Heartshot (Undersheriff Bill Gastner Series #1)by Steven F. Havill
Undersheriff Bill Gastner has no other life than in law enforcementand doesn't want one, even if hes being nudged gently toward retirement. When a car full of teens, running from a traffic stop, goes airborne into a rocky outcrop, all of the teens are killed and a package of cocaine is found under the seat. Has someone brought big-time crime to the county?See more details below
Undersheriff Bill Gastner has no other life than in law enforcementand doesn't want one, even if hes being nudged gently toward retirement. When a car full of teens, running from a traffic stop, goes airborne into a rocky outcrop, all of the teens are killed and a package of cocaine is found under the seat. Has someone brought big-time crime to the county?
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By Steven F. Havill
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 1991 Steven F. Havill
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe sheriff leaned against the doorjamb of my office without saying a word, lounging there until I finally decided to notice him. I grunted what could have been a greeting, and that broke my chain of concentration. I punched the wrong goddamn key, swore, wound the platen up, and began to smear the mess on the paper some more with that miserable white correction fluid that flakes all over everything when it dries.
"Thirty-five thousand dollars' worth of computers, and you still pound that thing," Sheriff Martin Holman said. I glanced at him without much interest. He blew across a full cup of coffee as if the stuff was hot. If it came out of the vending machine down the hall, it wasn't.
"Us antiques got to stick together," I said. I wound the paper back down to retype over the blotch, groping in my shirt pocket for a cigarette with my other hand.
"Did anyone show you that on a computer you can make corrections on the screen, and when it prints out, it's a perfect copy?"
"I mean, you don't have to go through all that." He waved a hand at my typewriter, and I took a minute to light the cigarette. I leaned back in my chair until its springs squawled, and looked at Holman. He'd just been elected, and we were stuck with him for at least four years. A goddamned used-car salesman. He spent a lot of time trying to figure out who was on his side.
"Did you need something in particular?" I asked.
"Uh, no. You want some coffee?"
"No, thanks." He did want something ... I could see it wiggling around inside that skull of his every time he shifted his baby-blue eyes.
"You know," Holman said, and pushed himself away from the jamb, "I'm working up sort of a department profile for the newspaper ... nothing formal, but you know, all the publicity we can get helps. And I was looking in your folder, and wanted to check all those years."
"Right." He cleared his throat. "How long were you in the service, anyway? Twenty years?" I nodded and waited. "Twenty years. Damn. You went in right after the war?"
He shook his head in wonder. "That's what I thought ... I figured twenty in the service, and twenty for this department." He grinned at the wonder of his mathematics, and I began to get the uneasy feeling that the son of a bitch was trying for more than historical accuracy in a press release. "And you must have been about twenty when you went into the service ... eighteen, twenty, about that."
He was about to say something else when the radio just behind him came to life. "PCS, three-oh-six." Holman turned and looked at the radio. The dispatcher wasn't in his room, which adjoined my office, but Holman made no move. "PCS, three-oh-six," cracked again, and this time Holman took two steps, reached out and pushed the transmit bar of the microphone stand.
"Go ahead, three-oh-six," And while he waited, he asked me, "That's Baker, isn't it?"
"Yeah." I returned my attention to the paperwork in my typewriter, only half-hearing Deputy Baker say that he would be at home for a while. Holman acknowledged and keyed off. He reappeared in my doorway. "When's his baby due?"
"Anytime." These days, Baker checked in at home at least twenty times during each shift as his wife podded out with their first kid.
Holman sipped the coffee again. "And so," he continued, "you served from '46 to '66. And you got to see Korea?"
"Twice. Not much to see either time."
"Just them oriental beauties, eh?" Holman leered with a fake Oakie accent, and I just offered a little sniff of amusement as I penned corrections on my paper. "What rank did you retire with?"
I turned my head and gazed at him for a minute, wondering what the hell he was after, then decided I wasn't going to play games. "Gunnery sergeant."
Holman nodded, as if weighing rank against years and concluding something profound. "Damn, that means you joined this department in 1966."
"That's right. Eduardo Salcido was sheriff then." Salcido was probably the most popular sheriff ever elected in Posadas County, and I got a twinge of pleasure out of reminding Holman about Salcido's good sense in hiring me. And yes, it had been a long twenty years. Now, I was just finishing up twelve years as undersheriff. I didn't need to be reminded that, since I didn't have civil service protection, this newly minted politico could tell me to take a walk, anytime.
The dispatcher, just returning from a trip to the can, plopped down in front of the radio, and Holman turned to greet him. I was glad for the interruption, even though I thought less of J. J. Murton than I did of Holman. Murton, a runty, tangle-tongued illiterate whom I had nicknamed "Miracle," fawned enough over the sheriff to earn himself membership in a goddamned kennel club.
"Well, I need to go," Holman announced. "Bill, see you this afternoon."
"Yeah," I said. I folded the report into a manila envelope, walked into the dispatch room, and chucked the envelope into Detective Estelle Reyes's mailbox. Miracle Murton watched a little nervously. Sweat beaded on his bald spot.
