Joining Russell in a layout room was a State Patrol sergeant, the Search and Rescue (SAR) director, Ecklie, and an assistant to the mayor. The third day ended without any sign of Greg and they were nearing the golden hour that marked when most missing people were found dead. Russell was keeping a brave face on at work, but several calls from the stairwell let his wife know he was scared that Greg wouldn’t be found alive.
“We’ve covered most of the area around Angel Mountain,” the SAR director told them, “and about forty miles from here in all direction. We haven’t seen him or his vehicle yet.”
“Should we call in helicopters?” Russell asked.
“To search where?” Ecklie asked. He rubbed his temple for a moment, briefly looking exhausted. He had been at the lab since Greg was first reported missing. “Without knowing where exactly he was sent, we’d spend thousands of dollars for a few miles when that same thousands can pay for a dozen people on the ground.”
Russell didn’t exactly agree with that logic, but he knew better than to argue. He looked up and saw Nick hovering at the door. He moved around the room and the two stepped into the hall. Nick waited for Russell to speak first so he could get a sense of his supervisor’s mood.
“Did you need something?” Russell calmly asked. He was trying his best to forgive Nick, but it was difficult with Greg missing.
“Has there been any news? Any signs?” Nick asked.
“No. Weren’t you out searching?
“I… I went home to change and sat down. I fell asleep and… I’m sorry.”
“You wouldn’t be any help to him if you drove into a ditch. It’s okay. I saw Sara a few minutes ago and she’s going to search a couple more grids before it gets dark. Why don’t you catch up with her?
Nick nodded. Russell waited for him to leave, but he didn’t.
“Was there something else?” Russell asked.
“Please let me finish my last case before I go on suspension. It’s the case that… I want to close it for… Please?”
“You have until we find Greg.”
“I need more time.”
“Time you would have if you hadn’t made Greg play Call Roulette.” Russell quietly snapped at Nick, and then returned to the layout room.
Nick resisted rushing in and loudly pleading his case, but he guessed from the abrupt end to the conversation, Russell wasn’t quite done being mad at him. He might risk more than a suspension and demotion if he pushed his supervisor’s buttons too many times in so few days.
“Nick,” someone called.
He turned. Henry was hanging out the door of his lab.
“I have tox results from the woman and her son in the morgue.”
Nick walked down to the tox lab. The first thing he noticed was how ragged Henry looked. He was wearing the same clothes from yesterday, his hair was sticking up, and he had dark circles under his eyes.
“Have you slept?” Nick asked.
“No. Not yet.” Henry sat down on a stool, the next indication he was tired. Nick rarely saw the man stop moving, even when he was sitting. But tonight, his hands were limp in his lap, and his eyes drooped.
Suddenly Nick felt worse because Russell was right. He had been arrogant, and, he realized, greedy. He wanted an easy call, and now Greg and the entire lab was suffering from his selfishness.
Henry went on to tell him, “The woman had LSD in her system. About 30 micrograms, so maybe one hit. When I was drawing her blood, she said she’d taken LSD ten hours ago, so the dose might have been higher. But the man is an entirely different world of dumb. His tox came back with well over 10,000 milligrams of LSD. That’s almost a hundred million hits!”
“And the stickers? Did they have that much on them?”
“No. Not even close. Each blot had between 30 to 40 micrograms. At best, maybe one milligram per sheet.”
Nick thought about the evidence.
“The guy, when we found him, had foam around his mouth, and his shirt was still wet with sweat. I ran a UV over the carpet under him and it illuminated a blue-white. Does LSD illuminate under UV?”
“Nick,” Sara said as she stopped in the door. “We gotta go.”
“Okay. I’ll be right there.”
She walked away.
Nick answered him, “Yes. It will.”
“Okay.” Nick stood up. “Henry, test that piece of carpet, and the man’s clothes. I need to know the concentration of LSD on everything.”
“I’ll try to get it done tonight for you.”
“Thanks,” Nick told him, fully suspicious.
“We all know about the suspension, Nick. It’s not that big of a lab.”
Nick nodded. “Thank you.” He headed for the door.
Henry nodded. “I hope you find Greg before dark, too.”
“So do I.”
Morgan entered the interview room. The passenger of the wrecked truck had his head buried in his arms on the table. She sat down across from him and he looked up. That same smile he’d shown before appeared.
