—AUSMA ZEHANAT KHAN, author of A Deadly Divide
Hounded by false accusations of murder, archaeologist Chuck Bender and his family risk their lives to track down an unknown killer on the loose in a rugged canyon on the remote western edge of Mesa Verde National Park, where ancient stone villages and secret burial sites, abandoned centuries ago by the Ancestral Puebloan people, harbor artifacts so rare and precious they're worth killing over.
SCOTT GRAHAM is the National Outdoor Book Award–winning author of the six–volume National Park Mystery Series for Torrey House Press, including Canyon Sacrifice, Mountain Rampage, Yellowstone Standoff, Yosemite Fall, and Arches Enemy, and five other books. He is an avid outdoorsman who lives with his wife, an emergency physician, in southwestern Colorado.
|Publisher:||Torrey House Press|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"I hate this, I hate this, I hate this!” Rosie Ortega screeched. She squeezed her eyes shut, her hands gripping the rope affixed to the seat harness belted around her plump waist as she descended on auto–belay to the base of the indoor rock–climbing wall.
Chuck Bender wrapped her in a bear hug. “You did fine up there,” he assured her.
“No, I didn’t,” she cried, stomping her foot on the padded gym floor. Tears pooled in her eyes. She wriggled from Chuck’s grasp and tore at the climbing rope knotted at her waist. “I barely got off the ground.”
Other climbers in the gym averted their gazes as Chuck helped twelve–year–old Rosie free herself from the rope.
“Carm’s so good,” she blubbered, her lower lip trembling. She pressed her knuckles to her walnut–brown eyes. “I hate her,” she said to the floor.
“I heard that,” fourteen–year–old Carmelita called from where she clung to molded–resin holds thirty feet overhead, working an inverted route extending across the ceiling from the top of the wall.
Chuck craned his head at her. “Your sister didn’t mean it.”
“Yes, I did,” Rosie declared, looking up. “Well, the good part, anyway.”
“That much would be right,” Chuck told her. He massaged the back of her neck below her mane of curly black hair billowing from the bottom of her climbing helmet. “Your sister is good at this sport. Which is a problem for me, too.”
Rosie’s watery eyes widened. “For you?”
“I’ve always been a rock climber for the fun of it. Nowadays, though, climbing is a big–time sport, with everybody making it into a massive competition. And, like you said, it just so happens Carm’s pretty good at it.”
“Because she’s so skinny,” Rosie pouted.
“Just because,” Chuck said. “But you and I have to remember we’re climbing for fun when we’re messing around down low on the wall.”
She stomped her foot again. “I want to do something else for fun. Something that’s just for me.”
“Hmm.” Chuck cocked his head at her and closed one eye. “I kinda like that idea. Maybe you and I can come up with something different for you to do while Carm’s spending all her free time here at the gym, zipping around the ceiling like a spider monkey.” “I’m not a monkey,” Carmelita exclaimed from above. Her dark ponytail hung long and straight down toward the floor from the back of her helmet. “That’s racist.”
Chuck grinned up at her. “I said you climb like one. Sheesh.”
Carmelita lost her grip and fell a few feet from the ceiling before her rope caught her. “You’re so culturally inappropriate,” she admonished Chuck as she swung back and forth beneath the holds.
She shook out her chalked hands while the auto–belay engaged and the rope automatically unspooled, lowering her to the ground.
Chuck fixed her with a teasing smile. “Let me get this straight. You’re labeling me a culturally inappropriate white man even though I married a Latina woman and have been stepfather to her two hotshot Latina daughters for the last five years?”
“O…M…G,” Carmelita announced breathily. “I can’t believe you just called Rosie and me ‘hot.’ That’s so totally and completely wrong.”
“I didn’t say ‘hot.’ I said ‘hotshot.’”
The corner of Carmelita’s mouth twisted. “It still has the word ‘hot’ in it.”
Chuck sighed but maintained his grin. “The two of you are handsome. How’s that?”
“Better. Still judgmental, though.”
“I’m just trying to let you know how proud I am of you.” He spread his hands. “But I can’t win, can I?”
He glanced at the clock mounted on the wall above the climbing gym’s front desk. “It’s about time to head for home. Mamá will be coming off her shift in a little while. I need to get started on a culturally inappropriate dinner for us.” He dipped his graying head at Carmelita and smiled. “How about tacos?”
She groaned. “You’re awful.”
“Grrracias,” he said, giving the r an extra–hard trill.
“You’re…you’re…incorrigible.” She added a matching trill to the double r of the English word, offering up the slightest of smiles.
