"Yeah, I guess it is," Josh responded. "Had any of Mrs. Blankenship's raving hit the rumor mill, Blankenship would have been done for. Luc pointed out after the deal was done that he feared Kelly would manage to make that happen the way he had sabotaged my job prospects after he fired me. I almost pissed my pants when he said it. Fortunately, he didn't and I hadn't thought about it or I might have panicked."
"Probably not," Mr. VanWinkle said. "You are just not the panicking type."
"Making plans to do away with yourself is not panic? Seems like panicking to me!"
"Stupid, dumb maybe but not panic. As I recall your talking about it, seems pretty cool-headed planning to me. Again, the project was stupid, but no one could fault the plan. Anyway, no, it's not just you and Luc pulling Blankenship's ass out of the crack again that makes this your lucky day. Seems to me the luck involved in that was pretty low level. What pulled it off was smart, quick thinking and a good team 'cause I include Elizabeth and Prue in that as well as the supportive men in Taiwan and Brazil. No, today is your lucky day because you have Bull on your side and he likes working hunches, but this is Bull's story."
"Josh, I can tell you, I really can't understand Mormons, even the regular ones, but there are some out there who shouldn't be loose in the world and I'm sure Maria Crimshaw is one of them."
"Then you have found her?" Josh was trying hard not to get his hopes up, but was very excited.
"Maybe. Here's the story. After June told me you thought she might be with a group of fundamentalist Mormons who were hiding her and Alex, I started looking into that. I had been doing research on Mormons in general, and centers which claim to turn gay people straight, when June called me with your hunch. My first response was, 'How can something as closed and, to me, extreme, as mainline Mormons have fundamentalists? Aren't there limits to how far you can go with a religion?' I asked myself and then thought of Muslim fundamentalists or extremists—take your choice—and decided 'No, there are no limits.' By the way, if male suicide bombers go directly to paradise and get seventy virgins, what's in the Cracker Jack box in paradise for women suicide bombers?" Josh and Mr. VanWinkle chuckled.
"Anyway, I found that there are several groups, generally small, of Mormon fundamentalists known to authorities who sometimes keep an eye on them, sometimes are more or less in sympathy with them and simply ignore them, and in a few instances I located, I am sure the authorities are supporting the group.
"Most of these groups would be classified as cults, I guess, although that word is thrown around so much it no longer has a clear meaning. They are characterized by usually having a charismatic leader who has a special revelation or ability to interpret the Book of Mormon and other authoritative writing. His way is the only way and all else is false. There is fear instilled in the group, fear that outsiders will contaminate or destroy them. Waco is always held up as an example. The Branch Davidians beliefs are not those of Mormons, but the fact that they were attacked is often held up to keep a cultic group united against 'them.'
"The long and the short of it is that no one really knows how many such groups exist. Some are fairly large and essentially constitute a small town, others have a dozen, maybe fewer, members. One thing all have in common is a survivalist mentality. Some are behind chain link fences with razor wire, like a prison and, should you not want to be a part of the group, you are a prisoner.
"Anyway, several months ago, Mr. Bledsoe got a letter from Child Support in Utah advising him that he owed fifteen hundred dollars in back child support from 1999, I think. Since Alex was, obviously, over eighteen, he was puzzled by that, checked his divorce decree and saw he had to pay child support until Alex was eighteen or so long as he was enrolled full-time as a student. It still didn't make sense until his wife reminded him he had stopped paying child support when Alex would have turned eighteen…"
"Wait a minute," Josh said, "you mean to tell me Mr. Bledsoe was having to pay child support when Mrs. Bledsoe hid Alex and did not let his father see him?"
"Indeed. Child support is owed regardless. Mr. Bledsoe could and did get a court order against her for not allowing him to see Alex, but since he couldn't find them, it was worthless. Fortunately, Ms. Crimshaw, for some inexplicable reason, asked that he pay her directly and, even more amazingly, Child Support allowed it. He sent a check to a Salt Lake address, although he thought it strange. Since he knew he'd have the canceled check as proof of payment, he did as he was requested. He sent a check for the fifteen hundred which was three months child support for Alex. When was his birthday?"
