Psychologist and police consultant Dr. Pepper Hunt, struggling to deal with the murder of her husband, leaves the private practice they shared and relocates to Wyoming. There, in the stark landscape of the high desert, there is nothing to remind her of everything she lost and left behind. Then her new patient, Kimi Benally, goes missing in a Wyoming blizzard after her last therapy sessionmaking Pepper the last person to see her. She knows the secrets Kimi shared in therapy hold clues to her mysterious disappearance, and she joins forces with Detective Beau Antelope to try to discover what’s happened to her. But as she follows the trail of Kimi’s obsession with the past, Pepper begins to fear the worst for her missing patientand her own haunted memories surface.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A Dr. Pepper Hunt Mystery
By J.L. Doucette
She Writes PressCopyright © 2017 J.L. Doucette
All rights reserved.
It was the Monday before Christmas, and I was in my office at the Hilltop Medical Center, waiting for the next crisis to happen. I'm one of three psychologists in Sweetwater County, a land area the size of Connecticut where antelope outnumber humans three to one. It was my turn to take calls for psychiatric emergencies at the county facilities: hospital, jail, and courthouse. The pager was silent at my waist. Outside, the high desert sparkled under fresh snow.
Last year, on the run from the wreckage of my life, driving through a blizzard in southwest Wyoming, my Jeep spun out on the interstate. I never meant to stay here. But when the storm cleared, the contours of the stark desert revealed the spinning planet. Every afternoon the wind came up and swept my mind as clean as the bare earth. The emptiness worked for me. There was nothing familiar to remind me of all I'd lost. It took two weeks to repair my Jeep; by the end of that time, I knew I wasn't leaving.
From my office window I had a view of White Mountain at the western boundary of Rock Springs. I was taking a quiet moment, watching the sagebrush rustle as the wind passed through like a swarm of invisible snakes, when I saw the Chevy Tahoe pull into the parking lot. It was the last peaceful time I would know for a while.
Sheriff Carlton Scruggs stepped out of the Tahoe and slammed the door. I knew him; he was married to my secretary. I took my Beretta Nano from its carry holster and slipped it into its hiding place.
A minute later, Marla was at my door. "The sheriff is here, Doctor."
She always referred to her husband as "Sheriff" and addressed me as "Doctor" in the office, though we'd become friends in the year she'd worked for me. Marla still looked like a beauty queen: platinum blond spiral curls, five foot two inches tall. She was Miss Lander, Wyoming in 1985, the year she graduated from high school. Cheerful, efficient, and organized, she scheduled patients, managed the office, and handled the billing so I could do the fun part of my job.
The sheriff came in with his jaw clenched, a man on a mission with no smile for me. Being sheriff was serious work, and he did it justice. For him it was an honor to serve and protect. In Wyoming, the sheriff 's office is an elected position. He'd held the position for ten years and showed no signs of quitting.
His black Stetson hat grazed the ceiling and his presence filled the room. A big man, tall and broad-shouldered, he used his size to impress and intimidate. From what Marla told me, he had a softer side, but I'd yet to see it. They were transplants also, from another county in Wyoming, and understood what it was like to start over in Rock Springs, where many jobs came with a sign-on bonus — also known as "combat pay" — as incentive to relocate to what some people see as the least charming town in the state. For those of us who loved it here, the bad press was a good thing, because it kept the population down.
"I'm here about one of your patients," Sheriff Scruggs said. "Kimi Benally. She was reported missing this morning. She hasn't been at work since Thursday."
I'd seen Kimi on Friday for her weekly session, but I couldn't tell the sheriff that. Kimi had a habit of disappearing, so I wasn't surprised that four days had gone by before anyone even noticed she was gone. During the session, she'd been paranoid and skittish, not in good shape. Now she was missing.
"I'm sorry you made the trip," I said. "I can't talk to you about a patient unless you have a signed release. But I don't have to tell you that."
Marla smiled to smooth the awkward moment.
"Give us a minute alone," the sheriff said and looked at Marla.
If she minded being sent away, she didn't let it show. She quietly closed the door behind her.
There were ethical land mines hidden at the place where the mental health and legal justice systems intersected. I waited for the sheriff to ask me a question I wouldn't be able to answer.
"This is serious business. We've been told she's in treatment with you. Can you at least answer that?"
"All I can say is I can neither confirm nor deny it."
"That's all you can do for me? She's been gone for days, and with the weather, I hate to think what might have happened."
He folded his arms and held his ground. I understood his concern, and the urgency. He showed no signs of leaving. I couldn't tell him anything, but I could hear him out, and maybe that would help us both. He wasn't used to hearing no. But there was something else. It mattered to him that Kimi was missing.
"Why don't you tell me what you know?"
"She hasn't been at work since Thursday. The person who made the report claims she had an appointment with you Friday night. We're on the same side on this one. She might have said something that could help us find her."
