WELCOME TO PICKETWIRE
A serialized story
by tim wintermute
Desmond stretched and twisted his way through a smorgasbord of yoga positions, Ustrasana, Dhanurasa, Navasana, Marjariasana, Uttanasana, Hanumansana and Camatkarasana. Although he’d practiced yoga religiously for years he hadn’t achieved even a flicker of enlightenment. Now, as he sat cross legged in a lotus position he’d settle for a way that he could help Margaret with her farm. Instead he heard a car pull up. Untangling his legs he stood up and walked into the Happy Trails office that adjoined his bedroom. He could see the grin of a Chevy Silverado’s grill through the window. Desmond opened the front door just as Rich Best stepped down from the pick-up’s cab. Rich walked up and looked at Desmond who was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt. “Guess you didn’t get the message I left on your voice mail about an hour ago.”
“I was exercising and put my phone on mute,” Desmond said, retreating behind his desk and picking up his cell phone and looking at the voice mail notification on its screen. He turned to Rich and asked, “What’s up?”
“What’s up is a meeting with none other than the big man, himself, Wylie Boone. ” Rich answered as he sat down in one of the two side chairs.
“Why are we meeting with Wylie Boone?”
Rich hunched forward, his elbows on his knees. “Jemma Lu called me yesterday and told me that she’d met with Wylie and heard his big idea.”
Desmond leaned back in his chair. “And?”
“She told him she would think about it and get back with her answer.”
“What was her verdict?”
Rich sat up straight, stretched out his right hand and pointed the thumb down.
“What was the big idea?”
Rich shrugged. “Don’t know. The deal was that he’d only tell Jemma Lu.”
“How did Boone take it?”
“She hasn’t told him. That’s why we’re meeting to deliver the bad news.”
“Why can’t she tell him?”
“She said that wasn’t part of the deal. He’d asked to meet with her and tell her his idea, which she agreed to do and that’s what she did. She never agreed to meet him a second time.”
Desmond raised the cell phone that was still in his hand. “Let’s just call him.”
Rich gave him a you just don’t get it look. “A face to face is our best chance to walk away with the contribution he promised. We don’t want to give him time to reconsider and bail on us. I already sent him a breakdown of the expenses that he promised to cover in addition to the $25,000 for prize money.”
Desmond put down the cell phone. “Okay, I understand the reason for a face to face but I don’t understand why you can’t meet with him yourself.”
“I’m just a small town furniture dealer as far as he’s concerned, but you are a venture capitalist from Silicon Valley.”
“Not anymore. I’m just helping out my family.”
“Okay, but that gives you something in common with Wylie because he came back to run the Boone family business, the Double B Ranch.”
“I’m just running this trailer park.”
“You’re family owns this place so it’s a family business. And you’re not just running a trailer park, Desmond, you’re heading up a turn around. That’s another thing you and Wylie have in common because he buys companies and turns them around.”
Desmond shifted uncomfortably, the skin of his bare thighs sticking to the chair’s seat. “When is this meeting?”
Rich looked at the watch on his wrist. “In half an hour.”
“At his ranch?”
“In Played Out.”
“Played Out? Is that an actual place?”
“More or less. Actually, it’s more less than more. It’s about a half hour from here.”
“I still don’t get why he agreed to meet with us instead of Jemma Lu?”
“He didn’t. I just said we would like to meet with him and he didn’t ask who the other person in the we was.”
In a few minutes Picketwire had disappeared in the rearview mirror of Rich’s Silverado. Inside the climate controlled cab the displays on the dashboard were out of the space age although the ride as far as Desmond was concerned, was more iron age. It felt like they were plowing through the sun softened asphalt like it was an untilled field. Desmond asked Rich how much the pickup weighed.
Rich patted the dashboard. “Three tons of heavy metal. The extended cab will hold four hefty guys or five skinny gals. I prefer the latter.”
“It looks brand new.”