"You were the same age?"
"Almost, he's a little over a week older. He, as I, missed the cutoff date for starting school. He would have turned eighteen November sixteenth two years after his mother disappeared with him. I guess he started college and only went a semester."
"The check was endorsed by his mother and deposited to an account in Kanarra in southern Utah three months ago. Lot of nothing around that part of the world. Tiny places, three, four hundred people and then nothing. June and I spent two weeks driving the back roads between Kanarra and St. Francis, almost four thousand miles we drove, looking for possible fundamentalist groups. We spotted three possibilities. We said we were from a lawyer's office in San Francisco trying to locate a person who was beneficiary of her uncle's will. Our standard story was that she stood to come into three quarters of a million dollars if she could be located before the end of the year, otherwise the money would go to the LDS. After all my research, I figured the small fundamentalist groups looked upon the LDS as heretical and apostate and would not like to have money go to it rather than to true believers. None of the three received us with open arms, but all except one had a representative speak to us and tell us they did not know and had not seen her. We left a copy of Mrs. Bledsoe's aka Miss Crimshaw's photo, her last known address—well, not really; the last address she had before moving into that run-down apartment—a copy of her 'uncle's obituary', a copy of the 'will' and a card listing a phoney lawyer's office in San Francisco. The number is actually an answering service. Strangely enough, no one ever called.
"Had anyone wanted to check out our story, they would have to work hard to find it was a hoax. June found Mrs. Bledsoe had a great-uncle who had actually died two years ago, destitute. He became estranged from his family after returning from WWII and taking up with a splinter sect of Mormons in Colorado. The possibility of Mrs. Bledsoe knowing him was nil, so the obituary listed her as his only known relative 'of unknown address'. According to it, he had lived and worked for an oil company in the Middle East after getting an engineering degree under the WWII GI bill and had lost contact with his only sister. He had died in a retirement village outside San Francisco where he had lived after returning from the Middle East in 2000.
The last place we visited was a 'chain link fence, razor wire' establishment with a guardhouse and armed guard at the gate. A sign on it called it 'New Beginnings Compound and Clinic'. The guard definitely reacted when we showed him the photo, but listened to our spiel, assured us he did not know and had not seen the person in the photo. He was not a good liar. He took the materials and politely asked us to leave, which we did. That was Tuesday afternoon, around two."
Mr. VanWinkle then took up the story. "We drove to Las Vegas and got there before five, got a hotel room, took hot showers, dressed in casual clothing, went out and had a good meal. We decided to take in a show and returned to the hotel and slept until eight, had breakfast, then went to a survivalist store Bull knew and purchased night vision equipment, radios, camouflage clothing, and other gear. Then we headed back to Utah. We were dressed in business attire when we rented a room in the Hampton Inn in Cedar Town. We checked in, went to the best restaurant in town for dinner and returned to the room and immediately undressed and hit the bed after having set the alarm for eleven. When it went off, we dressed in camouflage and headed for New Beginnings, which is between Cedar Town and Kanarra, but over back roads, parts little more than a trail, miles from the Interstate. We had used Google and Google Earth and were pretty sure we could find a trail which would allow us to approach the compound from the back. We parked the vehicle in a grove a mile from what we figured was the back of the compound, well-hidden should anyone come down a trail called a road, and started hiking."
"Not only was the way in hardly a trail, but we were also packing equipment. Our mission was reconnaissance, so we weren't heavily loaded, but we are not spring chickens any more," Bull said.
"Hell, Bull," Mr. VanWinkle laughed, "we're not even fall chickens. We're winter chickens and winter's ending fast."
