Six counties to the northeast from home, deep into the forests of
Pennsylvania's Northern Tier, Dorsey rested against a tree trunk,
his arthritic knee aching, a three mile hike already under his belt.
A weatherproof backpack containing several film cassettes, water bottles,
and sliced turkey remains from a recent Thanksgiving dinner sat at
his feet in a fresh two-inch coat of snow. Good news for the first
day of deer season, Dorsey thought. Tough break for the deer.
Dorsey hefted an older video camera to his shoulder and decided to
concentrate on his job and let the deer deal with their own problems.
He sighted the camera down a hillside, working to find an unencumbered
view of a trailer home anchored along a creek that ran the gully floor.
Satisfied that no tree or branch blocked the lense, he swept the area,
taking in the trailer, the dirt road that led up to it, and the mud-splattered
pick-up truck parked a discrete fifty yards away. In the cab, on the
passenger side, was a man dressed in orange hunter's overalls smoking
a cigarette. The truck bed held duffle bags and two oblong weathered
The door of the trailer swung open and Dorsey taped another man dressed
in orange jogging over to the truck. Framed in the trailer door way
was a dark-haired woman, early forties, dressed in a robe, working
a cigarette out of its pack. The scene was frozen for a moment --
Dorsey figured it for indecision on the second hunter's part -- and
then the pick-up's passenger door opened and he slowly made his way
across the mud and snow. The woman smiled, held the screen door open
for him, and then they were inside.
Lowering the camera from his shoulder, Dorsey fished in the pocket
of his down vest for a miniature tape recorder. Fingering the controls,
he spoke into the recessed mike, recording the date and time to match
the stamp on the videotape, a description of the activity, the pick-up,
and its license plate number.
"This'll never work," he muttered once the recorder was turned off.
"How do you think bullshit like this gets started?"
A week earlier, Dorsey had been in the claims office of Blackwell
Insurance, across the desk from a claims manager named Corso.
" Let me tell you how," Corso went on, speaking loudly enough to send
several underlings running for cover. "It starts with some guy in
home office who gets a bug up his ass about something. He's a young
guy, but he's been pushed up the ladder 'cause someone said he was
a genius, but he's a genius with no experience. Which means he's a
genius with no sense. So, the genius calls one of my young adjusters,
a big suck-up for sure, and they cook up this headache for me. And
now I'm hiring you to make my headache go away."
"C'mon," Dorsey said, "nobody, not to my knowledge anyway, has tried
this before." Paging through the copied file material he had been
given, Dorsey listened to the reluctant tone in his voice and knew
it to be hollow. Blackwell Insurance was the cash cow he fed from.
Eighty per cent of his business came from them. He knew he'd do as
Corso settled deeper into chair. A small man, he seemed ready to rest
his chin on the edge of his desk.
"I'll explain it like it was explained to me. It's like the law says:
a guy gets himself killed at work, his wife gets her weekly compensation
check for the rest of her life. But there are a few conditions. She
can't remarry, she can't live with her new guy if she finds one, and
she can't enter into the life of prostitution."
"I know the law," Dorsey said. "You want me to prove she's a whore
so you can cut off her check."
"Personally, I don't want you to touch this thing." Corso wagged his
chin at the idea. "It's a mess from beginning to end. But my young
genius was in here reviewing claims a few months ago. And he's an
outdoors kind of guy, loves to hunt, right around where our lady lives.
And he's heard some stories about the single women up there. How the
hunters come in from all over. Some of them never get a deer. But
they get to bag something for all their trouble."
A snow flurry kicked up and Dorsey pulled his watch cap further down
over his ears, the lobes already a shining red. The video camera was
resting on the backpack, the trailer and its approach now quiet. Over
the tree hours that Dorsey had been in position, he had taped four
visitors, two in pick-ups and two in late-model SUV's.
All had been dressed in reflective orange, state issued licenses flapping
from the rear of their hats or collars. Dorsey wondered how much of
that thermal wear had to be gotten through before the trailer hostess
could get down to business. He checked his watch, figured on staying
another forty minutes and allowing enough daylight to get back to
his car, when he heard branches and twigs snap and sway behind him.
"Most deer won't fall down and die unless you shoot them. Gotta have
a rifle to do that."
Dorsey turned to the voice. Six feet even, but with those big shoulders
that have you thinking that you're dealing with a much larger man.
The uniform was khaki and the winter jacket was green with sheriff's
deputy patches on the sleeves. "Care to tell me what you're doing?"
Dorsey had a few moments of foolishness, searching for a story that
would never hold water, and then came back to his senses, recalling
the laws against misrepresentations. After asking permission, he went
to his back pocket for his wallet and identification as a private
investigator. The deputy looked over the laminated card, Dorsey and
his belongings, and then shot a glance down at the trailer.
"Gather up your things." The deputy returned Dorsey's wallet. "We'll
take a walk." The deputy started down the hillside.
"My car is the other way," Dorsey told him, slipping the backpack
over his shoulders. The camera was across his chest on a strap, slung
"I know that. You still have to come with me."
