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Back late from an all-day meeting in Albuquerque, Kevin Kerney sat in his office and paged through the Anna Marie Montoya missing person file. Until yesterday Montoya had never been found and the investigation had remained officially open, although not actively worked for some time. There were periodic entries by various detectives summarizing meetings and phone conversations with family asking if any new information about Montoya’s whereabouts had surfaced, along with unsuccessful query results from other law enforcement agencies regarding the identification of human remains found elsewhere.
Notations in the record showed that every year on the anniversary of Montoya’s disappearance, her parents met with a detective sergeant to ask about progress in the case. One supervisor had scrawled in the margin of the supplemental contact report, “These sweet people foolishly refuse to give up hope.”
Kerney shared the detective sergeant’s sentiments. Based on what was known about Montoya, she was an unlikely candidate to go missing, so foul play was the only scenario. He scanned the woman’s personal information. Born and raised in Santa Fe, Anna Marie, age twenty-nine, was about to earn a master’s degree in social work when she disappeared. She lived in an apartment with a roommate, her best friend since high school. She was engaged to be married to a young, up-and-coming businessman, had a good job lined up after graduation, and worked as a part-time counselor at a youth shelter. She had strong ties with her family and a tight-knit circle of friends.
Montoya’s roommate reported her missing on a day when the major crimes unit was busy busting a burglary ring, so Kerney, then serving as chief of detectives, handled the call. Montoya had failed to return overnight from an evening reception for graduating students held near the university campus in Las Vegas, fifty miles north of Santa Fe.
Kerney had run his inquiry according to the book and come up empty. Montoya’s car, which was found at a shopping mall parking lot in Santa Fe the day after her disappearance, provided no clues or evidence of foul play. People at the reception remembered Montoya leaving the gathering alone. All in attendance had strong alibis for their whereabouts during the remainder of the night. Family, friends, and coworkers knew of no troubles which would have made Montoya want to go missing. Her fiancé, who’d spent the night Montoya vanished in the company of his roommate, reported no problems with their relationship. Faculty members at the school of social work disclosed that Montoya stood near the top of her class academically, had congenial relationships with instructors and fellow students, and had evidenced no signs of stress, unhappiness, or depression.
With nothing that pointed to a motive or a suspect, Kerney had dug for some dirt on Montoya, hoping to uncover a shady tidbit about her past or a shabby little secret. Nothing incriminating had surfaced. Anna Marie had been a solid, upstanding young woman who’d lived a respectable life.
He’d interviewed casual male acquaintances and all the men who lived in the apartment complex where Montoya resided in the hopes of finding someone who fit a stalker profile, but nothing emerged.
He studied the woman’s photograph, taken just a few weeks before she vanished. She had round, dark eyes that looked directly at the camera and seemed to hide nothing, full lips that smiled easily, a quizzical way of holding her head, and long curly hair that fell over her shoulders. It was an intelligent face that held a quiet, sincere appeal.
The telephone rang and Kerney picked up.
“I thought you might be working late,” Sara said.
Kerney smiled at the sound of his wife’s voice. “How are you?”
“Tired of being a pregnant lieutenant colonel in the army,” Sara replied. “Emphasis on the word pregnant.”
“Protecting the country from known and unknown enemies while having a baby does seem a bit inconvenient,” Kerney said.
Sara laughed. “The pregnant part is slowing me down and I don’t like it. I have to sleep for two, eat for two, and basically think for two. It’s distracting me from my career path.”
“Does that mean you won’t be the honor graduate at the Command and General Staff College ceremony?”
“I will be the biggest blimp of an officer to ever waddle up to the stage and receive that high honor,” Sara said.
Kerney let out a whoop. “You got it!”
“You’re first supposed to say that I will look beautiful at the ceremony, pregnant or not. Indeed I did, by two-tenths of a percentage point. And if you’re not here to see me graduate, I’m divorcing you for mental cruelty and emotional abandonment.”
“You are beautiful,” Kerney said. “I promise to be there. But it’s still a whole month off.”
“And you won’t see me until then,” Sara said.
“You can’t break away for a weekend at all?” Kerney asked.
“I’ve way too much to do. Besides I’m not sure you want to see me minus my girlish figure.”
“I’ll stare at your chest,” Kerney said.
