Clutching the bandanna-wrapped bundle of bones and hair, I hurried into the phone booth outside the Texaco. The gas station, a solitary outpost on the dark highway, had long since closed for the night. I lifted the receiver and punched in "911".
"Alpine police department. How may I help you?" asked the bored-sounding woman at the other end.
"There's ... there's been trouble at a ranch off Highway 118," I stammered. "I was hiking nearby. I heard gunshots and screaming. I think someone's been murdered."
No, I knew people had been murdered. Ashamed at my lie, I stared down at my feet. For the first time, I realized I had bloodstains on my tee shirt and hiking boots. Oh God. My knees started to buckle, and I leaned heavily against the wall of the glass booth, waiting for my head to clear.
"Miss? Miss, are you all right?" The 911 operator's voice brought my mind back into focus.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine," I lied.
I haltingly gave her directions to the ranch.
"May I have your name and number?" she asked.
I slammed down the receiver, heart pounding. I stumbled back to my car.
Whatever else happened, this was a Saturday I'd never forget.
The previous day, I'd driven West from Austin all afternoon and night on I-10, fueled on nothing but a few cups of sour truck stop coffee and the adrenaline from my rage. Every time I felt my anger dying, all I had to do was look over at the copy of The Journal of Biotechnology Methods lying on the passenger seat of my old Ford Festiva and I'd be screaming at the dashboard again.
Dr. Rudy M. Greitsch. My beloved advisor. His lab had so much NIH funding you could probably find sodden tatters of dollar bills in his shit. On the walls of his office, he had pictures of himself shaking hands with people like Robert Gallo and Presidents Reagan and Bush and all the heads of the NIH and NSF since 1965. He'd written the definitive genetics textbook, and three times he had come this close to winning the Nobel Prize.
Which was why he was getting away with ripping me off.
I was practically nobody, a first-year grad student from the sticks who'd barely squeaked into the program with a 3.20 average from a no-name undergraduate college and some high GRE scores. When I got assigned to Greitsch's lab, I felt like I'd been granted an apprenticeship with God. But God was hard to impress; he was a caustic taskmaster who viewed his assistants as pieces of crucial but unreliable equipment. And since his botanist wife had divorced him, he'd developed an open disdain for women in general, claiming we were too "emotionally challenged" to be good scientists. So I was determined to make the best possible impression, determined to make sure he didn't dismiss me as some hick little girl who couldn't play with the big boys.
I worked my butt off in his lab, running electrophoresis gels and doing hybridizations 24 hours a day. You do stuff like that all day, you get bored, and start to try to think of ways to make the work go faster. I'm not a bad chemist. So I fooled around with the current, tweaked the composition of the polyacrilamide gel, tried out different filters for blotting the nucleotide fragments.
By the end of the semester, I'd come up with my own technique that cut my work time by half. I was pretty pleased with myself, and eager to try to score some better departmental funding, so I showed my notes to Greitsch.
He grunted and muttered That's very interesting and hurried on to a meeting.
A week later, my book bag got stolen from the graduate student lounge. Someone found my bag stuffed in a study room trash can, but all my books and notes were gone. I was pretty mad; I'd just had finals, so losing my class notes wasn't really a problem, but I'd been hoping to sell the texts back to the bookstore and maybe get enough cash to take myself out for a lobster dinner. And there was my lab notebook. It was the distillation of a lot of work, but who knew what it was truly worth?
Four months later, I found out.
Bob, one of my labmates, had put the March issue of J. of Biotechnology Methods in my mailbox with a yellow stickit note that read Weren't you working on something like this?
I opened the journal to the page Bob had bookmarked, and found a monograph authored by Greitsch entitled "A Novel Approach to Polyacrilamide Electrophoresis".
My whole body shook as I read the article. It had been fleshed out into complete sentences and gussied up with some slick black-and-white photos, but the text was almost identical to my notes. The rage rising in my veins made me as lightheaded as if I'd just taken a huff of gasoline.
I swore hard and long, startling the department secretary. She stared at me, eyes round, mouth open as if she was going to beg my pardon.
I recovered a little, managing to smile sweetly against the rest of the angry filth my tongue was twitching to spew forth. "Oh, sorry, just muttering to myself," I said, then jabbed the journal under one arm and marched to Greitsch's office.
