Slippery Slope

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Backcountry

Kristy was happy she had curtailed her drinking early. Brent, she was sure, was going to be sorry despite their leaving the party at a reasonable hour. He had thrown back quite a few shots in a short time. When she dropped him at his front door he was singing the chorus to “Bad Blood” for the fifth time – not a good sign.

As she pulled up to his house a little after seven in the morning, she was not surprised to see that he was wearing very dark shades and nursing a double espresso.

“‘You look gorgeous as always’,” she said as he slid into her truck’s passenger seat.

“Thanks,” he grunted.

“Have you seen the avy report?” She asked, although she didn’t know why she was asking. Hung-over or not, Brent certainly would have checked it. The sudden snow had dumped twelve inches onto the mountain at its base and on the slopes. There was as much as eighteen to twenty-four on the crest and peak.

He nodded, “Of course. Moderate on the backcountry.” He removed his shades to look at her directly, “You nervous, Kristy? What do you think?”

Kristy pulled back onto the road slowly. It was still covered in snow, having received just a pass or two from the plows.

“Well, we sure had an awful lot of snow, very quickly.”

And the snow was being followed by a quick return to record high warmth. It was predicted to be close to fifty degrees Fahrenheit by afternoon. With the beautiful weather conditions skiers and snow boarders were sure to descend in high numbers for the fresh powder.

“We’ll have to keep our eyes open,” Brent sighed, easing his head back against the seat, “but remember, we aren’t in the backcountry and inbounds are rare.”

Very few skiers were hurt or killed in avalanches inside resort areas. But you had to be prepared for the reckless. People who overestimated their skills and ventured without proper safety equipment onto closed areas to ski or snowboard were hazards to themselves and others.

“It’s the warming that has me the most worried, Brent. The new snow right over top of all the wet stuff – and what’s new is going to melt pretty rapidly today.”

Brent reached over and put his hand on Kristy’s arm, “It’ll be fine, Kris. Don’t worry so much.”

Kristy smiled, reassured by Brent’s confidence. “You’re probably right,” she nodded. The sun was rising rapidly in a cloudless sky. There would be huge crowds today. They were going to be slammed. “I sure hope Asher didn’t give too many people the day off.”

As it would turn out, he had.

Deputy Sheriff Detective Sam Kosner sat at his desk and read the coroner’s report for the third time. He rubbed his face and looked at the digital clock on the wall. It was a little after eight in the morning. He was already on his third cup of coffee but he blamed this case for the slow burning feeling he had in his stomach. It should have been cut and dried: a vagrant breaks into a seemingly vacant home to warm up, maybe find something to sell. He tries to start a fire in the fireplace, maybe he’s a little high or drunk, forgets to open the flue and succumbs to the smoke, but not before doing something careless that ignites a curtain. It seemed now that was not what had happened.

It just didn’t make any sense. Sam rocked back on his wooden desk chair and reviewed the facts of the case. As Sam had expected, the dead man’s fingerprints had revealed a criminal history, although the man was far from a hardened criminal. Twenty-eight year old John Bosterman, pronounced dead at the scene on the night of the fire, had his first brush with the law on the heels of his eighteenth birthday. It was a petty theft charge for shoplifting for which he was released on his own recognizance. Then there was nothing for years. The more serious infraction came when he was charged with forging checks he had stolen from his aunt. He had to hand it to the older generation, the woman pressed charges, and John did two years. The last arrest was just weeks ago - a drunk and disorderly - for which he posted his own cash bond. He would not make his court date.

There was no history of breaking and entering, no burglary, no trespassing. It could be that he was getting desperate enough to take up a new line of work. And that was another matter. The drunk and disorderly was in Los Angeles. Certainly a man wanting to score some quick cash could do better for himself in a large city than in a small town where he was bound to draw attention to himself.

While many tourists came and went throughout the season, the homeless were generally scooped up pretty quickly by Sherriff’s deputies and transported to county shelters. Sam had shown the man’s photo around – no one had seen him. There was no evidence that he had arrived by bus or train, and he had no car registered in his name. No stolen cars had turned up in the area. It was conceivable that he had hitched a ride and was only here transitionally. Sam felt certain he must know someone in town. He was still waiting on an employment history, if there was one. John had to have been doing something for money while he was living in L.A.

That brought Sam’s mind back to the only other man that he knew who had recently and suddenly relocated from Los Angeles – Derrick Dalton. It seemed that Derrick was related to just about everyone and everything that had some across his desk in the past two weeks. Derrick had shown no sign of recognition, however, when he looked at the dead man’s body.

There was a knock at his office door. Sam stopped his rocking.

“Come in!” he called.

The Sheriff’s clerk, Brian, opened the door and slowly walked across the room to lay a paper on Sam’s desk.

“Was on the fax,” he said and left as laconically as he had entered.

’Thanks,” Sam replied.

He picked up the document. It was the employment report he had been waiting for and, not surprisingly, it was brief. There were just two jobs for which Mr. Bosterman had filed tax returns, one was as a dishwasher for an upscale Los Angeles restaurant. The other was recent, just six months ago, as a gaffer for a company called BigRent Studios. Sam knew nothing of the movie business or what a gaffer did, but he was sure that Derrick would know.

“Brian!” Sam called out. After a moment, Brian’s brown head stuck itself into the room. He raised his eyebrows questioningly.

“Brian, give a call to Derrick Dalton. See if you can get him to come in later this morning.” Brian nodded silently and closed the door.

The biggest mystery continued to glare from the pages of the coroner’s report. It was still conceivable that Bosterman had thought the house was vacant. Derrick had been at the hospital for days, checking in at his house sporadically. His young son and daughter were with their grandparents. And the back door had been forced open. What made no sense at all was the manner of death. There was no sign of drugs, alcohol, or smoke inhalation. There was no evidence that he had even started the fire. The man had died from blunt force trauma to the head sometime that same evening. But with no smoke in his lungs, it was clear he had died before the fire. How long before was a trickier matter. They could only place it to within a few hours.

Sam pulled out the Fire Chief’s report from under the pile of papers that were strewn across his desk. There was no accelerants involved. The fire had originated in the fireplace and caught some nearby curtains.

Sam stood up and opened his office door. “Brian!” he called out, still looking over the report.

“I called Dalton,” Brian said quickly, standing up from behind his desk.

“Thank you. But it’s not that.”

“What then?” the man asked.

“Come in – sit.” Sam needed to throw this puzzle against the wall and have someone help him pick it up and put the pieces together.

Sam had learned that Brian was only mildly interested in the police work that surrounded him. He was an aspiring writer who had been caught by the Sheriff writing fiction at his desk more than once. And right at the moment, an imaginative mind was just what Sam needed.

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