Garrick Connor’s throat was raw; his tongue, so thick and dry, it felt like it had grown a coat of fur. Far, far away, he could hear the insistent ringing of the telephone. It evidently wasn’t going to stop. At last he rolled over and forced his eyes open, struggling to pinpoint the origin of the racket. Fighting his way through a boozy fog, he reached over and fumbled the receiver. It clattered to the floor so he reeled it up by the cord. By the time he had the phone in hand Connor was good and angry. He was officially on vacation. Whichever nurse was calling, she was in for a royal butt chewing. Putting the receiver to his ear, he growled, “Yes?”
But it wasn’t a nurse; it was Lillian Johnson, the police dispatcher in Farmington. Some unfortunate soul was newly dead, and it was Connor’s dubious task to confirm the deceased had died in a legally sanctioned manner. A bleary-eyed glance at the bedside clock revealed the time was 4:10 AM. He started to protest, but then he thought, What the heck? I can do this. These affairs typically take maybe twenty minutes. After that, I’m off for two solid weeks.
“Okay, Lillian,” he muttered hoarsely, jotting down the name and address on a pad. “Yeah, I can find it.”
Replacing the phone in its cradle, he reached for Phyllis then remembered, too late, her side of the bed was empty. Hurt and dread settled in his gut like a heavy stone. For one or two minutes, he lay there in the darkness, covering his face with his forearm, searching for the strength to swing his feet over the side of the bed, sit up and wait for the room to stop moving. He loathed hangovers, but didn’t everybody? The pounding headache, the unquenchable thirst, the shakes, the nausea, the vomiting up one’s toenails; it was hardly the stuff of fond memories.
But after a generous shot or two of good Scotch whiskey he felt as good as new. Well…almost. Now he thought about it, it wasn’t just hangovers he disliked; he didn’t like being sober either. Sobriety was a mind game. Screwed-up thinking made him drink. It was his painful recollections—mostly of past failings, which tormented him. The worst thing about being sober was once you came to your senses; you remembered all the garbage the alcohol had helped you forget. He found it was the best reason to take that next drink. But an eye opener was never enough to quash the memories. Garrick needed to get fully shnockered for that kind of anesthesia.
Tottering to the bathroom, he paused outside his bedroom door to switch on his nearly new, 1950 Philco radio console, which stood in the hallway. Static greeted him. The classical station out of Albuquerque wouldn’t sign on for another two hours. Grumbling, he stumbled to the john to empty his bladder. Bending over the lavatory, he gasped as he splashed cold water on his face, then examined his face in the bathroom mirror. It wasn’t a pretty sight. A guy should have to go through at least two bodies to have a mug like mine.
It was his eyes that concerned him most. They seemed enormous; dominating his puffy face in a way they never had before. Bugged, bagged, red-rimmed, and bloodshot, they resembled the eyes of an insect, an owl, or perhaps a troglodyte; one who rarely saw the light of day. Squinting, he leaned in for a closer look. Is the hooch doing this? He wagged his head. Denial was truly a powerful force. Of course it’s the booze. And the fact I’m eating almost nothing in the way of food. It’s slowly killing me. Tugging down his lower eyelids, he inspected the whites of his eyes, then sighed with relief. No jaundice, at least.
Phyllis had been gone for three months now. He had to get a grip. Drinking himself into an early grave wouldn’t bring her back. Standing in front of the mirror, he made a deal with himself. He’d stop drinking—gradually. That was it. He would incrementally reduce his intake, and wean himself off the booze. Maybe take some Librium, for a while to ease the process, as there were the DTs to worry about.
As he squeezed out a line of Gleam on his toothbrush, he felt better. The very fact that he had formulated a plan brought back a surge of confidence. He had to sober up if he were going to move back to KC. Hell, even in 1953 New Mexico was the definition of rural. Doctors were as rare as hen’s teeth so people made allowances for his whiskey breath and slurred speech. But in the big city, a doctor who was a drunk would soon find himself doing insurance physicals or something equally as boring. Worst case scenario, his license would be revoked.
