Posadas County, New Mexico, is in the news. NightZone, a mammoth astronomy theme park, is bringing in jobs, media, and such new infrastructure as a slick narrow-gauge railway to transport tourists from the village of Posadas to the tramway running up the mesa to the project’s site. And the Posadas High School girls’ volleyball team is on a hot winning streak, exciting everyone. But more news, not good, breaks. Volleyball Coach Clint Scott has been found gunned-down in the girls’ shower room, the victim of four bullets, one fired nearly point blank into his heart. Dead for hours, killed soon after the end of last night’s game. And, last night, a homegrown Banksy had tagged both one of the railway cars and a section of NightZone’s giant radio telescope dish. Then, apparently, this young artist began work on a section of wall outside the girls’ locker room at the high school—a project that was clearly—dramatically—interrupted. With morning come two strange incidents. Stacie Willis Stewart, a former Posadas volleyball star, locks up her baby and Jack Russell terrier in her Volvo, walks away to local superstore The Spree—and disappears. A former teacher spots the child and dog before the heat can kill them. Deputy Tom Pasquale, in The Spree’s parking lot where he’s spotted a suspicious Illinois plate on a Ford Fusion, watched it all. He then leads a fruitless search for her inside the store. No luck—but he does score a man with an Elvis haircut and his wife when they return to the Ford with stories that don’t add up. The lead on the murder is Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman, who’s still able to call on the retired former sheriff, Bill Gastner—a good thing, for she is surprised by the arrival of her piano-prodigy son, Francisco, age 15, in a sleek Corvette driven some one thousand unchaperoned miles by an eighteen-year-old beauty, a cellist. Their goal: to join the one hundredth birthday celebration for Estelle’s mother.
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A Posadas County Mystery
By Steven F. Havill
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2016 Steven F. Havill
All rights reserved.
"Your days are numbered, you little ignorant peckerwoods." Monty Schaffer stood with feet spread, fists tightly balled on his hips — an angry man ready to strike. But instead of striking, he unholstered his cell phone and hit number one on the auto dial, squinting hard as he struck the tiny key with a big, sausage-like finger.
The call connected.
"This is Miles Waddell."
"Miles, the little bastards tagged one of the cars." As if in sympathy, Schaffer reached up and touched the polished oak trim strip below the curved, tinted windows of the railcar, the fourth car in a line of five such custom units behind the slick narrow gauge locomotive.
Waddell sighed, sounding farther away than the mesa-top home of his NightZone development thirty miles to the west. "Just the one?"
Well, the one is bad enough, Schaffer thought. Waddell could be excused for going ballistic upon hearing of the latest spray painted vandalism. But the brakeman had learned long ago that Miles Waddell, the owner and sole fund source for the mammoth astronomy theme park project, NightZone, managed his blood pressure by taking things in stride. In the great universe of the developer's current challenges, a panel of sprayed-on wannabe gang graffiti didn't amount to much.
"Just the one." Schaffer stepped back and surveyed the incomprehensible design. "This is what them little bastards call art, I guess. I can make out a P and an F, with a whole bunch of shit and curlicues designs around 'em. Got a panel about six feet long, from the rocker panels up to the window trim strip."
He stepped closer and touched the offending design lightly with the tips of his fingers, then dug in a strong thumbnail. "Looks like enamel. Ain't completely cured. I'd guess they got in here last night, most likely. It's like there ain't enough regular railcars around on the main line that they got to target ours."
"P. F. Patrullas de la Frontera," Waddell muttered. His mangled Spanish failed to sound the ll properly as a y.
"How'd they know we had company comin' today?" Schaffer asked. "This one's gonna take a gallon of Taginator."
"Yeah, well." Waddell clearly had other things on his mind this morning.
"Catch 'em in the act and shoot 'em. Leave 'em lyin' for the buzzards. That'll put a stop to it."
