Monthly Archives: April 2017

338. The Benson Murder Case

I just read The Benson Murder Case for the second time. It was an accident. All of the Philo Vance mysteries are titled The (whatever) Murder Case, and they are mostly indistinguishable on the library shelf. I didn’t recognize Benson as one I had already read.

The setting is New York City in the twenties, among the upper class and the demi-monde. Since I’m an ex-Okie farm boy, these people would look down on me as white trash. That places the novel somewhat outside my comfort zone, but it also gives a kind of anthropological interest to the proceedings.

Anyway, there aren’t that many non-bloody and non-cozy mysteries to choose from, and Philo Vance is good fun.

The author is Willard Huntington Wright. The putative author is S. S. Van Dine, who also appears in the novel as the narrator. We are told that Philo Vance, the main character, is a pseudonym for a famous real person who will never be named, so we start out with layers of misdirection. I like that touch. It is as if Conan Doyle had used John Watson, M.D. as a pseudonym. We already know that Holmes was real; just ask any genuine fan.

Vance is an aesthete, immaculate in dress, loquacious, self-centered, quite convinced of his own superiority, and independently wealthy. If an actor were to play him on television today, enunciating all the words that Wright put into his mouth, he would be seen as gay as hell.

I need to explain that. In a sex-ed class I was teaching, during a question and answer period, a student asked me if I had any gay friends. It was a teachable moment. I said, “I don’t know,” then pointed out that a gay person could pass for straight, and a straight person could pass for gay, if either wanted to. We control how we present ourselves. It is a form of communication.

That exchange took place back in the era of Will and Grace, when LGBT portrayals were rare and relatively unsophisticated, but even then the behaviors we associate with gayness were mostly learned from television.

So I repeat, if Vance were portrayed today as he appears in the books, he would not look straight. That’s probably our prejudice. I see no evidence that he was perceived that way in the twenties when the novels were published, except, perhaps, when the villain at the climax calls him “you damned sissy.”

I don’t really care if the author was presenting Vance as gay, or just snooty with a British education, but it does cause a bit of disconnect. Like reading a book in translation, the sub-text can get a bit muddied. This is especially true since this first novel is less about solving a crime than it is about the friendship between Vance, the layabout, and Markham, the hard working District Attorney.

Alvin Benson is shot. Vance tags along with his friend Markham to the scene of the crime, and Van Dine, Vance’s shadow, tags along as well to narrate the story. Vance instantly knows who did the deed, working from his understanding of psychology. Markham is confused by clues. For the next 348 pages, Markham suspects a half dozen people, and Vance follows along showing him the error of his ways, finally leading him to find the murderer.

It sound dumb in précis, but it works. Even the first time I read the story, when I was distracted by Vance’s irritating personality, it worked. The second time through the book, I realized that the real story, hidden behind the unfolding of the mystery, was Vance at work keeping his good friend from making a fool of himself, or worse, enduring the guilt of sending an innocent person to execution.

C. J. Verburg, in a one star Goodreads review, calls Vance a more smug and racist version of Lord Peter Wimsey. She really doesn’t like him, and I can’t say I blame her. She probably speaks for the typical modern reader.

Those who do like him, like him a lot. I’m rather in that camp — I think. Most Goodreads reviews are stellar or stinking, with very few in the middle.


Raven’s Run 132

“And then what?”

“He goes to jail. Susyn and Alan go to jail.”

“When? How soon do they go to jail? How certain are you of a conviction, and how long will it take to complete the trial? What about bail? What about hiring outside help from inside prison? Ed, what are we trying to do here? Make a bust, or make Raven safe?”

“Don’t get mad at me, Gunn. I didn’t cause this situation.”

“Then think, man. What is our objective here? Let’s keep that in clear focus.”

