Slow Kill (Kevin Kerney Series #9)by Michael McGarrity
Santa Fe Police Chief Kevin Kerney travels to a California ranch looking to buy some prime quarter horse breeding stock. Instead, he finds himself the prime suspect in a possible homicide when the ranch owner, Clifford Spalding, is found dead. Confronted by a determined cop unwilling to let him off the hook, Kerney decides to conduct his own investigation. As he digs… See more details below
Santa Fe Police Chief Kevin Kerney travels to a California ranch looking to buy some prime quarter horse breeding stock. Instead, he finds himself the prime suspect in a possible homicide when the ranch owner, Clifford Spalding, is found dead. Confronted by a determined cop unwilling to let him off the hook, Kerney decides to conduct his own investigation. As he digs into the victim's background, he learns that Spalding's ex-wife refuses to believe that her son, a soldier killed in Vietnam some thirty years ago, is dead. Kerney digs deeper and soon finds himself sharing the woman's doubts: Did Spalding's current wife, a much younger woman, orchestrate his murder with the help of a lover? Did a California cop collude with Spalding to keep his ex-wife from learning the truth about her son? Slow Kill races from West Coast to East Coast, as Kerney tries to extricate himself from a situation that could ruin his career by finding the answers to a thirty-year-old mystery.
Read an Excerpt
Ten minutes after Santa Fe Police Chief Kevin Kerney picked up his rental car at the Bakersfield Airport, he was stuck in heavy stop-and-go traffic, questioning his decision to take the less traveled back roads on his trip to the central California coast.
Congestion didn’t ease until he was well outside the city limits on a westbound state highway that cut through desert flatlands. Ahead, a dust devil jumped across a straight, uninviting stretch of pavement and churned slowly through an irrigated alfalfa field, creating a green wave rolling over the forage.
Kerney glanced at his watch. Had he made a mistake in trying to map out a scenic route to take to the coast? By now, he’d expected to be approaching a mountain range, but there was nothing on the hazy horizon to suggest it.
It really didn’t matter if he’d misjudged his driving time. He had all day to get to the Double J horse ranch outside of Paso Robles, where he would spend the weekend looking over some quarter horses that were up for sale. He hit the cruise control and let his mind wander.
Kerney had partnered up with his neighbor, Jack Burke, to breed, raise, and train competition cutting horses. Kerney would buy some stock to get the enterprise started, Jack would contribute brood mares, pastureland, and stables to the partnership, and Jack’s youngest son, Riley Burke, would do the training.
The sky cleared enough to show the outline of mountains topped by a few bleached, mare’s tail clouds. Soon, Kerney was driving through a pass on a twisting road flanked by forked and tilted gray-needle pine trees, into a huge grassland plain that swept up against a higher, more heavily timbered mountain range to the west.
Finally, his road trip had turned interesting. He stopped to stretch his legs, and a convertible sports car with the top down zipped by, the woman driver tooting her horn and waving gaily as she sped away.
Kerney waved back, thinking it would have been nice to have his family with him. He’d arranged the trip with the expectation that he’d enjoy his time by himself and away from the job. But in truth, he was alone far more than he liked. Sara, his career Army officer wife, had a demanding Pentagon duty assignment that limited her free time, and Patrick, their toddler son who lived with her, was far too young to travel alone.
Kerney had hoped that the new house they’d built on two sections of ranchland outside of Santa Fe would change Sara’s mind about staying in the Army, but it hadn’t. Although she loved the ranch and looked forward to living in Santa Fe full time, she wasn’t about take early retirement. That meant six more years of a part-time, long-distance marriage, held together by frequent cross-country trips back and forth as time allowed, and one family vacation together each year. For Kerney, it wasn’t a happy prospect.
He looked over the plains. The green landscape was pleasing to the eye, deeper in color than the bunch grasses of New Mexico, but under a less vivid sky. He could see a small herd of grazing livestock moving toward a windmill, the outline of a remote ranch house beyond, and the thin line of the state road that plowed straight across the plains and curved sharply up the distant mountains.
He settled behind the wheel and gave the car some juice, thinking it would be a hell of a lot more fun to drive on to Paso Robles in a little two-seater with the top down and the wind in his face.
