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 17

July 1987

"Look, I can still go to Chicago, or even to Camden with you, if you want," Blake told Jenny as he drove the rental car out into the Vegas traffic, which was heavy, even though it was after midnight. "I don’t mind."

It was Monday night, and Jenny’s last show of the gig was over with. They’d been jam-packed, extra admission shows for the Fourth of July weekend, and they’d really gone well. She was exhausted from the show, glad it was over with, but glad she’d put on a good show, too. "Blake, it really won’t be necessary," she replied. "Once I get on that plane, I’m Jennifer Evachevski again, and I’ve got a purse full of driver’s licenses and ID’s like that to prove it."

"No big deal," Blake protested. "By the time I get up to the Bay Area, it’s gonna be late, anyway. I can take the redeye with you, and an early morning flight back to the coast. I can get all the sleep I need on the plane."

"Blake, you’re a dear," Jenny told him, stifling a yawn. The letdown following the high of the show was getting to her, now. "You’d be a great mother. I’m the one who ought to be worried about you horsing around up there in Frisco, not you about me in Spearfish Lake."

"There’ll be a lot of people at O’Hare, even at that hour of the morning," Blake protested. "It wouldn’t be any big deal."

"That’s why Jennifer Evachevski is going coach. Nobody would expect Jenny Easton to fly coach. ‘Oh, wow!’" she said, raising her voice half an octave, and overlaying a rasping Brooklyn accent over the top of it. "‘You really think I look like Jenny Easton?’"

"I know," Blake said. "I’ve seen you pull it before, but I’d still feel better."

Jenny let her voice go back to normal. "Nothing’s going to happen, Blake. As soon as you take off, I’m Jennifer Evachevski, and that’ll make me feel as good as anything. You have a good time and get rested up. It’s going to be tough for both of us, soon enough."

Blake nodded. Two months of shooting that stupid movie! Up at four and five AM, driving across town, makeup, lots of standing around, psyched up for the role and bored at the same time, shooting the same scene over and over and over, with increasing frustration. By the time the day was over, Jenny would be near tears at best, and there’d be a bitch of a time getting her in a mood to face the next day of the same thing. He wondered if the 2.2 million she was getting for it was worth the strain. Still, after taxes and Knox’s skim, it would be a cool million in the bank, and there was a record with the film that could go gold, easy, maybe platinum – another million or two for the bank account. It seemed worth the effort. "I can take whatever you dish out," he told her. "You’re the one who’s going to have to get relaxed and unwound. You get yourself plenty of time in the sun, chew the fat with friends and relatives, get laid back. You’re the one who needs it."

"It’ll be good to be home," Jenny agreed. "I’ve been getting to the point where I needed it."

You needed it months ago, Blake thought. He changed the subject. "Are you going to check on that snake thing while you’re home?" He beeped the horn at some jerk who cut him off. Between the gambling and the booze, there were a lot of idiots running around Vegas.

"No way," she said. "I don’t want anyone to know that I’ve got anything to do with it. It’s just my way of doing something for the town, and it gives me something to feel that I’m contributing to home."

"If it makes you feel better, then I’m for it," Blake said. He could make that statement with Jenny; he knew she didn’t do drugs, or even drink, except for an occasional glass of wine. Jenny may not have been happy most of the time, but she wasn’t a self-destructive type. "As far as I’m concerned, it’s a waste of perfectly good money, but so long as you’re content with it . . . "

"I am," Jenny said.

" . . . then I’m not going to bring it up again. Was that the monthly report I saw in the mail before we left?

"First of the month report," she said. "Didn’t say much of anything. The person they want to send to Spearfish Lake is in Hawaii and won’t be back for a few days yet. It’ll be the end of the month before they have anything from the television surveillance."

"A lot of nothing."

"Yeah, but they didn’t expect to have anything much this soon anyway. That’s another thing I’m glad I’m not going to have to think about the next two weeks. I won’t have to dream about home. I’ll be there."

*   *   *

The redeye out of Vegas wasn’t crowded at all; Jennifer had a three-seat window block all to herself. Predictably, she took a window seat; she liked to look out at the lights spread out below. Crossing most of the country on the flight to O’Hare, they tended to be scattered, and sometimes there was a nearly total blankness below them. She was on the plane’s manifest as Jennifer Evachevski, and she only had to use the "Oh, Wow! Do you REALLY think I look like Jenny Easton?" gag once, in a shrill Brooklyn accent so obnoxious that she wasn’t bothered. Somewhere over Utah, or maybe it was Colorado, she fell asleep, and didn’t wake up until the jet began its letdown for Chicago.

