Now, if you really haven't read Mann of War and you plan to do so, you probably don't want to read this yet. This will ruin the surprise of the last chapter of that novel.
Robert Mann tilted his head trying to decide if he saw a bruise under the edge of Dr. Gail Fremont-Progroff’s blouse. He was discreet about it. Still, Charlie tapped his foot under the table. She widened her eyes at him to tell him to be good.
The banquet table was large, everyone an anthropologist or anthropology student except for him. Dr. Fremont-Progroff hadn’t noticed him. But he realized why Charlie had tapped him under the table.
Nine or ten people at the table were staring at him, smiling expectantly. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Tim asked you a question.”
Robert smiled and rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Just a little tired. What was the question?”
Tim turned out to be a chubby ruddy faced student full of enthusiasm and energy. He wore a khaki short sleeved shirt that would have been just about right for the field. Unfortunately for Tim, men were supposed to wear ties and suit jackets this evening.
Tim shook his head. “No don’t worry about it, Professor Mann.” Tim was deferential. The kind of young scholar who was enamored of the hierarchy of academia. Despite that, Robert decided he liked the young man’s restless energy. “I was just wondering if you had any opinions about the petroglyphs.”
“I think they’re . . .” Robert searched for a word. He almost said “neat” but had a sudden desire not to disappoint Tim, so he said “fascinating.”
Tim nodded leaning forward in his seat. “But I want your professional opinion.”
“I’m not an anthropologist.”
“I mean I want the opinion of an historian.” Tim breathed the word “historian” reverently.
Something in his tone caught the imagination of the others at the table. Conversation stopped. Everyone was watching Robert, waiting for the opinion of the historian.
Robert shrugged and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Tim. I’m here with Charlie. It’s just not my area. If you want to know about the Age of Jackson, we can talk, but the petroglyphs are just outside my specialization.” The others at his table seemed disappointed. “I’d like to hear the opinion of Professor Fremont-Progroff.”
Robert would have normally called her “Gail.” That’s how she had introduced herself to him earlier. Somehow, Tim’s formality had worked its way into him.
Gail must have been ready for the question. She smiled at Robert and launched into what seemed like a prewritten lecture on the subject.
The lecture was interesting, and Gail was a good speaker. Soon, however, Robert found himself studying her again, checking for signs of bruising. Her shoulder blade. Her forearm. Perhaps there was discoloration on the side of her neck. Her hair hung loose, however, covering her neck most of the time.
“It’s just so sad,” Charlie said the next morning. She was in the shower while Robert leaned against the sink. “She’s so smart, but she seems blind when it comes to her husband.”
“Mmm,” Robert said. “Has anyone tried to help her?”
“I don’t know.” Charlie paused for a moment. “It seems kind of strange to try to help her.”
“She’s so smart and competent.”
“It would be kind of insulting to suggest that she needs saving?” Robert asked.
“That’s right,” Charlie said. She turned off the water and wrapped a towel around herself. “It’d be sexist, right?”
Robert shrugged. It was the best he could come up with if he didn’t want to be shouted down. Maybe it would be sexist. On the other hand. He let the thought drop in his head.
“Where was he last night?” Robert asked.
“I don’t know. What I’ve heard is that everyone’s relieved when he doesn’t show up. With all the gossip you hear, he’s just so creepy to be around.”
Most people, Robert included, took their time getting ready, working themselves into the morning. Charlie with her pixie haircut and dislike of makeup was dressed and out of the hotel room in sixty seconds. She didn’t bother to dry her hair, and she toweled off with a quick wipe. Underwear, socks, shorts, shirt, hat, shoes, sunscreen, a backpack with their breakfast and some water, all within a minute, and she was outside, half-walking, half-jogging through the lobby on her way to the trailhead.
Robert smothered a laugh, trying to keep up with her, her excitement infecting him. These were the best parts of academic conferences as far as Robert was concerned. A good conference leader chose a hotel somewhere that would be interesting to its participants. Going out between the breakout sessions and experiencing something was much more interesting than the sessions themselves.
