General Adminstration Archives - Case 1826 [Ref. No. D1174-517] |
Spinning the heavy wrench on the last lug, then putting it down on the grease-stained concrete, I boosted the wheel off the tire carrier. "You can see the screw head," I remarked to the mechanic at the service station.
...... While she harassed the staff in the Visitors' Center, I studied the big park map, under glass in the shelter by the parkinglot. The lake was less than a quarter of its final anticipated size, and the farther half of the road was marked as a dotted proposed line. Beyond the Visitors' Center began the long line of the dam itself.
...... "And just what section of the Federal government does Special Investigation answer to?" she inquired from behind me.
...... I turned. "It's a civilian agency contract, out of a Washington program office, part of the General Services operation. It's ordered to review anything of interest and to pass along information to whatever branch of the government needs to do something." I gestured toward the building. "Anything new there?"
...... She shook her head. "All's quiet on the lake front. Who signs your paycheck then?" She waved away a persistent gnat, using her large purse as a swatter. It worked well enough.
...... "Robertson Bookkeeping Service, Silver Spring," I answered with a straight face. "Shall we go?"
...... She paused for six seconds, offered an exasperated grin in lieu of a remark, and flounced to the Jeep. A big bee zipped past me, intent on its luncheon, and just missed being lunch to a long-beaked jay which darted from a tree branch. I could sympathize with the bee.
...... "Everything you've said about your job is so general it's meaningless," she complained, settling into the front passenger seat. She yanked at the seatbelt. "It could cover the whole world."
...... Slipping the parking brake, I pushed the selector into Drive. "My job just about does cover the whole world. Figuratively, at least. Anything strange, which might be important. Most of it isn't."
...... I slowed for the decorative covered bridge which crossed the spillway. Only a decorative trickle of water ran down the center of the decorative channel, listlessly meandering around the decorative rocks. It certainly had been built with the tourist trade in mind.
...... "Don't you believe in the people's right to know?" she demanded after a minute's silence. Her blue eyes tended to sparkle whenever she was irritated.
...... "Sure I do." I turned onto the asphalt road which skirted the base of the dam. The tire whine changed pitch and rose with the increasing speed. "I just don't think I have an obligation to satisfy that right. For someone else."
...... The road climbed to meet the lanes which came down from the top of the dam. I checked for traffic, then continued on. In the rearview mirrors the lake stretched out over a shallow gradient, reflecting the almost cloudless blue of the sky. A fifty feet main depth would make for a very large, if shallow, lake on the valley floor.
...... She sighed and leaned back in the seat, turning to look out the open window at the passing scene. Her short hair was tossed about by the slipstream.
...... In another few tenths of a mile, the asphalt stopped at a parking area, but the graded roadway continued on as washboard gravel. Momentarily slowing for the bump, I continued along the proposed section. To the left, a barbwire fence, the remains of someone's farm, dipped forever into the blue of the lake water. In time, it all would be covered.
...... "This's as far as I tried to drive," she suddenly announced. "My little car wasn't up to this road." She opened her purse, dug around, and retrieved a pair of silvered sunglasses.
...... The lake had become a sheen on the horizon. The immediate area was farmland with tree borders and bare fence posts. In the distance, a haphazard pile of weatherbeaten lumber was all that remained of some small building. Far beyond that, the tree-covered hills rolled away in soft undulations.
...... "We'll go all the way around. Not that I expect to find anything."
...... "If this is representative, you must have a very boring job," she remarked, looking back at the terrain. "Whatever it is," she added, acidly.
...... "Luckily, I like to drive. And see new places. I meet quite a few interesting people, present company included."
...... The roadway had begun to circle, now running parallel to the distant dam. Next to it, tiny in the distance, a bare concrete gate tower stood high out of the water. Within a few more tenths, the tires bumped up a concrete ledge, an extension of the new bridge which crossed the feed creek. I stopped at the center for a long look around. High above, a plane drew a straight white contrail across the sky.
...... "A half mile upstream was where the creek was diverted," she advised. "Just a big trench, like one sees at any sewer project. The police looked around but didn't find anything they thought useful."
...... "In that case, I doubt we would either." I pushed on the accelerator, bounced down the other side of the bridge, and continued along the rough gravel path.
...... Two tenths farther along, the asphalt road started at another parking area, this one nominally occupied by a battered pickup and attached empty boat trailer. Near the middle of the lake, two fishermen were trolling in a small aluminum boat. Still farther on, the road I traveled branched, left to the top of the dam and right down to the Visitors' Center.
...... "Need to stop down there?" I gestured at the sign. "I'm going to go around the lake edge, which should take a good hour."
...... She shook her head, and I started left along the upward road.
...... The concrete gate tower looked comical with the water level only a third of the way up its rough, form-indented sides. A rough-finished bridge linked the tower to the road -- backed onto the bridge was a County police four-by, its occupant doing paperwork.
...... Out on the lake, one of the men was pulling something in, his landing net dipped in the water. The shadow of a single, small cloud slowly drifted across the surface of the lightly rippled water.
...... I coasted down the ramp, followed the asphalt until the lake edge started to curve away, then turned left onto the abandoned farm field. The bushes were broken and worn away by other tires, the earth marred by ruts. Others had traveled this way for the past several months at least.
...... "You seem to go around in circles a lot," she laughed after a long silence. She held tightly to the handgrip. "This's nearly as bad as news gathering in a small town."
...... "Worse. I don't get a byline, only a number."
