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ASTRIDE A PINK HORSE

Robert Greer

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For My Angel,

PHYLLIS

“I Am Death—The Destroyer of Worlds”

Bhagavad Gita

Chapter 1

If Lyle Sudderman had been paying attention to his surroundings instead of twisting his grease-stained U.S. Postal Service letter carrier’s cap nervously from side to side on his head and muttering obscenities to himself, he might have realized sooner that the brown lump lying between a knot of sagebrush and a small boulder just inside a sagging cyclone fence fifty yards away wasn’t a dead steer or a mule deer that had somehow nosed its way onto the fenced-off patch of government land. Despite his current state of fluster, Sudderman, a longtime poacher, decided that the high cost of store-bought meat required at least a quick peek.

It occurred to him that the mysterious lump lying amid several industrial-looking steel-and-concrete structures could also be a human body. He swallowed hard, eased his postal truck onto the highway shoulder, and stared at the mile-square fenced-off parcel of Wyoming heartland just off Grayrocks Road, six miles northeast of the small farming and ranching community of Wheatland.

It was windless and a sweltering 98 degrees. He was a little ahead of schedule, it was almost time for lunch, and he needed to think for a moment. He stared at the lump in the field once again and realized that it hadn’t moved in all the time he’d been watching it. Thinking, God forbid I should get accused of letting my freaking engine idle and use one extra ounce of precious U.S. government gas, he killed the truck’s engine and jammed his bulky key ring with its fifteen keys, a penlight, and a Moose Lodge medallion into a pants pocket. He sat back in his seat, glanced across the highway at the Laramie River Station power plant with its sixty-story-high smokestacks, smiled, and muttered, “Been here before.”

Over a quarter century as a faithful government servant, and what was he about to get as a reward for his loyalty? A fucking cut in pay. Come October, the Postal Service planned to eliminate a day of mail delivery from his route, and that meant a smaller paycheck. This time around, his twenty-six-year membership in the National Association of Letter Carriers wouldn’t help, nor would his ass-kissing and glad-handing. Word had come down from the postmaster general himself, and Lyle knew he wouldn’t be able to avoid being part of the cuts. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so quick to buy the twenty acres he’d purchased in the Laramie Mountains the previous winter.

Turning his attention back to the mysterious lump, Lyle stepped out of his truck after making certain that the warning flashers were on and headed across the thirty-acre patch of swampy river-bottom grass.

A two-mile-long stretch of finger canyons marked the northern edge of the river bottom. Rolling, treeless, tobacco-brown hills, seared by the August heat, rose above the canyons. Thinking that for some reason the mosquitoes seemed to be less pesky than usual, Lyle worked his way toward the fence that marked the northern boundary of the government parcel. When he was a few yards from the fence, a swirling wind tunneled its way from the river bottom through willows and cottonwoods until every tree and shrub seemed to quiver.

Lyle glanced over his shoulder toward the power plant before jogging the rest of the way to the fence and scaling it, as he had many times with friends during his boyhood.

Inside the compound, he found himself staring at what was mostly vacant land—land that in his youth, he and his friends had laughingly dubbed “ground zero.” He glanced around at the half-dozen “No Trespassing” signs wired to the fence until his eyes found a single rusted metal sign that defined with certainty where he was. The sign simply read, “T-11.”

Making his way past a three-foot-high flat concrete structure that had always reminded him of a home-plate-shaped foundation for a home, he paused for a moment to glance around at the compound’s seven telephone poles. Once during his teens, he and several friends, on a dare, had climbed every telephone pole inside the boundaries of Tango-11, laughing and challenging one another as the power-plant smokestacks across the highway belched clouds of orange smoke and steam. Even then, they knew what the government had at one time housed behind the cyclone fences.

Lyle looked at the concrete pad and rail spur that had once been the heart of T-11, then swallowed hard before walking to within a few feet of what had brought him there. Suddenly he was laughing, fidgeting with his cap, and stamping his feet as he realized that what he was looking down on was neither a dead man, a steer, nor an antelope but simply a knotted-up, buckskin-colored blanket with a mass of tumbleweeds trapped inside. The Wyoming wind had blown the ratty old bedcover against a tire-sized piece of concrete.

Shaking his head and wondering how he could have mistaken a blanket and a bunch of tumbleweeds for any kind of animal, he mumbled, “Shit,” tugged at the bill of his cap, and turned to leave. He’d retrieved his keys from his pocket when it occurred to him that, though his poaching venture had come to nothing, there nonetheless was something oddly out of place in Tango-11. It took him a while to zero in on it, although he realized later it should have been obvious to him the second his feet had landed inside the fence. As the azure sky seemed to swallow the entire abandoned Tango-11 nuclear-missile site, he could see that, less than thirty paces from where he stood, the hatch cover over the personnel-access tube, a twenty-four-inch-diameter shaft that rose from deep in the ground to poke its head three feet in the air, was propped partially open. The adjacent fifty-by-fifty-foot concrete slab that covered the site’s more important nuclear-missile payload bore looked undisturbed.

Lyle removed his cap and scratched his head in dismay. Never once during his dozens of teenage late-night visits to Tango-11 had he seen that hatch cover raised.

