The news over the next couple of days wasn’t so good.
No fingerprints from Travis Paulson or anyone else had been found on the items from the cache. Everything had been wiped carefully clean. More sophisticated tests were possible, but state and federal crime labs had years-long backlogs, and weren’t likely to invest their time and resources without very compelling reasons.
Moreover, Paulson had successfully passed a lie detector test, and he’d been able to establish an alibi that seemed relatively solid. On the night when Astrid and her lover were murdered, he had been staying in the resort area of Big Sky, working on a consulting job. He had located two coworkers who confirmed that they’d had dinner with him in a restaurant that evening, then drank in a bar until about eleven. They remembered clearly because they had seen Paulson the next day after the news broke; he’d told them he knew Astrid, and seemed visibly shaken.
Big Sky was just north of Yellowstone Park, about two hundred miles from the crime scene. The drive was mostly over winding two-lane roads and took close to three hours even under optimal conditions, let alone on a wintry March night. And according to the coroner’s estimate, the deaths had occurred before midnight.
There was still room for doubt. Lie detector tests were inconclusive almost by definition. With some lucky driving, Paulson could have made the round trip during that night, and the estimated time of death could have been significantly wrong. The bodies hadn’t been discovered until the following afternoon, and as Gary pointed out, the forensics of the case had been handled abysmally.
But those things were all but impossible to establish. For the most part, the bungled investigation was a defense attorney’s wet dream. Evidence had been lost or contaminated; what survived wasn’t of much use; there was nothing that might have provided a DNA match with Paulson; records from the Phosphor County Sheriff’s Department were sloppy, inconsistent, and failed to cover a lot of important ground; and so on.
A smoking gun might still turn up. The police were quietly but intensely working on the case, searching Paulson’s property, reconstructing his movements around the time of the murders, interviewing his rape victims-digging for anything that might give them a pressure point.
But so far, the only fact that stood beyond doubt was his vileness.
Failing a breakthrough, prosecutors wouldn’t be able to convict him of the murders and wouldn’t try; they’d drop the matter and settle for the rape and assault charges. It was some consolation that those would send him to prison for years.
But that would still be a major letdown for Renee, and would leave the uneasy possibility that the real killer was still out there.
With that handwriting on the wall, Gary had started looking into other leads, but nothing promising had turned up there, either. The rifleman who had run us off Astrid’s property, one Eustace O’Reilly, was indeed the xenophobic asshole that Hannah had described-a neo-fascist survivalist type who venomously hated government, yet lived on a combination of welfare and workers’ comp from a minor injury he’d managed to parlay into a claim.
No doubt he had also hated Astrid as representing everything that his dim little worldview held to be wrong. But while he threw his weight around when he could, he’d never been known to actually harm anyone, and he had an even better alibi than Paulson for the time of the murders-his wife had kicked him out of the house, so he’d spent a few months living with his mother in Portland, Oregon. At a guess, his act hadn’t gone over too well there.
It looked like O’Reilly was off the hook-although I had a feeling that Madbird was going to head up to Phosphor one of these days and twist his tail until he squealed. I just hoped I got to go along and watch.
Another scumbag still on Gary’s radar was Ward “Pack Rat” Ackerman’s father, Boone. But Gary had had many run-ins with him over the years, and found it hard to believe that Boone possessed the balls to commit those murders or the smarts to plant the cache. Vehicle records didn’t support my notion that the SUV I’d seen watching Renee’s house might have belonged to the Ackerman clan; of course, it could have been unregistered, borrowed, or outright stolen, and Gary was leaving the door open. But he’d held off searching the place or bracing them about the dead pack rat incident because he didn’t want them aware that the cops were paying any attention to them. He assured me he’d come down hard on them as soon as the air was cleared.
The next two weeks continued without any measurable progress on those fronts. I drifted along, settling into a routine that helped to carry me. My wound healed well and I got stronger. I took long walks in the mornings and evenings, on the lookout for the bobcat. I didn’t see him, and I found his tracks only once, in a dusting of fresh snow. Spring was gaining the upper hand over winter; there were more critters around, and it would be easier for him to cover ground and find deer. Still, I always carried Madbird’s.41 Magnum. The black tom usually went with me. He wasn’t used to having me around so much but he adapted fast, seizing enhanced opportunities to extort beef and beer.
Every other day I drove to town and took care of necessary business-dealing with the police, getting a chest X-ray and my bandage changed a couple of times, and on my way home, driving by Renee’s house. As near as I could tell, it was undisturbed. I went out to Split Rock a few times to check in with Madbird, timing it so he’d be finishing work and we could have a couple of beers. Things were fine there, too, and I always came away recharged by contact with his insane magic.
Early on, a reporter called from the Independent Record, wanting a story about the assault. Years earlier, I’d been in his shoes, and I’d have helped him out if I could have. I told him that the police had asked me not to comment, and he didn’t push it. But the paper released a brief follow-up to their first account of the assault; this one included my name, and several old friends called to offer help. It was good to know that there were people concerned about me, even if I had to get shot to prove it.
Otherwise, the phone stayed quiet. Usually that was the way I liked it and it didn’t bother me during the days, but the sound of a particular sweet voice sure would have been welcome as the evenings dragged on into night.