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"Those Songs We Sing to Ourselves"

a Pat Maginess private-eye story

by

Edward Piercy

(Proof of 4/24/2008)

"Then — too — be comprehended —
What sorer — puzzled me —
Why Heaven did not break away —
And tumble — Blue — on me –"

— Emily Dickinson (Johnson: 600)

September, 1953

PART I.

The town of Colton was a rather archaic looking place that seemed made
mostly of railroad tracks and old brick. I pulled over to the curb and
asked a passer-by directions to the sheriff's office. A few minutes
later I walked into a small building whose front part looked like
something out of the Old West and the rear of which was an obvious
modern add-on of steel and glass, probably not more than a couple years
new. The woman at the front desk walked me back to meet the local
sheriff.

"Tom Baker" he said, extending out a hand.

"Pat Maginess" I said. He offered me a seat.

"So you're from Los Angeles. Your secretary said you were investigating
the Harrison murder?"

"That's right. I had Carmen call ahead inasmuch as I thought it would be
good to talk to you first, since it's your case."

"I appreciate that. And you were hired by his brother?"

"Yeah. Don Harrison. He said you were kind of stuck."

"Tell me about it. We found Ron about two weeks ago, the morning of the
7th. Dead in his cabin. No witnesses, not much in the way of evidence
except a couple of mean bullet holes in him. I talked to most of the
people up there in Angel Pines. Nobody knew anything about it. They were
just shocked, mostly."

"Any sign of robbery? Maybe it might be someone who was just passing
through."

"No robbery, no. Not unless he had a secret stash of the Queen's jewels
laying around that I don't know about. As far as somebody passing
through, you'll find that Angel Pines isn't exactly a pass-through type
of place. It's about as remote as it gets these days. You take the narrow
highway up from here in Colton. Then there's an access road that leads
into the town. From there, there's two roads, one north and one west.
Both are dead ends. Past that, you pretty much have to back-pack it from
there."

"Well if that's the case, then it has to be one of the local residents."

"I suppose. Hard to imagine that, though. They're pretty nice people up
there."

I was going to tell him that sometimes even nice people did bad things,
but then thought better of it. "Well if you're stuck, I guess you won't
mind me asking around a bit then?"

"Be my guest, Maginess. In fact if you figure out who did this to Ron,
I'll pin a medal on 'ya."

"About the murder weapon, you got anything on that?"

"Left at the scene. Don Harrison thinks that it was his brother's gun.
Not certain, but pretty sure. An old .44 Smith & Wesson. Left some
simply huge holes in the guy. We found the gun about ten feet from the
body over on top of a chest of drawers, wiped clean of prints. So no
luck there. Prints on the shells were Ron's, he put 'em in himself."

"Did you dust for prints in the cabin?"

"No, we didn't."

I thought that odd. "Can I ask why not?"

"It's like this, Maginess. We might find other people's prints up there
at Ron's cabin. But it doesn't mean anything. Over the years, there were
likely dozens of people visit his cabin and leave prints. Doesn't mean
they killed Ron. Without any prints on the gun, and without any motive
to go on, prints wouldn't prove anything. Know what I mean?"

"Yeah, I get it. How many people live up there in Angel Pines?"

"Oh, about 50. About a dozen live in town. The others live out in the
woods in cabins and such. Don Harrison owns about half the town, what
there is of it, the diner and the little grocery. The diner is run by a
girl named Michelle. She went down your way for a while, Los Angeles.
Evidently got into a little trouble there."

"What kind of trouble?"

"Don't know. Rumor has it she got into drugs, played with some Hollywood
types. But that could be pure bullshit. She seems like a nice girl. Good
looking, takes good care of the diner. She's been back here for about
three years now. So I think she's gone straight. If she was ever crooked
to begin with, that is."

"Anybody else up that way you could tell me about?"

"Well there's Nick White Feather. He owns the filling station. Has
arthritis real bad, rumor is he's going to retire soon. Then there's
Frances Dillard. She's Postmaster up that way. She's getting up there,
too. I imagine her dumb-ass son will take over the Postmaster thing for
her when she retires."

"What's with her son?"