From there on, it wasn’t a problem at all; no one even asked, and apparently no one even thought that she might really be who she looked like. After all, what would a glamorous Hollywood star, a recording star, be doing on the North Central 737 flying between Chicago and Camden?

Which is not to say that she didn’t get some attention, but it was the same attention that any pretty woman traveling alone would get; all of it was easy to brush off.

What really made the trip worthwhile was being asked for three pieces of identification at the rental car counter in Camden. Jennifer produced them readily, and they were accepted without question. That made it even better; it proved to her that Jenny Easton was still in California.

It was a familiar drive up to Spearfish Lake. Once outside Camden, the traffic wasn’t bad at all, but Jennifer was just a little uneasy, mostly because she was a little out of practice at driving. She made a mental note that she was going to have to drive in California more, rather than just letting Blake do it all. Maybe Blake made it too easy to be Jenny Easton.

But it was so nice to drive out of the Camden suburbs on the four-lane and watch it turn to two-lane near Moffatt, just about the time the fields and clusters of houses turned to the forests and swamps and lakes of the north woods she’d longed for over the past few months.

The reality of coming home didn’t reach her until she made the left turn onto the state road near Coldwater, where the barren home stretch going up to Spearfish Lake started. It was right along in here that she had first become Jenny Easton, or at least first realized that she would have to become Jenny Easton. It had been on her first trip to Nashville, the one she’d taken to test the waters, see what sort of reaction she would get, when the realization struck her that "Evachevski" wasn’t the sort of name that would go over very well in country music. Her first big hit, Smoke-Filled Room, had gone gold on the country charts, which got her career moving. It was eight summers before, almost to the day, that she’d started that trip; a long eight years, indeed.

Jennifer had promised herself years before that she was going to retire when she was thirty. That was three and a half years off, and sometimes she wondered if she could hold out. But those were Jenny Easton thoughts, and she had to remind herself that Jenny was back out on the coast, somewhere.

She flipped on the radio in the car; it came on with some local station, playing a polka. She found herself singing along with Frankie Yankovich, "Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun . . . "

If Linda Ronstadt can do a mariachi record, she thought, I ought to be able to do a polka record. Boy, wouldn’t Knox strip a gear when he heard about that! Now, that was a Jennifer thought, the Jennifer she liked to remember – mischievous, needling people’s pretensions, the Jennifer who was in control of herself, of her own destiny, capable of handling anything.

The miles flew by as she headed up the state road to Spearfish Lake. The station playing on the car radio was rather eclectic; it followed Frankie Yankovich with Fats Domino, and then Hank Williams, Junior, but when it segued into the familiar lead for Fever, followed by her own voice, she hit the search button on the radio. " . . . and now, Nathan Chamberlain with the farm markets," the announcer said.

It was good to be home. "Sows up a quarter, barrows and gilts down an eighth" was music to her ears.

Though she was anxious to see everybody, Jennifer knew it was not a good day to stop by the Record-Herald to see her mother. It was a Tuesday, and Tuesdays were always bad, and would be worse, following a Monday holiday. She had a lot of friends at the Record-Herald and knew that if she walked in to the office this morning everything would come to a screeching halt for an hour or more, and what the people there lost during the day, they’d have to make up during the evening. She thought she’d go in tomorrow, instead, mail day, maybe pitch in to get the paper out – help with the inserts, like she’d done in high school, or maybe run the Saxmayer bundling machine. It would feel good to do something productive. She could shoot the bull with everybody and not feel like she was dragging things to a dead stop.

Though Jennifer’s parents knew she was arriving, it hadn’t been clear until the last minute when she would arrive, and she’d told them not to do anything special. She made her first stop at the Appliance Center; her dad was in the middle of trying to sell a dishwasher, but everything came to a screeching halt for a hug and a kiss, and a quick, noncommittal report on the trip. She helped her dad out by saying, "I’ve got one of these, and you can hardly hear it. It does a darn good job for the price," and was rewarded by hearing the customer say they’d take it. Once her dad had the order written up, the store was empty, so they just sat and talked for a while, mostly catching up on what had happened around Spearfish Lake.

"You can go on out to the club, if you like," Gil told her, "but we’re staying in town for a couple of days. Brandy and Phil are both home, so we decided we’d better stay in town."

"Brandy’s home? Great! Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve seen her?"

"Why don’t you slide on home and see them now?" Gil suggested. "They’re only going to be in town for a couple of days. In fact, they’ve been hanging around in hopes of seeing you. Brandy’s got a couple of days she’s got to get in on Rod’s new dig, then they’re driving out to Colorado for some research project."

"Great!" Jennifer replied. "I’m glad I caught them home. It really bothered me that I couldn’t make it to her graduation."

