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 38

"Sure looks like a scam to us," Andy Bairnsfether said. "We were just talking about it the other day, but we havenít done anything on it."

"Why not?" Mike asked.

"Hell, Mike, you taught me yourself that thereís sometimes a hell of a difference between what you know and what you can print. We poked around the edges, and found enough of a smell, but without some hard evidence, thereís nothing we could do about a story. Whatís got you so interested in the Defenders of Gaea?"

"Itís a long story, but weíre having some problems with them here, and the more I hear, the less I like."

"Thatís strange," Andy said. "Theyíre pretty much a bicoastal outfit. They donít do much in the Midwest. Probably they got some big donor they could work for a scam."

"Iím starting to suspect that," Mike said, not wanting to let on to Andy just yet what, or who, he did suspect.

"Well, if you turn up anybody who wants to come clean, weíd be glad to talk to them," Andy said, "itís going to be hard to blow the whistle on them, unless we get some inside dope."

"Not much chance of that," Mike said. "Iíve got a lead or two, and a couple of twos and twos. But, I donít have much more than that. I was hoping you could give me a little background, something that I could use for a sidebar to the main story about the trouble theyíre causing here."

"You mean things like the president of the organization drives a Mercedes, and the VP-Treasurer lives in a million-dollar house in Malibu?"

"Not that sort of thing, necessarily," Mike said. "What Iíd really like is to find someone in authority saying on record that the group is a scam."

"Dream on, Mike," Andy said. "Weíd like to find that, too. Things like that Mercedes and that million-dollar house are the sort to tell us whatís really going on. But, itís all circumstantial evidence. We canít print that very well."

"You mean, they do?" Mike said, amazed at the revelation. "God, the more I find out, the smellier and smellier this whole thing sounds."

"Now you know how we feel," Andy said. "Like I said, if you come across someone who wants to come clean, let us know."

"I doubt that anything is going to come from Spearfish Lake," Mike said. "But if it does, Iíll be sure to let you know."

"Look, I can send you a little background information, if you think you can use it," Andy said. "There might not be much there, but you might be able to lever open a door or two with it."

"Iíd appreciate that, Andy. I just donít want to steal anything from you."

Andy laughed. "The day we have to worry about getting scooped on a story by the Spearfish Lake Record-Herald, thatís the day that Iíll think that the whole world needs an enema. Even if you do get something, it wonít matter in L.A. Just let us know."

"Right now, anything will be a big help," Mike said. "Iíll send you some tear sheets, so youíll have an idea of what weíre looking at. Pretty small potatoes for L.A., I suspect."

"We might get a lead out of it," Andy suggested. "You might turn up the piece of the puzzle thatís missing out here."

"If itís that bad, I hope youíre right," Mike said. "Hey, can you send that stuff to me next-day air, collect? If I get it Tuesday, I may still be able to use some of it next week."

"I can do that," Andy said. "How are you and Kirsten getting along?" Andy asked. "I see by your Christmas card that you had another kid."

"Susan is growing like a weed," Mike said. "Kirstenís fine, and weíre getting a white Christmas. You wonít have that in L.A."

"Thatís one thing I wonít miss," Andy said. "Those Spearfish Lake winters. Hey, thereís a chance I might be in that neck of the woods next summer. Maybe I can drop by, for old timeís sake."

"Iíd like that, Andy," Mike said. "Itíd be good to see you again. Youíve been a big help on this, already."

Mike hung up the phone and put his feet up on his desk again. Not for the first time this year, he wished that Webb still had a pack of cigarettes in the desk drawer. While he hadnít learned much from Andy that he could print, he had confirmed a lot of suspicions that had grown up in the last hour. Whoever the donor was probably didnít have those suspicions. Making the Defenders of Gaea look suspicious to Jenny, or whoever the donor was, in print was going to be difficult to do without getting into libel questions, but it was clearly a public service to get the point across somehow. It was going to take some tricky writing.

Mike looked at the clock. It was getting close to seven. Really, he shouldnít hang around the office much longer, especially with it snowing, or heíd be having trouble getting into the driveway.

Oh, well, he had a long weekend. With two computers at home, he could work on the story there and add anything that might come out of the Next-Day Air package the first of the week. That ought to work out all right.

Besides, it was the Christmas season. He really needed to be home with his family.

He shoved the notes heíd taken into an envelope, along with the letter that Mark had thrown in the wastebasket, and shut off the computer. A few minutes later, he had the Record-Herald locked up for Christmas, and was driving home through the snow, wondering how Mark had liked running behind ten dogs.

