Terra Bella
by Robert A. Stevens

.......Lloyd Burch fondled a clump of earth the way another man might caress a woman's breast. As he stood, he dusted his hands off on the legs of his faded denim overalls.

......."Mildred done run off with the hired man," he said, squinting in the afternoon sun. "I don't know what more I can say."

.......He turned his head to follow my gaze over his shoulder. A slender young man worked a hoe in the soil a dozen yards behind the old man.

......."Not him. He's just some kid I took on a couple days ago, just showed up out of the blue." He turned his face back to me. "Don't know if he'll make it. He's kinda puny. City kid. Not used to hard work."

.......The old rancher stood almost six feet tall, with a bald freckled scalp between ears that looked like they'd flap in a good wind.

.......I looked around at the surrounding orange grove, limbs heavy with ripening fruit, citrus aroma perfuming the San Joaquin Valley air.

......."I imagine this place takes a lot of work," I said. "How many acres you got here?"

.......He pulled a little cloth sack from a breast pocket and poured a measure of flake tobacco onto a brown cigarette paper, then pulled the pouch's drawstring closed with his teeth while rolling the smoke with the fingers of his free hand. "Seventy acres planted." He licked the edge of the thin paper and used both hands to smooth the cigarette out, then set it in the corner of his mouth, and lit it with a kitchen match that he struck with his thumbnail. "Got two working wells," he said proudly. The cigarette didn't move.

.......The young hired hand moved out of sight among the trees

* * * * *

.......A week earlier, I'd stopped by the office of David Collier, a realtor in my home town of Ojai, California, responding to his voicemail that he had a missing person case for the Mackey and Son Agency.

......."It's my mother," he said. "She's been married for the last seventeen years to an orange rancher up in the San Joaquin Valley." He looked at me intently through green eyes below prematurely sparse red hair. I guessed his age as two or three years shy of thirty.

.......I nodded to show interest, and settled back in my chair on the visitor side of his desk.

......."A couple of weeks ago, Mom called me. Said she had a suitcase packed beneath the bed, and she was leaving him. She said she hated him and couldn't take it anymore. Now she's gone."

......."Well, there you go," I said. "It sounds like she left on her own volition."

......."That's what the sheriff said. But I'm not buying it. I haven't heard a word from her. It's not like Mom to just take off without telling me. She'd want me to know she was all right."

......."Do you have any siblings, a brother or sister she might have gone to?"

......."No, there's just me. And thanks to Lloyd she hasn't got any friends. That's his name, Lloyd Burch."

......."I'll run some databank searches. If that doesn't turn her up, I'll take a little ride up there and ask around." I pushed my chair back and stood. "How will I find the place?"

......."It's a couple miles outside a little town called Terra Bella, about forty-five miles north of Bakersfield. Just ask around up there, any of the locals can direct you to the Burch place."

.......Collier handed me an envelope containing his mother's vitals--date of birth, social and driver's license numbers, a photo of a dark-haired, middle-aged woman with large eyes and a tight mouth, and a retainer check.

.......Back home, I logged onto the computer and started a routine locate search through various private research sites, public records and newspaper files. Until recently, I'd sub'd the computer work out, but my son and partner, Jared, had finally talked me into buying a desktop model for our home office. Then he'd started making noises about laptops, wi fi, and what-not. I'd explained that we were private investigators, not computer jockeys, which meant we gathered information by looking people in the eye and asking questions.

....... "Office work is office work and field work is field work, " I'd told him. "The day I need some electronic gadget to do my field work is the day I hang up my magnifying glass. " I had to admit, though, the thing did come in handy for preliminary research and writing reports.

.......The only thing of interest I turned up that day was that Lloyd Burch had recently placed an ad in the local paper for ranch help. I printed that one and set it aside. Then I called the Tulare County Sheriff's substation in Porterville.

......."My name's Mackey," I told the sergeant on duty. "I'm a private investigator in Ventura County. A man named Collier's hired me to find his mother, a Mildred Burch."

......."Good. Maybe now he'll start calling you, leave us alone. The man's been a pain in the ass."

......."Do you have any idea where his mother might be?"

......."She told her son she was gonna run away, and now she's done it. End of story."
......."Did you talk to her husband?"

......."Sure. He thinks she ran off with his ranch hand. Wouldn't be the first time a lonely wife lit out with some muscular young drifter."