I stopped talking and drummed my fingers on the table. I had gotten loud. The problem was, I was getting mad. Not a quick, adrenaline anger that comes and goes, but the kind of mad that builds up over weeks and months until it gnaws away inside of you and makes you do violent things that are not normally in your nature. I wanted Skinny Alan right here in this room so I could take him apart with my bare hands. And I wanted this Cameron Davis that I had never met, who hid in the shadows and pulled the strings; who hired Chicano punks to wait for me at Jacks’ office and sent a henchman to burn me up in my sleep. And I wanted Susyn for lying to me and causing me to betray Raven. 

And deep down I was mad at Raven for leaving me.

I fought it off. It was not useful to me now. I put that anger away, deep down in the sub-basement of my soul, where so many other angers are already stored. A day will come. But not today. Today I had to find a way to let my enemies live, so that Raven could live. It would not be satisfying, but it was necessary.

But someday, someone was going to pay. Where or when, I didn’t know, but I would not forget.

“What I propose,” I said finally, “is to leave the old man in place. If we attack his position, Raven will still be in danger. She is a witness to two attempted murders. Cameron Davis might be able to avoid prosecution for that, but Susyn and Alan can’t. We’ve got to show the old man what we have, threaten to bust him wide open, and offer to leave him in place if he calls off his dogs.”

“I don’t think he got where he is by being scared of threats.”

“No,” I said, “not a threat. A negotiation. I’ll have to show him his alternatives and convince him that leaving us alone is the only thing that benefits him. The timing is right. Harvest is in three months. If he gets busted now, even if he escapes prosecution it will cost him millions. After harvest, we could not do him nearly so much harm.”

“How do we get to him?”

“The only way – face to face. And not we. Me.”

Ed shrugged. “It might work. Assuming he is rational.”

“Yes. There’s always that.”

“But we have to tell the senator.”


“Yes. There is no other way, if you want my help. And you can’t pull this off by yourself.”

I just looked at him. “Then you’d better convince him,” I said evenly. “I’ve been lied to and betrayed, threatened with gun and knife, beat up, slashed, and firebombed. I’ll let that go, if I have to. But if I can’t protect Raven any other way, I’ll get a rifle and start hunting, and if I do that there are going to be dead Davises all over Humbolt county!” more tomorrow

337. The Year Without a summer

The Little Ice Age (yesterday’s post) was vague and questionable in its outlines and origin. The Year Without a Summer was precisely delineated, and there is no question of how it came about. It was the result of volcanic activity.

There is, however, a smaller mystery. In 1808, a very large eruption took place, but no westerner saw it. It is memorialized in ice samples from Greenland and Antarctica, and scientific detective work places the eruption somewhere between Tonga and Indonesia. It began a period of northern hemispheric cooling.

Then in 1815, the largest and most destructive volcanic eruption in human history took place at Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia. The explosion was heard 1600 miles away. (Krakatoa, a better known eruption in the same region in 1883, was less intense.) Between the mystery eruption of 1808 and the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815, the second decade of the 1800s became the coldest on record. 1816 became known as The Year Without a Summer.

(As always seems the case with science, nothing is simple. 1816 fell within the Little Ice Age and was also associated with a low in the cycle of sunspots. If you really want to understand, I suggest a Ph.D. and a lifetime of study. That will give you some answers and a cartload of more sophisticated questions.)

The Year Without a Summer was disastrous. Crops, which had already been bad, probably because of the 1808 eruption, failed. Famine was everywhere in Europe, followed by typhus. There were massive storms and floods; an estimated 200,000 died in Europe.

In America, the northeast was hit hardest. Frosts continued through the summer. In August ice floated on Pennsylvania rivers. Snow fell in June in Massachusetts. Food was scarce and in 1816 there was no way to move it from less affected regions to those hardest hit. That year and shortly after, masses of northeasterners moved to the midwest, swelling the populations of Indiana and Illinois.

The event left echoes in literature. In 1816 Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, J. W. Polidori and others were storm bound together in a villa overlooking Lake Geneva. A contest of writing ghost stories ensued. Byron wrote a fragment, which Polidori later turned into the first vampire story (The Vampyre), Mary Shelley began what later evolved into Frankenstein, and Byron also wrote Darkness, a long poem inspired by the lightless days.