“That’s because it is. I’ve only had it for a week. I drive a different pickup make and model every month. My customers are pretty devoted to their pick-ups so I don’t want to seem partial by picking one pickup over another. Talking about their truck is a good way to keep a conversation rolling. Establish rapport.”
“It must be pretty expensive to rent a different pickup every month.”
“The dealers let me have them for free. It’s part of their marketing. You’d be surprised how many of my customers I talk into trading up to the latest model. Of course, I’m careful not to try to persuade them to switch brands. There are four dealerships in the area and I rotate among them. Before this I had a Dodge RAM and next month it’ll be a Ford F250 and the month after that a Toyota Tundra. Now that Range Rover you drive doesn’t do much for around here. It’s more for Aspen or Vail. You should trade up for one of these babies.” Rich patted the dashboard again.
“Which baby would you recommend?”
“Whichever one I’m driving. That’s part of the agreement I have with the dealers. This month I can get you a sweet deal on a Silverado.”
“And I bet next month you can get me a sweet deal on an F250.”
Rich shot him a grin. “Are you calling my bluff, Des? Speaking of sweet deals, someone told me they saw you with Margaret Knutson at the Last Ditch.”
Desmond shifted uncomfortably and replied. “I’ve seen her a couple of times.”
“Is she still thinking of living on the farm her Uncle gave her? I haven’t heard back from her about remodeling the farmhouse after we met at the showroom.”
“She’s not only going to live there; she’s going to try farming the place.”
“Then she’s going to need some new farm equipment because I imagine what Arvid had was held together with baling wire. He used to come in asking for parts for equipment that hadn’t been made in years. I tried to convince him to buy something new or at least newer but he wasn’t interested. There’s a difference between used and used up. Why, he had an old Farmall tractor that should have been in a museum not on a farm.”
“I know, I saw it,” Desmond said, then quickly explained. “I drove Margaret and Sue Cohen out there yesterday.”
“Sue Cohen? I did hear that she was looking into buying a farm.”
“She and Margaret might team up.”
“If they don’t want to be a losing team then they’re going to need a really good coach.”
“Sue did say there’s a local farmer who’s agreed to help her out. I guess you could call him a coach.”
“Well, well.” Rich drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.
“Just that if Sue is involved then they will definitely want the very best equipment. Anyone who goes to her Café can see that. Plus, she’s the head of the Chamber of Commerce so she’ll want to shop local and you can’t get more local than FREDs.”
Desmond decided it was better to drop the subject. He’d already said more than he should have about Margaret and Sue’s plans. Desmond looked out the windshield at the ribbon of two lane black top unwinding before them across the prairie toward a fringe of tree. “Is that Played Out ahead of us?”
“That or a mirage, although there’s not much difference. Every time I’m out this way I’m surprised to find that it’s still there.”
“Where are we meeting Boone?” Desmond asked.
“There’s only one place to meet and that’s at MacDonald’s.”
“There’s a McDonalds out here?”
Rich laughed. “Not McDonalds but M A C D O N A L D S.”
In a couple of minutes they passed a sign with Played Out painted on it followed by the words don’t blink or you’ll miss us. Rich slowed the Silverado as they entered what looked like a set for the “westerns” that had once roamed television sets and movie theaters. Desmond half expected to see Clint Eastwood leaning in one of the doorways with a cigarillo on his lips, a hand resting on the butt of a six gun and his eyes locked on them in a steely squint. They pulled off the deserted street and came to a stop in a patch of gravel beside a one story building with a story clapboard false front. It looked like a saloon except for the two gas pumps in front instead of a hitching rail. They climbed down from the pickup and walked to the building. MacDonald’s was printed in large black letters on the weathered façade above the front double doors. Inside was a cavernous room, with fans hanging like stalactites from the ceiling, their blades spinning slowly with a soft “whooping” sound. On the left side of the room was a counter with half a dozen stools, four tables, a pool table and against the back wall, several booths. On the right side were two rows of shelves displaying everything from western wear to motor oil to loaves of bread and cans of Spam. A handwritten sign above a cooler advertised its contents as beer, sodas, milk, sliced meats and cheese. There seemed to be a little of everything and not much of anything.