......."Did you check it out?"

......."Guy's name was Hector Ramirez. Showed up in the area a few months ago, went to work on the Burch ranch for room and board and a little tequila money. Hasn't been seen around since the old lady split. No paper trail. Probably illegal. We get a lot of them around here. Agricultural workers. They come and go. Mostly keep to themselves."

......."I have some local work to wrap up," I said, "and I have to wait for the results of searches I've ordered from a couple of information brokers. After that, I'll probably head up your way and check around a little."

......."No problem. Just try not to make too much of a nuisance of yourself. Folks around here are pretty friendly, like to have someone new to talk to, but they're not used to big city PIs poking around."

.......I'd never heard Ojai referred to as a big city before, but I let it go.

* * * * *

.......Once I was satisfied that I wouldn't find Mildred Burch from the comfort of my home office, I packed my saddlebags and pointed my Harley Road King north, toward Bakersfield and beyond. The ride up through California's agricultural heartland was glorious, and I took my time, leaving the main highway occasionally to drift through the countryside, admiring the abundance of cattle ranches, citrus groves and olive orchards.

.......After asking directions to the Burch place in the little hamlet of Terra Bella, I rode the two miles south to the Burch ranch, where I found Lloyd Burch at work among his oranges.

.......I introduced myself and explained the reason for my visit, including the identity of my client.

.......The old man eyed my leather jacket and boots. "Was that your Harley I heard a few minutes ago? "

....... "Sure was. Far as I'm concerned, it's the only way to travel. "

....... "I had me one'a them when I was a young man. " For just a moment, he got a far away look in his eyes. "Sometimes I miss them days. "

....... "It's never too late to enjoy the freedom of the road. "

.......He shrugged is sinewy shoulders. "Naw, I'm much too old for that kinda nonsense. Besides, this ranch takes up all my time. "

While the rancher agreed to cooperate with my investigation, he did express the opinion that his step-son was wasting his money.

......."Course, that was always one of David's specialties, throwin' money away. Many's the time Mildred's had to bail that kid outta one kinda fix or another 'cause of his get-rich schemes. Anything to avoid good old-fashioned hard work." He squatted to scoop up a clump of soil.

* * * * *

.......The old man drew deeply on his hand-rolled cigarette, and invited me to accompany him to his house, a one-story stucco and frame rectangle. I'd parked my Harley on the hard-packed dirt driveway between the house and the simple wooden garage. The rear end of an old brown station wagon peeked out through the open garage door.

.......Burch scraped the soles of his boots off on the edge of a square of metal set into the concrete of a small stoop beside the back door. He led me into a tiled pantry, walls laden with preserves and canned fruits and vegetables. An old-fashioned mangle rested against one wall.

.......I followed him into the kitchen, where he washed his hands at the sink beneath a window from which I could see the garage and a woodpile. While I watched, a small brown rabbit scurried out of the woodpile, sniffed the air, and disappeared back beneath the chopped lumber.

......."Cute," I said, nodding toward the wood.

......."Yeah. There's a whole family of cotton-tails living in the woodpile. Mildred liked to watch 'em while she worked at the sink.

......."She always wanted to have an oil well out there, where she could watch it pump money. We even had a couple drilled, but all we ever struck was sulfur water."

.......He plucked two ceramic mugs from a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, rinsed them under the tap, and filled them from a cold coffee pot on the stove before heating them in a microwave on the counter. I declined his offer of cream and sugar.

.......I followed him into a small sitting room, where he sank into a cordovan leather chair beside a book-lined wall. I eased into a smaller green upholstered wingchair with white crocheted doilies on the arms.

.......While I pretended to enjoy the bitter coffee, Burch rolled and lit another of his brown cigarettes. I had noticed that outside he never removed the smoke from his lips, letting the ash accumulate and fall down the front of his clothes. But in the house, he carefully tapped the ashes into a brass ashtray on a wooden stand beside his armchair.

......."I'd offer you a real drink, but I don't keep strong spirits in the house."

......."That's okay." I nodded in the direction of the driveway. "I never drink when I'm riding, anyway."

.......He told me his wife had been a good cook and a fair housekeeper.

.......He'd hired Hector Ramirez after Ramirez had dropped by the ranch house looking for work.

......."My last man had quit about a week before. It's hard to keep good help. Lazy bunch. They work for a couple or three months, then light out."

