A Quiet Undertaking: Chapter One
"How did I get myself into this?"
I wiped a clump of damp bangs from my sweaty forehead with the back of my hand. Hunkered down beside a jagged volcanic rock, I cocked my gun, then low-crawled among the manzanita and Sierra thistle toward the safety of a cluster of trees.
I squatted, waiting; my eyes scanned the underbrush. Nothing moved except a river of perspiration down my chest.
Fear has a way of pushing the senses into overdrive. Suddenly I could see every blade of field grass quake. Feel the relentless pressure of the warm breeze against my overheated body. Smell my floral lotion fighting pungent sweat. Even my saliva tasted different--sticky, salty, sour.
In spite of the density of the blue oaks and needle pines, and the camouflage of the rugged terrain, it was difficult to stay out of the line of fire. And I had lost track of the man who was talking me with a loaded gun in his hand.
Before I could find new cover, I saw something fly past my head, narrowly missing my ear. Ducking flat, I felt my black T-shirt stick to my sweaty skin like a giant Band-Aid.
Damn! How had he spotted me? I'd been careful not to make any noise as I crept through the tangle of shrubs and soft pine needles. Not that I could be certain I hadn't made any sound, being deaf. But it felt like I was quiet. I scanned the overgrown grass, oak trees, and jutting rocks for movement. He was out there. With a gun. Determined to shoot me.
A flicker. I became aware of movement next to one of the big oaks. My heart beat double time as I tried to leap behind a large, spiky bush, praying he didn't see me. The diver onto the rough ground cost me a scraped elbow and knee. My skin burned under my clothes. I rose halfway, panicked, searching for someplace to hide.
A sharp sting pierced the back of my thigh as the impact of the shot knocked me back to the ground. I rolled over in the weeds and dirt, then pushed myself up, my leg searing from the pain. Twisting around, I checked the wound and winced at the sight of a bright red starburst.
"Shit! I'm hit! I'm hit!" I screamed, as I forced myself to stand. I plug the neon orange barrel into the nose of the gun and waved it back and forth, high in the air.
"And no one told me it was going to hurt this much!"
I rubbed the back of my leg where I'd be struck, trying to soothe the smarting skin, but I only managed to spread the sticky crimson color over my hands and my black jeans. Frustrated, I started toward the base, but before I could move more than a few steps, another shot hit me in the back. This one didn't hurt as much, but it pissed me off even more.
"I said I'm hit, you idiot. Knock it off!"
A man wearing camouflage fatigues and a fluorescent red armband waved an apology from the safety of his tree. I couldn't make out who it was, since a mask and eye protectors covered half his face, but I'd remember him. He had to blue circles on the front of his shirt from a previous battle, and I promised myself I'd hunt him down and kill him if it took the rest of the day.
"Did they get you?" Jeff Pike, the teenaged referee standing on the sidelines, waved me in. He and his younger brother hosted the paint ball events every weekend. They both wore holey camouflage T-shirts and baggy cargo pants, along with the orange vest that was the de rigueur for all the paint ball refs. The Day-Glo vests set them apart from the battling teams so they wouldn't be shot inadvertently. I could read Jeff's lips, since he only wore safety goggles, unlike the other players, who sported face masks.
When I reached the base, I removed my face and eye protection. Jeff threw me a towel to wipe off the sweat.
"He shot me in the back!" I said, using the towel to dab at the red paint on my pants. "After I'd already been killed. Is that fair?"
"It was probably an accident. Maybe he didn't know you were shot."
"I waved! I yelled. I stood out in plain view. The guy's an idiot."
Jeff grinned, revealing a wad of chaw and a pierced tongue. He probably got complaints like this all the time from sore losers like me who were shot early in the game. But I was determined to capture that damn flag sometime today--if I had to take out every last member of the opposing team myself.
While the rest of the troops continued without me, I sat on top of a picnic table that overlooked the battleground. As large as a football field, and surrounded by trees, bushes, and rocks, the area had been a popular spot for pain ball games for the last several years. Simmering in the hot California sun, I pushed up my long sleeves and poured water from my plastic bottle on my skinned elbow, then took a few swallows.
Scanning the field, I spotted my teammate and more-than-a-friend, Dan Smith, hiding behind a tree not far from the other team's flag. Although I couldn't see those clear blue eyes and salt-and-pepper beard behind his mask, I recognized his large muscular arms. I'd know those arms anywhere. Gun in hand, he looked ready to make a run for it at the first opportunity.
Sheriff Mercer of Flat Skunk was also clearly visible from my vantage point, crouched on one knee, behind a small rock. I couldn't find his deputy, Marca Clemens, or my office assistant and the sheriff's son, Jeremiah Mercer, but I knew they were somewhere out there, darting around the playing field as they attempted to kill our opponents and bring back our flag.
It didn't look good. We'd already lost two games, and the Flat Skunk Stinkers' star player--that would be me--was out before the battle really began. We had to beat the team from Whiskey Slide or, as I understood it, we'd be buying the brew. I wanted to sign a warning to Dan. He'd learned quite a few signs, although it wasn't second nature to him the way it was for Jeremiah, or Miah for short. But any form of communication from the sidelines was against the rules. "Dead men tell no tales," the ref had cautioned.