“Even that has enlarged a bit.”
Kerney laughed. “I’ve heard from Clayton in a roundabout way.”
“Really? Tell me about it.”
Kerney gave her the facts about the missing person case he’d handled eleven years ago, and Clayton’s discovery of Anna Marie Montoya’s remains.
“Sometimes fate smiles on you, Kerney,” Sara said when Kerney finished.
“Now you have a perfect opportunity to connect with Clayton. Use it.”
“I tried that before, remember?”
“You’ve had three, maybe four conversations with Clayton in your lifetime, all in the space of a few very intense days. That hardly constitutes a major effort.”
“The effort has to be mutual,” Kerney said.
“You cannot tell me that Clayton isn’t at least a little bit curious about who you are on a personal level.”
“He hasn’t shown any interest,” Kerney said.
“Oh, stop it, Kerney,” Sara said. “You sound like a little boy with hurt feelings. Just because Clayton didn’t follow through on a dinner invitation he hastily suggested, after you left him speechless by establishing a college fund for his children, doesn’t mean he’s cold to knowing you.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“So, I’ll try to be a grown-up.”
“Good. If I were with you, I’d be giving you sweet kisses right now.”
“As a reward for trying to be a grown-up?” Kerney asked.
“No, as a prelude to wild, abandoned sex. I’ll talk to you soon, cowboy.”
Kerney hung up smiling and returned his attention to the Montoya case file. What had he missed in the original victim profile? Unless Anna Marie had been abducted and killed randomly by a complete stranger, events in her life should point to a motive for murder.
He’d found nothing when the case was fresh, and now surely people had scattered, memories had dimmed, and hard physical evidence—if any was to be found—had vanished.
Kerney sat back in his chair and inspected the two framed lithographs Sara had helped him select for his office. One, a winter scene with a solitary horse grazing in a pasture, was centered above a bookcase on the wall opposite his desk. The second image showed an old cottonwood in summer, branches dense with leaves. It hung next to the office door.
At the time, he’d teased Sara about picking out such serene, idyllic images to hang on a police chief’s office walls.
“These are reminders,” she’d replied.
“Places we need to find when we’re together.”
“For what purpose?” Kerney had asked.
“Are you dense, Kerney? Look at that cottonwood tree. Look at that pasture. What would we most want to do in either setting?”
Kerney put the remembrance aside and flipped through the Montoya case file one more time. It was Deputy Sheriff Clayton Istee’s homicide investigation now. He’d heard through the cop-shop grapevine that Clayton had recently switched from the tribal police to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department. He called the sheriff’s dispatch number, left a message advising Clayton he’d be available to discuss the Montoya case first thing in the morning, locked up his office, and walked downstairs through the quiet, almost empty building to his unmarked unit.
Clayton bypassed the office and started work interviewing ranchers and home owners he’d missed yesterday. By the fifth stop, the responses became predictable. The canvass had turned into a see-nothing, know-nothing Q-and-A exercise. Nobody knew diddly or had a shred of useful information. Once the formality of being questioned was out of the way, everybody tried to get some juicy gossip-talk going. He just smiled and shook his head in reply.
He contacted Sergeant Quinones and Deputy Dillingham by radio, who reported similar dead-end results. Dispatch called to advise that the local crime-stoppers organization had put up a thousand-dollar reward for any information leading to the arrest of Anna Marie’s killer. The news gave Clayton a touch of renewed enthusiasm.
When asked if he’d ever noticed anyone suspicious hanging around the fruit stand, one old rancher took off his cowboy hat, scratched his head, gave a Clayton a sly smile, and allowed that sometime back he’d seen Paul Hewitt nailing an election sign on the building. With a straight face Clayton promised to question the sheriff. In response the rancher grinned and said he’d like to be there to see it.
At the end of a ranch road a pickup truck outfitted with a rack of emergency roof lights and sporting a volunteer-firefighter license plate pulled off the pavement and stopped just as Clayton closed the gate behind his patrol unit. Shorty Dawson, the medical examiner, got out and hurried toward him.
At no more than five feet four inches, it was clear how Dawson came by his nickname.
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” Dawson said, squinting up at Clayton, who topped out at five ten.
All the firefighters had radios equipped with the department’s police band frequency. “Did you try calling me?” Clayton asked.