......."Isn't this a pretty large spread for just two men? Who picks the oranges?" I asked.

......."Two's plenty. Come harvest time, the packer sends in crews to pick and truck the fruit out."

.......Burch said he provided his hands with a room attached to the shed where he kept his tractors and tools.

......."Then one day I came in from the grove, and found Mildred gone. No note. No explanation. That wasn't like her, to take off like that. But then, who knows what any woman's liable to do?"

.......He had checked the bedroom, and found some of his wife's clothes were missing from the bureau and closet. When he went out to the helper's quarters, he discovered it cleaned out, so he assumed Hector and his wife'd left together.

......."Did either of them have a car?" I asked.

......."No. They must've had someone pick 'em up."

.......I asked Burch if I could take a look at his wife's things.

......."Sure. Look around all you like," he said, standing up and finishing his coffee. "I got to get back to work. Can't waste the light." He ground his butt out in the ashtray. "Just close the door when you leave."

.......As I roamed around the house, I noted a layer of dust covering virtually every surface. In the master bedroom, I dropped to my knees and checked beneath the bed. No suitcase. I found nothing of interest in that bedroom, a smaller guest room or the house's only bathroom, just Burch's clothes and a few items of women's apparel and some toiletries. No jewelry. I found no luggage anywhere.

.......A floral printed couch and a couple of straight-backed upholstered chairs faced a television set in the living room. Crocheted doilies decorated the arms and backs of the furniture, just like the ones in the study. Framed needlepoint pictures hung on the walls, and a couple of colorful hooked rugs broke up the monotony of the hardwood floor. Mildred Burch was a better housekeeper than her husband gave her credit for, but he was obviously harsh in his appraisal of workers, including his wife. Judging by the dishes in the sink and the coating of dust on virtually all the surfaces in the house, it looked like he'd soon need to hire a housekeeper.

.......A framed photograph of my client sat atop a small writing desk against a wall beside a brick fireplace. The desk drawers yielded a slender address book with my client's address and phone number, and those of a few women in Porterville. I tucked that in my pocket.

.......I found a half-empty pint bottle of Jim Beam bourbon in the toilet tank, and another on a shelf in the pantry, tucked away behind some cans of peaches. Following a narrow wooden stairway down from the pantry, I came to a cellar with more canned goods and a large wooden frame on which I guessed the living room rugs had been hooked. I also found two full Jim Beam bottles behind some jars of marmalade. It appeared that Mildred Burch was a secret drinker. Based on her husband's comment about strong spirits, I understood her need to hide her stash. But I wondered why she didn't take it with her when she left.

.......As I rode away from the Burch ranch, in my rearview mirrors I spotted Burke's skinny young helper, stepping out into the road from among the trees to watch my departure. He raised a hand to push a few stray strands of his longish brown hair off his face, and then slipped back into the grove.

.......I cruised the neighborhood, occasionally stopping to ask questions of nearby ranchers. The locals described Mildred Burch as a pleasant woman, and her husband as hard-working. I got the impression both were considered high praise in this area. I hit pay dirt at a poultry farm about a mile down the road from the Burch Ranch.

.......A plump middle-aged woman opened her screen door in response to my knocking. She identified herself as Gretchen Hobbs, and said her husband was out tending to his chickens. Glancing in the direction she'd indicated with a sweep of her left hand, I saw a husky blond man of about twenty or so walk out of sight around the corner of a large corrugated iron structure.

......."That's my son, Donny," she said, following my gaze. "Home from ag school. He goes to Cal Poly, over in San Luis Obispo," she added with obvious pride.

......."Are you acquainted with Mildred Burch?" I asked.

......."Oh, sure. Mildred stopped in here regular to buy eggs on her way home from picking up her mail at the post office in Terra Bella."

.......When I showed her my ID and told her I had been hired to find Mrs. Burch, the woman invited me into her home, evidently welcoming the chance to share some gossip.

....... “I been expectin' you. A couple of neighbor ladies called and said some private eye on a motorbike was roamin' around asking questions about Mildred. " The rural grapevine at work.

.......Mrs. Hobbs apparently didn't think much of air conditioning. I had to peel off my leather jacket before sitting on one of the soft chairs in her living room. She had enough furniture shoved in there for three rooms that size. Photos and knickknacks adorned every available space. Most of the photographs appeared to be of the young man I'd spotted outside showing him at various ages.