With his heart racing and his left eye twitching, the forty-four-year-old postal worker strolled cautiously toward the charred-looking hatch cover. He’d once heard from a friend in the air force that a hatch cover like the one he was staring at weighed all of 2,700 pounds, and he knew from his mostly forgotten high school Wyoming history studies that the mobile concrete-and-steel slab that covered the missile silo itself weighed at least a hundred tons. Knowing full well that something that weighed over a ton couldn’t have popped open on its own, he suppressed the urge to shout, in some strange homage to his youth, Buddy, Clint, Sammy, Will, come have a look! When he was a couple of feet away from the hatch cover, he could see that a rusted metal hook, the kind commonly attached to the heavy-duty chains that local ranchers and farmers used to pull their tractors and backhoes out of swampy pastures, was keeping the hatch cover open. He whispered, “Damn,” as his eyes followed a chain that was attached to the hook down into the darkness of the access tube.

He had no idea how deep the access tube sank into the sandy Wyoming soil, but with a belly-up-to-the-bar, can-you-top-this tale now swirling through his head, he knew he was going to have a look down its throat.

Taking his penlight and keys from his pocket, he leaned against the hatch cover and tried to shine the light down into the access tube, but he couldn’t see much beyond the V-shaped opening. Laying his keys and penlight aside, he tried without success to shift the cover until, winded and sweating, he decided he’d need a lever of some sort. When he spotted a five-foot-long tree limb, he ran to get it, returned, and jammed one end of the limb beneath the hatch cover, wedging it into place. With the concrete lip of the access tube serving as his fulcrum, he plopped all 245 of his portly pounds down on the far end of the tree limb and crossed his fingers.

The hatch cover rose with a squeaky, resistant groan until it was almost perpendicular to the sky, then stopped with a single loud click. Rivulets of sweat trickled down the back of Lyle’s neck as, smiling and flushed with success, he tossed the tree limb aside and scooped up his keys and penlight. Standing just inches from the hook, he leaned over the open access tube and aimed the penlight’s beam directly down into the earthy-smelling bore. At first he couldn’t see anything, but as his eyes accommodated to the darkness and he followed the chain down from the hook, he was able to make out two dark, flat objects about fifteen feet below him. The objects, which reminded him of the wooden paddles he’d played paddleball with as a boy, were pressed tightly against the tube’s curved steel wall. For several seconds he stared down at the oddly shaped objects, recognizing finally that they were touching one another. When he realized that they were much narrower than his boyhood paddles and that each one appeared to be attached to something long and stick-like that extended perpendicularly away from it and deeper into the access tube, he muttered, “Damn.”

It was only when he poked his head, an arm, and the penlight deeper into the access tube that he realized that the chain next to him wasn’t looped around paddles at all, or even around a couple of bizarre pieces of military hardware left over from the Cold War, but instead around two human ankles, and that the two flat objects he’d been staring at so intently were the soles of two human feet.

A rush of adrenaline shot through him, and the suffocating mucus of fear plugged his nostrils as he gawked at the unmistakable curvature of a man’s buttocks. Thinking that he was staring at a kind of naked bungee jumper who’d decided to dive headfirst into an abandoned nuclear-missile access hole, he let out a guttural, primordial wail that belched up from the depths of his being and echoed off the access tube’s walls as he sprang back from the hatch cover and bolted for his truck.

When pressed later by the Platte County sheriff, and then by the Warren Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations major who’d quickly arrived from Cheyenne to interrogate him about why he’d entered the Tango-11 site and what he’d found, Lyle Sudderman found it difficult to remember the exact sequence of events from his midday odyssey. He remembered rescaling the Tango-11 fence after finding the dead man, and he recalled tripping his way across undulating river-bottom pastureland to dial 911 from the cell phone in his truck. He remembered the hatch cover and the tree limb he’d used to open it, and of course he remembered the chain. But what he remembered most, he told his interrogators, was the strange, haunting, ghostly vision of a schoolyard full of children playing paddleball in the hot summer sun.

Chapter 2

“Damn it, Cozy! I need you to get your laid-back Caribbean cruise of an ass in gear and up there to Wheatland right now. And I want the whole story—lock, stock, barrel, and bullets, if there’re any involved.” Frederick Dames frowned in frustration, moved the phone receiver from his right ear to his left, and muttered, “Friends!”

Elgin Coseia, known to his friends simply as “Cozy,” a nickname the man fuming on the other end of the line had given him during their baseball-playing days at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, adjusted his lean, six-foot-four-inch frame against the cushions of his living room couch, tugged on the drawstring of his faded basketball warm-ups, and took a deep breath. “I’m headed that way, Freddy. I told you that an hour ago.”

“Headed that way, my ass.” Freddy ran a hand through his thick auburn hair, hair that made his head look too large for his stocky, five-foot-nine-inch fireplug of a body, and shook his head.

“I needed to tie up some loose ends before I left.”

“Yeah,” said Freddy with a smirk, suspecting that Cozy’s loose ends more than likely involved some long-legged woman or, even better, a nap. “Time you got your Dominican butt moving, Elgin. I can get other people to play your position. I mean it, Elgin. Call me when you’ve got a handle on our Wyoming story. Do you hear me?” Freddy’s normally ruddy complexion turned a deep shade of red as his temporal muscles twitched.

Aware that Freddy’s use of back-to-back Elgins meant his best friend was absolutely and thoroughly pissed, Cozy said, “Got it.”