A man who’d been sitting reading a book behind a cash register stood up as they entered. He was in his fifties, tall, broad shouldered and barrel chested with a sun reddened face. He wore bib overalls over a white tee shirt. He bellowed out a howdy and then, recognizing Rich, he said, “Why if it isn’t Rich Best.” They shook hands and Rich introduced Desmond.
“Fergus MacDonald. Some people call me big Mac, which is better than being called a little weenie,” the man said, a big smile on his face as he gave Desmond’s arm several hearty pumps. “Welcome to the purgatory of Purgatory County.”
“Come on, Fergus, it’s not that bad,” Rich said.
“No, it’s not a hell of a place but I’m working on it.” He broke into another grin then asked. “What brings you two to Played Out?”
”Wylie Boone asked us to meet him.” Rich replied. “Looks like he’s not here yet.”
“Well, you’re welcome to wait. If you bought something you’d be more than welcome.”
Desmond ordered a coke and Rich a Doctor Pepper and they sat down on two stools. After placing the drinks on the counter, Rich asked. “Does Boone come here often?”
“He’s been here once since he came back so if he comes today that’ll make him a regular customer.” Fergus chuckled. “That is if he wants to buy something I can sell.”
“Since this is called MacDonald’s you must be the owner.” Desmond asked.
“Owner, bartender, waiter, cashier, cook and janitor. I’m also the mayor and city council, police force and garbage collector and half the population of Played Out. My wife’s the other, better, half. That’s not counting the ghost population. This is pretty much a ghost town so there’s a lot more of them than us. Oh, I’m also the President of the Played Out Historical Society. Our motto is we may not have a future but we’ve got plenty of the past.”
“Where did the name Played Out come from?” Desmond asked.
Fergus smiled and leaned his elbows on the counter. “That’s not the original name. You see back in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth the U.S. government gave the railroads land in return for building their railroads. The problem for the railroads was what to do with land in areas like this where there’s not much rain or access to water. That’s when they latched onto this theory of dryland farming that claimed you could farm without needing any water. Somehow the crops themselves would cause more rainfall. The desert would bloom and the prairie would turn into a Garden of Eden. Apple trees where there was sagebrush. There were already plenty of snakes, of course, They persuaded a lot of folks from the east and new immigrants, especially the ones who’d never farmed, to come out here on their railroads and buy their land. Of course the folks already out here knew that it was a bunch of hooey to farm this land without water. The wells they dug provided enough to wash dishes and drink but not enough to irrigate for farming. They knew that the only thing you could do with this land was raise cattle and, even then, you needed at least sixty acres per cow. But folks believed the hooey and came anyway and by 1910 there were small farms all around here and this town had been established. They named it Fertile Fields. As it turned out the only thing fertile about it was the imagination to come up with the name.”
“What happened?” Desmond asked.
“For a few years it seemed to work but those were unusually wet years as it turned out. However, as soon as the dry years came back what little topsoil there was to begin with had been eroded by plowing and over grazing so it all blew away with the wind. We still get dust storms. By 1920 the dryland boom had turned into the dust bust. That’s when folks cleared out and some of the departing citizens crossed out the name Fertile Fields on the signs coming into town and painted Played Out.”
“Why didn’t your family leave as well?”