Sheriff Mercer stood up suddenly, looking a bit disoriented. He was about to be attacked by a sniper. It was all I could do to keep from yelling, "Look out--behind you!"
But it would have been to late anyway. A splotch of red had already appeared on his camouflage vest.
Sheriff Mercer waved his plugged gun in the air with one hand while he fumbled with something in the other. His cell phone. So much for wartime authenticity.
He lumbered up the grade, removed his mask, and joined me at the picnic table, puffing from lack of regular exercise and sweating from the heat. The sheriff had definitely been off his game. He'd seemed distracted for most of the morning. Even took out one of our own teammates accidentally, at one point.
I'd been worried about the sheriff these past couple of weeks. He'd been off his game at work as well, making small errors, and I wondered if something was up. Then again, maybe it was normal. The man was pushing six, ate way too many pizzas, and the most exercise I'd seen him get was on the playing field today.
As soon as he'd quenched his considerable thirst, he returned to his cell phone, turning his head for better reception. I'd seen other cell phone users do the same thing, and wondered what exactly the problem was. Could the not hear anything when the phone was pointed in certain directions? After turning full circle, he slid off the picnic table and headed over to the base trailer, where the young refs kept the rentable guns, goggles, paint refills, and CO2. I'd once heard a rumor that Jeff and his pals were members of a local paramilitary group. If so, they were naturals for running the pain ball games.
Curious, I watched the sheriff shamble out of sight behind the building. I returned my attention to the game and noticed Dan headed in my direction, his chest sporting a red splatter of paint. He joined me at the table.
"What happened? I missed your death," I said, offering him a last drop from my water bottle.
He said something I couldn't make out, since he still had his mask on. I pulled it off and asked him to repeat what he'd just said.
"Some moron sneaked up behind me. I never heard it coming."
I glanced at him. "That's no excuse. I never hear it coming."
He grinned sheepishly. "Frankly, without being able to hear, I don't know how you lasted as long as you did. Do you have super X-ray vision or something? ESP? A sixth sense I'm not aware of?"
"All deaf people do," I teased. "We know what you're thinking, what you're feeling, and what you want at all times."
"Oh yeah? What do I want right now?"
"You want to have sex on this picnic table."
He laughed, but he didn't deny it. He did, however, squirt me with his bottle of water.
After a brief arm wrestle for the bottle, which almost turned into the previously mentioned sex on the picnic table, we called a truce and returned our attention to the Flat Skunk Stinkers. The Whiskey Slide Wolves seemed to be gaining the upper hand, as Deputy Clemens--sporting two paint blotches--waved her gun in surrender. Still, I had hope. Maybe we were wearing out our opponents, and Miah was still in the game. Then again, maybe we'd just go home hot, tired, sore, and humiliated.
"You didn't tell me those shots would hurt," I said to Dan, rubbing my throbbing leg again.
"What a baby," he teased.
"Am--" I spotted the sheriff heading toward us, still puffing, but now looking grim in addition to tired.
"Sheriff. You don't look so well. Are you alright?"
He ignored me, but that wasn't unusual. Folding the phone, he stood there frowning, then withdrew his notepad and scribbled a few words. Flipping the pad closed, he glanced at me as if he hadn't known I was there.
"Sheriff . . . ?" I repeated.
"Sorry, C.W. Did you say something?" He tucked the notepad in his back pocket and checked his watch.
I rephrased it. "Yes, Sheriff, I asked you what was wrong. Are you sick or something?"
"I'm fine. Just got a lot on my mind."
"Was that bad news?" I nodded toward the phone.
Maybe I was mumbling, or my speech was deteriorating. "I said, did your caller say something unpleasant? You looked upset after that call."
"It was Sheriff Locke, over at Angels Camp."
"What's up?" I hadn't met Peyton Locke, the gold country's first female sheriff, but I could sense Sheriff Mercer had received an important bulletin. Getting information from him, however, was sometimes like pulling gold from a miner's tooth.
"I don't know exactly. She was called out to one of those storage places that people rent when they don't have enough space in their garages to keep all their crap. The woman who rents the compartments found something strange in one of them. Payton wants me to meet her out there."
"Why does she want you? Isn't that her territory?"
"The renter of the storage unit lives on a houseboat on Miwok Lake. That's halfway between Flat Skunk and Angels Camp, so we sort of share the jurisdiction."
"What did she find?" I knew I had only a fifty-fifty chance of getting an answer, depending on the sheriff's mood.
"A bunch of boxes. Cardboard boxes, stacked to the ceiling. The compartment is apparently filled with them."
"What's inside the boxes? Stolen goods? Drugs? Mama Cody's leftover meatloaf?"
He shrugged. "Ants."
At least that's what I thought he said, having no context in which to place the lip-read word. When I repeated it back to him, he shook his head.
"No, not ants. Ash-es," he said, over enunciating. His lips stuck out like a monkey's. "Boxes and boxes of ashes."
"How odd. Why would someone store boxes of ashes?"
The sheriff looked at me, frowning. "Sheriff Locke thinks they cremains."
"Creamins?" Dan repeated.
"Human Remains," I said.
And in spite of the sweltering spring day, I shivered.