Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

Busted Axle Road
a novel by
Wes Boyd
Copyright ©1993, ©2001, ©2007, ©2013

Chapter 7

The city of Spearfish Lake sits at the root of the north side of a point jutting out into the lake itself. The north side of the point is relatively high and sandy, with a broad, sandy ridge perhaps twelve or fifteen feet high not far back from the lakeshore. Point Drive runs along this ridge to the tip of the point, then loops back a little ways along the south side of the point before it turns to a two-rut, then peters out. Close to town, Point Drive is lined with large beachfront houses, some a century old or more, making it the best neighborhood in Spearfish Lake. People with money like Frank Matson, and his father, Garth, and also Ryan and Brent Clark live in homes there. Farther out Point Drive and the lakefront are lined with somewhat more modest summer cottages, though the prices on those had been rising rapidly in the past few years.

No cottages lined the south shore of the point, or most of the south shore of the lake, for that matter. Though potentially valuable, the ground was very low, only inches above the normal lake level and frequently flooded. God had insufficiently divided the waters from the lands here; while there were places that a boat could float, they were relatively rare, and getting to the sites was tough. There were places that were high, or at least a little higher than the others, where a booted foot might only sink into the mud an inch or so. Foliage ran to ferns and marsh grasses, just greening up nicely at this time of year. The trees ran to tamaracks so grubby and hard to get to that even the pulp cutters had bypassed them.

In another two or three weeks, the mosquitoes would be so thick that they could drain a person quicker than a battalion of nurses at a Red Cross blood bank. Only an aggressive mosquito control program started decades before kept the town relatively free of the little vampires.

Thinking ahead a few weeks, Pam Appleton wondered if the idea of spending the summer in the swamps south of town looking for snakes was such a good idea after all. Thanks to the mosquitoes, the damp, and the humidity, the Spearfish Lake swamps were not a place where sane people went in the summer months. At times, upon reflection, flipping patties at the Burger Bummer in Athens all summer seemed positively appealing.

There had been no point in trying to go deep into the swamp on Saturday, at least partly because Pam didn’t want to scare the boys off, but partly because she wanted to more thoroughly investigate areas where the swamp got close to the sewer system. If the snake had entered the sewer system from outside, then one of those had to be a likely point of entry, and perhaps there might be other specimens nearby. It was one of the logical things that Pam knew she had to check out, to try to reduce the search from being for a needle in a haystack.

The four of them had seen a dozen or more sipedon sipedons, but even a casual glance at each one of them, even from a distance, showed that none was a sipedon gibsoni; none had the distinctive color pattern that Pam remembered so well from the little specimen she’d seen in the lab at Athens.

Taking a break on a downed log at a relatively dry spot, Pam had given a little vent to the hopelessness of it all. "I’m not sure why we’re even out here," she said. "After all, the snake was in the sewer, and that’s where we ought to be looking. But, how we could look up the sewer lines through the grating of a storm drain, I don’t know."

At least Pacobel hadn’t been a problem Saturday night; he had been so wet and muddy, like the rest of them, that dealing with him hadn’t been a challenge.

They hadn’t planned to go out Sunday, so Pam had been a little surprised to see Josh and Danny knock on her door about nine on Sunday morning. "We got something we’d like you to see," Danny said.

For an instant, her hopes rose that they had turned up another gibsoni, but what they showed her was about the next best thing: a contraption they’d rigged up. It had a mirror down on the end of a stick, with a couple of flashlight bulbs and reflectors on either side of it. The flashlight heads were powered by a wire to a battery pack that could be slipped in a pocket. There was a lot of duct tape involved, but the head of the device was small enough to go down through the grates of a storm drain and shine light a fair ways up the drain itself, though the field of view was necessarily small.

"This is a great idea," she’d told the two of them. "I’m proud of you two for thinking of it."

The three of them spent most of the day Sunday looking down storm drains across the south side of Spearfish Lake. They saw all sorts of junk and garbage, and once they saw a rather rusted revolver that caused them to call the police, who called the Department of Public Works to get down inside the sewer. A couple of times they saw sticks, and once a piece of rubber hose, but they never saw any snakes. Not a one. After the heartening start to the day, the end was rather frustrating.