"He's just a dumb-ass. That's the best way I can explain it. You'll find
out yourself if you go up there. Doesn't work. Just kind of hangs out in
town all the time, acting like a dumb-ass. He did score 92 percent on
the Postmaster test, though. Must have cheated best as I can figure out.
Like I said, he's just retarded."

"Hmmm. I can hardly wait to meet him. What did Ron Harrison do?"

"He was on some sort of disability pension from the war. In fact he just
got back from Korea it seems like not too long ago. Though it must be a
year already. He owned the fly fishing shop up there. But he didn't
really need the money. He used to give fishing tours to rich businessmen
from the big cities. But according to Don he quit the tour thing about
six months ago. In fact, I guess he quit fishing entirely."

"A guy who owns a fly fishing shop who doesn't fish? That's odd."

"Yeah, I guess it is kind of odd. But that's people for 'ya."

"Did you double check his tour thing. You know, just to make sure he
didn't have anybody in town at the time of the murder?"

"Sure did. The most recent tour I could find in his books was about six
months ago, same as his brother told me. Like I said, Maginess, I did
look into this thing."

"I'm sure you did, sheriff." Off and on over the past minutes I had been
looking at an old framed photo up on the wall.

"Is that Wyatt Earp?" I asked him.

"Close, that's his brother, Virgil. Virgil lived here in Colton for a
while. Did some gambling, had a detective agency, served as town Sheriff
for a bit. All of that was long after the famous Tombstone shootout, of
course."

"Well I'll be damned" I said. "Anyway, I suppose I had better get myself
up to Angel Pines." I put on my hat, and reached over to shake his hand
again. "Thanks for your help, sheriff."

"I should tell you too, Maginess, there's no place to stay up there at
Angel Pines. You might find a cabin that you can rent from somebody. But
there's no motel or boarding house or anything. That means you're going
to have to drive back here for the night. I suggest you leave early. You
don't want to be driving these mountain roads after dark unless you know
them like the back of your hand. Otherwise, you'll more than likely end
up off the edge of a thousand foot drop."

***************

She was about twenty five or so, tall and straw-thin but well-built in
spite of it. Her best attribute was certainly her face. She had large
glowing hazel eyes and a small, slightly downward sloped mouth that set
off the eyes and nose in a manner that most Hollywood starlets couldn't
match. She looked in good shape, healthy, and had a way of seeming to
float as she walked behind the counter at the Angel Pines diner. Except
for the waitress I was the only guy in the place except for a skinny kid
who sat at the far end of the counter reading a comic book.

"Coffee?" she asked.

"Sure" I said, giving her my best smile. "And maybe a menu, too."

"Coming right up" she said, smiling at me in return.

I noticed as she walked to the other end to get the coffee that she had
great legs, too. She certainly was a beautiful girl. And sometimes
beautiful girls get into trouble, especially in Hollywood.

She walked back and put the menu into my hands and started to put the
coffee cup in front of me. "I hear you spent some time down in Los
Angeles" I said, opening up the menu.

The waitress dropped the coffee cup and saucer the remaining distance to
the counter and the saucer hit with a rattle and the coffee cup tilted
over. Her reactions were quick. She righted the cup and pulled it and
the saucer away and with her other hand grabbed a rag from behind the
counter and draped it over the spilled coffee.

"I…I'm sorry, Mister" she said. Her hand was visibly shaking as she
mopped up the coffee with the rag.

"No harm done" I said. "I'm sorry that my question bothered you so
much."

She had the rest of the coffee mopped up, and left for a moment to get
me another cup. When she set it down on the counter this time I kept my
mouth shut.

She shook her head. "Where did you hear that at? About me being down
there?" Her voice had gotten very soft and low all of a sudden.

"The sheriff in Colton" I said.

"What else did he say about me?" She almost whispered it this time.

I didn't think that mentioning the rest of it and embarrassing the girl
would be worth it at that point. "Not much. Just that you had lived
there for a while. I'm from L.A., actually. My name is Pat, Pat
Maginess." I stuck my hand out, and after hesitating a second, she took
it.

"Michelle" she said.

I set the menu down. I wasn't quite hungry yet, and decided that dinner
could wait until I got back to Colton for the night.