Waddell chuckled quietly. "That might not be the kind of PR that we want just now, Monty. The run this morning is more important, so how about taking that car out of line until we can get it cleaned up? Just go with the four today. That way we won't have to explain the vandalism to some reporter."
"You got it."
"All we can do is keep on top of it, Monty. If it happens again, don't let a single day go by before it's removed. For now, put it in the shed so they can't see you working on it. All the taggers want is the publicity."
"And take some good, clear pictures of the design before you scrub it off. I'll want to give a color copy to the SO first thing today for their files. Is Springer there yet?"
Schaffer lifted a hand in salute as the engineer in question walked down the line of cars toward him, taking his time, eyeing every wheel, grease fitting, brake block, and hose. "He's walking toward me right now."
"Well, sheeeeeit," Boyd Springer cursed when he saw the artwork.
"Miles is on the line." Schaffer held out the phone.
"Yup," Springer greeted his multimillionaire employer.
"Boyd, I told Monty just to kick the car loose and go with four. There'll be plenty of room. And don't forget ... Frank Dayan gets first choice of where to ride, but don't let him see that car. I don't want to see it on Page One."
"Sure." As publisher of the local Posadas Register, Frank Dayan had supported the massive NightZone project since the first day, when former rancher Miles Waddell had announced his almost incomprehensibly grandiose plans for an astronomy-based theme park perched on the laser-flat mesa-top, away from the highway traffic of State Route 56, away from any community of ranchers, completely out of sight of tourist traffic.
The most charitable county residents thought Waddell a bit goofy at even dreaming of a three-hundred-fifty-million-dollar project, even though the funding came as the bulk of an inheritance. But savvy in ways that few could understand, Waddell was close to pushing the whole concept to fruition. He'd managed his enormous inherited wealth carefully. One of his important talents was being able to ignore criticism from skeptics.
The latest deluge of publicity had fired up just a week before, when assembly of the long-awaited radio telescope dish, an enormous bowl-shaped antenna sixty meters across, had progressed to a point where visitors could actually tell what it was. Trucks had spent weeks bringing the parts to the mesa-top, and now the towering dish could turn its huge ear toward the heavens.
At the moment, to be sure, the great dish was stone-deaf. But eventually the maze of computer connections would be finished, and the installation, funded by a California university, coupled with scientists in New Zealand and India, together with the National Science Foundation, would join a worldwide grid of similar facilities.
The dish was the only structure on the NightZone mesa that was not funded entirely by Miles Waddell. Instead, he hosted the project, donating the acreage for the radio telescope facility, and he had helped move it. But the radio telescope wasn't the sort of facility where visitors could peer into an eyepiece. The tiny whispers of microwave background noise from deep space were the target, less intense than the beating of a tiny moth's wings.
The legion of conspiracy theorists amused Waddell. They deluged the Internet with wild tales about what the mesa installation was really designed to do, but the developer refused to spend an instant trying to refute silly rumors. The giant dish was deaf to neighborhood conversations.
And certainly, the radio telescope was but one feature of the massive two-hundred-thirty-acre NightZone mesa project. Waddell's dream included the tramway that rose almost nine hundred feet from the prairie below to the mesa-top, a new hotel and restaurant topside, the battery of three sixty-inch telescopes linked to the giant screen theater, and on and on.
Everything except a small interpretive center and the train station were on top of the mesa, out of sight. A tourist could drive west from Posadas toward Arizona and the Mexican border and never know the facility was there. There was not a single sign or billboard that announced, "Turn HERE! See the Heavens! Moccasins for the whole family! Martian Souvenirs!"
And today marked the fourth shakedown trip by the NightZone narrow-gauge locomotive, a ride that would take mesa visitors from the village of Posadas westward thirty-seven miles through rugged Sonoran Desert country to the mesa-bottom, ready for transfer to the tramway ride to the summit.