"Are you workin' the parade, Mr. Gastner?" he asked.
Murton looked flustered. "I was just tryin' to get straight in my mind who was workin' when."
I pointed at the laminate board that was screwed to the wall just above the radio. The various deputies' names, printed neatly on magnetic blocks, were arranged in the usual weekly schedule. "You might ask yourself why we bother to put that there," I said, and Miracle cringed ... who knows why, except he was scared to death of me. That was all right. It kept him from being a total screw-up as a part-time, days-only dispatcher. In days gone by, Sheriff Salcido wouldn't have tolerated Murton's incompetence for fifteen seconds. I had a suspicion that the son of a bitch was distantly related to one of the county legislators. That would appeal to Holman, too. I reached up and took a set of keys off the board.
"I'm taking three-ten," I said. "The trustees did wash it, didn't they?"
"They sure did. Waxed it, too."
"Wonderful. I love parades, don't you?" I didn't wait for Murton to figure out an answer.
And the parade was all right as parades go. The weather on that July Fourth was hot and clear, with a hint of the afternoon thunderheads that would bloom along the horizon above the jagged San Cristobal mountains separating us from Mexico. I had no intention of being in the parade that plodded up the wide, dusty street of Posadas, but I enjoyed watching the color. Posadas needed all the color it could get, since it wasn't much more than a scruffy wide spot, a watering hole for tourists hurrying to get somewhere else. July Fourth was a big shindig, with the parade officially opening the holiday arts and crafts fair in the small town square. For two days, the law turned its back on alcoholic beverages in public places, and the aroma of Indian fry bread became so thick it blanked out even the red dust. I parked at a cross street, blocking traffic with 310 while I stood out in the sun with the crowd. By the time the thirtieth unit of the parade passed, I had cleared the office politics out of my head and started to enjoy the scenery.
The high school pom-pom team rode by, sitting pretty on hay bales piled on a flatbed. I waved at one of them whom I'd known since she was born, and then my good mood was ruined. The cheerleaders were throwing penny candy out to the crowds along the street, and just to my right was a fat little kid, maybe four years old, busy scrambling for the goodies. He came up with a piece of pink bubble gum and saw me. His eyes took in all the bright, shining hardware on my belt, the colorful patches on the uniform shirt, and the tan Stetson. He kept looking at me as he backed uncertainly toward his mother's legs. When he was firmly nestled there, he looked up at her and said, "How come he's so fat, Mommy?"
I guess I was standing far enough away that the mother, blond and fat herself, thought I hadn't heard. She bent down and patted the little brute's stomach and murmured, "Watch the parade, Jerry. He's just old, that's all."
I turned so I could ignore them both, and after five minutes gave up on sucking in my gut. Hell, 210 pounds for five feet eight inches wasn't that bad. It's just that the extra pounds tended to collect immediately behind the Sam Browne belt. I crossed my arms and stood comfortably, leaning against the gleaming white fender of the county patrol car. In a minute, I felt a hand on my elbow.
I turned and saw Benny Fernandez, a blocky man shorter than me by a foot. "You ought to get some business out of all this," I said. Benny owned a fast-food joint down the street that would be mobbed after the parade broke up.
"Hey, maybe," he said. "How you doin', Bill?"
He joined me in leaning against the car. "How's that boy of yours?"
Benny looked puzzled. "Don't you have a boy who's out on the Coast or something?"
I laughed. "I got one on the West Coast, and one down in Corpus. And a daughter in Flint, Michigan, and another one in New Britain, Connecticut."
"Hey, that's something," Benny said, having already forgotten what I'd said. "I got relatives all over this state, man, and when we all get together ..." He rolled his eyes heavenward. "Hey, and talkin' about parties ..."
"Were we?" I lifted a hand in casual salute as two New Mexico State Police units rolled by, their grille lights pulsing.
"You know what I heard?"
"What did you hear?" I smiled and waved at the Eastern Star ladies, one of whom was particularly attractive, even if silver-haired. She was perched on a hay bale in the back of a new pickup truck, lending moral support to someone pretending to be the Statue of Liberty. I caught her eye, and she threw a handful of penny candy my way. I reached up a finger and tipped my Stetson ... and ignored the candy.
"I keep hearin' about a party tonight."
"So what?" I remembered then that Benny's boy had been nailed a month or so ago by the state cops for driving while intoxicated, and that had just about turned Benny's nice little conservative, parochial world inside out. Somehow it was all right to sneak the twenty miles south, cross the border to raise all kinds of hell in a little cantina somewhere, and return home without disturbing the old folks in Posadas. "It's summer. A kegger or two goes with the territory."
"Well, maybe," he continued lamely, "I just thought I'd mention it to you, you know? I mean, the kids at the restaurant, they were talkin', you know. I thought I'd just mention it."
"We'll keep an eye out, Benny. We'll check up at the lake." Our "lake" was just a seepage-filled mining pit up on the mesa, adjoining the National Forest. The water there was clear, cold, attractive, and dangerous as hell.
"I'm still worried about the boy, you know? Ricky, he's pretty headstrong."
