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The cement block walls of the abandoned building kept the fire fairly well contained until the roof ignited. Then wind whipped burning embers into the dry grass along the shoulder of the highway. In the predawn light, Deputy Sheriff Clayton Istee watched the volunteer firefighters chase down and drown rivulets of orange flames that snaked quickly through the grass. A year of drought had made any fire dangerous, and the incessant spring winds that rolled across Carrizozo and the surrounding rangeland could easily transform a cinder into a catastrophe engulfing the whole valley.
Flames licked through the boarded-up side doorway and the long opening at the front of the structure, which had once served as a counter for baskets of apples and jugs of fresh pressed cider. Under a steady stream of water from a pumper truck, the remnants of the roof crashed in, showering brilliant pinpoint sparks into the sky, momentarily illuminating a large, somewhat-faded plywood sign nailed to the building that read:
ELECT PAUL HEWITT
LINCOLN COUNTY SHERIFF
Hewitt was Clayton Istee's new boss. Three months ago, after five years with the Mescalero Tribal Police, Clayton had accepted the sheriff's long-standing job offer. His decision hadn't made his mother or his wife particularly happy, but Clayton was glad to get away from the petty politics and cronyism of the tribal administrators.
Ray Bonnell, the volunteer fire chief, stepped up to Clayton's side. One of Paul Hewitt's best friends, Bonnell could be found just about every weekday morning having an early cup of coffee with the sheriff at the Dugout Bar & Grill. In his sixties, with the thick upper body of a man who'd spent a lifetime doing hard physical work, Bonnell was a third-generation native of the valley. He ranched, owned a local propane gas delivery company, and ran the fire department in his spare time.
"Smell that?" Bonnell asked.
"Know what it is?" Bonnell asked.
"Burned flesh," Clayton answered.
"Yep. You got yourself a crispy critter inside. Let's just hope it isn't somebody we knew, or worse yet, somebody we knew and liked. Best to tell Sheriff Hewitt."
"He's already rolling," Clayton replied. "ETA ten minutes."
Bonnell smiled. "Paul said you were a good one. Guess I don't need to tell you how to do your job."
"I'll take all the help I can get, Chief," Clayton said.
"Then help yourself to the spare pair of Wellington boots in the back of my truck," Bonnell said with a laugh as he moved away. "You're gonna need them. After we soak down the inside of that fruit stand it's gonna be a soggy, god-awful mess."
All the burned grass along the roadside had been covered with dirt and doused. Firefighters walked in circles around the charred patches of earth checking for hot spots, hosing down anything that looked like it could combust or flare up again. At the burned-out building two men on ladders directed high-pressure jets of water into the guts of the structure.
Soon murky black water started oozing out the door frame. Clayton went to Bonnell's truck, got the rubber boots, and put them on, figuring whatever crime scene evidence there was inside the building had to be pretty well trashed. Nothing could be done about it. Putting the fire completely out was the first priority, especially since the warmth of the early morning sun topping the mountains had stirred up strong gusts coursing out of the canyons.
The men on the ladders shut down their hoses. At the front of the burned-out door Bonnell motioned for Clayton to join him. He plodded toward Bonnell in the squeaky rubber boots.
"This place hasn't been used for years," Bonnell said, shining his light inside. Most of a plank floor at the back of the structure had been burned away, revealing a partial basement.
Bonnell froze the beam of his flashlight on what appeared to be a pile of burned rags under a window. "There's your crispy critter," he said.
Clayton nodded. He could see a seared, blackened forearm and hand protruding from the rag pile. "What's with the basement?" he asked.
"It was probably a cold-storage cellar for produce," Bonnell replied as he swept his light back and forth. "We're looking for fire behavior here, Deputy. So far I don't see anything abnormal. The flames burned up and out, just like they were supposed to."
"Are you calling it accidental?"
"Not yet, but I don't see a burn pattern that suggests an accelerant was used."
Clayton gazed at the deep pool of black water that was quickly draining into the cellar. "What a mess."
Bonnell snorted and slapped Clayton on the shoulder. "Come on, Deputy, let's get in there, get muddy, and find out what we've got."