Dawson shook his head and shifted a wad of chewing tobacco from one cheek to the other. “I didn’t want to do that. Too many people listen to police scanners. You know that John Doe that got burned up in the fire?”
“His name was Joseph Humphrey,” Clayton replied curtly, out of respect for the dead man’s ghost.
“Whatever,” Dawson said. “You were right, the fire didn’t kill him. According to the pathologist in Albuquerque, he took a knife blade through the heart.”
“Thanks for telling me,” Clayton said casually as he wrapped the chain around the gatepost.
Dawson eyed Clayton, waiting for more of a reaction. After yesterday’s phone conversation with the deputy he half expected a smug response. “It sort of complicates matters for you, I guess,” he said, smiling apologetically.
Clayton shrugged. “Not really. I’ve been treating it like a homicide all along.”
Dawson drove off, thinking Deputy Istee needed to loosen up and be a little more friendly if he wanted to get along in Lincoln County.
Paul Hewitt, who had been a police commander down the road in nearby Alamogordo for twenty years before coming home to run for sheriff, sat behind his desk and listened as Clayton Istee talked.
In his late forties, Hewitt, who stood six one when he squared his shoulders and straightened up, was a big-boned man. He carried a scant ten pounds more than his playing weight as a high school lineman. Hewitt’s best cop attribute was an ability to adopt a frank, honest interest in whatever he was hearing, no matter how boring or revolting the subject might be. It had paid dividends for Hewitt over the years in terms of managing people and catching bad guys.
Clayton reported that the canvass had been finished with no positive results, and that Quinones and Dillingham were visiting local businesses in Carrizozo and Capitan on the chance that Humphrey might have stopped to buy booze or a meal as he passed through the towns.
Hewitt nodded and smiled as Clayton pitched him with a plea to be allowed to work both homicide cases, all the time thinking that it made no sense all. He wondered why Deputy Istee wanted to juggle two major felony murder investigations, especially when one was a cold case that might prove impossible to solve, especially by long distance.
Clayton stopped talking. Hewitt leaned forward, put his elbows on the desk, and said, “I think the Humphrey homicide needs to be our priority.”
“I understand, but I’d still like to keep working the Montoya case.”
Hewitt smiled sympathetically. “Let’s concentrate on the most recent crime. That’s where we have the greater chance of success.”
“I’d hate to see the Montoya investigation go on the back burner.”
“I don’t think the Santa Fe PD will let that happen.”
“The body was found here. It isn’t their jurisdiction.”
Clayton sounded uptight. Hewitt muzzled a quizzical look. “As far as we know, the crime occurred in Santa Fe. That gives them jurisdiction. Have you got a problem with the PD that I need to know about?”
Clayton shook his head and stopped arguing. “No. I’ll fax everything to them right away.”
Hewitt nodded. “If you need me to grease some wheels in Santa Fe, let me know.”
“That’s not necessary, Sheriff. The officer who originally handled the case is now the police chief.”
“Kerney was the primary? That should get the case some serious attention. Do you know the chief?”
Clayton hesitated. “Yeah, I met him a few times when he was down here working those campground murders.”
“I’ve known Kerney for years,” Hewitt said, relaxing against the back of his swivel chair. “Some may disagree, but I think he’s a good man and a damn fine cop. How do you plan to proceed with the Humphrey investigation?”
Clayton laid it out. He’d make some calls to Veterans Administration employees who had dealings with Humphrey, get as much background information as he could, and then start tracking down others who knew the victim.
“You’re going to have to spend some time in Albuquerque,” Hewitt said.
“I’m going up there today. If the Santa Fe PD sends some people down here while I’m gone, will you ask Sergeant Quinones to keep an eye on them?”
Hewitt kept his tone amiable and his smile bland. “What aren’t you telling me, Deputy?”
“Nothing,” Clayton replied, rising from his chair. “I just want to make sure I stay informed. Who knows? There’s a chance the murders could be linked. I’ll call Santa Fe now.”
From the hallway desk, with people brushing past him on their way to and from the supply closet and the access corridor that led to various other county offices in the courthouse, Clayton read through the Montoya autopsy report and called Kevin Kerney.
“What can I do for you, Deputy?” Kerney asked.
