Courage begins a ray cou.., p.3
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       Courage Begins: A Ray Courage Mystery Novella, p.3

           R. Scott Mackey
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their efforts filling the mountain air with the harsh whine of a buzz saw and the rat-tat-tat of dueling hammers.

  “Is one of you Billy Crane?” I asked, raising my voice above the din.

  They looked at me warily, decked out in white hard hats, sweatshirts, and blue jeans. “Who wants to know?” the short man asked.

  I introduced myself, explaining that I worked for Cal Farm Insurance.

  “I’m Billy,” the same man said. “What can I do for you?”

  Billy shook my hand; thick calluses lined his palm and fingers. It was like grasping a catcher’s mitt. He reeked of tobacco and sweat, the odors mixing with those of the fresh cut wood and pine trees. If testosterone had a smell, it would be this.

  “What brings you all this way from Sacramento?” Though Billy was short, he outweighed me by a good thirty pounds. He sported a three-day growth of stubble and had a pinch of tobacco in his lower lip.

  “We’re still looking into the Bate accident from a couple of years ago. You know, the carbon monoxide poisoning.”

  “Yeah, you don’t have to remind me. I know that one all too well. Lost one of my best men in that deal.”

  “Harley Cowan was one of your employees?” That hadn’t been in the case file.

  “Yes, sir. Damn good finish carpenter. Those are hard to find. Just couldn’t keep his pecker in his pants, and it cost him.”

  “How long had he been seeing Mrs. Bate?”

  “Hell if I know. “

  “Did it start when you began doing the improvements on the Bate home?”

  “Like I said, I don’t have a clue. He could’ve met her years before for all I know. Bate and his wife had been coming up here for a while.”

  I considered pursuing Cowan’s connection to Tiffanie Bate, but didn’t see where that could take me. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about the work you did on the Bate home?”

  “Sure, go ahead. I got nothing to hide.” He spit some tobacco juice on the dirt next to the truck’s tire.

  “When did Garrett Bate call you, and what did he ask you to do at the house?”

  “Hell, I don’t remember exactly when he called me. It was, maybe, a month before we started doing work on his house, sometime in late summer. I remember because he was in a hurry. He got a little ticked when I told him we couldn’t start on his house until the next spring.”

  “Why the delay?”

  “Because we was crazy busy.”

  “But you said he contacted you about a month before you started.”

  “Yeah,” he said, laughing at some recollection. “He said he’d pay twice our going rate if we could get his work done by Thanksgiving. Said he wanted to enjoy the winter season comfortably. Offer like that makes you put other jobs on the back burner.”

  “What exactly did he want you to do at the house?”

  “He wanted to make it energy efficient. It’s pretty mild today, but the winters can get brutal up here. He was tired of freezing his ass off and said to spare no expense. We sealed up that sumbitch like nobody’s business.”

  “Did you think his request was unusual?”

  “No, not really. It costs a lot of money to keep your home warm up here in the winter. The kind of stuff we did to his house was expensive, but in the long run, he’d make most of the money back in energy savings. Plus, he’d have a more comfortable place to live.”

  “You put in more insulation and that kind of stuff, right?”

  “You name it, we did it. Triple-pane storm windows throughout—that was the big expense. Thicker insulation in the walls and attic, eliminated the gaps under the outside doors, caulking, weather stripping, and a few other things.”

  “What about the furnace? Did you install a new furnace for him?”

  Billy spit again. “No, that’s the crazy thing. I told him it would be smarter, and cost less, to heat the place with a pellet-stove system. He said he preferred the furnace. So I told him the one he had was over twenty years old, and that the newer models were ten times more efficient. And his was loud, too, sitting there in the hallway across from his bedroom. Hell, that change alone might have saved him more than everything else we did. He didn’t care. He said he wanted to keep the old furnace.”

  “The furnace that leaked and ended up killing his wife.”

  “Yep. Sure was. Damn shame.”


  Detective Harrison Royle of the Tahoe Police Department met me at the Jack in the Box in South Lake Tahoe. I arrived first and ordered some chicken nuggets and a cup of coffee. At mid-afternoon, I was the only customer sitting in the restaurant. Harrison spotted me and sat at the table, declining my offer to buy him something to eat or drink.

  “I’m not going to have much to tell you,” he said, soon after we’d introduced ourselves.

