Rita Mondragon is lying comatose and near death in a Santa Fe hospital, and her normally even-tempered partner and paramour, private detective Joshua Croft, is on a razor’s edge. This is the second time Rita’s been shot by Ernie Martinez—the first was years ago when he killed her husband and put Rita in a wheelchair—and now the recently escaped convict is on the run with his equally twisted cellmate Luiz Lucero.
Despite a massive police manhunt, and warnings from the FBI and the DEA to back off, Croft sets out to capture the killers himself. As the crazed convicts leave a trail of murder and destruction behind them—from New Mexico to Las Vegas to Denver and across Kansas and Texas—one by one, their pursuers drop by the wayside. Suddenly a strange twist of fate has left only one man hunter remaining—Joshua Croft—in a breathtaking kill-or-be-killed climax in the Florida Everglades.
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Accustomed to the Dark
By Walter Satterthwait
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1996 Walter Satterthwait
All rights reserved.
We made it easy for them. We were sitting out on Rita's patio, exposed and vulnerable.
It was a Sunday morning toward the end of May. The winter had been mild and the spring had been milder. Up in the mountains, up toward the ski basin, the fields of aspen were showing pale olive against the dark green bruise of pine. Down in town, iris and narcissus crowded the gardens, purple bursts of lilac and wisteria spilled over the sunbaked brown adobe walls. Here at Rita's house, in the hills overlooking Santa Fe, the air was warm and soft and scented with piñon.
I had cooked breakfast burritos and blueberry muffins, squeezed some oranges for fresh juice. Now the plates and the glasses and the wicker basket lay empty atop the round white metal table.
Rita sipped at her coffee. Holding the mug with both hands, she lowered it to her lap and she smiled at me. "What shall we do today?"
"Why should we do anything?" I was slumped against the back of my chair in a dense, amiable lassitude. My stomach was full and so was my life. There was nothing, anywhere, that needed to be done.
She nodded. "You're a lazy pig," she said.
"Thang you," I said. "Thang you veramuch."
"And you do a terrible Elvis."
"We could drive up to the Jemez," she said. "Go through Bandelier."
Her hair was loose and it tumbled black as the wings of ravens to her shoulders. She wore a blouse of lavender silk, stonewashed blue jeans, and sandals with thin brown leather straps. She was beautiful, as usual, but I was almost getting used to that.
With an effort I leaned forward and hooked my finger around the handle of my coffee cup. Sighing happily, I sat back. "We could," I agreed. I sipped some coffee. "Or we could hang around here all day. Scratch. Yawn. Maybe belch from time to time."
She smiled. "Be still my heart."
"Too nice a day to go running around the countryside, Rita."
"It's too nice a day to lie around and waste it."
"I'm not wasting it," I said. "I'm savoring it."
"And you couldn't savor it in Bandelier?"
"Maybe. I guess we'll never know." I smiled. I was enjoying this. A few years ago, when Rita was in the wheelchair, it would have been me arguing for a trip out of town. Often it had been.
"I'll drive," she said.
I considered that carefully.
"We'll bring along your Geritol," she said.
"And when we come to civilization," she said, "I'll wake you up and you can put in your teeth."
We heard the helicopter then, a muffled chuk-a-chuk coming from behind us, from over the mountain. We both looked up, and a few moments later the aircraft sailed into view, a monster locust clattering across the sky. It was flying low, only a couple of hundred feet above. It passed over us and a chill shadow slipped across the flagstones.
"The state police," Rita said.
"Probably." It was an Aerostatial Twinstar, and the state police owned one.
"I wonder what they're looking for," she said.
We hadn't listened to the news last night, or this morning. If we had, we'd have known what the state police were looking for.
"Lost tourists," I said. This year, the tourists had arrived early, and this year they were traveling in packs.
We watched the mechanical bug scrape across the blue, its dark carapace growing smaller, its rhythmic chatter fading. It banked and then disappeared off to the south.