“My boss is kicking the Montoya homicide investigation back to your department,” Clayton said.
“That makes sense,” Kerney said flatly. “Update me.”
Clayton summarized the autopsy findings. “I’ll fax you a copy of the report,” he said.
“Get it to me ASAP,” Kerney replied.
“I’ll do that,” Clayton said.
“You don’t sound too happy about giving up the case,” Kerney said.
“Don’t worry about me.”
“I was only making an observation, Deputy.”
“It sounded patronizing to me, Chief.”
“Let’s change the subject.”
“What good would that do?” Clayton asked.
“It might give you understand that you have my goodwill.”
“That’s very generous. What do you want to talk about?”
“Forget about it,” Kerney said after a pause, barely keeping an edge out of his voice. “I’ll handle the Montoya case personally. Keep me informed of any new developments.”
“I’ve told you what I know,” Clayton said, checking a surprised reaction.
“You may learn more,” Kerney said. “Since we share jurisdiction, let’s set aside any personal issues and agree to cooperate.”
“Do you have personal issues with me, Chief?” Clayton asked.
“It’s more like a question,” Kerney answered. “Why, whenever we talk, do you seem intent on pushing my buttons?”
“I can’t get into any of this now,” Clayton said.
“Then get your head around this thought,” Kerney said, unable to keep the bite out of his voice. “I understand that you consider me nothing more than a sperm donor. I accept that, and if we can’t be friends, fine. But at the very least, let’s deal civilly with each other as professionals. In fact, Deputy, I expect no less from you.”
The point struck home and Clayton clamped his mouth shut. In this situation with any other ranking officer from another department, he never would have acted so impertinently. “Agreed,” he finally said.
“Good enough,” Kerney said before he hung up.
Kerney got in his unit and drove off to meet with George and Lorraine Montoya, Anna Marie’s parents. In the last two months, he’d stopped participating directly in departmental operations, particularly those of the major crimes unit, and shifted his emphasis to purely administrative oversight. The change followed the murder in early February of Phyllis Terrell, an ambassador’s wife. Kerney’s investigation had set off a chain of events that resulted in his being harried and watched by government spies, placed under electronic surveillance, fed disinformation, and forced to accept a trumped-up solution to the case, spoon-fed to him by the FBI—all to enable the government to keep secret a state-of-the-art intelligence-gathering software program.
His efforts to get to the truth of the matter had ended in an assassination attempt against him and Sara by a U.S. Army intelligence agent. The agent had bushwhacked them on a rural New Mexico highway during a winter snowstorm as they returned from a meeting with the murdered woman’s father. Fortunately, they had survived, but not the assassin.
The experience had shaken Kerney’s trust in his government and heightened his paranoia about the intelligence community. Privy to information about the government-decreed killings of citizens, Kerney could not assume that he, Sara, or their unborn child were safe from retaliation, or would ever be. The spycraft organizations involved in the cover-up could easily decide their knowledge was a dangerous, unacceptable liability.
To cope, he’d been steering a survival course by keeping a low profile and operating on the assumption that he was still under surveillance, and probably would be for some time to come. It was the right thing to do, but it left Kerney with a caged feeling. He hoped that taking on the Montoya homicide follow-up investigation would lift his spirits.
In truth, hunkering down and concentrating on management issues had paid good dividends. Deadwood had been cut, response times on calls had improved, the percentage of cleared cases had increased, and a new pay system for patrol officers was about to be established that would bring their salaries in line with plainclothes personnel. Still, Kerney couldn’t bring himself to get jazzed about his successes.
George and Lorraine Montoya lived on a dead-end dirt lane within easy walking distance of the historic Santa Fe Plaza. On the fringe of a prestigious neighborhood, the lane consisted mostly of two rows of modest homes, all built just before or after World War II. The few houses that had changed hands from Hispanic to Anglo ownership were easy to spot. Enlarged, lavishly landscaped, and given the Santa Fe look, they dwarfed the simple farm-style cottages that were so out of vogue among the gentry and the new-rich immigrants.
Kerney had called ahead to arrange a meeting with the elderly couple, and they were waiting on a small porch when he pulled to a stop behind a beautifully maintained old pickup truck parked in a gravel driveway. Both looked apprehensive as he approached. Mrs. Montoya, a short, round woman, clutched a string of rosary beads. Her husband, equally round and just a few inches taller, seemed to flinch as Kerney drew near.
