About the Author
ROBERT J. RAY is the author of nine novels: Cage of Mirrors, The Heart of the Game, Bloody Murdock, Murdock for Hire, Dial "M" for Murdock, Merry Christmas, Murdock, Murdock Cracks Ice, and Murdock Tackles Taos. Ray is also the author of a popular non-fiction series on writing, The Weekend Novelist, and he shares writing techniques on writing at bobandjackswritingblog.com. A native of Texas, Ray holds a PhD from the University of Texas, Austin. Tuesdays and Fridays, he writes at Louisa's Bakery and Café in Seattle. For more information, go to murdock.camelpress.com.
Read an Excerpt
Three things happened to Helene Steinbeck on Angel Mountain.
First, she saw a sparkly bracelet, a hand, and a shock of blonde hair.
Second, a faint whistling sound turned out to be an arrow aimed at her heart.
Third, a man in green Army camos slammed her down, just off the hiking trail, and right onto a dead body.
Helene's knee exploded when she hit. She opened her mouth to scream, but a hand clamped her mouth closed. The hand smelled of man-sweat.
The man in the green camos had a rough beard. He wore dark glasses and a boonie hat. His finger was on his lips — be quiet. One minute the man was squatting beside her. The next minute he was prone, beside her on the rocky trail. Good. She wasn't the only one feeling the harsh rocks. The hand released her mouth. Her lips felt bruised.
"Who are you?"
"Help me off with this backpack."
The man wore a slim day-pack made of the same green camo cloth. Who was he? What was he doing on Angel Mountain? A pain shot through her knee as she helped him get loose from the straps. From the little back- pack, a top-loader, he pulled out binoculars and a vintage Army .45 caliber automatic. Helene knew weapons from her dad — an NYPD detective who had carried a .45 for thirty years — and from her last job — Town Marshall on an island off the coast of the Carolinas. Propping himself on his elbows, the man swept the area with the glasses.
"Visitors," he said. "Two, maybe three."
"I suppose you know I'm lying on a corpse?"
"Lucky for you. It broke your fall."
"Why did you knock me down?"
"Look over your right shoulder."
Twisting, gritting her teeth at the pain in her knee, she saw the arrow meant for her driven into the trunk of a thin tree. The man held out the binoculars, and she fitted them to her face, moving from left to right, sweeping the terrain, seeing the trail twisting into the trees. And two men wearing hunters' khaki. One carried a red recurve bow, the other a black crossbow. They were bare-headed and coming this way at a trot.
"Who are they?"
"Not military," the man said. "What were you doing up here?"
"Hiking," she said. "What's your excuse?"
"Recon," he said. "You got a weapon?"
"A clasp-knife," she said.
The man nodded. As he steadied the pistol with both hands, she noticed the rear sight was a hexagon shape instead of the usual V-configuration. The binoculars felt heavy and her hands were sweating. She heard the beat of blood in her ears. As the hunters got closer, she saw they were young men, late teens or early twenties. Their grins looked vicious.
"They're stopping," she said.
"Strategy pow-wow," he said. "Or maybe deciding who gets the first shot."
Through the binoculars, Helene watched the archers separate. The hunter with the red bow took an arrow from the quiver strapped to his back. With the arrow fitted to the drawstring, he fiddled with a black slider mechanism attached to the bow. As she saw him draw the string taut, she wished she was watching an old Robin Hood movie, where the archers plotted an arc between themselves and the enemy. If you were the enemy, you would look up to see a thousand arrows raining down, like divine retribution. But here, on this sunny fall day on Angel Mountain, Helene Steinbeck was not the archer arcing the arrow — she was the target.
"He's going to shoot!" she said.
"Tricky shot," the man said, "with this breeze drifting sideways. Before we panic, let's see where it goes."
"What if it goes to me?"
"There's a steep drop-off, bud."
"Roll the other way."
"It's uphill," she said.
"Then stick tight."
"Stick tight?" she said.
