That’s my protagonist’s dilemma in my second novel, Rogue Elephants. It’s part of a series that begins with Affirmative Action. The character’s name is Jonathan Tyne. The three dead men came to kill him and it cost them their lives. He knew they were coming. Not them specifically, these three, but he knew someone was coming. He’d been warned by a cop friend. And he was prepared. The odds, three against one, were against him, and he knew whomever came would not come alone. So, he set up an ambush to blunt some of the advantage they had and they walked right into it. Now he has three corpses to dispose of and the car they came in.
He can’t go to the police. What he did, the ambush and the aftermath were quite illegal. One of the men was badly wounded and could have survived the encounter if Jonathan had been willing to help, by for instance, transporting him to a hospital. He wasn’t. His intent from the beginning was to kill anyone who came for him. Before the wounded man bled to death, he served a useful purpose: he gave up information about who sent them and how they found him. He didn’t want to give it up but he did. Jonathan crossed the line when he extracted that information. Torture and depraved indifference, not to mention the ambush itself, are crimes in Oregon and elsewhere even if the victim is a hired killer.
Jonathan lives on a quarter-section in the back-of-beyond in Oregon, so he could bury them. He could borrow a back hoe from a neighbor, dig a deep hole and plant them. But, and there’s always a but, he’d have to tell the neighbor why he needed the hoe. He could say one of his horses died and he had to bury it but then he’d have to shoot one of the horses because the neighbor knew how many he had. He loves his horses, as much as any human can love a horse, so killing one of his is out of the question. He’d kill a man or men who tried to kill him, or die trying, but killing one of his own just for the sake of killing wasn’t in the cards. Besides, when the three turned up missing, in a few days or perhaps a week, someone would come looking for them. He’d made himself hard to find but these three had found him and others would too, especially if these three had reported his whereabouts to the person that hired them.
That’s enough of a preamble. Pretend you spotted Rogue Elephants on the new-fiction table at B&N, were attracted by the cover art and decided you could invest ten minutes or so reading a few pages. You opened the book at random and came upon these passages. Enjoy, and please tell me what you think. The thing an author most wants is constructive criticism (or criticism, even if it isn’t constructive). 😉
West of John Day the highway is flat to rolling and moves away from the steep mountains that block radio reception on 395. Tyne turned on his radio and tuned it to a station that updates news and weather on the half hour. He was carrying chains in case he ran into snow at either Keyes Summit or Bandit Springs but he hoped he would not need them. The station played the usual rural-America nasal-twangy country music that did nothing for Tyne. He much preferred smooth jazz, any and all piano, R&B or the folk/rock exemplified by Carly Simon and Carole King, but he needed to hear that weather report. When it came on he was pleased to learn that the weather throughout central and eastern Oregon would be clear, with high pressure expected to last at least the next 48 hours. That would not only make this trip easy but also tomorrow’s more complicated and risk-laden one with the bodies. He switched to a favorite Simon CD and settled back for what he hoped would be a totally uneventful trip.
It was. He made good time to Prineville, stopping only briefly to use the pit toilet at Bandit Springs. Thirty minutes later, at about 1:30, Tyne reached Prineville, quite hungry, so he headed for the Ranchero, a good Mexican restaurant on the east side of town. Prineville is small, only eight thousand or so souls, and would go unnoticed save for the fact that the Les Schwab Tire Company, known throughout the west for its incredible customer service, is headquartered here. Once Prineville was the center of vast lumbering operations in the Ochocos, but no longer. When the Mill Creek plywood mill closed a few years ago, so did much of the town. The lunch hour is mostly over so there are only a few customers, most likely tourists passing through, still lingering over their margaritas. Tyne chose a booth away from everyone else and ordered carne asada and a Negro Modelo. The ride back to Bear Valley on the dirt bike is going to be long and cold so Tyne intends to eat well. The steak is very nicely done and he leaves only a little of the rice. He pays in cash with a nice tip for the young Mexican waitress, and then fires up the big Dodge 4×4. He heads east on highway 26 to Main where he turns right moving in the direction of the Crook County fairgrounds on the southwest side of town where he knows he can park the truck where it will attract little attention.
Near the fairgrounds he slows at each intersection looking for a quiet place to park. At 7th he finds the place he’s looking for and turns into the dead end road. It is lined on both sides with older, not very well-maintained houses. The lots are large, at least a half-acre each, almost all with big mature trees in front, but the lawns are mostly dead or dormant. Some have driveways but most of the cars that can be seen are parked at the curb. A few are parked on the grass and there is at least one sedan resting on blocks, like a beached whale, no doubt for its owner’s amusement. Tyne wonders idly whether such cars ever actually are finished and driven again once they reach this state. Tyne travels several blocks along 7th, almost to its end, and then parks under a large elm behind a fairly new red Ford pick-up. He lets the turbo run a minute or so to let it cool before shutting down the engine. He then sits quietly for at least five minutes while he observes the neighborhood. Not much is stirring, only a few dogs. It’s time to dismount the bike and start for home. With any luck he should make it by 7:00.