"It was a pretty good program," Gil replied. "This time next year, plus a couple of months, and all you kids’ll be gone. The house is really going to seem quiet."

"Maybe I’ll have to move back in with you," Jennifer suggested. "I’ll go home and see them. I wouldn’t mind taking a nap, anyway. I was up late last night, and didn’t get much sleep in the air."

In the driveway at home, the familiar Evachevski home of her memories, there was a three-on-three basketball game going on. Jennifer parked the rental across the street, and just watched for a second. It was apparently guys against girls, Phil Wine, Josh Archer, and Danny against Brandy and the Ashtenfelter girls.

Jennifer got out of the car, and quietly walked across the street, watching. Though every one of the guys was taller than any of the girls, it seemed pretty clear that the girls were having their way. Brandy had much to do with that, of course, but the Ashtenfelter girls were contributing their own fair share. It struck her as a little odd that the Ashtenfelter girls would be here in town, but not odd enough to comment on. "Who’s winning?" she asked finally.

"Jennifer!" Brandy yelled, and all of a sudden the ball was forgotten while in midair, and for a while, it was all hugs and kisses and tears. It was good to be home.

Somehow, the party moved up onto the porch. Phil was the only one of the six who hadn’t known Jennifer long before there had been a Jenny Easton; she’d only met him a couple of times, but they’d liked each other. Phil was a farm boy from Arvada Center, southeast of Camden, and to him the fact that Jennifer Evachevski was Brandy’s sister was more important than anything else Jennifer might have been, so he fit in nicely. He offered to go and get Cokes for everybody, while the catching up on old times began.

One little mystery cleared itself up, as soon as everybody sat down: Josh and Amy sat down next to each other on one end of the couch, and Marsha and Danny shared the porch swing. The thought brought a smile to Jennifer’s lips; Danny and Marsha had known each other since they were babies, and had fought with each other just as long. Now, all of a sudden, they were good buddies. Amy and Josh were sitting close, too, which solved the mystery of why the Ashtenfelter girls were in town. "What brought this on?" Jennifer asked.

"Brought what on?" Danny said.

"You two and you two," Jennifer replied, pointing.

"Oh, Josh and Amy had a date last month, and Marsha and I went along for the ride," Danny said. "We’ve been running around a lot together since."

"It must have been some date."

"They won’t tell you," Brandy said. "I had to find out from Mom. Let’s just say that it’s a first date that none of them will ever forget."

"Hey, it’s no big thing," Danny protested. "Anybody would have done it."

"Yeah," Brandy said. "But it just wasn’t anybody who did it – you guys did."

"Well, what happened?" Jennifer asked.

"You know Ed Sloat? Works for the railroad?" Brandy asked. Jennifer nodded, and Brandy went on, "Josh and Amy ended up running CPR on him for about twenty minutes, while Danny and Marsha kept Jill Sloat from bleeding to death. Like I said, it’s not a first date that’ll be easy to forget."

"Everybody makes such a big deal out of it," Danny said. "We just did what we had to do."

"Yeah," Brandy said, "And these kids have been the fearsome foursome ever since. You never see one of them but what you see the four of them, unless Danny or Josh are working."

"What are you doing?" Jennifer asked as Phil came back and started handing out ice-cold cans.

"We’ve been working at the railroad, for Mr. Ellsberg," Josh explained. "Just part time as trainee brakemen, mostly, but that includes cleaning grubby old engine parts, too."

"That makes me feel old," Jennifer said. "I remember when getting a job for Mr. Ellsberg meant you were going to be bag boys at the Supermarket. What’s Tara up to this summer?"

"She’s a camp counselor at some Girl Scout camp in southern Michigan," Danny said. "I don’t remember what the name of it is, but she calls it ‘Mosquito Valley.’"

"How about Garth and Michelle?"

"They were up last weekend. They’re working his tail off down there in Milwaukee, and he says he doesn’t think that he’s going to be able to make it up this weekend. Maybe next weekend. He’d really like to see you, too."

"I suppose there’s still no chance that Mom’s going to be a grandmother soon?"

"Nope. At least not for a couple years, if Michelle has her way," Brandy said.

"I was talking about you and Phil, too."

Phil smiled. "The less said on that topic, the better," he said. "There have been some rather pointed suggestions."

Jennifer smiled to herself. She knew Brandy and Phil had what might best be called an "unconventional" relationship; not an open one, but . . . different. She let it go. "Yeah," Jennifer sympathized, "I’ve had a few, myself."

"Well," Brandy said, "you’re certainly still in the race to be the first to make Mom a proud grandparent. So, what’s been happening with you?"