HIPAA confidentiality laws allowed cooperation with law enforcement when a crime has been committed, but only with proper court orders. The fact that someone had filed a police report did not mean a crime had been committed. No crime, no disclosure.
"I'm following the law and the ethical guidelines of my profession," I said, my voice firm.
"You were the last person to see her. Are you sure you can't help me out here, Doc?"
"I'll need either a court order or a release of information signed by the patient. That's the only way I can talk to you."
"If that's what it takes. I'll be back."
He stood up and without saying another word, he was gone. A few minutes later, Marla came back.
"I hope he didn't get too pushy. You know him, he's trying to do his best all the time, and sometimes it takes a toll on his manners."
"No worries. I'm used to working with law enforcement. He's one of the best."
"He was itching to ask me, but he didn't. He understands I'm sworn to secrecy about the patients. It's kind of creepy, though. We could be the last ones to have seen her. Oh, I almost forgot — the jail wants you for a psych consult. They have a woman in custody with a prior suicide attempt. They took precautions and put her on suicide watch. And guess who it is? Kimi's mother, Estella Benally. The clerk said she's talking crazy."
I checked the pager, thinking I might have missed it. "Why didn't they page me?"
"They know I work here. It's just as easy to call me. I know all those guys."
"Next time that happens, tell whoever it is to page me. You shouldn't have to be in the middle, that's why I have this thing."
I was almost out the door when Marla said, "I bet it was Cedric Yee who reported her missing. He knew she was seeing you. He came with her one time and sat in the waiting room the whole time she was in with you."
"Really? I didn't notice."
"That's why you need me. I notice everything." She smiled and patted her shoulder, proud of her detection skills. Her long silver nails had holly berries painted on the tips.
"I probably won't get back this afternoon," I said. "You can take off early if you want."
Her face lit up. "If you need me, I'll be at the mall. I haven't bought a thing for the sheriff yet, and he always goes overboard for me at Christmas. Only five shopping days left."
In the car, on the way to the county jail, I thought about Kimi and the things she'd said in our Friday session, the things I couldn't disclose to the sheriff.
Kimi was my first patient when I opened my psychology practice here. She walked into the office without an appointment, and I knew before she said a word that she needed help. Her dark eyes scanned the room for hidden dangers before she opened her mouth; it was only after she was satisfied she was safe that she looked straight at me with haunted eyes and said, "I think I'm losing my mind."
On Friday, as on that first day she came into my office, she'd just come out of a dissociative episode, and it had scared the life out of her. The last thing she remembered was picking up the arrest log at the County Court in Green River that morning — she was a reporter for the local paper, and needed it for a story. By the time she got to my office, the sun was setting over White Mountain. This wasn't the first time she'd dissociated. But on Friday she'd somehow lost a whole day out of her life.
Dissociating is a symptom common to victims of trauma, a way of escaping intolerable emotions. Trauma treatment is a long-term endeavor that involves intense emotions and crisis calls in the middle of the night. I knew it from both sides. Just two years before Kimi stepped into my office, my husband had been murdered. I was still on the mend from my own trauma.
"I woke up at a truck stop halfway to Utah," Kimi said. "I don't know how I got there. All the way back I couldn't shake the feeling I was being followed."
While I sat with her, snow spun in angry circles at the window. Marla had already gone home. When the session was over, I locked up, and Kimi and I left the office together. A cold wind blew hard off the desert. Sheets of snow rose from the ground and swirled around us like dancing ghosts, ice crystals stinging our faces.
Kimi held out her arms and twirled on tiptoe, her red boots turning easily in the new snow. She laughed and said, "Snow devils! It's a winter whirlwind! So magical! The snow devils came for me."
She danced for a few minutes in slow, graceful turns, the snow lifting and blowing around her. Finally, she stopped and said, "I'll be all right. You drive slow, now, get home safe. You're not used to this weather."
I didn't know what to think of the shift; minutes before she'd been afraid to leave the office, but now, at the sight of snow devils, she was fearless and free. I waited in my car as she drove away; at the end of the road, her taillights winked, then disappeared. I was alone in the eerie darkness, the moon and stars held captive by storm clouds. An hour later, the blizzard raged and the wind blew at eighty-five miles per hour at the airport weather station. Sometime during the night, all the roads out of town were closed. And in the heart of the storm, Kimi vanished, all traces of her leaving obscured by time and snow.CHAPTER 2
When Cedric Yee said he wanted to report a woman missing, Sheriff Scruggs didn't know if he could do it again. Missing woman. The words hit with the force of a blow.
As he drove away from the psychologist's office, he recalled his first meeting with Kimi. He'd just worked a double shift and was too keyed up to go home. He was driving north on Highway 191, out past the fairgrounds and away from the lights of town. It was late October, the weather was already turning mean. A hard winter would follow. A big orange moon poured down on the desert and revealed the ancient Native carvings on the tall sandstone cliffs in the distance.