On Monday, Pam was ready to give up. Rather than go out in the swamps by herself again, she got in her car and drove back to Athens. If the funding came through, then she’d clear out her grubby apartment and move back home for the summer; if not, it was time to get applications in at the burger places.

She found Dr. Gerjevic in his office. "Not much in the way of good news, I’m afraid," she reported.

"Ah, but I have some," he said, handing her a letter. "I’ve been waiting for you to call. This came in the mail just this morning."

The letter was from the Fish and Wildlife Service in Minneapolis. She read through it quickly. The grant had been approved! She read on and frowned. "Darn," she said. "Only about half the request."

"Not unexpected," he said, "especially on this short a notice. If we don’t find anything this summer, and they’re still interested in the specimen, then we stand a good chance of getting full funding for a larger search next year."

"That’s something," Pam admitted. "Because at fifty-percent funding, after this last few days, I’m doubtful that we’re going to turn up anything without a TV survey of the sewers. We did get a look a short ways up some of them yesterday," she said, showing Gerjevic the invention that Josh and Danny had come up with, "but we didn’t find any snakes."

"Nice idea," Gerjevic said, checking the contraption out. "Who made this?"

"A couple of high school kids I drafted," she said. "I’m not sure, but I think they’re the ones who came up with the tentative identification, not Pacobel. They told me they had an idea for an improved version, one that uses a small telescope."

"It’s not TV, but it’s better than nothing," Gerjevic said. "But it would be better if you had TV. I’ve been holding off on the further funding requests until I saw how the Fish and Wildlife Service grant came out. I’d filled them out before this and dropped them in the mail as soon as I opened that letter. Those folks are quicker than the government. If we get anything at all, we should hear about it in a few days."

"You deserve a black belt in grantsmanship for getting this one through so quickly," Pam said.

"Oh, I’ve written a few in my day," the professor said. "Anyway, we’ve got enough to get you started. I would think that you need to check the storm drains repeatedly, especially if we don’t get money for television surveillance."

"That seemed pretty obvious," Pam agreed. "That’s why I was so delighted when the boys brought me this. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it helps a lot."

"Well, maybe we’ll get the extra funding," Gerjevic said. "You realize, if you turn up a gibsoni, that this project could carry you through to your doctorate."

"I know that," Pam said. "But, if I don’t find one, then I’ve shot a summer and gotten nowhere."

*   *   *

Half a continent away from Athens and Spearfish Lake, Harris Harper looked out of the office window of the Los Angeles high rise at the brown L.A. smog. Pretty bad, he thought. He remembered when it had been worse. Without the smog, there was a pretty nice view, but not today. He shook his head; there was work to be done. He went back to going through the mail.

It had been pretty carefully screened before it got to him, of course. The Washington office had gone through it for obvious checks; there was no point in losing money in interest while the mail was being forwarded across the country. Then Mollie had gone through it, sorted out the time wasters and obviously routine stuff, as well as the odd check that had been missed by the efficient people at the E Street office.

Still, there were a couple dozen pieces that Harper had to go through each day – some magazines and newsletters, the rest business items that demanded the attention of the Defenders of Gaea.

It took a while to get through the stack; the letters and newsletters and magazines that got this far had to be scanned carefully, in case inspiration were to strike. Some of their greatest successes had come from finding the right item in the pages of some Xeroxed newsletter, but there wasn’t anything here that struck him too forcefully. He reached for his coffee cup, and found it nearly empty and too cool to drink. Easily solved; he buzzed Mollie three times, the signal for another cup.

A few seconds later, the door opened – not Mollie, but Dale McMullen, the president of the Defenders, carrying two cups of coffee. "I was coming this way, anyway," Dale said, allowing the door to close behind him. He set a cup of coffee down on Harper’s mail-cluttered desk, then found a seat on the couch by the window. "Got some good news," he said.

"A nice big donor, I hope?" Harper said.

