Excerpt

Next To Last Stand

Craig Johnson

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Next To Last Stand, by Craig Johnson. Walt Longmire is called in to investigate an art crime, after a dead man is found alongside a piece of lost painting and a shoebox containing a million dollars.

“Russians.”

“Russians?”

“Russians.”

I stared at the old man in the US Navy “Dixie-cup” hat as he smoothed out his spaghetti-stained cardigan. I waited for him to add more, but he didn’t, so I felt compelled to ask, “And Kenny, where did Charley Lee meet these Russians?”

He gestured all around us. “Why, right here.”

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Leaning against my truck, with Dog’s massive head sticking out of the passenger side window beside me, I glanced up and down Route 16, my eyes lingering on the snowcapped peaks of the Bighorns’ Cloud Peak Wilderness area. “He met Russians here on the highway?”

All four men nodded. They were once again parked in their wheelchairs next to the Veterans’ Home redbrick sign.

“What, they were driving by in a staff car with big red hammers and sickles on the doors and he flagged them down?”

The rail-thin one in the thick glasses and air force ball cap, Ray, snickered. The one in the cardigan, Kenny, gave him a look to silence him but that did little good. “He talked to the Russians a lot.”

“More than one Russian?”

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“They was sometimes two.”

“Two Russians.”

Delmar, dressed in the rayon marines jacket, joined in. “Say, shouldn’t you be taking notes on all this?”

The other three nodded. “S’matter of national security.”

“That’s right.”

I calmly pulled out a notepad and pen and pretended to write things down. “So, two Russians?”

They all four nodded.

“Did you catch their names?”

They all four first looked at one another, then back at me, and then shook their collective heads.

“What did they look like?”

They all looked at one another again, and then the individual in the green fatigue jacket and boonie hat, Clifton, volunteered, “Russians. They looked like Russians.”

I closed my notebook. “What, long gray coats and furry hats?”

Ray, the one in the air force ball cap that had the scrambled eggs embroidery on the front, nodded. “Furry hats, yeah.”

“What did they look like? I mean besides the furry hats?”

Delmar, the marine jacket, spoke up. “One was a blonde woman, little bitty thing, and the other was an old fella with a mustache . . .”

Ray interrupted. “He wasn’t a Russian.”

Clifton took exception. “The hell he wasn’t, he talked Russian, damn it.”

“He talked English too, does that make him British, you moron?”

Delmar clarified. “She was Russian, but he was an American.” After a moment they all nodded in unison.

Ray thought it important to add, “She was cute too.”

“Age?”

“Younger than us.”

I paused, but figured they were beyond getting their feelings hurt. “That doesn’t narrow the field much, guys.” I stepped back and petted Dog. “Not to change the subject, but did you fellows ever see Charley Lee with a shoebox?”

“Not to change the subject, but did you fellows ever see Charley Lee with a shoebox?”

They all stared at me.

“Right.” Pocketing the notebook and pen, I pushed off the fender of my truck. “You guys have anything else you’d like to add?”

Clifton smoothed his brim and looked up at me. “You gonna catch who killed poor ol’ Charley Lee?”

“Well, as far as we know, Mr. Stillwater died of natural causes.”

They looked at one another and then back at me. “That’s what they want you to think.”

“Right.” I fished my keys out of the pocket of my jeans along with my watch. “Coming up on noon . . . don’t you fellows need to get back in for lunch?”

“Yer damn right . . . it’s walleye fillets today with tartar sauce and Tater Tots.”

Delmar agreed. “The only thing better is pizza night.” Kenny in the cardigan led the way, pivoting in his motorized wheelchair and sailing back for the complex of buildings in the distance.

I watched as the remaining three peeled off in formation and motored their battery-powered way next to the rolling dales of the picturesque drive that ran alongside the main entryway, the hopped-up wheelchairs looking like a convoy with each one flying a different tiny flag.

Watching the little procession go, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d decorate my own wheelchair someday.