.......Mrs. Hobbs left me in the living room, and when she returned she placed a tray with tea and sugar cookies on top of a stack of tabloid papers littering her coffee table. After pouring tea, she plopped onto a platform rocker.

.......I sipped tepid tea from a tiny porcelain cup and balanced a cookie on a saucer while the woman told me about her missing neighbor.

......."Mildred met Lloyd through an ad he ran in the newspaper, looking for a housekeeper. When she applied for the job, he told her he expected a lot more of her than just cookin' and dustin,' if you know what I mean." She blushed, and re-stacked the little cookies on their plate to hide her embarrassment.

......."Well, she told him she wasn't havin' none of that unless he'd agree to marry her, an' bring her boy to live with them on his ranch." Her chins wobbled with indignation.

......."Up to then, Mildred'd had a pretty hard time of it, a widow with a son to raise. After her first husband died, she traveled around the country pickin' up jobs as a waitress or short order cook wherever she could. She couldn't earn enough to feed and clothe herself and David, so she'd find him a job doin' chores on a farm or ranch in exchange for his bed and meals. She'd'a married the devil himself to get David and her into a decent home together. And that's darn near what she did." She blushed again before going on in a softer voice, almost a whisper. "Mildred once said, speaking in confidence doncha know, that Lloyd once told her he came to this country from Canada 'cause he was wanted for killin' somebody up there."

.......Some people don't need any encouragement to tell their stories, so I held my peace, only uttering occasional grunts to show her I was listening.

......."Anyways, she married Lloyd Burch, and moved herself and David onto his ranch. Soon as he was old enough, though, the boy run off. Couldn't stand any more of. Heard he was quick with a switch, and expected anyone livin' on his place to earn their keep.

......."But David kept in touch with his mama, though, over the years. After he growed all the way up, he even came to visit now and again."

.......I didn't seem to be getting anything that I couldn't have learned from my client, so I interrupted to get my hostess back on track.

......."From the various people I've talked to, I'm getting the impression Mrs. Burch didn't have much of a social life off the ranch."

......."And that's the truth. For the first ten or twelve years, she'd go into Porterville, or even up to Visalia from time to time. Then Lloyd Burch put his foot down, and wouldn't let her go nowhere no more but into Terra Bella to pick up the mail and some groceries at the little store down there. Jealous he was, though Mildred never had any truck with any men. Lloyd was sure she was off with some man or other anytime she was off the land. For that matter, he accused her of foolin' around with any salesman or delivery man come round the place. It wasn't out of love, neither. To him, he was just protecting his property. That's what she was to him, property. The only thing that man ever loved was that ranch."

.......I put my own cup aside, and moved to the edge of my chair. "Did you ever know Mrs. Burch to drink?" I whispered.

.......She leaned forward, and looked around the room before speaking, as though expecting someone to jump out from behind a potted plant.

......."She did, and it's no wonder. Mildred said that man was a Satyr."

......."You mean . . . ?"

......."That's right. Every night. And some days he'd even come in from the grove in the middle of the afternoon. It drove poor Mildred to drinkin' is what it did. Why, she took to walking around that house all day with a teacup full of bourbon, never knowing when Lloyd Burch was gonna pop in and want . . . You know." She blushed again, then slid back on the couch, a satisfied look on her face. "She had to hide it from him, though. Lloyd Burch don't hold no truck with alcohol."

......."Do you have any idea where she might be now?"

......."None. The last time I talked with her, she said she didn't know how much more she could stand. But she didn't know what to do. She said Lloyd Burch would kill her if she ever tried to leave him. And he prob'ly would've, too."

.......Upon leaving the Hobbs house, I turned toward the chicken coops, planning to interview the young agriculture student, but his mother stepped quickly off the porch, blocking my path.

......."Where you headed?" she asked, her tone suddenly approaching hostility.

......."I just thought I might talk to your son for a minute."

......."Donny's got chores to do," she said, her voice rising an octave. "He ain't got no time for jawin' with no private eyes."

......."I just want to ask him a couple of questions." I tried to step around the woman, but she blocked me again, moving faster than I would have thought her capable of.
......."Donny don't know nothin' about Mildred Burch or where she run off to. Like I said, he's off at school most of the year, and when he's home he keeps to this ranch and minds his business."

