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It was one of those wild investigative stories, cast in an isolated wilderness beyond the high desert, a hundred and sixty miles out of Los Angeles. Roy Garrison was suckered into this type of arrangement a hundred times before during his twenty-year span on The Dispatch. The Wednesday phone call was too crazy to even make it into his weekly column. He knew the scenario all to well. A man or woman calls up, and with intense emotion in his or her voice, hints something dreadful has taken place, and Garrison is the only one they can turn to. Why not call the authorities? The answer was quick and the same every time: Talk of a cover up and nobody trusted the authorities.
Garrison gazed out his car window. The chiseled mountain peaks were stark against the cold sunset skies and shadows crept across the talus. As night spilled over the chilled desert floor, every twisted mesquite branch, every rock strewn terrace and treeless slope only heightened the isolation. The town was dropped between saw toothed mountains and a range to the east. Incandescent bulbs popped on across the flat stretches like awakening fireflies pulsing on a summer's eve. The asphalt split west through the range toward San Francisco and skirted the smoother hills east to Las Vegas. Somewhere on that highway, according to his source, a van containing highly toxic organic compounds had flipped over just days before. One of the vials must have opened and some guy was dead from Viral Endoplasmic Disease, VED, a virus that ripped apart the DNA in cells. His calls to the Center for Disease Control went unanswered until yesterday when they said not to panic. It was an isolated case and the investigation was over. But the dumbest thing was their denying the van turned over outside of town. That, according to his source, was a fabrication.
TALL TALES WERE SPUN BY THOSE WITH POWER. TWENTY YEARS OF CRANKING OUT STORIES POUNDED THAT INTO YOUR HEAD. OFFICIAL LINES WERE GOSPEL. THE ELEMENT OF TRUTH DIDN'T MATTER. IT WAS HOW THE DAMNED THING PLAYED OUT AND THE ATTITUDE SPREAD ACROSS EVERY GOVERNMENT AGENCY, EVERY CORPORATION ... ANYONE WITH POWER. THIS WAS THE NEW MILLENNIUM. POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WAS EVERYTHING.
Garrison shifted his old green MG at the traffic sign and slowed to twenty miles per hour. A rusted yellow sign indicated speeders would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. That meant spending a long night in a cinder block little jail cell staring at some little dictator who called himself the Chief of Police. Already he missed Los Angeles. Except staying at home was an invitation to telephone bouncers, hounding him about his max-out credit cards and his bookie might call and tell him he had pushed his tab to the limit.
A green neon sign flashed in the twilight, leaving a red blotch in his eyes as he gazed at the northern mountains.
The MG's little tires kicked up the parking lot dust as he pulled in and parked between two pickup trucks. Four hours on the road and his stomach tightened into a twisted hunger pit. He stepped into the cool air and stretched his tense frame. The light inside the silver metal diner glowed against the deepening blue sky. People were jammed at the counter and in the booths and a moving mass of gray cigarette haze hung across the place.
Garrison reached back in the MG, packed his microcasette, cigarettes, and wallet into his pants pocket. He put on his faded Angels hat and strutted across the gritty parking lot. This town was probably like any other town, full of gossip, unjustified rumors, and a cast of rowdy locals seeking notoriety. He stepped back as a family exited the diner and the father held the aluminum framed door open.
Garrison was comfortable in noisy joints like this. He lit a cigarette and sat at the end counter stool. Before he began asking questions, he ordered the meat loaf, gravy, mashed potatoes and carrots. He grabbed a folded, reread local newspaper on the scratched Formica and scrutinized every article for word of the overturned van. When the steamy plate arrived he had found no reference to the van.
MRS. LYNETTE CAMPBELL. THE LADY SOUNDED LIKE A DAMNED RELIABLE SOURCE ON THE PHONE. ALL THOSE COLLEGE DEGREES AND SAYING THAT SHE HAD SOMETHING ON HER COMPUTER CD. SHE EVEN WANTED MY ITINERARY, SAYING IT WAS CRITICAL I TALK WITH HER BEFORE I SAW RICHARD IN SAN LOUIS OBISPO. WELL, WHERE THE HELL IS THE VAN STORY, MRS. LYNETTE CAMPBELL?
" More coffee, sir?" The pink uniformed waitress held a glass pot of swishing dark coffee. Garrison nodded his head. She poured and looked at his hat before throwing a couple sealed cream containers on the counter. " Angels? You from L.A.?"
