Guilt by Association

Overview

While investigating a murder, Leslie York, the resident deputy of an old mining town, Copper Creek, finds herself stranded on the wrong side of the creek when it turns into a raging torrent. Others driven from their homes by the flood gather together and one of them turns up dead. When Leslie begins to suspect the victim's death was murder, she find herself in jeopardy.
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Overview

While investigating a murder, Leslie York, the resident deputy of an old mining town, Copper Creek, finds herself stranded on the wrong side of the creek when it turns into a raging torrent. Others driven from their homes by the flood gather together and one of them turns up dead. When Leslie begins to suspect the victim's death was murder, she find herself in jeopardy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781928602682
  • Publisher: Treble Heart Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/2000

First Chapter

Chapter 1


Despite the yellow rain hat and slicker Leslie York wore over her uniform, water dripped down the back of her neck as soon as she stepped from her white sheriff's Bronco.
Wasn't it ever going to stop raining?
She'd thought she'd go home early--if you could call midnight early. The weather had driven most of the residents of the old gold-mining town of Copper Creek indoors. She hadn't passed a single car going either direction on the road that led higher into the mountains, or the highway that wound around in a southerly direction to the county seat of Manzanita or east toward Sequoia National Park.
But the dispatcher had ruined that plan by calling for Leslie to investigate reported gunfire at the intersection of the main artery through town and Orchard Road, a remote area on the way towards the higher elevations of the Sierra.
It probably wasn't anything; the folks in Copper Creek fired guns at marauding wild animals, rattlesnakes, and quite often, just for the fun of it. Sometimes it seemed as though the town had remained in a time long past; even the retirees from southern California dressed and acted like they lived in the wild west.
"Oh, Officer York, thank goodness you're here!" A desperate sounding female dashed through the downpour toward Leslie. Directing her flashlight beam at the fast approaching figure, Leslie recognized Mandy Cordova, one of the waitresses employed by Copper Creek's Cafe. The young woman's hair clung darkly to her head, her blue eyes huge behind owlish glasses. She didn't wear a jacket, and her cotton blouse and pants were soaked through.
"Mandy, what's the trouble here?" Leslie shone the flashlight on past the girl and, peering over the top of her head, spotted the rear of a late model, silver Chevy pickup
jutting into the intersection. And as soon as Leslie noticed it's oversized tires, she knew who the truck belonged to--Todd Kees.
"I think they killed him! I couldn't bear to look!"
Mandy gasped as she talked. "It was horrible. I thought they were going to kill me, too."
"Slow down, Mandy. Who got killed? Exactly what happened?" Leslie switched the flashlight to her left hand and unfastened her holster.
Mandy began to sob. Through the flood of tears and sniffles, she managed to wheeze, "Todd. It's Todd. I'm sure he's dead."
Mandy and Todd were what the older folks described as "courting." Leslie called it "going together." No telling what the latest phrase might be. If she remembered tomorrow, she'd ask her sixteen-year-old son, Jake.
"Where is Todd?" Leslie asked.
Mandy bawled louder, pointing toward the truck.
"Stay here," Leslie ordered, even though Mandy didn't seem at all interested in tagging along.
Following the flashlight beam, Leslie approached the front of the vehicle cautiously, her hand hovering above her holster. She soon realized no one else was anywhere around.
The Chevy's headlights were on, illuminating the road ahead and just a bit of the thick growth of fir and cedar trees on either side. The only homes were scattered and tucked away much farther on Orchard, and at least a half mile down on the highway.
Crumpled on the road, looking more like a heap of rags than a person, lay Todd Kees. Leslie dashed to his side. Kneeling, she pressed her fingers against his carotid artery, knowing even before she did so, that he was dead. His shirt was unbuttoned, and though the downpour had washed away most of the blood, Leslie saw what looked like a bullet hole through the front of his white T-shirt and odd, dark geometric markings across it and his beige trousers. Besides being shot, it looked like he'd also been run over.