“Good, because the next time we talk, I expect to be looking at a story on the Net,” said Freddy, slamming down the receiver and wondering how he and Elgin Delonero Coseia continued to remain best friends. But best friends they were, odd-couple buddies since their freshman college year, when Freddy had first saddled Cozy with his nickname. Freddy had come up with the name not as a contraction of “Coseia,” as most people thought, but rather in recognition of Cozy’s uncanny, stealth-like ability to get himself into position from the shortstop hole and take a second-base pickoff throw from a pitcher to tag a surprised base runner out. The man’s as cozy as cotton had been the way Freddy had initially characterized Cozy’s slide-step move-in behind the runner. After that, the nickname just stuck.

Before his four-year college baseball career was over, Cozy would be credited with the highest number of pitcher-to-shortstop second-base pickoffs ever recorded in NCAA Division II baseball history. Three of them had come during the 2000 Division II college baseball championship series.

Twelve years had passed since Southeastern Oklahoma State had won the Division II college baseball title, and in that time all the adulation, hoopla, and promises of millions had also disappeared. It had all been lost for Cozy in a single improbable few seconds just months after his and Freddy’s college graduation. For more than a decade now, a lackadaisical and often morose Cozy Coseia, his baseball dreams lost to him forever, had been trying to recapture who and what he’d been.

Sitting on the couch, he stared across the narrow, sparsely furnished room toward a photograph that hung slightly crooked on the wall facing him. The antique mahogany school desk where he wrote most of his news stories for Freddy Dames’s web-based Digital Registry News hugged the wall beneath the photo.

“Regional news for the digital age,” Cozy said, rising from the couch as he muttered Freddy’s trademark business slogan. Easing his weight onto his emaciated, badly scarred left leg, he continued to stare at the glossy black-and-white photograph of him and his title-winning teammates. The photograph showed Freddy and half the team piling on top of Cozy moments after he had hit a title-clinching, game-winning, two-run triple.

Shaking his head as if the gesture might erase the heartache of the past eleven years, he limped over to the photo, straightened it, eyed it wistfully, and continued out his front door to head for Wyoming.

Wyoming Platte County sheriff Art Bosack, a onetime pro-rodeo saddle bronco rider who occasionally still rode his horse out on criminal investigations, arrived to begin his investigation into what would become known as “the Tango-11 murder” not on a horse but in a hail-damaged Ford pickup badly in need of new tires.

His deputy, Wally Sykes, a recent criminal justice graduate of a small college in Great Falls, Montana, was so wide-eyed when the county coroner and Bosack pulled the body of a rail-thin, six-foot-two-inch black man from the access tube that he hardly heard the crunch of sagebrush and the swish of grass that told him someone was approaching the hastily taped-off crime scene.

Seasoned and crime-scene-savvy, the coroner, who with Bosack was kneeling over the dead man, looked past the sheriff toward the crunching sound to see someone dressed in air force fatigues approaching. Nudging the sheriff, he said, “Looks like the wild-blue-yonder boys you’ve been expecting are here, Art.”

Bosack barely looked up from examining the deepest of five stab wounds in the murder victim’s back. Puzzled by the pattern of the wounds and the superficial nature of all but three of them, he ran a latex-gloved index finger from wound to wound, connecting them in the shape of an imaginary pentagon.

“Strange. Real strange.” He grunted, looked up at Sykes, and said, “Wanna go meet our flyboy?”

The greenhorn deputy glanced across the Tango-11 compound toward a Jeep Cherokee that was parked fifty yards away on the highway shoulder. Recognizing suddenly that the person approaching them was a woman, he simply stared. Their visitor was still fifteen feet away when the sheriff stood, eyed the gold oak leaves on the woman’s shoulder epaulets, flashed her a friendly smile, and said, “How do, Major? Heard we had an OSI officer from Warren headed our way.” He stripped off a glove and offered her his right hand.

The tall, lithe special investigations officer, who had been dispatched from Cheyenne’s Warren Air Force Base seventy-five miles south, returned the smile as she walked up to the body. “Took me a little bit longer to get here than I expected. A tractor-trailer rig was jackknifed on the interstate,” she said, scrutinizing the partially tarp-covered body lying at her feet. “Sheriff Bosack, I take it?” She extended an arm above the dead man’s head and shook the sheriff’s hand.

“Yep,” said Bosack, trying to recall whether he’d ever met a female OSI officer and knowing for certain he’d never met an African American female one. “The man standing to your left is my deputy, Wally Sykes, and the one still kneelin’ there, lookin’ like he’s prayin’ for rain, is our Platte County coroner, Dr. Sam Reed.” The way Bosack said the word doctor, as if it were the equal of a military rank, seemed to be the only thing that caused the woman to announce her name.

“I’m Bernadette Cameron.” There was a self-assured directness in her tone. She extended a hand to the coroner, realized he was still fully gloved, and pulled the hand back.

“Got gloves in your size if you wanna get down and dirty here with us, Major,” the sheriff said.

“Think I’ll wait,” said Bernadette. “Just fill me in on what you’ve got.”

“Sure,” said Bosack, thinking that with a little more makeup, civilian clothes, a tad longer hair, and a set of earrings, the cinnamon-skinned, green-eyed major would be a knockout. “One of our rural-route mail carriers found him about four hours ago, danglin’ from a chain by his ankles inside that missile-silo personnel-access tube over there.” Bosack pointed toward the raised hatch. “He was naked as a jaybird when we found him. I’m guessin’ somebody with explosives know-how blew the hatch cover. Before our mail carrier lifted it usin’ a tree limb, I mean.”

