Treasure State: A Cassie Dewell Novel (Cassie Dewell Novels, 6)
EIGHTEEN DAYS BEFORE
Private Investigator J. D. Spengler of Tampa Bay, Florida, was taking the highway exit from I-90 West onto Montana State Highway 1 when he was blinded by the setting sun and he ran over something big enough on the road that he nearly lost control of his rental car.
It happened in the late spring evening just as the fireball of a sun started to slip behind the mountains. The sun ballooned as it did so and he’d reached up and lowered the visor so he wouldn’t have to stare right into it. That’s when he glimpsed something dark and bulbous appear right in front of him on the asphalt.
Spengler eased off to the shoulder of the highway while applying the brake. Delineator posts shot by the passenger window as he decelerated and one clipped the outside mirror but not hard enough to break the glass.
He came to a stop and took a deep gulp of air. He felt a wave of prickly sweat wash through his scalp and crotch. His heart raced and his breath was shallow.
A quick glance at the rearview mirror revealed the dark lump behind him on the road. It was too small to be human, for which he was immediately grateful. It was some kind of animal. He hoped it was wild and wasn’t a loose dog that belonged to a local. Whatever it was, it wasn’t moving.
There were crumbs from on-the-go fast-food meals on his lap and J. D. Spengler brushed them off with his hand before he released the seat-belt latch. He didn’t like living in a car but it was too often part of the job. Because of that, he was careful to keep the car as clean as he could and not clutter it up. The rental guys appreciated that but he didn’t do it for them. He did it for himself because he didn’t like to think of himself as a pig. He wished he didn’t look so much like one with his huge belly, thick limbs, round face, and upturned nose.
He knew what people thought when they met him. He’d heard it all his life. He’d once heard a client describe him as having “porcine features.” That stung.
Spengler grunted aloud as he pushed the door open. He was stiff from being behind the wheel the entire day. He was too fat, he knew that, and he was uncomfortable. Every movement seemed to hurt these days. The car was cramped as well. He’d need to talk to his employer, yet again, about springing for a roomier SUV if she was going to continue to send him to places like this.
As it was, Spengler drove a shadow-gray 2021 Chevrolet Malibu four-door with Idaho plates. It was the most boring car on the highway, he thought. The only advantage to the rental was its absolute anonymity. He wished the rental had local Montana plates with their “The Treasure State” nickname so he would be able to blend in even further. Instead, he was stuck with “Famous Potatoes.”
He got out and stretched. The heat was palpable, but the air was dry. It smelled of spring, something he recalled from his youth in Pennsylvania.
First, he walked to the front of the car to see if there was any damage. There wasn’t, aside from the nick on the mirror, but he would have to see if the left front tire was out of alignment from the collision. It was likely, he thought. Then he noticed the long needle-like projectiles that bristled from the rubber side of the tire. He squatted down and touched them. He’d buy a set of pliers at a hardware store and pull them out later, he thought.
He walked around the car and slowly back along the highway. The fields on both sides of the car hummed with insects. The air was thin and he breathed in deeply to get more of it. Spengler guessed that one of the reasons he was sweating was because of the lack of oxygen at this altitude. He hoped he didn’t overwork his lungs or have a heart attack so far from home.
The dead porcupine was still. Its quills glistened in the hard light of the late afternoon. Black blood snaked out from beneath it to form rivulets on the surface of the road. He could see dull open eyes, yellow teeth, and yellow claws. Fleas teemed through its coat.
He sighed. Porcupines were his granddaughter’s favorite animal. Spengler didn’t know why. She called them “porky-pines” and had dressed up as one the previous Halloween. Her mom, Spengler’s only daughter, had attached a dozen brush-heads to the back of her costume using Velcro. It wasn’t very imaginative but he’d said nothing at the time. His heart broke when his granddaughter cried and told him people thought she was a space alien, not a porcupine.
He thought about taking a photo of the dead animal and sending it to his granddaughter but he couldn’t find an angle where it didn’t look dead. So he gave up on that idea and lumbered back to his car and got in.
It was beautiful country if you liked mountains, a huge blue sky, poor food, and too much distance between towns, he thought. He was not a mountain person. He was not a wild animal person, or an outdoor person. He liked his sun to sizzle into the ocean while he had his first cocktail rather than have it hide behind a mountain and create dramatic shadows on the contours of the terrain.
Although it had been hot and dry the entire day, he was startled by how quickly the temperature dropped on the digital display when the sun vanished. He attributed that to the elevation as well: five thousand, three hundred feet above sea level. His condo back home was at eight feet above sea level. This was ridiculous.