Hurrying back to Mandy, Leslie asked, "Who did this? What kind of car were they driving?" If she had any sort of description she could radio in, the murderers might be captured on their way back to Copper Creek.
"I don't know!" Mandy wailed. "I couldn't see them very well. It was raining too hard."
"Think hard, Mandy. You must have noticed something. How many were there? What happened?"
"They forced us off the road. Todd acted mad. I think he knew them. One of the men yanked Todd's door open and pulled him out. There were at least two others, they began shoving Todd around and yelling, and then one pulled a gun and shot him." Mandy shuddered.
"Could you make out anything they said?"
"I couldn't hear anything but me screaming. I'm sorry."
"What about the vehicle? Was it a car or a truck?"
"A car."
"What make?"
"I dunno, I'm not very good at recognizing cars."
"Was it old or new? Dark or light?"
"Not real new, but not exactly old either. And I think it was dark, but I couldn't tell for sure. It was raining too hard and I was scared to death. I thought they were going
to hurt me, too." Mandy pushed her glasses up her nose.
"Get in the Bronco," Leslie said as she opened the passenger door. "I have to report Todd's murder, and then we'll wait for the detectives to arrive. There's some
coffee in my thermos under the seat, Mandy. Help yourself."
Leslie radioed in the information about the murder, but before taking shelter from the rain, she decided to make a perfunctory examination of the area. If there were any tire tracks or other evidence they might all be washed away before the detectives arrived.
The only illumination came from the beam of Leslie's flashlight and the head lamps of Todd's truck. She didn't touch the body again, but made ever widening circles around it. There was nothing unusual to be seen on the asphalt of the road, just a growing puddle of water as the storm continued relentlessly. When she reached the side of the road, the stretch of bare ground had been turned to muck. What was left of several crisscrossing tire tracks would soon be obliterated, but from what was still visible, it looked to her like the same geometric pattern she'd spied on Todd's shirt and slacks.
She shined the flashlight out farther. What had once been nothing more than a deep rut just beyond the shoulder had become a swiftly moving stream. Beyond the rushing water, a barren bramble patch created an effective barrier to the trees climbing the steep hillside beyond. The rain had transformed other gullies into streams, ditches into creeks, meadows into ponds. Copper Creek, a lazy, meandering river most of the year, had changed into a raging torrent.
If the rain continued much longer in the same manner, those living in the low areas along the river might be in for trouble.
Leslie returned to the Bronco for her Polaroid. Mandy hunched over the thermos lid, her long hair hanging dankly around her. She lifted her head and blinked at Leslie. "Whatcha' gonna do?"
"Take some pictures of the tire tracks."
"I can't believe what's happened."
"Yes, I know. Try to relax, the detectives will be here soon and they'll have lots of questions for you."
Blinking her huge myopic eyes from behind the magnifying lens of her glasses, Mandy said, "But I already told you everything I know."
"I'm afraid the detectives always like to hear the whole story for themselves." Leslie shut the door and sloshed through the puddles to the body.
Only smudges remained of what had once been muddy tracks on the victim's clothing but she took a picture anyway, stuffing it into the pocket of her raincoat to develop. The tracks on the shoulder of the road had nearly been obliterated too, but Leslie snapped several pictures.
There wasn't anything else for her to do but get back into the Bronco with Mandy, and wait for the detectives.
After pulling off her hat, Leslie switched on the overhead lamp and pulled down the sun visor to check herself in the mirror. As she'd expected, the dampness had plastered her short, light brown hair to her head. Her green eyes revealed her tiredness. Using a tissue, she wiped at a smudge on her cheek.
Leaving the light on, Leslie pulled a clipboard from beneath the seat. "Tell me, Mandy, what brought you and Todd up here? There's nothing around to speak of except for pretty scenery, but you sure can't see it on this kind of night."
Mandy hunched her narrow shoulders, tears welling in her eyes as she turned toward Leslie. "We'd just been driving around, talking, you know. Todd turned in here with the intentions of parking, I suppose. When we first started going together, we used to come up here all the time and park alongside the road."