“Or somebodies,” said Bernadette. “And just so you’re aware, that hatch cover would have been easy enough to raise without an explosive charge if you had the entry code.”

“Don’t think anybody had that,” said Bosack, eyeing the charred hatch cover. “Wanna have a look?”

“In a minute,” Bernadette said, looking down at the body. “African American,” she said, pausing.

“Yeah,” said Bosack.

“How long do you think he’d been hanging inside?”

Bosack glanced at the coroner. “Whatta you think, Sam?”

“Hard to tell,” the coroner said, rising to his feet. “I’d say from the amount of body decomposition, the number of insect and rodent bites, and the lack of skin elasticity that he’d been hanging there for a couple of weeks at least.”

“Not much smell,” said Bernadette, kneeling next to the body and sniffing.

“What smell there was is still down there in your tube, Major, and there’s really not much of that. Over time the smell of death dissipates,” said Reed.

“Any identifying marks?”

“Just a couple of tattoos,” said the coroner.

“Where?”

The coroner hesitated before responding, “On his penis. You can have a look if you’d like.” He teased back the bottom edge of the heavy-gauge black plastic covering the dead man.

Bernadette took her first good look at the body. The man’s skin, on the grayish side of black, looked corrugated and picked at. It sagged, mostly along the arms and neck, and skin ulcers covered the man’s chest. His penis, missing most of its circumcised head, was peppered with dried-up erosions that looked like insect bites. Even so, the letters “ICBM,” stenciled in red, white, blue, and red again, could be made out running along the top of the shaft.

Watching the major’s eyes narrow thoughtfully, the coroner said, “There’s another tattoo on the underside.” He carefully lifted the blackened nub of a sex organ with a gloved index finger. “Can you see it?”

“Yes,” said Bernadette, recognizing the insignia of Warren Air Force Base’s 90th Missile Group. “Strange, and a little ritualistic.”

“Looks like somebody used a dull knife or maybe even a pair of scissors to do the job. Pretty ragged edges,” said the sheriff, shaking his head. “That insignia seals the deal though, don’t you think, Major? He’s gotta be one of your boys outta Warren.”

“We’ll have to see,” said Bernadette, glancing around the Tango-11 compound and looking for where the killer might have broken through the fence to gain enough access to drag a body inside.

Realizing what she was looking for, the sheriff nodded to the east. “Whoever killed him cut a hole big enough to drive a truck through in your eastern boundary fence over there. Didn’t see much evidence of drag marks over to here, but like Dr. Reed said, the body’s been here for a while. No question, though, he probably wasn’t killed here.”

“Missile-site security is sort of a top priority for us,” said Bernadette, glancing down at the body once again. “So we’ll be looking real hard at how someone did what they did here.”

“I know the division of labor, Major. Been there and done this kinda thing before. The murder’s mine. The security breach is yours. So let’s get back to what’s mine for a second. We found the head of the dead man’s penis wadded up in a piece of paper that had been jammed into his mouth. I’m guessin’ the killer was lookin’ to not only make a point but shut him up. Wanna show her, Sam?”

Dr. Reed leaned over, picked up a baggie from a spot of bare earth near the victim’s arm, opened the bag, took out the dried-up penis head and a crinkled piece of paper, and held them up for Bernadette to look at. “I think the killer probably used the paper to stop the bleeding and sop up some of the blood,” said Reed.

“Reasonable,” Bernadette said, staring at the paper. “Looks like it’s got some lines drawn on it.”

“My take, too,” said Bosack. “I’ll have it analyzed, and I’ll let you know what we find out.”

The sound of a vehicle pulling off the highway and coming to a stop on the shoulder cut the conversation short. Looking back toward the highway, the sheriff announced, “Dually.” A satellite-receiver-style antenna poked from the bed of a white truck with dual rear tires. The truck’s nose was pointed toward them.

“Colorado plates,” said Deputy Sykes. “Recognize the rig, Sheriff?”

“Nope.”

“Who’d be coming out here right now besides law enforcement?” asked Bernadette.

Smiling knowingly and eyeing Bernadette’s Jeep, the sheriff asked, “Have you got a police scanner in that vehicle of yours, Major?”

“No.”

“Well, you should.”

“And the reason for that would be?”

“So you can keep up with the press,” the sheriff said with a wink. “I’m willin’ to bet six months’ pay that dually we’re starin’ at belongs to a journalist.”

Bernadette watched in silence as the driver slipped out of the pickup.

“Yep,” said the sheriff. “The antenna. The Colorado tags. Pretty much says it all. We’ve got us an outta-state newshound lookin’ for a story.”

By the time Cozy Coseia worked his way from the highway shoulder, through sagebrush and timothy hay up to his knees, and to the open north gate of Tango-11, Wally Sykes was waiting for him.

“Afraid this area is off-limits to visitors today,” Sykes said authoritatively.

Slightly winded and limping, Cozy reached into the right-hand pocket of his jeans for his press credential. As he did, Sykes’s left hand moved casually to the butt of his .44.

