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FAITH COULD MOVE MOUNTAINS AND CAST THEM INTO THE sea, but although Sister Agatha’s faith was strong, it was far from impregnable. There were too many chinks in her armor, and lately it seemed as if God had decided to test each and every one.
At the moment, it was one thirty in the morning and she was barely awake. Yawning and shaking the cobwebs out of her head to stay alert, she drove toward the small town of Bernalillo, creeping down the narrow blacktop at forty-five miles per hour. The anemic headlights of the Antichrysler—the monastery’s rickety old station wagon—barely parted the black curtain trying to envelop them.
Pax was sitting up straight on the passenger’s side. A former police dog, he was now the monastery’s pet and companion to the externs—nuns who didn’t take a vow of enclosure. Sister Agatha wondered if the old boy had somehow managed to understand the seriousness of their current situation, and his personal connection to it.
Until to night, she hadn’t really believed that things at Our Lady of Hope could get any worse. For the past few months their monastery had been bravely fighting against a death sentence. Though the final curtain hadn’t yet fallen, barring a miracle, the end was now near.
One slim hope still remained, but the threads that bound it were so fragile it didn’t seem wise to cling to them. That was why Sister Agatha had chosen to protect herself by preparing for the worst. Piensa mal y acertarás. It was a local Spanish saying that meant “Think the worst and you’ll be right.” Yet her attempt to remain realistic just left her feeling even more empty inside.
With effort, Sister Agatha pushed aside those concerns for now and focused on the matter at hand. Late phone calls to the monastery—like the one less than thirty minutes ago—ran the risk of not being heard and answered, since their only phones were inside Reverend Mother’s office and the parlor. However, to night’s caller had been insistent and the ringing had eventually awakened Sister Bernarda.
That frantic call for help had come on behalf of one of the monastery’s most loyal friends, and Reverend Mother had dispatched Sister Agatha immediately. As Mother had explained, Sister Agatha was the extern most used to handling “difficult” situations—and that description certainly fit the situation at hand.
Forcing herself to focus exclusively on what she had to do next, Sister Agatha drove directly to the sheriff’s station. The nearly full parking lot attested to the importance of what was taking place.
After finding a parking space at the end of the row, she put the big white German shepherd on his leash, then hurried down the sidewalk to the front entrance. The foyer led to an equally small lobby, where a young male deputy was attempting to calm a shirtless and extremely irate older man in plaid shorts and flip-flops. He’d obviously had too much to drink. Drunks of all ages, sizes, and shapes abounded on the Fourth of July holiday, when celebrations usually went well into the wee morning hours of the fifth.
Ignoring the ruckus, she led her curious dog around the duo and stepped up to the front desk. Sergeant Millie Romero rose from her chair and nodded to her.
“I’m glad you’re here, Sister Agatha,” she said loudly, trying to be heard over the noise the drunk was making. “Sorry for the circumstances. I imagine you want to see him now?”
“Yes, I do. While we’re walking there, could you tell me what the department plans to do with him? A high-profile officer like he is will need extra care. The second they put him in with other prisoners he’ll be in mortal danger.”
“That’s why he’s not in a cell. For now at least, he’s being held in one of the interrogation rooms,” Millie said, coming out from behind the counter. Holding open the half-door that led into the bullpen, she added, “Do you want to leave Pax here while I take you to see him?”
“That’s a good idea. This is his second home.” Sister Agatha unfastened the leash and saw Pax go beg a cracker from one of the sergeants at a cubicle.
As Millie walked down the hall with her, Sister Agatha could feel the woman’s tension.
“He could sure use your help,” Millie said in a quiet voice. “Officially, there’s not much we can do right now. Captain Chavez will keep an open mind, but things don’t look good.”
“Where’s Captain Chavez now?” Sister Agatha asked, looking around.
“He’s still at the crime scene.”
Sister Agatha slowed her steps. “Before we go in, can you tell me how he’s dealing with this?”
“Not well at all,” Millie said, nodding to another officer in the long passageway.
Sister Agatha swallowed back the sense of outrage that filled her. This man, of all men, deserved better. Nothing about the incident made sense to her.
A second later they stopped in front of a door that read INTERVIEW ROOM A. A thick window revealed the prisoner sitting in a wooden chair in front of a small table. His chin was resting on the table, and he looked half asleep.
Hearing the lock being worked, her old friend looked up, and Sister Agatha saw his face clearly for the first time.
Sheriff Tom Green looked exhausted. Bleary eyed and disheveled, he barely resembled the spit-and-polish professional his officers were used to confronting.
She and Tom went way back, and at rare times, Sister Agatha could still catch fleeting glimpses of a Tom Green the others couldn’t even imagine. To night, for one of those brief moments, she actually saw the reflection of her old college boyfriend. He had been a vulnerable, sensitive young man who’d claimed her heart before she’d been compelled to follow a higher calling.