"Next best thing," McMullen replied. "Fred Knox, Jenny Easton’s agent, thinks he can get Jenny to do an endorsement for us. Hell, we can build a whole fund drive around that."

That was good news indeed. That was part of the reason that while the Defenders had their national office, the official one, in Washington, it was mostly a mail drop and a place for their lobbyists to hang their hats. The real national office of the Defenders of Gaea was right here, in L.A., for good reason. There were a lot of bubble-headed, undereducated people with more money than they knew what to do with running around this town, especially around Hollywood, and they needed favorable publicity whenever possible. You go hunting where the ducks are, Harper had realized long ago. Besides, L.A. was a heck of a lot better place to be than DC, anyway. "How’d you get to this Knox character?" he asked.

"Sent Heather over to him, and she got his attention."

"You know," Harper mused, "we ought to send her after Willie Nelson for a donation some time. He once said he was looking for a woman who could suck the chrome off of a trailer hitch."

"Heather could do it," McMullen laughed. "That woman has got a mouth on her like nobody’s business."

"Sure does," Harper agreed. He knew that from personal experience, and knew that McMullen did, too. "How big a fund drive are you thinking?"

"Big one," McMullen said. "Couple of the slick newsmagazines, some TV. Let’s see if we can get past the little old ladies in tennis shoes this time. Jenny Easton, that’s a name that will carry."

"It’s going to cost," Harper said. McMullen’s main job was to be the high-profile boss who could make the big hits; Harper mostly dealt with the nuts and bolts of the organization. It was a partnership that had been tried and proved to work well over the years; both were comfortable with their roles. "I don’t want to say money is tight right now, but a big campaign is going to be reaching a bit." He paused, then laughed, "But, I have no doubt that the board will approve."

McMullen laughed, too. While the Defenders of Gaea had a seven-member board, he and Harper were the only two who counted. There were two other board members with retainers big enough that they’d rubber-stamp anything, two big-name entertainers who never showed up for meetings, and one other, a guy who had once had a big name in environmental circles, but now had Alzheimer’s so bad he couldn’t remember his name. As much as the board could be said to meet, it was meeting right now. "It’ll be worth it, Harris," McMullen said.

"I know it will," Harper agreed. "The thing is we’ll really have to hold the line on expenses for field projects. I mean, even more than normal."

That brought a frown from McMullen. "We can’t cut administrative expenses," he said, shaking his head. "For us, that would be missing the point."

"I know," Harper said. Neither he nor Dale drew large salaries, but there were a lot of perks hidden among the administrative expenses. It wasn’t entirely for tax purposes, either; there were a lot of donors who would balk if they knew how large their salaries really were, but things like McMullen’s Mercedes and Harris’ home in the hills overlooking Malibu were well hidden in carefully guarded bookkeeping. "But," he went on, "it would be nice to have some sort of new, high-profile project to pin it to. Something that would get us some national air time." It was the sort of thing that the Defenders of Gaea specialized in – high profile projects that got a lot of attention, preferably cheaply. Attention brought donations, and that’s what the goal really was. He and McMullen had taken twenty years to build the Defenders into the type of organization that could shake the can and really get decent results.

"Yeah," McMullen said thoughtfully. "It’s been a while. How about that owl, whatever kind it is, up in Oregon or someplace?"

"Not after this," Harper said, picking up a magazine and showing McMullen the cover."

"Shit," McMullen said with a glance. "Sierra Club, Sierra Club. All I hear is Sierra Club. Just once, it would be nice to be on point on an issue, and have the Sierra Club running along behind, saying, ‘Me, too!’ Me, too!’ instead of us."

"My reaction exactly. Screw those owls."

"Any leads in the slush pile?"

"Nothing. We need a really high-profile project, either in the northeast, where the media is, or here on the coast, where the money is. But, what we’re getting is like the one I got in the mail this morning. If it were either here, or maybe the northeast, we could get a hell of a ride out of it. But where it is, nobody who counts would take notice."

"What is it?" McMullen asked, more out of curiosity than anything else.

"Some endangered snake species, living in some town’s sewer system, and the town wants to rebuild the sewer system. Some professor wants some money for a study. A place called Spearfish Lake, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, some place like that. I didn’t really catch it."