* * *
Kerney arrived in Paso Robles and promptly got lost trying to find the horse ranch. A convenience store clerk pointed him in the right direction, and a few minutes later he was traveling a narrow paved road through rolling hills of vineyards, cattle ranches, and horse farms sheltered by stands of large oak trees amid lush carpets of green grass. He drove with the window down, finding the moist sea air that rolled over the coastal mountains a welcome change from the dry deserts of New Mexico.
He'd been offered free lodging at the ranch along with a tour when he arrived, and he was eager to see how the outfit operated. The condition of the horses would tell him most of what he needed to know before deciding whether or not to buy. But the people who cared for the animals and their surroundings would also indicate whether his money would be well spent.
Kerney turned a corner onto a wide open vista, eased the car off the pavement, and got out to take in the scenery. On a hilltop behind and above him stood a large mission-style villa with a portal consisting of a series of arches supported by Georgian columns and topped off with a red tile roof and overhanging eaves. Paired bell towers with identical arches towered above either end of the second story. Two vineyards cascaded down the gentle slope on both sides of the villa. Taken as a whole, the place reeked of wealth.
To the west, densely treed coastal mountains rose up from a green, rolling valley that wandered down to a creek bed. A sign fronting the ranch road into the valley announced the Double J Ranch. In a series of fenced and gated pastures, brood mares and their foals gathered under the shady oak trees.
The ranch headquarters bordered the creek bed, and consisted of four white houses around a semicircular driveway within a few steps from a birthing barn and a long row of covered, open air stalls adjacent to small paddocks. Beyond the stalls was a barn which Kerney guessed was used to house the stud horses.
Sara had asked for pictures, so Kerney got the camera from his travel bag and took some shots, doing a rough mental count of the mares and foals in plain view. There were over a hundred, signifying a very large breeding operation.
He drove to the ranch buildings and parked near the birthing barn, which had a small adjacent office building off to one side. A man in his early forties stepped onto the porch as Kerney approached.
“Mr. Hilt?” Kerney asked, as he approached.
The man nodded. “The name's Devin,” he said with a welcoming smile, extending his hand. “You must be Kevin Kerney.”
Kerney smiled back and shook Devin's hand. “Thanks for putting me up.”
“I'm afraid you'll have to share the guest house with another party,” Hilt said. “The boss has a buyer coming up from Santa Barbara sometime later today.”
“That's not a problem,” Kerney said, as he took a look around. “This is quite a place.”
Hilt laughed. He stood six feet tall in his cowboy boots and had a sturdy frame topped off with curly brown hair cut short. “This isn't the half of it. Around the bend a mile away we've got a training track, stables, and pastures for colts and two-year-olds. That's where the boss, his wife, his mother, and the ranch manager have their houses. This area is just for my family, the trainers, and guests.”
“It's pretty posh,” Kerney said. “I can't remember ever seeing a more beautiful ranch.”
Hilt laughed again. “It does make working for a living a bit more pleasant.” He pointed down the driveway to a pitched roof, single-story, clapboard house surrounded by a picket fence. “That's the guest cottage. Want to settle in first or take that tour we promised you?”
“Let's do the tour,” Kerney said.
“Perfect,” Hilt replied, as he moved to a pickup truck.
Hilt drove Kerney around the spread, passing on bits of information along the way. It was a quarter horse ranch with about four hundred head and a breeding program that foaled over a hundred newborns yearly. Four stallions at stud were syndicated at over a million each. Most of the horses were owned by the ranch.
The owner, Jeffery Jardin, lived most of the time in southern California where he owned a high-tech manufacturing business with major defense and military contracts. But his passion was race horses, and the ranch showed that he pursued it seriously. Kerney guessed the size of the spread at about five hundred acres. He wondered what the value of the land was in the pricey California market.
Hilt told Kerney that in the morning he'd meet Ken Wheeler, a former jockey who oversaw the operation and culled the horses that weren't suitable for racing. Kerney hoped he'd find what he was looking for: two riding horses for personal use, one stud to service Jack Burke's mares, and some two-or three-year-old geldings Riley Burke could train as cutting horses.
Tucked into a separate part of the valley away from the road stood the training track and another set of fenced pastures that held good-looking colts and two-year-olds. Open-air covered stalls and a barn stood adjacent to the track. At one end of the stalls a circular pen contained a hot walker. Driven by an electrical motor, the device had four arms that looked like oversized propeller blades mounted on a triangular-shaped base. After training runs, the horse were hitched to the arms and mechanically walked to cool them down.