"What time did you get here?"
"I dunno exactly. I don't even know what time it is now." She massaged her bare wrist as if to point out she didn't have a watch.
Leslie glanced at hers. "It's almost one-thirty. How long were you here before the attack?"
"Only a few minutes. Todd had just turned the corner and hadn't even really parked the truck before this car pulled in ahead of us, and those guys leaped out."
"Were the truck's headlights on like they are now?"
"I suppose so."
"You should have been able to see them pretty well."
Mandy blinked again. "It all happened so fast. It was pouring down rain and it was hard to see." She paused and licked her thin lips. "And I think they were wearing ski masks...yes, that's right, they all had on ski masks."
Hmmm... Why hadn't she mentioned that before? "Then you really couldn't even tell what color hair they had either."
The girl shook her head. "Even if I had been able to see their hair I don't think color or anything else would have registered. I was scared out of my mind, Officer York. When they yanked Todd out of the car, I just screamed and I kept my hands over my eyes!"
She had to have noticed something. "Did anyone say anything? Did they give you any idea what they wanted with Todd?"
"No, they didn't say anything until they had him in front of their car. Then they were all yelling, but I couldn't understand anything they were saying."
"Were they big or little guys? Any one of them fat? What kind of clothes were they wearing? Cowboy stuff? Think, Mandy, it's important."
Again she hunched her shoulders. "They were about the same size as Todd, just average, between five nine and six feet. And all I can remember about their clothes is they all wore dark stuff. Dark ski masks, dark jackets, dark pants ... and dark gloves."
Sounded like a hit team. Leslie had never seen such a group like that except in the movies. Why would a hit team be after Todd? As far as Leslie knew, except for some over-indulgence in beer drinking at parties and rodeo time, Todd didn't have a problem with liquor or any other drugs, and certainly she'd never suspected him of being a dealer.
"Was Todd in some kind of trouble, Mandy?"
"I ... I ... I don't think so."
There was just enough hesitation in her answer to make Leslie wonder. "Mandy, Todd is dead. If you want to help us find out who killed him, you're going to have to open up with me ... and the detectives when they get here."
"He seemed different lately. You know, edgy, nervous I guess, but he never told me what it was all about," Mandy said in a rush.
"Do you think he could have been involved with drugs?"
Mandy gasped and her hands fluttered to her mouth. "What do you mean? Like pot?" The girl's face flushed, and Leslie knew immediately that smoking marijuana had been one of the couples' pastimes.
"I was thinking about something more on the lines of crack or coke. Heroin maybe."
"Oh, no! Not Todd!" She shook her head vigorously. "But then again ... no ... but maybe ... that would explain the strange way he was acting ...."
"And how was that?" Leslie asked.
Before the girl could answer, a dark blue sedan pulled in behind Leslie's Bronco.
She recognized it as belonging to Detective Cannon. In Manzanita County, the sheriff's detectives often used their own cars. "The detectives are here," Leslie said as she jammed the yellow rain hat back onto her head.
She could hear a siren in the distance. An ambulance, no doubt, though Todd no longer had the need for one.
"What's going to happen now?" Mandy sounded scared.
Smiling reassuringly, Leslie said, "Just sit tight."
Meeting the detectives at the back of her Bronco, she greeted, "Sorry to have to call you out on such a lousy night."
"Yeah," Detective Cannon growled as he hunched into a beige raincoat, rain already dripping from his unprotected short hair and onto his sharp facial bones and off the end of his long nose. He towered over Leslie; most men did.
The shorter and rounder Detective Westphal reached out his pudgy hand, which Leslie shook. He peered through the rain at her, his thick lips lifted in what might have been his version of a smile. "What've you got here, York?"
"Murder. The victim is a local by the name of Todd Kees. He was shot. His girlfriend, also from Copper Creek, says she saw it happen from the cab of Kees truck."
"What about the suspects?" Cannon asked.