Quickly closing the gap between Cozy and Sykes and thinking that his new deputy was going to need a little schooling on when it was appropriate to reach for one’s service weapon, Sheriff Bosack, who with Major Cameron had been examining the charred “A-Plug” hatch cover, called out to Cozy, “What can I help you with, bud?”

Surveying the Tango-11 compound slowly and holding up his press credential for the sheriff to see, Cozy said, “Heard you’ve had some trouble out here today.”

Without answering, the sheriff examined the press credential, then looked Cozy up and down. He had no doubt that the gangly visitor in aviator sunglasses had been watching their every move through binoculars for a good ten minutes before coming to join them, and Bosack didn’t particularly like being scrutinized from a distance.

Ignoring the sheriff’s silence and still taking in every inch of the compound, Cozy nodded toward where the coroner and Bernadette Cameron were kneeling. “Looks like you’ve got yourself a dead man on your hands,” he said, taking special note of the air force officer’s presence.

Realizing that from where he stood, Cozy couldn’t tell whether the body was that of a man or a woman and thinking, Good ploy, the sheriff said, “We’re attendin’ to official police business here, Mr. Coseia. The press will get a briefing later.” He glanced toward Cozy’s truck. “See you’re outta Colorado.”

“Denver. But like they say, bad news travels fast,” Cozy said, thinking that Freddy Dames’s southern Wyoming “information scouts,” a trio of nosy, aging Vietnam vets whom Cozy had always considered no more than overpaid police scanner eavesdroppers, had finally earned their keep.

Still staring at the press credential, the sheriff said, “Digital Registry News. Hmm. Web-based outfit, I take it.”

“Yep. Regional news for the Rockies.”

“Great slogan,” the sheriff said sarcastically. “But I think you’d better move on. I’ll have Deputy Sykes here walk you back to your vehicle.”

Cozy removed his sunglasses and tried to stare the deputy down.

When the sheriff said with authority, “Please show Mr. Coseia back to his truck, Wally,” Sykes broke into a broad, eager-to-please grin. Waving Cozy ahead of him, he said, “Think you better move it, Coseia.”

Watching the two men turn and head for the truck, the sheriff found himself wondering whether the curly-headed, hazel-eyed reporter with nut-brown skin was American Indian, Cuban, or perhaps maybe even Colombian. Whatever his heritage, he seemed to the sheriff to have the instincts of not simply a reporter but a lawman, and that bothered him. In the time they’d talked, he’d watched Coseia size up the compound, the dead man, the coroner, and Major Cameron. There was something else about Coseia that bothered the sheriff. Something small but troubling. He’d never liked sparring with a man with whiskey-colored eyes.

There was one thing Coseia hadn’t been able to hide, however: his very noticeable limp. As he made his way back to his truck, the limp became even more pronounced.

As the sheriff watched Cozy slip into his dually, he had the sense that Elgin Coseia was a man for whom hiding things was important—his eyes, that limp, and other things, more than likely. With his attention still focused on Coseia, the sheriff hardly heard Major Cameron walk up beside him.

“Who was our visitor?” she asked, holding a pair of aviator sunglasses that she hadn’t been wearing on her arrival in one hand.

“A reporter,” Bosack said, turning to face her. “And you can be jack-sure he’s just the first of ’em.”

“He seemed to stare at Dr. Reed and me from behind those sunglasses for quite a long time. Think we’ll see him again?”

“Absolutely,” said the sheriff, watching Cozy’s truck move slowly along the highway shoulder and knowing as he watched the dually’s retreat that the man behind the wheel was no doubt staring through sunglasses directly back at them.

Chapter 3

She could hear Rikia down in the basement making his strange guttural airplane sounds as he piloted an imaginary World War II Japanese fighter in a dogfight over the Sea of Japan. It always upset her when her forty-eight-year-old cousin cloistered himself in the basement to play mindless toy airplane games for hours on end. But Kimiko Takata knew better than to interrupt him. Any intrusion ran the risk of sending him deeper into his fantasy world, a world filled with samurai warriors, long-dead and mostly forgotten Japanese fighter pilots, and above all honor. A world he could sometimes remain immersed in for days.

If left undisturbed, he would come up for air in thirty or forty minutes. She knew his routine. After all, Rikia Takata was a man of rigid routine. And when he came upstairs, they’d have plenty of time to talk about the news flash she’d just watched crawl across the bottom of her television screen. Time to discuss the unwelcome intrusion that had sent her rushing to her medicine cabinet for Pepto-Bismol and two aspirin.

Unaware of Kimiko’s distress, Rikia remained at the imaginary controls of a Mitsubishi A-6M, known commonly as a Japanese Zero. He was sequestered in a musty cellar in a quaint Queen Anne cottage in Laramie, Wyoming, engaging the American enemy in another air battle. Rikia’s lengthy groans and high-pitched nasal whines rose from the cellar as he clutched a U.S. F4U Corsair model airplane in his right hand and an A-6M in his left.

Shigeo Fukumoto, Japan’s most famous World War II ace, was piloting the A-6M, and a less skilled American pilot, as always, was behind the controls of the Corsair. A low-pitched groan rose from the pit of Rikia’s stomach, becoming louder and louder as he swirled the planes around in a circle above his head, then swung them up and down through the air. Inch by inch and second by second, the A-6M closed in on the Corsair’s tail as the rat-a-tat-tat of machine-gun fire reverberated from Rikia’s tongue. Suddenly the machine-gun fire stopped as the Corsair, hit and out of control, spiraled toward the top of a nearby Ping-Pong table, emitting flames and smoke from its tail, and disappeared into the choppy waters of the Sea of Japan. Smiling, Rikia whispered, “Justice.”

