The next morning Ben met Andy, Danny, Jamie, and Lotta at the junction of Sunrise Highway and Interstate 8 just east of Pine Valley where everyone piled into Lotta's SUV. They exited at Buckman Springs Road and headed south to Highway 94, that meandering yellow line that has recently become the site of several wild high-speed chases between the Border Patrol and smugglers.
"On the way out I heard a news report on your mugged man," Ben was wide-awake having spent a couple of hours at the hospital before meeting them.
"What did they say about him?" Danny wanted to know.
"First, he's come out of his coma but doesn't remember much yet. I overheard another doctor talking with the doctor attending him this morning."
"That's great!" Andy exclaimed.
"He's being moved this afternoon to a private room out of intensive care."
"Is there still a guard on his room?" Andy wanted to know.
"Yes. And, there is a guard checking ID's at the front door of the hospital." Ben replied.
"Steve stopped by the hospital while I was volunteering and said they think he might be mixed up with a major smuggling ring out of South America. They specialize in endangered species smuggling."
"What's an endangered species? I mean how do they pick the ones that they put on the list?" Danny wanted to know.
"I saw an Internet Podcast on endangered species. It has a lot to do with how many of them there are and how much habitat is left," Jamie contributed.
"And, the endangered species are considered indicator species for the health of the environment," Lotta added.
"When a species becomes endangered it means that many of the plants and animals in their habitat associated with them are also being threatened. Most environmental regulation now is aimed at protecting whole habitats."
"So, if an animal is endangered it probably would cost a lot of money to own one," Ben suggested.
"Actually, you can't own one legally unless you have a permit and those are mostly given to zoos and universities. So, these smugglers are trying to get rich by ripping off the tropics." Lotta put in.
"How come the countries they come out of let them go?" Jamie asked.
"Probably it's like drug smuggling. Really poor countries just don't have the money to pay inspectors to stop them from taking the animals," Andy replied. "The United States has a problem too, because our borders with other countries are very long."
"Looks like we got lucky with these guys. Richard Peña didn't die. Now all we have to do is find the jerks that left him in the ditch!" Danny was ready to make the arrests himself.
Andy was worried that they actually might get too close to the whole gang. Little did she know how right she would be! She found herself slipping into a very easy place beside Ben where that other world of smugglers and kidnappers didn't exist - until they reached Potrero.
Sharon was there as planned. As they headed closer to Maria's place a feeling of fear edged into each of their minds. They did not know what they would find and it might be terrible.
Lotta had second thoughts about going there but Sharon was ready to plunge ahead. She had not found a mangled body or heard the scream in Coyote Canyon.
"This is great," Sharon commented hinting that this kind of excitement did not happen every day out here in the backcountry. "My editor will be delighted and it may be enough to get me a spot in the Union-Tribune online. Thanks for thinking of me, Lotta."
"Listen, we brought you along as blood hound. You are going to find our missing grandmother and then you can have your great story for the paper,"
"Right. I haven't forgotten. It's just that most of what goes on out here is centered around what the school board is doing or what play the high school is putting on, with occasionally something juicy out of the Border Patrol action. My heart is in the country but my mortgage is paid by articles about urban action."
"You should be glad to live in a place where the sheriff's log in the paper only has one or two minor crimes every few months," Lotta suggested.
"I am. I am. Only it does become difficult to find something of interest to tell people about every week in my blog."
Sharon said there were some friends of Sharon's near Dog Patch that she wanted to see. "It won't hurt to stop by Larry and Lynn's place. I'm kind of a recluse when I get into writing but they give parties and meet everyone around here." Sharon was on the scent of a story and looking forward to interviewing prospective witnesses. Everyone was glad that she was with them.
When they arrived at Lynn's place they could see that she was the kind of laid back fokksy type you might expect to meet in this dusty back country. Three kids were in the stream with a big furry dog that didn't pay any attention to the new arrivals after a half-hearted woof!
"Come on in!" Someone yelled even before they knocked. Sharon pulled on the old screen door and two skinny Tabby cats flew out. At least they probably did not have a mouse problem.
"Lynn, its Sharon. I tried to call but all I got was a recording that said your phone was disconnected. I figured the lines might be down from the fire last week so I just came by."
"Nah, Larry tripped over the cord and it broke.
Lynn was a big woman. In good condition like she did a lot of physical work and was definitely able to keep her goats in line. They wondered what Larry was going to be like.
"Looks like we might get another thunderstorm by tomorrow. Last week my electricity was out for two hours." Sharon said, understanding that conversations out here almost always started with a discussion of the weather. Campo is the thermometer of San Diego County. Some summer days can be above 110 and then the nighttime temperature will dip into the forties.