“Are we done yet?” I turned to find my undersheriff, having woken up from her nap, scrubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands. “I’m hungry.”

“Evidently, it’s walleye fillet day.”

She pushed Dog aside and hung out the window in what most people would consider a gorgeous, high-plains, mid-June day. “So long as there’s tartar sauce and Tater Tots. I’m all about the Tots.” She glanced around, her eyes traveling down the foot- hills to the Powder River Country that stretched farther than any human eye could see. “Holy shit. I’m glad it’s summer.”

Following the lead of the wheelchair brigade, I said nothing.

She turned her head and looked at me. “Aren’t you glad it’s summer?”

“Yep.”

“I mean, you’ve been talking about it for months.”

“I have?”

“Yes, you’ve been complaining about the ice and cold ever since you got back from Mexico a few months ago.”

I turned to look at her and then glanced around at the almost phosphorescent leaves of the trees and the lush grass of the irrigated state property. “I guess I haven’t noticed, or maybe it’s not what I thought it was going to be.”

“What the hell did you think it was going to be?”

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Different.” Walking around the front of my truck, I climbed in and closed the door behind me, fastening my seatbelt and firing up the big V-10. I turned to look at her again. “What?”

“You are so weird lately.”

“Lately?”

She shrugged an admission. “Weirder. I mean you’re not freezing up like you were so much, but you seem distracted all the time.”

Pulling the selector lever into gear, I spun the steering wheel and started down the long drive toward Fort McKinney proper, aware that she was still looking at the side of my face. “What?”

“I have a question.”

“More?”

“It’s a personal question.”

“All right.”

“When you were down there in Mexico . . . And you can level with me on this.”

“Okay.”

She lodged herself against the passenger seat and continued studying me. “Did they shoot your dick off?”

I almost ran off the road. “What?”

“They shot it off, right?”

“No . . .”

“Because I haven’t seen the thing in months, and I’m just thinking that it must be gone because . . .”

“It’s fine, it’s there, and it’s fine, thank you . . .”

She placed an elbow on the sill and propped her head up, the fingers threaded into the thick blue-black hair as she ad- justed her sunglasses and gazed out the windshield. “Let me finish.”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

“Look, I’m no Gina Lollobrigida . . .”

“Actually, you are.”

She sat up, folding a tactical boot under herself and lowering her Clubmaster Ray Bans to study me with the tarnished gold eyes. “Then why haven’t I even seen the damn thing for months?”

“Look . . .”

“What, do I need to reintroduce myself, take a number, or what?”

“I’ve told you it’s not you . . .”

“I really thought something was going to happen last night after we left the bar, but you just put me in my unit like I was last week’s groceries and then patted me on the head and sent me on my way.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t want you to be sorry—I want something else.”

“I’m getting that.” Turning right, I drove past the flagpoles and the visitors’ center, parking closer to the offices and living quarters. “Look, can we discuss this some other time?”

“I want to do something more than just talk about it.” “Okay.”

“So, I’ve got another question.”

I switched off the ignition and unbuckled my seatbelt. “Another one?”

“Yeah, what were you thinking about out there on the road after the Four Horsemen of the Metropolis rolled off?”

Relieved at the change of subject, I sighed. “I was wondering what I’d be decorating my wheelchair with when the time comes.”

She studied me for a long while and then smiled a voluptuous grin. “Me. I’ll wear slinky outfits and drape across your lap like Mata Hari.” She dropped her sunglasses back onto her nose with a forefinger, and I was once again reminded of just how dangerous looking she could be. “You know what the greatest exercise against looming mortality is, right?”

Watching Carol approach from the administration building, I nodded and climbed out, happy to have somebody else to talk to and something else to talk about.

Across the way, the Doors played “Riders on the Storm,” which segued into Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” from a pair of speakers lodged in the window of one of the second-story apartments.

“How’d it go?”