"Well, screw that," McMullen agreed. "There’s no profit for us there. Let’s find something out here on the coast. People care about what happens here."

*   *   *

About thirty miles from the Defenders of Gaea office, but not far at all from Harris’ home, Jenny Easton lay nude on a massage table, while Blake kneaded her back.

Blake’s big hands on her back made her feel wonderfully relaxed, perhaps the best she’d felt in a couple of days. In addition to being her masseur, bodyguard, driver, and housekeeper, he was her friend, perhaps the only real friend she had in southern California – but he wasn’t her lover.

It was a matter of a little pride for Blake Walworth, even though he’d never told anyone about it, maybe because of that friendship. "If you ever want to try it straight," she’d offered, not once, but several times, "just say the word."

He never had, but to have a standing offer from a woman People magazine had recently called, "the sexiest in America," and never get interested . . . you just don’t get gayer than that.

At that, he wasn’t totally immune to Jenny. A brass monkey couldn’t be immune to Jenny, when she was on a concert stage singing with a voice like a 440-volt sex-charged Karen Carpenter, or doing a rock video, or being a temptress on a movie screen. There was something kittenish about her, shy and demure, exuding sex, yet seemingly unaware of the effect she had on men – and women, too.

It put him in mind of some of the old Marilyn Monroe movies, when Monroe was so drop-dead sexy she brought everything to a halt, without seeming aware of the fact that she drove people nuts. That was at least partly a public persona, Blake knew; while she didn’t idolize Monroe, he’d sat with Jenny, watching old Marilyn Monroe films, as she looked for hints and tips. There was a naturalness about Jenny that transcended glitter and hype, and that was part of the image, too.

The naturalness was refreshing, part of her image; she never dressed radically, or hot and dirty. She didn’t need suggestive clothes to make her statement for her. She could do things with a simple, neat, conservative gown that someone like Madonna couldn’t manage in all the lingerie in the Frederick’s catalogue. At the last Grammy awards, where she’d picked up three, she’d appeared among all the designer dresses and bare skin wearing a demure cocktail dress that she told the press that she’d gotten "off the rack at Penney’s for $59.95." She had indeed done just that – Blake had helped her pick it out – and her in that dress were on at least six magazine covers that he’d seen.

But that was image, and she put it on as easily as putting on clothes. The private Jenny, the one he saw, the one that perhaps only he and Jenny shared, reminded him of Marilyn Monroe, too. The real Monroe. Perhaps only Jenny and he knew that Jenny Easton was a desperately unhappy camper.

If Blake had to sum Jenny up in a word, that word would be "homesick." She was not a person whose psyche fed on glamour, on adulation, on roaring crowds. Home, back in Spearfish Lake, represented a happier time, a happier life. The high point of her week came each Thursday, when the Spearfish Lake Record-Herald arrived, via next-day air – the only copy of the paper sent out like that. Jenny devoured it, cover to cover, everything in it – even the legals, the obituaries, the ads for used snowmobiles. She kept back issues of the Record-Herald around, and read them over and over again, sometimes for months, until they were almost worn out. It was from sheer loneliness, lack of friends, and sometimes Blake wondered why she had loosened her reserve enough to open up to him. Perhaps it was because he was bent, and her public charms were a dull instrument to defend herself from opening up; he didn’t present a threat.

If he’d ever thought for a minute that making love with her would have helped her misery, he’d have been willing to give it his best shot. But, he knew it wouldn’t help, for Blake had only slowly become aware of the deepest secret of all: "America’s sex goddess" got more thrills out of a glass of warm milk and a plate of cookies than she’d ever gotten out of sex.

Not that he hadn’t been in bed with her – but those had been on nights when she had been so desperately unhappy and lonely that she’d just needed someone to hold on to, to remind her that she wasn’t alone in the world.

Fortunately, there hadn’t been much of that recently. For a couple of months, Jenny had looked forward to a break in her schedule, and it was only a few days off, now. For a few days, she could go back to Spearfish Lake, lie around her parent’s cottage, maybe volunteer at the day-care center, and generally be Jennifer Evachevski instead of Jenny Easton for a while. A week or two of that could carry her for months.