He'd ripped me off. And for what? A coauthorship with Greitsch would have made me. It would have been a key to the career elevator that could lift me from the huddled student masses up into the hallowed halls of Big Science.
But to someone like Greitsch, the article was next to nothing. He'd no doubt had one of his assistants type it up and send it in. And the journal was nothing special; Greitsch regularly published in Science and Nature; the editors at J. of Biotechnology Meth. probably wet themselves when they saw the name attached to the submission and published it as fast as they could.
I got to Greitsch's office door with a full head of steam. His door was shut, low male laughter barely audible. I stormed right in, ready to feed him his own intestines.
It took me just a half-second to take in the scene: Greitsch was sitting back in his big leather armchair, looking fat and happy. Seated across from his desk were three men: UT's president, the director of Technology Transfer, and a guy in a sharp suit with the Amgen logo emblazoned on his briefcase. The smell of big money was heavy in the air. The men's smiles faded as they turned to stare at me, expressions ranging from puzzlement to irritation.
I felt my cheeks grow hot as my anger congealed into embarrassment.
"Have you ever heard of knocking, Miss Brannigan?" Greitsch asked, his eyes glittering with disdain.
Go on, his eyes said. Accuse me in front of these people. You have no proof. I have no motive to have done anything you'll claim. Your accusation will sound pathetic and insane. Even if you don't get thrown out of the university, you'll have no chance of funding, ever again.
I tried to say something, but my tongue was frozen in my mouth.
"Well, what is it?" Greitsch prompted impatiently. "Surely you have something important on your mind to interrupt us like this?"
Take a hike, his eyes told me.
"I'll come back later," I croaked, and quickly shut the door.
"Sorry for that little interruption," I heard Greitsch say, a little too loudly, as I walked away. "One of my assistants. She's a little ... odd."
Their laughter echoed in the hallway. I wished the Earth would open and swallow me up. I felt bitter, damnable tears welling in my eyes as I left the biology building. I stared up at the clear blue sky to keep them from spilling.
It was, I realized, an achingly gorgeous day, unseasonably warm, a meteorological gift from the fickle La Niña. How many sunny days had I enjoyed since I'd started at UT? Not very damn many.
I closed my eyes against the sunlight and remembered the contempt in Greitsch's eyes.
Take a hike.
I decided it wasn't a bad idea.
The Navajos used to send their young braves out to meditate in the sun 'til they had a holy vision, a visit from the spirits that revealed pieces of their future. I hoped to be so lucky. I wasn't about to take Greitsch's theft lying down, but the truth was I had no idea what I should do. How do you bring down a professor who's the university's favorite cash cow? Perhaps a little West Texas sun would burn some wisdom into my lab-addled brain.
While La Niña's touch had been gentle in Austin, she'd been cruel to the Davis Mountains. By the time I reached my destination outside Alpine, the sun was rising into a sky as blue as a natural gas flame. The cicadas were a steady, feverish buzz in the bushy mesquites beside the highway pull-off where I'd parked my car. It was already at least ninety degrees Fahrenheit; I knew it would be over a hundred by late afternoon. It would be a dry heat, the kind you get when you open a pottery kiln.
I ate a breakfast of two Powerbars and a pear, then slathered on some sunscreen, put on my wide-brimmed straw hat and checked the contents of my backpack. I hadn't put a lot of thought into packing the afternoon before, but I'd done so much camping as a teenager that I could practically do it in my sleep. Everything seemed to be in order: water bottles, sunscreen, food, change of clothes, compass, snakebite kit, and my .44 Colt revolver. I'd had the revolver for about six years; in my senior year of high school, my aunt Polly sent me $400 to buy a prom dress. I hated school dances, but liked the feel of dangerous steel in my hand, so I bought the Colt.
Before I locked up the car, I popped the hood and loosened the wire to the alternator. I figured that if there was a thief out there in the middle of nowhere determined enough to steal a car that wouldn't start, he could have it.
And then I was off, tromping down the highway toward a range of rocky mountain-hills about ten miles away. I could see what looked to be good-sized oaks in the valleys. That meant water, maybe something big enough for a swim. But between me and the hills was an expanse of rolling, dusty scrub, apparently somebody's ranch.
