‘Death Valley Scotty?’ It Can’t Be…
The boss of crackerjack PI Paul Manning’s girlfriend was in jail for the murder of a parking garage manager. Paul was trying to help and discovered that the boss was having an affair with Mary Hartison, wife of the very jealous gangster Moncrief Hartison. Mary had confessed the affair to Paul just before he had been hit over the head and ended up in the Hartisons’ living room and Hartison thought Paul was the guy who was cheating with his wife. Paul takes up the dialogue: Wow, for a rich powerful guy, he really didn’t know much about what was going on. A door opened and my client, Mary Hartison (nee Williams), walked out. She was wearing a revealing negligee. “That’s him, that’s the SOB who tried to take advantage of me,” she said. “Thank heavens you got him first.” Ah, yes, this was the woman who first hired me to keep her husband, who turned out not to be her husband, out of trouble. I then found her 45 minutes later standing over that poor schnook’s body, just outside his office in a parking garage. Within an hour, I had found that Mary worked in the building and was having an affair with the building owner, Larry Levinson. I then spoke to her not two hours ago in a huge cabin at Big Bear Lake, where she introduced me to her “son,” who was not Moncrief Hartison’s, and told me she was being blackmailed, due to the aforementioned affair, and was trying to keep it quiet because she was in the middle of a very messy divorce. The person Mary was supposedly divorcing was now standing next to her with a protective arm on her shoulder. Within a short period of time she had turned into a seductress who seemed very comfortable with the man she said she was trying to divorce. Before I could say anything, I was gagged, had my hands tied behind my back, and was frog-marched out the door and toward a truck. “Stop!” It was Mary. “I want a last word with this creep,” she said. She came over and leaned close to me. “How does it feel, having me close and knowing you can’t do anything about it, Larry?” Mary put her arms around me and gave me a tender kiss on the lips. Then, laughing, she sashayed back to Hartison’s side. I had to move quickly before I was shoved into the truck. I needed to hide the knife she had put in my hands.
After two hours, the truck came to a stop. Two gunsels pulled me out of the back and none too gently tossed me on the ground. Thank the Lord they didn’t frisk me. Mary’s knife was in my back pocket.
“No one has ever walked out of the desert from here, certainly not without water and certainly not with their hands tied,” one of them said. “The betting pool back at the house says you’ll be dead by noon.” They got back in the truck and drove off.
It took two minutes to cut the rope from my hands and I was free. But so what – I was in the desert, no map, no direction, no water, no nothing. But I did have a knife. And one other thing: I had taken “California Science” from Harriett Weaver in the seventh grade.
I knew which snakes were poisonous, which cactus had water, and that moss grew on the north side of a tree (well, maybe not in the desert, but you get the idea). It had been a while, but I had about five hours before the sun came up to plan my trip back to civilization. If we had driven for about two hours, my guess was that I was in for a long walk.
I won’t bore you with the details, but by sunrise, I was ready to move. I figured it was best to head the way the truck had driven off. I’m sure Miss Weaver would have been proud. There was a dry riverbed about 100 yards away, and we were taught that if trees were around, chances were there also was water just below the surface. Sure enough, about a foot down I found water. It was muddy, but I drank some before I started off.
I wanted to get as far as I could before the sun got too hot. I was in the Mojave, one of the world’s great deserts, and it got hot early. I kept my eye out for shade, and as it got hotter, I headed for an outcropping about 20 yards to the south. I checked for snakes, found none, and settled in.
I was dozing when something Miss Weaver had told us about survival in the desert came to mind. You are probably better off to stay in one place, she had said, because, particularly if you are near a road, someone may just come by and find you. I think what brought it to mind was the sound of an engine.
Sure enough – the most beautiful wreck of a car I have ever seen was driving up the road I had just been on. I was saved.
The car stopped, and the man behind the wheel looked like he had just stepped out of Central Casting. He was old, dirty, grizzled and wore torn Levis, work boots, and a hat that probably had been worn by Custer and he had got after the Battle of Little Bighorn.
“Come on, get in,” my new best friend said. “Can’t leave anyone out here in the heat of the day.” That was that. I had been lost, dying and all the rest, for a grand total of six hours.
An hour later, we arrived at an oasis. There was a cool spring, tall trees and a cabin. It was on a slight rise, and off to the west was a castle. Yes, a castle.
Old-timer. Desert. Castle. It came together in a rush. I had been saved by “Death Valley Scotty.” There was one minor problem – he had died 10 years before. So who was this character?
“I know what your questions are,” he said, “so I will give you the answers first, save time. My name is James Nelson. I’m a PhD in geology from UCLA and love the desert. I had some issues a few years ago and decided to move out here.”
“Yes, that’s Death Valley Scotty’s castle, and yes, this is Scotty’s cabin. I live here at the behest of the National Park Service to keep an eye on things during the off-season. In the winter, I teach at a college in San Bernardino.”
“Now, what’s a young buck like you doing walking in the desert, just having his hands tied, and certainly not prepared for the hike?”
There was nothing to do but tell Nelson the story. When I finished, he shook his head and muttered “manager of a parking garage.” Then he said: “Well, if we’re going to get to the bottom of this caper, I’d better get cleaned up.”
He walked into Scotty’s cabin before I could say anything. Twenty minutes later, he walked out dressed in casual clothes, shaved, clean and looking like a college professor. He locked the front door, walked around back of the cabin and started an engine. When I saw Nelson again, he was driving a brand-new Land Rover.
He leaned over, opened the door, and said, “Well, get in. If we’re going to solve this mystery, we had better get started.”
A state license was clipped to the sun visor. It said: “James Nelson, Private Investigator.” He smiled.
“I have to have something to do in my spare time, and one of them is running to ground the man who caused the ‘issues’ a few years back – one Moncrief Hartison.”
To be continued …