Author Biography: Sylvia Nobel is the award-winning author of the Kendall O'Dell mystery series and two romance novels,all set in Arizona. She is an accomplished public speaker and a member of Mystery Writers of America. She lives in Phoenix, AZ with her husband and seven cats.
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A scant fifteen minutes had elapsed since my vacation had officially started and my purse was ringing already. I stifled a sigh of irritation and dug the phone out, glancing at the number on the display screen. “Too late!” I muttered, dropping it onto the passenger seat. “I’m not answering.” I cranked up the volume on the radio, tightened my grip on the steering wheel and headed across the desert towards the imposing monolith of Castle Rock. The ragged peaks, now glowing a peachy-coral in the late afternoon sunlight, cut a serrated pattern across a sky of clear sapphire blue.
Considering I’d had no more than a handful of days off since I’d taken the job at the Castle Valley Sun seven months ago, I was psyched, I was jazzed, and I was in no mood to tackle even one more problem, no matter how small. For two whole wonderful weeks there would be no copy to write, no deadlines and no employee issues. Whatever it was would just have to wait until Tugg could handle it on Monday.
The phone chirped a few more times and then quit. Good. My dad always said to be careful what you wish for and he was dead on right, as usual. Along with the newly acquired notebook computer, the handy little cell phone had been on my ‘must have’ list for months and, in theory, was supposed to make my life easier. It had in many ways, but it was also a royal pain in the butt. Being accessible ‘twenty-four seven’ wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind.
I hummed along with the upbeat melody, swung onto Lost Canyon Road and headed home, my mind busy with the details of my upcoming trip to California with Tally. A chill of delight shot down my spine at the thought of just the two of us spending some much-needed R & R in a new setting away from the pressures of work. He’d promised that we’d take time out from the horse show to spend at least one day at the beach. I could hardly wait to bask in the cool sea breeze. I’d survived my first sizzling summer and so far, was less than impressed with what was loosely described as autumn in Arizona. Back home in Pennsylvania, there would be a frosty nip in the air and the forested hills would be a breathtaking tapestry of crimson and gold, but as I drove through the cactus and rock-strewn desert, there was nothing to hint that it was the second week of October, except it was a little less hot.
At that moment the jaunty voice of the radio announcer cut into my thoughts with the optimistic declaration that a weather change was definitely on the way—for sure, this time, he insisted. Right. Predictions of rain by effusive TV meteorologists had been bandied about for weeks, but I hadn’t seen anything even remotely resembling a cloud since the last summer storm had swept through town six weeks ago dumping an inch of rain in less than an hour.
The phone jingled again. Damn! I should have powered it off. The office number showed on the screen again. Oh my. I debated a few seconds, then pushed the button and said in a mechanical monotone, “You have reached the cell number for Kendall O’Dell. She is currently in holiday mode and cannot comprehend anything you may say in reference to work. Please refer all problems to Morton Tuggs. Thank you.”
There was an extended silence and then I heard Ginger mutter, “Well, I’ll be a dimpled duck’s butt. Now I’ve heard everything.”
I couldn’t help bursting into laughter.
“Sugar, is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me. But whatever it is, I don’t want to hear it.”
“Well, good gravy, girl, don’t get yourself all in a snit,” she said, giggling. “I just called to remind you to bring that big ol’ ice bucket and your pretty red-flowered tablecloth to the party tonight.”
“I won’t forget. You still need me there before six?”
“I’ve got a million and two things left to do, so I could use a little extra help getting things ready and…could you hang on a second while I grab the other line?”
She clicked off and I smiled to myself. Ginger could always find an excuse to throw a party. Get a new car? She’d have a party. Relatives visiting from out of state? Why not celebrate? This evening’s shindig was the official welcome for our new reporter, Walter Zipp, who’d thankfully come aboard less than three weeks ago after a fruitless four-month search. His reasons for moving to Castle Valley were rather vague, something about caring for his wife’s elderly aunt. In light of his impressive credentials, it was surprising when he didn’t blink at the sizeable salary cut. But, considering the circumstances, I sure wasn’t about to argue with him.
“Okee dokee,” she sighed, coming back on the line again. “Could you do me one more favor and pick up a couple of bags of ice?”
“I thought that was Lupe’s responsibility.”
“I don’t even know if she’s coming for sure,” Ginger grumbled. “And here I was really counting on her homemade enchiladas for the main dish.”
“What’s the problem? Is she sick?”
“She says no, but something’s bothering her. She’s been real quiet and keeping to herself. But, most important, she ain’t been laughing at my jokes the past couple of days.”
