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By Jan Coffey
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe bright desert moon clearly illuminated miles of scrub pine and yucca on either side of the highway. Flares and a trooper funneled the late-night traffic on Interstate 10 into one lane, and three ambulances, three state police cars, a tow truck and the local sheriff's black-and-white blocked off the rest of the westbound lanes, putting on a light show that could probably be seen as far as Albuquerque.
A few passenger cars and a number of trucks crawled past as the drivers gaped at the wreckage of the station wagon that was lying with its wheels in the air beside a knocked-out section of guardrail. A hundred feet up the road, an eighteen-wheeler was sitting on the shoulder of the highway. The shaken driver sat on the cab's running board, making statements to a trooper. News of the accident was already on the local station, advising travelers to take alternate routes.
The acrid smoke from the flares burned everyone's eyes as they worked. Pebbles of glass covered the road, crunching beneath rescue workers' shoes as they tried to extricate the passengers from the station wagon.
There was already one fatality that they knew of. A toddler, thrown out of the car when the station wagon flipped over repeatedly before coming to a stop. No car seat. No seat belts.The middle-aged woman who was driving had been unconscious when they took her out in an ambulance to Deming only moments earlier. The three other passengers in the back seat were all minors. A baby tucked between two young teenagers.
It was a few more minutes before the rescue workers successfully removed the seat that had trapped the children in the car. The state trooper who'd arrived first on the scene stood back as two EMTs gently removed the wailing infant and the teenage boy from the wreck. They put the boy carefully on a stretcher and strapped the baby into a special carrier. A few cuts and bruises. Neither seemed seriously hurt, only upset. The same trooper had pulled out the driver.
He crouched down and flashed his light into the vehicle. The last passenger was a young girl, maybe ten or eleven.
"Everything will be okay now," he said calmly.
"They'll be back to take you out in a minute."
With the car upside down, she was twisted on her side. But her green eyes were open. They glistened in the light. No cries, though, no moans, no complaints. No response at all to the blood streaming from the ugly gash in her forehead, soaking the short curly brown hair and running down her pale face.
The trooper felt the tap on his shoulder as another EMT came for the girl. As he stood up, a cool breeze swept in off the desert, mingling the smell of pine with the scent of gasoline from the overturned vehicle.
"Head injury, concussion. She's not responding," the first man called out, crawling inside the vehicle. Two others bringing a stretcher arrived at the car.
The trooper touched the letters BDM stenciled beneath a gold crescent moon on the mangled driver's door, and went around the car. Flashing his light inside, he searched the glove compartment for any documents they might have missed. They had already found the car's registration, but there was no purse or ID on the driver.
"Be careful now," he said. Two of the EMTs were slowly handing the girl out. The officer hustled around to help the other worker bring the stretcher closer. The green eyes were still open, and as the workers placed her on it, the girl focused on him and said something under her breath.
He leaned closer. Her face was deathly white. She whispered it again.
"What did you say, hon?" he asked softly, crouching down on one knee as they strapped her in.
"Take me away. Please ... take me ..."
He placed his hand on her icy fingers. "They're taking you to a hospital. You'll be as good as new in no time."
She abruptly began to shake and started straining against the straps. "Don't leave ... me ... here. Don't ..."
"You'll be okay. Everything will be okay." He tried to hold on to her, but the EMTs rushed her toward the ambulance.
He stared as the back doors closed. A moment later, the sirens began to wail, and the ambulance pulled away.
The station wagon had come from the compound of a religious group led by Reverend Michael Butler. The Butler Divinity Mission - made up mostly of women and children and a few retired folks - lived and worked on a two-hundred-acre ranch little more than a half hour south of here. Interrupting his thoughts, the barracks captain from Deming called to him from his cruiser.
"Dispatch says there's no answer out at Reverend Butler's place," the captain said. "I want you to ride out there and let them know about the accident. See if you can get the reverend or one of his deacons to come into the hospital in Deming. We're going to need someone to ID the deceased boy, too. Take Mac with you."
Ten years older, with nine years seniority, Mac was a veteran compared to the number of recent academy graduates working out of the newly built state police barracks in Deming. Southwestern New Mexico was growing, and the force was growing with it.
They drove in silence for a while before Mac started in. "So, I hear you're just back from your honeymoon."
"Yeah. Today was the first day back on the job."
"Where did you two lovebirds go?"
"Back East. That's where Anne's family is."
"She's got enough aunts and uncles and cousins to pack a football stadium." He smiled. "And I'm only talking about the ones that I met during the ten days we were there."
"You wanna talk about big families? In my first year on the force, it seemed like every goddamn car I pulled over was some cousin of mine, or a neighbor to a cousin, or a girlfriend to the cousin of a neighbor to a cousin."
Excerpted from Fourth Victim by Jan Coffey Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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