"First, I'd better call for the medical examiner," Clayton said.
Bonnell pointed at a firefighter coiling hose at the back of the pumper truck. "We've got one right here," he said. "Shorty Dawson will be more than willing to declare the victim dead."
Clayton thought about the mess inside. Mud, debris, and charred pieces of the roof filled the enclosure, a lot of it covering the body. Conditions would make extracting the victim and searching for evidence time-consuming and tedious. Allowing too many people inside would only make it worse.
"Have Dawson make a visual inspection from the doorway," Clayton said. "I want to limit entry to just you and me until the crime scene techs arrive."
"I'm sure Shorty will oblige," Ray Bonnell said. The sound of a siren made him glance down the highway in the direction of Carrizozo. "Here comes your boss. Shall we wait for him before we get started?"
"Might as well," Clayton replied. "When we get inside, I want you to do exactly what I say."
"Now that the fire is out, it's your show," Bonnell replied.
Paul Hewitt watched his young deputy work. Major felonies were not commonplace in Lincoln County, New Mexico, and while it was quite likely that the John Doe inside the fruit stand had died by accident, Clayton Istee was treating the investigation as a homicide, which was exactly the right thing to do.
Hewitt had aggressively recruited Clayton because of his college education, five years of patrol experience, and extensive training in major felony investigations. He'd kept a close eye on Clayton since his arrival and was pleased by the young man's work ethic, his professional conduct, and his seasoned patrol skills. Now, for the first time, Hewitt had a chance to observe Clayton conducting a crime scene investigation, and he liked what he saw.
After photographing and videotaping the scene, Clayton had approached the search for evidence as if it were an archeological dig. With Ray Bonnell's help he'd uncovered a partially burned backpack, a few charred remnants of a cheap sleeping bag, two empty pint whiskey bottles, some partially burned pieces of mud-encrusted firewood, singed scraps of a wool blanket, and a disposable cigarette lighter.
The firefighters and their equipment were long gone, the sun was high in the sky, and the day had heated up when the two men took a break.
Ray Bonnell leaned heavily against the front of Paul Hewitt's slick top unit, smearing dirt on the paint. "Looks like our John Doe burned himself up," he said to Paul. "I'd say the point of origin for the blaze was the sleeping bag under the victim, probably started by a spark or a cigarette. My guess is that he built a fire to keep warm, slugged down two pints of whiskey, passed out, and never woke up. He may have died from smoke inhalation. We'll know for sure after the autopsy."
Paul nodded in agreement and looked at Deputy Istee, who was splashing water on his grimy face. He'd removed his uniform shirt and shucked his weapon and equipment belt. His jeans and tee shirt were stained dark brown and he was covered in mud. "Any ID on the victim?" Hewitt asked.
"Negative, so far," Clayton replied. "I still have to search the body and the backpack."
"He was probably a drifter," Hewitt said. "Wrap it up here as soon as you can."
Ray Bonnell shook his head. "Can't do that, Paul."
"Why not?" Hewitt asked, scanning Bonnell's face.
"We've got another body, Sheriff," Clayton said, "and what looks like a completely different crime scene."
"Show me," Hewitt replied.
Clayton took the sheriff to the doorway, clicked on the battery-operated flashlight, and beamed the light into the back part of the dark cellar.
Hewitt saw an exposed skull with a fractured forehead, covered with patches of what appeared to be leathery skin. Pressurized water from the fire hoses had revealed some of the torso and Hewitt could see what looked like swaths of fabric.
"It's a female skeleton," Clayton said. "The fracture to the skull was most likely from a blunt-force instrument. A clutch purse was buried with the body. According to the driver's license inside the purse, the victim's name was Anna Marie Montoya. She had a Santa Fe address."
"You're sure this is a separate incident?" Hewitt asked.
"There's no way she was killed in the fire," Bonnell said from behind Hewitt's shoulder.
"Any guesses on how long the body has been here?" Hewitt asked.
Clayton shrugged. "Her driver's license expired ten years ago."
"Let's hold off on doing any more until the state police crime techs get here," Hewitt said.
"Are you going to give the investigation to the state police?" Clayton asked.