“Leave? That’s when my family showed up. My great grandfather Angus MacDonald worked as a sales-clerk in the Denver Dry Goods Company in Denver, it was the largest department store west of Chicago. Well they up and fired him claiming that he wasn’t meeting his sales quota. Anyway, being a frugal Scot he’d put some money away but with a wife, two kids and another on the way he knew he couldn’t wait too long. Then he saw an advertisement for a manager for this place, which was called the Fertile Field Mercantile Emporium. He telegraphed an application for the job and got a reply right away that he’s hired, sight unseen. It seemed too good to be true and it was. When he arrived with his wife and kids instead of hiring him as the manager, the owner of the store told him that he had to go back east because of his wife’s health and he’ll sell him the place for the value of the inventory. Again, Angus couldn’t believe his luck so he used most of his savings to buy the place. It was only after he took over the place and changed the name to MacDonald’s that he discovered that all the farms and businesses are going bust. He also found out that almost all of the store’s customers had been buying on credit with the security being their property. In less than a year he owned all the land around here as well as the town. The population had gone from five hundred to five. The fifth being my grandfather, who was born a few months after they arrived. Like I said, now there’s only Ellie and me. We have two kids but they left here when they went to college and one of them lives in Denver and the other in Missoula.”
“So you’re hanging on,” Rich said.
“Running this is more like a hobby than a business. Truth is Ellie and I don’t know what we’d do with ourselves if we left. Besides, even if we wanted to sell the place who would be interested in owning a town in the middle of nowhere. Especially one without much water.” He paused then added. “Except the Boones and they’re the only people I can’t sell to.”
“Why is that?”
“Wylie’s granddad tried to force Angus to sell the town and the land to him for next to nothing. He told Angus that if he didn’t accept his offer he would get the road closed and MacDonald’s wouldn’t have any customers or anything else for that matter. Angus found out that according to the law the road had to stay open as long as there was a town here. He told him that the MacDonald’s came to America from Scotland after being thrown off their land in the Highland Clearances and he wasn’t about to be cleared off his land by someone who acted like he was some Laird of the Prairies. He not only refused to sell but he swore an oath that no MacDonald would ever sell this place to a Boone. Fortunately the oath didn’t include leasing the land to the Boones and that’s what my Dad did. If it wasn’t for the lease payments, as small as they are, we wouldn’t be able to pay the bills. Wylie brought the whole thing up when he came by. The current thirty year lease is going to expire in six months so we need to negotiate a new one. He said if I didn’t agree to sell him the land he wouldn’t renew the lease. Not only that he said he wanted the town to be part of the deal.”
Rich screwed up his face in disbelief. “Why would Wylie include the town as well?”
“That’s what I wondered. If we lose the income from the lease we won’t be able to hold out for long. We won’t be able to pay the taxes on the land and Wylie will pick it up in a tax foreclosure. We’ll have nothing and the Boone’s will get everything. If I agree to sell at least we’ll walk away with something.”
“I guess that leaves you between a rock and a hard place.”
The bell above the front door jingled and Fergus looked up. “Speaking of a rock. Wylie has arrived.”
Desmond and Rich swiveled on their stools to look at the front door. A man wearing aviator sunglasses stood in the open doorway. He was dressed in black jeans and a black tee shirt that barely contained his muscle bound torso and biceps. After pushing his sunglasses up over his buzzcut he looked around and then stepped aside. A man wearing khakis and a maroon polo shirt limped through the door. The man stopped and peered at them and asked. “Where’s Jemma Lu?”
Rich explained to Wylie that Jemma Lu couldn’t make it and that he had a note from her. He introduced Desmond and they retreated to one of the back booths where Rich had handed Wylie the note from Jemma Lu.
“I guess that’s all she wrote,” Wylie sighed after reading the note, then folded it and inserted into back into its envelope.
“Maybe she wrote something more but that’s all she gave me,” Rich said.
Wylie gave Rich a hard look. “I meant that’s the end of it.”
“Oh, right. But look Mister Boone they say for every ending there’s a new beginning.”
“All beginnings are new but some ends are the end and this is one of them.”
“Are you still going to contribute to FRED X?” Desmond asked. “Jemma Lu met with you and heard your idea.”
“Which was a great idea,” Rich said.
“How do you know it was a great idea?” Wylie snapped. “The deal we agreed to was that Jemma Lu wouldn’t tell anyone what it was unless she said yes, so if she told you…”
Rich held both of his hands up. “Oh no, she didn’t tell us. I just meant that if you came up with an idea I’m pretty sure it would be a great one.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll keep my word. You’ll get the money.”
