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A Kendall O'Dell Mystery
By Sylvia Nobel
Nite Owl BooksCopyright © 2015 Sylvia Nobel
All rights reserved.
Energetic music thumped from the speakers, fueling my already upbeat mood. I pressed the accelerator of my spanking-new, lime green Jeep a little harder, relishing the instantaneous response. Oh yeah. Sweet. Cruising along the two-lane road that sliced through the cactus-strewn landscape, I sipped hot vanilla-laced coffee and marveled at the sight of the vast desert panorama enveloped in a thick layer of ground fog — a rare occurrence that added an interesting dimension to the ordinarily parched Arizona topography. A shadowy platoon of moisture-plumped saguaro cactus stood at attention alongside the road, accentuating the eerie scene. Awesome.
But I knew it wouldn't last long. According to the local weather forecast, it was slated to be another picture-perfect day with afternoon temperatures climbing to the low-seventies. Having spent the first twenty-eight winters of my life in damp, chilly Pennsylvania, I was still getting accustomed to flowers blooming, green grass and the luxury of sunbathing outdoors in the middle of December. Hard to believe nine months had already passed since I'd been flattened by acute asthma, dumped by my fiancé, then made the agonizing decision to quit my job at the Philadelphia Inquirer and head west to the small town of Castle Valley. To say there had been a lot of changes in my life would be the understatement of the century. But happily I had a new job, a new love, and the scorching Arizona heat had apparently baked away the majority of my debilitating symptoms, although extreme stress or a preponderance of cigarette smoke would sometimes set me off again.
I cracked the window slightly and inhaled the rain-cleansed air saturated with the rich aroma of damp earth, creosote and greasewood. How great was this? The epic storm that had pounded Arizona for six days had finally blown away during the night. Even though I'd enjoyed the welcome rainfall and even a few snow flurries, my prayers for clear weather had been answered. At least for the next few days. The ten-day forecast called for another Pacific storm to move in, but I consoled myself with the fact that there was a chance it could be wrong. I'd been looking forward to this particular day for months. I wanted it to be absolutely perfect. So far, so good.
I glanced eastward at the snow-covered ridgeline and drew in a breath of sheer delight. Pastel pink clouds, crisscrossed by brilliant streaks of magenta jet contrails, stood out in sharp relief against the pale turquoise light of dawn. Mesmerizing! With difficulty, I dragged my gaze away to refocus on the road, accelerating past a slow-moving cattle truck, one of the few vehicles I'd encountered since leaving home. But then, how much traffic would there be on a Thursday morning? I'd checked road conditions several times online and made the decision to avoid what seemed to be perpetual road construction on the I-17 freeway. No sense getting caught in that annoying snarl of congestion if I could avoid it. No. Not today. My schedule was too full to risk even the slightest delay. I'd be smart and take surface streets. At this rate I'd easily make it to Phoenix by nine o'clock, have a couple of hours to complete my 'to-do' list from Ginger, meet my friend Fritzy for lunch and still make it to the airport in plenty of time to pick up my parents and younger brother, Sean. Things were finally going my way and I was determined that, for once, everything would go according to plan.
My pulse ramped up again at the thought of actually seeing my family in the flesh, instead of merely Internet FaceTime. What would they think of my new home? I could hardly wait to show off the majestic beauty of Arizona's deserts, mountains and red-rock canyons. But, best of all would be having them and all my newfound friends gathered to celebrate my engagement to Tally. Or, as Ginger constantly reminded me, 'Dumplin' you've nabbed yourself the finest lookin' stud in the whole dang state!' And she was right. Envisioning Tally's sharply-chiseled features, serious brown eyes and the impressive picture he presented sitting tall and lean in the saddle as he galloped across the countryside on one of his prize Appaloosa horses, sparked a pleasurable tingle. But there was a flip side to my euphoria. What would my family think of this steadfast, pragmatic rancher who, at times, seemed to personify my polar opposite? I felt sure Tally and my dad would hit it off famously, but doubted my mother's reaction would be as enthusiastic. From day one she'd been critical of my choice to remain in Arizona and marry, as she often derisively remarked, 'a backwoods middle-aged cowboy.' Never mind that he owned the Starfire Ranch, one of the largest cattle and horse ranches in the state. No, she still had her heart set on me returning to cosmopolitan Philadelphia to reconcile with my former boss, mentor and fiancé, Grant Jamerson, who also happened to be the son of her new best friend, Phyllis. To my mother's credit, she had devoted a significant amount of time and energy planning a grand wedding for us only to see her dreams go down the tubes. I felt confident that once she'd met Tally, he would win her over, but my stomach shrank when I visualized my family's first encounter with his aggravating mother. Oh boy. What would they think of Ruth Talverson, a ditsy, pill-popping, chain-smoking emotional and mental basket case if there ever was one? Not wishing to add fuel to the fires of my mother's long list of objections to Tally, I had not shared with them just how off-the-wall she could be sometimes, but in retrospect, perhaps I should have. With luck, maybe she'd be in a mellow frame of mind while they were here. One could only hope.
