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Final PaymentA Posadas County Mystery
By Steven F. Havill
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2010 Steven F. Havill
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEstelle Reyes-Guzman's passenger leaned forward, enormous blue eyes wide with a mixture of apprehension and excitement.
"Oh my, isn't this something," County Manager Leona Spears whispered. The "something" was a spot where the U.S. Forest Service's two-track meandered close to the formidable, crumbling rim of Cat Mesa. For a few yards, no trees blocked the panoramic view of Posadas County, from the flat, barren reaches of the eastern prairie to the San Cristbal Mountains to the south and west. The mountains formed a natural barrier with neighboring Mexico. From this spot, Undersheriff Guzman could see the entire southern half of Posadas County, including the village of Posadas, which nestled on the mesa's flank below them.
The road ducked back into the trees again, away from the mesa rim, and almost immediately they saw the flashing lights of the large boxy EMT rescue unit a hundred yards ahead. The ambulance was parked just off the narrow lane, and Estelle pulled her county SUV to a halt a dozen yards behind it.
"And this is only practice," she said. The comment elicited a groan from the county manager. Despite her best efforts, they both knew that there was no way to guarantee safety in a hundred-mile bicycle race through the county's roughest back-country. To the competitors, of course, that was the attraction.
In this instance, the emergency came two days before the race itself, during a casual practice ride.
Estelle could see activity fifty yards ahead through the trees, and she glanced across at the county manager. Leona, with her frilly white blouse, neatly tailored business suit, and stylish low-heeled shoes, was not dressed for the boonies. As if reading the undersheriff's mind, the large woman waved a hand. "You go ahead. I'll wait." That brought a smile from Estelle, who knew Leona's insatiable curiosity.
I'll give you thirty seconds, she thought.
Even as she stepped out and closed the door of the Expedition, Estelle could see the bicycle tracks cut in the dirt. How the injured rider had come to drift so far from the marked race route was still a mystery, unless it was the obvious lure of a "shortcut."
In a moment, as she emerged through the last clump of oak brush, the undersheriff saw that the unlucky cyclist had already been splinted, bandaged, and IV'd, then strapped to a gurney and hoisted to safety. Now, a dozen feet from the mesa edge, three EMTs worked over their patient, ignoring the spectacular abyss behind them. Estelle slipped the small digital camera out of her pocket and took several photos before approaching any closer.
A girl in rainbow-colored spandex, her face pasty white with short red hair plastered to her forehead where her helmet had pressed, sat at the base of a sturdy piñon while a fourth EMT bandaged the girl's bloody knee.
"Hey there, sheriff," the EMT working on the knee said. She had glanced up when she heard the camera. "Not your usual kind of MVA we got this time. What brings you up here?"
"My number came up," Estelle replied cheerfully. The injured girl opened her eyes as Estelle knelt beside her. "What happened?"
"It was his big idea," the girl said, and gulped air. "He said this trail was a shortcut that no one else knew about." She closed her eyes.
"Glad no one else did," EMT Matty Finnegan said sympathetically. She made a diving motion with one hand. "Right over there, Estelle. Looks like he tried to stop when the trail made a turn, but he got crossed up somehow. About a fifteen-foot drop."
"Ay," Estelle said. She touched the girl lightly on the arm. "What's your partner's name?"
The girl grimaced as the EMT snugged the bandage. "Terry Gutierrez. We're from Socorro. I think that dumb butt was looking over his shoulder, to see if I was behind him. Then he didn't have time to stop."
"And your name?"
"April Pritt," she said, gritting her teeth. "Shit, that hurts."
The EMT nodded. "You're a lucky girl, Miss April. Other than the knee," she said to Estelle, "April is okay, sheriff. A nasty laceration. Pretty brave, too. She climbed down over the cliff there to help her friend."
"I lost my balance," April said.
"You sure did. But no fractures." Matty reached out and gently patted the side of her patient's bandaged knee. "No stitches, if she's lucky." She looked critically at one knee, then the other. "Just another scar to keep all the others company."
"How's he?" Estelle turned and watched as one of the EMTs adjusted the huge cervical collar on the injured rider. The young man's eyes were closed, his jaw slack under the oxygen mask.
"Not so lucky," Matty said. "But I think he'll be okay. We'll just have to see. I tell you what, though ... thank God for small favors like cell phones."
Stepping so carefully that she appeared to be stalking wild game, the county manager appeared from the oak brush. "Oh my," Leona said, hesitating well back from the mesa edge. The county manager had her own small camera in hand, and Estelle turned to make sure that the enormous woman wasn't planning to step near the rim.
"A bad fall," the undersheriff said to her to make sure she had Leona's attention. "Two competitors from Socorro." The girl with the battered knee looked up at Leona apologetically, even though she had no idea who the enormous woman might be.
"Oh my," Leona said again. She took a reflexive step back when she saw Estelle walk over and stand near the edge of a large block of limestone. The view of the county was spectacular, but Estelle's attention was drawn to the broken juniper limbs below, and the blood swashes on the gray boulders. It made a grim photograph.
