She was wearing a straw hat, pulled down over her forehead, a short flowered dress, no stockings and white high heels. A lot of blond hair showed under the hat. Her face was nearly angelic and looked about 15, though the fact that she wore a wedding ring made me skeptical. She marched into my office like someone volunteering for active duty, and sat in one of my client chairs with her feet flat on the floor and her knees together. Nice knees.
"You're Mr. Spenser."
"Lieutenant Samuelson of the Los Angeles Police Department said I should talk to you."
"He's right," I said.
"You know about this already?"
"No," I said. "I just think everybody should talk to me."
"Oh, yes . . . My name is Mary Lou Buckman."
"How do you do Mrs. Buckman."
"Fine, thank you."
She was quiet for a moment, as if she wasn't quite sure what she should do next. I didn't know either, so I sat and waited. Her bare legs were tan. Not tan as if she'd slathered them with oil and baked in the sun-tan as if she'd spent time outdoors in shorts. Her eyes were as big as Susan's, and bright blue.
Finally she said, "I would like to hire you."
"Don't you want to know more than that?"
"I wanted to start on a positive note," I said.
"I don't know if you're serious or if you're laughing at me," she said.
"I'm not always sure myself," I said. "What would you like me to do?"
She took a deep breath.
"I live in a small town in the foothills of the Saw Tooth Mountains, called Potshot. Once it was a rendezvous for mountain men, now it's a western retreat for a lot of people, mostly from L.A., with money, who've moved there with the idea of getting their lives back into a more fundamental rhythm."
"Back out of all this now too much for us," I said.
"That's a poem or something," she said."Frost," I said.
"My husband and I came from Los Angeles. He was a football coach, Fairfax High. We got sick of the life and moved out here, there actually. We run, ran, a little tourist service, take people on horseback into the mountains and back-nothing fancy, day trips, maybe a picnic lunch."
"'We ran a service'?" I said.
"I still run it. My husband is dead."
She said it as calmly as if I'd asked his name. No effect.
"There was always an element to the town," she said. "I suppose you could call it a criminal element-they tended to congregate in the hills above town, a place called the Dell. There's an old mine there that somebody started once, and they never found anything and abandoned it, along with the mine buildings. They are, I suppose, sort of contemporary mountain men, people who made a living from the mountains. You know, fur trapping, hunting, scavenging. I think there are people still looking for gold, or silver, or whatever they think is in there-I don't know anything about mining. Some people have been laid off from the lumber companies, or the strip mines, there's a few left over hippies, and a general assortment of panhandlers and drunks and potheads."
"Which probably interferes with the natural rhythm of it all," I said.
"They were no more bothersome than any fringe people in any place," she said, "until about three years ago."
"What happened three years ago?"
"They got organized," she said. "They became a gang."
"Who organized them?"
"I don't know his real name. He calls himself The Preacher."
"Is he a preacher?"
"I don't know. I think so. I don't think he's being ironic."
"And there's a problem," I said.
"The gang lives off the town. They require the businessmen to pay protection. They use the stores and the restaurants and bars and don't pay. They acquire businesses in town for less than they're worth by driving out the owners. They bully the men. Bother the women."
"We have a police chief. He's a pleasant man. Very likable. But he does nothing. I don't know if he's been bribed, or if he's afraid or both."
"The sheriff's deputies come out, if they're called." she said. "But it's a long way and when they arrive, there are never any witnesses."
"So why are you telling me all this?"
She shifted in her chair, and pulled the hem of her skirt down as if she could cover her knees, which she couldn't. She didn't seem to be wearing any perfume, but she generated a small scent of expensive soap.
"They killed my husband."
"I'm sorry," I said.
"He was in the Marine Corps. He played football in college," she said. "He was a very courageous man. An entirely wonderful man."
Her voice was flat and without inflection, as if she were reciting something she'd memorized.
"He wouldn't pay the Dell any money," she said. "So they killed him."
"No one has come forward."
"How do you know it was the, ah, Dell?" I said.
"They threatened him, if he didn't pay. Who else would it be?"
"And you want me to find out which one did it?"
"Yes and see that they go to jail."
"Can you pay?"
"Yes. Up to a point."
"We'll come in under the point," I said.
She shifted in her chair again and crossed her legs, and rested her folded hands on her thigh.
"Why didn't you just sell and get out?" I said. "Move to Park City or someplace?"
"There's no market for homes anymore. No one wants to move there because of the Dell gang."
"And you knew Samuelson from your L.A. days."
"His son played for Steve . . . my husband."
"And you asked him about getting some help and he suggested me."
"Yes. He said you were good and you'd keep your word."
"A good description," I said.
"He also said you were too sure of yourself. And not as funny as you thought you were."
"Well he's wrong on the last one," I said. "But no need to argue."
"Will you do it?"
"Okay," I said.
"Just like that?"
"What are you going to do?"
"Come out and poke around."
"It's a start," I said.
Excerpted from POTSHOT © Copyright 2001 by Robert Parker. Reprinted with permission from Putnam Pub Group, an imprint of Penguin Putnam. All rights reserved.