Chuck put his chalked hands to his stomach, leaving matching white prints on his blue T–shirt. “Got me.” He pointed at her shiny black climbing tights. “The way you use such big words, you’re getting to be too smart for your britches, you know that?”
Carmelita’s skin–hugging tights rose to her waist. Her burgundy top featured the Durango Climbing Team logo across its snug chest. The top was sleeveless and cut high across her midriff, baring her flat stomach and the smooth skin of her shoulders.
“That’s my plan for world domination—using my prodigious intelligence to rule the planet,” she said.
“Ooo, scary,” said Chuck. “But I imagine you’ll hold off taking over the world until later this afternoon, after your all–important run, right?” He reached behind her head and gave her ponytail a yank.
“Hey,” she protested, ducking away. “You’ll get my hair all chalky.”
“Lo siento,” he apologized. “What are you up to now, twenty miles a day?”
“Five. Well, sometimes seven. All on dirt trails to protect my knees. Coach Tania says the climbing–running combo is good—upper body, lower body.”
“Sounds like you’re totally dialed in, as per usual. All that’s left, it would seem, is for you to take over the world and dial things in for everybody else on the planet, too.”
Chuck crossed the room to his soft–sided gear duffle. The navy bag rested on the floor next to Rosie’s purple duffle and Carmelita’s burgundy climbing–team bag. He toweled the chalk off his hands, pulled his fleece top over his head, and changed from climbing shoes into sneakers. He retrieved his phone from the bag. Its screen lit up with text messages the instant he turned it on.
WHAT IS HAPPENING AT YOUR PLACE??? read the most recent text, from Beatrice Roberts, the elderly widow who lived next door to the house Chuck had picked up in Durango’s historic Grid district a decade ago, several years before marrying Janelle Ortega, the then–single mother to Carmelita and Rosie, after a whirlwind romance.
He scanned the other texts in backward time order.
The second–most recent: If this is the phone of Chuck Bender, please contact the Durango Police Department immediately.
Again, minutes earlier: If this is the phone of Chuck Bender, please contact the Durango Police Department immediately.
Ten minutes before that, an initial message from Beatrice: Chuck are you there? Do you know anything about the sirens?
Shoving his phone into the pocket of his climbing sweats and waving for the girls to follow, Chuck sprinted for the parking lot.
He sped south on Main Avenue minutes later, hands locked on the wheel of his big, blocky, Bender Archaeological crew–cab pickup truck. Carmelita sat opposite him in the front seat. Rosie hunched forward on the rear bench seat behind Carmelita, peering past her sister’s shoulder. It was midday, the second Saturday in October, the cloudless sky brilliant blue, the temperature edging into the low seventies, the leaves on the maples and poplars lining the primary thoroughfare through town rusty red and golden yellow.
“What’s going on?” Carmelita demanded as Chuck blasted through a caution light well above the speed limit.
“We’re about to find out,” he said through gritted teeth.
Turning off Main into the Grid neighborhood, he slung the pickup around tight corners, left, right, left again.
“Whoo–hoo!” Rosie cheered from the rear seat, flopping from side to side with the swerving truck.
Chuck slid around a final corner and roared onto their block. Several black–and–white Durango Police Department sport–utility vehicles crowded the street ahead. The police SUVs were parked at haphazard angles in front of the house, their bar lights flashing.
Chuck slammed the truck to a stop in the middle of the street, hopped out, and ran for the house.
Janelle had left home at five that morning for a fill–in paramedic shift with the Durango Fire and Rescue Department, taking the place of a full–timer who needed the day off. Her shift wasn’t over yet—but what if she’d returned home for some unknown reason while he and the girls were at the climbing gym?
He charged up the sidewalk. A twenty–something police officer in uniform blues, brass badge gleaming on her chest, stepped off the covered front porch of the house. The officer’s skin was the color of mocha, her dark brown eyes lined with black makeup.
“Slow down,” she warned Chuck, raising her left hand as she crossed the front yard. Her right hand hovered above the pistol holstered at her waist.
Inscribed on a tag beneath her badge, her last name, Anand, identified her as East Indian, an anomaly among Durango’s mostly white citizenry interspersed with Latinos and Native Americans.
“This is my house,” Chuck said as he reached her on the sidewalk, aiming his chin at the one–and–a–half–story brick Victorian behind the young police officer. His throat was tight, his breath constricted. “My wife.”
“You’re Mr. Bender?”
“I need to see some identification.”
He slapped his hands to the side pockets of his sweats. “I left my wallet in my bag in the truck.”
“You’ll have to go get it.”