" I left town: Armed robbery."
She held the pot, but did not look sure if he was serious as she smiled and quickly backed away.
HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE, ROY. NOW YOU'VE GOT TO START THE BULLSHIT WITH STRANGERS.
He went back to the paper, chewed up his food like a high speed grinding machine but found nothing until he came to the obit page. Then he sipped the bitter coffee, added another cream and sugar, and ran his finger over the death notice of a guy named Grover Moses.
DIED FROM A SUDDEN VIRAL ONSLAUGHT
Garrison tore around the write up and raised his brows before stuffing the paper in his shirt pocket. The waitress returned but kept her distance as she rattled off the desert selection. Garrison ordered the tapioca pudding with whipped cream and nuts. He nixed any thoughts about asking her for directions to the Campbell place.
" Excuse me, I'm looking for the Campbell place." The old man next to him, a few days beard growth now stubble on his pasty face, squinted. Then he just stared. " The Campbell place. I have an address of Rawley Road West."
The old man shook his head. " Yeah, cross town. Left at the 76 station. About a mile in."
Garrison held the coffee cup. " You hear anything about a van over turning out here the other night?"
" Nobody seen no van cept Grover."
NOBODY CEPT GROVER. ALL RIGHT, HERE YOU GO, ROY. THIS IS IT. THIS IS THE BIG STORY THAT'S GONNA BAIL YOU OUT. BIG BAD GROVER SAW THE VAN AND NOW BIG BAD GROVER HAS DIED OF SOME MYSTERIOUS, SUDDEN ...
" Grover's dead."
" You tell me, Mister."
Garrison nodded as the waitress brought the green clear bowl full of tapioca and whipped cream. There was a single cherry on top, pierced with a toothpick. He pushed his cold spoon into the whipped cream and tasted the cherry sweetness first. " Grover Moses, right?"
" You gotta be a reporter. Yup. You gotta."
Garrison laughed again as he popped the cherry between his teeth. It was both sweet and bitter. " Yeah, yeah, it was Grover Moses. And he died of the plague, right?"
" Hey I ain't no scientist." He pushed his plate forward, pulled out a wrinkled five-dollar bill and placed it under the corner. Then he stood, looked down at Garrison and pointed. " This here is a mighty small town, mister. If a van tipped over, there damned well would have been somebody who saw it ..."
Garrison finished the tapioca but watched the guy all the way out to his truck under the glowing neon sign. That old man just made the most valid point he had heard thus far. With all the open space and the tiny town population, why did only Grover Moses see that van? He wiped his faced with the paper napkin. Was this a fluke or was he onto something up in this little nowhere town?
The old man's directions were perfect. Garrison turned at the illuminated orange and blue 76 station sign and headed along a narrow, half paved road to the north. No street lights were out here, but his headlights bounced across the rocky valley floor ahead. The weathered board fences led directly to a long, metal cross cut gate, which had to be opened manually. The smooth rock and wood post house was built on two levels up the hill. There were a number of expensive cars parked near the barn out front.
Garrison cut the motor and got out quickly. The air was cold and silent as he crossed the barnyard to the wide farmer's porch, protruding from the stone facade. A single porch light was left burning. He had told these people he might first go to his brother's San Louis Obispo house, but Richard was busy at his restaurant. Mrs. Campbell was surprised when he called two hours ago and said he was popping in. Discrepancies came out when people were caught off guard. This was one story Hobson would demand he get right.
He thought about returning to the car for his jacket, but opted to cross the porch planks to the wood door. The quietness bothered him as he looked back toward the MG and the barn. He turned, lifted the heavy eagle brass knocker and banged the tarnished striking plate several times.
Half a minute later, a thin man in a red plaid shirt answered the door. He had a kind face, big brown eyes and a look of recognition. " You, Garrison?"
" I am he."
" Ed Campbell. Come on in, my wife's been waiting for you. We thought you were going to San Louis Obispo first."
Garrison had to think, as he stepped into glossy, varnished log foyer, whether this was the beginning of an important story or just another excursion to a small town with large imaginations. The place smelled like cedar chips. " Nice house you have here, Mr. Campbell. What do you do?"
" I work for the railroad. My wife is a lawyer here in town. Handles all the hard luck cases you might say."