Not many academics found the middle of Arizona interesting, but these anthropologists did. Robert did too.
With Charlie’s pace, they were across the parking lot to the trailhead in another minute. Even from the front door of the Desert Springs Hotel, Robert could see they were too late. No one was there.
Now, on tiptoes and supporting herself with fingers on the little wooden trail sign, Charlie looked over the scrub and through the saguaro cactuses, trying to see the little group of hikers they were supposed to meet.
“Dr. Fremont-Progroff wasn’t kidding around,” Robert said.
Charlie shrugged and shaded her eyes with her hand. “She said she was going to leave early, but I didn’t think she meant before 6 am.” Still, they could catch her.
The two of them settled into a jog, a little faster than their normal morning exercise, but Robert liked it. The air was already warm. He could feel the sun tanning his arms. The desert woke up all around him, the birds, the skittering in the bushes.
The path dipped into gullies and rose along the side of a hill. In a few minutes, they came around the hill’s backside, and the valley spread itself before them. Charlie stopped and shaded her eyes to stare across the distance. Robert wondered how many miles he was looking out over. 50? 100? 200? It was a clear day, and they were up above the desert floor a little. They could see into a vast wasteland where people could be lost forever.
“There,” Charlie pointed. Below them, the little group winded along the trail towards the petroglyphs.
Charlie nearly burst into a run, but Robert shouted, “Stop!” He grabbed her shoulder.
“Look at that,” he said. A rattle snake was making its way across the trail twenty feet ahead of them.
Charlie took a breath. “Maybe we should slow down a little,” she laughed.
Gail Fremont-Progroff beamed when Robert and Charlie caught up to the group. Charlie dashed ahead and locked into her step, matching her stride for stride and asking about the Indians who had settled here, lived here, left their drawings, and died out a thousand years earlier.
Robert lagged at the back of the group with a short man he’d seen before. “You’re Carlton Progroff, aren’t you?” Robert asked the man.
Progroff smiled at him. “Sure,” he said. “Do I know you?”
Progroff was a bit shorter than Robert’s six foot two, but he looked powerful. These anthropologists were used to hiking long distances to sites in the wilderness. They moved quickly. Progroff wasn’t even panting or sweating in the rising morning heat. He wore his tan shirt unbuttoned down to the third button, showing off his well-muscled chest.
“I’m Robert. I’m the only one who isn’t an anthropologist.”
“Oh, right,” he said. They were moving quickly, and there was a slight breeze, but Robert was sure he smelled cologne. “History man. Gail mentioned you.”
“I heard you were an expert on the other petroglyphs out here.”
Progroff stared at him a moment. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“I heard there were some left behind by American pioneers. It’s really the only thing I’m interested in.”
“Oh,” Progroff said, smiling. “You mean . . . yeah, well I’d hardly call myself an expert.”
“You lectured about them didn’t you.”
“Sure,” he said. Progroff stood up a little straighter at being thought of as an expert. “No one else at the conference knew anything about them at all.”
“I’d love to see them.”
“Fascinating pieces. I mean extraordinary. The theory is the settlers were coming through this area and saw the Indian’s petroglyphs. They must have wanted to be a part of the tradition.”
“Really?” Robert asked. It was the only question he needed. Progroff clearly loved to be the center of things. Now that he had an audience, he spoke – not noticing that Robert wasn’t listening and that Gail couldn’t continue her lecture over what he was saying.
Robert decided that Progroff was an easy man to hate. Even if he weren’t a wife beater, even if his wife weren’t so charismatic and brilliant, Robert would have hated him. He was smarmy and transparent, and the cologne and smiles and wan looks were supposed to be endearing.
Robert grabbed Progroff by the arm and stopped him as the group kept moving off. “Listen, the ancient petroglyphs don’t interest me as much as the settlers’ drawings do. Would you mind showing them to me?”