He checked for traffic. Seeing none, he pulled back onto the highway.
As the interstate receded in his rearview mirror, Spengler realized how suddenly alone he was on the two-lane. There were no oncoming cars and none behind him. The only thing on the road was the dead porcupine. The fields on both sides were covered in grass—hay, he supposed—and mountains dominated the horizon on all four sides. As wide open as it was, he felt oddly hemmed in.
A towering smokestack reached up into the heavens to his left. That was all there was, just a smokestack high upon a tawny hill. No buildings, no plant, not even an obvious road that led up to it. There was no smoke coming out of it. It looked like it was a thousand feet high, a middle finger extended straight up into the sky.
Then, as he drove, he noticed a sign on his right for a turnoff to the small burg of Opportunity. A few miles later, on his left, was a turnoff for Wisdom, Montana.
“Fuckin’ A,” he said aloud to himself with a bitter smile. “I passed both Wisdom and Opportunity. I just whizzed on by. Is this some kind of a joke?”
As he neared the town he noted the massive mountain of coal-black debris on his left. What was it? It was bigger than several city blocks and the surface of it glistened in the waning sun.
The smokestack was even with him now, high above the black mountain. It was so high he couldn’t see the top of it from the driver’s side window. He imagined that with a low cloud cover the top of it couldn’t be seen at all during the winter months.
He drove on.
The town came into view in front of Spengler. It was nestled into a valley, packed in there ahead with tall vertical hills on both sides as if to keep it in place.
Before he entered the town limits he eased to the side of the highway onto a small pullout. Spengler dug his phone out of his shirt pocket and opened the text app.
As she insisted, he’d kept his client apprised of his movements and progress over the last five weeks. He did it via text because then she didn’t have the chance to clutter up his time with asking questions. He kept his messages terse and pithy.
Their method of communication had evolved since the early days of the case.
With his thumbs, he typed out:
Still in Big Sky Country. Got some good intel and I’m closing in. I think I’ll locate him tomorrow. Will keep you posted.
The attractive little WELCOME TO ANACONDA display passed by on his right and Spengler felt a kind of melancholy relief. He was close, all right. He could feel it in his bones. He snapped a photo of the sign on his phone and forwarded it to his client.
The journey had been much longer than he’d anticipated, and it had certainly been more harrowing. What he’d uncovered still astonished him.
Miami, Boston, New York City, DC, Chicago, Seattle, LA, Santa Monica, Sun Valley. And he doubted he’d discovered all of the victims.
Only his client wasn’t surprised. She urged him to keep going and she’d paid his three-thousand-dollar retainer and his ninety-dollar-per-hour rate once he blew through it, plus travel and mileage expenses. She’d turned into his cash cow and although it was lucrative, Spengler was tired of travel. He wanted to go home.
Tomorrow, it should all be over.
First on his agenda, though, was to find a motel, then a bar, then a restaurant. He doubted there would be women available in a town this size, but he could check a few websites and maybe ask around. Spengler was perfectly okay paying for companionship. He was away from home, after all. Plus it was cleaner all around without built-in deceit or obligations afterward. But the smaller the town, the less opportunity there was. This place was probably too dinky for working girls to flourish, he thought. Meaning another night in a strange bed watching YouPorn on his iPad.
He drove by Smelter City Skate Pit. There were some kids out there, zooming around.
The town itself was, he thought, equal parts charming, homey, and appalling. It didn’t look like the Montana of his imagination with cowboys, cowgirls, hikers, and fly fishermen resembling Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It.
Instead, Anaconda looked like a western Pennsylvania steel town picked up and dropped into the vast mountains of Montana. The streets were lined with tightly packed single-dwelling houses; solid little bungalows sometimes no more than a foot apart. Most were in good repair, but some appeared ready to collapse into a heap.
A scrum of high school kids stood around outside a Dairy Queen and he saw a sign that read: ANACONDA—HOME OF THE COPPERHEADS.
The downtown was mostly composed of aged brick buildings that must have been something back in the day, he thought. Most of them now looked repurposed into something else. Or boarded up entirely.
Many of the homes and small businesses had ANACONDA STRONG posters in their windows. He wondered what that was about.
He drove through the community until he realized he was out of it already. Then he made a U-turn and went back in.
The smokestack dominated the southeastern view. It glowed like a beacon as the last of the sun climbed up its bricks.
Anaconda, Montana. Population nine thousand, one hundred and forty.
J. D. Spengler had no idea he’d never leave this place alive.
|October 1, 2022
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