And DWI-prone, I thought. Keep the little bastard home, then. I said, "Tell you what, Benny. I'm going to be out and around tonight. I'll pass the word to the other deputies, too. If I see Ricky, I'll throw him in jail for you until morning."
"Hey, now, you don't have to do that, Bill," Benny protested, grinning. "He's not a bad kid, I mean. But I thought maybe I should talk to you. Then I saw you here, and I just thought ..." He fluttered his hands. Nothing like convenience when a man has a problem.
I straightened my shoulders and hitched up my gun belt as I painted on my best public servant's face. "Tell the kid to keep 'er slow." Benny sidled away with a halfhearted wave of his hand, eager to be back in his restaurant slinging burgers.
I could see the last unit of the parade, the antique fire engine owned by the Posadas Volunteers, and figured it was time to beat the crowds out. I started 310, and as I waited for the fire engine, saw the fat little kid who'd tweaked my mood with the comment about my gut. When I pulled 310 out onto Bustos Avenue, I glowered at him, waved an index finger, and said, "Eight points." The patrol car's window was up, but I think he understood me. He jumped back up onto the curb, seeking Mama.
Chapter TwoBy dusk, I'd had enough of parades, crowds, and noise. I drove up the smooth macadam of County Road 43, away from Posadas. The crowds would be gathering in the village park for the July Fourth fireworks display. The peace and quiet of the mesa top would be a good place to watch the rockets ... not that I was in the mood for fireworks.
The road wound through the foothills that hid Consolidated Ore's abandoned mine from casual view, and then passed within a quarter mile of the lake, one of the county's most popular party spots. I turned off onto the dirt road and kept it slow and easy, windows down, radio turned low. There wasn't much to listen to except the crunch of the big LTD's radials on gravel.
The lake covered about three acres, and its attraction was obvious. Sheer rocks formed most of the perimeter, leaving only a hundred yards of semi-smooth, approachable shoreline. If you don't think it was fun to stand on those sheer palisades on a hot summer night and dive off into the deep, cold water, then you ain't never been a kid, as they say. Consolidated Ore had fenced the lake off and posted threatening signs every fifty feet. The Forest Service, whose land abutted Consolidated's, had fenced it from their side. Most of the fences still stood, wires gleaming. The posted signs that remained here and there still carried portions of their original messages. The fences and signs served no useful purpose. Kids just parked outside the wire and slipped through. Or they cut it to make gates. Or just drove through it with four-by-fours until the wire was a useless snarl.
Along the short stretch of shoreline, dark smudges marked previous campfires. A favorite spot was over where the south palisade started, under a rock outcrop that protected the fire from winds and casual view. The rock was smoke-smudged from years of kids watching the embers pop while they worked up courage to do more entertaining things. Part of the attraction, I guess, was to see if you could get plastered before someone came along and told you to scram. Not many kids had drowned in the lake ... there was enough of an aura about it that they were careful, even when drunk.
From where I parked, I could see that the shoreline and palisades were deserted. I figured that if I checked back around ten that night, I'd nail any party in the early stages. I headed away from the lake and the mine and spent an hour or so cruising the back roads. I left the busy state highways and county roads to the other two deputies ... they were thirty-five years younger than me, and eager. Had it not been for Baker's pregnant wife, I wouldn't even have been working. Todd Baker was a nervous Nellie. I had offered to sit his shift for him, and he'd jumped at the chance. It was no sacrifice on my part. We rarely had three deputies working anyway ... just on a few busy holidays. The extra coverage almost always turned out to be a waste. I figured to catch up on paperwork later on.
Deputy Bob Torrez jabbered away on the radio, passing license plate numbers to our dispatcher. He was working radar hard, keeping the tourists honest on the state highway. The other deputy, big, slow-talking Howard Bishop, kept quiet. He hated paperwork more than any man I knew, and wrote fewer traffic tickets than I did. If it had been up to him, our combined county files—enforcement, assessor, clerk, highway, everything—would have totaled about two papers. I was constantly on his tail, but it didn't do any good. Bishop had aspirations toward the FBI, but he wasn't going to make it, not with his allergy to pencilwork.
A couple of minutes after nine, I stopped at the Posadas Inn near the interstate interchange southeast of Posadas. They had a coffee shop and, with one exception, miserable food. Their iced tea, though, was rich and dark and delectable. I strolled inside. A guy in electric-blue Bermudas was at the register paying his bill, and he looked me up and down with interest.
He nodded a greeting and then, as I started to step by, asked, "Much hassle getting over the border and back?"
"Depends what you're trying to smuggle across," I said. I didn't crack a smile, and he blanched, then tried a weak laugh. I fumbled for a cigarette, and when he saw that it wasn't cuffs I was reaching for, he decided I was kidding.
"Me and the missus are going over tomorrow, unless it's a hassle; then to hell with it, you know what I mean?"
"It's no hassle," I said, and lit the cigarette. "Just follow the rules. Stick with the limits. No problems at all. Very pleasant people."
Excerpted from Heartshot by Steven F. Havill Copyright © 1991 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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