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 20

Jennifer lay on a chaise lounge in the quiet back yard of her parentís cottage. The sun was waning a little as the afternoon wore down, but it hadnít warmed up the cold feeling in her gut much.

Jennifer had remembered seeing Jackie around town in the past, but somehow, sheíd never quite remembered meeting her. Still, there had been a sparkle in her eye when sheíd walked into the sign shop, and sheíd known sheíd found a friend. Theyíd flown south slowly, as Jackie related a little of how she and Mark had flown the plane around the country on their honeymoon, and when theyíd seen the lights of the police cruiser on the ground behind them, theyíd circled out of sight over the woods and flown back north to the club.

Jackie had dropped her off at the clubís airstrip hours before. Jennifer had offered to get her something to drink, or something, at least to thank her for the plane ride, but Jackie demurred. "Thanks, but Iím not a nudist," sheíd said. "Stop by the house sometime, and we can have a long talk."

"I think Iíll do that," Jennifer promised, knowing sheíd found a new friend.

That had been hours before. Jennifer had kept to herself in the time sheíd been at the club. Somehow, it hadnít seemed like the refuge it had been in the past, and she wondered if she could ever feel free here again.

She heard a car pull up out front, but didnít get up to see who it was. Probably, it was her brother, back from work, or maybe her parents. It didnít matter.

"Hey," a voice said, "I didnít think youíd have a bikini on here."

She looked up; it was Mike, with a big grin on his face. "I borrowed it from Amy Ashtenfelter," she said. "I couldnít see making some asshole with a telephoto lens an instant millionaire."

"Well, you can take it off," Mike said. "Theyíve got to be halfway back to L.A., now."

"Are you sure?" she said, sitting up.

"They were so glad to have someone drive them to the airport that they gave me two hundred bucks," Mike reported. "I deserve an Oscar for the line of bullshit I fed them. Those two arenít likely to ever be back here again."

"What did you tell them?" she asked.

Mike laughed out loud. "I havenít had that kind of fun in a long time. Iíd sure like to have seen Harold and LeRoy. God, that was funny. After you left, Harold called me up and he asked, ĎWhat did you mean when you said to hassle those two?í and I told him, ĎCome on, Harold, youíve seen movies like Macon County Line. Act like thatí. They dropped them off back on the old Ward Grade right where I told them to, and I hit it on the nose. They couldnít have been out of the woods five minutes when I found them hitchhiking down the highway."

"Theyíre really gone?" she asked.

"Incidentally, they didnít get any usable footage," Mike went on. "They only had odds and ends on the tape in the camera, but if they write and ask for their camera back, the only thing the tape is going to show is going to be out-of-focus footage of a car door. I ran the tape back to the beginning and set it running. The other tapes in the car and at the motel were still in the package."

"Well, thanks for being thorough," she said. "Thanks for everything, Mike. I knew I could count on you."

"Like I said, it was kind of fun," Mike said. "Whatís more, we didnít break any laws. Maybe their story will get around the Hollywood underground a little. Might make it easier, next time."

"It might make it harder, next time," Jennifer said, lying back down, still uneasy. "The next time somebody comes, they might be more prepared, and not as stupid. Mike, how can I ever come back here again?"

"Itís that bad, huh?" Mike said, sitting down on the ground.

"Itís that bad," Jennifer said. "I mean, out there, I have to be Jenny Easton, and itís hard for me to remember that Iím really Jennifer Evachevski. As long as Iíve been able to get back here and be Jennifer Evachevski once in a while, Iíve pretty well been able to get along. But when Iím here, I donít want to have to be Jenny Easton, here, too."

Mike found himself longing for another one of Webbís cigarettes. "You said something like that this morning," he said. "I thought about it a bit on the way back from Camden, and look, I donít know how to say this, but itís unhealthy for you to believe that youíre still plain little Jennifer Evachevski. You can call yourself whatever you want, but youíve got to accept that youíre still Jenny Easton, too."