On a lonely stretch of road near the county cemetery, he spotted a black car on the shoulder, invisible except for the glint of moonlight on the rear window. He pulled over and flashed his high beams: a figure with long, dark hair sat in the driver's seat. As he approached the vehicle, cold air crawled up from the ground, and he shivered. Mist hung over the desert like forgotten spirits escaped from the nearby graves. The woman inside the car stared straight ahead, still as a corpse.
He got the door open fast and stood ready to catch her if she fell. The chill of the night and the wind blowing in broke the spell. She shivered and turned to him, seemed to register what was in his face, the fear and confusion. He watched as she came back to herself in pieces, saw recognition settle in her eyes.
She rubbed at her slender arms to keep warm. She was barefoot and wearing a white tank top and thin cotton pajamas — not dressed to travel the night alone.
"Fugue state," she said and shook her head, gave him an unexpected, coy smile. "Sometimes I space out. It must be that moon up there tonight. We call it the 'Moon of Falling Leaves.' A gorgeous thing, isn't it? Looks like a peach, the biggest and brightest of all the moons."
So, she's Arapaho, he thought. Of course, he should have known. That ebony hair like silk.
"On your way over to the reservation tonight, miss?"
"I have no idea where I'm going. That's the thing. Some part of me must have wanted to be there. I'd better take the rest of me back home to bed. Don't mistake me for crazy. I'm as sane as you."
He asked for her license and registration. She opened the glove box and handed them over, along with her press pass. "You don't know me, but I know you, Sheriff. I'm Kimi Benally. I work at the Rocket Miner. I cover the crime desk. Sooner or later, we'll run into each other at a crime scene, and you'll remember me."
He lectured her on all the things that could happen to a woman alone in the world at night, the things he'd seen with his own eyes, dark things he'd never forget.
She'd held up a hand and said, "I don't need this tonight."
"I'll follow you, make sure you get home safe." Then he worried he'd gone too far. Maybe she wasn't headed straight home, and what business was it of his?
But she said, "Sure, if you need to protect and serve tonight."
On the slow drive back to town, he became aware of a tentative yearning coming back to him, like a half-remembered melody. She lived at the edge of the desert in the end unit in a row of townhouses. When she was safely inside, he stayed there for a while, in no hurry to leave, strangely content to be keeping watch. A light came on in an upstairs window, and a pale hand waved, then disappeared, behind curtains closed against the night.
He met her again a few months later when, as she had predicted, a crime brought them together. It was New Year's Day, a quiet shift of minor problems, stolen credit cards, DUIs, and too many domestic violence calls — many from high-end neighborhoods where supposedly these things didn't happen. The rest were from the trailer parks, but that was no surprise.
The day had been easy, sliding into boredom, nothing he couldn't handle with his eyes closed and his hands tied behind his back. That could have been a sign, if he was looking for one.
He was on dinner break and headed to the recreation center, making good on his resolution to work out every day. It was dusk, and the sky was glowing nuclear orange, January showing off her only claim to fame: spectacular sunsets. The minute the sun dropped behind White Mountain, the sky went dark and the temperature fell ten degrees.
KRKK was playing his favorite Supremes song, "Some Day We'll Be Together," and he was reaching for his gym bag when the radio dispatcher announced that a rape victim was being transported to Sweetwater County Hospital.
He was five minutes away from the emergency room. His workout could wait.
In Sweetwater County, violent crimes of a sexual nature made up 2 percent of the overall crime rate. As sheriff, he kept his eye on these things. He needed to know the extent of the threat.
Kimi Benally waited outside the victim's cubicle, holding a spiral notebook, a yellow number two pencil tucked behind her ear. She looked like a schoolgirl, or somebody's fantasy of a schoolgirl. He recalled a white blouse, a navy blue skirt. She looked clean and untouched. It made him want to touch her.
He checked that impulse when he looked in her eyes. In that moment, they shared a spark of intimacy that, in his experience, came only from a dangerous mix of sex and violence. Did Kimi notice, and was she frightened by how much she resembled the battered victim? Something ethereal in both of them, delicate features, long black hair.
They left the hospital together. It was impossible not to feel protective after what they'd seen and heard. The woman had been abducted at knifepoint, punched and cut with the knife, raped and sodomized, her life threatened if she told. He'd felt anger and tender sympathy when he took her statement. She couldn't look at him as she answered his questions, and trembled as she told him what had been done to her.
Outside the hospital, the wind blew hard out of the desert, a force against their backs, as he walked Kimi to her car. By then the moon was on the rise, a silver disc low on the horizon. The night before, when the rapist took the woman to the mountain, storm clouds had covered the moon.
He remembered the moon that first night and what Kimi had said. "What's your name for this moon?" She smiled and looked up. Her face, washed with moonlight, was radiant and innocent. "The Moon When the Snow Blows like Spirits in the Wind."
"That's kind of beautiful," he said. "I'll remember it when my head's wrecked with the world's evil, like what we heard in there."
Excerpted from Last Seen by J.L. Doucette. Copyright © 2017 J.L. Doucette. Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.