I turned to her. “Well, the investigation seems to have taken an unexpected and international turn in that Charley Lee was evidently meeting with the KGB out by the front entrance.”

She covered her face with a hand as Vic came around to join us. “Oh God, I’m so sorry.”

I shrugged. “They’re a funny group.”

“They were so adamant about talking to you, I should’ve known.” She smiled. “The Wavers, we originally called them Waves, but they didn’t like that.”

“How about Wacs, as in wack jobs?” Vic leaned on my truck and glanced up at the speaker, wailing away into the all but empty parking lot. “So, who’s Wolfman Jack?”

Carol looked that way, and I noticed there were all kinds of vintage rock and roll stickers applied to the entire window so that you couldn’t see inside at all. “Oh, that’s Magic Mike Bursaw, he’s kind of our unofficial radio station. He’s got walls lined with records from the sixties and seventies—goes non- stop all day.”

“Kind of nice.”

“Yeah, we had a new guy come in over at administration who asked if we could get Mike to turn it down. We told him he could go ask Mike if he wanted to, but that the last guy who tried to touch Magic’s stereo came away with three broken fin- gers and a bloody nose.”

I gazed at the covered window. “Violent, is he?” “Only if you touch his vinyl.”

I nodded. “Any progress on Charley Lee’s room?”

“Quite a bit, actually. I stuck around last night and sorted through all the personal correspondence and then stacked all the books in the hall outside.”

“Aren’t you afraid that somebody will take them?”

Carol glanced at Vic. “They’re art and history books; if they were Playboys, I’d be worried.”

My undersheriff looked perplexed. “These guys don’t read history books?”

“Not military history. I guess they’ve seen too much of it themselves.”

“I hear its walleye for lunch?”

She smiled. “You’re welcome to join us.” Her smile faded just a touch as she studied Vic. “I can have a few trays brought to Charley Lee’s room, that way you can avoid the common area.”

“Why would we want to do that?”

She nodded toward my undersheriff. “She’s going to cause quite a stir, and you’re going to have about fifty guys wanting to sit at your table.”

“Ah, maybe we’ll take your advice.”

“You remember where Charley Lee’s room is?”

“One twenty-four.

“Right. I’ll get the lunches for you guys and meet you over there in about ten.”

“Deal.” We walked through a dayroom, went past another reception desk next to a communal fireplace, and down the hallway.

Vic studied the stickers and memorabilia fastened to the doors along with the residents’ names on plastic plaques. “Reminds me of dorm rooms.”

Noting the army, navy, air force, and marines stickers, I added. “With a little more of a military twist.”

Charley Lee’s room was easy to spot with the books stacked along the wall beside the door; hundreds of them. Stepping past, I leafed through a few at the top. “Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Western Art of the Twenty-First Century, Jansen’s History of Art, The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume V, Landscape and Western Art . . . Charley Lee was something of an aficionado.”

“Certainly liked art too.” Vic picked up a few others before noting the look on my face. “What?”

Turning the open page toward her, I pointed at the copious notes in the margins, written in a careful hand. “He should’ve been teaching somewhere.” Turning the pages, I continued reading. “These notes are really insightful, and his use of artistic terms is nothing short of impressive.”

“Did he go to school for this stuff?”

“Not that I know of.” I stared at the stacks. “Must’ve been self-taught.”

“You think he bought and sold paintings—that’s where the money came from?”

“I don’t know, but you’d think something like that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed around here.” Placing the book back into the stacks, I opened the door and flipped on the light, finding the place a lot more orderly than the last time I’d seen it. “I’d say Carol’s been working overtime.”

There were plastic milk-case style file folders and manila envelopes that filled a few old beer cases stacked neatly on a hand truck by the door. Slipping a few folders from the plastic containers, I looked at the writing on the envelope that read Correspondence Between CLS and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. There were more with other illustrious names like the Booth Western Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Brinton Museum over in Sheridan County, the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, the Eiteljorg in Indianapolis, and the Denver Art Museum.

