Busted Axle Road
Chapter 35

Copyright© 1993, 2001, 2010

McMullen wished that Harper could be with him; after all, he was only about half a mile from Harper's house, but it was halfway across L.A. from his own home to the restaurant where Jenny Easton had agreed to meet him.

He had been surprised at the speed with which he'd gotten a response; the letter was mailed on a Thursday, and Friday afternoon, he'd gotten a call from someone named Blake Walworth, setting up the meeting. That was damn fast work for the postal service, any way you cut it, and she must not have waited to get on the phone -- which made him think that she had to be interested in the project, which he hadn't made too clear in his letter, purposefully.

Still, it was a long drive for a Saturday morning, although the legendary Los Angeles traffic was lighter than it would have been on a weekday rush hour. Still, Walworth had told McMullen that it would be the last chance that he'd have to talk with Jenny for a while, so there wasn't a lot of choice but to work on a Saturday.

He parked his car in the parking lot -- not the Mercedes, but the six-year-old Honda Civic that he drove when working prospects, to show how frugal and environmentally conscious he was. The old car made the right impression on some people, and this time, he'd deemed it the safer choice.

He walked into the restaurant, and looked around. There, in a booth in the back, sat Jenny Easton, with the guy that had been with her at the shoot a week before. The guy saw McMullen, and waved him over to the table.

"You timed that pretty good," Jenny said, introducing Walworth as her bodyguard. "The waitress hasn't even gotten to us, yet."

"I didn't want to keep you waiting," McMullen said. "We've got a rough edit on the shoot from last week, and it really looks good. I just don't know how to thank you enough for the great job you did." There was nothing lost by buttering her up a little, he thought.

"It worked out all right," Jenny admitted. "When that first came down about Big Sur, right in the middle of my vacation, I wasn't real pleased, but there's nothing wrong with a few free hours spent on Catalina."

"Glad you feel that way. I'm just free you could make your valuable time available, both then, and today."

"Glad I could help," she replied. "Now, what's this about an environmental problem in Spearfish Lake?"

"To some people, it might not be a big thing," McMullen said, leaning into his presentation, "But to us in the Defenders, it is, but we need a little help in deciding what to do about it, and then going ahead and doing it. It seems that a couple of months ago, someone in Spearfish Lake discovered what appears to be an extinct species of water snake."

"The Gibson's water snake?" she asked.

"Yes," McMullen replied, surprised at being thrown off stride. "How did you know about that?"

"I get the Spearfish Lake Record-Herald sent to me," she said, reaching into a folder beside her. "When I got your letter, I kind of suspected that this was what you were talking about."

She handed him a copy of the newspaper; there on the front page was the short piece about the snake, and the Fish and Wildlife Service's proposal to declare parts of the county a critical interest area. He read the story over; it didn't take long. "That's the snake," he said, "But there's things that aren't in that story."

"Yes?"

"To make a long story short, the snake was found in the sewer system of the town. The Fish and Wildlife Service has funded a researcher to study the area to see how large the population of Gibson's water snakes is, but unfortunately, the researcher was only given partial funding. What's really needed is television surveillance of the sewers all through the town, to find out if there really is a population of the snakes living there. That's not the sort of thing we normally do, but if the researcher can't come up with some other source of funds, then I suppose we'll have to find the money somewhere. Maybe we can take it from the ozone hole research project, but that's neither here nor there, since that's not the real problem."

McMullen was interrupted by the waitress, which took orders of coffee from the three of them.

"What's the problem, then?" Jenny asked.

"Fairly simple," McMullen said. "The town is getting ready to rebuild the sewer system. If they do, it'll wipe out the snake habitat, the only place where this highly endangered species is living. Now, I'll be the first to admit that not a lot of people are going to get very interested in a snake that lives in a sewer, but one thing I've learned in all my years in this business is that everything counts. The snail darter, the furbish lousewort, the Gibson's water snake -- they count, too."

"I remember seeing a story in the paper about that," Jenny said. "The city is trying to get a grant to do the storm sewer separation."

"I've seen the same story," McMullen admitted, not mentioning that he'd gone over it that morning, just to be sure he had everything he knew straight. "And, to refresh your memory, the city isn't the ones that are pushing for the storm sewer separation. It's coming out of the state department of natural resources, and the so-called Environmental Protection Agency, either one of which apparently doesn't care much about a snake that lives in a sewer."

"So where does Miss Easton fit into this?" Blake asked, the first time he'd spoken since McMullen had been there.

"There's several things," McMullen admitted. "Obviously, we've got to assess how bad the danger to this snake really is. We don't have a lot of information, and Spearfish Lake is a long way away."

"Yes, it is," Jenny interrupted.

"So, we need information. Probably, we're going to have to send one of our field workers there, to get information on the snake, the sewer project, and that sort of thing. One of the things that this field worker will have to assess is how strong the local support or opposition would be if we have to take action, so I guess, first, I'd need the names of anyone that you could come up with that could help our worker make that assessment, or perhaps names of people in the area that are environmentally aware. We've checked our membership files; we have no members living in Spearfish Lake or nearby."

"The best person you could talk to about who's doing what would be my friend, the newspaper editor, Mike McMahon," Jenny said. "He's not any kind of an environmental activist, but he's likely to know who's doing what," Jenny said. "As far as people who are active, I can't think of anyone right off the top of my head. There's a guy out east of town that's been active in a hiking trail that goes through the area, but whether he's the person you want to talk to, I can't say." She sighed. "To be honest, I guess it's not the sort of town where people get interested in environmental activism. Most people are pretty aware of nature, and aren't too happy about seeing it messed up, but you have to realize that the town runs to hunters and pulp loggers, and they don't have the same sort of values as you might find elsewhere."

"Sort of back woods, then," McMullen said.

"Yes, but no," Jenny replied. "I mean, suppose you had an oil spill up there. Not likely, since there are no oil wells, but suppose you had something like happened up the coast here. You'd see a lot of people out cleaning up ducks. But then, come duck season, you'd see a lot of those same people out in duck blinds, blasting away at the same ducks. You see what I mean?"

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