He brooded over this for several moments. Now that’s a motivator, if ever there was one. That old, familiar knot gnawed at the pit of his stomach again. He brushed his teeth until he accidentally gagged himself, setting off a fit of dry-heaves. Kneeling before the toilet, he retched, until he felt he had turned himself inside out. He lurched to his feet and cleaned up again at the sink before heading out the door. As he stumbled down the walk to his 1951 Chrysler Desoto, he couldn’t help but admire the vehicle. It was robin’s-egg blue, and until this week he’d always kept it in the garage (out of sight, out of mind).
The car had actually belonged to Phyllis. Normally, he avoided driving the auto because of its painful association with her, but he had been forced to use it over the past week. When he had cranked his Ford pickup on Monday morning, it had refused to turn over. Instead, it had made a strange, clicking sound; like someone shuffling a deck of cards. Though the car was a little dusty, it still looked magnificent. The chrome gleamed in the faint, predawn light.
His innards quivered like Jell-o as he slid behind the wheel and fired the engine. He held out his hands for a few seconds with his fingers splayed, as the engine warmed up. Good, he thought. The tremor was almost gone. He was still queasy, but he knew that in another thirty minutes, that would ease too. He only wished it was as easy to change his exterior.
Looking into the rear-view mirror, he flashed a smile he did not feel, checking out his nick-pocked face. Was there anything that screamed alcoholic quite as much as a dozen pieces of bloody toilet paper adorning a haggard face? He would need to pull them off before displaying his face in public. As he steered onto the dirt road leading to the highway, he muttered an obscenity. He had no idea why he wasted his time making such mental notes. He never remembered any of them.
When he had been on his way roughly ten minutes, he pulled a bottle of Jim Beam from beneath the seat and took a large swallow, relishing the burning descent of the liquor. Returning the bottle to its hiding place, he popped a breath mint into his mouth, feeling like a human being again. Rolling his neck, he was rewarded with a satisfying snap. He checked his smile in the mirror again. He was getting there. Once the toilet paper was gone, he would look fairly decent. Everybody knew he was a boozer—deep down he knew this too; yet he worked hard to maintain the illusion he was fooling them.
Following Highway 64 three miles west of Farmington, he turned south just before reaching the town of Fruitland. At the crossroads, a roadside billboard next to a Phillips 66 station displayed the grinning, fleshy visage of Sheriff Enos Slaughter. Below the be-jowled face read the legend: GUARDING THE FUTURE OF NEW MEXICO.
Connor emitted a scornful bark of laughter as he made the turn. Enos Slaughter (no relation to the Cardinals baseball legend) was a fat, grandiose windbag. At one time, Slaughter may have been truly committed to stopping crimes perpetrated against San Juan County citizens, but recently he seemed more intent on working the system to benefit himself and his circle of cronies. If he was guarding his constituents at all, it was to continue his graft, unabated, until he collected enough loot to retire in style.
Still, the opinion of John Q. Public was evenly split on the man. Early in his career, Slaughter had pulled off spectacular feats of police work. He, single-handedly, stopped a bank robbery in Farmington and tracked murderous bandits across miles of cracked, desert hard-pack. He brought back desperados, alive or dead, every time. But that was ancient history. These days, the sheriff’s most difficult task was keeping his trousers up. He had taken to being “double careful,” wearing suspenders along with a belt, which pulled his pants up higher than his hip sockets. The result was a wedgie of monumental proportions. Behind his back, both friends and foes laughed at his expense.
As usual, when Connor dwelt on Enos Slaughter, his thoughts came back around to Phyllis. In his mind, her death was far from satisfactorily explained. Her body had been found at the foot of a thirty-foot bluff; her skull fractured. An autopsy revealed massive intracranial bleed. The official line on the death certificate read: ACCIDENTAL DEATH. NO EVIDENCE OF FOUL PLAY. Connor hated how much had been left unsaid. When no leads surfaced to challenge this ruling, the interest of the Sheriff’s Department fizzled. Though the case was still open, Connor knew it wasn’t actively pursued despite repeated assurances otherwise. There just had been no new breaks in the case.