"Yeah, well," Bull continued, "we took an hour to reach the back of the property. I had hoped the fence was only around the front of the property which faced the road, but it encircles the whole frigging compound. The back fence wasn't chain link, but twelve strands of electrified barbed wire about a foot apart and topped with razor wire. There was no way of telling what voltage the wire carried, but the warning signs said contact 'could be lethal'. Later, we discovered it meant what it said when we found a dead deer at the foot of the fence. Keeping back from the fence we started walking clockwise around it. It was just before sunrise and we could see what appeared to be a village—small houses, a church, another large building, two slightly smaller ones and a scattering of small buildings and sheds. At least a dozen vehicles were parked in a lot at the end of the entrance drive and there was farm machinery in a shed.
"A minute or two before sunrise, people started coming out of the houses, no children, and walked toward the church. When they were inside, the doors to one of the medium-sized building opened and a line of boys, from toddlers to twelve or so marched out. All were headed toward the church. As soon as the boys were inside, a second door to the boys' building opened and boys from thirteen, I guess, to eighteen marched out. Once the second group of boys were inside, the process was repeated from the second building with girls except when the second door to the girls' building opened, I was pretty sure the few who marched out were no older than thirteen or fourteen. Lastly, a group of men, men and boys—as young as seventeen, I'd guess, to thirty or so—came down a path to our right, obviously from somewhere located well away from the central compound. All were dressed in baggy clothing, heads hanging down,walking like zombies. Six men walked beside the column, three on each side. Once all were in the church, the door was closed and remained closed for two hours.
"The people came out in the same order as they went in, except the men and boys who entered last remained inside. As the groups came out, they entered a third large building. We later decided it was a common dining hall. In about an hour the men and boys left in the church came out and and started back the way they had come. They did not go to the dining hall. The people in the dining hall came out shortly after. It was clear some men and boys were going to work in the extensive gardens. A few, maybe a dozen, men climbed into vehicles and headed toward the entrance.
"The place looked deserted for an hour, then women and girls came out of the houses carrying baskets of wet laundry and hanging it on lines. That accomplished, they went back into the houses and once again the place looked deserted. We moved back into the trees and stretched out on our backs to rest and try to decide what was going on."
Mr. VanWinkle said, "As we were lying there, I said, 'Bull, I think we can assume a few things. It looks as if the boys and young men live in one of the two buildings and the girls in the other. In those buildings, it appears that they are divided into two groups, my guess is between pre-pubescent and adolescents and older. I do wonder why some of the men look to be eighteen or even twenty, but none of the girls look much older than thirteen. I guess the men who drove out work away. How can parents essentially give up their kids as soon as they are out of diapers? Doesn't look too healthy to me.'"
"Bull replied, 'I think it's all pretty sick if you ask me, but then I've had trouble with church since a nun rapped me on the knuckles with a ruler when I was ten.'"
"'There's a group I can't explain, Bull. Who do you think the men and boys are who came out of the woods after everyone else was in the church and left after they were all in the large building?'"
They sat in silence, pondering that question, when a light went on. "Bull, do you know anything about groups who claim to make gay men straight?" Josh asked.
"I sure as hell do. I got hired to pick up a guy from one of those places and put him on a plane after he was 'cured'. He had gone missing and his mother hired me to find him and I did. I was surprised when I was allowed to speak to him and learned his father had put him in the 'reprogramming' clinic. Being certified straight was a condition for his having access to a rather sizable trust fund. He asked me to call his mom and tell her where he was and that he would complete the program in a week. We were, of course, under observation while I was with him and he kept telling me how the program had changed him and that he had met a woman on the internet and was looking forward to meeting her in person. 'I think we will probably be married shortly after I leave here.' His mother asked if I could pick him up when he finished and put him on a plane. I picked him up and we were barely out of sight of the clinic when he was all over me. 'Kid,' I said to him, 'I am old enough to be your grandfather and you are acting like I am an eighteen-year-old hunk.'"
"'Shit, man, you have a cock and that's what I want and don't much care what it's attached to.' I suspect some come through those programs and manage to act straight for a while, maybe for years, but made straight? The only thing straight about them is a hard cock. Anyway, why the question?"