.......Just then the subject of our argument appeared around the corner of the iron building, and walked quickly to where we stood in front of the house.

......."What's the matter, Ma? This guy bothering you?"

.......Dressed in blue jeans and a soiled white T-shirt, the young man stood about five-ten. He obviously spent a lot of time lifting weights at that agriculture school. He wore his blond hair cut short, and glared at me through blue eyes.

......."I'm a private investigator," I said, flipping open my ID case, "looking into the disappearance of your neighbor, Mrs. Burch."

......."I told him you don't know nothin' about where Mildred's got off to," Mrs. Hobbs interjected.

......."That's right," the young man said. "I don't hang out with old ladies or Mexicans, so there's nothin' I can tell you. Now get the hell off our land."

....... "That's right,” his mother added. “Get the hell off our land."

.......As I began to throw my leg over my bike, Donny Hobbs said, "And we'd appreciate it if you'd walk that thing back out to the road. Can't have you scaring the chickens. "

.......I thought of various responses, but it actually seemed like a reasonable request, so I started pushing my Harley down the driveway toward the road. I glanced back just in time to see the young man turn toward the house, and spotted the top half of an Aryan Brotherhood tattoo peeking over the collar of his sweat-stained tee. Cal-Poly my ass.

.......I spent the rest of that day and all of the next in Porterville chatting up the former members of Mildred Burch's bridge club. I learned nothing new, just that she'd stopped showing up seven or eight years ago. At first she'd claimed illness or other business had kept her away, but the women all knew it was because of her husband's jealousy that she'd stopped coming to town. They'd finally stopped asking her.

* * * * *

.......The following morning, I returned to Terra Bella, and parked my bike a mile or so from the Burch ranch, then hiked across a field to where I could keep an eye on the place without attracting attention. The roar of my Harley's straight pipes carried a long way in this country air.

.......My vigil was finally rewarded. The brown station wagon wheeled out from the garage and headed toward Terra Bella. Lloyd Burch was presumably going for the mail and supplies.

.......I walked among the trees following a motor's noise until I came onto a yellow Caterpillar tractor pulling a tool that broke up the soil with large disc blades. Seated atop the Cat was Burch's young ranch hand, one leg thrown over a fender, reading a comic book and munching on a juicy orange he'd probably plucked from a tree.

......."Workin' hard, huh?"

.......The lanky youth brought his tractor to a halt and jumped to the ground, holding his hands up to show me the blisters dotting his palms.

......."No shit. Next time you be the ranch hand and I'll be the private eye."

.......I stepped forward to stand beside my son Jared in the shade of the big tractor.

......."So what have you learned?"

......."The man's nuts, Dad. All he does is work. Do you know he eats exactly the same thing every day? For breakfast it's poached eggs, a slice of whole wheat toast and coffee. At noon, we have a slab of salami, whole wheat bread, cottage cheese and a canned peach. He said his wife used to cook him meat and potatoes for dinner, but now that she's gone, guess what we eat."

......."What?" I asked, trying not to smile. It was hard to appear serious while picturing my son the vegetarian eating a rancher's idea of a proper meal. Jared couldn't object because his preference for tofu and bean sprouts might have aroused the old man's suspicions.

......."Every night he mixes a can of beef stew with a can of chili, and heats it on the stove. He just left for Terra Bella to pick up a couple of cases of the stuff.

......."The only break we've had was when a neighbor lady brought over some pancakes yesterday morning, but she ruined those by pouring sorghum on them. Do you know what sorghum tastes like, Dad?" He rushed on without waiting for me to respond this time. "Honey mixed with cough syrup." He whipped off his faded green baseball cap and threw it on the ground in disgust.

......."This neighbor lady," I asked. "Was it Mrs. Hobbs, the chicken farmer's wife?"

......."Yeah. She brought some eggs with the pancakes."

......."Did she do anything else while she was here?"

......."Yeah, she did some laundry and cleaned up my little room. It's a good thing, too, because I was sleeping on top of the blankets. You should have seen the sheets. They were a mess, all stained with some kind of brown grease and what looked like black paint."

.......Mrs. Hobbs must have come over on her mission of mercy the day after I'd stopped by her place. Funny, I'd gotten the impression she wasn't all that fond of Burch.

......."Why don't you show me this room of yours."