He stood, squared his shoulders, and nodded to Millie. “How did you hear?” he asked Sister Agatha.
“One of your people called the monastery,” she said. “We were told you’d been detained.”
“Arrested,” he corrected. “My opponent in the sheriff’s race, Robert Garcia, has been murdered. The evidence at the scene and the facts I know to be true don’t match, but I didn’t kill Robert.”
“I believe you, Tom,” she said. “Your people know that’s true, too. So let’s see what we can do to straighten this mess out.”
“I’ll be down the hall if you need me,” Millie said.
Once the door shut, Sister Agatha focused on Tom. “I come into town often enough to know all about the campaign—the name-calling and the rest of it. But how—”
“Did I end up in this mess?” he interrupted, finishing her thought. “I wish I could tell you exactly what happened, but the details are all jumbled up in my mind. Worst of all, they don’t match the physical evidence—at least the bits I’ve been told about.”
“Tell me what you remember,” Sister Agatha said, taking a seat across the table from him.
He nodded. “I was in the park celebrating the Fourth, shaking hands, and basically meeting the public. Out of the blue Robert Garcia came up to me, carrying two hot dogs. He handed me one and asked if we could talk privately. He suggested that we go to the southwest corner of the park past the swings once the fireworks started. Nobody was likely to disturb us there at that time. I agreed. He then stepped away to speak to some of his people, and I continued talking to my constituents. After that, I picked up a glass of lemonade and kept campaigning. I’d started feeling really drowsy by the time I was supposed to go meet with Robert.”
“Your symptoms . . . were they like food poisoning?”
“No, not really. There was no nausea or stomach problems.”
“So what did you do about it?”
“Nothing. I sucked it up and went to meet Robert. When I reached him, everything was spinning, and I knew I was going to pass out. I wanted to tell him to get help, but I was having trouble putting words together. He said something just as my knees gave way. The last thing I remember was the startled look on Robert’s face.”
“How are you feeling now?” Sister Agatha asked, leaning forward and looking more closely at her old friend.
“I’m okay, and before you ask, I had a physical a few months back. No blood pressure issues. I’m in perfect health, so I’m guessing I was drugged. It was either in the hot dog or the lemonade. That’s all I had.”
“Didn’t you say that Robert had a hot dog, too?” Sister Agatha asked, clarifying.
“Yes, they looked like ones from the city’s kiosk. They were wrapped in those red, white, and blue napkins.”
“Okay,” she said. “Now tell me what happened after you regained consciousness.”
“I was flat on my back, and Millie Romero was crouched beside me. Millie said that Al Russo, Robert’s campaign manager, had called 911. According to her, Russo lost track of Robert, so he went looking for him. What he found was Robert’s dead body—killed by a gunshot—with a blood-smeared club in his hand. Since I have a bloody bruise on my head, the blood’s probably mine.”
“So basically, they’ll say you shot him before you went down,” she said, deep in thought.
“It’s as if someone framed me but gave me an out. I could plead self-defense, but since a club’s no match for a pistol, I’m vulnerable to charges of excessive force.”
“Which you would still beat. A police officer is authorized to use deadly force when he’s attacked.”
“Yes and no. I’d have a legal battle on my hands.”
“I wish I could visit the crime scene now while everything’s fresh,” she said.
Tom shook his head. “A crime scene needs to be worked by specially trained officers. You’d be in the way and might even unknowingly compromise evidence.”
“Even now you’re sticking to the rules?”
“Those rules were made and put in place for a reason.”
She sighed. That was the Tom she knew. “Anything else you can tell me?”
“I was told that they’d found a single footprint—a size ten and a half—that had been left in a muddy patch near the body. It doesn’t match my shoe size or pattern, or the victim’s. The thing is, it could have been left there anytime after the sprinklers got things wet. They go on every morning at seven.”
“The presence of a third person at the crime scene could help clear up some of the apparent inconsistencies,” Sister Agatha said.
“Maybe, or maybe not,” he muttered sourly. “All I know is that I have this bruise on my head, but I can’t remember getting it,” he went on, gingerly feeling the lump by his left temple. “Had I been conscious, I would have remembered a blow like this, and it wasn’t caused by the fall when I passed out. There was nothing in the grass that I could have hit my head on. I looked.”
“Verifying that you were drugged is crucial now. Have they given you a blood test?”
He shook his head and winced. “I’ve been asking for one ever since I was brought in. To me, it’s obvious. That’s the only way I can explain my inability to remember things more clearly. I’m being framed, but I’ll need a tox screen to back up my story.”
“So what’s the holdup?” Sister Agatha asked.
“Budget constraints. Our department has a policy that doesn’t allow for extra tests when the evidence appears so straightforward. In this case, it indicates that I shot Garcia about the same time he clubbed me,” he said. “My people will help me push for one, but what worries me is that by the time they get a tech here, it’ll be too late.”