*   *   *

Heather didnít make it back to her apartment Friday night.

Nor Christmas Eve.

Nor Christmas Day, or the day after that, or the day after that, or the day after that.

She did manage to get dressed on Sunday, but only because both she and John didnít feel that it was right to eat their Christmas dinner in bathrobes. It wasnít turkey, but John managed to find a couple of steaks in the freezer.

It was quite the nicest Christmas she could remember; certainly the best sheíd had in many years.

It was Thursday before she made it back to her apartment on Point Drive, and then only because John had to do some grocery shopping, and she figured sheíd better check her mail and access the mainframe for E-mail.

Sheíd mellowed considerably in the last few days. The world seemed a better place, more tolerable, now that things had changed a little. Instead of a core of bitterness and depression, there was now a core of happiness, of contentment within her. Even Spearfish Lake didnít seem like such a bad place, now.

The mood lasted while she booted up the laptop, and even with no messages for her, she still felt pretty good.

Unfortunately for her, the good mood lasted only until she saw the Record-Herald.

She had halfway expected something like the headline she saw screaming across the top of the page: SNAKE SUIT COULD COST LOCAL TAXPAYERS MILLIONS. In spite of the wonderful extended weekend sheíd spent with John, she knew that she wasnít the most popular person in Spearfish Lake, and a story like that wouldnít help matters much. But, after the unexpected long, sweet and loving weekend, there were now new reserves within her to continue the fight.

But then the sidebar she saw above the fold of the page had a different effect. The headline, in type only a little smaller than the screaming headline, read, Defenders of Gaea give good cause a shady reputation.

She skipped over the lead story, and moved right to the one on the Defenders. Saving the earth is a good and noble purpose, it started out. But good and noble purposes sometimes draw charlatans and con artists.

The Defenders of Gaea have been much in the news in Spearfish County the last few months. But, who are they?

Theyíre an environmental organization with headquarters in California, which for some reason sees fit to have a mailing address of Washington, D.C.

Theyíre an organization that pleads poverty, but whose president drives a huge Mercedes, and whose treasurer lives in a million-dollar house in Malibu.

Theyíre an organization the Better Business Bureau and the California Attorney Generalís office both call "marginally legitimate," pointing to the fact that less than half of their multi-million-dollar budget goes to the projects they support. The balance goes toward vaguely-defined "Administration," or what might appear to be their real purpose, fundraising. The Better Business Bureau calls organizations with less than forty-eight percent of their funds going toward their stated purpose a rather formal word that translates as "scams."

"Theyíre right on the borderline," a Better Business Bureau spokesman said last week. "When theyíre that close, thereís plenty of room for funny business that no auditor can catch."

"We canít prove that theyíre an out and out scam," a Los Angeles Times investigative reporter whoís looked at the organization said Friday, "But they sure smell like one."

The story went on from there, getting worse and worse as it went along. The story never quite came out and called the Defenders a con job, but there was plenty of innuendo that sounded like it.

Heather saw red all over the place. Right at the moment, if sheíd had the AK-47 that girl had taken to the Halloween Party, she could have cleaned out the Record-Herald office single-handedly. They could hate her all they wanted, but questioning the Defenders was something else.

Madder than hell, she stormed out of the apartment, without even grabbing her coat, still wearing the torn and safety-pinned pants from almost a week before. She looked for her car, and realized that she hadnít bothered to pick it up from the Sunoco station, yet. The Record-Herald office was only a few blocks away; sheíd walk.

A few minutes later, she stormed into the office, past the counter, and into McMahonís office. "Did you write this piece of shit?" she asked.

"Thereís nothing there that isnít the truth," Mike said. Heíd been expecting this visit, and, in fact, had wondered a little why it hadnít come about the previous afternoon.

"The Defenders is not a multi-million-dollar organization," she said. "Itís supported by donors, and we stretch every penny to make sure they get their moneyís worth."

"The California Attorney Generalís office doesnít agree with you," he said. "Neither does your auditor." Mike turned, and picked up a packet of papers in his hand. "Would you like to see the report the Defenders filed with the California Attorney General? This is it. Where do you think I got those numbers? I can show you the Better Business Bureau report, too," Mike said. "Especially the part where it says, ĎNot Recommended.í"

"I donít believe it," she said.