"Have you been reading the newspapers? There’s nothing happening with me that hasn’t been in the newspapers. Of course, nothing about me that’s been in the newspapers has happened the way they say it did, either."

"I saw in the Inquirer they had you hooked up with Bruce Willis," Amy commented.

"Amy, somewhere in Los Angeles, there’s a woman under the age of seventy that the Inquirer hasn’t had hooked up with Bruce Willis, but as soon as they figure out who she is, they’ll fix it." That was a bitter, cynical statement, Jennifer thought, sorry she’d said it. She realized she’d have to watch herself. Leave Jenny in L.A. where she belongs, she thought to herself.

She lounged back in the chair, took a sip of her Coke, and let Spearfish Lake soak into her once again.

*   *   *

"You did an excellent job in Hawaii," McMullen said. "They’ve really got some problems there, don’t they?"

"We could concentrate our efforts there for the next ten years, and not make a dent," Heather said. "All those Japanese buying in with big bucks, and not a one of them cares. The Japanese still have whalers out, for Pete’s sake. I took a day off and went through the museum at Pearl Harbor, and I found myself wondering how we could get our hands on a torpedo."

"There’s an idea," Harper agreed. "That might get some attention. Might get someone the chair, too."

"Maybe so," Heather said. "But some might think it’s worth it. There were Japanese who used to fly planes loaded with bombs into ships, back during World War II. Maybe there’s someone who would give up his life to stop whaling."

"They were called ‘kamikazes’, Heather," Harper informed her. "That’s a heck of an idea, but it’d almost have to be a solo operator. We’d get into all kinds of trouble we don’t need if we got involved with something like that."

"Besides, don’t get it in your head," McMullen agreed. "We’ve got something else we’d like you to do instead, and it won’t involve a suicide attack on a whale factory. Not quite as spectacular, but almost as important."

"Not another big donor, I hope," Heather said. The weeks she had spent in Hawaii hadn’t been very nice to her. She had been out in the sun too much, and had burned, rather than tanned; she had that sort of skin, now red and angered looking. But, actually getting out in the field, even for an assessment project like she’d just finished, had been a breath of fresh air for her.

"It involves a big donor," Harper admitted. "However, we’ve already got the money, and the donor prefers to remain anonymous."

"This is another field job," McMullen said. "This is going to take a little longer, and there’s not going to be quite the danger of getting sunburned." He went on to explain about Spearfish Lake, the snake, and the sewer system. "We’ve already gotten the money for the TV surveillance to the principal investigator, this Dr. Gerjevic," he explained. "But, we understand that it’s going to be another couple of weeks before the surveillance can get under way. So, initially what we want you to do is assess the whole situation. You’ll have to coordinate with this Dr. Gerjevic and his field researcher on what’s actually happening, then go from there."

"Is that all this is? Another assessment, without action?"

"In the beginning. However, if it looks like this sewer separation project is going to get carried through, someone is going to have to get down in the trenches. Heather, we don’t have the resources to hold your hand on this, but you’re a big girl, now. We’re going to give you pretty much a free hand in this. Take what action you have to for protection of the snake, but you’ll have to be the judge of what that action is. Naturally, if it gets blown up into a snail darter thing, with national attention, we’d be pleased, but it’s going to take good luck and a lot of work to make it that big."

"You’re not kidding," she said.

"Now, our backer in this wants monthly progress reports," Harper added, "and the donor will be aware if something gets stirred up, so naturally, if there’s a need, we want it stirred up, but I shouldn’t have to tell you how hard it will be to turn this into a national story."

"Upper Midwest. I’m not so sure that it wouldn’t be easier to take on the Japanese whaling fleet," Heather protested.

"We’re not telling you to go out there and attempt the impossible," McMullen said. "In some respects, it should be easy to protect the snake, given a little time and effort. Making a big deal out of it may not be so easy. If after a few months, there seems to be a pretty good effort at protecting the snake without much intervention from us, then we may decide not to make a big thing out of it ourselves, and just monitor the situation from time to time. If we have to make a big thing out of it, we can. If we have to back off, we’ll find something else for you to do."

"But," Harper said, "if you can make a success out of this, then we’ll find something more rewarding for you to do. And, maybe at some place where it doesn’t get quite so cold in the winter."

"It’s worth a try," Heather admitted. "For the snake, if for nothing else. If I’m going to be there for months, then I ought to clean out my apartment and put my stuff in storage. Do you think it’s safe to wait another few days?"

"Don’t see any reason why not," McMullen said. "I get the impression there’s no way they can break ground on the sewer system until next spring, anyway. Why don’t you shoot for the first of the week?"

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