“Not a chance.” Chuck shoved his way past the officer.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” she said, following him.
He yanked his phone from his pocket. Its screen glowed with the texts from the police department. He waved it behind him at her as he walked. “I came as soon as I saw these.”
She huffed as she trailed him across the front yard. When he neared the porch, she said, “Not that way. Around back.”
Changing course, Chuck put his shoulder to the faded wooden gate at the side of the house, slamming it open and striding along the narrow passage beside the head–high wooden fence separating the house from Beatrice’s house next door.
“What can you tell me?” Chuck demanded over his shoulder to the officer.
“I’m on perimeter." She jogged to keep up. “You’ll have to talk to the others.”
They reached the back of the house. A single–car garage filled one corner of the compact backyard. In the other corner, the branches of an apple tree extended over a fallow, raised–bed garden.
Between the garage and garden bed, the gate that led through the back fence to the rear alley stood open. On the cracked asphalt of the alleyway, framed by the open gate and covered by a white sheet, lay what was, based on its shape, clearly a human body.
Chuck came up short in the middle of the yard, staring through the gate.
The body lay on its back. Red stains spotted the sheet, which stretched over the human form from head to toe. A sizable stomach pressed the sheet upward at the middle.
Chuck quaked at the sight of the corpse, his legs growing weak with a combination of relief and horror. The dead body was not Janelle; it did not have her slender frame. But who was it?
He resumed walking toward the back gate, his eyes locked on the body. A uniformed police officer stepped from the alley into the yard and swung the gate closed behind her, blocking his view.
The officer was Sandra Kingsley. Like Chuck, she was in her mid–forties. She was tall and willowy, her sandy brown hair falling from her Durango Police Department ball cap to her chin in a blunt–cut bob. “It’s okay, Chuck,” she said, stopping in front of him. “It’s not her.”
“Who is it, then?”
She hesitated. “I can’t say.”
“But you know,” he said in response to her hesitation.
She tipped her head forward, the brim of her cap momentarily hiding her luminous, green eyes.
“I know who it is, too, don’t I?” Chuck asked.
She nodded again, a quick dip of her dimpled chin. Her gaze moved past him to the house, where another officer exited the back door. The officer was even younger than Officer Anand. Peach fuzz covered his upper lip and acne pocked his cheeks. A shock of auburn hair showed beneath the visor of his ball cap.
The boyish officer descended the three wooden steps from the rear of the house, the screen door swinging shut behind him. He hustled across the backyard and through the rear gate.
Sandra said to Chuck, “It appears everything started in your house.”
“In my…in our…?”
“In your study, to be exact. It’s a mess in there.” She fixed him with unblinking eyes. “Did you have anything in there someone might have wanted?”
He glanced past her in the direction of the body in the alley beyond the fence. “I’m an archaeologist. What could I possibly have that would be cause for that?”
“You’ve made some big discoveries over the years, headline–making stuff. Everybody in town knows it.”
“I never keep anything of value in my house, ever.”
“It would seem someone thought otherwise.”
“Can I see?”
She pursed her lips, frowning. “You can’t go inside, but I guess you could peek in the window. Maybe you’ll spot something.”
Chuck climbed the steps to the back door. Gripping the doorframe, he leaned sideways and peered through the window into the small room at the back of the house that served as his office. Inside the room, his scarred oak desk was swept clean. Spiral notebooks, photographs, a desk lamp, notecards, and pens and pencils that normally sat on the desktop or filled the desk drawers were scattered across the hardwood floor, along with his laptop and monitor.
Opposite the desk, the drawers to his two file cabinets were pulled open, their contents strewn on the floor with his desk items. A framed picture of Janelle and the girls had been lifted from the wall and lay on the floor as well.
Chuck cursed. He pushed himself upright from the window. “You’re right,” he said with a shake of his head as he returned to Sandra in the yard. “It’s a mess in there.”
“Somebody was looking for something.”
“I have no idea. My laptop is still there. You’d think they’d at least have taken that.”
“Think harder. It would appear somebody thought something in your study was worth killing over.”
He pivoted at the cry of “Chuck!” from Janelle.
She rounded the rear corner of the house and rushed to him.
“Thank God, you’re okay,” Chuck said to her as they embraced.
She stepped back. She wore her Durango Fire and Rescue uniform—navy shirt and black cargo pants with large side pockets. Her smooth, olive face was lightly made up. Her black hair, long and straight like Carmelita’s, was corralled in a bun at the back of her neck. Her cheeks were drawn and sallow. A sheen of perspiration shone on her forehead.