On the telephone, he’d given no reason for his visit other than to say he had fresh information to share. A deep sadness showed on their faces as he reintroduced himself and shook George Montoya’s hand. His palm was moist and his grip vise-hard.
“Our Anna Marie is dead, isn’t she?” George Montoya asked.
He let go of Kerney’s hand and gestured at the screen door. “Please tell us what you know,” he said, his voice cracking.
Inside, Kerney sat in the front room with the couple. Nothing in the room had changed in the years since his last visit except for a new television and an oak stand to hold it. On the walls hung Mrs. Montoya’s stretched canvas embroideries of New Mexico songbirds—at least a dozen—all nicely framed. Kerney recognized a flycatcher, a warbler, and a goldfinch. He summarized as gently as possible the facts surrounding the discovery of Anna Marie’s body.
Mrs. Montoya crossed herself. Her lips trembled slightly. “Was her body burned in the fire?”
“No,” Kerney answered. The couple was silent for a time.
“Did you see her?” George Montoya asked. The years had aged Montoya. His hair was thin, the skin under his chin above his Adam’s apple was loose, and his eyes were glazed.
“No,” Kerney said.
“How did she die?”
“A blow to the head,” Kerney answered.
“Murdered,” Mr. Montoya said hesitantly, as though the word could beget the act.
“We believe so. Can you think of any reason for her to travel with someone to Lincoln County?”
Mr. Montoya shook his head. “She had no friends or relatives there.”
“Perhaps she knew a person from the area,” Kerney said. “A classmate from graduate school, an old Santa Fe friend who’d relocated.”
“Anna Marie never mentioned anyone like that,” Lorraine Montoya said.
“Did she ever spend time there on business or vacation?” Kerney asked.
“I can’t recall that she did,” George added, looking at his wife for confirmation.
“It’s possible,” Mrs. Montoya replied. “But it may have not been important enough for her to mention.”
“So, a weekend jaunt out of town or a business meeting she’d attended might not come up in conversation.”
Mrs. Montoya nodded solemnly. “We felt blessed that she lived close by to us, and we saw her frequently. But she didn’t tell us everything about her day-to-day activities.”
“No old boyfriend from that neck of the woods?”
Mr. Montoya slowly shook his head. “She would have told us about somebody that important to her. Why are you asking these questions?”
“I know it’s hard right now. Based on the facts we have, I’m inclined to believe your daughter knew her killer. She disappeared for no apparent reason, her car was abandoned, and her body was hidden near a very busy state road a hundred and fifty miles away. If it had been a random act by a stranger, the chances are likely Anna Marie’s body would have been discovered soon after the crime, much closer to home.”
“Someone she knew killed her?” Mrs. Montoya asked, her voice shaky. “How can that be? Everybody liked Anna Marie.”
“It could have been someone she knew slightly,” Kerney said. “A casual business or social acquaintance.”
“A stalker?” Mr. Montoya asked.
Kerney nodded. “Perhaps. Or it could have been a premeditated attack carried out for some other reason.”
“What reason?” George Montoya asked.
“That I don’t know. But I’m troubled by the fact that the perpetrator took Anna Marie so far from Santa Fe. I’m wondering if it has any significance.”
“Was our daughter raped?” George Montoya asked, his body tensing in anticipation of Kerney’s answer.
To Kerney’s mind the indicators strongly suggested sexual homicide. “We don’t know that, and probably never will,” he replied.
“I saved her wedding dress to put in her casket,” Lorraine Montoya said in a whisper.
“When can we bring her home?” George Montoya asked, reaching to squeeze his wife’s hand as she cried quietly at his side, her rosary forgotten.
“In a day or two,” Kerney replied.
“What will you do now?” Montoya asked.
“Try to find your daughter’s killer.”
“Someone she knew, you said.”
“Possibly,” Kerney said.
George Montoya’s eyes clouded and his voice dropped to a whisper. “For years I hear her footsteps on the front step, hear her voice, see her in the kitchen talking with her mother and sister, thinking that when the phone rang she was calling.”
“I am so sorry to bring you this news,” Kerney said.