The highway was already a miniature Gehenna. The air was as hot and thick as the blood of a man dying of fever. Every breath brought the bittersharp smell of a thousand spiny weeds and the pungent coal furnace odor of tar. The whole road was shiny with black, sticky blisters. In the distance, a vast mirage shimmered as though the ancient Tethys sea was rising from the caliche dust and cracked rock. I realized that I couldn't stay on the pavement for more than an hour or I'd get sunstroke. Or I'd phase out in the heat and get squashed by the first semi that came tearing down the road.
I crossed the highway and walked along the barbed-wire fence beside the road until I came to a dirt ranch road. The gate was locked, so I climbed over, scorching my palms and my thighs on the hot steel slats. I was trespassing, a shootin' crime in Texas, but at that moment I just didn't give a damn. I had put hundreds of miles under my tires, wound tight as a DNA superhelix, lightheaded from staying up all night, and I wouldn't be able to sleep 'til I'd put at least five miles under my feet.
I hadn't gone fifty yards down the dirt road before I got a whiff of decay. Something had died in the nearby mesquites, a big thing, by the stink of it. I imagined that a steer or horse had gone down in the brush.
I've always been the curious type, and I have a strong stomach. I guess that's why I went into biology in the first place. So I left the road and pushed through the mesquite and cat-claws to find out what had slipped off the end of the food chain.
The smell got stronger, and I came to a clearing. Before me was a critter pit. Somebody, presumably the rancher, had dug a wide, shallow pit in which to dispose of the carcasses of all creatures, great and small and smelly.
And, God, did it stink. It was worse than the tar; my eyes were streaming. Nothing like a mass grave to clear the sinuses. I covered my mouth and nose with my bandanna and stepped up to the edge of the pit to have a look at the carnal compost.
I could see the big, half-rotted carcass of a cow, and smaller skeletons of what looked like calves or maybe sheep. Everything was jumbled together; it was hard to tell what bones belonged to what animal. The newest carcass was Canis latrans: a coyote. It was a female, her teats swollen with milk and death. She'd been shot through the head. Flies crowded in her open jaws, her lips pulled away from the teeth in a rigor mortis snarl.
But the thing that struck me most about her was her size: she was huge, maybe sixty or seventy pounds. All the coyotes I'd seen in the area before had been twenty, thirty pounds, max. She was as big as a wolf, but all her features were classic coyote. I wondered if she were some kind of hybrid.
I'd always kind of liked coyotes, even though they can be nasty characters. They skulk, they eat rotting meat, and they have a habit of starting to eat prey while it's still alive and screaming. But then again, they'll eat any damn thing they can get hold of: road kill gophers, mice, grasshoppers, watermelon rinds, old boots, newborn lambs, the pickles off a Big Mac, whatever. They'll hunt alone, they'll hunt in packs. They're the hustlers of the predator world, but they'll protect their pups with their lives. And they've prospered and expanded their territory while all the big, bad, noble wolves are slowly being wiped out. There's a scrappy determination about the critters that I'd always admired.
I noticed two small blackened things lying near her. It took me a moment to realize they were coyote pups. From the look of what was left of their fur, they'd been burned with gasoline or kerosine. And from the way their bodies were twisted, it looked like they'd been burnt alive.
I had to turn away, plunge back through the brush to get away from the sight that had already been branded into my memory. I didn't have any illusions about life and death. I'd had to kill rats and dogs and such in the lab. But I'd done it quick, tried to minimize the animals' pain and fear. I'd never been able to iron-stomach suffering. The thought of a litter of pups being doused and lit made me sick and mad.
Being burned in gasoline ... I couldn't think of many worse ways to die. What kind of a person is so perverted and vicious as to torture coyote pups?
Someone like Greitsch, I told myself, feeling my anger swell inside me again. I could picture him as a child: a chubby, bespectacled little nerd whose greatest pleasure was catching a stray cat or dog and doing "experiments" with corrosive concoctions from his chemistry set. But now that he was a big almost-Nobel scientist, he had to satisfy himself by crushing the spirits of his students.
Go on to the next chapter ....