Leslie related the meager descriptions given by Mandy.
"So where's the body?" Westphal asked, wiping the raindrops from his face with his dimpled hand.
"In front of the truck," Leslie said and began leading the way. The detectives quickly outdistanced her.
"Did you find the murder weapon?" Cannon tossed back over his shoulder.
"No."
"Is everything just like it was when you arrived?" Westphal sighed as he squatted beside the body.
"Yes, except there were some odd geometric marks on his shirt which have mostly been washed away, and some tire tracks over there on the shoulder which I suspect for the most part have also been obliterated by the storm."
"Daggone," Cannon said.
"I did get some Polaroids of the marks."
"Great." Westphal clapped her on the back in a comradely fashion.
Cannon grunted.
The ambulance arrived, the attendants outfitted in raincoats and hats jumped out. Westphal held up a warning hand to keep them away. "What else can you tell us about the victim?"
"Kees worked for one of the local construction outfits. He lived in town in one of the upstairs apartment in that old brick building that houses some of the local businesses." Leslie shrugged, and added, "At least that's where he keeps his belongings. Rumor has it that he's been staying most nights in Mandy's trailer, and I've seen his truck there often enough to believe the rumor."
"What about the girl? Any chance she might be implicated?" Cannon gestured back toward the truck.
Leslie hadn't been thrilled with Mandy's answers to her questions, but she didn't want to make any definite decisions just yet. "If what she says is true, then no."
"You're hedging, York," Cannon said, squinting at her even harder than usual.
"Question her yourself and see what you think," Leslie said, and stifled a yawn. It had been a long day. The only deputy stationed in Copper Creek, when anything unusual happened Leslie often had to work overtime--and sometimes on her days off.
"We will, we will," Westphal muttered.
Cannon and Westphal busied themselves examining the corpse and the surrounding area and taking more pictures, before allowing the EMTs to load the body into the back of their vehicle. Leslie handed over her Polaroid shots of the body and the tire tracks, and read them the questions she'd asked Mandy, along with the girl's answers.
"It's too darn miserable to hang around out here," Westphal complained.
Cannon agreed. "Even if there is any evidence, we'd never find it on a night like this. We'll just wait and question the girl tomorrow." He snatched open the passenger door. "Miss Cordova?"
Mandy cringed under his scrutiny. "Yes, sir?"
"I'm Detective Cannon. I want you to meet me and my partner, Westphal, over at the sheriff's department in Manzanita tomorrow at eleven. We have some questions we'd
like to ask you."
With trembling fingers, Mandy pushed a damp strand of dark honey-blonde hair from in front of her eyes. "I already told Officer York everything I know."
"Tomorrow you can tell us."
"But I'm supposed to work ..."
"I don't think your boss will expect you to work tomorrow after what you've been through."
His unusual charm disarmed Mandy, and she attempted a smile. "Okay."
"Officer York will take you home now. Maybe a good night's sleep will help you to remember some more details."
"Maybe...but I don't think so. Ah...what about Todd's truck?"
"We have to hold it for evidence," Morrison said.
"Oh."
* * *
The trailer park where Mandy lived was built on a hillside above Copper Creek. The spaces which held the single-wide mobile homes and trailers had been etched out like stair steps leading down to a grassy park with picnic benches and rock fire pits. Though it was too dark and rainy to see clearly, it seemed as though the Copper Creek had risen several more inches since the last time Leslie had checked.
"Does it seem to you like the river is overflowing the bank?" Leslie asked.
"Huh? I dunno." Clearly, Mandy's mind was on other matters than the rising water.
As soon as Leslie stopped in front of Mandy's tiny trailer with her red VW bug parked alongside it, the girl hopped out and dashed away. Leslie called after her, "Don't forget your appointment tomorrow at eleven." But Mandy disappeared inside her scarred and scruffy home without answering.
Leslie drove to the bottom of the road where the park began and turned on her floodlight. What she saw caused her stomach to lurch.
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