A host of questions gnawed at him. Why had she been on that remote stretch of road where her car was found? Why had she left her flashlight in the car and, in the dark of night, struck out, on foot, across the desert? It wasn’t like her to do something so foolish. Connor had been gently encouraged to accept the accidental cause of death. Slaughter had sounded hollow when he said, “He needed to move on.”
Here was the most compelling reason to get off the booze. Phyllis had been murdered. Connor was sure about this. Her killer had to be brought to justice. Had she come across forbidden knowledge or seen something she shouldn’t have? His kind, sweet wife—why else would anyone have wanted to kill her?
After travelling another mile, he turned west. The road was now little more than a rutted track; hardly the type of thoroughfare for which the Desoto was intended. Lurching over the deep ruts and potholes, Connor wondered why he had ever come to such a Godforsaken region of the country.
Though the mining industry was going great guns, the wave of post-war prosperity sweeping the nation had not yet reached the frontier outpost of New Mexico. It had been eight years since Hiroshima, and four since the Russians had built their first atomic bomb. Uncle Sam’s greed for uranium knew no bounds. Under Truman, and now Eisenhower, all sorts of incentives were being offered to stimulate growth of the mining industry. But while uranium mining, provided jobs and stimulated the local economy, it was doing all sorts of bad things to the environment. Little was known about radioactive decay products and less still about the extent of the threat as it pertained to the mines. Everyone knew there were risks, but in the current boom atmosphere these were being ignored.
Connor’s reverie broke after he bumped to the end of the crude road then lurched to a stop beside a dilapidated mobile home. It was the right place; the Sheriff’s Department cruiser parked in the front yard confirmed it.
He switched off the ignition and pulled down the visor. Squinting into the mirror, he plucked away the tissue dotting his face, congratulating himself as he did so. Wrestling with his black bag, Connor climbed from the Chrysler. A pink glow gilded the eastern skyline as he walked briskly to the front door. Standing at the steps leading to the trailer’s entrance, a young deputy smoked a cigarette. Connor had seen the fellow around. The guy was movie-star handsome, and he knew it. From what Connor could tell, the new officer possessed a bullying nature and went out of his way to be mean to the Indians. For this, Connor despised him; feeling such men had no place in law enforcement.
As Connor ascended the front steps, the deputy took a final draw on his cigarette and flipped the butt onto the cracked earth. “Bout to give ya up, Doc,” the Adonis drawled as he made a show of looking at his wristwatch. He smirked a smug, self-satisfied smile, which Connor ached to splatter all over his pretty boy face.
Connor flashed a smirk of his own. “What’s the hurry? It’s not like I’m going to raise him from the dead.”
“No hurry, Doc,” the deputy’s expression remained unchanged. “Just makin’ conversation.”
Dropping any pretense of friendly raillery, Connor cast him a hard look before entering the home.
Halting just inside, he dug into his coat pocket and produced the paper on which he’d scrawled information the dispatcher had given him. “Joe Long Salt,” he murmured. “Navajo, no doubt.” The name seemed familiar, but he was unable to match a face with it.
In the corner of the living room, a bookcase held examples of several types of ore. To the right of this display, a brilliantly colored red, blue and black Navajo blanket draped a sofa. In front of it stood a small coffee table.
Linoleum covered the floor, on which there once had been some sort of pattern, though it was now too faded to discern. The home was clean and neat, with everything in its place. Though Connor had seen only the exterior of Navajo dwellings—and not many, at that—this place was much tidier than he expected.
Stepping to the bookcase, he picked up one of the rocks and examined it. Gray and streaked with yellow, Connor recognized it as a sample of uranium ore. After returning it to its place, he strode through the trailer, passing a tiny kitchen. At the end of a hallway, he glimpsed movement behind a half-closed door.
Connor had a notoriously poor sense of smell—not necessarily a bad thing in his chosen field. But by the time he reached the backroom even he detected the stench emanating from it. It was an odor with which he was quite familiar, but he had to go back to the war to recall anything as horrid as the sight that greeted him as he stepped through the doorway.