Mrs. Campbell appeared in the knotty pine dining room to the left. She was a tall woman with permed brown hair and wore a denim shirt and jeans, a thick silver necklace. Garrison figured she was forty, younger than Campbell and still attractive. She had a soothing smile as she walked around a long family style pine table.
Garrison felt as if he should take off his cap. She extended her thin hand and her green eyes became intense. " Mr. Garrison, I had thought you-"
" Would be in San Louis Obispo. My brother got tied up."
" Then we'll give him another copy," said Ed and she nodded.
" Copy of what?"
" Not important now. See, I think time is of the essence. I haven't called you up here, away from you job and your home, because of a frivolous accusation."
" Got me off the hook from my creditors."
" What was that?" she asked.
" Nothing. Just a personal thing."
" Most of the press people I've called have written me off as a prankster. A left wing nut lawyer who defends the dredges of society."
" Credibility problem."
" Maybe." She motioned him into the dining room. A teenage boy with headphones dangling to a CD player asked her something and then left. Garrison handed her his card, containing all his relevant phone numbers.
She looked down the handwritten numbers and nodded. They sat down in the dimly lit room. On the wall was a huge map of the area and a large green arrow pointing to an area outside of town. " We have a problem, Mr. Garrison. A man in this town died of Viral Endoplasmic Disease. We had some people from the CDC fly in from Georgia."
" I talked to them."
" Cover-up." said Campbell.
" You think so?" asked Garrison.
Mrs. Campbell half closed her eyes and pushed her thin lips together. This woman looked as if she was under pressure. She moved her head slowly from side to side, veered over to the map and extended her index finger onto the arrow.
" There was a van that tipped over right here. At two-thirty am, April 15. The one witness who saw it is dead."
Garrison raised his thick brows. " I read that-"
" He died of Viral Endoplasmic disease!"
" You're talking about Grover, right?"
" Yes. Grover Moses."
" The CDC said there was nothing to suggest that VED out there," said Garrison.
" Somebody's pressuring them," said Ed.
Garrison moved the chair back, stood and walked over to the map. The arrow pointed at a flat area with no houses or buildings. He aligned his thumb and index finger to the scale of miles and set them on the map. This spot was six and a half miles out of town. " Okay, I'm game. Prove this thing to me, you're a lawyer."
She looked at her husband. Up close, the tension was visible across her pudgy cheeks. " Moses saw the overturned truck when he was coming back from work. There's a borax facility sixteen miles up the highway. He left work at two. He spotted the van and got out. There was a man standing with an AK-47 who warned him very calmly to stay away. He used the words, ` It's too late for me. Don't you get it ...'"
Garrison was not sure that Moses had told her the truth.
" Then what happened to the van, Mrs. Campbell?"
Her eyes opened and her hands moved around as she spoke. Garrison noticed she was breathing rapidly. " Grover naturally complied. He went back to his car and drove on. But as he passed the overturned truck, he noticed something in the rear view mirror."
" Military vehicles. Two of them. So he stops. He sees these guys dressed in white plastic leap out of the trucks. They shoot the first guy with the AK-47 and load his body on the truck. They spray something and then surround the whole thing with a massive plastic tent."
Garrison was beginning to doubt the story. Her shaking hands and twitchy right eye made him suspicious. He sat down at the table again as she continued.
" They begin taking wrapped canisters out of the plastic tent and brought them inside the first truck."
Campbell leaned to Garrison and tapped his arm. " This is the incredible thing."
Garrison nodded and looked back at Mrs. Campbell.
" Then they spray the tarp and the van again with some kind of aerosol. Grover wasn't sure. He told me they removed the tarp, put it in the truck. Then the second truck moves the van inside. They close up the tractor-trailer and leave the way they came. What do you think of that, Mr. Garrison?"
" Well, I don't know what the hell to think. If CDC came in here and went out there ..."
" Yes, they would find nothing as far as the VED. But I've had the charred remains tested. There are traces of Mortoxin, a highly deadly chemical. "
" Then tell them."
" They want disease, they don't want chemicals."
Garrison sat again, propping his elbows up on the pine table. He tightened the crow's feet around his eyes and pushed his bottom lip into his teeth. " But he died of VED, correct?"
Mrs. Campbell, her presentation over, sat down. She nodded her head, leaned back in the creaky chair and exhaled. " You don't under-stand, Mr. Garrison. We have other proof that can undermine everything CDC is saying."
