I fidgeted with a hastily brewed cup of Earl Gray tea and watched my phone, expecting it to ring at any moment. If I was right, and it’d probably be a miracle if I was, I’d be getting a call to invite me to solve a very peculiar case. One involving… I don’t know… chemistry or geology perhaps.
I thought I was being set up for something. By whom, I didn’t know. Why, I didn’t know. But my last few cases had a few dangling threads and … the phone rang.
Eagerly I snatched the handset from its cradle and introduced myself. I automatically took notes as I listened to my next client answer the first question I always ask – – the old, “When, where, how, who and why.” I went through the motions, but I was already seeing if I could tie this case to any of the previous cases’ loose threads.
I jotted down my final note and assured the client I’d be there first thing in the morning. I’d need to pack an overnight bag and wear heavy boots. I was heading out to the farmlands. Someone was killing livestock.
My destination was one of family owned farms in the area. Only a few remained, squeezed in between the factory farms and the smear of urban sprawl. They fought for their survival by doing organic and peddling their produce and meats at markets and small healthy grocery stores where upscale folks with large incomes than mine paid a premium to support sustainable agriculture.
I spent the next morning driving through a summer storm of impressive fury and grandeur. Lightning blossomed all around me, painting the sky with the wild abandon of abstract impressionist going slowly mad. As I drove I counted the lightning bolts and gave up when they quadrupled the number I’d seen in my entire life previous. I’d heard this area had bad getting more storms than it’s due, but hadn’t realized the extent of it.
As the windshield wipers did their best to hypnotize me, I let my mind wander over my last few messy cases.
Two moths stolen from the zoo- – one allegedly for reasons of unrequited love, the other mysteriously returned with no trace of its abductor. A poisoned orchid seemingly used as an opportunity to get rid of an unwanted step son and have a better greenhouse built. A plague of snakes brought upon a retirement community with no apparent motive.
I felt like I was being tested, as if my measure was being taken in expectation of something big, something final. I needed to figure the whole affair out before it progressed to far for me to stop it.
The storm had cleared and the world glistened cleanly as I pulled into the Shutley farmstead. The farm was the real thing – – red bar, green fields, placid cows, old fashioned tractor and a traditional white farmhouse, all shining proudly as the sun hung low in the sky. The air was so clear it practically crackled. I felt like I was the middle of a butter advertisement.
Mr. Shutley was walking across to me from the barn, wiping his hands on a handkerchief. We shook hands like old men – firmly and taciturnly with a sharp not to each other. I noticed that Mrs. Shutley waited on the porch with a chilled carafe of fresh squeezed lemonade.
I’d have rather had a cup of tea but I politely accepted the lemonade and listened to the Shutleys’ recent spate of problems.
Mrs. Shutley did most of the talking. Mr. Shutley watched her with adoring, but guarded eyes. They were convinced someone was killing their livestock in order to drive them off. Specifically, they were convinced that a nearby factory farm which had made increasingly forceful offers on their farm was killing their cows… using electricity.
They mistook my reaction to be one of complete disbelief and hurriedly assured me they weren’t crazy. At first they had blamed the unusual summer storms, but eventually realized that the cows were only being killed in the wee hours of the morning when the weather was clear.
Additionally, the factory farm representatives had been more and more aggressive in their pursuit of the three family farms that remained in this country- – the Shutley farm, the neighboring farm which belonged to the Lums, and one belonging to the Wells which was a few miles away.
I hadn’t completely disbelieved them. I believed the electrocutions, but not that it was the work of a factory farm. I asked how they’d come by my name and why they called someone from the city. Surely the local sheriff could have looked into this?
The Shutley’s didn’t trust the sheriff, calling him a lapdog of the factory farms. They had overheard a young couple, just travelling through town, talking about a great job I’d done at finding the person who’d been poising their pets. I, of course, had never solved any such case for a young couple.
After Mr. Shutley showed me the spot where they’d been losing cows, I asked to wander the field alone. I was looking for something out of place that could attract lightning, or evidence that they suspect came, not from the factory farm, but from their neighbors at the Lum’s farm.
I carefully picked my way through barbed wire fences, examined old water systems, mooed self consciously at some nearby cows, and kept my eyes firmly on the wet ground. I was glad I’d worn boots. This muck would have eaten my shoes in no time.
Despite the mud and occasional really bad smell, I found myself enjoying my rural excursion. I was even relaxing enough that the knot I’d been keeping under my left shoulder began to lose its edge. Perhaps I’d take a vacation to the country soon.