Here is a bit of that poem, which brings back memories of those old science fiction stories from my youth when the glaciers moved in to destroy humanity.

The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they rak’d up,
And shivering scrap’d with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame

Raven’s Run 131

“There is a regular complex of buildings right in the center of that three hundred acres.”

“His processing and storage facility.”

“What else?”

“You didn’t notify anybody official, I hope.”

“Don’t talk dirty. But I can in five minutes, if the senator gives the word.”

“Don’t do it. We need to talk first. And don’t contact Cabral.”

“Why not?” Ed was instantly suspicious.

“Because he has to think about moral consequences and political consequences as well as Raven’s welfare. There are things he wouldn’t do. You and I don’t have to be so careful.”

“There are things I won’t do, too,” Ed said.

“How soon can you get to Garberville?”

“Maybe four hours?”

“Meet me at my motel room at noon.”

*          *          *

I spent the morning wandering around the marina, enjoying the yachts and fishing boats, and drowsing in the sun. I tried not to think about Raven. Sometimes I succeed for ten minutes at a time. Then I headed back toward Garberville. It was a nice drive. Midweek traffic was fairly light and the road wound through heavily forested hills. I was in a pretty good mood. 

It didn’t last.

*          *          *

I pulled into the motel parking lot, braked, put the Pinto in reverse, and backed out again, all in one motion. Good reflexes made it look like I had only used the place for a U turn. 

The cops who were gathered in front what what had been my motel room only glanced up, and I mentally thanked Joe Dias for keeping such dull and unlikely cars in his stable.

The place had been firebombed.

The motel rooms had been strung out in a row, single story, along the parking lot. I had only had a brief look, but there wasn’t much left of the unit I had been staying in, and the units on either side had been badly damaged as well.

If I hadn’t taken a day off to recover from my pot hangover, I would be dead.

*          *          *

Because he was FBI, Ed Wilkes had a phone in his car, so a pay phone call to Cabral’s headquarters rerouted him. I waited at the first off ramp south of Garberville, parked in the meager shade of a live oak and listened to the endless rubber hissing of the freeway. Within ten minutes, a tan Buick took the exit and rolled in beside me. I motioned to Ed to follow and went back south down highway 101. It took twenty miles to satisfy me that we were not being followed. Then I took an exit and we went into a roadside restaurant for lunch and a council of war.

I brought Ed up to date on the details of my investigation. He raised an eyebrow at my breaking and entering. The FBI can’t do things like that. At least, they can’t admit it. Finally, he said, “I don’t understand your hesitation. We have what we need. Let’s call in the troops and put him away. Him and his whole family.”

“And then what?” I asked. more tomorrow

336. The Little Ice Age

Hannes Grobe/AWI – own work – redrawn, supplemented and modified graphic from John S. Schlee (2000) Our changing continent, United States Geological Survey.

The writing of this blog is a pleasure, but it is like a fireplace on a deep winter’s day — it takes a lot of fuel. Sometimes topics fall into short supply. Sometimes I don’t know where my next blog is coming from.

Sometimes I get on the internet and put my conscious mind on cruise control. I let my fingers on the keyboard seek out half remembered images, phrases I have heard, interesting titles from catalogs of books I’ve never read, and half understood events I always meant to research and write about.

Today was that kind of day. I chased down, among other things, two similar phrases I had run across: The Year Without a Summer and The Little Ice Age.

They aren’t the same thing, it turns out. The Little Ice Age was a cool period that purportedly lasted about half a millennium, but its cause, degree, beginning, and ending are frustratingly difficult to pin down. NASA suggests three separate cooling periods in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s but the UN panel !PCC suggests that it is only a series of local events, not a unified world-wide phenomenon.

Locally, the increased cold brought famines, ice blockage of harbors, and shifts in agriculture. Some have suggested that the prevalence of winter scenes in Dutch paintings of the era, and even denser wood leading to better violins by Stradivarius, are byproducts of the Little Ice Age. Yeah, right. Scientists can be frivolously imaginative when pushing their theories, especially if proofs aren’t easily measured.