Tyne locked the truck and eased the bike down to the road. He then pushed the ramp back into the bed and closed the tailgate. He pulled a knit ski mask over his head, then the helmet and finally the gloves. It took three attempts to start the engine but it ran smoothly and he headed west towards Main. He stopped only once at a feed store where he purchased a half dozen pairs of his favorite gloves, the thin close-fitting suede and nylon kind worn by carpenters. Wearing a pair of these Tyne could pick up a dime or a finish nail and they made excellent shooting gloves.
Within minutes of leaving the store he was east of the town cruising effortlessly at 60. He again stopped at Bandit Springs to relieve himself, then turned off on the forest service road named Summit a mile or so north of the rest stop. He noted his odometer and then followed this road for several miles as it wound and climbed its way towards Cougar Butte. He had ridden this trail many times on horseback but this was his first motorized visit and the distances surprised him. It was actually shorter to the top than he thought but that perception had been conditioned by the slower pace of a horse that needed an occasional rest stop to catch its breath. It was at one of these places where the road was particularly steep that Tyne thought would be suitable as the final resting place for the three dead men.
The road curved to the right as it climbed. On its right side was a steep wall of rock that extended upward hundreds of feet to an unseen rim while on the left was an exposed cliff face. Over that edge was a drop of at least five hundred feet at the bottom of which grew a profusion of willows, wild black berries, sagebrush and junipers. Tyne stopped the engine and set the bike on its stand and walked to the edge. The face of the cliff was so steep he could barely see the bottom but by following the contours of the canyon he could see that approaching the base of the cliff by foot would be extremely challenging and probably impossible by horse. He certainly would not want to risk using one of his horses to make an approach. If one could even get to the base of the cliff, it would require aids to climb to where he now stood. A helicopter could fly through the canyon but there wasn’t anywhere for one to land. To hike into the canyon on foot would require fighting those berry bushes, with all their thorns for at least four miles. Since it was a wilderness area it was against the law to use a motorized vehicle even if the terrain permitted, which it did not. Tyne looked at the odometer and noted that he had traveled 8.7 miles from highway 26 and he decided this would be the place where he would dump the bodies.
He fired up the bike and returned to the highway and continued east towards John Day. He did not stop to see the bear at Mitchell but pressed on and did not stop again until he fueled at Mt Vernon. He arrived back at his ranch tired, stiff, cold and ravenously hungry just at dusk. After feeding Beau and the cats he checked the password-cracking program, which was still running and had already tried more than twenty-six thousand words from the Italian dictionary and 16 million permutations. For his own supper he opened a can of chili to which he added a couple of slices of cheese. He heated it in the microwave and ate it with some nachos and washed it all down with a bottle of cold beer. After he ate he set out his mountain bike along with a tarp to cover the body and a shovel and sledge hammer he intended to use to age the Buick. Then after walking Beau he set his alarm for midnight and slept like the dead.
When the alarm woke him he was so stiff from the motorcycle ride he said screw it and almost went back to sleep. He lay awake for ten minutes and tried to convince himself that the disposal chore could wait another day but finally got up and took several Advil to minimize the stiffness. The password-cracking program was still running having now tried more than 66 million unsuccessful combinations, about 12% of the possibles. Tyne knew it could take more than a full day to try every combination in the dictionary but he was impatient to examine the contents of the laptop and had the cracker been successful he would have postponed the unpleasant chore he was about to undertake.
He dressed quickly and while he brewed a pot of coffee took Beau with him while he loaded his mountain bike and the tools into the Buick. The body in the back seat was stiff with rigor and was just beginning to smell. He slid the tools under the corpse of the man he had killed near the bridge and then covered the body with the tarp. The bike went on top and he secured it with heavy rubber bands with hooks bent into the shape of the letter S. He opened the trunk and satisfied himself that he could get the other two corpses out, then quickly closed the trunk lid as they too were beginning to stink. As bad as this chore was going to be, it would be nothing to how unpleasant it would be if he left it another twenty-four hours. Satisfied he had the tools he would need he confined Beau to his outdoor run.
Back in the kitchen he transferred the strong coffee to a thermos. He knew he would need the forehead flashlight so he grabbed the backpack he’d worn the previous night. He locked the house and returned to the Buick. The engine started immediately and he drove towards the main gate, which he locked behind him. The fuel gauge showed the tank to be ¾ full. He knew he could probably get to Bandit Springs without stopping but just in case he went back to the barn for an empty five-gallon plastic gas can which he placed in the trunk with Vincent and the man whose name he had already forgotten. If he did have to stop for fuel he would walk to the station as if he had run out of gas on the highway.
At this late hour highway 395 was deserted and so was John Day. He saw only one moving car before he turned west on highway 26 and left the town behind him. He made good time to Bandit Springs arriving at the junction with Summit Road at 4:45 well before first light. He switched off his headlights and turned onto the forest service road, and held his speed to twenty MPH. It took 45 minutes to reach the exact spot he had chosen but he was certain he had seen no other headlights either ahead, behind or on any of the other roads that could be seen as he ascended towards Cougar Butte. When he found the spot he shut off the engine and the car’s parking lights and donned the forehead flashlight. Before he turned on its light he stepped out of the car to let his eyes adjust to full dark.
