The Percentages

Longmire Christmas Story 2017

by Craig Johnson (2017)

Sandy Sandburg, the sheriff of Campbell County, tipped his hat back and slowly turned his head to look at me but said nothing.

We were sitting in the living room of one Connie Terrence/Embersoll’s mother and father who stood behind the sofa and studied us with more than a little concern. I cleared my throat, if for no other reason than Sandy didn’t appear to be clearing his own. “Um… It might not have been the best thing to do.” We all sat there with the parents studying each of us in turn as the clock continued ticking, silver garland and gold lame stockings contrasting tastefully on the decorated mantle of the expansive, very white house.

“Well, what are you going to do?”

Looking up at Mr. Terrence, Connie’s father, I quickly stood. “I guess we’re going to have to go speak with him.” I turned back to Connie, who remained seated, a moist paper towel clutched in her hands. “Do you know where he might be, right now?”

She dabbed an eye and glanced at the aforementioned brass clock, time held captive within the glass dome. “Late-afternoon–he’d still be on shift at the mine if he’s working overtime.”

I nodded and gave a purposeful look at Sandy, who also stood, probably relieved that we were getting out of that living room before he exploded in one way or another. “We’ll be in touch.”

Old man Terrence showed us to the door and thanked the both of us again with a dry, leathery hand as we bundled up, flipping the collars on our Carhartt’s and yanking our hats down so that they didn’t sail off to South Dakota as we made our way down the carefully shoveled sidewalk to Sandy’s shiny unit. We climbed in, both of us sitting there in the silence of the new car smell, the only sound the wind buffeting the half-ton with all its space-age graphics and technology.

“Mother of God, what was she thinking?” Sandy’s breath fogged the space between him and the dash as he fired up the V8 and adjusted the heat to full in an attempt to keep us from turning into a couple of sheriff-sicles. The Campbell County Sheriff’s usual trip to Coco View Resort had been postponed because of the impromptu case, and I had a sneaking suspicion that was the true source of his irritation, that and his fading tan. “I’ve got a flight this afternoon to the Honduras with a very upset wife, and if I don’t get on that plane I’m gonna be a dead man.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose between thumb and forefinger. “Did you know that close to a half-million people are murdered every year?”

He sighed. “Mostly during the holidays?”

Looking out the windshield at the snow-scoured landscape of the Powder River Country where the Terrence ranch straddled the county line between Sandy’s jurisdiction and mine, I thought about it. “That means you’ve got a one in 16,000 chance of getting murdered in your life.”

He glanced back at the house. “Well, I’d say that Mike Castro’s percentages just went up.”

I nodded in resignation as he hit the wipers in an attempt to clear the windshield of the quarter-inch of snow that had accumulated there and then pulled the selector down into drive, searching the fancy buttons now that the snow was mounting. “Where in the hell is the four-wheel drive in this thing, anyway?”

I reached over and hit the button for him. “Mike could’ve improved his odds if he hadn’t lived in the Americas or Africa.”

Sandy headed out and we sledded our way back to the paved road and turned right into deepest, darkest Campbell County. “Why is that?”

“Murder rates are more than four times higher than Western Europe or East Asia.”

“Where’s the safest?”

I thought about it. “Singapore.”

He considered this information as he drove. “Nice climate–I suppose sitting under palm trees and listening to the surf helps.”

“Not really, the Honduras are the worst, about one in every thousand people gets murdered there.”

He glanced at his wristwatch and then at me. “That’s not funny, Walt.”

The mine, Crow Butte Mine, to be exact, is located ten miles north of Gillette in the coal-rich area of the Powder River Basin, which puts out almost eighty percent of the coal used to power the country. An open pit, truck-and-shovel mine that produces low-sulfur, sub-bituminous coal from the Roland and Smith seams, Crow Butte has reserves of 471 million short tons of the black stuff and a permitted production capacity of 35 million short tons a year, which is loaded onto a weigh-in-motion track system that can accommodate up to five unit trains of 48 thousand tons, making it the ninth largest producer in the United States.

In a word, they are a going concern and move a lot of coal.

We sat there at the gate for a while as the guard called into the office to let them know of our imminent arrival. My eyes lit on the Plexiglas container on the side of the small guard shack, lit from beneath by a lone spotlight. “What’s that?”