"One of Mrs. Bledsoe's threats to Alex," Josh said, "was to send him to such a place. Maybe that's what the 'clinic' is. Maybe that's why they are isolated from the community."
Mr. VanWinkle continued, "Makes sense. Anyway, it was midafternoon and we both had already had a long day, but decided we'd walk around the fence counter-clockwise since the group had come from that direction. We walked back to our starting point and continued around the fence. We had walked perhaps a mile when I spotted a rabbit racing out of the woods, headed toward the fence being chased by a coyote. The coyote ignored the fence, but when he hit it, sparks flew, the smell of burnt fur filled the air and his body jerked as the electricity flowed through him. 'Damn,' I said, 'we could have walked into that in the dark. I hope that's the only surprise they have around the fence.' We continued our walk, keeping in the trees as much as possible, a half mile or so, when we saw a building ahead of us. As if the fence was not enough, it was surrounded by double razor-wire-topped chain link fences twelve to fifteen feet apart. The razor wire was mounted on insulators. I had been in prisons for hardened criminals less secure than that one. No one was leaving that place without permission!
"The building was a long concrete block structure, the end nearest us a single story, the further end, two. The end we could see and most of the back was without windows. As we carefully made our way around the fence—making sure we were hard to spot in the woods—we could see windows in the middle of the building. At first mere glass brick columns, but then real windows. In the very center of the building were large plate glass windows. Using our binoculars, we could see an atrium-like setting. It was almost like a miniature indoor park. After it there were windows, glass brick columns and finally windowless walls again. The second story had evenly spaced, real windows.
"'I do not want to know what goes on inside there!' Bull whispered. 'The devil himself couldn't come up with a more evil place.' I agreed," Mr. VanWinkle said.
"'We need to get back,' Bull continued in a whisper. 'We have some thinking and planning to do, but I think I have just put an extra five thousand in my bank account.' Bull took out a hand-held GPS and punched in the coordinates for our vehicle and we headed back through the woods. There was no trail, but the trees were not thick enough to make walking difficult, but enough that we felt safe from being spotted."
The waitress who had set down a bottle of excellent Chianti and glasses earlier and a young good-looking guy approached with bowls of pasta and salad. Bull said, "Ah, here's our food." As the young woman set down the food she was carrying, Bull told her they needed a replacement for the dead soldier, and handed her the empty wine bottle. When she went to get that, the young guy brought plates, flatware, and huge napkins and refilled their water glasses. When the wine arrived, she opened it and poured a bit in Bull's glass. He said, "Just pour it, sweetheart, I get bad wine here, I'll wreck the place."
"Sure you will, Grandpop."
As she walked away, Mr. VanWinkle shook his head and said, "Bull, I still don't understand how such handsome people ever came from your loins. Your kids are beautiful and handsome and your grandkids are as well."
"It's the genes. Mia mamma was a beautiful woman. You knew my beautiful Bella. Fortunately, all their looks come from the mothers. Their smarts? My genes," Bull laughed.
They were enjoying the wine, the food and the company, but Josh was anxious to hear more because he sensed there was a happy ending to this tale. Nonetheless, he kept quiet. "Let the old friends savor their adventure. We certainly are not going to do anything tonight," he thought.
Finally, the table was cleared of all except the wine and water glasses. Bull insisted that Josh drink plenty of water. "Your head will appreciate it in the morning."
"Well, I need to get rid of some before drinking any more," Mr. VanWinkle said as he stood and headed towards the men's room.
"I'll join him," Bull said. "Josh, you can relax, come piss later and still finish before we do. Old men take a long time to piss, damn it."
