Prolonged Exposure (Undersheriff Bill Gastner Series #6)

Prolonged Exposure (Undersheriff Bill Gastner Series #6)

by Steven F. Havill


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Savvy storytelling infused with a spicy Southwestern setting.
"Not only does Havill offer a melancholy reinterpretation of that grand western myth of the slow-talking, fast-thinking lawman, he also writes crisp, marvelously detailed police procedurals in which a mix of technical know-how and informed common sense gets things done."—Booklist
Bill Gastner is going crazy recuperating from heart surgery. Dreaming of green chili, he's rescued by a phone call from back home. The Undersheriff arrives in Posadas County only to learn that his own home has been burgled. Moreover, Gastner finds his cranky ancient neighbor Florencio Apodaca has borrowed a bit of land to bury his equally ancient wife—and the dead woman's stepson questions if she died a natural death. Meanwhile a young boy out camping has vanished from atop Cat Mesa. A stringent search convinces Bill, his treasured deputy Estelle Reyes-Guzman, and Sheriff Martin Holman that the boy has been spirited away.
Poisoned Pen Press has republished the five earlier novels in Steven Havill's carefully, cleverly detailed police procedural series richly redolent of southern New Mexico.
Look to Worldwide/Harlequin for Out of Season (0-373-26382-1) and to St. Martin's for Dead Weight (0-312-25203-X) and in Nov. 2001, Bag Limit (0-312-25183-1).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781890208738
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 10/01/2001
Series: Posadas County Mystery Series , #6
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.47(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

Steven F. Havill lives with his wife of more than forty years, Kathleen, in New Mexico. He is the author of more than twenty novels, taught secondary schools for 25 years, and recently earned an AAS degree in gunsmithing.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The late-afternoon sun angled across the sweep of the bunchgrass prairie, casting harsh shadows around mesas and on the lowlands where arroyos cut the sand into fantastic patterns. The wind gusted fitfully, as if nervous about the clouds forming over the San Cristobal Mountains to the south, along the Mexican border.

    With my eyes closed, I could watch the changing patterns of shape, color, and texture. I could even see where an aging piñon clung in the loose, powdery soil on a distant rock outcropping, and I could see, in the shade under that piñon, a Saye's ground squirrel industriously sifting through the piñon-nut hulls for one that held a morsel.

    The image was strong enough that I could smell the prairie, and hear it, and even, sitting there quietly in my chair, imagine that I could feel the ghostings of fine sand particles across my bare feet.

    The landscape would hold as long as I kept my eyes closed. If I opened them, I'd see the hedgerow that marked the back property line of my daughter's home. And beyond that, if I cared to get up and stroll across a quarter acre of manicured bluegrass, I would catch a glimpse of power lines and rooftops, an expanse of suburbia that stretched, as far as I knew, all the way east to Lake Huron.

    I had been sitting with a paperback novel open on my lap, head leaned back, eyes closed, soaking in the Michigan haze. The novel wasn't worth reading, but it was good for appearances. Otherwise, I sure as hell would have looked like an invalid. I'd lost a few pounds—I had plenty to spare still,but decent green-chili burritos were difficult to find in central Michigan, and I woke up each morning with the feeling that I was fading fast.

    Were I recuperating in New Mexico, where I belonged, the lack of proper food could have been offset by doses of sunshine strong enough to bake lizards. But that wasn't the case, either. If the sun had been lit at all in Michigan that day, it was hidden somewhere behind a sky of flat, featureless stainless steel. So, with my eyes closed, I pretended.

    My daughter Camille would have only chuckled if I complained, so I didn't bother. Her one concession during the past three weeks had been letting me keep the wheelchair longer than necessary, but even its usefulness was fading. The gadget would have been even more comfy with a nice knitted afghan to spread across my lap, but my daughter would never have allowed that. She was into power recuperation.

    I didn't need the wheelchair, mind you. I took long morning and evening walks, sometimes in the company of one or more of my teenaged grandchildren, strolling around blocks of secluded, expensive homes with smooth black macadam driveways. There were no rattlesnakes, no goatheads to pick out of my socks later, no sand. I hated every step.