“It is best for us to know,” George Montoya replied. “We must tell our son and daughter.”
“I’ll need to speak to them.” Kerney rose and gave Mr. Montoya his business card. “Are they both still living in town?”
“I’ll try not to make it too difficult. When would be a good time to call them?”
George Montoya searched Kerney’s face. “This never ends.” His voice cracked and he turned away to comfort his wife and hide his tears.
Kerney let himself out and closed the screen door. As he crossed the porch he heard Mr. Montoya’s heart-wrenching sob.
In Albuquerque Clayton went searching for information about Humphrey from people who knew him. Like most rural New Mexicans Clayton thought nothing about making a four-hundred-mile round trip into the city with the family to shop, take in an afternoon movie, and have a meal, so except for some detours skirting the perennial warm-weather road-and-highway construction, finding his way around town was no big deal. A meeting with Humphrey’s VA caseworker led him to a state-operated alcohol treatment center in the south valley just outside the city limits.
On about a five-acre campus, the facility consisted of a modern, single-story inpatient center with two old pitched-roof former military barracks at the back of the lot and a modular office building off to one side. Big cottonwoods that were budding out shaded an already green lawn.
In a reception and staff area inside the treatment building Clayton was directed to Austin Bodean, the supervising counselor. Bodean was a tall, skinny, middle-aged man with two tufts of hair above large ears on an otherwise bald head. His office walls were filled with plaques that proclaimed various twelve-step philosophies and framed certificates of seminars attended and continuing-education credits earned.
Clayton identified himself and told Bodean about Humphrey’s murder.
“That’s terrible,” Bodean said. “He didn’t have long to live, you know.”
“Cancer,” Clayton said. “Shouldn’t he have been hospitalized?”
“He wasn’t end-stage yet, according to our doctor. But the boozing didn’t help, especially since he was taking painkillers as needed. I was hoping he’d get himself clean and sober—get his life in order, so to speak, before it ended. But the last time he was here, he didn’t seem to give a damn. I guess that’s understandable.”
“When was that?”
Bodean consulted a day planner. “Six weeks to the day. Joe had seven admissions here during the last four or five years. A couple of times he discharged himself before completing the rehab program. About the best we could do for him was get him through detoxification. He got kicked out of every halfway house we placed him in for drinking.”
“Did he make any friends here?”
“He liked to hang out with a couple of guys.”
“Can you give me names and addresses?”
“Sure. One of them is here right now, going through rehab.”
“I’d like to talk to him.”
“No problem,” Bodean said.
“Was Humphrey homeless?”
“No, he was more like a transient. He always stayed at one of the motels on Central Avenue where whores take their tricks.”
“He used prostitutes?”
“Any one in particular?”
“That I wouldn’t know.”
“How did Humphrey get by financially?”
Bodean opened a desk drawer, pulled out a file, and flipped some papers. “He had a VA disability pension that paid him six hundred a month. He used to get welfare until they changed the law. This isn’t the Betty Ford Clinic. We get the alcoholics who can’t pay, and if they have a few hundred bucks, they’ll hide it to avoid paying for treatment.”
“Do you think Humphrey was like that?”
“I always wondered how he was able to stay off the streets on six hundred a month. Even at twenty bucks a night, a motel room would eat up his whole check. And he always seemed to have cigarette and Coke money.”
“Did he leave any personal belongings here?”
“We don’t allow that.”
“Did he get close to any of the female patients?”
“We don’t allow that, either.”
“It never happens?”
Bodean shrugged. “We break it up when it does. But I never saw Joe put moves on any of the female patients. And believe me, I would’ve heard about it in group therapy if he had.”
“Did he have any enemies?”
“Not that I know about. He wasn’t a mean drunk, or the argumentative type. He was a quiet boozer.”
“Any personal stuff come out in treatment?”
Bodean lifted a shoulder. “The usual: an abusive father who abandoned the family, a mother who drank.”
“Personal, not family,” Clayton said.
“After a tour in Nam he went to work as a helicopter mechanic. That was his military specialty. Had a busted marriage, no kids, both parents dead, no close ties with his siblings. He started traveling about ten years ago after getting fired because of his drinking. He spent winters in Arizona.”
“Did he own a vehicle?”
