Read an Excerpt
A Kendall O'Dell Mystery
By Sylvia Nobel
Nite Owl BooksCopyright © 1998 Sylvia Nobel
All rights reserved.
"Oh ... my ... God. What have I done?" I murmured aloud, staring transfixed at the barren desert valley below the roadside overlook. No way could this be my new home. No way. As I consulted the Arizona road map once again, a hostile brown wind charged up the steep cliff, whirling my hair into a tangle and filling my eyes with grit.
I began to regret my impulsive decision to take the newspaper job in Castle Valley. But, had there been any choice? All through the drive from Pennsylvania I had tortured myself with 'If onlys.' If only I hadn't been forced to a drier climate because of asthma. If only I hadn't lost my job at the Philadelphia Inquirer. If only Grant hadn't dumped me. If only, if only ...
An odd smell and snuffling sound made me whirl around. Instantly, I froze in shock at the sight of eight weird-looking creatures approximately the size of large dogs standing between me and the safety of my car.
A tentative step forward caused one of the grayish, bristle-coated animals to let out a snort and clatter its long, sharp tusks. What the devil were these things? They looked ferocious, like something out of a science fiction movie. Heart hammering, I shrank back against the stone retaining wall and edged a glance behind me to the sheer drop. There was no escape unless I suddenly developed the ability to fly.
A surge of panic contracted my chest. Stay calm, I urged myself. The last thing I needed right now was an asthma attack and to make matters worse, I realized that I'd left my inhaler in the car. If only a balky fuel pump hadn't detoured me off the freeway to Prescott for repairs, I wouldn't have even been in this godforsaken spot.
For whatever reason, the strange beasts suddenly lost interest in me. They dipped their heads and rooted among the dry weeds, flicking only an occasional wary look at me. I wondered what else I could do to screw up my life.
As I stood baking in the warm April sunlight, I cringed inwardly remembering how my well-meaning father had oversold my abilities to his old newspaper colleague Morton Tuggs, convincing him that I was already an experienced investigative reporter.
"Dad!" I'd whispered fiercely, "You know I was only in research."
He'd cupped his hand over the receiver. "It's not like you have a lot of options, Kendall. This place isn't far from Phoenix and he's got an opening right now. You talk to him." He set the phone against my ear.
After I'd introduced myself, he explained that not only would my investigative background be a plus, he also needed someone he could trust. Three weeks prior, he stated, one of his reporters had mysteriously vanished without a trace.
That snagged my interest, but I felt a vague sense of foreboding when he seemed reluctant to answer any further questions on the phone.
"If you decide to take the job," he'd added gruffly, "we'll talk more when you arrive."
That would have been the time to confess my amateur status, but I'd said nothing.
The sound of an approaching vehicle pulled my attention to the road and a surge of relief washed over me when a tan pickup pulling a horse trailer roared into view. I waved my hand and the truck eased to a stop on the far side of the road. Two men got out. The driver, a tall lanky man wearing mirrored sunglasses, strolled toward me then stopped in his tracks and stared.
His older companion limped up behind him and gestured to my Volvo. "You got car trouble?"
I shook my head and pointed. Both men peered around the car, looked back at me, at each other, then broke into wide grins.
"Those pigs botherin' you, lady?" asked the tall one, tipping the hat off his forehead, his mouth working a piece of gum. There was an unmistakable note of sarcasm in his voice.
Pigs? These hairy, sharp-toothed things were pigs? But why should that surprise me? They were like everything else I'd seen so far in this hot, dusty place: wild, prickly, and ugly.
He stepped forward, clapped his hands, and hollered, "Eeeeyaah!" The animals squealed and galloped away.
He turned back to me and swept the wide brimmed western hat from his head, revealing thick, blue-black hair. With exaggerated flair, he executed an elaborate bow, his smile mocking. "Always happy to assist a damsel in distress." Even though I couldn't see his eyes, I could tell by the slow movement of his head that he was eyeing me from head to foot.
Damsel? Great. Was that how I appeared? Weak? Helpless? I squared my jaw, not sure if it was his macho behavior that irked me, or the fact that I was thoroughly fed up with men at that particular moment. A failed marriage and a broken engagement certainly entitled me to that.
The older man explained that the creatures weren't actually pigs but Collared Peccaries called javelinas. "They look a mite fearsome, but won't usually harm you unless you go after their young'uns." A friendly smile creased his sun-leathered face. By the look of their clothing, I gathered I'd come across some genuine Arizona cowboys.
"Should have guessed," the tall stranger said scornfully, pointing to my license plate. "She's a bird."
I bristled. "What do you mean I'm a bird?"
"Snowbird," the other man explained. "You know,
tourist. Winter visitor. Folks who come here for the warm weather and then skedaddle."
"But," the contentious one cut in, "not before you interlopers pollute our air, clog our roads, drain our water supply and ruin our way of life."
"No offense intended, ma'am." The old cowboy shot a questioning glance at his friend.