"Yeah, mine too. We spent last week at my mom's because there wasn't any way to cook. I heard the box go and the pole was split right down the middle," Lynn added. "It would of started a fire too if the kids hadn't called the CDF right away."
"Wow! That last fire was too close for comfort. They had to backfire a hill right across the road from me to keep it from taking out my place. The planes dropped fire retardant for days. Everything is going to look scorched for quite a while." Sharon said.
"By the way we're out trying to find a place belonging to Maria Peña. Her daughter is worried about her," Sharon explained.
It was strange but Lynn got immediately defensive when Sharon mentioned Julie's mother. "There's nobody out here by that name," she said quickly but it didn't feel right. She looked away again as if she were hiding something.
"She may not own the land. She may just be staying there. She's about mid-fifties but looks older, you know, gray hair and all and keeps goats," Sharon prodded figuring Lynn might know about the other people around the area that had goats.
"No. Never heard of her," Lynn was final and her face looked grim as she banged dishes around in the sink. As she spoke two young faces looked in through the ripped screen at the kitchen window and Lynn yelled at them to go away.
She turned around and said "look, Sharon, I have to get back to things right now." She stalked toward the door, a clear signal that she would answer no more questions and wanted them out of there.
Sharon had more tenacity than the rest of the group. She hung back as they filed through the door ahead of her. "Maybe we could talk to Larry?" she asked.
"He isn't here. Listen, my life's hard enough right now without a nosy reporter trying to push me around!" Lynn nearly screamed it.
"Okay. But if you need me Lynn you can come over anytime. If Larry wants to talk to us we'll be at the Hideout for a while," Sharon offered as they made a quick exit.
Out in the yard the biggest kid, a blond girl of about ten, was trying to control the friendly but unruly dog, which was now on a rope leash. As Sharon got into the truck the girl made an effort to get closer to the window side where Sharon was. She whispered, "Mama Maria is gone," and ran off.
The vague bad feelings the group had felt before were all too quickly becoming reality. Lynn might claim not to know Maria Peña but those kids did because Mama is a very friendly way of addressing a grandmotherly person. This little trip was now producing more questions than answers. They needed to find this missing woman before anything could happen to her, unless it already had!
"Wow!" Sharon let out a sigh as the truck turned onto the highway, "What a reception and what have you got me into now, Lotta?"
"Deeper by the minute," Andy replied.
"Maybe I'm paranoid but there must be a connection here. What is Larry like or do I need to ask?"
"Kind of a jerk. You saw Lynn's worst side today. She can be very friendly too. When I first moved in she came over often. She guided me through having the well dug and even helped me to build some pens for the dogs." Sharon ran a dog-boarding kennel to supplement her income from writing.
"Lynn's kids are everything to her and they're good kids. Larry is gone a lot. She and the kids have even stayed at my place a few times."
"What a dump! But the kids seemed nice," Jamie interjected.
"Did you see that computer set up? Danny asked.
"What computer?" Sharon demanded surprised.
"The kids showed Jamie and me. They have an air conditioned back room with everything you'd ever want in computer equipment," Danny replied.
"How could a family afford an expensive computer system when they seem to be just getting by and why would they need it?" Ben wanted to know.
"The phone cord was pulled out of the wall and there was a hole in the door in the back room!" Danny said and they all turned to stare at him. "That wouldn't happen by tripping on the cord."
"Maybe Larry is violent!"
"Take a left here, Ben, and we'll get some lunch and maybe some information." Sharon was pointing to a rutted dirt area that was passing as a parking lot for a tiny café that the sign called Hideout Cafe. "My friend Bernice is the owner."
There are a lot of little hole-in-the-wall restaurants out here in the backcountry. Most of them specialize in burgers and fries and malts. The Hideout Café was no exception.
Back at Lynn's place a shiny black sports car drove up the driveway very slowly. The occupant got out and walked toward the house.
"Take the dog and run down to the creek, kids," Lynn whispered. They did as they were told using the back door. The oldest girl leading the way with the dog.
"So what did they want?" asked the newcomer coming uninvited through the old screen door.
"Nothing! Get out of my house!" Lynn was even angrier now.
"I'm just here for the computer, Sweat heart, so don't get your hackles up." The man had an evil grin. "But tell me what they asked you." He took a menacing step toward her.
Lynn edged onto the other side of the couch and took hold of the fireplace poker. "They were just interested in Larry, that's all."
"And, just how much did you tell them?" He began to move toward the computer room.