Josh did wait a few minutes, went to the men's room, pissed and was back at the table, as Bull had said, before the two came back. He watched them walk back to the table utterly amazed at what they had done. "If I can do what they have done at seventy plus, I would be eternally thankful. I understand what Mr. Rob VanWinkle meant when he said, 'Dad could easily drop dead in the middle of Utah, but I rather he do that than sit at home and rot. You have given him a mission, a reason to get out of bed, something he has hasn't had since Mom died. So far as I am concerned, VanWinkle, VanWinkle, VanWinkle, and Adams owes you." In fact, every time Josh got a bill and paid it, a deposit was made in an account Rob VanWinkle set up just for that. "Do with it what you will," he had said. Josh thought of Boys' Camp.
When the two men were back, Bull poured more wine and raised the bottle for a third one. Josh wondered how he would get home because he sure wouldn't be driving, but he didn't wonder about his head in the morning. He knew it would be ready for the ICU!
As soon as the two were seated, Bull waved his grandson over and gestured toward the water glasses. Josh sure hoped his theory about water lessening the pain of a hangover worked.
When the glasses had been refilled, Bull laughed and said, "Well, the GPS worked, but it didn't recognize gulches and potential rocky landslides. Nevertheless, we managed to get back to the vehicle in less than an hour and I will admit we were both pretty exhausted. We sat in the vehicle, ate a couple energy bars and drank an energy drink—which our doctors strictly forbid, but what do they know?—and started the drive out. I drove and June climbed in the back and managed to change into business casual without dislocating anything while I drove to Buffalo. It added an hour to our drive and would add an hour the next day, but we were already thinking about what we could do if we found Alex at New Beginnings. We'd use Kanarra as our staging area and we didn't want to be seen there before then. Also, we didn't want to stay in the same place two nights in a row. Less chance of people remembering us if anyone came snooping around."
"As soon as I was dressed, Bull stopped and I got in the front seat," Mr. VanWinkle said. "There was a cell phone signal so I called a motel in Buffalo and made reservations, requesting a room away from the highway and pool. I figured I was more likely to be close to a back entrance that way and Bull could sneak in without changing. It would also be easier to move any equipment we needed into the room although all of it would pass for ordinary luggage, it was just the fact that there was so much of it!
"We got all checked in and I couldn't believe our luck. Our room was right beside an outside entrance and it seemed the only one occupied on our end of the hall. We started moving in equipment and when we finished, we showered and changed into fresh clothes and went out to eat. When we got back, I went to the desk and asked about a late checkout time and got it extended to noon. A twenty to the desk clerk got us a one o'clock checkout. When we got to the room, we undressed and crawled into bed. It was a quarter to nine, but we were both asleep in minutes.
"We didn't bother with a wake-up call as we planned on doing our reconnaissance in the afternoon and night. So we both slept until nine. We dressed as businessmen, found breakfast and ate a huge one and returned to the motel. We checked out night vision equipment, radios, binoculars and digital cameras with long telephoto lenses. We were determined to get a photograph of Alex if he was there and we could recognize him. 'We're getting old,' Bull said, 'Twenty years ago I could have recognized him in a crowd of a thousand, now I'd have to be practically on top of him to see him!'"
The only photos Josh had of him, and there were only five, were over seven years old. You would think among Josh, Michelle and Jean Jean, there would be dozens, but Josh's grandmother had destroyed all he had and Alex had been pretty camera shy, so there were only a few from the group's summers together. Any Jean Jean had were destroyed when the house she lived in burned during spring break her sophomore year. Michelle had two, but Alex's face was hidden in shadow in them and Mavis had two from the July Fourth parades but, again, his face was difficult to see. Ironically, the clearest one was the one of him kissing Josh sent to people to destroy him.
Bull continued, "We were using digital cameras. We could photograph all of the men in the clinic, get a couple or three shots of each. We set the cameras so they'd take three each time the button was pushed. We had two cameras, so we'd see if we couldn't set up on opposite ends of the clinic so we'd also take them from different angles.
"We moved the equipment back into the vehicle, moving the cases two at a time. Unless someone was standing in the hall a long time, it would appear we each had a single bag. We also moved the bags out as they were ready, so after moving out two, we'd return to the room and prepare the next two, spreading out the times we were in the hall. Everything was loaded by noon and we went to the restaurant next to the motel and had lunch. We had eaten late and weren't all that hungry, but we ate anyway since that would be it, except for something we carried in our backpacks, until breakfast the next morning.