An hour later, Robert found himself staring at living history that few others had seen before him. A trail led to it, but it was unmarked. He would have passed by it without Progroff’s help. “What did I tell you?” Progroff said.
The drawing on the rock was simple. It had been etched into the dark rock with another rock or perhaps a piece of metal of some kind. There was the clear image of a stick figure man standing next to what appeared to be a wagon. Then there was the date, 1832, and the name, J. F. Buckley. “What did I tell you?” Progroff asked again.
The man was beaming, simpering almost. He was beginning to get a little pink in the hot sun, but that didn’t seem to bother him. What caught Robert’s eye however was the bruises on his left hand. He must have used the left hand like a fighter. Right hand for jabs so he didn’t damage it. The left hand for the hard work.
“I never would have seen this if it hadn’t been for you,” Robert said. “Thank you.”
“Nothing,” Progroff said. “Really nothing. Anyway, it got me away from a lecture I’ve heard a thousand times.”
Robert could kill the man easily enough right now. All he had to do was wait until Progroff’s back was turned and clout him with a rock. All he had to do was wait until the trail hugged a cliff. All he had to do was get his knife from his pocket. It’d be easy enough, and it would save the world a lot of difficulty in the end. Gail Fremont-Progroff would be free to follow her intellect and help her students without the constant threat of murder.
Sure, Robert could kill him now. Unfortunately, ten people had seen him leave with the man.
“She said there might be a chance at a position with her this summer.” Charlie was a whirl of excitement as she finished dressing for dinner. She put in her diamond stud earrings and looked down at her bare feet.
“This summer? Out here?”
Charlie’s face softened. “Yeah, this summer.” She sat down on the bed next to him and placed a hand on his thigh. “I know it would be hard for us. I don’t know what it means, but . . .”
Robert smiled and shook his head. “What it means is that I’ll either be living in the desert this summer or visiting a lot.”
Her face lit up as he knew it would. “You can’t believe how much responsibility she’s giving me.” She bounced off the bed again, opening the closet. She moved the brown leather backpack Robert had gotten earlier in the day and pulled out the shoes.
Charlie sat down and stood up perhaps ten more times as she got ready for dinner and talked about the new position. However, everything she talked about was predicated on the idea that Gail Fremont-Progroff was going to be alive this summer.
Robert had done some research in the morning. Carlton Progroff had been married four times before he met his current wife. His first wife divorced him. His second wife divorced him and tried to have him arrested for abuse. The charges didn’t hold up in court. His third wife was murdered in an apparent robbery in a parking lot. They had been married four years. His fourth wife was murdered in another apparent robbery after two years of marriage.
Gail Fremont-Progroff had been married to him for a year and a half.
The police suspected Carlton in the two murders. Unfortunately, Carlton had good alibis. Both nights he’d been eating out with friends. He paid for dinner both times. They weren’t air tight alibis. He could have driven over quickly to both murder sites. The district attorneys didn’t pursue either case however. They thought there was too much reasonable doubt to convict a respected anthropologist.
“What?” Robert asked. “Sorry, I was lost in thought.”
“Oh, I’m rambling. I just asked if you were ready to go down to dinner.”
“You weren’t rambling. I’m not feeling great.” Robert let his head fall into his hands as though he were a little dizzy. “That hike out to the petroglyphs was a little hot for me.”
Charlie sat down on the bed next to him and rubbed his back. “Oh god. I was just going on and on, and I didn’t even notice. Lie down. I’m taking care of you tonight.”
“Are you out of your mind? You’re going to have dinner with Dr. Fremont-Progroff to make sure you’re on her team.” Charlie started to say something, but Robert cut her off. “And I don’t want you to come back early either. I’m a grown man.”
They bickered back and forth, but Charlie’s heart wasn’t in it. She really wanted to be at the dinner. She needed to be there, Robert argued. They were going to fill the team with someone else if she didn’t go.
The next day was the final day of the conference. Robert opted out of going on the hikes or to the breakout sessions. They were interesting, he told Charlie. But they weren’t really his thing. He needed to get a little work done of his own he said. He was going to need some time alone, and he might need to go out, he said. They’d meet back at the hotel room before dinner.