Dorsey fell into step behind him, the weight of a lost license, or
worse, hanging over him. The hillside grew steeper near the bottom
and although the deputy had little trouble, Dorsey found himself digging
for footholds and snatching at tree branches for support. Once they
reached level ground, the deputy went to the trailer, knocked once
at the door, then let himself in. He gestured for Dorsey to follow.
The interior of the trailer was less than Dorsey had expected. There
was a cramped sink and range for a kitchen, a couple of lawn chairs
pointed at a small television screen, ashtrays and bags of trash scattered
across the floor. Near the center of the trailer was a plywood partition
with a doorway cut through the center. A blanket hung by nails served
as a curtain.
"Ellie, you back there?" The deputy called. "You back there alone?
Get out here. It's me, Jimmy."
Dorsey heard a rustling sound and then a hand with painted fingernails
slowly pushed the blanket aside. Her face looked tired, worn out,
and Dorsey had to recalculate her age into the mid-fifties. She stepped
out wearing the same robe, already working on a smoke. She gave Dorsey
a glance and then turned her attention to the deputy.
"What'd I tell you about the smokes?" The deputy said. "Be careful,
you'll start another fire. Next time you might not be so lucky."
"I'm careful," Ellie said. "Never smoke in bed anymore. And I keep
the ashtrays clean."
The deputy shook his head. "You live like a pig. You never change.
Go back inside."
Ellie went into the back room and secured the blanket back in place.
The deputy settled into one of the lawn chairs and directed Dorsey
into the other. Dorsey slipped off his backpack and carefully lowered
himself into the chair.
"She's an idiot," The deputy said, gesturing toward the rear of the
trailer. "I mean really, an idiot. Special ed schools when she was
a kid, IQ tests that put her right at the bottom of the barrel. I
think she can sign her name, she seems to do it okay on the compensation
Dorsey sat forward, resting elbows on knees. "You know that's what
I'm here about, right? She can't do this sort of thing and still get
the checks. Doesn't make much difference how smart she is, or isn't."
"Her checks come to the post office and she takes them right across
the road, cashes them at a bar there." The deputy sounded wistful,
as if he hadn't heard Dorsey speak. "The bartender who cashes the
checks, he's the one who pimps her off to the hunters. He's got some
other girls, younger ones, but they cost more. Ellie, she's cut rate.
I told the guy before, his name's Carl. I told Carl not to sent any
of his business this way. Guess I'll have to talk to him again."
Dorsey watched the deputy as he went from examining his fingernails
to looking at the ceiling, apparently searching for his next words.
As he watched, he thought of all the things he might say. How he might
apologize for not checking in with the sheriff's office as a professional
courtesy. He could give the guy the facts of life about whores and
insurance money, really lay it out for him, city boy to country cousin.
But Dorsey found himself more intrigued than worried. "You want to
tell me something," Dorsey said. "You want to ask me something."
The deputy settled his gaze on Dorsey. "Ellie, she's my sister. She's
also the sheriff's niece, if you're the type who needs to be pressured
first. But for now let's just say she's my idiot sister who was married
to a guy almost as stupid as she is, at least until the dump truck
he worked on dropped a couple tons of gravel over his head. She's
just my idiot sister who I try to keep from being a whore."
"You could shut down Carl all together," Dorsey suggested.
"My uncle the sheriff wouldn't like that. They got an arrangement
for some things. That's how it works everywhere I guess. Just because
we got more trees than people around here, it don't change things
There was a moment's silence that no one seemed interested in breaking.
Dorsey mentally ran through the file material he had been given and
found himself focused on the amount of that bi-weekly check that was
sent out to Ellie by Blackwell. The amount was little more than loose
change six years ago when the award had been made. Now it was a joke,
just enough to live in a tin box in the woods. And then a home office
big shot gets a bug up his ass and makes Corso send Dorsey out. To
help make the world safe for insurance companies.
"So," Dorsey asked, "how do we go about fixing this thing we got here?"
The deputy shrugged. "First off, I guess I need to go beat the shit
out of Carl. Sheriff won't mind, not after he hears what it's all
about. Once Carl and a couple of other guys around here get the point,
Ellie won't be a whore no more. Then she'll be entitled to her check
"You can do that?" Dorsey asked. "Sounds like you tried before."
"I never tried so hard before. This time I'll make more of an impression."
"So," Dorsey said, "Now it's up to me."
The deputy nodded in agreement. "You're right. You're the man on the
spot. If it means anything, I'll owe you a favor. So will the sheriff.
That's got to be worth something to a guy in your business."
Dorsey held his gaze. "Yeah, yeah. It means something."
The pay phone hung on the wall inside a diner along U.S. Route 219.
Behind the counter, crowded with customers, was a banner welcoming
deer hunters from around the state. Dorsey held the receiver in close,
plunging the opposite ear with a finger.
"So there's nothing to it then?" Corso asked over the line.
"The woman's a retard," Dorsey said. "Lives in the woods and can't
spell her name. Good thing she's got some family that looks after
her. Otherwise, I don't know."
"So you’ll send me a nice clean report, get home office to lay down?"
"No sweat," Dorsey told him. "I'll type it tomorrow."
Dorsey could hear Corso laugh. "Just a bunch of bullshit after all,
"Yeah," Dorsey told him. "Just a bunch of home office bullshit."