I smiled to myself. “This does sound serious.”
Completely missing my quip, she continued, “I know it. Her eyes were all puffy and red when she came in this morning and when I asked her about it, she clammed up tighter than a Mason jar lid. Right after you left, some woman called asking for her and two seconds later, she skedaddled out of here, looking real worried and mumbling something about maybe not being able to make it tonight.”
That had to be bugging Ginger big time. She made it her mission in life to keep close tabs on everyone’s business. Secrets drove her to distraction. But, her news was unsettling. Lupe Alvarez was one of our most dependable employees, and one of only two people capable of handling both Classified and Display advertising. She was always on time for work, eager for overtime hours and, since I’d been at the Sun, had never once left early. On weekends, she maintained housekeeping and babysitting jobs as well. Oh boy. The last thing I needed was a personnel crisis just before leaving town.
“I’ll give her a call when I get to the house,” I said, watching a roadrunner skim across the road in front of me and disappear into a cluster of creosote bushes. “Maybe I can find out what’s wrong.”
“Thanks, sugar. See you in a few.”
Within ten minutes, I was standing barefoot on the cool terra cotta tile in my living room checking for phone messages. My parents had called and Tally was going to be late getting to the party because of some problem at the ranch. The rest were hang-ups.
I looked up Lupe’s home number and dialed. Busy signal. Good grief. She must be among the handful of people left on earth without call waiting. I shed my clothes all the way into the bedroom and stuffed them into the hamper. I couldn’t put it off any longer. The mountain of laundry had to be done before I could even begin packing the suitcases that stood near my bed. A quick shower refreshed me and after I’d zipped myself into a sleeveless cotton jumpsuit, I lugged the hamper to the kitchen, started a load of wash and then set out the ice bucket and tablecloth before trying Lupe’s number again. This time it rang.
“Lupe, this is Kendall. Ginger told me you left work early. Is everything okay?”
A long hesitation. “I…I had to take care of some…personal business.”
“So, you’re not sick?”
“Good.” Did I detect a hint of wariness in her voice? “Ginger says you may not be coming to the party tonight. How come?”
There was another drawn out silence. “Oh…well, no, I mean, I suppose I can come for a little while.”
“That’s great. So, you’re still bringing enchiladas and picking up ice?”
“You’re sure everything is okay? Is there anything you want to talk about?”
“No! I mean…it is nothing important. See you there.” Click.
My reporter’s antenna vibrated as I cradled the phone. Hmmm. Normally, she was outgoing and talkative. Today, however, not only did her voice sound lackluster, I detected an undertone of distress. Disturbing. And then I stopped myself, remembering. the promise I’d made myself earlier to put all concerns of the job and my co-workers on the back burner for the next two weeks. Maybe it would be better to find out what was bugging her before I left town though so my mind would be at ease.
By the time I arrived at Ginger’s faded pink adobe house an hour later, Walter Zipp’s dented green Bronco was already parked next to Jim’s sassy little Toyota truck. I smiled to myself. They’d been assigned to bring the ingredients to make margaritas and I had a feeling they’d gotten the party off to an early start. Walter would be enjoying a bachelor’s night out having explained earlier that his wife would be unable to join him since she opted to stay with her ailing aunt.
A foot-stomping country tune was wafting out the screen door as I paused to pet Ginger’s fluffy gray and white cat. “Hey there, Churchill,” I murmured, when he threw himself down and rolled over to invite me to scratch his tummy. “I’ve been thinking a lot about adopting one of you furry felines. Maybe when I get back from the coast, huh?”
“How about you take him with you right after the party?”
I looked up to see Ginger’s younger brother, Brian, standing at the door with a devilish grin plastered on his face. I took the bait. “Really? You think Ginger would be okay with that?”
“No, but it would sure be fine with me…” Several sharp barks interrupted his sentence as his grandmother, Nona, rolled up beside him in her wheelchair. Her little brown dog, standing stiff-legged on her lap, glared daggers at the cat. “…and I’m positive Suzie would be more than happy to see him gone too,” Brian concluded, shouting over the shrill yipping. Churchill rose, leveled a look of disdain at the watery-eyed pooch, and with a regal air, sashayed away, tail aloft. I smiled. The cat had attitude.
“Well, if it isn’t Miss Kinsey O’Dale.” The old woman’s eyes sparkled with mischief as Brian swung the screen door open for me. True to the many years she’d spent as a Broadway actress, and well known for her outlandish theatrics, she was predictably overdressed for the occasion in a red sequined dress and matching hat adorned with two enormous white ostrich feathers.