On a hill overlooking the track were three houses, one a two-story Victorian with a low- pitched hipped roof and spindlework porch railings. It was flanked by two more modest, single-story houses built with brick and wood cladding. All were nicely landscaped and sheltered by oak trees.
As Hilt pulled to a stop in front of the barn he pointed at a smaller Victorian house on the far side of the track. “That's where Ken lives,” he said. “He'll meet you at the office tomorrow at seven. Want to look at some pretty horses?”
“You bet,” Kerney said, as he climbed out of the truck. Hilt spent the better part of an hour walking Kerney through the barn, stalls and into several nearby pastures. The horses were slick and well cared for, and the grounds, barns, and stalls were clean and tidy. Kerney learned the ranch employed a full time veterinarian, two tech assistants, two trainers, and a variety of stable hands, groomers, exercise riders, and laborers, many of them Mexican. Low-cost housing was provided for a dozen key employees.
The two men entered a pasture and several colts came trotting over to greet them. Hilt recited their bloodlines while Kerney gave them the once-over. He found himself enjoying Hilt's company and the talk of horses. He stroked a chestnut colt's neck and ran a hand over its withers, thinking it was decidedly refreshing to get away by himself and forget about being a cop.
Back at the guest cottage, Kerney found an overnight bag and briefcase on the floor of the largest bedroom, but no sign of the man who was sharing the accommodations with him. He dumped his stuff in another bedroom and looked around the cottage. Whoever decorated the place had a penchant for green and an obsession with frogs. The carpet, wallpaper, tile work, and even the kitchen ceiling were all various shades of green. Ceramic, glass, and pottery figurines of frogs sat on every table, dresser, and counter top, and framed prints of jumping frogs, singing frogs, and comical-looking standing frogs hung on the walls of each room. It seemed like a big silly joke that had gotten slightly out of hand. Still, it made him smile.
The kitchen was fully equipped and stocked. But Kerney decided to take himself out to dinner and do a little sightseeing before it got dark. Hilt had told him of a good restaurant in a nearby village, and given him directions.
He changed into a fresh shirt, fired up the rental car and drove away, pleased with how the day had gone.
* * *
Always an early riser, Kerney was up at five. He showered, dressed, and sat on the porch of the guest cottage in the cool pre-dawn air drinking a glass of juice and enjoying the sounds of whinnying mares in a nearby pasture. Last night, after an early dinner, he'd driven to the ocean in time to watch a spectacular, romantic sunset, which only made him miss Sara's company.
When he'd returned to the ranch an imported luxury sedan was parked in front of the cottage, and the door to his bunkmate's bedroom was closed. To avoid disturbing the man, Kerney had read quietly in his room for a few hours before turning in.
From the porch he could see a night watchman moving down a line of corrals where brood mares about to foal were kept under observation. Kerney strolled over to join him. In front of the office was a five-gallon bucket filled with horse biscuits. He stuffed some in his jacket pocket and caught up with the watchman. Even in the dim light, he could tell the mares were pampered ladies. He fed biscuits to those who came up to the corral fences to greet him.
He wandered up and down the stalls that held the mares with their newborn foals. Workers, including a veterinarian checking on the expectant mothers, soon began arriving. Barn boys started cleaning stalls and filling feed bins. One young man raked a herringbone pattern in fresh sawdust that he'd spread down the center aisle.
After watching for a while, Kerney went back to the cottage. There was no sound of movement behind the other guest's closed bedroom door. Hilt had told Kerney that the man had an early morning appointment with the owner, who personally handled the sale of all racing stock.
Time was running short, so Kerney knocked on the door to give the guy a wake up call. He got no response, so he knocked again and called out. Still nothing.
He opened the door and turned on the light. Lying face up on the duvet covering the bed was a fully-dressed man probably in his late sixties. One look told Kerney the man was dead.
He stepped to the body, checked for a pulse at the carotid artery to make sure, and backed out of the room, touching nothing else.
The last thing Kerney had expected to see was a dead body. He went to find Devin Hilt, knowing full well his morning would be shot as soon as the cops showed up.
* * *
According to the California driver's license found on the body, the dead man was Clifford Spalding, age 71, from Santa Barbara, a two-hour drive down the coast.
