four Corners and a five-minute red light.

Here, Edgewood Mall with its attendant mini-malls spread around the mighty crossroads with a sprinkling of big black glass office suites clustered together in business "parks" randomly sprinkled from here all the way to the hypothetical Seattle core far away to the northwest. Behold: King Coun- ty. And yes, Victoria was the chief law enforcement officer of all of this sprawl, in theory.

In practice, King County was a patchwork of small incorporated cities with their own local police, while the State Patrol ruled the network of high- ways tying it all together. Victoria and her some thirty deputies pa- trolled the unincorporated areas and that was dwindling by the month. Still, it was an elected position she had secured twice in the last six years, and a traditional launching pad to higher office.

American McMonoculture was self-regulating and self-propagating. Every McFastfood place, every McSupermarket, every McOil-change place, every McGasmart, were franchises exactly identical to ones found anywhere in North America, or for that matter, anywhere in the whole McWorld. Only the gray skies and scattered clusters of tall pines set this place apart from any suburb in California or Virginia. The United States had achieved this appalling uniformity at the turn of the century, and the rest of the world was rapidly following suit.

Jobs were shifted from one country to another until the workforce which ac- cepted the lowest compensation for their labor was found. Corner "Mom & Pop" grocery stores and restaurants disappeared as they were replaced by cookie-cutter franchises of Safeway, Walmart, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, and Starbucks.

Family farms disappeared to be replaced by endless tracts of clone McMan- sions painted in just two different colors and spaced just six feet apart. Every morning and afternoon four-lanes of commuters tried to squeeze down two-lane country roads to and from work thirty miles away, driving alone in identical SUVs carrying ten dollar gasoline pumped from one of two differ- ent gas brands (Exxon-Mobil-Shell or Texachevron-76) into twenty-five gal- lon tanks.

On the radio, market researchers conducted surveys to determine which songs did the least to "harsh the workplace mellow" and these songs were put into endless rotation on stations across the FM dial, which itself was a wholly- owned subsidiary of Clear Channel.

In twenty-theater megaplexes, mindless computer generated Hollywood crap was shown with the ethic of "get the kids in, show them the Falling Galaxy, and get them out", and everything that made each corner of the world unique and wonderful was choked off, bought out, and co-opted by the gray forces of standardization as the culture, the religion, the politics, and every facet of everyone's life became conformed to the principles of the fast food restaurant.

An Easy Cheezy pizza place was nearby and beige, clone apartment complexes with such names as Fountain Pointe, Evergreen Terrace, Mirrorwood, and Heather Ridge thickened as Victoria drove past Viewmont High School, empty now on the cusp of a four day weekend.

Vic chuckled at the difficult of coming up with a variation on teriyaki every ten blocks. Teriyaki Time. Teriyaki Now. I Love Teriyaki. Some were probably just known locally as "That teriyaki place next to Tattoo Alley".

Vic went west past a few typical arterial corners festooned with more strip malls and turned south on the Ravensdale-Black-Diamond Road, a fat six-lane arterial. Across the street from a Burger Goddess was a Taco Fiesta and an expanse of identical faux-Colonial homes, each house sporting four tacky hollow white aluminum bogus columns.

The monotonous sprawl ended briefly for the only agriculture that existed around here, a farm with 300 acres of rolled sod, the source of perfect pre-grown grass for all those perfectly-groomed front yards.

Frozen pink fire filled the November sky to the west, marred by billowing swaths of deep purple. It was one of those beautiful weather moments that stood out in your mind for a lifetime. Victoria would remember this years later: the beautiful sunset marking the evening she lost her daughter.

Under the sky's neon glow the roads were unusually dark, which caused the headlights of rush-hour to really stand out. Behind her windshield Vic pointed at the sky with almost a grin, as if to tell the eastbound drivers to turn around and look, quick, but two traffic lights later the fire had shrunk to just a small patch of red.