The Little Ice Age is a really cool name though, no pun intended, and it caught my attention because death by ice age was a common theme in the science fiction stories I read when I was young. Visions of glaciers coming down from the north to obliterate civilization lived in my head for years. They still do, sometimes.

Fifty years ago people — science fiction writers, anyway —  were afraid of global cooling. Now we are all afraid of global warming. That doesn’t set aside what we now know about retreating glaciers, but it does cause a slight pause on the way to full acceptance.

I was late coming to the table where global warming is concerned, for reasons that were entirely sensible twenty years ago, but no longer suffice today. I’m still not convinced that the warming is entirely man made, but it doesn’t matter. That the glaciers are retreating and the polar caps are disappearing is beyond question. That fossil fuel emissions are part of the picture is reason enough for action, even if we don’t know the whole story.

Science never knows the whole story, but people have to take action based on the preponderance of the evidence.


While I was cruising the web, I also found these estimates of human population.

     1804, Earth’s population, 1 billion.
     1927, Earth’s population, 2 billion.
     1960, Earth’s population, 3 billion.
     1974, Earth’s population, 4 billion.
     1987, Earth’s population, 5 billion.
     1999, Earth’s population, 6 billion.
      2011, Earth’s population, 7 billion.

I think there’s a pattern here, don’t you?

The answer to global warming isn’t an end to the use of fossil fuels — not exactly. It is an end to the need for fossil fuels. It is fewer people.

Oh, and that other thing, The Year Without a Summer, we’ll take a look at it tomorrow.

Raven’s Run 130

I took a change of clothing and went out to the car. The world had stopped spinning, and a meal would go a long way toward quieting my headache, but what I needed most was to be in another town, seeing different scenery and thinking different thoughts. I drove north toward Eureka. 

Fifty miles made a lot of difference. Here the highway skirted the coast; the air was cool and foggy. High clouds obscured the sun and there was a smell of the sea in the air. I found a rustic motel near the center of town and checked in, then spent the rest of the afternoon and evening walking off the excesses of the night before. 

Eureka was one of those towns that had gotten rich and then lost it. It was full of Victorian houses, built during the lumber boom, that had fallen on hard times and were now being restored. The atmosphere was laid back, with an odd mix of northwoods outdoorsman and post-hippie boutique. Underlying it all was the hardscrabble economic reality of boom and bust lumbering and commercial fishing. It gave the place an edge. I liked it.

I watched the sun set behind a fog bank, then went back to the motel. I left my new number with Cabral’s office manager so Ed could find me, and turned in early.

The phone rang at seven the next morning. Ed came on and said, “Touch me, Ian, I can walk on water.”

“Congratulations,” I replied, with some sarcasm.

“I mean, I’ve performed miracles.”

“Good for you. Tell me.”

“Like you said, Cameron Davis only owns one piece of property in Humbolt county. It’s the house he lives in. Its a mansion, really, secluded and well guarded and I would bet that no one who comes near it is allowed to have even a pot seed in his pants cuff. The man really keeps himself separated from his work.”

“That’s what Johnson said.”

“I checked the surrounding counties. Just like you suspected, nothing. Then I started our troops looking for pieces of land owned by corporations. I could give you a list, but take my word for it, Cameron Davis has kept half the lawyers in northern California busy. We found thirty-two corporations which owned land and were themselves fully owned subsidiaries of another eight corporations. Those eight were all owned by another three corporations. Those three were owned by a single corporation called Davicam, which was owned by . . .”

He was in a better mood than I was. When I didn’t feed him a straight line, he finished lamely, “By Cameron Davis.” 

“There’s more?”

“Yes. Altogether, Davis owns ninety-six pieces of land, not counting the seventeen you found that his kids and in-laws own. There may be more. I’d say we’ve got him. All of Davis’ land is in small parcels except one. He owns a three hundred acre section of open oak woodland near Willits. According to topographic maps, there is only a shack near the road, but I wondered. Why own a hundred small parcels and only one with a real perimeter? So I contacted a friend of mine in the CIA. He and Daniel and I helped BTF on a case ten years ago. He got me satellite photos of the place and guess what. There is a regular complex of buildings right in the center of that three hundred acres.”