"Itís all there," he said, waving the report in midair. "This is a copy. You can keep it, and study it if you like. Look, you may think that youíve been working for a noble and selfless and frugal organization, but you look at those numbers, and you get to thinking real quick that somethingís rotten in Denmark."

"Thatís not right," she said. "That business about driving a Mercedes! Thatís pure bullshit. Dale . . . Mr. McMullen drives around in an old Honda."

"I didnít check the motor vehicle registrations myself," Mike said, "But I can get the guy who did on the phone myself in about five minutes. Heís an old and dear friend, and an experienced and thorough investigator. Heís the guy who checked the real estate and tax records on Harris Harperís house, too." That was stretching the blanket a bit, but he doubted that heíd be called on it.

Just at that moment, Sally stuck her head in the door. "Thereís a call for you on two, Mike."

"I canít deal with any calls right now," Mike said.

"Mike, you really want to talk to this person," Sally said. "Now. In private."

Mike let out a long, deep breath, and got up. "It never rains but what it pours. Look, Heather, go over that report. Iíll go take that call in your office, Sally."

Mike was not surprised to find that the call was from Jennifer, and made a mental note to do something nice for Sally, for covering up who it was from. "Mike, the Record-Herald just got here," she said. "Is all this true?"

"All of it," Mike said. "I know more than that, but itís stuff that I didnít think I should print."

"Look, Mike," she said, "Iím ashamed to admit it, but the Defenders got the money for their Spearfish Lake project from me. How can I come home now, after causing all this trouble?"

"Donít worry about it," Mike said. "Weíll keep it between you and me. You werenít the one who caused the trouble, anyway. It looks more like you were the target of a scam."

"That really pisses me off," Jennifer said. "To think that I fell for that. What kind of an idiot am I?"

"One who got sucked in by good intentions," Mike said. "It happens. At least itís tax-deductible."

"There is that," she said. "At least you found out in time. Blake said that joker McMullen talked to him the other day, trying to set me up for another fifty thousand."

"Donít give it to them," Mike said. "With any kind of luck, that should solve the problem. Iíve got some information I couldnít print that indicates the only reason theyíre running this operation here is to be a conduit to whoever their funding source was. I wasnít real sure it was you, but I knew you were a possibility." That was shading the truth, just a little, but would help Jennyís ego.

"You better damn well bet I wonít," Jennifer said. "If he shows up around here, Iíll have Blake break both his arms. I think Iíll sue those bastards to take that commercial off the air."

A little light began to dawn in Mikeís head. Boy, would Andy love to talk to her! "Do me a big favor," he said. "Donít do anything or say anything until I get back to you. Itíll only be a couple of hours, a couple of days, at the most. Iíve got their local representative in the office right now, and I might be able to get her to say something. We might really be able to hit them between the eyeballs."

"Iíll do what I can to help," Jennifer said, "especially if thereís a chance we might be able to send those jokers to the jug."

"No promises, Jennifer, but we might be able to hurt them a little. Are you at home, now?"

"My place in Malibu," she said. "Thatís not exactly home. Iíll be here till tomorrow afternoon, then Iíve got to do a gig in Vegas, then a music video shoot in Texas. I wonít be back before the middle of the week, and couldnít start anything till then, anyway."

"I should know something by then," Mike said. "Just stay cool."

Mike put down the phone carefully, and agonized once again for one of Webbís cigarettes. Jenniferís call had made a lot of pieces fall into place. Now, to hit Heather the right way, without revealing that heíd seen McMullenís letter. That was going to be tricky.

He couldnít put it off much longer. He got up, walked back into his office, and said to Heather, "There went your ball game. That was the donor who supported you here. They said if McMullen shows up there, heís not going to get the fifty grand for your lawsuit. Heís going to get his arms broken, instead. Iíve met the guy whoíd do it, and believe me, he can."

"Fifty!" Heather shouted. "Dale only told me heíd asked for twenty-five."

"That may be what he told you," Mike said. "What do you think he might do with the other twenty-five? Buy another Mercedes? Maybe a Ferrari, this time?"

"Lies. God damn it, itís all lies," Heather screamed. "God damn it, Iíll prove it to you that itís all lies."

*   *   *

One of the things that had bothered Heather the most about Spearfish Lake had been the inaction. She had trouble doing nothing, and it caused her trouble. However, when the time came for action, there wasnít much that would slow her down.

John was waiting when she got back to her apartment, still coatless and shivering, but mad enough not to notice. "Where have you been?" he asked, a little concerned.