Hewitt had recruited Clayton to complete the staffing of his major felony investigation unit, made up of three specially trained field officers. His twelve-man department was too small and underfunded to manage felony cases any other way. But with the addition of Clayton, Hewitt now had a unit that could do a hell of a lot more than take a report, collect evidence, interview witnesses, or get an occasional voluntary confession from some feebleminded perp.
At least, he hoped they could. Up to now, the unit was untested. It was time to see what they could do.
"It's your case, Deputy," Hewitt said. "Call in the team."
Clayton stripped off his plastic gloves. "I'll get them rolling."
Ray Bonnell watched Clayton walk to his unit to make the call. "I think you hired yourself a good one, Paul," he said.
"I do believe you're right," Hewitt said.
"How come I'm all dirty and you're all spick-and-span clean?" Ray asked, brushing dirt off his pants and eying Hewitt's freshly pressed shirt.
Paul Hewitt smiled. "You do look a mess, Ray. How about you wipe the dirt off your face, wash your hands, and I buy you some biscuits and gravy?"
"I could use some breakfast," Bonnell replied.
Sergeant Oscar Quinones and Deputy Von Dillingham arrived in a hurry. Clayton briefed them, paying particular attention to how the men reacted to the news that he'd been assigned by the sheriff as lead investigator. He didn't need an attitude flashed at him for being placed in charge.
Quinones didn't even flinch. A retired border patrol supervisor who'd been with the department for five years, he'd worked on many task forces, investigations, and multiagency operations run by lower-ranking officers.
"Where do you want us to start?" Quinones said when Clayton finished.
"We'll work it as two separate crime scenes," Clayton said, looking at Dillingham for a reaction, "starting with the male victim. Search the body and the backpack, and bag and tag all evidence. Then we'll do a field search around the perimeter."
Dillingham pulled a toothpick from his mouth and smiled. "What about the female victim?"
"We treat it as a buried body and do an excavation," Clayton said. "But not until victim number one is removed and all evidence recovered."
"Sounds like a plan," Dillingham said.
The crime scene techs appeared as they were finishing up the perimeter search. Motorists passing by slowed down to check out the emergency vehicles parked just off the highway, creating a potentially hazardous situation. At Clayton's request, another deputy was sent out to keep traffic moving and the curious locals at bay.
The officers and the techs worked deep into the night. Piece by piece, they brought out an accumulation of trash, broken pieces of old wooden fruit baskets, bits of rope, a rotting ball of twine, and several cracked glass gallon jugs. In the cellar, they used tweezers, paint brushes, magnifying glasses, trowels, and other small tools to dig around the female victim for evidence. The most surprising discovery came when the female skeleton was finally unearthed. Patches of leathery skin showed that the dry cellar had caused a certain degree of mummification. Bits and pieces of apparel still covered parts of the trunk and lower extremities. Earrings lay next to the skull, and a turquoise and silver ring loosely encircled a finger bone.
By the time the search concluded and the bodies were removed, midnight had come and gone. Another hour passed doing some preliminary paperwork. Clayton released Quinones and Dillingham and drove home feeling fairly certain, based on a missing-person report in the computerized National Crime Information Center's files, that the dead woman was Anna Marie Montoya, who had disappeared from Santa Fe without a trace eleven years ago.
A match of the victim's teeth with dental records would make the identification conclusive. The state police tech supervisor promised to track down the dental records first thing in the morning and call him with the results.
The Istee family lived on a dirt road just outside the tribal village of Mescalero. Nestled in tall pines at the end of the lane, the house had two bedrooms and only one bath, which was woefully inadequate for a family of four. Soon his son and daughter would need their own rooms, so next up on Clayton's home improvement list was a master bedroom and bath off the living room, away from the children, which he would build himself. He'd spent hours drawing up the plans and figuring out a budget with his wife, Grace. Financially, he could swing it. But with the new job, finding the time to do it was the problem.
In the kitchen Clayton stripped off his dirt-caked clothes, cleaned up as best he could at the sink, and slipped quietly into bed without disturbing Grace. He slept hard until his son, Wendell, jumped on the bed to wake him up.