Of course today any six year old kid with a smart phone can get satellite photos. Just Google it. In 1989 only the military had that capacity. more tomorrow


Obviously that last paragraph wasn’t in the original written in the early nineties, but was added for this 2016 flashback version.

335. To Save a Life

I once saved a little girl’s life. True, but not as exciting as it sounds. I’ll tell you about it further down in the post.

In 1975, a whole bunch of things came together. I came back to California with a master’s degree and started writing novels. My wife’s parents lived in the same small city. Her father was a life long Red Cross volunteer, so when help was needed in the Swine Flu clinics, we all three volunteered. I had spent four years as a surgical tech in a Naval Hospital, so it was natural that I continued to volunteer after everybody had had their shots and the Swine Flue had not appeared.

(Cynics called the Swine Flu the cure for which there was no disease, but no one knew that at the time. Hindsight is always accurate, but sometimes cruel.)

About that time, the Red Cross was given the responsibility of teaching the then-new technique of cardiopulmonary resuscitation. My wife, my father-in-law, and i took the county’s first CPR class one week, then took the first CPR teacher training the following week. After that we taught as a team.

At that time there were no EMTs. We taught the local ambulance drivers to do CPR, then my father-in-law taught the park rangers at the local lake. We taught civilian classes every week or so and after a few years, we had trained hundreds.

In those days CPR training included the Heimlich maneuver and many other things I won’t even tell you about. Year by year, the training contained less and less. Dumbed down, in my non-medical opinion. To be fair, we weren’t teaching doctors and nurses. The amount that you can expect a civilian to learn in a short class, and remember in an emergency a year later, has to be fairly well restricted.

When I wrote my second published novel, I had the hero save a life using CPR, and in the front pages, placed a statement about CPR with a call for the reader to get training.

I never had to actually use CPR. That just means that nobody ever dropped temporarily dead in my presence, and I’m glad they didn’t.

However . . .

About twenty years later I was teaching middle school. It was the end of the day. The bell had just rung and my students had started getting into their back packs to file out, when one of them yelled, “Suzy’s in trouble!” and another student yelled, “She’s choking.”

The girl (not named Suzy) had slipped a hard candy about the size and shape of a marble into her mouth. She wasn’t supposed to do that until she was outside the classroom, so she was being sneaky instead of careful, and it lodged in her windpipe.

I slipped into the mode teachers use for bleeding, fainting, and fist fights. I went to her at a walk that resembled a run. Her face was desperate. I spun her around and stripped off her backpack while calmly saying, “Let’s get this off you. Let’s get you turned around so I can get that out, so you can breathe.” I put my hands in the right position and jerked up sharply — but carefully, since I was three times her size. The candy shot across the room.

That was it. It was over. She was shaken, but unhurt.

Humility would have me say that she would probably have been all right anyway, but I don’t think so. I really don’t think so.

So, what is the takeaway — that I’m a hero? Not likely. People’s lives are saved every day by the Heimlich maneuver. I have a friend, a teacher, who used it successfully twice during her career.

The takeaway is that CPR, rescue breathing, and the Heimlich maneuver are easy to learn, and if you ever have the chance to same the life of a loved one, or even a stranger, and you don’t know how, it will haunt you for the rest of your life.

End of sermon.

Raven’s Run 129

“They took one bend in a mountain road too fast and went three hundred feet down into a ravine. Burned.

“I was just back from college. I had just started teaching a month before. Susyn and I were dating. She was nineteen, and wild. Really wild. When she got word that Deke was dead, I thought she was going to lose her mind. It just tore her up. Old Man Davis wasn’t any help. Jim and Alan raged around with a big load of mean and no one to aim it at. Finally, she came to me and by the time I had finished comforting her, we were married.”

“When was this?”

“Nine years ago November.”