“Everyone knows you’re a man of your word,” Rich said, nodding his head vigorously.
Wylie sat back and looked at both of them with a bemused smile. “Everyone? I’ve made more than my share of enemies.”
“Well, of course there are always people who are jealous of someone’s success and want to run them down…I mean…”
Wylie waved his hand and Rich shut up then he reached into the front pocket of his khakis and fished out a check and handed it to Rich. “This should cover it, including the amount for expenses that you sent me.” He turned to Desmond as Rich pocketed the check.
“Are you related to Victor Goswami?”
“He’s my Dad. Why, do you know him?”
“We’re acquainted. What are you doing here?”
“Desmond is running one of the family businesses,” Rich said.
Wylie’s right eyebrow arched. “Really, your family has a hotel in Picketwire?”
“Not a hotel,” Desmond said. “It’s more like a trailer park.”
“A trailer park?”
“Well, we also accommodate RV’s.”
“Desmond is a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley,” Rich blurted. “But agreed to come here to turn around Happy Trails, that’s the name of the business. With his experience in Silicon Valley startups Desmond has been a great help with FRED X.”
“There’s a big difference between high tech and agriculture.”
“Desmond is helping with a new agricultural start up.”
“What’s the start up?”
“It’s more of a restart,” Desmond said. “I’m helping someone who inherited her uncle’s farm.”
“That wouldn’t happen to be Arvid Knutson’s farm?”
“I’d like to discuss something with her…What’s her name?”
“Margaret Knutson,” Rich answered.
Ignoring Rich, Wylie addressed Desmond. “Can you ask Margaret to call me?”
“Can I tell her what it’s about?” Desmond asked.
“Just tell her I’ve got an offer that I don’t think she’ll want to refuse.”
Foster had replaced the television set he’d shot with a sofa he’d bought at FRED’s. Although Rich called the color Chartreuse it was more puke green, which was probably why it was fifty percent off. Foster covered it with an old Pendleton wool blanket. Scratchy was better than nausea. At least there was a place for Gretl, Ari and Will to sit after he invited them inside. He wasn’t sure which had been the bigger surprise; that they had ended up at his doorstep or that once he’d opened it they’d asked to hire him. Of course, he hid his surprise. After all he was working undercover. The only surprise when they introduced themselves was the second man, who turned out to be a professor of philosophy. After the three of them were seated on the sofa, Foster settled into the Lazy boy and asked. “What exactly do you want to hire me for?”
Gretl, who was sitting between Ari and Will answered. “We want you to help us stop Wylie Boone.”
“There’s a long line of people who want to stop Wylie. What’s your reason?”
Will, who had been perched on the edge of the couch looking like a student who can’t wait to be called on, said. “He’s stealing water and using it to grow marijuana. That’s more than enough reason.”
“How do you know that?” Foster asked.
Will opened his mouth but Gretl cut him off. “We have evidence that water is being diverted from the Purgatoire at night onto the Double B Ranch through a vacated irrigation ditch. It’s being used to supply water for growing marijuana. As you know, stealing water is illegal in Colorado and so is growing marijuana without a license…”
“And there aren’t any licenses issued for Purgatory County,” Foster said. “The problem is Sheriff Riggleman is responsible for enforcing the law. He’ll just say that he’ll look into it, which means it will never see the light of day.”
“We know Riggleman is under Boone’s thumb and won’t lift a finger.”
Maybe the middle one Foster thought. He said. “Not only that, if you tell Riggleman he’ll just warn Boone who will then fill in the irrigation ditch and dismantle the marijuana farm and wait until everything blows over.”
Gretl nodded her head in agreement. “That’s why we’re not going to take this to Riggleman but to the press. News and social media will go crazy with this because it involves Boone. Everyone will know what he’s up to and he won’t have a chance to cover things up.”