"He's a hotshot," the man said. "Probably made a bet with the cross- bow guy."
"Why don't you shoot him?"
"When the arrow misses, they'll move in closer."
"Try a warning shot," she said, "and maybe they'll run away."
"We're witnesses — they want us dead."
"Great," Helene said. "Just terrific. I love your optimism."
She tracked the arrow's arc as it sprang loose from the bow-string. Lost it against the wide expanse of New Mexico sky — and then shivered as the arrow arced down, coming right at her, Helene the Target, right for her heart.
The man's hand was on her shoulder, a light touch.
"Easy," he said. "You're good."
The arrow sliced into scraggly underbrush fifteen feet away.
"Here they come," the man said. "You ever hear a gunshot up close?"
"I shot someone once."
"Plug your ears with this. Use your knife."
He handed her a brown khaki handkerchief, faded from many trips through the washing machine. Using her knife, she sawed off two strips, rolled them into little ear-plugs and plugged her ears.
The two hunters were closer, the crossbow leading, his turn for a shot. The man beside her looked relaxed. His beard was shot with gray. His eyes conveyed wisdom and intelligence. His voice was calm. He was trying to settle her down. She had so many questions. What was his name? Where had he come from? Had he been following her? That last thought made her heart flutter.
"How far away is the first guy?" the man said.
"Maybe sixty-five. That crossbow looks like a Horton. If he's an expert shooter, he might come close. And the bolt comes faster than that recurve arrow."
* * *
Through the binoculars, Helene saw the man with his eye to the scope mounted on the crossbow. His frozen smile had her rigid with fear. She was shivering when she heard the .45 fire, a single shot that echoed along the ridge. The shooter dropped the crossbow. She couldn't see his face, but his body collapsed as his legs gave way. He dropped to his knees and keeled over, holding both hands to his chest. His companion rushed to his side. Helene heard the .45 fire again. A long moment of waiting and hoping and then the second man twisted, a troubled torquing motion, as if he'd been clubbed on the shoulder. Helen removed one earplug.
"How did you make that shot?"
"Hexagon sights," he said. "Plus, luck with the wind and elevation. I'll give you a demo when we're clear."
"That was amazing."
"Use those glasses. See that line of white rock just above the tree-line — maybe a couple hundred yards out. Train your eyeballs on that. Tell me what you see."
"Nothing," she said. "Rocks and scrub, and the rock is very white, I don't see — no, wait. Something's moving. The sun just glinted off metal. It's a man. He's standing up, holding something black, could be a satellite phone. Now he's moving away."
"Two shooters and a spotter," the man said. "Check the shooters."
"The crossbow guy is not moving," Helene said. "The other guy is crawling back up the trail. I see a dark place on his shirt."
"We need to clear out," the man said. "Get off this mountain before the relief column arrives. Give me the glasses, then check our corpse. See if you can find some ID."
Helene's knee was stiffening as she levered herself up. The corpse was a young girl, late teens or early twenties, blonde hair and fair skin. The broken end of an arrow stuck out of her back. Dried blood was caked on her blue T-shirt. She wore hiking shorts with those bulbous pockets. Her skin, even in death, looked white and smooth, with a patina of sunburn starting. It was hard to estimate the height and weight of a corpse, but she was perhaps five feet five, weight around one-fifty. Her feet were bare, white, and scabby with blood. One green flip flop lay in the dirt beside her left foot.
"You okay?" the man said.
"She was wearing flip flops," Helene said.
"What's your estimate on time of death?"
Was he testing her? What made him think she had that kind of expertise? Helene touched the inside of the girl's wrist. It was cool, but not cold. She touched the girl's leg.
"Still warm," she said.
"You got a vehicle?" the man said.
"At the Cerdo Falls Trailhead. What about you?"
"You're closer. Can you walk on that leg?"
"Okay. Grab her fanny pack. I used to know a guy with the cops. We'll let them take it. You want help getting up?"