As she knelt at the mesa's edge on that warm May afternoon, Estelle leaned forward just enough to trace in her mind's eye the arc of the cyclist's free fall, to imagine the short burst of panic as he realized his mistake. The bicyclist had plunged over the mesa rim, arms flailing, his cry of panic echoing through the canyons. His trajectory ended with a fifteen-foot free flight that smacked into a jumble of jagged boulders capping the long talus slope that formed the mesa's apron. He had hit so hard that his helmet broke open like a coconut shell. The helmet lay next to the mangled bike, and Estelle walked over and picked it up. One deep gash had torn the helmet's brightly colored plastic just above the temple. She grimaced and held it up for Leona to see.
"He's lucky," Leona said.
"We hope so," Estelle replied. The blood on the helmet indicated otherwise. She placed the shattered helmet carefully on the frame of the bike and turned back to the girl.
"You climbed down?" Estelle asked.
"Sort of," April said through clenched teeth. "Not the most graceful thing I've ever done. Is he going to be all right?"
"I think so," Estelle said. She regarded the spot where the eighteen-year-old girl had stopped her bike shy of disaster. No doubt she had seen her boyfriend below, so battered, broken, and lacerated that all he could do was lie in a growing puddle of blood and whimper. There was no easy route down, and her good judgment had been clouded by panic. "You called us from down there?"
"No. I didn't know what to do, so I called 911 first. But then I saw all the blood, and I knew I couldn't wait."
"Brave girl," Estelle said. She turned away from the rim. "Just a wrong turn on an unfamiliar shortcut," Estelle said to Leona. "As simple as that. No shortcuts allowed in the actual race."
"Mercy, I should hope not. You're not climbing down there, are you?"
"No ... I don't think I need to." She took another photo, this time zooming in on the blood smear down below as closely as the camera allowed, then zooming back for a panorama.
Eleven miles to the southeast, she could see the village of Posadas where the cyclists had set out on their practice ride as they prepared for the race coming up that weekend. The asphalt ribbon of County Road 43 that wound up the foot of the mesa, first passing the landfill and then the abandoned Consolidated Copper Mine, was the easiest portion of the route. After reaching the old quarry, the race route turned first onto steep Forest Service roads for the ascent up Cat Mesa. Beyond that, it was rough two-tracks, footpaths, streambeds, and worse.
"The Blood and Broken Bones One Hundred," Estelle said, then pointed. The sudden motion made Leona flinch. "You can see more riders coming up the hill."
A handful of specks moved on the paved road, more cyclists taking a final afternoon training ride. No doubt in an hour or so they would stop at this very spot, marveling at their comrade's attempt at unpowered flight.
The undersheriff reached out a hand and rested her palm on the sharp limestone. The gray rock was warm, and with one finger she traced the shape where one of the cyclist's pedal cranks had caught just before he'd launched.
"My, oh my," the Posadas County manager whispered, drawing closer to see the scar on the rock.
"Don't step too close to the edge," Estelle reminded her again. "Some of the rocks are loose," She could imagine the blond, Heidi-braided Brunhilde taking flight, and it wasn't a pretty sight.
"Okay, let's do it," one of the EMTs said, and they picked up the gurney as if the battered and fractured cyclist were weightless. The girl started to get up, but Matty reached out and put a restraining hand on her shoulder.
"No, no," she said. "You don't walk. They'll be back in just a minute with your ride. Just kick back and relax."
"I think I can make it," the girl said.
"I'm sure you can. But you're not going to."
"What about the bikes?" the girl said.
"We'll manage those," Matty said. "Sheriff, can you fit them in your unit?"
"You bet," Estelle said. She knelt by the girl. "They'll be at the sheriff's office on Bustos Avenue in Posadas when you're ready to pick them up, okay? Right now, we need to make sure that Terry's going to be all right."
"We're going to want to X-ray that knee, too," the EMT said. "We'll take care of you guys, then there'll be plenty of time to square things away."
The girl nodded and leaned back against the tree, grateful that she didn't have to move. In a moment, two of the EMTs returned with a second gurney, and the girl was strapped in for her ambulance ride back to Posadas.
Estelle picked up the spectacularly crumpled bike and was immediately surprised at how light it was. The bicycle that Francisco, her seven-year-old son, had just inherited when a neighbor outgrew it weighed more than this one. She looped the shattered helmet's chinstrap around one of the brake levers.
"Let me give you a hand," Leona said. She walked to where the second machine was lying and picked it up, crooking her arm and hoisting the bike to her shoulder for easy walking.
"Do you need any more pictures before we go back?" Estelle asked.
"I don't think so," Leona said. "What we need is a bulldozer to close off this trail so that this doesn't happen again. I can just imagine how much Mr. Iron Man would sue us for if he went off here."