" I understand."
" You don't believe it, do you?"
" Well, it sounds plausible. What I require is that proof. You have one dead witness and secondly, why would some van be carrying VED along the highway?"
" Obviously, it was the military. Moses saw the military trucks. They cleaned it up and got out." She stood and pushed her fingers back through her curly hair. " Listen, that's the story. If you don't want to look into it. Then don't. I've said my piece."
" I didn't say I didn't want to look into it, Mrs. Campbell. I just said I need the proof. I can't go writing off on a tangent without proof."
" Yes, I know."
She looked at her husband and he turned to Garrison. " Mr. Garrison, I'm a railroad man. I've got ten more years and I collect my pension. I'm the last guy who wants to open this can of worms."
Garrison wanted a cigarette.
Mrs. Campbell looked Garrison in the eye. " What I've accumulated is on my computer. It is significant enough to get you going in the right direction."
" Let me get my tape recorder," said Garrison.
Mrs. Campbell's face was tense. " Okay, get your recorder, Mr. Garrison. I thought you had a computer."
" Back in my office I do." He looked at them standing before a huge rock fireplace before he returned to the car. " I intend to go forward with this story if I have proof, but ..."
" But?" asked Campbell.
" But I have to be sure of what I'm doing. A van tips over, maybe a military van. VED is spread into the desert near a town. Somebody's going to elaborate lengths to cover this up."
Lynette nodded. " Oh, I know that very well."
" Okay, let me get my recorder. Just don't expect things to be printed in my column until I'm damned sure of what I'm doing."
" Mr. Garrison, you'll have a copy of-"
" I'll be right back."
He did not even the hear the sound of peepers or a barking dog as he stepped onto the farmer's porch. He crossed the yard to his car, parked adjacent to the barn, and opened the door. For a moment he sat, staring at the red metal barn facade and grasped his recorder.
WELL, ROY, THIS THING IS GETTING INTERESTING AND YOU'RE DEFINITELY GETTING SUCKED INTO IT. THIS WOMAN ALSO HAS INFORMATION ON HER PC. YOU NEED A COPY OF THE CD ALONG WITH YOUR OWN NOTES. THIS STORY MIGHT BE YOUR BIG BREAK. THE WHOLE WORLD WOULD WANT TO KNOW IF THESE BASTARDS FROM THE MILITARY WERE SPILLING VED ON THE HIGHWAYS.
He held his recorder near his mouth and clicked the record button. The stillness of the night clashed with the developing story. " Okay&ldots; these are the notes recorded at the Campbell house, April ninth. The woman claims that one man, Grover Moses, died from VED contracted from an overturned van outside of town. She further says that the military cleaned up the mess, killed a soldier and drove the whole thing away in a large tractor-trailer. All military vehicles." Garrison pushed off the button and wondered what else he should add.
" This woman is a lawyer and probably left wing. She-"
A bright flash cut the darkness and halted his dictation. The light was followed by an intense rumble, the car rolled, and was lifted. Garrison's bones were shaken and the rear window was pulverized by a raft of debris. He was thrown to the floor and dropped the recorder as a secondary blast rocked the car.
He looked upward. The barn's red aluminum sheets were covered with an intense, wavy orange light. After another sharp blast, he ducked down again and waited for the explosions to end. He tried not to think of the Campbells inside the house. Covering his head as the minutes passed, he heard a fire crackling. He held the passenger door handle and slowly pulled himself up over the side window.
Flames flickered brightly over the dirt and along the barn. Through the open rear window heat pushed inward like a desert breeze at midday. A central fire emanated from the few remaining glowing and charred vertical timbers, against the night sky. Sparks snapped, spun and rose in huge stream bursts into the darkness.
Garrison sat up and grasped the driver's side handle. He moved the lever and kicked it open with his heel. Then he backed out of the car and placed his feet securely on the ground. He held the open window and stared aimlessly at the carnage. Shielding his eyes with both hands, he took a few steps toward the heat. Even the farmer's porch was obliterated. Then he sprinted away from the inferno.
Sirens sounded back toward the main road and bright blue and red lights darted across the fields. The headlights approached near the Campbell's entrance road, police cruisers moved rapidly through the gate, and skidded into the yard. All the doors popped in unison and a slew of cops descended upon him.
Copyright c 2000
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