She said "no thanks." But then her knee folded on her and she felt the sizzle-tingle of new blood rushing in. The man held out his hand and she grabbed onto it and nodded. Without effort, he pulled her up off the rocky trail and onto her feet.
"My leg went to sleep."
"Lean on me."
"Wait," she said.
Helene leaned on him as she framed the corpse in the view window of her camera. A soft click, her throat contracting. Then a quick shot of the downed bow-hunters. Without the man's hand on her arm, without him to lean against, she would have fallen. As they started down the hill, her hip bumping his, she still didn't know his name.CHAPTER 2
Murdock came awake when the moving vehicle slammed him against the passenger door. The canyon road twisted and whoever was driving was over-confident. When they took the next corner, Murdock grabbed the support bar above the passenger door.
He looked to his left. The crazy driver was the woman from the mountain. Her last name was Steinbeck, like the guy who wrote The Grapes of Wrath. Murdock blinked, tried to focus on the curves in the road. He had forgotten her first name.
Steinbeck was tall, built for stamina, late thirties or early forties, and not bad to look at. She had dark hair and olive skin and a Roman nose that was almost craggy. Her face was not pretty, but the features were strong and the eyes didn't waver when they looked you over. Her hiking hat was a battered Tilley, pricey and built to last. Her tan shorts had hiked up, showing tanned thigh. Had she smiled yet? He couldn't remember. He did remember her wounded knee and the solidity of her body when he had boosted her the first few steps down the trail. Also that she smelled good.
* * *
Murdock yawned. He needed a stretch, a bath, a massage. Two nights sleeping in the woods and he was ready for food and beer and fourteen hours in the sack. He felt old and out of it.
"You don't snore, Murdock."
"I forgot your first name."
"It's Helene," she said. "With an E."
"French?" he said.
"My dad's a Prussian Jew. My mom's folks were from Ventimiglia."
"Right on the cusp," Murdock said. "But totally Mediterranean."
"You know Europe?"
"Just the bread and the wine and a good bowl of soup," he said. "How far to town?"
"Maybe ten minutes. Are you okay?"
"I'm beat," he said. "I'd like to sleep for a week, but I feel things escalating."
"I wish I knew. Where's that fanny pack?"
The dead girl's ID was a New York driver's license. Her name was Sophie Orff. An apartment address. Numbered street, numbered unit. Murdock didn't know New York. Couldn't tell Soho from Upper Manhattan, Brooklyn from Queens. Sophie Orff was twenty-two. Her photo showed a blonde girl with a flashy movie star smile. Her listed height was five feet, three inches. Her weight was 158.
Other stuff from the fanny pack: lip gloss, moisturizer in a little envelope, pills in a tiny pillbox, a compact mirror. A lipstick. A stub of a drawing pencil with brown lead.
"Do you remember why I'm here?"
"Writing and painting," he said. "A teacher named Natalie."
"Why are you here?"
"A buddy of mine has a daughter," Murdock said. "She's an artist. She busted up with her boy-friend, came to the Land of Enchantment to re-boot. Had a work-study deal with an art colony, one month in duration. The month ended and she headed back east with a new friend from the colony. That was two weeks ago. No word from the daughter since."
"Male friend?" Helene said. "Or female?"
"She didn't say, which raised the hackles of suspicion in her folks. Her dad — he's an old Army pal — came to Taos to see for himself. The cops are stretched thin, a budget thing. The art colony folks didn't have a clue. So here I am."
"How did you get on that mountain?"
"I hiked in from the northwest."
"It's on the other side of the mountain."
"How long have you been up there?"
"A couple days," he said. "My grub ran out this morning and I was breaking camp when the crossbow guy came trotting by. Moving easy but still with some stealth. He's young and tough so he got ahead of me. When I came up over a rise, I spotted you on the trail. There were two shooters; the crossbow guy had joined up with the recurve guy. And I thought I saw a spotter on that little ridge. You said he had a device. Any idea what kind?"
"I only saw him for a second," Helene said.
"Satellite phone?" Murdock said. "Maybe a camera?"