Johnson was almost pathetically eager to tell his story. I had sympathy for him, within limits. He wore his wounds too much like medals for my taste, but the pain was genuine.

“It didn’t last. She wanted more that I could offer. But she was all I ever wanted.”

“And now you’re her business partner.”

“No, not really. Old Man Davis owns all that property. He just uses my name, and pays me some rent.”

“According to the deed, you own it.”

Johnson shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that. Cameron likes me because I was good to his daughter, but if I tried to take away anything he considers his, he would have me killed.”

He said it with no particular inflection, like he might say, “The sun will rise tomorrow.”

It was getting too dark to see Johnson. He fumbled for the makings and put together another joint. He shoved the bundle across the coffee table toward me. It was a test. Was I his enemy, or just another guy like him? I reached for the makings, and said, “Tell me about Cameron Davis.”

Chapter Thirty-four

I don’t know how I got back to the motel. After a certain point, Johnson got hazy, his whole house slid south, and I found myself hallucinating my way back to where I grew up in Wisconsin. Vague images of Donal and Sharon stayed around until morning, and when I found rationality returning, I was on the floor of the shower in my motel room with the water running hard and warm on my face. I had spent the night with shades of my brother and sister, begging Donal to tell me why he ran away when I was young and needed him, and praying forgiveness from my sister for the hell I put her through the year Dad abandoned us. And for abandoning her in turn, when neither of us could stand the other any more.

I turned off the shower and toweled dry. My skin was red and wrinkled. My head was a hot air balloon. I looked out through the curtain and winced at the sunlight. The Pinto was parked neatly between the lines in the space outside. Thank God for reflexes.

It was past ten o’clock. I called Wilkes. He was out. I lay on the bed while I waited for him to return the call, because the room still had a tendency to move. The phone woke me up again three hours later. It was Ed. Through gritted teeth, with a pounding head, I told him what I had learned and what I wanted. more tomorrow

334. Making Videos for Cyan

I know from visiting your websites, that a lot, maybe most, of you either are or want to be writers. I’ve talked about some of the mechanics of that, especially in posts 133 and 134. During the last month, I’ve learned some more about how books are marketed in the age of the internet. I’ve had to make videos.

That proved harder than I thought it would, partly because of technology. Don’t think I’m a Luddite – I’ve been a computer nut since 1986 – but I don’t own a video camera. i don’t have kids to record as they grow, and I have no interest is seeing myself moving about on the computer screen.

Most of those who make videos to promote their books do so on their smart phones. I don’t have a smart phone. It is my firm belief that Alexander Graham Bell was an emissary of the Devil. I communicate the way God intended, by email, where I can correct my mistakes before I push send.

I finally used the camera built into my Mac. It makes a shaky, Skype-like picture, but that works well enough if you hold still and go into talking-head mode.

I didn’t want to ramble, so I wrote a script and tried out some videos. They stank (that’s the grammatically correct word that morphed into stunk about twenty years ago). It turns out that a glib, casual, conversational tone takes a hell of a lot of rewrites. I should have remembered that. I had to learn it two years ago when I wrote my first posts. I don’t mean numbers 1, 2, 3 . . .. I mean the ones you never saw because I trash-canned them.

Writing two masters theses and a bunch of novels did not prepare me to write posts. I had to learn a whole new, casual style. This month I learned that written-casual is not the same as spoken-casual — even if it is written as a script before it is spoken. It took quite a few tries to make the transition.

Eventually I made three videos for Brian at EDGE and he will put them on Youtube. They are an introduction to Cyan, the story of why I wrote Cyan, and a reading from Cyan. The first is already up; click here.

I’ve also tacked on the script I used in the Introduction to Cyan.


Hi. Welcome to my world, or at least to one of them. I’ve always been a fan of near future novels of exploration. There are so many things about traveling at sub-light speed that make for a great story.

Besides, it won’t be long until scientists have charted the actual planets around all the nearby stars. Then we won’t be able to make up our own planets.

Put those ideas together and you have Cyan, which is the name of me newest novel and the name of the planet that it takes place on.