Sergeant Elena Lowrey of the San Luis Obispo Sheriff's Department, thought it quite likely the deceased had died of natural causes. There were no visible wounds to the body, no defensive marks, no signs of a struggle. But until the coroner agreed with her observations and the autopsy findings confirmed it, she would handle the call as a death due to unknown causes.
If everything looked copasetic, there might be no need to call out the detectives and the crime scene techs.
She stood at the foot of the bed for a minute and watched the coroner begin his examination before stripping off her gloves and exiting the cottage. Outside on the front lawn three men waited: Kevin Kerney, who'd discovered the body, Devin Hilt, who'd called 911, and Jeffery Jardin, the ranch owner.
Behind them, near the barn and stables, two employees, who looked to be Mexican nationals, worked at cleaning out a cool-down corral while keeping a wary eye on the proceedings. Lowrey, who had an Anglo father and Mexican American mother, bet that neither man held a green card. She had no desire to pursue it. Her grandfather, a migrant worker, had been deported years ago because of a disorderly conduct conviction stemming from a clash with police at a farm workers rally. He could never legally return to the States, although he did sneak in for occasional visits, especially when Ellie's kid sister, the baby-producing sibling of the family, added another grandchild to the clan.
She stepped off the porch and spoke to Jardin. “Can I use the ranch office to take statements?”
Jardin, a man in his sixties who sported a great tan, a full head of hair, and a worried expression, nodded.
“Thanks,” Lowrey said, switching her attention to Kerney, whom she guessed to be around fifty and good-looking for a man his age. He stood six-one, had a nice build, and deep set, pretty blue eyes.
“I'll start with you,” Lowrey said to Kerney. “It shouldn't take too long. So far, everything looks fairly uncomplicated.”
Kerney nodded and followed the sergeant to the office, noting that even with the body armor she wore under her uniform shirt she cut a trim, well-shaped figure. A shade over five-five, she wore her thick dark hair rather short.
Kerney had come to the ranch as a potential buyer, not a police chief, so he doubted anyone knew he was a cop. Nonetheless, he'd told Hilt it would be best to keep everyone away from the cottage, a suggestion Devin readily accepted. Like most civilians, Hilt had no desire to stare death in the face.
Kerney sat with Lowrey in the ranch office and answered her questions directly. He'd never met the man and didn't know him or his name. He only knew that he would be sharing the cottage with another visitor who was looking to buy horses. He'd returned from dinner last night to find a car outside and one of the bedroom doors closed. He'd simply assumed that Spalding was sleeping or desired some privacy. He'd read for a time before retiring and had heard no sounds from the man's room. Nothing out of the ordinary had occurred during the night to arouse any suspicions about Spalding's welfare. He'd discovered the body only after attempting to wake Spalding with a knock on the bedroom door. He'd touched only the light switch in the bedroom and Spalding's carotid artery to confirm he was dead.
Lowrey asked for the name of the restaurant where he'd dined, which Kerney provided, and asked how long he'd be staying at the ranch.
“I leave tomorrow,” Kerney said.
Lowrey nodded. “We might have to ask you to stay over, Mr. Kerney, until we clear things up.”
“If it's possible, I'd rather not do that, Sergeant,” Kerney said as he took his police commission card from his wallet and gave it to Lowrey.
The sergeant glanced at it and gave Kerney a reproachful look. “You could have told me who you were up front.”
Kerney shrugged and took his ID back. “I knew we'd get around to it,” he said. “Besides, until you say differently, I'm a person of interest to your investigation. But I would like you to extend the courtesy of allowing me to go home tomorrow.”
He replaced the ID in his wallet and gave her a business card. “You can confirm who I am. Call the dispatch number and ask to speak to Deputy Chief Larry Otero. They'll patch you through to him.”
Lowrey nodded. “I'll do that. Until we know more, this looks like an unattended natural death.”
“So it seems,” Kerney said, as he got to his feet. “But it's always best to do it by the book.”
“Why didn't you just tell me you were a police chief?” Lowrey asked.
“Because I came here as a civilian,” Kerney said, “which occasionally is a very nice thing to be.”
Lowrey smiled, and a dimple showed on her right cheek. “Point well made, Chief. Will you ask Mr. Hilt to join me, and stand by in case I have any more questions for you?”
Kerney nodded and left the office.