.......As we neared a clearing in the trees, a wooden barn-like structure came into view, and off to one side a smaller cinderblock building with frosted windows.

......."What's that?" I asked, nodding toward the low gray bunker.

......."I don't know. It's all locked up, so I haven't gotten a look inside. It smells awful, though. Like rotten eggs."

.......Circling the building, I observed some small grated openings up high in the walls, beneath the eaves of the slate roof. After examining the heavy padlock securing the only door, I sent Jared to the tool shed for a set of bolt cutters.

.......After snapping the lock I swung the heavy wooden door wide, then held out my arm to block Jared's rush toward the interior.

......."Don't go inside," I said. I took a quick look around in the light from the door before pushing it shut. "Get on your cell phone, and call the sheriff. You'd better tell him to bring a HazMat team."

......."Somebody must've had a hell of a cold," he said with a smirk, before pulling his phone from his pocket, and stepping away to dial. Jared had obviously seen the stacks of over-the-counter cold medications, as had I. I suspected he also knew they weren't being used to cure the sniffles.

* * * * *

.......Through the trees we saw two of the sheriff's cruisers pull into the driveway beside the house. Jared went off to lead the deputies to the clearing, while I stayed to guard the bunker.

.......Burch's station wagon followed the police cars, and it was in turn followed by a white van. Two technicians in white jumpsuits stepped from the van, and trailed the rancher and four deputies in khaki uniforms.

.......I stepped forward to shake hands with a burly sergeant with a stiff gray brush-cut.
"I'm Mackey, the private investigator," I said.

......."Hello, Mackey. Sergeant Winic. I talked to you on the phone last week. You've been busy." He looked at Jared. "And who's this?"

......."This is my son and partner, Jared. He's been working undercover here on the ranch."

.......Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Burch closing in on us. He frowned in reaction to my words. "What the hell's going on here? What are all these people doing on my land?"

.......He strode past me to the sergeant. "Sergeant, I demand an explanation. " Then out of apparent frustration, he swung to point a bony finger at Jared. "And you're fired."

....... "Try to calm down, Mr. Burch,” I said. “I can explain everything. "

....... "Well, somebody better have an explanation, and fast." He crossed his lanky arms, momentarily mollified, but still flushed.

.......I turned back to the sergeant, "Follow me," I said. "I want to show you something." I led him around to the door of the bunker, and pulled the door wide for him to look inside. He surveyed the interior with its stacks of cold remedies, Epsom salts, red phosphorous, iodine, and other chemicals. A counter along one wall held a camp stove, cans of fuel and chemical heat producers. Wooden planks covered a large portion of the concrete flooring.

.......I turned to Lloyd Burch, who stood between two of the deputies, craning to see past the sergeant and myself.

......."What is this place?" I asked the rancher.

......."I told you we struck sulfur water. It was naturally heated. Mildred had heard about people goin' to spas and soaking in mineral baths for their health. I had a pool dug, and stuck up this building around it so's she'd have privacy. She couldn't swim, though, so I built a little bathtub along one side." He stepped toward the door. "Here, I'll show you. I just put those planks down so no one would fall in. Mildred didn't use it much after the first year, or so. I guess the novelty wore off."

......."I don't think you want to do that," I said, blocking the entrance.

......."Why not? What the hell's going on here?"

......."Someone's set up a meth lab in there," Jared said.

......."A meth lab?" Burch said. "You mean drugs? On my land? Way out here?"

......."It's a growing problem in rural areas," Sergeant Winic said. "They even set up mobile labs, moving them between abandoned barns and sheds. Since the chemicals and equipment's cheap and readily available, they just leave everything behind when they move on. "Makes it harder to catch them."

......."This place was perfect," I said. "It had frosted windows, and the rotten egg smell of the sulfur would mask any ether or ammonia odors from the lab."

......."What's with all the cold pills?" Burch asked, straining to look over my shoulder.

......."The cold tablets are processed to produce ephedrine," I explained, "a key element of methamphetamine."

.......Sergeant Winic walked slowly around the building, noting the frosted windows and ventilation slots. "Wonder how they found this place," he said upon his return to the entrance. "It's not visible from the road, and nasty as the smell is, it doesn't carry all the way out there. Like I said, they mostly like places that look abandoned, and this is obviously a working ranch. It'd almost have to be someone local."

.......I turned to Lloyd Burch. "How well do you know Donny Hobbs?"