In the year 2080 a crew of five men and five women, scientists all, set out for Procyon where they find a planet that stands straight up in orbit, with bands of unvarying climates. About 45 degrees north, is paradise.

But paradise with teeth — virgin, wild, beautiful, but very dangerous. Keir, our crewleader’s task is to keep his fellow explorers alive. He’s good at his job, but on a planet crowded with predators, that may not be enough.

For these scientists from vastly overcrowded earth, after years confined within the starship, the beauty and emptiness of Cyan is intoxicating.

They have one year to decide if Cyan is suitable for colonists, and it turns out to be perfect. But then one of the scientists picks up a flaked stone. This is not a natural occurrence. Someone, or some thing, has made it.

The explorers have discovered the Cyl.

The Cyl are a stone age group. They look nothing like man and their intelligence is low, but they are about to become much more. Evolution moves quickly under Procyon’s intense radiation, and the Cyl are poised to make the leap to full intelligence.

Earth needs Cyan to ease its massive population, and the Cyl need to be left alone to find their own destiny. Lines are drawn among the explorers and the resolution of the problem threatens to tear them apart.


When you get your copy of Cyan, you will see that this introduction actually only covers the first fifth of the novel. Giving a full summary would have made the video far too long.

Raven’s Run 128

Johnson staggered to his feet and crossed to the library, hesitated and looked over his shoulder. I said, “Go ahead.” I already knew where his stash was, but it had seemed too petty to mention. Everyone in Garberville had a stash.

He came back to the sofa, put bud and papers on the coffee table and built a cigarette. He sucked it in fast, controlling the smoke between puffs, holding his breath as long as he could. When it was gone, he said, “I really love this stuff. I wish I didn’t.”

“She’s killing you, isn’t she.”

He nodded. “She is worse for me than pot, and harder to get loose from.”

“I know.”

“Do you really?”

“Oddly enough, I do.”

I sat down across from Johnson and said, “Tell me about her.”

“Oh, God. I’ve known her all our lives. We grew up together. I fell in love with her when she was twelve and I was sixteen, and I have never gotten over her.”

“Here? Garberville?”

“Here. She had four brothers. Two of them were killed – three of them now. Only Crazy Alan is left. And Susyn, who is as crazy as all four of them put together, but cold. Thinking. Mean, sometimes. And sometimes the sweetest, kindest thing that ever lived. But you never knew, any time you saw her, what way she was going to be.

“Carter – her oldest brother – got killed in a territorial dispute. Someone raided one of his fields, so he raided back. Got the wrong field, hurt a woman who was taking care of it when she tried to stop him. This woman’s old man was just back from Viet Nam. A Marine, unreconstructed. A lot of the unreconstructeds end up in these hills. He caught Carter in a bar down in Leggett and put a knife in him. Susyn was fourteen at the time. Her Daddy, Cameron, the old bull of the woods, put out the word and the Marine who killed his oldest boy disappeared. The cops never found him, and his family never saw him again. Me either; but Susyn told me she went to the shed where Cameron had him taken and saw the body after they had finished with it. If must have been really ugly. Susyn wasn’t herself for months after that.”

Johnson rolled another joint before he went on.

“Susyn was close to all her brothers. Worshipped them, really. She took Carter’s death hard and when Deke got killed a few years later, it really put her over the edge.

“Deke was the second brother; the smart one. He was the one the old man was grooming to take over the family business. Sent him to college down in Sonoma. Made him into an accountant.

“Deke was up in the Sierras. Cameron had expanded his operations, and it was just after harvest. They had a cabin back in some valley somewhere, with a couple of tons of pot getting trimmed out by some itinerants Deke had hired. Deke was cutting corners, using some of that fancy bookkeeping he learned in college to cheat the trimmers. They beat him up, stuffed him into the trunk of his car, and took off for Sacramento. Nobody knows what they had in mind, but they took one bend in a mountain road too fast and went three hundred feet down into a ravine. Burned. Some rangers pulled the bodies out two days later and got a big surprise when they checked in the trunk. more tomorrow