My cell and car phone rang simultaneously and I glanced at the screen on the dashboard. Curious. Why would Ginger be calling me at the crack of dawn? I pressed the TALK button on the steering wheel. "Yes, ma'am, what can I do for you?"
"That you, Sugar?"
"Yep? I swear, the longer you hang around Tally, the more you're gittin' to sound like him."
Tally was known as a man of few words, unlike me, and most certainly a galaxy removed from Ginger's ultra-chatterbox persona. "What's up, girlfriend?"
"Oh, I just wanted to add one or two things to the list." Odd. Her voice sounded lackluster, totally devoid of its usual vitality.
"What are you doing at the office so early?" I asked, banking into a series of gentle hairpin turns.
"Gittin' a jump on the day." She exhaled a long, vocal yawn. "Mercy me, I'm as tired as an ol' yeller dog on a hot summer day."
I loved her colorful Texas idioms. "How come? It's pretty early for that."
"Couldn't sleep. Finally gave up tryin' and figured I might as well get my butt in here and catch up on some of this here filing I been putting off for the past couple of months."
More like a year, I thought, considering the sizeable tower of folders piled on the credenza behind her desk. I slowed and splashed through a mud puddle spanning the dip in the road. A lot of good it had done to wash the Jeep. "So, why couldn't you sleep?"
"Because Aunt Marcelene phoned me kinda late last night and I ..."
I cut in, "Speaking of your lovely and generous aunt, I owe her big time for arranging such a super deal on the rooms for my family." Recently remodeled, the Desert Sky Motel reflected the true charm of the Old West. I loved the heavy, rough-hewn furniture, cowboy art and colorful patchwork quilts complementing each four-poster bed.
"Yeah, she's a peach, ain't she?"
"She sure is." I had to admire the woman's tenacity. She'd had a rough year after losing her husband to cancer. She had busied herself restoring the formerly shabby motel as well as the cottage next door where she lived with her daughter, Jenessa, a talented young pianist who was scheduled to play at our engagement party.
Silence. And more silence. Very un-Ginger like. "Okay. So, why'd Marcelene call you so late?"
"She's worried sick about Jenessa. She was bawlin' her head off and she got me so riled up I got to bawlin' with her."
"What about Jenessa?"
"She and Nathan, that new boyfriend of hers, they took off on a campin' trip ten or eleven days ago and shoulda been back day before yesterday. They ain't showed up yet and no one's heard word one from them."
"Well ... the weather has been pretty awful. Did she call the sheriff's office to report them missing?"
"I think so. But ... they're both real experienced hikers and they had plenty of supplies. There's just no good reason they ain't home yet." Ginger's voice quavered slightly and I grew uneasy. Her account sounded uncannily similar to the story I'd unearthed less than a month ago regarding a local judge. He'd disappeared while hunting in the midst of the biggest November snowstorm the state had experienced in a decade. The subsequent discovery of his mutilated body had horrified the community. But even more bizarre was the judge's unexpected connection to Tally's family and the tragic consequences that followed. I reassured myself with the knowledge that hikers were constantly getting lost in the Arizona wilderness for a host of reasons, so I refrained from voicing my misgivings. "If they're seasoned hikers, they're probably fine. But, I hope they weren't camping above the six-thousand-foot-level or they might be stranded in the snow."
"I know," she answered, her tone hollow, despondent. "Aunt Marcelene said Jenessa told her they was headin' out into the boonies to camp someplace way back yonder in the mountains for a couple of days and then they planned to rent quads in Crown King and go exploring."
During one of our statewide sightseeing trips, Tally had driven me to the old mining town situated high in the Bradshaw Mountains. The sometimes deeply rutted dirt road, fashioned from the remains of the old railroad bed, zigzagged its way straight up the mountainside. It had been a rather harrowing journey along a road replete with dizzying switchbacks tracking above sheer cliffs, along with stomach-dropping views and few guardrails. I remember feeling a huge rush of relief when we finally arrived at the Crown King Saloon located in the center of the isolated forest community. "Well," I said with forced cheerfulness, "looks like it's going to be a beautiful, clear day. Hopefully they'll be searching for them by air, so try to stay optimistic."
"I'll try." Before hanging up, she added two additional items to my list of things to pick up at the party store. Sad. I'd never heard Ginger sound so grim, her usual effervescent personality and infectious giggle glaringly absent.
Her obvious distress dampened my spirits, but then I thought of how blessed I was to have found a jewel of a friend like Ginger King. Not more than two minutes had elapsed from the first time she'd heard the news that Tally kissed me until my fun-loving friend, who had become like the sister I never had, began planning our nuptials. She'd enthusiastically made it her mission in life to make sure my engagement party and subsequent wedding would be the biggest social events in the history of Castle Valley. Good thing. Having survived a first brief, ill-fated marriage, I'd have just as soon skipped all the fuss and eloped to Las Vegas. But she wouldn't hear of it and insisted on handling all of the details.