......."Donny? Haven't laid eyes on him in ten years or more. He used to come around sometimes when Mildred's boy, David, lived on the place. Last I heard he was off at some ag college."

.......I turned to Sergeant Winic. "That's not exactly true, is it?"

......."Not really." He looked thoughtful. "He's been away, but not at any agricultural college. He was going to junior college down in Bakersfield when he fell in with a bad lot. Wound up doing time." Understanding dawned in his eyes. "Some drug beef, as I recall. I'll have to check with the Kern County Sheriff's office. "

.......I turned back to Burch. "Describe your last hired hand, the one you thought ran off with your wife."

......."Just a Mexican. Husky fella. Had a little scar on his chin."

......."The ranch hand?” Sergeant Winic asked. "I'm confused. You were talking about Donny Hobbs, and now you're asking about Hector Ramirez."

......."Donny Hobbs and Hector Ramirez were the same man," I said. "By masquerading as a hired hand, Donny could easily conceal his activities. Since he lived on the ranch, he could work in here at night without attracting attention coming and going from the ranch. All it took was a little make-up and some hair dye.

......."Donny's mother cleaned the room where he stayed, and he probably wore gloves when he was in the lab, but I bet your men will turn up a print or two."

......."Are you saying Mrs. Hobbs was in on running a meth lab? " Sergeant Winic asked.

......."I'm not saying she was in on it from the beginning, but she certainly knew about it when she came over here and cleaned up the room. Why else would she cook up a meal and do laundry and cleaning for Lloyd Burch, a man she doesn't even like?"

......."Donny took an awful chance," Jared said. "Burch might not have seen through a disguise because he never actually looks directly at a hired man." He threw a scornful look in the direction of his former employer. "They never got any visitors, but Mrs. Burch might have recognized him. She would have shared a table with him at every meal."

......."Mrs. Burch was what you might call impaired," I said. "I suspect she couldn't see much of anything a good part of the time. But you may be right. Maybe she did recognize Donny Hobbs. She might have come here to confront him, find out what he was up to."

.......I opened the door of the cinderblock building. 'Sergeant, may I borrow your flashlight? ' He slipped the flashlight from his belt and handed it to me. I shined it into a far corner.

......."What's that?" he asked. "It looks like an open suitcase with women's clothes in it."

......."I noticed it when I looked in here earlier, but I didn't want to go inside and risk contaminating your crime scene. I'm willing to bet it's Mildred Burch's suitcase," I said, "and those are her clothes."

....... "So you're saying she never actually left the ranch."

....... "That's right. She either came out here because she suspected something was up, or maybe even just to use her pool, and Donny killed her. Then he took the suitcase that she told my client she had packed beneath the bed, and brought it out here, knowing Burch would assume she'd taken off with the ranch hand. He's notorious for his jealousy, so it was a pretty safe bet he'd reach that conclusion. "

.......As the sergeant and I watched from outside, he directed a couple of techs to peel back the boards over the bathtub at the side of the pool, where they exposed a bloated body. I quickly stepped back from the doorway. Even the sulfur smell couldn't completely mask the stench of decomposing flesh.

.......Over the next few hours, the sheriff's techs found a few of Donny Hobbs's fingerprints in the little bedroom attached to the tool shed and even a couple in the bunker. When they arrested Donny, the deputies searched his bedroom in his parents' home. They found hair dye, dark theatrical make-up, brown contact lenses, and the little jar of collodian he had used to form the scar that transformed him into Hector Ramirez.

.......The D.A. worked a deal, trading Mrs. Hobbs's freedom for Donny's confession, and saving the Tulare County taxpayers the expense of a trial.

.......Three weeks later Lloyd Burch drove to Las Vegas, met and married a hooker, and brought her home to live with him on his ranch.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Robert A. Stevens

During a career spanning more than 40 years as a private investigator, manager, and trainer of investigators, Robert A. Stevens has worked cases involving everything from organized crime to murder, and even worked as the investigator for a cruise ship. He served three terms as Los Angeles District Governor of the California Association of Licensed Investigators. A Derringer-nominated author for his short fiction, Stevens is a past-president of Sisters in Crime, Orange County, and of Orange County Fictionaires. He is also a member of Private Eye Writers of America and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. His first book, Through a Private Eye Darkly, is a collection of his published short fiction, as well as his PI columns.

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