Skimming the tabletop to make certain of his kill, the ghost of Shigeo Fukumoto then nosed his A-6M skyward to disappear in an imaginary curtain of clouds.

Erupting in a near-sexual climactic sigh, Rikia set the two model airplanes down on the Ping-Pong table, stepped to his left, and recorded another chalk mark and Fukumoto kill on a blackboard he’d mounted as a teenager on the basement wall. He’d recorded thousands of kills since then, but his kill number for the year stood at fifty-three.

Emotionally drained, he moved the two model airplanes he’d been playing with to their respective Japanese and American ends of the Ping-Pong table to join planes from other Allied and Axis nations.

A very nervous-sounding Kimiko opened the basement door and called out, “Rikia, come up here, please, and now! It’s important!”

Rikia frowned, stomped to the foot of the stairs, and yelled up to the woman who’d pretty much raised him, “Can’t it wait?”

Staring down at her slightly built, unshaven cousin, Kimiko said, “No, Rikia. It can’t!”

Shaking his head and muttering, “Damn!” Rikia started up the stairs. “This had better be important,” he announced, fighting to enunciate properly through his tongue-tied speech impediment.

Kimiko flashed him a steely-eyed look and said, “It is.” She grabbed him firmly by the arm when he reached the first-floor landing and walked him into the kitchen. “Have a look,” the surprisingly strong, 105-pound, seventy-six-year-old Kimiko said, waving at the television screen with her free hand.

Rikia slipped out of her grasp and turned to face the blonde, Cheyenne-based newscaster seated behind a desk that seemed to swallow her.

Kimiko slapped the top of the TV and said, “Listen!”

With a look of concern plastered on her face, the newscaster said theatrically, “Neither air force officials nor the Platte County sheriff are saying much about the man that a postal worker found hanging by his ankles inside a missile-silo personnel-access tube at the abandoned Tango-11 missile site near Wheatland. Nor are authorities saying how long the murdered man may have been there. Channel 4 has confirmed that the body is that of retired Air Force Master Sergeant Thurmond Giles, a decorated African American nuclear-missile maintenance technician. A joint air force-sheriff’s office briefing and news conference has been scheduled for seven o’clock this evening in Wheatland. As always, Channel 4 News will be there to keep you abreast of the story.”

“Sometimes bad things happen to people,” Rikia said, smiling.

“And sooner or later the authorities will want to talk to us, Rikia. We both know that.”

“So we talk to them.” “Them” came out closer to “tem,” but Kimiko was used to the garbled sounds of Rikia’s speech.

“Yes, we will. Just be prepared.”

“I’m always prepared.” Rikia stepped over to his tiny, gray-haired cousin and draped a supportive arm over the shoulders of a woman who’d survived Wyoming’s infamous Heart Mountain Relocation Center for Japanese Americans during World War II. Smiling as he stared down at the dozens of tiny moles dotting her forehead, he said reassuringly, “I have to be. Look who taught me.”

Aware that his office conference room wouldn’t be large enough to accommodate all the media types, voyeurs, gossipmongers, and just plain nosy folks who’d show up, Sheriff Bosack had scheduled his seven p.m. news briefing at a courtroom in the Platte County courthouse.

The courtroom, which lacked a balcony, otherwise resembled the room made famous during the Scopes monkey trial, right down to its massive support columns, echoey wood-plank floors, and dank mustiness.

His stomach groaning, the sheriff started up the courthouse steps a little before seven. In the eight hours since Thurmond Giles’s body had been discovered at the Tango-11 site, Sheriff Bosack, who’d skipped breakfast so that he and Sam Reed could get in a few minutes of North Platte River fly fishing that had never materialized, hadn’t had a bite to eat. Thinking with each new step, This too shall pass, he’d barely reached the top when Freddy Dames startled him by slipping out from behind a twenty-foot-tall concrete pillar. “What do you think, Sheriff? Have you got a hate crime on your hands, or do you think we’re looking at some kind of Back to the Future killing linked to the antinuclear movement?”

Freddy was the final straw in the sheriff’s hunger-panged, media-sniping, military-accommodating, politician-pleasing day. With barely a second of hesitation, he shoved Freddy backward into a surprised Cozy Coseia. Recognizing Cozy, the sheriff shook his head, muttered, “I should’ve known,” and continued into the courthouse.

“Told you to wait,” Cozy said, brushing himself off. Freddy’s ambush hadn’t paid off, but others like it had in the past, and Cozy knew that his stocky, chestnut-haired, risk-taking best friend wouldn’t change his MO anytime soon.

“Wait, my ass!” Freddy adjusted his sport coat. “We’ve got the story of the decade staring us in the face, man. Might as well take a shot at priming the pump. Let’s get inside.”

Freddy pushed his way through a set of double doors and headed down a hallway toward the courtroom with Cozy at his heels, to find standing room only in the courtroom. They carved out a space for themselves between a Denver-based freelance news photographer whom Freddy knew and a group of four ponytailed spectators. The ponytails, two men and two women, appeared to Cozy to be in their early fifties and looked as if they’d been shot from some 1970s antinuclear-demonstration cannon. When one of the women appeared to wave, Cozy cocked a suspicious eyebrow at Freddy, then scanned the rest of the room. A half-dozen agitated-looking teenagers, all of them black, occupied a front courtroom bench. A balding, overweight man sitting at the end of the bench seemed to be in charge of them.