When the first fiery rays of the rising sun streamed over the rough spine of the mountain range, I grabbed for my sunglasses. Arizona's dramatic sunrises and sunsets never ceased to evoke within me a feeling of awe. Within minutes the landscape was awash in shimmering light, transforming the ghostly silhouettes of saguaro cactus into glorious golden pillars. Ever so slowly, the radiant glow slid across the rolling hills, banishing the mist and chasing the shadows from the rocky crevices.
Forty minutes later, I zoomed across the freeway overpass, joining the cavalcade of cars heading towards metropolitan Phoenix. Even though traffic slowed at times, it was nothing compared to the miles long backup choking the Interstate construction zone. I congratulated myself on the decision to avoid it, only to have my triumphant mood squashed a mere three miles further. My heart dropped at the sight of the orange and white highway markers. Not today, please! I slowed to a crawl and then a complete stop. Crap. I gripped the steering wheel. "Un-friggin'-believable!" Go. Stop. Move a few feet. Stop. I drummed my fingers and strained to see beyond the seemingly endless procession of vehicles. Feeling trapped and helpless, I forced myself to breathe deeply. Temper, hold your temper, O'Dell.
Hopefully, it was just a temporary delay. Okay! We were moving! I edged forward a few feet, then several more, but traveled no faster than five miles an hour. The irony of the situation hit me as I drifted past a sign indicating the recommended speed limit of 55. "I wish!" I glanced at the clock again and did some swift mental calculations. If I continued the rate of five to ten miles per hour, it would take me ... what, five or six more hours to reach Phoenix? That would ruin the entire day — no shopping, no lunch with Fritzy and my family would be left stranded at the airport.
Fidgeting restlessly in my seat, I checked out the traffic alert apps on my phone, but none confirmed the backup. After watching several bicyclists in brightly colored gear glide past, I growled, "Damn it!" and opened the door. I stood on the running board and peered into the distance, trying to make out what could possibly have traffic tied up to this degree but couldn't see anything but a sea of cars and trucks ahead. Several other people had exited their vehicles and were milling about pointing, talking, walking their dogs. With a loud groan, I slumped into the driver's seat and reached for my phone to dial Fritzy's work number. I'd been looking forward to our meeting for two weeks and hated to disappoint her, but unless a miracle happened, lunch looked like a wash at this point. Oh wait. We were moving again. Perhaps there was still hope. I waited to hit the call button and reached the thrilling speed of fifteen miles per hour before I had to slam on the brakes again. Craning my neck, I spotted a signalman ahead with one of those SLOW/STOP signs in hand. A dump truck was backed into the middle of the road where half a dozen workmen stood leaning on their shovels. How long was this going to take? It appeared that my well-laid plans for the day were going up in smoke. "Oh, come on!" I finally shouted. "Fix the stupid road tomorrow!"
Should I make a U-turn and head back towards the freeway? Would I be trading one traffic backup for another? I spotted a second group of bicyclists heading towards me, this time from the opposite direction. I shouted out the open window as they approached. "Hey! Got any idea what's going on up ahead?"
One of the riders slowed, thumbed behind him and shouted, "Rollover crash! Cave Creek Road intersection ... medical chopper on the way."
Oh. So it wasn't just road construction. So much for the phone app. "Thanks!" I watched wistfully as the bikers raced on by, free as the flock of birds flying overhead. I hit the call button on my phone. No response. What? Then I noticed No Service blinking back at me. Groaning, I laid my forehead against the steering wheel. I waited another interminable amount of time and had just made the decision to make the U-turn and deal with the freeway, when I heard the thumping whir of helicopter blades. The chopper flew in low and descended to the ground a mile or so ahead. At that moment it struck me that someone or perhaps more than one person must be gravely injured or worse. And as that realization sunk in my agitation diminished. So I was going to be a little late. How lucky was I not to be lying on the ground or trapped in the crushed, twisted remains of my vehicle? So I might not get the place card holders Ginger wanted, or the three-dozen bud vases. So I might miss lunch. I was fine. As I sat there, engine idling, I savored the warmth of the sun on my face and the fragrant breeze shepherding fluffy white clouds across the sapphire sky. All a matter of perception, I guess. A half hour later when the chopper rose into the air, speeding southeast towards Phoenix, traffic began inching forward again. All right! I might just make it after all.
The voice message alert on my phone chimed. I tapped the screen and listened to Fritzy's husky voice, smiling at the nickname she'd given me in third grade. "Hey, Stick, call me when you get this message."
Was I imagining the somber undertone in her voice? That didn't sound promising. I dialed her number. "You have reached the office of forensic anthropologist Dr. Nora Fitzgerald Bartoli. Please leave a message and I'll return your call."
Dang it. I tapped her number. Two rings later I heard, "Hey there, Stick, how you doing?"
"I've been stuck in traffic for over an hour so I'm going to be late for lunch."
Excerpted from Forbidden Entry by Sylvia Nobel. Copyright © 2015 Sylvia Nobel. Excerpted by permission of Nite Owl Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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