“I’ve seen you someplace. Where’d I see you before?”
“When you were passed out drunk on the road?” she offered.
His eyebrows dipped into a deep V. He shook his head, shaking his grimy hair. “What are you talking about?”
She opened her folder and told him, “Your invalid driver’s license says you’re James McKeon.” She looked up. “You, James, seem to enjoy getting drunk and driving home.”
He laughed and then scratched his unshaven chin. “Yeah. I do that. Don’t remember most of the times, though.”
“Yes. Alcoholics tend to have that problem.”
He glared at her. “I like my drinks, but I don’t have a problem.”
“Did your friend?” She showed him an enlarged photocopy of the driver’s license. “Peter Bennett?”
He laughed. “Naw. Pete didn’t drink very often. But he did go out with me last night because… Well, his wife died yesterday. The cancer finally won.” That sucked away James’ smile. “Lucinda was a good woman. After I lost my license, she’d come pick me up when the bartenders called Pete. Never said a word, just drove me home, made sure I got in, and left. Good woman, Lucinda. She didn’t deserve to die that way.”
The story touched Morgan and she almost forgot about the fact she had to find out why Pete’s head was no longer attached to his body.
“James, I’m sorry to tell you this but Peter is dead.”
James stared at her for a long time, almost as if he didn’t see her. Slowly, almost in a whisper, he asked, “Peter’s dead?”
“Yes. He was decapitated, and you were the last person with him. What happened to him, James?”
James started crying. “Pete… He’s dead? He lost his head?”
Morgan didn’t answer. A few sobs passed before James spoke again.
“I was really drunk. He was too. But he insisted on driving home, even though I said we should get a cab.” James rubbed his hand over his face, smearing tears. “I remember he said he was going to puke and then he leaned out the window.”
“While he was driving?”
James nodded. “I think so. I was so drunk. And I sat back and then… I was riding a roller coaster. The next thing I remember was waking up in detox.”
“You don’t remember anything else?”
James shook his head with a grimace. “Lady, if I knew more, I’d be spilling my guts to you. Peter was my only and best friend. I don’t have anyone else now. No one’s going to give a damn about a drunk.”
Morgan couldn’t agree, or disagree, but she guessed he was probably right.
“Okay. I’m holding you for forty-eight hours – mostly because you don’t look like you’re in any shape to go home. Get some sleep and I’ll come see you if I have more questions.”
“I bet most people don’t tell you it’s kind of you to hold them for a good reason like that. Thanks, miss.”
Morgan offered a smile and left the room. She still had to figure out where the head and body parted ways.
Greg led the horse through the gate to get around the cattle guard that protected the house and buildings from the cows. He turned to the horse, smiling. He was proud he’d managed to saddle and bridle the horse correctly – according to the books. He’d found a canteen in a box in the closet and filled it with ice and water. He’d shortened it as much as he could and swung it over the saddle horn. He’d wrapped up some chicken in a plastic bag and tied it onto the back.
Greg gathered the reins at the saddle horn and put his foot into the stirrup. The horse started prancing, dancing away from him.
“Whoa. Whoa. Easy.” Greg stepped down.
Truth be told, he was nervous about this. This quarter ton animal had it in its power to kill him, so he wasn’t exactly comfortable with this decision.
Greg tried again, with the same result.
“Look, horse, I have to ride you. You can cover a lot more ground than I can, so just… Chill. Chill.”
He tried again and the dancing started again. Greg took a deep breath and swung himself into the saddle. The horse did a little bucking dance. Greg had just slid his foot in the other stirrup when the horse reared and lunged forward, shooting across the desert like a bullet.
Greg wanted to scream, but he forgot how. The books had contradictions about what to do in a moment like this, but one thing they all agreed on, he had to get the horse under control or he could end up with a broken neck or worse. Greg bounced around until he got the reins gathered up and using both hands, yanked back as hard as he could.
The horse nearly flipped over as it turned and stopped at the same time. Greg grabbed the saddle horn. The inertia of the stop threw him hard against the saddle horn, ramming it into his stomach and against his diaphragm. He didn’t have time to worry about air he couldn’t get. The horse started bucking and running.
Greg closed his eyes and held on. This was worse than the books even came close to describing. The horse bolted at a dead run again. Greg clenched the reins in one hand, the saddle horn in the other, and held on for dear life!