* * *
If Clifford Spalding had expired in his own bed, the coroner, Deputy Sheriff William Price, would probably have done a quick death assessment and let it go at that, trusting the autopsy to pinpoint the cause. Instead, he decided to be a bit more thorough. First he checked the eyes for any signs of changes in the vitreous humor, which usually turns cloudy within eight to ten hours after death. The fluid was clear and there was no evidence of the minute blood clots caused by strangulation that show up as tiny red dots.
He inspected the mouth for any sign of blockage or corrosive burns, the neck for bruising or ligature marks, hands and arms for defensive wounds or needle marks, and fingernails for any traces of skin. He ran a gloved hand over the skull and found it to be intact with no telltale indication of blunt trauma. He stripped off a glove and felt the armpits with the back of his hand. They were cool to the touch.
There were early signs of rigor mortis, which usually occurs within two to four hours after death. That, along with the absence of any changes to the vitreous humor and the coolness of the armpits, indicated that the man had been dead for six to eight hours.
The body was clad in an undershirt, slacks, and socks. Using scissors, Price cut the undershirt and pants away, turned the body face down on the double bed, and used a rectal thermometer to take the body's temperature. Then he checked the room temperature. The difference between the two readings brought his estimate of the time of death down to no more than six hours ago.
Blood pools and settles after death, appearing as a purple discoloration of the skin, and the lower back showed signs of it. Price pressed a finger against the spot and the color didn't blanch white, which was another good indicator that Spalding had been dead for about six hours, and, more important, hadn't been moved.
He looked over the body one more time. There were no surgical scars. The gluteus maximus and leg muscles were firm, indicating the man had been physically active.
Price guessed that either a heart attack or a stroke had killed the man. He took off his gloves and went to give Ellie Lowery the news.
* * *
After admitting that he had almost no experience with cops or dead people, a somewhat nervous Devin Hilt confirmed what he could of Chief Kerney's story. Ellie Lowery probed with a few more questions just to reassure herself that all seemed as it should before letting Hilt go and calling Kerney's deputy chief to verify his identity.
Bill Price came in just as she was about to begin her interview with Jeffery Jardin, the ranch owner.
“The body shows no signs of death by unnatural causes,” he said.
“You couldn't seriously think that Clifton Spalding was murdered here,” Jardin said in a bit of a huff.
Price smiled benignly. Civilians were always uneasy about the thought of homicide. He'd faced the same reaction from people time and again over the years. “We always try to rule that out first,” he said.
He turned his attention to Lowrey. “I'd say he died in his sleep, either from a heart attack or a stroke, about six hours ago. The autopsy will tell us more.”
Lowrey nodded. “Thanks. Ask the EMTs to keep everyone away from the cottage until I finish my interviews. I'd like to take another look around before we wrap it up.”
“You got it,” Price said, stepping out the door.
“Are you people always so suspicious?” Jardin asked.
“Careful would be a better way to put it,” Lowery replied. “How well did you know Mr. Spalding?”
“Well enough, on a business and social basis. Over the past ten years, he's bought about six horses from me, some that he ran in qualifying and small purse races. He didn't seem to care if they won or lost. It was a hobby for him, or rather for his wife, who I think basically liked the social scene at the track. He stabled his horses here and used my trainers. My ranch manager arranged for jockeys and the horses' transportation to and from the track. We basically did everything except race the horses under my colors. His wife uses two of the horses he bought for pleasure riding, although they're good enough to race. I usually dealt with her.”
“That's a pretty expensive hobby his wife has.”
“Clifford could afford it. He owns, rather did own, a number of resort hotels up and down the coast.”
“You said you knew him well,” Lowery remarked.
“For about the last ten years,” Jardin replied, “after he married his second wife. I met them when they were first looking to buy racing stock. After that, I'd see them at the track, and we'd get together occasionally for dinner and drinks. Claudia, his wife, is a good twenty years younger. She divides her time between Santa Barbara and Santa Fe. Clifford built a house for her out there where she could keep some horses. I think she's in Santa Fe now.”
“If you usually dealt with Spalding's wife, why did he come here this time?” Lowery asked.
“Claudia had her eye on a horse she liked, and Clifford said he wanted to buy it for her as a surprise anniversary present.”
“Do you have Mrs. Spalding's Santa Fe address?”
“My ranch manager should. He made the arrangements to have the horses she keeps in Santa Fe transported there.”