“Pretty amazing, huh?” We turned to find Carol, who was holding two trays, in the doorway.

“I’ll say, and a pretty amazing job on your part in filing all this stuff.”

She shrugged, handing each of us a tray with the aforementioned walleye, tartar sauce, and Tater Tots. “My father was an accountant.”

Sitting on the bed, I watched as Vic sat in the guest chair and Carol leaned against the wall by the hand truck. “So, what was all this correspondence about?”

“A lot of trading information about artists and their art. Sorry to be so vague, but to be honest, I didn’t read any of it. As soon as I ascertained who it was, I just piled it into the appropriate files or boxes and moved on to the next.” She glanced around. “If I’d started reading, I don’t think I would’ve gotten very far in getting it cleaned up—there were even letters he’d written back and forth with the Budweiser Corporation in Saint Louis.”

“No personal correspondence among family members?”

“There were some letters from his daughter, but not much.”

They’re in the second carton there.”

“You didn’t run into any more treasures or artwork?”

She shook her head. “Only what’s on the walls.” She glanced around. “Some of it’s relatively valuable, but nothing worth a million dollars.”

Starting on my lunch, I threw a chin toward the painting of the Buffalo Soldier standing in front of the Navajo rug. “What about that one?”

“I can’t say for sure because I’m certainly no expert, but I’d say that one is relatively new from the look of the paint; the style and everything . . . Doesn’t it almost look like a poster for a movie or something?”

“In fact, it does. It also looks remarkably like Charley Lee.” Leaning forward, I studied the canvas. “And there’s no signature.”

Vic broke off eating with a piece of walleye on the end of her fork, which she extended toward the art. “Has anybody looked on the back of the thing?”

Carol once again shook her head. “I was concentrating on getting a pathway cleared so we could walk in and wasn’t so much worried about what’s on the walls.” She turned back to me. “Anything on that one we found in the blanket?”

“I haven’t pursued it just yet, but there are at least two mu- seums here in the state with which he was in correspondence, so I guess I’ll start there.” I continued eating and unscrewed a bottle of water she’d provided and took a swig. “Any sign of a will?”

She smiled. “There was an envelope in his personal file that had a piece of notebook paper in it from 1994, not notarized, leaving all his worldly possessions to one Bass Townsend.”

“And who, pray tell, is Bass Townsend?” “That, is a very good question.”

Vic made a face. “So, if we don’t find somebody to give this money to, who gets it?”

“The federal government.” I turned back to Carol. “Any word from the tax folks over in Sheridan?”

“They want to know which institution has the money.”

“I bet they do . . . What, they’re worried that a Wyoming sheriff is driving around with a million dollars in a shoebox?”

“Something like that.”

“The Bank of Durant, right down the street here.”

“Security box for Charley Lee?”

“Yes, well, I think yes. I’ll go have a talk with Verne Selby and see if I can’t get a warrant.” I looked back up at the painting. “What do you do with the personal items if there isn’t any- one to forward them to?”

“Generally we keep any artifacts for the museum display in the dayroom and just donate the things that aren’t of much value, but with these paintings and books . . . Especially the military history and art—I don’t know what we’re going to do. There’s a ton of books on Custer and the Little Bighorn.”

Vic chimed in. “I hope they’re better than the movies.”

Carol looked at me. “We caught a really bad double feature at the Red Pony last night.” I glanced out the door. “Did you see all the notes in the margins of the books?”

Carol sighed. “I did. I pulled all the pieces of paper from them, but I don’t know what to make of all those notes.”

“We need somebody who knows something about art to go through them.”

“Any ideas?”

“The closest would be the Brinton over in Big Horn.” I glanced out the door again at the tall stacks of books and at the bathroom where even more books sat on top of the toilet. “Good thing you’ve got a hand truck.”

__________________________________

NEXT TO LAST STAND by Craig Johnson, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Craig Johnson.

 




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