"John, can I borrow your computer?" she asked, ignoring his concern. "Iíve got to download some files from the mainframe, and the modem isnít real fast. I want to work on some of the files while others are being downloaded. I canít do both at once with the same computer."

"I take it you saw the article in the Record-Herald, then," he said. "I saw it in the store."

"Lies," she said, "Itís all lies. I can prove it from our own files."

It was clear to John that the idyllic weekend was over with. This was the fanatic side of Heather. Maybe the sweet and loving side could be resurrected sometime, but it wouldnít be today. "Sure," he said. "Iíll have to have it back by the time school starts."

"Letís go get it," she said.

"Weíd better get your car while weíre at it," John said.

"OK," she said in passing, getting in the car. "Floppies. Iím going to need lots of floppies. Iíve got a lot of data to download."

"Iíve got a few you can have," John replied as he got in and started the car. "Maybe eight or ten."

"That wonít even get me started. Iím going to dump the whole mainframe. I hate to do it because itíll take a lot of time, but itís quicker in the long run."

John flipped a nickel in his mind. He decided it was worth going to a fair amount of trouble on just the chance that Heather might be willing to play again in the future. The weekend had been intense, a world away from quickies with former softball players. It had been a long time since heíd experienced anything even close. And what Heather could do with her mouth! It was worth a fair amount of trouble, indeed, just to experience that again. "Theyíll be enough to get you started," he said. "While youíre getting started, Iíll hunt you up some more. I can drive down to Camden if I have to."

She leaned over for a quick kiss. "John, youíre sweet," she said. "I donít know what Iíd do without you."

It took a few minutes to load Johnís 286, new the summer before, into the car, along with the monitor and printer, but in a few minutes more, it was set up and running in her apartment. "Thereís about ten megabytes open on the hard drive," he said. "If you run out of disks before I get back, copy them onto the hard drive."

"Hang on a minute," she said. "Let me find out how many weíre going to need." She plugged the phone wire into the laptop, booted it up, and accessed the mainframe in the Defenderís office. A quick check of the system operator files gave her the amount of data loaded, as John looked over her shoulder.

"Thatís a lot of damn data," he commented. "Itís going to take you a couple of days to download it over a modem."

Heather did a little math in her head. "Nobodyís likely to notice, over the New Yearís weekend," she said. "Iíll need at least eighty high-density three and a halves. Better get a hundred, just to be on the safe side."

"I might just as well bite the bullet, and go to Camden," he said. "I could probably find a few over at the school, but not that many."

Heather selected a file and set it to copying onto the floppy in the laptop. "Lies," she said. "Itís all a bunch of lies. Iíll show them."

*   *   *

It was late in the afternoon before Heather heard a knocking on her door. She tore her attention away from the computer screen and went to answer it.

It proved to be John, carrying several bags. One of them said, "Radio Shack" on it. "I stopped off at the school, and formatted ten for you," he said. "Thatíll save you a little time. Iíll run back over, and format the rest."

"Thanks," she said. "Thatíd be such a waste of time to have to do it here while downloading."

"I also brought us some hamburgers," he said. "I figured you wouldnít think to stop to eat."

She glanced at the clock. The hours had flown by in a flash. All of a sudden, she realized she was hungry. She unwrapped an offered burger, and sat down at the computer screen. "Thanks, John," she said. "Iím glad you thought of it."

"Finding anything?" he asked.

She shook her head. "Thereís so much data here, itís hard to know what I need. And everything I find seems to lead to another file, one that hasnít been downloaded yet. Iíve got to admit, Iíve found a few things that could cause someone with a questioning mind to get a little suspicious."

"Such as?"

"Such as, the Attorney Generalís report is just what McMahon showed me," she said, taking a bite out of her hamburger, then talking around it. "Iíve tried to concentrate on the administrative expenses, but everything on the report isnít coming out. Like, the annual report to the IRS shows an office in Malibu. That could be Harperís house, and it could just be a tax dodge if it is. But I havenít got the file to prove it either way, yet."

"It would be a little shady if it was," John commented.

Heather nodded her head. "It would be," she said. "But I canít prove it. Even if Harris is cheating on his taxes a little, whatís new about that? Big deal! Iíve spent eight years with the Defenders, and Iíve busted my butt in a good cause that I believe in. So has everyone else I work with."

"Nobody ever accused you of not believing what youíre doing is right," he said, "even if they donít think your cause is the right thing. What are you going to do?"

"Keep looking."

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