"After lunch, I paid the bill while June changed into camouflage. He slipped out the side door and waited in the vehicle while I changed as well. He had the vehicle running and held the door open as I slipped out of the motel and we headed for New Beginnings. After looking at all we would be packing in, we decided to risk stashing it as close to the clinic 'trail' as possible before hiding the vehicle down the road. I pulled on a backpack and started toward the fence while June drove the vehicle back to the end of the road, hiding it in a different place from the previous day and walking back. He reached the drop off site a few minutes before I returned and already had on a backpack. I quickly slipped on my second one and we headed toward the fence. I told him I had marked the path the way we had as Boy Scouts so I wouldn't have to backtrack as I had to at times on the first trip. Unlike the day before, we could complete a round trip, including a brief rest, in less than an hour. It was a matter of knowing where you were going and how to get there, something we did not know the day before.
"We packed in five loads before we had all our equipment. We took a break, drank some water and ate an energy bar before we started getting the equipment in place. We could not see the village from the clinic site, so we walked past the clinic until we had a view of it, a different view from the previous day.
"We had a clear view of the young boys—six to thirteen, I'd guess—working in a field harvesting something. There were two adults with them. When two of the boys drew alongside of each other, they stayed together, obviously talking as they worked. One of the adults approached them with some sort of strap in his hand. "Quick! Camera!" I said in a loud whisper to June. As I spoke, the boys were so absorbed in their conversation they did not notice the man until the strap came down across the back of one, then the other. We were so far away we could not hear their screams, but you could see their mouths wide open as the strap fell across their back, first one, then the other, again and again. The two finally collapsed in the dirt and the man stood over them. Someone brought him a jar of liquid which he poured over their backs. He then raised the strap, but the two started working again. I was ready to kill the bastard!
"Since June had the camera on an unopened tripod, he used it as a monopod, but with the camera's long telephoto, the camera's built-in stabilizer could not eliminate all the blur. Still the photos were clear enough for any sane person to see what was happening. The blood on the boys' backs was evident in the last two photos. There were other cruelties in the field as the afternoon wore on. We had both cameras on tripods and remote releases so once they were aimed at something, the photos could be shot without touching the camera. The photos were sharp as if the subjects had been standing still.
"June continued to monitor the fields and I turned my camera on another part of the village. Both of us scanned our areas with binoculars and if something caught our attention, we set up the cameras to photograph it. I had been watching a young girl, no more than thirteen or fourteen, being scolded by a woman. The camera was ready when the woman slapped her on one side of her face and then the other. On the camera screen, I could see the hand prints on her face. The woman finally shoved her toward the barn. When she reached it, she disappeared inside. The hayloft was open on the end of the barn facing us and I saw the girl's head appear as she finished climbing the ladder to the loft. I had not noticed before, but a man—I guess twenty, maybe thirty—was leaning back in the hay. The girl walked to him hesitantly. Suddenly his hand reached out grabbed her arm and pulled her down on the hay. He started kissing her while she turned her head, trying to avoid him. He slapped her a few times, stood, stripped off his shirt and overalls. The young girl was crying. He grabbed her and practically ripped her dress off her, then her panties. After he carefully removed from himself and folded that garment you Mormons wear, he shoved her back on the hay and plunged inside her. He was raping her and she had been punished by the woman because she didn't want to go to the man! Sick was not the word for this place. This was hell! When he finished, he tossed her her dress and panties, solemnly put on his garment, then pulled on shirt and overalls and left the young girl crying in the hay."
Bull fell silent and June took up the story. "I guess we had seen all we could stomach for the time being because, without speaking, we took our equipment and moved back toward the clinic. As we approached, we heard a man screaming in agony. My stomach finally rebelled and I emptied it. Bull did the same."
Editors: Jesse and Scott.
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