When Robert got back at around six o’clock, he found Charlie in the room sitting on the bed across from the closet. She was staring at the closet floor, not moving, her natural energy and enthusiasm replaced by a quiet Robert couldn’t identify.
“Is everything all right?” he asked. He sat down in the room’s one chair next to the closet.
“Carlton Progroff is dead,” she said.
Robert nodded. “How’d that happen?” Robert didn’t bother feigning shock or horror. Progroff had been a bad person. Robert was glad he died.
“Yesterday, when you and he went out to the petroglyphs, do you remember him losing his backpack? It was a brown one.”
Robert thought back. “No.”
Later that night, Progroff hadn’t been able to find his backpack. He was sure he hadn’t left it at the petroglyphs. When he searched his room and the hotel, he couldn’t find it. “Weird,” Robert said. “I could have sworn he brought it back.”
Charlie stared mutely at Robert for a moment. Then she said, “He went out there to look for it today. I guess he found it at the petroglyphs where you had been, but he was bitten by snakes.”
“He died of snakebite?”
“Yeah, he was bitten on his hands and arms four times by more than one snake.” Robert nodded, not knowing what to say. “It looks like the snakes had crawled into his backpack for some reason. When he opened it, they struck him.”
“Wow,” Robert said. “Wow.”
“Yeah,” Charlie said flatly. “Wow.” She stared at Robert again for a moment. “The backpack was a brown leather backpack.”
“There was a brown leather backpack in our closet yesterday.”
Robert nodded. “Was there?”
“Robert?” she asked. There was a question in her voice.
Robert stared at Charlie for a long moment, the silence stretching out between them. He was trying to decide something. When he did, he said, “Yeah, that was his backpack.”
“His?” Charlie’s breath caught. She couldn’t finish her question.
“Let me explain.” He looked out the window, and wondered how far away the closest police or sheriff’s station was. It didn’t matter, he supposed. Running would be pointless if it came to that. They could be 1,000 miles away from a sheriff’s station and running would still be pointless.
“The other day when we had dinner with Gail Fremont-Progroff, I saw deep bruising on her chest. She tried to hide it, but I could see it. I’d heard the rumors that her husband was an abuser, and I wanted to verify for myself. I heard that back on campus even before we came to the conference. It seemed to be an open secret here too.
“I called a friend of mine in law enforcement to find out if the rumors were true. He went through the database and told me that the police knew Progroff was guilty of at least two murders, and that the timeframe of the murders seemed to be shortening. I figured Gail didn’t have much longer.
“He’d gotten away with it a couple of times, and I like Gail. She’s a good scholar and a good person. When we came back from our hike, I followed a maid. When she ducked into the bathroom, I stole her keycard. Then when the Progroffs left their room for dinner, I went in and took the backpack.
“This much is on videotape. If you want to tell the police, this is the evidence you should use.”
Robert paused for a moment, but Charlie didn’t say anything or move. She stared at him and bit her lip, waiting for him to continue.
“Finding the rattlesnakes wasn’t difficult. I cut off their rattles so he’d be less likely to notice when he opened the bag. He was too far from the hotel to get back. Anyway, trying to walk back would only speed up the poison. There was a good chance he wouldn’t be bitten, so I walked out there this morning and sat behind some bushes to make sure everything happened right. It did.”
Robert stopped talking again and waited for Charlie to speak. She leaned back and frowned at him. He could hear the maids outside his door vacuuming the hallway. Outside his window, cars were pulling into the parking lot or pulling out.
Finally, Robert couldn’t stand the silence. “I know that this . . .” he searched for a word, “bothers you. I’m not going to stop you if you want to turn me in.”
“You understand if this ‘bothers’ me?” Charlie cocked her head to the side.
“Not a great word,” he said.
“Why should it bother me?” Charlie said. “That son-of-a-bitch got what he deserved.”