"But Mike," she said. "I donít know how I can do that and stay myself."

"You arenít yourself if you donít accept it," he said. "And, Iím not kidding when I say itís unhealthy. You know Jackie, the woman who flew you out here today?"

"Yes. I donít ever remember meeting her before, but we were old friends in thirty seconds."

"You didnít hear this from me," Mike said. "Kirsten told me about it; she and Jackie were friends, back in high school. It seems Jackieís mother had trouble telling the difference between who she was, and who she wanted to be, and she wound up spending ten years or more in the state hospital down in Camden, and eventually died there. Itís called acute schizophrenia."

"You think Iíve got that?"

"I think youíre trolling for it, real hard. Jackie could tell you itís not worth it, although Jackie wonít tell you about it. Her husband, Mark, may not know as much as Iíve just told you."

"But Mike," she pleaded. "What do I do?"

"Iím no expert," Mike replied, "but you are going to have to come to accept that you are really Jenny Easton, then get control of what Jenny Easton is doing that makes you unhappy."

"But Mike, thatís the one thing I donít know how to do."

Mike furrowed his brow. Jennifer was an old friend, and he was out of his league, and he knew it. Still, maybe some common sense wouldnít hurt. "Whatís so important about being Jenny Easton?" he asked. "I mean, why are you putting yourself through that wringer? Thereís got to be some reason for it."

It was a tough question, one that Jennifer had never really asked herself. "The money, the fame, the career," she said, finally.

"Youíve already got all the money youíll ever want," Mike said. "I follow your career more closely than you might think, and I know youíre not one to throw your money away. I donít know how much money youíve got, but your grandfather said you passed him years ago. Thatís plenty for anyone. As far as fame goes, you could never sing another note, never act another line, and youíd be as famous as anyone ever could want to be. You said yourself that youíre working more than you want to, and you turn down more yet. I repeat, why are you doing this to yourself?"

"I keep thinking about retiring," she protested, knowing she was evading the question. "Just coming back here, buying a house, and enjoying myself."

"Do that, and youíd really go nuts," Mike said. "Just from sheer boredom. What Iím trying to say is that youíve seen the other side of the mountain. Sure, itís fun to come back here and run the Saxmayer, and I know you did yesterday. But it would get real old, real quick."

"Blake keeps telling me I canít really come home again."

"Blake is right," Mike said. "Sure, you could come back here and live. Maybe it would be a good idea. Hang around till it gets dull, then go do a movie or a tour or something, and when it starts getting wearing, come back home. Think of, oh, Barbra Streisand. She does what she damn well wants to do, and when she wants to take it easy, she does. Jennifer, it would be nice to have you come home to live, but the only way youíre going to be able to do it is to admit youíre Jenny Easton. Oh, you can be Jennifer Evachevski in the phone book, to drive off the curious people, but it comes back down to admitting youíre Jenny Easton, too."

*   *   *

It didnít happen very often, but every now and then, Mike knew that when he sat down at the computer to write, it was going to ignite a fire storm, and heíd never had the feeling more strongly than right now.

The Spearfish Lake City Council met every second and fourth Tuesday of the month. For twelve years, now, every other week Mike had come back to the Record-Herald after the meeting to do the council story and with it put the finishing touches on the paper.

There were some preparations to be made before he could write. Alone in the building, in the late evening right after the council meeting, he checked the front page, the only page still laid out on the makeup tables. From the agenda, it hadnít looked like it was going to be much of a council meeting, and he thought heíd been generous to leave fourteen inches for it. The hole left for the council story didnít lead the page, either, but he could slide the county commission story heíd planned on leading with down, and cut down on the size of the headline, and that would gain a few inches. Not enough.

There was a three-column picture at the upper left of the firemen out fighting a grass fire. Thereíd been enough of those; they could do without, this time. Yanking the photo opened up a rather ragged six-column hole, clear across the page, and if any story called for a six-column head, this one did. The Record-Herald hadnít run one of those since the girlsí softball team won the state championships, back in í83. The page would look unbalanced, but he doubted that anyone would care about the niceties.

