The Wheel Bar was nestled in an old building between the main drag of Estes Park and the pedestrian path known as the River Walk. Streets usually bustling with the close to 5 million annual visitors to Estes Park were now more reminiscent of a ghost town.
Chance wondered if this modern boom town would go bust in the tradition of so many other small Colorado mountain towns. He parked his motorcycle in the parking lot behind The Wheel on the other side of the river. For just a moment, he paused while crossing the arched footbridge that connected the lot to the River Walk, stared at the river that was beginning to swell with the start of spring runoff. He spat into the river and took in a deep breath of chilled air, and walked over to the back patio entrance of The Wheel. As with every other business in town, The Wheel had been shut down when Governor Polis had enacted the state's safer at home lockdown. But the bar was always working behind the scenes to help out the locals. Today they served up free lunches for those who could come to pick them up from the back patio. With his red bandanna pulled up around his face as he looked into the back windows and waved to a younger blonde woman, hair highlighted starkly with black and red streaks that framed her today green eyes, at times they turned green. Jenny Anne Bob was a force of nature unto herself. As she walked over to let him in, he looked across the window to the Happy Birthday posters, made with printer paper and markers, that the staff had taped up to the back windows—each decorated with a local name that would have celebrated their birthday at the bar. One of the posters on the top row held his name.
As his old friend and onetime lover opened the door, she flashed that smile that punched Chance in the gut every time.
"Heeeeeeyyyyy sugar tits...you know the bar is officially closed, right?" She called. "But if your here for the corned beef, I think I have a few left in back, but it's gonna be cold."
"Nope, actually, I have a favor to ask. I was hoping you could work your magick and see what you can find out on a local kid that went missing a few weeks ago. One of the J-1's that was working up at the Overreach. His name's Toki."
"Wait, that young, pretty kid...thick accent...kind of hard to understand when he gets drunk. But a hottie. I mean for a youngster," Jenny said with that devilish grin she gets right before she jumps headlong into trouble. "Why? What's going on? He in trouble?"
Chance took a deep breath and sighed before answering. "Well, apparently, he was in some trouble. The bad kind. They found his body over in Aspen."
"Oh my God...what the fuck..." Jenny already had tears welling up.
"I'm going to find out what happened to him and make sure he gets his fair share of justice. But I need to figure out his story before I can tell it to the world. That's where you come in. I need you to find out what you can about what he was up to just before and during the start of lockdown. Who he was hanging out with, what his bad habits were, who's bed he was in."
"Yeah. I'll see what I can find out. how'd he wind up in Aspen?"
"No idea...but I'm heading to Aspen for a few days to check out where they found him and talk to a source. I'll get in touch when I get back into town. Oh, how're things going with your ex?"
"Yeah, well, you know, we are working on things. Some days are better than others."
"Ok, well, at least say hi to your rug monkey for me...I love that crazy kid of yours."
° ° °
The roar of Chance's Road King echoed off the twisting canyons of highway 36 as he headed down to Denver and then up the I-70 corridor. In his entire life, he had never seen the roads of Colorado so empty. It felt as if he was in some post-apocalyptic B movie. But this movie was happening. Chance tried not to think of the future ramifications this pandemic would bring. Instead, he focused on his work. One of Chance's primary motivations for being a writer was to give a voice to those in his community who were never given an opportunity to have their own. There were only a couple of big rig trucks that Chance saw on I-70 before turning off the highway onto highway 24, going up through Leadville and Twin Lakes. After turning off 70, the only other travelers he ran into were a large bull moose drinking out of a pond off the side of the road.
Independence Pass is one of the most dramatic mountain road vistas that Chance had ever seen. It always made him question his place in the universe when he drove it. Up this high, there was still snow piled up along the sides of the road and sand he had to be highly wary of as he made his way through the switchbacks. He made it over the pass safely, and the snowbanks quickly dissipated as he dropped rapidly in elevation. As he came to the lower narrows where traffic has to share a single lane of the road (a treacherous road even in the best of summer weather), he first saw the flashing lights of the police roadblock. As he approached the vehicles, a sheriff's officer waved down in a fluorescent orange vest.
"Whoooaaah there...you know you're not supposed to be out traveling right now. It's restricted to only those people who have essential work."
The deputy looked him up and down regarding the post-punk rock throwback with obvious disdain. "And, to be honest, you do look like you do anything all that essential, partner."
Chance couldn't help but smirk. "Well, I guess that depends on what you would call 'essential' now, wouldn't it? I know you cop types would prefer that we didn't have so much freedom of the press or those pesky constitutional amendments. But we do." Pulling out his press credentials on a lanyard that he always kept in his inside jacket pocket next to a small journalist's notebook. "So, I'm here to cover the story of the body you guys found earlier. What can you tell me?"
"Oh shit, just wait here. I need to get the Lieutenant ." After looking closely at his ID card and essential worker paperwork, the officer trudged off and walked over to a white, green, and yellow Ford SUV from the Pitkin County Sherriff's Department. A window rolled down after a brief exchange. In her mid-forties, an attractive red-headed woman got out and headed over to Chance, who was now leaning up against his motorcycle, arms crossed.
"Nice Elvis glasses," she said as she walked up. "What can I do for you, Mr. Van Horne?"
Chance pulled out his notebook and pen. "Well, I understand that one of our missing locals from Estes Park has turned up here. Can I get a statement from you? Ms- O'Brian, is it? Detective O'Brian, maybe?"
She slid down her mirrored aviator glasses down to the bridge of her nose. Her green eyes showed, "Mr. Van Horne, I think you know as well I do that this an active investigation and that I am not able to release any sort of official statement until it has gone through the Public Information Officer. And it's Detective Shannon O'Brian."
A grin appeared on Chance's face, and he, like her, lowered his cheap gold Elvis glasses, "Ohhhh yeah, that's right...well, how about something off the record?"
"Look, this is all I'll say. I worked the summer before I went into the academy in Estes Park with their police services internship program..."
"Oh, you were one of those cute crossing guards they bring in for tourist season..." he smugly interrupted.
"Yes, I was, and I know what a bitch it can be doing seasonal work...a lot of the friends I made were international, so this case hits close to home for me. It's one of the J-1's from over in your neck of the woods, but you did not hear that from me...The other thing I can tell you is you have got to leave the area. This is not a safe road to be hanging out on, and I can't have you reporter types just lurking around my crime scene. But what I will do is not make you drive back around to I-70. Deputy. Let this one through the roadblock, but please escort him into town to make sure he doesn't get lost along the way."
"Awww, you don't have to do that. But thanks, and if you think of anything else that you'd like to discuss, here's my card. It has my email and cell on it. Hey, isn't this right near that cliff diving place the locals call The Devil's Punch Bowl?"
"I have no comment at this time. Have a good day, Mr. Van Horne."
Chance gave a wink to Shannon as she turned away and gave an exasperated sign and a half-hearted chuckle, then returned to her SUV shaking her head.
After they waved Chance through the roadblock, the Sheriff's Deputy assigned to escort him followed him into Aspen's city limit, peeled off from behind him, turned around and headed back up towards the crime scene. Chance's phone came back to life after having no service most of the ride up. He checked his digital itinerary for directions to where he was staying, then made his way to the old Snow Queen Lofts. he parked his bike in front of the old Victorian-style mansion that had been converted to a bed and breakfast. Taped to the front door was a folded piece of paper with his name on it. It had been a long day's ride, but he was a professional and knew that he would need to find a back way to the Devil's Punch Bowl before it got dark.