Jardin glanced at his wristwatch, an expensive, wafer-thin gold timepiece that probably cost more than Lowery's personal vehicle.
“Just a few more questions,” she said, “and then we'll be done.”
* * *
Kerney waited on the porch outside the office with the ranch manager, Ken Wheeler, and watched the coroner come and go. No longer a jockey, Wheeler had still managed to keep weight off his wiry frame. He sported a wide mouth that seemed ready-made to break into easy smiles, and had tiny ears that lay flat against his head. At six-one, Kerney towered over the man.
Wheeler told Kerney that he had two twelve-year-old halter-broke mares, four three-year- old geldings that didn't seem to have the heart to race, and a young stud named Comeuppance available for sale.
Wheeler thought the mares, once saddle broke, would serve well for pleasure riding, the geldings were surefooted and quick enough to be good cutting horses, and the stallion would do just fine at stud, if the new owner didn't expect fast runners from his lineage.
Kerney knew, if he decided to buy it, the stud horse would be his most expensive purchase. “Is that his only flaw?” he asked.
“I believe so,” Wheeler replied, his deep baritone voice quite a contrast to his diminutive size. “But you'll get to see for yourself. He's got good bloodlines, but none of his yearlings or two-year-olds look promising for the track. The boss says we sure aren't going to make any money keeping him, and I agree.”
Before Kerney could reply, Sergeant Lowery stepped onto the porch.
“Mr. Wheeler,” she said, “could you get me Mrs. Spalding's Santa Fe address?”
“Sure thing,” Wheeler said as he slipped past Lowrey into the office.
Kerney raised an eyebrow. “Santa Fe, New Mexico?”
“She has a house there,” Lowery said, “and according to Mr. Jardin that's where she is. Do you know her?”
Kerney shook his head. “Do you want my department to make contact with her?”
“That would be helpful, Chief.” Lowery handed him a business card. “Ask your officer to call me first.”
“Will do.” Kerney reached for his cell phone. “What did the coroner have to say?”
“So far, Spalding's death appears to be from natural causes.” Lowery paused and gave him a once-over. “Quite a coincidence, isn't it, Spalding's wife having a place in Santa Fe?”
“In this particular instance, I would say that it is,” Kerney replied.
“Are you sure you've never met her while you've been out riding the range?”
“That's very funny, Sergeant,” Kerney said, slightly piqued at Lowery's sarcasm.
“Actually there are times when we still ride the range. But now that the streets of Santa Fe are paved, my officers mostly drive squad cars.”
“Maybe you met her at a horse show or a rodeo,” Lowrey countered.
“Not that I recall,” Kerney said. He turned away from Lowrey and dialed Larry Otero's home number.
After talking to Larry, he waited for Lowrey to reappear. Instead, Wheeler came out of the office and told him Lowrey had a few more questions to ask and would be with him shortly. He agreed to meet Wheeler at the track when he was finished, and cooled his heels waiting on the porch.
It didn't surprise him that Lowrey wanted another go-round. The “coincidence” that both Kerney and the dead man's wife lived in the same city would spark any competent officer's interest.
Finally, Lowrey called him back into the office. Kerney sat in a straight-backed chair, while Lowrey perched against the office desk and studied the coral and turquoise wedding band on his left hand.
“You're married,” she finally said.
“Yes,” Kerney replied.
Lowery's eyes searched his face. “And your wife didn't come here with you.”
“She's a career military officer serving at the Pentagon. Her schedule didn't allow it.”
“You must not be able to spend a great deal of time together,” Lowrey said.
“We manage to see each other frequently,” Kerney said, watching Lowrey, who was busy scanning him for any behavioral signals that might signal deception.
“Have you been married long?”
“A couple of years.”
“One son, ten months old.”
Lowery smiled. “Your first?”
“Yes,” Kerney said. “Now, why don't you get to the part where you stick your face in mine and ask me if I might be lying about not knowing Spalding's wife?”
Lowrey laughed. “As I understand it, Mrs. Spalding is about your age, and spends a great deal of time alone in Santa Fe, away from her husband. You seem to be in the same situation with your marriage.”
“I am happily married, Sergeant Lowrey. Don't turn a perfectly reasonable coincidence into a soap opera about two lonely, unhappy people.”
“Obviously, you and Mrs. Spalding share an interest in horses.”