Estelle laughed. She knew "Mr. Iron Man" only by name and reputation. Former lieutenant governor Chet Hansen loved bi-, tri-, quad-, or any other flavor of athlons, the more challenging the better. His was the only name on the entry roster that she had recognized, other than a handful of local competitors. The race had attracted a peletón from twelve states and three foreign countries.
"A dozer shouldn't be a problem. Maybe you have some folks who still owe you favors," she said, referring to Leona's former life as an engineer with the state highway department.
"Oh, many, many," the county manager said. "But the Forest Service needs to bring theirs in. They're over at Sparkman's Wells, cutting a livestock tank. That's only a mile or two." She shrugged the bike more securely on her shoulder, keeping the oily chain away from her suit. "I'll give them a call when we get back."
It didn't surprise Estelle that the efficient Leona knew exactly where available machinery was working ... and the undersheriff was confident that, when the cyclo-cross race burst through this section of the course on the weekend, a fresh berm of dirt would block the rim trail.
In a few minutes, and with some finagling and the removal of front wheels, both bikes were stowed in the back of the Sheriff's Department Expedition.
"How do people manage such things?" Leona said. "For heaven's sakes, when he saw the edge, why didn't he just stop?"
"As a dear friend of mine is fond of saying," Estelle said, shifting the bikes for a better fit, "'Events conspire.'"
Leona shivered dramatically. "Is this going to be a problem for us this weekend? Should I be asking that? Do I want to know? Should I worry?"
"You already are worrying, Leona," Estelle said. "The race organizers promised that they'll have officials all along the route, and that it'll be prominently marked. Practice sessions are always more dangerous, anyway."
"Prominently marked," Leona repeated with emphasis. "Verrrry prominently. Otherwise, our first Posadas One Hundred bike race is going to be our last, with a hundred corpses littered about the base of Cat Mesa. What grand publicity for us, especially with the big-city media in town."
"I hope it won't be that bad," Estelle said. "This is just one of those freak things." She knew the race would generate a small splash in the media, perhaps a color photo on page 47 of the Albuquerque Journal—and then only because of the former lieutenant governor's efforts. Former was usually the first step toward anonymity, amplifying Hansen's term as a lieutenant governor—an invisible position to begin with. But Chet Hansen had managed to bike, swim, run, sail, even shoot his way into the press with some regularity.
"Actually, Toms says that the worst part of the course is further on, where they get into rocks on the west flank of the mesa. The trail that cuts down the west end of the mesa and rejoins the Forest Service road is good for hiking—I can't imagine bikes on it."
Deputy Tom Pasquale, an avid cyclist himself, had ridden the full hundred-mile course half a dozen times during the past year, and parts of it many more times than that. During the early spring, he had played an active role in the race's organization, and his name was included in the list of entrants.
"But he says it's a perfect course," Estelle added. "It's so rugged that in some places the riders have to dismount and carry the bikes." She grimaced. "Apparently that's what makes it perfect. He suggested I take the two boys to see part of the race over on the west side, where all the action will be."
Five-year-old Carlos and his older brother, Francisco, were well beyond training wheels themselves, but their eyes went saucers whenever they saw Tom Pasquale's fancy titanium bike.
"What an odd definition of 'perfect,'" Leona said. "But that's Toms, of course," she added. "I think I shall take the weekend to go visit my aunt in Kansas City. Let me know when this is all over." She pulled a dainty hanky from her pocket and dabbed her forehead. "And I would, too ... but that would mean I'd miss your son's piano recital Saturday night. And my, oh my, I can't wait. How wonderful that's going to be."
"We hope so."
"And he's but seven?"
"That means that in eleven short years, he can enter this foolish race," Leona said, and chuckled. "I could probably have gone all day without reminding you of that."
"Exactly," Estelle said. She paused to look at the mangled bike one more time, then slammed the back door of the Expedition.
"Seriously now," Leona continued, suddenly sounding less fluffy and more official, "this race is a big deal for the county, Estelle. Is there anything the race organizers need that we haven't provided? And in particular," and she waggled a finger like a first-grade teacher, "is there anything that we haven't thought about that just might prevent something like this from happening again?"
"I don't think so," Estelle replied. "And I know they're planning to start the riders at one- minute intervals—it's no big pack thing, where they're all bunched together. No teaming, no girlfrien-boyfriend stuff. That will help, with them running against the clock, rather than pedal to pedal. One a minute, so it'll take a couple hours at the start to get everyone launched. We've agreed to close County Road Forty-three for the start, from Pershing Park in the middle of town all the way to the turnoff by the quarry."
She turned and looked back down the trail through the trees, now thoroughly marked with fresh footprints and tire tracks. "That and a little stretch on the state highway at the end are the only paved roads in the race."
"Joy," Leona said without conviction. "Well, I hope the boy without wings is going to be all right."
"He'll be a spectator, that's for sure," Estelle said.
Excerpted from Final Payment by Steven F. Havill Copyright © 2010 by Steven F. Havill. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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