  I was starving, not having time to stop after talking with Garrett Bate and leaving for Lake Tahoe to meet Billy Crane. I dipped one of the chicken nuggets into a plastic tub of spicy ranch dressing and devoured the morsel in two bites. I followed that with a sip of black coffee. Royle watched me with surprising interest. He was young, late twenties or early thirties, with a shaved head a lot of young men sported to conceal premature baldness. I didn’t quite get the logic in that, but had seen it many times in my teaching days.

  “Sorry, I missed lunch,” I said.

  “Is Cal Farm really reopening its investigation of the Tiffanie Bate and Harley Cowan deaths?”

  I nodded, starting in on a second chicken nugget.

  “Seems like a stretch to me,” he said. “No offense, but you guys looked into it as thoroughly as we did back when it happened. I’d think your resources would be better spent elsewhere.” Royle had a weariness in his eyes, suggesting he’d seen more in his thirty years than others had seen in sixty.

  I swallowed the nugget. “I’m an intern making twenty bucks an hour, so it’s not like we’re exactly throwing money away.”

  “An intern? Aren’t you a little old to be an intern?”

  “Thank you. It’s a long story. A career change thing.”

  “What were you before you were an intern?”

  “College professor.”

  He blinked and scrunched his face. “Isn’t interning as an investigator a step down from college professor? No offense meant.”

  “None taken. Like I said, it’s a long story.”

  He reached down and pulled out a folder from a nylon briefcase. “I brought the case file.” He handed it to me.

  I wiped my hands on a napkin before taking the packet from him. It was a couple of inches thick. “Anything particularly noteworthy in here?”

  “Not really. Probably contains pretty much everything you have in your file.”

  The papers had two holes punched in the top and connected to the folder with metal prongs. I scanned through the pages, flipping them up as I went. I stopped to read more closely when I came to the South Lake Tahoe Arson Unit’s report. I’d skimmed the same report in our files before, but wanted to see if something jumped out this time around. Nothing did. The report concluded the blockage in the furnace’s flue exhaust stack, coupled with a puncture hole in the stack beneath the obstruction, caused carbon monoxide to escape and eventually fill the home with enough of the gas to kill the occupants. The investigator called the location and size of the blockage and hole suspicious, but offered no evidence that the stack had been tampered with. An autopsy report confirmed both victims died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

  “What did you think about the blockage and hole they found?” I asked.

  Royle shrugged. “It was an old furnace. Residue builds up. As far as the hole, someone could have accidentally punctured it doing routine repairs. Then, over time, pressure from the exhaust expanded the hole.”

  “Do you believe that?”

  “No, I think somebody stuffed a bunch of soot in there. Then they punctured it with a screwdriver and widened the size of the hole with a pair of pliers.”

  I raised my eyebrows at
the specificity of his theory.

  He turned both palms up and shrugged again. “Hey, that’s how I would’ve done it. That’s all.”

  “Was there any physical evidence putting Garrett at the scene?”

  “Yeah, his fingerprints were all over the place. Same with hair and skin. But it was his house, and he’d been inside a few months before. There were no prints or anything suggesting he’d been inside the utility closet where the furnace was.”

  I leafed through a couple more pages, and then came upon color photos inserted into a plastic sleeve. “Okay if I look at the pics?”

  “Suit yourself.”

  I took out an eight-by-ten print of the bedroom. A blonde woman lay face down in a bed, the green comforter drawn partly back to expose a bare shoulder and arm. Next to her lay a man face up, his eyes closed. They could’ve been sleeping. I showed the photo to Royle.

  He nodded. “Dead. That’s how we found them. We got a call at nine thirty that morning from Harley Cowan’s dad. The kid hadn’t shown up for work, so Billy Crane calls the dad—Cowan lived at home. Dad said he hasn’t seen the kid, so he starts looking for him by driving around and sees Harley’s pickup at the Bate house. He’s pissed when no one answers, figures his son is having sex with the woman instead of going to work, so he finds an open side door and enters. Five minutes later he calls us.”

  I no longer had any interest in my chicken nuggets. Even looking at them, and the tub of ranch, made me feel queasy, so I closed the box and slid it to the edge of the table. I put the photo back in the sleeve and pulled out a couple more. They didn’t reveal anything
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