Waddell had mapped every inch of the train's route himself, favoring impressive scenery rather than a quick, efficient route — affectionately calling it his "bird-watcher's route." He had included picturesque trestles over torturous arroyos, wound the route through rock-choked narrows, and even tracked to the north a bit to take in an oak grove-garlanded box canyon featuring one of the few live springs in Posadas County.
Rather than choosing an antique steam locomotive, Waddell had settled on an amazingly quiet natural gas-electric engine. The locomotive's appearance was designed with futuristic simplicity, its paint scheme a deep, midnight blue color that complemented the tawny colors of the prairie through which it passed.
Visitors did not drive to the top of the NightZone mesa — Waddell was adamant about that. Part of the park's mystique was that visitors had to want to go there, had to want to make the effort. This was no place for a casual, spur-of-the-moment drive-by. First the train ride out from the village, then the tram, then the wonder of the on-top facilities. Once on top, visitors would experience the vast dome of the night sky — no light pollution from the sweep of headlights, no dust on the county road, no fumes from traffic, no flatulent, blaring exhaust resonators.
Even most vendors serving the park would keep their trucks out of the area, using the train's single freight car for deliveries.
Ever the realist, Waddell knew that a daytime train ride and tour would not have the impact of a night spent on the mesa. But journalists had to see the details, and with any luck, they'd be back to enjoy the ambience come dark.
"And take it slow," Waddell reminded his engineer. "We don't want some silly accident with the train full of reporters and cameras. Serene is the byword." The first three trips, all without incident, had run unannounced, twice in daylight, once at night. This fourth trip was entirely for journalists, and had garnered considerable media attention, including a full-page spread in the big-city Sunday metro paper.
"I hear ya." Springer reached out and patted the car's gleaming, and now defaced flank. "We'll get 'er all cleaned up."
"I have a meeting with the architects next week. We'll take a look at siding in the locomotive barn on Highland, with doors at both ends. That way we can button her up when she's not on the tracks."
Springer nodded as if Waddell could see him. "The way you've got it all laid out, this train is going to drive her wheels off. She isn't going to get the chance to sit still very long." The admiration in his voice was clear.
"Let's hope not. Look, I'll be there in about an hour," Waddell said. "I'll do just a little meet-and-greet with the press. And I don't want any of them having the chance to photograph the vandalism, so boot that car off first thing. We don't need to give the little bastards any publicity. I told Monty that I wanted good, clear photos of the damage for our own file. And to make sure the sheriff gets a copy. And Bill, too, for that matter. I asked him if he'd come along on this ride. Nobody knows more about the county than he does."
"Knowin' him, he'll want to be up in the cab," Springer said.
"Then that's where he goes," Waddell added. "If he wants to sit out on the cowcatcher, that's the way it is."
Former Posadas County deputy, then undersheriff, then sheriff, then livestock inspector, then retired to a rich life of his own historical studies and fieldwork, Bill Gastner had been sidelined by a shattered hip. He had spent nearly a year coming to grips with what he called his new "bionic" hip joint, and seemed to be working hard at making up for lost time. Friends with Miles Waddell for years, Gastner had scouted the NightZone mesa thoroughly. Although the seventy-seven-year-old Gastner refused any sort of salary or remuneration, Waddell depended on him for advice and consultation.
Scheduling the train ride for this particular Friday was typical of Waddell's far-reaching sense of community relations, and the mesa-top astronomy development was not the only community attraction for journalists — and Waddell knew it.
Blazing their own trail of stardom, the girls of the Posadas High School varsity volleyball team had posted their sixty-fifth consecutive win on Thursday, the night before. The four-year string of victories included every championship on the books, a truly legendary performance by any standard.
No one had seriously expected the Posadas Jaguars to lose to their opponents, and sure enough, no astonishing upset popped the victory bubble. The Jaguars put another lopsided scorching in the record books. A few fans dreamed of the day that the Jaguars would take on opponents from the giant quad-A city schools from Albuquerque — even a simple, non-recorded scrimmage would serve.