"Nothing, now get out!" Lynn was furious.
"Not until I get this hard drive!"
"You aren't taking anything from here!" Lynn screamed and hit him on the shoulder with the heavy metal fireplace poker when he had his back turned.
Just then the kids, who had come in through a screenless side window, burst into the hallway with buckets of water. They pelted the stranger and when the water was gone they hit him with the buckets as well. One of the cats leaping from the fireplace mantel landed on the man's back digging in with sharp claws.
The man went running out of the house and back to his car with furry sharp claws drawing blood all the way! The cat jumped off just as he opened the car door but it managed to shred his shirt from bloody shoulder to his waist!
Lynn in the meantime had grabbed the high-pressure hose outside that she used to clean the goat pens. She aimed the hose at the dirt just beside the car and pelted it with wet rocks and sand as he skidded down the wet driveway in full retreat.
"Get your stuff packed up, kids, quick! He'll be back and will probably bring his friends. Be sure to pack the computer. It's time we moved somewhere safer. I should have done it a long time ago!"
The quacamole and chips at the Hideout were great. The malt that Ben and Andy shared because Sharon warned them that they were big enough for two, was a real treat. Made from scratch like something out of the 50's. Danny and Jamie had no problem with one each.
Bernice, the waitress, was late middle age and put them back in touch with the world of regular people and everyday problems.
"Sharon, long time no see. Were you anywhere near that fire the other day?" Bernice asked as she mopped up a counter spill.
"Yeah. They had to backfire the hill above my house. It was too scary! I had the dogs all packed up ready to get out fast. How are the grandkids Bernice?" Sharon opened and it was easy to see how she worked at these interviews. Getting personal and sharing information was a good way to get the other person to tell what they knew. "Are you going to take any vacations with them? Hint, hint, need any boarding space?"
"They're fine and we are going up to Disneyland in a couple of weeks so I'll let you know but you don't look like you came in to talk about boarding my dogs, Sharon Blake, and you haven't introduced your company."
Bernice was friendly. She was no non-sense and had an open intelligent face.
"Sorry. This is my friend Carlotta Montrose, her niece Andy and her nephew Danny and his friend Jamie. Lotta teaches at that charter school in Lakeside, River Valley High and this is Andy's boyfriend Ben."
Andy blushed to her fingertips at Sharon's blunt introduction but Ben seemed pleased. "Glad to meet you." Ben shook her hand with one of his big friendly smiles.
"Bernice is a retired teacher and has a great place off Cameron Truck Trail in Campo. You all would love it. She's got a windmill for electricity, a duck pond and some incredible gardens. I hang out there as often as she'll let me. What are you doing behind the counter today, Bern?" Sharon asked.
"Oh, I have to keep my hand in my business or the employees begin to think its theirs. Actually, I lost another cook this week and so, Janet," Bernice pointed to the cook who waved at us, "my regular waitress, is filling in back there and I'm doing her job until I can find someone who wants to flip burgers."
"Know anybody?" She asked as she sat at the counter filling ketchup bottles.
"How about Larry?" Sharon suggested tongue-in-cheek. "I hear he's laid off."
"Don't be ridiculous. That good for nothing should have been locked up long ago. I saw him in here yesterday with a couple of strangers. They got out of a shiny new black car with dark tinted windows. I figured they were up to no good," Bernice observed.
"We were just at Lynn's and she was acting strange," Sharon said.
"Doesn't surprise me. That man is a pest. Why she puts up with him is any one's wonder. What were you over there for, Miss Reporter?" Bernice was sharp.
"We have a friend in town whose mom is out here somewhere and our friend hasn't heard from her in a while. Her brother was that guy who got beat up in the desert recently. I thought Lynn might know where she lives," Sharon was giving the bare minimum but enough to spur Bernice on if she knew anything.
"I read about that guy. Some teacher and students found him still alive - probably saved his life." Bernice was eyeing Lotta. "You wouldn't be the same teacher who found him would you?"
"Yes, and Andy and Danny were the students that the paper mentioned but whatever you do don't tell anyone that we've been out here looking around. Maria Peña is the woman we are looking for and she could already be in danger without becoming linked to what happened to her son."
"Mama Maria. I know just where she lives. I bought goat's milk from her last year for a litter of kittens whose cat mom ventured too close to the coyotes. If you can wait until one o'clock, Irene will be in to relieve me and I'll take you over there. Maria is such a nice person. I hope she's all right." Bernice moved down the counter to wait on a family that had just come in.
Everyone enjoyed drinking ice cold lemonade until Bernice could leave.
©Copyright - Ann Wellhouse 2015