Read an Excerpt
The Fourth Time is Murder
A Posadas County Mystery
By Steven F. Havill
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2011 Steven F. Havill
All right reserved.
Chapter One Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman regarded the lengthy e-mail message, again finding herself intrigued. At the same time she wondered why, three weeks before when the message had first arrived from A Woman's World magazine, she hadn't just tapped the delete key. Since the day the e-mail had arrived, she had read the full text a dozen times, and repeatedly opened the four attachments that had arrived with it.
The first was a photograph of herself, taken three years before by Posadas Register publisher Frank Dayan. In that photo, Estelle was a bloody mess, standing with several other officers at the edge of the county's landfill pit. She held a blood-soaked handkerchief to her upper lip. The photo of that night's crime scene was dramatic and harsh, and Estelle had cringed when it appeared on the front page of the Register ... and again when the image had blossomed on her computer screen as an e-mail attachment.
Another attachment included a brief interview with current Posadas County Manager Leona Spears, an interview that had appeared in an Albuquerque newspaper the year before. The article was as much about Estelle as anyone else, but at the time Estelle had been unable to contribute. Instead, she had been under intensive care in a metro hospital, tubed and drugged. Mercifully, there were no photographs of that, but the undersheriff remembered the intensive media coverage the case had generated. Of the shooting that had put her in the hospital, she remembered little. Not a very good track record, she thought.
The third and fourth offerings were single photographs, and one of them she glanced at only in passing—it was the official county portrait of Estelle as undersheriff that hung in the hall of the Public Safety Building along with the gallery of all the Sheriff's Department staff.
The last photo, obviously taken by a professional, had been shot from backstage at the Cultural Center in Las Cruces in November. Her eight-year-old son sat at the keyboard of an enormous grand piano, the spotlights shooting reflective stars from the piano's polished lacquer finish. His body leaned to the left, one hand poised over the bass keys, index finger targeting a single note to finish his presentation at the college recital. It was a gorgeous photo, dramatic, flattering, even exciting. Her son was impossibly handsome, caught in a shining moment as he and his audience were captivated by his music. The presence of that photo in company with the others had made her uneasy when it had first arrived, and did so again each time she opened the file.
She leaned back and rested her chin on steepled fingers, looking at the photo of her son until the screen saver preempted it. Touching the keyboard, she brought the picture back, then called up the e-mail again, reading it carefully as if it might somehow include messages that she had missed the first dozen times, messages concealed between the lines. The reporter's interest had progressed beyond the idle curiosity stage—she had done some research, and her request for interviews was courteous and professional.
A week after that initial message and its attachments had arrived, Estelle had typed a careful response to the magazine reporter, heavy with bureaucratic disinterest.
Dear Ms. Bolles: You are welcome to pursue any articles you wish about the Posadas County Sheriff's Department, and we will be pleased to cooperate as time and policy permit. Although we are a public agency and our work is a matter of public record, details of ongoing, open investigations are not routinely available for inspection or review by the public or the press. Also, articles about individual employees are undertaken with the voluntary cooperation of each employee. Employees are under no obligation to discuss their work or their private lives with the press, although they may do so if they wish without review by, or permission from, department supervisors. Due to the nature of our work, it is impossible to set a schedule of appointments. While we encourage civilian "ride-alongs" with patrol officers on an occasional basis, we do require that participating civilians obtain a waiver of liability from County Attorney John Sherman. We are in business 24/7, and staff will always be here to meet with you, workload permitting. She grinned at the last sentence. "Most of the staff," she amended aloud. She found it impossible to imagine "himself," Posadas County sheriff Robert Torrez, agreeing to an interview with a reporter for A Woman's World magazine ... or any other magazine, for that matter, with the possible exception of Solitary Hunting. The Woman's World reporter had a challenge waiting when she tried to interview the taciturn sheriff.
Predictably, the magazine's interest would focus on the women in the department, but unless the reporter's approach was just right, she wouldn't have much more success with Deputy Jackie Taber than with the sheriff himself. Taber, an ex-military loner, preferred working the graveyard shift, where most of the time she was left alone with her own thoughts and supervision.
What photographer Linda Real would say—with her own hefty baggage of memories—was unpredictable. Chief Dispatcher and Office Manager Gayle Torrez, the sheriff's wife, might be a useful ally for the reporter.