He’d get a break, too; he could slide up to the Bay Area and be himself for a while, too. A few nights of the bar scene would recharge his batteries, although they took a totally different charge than Jenny’s.

He was remembering some of the classic evenings he’d had in San Francisco over the years when the phone rang. "You’d better get it, Blake," Jenny said, coming out of whatever private reverie she had.

The first sound of the voice in the receiver made Blake’s heart sink: it was Fred Knox, Jenny’s agent, and that almost always meant trouble anytime. "How’s it going, Blake?" Knox said. "Let me talk to Jenny."

"Let me see if I can find her," Blake replied, and covered the phone. "It’s Fred," he told Jenny.

"Oh, shit," the tall, blonde-haired nude said. "Do I have to talk to him today?"

"You could be in the can," Blake suggested.

"Oh, hell, I’ll talk to him," she said. "I just don’t want to. Give me the phone."

Blake went back to working on Jenny’s back, but listened to the conversation; Knox’s voice was loud enough that he could make out both sides of it. "Great news, Jenny," Knox said. "I’ve come up with a great public relations opportunity that ought to do a lot to broaden your image."

"What is it?"

"There’s this environmental group, Defenders of Gaea, that wants you to shoot a promo for them. Couple of thirty-second spots, plus some stills. Ought to be able to do it in a day, easy. I told them you’d be glad to do it for a write-off. It ought to give your image some depth."

"When do they want to do this shoot?" she asked.

"There’s a crew all laid on for three weeks from Monday. It’s a location deal, up by Big Sur."

Blake could feel Jenny’s muscles tense, destroying an hour of his work. "No, Fred," she said. "No way. Forget it. Tell them to shove it up their ass. That’s my vacation."

"But Jenny," Knox protested. "They’re on a tight schedule. The crew is all laid on, and it’ll cost them to cancel. They’re a non-profit, and they don’t have money to waste."

"Look, Fred," Jenny said, almost crying, "you and your shitass scheduling of that shoot down in Mexico last month screwed me out of going to my sister’s graduation. Now, you want to screw me out of my vacation. I’ve got that gig at the Dunes Saturday, and I’d figured on flying straight out of Vegas for home. If I have to go up the coast, instead, it’ll screw me out of half my vacation. Forget it!"

Knox had been through this with her before. "Jenny," he said, "how would it look if it got out that this had been scheduled, and you turned them down so you could go and play?"

"God damn you, Fred," she replied. Blake shook his head. It would have been a shock to most people to hear Jenny swear like a trooper, but he realized that must have been just exactly where she’d learned; she’d lived with her dad and mom on Army posts until she’d been ten or so.

"Jenny, you have an image you need to protect," Knox continued imperturbably.

"Where the hell did my image get involved with this?" she said. "Oh, shit, I’ll do it, I guess." She threw the receiver as far as she could.

Blake shrugged, walked over, and picked up the receiver, and set it on the hook. He’d no more than set it down when the phone rang again. He picked it up.

It was Knox again. "Blake, will you handle the details?" he said. "I’ll have my girl get with you later."

"Guess I don’t get much choice," he said, and hung up the phone.

He turned back to Jenny, who was crying, now. "God damn it," she said between sobs, "I ought to just leave this fucking town and never come back."

Blake’s arms were getting tired, but he realized that right now, Jenny needed to be touched, so he started in gently on her back again. "I heard," he said. "You should stand up to him, just once, so he won’t push you around like that."

"It just isn’t fair," she said. "That’ll give me four days at home at the most, then I’ll have to come back and spend the summer putting in fourteen-hour days on that stinking movie set. Do you know how much it hurt me to miss Brandy’s graduation for that lousy video? Damn, I envy Brandy."

Blake had never met Jenny’s younger sister, Brandy, but had seen photos; in fact, there was one hanging on the wall. She was shorter than Jenny by several inches, but wider and more muscular; not pretty at all. She’d never asked Jenny for money, but had gotten through college on athletic scholarships, so had to be something of a jockette. A smart jockette, he reminded himself; Brandy had graduated Magma Cum Laude in a tough science curriculum. "I know," Blake replied softly.