“Along with about five million other horse lovers.”
“Mr. Spalding was rich and considerably older than his wife.”
“So I understand, from what you've said.”
“And neither you nor Spalding have ever stayed here before,” Lowrey noted.
“Apparently not,” Kerney replied. “Do you find a chance occurrence tantalizing, Sergeant? That would be quite a stretch.”
“Perhaps you're right. Do my questions upset you?”
“Not at all.” His cell phone rang. Kerney flipped it open and answered.
“What kind of fix have you gotten yourself into out there?” Andy Baca, Kerney's old friend and chief of the New Mexico State Police, asked.
“What's up?” Kerney asked, raising a finger to signal Lowery that he'd only be a minute.
“I just got a call from my district commander that some deputy sheriff, a Sergeant Lowrey out of San Luis Obispo County, wants an officer sent to inform a Mrs. Claudia Spalding of her husband's death and to determine your relationship to the woman, if any.”
“Interesting,” Kerney said.
“I've got two grandchildren in my lap, one on each knee,” Andy said, “ready to head off to the Albuquerque zoo to see the polar bears. What's going on with you?”
“I'll call you when I know more.”
“That's it?” Andy asked, sounding a bit exasperated.
Kerney laughed. “I'll talk to you later.”
“I'll be home by dinner time,” Andy said. “Unless you get locked up, call me then.”
“I'll do that. Have fun.” Kerney disconnected and smiled at Lowrey. “Are we done here, Sergeant?”
Lowrey smiled back. “We'll talk again after I've heard back from your department.”
“I'll be around,” Kerney said, thinking Lowrey was doing her job and doing it well. Still, he didn't have to like it.
* * *
Ellie Lowrey made another visual sweep of the cottage before the EMTs took Spalding's body away. After they rolled him out, she gathered up the dead man's luggage, put it in the trunk of her cruiser, and drove a back road to the sheriff's substation in Templeton
The station was housed in a fairly new single-story faux western frontier-style office building with a false front and a slanted covered porch. It had been designed to fit in with the old buildings on the main street left over from the town's early days as a booming farming and ranching community. Now, the charm of the village and its convenience to Highway 101, which ran the length of the West Coast, drew droves of newcomers looking to escape the sprawl of the central coast cities, creating of course more sprawl.
As second-in-command of the substation, Ellie Lowery served under a lieutenant who was on vacation with his family in the Rocky Mountains. She parked in front of the closed office, carried Spalding's luggage inside, and placed it on her desk.
She'd secured the dead man's effects to ensure their safekeeping, which required her to do an inventory. She got out the forms she needed and glanced at the wall clock, wondering how long it would take to hear back from the New Mexico authorities.
Ellie had decided not to rely on Kerney's department for information until she knew for sure whether there was or wasn't a personal relationship between the chief and Mrs. Spalding. Of course, if there was something going on between the two, both of them could lie about it. It was best to get information from an independent source such as the New Mexico State Police, in case Kerney and Mrs. Spalding did have something to hide.
Spalding's overnight bag yielded nothing but toiletries and a change of clothes. The attaché case was a bit more interesting. A manila envelope contained a photograph of the horse Spalding was planning to buy, along with a record of its race results and bloodlines. The cover letter from Jardin listed the price at a few thousand dollars more than Ellie's gross annual salary.
Other paperwork in the case pertained to Spalding's hotel holdings. Lowrey recognized a few of them by name: very swanky places in upscale California resort communities. A sleeve held a small number of business cards. Lowrey thumbed through them. One was from a Santa Barbara police captain who headed up the Major Crimes Unit. What was that all about?
Lowrey wrote the information in her notebook. Tomorrow was Sunday. She doubted the autopsy would be done quickly given the likely absence of foul play. If the results came back as death due to natural causes, she'd drop the matter completely. Until then, she would keep the case open and call the Santa Barbara P.D. captain on Monday to satisfy her curiosity.
Ellie got up and poured a cup of coffee. She felt good about how the morning had gone. She'd spent five years as an investigator before earning her stripes and taking a patrol assignment. It was fun to work an investigation on her own again. In truth, she missed her old job, but accepting a promotion to the patrol division had been the only way to move up in the ranks.
She returned to her desk and started in on the paperwork, hoping it wouldn't take all day for the cops in New Mexico to find Spalding's widow and report back.
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