Sandy glanced at the small figure of a woman holding a child. “Sentinels of Safety, some kind of award for surface coal, but also good mojo around the mine.”

“Another way our alleged victim could’ve saved himself.”

He grunted. “How’s that.”

“Be a woman—seventy-five percent less of a chance in getting murdered if you’re female.”

After packing up our credentials, we got waved through and drove down the hill past a large billboard that read, KNOWING SAFETY IS ONLY HALF THE SOLUTION, PRACTACING SAFETY IS THE OTHER HALF.

We parked at the main office of the mine, a pre-fab building perched in a miniature valley at the precipice of the massive, open-pit big enough to swallow eight Astrodomes and stood before the assistant shift manager.

A jolly looking fellow, the assistant manager’s look was enhanced by the Santa tie he wore, complete with actual, tiny jingle-bells, his festive mood fading as he surveyed the collected hardware of two counties. “Is there a problem?”

“Mike Embersoll.”

He looked a little perplexed. “Who?’

Sandy leaned on the counter between him and the assistant manager, grinning his matinee-idol smile. “Big Mike Embersoll, he’s one of your heavy equipment operators?”

“Oh…” The man looked at a loss of what to do. “We’ve got over four hundred and eighty men working at this mine alone and I only started here about a month ago and with it being Christmas weekend…”

I did a little leaning myself. “Is there somebody who can tell you if he’s here, and if so, where we can find him?”

“Um, sure.” He turned to a young woman seated at the far end of the counter. “Darlene, can you find out if we’ve got a Mike Embersoll working today and where he might be?”

Darlene began tripping the keyboard fantastic as the assistant manager leaned in between us. “So, has he done something bad?”

“We just want to speak with him.”

He glanced at Sandy and then back to me. “Yeah, but… Two sheriffs?”

“Big Mike is big.” We all turned to look at Darlene. “He’s what, about six-seven and weighs about three hundred pounds?”

Sandy pulled a piece of paper from his coat pocket and unfolded it, the small, reproduced photo of a very large, very intense, and very bearded man staring back at us, his head extending up past where the height marks went on the booking wall. “I’d say you’re spot-on.”

“Do you know Mr. Embersoll?”

She glanced at me. “I dated him, before he married that moron, Connie.”

It was quiet in the room as I formulated my next words carefully. “You seem intimate with the couple.”

“Enough to know that it was a love/hate relationship—he loved her and she hated him. This is about Bob Castro, isn’t it?”

Sandy and I shared a glance, and I turned back to her. “We just want to speak with him.”

“Yeah, well Big Mike’s working section three, level eight on a dump—has been for about eight hours now.”

“Doing what?”

The assistant manager joined in. “Running one of our dump trucks that haul the coal.”

This time I spoke directly at Darlene. “Can you call somebody on the radio and get him up here?”

“Sure.” She moved a little closer and tapped her manicured fingers on the keyboard again, and there was a dial-tone and a man’s voice rang from the screen in front of her.

Static. “Three-eight, hey Darlene?”

“Tim, is Mike down there running a dump?”

Static. “Yeah, he’s on his third shift in unit 4. He must have a lot of Christmas shopping to pay for.”

“Can you call him off and send him up here?”

Static. “Sure thing.”

She sat back in her stool and looked at us. “I’m not surprised. Mike was always a very emotional guy… So, you guys looking for Bob Castro?”

I tried to look as nonchalant as I could muster. “We might be–do you think he’s around?”

“Well, he doesn’t work here.” She turned and glanced back at the yawning hole in the earth behind her. “But that doesn’t mean he’s not here… Somewhere.”

The conversation was interrupted by a man’s voice on the computer, who I assumed was Tim.

Static. “Three-eight, hey Darlene?”

She leaned in again. “Yeah?”

Static. “Mike’s logged in on four, but he’s not responding.”

“What do you mean?”

Static. “We keep radioing him in the truck, but he’s not answering—just keeps working.”

I turned and looked at the assistant manager, who straightened Santa to the sound of tiny bells. “Um, I guess I could go down there with you.”

“That might be handy, seeing as how we don’t know where we’re going.”

He turned to the young woman. “Darlene, do you have a map we could use?”