He guessed the elevation at that spot was about 6,000 feet but the eastern horizon was above him so there was still no usable light. The air was so clear that enough moonlight from the sliver of moon visible to the west made it possible to see the car and the edge of the cliff. Tyne began with the man in the backseat. He opened both rear doors, removed his bicycle and the tarp and pulled and pushed the corpse until it was lying on the road on the driver’s side of the car. It took ten minutes of heavy exertion to get the body out and Tyne was sweating and winded from the effort. He took a minute to catch his breath, then dragged the man to within a few feet of the edge. Getting the rigor-stiffened body out of the car had been a challenge but once it was on the ground he had little difficulty dragging it around.
He aligned the body with its feet in the same direction that the car was pointed. He then opened the trunk and one by one, pulled the bodies out and arrayed them in line with the first. When he was done he had all three in a line, head to toe, naked as the day they were born.
Author’s note: equations for falling bodies:
Now he turned on the forehead light so that he could see the edge clearly. He grasped the first body by its left ankle, bent his thighs to give himself the power of his lower body and with a mighty heave, whipped the corpse around in an arc and pitched it out over the edge into the darkness. He began counting slowly and when he reached seven he heard a hollow crumping sound when the body landed at the base of the cliff.
Tyne seldom went anywhere without a scientific pocket calculator; he owned several and his current favorite was a Sharp. A quick calculation told him the drop had been at least 240 meters, nearly 800 feet, much more than he’d thought. He paused just long enough to take several deep breaths and repeated the maneuver with the second corpse. Finally, he came to the third body; it was Vincent, the man he had tortured for information about Jimmy Tosca. Vincent was the smallest of the three but the broken right leg that seemed to move with a mind of its own had made this body the most difficult to handle. Tyne crossed the ankles and gripped both of them as he heaved the body over the edge. After it hit bottom he carefully examined the ground between the car and the edge in the light of the forehead lamp. He could see nothing that looked like human tissue so he laid the bicycle on its side on the backseat, closed the trunk lid and the doors and started the engine.
First light had finally arrived so as before, he used only the parking lights. He had to drive another mile higher along the road until he found a place wide enough to turn around. By the time he reached Bandit Springs he could just see the sun’s corona peaking over the eastern horizon. He had not seen another living soul or a light during the entire exercise and now he turned off his parking lights and drove to Terrebonne.
An hour later he entered the BLM land from Lower Bridge Road near Steamboat Rock. He drove cautiously but at this time of morning he did not expect to see anyone. He drove about a mile into the public land; always pointing south, following roads he vaguely remembered until he found a place others had used to dump their trash. He parked the Buick amongst the debris, lowered all of the windows completely and shut off the engine. First he removed the travel bags from the front seat, damaged each to make it unusable and scattered them amongst the garbage. Then he removed the bicycle, his tools and the jack and set them aside. He then took a few minutes to walk fifty meters away from the car and walked in a full circle looking for any reason not to use this spot. Satisfied, wearing a pair of the new gloves he had purchased the day before he quickly removed the license plates and all four wheels and let the car settle onto the desert floor. He tossed each of the tires, after first releasing its air, in a different direction away from the car and then did the same with the spare. He discarded the fuel tank cap and briefly considered torching the car but decided against it because the fire might attract unwanted attention. He did burn the tarp and the five-gallon gas can to unrecognizable goo since they both undoubtedly bore his fingerprints.
He opened the hood and then for the next hour shoveled sand into every part of the car he could reach as well as on top of the roof, into the engine compartment and the trunk. He stood back from the car as he slung shovel full after shovel full into the car to simulate the effects of blowing sand.
When this was done he used the sledgehammer to break out the windshield, the rear window, the instrument cluster and the radio. He also pounded the radiator until the coolant leaked out and removed and discarded the caps to the brake fluid reservoir and the power steering pump. He removed the oil and transmission dipsticks and tossed them aside. He also ripped out the spark-plug wires and pried off the battery connectors and removed the battery. Then he threw a few more shovels full of sand into the engine compartment to hit any openings he may have missed. He then stepped back and surveyed the result.
There was no question in Tyne’s mind that he had destroyed the car but he was disappointed the paint was still too shiny, too new. He would just have to depend on the wind and the blowing sand to finish the job but he invested another half hour using the shovel to abrade the paint to hasten the deterioration. Then he broke the handles of the shovel and the sledge and tossed them and the jack aside. He checked the glove compartment for documents and torched the owner’s manual. He then mounted the bicycle and headed for Prineville.
Near the road he entered from he passed another dumpsite, much smaller than the one where he left the car. He paused just long enough to bury the license plates under a pile of construction debris, remove the ignition and trunk keys from the key ring and discard the parts separately. He then resumed his ride to where he parked his truck.
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