The road narrowed to four lanes. Vic went left at a country corners type mini-market place. Lake Number 12 was on the right, down in it's own hole. Vic passed a Dari-Hut and a little shopping plaza built around a wholesale grocery outlet. A smooth right turn put her into the bedroom community of Crestview Estates.

David's place was a cute little pale blue house, maybe seventy years old, with clean white trim. The yard was more stone than grass, ringed by bark dust and low-maintenance shrubs.

When David met her at front door he saw that her uniform was still immacu- late at the end of the day. The unadorned star of her badge was pinned to her chest, a little piece of tradition harking back to the wild west days. Vic was a short wiry woman in pressed black slacks, a dark gray shirt with many pockets and a light gray tie, but David knew that under that hard crust was a bowl of pink pudding he had plunged into many times, finding sweet oblivion.

"Hi Puddin-Wuddin. I called them like you said. The company is alarmed that Hope is missing, and they say they don't know where she is. But they pledge every resource we might need to find her."

Victoria acknowledged this with a nod. When she stepped through the door she glanced around and drank it all in, never having seen the interior of his house before, except through what her imagination cooked up from what Hope told her. "What'd this cottage run ya?"

"High six figures."

"Not bad. Ten miles closer to River City it would be a million five, easy. Take me around for the tour, David."

"You think I'm hiding Hope?"

"No, moron, this might turn into an official contact and I'm checking off all the boxes."

It was a single-floor dwelling, so the tour didn't take long. Victoria noted the little touches that marked the presence of Phyllis here. She took a good long look at a picture of ash-blond Phyllis in a frame on a glass shelf. There was, of course, the inevitable comparison with herself. It was a female thing. And Victoria thought she came out pretty good in the match up.

David saw her pausing there. "It wasn't my idea, Vicky."

She spoke in a husk, through vision suddenly blurred by a layer of tears. "You know I hate it when you call me that." But she was hating herself more right now for tearing up. Vic recovered by picking up a picture of Hope in pigtails parked right next to Phyllis' photo. She didn't have this one.

"You pretty little moon-faced thing," Victoria said as she looked at the image of her brown-haired daughter closely, recording the image in her momd and saving it to a special place.

"Why did you break it off?" David asked her for probably the twentieth time, albeit the first time in year.

She carefully set Hope's picture back in its place. "I told you before. Obviously you thought I was joking when I said it was the sex. As in the lack thereof."

"The sex."

Victoria stared him down, getting to a count of eighteen before he looked away. Yes, it was the sex. And it was important enough to make her will- ing to raise Hope for the rest of her teen years in a broken home.

"Maybe you would prefer women," he offered.

Victoria refused to rise to this bait. "Don't be a dick, David." She looked out the window. There was still enough light to take a quick look at the back yard. "Now I just spent three hours sitting in my car so I'm not interested in sitting down in here. Let's go outside."

David led the way through the sliding glass patio door in the family room. Victoria could hear the dim roar of a loop of I-86 less than a half-mile away.

More than anything else she had seen here, the rotting stalks of a large garden made Victoria feel a twinge of jealousy. It must have been glorious in the summer. So this Phyllis had a green thumb. Victoria had tried but never managed to grow anything but shit in her own garden. Even the corn came up stunted.

The gate on the side of the house was still locked. Two sturdy wooden fences isolated David's yard from his neighbors, but the back of the lot consisted of dense woods that fell immediately away from the property line in a sloping drop.

Victoria's shoulders sagged when she saw the scattered lights down there. Yes, the little burgs of Franklin and Black Diamond were visible far below. She looked at her feet and sighed, muttering, "Gonorrhea Gulch."

David didn't quite hear what she said, and Victoria didn't feel like re- telling the story of how five girls from down in that gully gave half the boys at Green River High School the clap. Having only dropped off or picked up Hope from the street out front, she never realized David's house sat on the edge of a strange dark corner of King County, perhaps the last truly rural place left for many miles around.