County Manager Leona Spears had made them all aware of the power of positive publicity, regardless of how it might be skewed. Estelle was sure there would be plenty of magazine copy to be generated by the flamboyant Leona. With her relentless promotion, more funding than ever before had been pried loose from the county legislature, and garnered from carefully authored grants. There might be still more to gain from coverage in a national magazine.
Still, Estelle had hesitated before sending her original e-mail reply, looking again at the photo of her son. The implications of that photograph being included were clear, she decided. But whatever the magazine editor's real agenda was, it would not include little Francisco. That was certain. At age eight, the little boy didn't need national media exposure, regardless of his prodigious talent.
Finally, after taking a week to let things settle and sift, and satisfied that her reply said what she intended, she had tapped send, with a copy of the original request and her response sent to the sheriff, who wouldn't read it, to the county manager, who would bubble with enough relish and anticipation to make the county commissioners nervous, and to each member of the department.
That had been two weeks ago. Estelle had heard nothing from the magazine writer since then, and had even wondered if the idea had been abandoned. But that Friday morning, the second message arrived.
Good Morning, Undersheriff: I'm delighted for the opportunity to talk with you and your staff. I plan to arrive in Posadas tomorrow, Saturday, Feb. 9th, and will touch base with you when I'm settled. I realize that this doesn't give you much notice, but your response indicated that would not be a concern. We have had some scheduling issues at the magazine, and this window of opportunity recently opened for us. I look forward to meeting you. If you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to contact me. Madelyn Bolles, associate editor Estelle typed a brief, polite response acknowledging the message, then shut down the computer, unplugged it, and tucked it into its slim black nylon case. Taking a moment to survey her pleasantly cluttered desk, she ran down the mental list of things pending.
As Friday evenings went, this one was an interesting mix. At 6:30, the February sky was already dark, with heavy clouds to the southwest, obscuring the peaks of the San Cristóbals. No precipitation was predicted for the prairie, but in the mountains anything was possible.
Even though the temperature held at fifty degrees in the village, the evening appealed to Estelle as a perfect time to curl up with her husband under a down comforter and watch the fire. They would have an hour or so while Francisco finished up his homework, but then his piano would beckon. Little brother Carlos, still spared the affliction of homework, would be deep in his constant passion, great heaps of modeling clay that he shaped into the wonders of the moment.
The evening wouldn't be as serene for other members of the Sheriff's Department. She glanced at the clock. An hour before, the school bus from Lordsburg had arrived in Posadas via the interstate, carrying the junior varsity and varsity basketball teams for a late season game. Tip-off for the JV game was now minutes away, and two deputies, Tom Pasquale and Tony Abeyta, would work the raucous crowd at the school. As a routine precaution, the officers would escort the bus out of Posadas after the game, seeing it safely onto the interstate for the trip home.
For whatever reason, a game between the evenly matched teams always lowered the common sense quotient of the crowd by several dozen points. Bearing that in mind, Deputy Dennis Collins would patrol the central portion of the county, including the village itself, staying only seconds away from the school if his backup should be needed. Captain Eddie Mitchell had planned to work late in his office catching up on paperwork and would swing by the school about the time that the final game buzzer sounded.
Briefcase in one hand, laptop in the other, Estelle walked out of her office and paused at the magnetic whiteboard behind dispatcher Ernie Wheeler's console. The list of working deputies was short, and would be shorter still when the graveyard shift began. Jackie Taber and Mike Sisneros would cover the whole of Posadas County, and the village of Posadas as well—7,500 souls, plus or minus.
On Sunday, coverage would drop again, leaving one deputy for each shift.
Ernie was talking either to himself—boredom could do that to a person—or into his headset, and he turned to catch Estelle's eye, holding up a single finger in the "wait a minute" gesture.
"And where are you now?" he asked, and paused again, finger still poised in the air. "All right, we'd appreciate that. Someone will be out there. Stay on the line for a moment, please." He swiveled to punch a button on his console, and then turned back to Estelle. "One of the highway department patrols is on her cell phone from just this side of the pass. She's reporting a motor vehicle is off the road, way down in the rocks. Just short of mile marker four."
"Anyone around it?"
"She can't tell, and doesn't want to climb down to look. She's all by herself."
"I can understand that," Estelle said. The climb down and back would be ghastly enough without the added possibility of bashed and mangled victims. "Is there a state officer handy?"
"Nope. One's got a vehicle down, and the other is thirty miles east on the interstate with an accident."
"If he's clear, Dennis can head that way, then," she said.
"He is. I told him to stay central, but he can break away."
Estelle nodded. "I'll be home if you need me." Ernie nodded and turned back to his radio.