Rita turned to me. "So? What do you say, Joshua? Bandelier?"
I shrugged. "Why not."
Smiling, Rita shook her head—in exasperation, probably—and then her head jerked to the left, suddenly, comically, like the head of a marionette, and her mouth opened wide as though she were about to scream. For a moment, a millisecond, I thought she was acting, playing out a piece of uncharacteristic slapstick, and I began to frown, puzzled. The frown froze when I saw the small, perfectly circular hole at the right side of her head, and then she was toppling from her chair and her porcelain cup was twirling off through the air, spraying black coffee. She was halfway to the ground and I was up from my seat and reaching for her when I heard the far-off crack of the rifle.
The sunlight came down hard and flat against the dusty earth and it slammed against the cars slumbering in the hospital's unpaved lot.
I stood there at the edge of the lot, staring off to the east, toward the mountains. The mountains were less than three miles away, but they seemed remote, alien, strange formations on the landscape of a distant planet. I had my arms crossed over my chest, my hands clamped beneath them. I took deep, long, staggered breaths. The air around me had grown thinner, as though it had been leached of its oxygen.
It wasn't the mountains that were alien. It was the creature who stood staring at them, holding desperately onto himself as though parts of him might, at any moment, spin away and go reeling through the ether.
I had nearly lost Rita once before. We had both survived. Since then the two of us had come together in ways that were complicated and elegant but also, I had suddenly discovered, infinitely fragile. I honestly did not know how I would survive if I lost her now, or even that I could.
I remembered her face, pale and drawn, as they wheeled her into the operating room....
I heard a faint sound behind me, the sole of a shoe scuffling at the caliche, and I turned.
Striding toward me between the cars was Hector Ramirez, a friend, a sergeant in the Santa Fe Police Department. He was a bodybuilder, thick and powerful, but he always moved as lightly on his feet as a ballerina. The scuffling sound had been intentional, to warn me of his approach.
"Anything?" I said. "Any news?"
He shook his head. "She's still in the operating room, they told me." The knot of his red silk tie was loose, the sleeves of his off-white shirt were rolled back along his heavy forearms.
I looked at the mountains, took another staggered breath.
"How you doing?" he said.
I turned to him. "What kind of question is that?"
He frowned, lightly ran his hand down over his bandito mustache.
"Shit," I said. I looked off, toward the mountain. "I'm sorry, Hector."
For a moment or two, he was silent. Then he said, "They're doing everything they can. The surgeon, Berger, he's the best in the state. One of the best in the country."
"He'd better be." It was an empty, stupid threat and both of us knew that. Hector had the grace to ignore it.
I said, "I talked to the uniforms. Diego and Monahan."
"It was Martinez who shot her."
"Probably. You told Diego you weren't working on anything right now."
"No threats? No letters? Phone calls?"
"No." I turned to him. "Why didn't you let us know that Martinez was out?"
He frowned. "It only happened last night, Josh. I wasn't even in town. I didn't know about it till a half an hour ago, when I got back. I came here as soon as I could."
I nodded. I stared off at the mountains again.
"Tell me what happened," he said.
I didn't look at him. "I already told them. Diego and Monahan."
"So tell me," he said.
I told him. And I relived everything. Rita's face as the bullet took her, her body spinning from the chair and slapping hard against the flagstones, boneless and slack. My kneeling down beside her, suddenly paralyzed with shock and panic and disbelief. The bright shiny blood trickling down into her hair. Her eyes open but lifeless, staring straight up at nothing.
I wanted to sweep her up into my arms, hold her, protect her from the horrors of the universe, all of them. I wanted to leap to my feet and scream at the bastard who shot her, dare him to shoot me. I wanted to die.
None of that would help her.
I put my fingers to her throat. There was a pulse, fluttery and very faint. My hand was trembling.