More than rural, in some ways. Below the dam the Green River ran for twelve miles of twisting class III and IV whitewater in a canyon with sheer three-hundred foot walls of sandstone. The Green River Gorge slithered like a black flaw running right through the illuminated perfectly geometric maze of suburbia. Misfits who couldn't stand the universal monoculture were attracted to this place the way cockroaches were attracted to the dingy rear of one's refrigerator. And some of those "misfits" were child mo- lesters.

"Do you know your neighbors?"

"Uncle Frank there," David pointed, "and Aunt Susan in the other house over there. Well, that's what we call them. Lovely retired folks, a widow and a widower, but I don't think they talk to each other because our house sits here between them. They think Hope is adorable, which she is." His voice broke up at that point. "Yes I already asked them if they've seen her or anything funny."

"Okay, then I'm going to call it in, and this now becomes an official miss- ing child report." The sight of Gonorrhea Gulch gave it a new urgency.

Victoria told the station to send out one deputy with a K9 unit and two sets of night-vision goggles, then she went with David back into the house, via the front door, so that the side gate would be open and ready. After a few minutes she went back outside and got a jacket from her car because the nighttime chill was setting in. Then she stood there in the driveway wait- ing.

When the deputy arrived, wrangling a big mean Doberman on a sturdy leash, he said, "Sheriff Vic! What's black and brown and looks great on a liberal judge?"

"Hi there, Woody. What do you need?"

"I need something the little girl wore, so Deputy Curly here can get a whiff."

David provided the clothing Hope wore to school the previous day, which hadn't been washed. Then Curly was amped up, ready to drag Deputy Woodson at the end of that leash. He ran into the backyard, sniffed around the swing set for a while, then made for the woods, but he stopped right there at the property line with a yelp and nothing Woody could say or do would make Curly go out there.

"What's wrong?" David asked.

"Oh, it's just that Deputy Curly here, AKA Dog, doesn't seem to want to go into the Bermuda Triangle of King County, that's all," Woody said.

"I don't understand."

Victoria spoke up. "Congratulations, David, you have purchased a home on very rim of the most...interesting part of the County. Deputy Woodson, go tie Deputy Curly to your rig and fetch your night vision specs. Follow me in to the woods. I'm going down there to look for Hope myself. And David, you stay up here."

It was a matter of bushwhacking through chilly ferns, there certainly was no established trail that she could see, which neighborhood kids were al- ways wont to trample down when they repeatedly entered woods of this sort to play. Vic wondered if the kids and the dog knew something that she did- n't know, but should.

The night vision goggles made her a little frustrated, because she could only see where she directly looked, there was no side information. She scanned the woods for a warm body, or even a body cooling in death, which would have given off a bright green glow.

When Victoria was well down off the rim she removed her goggles, looked back and saw the edge of the slope as a dark line back lit by the general orange sky glow that hovered over greater Puget Sound City. She could see the silhouette of David up there looking

The figure of Deputy Woody appeared as well, and he bounced his way down over the ferns, not quite exactly matching her own path. But he never made it. About halfway down, there was the sound of wooden planks splintering, and Woody disappeared from sight.

"Woody!" Victoria bounded back up the slope after him. David disobeyed orders and lumbered down the hill to see if he could help.

At first she thought Woody was joking, but then she got up there and looked in, she saw the Deputy had fallen into something like a well which had been covered by a thin layer of rotting wood, and in turn covered by dirt and undergrowth. Except the bore wasn't straight down. It was cut at a dia- bolical angle, in fact, following the natural incline of the folded strata. Not steep enough for a quick free fall, done and over, but steep enough to keep Woody sliding no matter what he did. If he moved to tried to arrest his slide, he only slid faster. And there was nothing Victoria nor David could do to help him.

"God help me!" Woody blurted with a desperate burst of breath as his slide accelerated. He looked up at Vic and David in astonishment, vocalizing the unreality of it. "This isn't happening!"