“An old Mercury,” Bodean said as he consulted his file. “Any client with a car has to park it and turn over the keys while in treatment.” He read off the license plate number.
“Can you give me those names and addresses?” Clayton asked.
Bodean pulled more files, read off the information, and got up from his desk chair. “Like I said, one of Joe’s buddies, Bennie, is back in treatment. I’ll go get him. You can talk here in my office.”
“I appreciate that.”
Clayton spent twenty minutes with Bennie Olguin, a member of the Isleta Indian pueblo just south of Albuquerque. Stocky and round in the face, Olguin wore a tank-top undershirt that exposed his muscular arms. Clayton learned the name of the motel on Central Avenue where Humphrey stayed when he was in town, got a few more names of fellow drunks Humphrey hung out with, and discovered that Humphrey liked to gamble.
“Did he ever get lucky?” Clayton asked.
Olguin’s smile showed broken and missing teeth. “Once, with me, that I know of, down at the casino at Isleta. From the winnings, he paid for a grande binge we went on. We were borracho perdido for days.”
“What did he like to play?”
“Slots and blackjack. I heard he scored a week or so ago up at the new Sandia Pueblo casino. He was estar may pesudo, rolling in money. Couple of thousand, I heard.”
“Who did you hear it from?”
“Maybe Sparkle told me.”
“Does Sparkle have a last name?”
“I don’t know it. She’s a puta. Joey liked to buy her when he had the money.”
“Where do I find her?”
“She sometimes takes her tricks to the motel where Joey stayed when he was in town.”
Clayton named the motel Bodean had mentioned.
“That’s it,” Olguin said, as he studied Clayton’s face. “You’re Indian, right?”
“Mescalero Apache,” Clayton said.
Olguin grinned. “But maybe some white man snuck into your grandmother’s tepee, que no?”
“Apaches don’t use tepees much anymore, and I bet your mouth gets you into a lot of fights,” Clayton said.
Olguin rewarded Clayton’s observation with a smile. “Yeah, I like to brawl.”
Clayton got a good description of Sparkle from Olguin and staked out the motel. It was one of those old 1950s motor courts along Central Avenue that had fallen onto hard times after Route 66 had been replaced by the interstate. The exterior stucco had been painted white and was peeling badly, holes had been punched in the wall of each guest room to accommodate small air conditioners, and the neon vacancy sign above the office door spelled out either VAC or CAN depending on which letters lit up or blinked off.
The motel sign advertised low rates, free local calls, and, of course, air-conditioned comfort.
There were only two cars in the asphalt lot, both parked in front of rooms, both totally broken down. Most of the motel guests Clayton watched as they came and went seemed to be without wheels. By eight o’clock at night, not one tourist had checked in, and the lodgers still out and about on foot were either drunk, stoned, or working up to it. But within the hour business picked up. One by one, four cars parked in front of the office and Clayton watched as guys rented rooms and then went inside with their dates, none of whom matched Sparkle’s description.
Sparkle showed up at midnight with an overweight, middle-aged customer in tow who turned out to be a Mexican laborer. Clayton sent the john on his way and talked to Sparkle in front of her motel room. A junkie, she looked to be way older than her twenty-six years. About five two, she had a skinny teenager body that attracted certain men.
“Joey won fifty-six hundred at blackjack,” Sparkle told Clayton. “He told me about it the next night when we got together for some fun.”
“When was that?”
“Seven days ago.”
“Did you see him after that?”
“Yeah, two or three times before he left town,” Sparkle said.
“He said he wanted to have a big blowout before he got too sick to enjoy himself. He was going down to Mescalero to stay at that Indian resort, gamble, drink, and order room service until the money ran out.”
“When did he leave town?”
“I saw him two days ago. He was waiting for Felix to show up to go with him.”
“Yeah, Felix Ulibarri.”
“Where can I find Felix?” Clayton asked.
“I don’t know where he lives.”
“Do you know if he’s ever been arrested?” Clayton asked.
“He did six months on a drunk driving conviction. He got out about a month ago.”
“Why are you looking for Joey?” Sparkle asked.
“I’m not,” Clayton answered. “I’m looking for his killer.”
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
Posted March 29, 2013
Posted January 25, 2013
Posted December 9, 2008
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.