An American Indian male of indeterminate age lay sprawled across a double bed, his spindly legs hanging over the far side. Beneath him was a broad circle of partially congealed blood, the edges of which had soaked into the bedclothes. His chest cavity had been torn open like a sardine can, exposing the heart and lungs within. On the wall behind the corpse, specks of bone, tissue, and dried blood the color of rust obscured the flowery wallpaper. Connor clamped a handkerchief over his nose to block the overpowering stench of putrefaction.
“Sorry to have to gitcha out, Doc.” A deputy stood just inside the door, a red bandanna covered his mouth like an old west stage robber.
“Bissett drunk again?”
The deputy appeared uncomfortable. “Well...uh, I wouldn’t know, Doc. All I was told was that he was unavailable.”
The doctor wagged his head as he stared at the corpse. When it pertained to the county coroner, unavailable meant sauced. Connor said nothing more. At times he, himself, smelled like a brewery. He could hardly criticize Bissett for the same failing. The fetid stench might have even masked the odor of the wakeup shots of liquor he’d had before driving in. For that, he was thankful.
At least I’m functional, Connor thought. I drag my butt out of bed and go to work every day.
Connor gulped air, “Looks like we need the FBI in on this one.”
Hewitt shook his head. “Looks like suicide, Doc,” he croaked, motioning to Connor. “Lookit this.” He seemed to be having trouble breathing, no doubt due to the suffocating stench. One instinctively breathed less to avoid inhaling the putrid effluvium.
The deputy pointed at something on the floor, between the wall and the bed. Pulling on rubber gloves, Connor followed his line of sight: On the warped linoleum lay a shotgun, and beside it a blood-spattered yardstick.
“Looks to me like he propped the butt of the twelve-gauge against the baseboard there.” He pointed out a dent in the wood, “and put the muzzle to his chest. He used that yardstick there to push down on the trigger. Then, kablooey! One helluva mess for us to clean up.”
“Sounds about right,” Connor replied absently, though he wasn’t convinced the victim hadn’t had help. The body was emaciated which made him sufficiently thin enough to put the gun barrel up under his ribcage. This explained how his chest appeared as if it had exploded from the inside. Having recovered from the initial shock, the doctor noticed the dead man’s bony features and sunken eyes. “This poor guy was already well on his way to dying.”
Hewitt shrugged. “Think he mighta had black lung, Doc. That’s what they said old Earl Benally had before he passed. Looks to me like Joe here’s gone down the same path. S’pect he just got tired o’ not bein able to breathe.”
“Did you know him?” Connor asked.
“Just to speak to, now and then, but not personally. I don’t have much use for no-account Indians. They’re lazy. But this guy was s’posed to be a war hero or somethin’. One o’ them code talkers ya hear about. Before he got sick, he did guide work fer people wantin’ to find Indian artifacts.”
In a flash of recognition, Connor realized why the name was familiar. His late wife had been an impassioned student of Navajo culture and had gone on many expeditions into the desert to learn more. Joe Long Salt had been her guide on several occasions, helping her find the best spots to dig, and keeping her from getting lost.
Connor had even met him two years earlier. The shriveled husk lying before him looked nothing like the tall, regal man he recalled. He regarded the corpse with wonder. “I didn’t recognize him. Poor guy looks like he’s seventy years old.”
Hewitt nodded. “He was last seen about two days ago. Any idea as to time o’ death?”
Connor loathed this part. He stalled as he made a show of examining the dead man’s milky white corneas. The victim’s eyes had nothing to do with determining time of death, but he needed a minute or two to dredge up what little he remembered about lividity and rigor.
One knee on the bed, he rolled the body on its side, repelled by the stench and praying that the greenish, bloated abdomen would not break open. The purplish discoloration on the dependent side of the corpse did not change in position. “Lividity is fixed,” he mumbled. That puts us at least eight, maybe twelve hours out.
Returning the corpse to its original position, Connor tugged down its jaw, which moved freely. Next, he grasped a wrist and raised the arm. “No rigor here,” he said. “See if you can move his leg, Gordy.”