He really started to pick up speed now, as though he were dragged faster and faster behind a truck along a gravel road. He started to scream in agony as he quickly piled up damage and that scream would haunt Victoria's dreams for the rest of her life. Woody bounced his way down that hole, and each glancing blow cracked a rib, broke an arm, a leg. His flesh was me- thodically sanded off.

"I didn't know!" David kept saying. "I didn't know!"

Victoria was to learn later this was an old forgotten air shaft for a de- pleted coal mine sealed up and abandoned in the 1920s. Somewhere around the seven hundred foot mark poor Woody was breathing only mine gas and his screams were mercifully cut off forever. But his broken body kept sliding. He was, after all, still only halfway down the hole.

   * * * * * 

When Ruth Woodson answered the door, Victoria's thin veneer of profession- alism fell away. It was all Vic could do to keep her hands at her side. She could not keep her voice from breaking into a sob when she said, "I'm sor- ry, Ruth, I've never had to do this before."

Ruth's eyes widened as she slowly realized what must have happened. At length, she said, "I think I know why you're here but I need to hear you say it."

Victoria glanced from side to side. "Please let me come inside."

Ruth nodded and held the door for her.

Victoria stood in the center of Ruth's living room and turned to face her. "Ruth, Sheriff's Deputy John Woodson died in the line of duty today. I'm so sorry!"

Ruth's face crinkled up like a sheet of foil then. Victoria thought, I'm doing this wrong, but she felt compelled to embrace Ruth and they both cried for long minutes. Vic tried to answer the questions that bubbled up amid Ruth's anguished sobs. When? How? Why?

"About two hours ago, it was an accident, he fell down some kind of mine shaft, it was very quickly. Why? He was helping me find my baby."

It was the hardest thing she ever did.

Vic neglected to tell Ruth that it was going to take perhaps a week to even retrieve the body of her husband, or that it was going to be a closed- casket funeral, or that Woody died in a paroxysm of such pain and horror that Vic would not wish it on her worse enemy. No one deserved what Woody got. And when she left the widow Vic was in a turmoil of conflicting thoughts:

That wasn't how they do it on TV. That wasn't how a male sheriff would have done it. They should have had a symposium in Lake Eli to teach me how to do it. No one should ever have to do it. I'm the sheriff. It was my duty. A widow should never get the bad news from a third party. I'm a human being.

All these things burned through Victoria's mind as she drove back to her office that night in downtown Seattle. By the time she walked inside she decided that if, God forbid, she lost another deputy, she would handle it exactly the same way.

Vic went directly to a giant wall map of King County, and several of her deputies gathered around her. After studying it for a few minutes, Vic said, "There's only three bridges across the Green River in Gonorrhea Gulch. The Enumclaw-Black Diamond Road, the Franklin Bridge, and this one on at Kanaskat-Palmer. I want a unit at each bridge, and I want enough units on these two roads to either side of David's house on the north side of the river that they can remain in eye shot of each other.

"I'll tell dispatch right now Sheriff."

"And there's one other thing I need. But I can't tell anyone to do it."

Keith Ratte, a stout Deputy who was half Native American said simply, "You want someone to go into those woods with you again."

She nodded. Sometimes Ratte had an uncanny way of reading Vic's mind.

"And after what happened to Woody you probably want somebody who lives down there in the Green River Gorge area and knows what the hell he's doing."

"Do you have any suggestions, Deputy Ratte?"

"I'm your man, Sheriff Felton. But if there's one thing I know for sure about those woods, it's no good going in there until morning. If whoever took your little girl walks out of there we'll nab them in a second. But if they stay put we're going to need some light."

"That's my daughter!"

"I know it's your daughter, Vic. But you don't know those woods like I do. I grew up around them. I live among them. And I'm saying you can't help her until daylight."

Vic sighed and reluctantly agreed. "You're probably right, Keith."

"You've had a long day, Sheriff. It's Thanksgiving tomorrow. Go home and try to sleep. First thing in the morning you and I will go into those woods, find your little girl, and give everyone who loves her something to be thankful about."

Personal tools
Strangers In Paradise