She pulled out a printed sheet of paper, circling a spot in ballpoint and handing it to him. “It’s only about a square mile, you can’t miss it.”

He held the paper, staring at it like it was a death notice. “And how will we know Mike’s unit?”

She studied him. “It’ll be a dump truck about the size of a bank building with a number 4 on it about the size of a house.”

Bouncing along in Sandy’s shiny half-ton along the wide-swept ramps, I couldn’t help but notice that we were the smallest vehicle in the place by far. I also couldn’t shake the thought that we were descending into one of the lower rings of hell. Hanging between the two front seats and considering mortality, I thought of another one. “Age.”

Sandy partially turned. “Huh?”

“From the age of thirty or so your percentages of being murdered drop steadily in most places, but in Europe you’re more likely to be murdered in your middle-age than in your youth.”

The assistant manager turned to look at me.

“Can’t let your guard down, though. In Australia, Sweden, and Finland you’ve got more of a chance of being killed if you’re over sixty than if you are a teenager, but that’s more likely because alcohol figures into half of those, making it a more predominant factor than any gun or knife.”

Pulling into a flat area, we parked near another pre-fab trailer as a foreman in a white hard-hat and an arctic parka rushed out to meet us. The assistant manager rolled down his window as the man stuck his fur-haloed face in, looking at both Jim and me. “Holy shit, is Mike in trouble?”

Sandy borrowed my line in response. “We just want to speak with him.”

The shift manager, Tim, pointed toward the far end of the pit to where a crane with a bucket the size of an end-zone was filling the largest trucks we’d ever seen. “He’s in 4, but he’s not answering but that’s nothing new, sometimes the equipment gets finicky with weather like this.”

“How can we get his attention?”

He looked at me. “Just drive over there in front of him and hit your lights and siren and he’ll stop.” The three of us in the truck looked in the distance at the behemoths being loaded with tons of coal as Tim added. “Just be sure to hit those lights and sirens so that he notices you, though.”

On the drive over, I questioned the assistant manager. “Mike’s wife said that he’d worked three overtime shifts in the last three days–would that have been all in this one section?”

“Oh, no. He likely worked six sections as a heavy equipment operator in that amount of time.”

“Driving one of these trucks?”

“No, as a full heavy equipment operator he could’ve been running loaders, transfer belts, backhoes, dozers, just about anything.”

I slumped back in the rear seat. “In an area of over six square miles?”


Sandy and I looked at each other in the rearview mirror.

It was silent as we jolted along through the dystopian landscape with the swirling snow having now turned grey, the equipment before us looming larger and larger like a mechanized skyline as we approached.

The assistant manager, either unused to silence or wanting to know what he was getting into, finally asked. “Um, what is it that Mike’s done?”

“Allegedly done.” I sighed, figuring the guy should at least know the partial score. “About seventy-two hours ago Connie Embersoll chose the very zenith of the holiday season to confess to her husband Big Mike that she had been having an affair with Bob Castro, a UPS driver out of Gillette, who she’d known since high school. Well, about twelve hours later Mr. Castro didn’t show up for his holiday shift. The dispatcher tried to contact him at his home, a duplex he shares with his brother, who said he hadn’t see him all day. After twenty-four hours, a missing person’s report was initiated, and we have been attempting to discover the whereabouts of Mr. Castro to no avail. Mr. Castro’s brother did say that he had seen a black, three-quarter ton Dodge parked in the mutual driveway early yesterday morning with vanity plates that read DEMON.”

The assistant manager stared at me.

“Strangely enough, Big Mike Embersoll is in procession of a black, three-quarter ton with vanity plates that read DEMON.”

The assistant manager glanced back at the approaching equipment. “Oh, no.”

“As near as we can figure, Big Mike Embersoll has had forty-eight hours, six square miles, and unlimited equipment to dispose of the body of Bob Castro.”

Sandy gestured to the surroundings. “The perfect crime.”

The assistant manager glanced at Sandburg. “But, that means he could be desperate, and dangerous.”

Sandy nodded. “I’d say it’s highly likely.”

“Um… I don’t think I want to be party to this.”

I nodded through the windshield. “I think you’ve lost the option—he’s on the move.” Indeed, unit 4 was pulling out and headed directly for us as Sandy studied the dash, finally locating the siren on his new unit and searching for the light bar as the big truck approached, perhaps even bigger than a bank building.