“How can I speed things up? Is there someone I can speak to on your behalf?”
“I don’t think so. Gloria and my lawyer, Doug Sanchez, are working hard to get things rolling. They spoke to Captain Chavez, who’s acting sheriff right now, and he’s for it, but DA Springer is apparently throwing a million legalities in their way.” He rubbed the stubble that now covered his chin. “Springer owes his job to the Garcias.”
“No one who knows you will believe you’re guilty of murder,” Sister Agatha said firmly.
“That’s what I’d like to think, too. Problem is, with this run for office against the Garcia machine, I’ve now got as many enemies as I do friends.”
“I’m your friend, Tom, and trust me—I’ll find out what happened.”
“I know you will. Thanks,” he said with quiet gratitude.
“This is a very complicated frame-up, Tom. We need to find out why anyone would go to all the trouble, and exactly what’s behind this.”
“I wish I could tell you.”
“The evidence indicates that you were a bonus—but not the target. You were even struck on the head to give the impression that you’d acted in self-defense—a way out for you. Robert had to have been the real target, so I’m going to concentrate on him. As far as I’m concerned, the puzzle starts there.”
“Robert had a lot of enemies.”
“I imagine so, but nothing about this case—not even the logistics—makes sense. Why would Robert invite you to a secluded corner of the park, then attack you—an armed officer—with a big stick?”
“Exactly. Also keep in mind that if I’d wanted to take that branch away from him, I wouldn’t have needed a gun. I’m at least a foot taller than he was, and well trained in self-defense. But the bruise on my head and the fact that the branch in his hand had blood on it back up the wrong version of what went down.” He paused, then in a slow, deliberate voice added, “If Robert hadn’t been the victim, I would have sworn that he was behind the setup. He liked playing people.”
“You and he had differences even before the campaign, didn’t you?” she noted, accurately reading his tone.
“Robert used to be a deputy. He and I have a history that dates back to his years in the department.” He lapsed into what became a long silence.
“I’ll need to know more,” she prodded.
“I wish I could help, but those details are sealed. I’d just make my position worse if I told you. As it is, I’ve probably said too much already.”
“I’ll keep what ever you tell me confidential,” she assured him.
He considered it for several moments, then answered. “Here’s what I can tell you. Robert and I went head-to-head on just about everything. He quit about a year after I was elected sheriff and set up his own security firm. I figured he was out of law enforcement for good. Then came the primaries, and suddenly he was the other party’s candidate and in my face again.”
Sister Agatha felt a sinking sensation as she listened to Tom. Things were looking bad. Their current mayor, JD Garcia, was Robert Garcia’s brother, and no friend of Tom’s. Tom’s refusal to play small-town politics had made him an outsider—one certain people would be happy to see go down.
“The only thing that makes sense to me is that a third person was there—the killer,” Sister Agatha said. “We need to act fast and find out who that was. The longer the truth stays hidden, the worse it’s going to get for you.”
“I didn’t fire my weapon unassisted. I know that, but I have to prove it. Somehow, I’ve got to find a way to remember everything that led up to the moment I passed out.” He took a slow, deep breath and added, “Can you get me a list of everything that was found at the crime scene? It might help me.”
“Millie was there, so I’ll ask her. If she has orders to withhold that information from you, maybe Doug Sanchez can request it. They’re supposed to give the defense access to that information, aren’t they?”
“With Tivo Chavez on the case, Doug’ll probably be given a copy of what ever the deputies gathered up. I never thought much of defense attorneys—until now,” he added in a taut voice.
“You’ve got a lot of people that’ll be working hard to establish the truth, Tom. Hold on to that.”
“I’ve also got enemies who are ready to do what ever it takes to get a piece of me,” he countered quietly.
“Maybe so, but working from the standpoint that you’re innocent, I’ll be able to see things that others may miss.” She pointed to his hand. “Like that injury. Why is your hand bruised? The web between your thumb and forefinger is down to raw skin.”
Tom flexed his hand, making a fist, then opening it again. “Even after hours of practice at the range, I never bruised my hand firing my own weapon. This is evidence that supports my claim. The killer wrapped my hand around my pistol, then squeezed my finger against the trigger. That’s how he shot Robert. What he forgot to take into account was the recoil. That, coupled with an unconscious man’s sloppy grip, completely explains this type of bruising.”
“Did you point that out to the deputies at the scene?”
He nodded. “I had them take photos, too.”
“Good. Firing the weapon while it was in your hand tells us that the killer is savvy enough to know about gunpowder residue,” Sister Agatha said.
“Yeah, and the blow to my head offers an easy explanation for me being unconscious.”
Excerpted from Bad Samaritan by Aimée and David Thurlo.
Copyright Â© 2010 by Aimée and David Thurlo.
Published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.