Prosecuting and defense attorneys’ tables sat to the right and left of a lectern at the front of the courtroom. As many cameras and lights and microphones as Cozy had ever seen at a news conference streamed or beamed down on the lectern and tables. Behind the tables in a TV-equipment-free buffer zone, the sheriff stood talking to a tall, fit-looking air force officer with shiny silver colonel’s eagles on his shoulder epaulets. The only other person Cozy recognized among four other people standing behind the tables was the air force major he had seen at Tango-11.

No longer dressed in fatigues, the major now wore air force dress blues. Her skirt was figure-flattering, and she looked provocatively striking in a military-advertising-poster kind of way. As she turned toward him, Cozy noticed pilot wings pinned just above the edge of the welt pocket of her uniform and found himself wondering why on earth a pilot would be assigned to an OSI unit.

When Bernadette Cameron caught him staring at her, she averted her eyes, took a seat, and began talking to the man seated next to her. Turning to Freddy, Cozy was about to point her out, but for some reason he decided, momentarily at least, to keep the major to himself.

Watching Freddy nod, then smile at the four ponytails surrounding them, Cozy had the sense that Freddy was doing everything he could to communicate silently with them. He was about to ask Freddy if he knew them when Sheriff Bosack stepped up to the battery of microphones, thumped the center mike, and said, “Glad to see everyone here tonight.”

As Freddy mouthed, Sure, the sheriff was off and running. Indicating to the assemblage that after his remarks and those of Colonel Joel DeWitt from Warren Air Force Base there would be a short Q and A, the sheriff detailed the day’s events. For most of the people in the room, his dry summation was no more than a rehash of what they already knew. Confirming that the murdered man found at Tango-11 was retired Master Sergeant Thurmond Giles, whose identity had been conclusively proven via a dental records review, and that a joint Platte County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations inquiry was under way, Bosack ended his surprisingly brief remarks by thanking the air force, Colonel DeWitt, and the people of Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, home of the 90th Missile Wing, for their assistance. Then he sat down.

The word blowhard coursed through Cozy’s mind within seconds of Colonel Joel DeWitt stepping up to the microphone to paternalistically announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, let me assure you first and foremost that today’s break in and breach of security at the decommissioned Tango-11 site in no way represents a risk to our nation’s security.”

With an I’m in charge look plastered on his face, DeWitt then delivered several minutes of uninformative platitudes, thanking seemingly every elected and law enforcement official in the state of Wyoming, from the beaming Deputy Sykes, who stood just a few feet from Cozy, to the governor. When Freddy nudged Cozy and whispered, “You’ve got to be kidding,” Cozy, who was busy watching Major Cameron’s attempt to keep from rolling her eyes, ignored him. Shrugging, Freddy slipped a small spiral-bound notebook out of the inside pocket of his sport coat and began jotting notes.

Cozy was startled. He couldn’t remember his techno-savvy best friend taking handwritten notes about anything since college, aside from the occasional summation of his stock market trades for the week or the quarterly earnings for the Silver Streak Oil Corporation, which his father owned.

Surprised that Freddy seemed to be taking the briefing so seriously, Cozy shrugged and turned his attention back to Colonel DeWitt, who was busy recounting the supportive phone call he’d received earlier that day from Wyoming’s governor. Only when the colonel mentioned that the air force’s investigation into the Tango-11 break-in would be in the capable hands of Major Bernadette Cameron did Cozy’s ears perk up.

“Major Cameron, also from Warren OSI, is well schooled in handling situations such as this,” DeWitt announced. The words had barely left his mouth when the two ponytailed men standing next to Cozy rushed the podium, yelling, “No more nukes! No more nukes!” Their two women companions immediately dropped to the floor, took handcuffs from their purses, and handcuffed themselves to one of the claw-footed legs of the nearest bench just as the teenagers in the front row began shouting, “Racist dogs!” in sync with “No more nukes!”

Freddy Dames dropped to one knee, slipped a handheld tape recorder out of his sport coat pocket, and shoved it into the faces of the two female protesters, who continued to scream, “No more nukes!”

Cozy moved out of the way of Deputy Sykes’s delayed bull rush to the podium. Surprised by Freddy’s uncanny readiness, Cozy looked toward the front of the room to see Major Cameron drop one portly, lunging male protester like a rock with a knee to the groin. The sheriff had the second man down on the floor, with both arms behind his back and handcuffed, before most people in the courtroom had a chance to do much more than ooh or aah in amazement.

With digital cameras clicking everywhere and television cameras rolling, Cozy watched the ponytailed, redheaded man whom the major had taken out roll around on the floor, groaning in agony, as chants of “No more nukes!” and “Racist dogs!” continued to echo through the courtroom. Staring around at what seemed to him to have been a very well-orchestrated eruption, Cozy caught Freddy smiling, tape recorder in hand, asking questions of spectators while his photographer friend from Denver snapped photo after photo. Noting the photographer’s steadiness in the midst of the chaos, he realized suddenly that Freddy was in fact directing the photographer’s every move. Much of what he was witnessing could only have been planned in advance. Cozy lowered his head, shook it in disbelief, and mumbled, “No, Freddy; you didn’t.”