"Mommy says you made a big mess in the kitchen," Wendell said when Clayton opened his eyes.
Wendell, age three and fast approaching four, had recently turned into something of a motormouth, and Clayton was secretly hoping this new behavior wouldn't last too long. "Your mother said that?"
"Uh-huh. The floor and the sink are all yucky."
"Go clean it up for me," Clayton said.
"Mommy already did."
"Then go away and let me sleep," Clayton said.
"Why?" "'Cause it's breakfast," Wendell said.
"Okay, I'm up."
Clayton pulled on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt, and with Wendell leading the way, found his wife and his two-year-old daughter, Hannah, at the kitchen table.
"I got him up," Wendell said proudly as he slid into his chair.
The family took its meals at a table in a dining nook adjacent to the kitchen. After tearing out a partial wall that originally separated the two areas, Clayton had added a bay window to bring in light and create a feeling of openness. He took his chair at the head of the table, which gave him a view of the woods at the side of the house, and smiled at his wife and daughter.
In her high chair, Hannah, who considered herself an adult, spooned cereal into her mouth and looked at her brother with quiet, thoughtful eyes. Then she wrinkled her nose at him.
"She made a face at me," Wendell said.
"Yes, she did," Clayton said. "Eat your breakfast." He turned to Grace. "I caught a homicide case yesterday."
"You were so late coming home, I thought something important might have happened," Grace said.
"What's a homicide?" Wendell asked.
"A very bad thing," Clayton said, rubbing Wendell's head. "Almost as bad as interrupting people when they're talking."
Wendell dropped his eyes and stuck a spoonful of cereal in his mouth.
Keeping Wendell quiet with occasional long, cool looks, Clayton summarized his activities at the fruit stand for Grace.
She listened without interruption. "It sounds very complex," she said when Clayton finished.
Clayton nodded. "It was."
"Well, you said you wanted a job with a challenge."
"Are you being sarcastic?" Clayton asked. He studied his pretty wife's face, searching her calm dark eyes for any sign of discontent.
"What's sarcastic?" Wendell asked.
"We'll look it up together in the dictionary later, Wendell," Grace said gently. "No, I'm not. You have to stop thinking that I'm unhappy because you changed jobs."
"You've been complaining that I'm hardly home."
"Not complaining, just noting." Grace looked at her children and smiled. "We all miss you."
"You should smile more," Clayton said.
"It is not my nature," Grace said, as her smile widened.
"You're so modest," Clayton said, teasing.
Grace lifted her chin. "Of course, I'm a respectable, married woman," she replied, teasing him back. Her expression turned serious. "You've been among the dead. Wear something black today to protect against the ghost sickness."
Clayton nodded. "I may have to go up to Santa Fe."
"I'd like to go with you," Wendell said.
Hannah banged her little fist on the high chair's hinged table. "I get down now," she said.
Grace released her and put her on the floor. She made a beeline for Clayton. He picked her up, put her on his lap, and gave her a kiss.
"When will you know?" Grace asked.
"I'll call you later today."
-Reprinted from The Big Gamble by Michael McGarrity by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © Michael McGarrity, 2002. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Posted August 30, 2013
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On a little traveled road in Lincoln County, New Mexico at the site of a burned down fruit stand, two bodies are found in the remaining rumble. One body is that of small time gambler Joseph John who recently struck it big on the reservation casino while the other corpse is that of Anne Marie Montoya, a woman who disappeared into thin air one decade ago. <P>The primary on the Montoya case is Santa Fe Police Chief Kevin Kerney and the man in charge of the Humphrey investigation is Deputy Sheriff Clayton Istee. Although the two men are father and son, neither knew about the relationship until recently. Clayton would prefer to forget about the relationship but when the two cases intersect in an unexpected manner, the two men are forced to work together and take a step closer to forming a relationship. <P>Like Tony Hillerman before him, Michael McGarrity puts the state of New Mexico on the map. His style is smooth, subtle and his storytelling abilities keep the reader in thrall, wondering what will happen next. THE BIG GAMBLE is no gamble at all for reader; it is a surefire winner for anyone who likes a fascinating police procedural. <P>Harriet KlausneWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.