With a six-column streamer, that left a hole of about twenty-four inches. It probably wouldnít be enough, but there was a filler ad back on page seven where the story could be jumped, if it had to be. Mike hated to have to jump the story, especially one like this, so decided to try and write it to twenty-four inches.

He went back down to his office, booted up the computer on his desk, and loaded PageMaker. It wasnít the greatest program for writing, but he could work right to the size of the hole. He stared at the blank, gray screen, hoping inspiration would come for a headline. He liked to start with a headline, since sometimes it could define the story, but everything he could think of was too long. Maybe the story could help him, so he bit his lip and started,

Property owners in about half of Spearfish Lake will be faced with special property assessments of up to $7,500 per acre to pay for separation of the storm and sanitary sewers, following an announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week that the city will be fined up to $20,000 per day, unless the action is taken.

That wasnít quite right, and it was unwieldy, but he could clarify it. Best to blame the EPA right up front, he thought; the council is going to take enough heat as it is. My God, am I ever glad Kirsten and I sold out when we did, he thought for the umpteenth time since item number nine had come up on the councilís agenda. He got on with the story:

The Spearfish Lake City Council was informed of the EPA action at Tuesdayís meeting, when City Manager Don Kutzley announced that commencing July 1 of next year the city will have to pay fines of $10,000 for each day the cityís waste water treatment plant is out of compliance. As of July 1, 1990, the fines will go to $20,000 per day.

There, he thought, that clarifies the ambiguity of the lead. Better get into the why a little more, before we get to the bad part.

Kutzley said that the Environmental Protection Agency took the action in response to the repeated flooding of the cityís sewer treatment plant caused by storm water being allowed into the sewage water during periods of heavy rains. Last year, the plant was out of compliance for this reason twenty-three times, although itís only flooded eight times so far this year.

Part of the cityís storm drainage is on the surface, or in separate short storm drains directly to lakes or lowlands, and these areas are not affected by the action. However, much of the south part of the city has storm drainage into the sewer system.

Mike realized it was time to get to the part that was going to set off the screaming:

An engineering study done in 1983 indicated that it would cost about $3,000,000 to remedy the problem. However, Kutzley indicated that due to increased construction costs and higher interest rates, a final figure well over the $4 million mark could be expected.

The city has made repeated attempts over the last fifteen years to find state and federal funds to remedy the problem, to no avail. "Without any hope of funding, weíre obviously going to have to do it ourselves," Kutzley said. "Iíve looked at it every way I can think of, and the only fair way I can see to fund the project is to assess the property owners in the problem area."

Mike floundered for a few seconds. It was necessary to take a fairly complicated idea that Kutzley had presented over several minutes, and sum it up in a second or two, without confusing the reader.

"The fairest way to do it," Kutzley explained, is to assess each property owner in the area by their percentage of land area in the problem zone. "Larger properties contribute more to the runoff than smaller ones do," he said.

That tended to ignore the fact that the city itself was a large landowner in the area, and from what Mike had been able to figure out, Kutzley hadnít included streets, sidewalks, and parking lots and the like in the runoff, although they contributed. That opened up a can of worms, though, and Kutzleyís plan was admittedly a rough-cut. Which, Mike knew, was a point heíd better make before much longer.

The city manager indicated that the problem was confined to an area a little under eight hundred acres, located on the south side of town. The area is mostly residential, although it includes much, though not all, of the Spearfish Lake school complex. He said that early, rough calculations would mean that it would cost about $5,000 per acre to fund the storm water sewer, and more than that if bonds are taken out and interest paid on them. With interest, the cost could go to half again as much."

There it was. It was out. Actually, Mike thought, if Kirsten and he had stayed at the old house, it really wouldnít be anywhere near as bad a hit as he had expected Ė only something in the thousand- to twelve hundred-dollar bracket. He could have swallowed that, so he was glad he hadnít used that as an argument to move to the new place. He liked the new house and the location a heck of a lot better, even though the road was getting a little out of hand.