But I did feel offended. Without stopping to think, the lie leaped to my tongue. "I am not a snowbird. For your information, I happen to be relocating to Castle Valley. I've accepted a very important ... managerial position at their newspaper." I regretted my impulsive words immediately and wondered why I should even give a crap what this arrogant man thought.
For a long minute they stared at me in silence, and then the tall cowboy grinned. "Well, now, is that a fact?"
A sharp ringing sound like metal striking metal, and a high whinny from the trailer got both men's immediate attention. "Come on, Jake," said the younger man, "we've wasted enough time. Let's get them back to the ranch." He reached the trailer in long strides, and I could hear him speak in a soothing voice to the horses.
I thanked Jake for his help, adding, "I'm not too crazy about your friend. He's got a real attitude problem."
His grin seemed rather sheepish. "Don't pay no attention to him. He just don't like newcomers much, and plus that you look a powerful lot like ..."
His words faded as the ground suddenly swirled beneath me. I brushed a hand over my forehead as Jake stepped forward. Grabbing one arm, he led me to sit on a nearby rock in the shade of a scraggly tree. "You got water with you, miss?" A look of concern deepened the creases around his eyes. "It's real dangerous to be out here without some. People dehydrate in a matter of hours. The desert, it ain't nothing to fool with."
I decided I'd rather die than admit I was an ignorant snowbird. "Yes, I have plenty in the car." He didn't need to know I had only a few sips of soda left in my cup.
A loud shout from the truck. "Come on, Jake. Let's roll!"
I thanked Jake again for his kindness. He touched the brim of his hat murmuring, "Don't mention it," and limped away.
The dizzy spell behind me, I slumped into the oven-like interior of my car and downed the last of the warm soda, jumping in alarm when a hand reached through the window on the passenger side.
The dark-haired man dropped a thermos on the seat beside me. "You might need this."
I glared at him. "I'm perfectly fine. And anyway, I would have no way of returning this to you since it's highly unlikely we'll ever meet again." The haughty tone in my voice surprised me.
His slow grin was downright sardonic. "It's a small world. You never know." Waving a final salute in my direction, he headed back to the truck. I felt like he'd given me the finger as they pulled away. His bumper sticker read, WELCOME TO ARIZONA. NOW GO HOME!
By the time I reached the sign informing me that Castle Valley was fifteen miles ahead, I'd drunk half the water and was feeling rather foolish. The cowboy had been right after all.
Slowing for a cattle guard, I noticed a girl walking alongside the road. It wasn't my usual habit to stop for hitchhikers, but when she frantically shouted and waved, I pulled onto the shoulder. She begged for a ride and when I reluctantly agreed, she scooped up her backpack and plopped down beside me, exclaiming. "It's hotter than hell out here." I agreed and tried not to notice that she hadn't been within whistling distance of a shower for some time. "You going to Phoenix?" she asked hopefully.
"No. Just to the next town."
"Oh." A look of resignation flickered across her thin face. "No biggie. I'll get another ride. You mind if I smoke?" She flipped a damp blond curl behind one ear.
"Yeah, I mind," I answered, trying not to stare at the multitude of tattoos adorning her body, the studs in her nose, eyebrows, and that her ears must have been pierced a hundred times. Every time she moved, the array of earrings jingled when she moved.
"That's cool. No problem." There was a hard edge about her. I noted her ragged jeans and faded T-shirt. What in the world was this girl doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Was she a runaway? She couldn't be more than fourteen. As we continued down the road, she spoke little, staring straight ahead with vacant green eyes.
I dragged my thoughts from the girl to examine my new surroundings. Morton Tuggs had told my father that Castle Valley was a beautiful place and more healthful than Phoenix for me because it had no smog and was higher in elevation. My initial reaction was one of extreme disappointment. What a dinky town. It looked old and dilapidated, not at all what I'd imagined. A sign read: Population 5000. I wondered if that included the wildlife as a prairie dog skipped across the road in front of me.
At least the sunset was gorgeous. The sky boasted a brilliant tapestry of red, yellow and orange hues, tinting the rock wall to the east a vibrant shade of gold.
I stopped near the Greyhound Bus station, pressed a twenty-dollar bill into the girl's hand and suggested there might be a church or shelter where she could spend the night. She thanked me and got out, saying that the money would come in handy since she was headed for Texas. As I watched her walk away I suddenly felt very fortunate. Unlike her, I'd be staying at a motel tonight and I had a new job waiting for me in the morning.
I slept like a rock and rose late. As I downed my asthma medication, I prayed that the dry weather would restore my health and then I could return home.
When I arrived at the address I'd been given, my spirits tanked. How was I going to survive in this place? The newspaper building looked just like the rest of the downtown area - old and weather-beaten.
The receptionist at the Castle Valley Sun greeted me with a dimpled smile, and introduced herself as Ginger King. She seemed delighted to hear that I might be joining the staff and took my elbow in a friendly manner while ushering me to Morton Tuggs' office, which was situated at the end of a short L-shaped hallway.