...... Slowly, I followed the temporary shore until the feed creek blocked the way, then detoured to cross at the bridge, before returning to trace the lake's edge once again. There were no ruts on this side, and I had to stop twice to cut an opening through the rusty barbwire. Obviously, no one had explored here -- just as obviously, there was no need to.
...... "Any ideas?" she finally asked, sounding hopeful. She brushed a few strands of hair back into some kind of order, then glanced at her watch.
...... I eased onto the asphalt by the second parkinglot, where the police vehicle was waiting. "None at the moment," I admitted. "Sorry."
...... "None at all? Or none for publication!" She twisted to lean out the window and wave.
...... "Both," I had to chuckle.
...... The police vehicle pulled alongside on the right, and its left window went down.
...... "Hi, Ed," she called.
...... He waved once in return. "Hello, Charlene. Dig up any new clues?"
...... She shrugged. "You can't say I'm not trying."
...... "You're not going to win the Pulitzer this way," he laughed. Running his window back up, he pulled out in front of us.
...... "They've been covering this place twenty-four hours a day." She gestured at the departing truck. "And covering it well, too, as you can see. But not a ghost of a clue."
...... "We might as well go back for the day, also." I trailed along behind the police unit. "I'll come out here again tomorrow. Poke around some more, just in case. That's what I'm paid to do." Taking the right-hand branch this time, I drove toward the main entrance and the highway back to town. "Where shall I let you off?"
...... "Just drop me off at the office," she requested, while rummaging again in her purse. "And remember. If you do find something newsworthy, it's mine."
...... Dig up new clues.
...... It's surprising how often someone's casual remark will start a train of thought. I didn't dig up my clue literally. That item I delegated, by way of a long telephone call to my office. Afterward, my personal contribution to the task was to climb into bed for a good night's sleep -- once more, my tomorrow would begin with the first glimmer of sunlight.
...... The sun was only a vague promise on the horizon, when the office called with conformation from the survey team. I hopped across the street for a leisurely breakfast, interrupted twice by calls on the cell phone. By the time I reached the park entrance, I'd caught up with three tractor-trailer rigs, each belching diesel exhaust into the bright clear morning air and each hauling heavy construction equipment up to the excavation site.
...... The crew chief already had his orders and was directing the start of the digging. Spread out on the hood of his truck was a rough drawing of the underground installation, determined by the survey team's metal detectors. It was buried with one edge a hundred feet from the present shoreline and stretched away northward. Another week, and the lake would've started to cover it -- a large square, about four hundred feet on a side, with two equidistant crossbars.
...... Charlene's antenna was just as sensitive. An old white Bronco II with a service station's sign painted on the doors, skidded to a halt, just as the work crew uncovered the device's corner. She toured the excavation and angered the crew chief, before stomping over to where I sat on the back cargo floor of my Jeep, partly sheltered from the sun by the open gate window.
...... "You were going to call me when you found something newsworthy!" She gestured with a sweep of her tiny notebook.
...... "Have a doughnut?" I offered the box.
...... She glared up at the brilliant blue sky and drew in a deep breath for a theatrical sigh. "Move over!" She accepted a chocolate pastry and sat in the area I'd made by sliding over.
...... "You call this news?" I waved the box toward the site. A gradall had started up, its boom slanting the bucket to one side.
...... "What would you call it?" she demanded with another wild sweep of her notebook.
...... "I'd call it junk removal." Selecting a glazed doughnut, I set the box aside. "It's an old abandoned high-pressure pipeline which constitutes a safety hazard. It'll be removed over the next few days. To safeguard the recreation area."
...... "And what connection does all this have with the vandalism?" She jumped, startled by the loud whistle of the nitrogen being vented.
...... "Your guess is as good as mine." I munched doughnut. "Probably, no connection."
...... "Then why are you involved in all this?" Her voice had moved into the upper registers.
...... "Because all this is what I do for a living. I investigate, see if anything needs to be done, and notify the proper people if something does need to be done." I paused to watch as the cutting torch tanks were lowered into the hole. "I ran across this pipeline, and it's being removed. There's nothing else I've found so far. I'll look around some more, but if nothing else shows up, I'll move on to my next assignment." A mobile crane turned off the access road, rumbled across the field, and parked by a dump truck. "Unless there's more vandalism, this is a closed case from my point of view."
...... She waved half a chocolate doughnut in protest. "Everything you've just said is bullshit!"
...... "It's also the official bullshit." I wiped my sugar-coated fingers on a piece of paper towel. "And too, it's the only bullshit anyone will provide on this subject. Granted, cleaning up old plumbing isn't front page news, but it's all the news which will be forthcoming."
...... "There's more to this than that!" She reached for the paper towel roll and yanked off a sheet. It tore at an angle, just short of the perforations.
...... "You're welcome to investigate all you want," I offered.
...... "Yeah! And I know what that'll get me." She grinned, jumping up. "I've got a deadline to make." Suddenly, she held out her hand. "You'll be back, if only just passing through. Stop by the office, and I'll take you out to the Big Burger again."
...... I stood and shook her hand. "Next time, it's on my expense account."
...... Thirty feet away, she turned for a moment. "Vaya con Dios, Driver."
...... "And with you also, Charli," I laughed. "Good luck. I'll watch for your byline."
...... A drifting cloud of dust, and the rattle of tire-thrown pebbles in the shrubbery. The four-by dwindled as a white blur in the heat-haze by the park's entrance. The mobile crane restarted its engine, and I turned away.
|chapter ten||CHAPTER ELEVEN||chapter twelve|
PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)