Eventually I found what I was looking for, an amazing feat given the amount of rain that had obscured the landscape over the last week. But several stalks of whatever this crop was – – wheat? maize? I didn’t know – – bore browning leaves, despite the abundance of water.
I gave each stalk a tug and it pulled freely from the mud. These stalks had been bent and broken off, by something heavy and wheeled judging by the flattening on their ends. Then, in an effort to disguise their entrance or exit, the cow killer had carefully stuck each stalk back into the mud.
Clearly, someone was wheeling a largish piece of equipment out of, and back into, the Lum’s farm.
I wasn’t sure if it was the Lum’s themselves, or someone hiding out on their property. I also figured the Lums wouldn’t be terribly receptive to a city detective stopping by uninvited either way. So I elected to come back every night until I managed to catch them at it. Turning down Mrs. Shutley’s offers to use the guest bedroom, I secured a hotel room for the week.
That night I drove out, parked my car a few miles from the farm and hiked to a spot I’d picked where I could keep an eye on the fence line between the two properties.
Unfortunately, the first three nights were uneventful. Fortunately, no cows were dead in the morning either. I spent my days wandering the Shutley’s fields avoiding Mr. Shutley’s flat curiosity and acting like I was on a hot trail. Mostly I was just relaxing for a change. Still, I decided that on the forth night I’d do a little surreptitious exploration of the Lum’s farm.
That afternoon the sky began to darken, promising rain before morning.
When I arrived at the farm the rain was softly and steadily falling, lightning played along the horizon. I climbed the fence over to the Lum’s property and headed for their barn. If I was going to explore, I might as well get out of the rain for some of it.
When I got to the big barn door, it was ajar. Light and voices leaked out from within. Two men were talking, but I couldn’t make out a word. Nor could I position myself to see in without making my presence obvious. I settled for finding a spot where I could hide and watch them exit.
It wasn’t long before they left, hats pulled down over their faces, pushing a wheelbarrow that held a big tank with dials and valves and tubing on it. I followed them at a distance. They pulled tow fence posts free and laid them down, safely wheeling their cargo into the Shutley’s fields.
They went in a couple hundred yards and stopped, looking anxiously over their shoulders through the rain. Then they pulled a long rod, attached to the tank by length of hose, out of the wheel barrow and stuck it into the ground. They turned a valve on the tank and watched a dial for a moment. I figured this would be a good a moment as any for my entrance.
“Good evening gentlemen,” I said as I stepped into their line of sight. They both started as if to run, but stopped and turned the valve back off and removed the rod from the ground instead.
“Perhaps we could talk about what exactly you’re doing out here,” I suggested, intending to spend the night in the field with them if it meant getting answers.
Both men looked nervously and the approaching lightning for a moment. Then their shoulders sagged. “All right,” a gruff voice said, “but it’s not safe here. We’d better go back to the house.”
When we got back to the barn, both men removed their caps and moved into the light. I figured the first man was Mr. Lum, but was completely surprised to see that the second man’s was none other than Mr. Shutley himself!
The pair of farmers had been approached by a research firm to help with experiments in electricity, conductive gasses and soil viability. They injected the gas into their fields and within an hour, lightning would strike the spot, allegedly revitalizing the soil. They knew the theory was sketchy, but the money had been good. Really good.
It wasn’t until the ground starting violently re-releasing the electrical charge, killing livestock in the process, that the men guessed they were involved in something less beneficial than they hoped. They were betting it was a secret government experiment and the money was too helpful and their pride too easily wounded to confess to their wives and stop the experiments.
It was Mrs. Shutley that suggested calling a detective and Mr. Shutley, not wanting to act suspiciously but fearing discovery, suggested this detective he’d heard about at the local gas station. He figured a city fellow like me wouldn’t stick around long enough to catch them at it.
Again, I was left without a proper suspect, motive, or satisfying conclusion to the case. Only a sense of the gears of a huge plot grinding in the darkness around me. When I got home did some investigating; the research firm turned out to be a fake. I had suspected it would be.
I did have a brief description of the pair that first approached the farmers – – a short brunette woman and a young man with a fresh summer haircut. They’d only visited once and the payment arrived as money orders in a plain envelope with no return address.
So I did the only thing I could do right now. I prepared myself a cup of tea, sat down and waited for the phone to ring once again.