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I. DEATH AT DISCOVERY RANCH


Chapter 4

The old homestead bustled with preparations for Doc MacLantis’ big bash. Bunches of balloons festooned the sign in front. There beneath Doc’s flaking cartoon grin, faded lettering still read, “Doc MacLantis’ Discovery Ranch, Ancient Mysteries! Tourists Welcome!”

The MacLantis’ rambling ranch home was a converted car dealership and service station on the edge of town in a once vacant stretch of old Route 66; a roadside attraction which had seen much better days. But tonight it would host a special celebration. Already mouth-watering aromas wafted from the barbecue in the back as a small crowd of friends hailed their arrival.

Skip pulled his big van into the drive. As they began to unload last minute supplies, Doc was welcomed by a smattering of appreciative applause from the waiting guests. Smiling, he glanced at the sign and frowned. The old marquee bore numerous spots of white paint covering years of random graffiti, but there were new black marks among them.

“What the hell?” Ignoring well-wishers, Doc limped over to the sign for a better look. His tanned face paled as he peered at it.

“Drat, more tags again, Dad?” Gus called as he helped the others unload cases of drinks. “Been a lot lately. I’ll get it tomorrow. Tonight, don’t worry; relax, have a good time.”

Doc said nothing. Gus handed off the cases and came for a look. “That one again? It’s the third time it’s appeared this week. Somebody must be having a major turf battle.”

“You’ve seen it before?” Doc’s voice sounded unbelieving.

“Just within the last week or so. Why?” “I wish you’d told me,” Doc said. He sighed, silent until the crowd moved away and spoke in a quick, low voice. “Cover it, Gus, now, please, before anyone else arrives.” The old man’s blue eyes darted around.

He took a deep breath, gazing at the gorgeous vista of the distant mesas turning scarlet in the east beneath boiling pink clouds but not seeing them. “After all these years�” he muttered with a humorless chuckle, shaking his head.

“What, Dad? Does this mean something to you?” Gus looked at it, alarmed. The figure was not remarkable but it wasn’t like the usual tags. Precisely drawn in thick black marker, the symbol consisted of a big black dot sitting on top of a triangle. From each side of the triangle extended two right angles like arms, one with a small crossbar, and the other with an “X”.

Doc shook his head. “Gang tag? You could say that.” His laugh was like a bark. He started to turn away but grabbed his son’s arm. Glancing around, he said in a low voice, “Augie, tell your brother and sister to come back tomorrow. Just them – nobody else. Don’t make a big deal of it, but make sure they know it’s important. I’ll explain everything then.”

He spoke fast, cutting off any objection as a car pulled in, tooting a happy greeting. “Son, now is not the time,” Doc said. “But we should talk. Please arrange it, would you, Augustine?” Doc managed a smile but his bushy eyebrows still frowned. “But this is a reminder that time’s slipping by. We should discuss family business, I mean; I need to show you kids certain things.”

Seeing the stricken look crossing his son’s face, he relented. “No, it’s not my heart again. But it’s a long story, son. The important thing is, it’s there where I –”

“Oi, there they are! Doc MacLantis and Baby Doc!” came a cheery male voice with a strong British accent.

A tall, dark man with short, improbably blonde hair, wearing a psychedelic Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, snapped their picture. “Ace to be here for your beano, Doc! The interview this afternoon was a good crack, can’t wait for the new series,” he said, shaking his hand. “Thanks again for inviting me, guv’ner, to this special do tonight. I’m chuffed to be here. And good to see you again, ducky.” He winked at Gus, and raised the camera for another shot as Doc mumbled a greeting.

“Hold on, Nigel,” Gus said, putting his hand in the way. “Steady, man. It’s good to see you, too. But you know the conditions you agreed to with Skip. This is a family event, so cool it with the photography, okay?”

“Oh you grieve me, mate. This is for history, not the bloody job,” Nigel objected.

“Pardon me,” Doc said stiffly, “I must greet other guests.” The patriarch wheeled and hobbled away, hailing new arrivals. They stood there watching him glad-handing them. A faint rumble of thunder echoed in the distance.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to bugger things,” Nigel said. “Is he still miffed by that ruddy stinking quote in my last article?”

“It’s not just that. You saw the show: they started on him with the Vault and merely ended with the line you published. Hey, get a shot of the sign too, would you? Thanks.”

Puzzled, the writer did so, and followed Gus into the back yard. Soon Gus returned to the sign with the paint, encountering their father’s agent. Gerard Lought was pot-bellied, balding, crude and unpleasant with his constant cigar-smoking, yet his reputation for his ability to squeeze cash from anything made him golden. But not this time.

“Sorry, Prof, but the news is not encouraging,” he said. “There’s just not as much enthusiasm this time around. The reason’s simple: ‘What about the Jesus Pot?’ the network people keep asking. They assumed the new show would tackle it sooner or later. Nobody gives a crap for anything else. Well, there’s one producer who thinks he could base a sitcom on Doc about a whacky archeologist with his crazy assistants always getting into trouble.”

Gus glowered, tugging at his bearded chin, but said nothing.

“Yeah, I know – over you and your Dad’s dead bodies and theirs. Still, it’d help keep the MacLantis name in play, and the money would be good,” Lought said. “Consider it, because they can always do it anyway and leave you in the cold.”

“Please,” Gus begged, “don’t tell Doc. Not this night anyway, okay?”

The agent blew a stream of smoke which shrouded his shaking head. “Sorry, kid, way too late. He called me several days ago wanting to know if he could announce anything tonight. What could I do? I’m hoping these memoirs he just made known will lead to something.”

“You hadn’t heard either?” Gus stabbed the sign with his brush. “It bugs me that Dad must’ve known the show was in trouble way before we went to the TV studio and said not a word. When did he plan to tell us?”

“Your father plays his cards close to his chest, always has,” Lought rumbled. “No doubt he didn’t want to worry you.”

“That’s Doc for sure; a good spy but a forgetful family man.” Gus shrugged. “Now he’s freaking over this stupid bit of vandalism.”

“Hey, cut him slack, kid. Doc’s showing a brave face for your sakes. This is supposed to be a party, and everyone expects good news.” Lought spat and waddled towards the back yard. Gus blushed, and tucked the paint can behind the bushes as a package delivery van pulled up.

 


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“Scholars whose sole experiences of strata are crooked piles of books can hardly appreciate the judicious use of properly trained clairvoyants and dynamite in fieldwork.”

Doc MacLantis,
Journal of Expeditionary Archeology,
Fall 1958

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