“Carm and Rosie are out front,” she said. “The officer wouldn’t let them come back here with me.”
Chuck’s eyes strayed to the rear fence. “For good reason.”
She followed his look. “I heard he’s in the alley.”
Sandra ticked a forefinger back and forth in warning, but Janelle continued nonetheless.
“It’s all over the police radios,” she said to Chuck. “That’s why Mark—” her shift supervisor, Mark Chapman “—sent me home.”
“I’m glad he did.”
With the girls growing older and increasingly independent, Janelle had been accepting every offer of fill–in shifts that came her way, seeking to impress Mark and the other Durango Fire and Rescue supervisors enough to win the next full–time position that opened up with the department.
She took one of Chuck’s hands in hers. Her voice shook. “It’s Barney, Chuck. They’re saying it’s Barney.”
“Barney? That’s insane. Are you sure?”
Barney Keller was a senior archaeologist for Southwest Archaeology Enterprises, one of several firms in town that, like Chuck’s one–man company, performed site surveys as well as full–on digs throughout the archaeologically rich Four Corners region surrounding Durango, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah met.
Chuck had worked with Barney on a number of combined–firm contracts over the years. But Barney was more than just an occasional work partner to Chuck. He was one of Chuck’s few close friends, a harmless teddy bear of a guy, jovial and kindhearted. In the years since Chuck had become husband to Janelle and stepdad to Carmelita and Rosie, he credited Barney’s wise counsel with helping him tamp down the hot–headedness he’d displayed all too often during his many years as a bachelor. Barney and his wife, Audrey, had raised a son, Jason, in Durango. Jason was in his mid–twenties now, living in Denver.
“Barney doesn’t have an enemy in the world,” Chuck said.
“He couldn’t,” Janelle agreed. “Plus…” Her voice trailed off. She let go of Chuck’s hand and shot a sidelong glance at Sandra before looking away.
Chuck knew what Janelle was thinking. “Plus, Clarence,” he finished for her. He turned to Sandra. “Assuming that really is Barney Keller out there, I want you to know two things. First, to repeat: no one would ever want to hurt Barney. Everybody loves him, me included.”
“Second?” Sandra urged.
“Second is that Clarence Ortega, Janelle’s brother, has been doing a lot of work with Barney over the last few weeks.”
Chuck whirled to Janelle. Clarence’s rotund frame matched that of the corpse beneath the sheet in the back alley. “Have you talked to him? Is he okay?”
Janelle tapped her phone, stowed in the side pocket of her pants. “I called him. He’s at his apartment. He’s fine.”
Chuck pivoted to Sandra. “Barney’s company, Southwest Archaeology Enterprises, has won just about every contract in the area the last few months. They’ve taken on a number of new workers as a result. Clarence is one of them.”
“I’m sorry I can’t confirm what your wife has heard,” Sandra said to Chuck. “But any information her brother can provide will be helpful.”
“Which means,” Janelle said, leaning toward Sandra, “you haven’t arrested anyone yet.”
Sandra lowered her head, an almost imperceptible dip of her chin, but kept her gaze on Chuck. “I can’t officially comment.”
Janelle’s jaw muscles tightened. “Of course, you can’t.” She clapped a hand to her mouth, her eyes growing big and round. “I just remembered,” she said. “Barney’s wife, Audrey.”
She reached for her phone.
Sandra lifted her hand to Janelle and said to Chuck, “We’ll get someone over to the house. It’s better to tell her in person.” She lowered her hand. “We’ll need to do a round of questions with you and your wife before—”
“This might help, Kingsley,” a police officer broke in as he entered the yard from the back alley. The officer closed the gate behind him. He was in his thirties, as fit and trim as Chuck but broader at the shoulders. Unlike Chuck’s clean–shaven face, a clipped brown mustache covered the officer’s upper lip. Prominent cheekbones and a squared–off jaw gave him a boxy look.
The police officer carried a ziplock evidence bag. He raised the clear plastic bag as he stopped at Sandra’s side, facing Chuck and Janelle. A three–inch–by–five–inch picture postcard, bent and crumpled, rested in the bottom of the bag. The officer flipped the bag so the creased front of the postcard faced outward. Fresh splotches of blood, bright red in the afternoon sunlight, stained the front of the card.
Chuck gawked at the card, his mouth falling open.
“I take it you recognize this,” the officer said, his eyes on Chuck.
“It’s from my study.”
“Any idea why a murder victim would be clutching it in his hands?”
“What’s it a picture of?”
Chuck pointed at the front of the card. “You mean, who.”