I couldn't help but notice the smudged walls and frayed carpet as we reached the open doorway. From inside, a loud voice boomed, "The hell you say?" Hesitating, I turned questioning eyes to Ginger. "Don't fret none, sugar pie," she soothed, patting my hand. "His bark's a mite worse than his bite. You can set right there in front of his desk." Giggling, she gave me a little shove forward. The bald, red-faced man seated at the incredibly cluttered desk waved me in while continuing to harangue whomever was at the other end of the phone.
The wooden chair wobbled on uneven legs when I sat. Clutching my purse in my lap, I surveyed the room. It was crowded and shabby, relieved only by bright travel posters plastered on every available square inch of wall space.
"I paid you a shitload of money for this goddamned system," he shouted. He didn't have hair one on the crown of his head, but as he listened intently, his fingers absently fluffed, then pressed flat, the tufts of fuzz perched over his ears like gray cotton balls. "I don't give a rat's ass what you say, just get the hell over here and fix it!" The phone dinged when he slammed down the receiver.
After a few breaths to compose himself he edged me an apologetic smile. "Sorry about that." He reached out a welcoming hand. "So, you're Kendall O'Dell? Good to meet you. I see you got Bill's red hair. Quite a guy your dad. I guess he told you the story?" His brown eyes looked solemn, faraway. I took his hand, knowing he must be remembering the day my dad had saved his life when they'd both been foreign correspondents during the Vietnam War.
"It's nice to finally meet you too, Mr. Tuggs."
His other hand swiped impatiently at the air. "Tugg. Tugg. Everybody calls me Tugg." A hint of humor lit his face. "Except when they're calling me Tugboat behind my back."
I smiled, finally relaxing. We talked for a few minutes about what my routine assignments would be, the fact that his wife Mary had located several houses for me to look at and other general subjects.
During a lull in the conversation, I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. Was I wrong, or was Morton Tuggs deliberately avoiding the subject I most wanted to discuss? I cleared my throat. "You said on the phone you needed someone with my investigative background and someone you could trust. Do you want to tell me about this missing reporter?"
A look of anxiety etched his face. Instead of answering, he rose, shut the door, and returned to his desk where he laced his fingers in front of him. "I have to tell you that I've agonized for several weeks over how to handle this. It was my intent to have you look into it but, under the circumstances ... perhaps it would be best not to pursue the matter further."
I eyed him suspiciously. He wasn't behaving very much like the hard-boiled newspaper editor my father had described. "A man doesn't vanish for no reason. What did the police report say?"
"There was a search. It was called off last week. I've pressed, but there doesn't seem much interest in pursuing the case. The official line coming down is that he probably just got bored with our little burg and skipped."
"What do you think?"
Tugg absentmindedly fluffed the patches of hair again. "John Dexter wasn't real well liked. He delighted in digging up dirt on people. Go through some of the back issues and you'll see what I mean. He had a knack for really pissing people off. But," he added, "even though he was sort of flaky at times, I can't believe he'd just up and go with no notice."
"So, I'll talk to the police and see what I can come up with. Perhaps there's a lead they've missed."
I jumped as his fist crashed on the desk. Then, noting my obvious shock, he said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you ... it's just that ... I'm not sure giving you this assignment would be the right thing to do."
Butterflies fluttered in my stomach. The major reason for my trip, resurrecting my aborted career, was fading before my eyes. "I'd appreciate a shot at this."
He swiveled in his chair and stared silently at the poster of Greece. After a minute he said quietly, "If you decide to work on this, it'll have to be strictly on the Q.T. Nobody else can know, and I'd caution you to be very, very careful."
His attitude disturbed me. It wasn't what he was saying, it was what he wasn't saying.
"Mr. Tuggs, Tugg ..." I tried to keep the irritation from my voice. "You're going to have to level with me on this or I don't see how I can help. If you suspect foul play, which I gather you do, why aren't the police pursuing it, and why aren't you pushing for answers?"
As if struggling mightily with a difficult decision, he dropped his eyes and drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. Abruptly, he pulled open a drawer and extracted a ragged piece of paper. He stared at it, chewing his lower lip. "John called me at home the afternoon before he disappeared. We were having a big get-together for my daughter and it was so noisy I was having trouble hearing him. I wish now I'd paid more attention 'cause I only remember bits and pieces of what he said." He sighed heavily. "Something about meeting a girl later. Her information would tie into what he'd been working on earlier in the week, and if he was right, it would blow the lid off this town." He stopped, rubbed his temples as if in pain, then continued. "He'd been going through some files over at the sheriff's office and told me he'd discovered something weird. I'm not sure if there's any connection, but, I found this in his desk a couple of days ago."
Excerpted from Deadly Sanctuary by Sylvia Nobel. Copyright © 1998 Sylvia Nobel. Excerpted by permission of Nite Owl Books.
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