Mayor Ryan Clark commented, "Itís a darn shame that the federal government has to come along, and cram this down our throats. I feel sorry for the people affected by this, but thereís nothing left to do but go ahead with this, however much we donít want to."

Councilman Ray Milliman agreed, "The people in the special assessment district arenít going to be very happy about this, and I donít blame them one bit. Weíve done our best to try to avoid this, and now weíre stuck with it."

Yeah, Mike thought. It really wasnít the money; under the circumstances, it wasnít an impossible figure. It was the EPA cramming it down the cityís throat that really burned.

He checked the inch count. He was getting there, better than he had expected. Better start to wind this up, he thought.

After considerable discussion, council voted 7-0 to have Kutzley go ahead with developing a detailed plan to develop the special assessment districts, to explore the possibility of bonding, and to have the engineering plans reviewed in preparation to take construction bids. Construction could start yet this fall.

City attorney Charles Blackbarn told the council that it was within their authority, under the city charter, to order the special assessment district to go ahead without a vote of the people, although a special election would be necessary for bonding. Council will discuss the possibility of a bond election at their next meeting, set for July 28.

And that meeting will be a zoo, Mike thought. He checked his inch count again. Close; there was only about three inches left. That wasnít enough to do a sidebar on other council business, which there wasnít much of, and it would only mean a bigger tear-up of the paper. Good enough, he thought. Iíll just fill it up with an In other business line, and add a few taglines. That ought to hold it.

His fingers flew over the keys, finishing up the last few lines of the story. He ran back up to the beginning of the story and read over it, catching a couple of spelling errors, and suspecting that he missed some others.

That left the problem of a headline. City forced to build drain really summed it up, but there had to be some way to bring out that it was the property owners who were getting hit in the wallet. A kicker reading, Landowners to pay big would do it. He typed the headline and kicker out, and stared at it for a minute. It would have even more impact if it were the other way around, he realized finally, so he changed it. Landowners to pay big would now be spread across the six columns, in eighty-four-point type. Thereíd be screaming tomorrow; there was no point in being a shrinking violet.

Mike shook his head. It wasnít a great story, but it would draw a good reaction. He was tired, and it would have to do. He saved it to the hard drive, and to a floppy. He took the floppy up to the layout room, booted up the 286 and laser printer, and ran the story off. It only took a couple minutes to paste down and put in the box, where Sally would find it in the morning. For once, he was glad he didnít have to make the Camden run the next day; it was always tough after a council meeting, but it was even tougher after one like this one. As an afterthought, he wrote a note to have an extra five hundred papers printed; this one would probably sell pretty well at the dealers.

Mike shut off the computers and the lights, then went out and got in the Rabbit. Though Susan would probably be asleep, Kirsten should still be up. It was kind of a shame that Susan would probably be asleep; so far, sheíd been a pretty good baby.

*   *   *

"Marjorie, Iím out of here," Don Kutzley told his secretary.

"Don, you must have at least a dozen phone calls to return," she protested.

"Right," Kutzley said. "I could just about follow the Record-Herald truck around town from where I was getting phone calls. Theyíll keep. Iím going to go over and see how theyíre coming with the sewer inspection. Thatíll get me out of here for a while, anyway." He was gone before Marjorie could protest.

It wasnít as if he hadnít expected it, but it was still pretty frantic on the phone after about eleven oíclock. The calls before then had mostly come as a result of the rumor mill, but as soon as the Record-Herald came out, it got bad.

The last phone call was the worst. Don had expected to be cussed out a bit, but Binky Augsberg had lit into him in English, French, and Vietnamese, and heíd been just as glad he didnít know what she was calling him in any of those but English; that had been bad enough. He hadnít been aware that she owned as much property in the separation district as she did, but she stood to take as big a hit as the school was going to have to burp up. The school superintendent had been less than thrilled, too.