The big man’s eyes pleaded over the top of his bandanna. “Do I have to, Doc?”
Already hurting for a drink, Connor was running short on patience. “Come on, Gordy. I don’t want to be here any more than you do.”
Grabbing an ankle, Hewitt pulled up on the left leg. “It ain’t stiff,” he whispered hoarsely.
“I’m guessing we’re about thirty-six hours out, probably less. I’m sure it’s like an oven in here during the day, which would speed up decay.”
Hewitt stripped off his gloves. “I gotta git outa here for a minute, Doc. Git me some fresh air.”
“Go ahead. I’ll only be a few more minutes.”
After the deputy left, Connor stood in the silence of the tiny room, looking at the pathetic remains of a once proud man; a war hero. As he removed his gloves, the crushing weight of despair bore down on him. His shoulders rounded and his breath rasped in his throat. No human being should die in this wretched manner, alone and at his own hand.
He scribbled some final notes. As he turned to leave, a dark brown book caught his eye. It lay on the floor, lodged between the headboard and the bedside table. Stepping over the dead man’s outstretched legs, Connor retrieved then flipped through it. The book appeared to be a diary; written in small, neat script. The final entry, dated August 11th, read:
I am weary of this life. My body is feeble. Though my lungs draw breath, it gives me no strength. I cough up blood daily now.
During the war I saw Japanese soldiers with their bodies blown apart by grenades. They had done this to themselves rather than be captured. It was a hideous sight, but now, it does not seem such a bad way to go to the next world. As it is the coward’s way, I cannot bring myself to do such a thing.
Next week, I meet with senators and congressmen from New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado to discuss improvements in mine safety. If my health holds out, I feel I can accomplish much for my people. The mines offer the best-paying jobs available to the Navajo, but the poisonous, yellow dust eats a man from within. It kills slowly, but just as surely as a bullet.
Though I am weak, I pray for sufficient strength to carry out this one final act of devotion to my people. After that, I will be free to join my beloved Emma.
The diary changed everything. Closing it, the doctor cast a last look at the remains of Joe Long Salt. The final entry suggested Joe was gravely ill, but hardly the words of one about to take his own life. Connor felt a growing unease about the man’s death. He was aware mine safety—or more aptly, the lack of it—had long been controversial. Launching the changes necessary to make the mines a safer workplace would be a huge cost for companies like Union Carbide, Kerr-McGee, and the Colorado Vanadium Corporation.
Was it possible Long Salt was murdered to prevent his meeting with legislators? Would the mining companies go to such lengths? The answer was a resounding Yes. Where huge profits were involved, there were always those willing to kill to preserve the status quo.
Staring down at the Indian’s inert form, Connor wondered if Phyllis had discovered something on one of her expeditions with Joe; information that might have threatened the mining companies. If so, perhaps the same knowledge had spelled the end for Joe Long Salt. He got a gut feeling that Phyllis, along with Joe, had been murdered and their deaths were covered up to protect the mining companies massive profits.
Maybe it was time for somebody to challenge the status quo, and take on the likes of Sheriff Enos Slaughter. Maybe, just maybe, Connor was that somebody.
The doctor stood motionless; clear-headed for the first time since his wife’s untimely death. He was at a crossroads. He could return to Kansas City and forget all this, or he could take on City Hall. If he opted for the latter, a fatal outcome wasn’t out of the question.
Connor realized there was only one choice open to him. Any other would preclude his being able to live with himself. Someone would have to answer for the death of his wife, he would see to it. And if he lost his own life in the process, then so be it. He would sober up, plan his strategy, and bring down Sheriff Enos Slaughter and the mining companies he protected.
Having settled on this course of action, he felt better, stronger and more resolute than he’d felt in months. With a smile, he tucked Joe’s journal inside his bag and left the room.
Robert Sweeten grew up in Oklahoma and graduated from the Oklahoma University School of Medicine in 1979. Board-certified in internal medicine, he has practiced medicine for over thirty years. He lives with his wife in rural Missouri.