“Boone is like a cockroach,” Will said, hardly hiding his disdain. “He operates in the dark. The publicity this will generate is like turning on the lights. Once he’s exposed he’ll disappear into the crack he came from. It’s the worst thing that can happen to him.”
“Worse than being killed by a minivan?” Foster asked.
“But he wasn’t killed,” Will replied. “Maybe the driver didn’t even intend to kill him.”
“I guess we’ll have to wait until they find the person.”
“Maybe they won’t find him.”
“To get back to what we’re saying about the media,” Gretl interrupted. “Once the spotlight is on Boone he won’t be able to get away with stealing water.”
Foster settled back in the Lazy Boy and drawled. “Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out. Why do you need me?”
“We need someone to find people that Boone has stolen water from who will agree to come forward and speak at a press conference.” Gretl said. “Boone can’t know that we’re doing this until it’s too late for him to act. It has to take him by surprise so he doesn’t have time to cover everything up. If we start asking questions it’s liable to get back to Boone. That’s why we want to hire you. ”
“I see why you might need my help, but you can’t hire me...”
Will stood up and blurted, “This is a waste of time. You’re not going to help us.”
“Hold your horses and let me finish,” Foster replied, calmly. “What I was going to say is you can’t hire me because I’m already working on something that involves Boone. I can’t tell you what it is except that it doesn’t involve water or marijuana. It would be a conflict of interest if I was paid by you. I said you couldn’t hire me but that doesn’t mean I won’t help you.”
After Will sat back down, Foster said. “I do have one condition.”
“What’s the condition?” Gretl asked.
“That the Picketwire Press gets to do an inside story on all of this.”
Will was about to jump up again but this time Gretl put her left hand firmly on his right leg to stop him. “Okay,” she said. “But nothing can get out about this until we’re ready to go public.”
“Don’t worry,” Foster said. “There won’t be any leaks.”
“Sorry for dragging you along,” Gretl said to Ari. They were standing in front of the Picketwire Institute where Will had dropped them off. “This really isn’t your concern. I’m sure you would be happy to get back to philosophy.”
“You know,” Ari said with a sheepish grin. “According to Aristotle achieving true happiness requires both knowledge and virtuous action.”
“According to which Aristotle? The dead one or the one standing in front of me?”
“Both, but achieving true happiness is a lot better when you’re still alive.”
Gretl smiled. “Does this mean you consider what we’re doing as virtuous and not crazy.”
“Being a philosopher not a psychiatrist I’m not qualified to give an opinion on what’s crazy.”
“So you agree with Wittgenstein that whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent?”
“All I can say is that in this case Wittgenstein knew what he was talking about. But, seriously, what I can say is that I think what you’re doing is right, and I wish there was some way I could help.” Ari felt like he’d just been along for the ride. First in a Jeep and then on a couch. It seemed that he’d been a bystander his whole life. It was time to get off his ass.
“I’m not sure if it’s virtuous,” Gretl said. “But you could help with some vehicular action by giving me a ride. Will needs the Jeep to get back and forth from his bat cave or wherever it is he sleeps, assuming he sleeps so I’m without wheels.”
“Sure,” Ari said, nodding his head. “My car is at my apartment but it’s not far from here so we could walk there and I could give you a ride home.” When they got to his apartment he could invite her in for a drink, he thought. That could lead to some action, although not exactly the kind that the other Aristotle would consider virtuous. But, as Gretl had pointed out, that one was dead and he wasn’t.
”Not home it’s to a place I want to check out,” Gretl said, jarring Ari out of his contemplation. “It’s a bit of a longshot, but who knows.”
“Where is it?”
“Out in the country about thirty miles from Picketwire. It’s off the beaten track.”
“My car is a Honda Civic not an SUV so if this place requires any off road driving…”
“It may be off the beaten track but the road to it is paved, although you wouldn’t think so from the name of the place.”
“What’s it called?”
END OF INSTALLMENT 26
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