Chapter 4

An hour after Sheriff Bosack’s tumultuous press conference, Cozy and Freddy Dames sat eating burgers and fries at the Wheatland Inn just off I-25. A passing late-evening thunderstorm laced with golf-ball-sized hail had put on a twenty-minute light show before slowly moving off to the east, leaving behind drizzle, minor flooding, and a few distant claps of thunder.

As Freddy toyed with his burger, Cozy shook his head disgustedly, upset that Freddy had admitted to using the sheriff’s press conference to manufacture news.

“You didn’t tweak anything, Freddy,” Cozy chastised. “You turned that press conference into the lead story on the nightly news. Damn it, you’re regressing, slipping back to your old ways. Stealing bases against the sign, trying to make something happen on the field when you shouldn’t, swinging for the fences when it’s three and oh and you’ve been told to take a ball.”

“It helped earn us a national championship, didn’t it?”

Cozy glanced down at his left leg, keenly aware of the dark turn the conversation could take if he continued to argue his point. “So you dredged up four over-the-hill, tie-dyed hippies to crash a press conference just so you’d have a story?”

“They weren’t hippies, and I didn’t dredge them up. I simply knew they’d be there.”

“What?”

“I said I knew they’d be there. While you were up here in Wheatland stumbling around, doing things by the book, and waiting for the Tango-11 story to unfold, I took what you told me on the phone right after you first called to tell me about the dead man, and I did a little Twittering. Someone out there in cyberspace must’ve been sitting at a computer screen when I did because within minutes of my post about the body in the missile silo, I had tweets from a couple of professed antinukers saying the murder victim might be one of theirs.”

“Shit, Freddy, the body wasn’t in the silo; it was in the silo’s personnel-access tube. And how the hell do you know those tweets you got didn’t come from the damn murderer? Don’t you care anything about facts?”

“Parts is parts.” Freddy forced a smile.

“Unbelievable,” Cozy countered. “How could you write any kind of a story that was halfway factual between the time I called you after leaving the murder scene and when you met me here in Wheatland at five o’clock? Hell, you were highballin’ it up I-25 for most of that time.”

“Technology, my man, technology. Something you’d better start taking to heart, or you’re gonna earn yourself a ticket right out of the world of investigative reporting. An iPhone and a laptop slice through time, my friend, and like it or not, they’re necessary tools of our trade these days. How else do you think I could have been on top of a story like this so fast? I suggest you spend a little more time learning how to use them and a little less time worrying about facts.”

“Like I should’ve spent more time learning how to ride a motorcycle?” Cozy said, frowning.

Aware that for the sake of their friendship, the conversation needed to end right then, Freddy rose from his chair with a grunt, slipped his wallet out of his back pocket, fished out a fifty-dollar bill, and tossed it onto the table. “Come on, man, let’s go.”

Cozy glanced at the grease-stained check for $14.38 and stood. Freddy was a few steps from the restaurant’s front door by the time Cozy had enough feeling in his left leg to start that way. Moving slowly toward the door, with pins and needles shooting through his calf, Cozy brushed past their waitress.

Spotting the fifty on the tabletop, the waitress called after him, “I’ll bring you your change, sir.”

“Keep it,” Cozy said, responding the way he knew Freddy would’ve.

“Are you sure, mister? It’s a fifty,” the puzzled waitress asked.

Uttering words he never would have used except in anger, Cozy said, “I know, but the guy who left it has money to burn.”

“He must be some kind of millionaire.”

“Times a hundred.” Cozy continued walking, leaving the startled waitress shaking her head and wondering who on earth the man who’d left the fifty was.

The two best friends hardly said a word to one another during the short drive back to their motel. As Cozy pulled his dually into the space next to Freddy’s Bentley, Freddy broke the silence. “Those antinuke protesters are the key to our murder, Cozy. I know it.”

Not the least bit surprised by Freddy’s cocksureness but reluctant to challenge him and start a conversation that might end like the last one, Cozy asked, “What makes you so sure?”

“Because one of those tweets I mentioned came from someone who said I should be talking to a woman named Sarah Goldbeck. Whoever it was pumped Goldbeck up like she was the Second Coming. Said if I wanted to find out who killed that sergeant, I needed to be at that press conference.”

“Second coming of what? Those worn-out protesters of yours looked like some over-the-hill gang to me, especially the redheaded guy, the one that lady air force major drop-kicked in the nuts.”

“Hell, they’re a bunch of fricking pacifists, Cozy. What would you expect? What I’m getting at is that, pacifists or not, somebody among the four who were there at the briefing, or some tweeter out there in their extended antinuke family, is linked to that Tango-11 security breach and murder. And we need to nail them.” Cozy shrugged and shook his head. “Cop talk—and risky, Freddy.” It wouldn’t be the first time Freddy Dames had lined up to play cops and robbers. The previous summer he and Cozy had brought the hammer down on a Mexico-based car-chop ring that had ended in a 110-miles-per-hour car chase on I-70. A chase that had earned them each a ten-thousand-dollar fine, four months of community service, and a warning from a disgruntled judge that they never again become involved in vigilante activities.

“So what’s the game plan?” Cozy asked, suspecting that Freddy was already three steps down the road toward doing precisely what that judge had warned him against.