"You don't think they'd be photographing murder?"
"Just a hunch," Murdock said. "The police station is located on a side street west of Taos Plaza. If you go through this light, then turn right at the next corner, you'll be on Salazar, which will take you right there. I know the chief from way back. His name's Obregon."
"I know where the station is," Helene said. "And I think the old chief resigned. There's a temporary guy, some kind of ex-fed, while they do a search. I met him at a party."
"Changes," Murdock said. "Even in peaceful Taos."
She patted his knee. He looked up. She was smiling at him and her eyes were soft. He felt the rush. Female sympathy, female passion, female mystery. He put his hand atop hers. Today, they were survivors. They rode with their hands touching. They rode without talking along the back road, skirting behind the shops that girded Taos Plaza. At the police station, Helene Steinbeck took her hand back. She picked up her camera.
"Has the ex-fed got a name?"
"Savage," Helene said. "Everyone calls him Sammy. No one calls him chief."
"A big blond guy with a red face?" Murdock said. "Big hands, big shoulders?"
"You know him?"
"Leave the camera," Murdock said. "Don't mention the photos."
"We need the photos — to corroborate our story."
"That was a planned hit up there," Murdock said. "Those guys were not pros, or we'd be dead. This is a small town and we don't know who's connected to what. Leave the camera in the car."
"We hardly met and here you are bossing me around."
"Just a hunch," he said.CHAPTER 3
Helene Steinbeck was no stranger to police stations. When she was twelve, her dad had taken her on a tour of the Tombs, Manhattan's criminal holding facility, before it was christened the Bernard B. Kerik Complex. After Kerik's fall from grace the city renamed the place the Manhattan Detention Complex. She had grown up with cops and cop talk. Murdock was holding the door for her. His face was etched with fatigue and his shoulders sagged. As she crossed the threshold into cop-world, Helene saw a bullpen, three women at desks — two in uniform, one in a bright green summery dress. One of the uniforms was Sally Jo Catton, from the writing workshop. Sally Jo left her desk to give Helene a hug. She was blonde and hard from exercise. Great figure, Helene thought. The woman in the green dress brought alcohol and a big bandage for Helene's knee.
When the knee was bandaged, Sally Jo led them back to the chief's office. In the center of the door, there was a bare space, room for a new nameplate. Sally Jo was about to knock when the door opened and there stood Sammy Savage, dressed in khakis and a short-sleeve shirt, sandals with no socks. He looked bigger than she remembered, heavier, with more gut, his face an unhealthy red. In his shirt pocket was a cellphone.
"Helene Steinbeck, famous writer," he said. "To what do I owe ..." And then he looked at Murdock. "Foxy Murdock, what the hell?"
The two did a man-hug, one arm around the shoulders, pat-pat-pat. Helene could tell that Sammy was not happy to see Murdock. And what about that surprise name, Foxy? It fit what Helene knew about Murdock — crafty, shifty, every move clandestine.
The office was bare. No flags, no photos, no glory wall. The furniture felt temporary. A laptop next to a telephone, next to a plastic water-bottle. Sammy sat in a wooden swivel chair. Helene and Murdock sat across the desk in saggy chairs. She waited while the two men played catch-up, Sammy in Iraq, Murdock in California. "They let me go, Foxy. The bastards pensioned me off. I was going crazy when an old pal invited me to peaceful Taos. I don't have the creds for the Chief's job — when they find their permanent guy, I am back to the bread-line. But you're here on business. I can tell from the anguished looks. What's up?"
As Helene reported on the killing, Savage stared at her.
He did not take notes.
His face grew pale and he looked away.
He shuffled his feet. He took a drink of water. He shook his head. He said, "That sounds grisly. Any photos?"
"A tourist with no camera?" he said. "What court would believe that?"
"It's broken," Helene said.
"In agency parlance," he said. "A tourist without a camera is an aberration."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murdock Tackles Taos"
Copyright © 2013 Robert J. Ray.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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