As Don got into his car, he reflected that there were probably seven city council members who wouldnít be answering their phones for days.

The car started hard; it was a former city police car that had seen better days, but Don hardly ever drove it farther than the city limits, and it saved the city a few ostentatious dollars.

The sewer inspection crew had been working on the sewer system since Monday, but Don had yet to be able to get out to see what they were up to. He gave Jack Musgrave a call on the city radio, to see if he knew where they were working, and was rewarded with the reply that Musgrave thought they were somewhere out around the far end of Oak Street.

There really wasnít a lot to see; a big step van, like a bread truck, and a pickup truck, parked on each side of an open manhole. Next to the manhole, one of the city crew helped one of the specialists feed a small cable down the manhole. "The ratís quite a ways up the street," one of the TV crew said.

"I thought you had to push it up there," Don commented.

"Used to," the crewman said. "This is the latest gimmick. The ratís got electrically driven wheels all around it, so it drives itself. You just have to keep the cable halfway tight when itís backing, so it doesnít back over the cable. If it does, youíve got a real mess."

Inside the step van, another technician monitored a black and white TV, which gave a real-time playback from the rat while two videotape machines recorded what the TV camera in the rat was seeing. Behind the technician, Pam Appleton sat looking over his shoulder. Don glanced at the monitor, which showed the inside of a damp, rather dirty pipe, but nothing in particular. "Finding any snakes, Pam?" he asked.

"Not a snake," Pam told him. "Weíve gone almost halfway through the sewers, except for the household feeders where we canít see and canít make the turn, and havenít seen one single snake."

"Finding anything else?" Kutzley asked the technician.

"Finding a few breaks," the technician reported, lighting a cigarette for something to do. "Nothing spectacular today, although we found a pretty big one over on Elm Street yesterday. Overall, itís in pretty good shape, so far." He consulted a map, and pointed at a dark spot that rapidly crawled closer in the monitor. "OK, this has got to be the feeder for 219 coming up."

The dark spot drew closer and closer, until it filled an eighth of the screen, and then it was gone to one side. "It moves along pretty good," Don commented.

"A good, steady walk," the technician said. "Of course, this is good sewer, so weíre buzzing along pretty well here. We slow down in problem areas, sometimes considerably. The ratíll go along pretty good, until it gets to the point where it has to drag too much cable behind it. Then, we have to back out and come in another way."

"What happens if the cable breaks?" Don wondered.

"Then we go in with a backhoe and dig it out," the technician said, glancing at a computer screen that monitored readouts from the rat. "Thatís a hundred-thousand-dollar piece of instrumentation down there, and we donít intend to lose it down a sewer."

"Does that happen very often?"

"Naw, havenít had to dig one out in months. Of course, you have to be careful what you poke the ratís nose into."

Kutzley shook his head. Even ten years before, when heíd started working in public administration, such a thing had been unheard of. You never found out where a sewer main had broken until it started stinking on you, and sometimes that took a while. "Does it beat poking a periscope down a storm drain?" he asked Pam.

"It would," she said, "if we turned up any snakes. But, the only snake Iíve seen in a sewer all summer was with the periscope, and that was a plain old garter snake."

"Youíre looking for Gibsonís water snakes, right?" Don asked, remembering the brief letter from the Fish and Wildlife Service the week before.

"Yeah, but I havenít found any, even in the swamp," she said, a little sadly. "Thereís only been the one specimen. Frankly, itís all starting to look a little hopeless. Iíd pinned a lot of hope on finding something with this rig, but we havenít seen anything."

"Hey, Kutzley," an angry male voice came from outside the van. "What the hell is all this special assessment district shit?"

Don sighed. There was no getting away from it, even here. "Pam, I want you to tell me more about this," he said. "But I canít do it now. After they get done with the TV, why donít you drop by the office and tell me about it. I gotta go."

"Iíll be glad to," she said as Don turned toward the door of the van.

"Hey, donít blame me," she heard Kutzley say. "Blame those idiots in Washington . . . "

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