The shot had come from the hills to the south. I looked up there. The nearest heavy cover was about two hundred yards away, a thicket of pines, dark green beneath the blue of the sky.
The sky shouldn't still be blue, I remember thinking. The sun shouldn't still be shining.
Down on my knees, I was partially concealed by the balustrade that ran around the edge of the patio. But if he were still there, hiding behind the trees, he could probably see me.
I sprang in a dive through the opened French doors, hit the carpet with my shoulder, tumbled across the living room, ripped the phone from the end table. Dialed 911. Gave the dispatcher everything she asked for. Hung up, darted back to the patio, glanced up at the pine trees, knelt down beside her once more.
There had been no second shot.
I put my fingers on her throat again, lightly. The pulse was still there. I kept my fingers against it and I leaned down toward her ear and I began to talk in an urgent whisper. I told her to hang on. I told her that help was coming. I told her a lot of things.
Her pulse kept up its faint, fluttery beat.
I was still whispering when they arrived to secure the scene, Diego and Monahan, Monahan carrying a rifle. They wanted to talk to me but I waved them away and I kept whispering into Rita's ear as the pulse fluttered beneath my fingers. Diego and Monahan did whatever it was they had to do, and after a while they let in the paramedics, three of them in white coats, with a gurney.
I let them push me aside. One of them talked into a headset while he got her vital signs. In only a few minutes they were moving her.
Even as stupid with shock as I was, I felt a sickening sense of familiarity. I had been through all this before, six years ago—the cops, the paramedics, the limp body rushed into the ambulance.
Outside, in the driveway, three or four police cars were crouched, some with their doors still open. A radio was squawking. Cops were running into the forest. Back in the tall pine trees, someone shouted.
The paramedics didn't want me to come along, but I came anyway. I rode in the ambulance, squatting beside her, whispering again. The paramedic with the headset was still monitoring her, still chattering away.
The doctor—Berger—met us at the hospital. He let me come along as far as the operating room and then he told me that I had to leave her. They would do everything they could, he said. The metal door swung shut behind him.
Back in the lobby, I gave someone all the insurance information. When I was finished, Diego and Monahan were waiting for me. They asked me their questions. It was Diego who told me that Ernie Martinez had escaped from the state penitentiary last night.
"You were pretty hard on Diego," said Hector.
"Yeah," I said. I was still staring off at the green mountains. "I know. I apologized. But someone should've let us know."
"Everyone was busy, Josh. We were, the Staties were. And the thinking, this morning, was that Martinez had already gone. That he'd slipped out of town."
I looked at him. "He tried to kill her before. He shot her, Hector. She spent three years in a wheelchair. Someone should've let us know he was out."
He frowned. He stroked his mustache.
"Would you have called?" I asked him. "If you were here, would you've let us know?"
His broad face tightened and became darker. "You know I would."
"So why didn't—"
"Sergeant!" It was Diego, running toward us. "She's out of the operating room!"CHAPTER 2
All right," said Berger. "First of all, we recovered the bullet. It appears to be a two-twenty-three." He turned to Hector. "It's in excellent shape."
The doctor had herded Hector and me into a doctor's lounge near the recovery room. Off-white walls, a few framed photographs of Southwest scenes, a long wooden table surrounded by upholstered chairs. At one corner of the table lay a glossy Santa Fe real estate magazine.
Berger sat at the head of the table, Hector to his left, along one side of it.
"What kind of shape is she in?" I asked him.
He turned to me. "As I told you, we have her stabilized at the moment."
"Which means what, exactly?"
Short and compact and tidy, maybe forty-five years old, Berger still wore his pale blue scrub suit. He sat back in his chair with his elbows propped on the chair's arms, his hands tented before his chest, the fingers slightly spread. His face was pale and oval and his thinning black hair was combed back from a sharply defined widow's peak over small pale ears that lay flat against his head. He had a pointed nose and slightly fleshy lips. There were faint bags under his eyes. He had looked tired when I first saw him, at the hospital entrance, and he looked more tired now.