Still, the excitement had been palpable for Thursday night's game, not tempered much by any sympathy for the opponents. The media would be in town for both the game and the NightZone festivities the next day. The team had scored a full-page feature in the Sunday metro paper the weekend before, with Waddell's locomotive and the rising NightZone project on display in another section of the same newspaper. The draw of the two events was obvious, and to make sure, special invitations for the Friday train ride went out to television, radio, and print media.
One of the narrow-gauge trestles crossed a picturesque arroyo spanning the Rio Grijalva, a bone-dry arroyo near one of the ranch roads. Media could station themselves there for a dramatic shot as the train whispered overhead. In case they ignored the opportunity, Waddell's staff photographer had already captured the photogenic moment from a dozen angles during the trestle's construction and the locomotive's first three trips, and eight-by-ten glossies had been distributed liberally.
The publicity had worked. Volleyball and NightZone were putting Posadas County on the map.CHAPTER 2
The blue Volvo wagon slid into a spot in The Spree's enormous, freshly lined black macadam parking lot, sandwiched between an Oldsmobile and a white utility rig from Ace-1 Plumbing and Heating. The Volvo's driver's door opened and a young woman got out. Fifty yards away, coming up the aisle in a Posadas County Sheriff's Department Expedition, Deputy Thomas Pasquale grinned.
Stacie Willis Stewart stepped out from the line of vehicles and walked with the same roll of the hips she had fifteen years before when she melted hearts and sent hormones soaring at Posadas High School. She turned to check traffic and saw the Expedition idling toward her. She didn't pause, but twiddled her fingers — flirtatious fingers, Pasquale thought — in his direction. He grinned even wider and lifted a hand in salute. A twiddle, but no smile. Still too stuck-up for that, the deputy thought.
Deputy Pasquale hoped for a second glance and twiddle as the young woman walked toward the store, but like most of the other shoppers, she was no doubt eager to escape the heat of late morning.
As rarely as they had crossed paths over the years, it would be nice to imagine that Stacie actually remembered who he was. Fifteen years before, he had spent the entire year of B-Level senior high school English admiring the back of her neck. A dozen other boys in the class wished that they were lucky enough to sit so close to Stacie that they could inhale her perfume.
The intervening years hadn't lessened her appeal. Folks had assumed she was destined for New York, or even Hollywood, given her flawless face, husky voice, and perfect figure. How surprised they were when she chose to marry a small-town banker and then lock into a career of her own as an auditor with the Posadas Electric Cooperative. There were rumors, of course. In that respect, Posadas was no different than any other village.
She didn't look back as she disappeared into The Spree.
Too small for a Walmart or any of the other huge boxes, the village of Posadas had nevertheless attracted its first sign of boom. The Spree had been open less than a month, and already it was lauded and cursed in equal measure. Some concluded that the store had been attracted by the world-class tourist potential created by the new astronomy theme park southwest of town.
Not everyone was supportive. There were folks who found it fashionable to vow never to darken the doors of the new store, even if it meant driving to Deming or Las Cruces to buy what they needed.
Deputy Pasquale didn't dabble in politics. He didn't concern himself with thorny civic issues, like which box store might bulldoze lesser competitors out of business. He hadn't even lobbied for a passenger seat on the narrow-gauge train sliding out of town earlier that morning for its much ballyhooed public run out to NightZone. Maybe the sheriff would go. Probably not. Certainly the ebullient county manager, Leona Spears, would never miss such an event. Pasquale had seen the news crews assembled for their ride, had seen the two choppers parked out at the municipal airport.
In another stroke of good fortune, he had missed having to work the eardrum- and record-shattering volleyball game Thursday night, choosing instead the peace and quiet of an evening at home.
Excerpted from Come Dark by Steven F. Havill. Copyright © 2016 Steven F. Havill. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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