It was as if Jenny never heard him. "She’s going to be making something worthwhile of herself, something honorable. God, I wish I had half her looks and half her smarts, and then I’d still be in Spearfish Lake."

"If you were," Blake said fatalistically, "you’d probably be dreaming of what it would be like to be in Hollywood, rich and pretty and famous."

"Yeah," she said quietly, calming down a little, now. "No one would ever believe the truth."

"Four days is better than nothing," Blake commented for both of them.

"Yeah, it beats nothing," she replied glumly. "You know what I ought to do?"

"What?" His response was rhetorical; he’d heard the answer to that one before.

"I ought to go see grandpa," she said. "Ask him how much money he’s got. If I’ve got more, then I’ll go see Uncle Brent, and tell him to build me a house, and never come back to this town again."

"You’d go nuts," Blake commented. "It’d be nice, sitting around like that with nothing to do, but after two weeks, you’d go off your rocker. Thomas Wolfe, I think it was, said ‘You can’t go home again.’"

"I’d find something to do," she protested. "Go set type at the Record-Herald, like my mother. Sell appliances for my dad. Maybe sing in the lounge at the Spearfish Lake Inn on Saturday nights."

"It wouldn’t be the same," Blake said, shaking his head. "It wouldn’t be like you haven’t been Jenny Easton."

"You want to see how quick I can quit being Jenny Easton?" she asked. "Just let me go back to Spearfish Lake. The first single pulp logger who says, ‘Hey, Jennifer Evachevski! Long time, no see,’ I’ll marry him on the spot and raise a whole house full of kids, and nobody will ever see Jenny Easton again."

It was a dream to cling to, and not a new one; Blake had heard it all before. Jenny fell silent, and Blake could feel her dreaming of what might be when the phone rang again.

Blake gave serious thought to not answering it, but then thought better. It proved to be Knox again. "This isn’t a good time, right now," Blake said to the agent’s request to speak to Jenny again.

"Believe me, Blake, she wants to hear this," he said.

With some reluctance, Blake gave the phone to Jenny. "Good news," Knox said. "I talked to the guy at Defenders of Gaea. They’re willing to shoot a week from Saturday, over on Catalina. They don’t want to have to pay overtime, but I said you’d cover it, if you could do it as a write-off."

Blake was overhearing the conversation, of course, and he heard the agent’s words with genuine relief. "Thanks, Fred," Jenny said, with a sweetness in her voice that the world knew, "I knew you’d come through for me."

"While I’ve got you on the phone," he went on, "I had a call from a guy at Hollywood Tonight. They want to do an interview with you."

"No, Fred," she said. "You were the one talking about image. I’ve got this image that I don’t do interviews. You know that."

"Yeah," the agent said. "But this is special. They want to tie it into this environmental promo. It’ll make it look like you’re really serious about it. What they’d really like is to do it up at your summer place."

"No, Fred. No. Never. Not at my parents’ place."

"It would really help your image," he said.

"Fred, if anybody shows up at my parents’ place carrying a video camera, he’s going to find himself down at Shaundessy’s Bait Shop, getting cut up for muskie bait. And I am not shitting you. Spearfish Lake is off limits."

"Well, then, how about at the shoot?"

Jenny shrugged. "Not an in-depth interview, but I could flip them a line or two they could use for clips."

"That’s the spirit, Jenny," Knox said. "I knew you’d come through. You’re a real trouper, kid. I’ll have my girl get back with Blake to set up the details."

As Blake hung the phone back up, Jenny asked, "I let him do it to me again, didn’t I?"

"Afraid so," Blake said. "It’s not the first time he’s bummed you out with bad news, then softened it so you bought what he was really going for in the first place."

She sighed. "Still, the first single pulp logger from Spearfish Lake who calls me ‘Jennifer Evachevski’ is going to get more than he bargained for."

<< Back to Last Chapter
Forward to Next Chapter >>

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.