Morgan walked along the road, looking for anything that looked like it could decapitate a person. So far, nothing was obvious, and she only had another hour before the State Patrol had to open the road again. Morgan walked to the edge of the road and stared down the hill at the landfill. She wondered if the land would ever recover from the ugly scars man made across it. She looked to her left, into the light hot breeze coming up the road. Her eyes were drawn to a mailbox next to a road.
The road led down the hill to a house nestled neatly between the bottom of the embankment and the landfill fence. She turned, seeing two more mailboxes for houses like it down the road. Morgan walked back to the mailbox and pulled out a UV light. She went over it with her light, but nothing showed up. She reached out to open the lid and the mailbox tipped over.
“That wouldn’t kill anyone,” she told the mailbox.
She sat it up and went to the next. It took a little more force, but she easily pushed it over. She walked to the third and before she got there, she could see she was onto something. On the ground in front of it was a dark patch that looked suspiciously like blood. She walked around it and found the other side of the mailbox was covered in a black substance. She pulled on a glove and tried to tip the mailbox. It didn’t budge. The post it was on must have been set a foot or two down. She pulled a luminal swab from a vest pocket and ran it along the substance. The swab turned pink.
Morgan turned, looking up the road. The events of the fateful night that Peter Bennett died became clear. He was driving his drunken friend home, probably even drunker than his friend was. He didn’t stop to vomit. Instead, he hung his head out the window to vomit, veering the vehicle to the side of the road. His head smashed against the mailbox, decapitating him. Meanwhile, the pickup with the passed out friend and headless body, rolled down the road and off the edge into the ravine.
“Wow. That’s a new reason not to drink and drive,” Morgan said to herself.
The horse’s race against nothing didn’t come to an abrupt halt. It ground to a halt. At first, Greg didn’t notice. He was too busy leaning over the saddle horn and holding on for his life. He opened his eyes slowly, staring at the ground that had stopped moving under him. His breath came out as shaky and his body quivered. Very slowly and cautiously, Greg sat up, but kept his hand tightly clamped around the saddle horn.
Then he noticed the horse was shaking and stood with its legs spread eagle. Greg hurried to get off; afraid it was going to fall over on him. He dropped one rein and moved back to the end of the other rein, staring at the horse. The horse was frothy with sweat and it snorted as it drew in gasps of air. It turned its head to look at Greg but did nothing else.
“Are you going to die?” Greg asked it.
The horse let out a heavy breath and very slowly got its legs under it. The gasping breaths began to subside until it was breathing normal. Greg took a step toward it and it began to shake itself off. He stepped back, watching it shake and shake and shake. It stopped and put a leg out, then rubbed the side of its face and bridle against its leg. With that side done, it was time for the other side. A finaly full-body shake came and finally it stood still again.
“Call me strange, horse, but… I don’t think horses are supposed to run like that for so long. In the desert… And… Such.”
The horse just looked at him.
Greg cautiously approached it and took the canteen off the saddle horn. The chicken had been lost somewhere in the run through the desert. Greg took several deep swallows and then put it back on the saddle horn. He didn’t want to get back on and be taken for another run, but the books said it was best to get back on and show dominance or the horse would never obey. He sure as hell hoped those writers had actually ridden a horse and knew what they were talking about.
Greg tossed the opposite rein up over the horse’s neck, joined it with the one in his hand, and put his foot in the stirrup. He waited for the dance like before, but it didn’t come this time. He swung himself into the saddle and grabbed the saddle horn, expecting another sprint. The horse didn’t even move. Greg put his foot in the other stirrup and gathered the reins, then immediately wrapped his hand around on the saddle horn. He looked around him, trying to get his bearings. He knew the fence for the place was somewhere to the west. The best bet was to ride to it and then head back south where the cattle guard and gate was.
“Okay, horse, let’s try this without racing your damned shadow. It’s less work for you.”
Greg pulled the reins to turn the horse but the animal didn’t budge. He pulled a little harder. Nothing. Greg gave it a slight yank. Nothing. Then he remembered a slight nudge or kick of his heels in the horse’s side with the pull, and the horse obeyed. Greg remembered how to encourage the horse to walk faster, but he was in no mood to go faster. He’d gone fast enough on his the first day he’d ever ridden one of these beasts.