"I'm investigating the death of Ron Harrison" I told her. "That's how
your name came up. The sheriff told me that you had spent some time in
Los Angeles. I guess he thought it would make me feel more at home up
here."

"Oh. A terrible thing" Michelle said. She seemed to be coming around a
bit, not nearly so nervous now. "Ron was such a nice guy. It's terrible
what happened."

"Hey, your shoe's untied" a voice said from down the counter. I turned
in the direction of the voice to see the skinny kid smiling at me.

"Your shoe's untied" he said again. He was obviously talking to me. I
looked down at my shoes. Both laces were tied perfectly.

"Ha! I can't believe you fell for that one. You city-slickers."

"All right, Jimmy, knock it off" Michelle said. "The man's a visitor in
our town. Let's show him our best side, okay?"

"My best side? How 'bout my back side?" Jimmy got up off his stool and
turned his rear towards us and made like he was going to pull his pants
down.

"I said knock it off, Jimmy" Michelle yelled at him. "Don't make me
throw you out of here again."

I turned my attention back to Michelle. "The sheriff told me about him,
too" I laughed.

That got a little bit of a smile from her. "Jeezus, the idiot's like
famous or something, yeah?"

"Kind of" I said, laughing again.

"Would you like something off the menu?" Michelle asked, still smiling.

"No, I don't think so, Michelle. Not really hungry yet. Though it all
looks good. What I would like, if I can get it, is some information. Don
Harrison hired me to come up here and check a few things out about his
brother. I'm just kind of looking into the matter for him, seeing as the
local sheriff is stumped. So if you could answer a few questions for me,
I'd really appreciate it."

"What do you want to know?" she said. Her voice had lowered in volume
again.

"First of all, did you know him very well?"

"Yeah, pretty well. It's a small town."

"Did you socialize with him much?"

"Not really. Mainly here in the diner."

"You see any strangers come into town here around the time Ron was shot?
Anybody unusual come in here to get something to eat, for instance? Or
to get coffee?"

"No, none in the past month or so anyway."

"A month, huh. He have any beefs with anybody who lives here in Angel
Pines?"

She shook her head. "Not that I can think of. Everybody liked Ron."

"Hmmm. Let me ask you a different question. Why did Ron give up his
fishing tour business? And I gather he gave up fishing entirely. Can you
tell me anything about that?"

Michelle gave me a funny look. I got the feeling that there was
something she wanted to say but didn't know if she should say it.

"I'm sure Ron wouldn't mind if you told me a few private things,
Michelle. I'm trying to find out who killed him. I'm sure he would
appreciate any help you can give me."

She looked down at the counter and nodded. "Okay. I guess it doesn't
make any difference now, him being gone and all. Ron had turned into one
of these vegetarian types. He didn't eat meat anymore, or fish. So he
stopped fishing. But he would come in here every once in a while and
order a steak or cheeseburger. Or sometimes the biscuits and pork
gravy."

"That stuff doesn't sound very vegetarian to me."

"Yeah, that's the funny part. He tells me he had become a vegetarian.
But then he would order a steak or something. And then he'd ask me not
to say anything to anybody about it. I promised him I'd keep it quiet."

"That really doesn't make much sense. If he fell off the vegetarian
wagon every once in a while, why would he want to keep it a secret?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. It didn't make any sense to me either. But
I kept my promise anyway."

I left her a pretty good tip, saying that I would be back in now and
then. My car was parked outside the diner. But Angel Pines was a tiny
place, I could have thrown a baseball across the length of it, so I
decided to walk. Next to the diner was the Post Office. After that there
was a building with a sign that read Harrison's Grocery and Hardware. I
figured that must be Don Harrison's place. As I walked in a young,
black-haired girl of about twenty was ringing up somebody's groceries, a
guy in overalls with the look of some rustic woodsman about him. I
waited until she was finished and then asked her about Don.

"Oh, he's in back. Come with me, I'll take you to him." She walked me
through what there was of the store, every once in a while looking back
over her shoulder at me. "Don's in the hardware area. A new shipment
just came in. You from L.A.?" she said.

"That's right. Born and raised."