Grinning, I leaned down and planted a kiss on her brightly rouged cheek. “Hi, Nona, great to see you too.” Hard of hearing, she’d called me ‘candle’ the first time we’d met and since then, seemed to delight in finding some new way to mispronounce my name. The little game amused both of us.
“Sis is out on the patio having a major coronary,” Brian said, pointing towards the kitchen. “Jim and that new guy are no help at all. They’ve been chugging margaritas for the last half hour.”
I gave him a wry smile. “Hey, that’s okay. It’s taken us forever to get somebody to sign on at the paper, so we sure don’t want to scare him off. Let ‘em have a good time, I’ll help out.”
He wheeled Nona away from the door and back in front of the TV as I entered Ginger’s cluttered kitchen. I shook my head in amazement at the tower of unwashed dishes in the sink. Plastic grocery bags were scattered everywhere and a jumble of paper plates, cups, napkins, pop and liquor bottles covered every available square inch of counter space. Ginger was way ahead of me in the worst housekeeper category. At least I washed the dishes every couple of days.
“Oh, there you are,” she said, rushing through the patio door, looking totally frazzled. “I guess I’m running a tad behind.”
“You should have orange traffic cones posted at the doorway to warn people. It looks downright dangerous in here,” I said with a laugh, pushing aside tortilla chip bags to set the ice bucket down. “Here’s the tablecloth, I’ll do these dishes and then you can tell me what else needs to be done.”
“Bless your little heart,” she crooned, pushing a damp strand of strawberry blonde hair away from her freckled face. ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna to do about getting some more food. How fast could you whip up a passel of enchiladas?”
I made a face at her. “Right. Betty Crocker, I’m not. Just chill, okay? I called Lupe. She says she’ll be here.”
Ginger clasped her hands and rolled her eyes heavenward. “Thank you dear Lord.”
It took every second of the next hour, but between Ginger, myself and Brian we managed to get the chairs and buffet table set up outside, light the candles, and start a cheery fire in the clay chimenea before we attacked the mess in the kitchen. Jim and Walter lounged outside the open door in lawn chairs cracking jokes and supervising our activities. They were well into the second pitcher of margaritas as twilight set in and the rest of the newspaper staff and their families began to arrive.
“Bet you can hardly wait to get away on your trip with Tally,” Ginger said, edging me a coy smile as we spooned salsa and guacamole into hand painted bowls. “You gonna wear that sexy new bathing suit you bought in Phoenix last week?”
I winked. “That was my plan.”
“Ah, romance,” she sighed, delicately fanning her face. “I’m tickled pink to know you two ain’t scrappin’ no more about you doing that Morgan’s Folly story.”
I shot her a meaningful look. “He hasn’t mentioned it this week…so far anyway.”
Ginger tossed the empty salsa bottle in the trash. “Well, sugar, you can’t blame him for being a mite peeved. You should’ve told him what happened right away.”
A mite peeved was putting it mildly. “I know, I know. I’ve done my utmost to make it up to him these past couple of months and I think things are finally getting back to normal. We both need a break from the office routine and…other things. I think this is just what the doctor ordered.”
“Where is our handsome cowboy, anyway?” Ginger asked, scooping up the bowls.
“He said he’d be late. Some kind of trouble at the ranch.”
“Not problems with his Ma again?”
I grimaced. “No, thank goodness, it’s not Ruth this time. I don’t know. It has something to do with a couple of his ranch hands. What about Doug?” I inquired, referring to her current companion. “Why isn’t he here?”
“He’s bartending at a private party over at the tennis ranch.”
“Too bad, we could have used an extra hand,” I remarked, tossing empty tortilla chip bags into the trash.
She rolled her eyes. “Tell me about it.”
We set the last of the munchies on the table, greeted all the guests and then helped ourselves to margaritas before collapsing into the lawn chairs. Brian had made up a WELCOME, WALTER sign on his computer and it flapped in the balmy breeze as a dazzling array of stars sparkled overhead. Everyone had told me the Hunter’s moonrise this time of year would be spectacular and they weren’t kidding. Little by little the horizon began to glow like a second sunrise, snuffing out the stars, and suddenly there it was, climbing majestically above the crest of Castle Rock like a giant cantaloupe-colored disk. The effect was spellbinding and murmurs of awe rose from the small gathering. I know it was just an optical illusion but the sheer enormity of it seemed unreal, dwarfing the peaks below.