“Where’s the damn lights on this thing?”

The assistant manager hooked his hand onto the handle and looked like he might try and make a run for it, so I spoke to him. “What kind of truck is that?”

His voice was a little high in an attempt to get over the siren. “It’s a Liebherr TI 274 with a V-16 and about 3,000 horsepower and can carry about three hundred and twenty tons of product.”

“So fully loaded?”

“It weighs over five-hundred tons.”

My eyes were drawn to the juggernaut as it turned slightly and began rolling toward us, its walkways and square shape with a stairway running diagonally across it’s snout not really resembling a truck so much as a rolling industrial city block. “Have you found those lights yet, Sandy?”

His fingers raced around the dash as I slowly cracked open the back door and stepped out and onto the running board, slipping my .45 from its holster as the siren howled. “Where the hell are you going?”

“I doubt he can hear this siren with all the noise around here, but if you can’t get his attention your way, I’ll try and get it mine.” Closing the door, I walked around on the frozen overburden and crushed rock, took up a position at the front of the Campbell County Sheriff’s truck, and slowly raised the semi-automatic like David before Goliath, my peashooter aimed at the windshield high above.

The thing was gigantic and filled the sky as the three thousand horses screamed in an attempt to move the tonnage. I was just about to fire when the burst of revolving lights played off everything in the immediate and not so immediate vicinity, bathing the pit in a racing and revolving blue and red.

Lurching to a stop about twenty yards away, I watched as somebody flung open one of the yellow doors and came out on the catwalk, backlit by the LED lights and yelling down at me in an angry voice. “What the hell are you people doing?”

Raising my badge wallet, I waved for Sandy to kill the siren and then turned back to the man. “Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department, are you Mike Embersoll?”

“No, Mike went home; said he wasn’t feeling well.” There was a pause and then the man shouted. “He in some kind of trouble?”

Holstering my sidearm, I called back. “We just want to speak with him.”

“We’ll never catch him.”

We sat there in front of the modest home in one of Gillette’s more modern housing development staring at the rear of the black three-quarter ton with vanity plates that read DEMON along with an assortment of belligerent bumper stickers on an assortment of subjects. “Hmm.”

“You think he’s armed?”

“Maybe, but if he’s smart he’ll just say he has no idea where Bob Castro is and then what are we going to do, dig up an entire coal mine?” I thought about it for a while. “Did you know that worldwide the chances of somebody going to prison for killing somebody is only 43 percent?”

He unbuckled his seatbelt and began climbing out. “Well, I’d put Big Mike in that other 57 percent.”

I shrugged as I met him at the front of his truck. “European police solve seventy-nine percent of murders but in Asia it’s only half.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask about us.”

“Our clearances in the US are somewhere around 60 percent.”

Setting up on either side of the front door of the house, I pulled the Colt from my holster and held it at my side as Sandy drew his Glock. “Well, that ain’t bad.”

“Down from 91 percent in the sixties.” I reached over and rang the illuminated doorbell as the snowflakes swirled around us, the night before Christmas closing in. “But that’s with four times as many homicides.”

He glanced at his watch, again. “Well, if Big Mike doesn’t throw himself on the mercy of the court, I’m not going to make my flight and then I can kiss the Honduras and that wife of mine goodbye.” We could hear someone walking toward the front door, someone heavy and someone big.

The door didn’t open and finally a husky voice sounded through the solid wood. “Who is it?”

“Absaroka and Campbell County sheriffs.” There was another pause as I clicked off the safety of my Colt. “We’re looking for Mike Embersoll?”

The voice rattled the door. “He in some kind of trouble?”

“We just want to speak with him.”

Sandy whispered. “So, what is the percentage of murderers who confess?”

The polished brass latch was depressed, and the door swung wide. He was dressed in grey work socks, boxers, and a vast, plaid bathrobe that hung open at his empty hands. His eyes were rings of red, and his mouth quivered as he first looked at the sky, then the falling snow, and finally at Sandy and me and to our utter surprise, tears began streaking the big man’s face as he sobbed, “I did it, I killed him, and I can show you where the body is buried…”

Staring at Embersoll, I lowered my weapon and took out my cuffs. “Less than two percent, in case you were still wondering.”

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