"That's nice" she said, smiling. "I'd like to go visit there someday."
The way she said it made Los Angeles seem like it was Venice, an exotic
locale that it would be nice to go to on vacation. All of which made me
feel even more out of place.

"That's Don" she said, nodding at a guy stooped over a bunch of boxes on
the floor. I went up to him. He was about 50 or so, semi-balding, with a
little extra weight showing beneath his clerk's apron. "Don Harrison?
I'm Pat Maginess."

"Ah" he said, putting a tiny box of screws over on a nearby counter. "I
was wondering if you would show up today. How was your drive up?"

"Nice. Uneventful. No flat tires in any case."

He laughed. "Well, that's always good." His look got more serious.
"Thanks for looking into this for me. I really would like to find out
what happened to Ron."

"Don't thank me yet. I haven't done anything except a lot of driving.
And I should tell you up front, I've got a pretty good track record as
an investigator, but it doesn't mean all cases can be solved."

Don seemed to think about that for a few seconds, then nodded. "So let's
just hope for the best, then, I suppose."

"Yeah, hope for the best. Carmen told you about my fees on the phone,
right?"

"Yes. I can say, Mr. Maginess, that money is no issue here. This may be
a small town and a tiny little grocery, but I'm pretty well off. And she
told me about the bonus. That's no problem either. I assure you, if you
solve this, I'll make the bonus a good one. You have my word on that."

"Great. Now, if you have the time, I would like to go over the case with
you. I'm sure Sheriff Baker asked you a lot of questions. But I need to
ask them again."

Don slid the box he had been unpacking over to the side and sat down on
it. Then he nodded in the direction of another box a few feet away. "I
don't have an office here in the store, I'm afraid. This is the best I
can do if you'd care to take a seat on that box there."

I sat down. "I must confess, this is the first time in my career that
I've conducted an interview sitting on a box of mouse traps." I pulled
out my notebook from inside my suit jacket, and a pencil. I was glad to
see the pencil tip hadn't broken yet. "Okay, I guess Ron was in Korea,
right?"

"Yeah. I couldn't believe it when he joined up. Ron was twelve years
younger than me, but he had already done his part in the last one. But
he went anyway. Wasn't over there long, got wounded. Caught some
shrapnel in the back and the derriere, and the legs. Pretty much minor
except for the legs. Hit some muscles down there. He still got around
pretty good, but with a slight limp."

"He was lucky" I said. "I knew a guy who was killed by a piece of
shrapnel big as the tip of this pencil here. Did his injury have
anything to do with him getting out of the fishing tour business?"

Don shook his head. "No. I never really understood that one. And Ron
didn't talk about it. He just told me one day that he had stopped taking
on tours. Then he grabbed a box of corn flakes and left."

"What about fishing in general? I guess he quit that one, too?"

"I guess. He quit both fishing and hunting. Strange, Ron always was the
hunter. He was great at it, just had all those instincts. And he was a
damn good fisherman. That's why when our father died he got the fishing
shop and I got the grocery. But I don't know why he quit, Mr. Maginess.
I really don't."

"Sheriff Baker mentioned something about the .44 found at the crime
scene. He said you thought it might be Ron's gun."

"It might be. I guess when they found it I just assumed that it was
Ron's gun. He had all sorts of guns."

"But you don't know for sure?"

Don shook his head. "No. Sorry. Ron was the one with an interest in all
that stuff. As for me, I'm more into putting up new shingles and
remodeling decks."

"Okay. I'm going to need to visit the crime scene. Ron's cabin. Can you
give me the key, or make a duplicate?"

Don laughed. "No key necessary, Mr. Maginess. Except for the few stores
here in town, there isn't a lock within fifty miles of Angel Pines. But
what I can do is give you a map to the place. That's probably be just as
valuable."

The sun was already beginning touch the top of the mountains in the
West. Remembering Sheriff Baker's warning about driving at night on the
mountain roads, I decide to head back to Colton. I went back to the
diner and got the old Plymouth and drove it over to the filling station
for gas. Outside, an old gentleman sat on a chair, holding a cane. He
was wrinkled and his skin looked like old leather. I couldn't come close
to figuring out how old he was.