More people streamed through the door, filling the small back yard. “Ready for the hot-seat again?” I remarked to Morton Tuggs as he and his wife, Mary, settled into lawn chairs next to me. “You sure you’re gonna be up to it?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m feeling fit as a fiddle,” he said, patting his paunch. He really did seem vastly improved since his ulcer surgery. “Anyway, it’s going to be a whole lot easier with Walter here taking up the slack while you and Tally are gone.”
“I’ll second that.” I raised my glass. “Attention, everybody! My esteemed co-editor and I would like to propose a toast to officially welcome our new man on the street, Mr. Walter Zipp.”
There was applause and a rousing chorus of agreement from the staff while another round of margaritas was poured. Brian re-filled my glass and Ginger leaned in to whisper, “You sure Lupe’s coming? It’s a quarter past seven.” Her worried gaze roamed over the crowd gathering around the buffet table, picking at the chips and dip. We had a cauldron of refried beans simmering inside, but that hardly constituted dinner.
“We’ll just ply them with more appetizers till she gets here.” I assured her, trying to quell my escalating uncertainty. It was long past the time she should have arrived.
To keep everyone’s mind off the fact that the main course had not yet materialized, I suggested we all share the funniest or most bizarre story we’d ever covered. Tugg entertained us with several gems from his early days as a cub reporter and Jim had us all in stitches as he repeated his golden toilets along the freeway story. I, of course, shared my last two big assignments and then we urged Walter to tell us all a little about himself and his last job in Sierra Vista. He hoisted his bulky frame from the chair and gave us a lopsided grin. “I’m happy as a pig in shit to be here,” he slurred, running a hand through his short-cropped brown hair, “cuz there’s big trouble brewing down south.”
Oh. Good opening. The mothers of some of the younger kids exchanged startled glances, so I quickly interjected, “Well, we’re all equally happy to have you here, but trouble sounds like a good story opportunity to me.’
“Not if you live and work there now, it isn’t. I’ll tell you what,” he said, hitching up his pants with one hand. “The ranchers and just plain everyday God-loving Americans living near those border towns have about had it with those damned illegals. They’re pouring across like cockroaches and just about as easy to catch. And, I’ll tell you what, if you add the growing number of white separatist groups springing up to that equation…well, you mark my words, people, there’s going to be bloodshed before this is all over. I’m glad to be out of it. Real glad.”
Bleary-eyed, Jim piped up. “Hey, man, there’s nothing funny or weird about that story.”
Walter edged him a look of mild annoyance. “Oh, yeah? Well, try this on for size. The last piece I was working on before I left, and this is just one among several other strange stories, concerned a particular jumper they caught in Morita.”
“What’s Morita?” Ginger asked, casting a pensive eye at her watch.
“A ghost town about half a mile or so from the Mexican border. Not much there but the mine and a half a dozen buildings. Anyhow, the caretaker cornered this wetback hiding in a shack and turned him over to the Border Patrol.”
“Why does a ghost town need a caretaker?” I asked.
“Cause it’s on private property and there was an accident there last year, but that’s another story,” he said with an impatient swipe of his hand. “So anyway, this Mexican claimed…”
“Hate to tell you this, Walter,” Jim cut in, “but this still ain’t funny and it sure ain’t weird.” He turned to all of us and said, “Let me tell you guys the one about the lady who kept a cow in her bedroom.”
Walter put up a hand. “Keep your pants on, Jimbo. I intend to win this contest under the most bizarre heading if you’ll just let me finish.”
Jim continued to look skeptical while everyone else leaned forward a few inches.
“The guy claimed—and I don’t know what the hell he’d been drinking or smoking before they nabbed him, but get this, he said he’d been hunkered down in some bushes the night before and witnessed a whole van load of people getting waylaid by aliens.”
Jim’s face twisted in disbelief. “What the hell does that mean? He is an alien.”
“No, dummy. He didn’t mean illegal aliens. He was talking about space aliens. Little green men from Mars.”
The amazed silence that followed his remark seemed to emphasize the strangled gasp. We all turned around in time to see the glass casserole dish fall from Lupe’s hands and shatter on the concrete patio. Her dark eyes glassy with horror, she muffled a cry with her hand and fled.
Seconds later, Tally appeared in the doorway and, like the rest of us, stared in shocked dismay at the remains of our enchilada dinner. He looked up and shrugged. “Was it something I said?”
What People are Saying About This
Sylvia Nobel's new mystery novel is a breathtaking roadtrip through Arizona's ranches, ghost towns and scenic landscapes. Dark Moon Crossing weaves a tangled web of intrigue - a page turner from beginning to end!
Sarah Herlache, Librarian, Glendale Public Library, Glendale, AZ.