The undersheriff left the building, greeted by cold, moist air. A heck of a time to walk Regál Pass, she thought—dark, cold, wet, probably a biting wind thrown into the bargain. As she juggled the remote and pushed the button to unlock the door of her county car, she heard the deputy's vehicle before she saw it. Collins' unit turned south on Grande, grill lights pulsing. She watched until he was out of sight, under the interstate and headed southwest on State 56.
His adrenaline would be pumping, she knew—any young kid with a hot car and twenty-nine miles of open road would be just as eager, provided that collecting a deer or peccary or armadillo in his patrol car's grill at 90 miles an hour didn't blunt his enthusiasm.
As she turned onto Bustos from Grande, she saw the wink of lights from a southbound ambulance.
A left-hand turn to South 12th Street put her in view of her home, and she could see a curl of smoke from the chimney. Her husband's SUV was parked in the driveway, and Irma's Toyota sedan was at the curb. With a wonderful predictability, a world of aromas would waft out the door as Estelle entered. Irma Sedillos, nana for the two boys, talented chef of the best Mexican food on the planet, a source of good cheer during the black moments, had become a family fixture, bringing some order to the chaotic nonschedule of a family that included both the undersheriff of Posadas County and her husband, a busy physician and surgeon.
She parked beside her husband's vehicle, and winked the red lights in the grill briefly at the face peering out through the living room window. With everything in order, she keyed the mike. "PCS, three-ten is ten-ten."
"Three-ten, stand by." Ernie Wheeler's tone was crisp. He didn't sound the least bit understanding that the undersheriff was now home, parked in her driveway, anticipating hugs, hot food, and a long, quiet evening. Estelle waited, engine idling. Deputy Collins had had time to cover perhaps ten miles. Over at the high school, the basketball game was seconds from tip-off.
Her cell phone rang, and Ernie's familiar, low-key voice was urgent. "Estelle, the gal from the highway department says that a trucker stopped and they both climbed down to the wreck. There's at least one dead. You want me to call the sheriff?"
"No. I'm already set to go." As she backed the county car out of her driveway, she could see her younger son, Carlos, standing in the front door, hands on his hips. She blew him a kiss, and then dialed the phone as she accelerated back up 12th toward Bustos. Irma answered on the second ring.
"We've got a fatal down on Regál Pass, Irma," she said.
"Well, you almost made it," Irma's voice replied. "We'll save some posole for you."
"Do you want to talk with your hubby? He's on the computer in the back room with Francisco."
"No. Just tell them I'll be back late."
"You got it."
And so it goes, Estelle thought. She forced herself to concentrate on one challenge at a time, switching back to the radio. "PCS, three-ten is en route. ETA about thirty minutes."
"Three-oh-four copies," Collins said, his voice oddly detached over the electronic airwaves. "ETA ten." Ten minutes was a long time to wait if you were lying bleeding and broken down in a mountainside gorge ... but that was only if the Good Samaritans were mistaken.
Chapter Two The San Cristóbal Mountains created an effective border fence between old Mexico and Posadas County, New Mexico. The ragged, rotten granite peaks were inhospitable enough that even the most determined illegal immigrants sought other routes to wealth. Presumably, they thought it more pleasant to die of thirst or snakebite farther west in the Arizona desert than to plunge into a jagged, skin-tearing, bone-breaking crevasse high up in the San Cristóbals, to be soaked, baked, or frozen until the hungry spring ravens arrived to clean up the mess.
State Highway 56 dove south through a dramatic saddle in the mountains at Regál Pass. The highway ended at the village of Regál and the days-only border crossing a hundred yards south of the Regál church. A dozen feet into Mexico, the highway faded into the gravel road that passed as the highway southbound to Janos, Buenaventura, and Chihuahua.
Estelle let the heavy sedan settle in at 85, with the spotlight playing ahead to catch the reflection from startled eyes.
The highway through Regál Pass was the best that modern design could manage. In fact, the current Posadas county manager, Leona Spears, had been instrumental in the redesign of the route while employed by the state highway department. Still, despite the highway's wide, paved shoulders, bright lane markings, and rumble strips on both sides and down the center, motorists found a way to vault off into space.
Five miles east of the Broken Spur Saloon, Estelle saw the flashing lights of the ambulance ahead, and she overtook the vehicle by the time they passed the bar's parking lot.
Excerpted from The Fourth Time is Murder by Steven F. Havill Copyright © 2011 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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