"I just need some gas" I said, approaching him.

"Sure. But you'll have to pump it yourself. I got arthritis awful bad."

I went back to the car and put the gas in. I had worked as a pump jockey
in college, along with the dry cleaning business my parents owned, and
just for old memories I got a paper towel and the spray dispenser and
cleaned off the windshield as well. "That was three dollars and twenty
three cents worth" I told the old guy in the chair. "Here's five. Keep
the change."

The guy looked up at me and smiled. "You are very generous with your
money."

"Yeah, I'm on expense account. Sort of."

"I'm Nick White Feather" he said. He didn't bother to try to shake
hands, either out of natural inclination or because of his arthritis. "I
own this little place. I'm also head of the Tribal Council around here.
That is a very nice Plymouth you have there. You've obviously had it
fixed up quite a bit. It's nice to find someone who appreciates the old
ones. Most young people these days, they just go out and buy the newest
thing on the lot. Myself, I like a car with some history to it."

White Feather's whole manner impressed me. It was a shame about the
arthritis hitting him. "Thanks for the compliment. I put some money into
the Plymouth a while back. It used to be an old rust bucket. And it gets
me around pretty good, too. I didn't have any trouble getting here, even
with the steep grades."

He nodded, and finally pocketed the five dollar bill I had given him. He
winced as his fingers stuffed it into his pocket. "I hear you are
investigating Ron Harrison's death" he said, almost as an afterthought.

"Word travels fast in a small town, I guess."

He laughed. "Words always travel faster than we think they do. It's the
nature of words. Words are sacred, they have wings and soar through the
sky."

"Old Indian wisdom?" I said, smiling.

"Maybe" he said. "Or maybe it's Egyptian, I forget." He laughed again.
"Stop back in again with your beautiful Plymouth. We will share more
words with each other."

"I can't very well see how I can avoid it, Mr. White Feather. You're the
only gas station in town."

Trying to concentrate on the drive back into Colton I didn't think about
the case much. On a regular case I would have gone at that point to my
office and started a new case file. But seeing that my file cabinets
were about sixty miles away, I checked into the small hotel in town.
After grabbing some dinner at a local steak house I wandered down the
street on foot looking for a place to have a few drinks. The little
tavern I dropped into wasn't much by the look of it on the outside, and
it wasn't anything special on the inside either. Nevertheless it had a
good crowd. Pretty much every male in the tavern was wearing a plaid
shirt and a cowboy hat, and I felt totally out of place in my suit and
old 30s style fedora. I took a stool at the bar and a female bartender
came down to me. She looked to be about thirty, but was probably more
like forty, and was dressed in mostly black with the exception of a
crisp white blouse. There was something about her that reminded me of a
fifth-grade English teacher. For some reason, I liked her off the bat.

"What'll it be, stranger?" she said, almost laughing.

"Uh, whiskey, I guess." Before I could add anything about the ginger ale
I normally mixed it with she took off down the bar. When she came back
down she slammed an entire bottle of Canadian rye, two-thirds full, onto
the bar in front of me. Then she slammed down a shot glass. "There ya
go" she said, giving me this wonderful, slightly satiric smile.

"Gee, thanks" I said. "Although I'm not sure if this is gonna be enough
whiskey. I have to sleep in strange bed tonight."

"We've got another bottle" she said, almost laughing but not quite.

I drank and smoked, and made intermittent conversation with the
bartender, who's name turned out to be Rhonda. The crowd slowly thinned
out over the next two hours. I kept looking at the door, half-expecting
Virgil Earp himself to walk in, looking for a card game.

By the time the evening was over the bottle was empty almost to the
bottom. Rhonda looked at the bottle and visually measured the remaining
contents. "That'll be about twenty bucks worth, I think."

Back at the hotel I stripped and got into bed. The mattress was lumpy
and felt like a giant pancake, and the pillow was so soft that I might
as well have had my head resting on a wash rag. Nevertheless, after
smoking a last cigarette I slid myself under the covers and fell right
to sleep, thinking about Rhonda's hips under the tight black skirt and
they way her eyes looked when she made a joke.

GO TO PART II.

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