On the lower left breast of the scrub suit, just beneath the pocket, there was a small dark brown stain, smeared.
He looked at me over the tented fingers. "We've recovered the bullet, as I said. It was lodged in the right temporal lobe." He pursed his lips. "Mrs. Mondragón is right-handed?"
"In a way, then, it's a blessing that the bullet lodged where it did."
"A blessing," I said. I tried to keep the anger from my voice but I don't think I succeeded. I could feel Hector watching me.
Dr. Berger hadn't heard the anger. He was staring off, probably watching the operation he'd just performed. His lips were pursed again. He turned back to me. "Yes," he said. "It's a remarkable piece of luck, really. A fraction of an inch in any direction, and Mrs. Mondragón would have been irreparably damaged, or fatally wounded." He cocked his head slightly, curious. "Was she moving at the moment of impact?"
I didn't need to think about it. I had replayed the scene, again and again, since it happened. "She was shaking her head. At something I said."
He nodded slightly, as though that confirmed some interesting theory he'd been mulling over. "Then whatever you said, by saying it you may very well have saved her life."
My glance kept sliding down to that small dried smear on the pale blue scrub suit. "And what's the prognosis?" I asked him.
"Well," he said. "Naturally, it's always difficult to forecast the progress of these cases. There's no question but that Mrs. Mondragón has suffered an extremely serious injury. But I do want you to know that I'm optimistic. Guardedly."
"Guardedly," I said.
He nodded slightly again. "If we can keep down the pressure in the cranial cavity, prevent herniation, I believe there's a very good chance, an excellent chance, that Mrs. Mondragón will recover completely. I've seen it happen before. That's barring any additional complications, of course."
"And if you can't keep down the pressure?"
He gave me a small, tight smile. "We're doing everything we can to keep it down. We've evacuated the hematoma—cleaned the internal area—and we've electrocauterized the wound. She's on a mannitol drip, to dehydrate her and reduce swelling. She's on a respirator. And she'll be under constant monitoring—her heart, her brain, her breathing."
"She's still out? Still unconscious?"
"When will she regain consciousness?"
"We've no way of knowing. It could be a matter of hours. It could be a matter of days."
"How many days?"
He frowned slightly. "Mr.... Craft, is it?"
"Mr. Croft, the brain is a remarkable organ." He swiveled his tented fingers slightly forward. "Historically, we've had cases of a patient wandering into a doctor's office, complaining of nagging headaches. The doctor examines the skull and, much to his surprise, discovers an entry wound. Later, an X ray reveals the presence of a thirty-eight caliber slug in the brain. The patient had never realized that he'd been shot."
"A thirty-eight," I said. "That's a pistol cartridge."
"Yes. And this was a rifle cartridge. Had the slug been more powerful, had it been traveling more quickly, hydrostatic shock would almost certainly have proven fatal. But this slug was traveling quickly enough to create a very serious trauma. Edema has set in, the brain has swollen. At the moment, the swelling is our primary enemy."
"In what way?"
Delicately, he untented his fingers and shaped them around an imaginary skull. "The cranial vault is rigid. Cerebral swelling could bring pressure against the medulla oblongata, at the stem of the brain." He moved his thumbs slightly, down there at the bottom of the skull. "Herniation. And that would very likely prove fatal."
He dropped his hands and the skull disappeared. He sat up in his chair, smiled a tight, brief smile. "But Mrs. Mondragón seems an extremely healthy woman. And, as I said, we've done everything possible for her. I have good reason to be hopeful."
"But you don't know when she'll regain consciousness."
"That's correct. Today, perhaps. Perhaps tomorrow. No one can say."
"Perhaps next month. Perhaps never."
Excerpted from Accustomed to the Dark by Walter Satterthwait. Copyright © 1996 Walter Satterthwait. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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