    And for the past week, Camille had been making noises about sending the wheelchair back to the health-aids rental place from which it had come, but I had pointed out that of all the furniture on my daughter's patio, the straight-backed aluminum speedster was the most comfortable. If I had slipped into one of the low Adirondack chairs, I never would have been able to heave my bulk up and out. The other choice was even more unattractive. The white wicker love seat had enough sharp cane ends sticking out that no matter which way I sat, some article of clothing was speared.

    Behind me, I heard the back door open.

    "Do you want to take a call from the sheriff's office?" Camille possessed one of those voices that carried command in every sentence. If she had said, "It's a beautiful day," welt then, by God, it had better just be a beautiful day, if it knew what was good for it. She was the oldest of my four children, and she had been boss since she was two years old.

    "Why do they want to talk to me?" I asked, turning my head so I could see her. She shrugged, and waggled the receiver at me. She was wearing an apron, which meant that she was cooking something that would end up resembling health food. I frowned. "I don't even know what county we're in," I added.

    I had a fleeting vision of the local police hopelessly stymied by a tough case. They knew that their only hope lay with the aging, ailing undersheriff, who happened to be in town visiting relatives and recuperating from having his carotid arteries reamed out. I could see the harried captain of detectives reaching for the phone, saying with arched eyebrow to his sweating lieutenant, "Let's call Gastner in." It was indeed a fleeting vision, the sort of thing the mind dreams up when there's too much free time.

    "This is Genesee County," Camille said, "but you're off by about two thousand miles." She grinned, her dark face softening until she looked like her mother. "The acting undersheriff wants to speak with you." She put the receiver to her ear and said, "He hasn't decided whether or not to get out of his chair, Estelle. Hang on a minute while I beat on him."

    My pulse jumped, not from the threat of pummeling, but from the mention of Estelle Reyes-Guzman's name. Camille saw the expression on my face. "The cord won't reach," she said, but I was already grunting myself upright.

    "They make cordless phones now," I muttered, but I knew that on her husband's lowly earnings as an oral surgeon, they no doubt had to be careful about such luxuries.

    Out of habit, I glanced at my watch and saw that it was 4:36. Flint, Michigan, was on eastern time, so it was siesta time in Posadas County, New Mexico. If I'd been home, I would have been just wrapping up lunch at the Don Juan de Oñate restaurant. But I wasn't home.

    Camille handed me the phone as I reached the screen door.

    "Gastner," I said, sounding for all the world as if I'd been busy with something important.

    Estelle Reyes-Guzman knew better, even from two thousand miles away. "I hope I didn't wake you, sir," she said.

    Her voice was soft and musical. I grinned and ambled back toward the kitchen, doing my best not to trip over the cord. "I was right in the middle of a high-level meeting," I said. "It's good to hear from you."

    Estelle, chief of detectives for the Posadas County Sheriff's Department, had called several times during my convalescence, and I'd called her only two days before, enjoying a nice long chat at my son-in-law's expense. He didn't mind, and he even pointed out that what few calls I made were nothing compared to the communications havoc that his three teenagers could wreak.

    In the background, I heard the squelch of the dispatcher's radio. Knowing that Estelle was at the office peaked my interest, and it was logical that she hadn't called just to chat.

    "What's up?" I asked.

    "There were a couple of things Francis wanted me to ask you, and now I can't remember what they were," Estelle said.

    Her physician husband could ask his own questions, and no doubt would when next we met eye-to-eye. "Tell him that I've lost a hundred pounds and that I'm running eight miles every morning. And that I've given up Mexican food entirely."

    "The latter I can believe, sir," she said, "As long as you're stuck up there."

    "Ain't that the truth."

    "I called because of a couple of things myself," she said. "First of all, do you remember Florencio Apodaca?"

    I should have responded, "Well, sure, of course I do," but the name drew a blank. "Uh-huh," I said instead, a grunt that could be construed either way.

    "Mr. Apodaca is the old man who lives at the end of Escondido Lane, in that old adobe with the steep metal roof and—"

    I interrupted her as my memory kicked into gear. "Sure," I said. "Of course." Escondido Lane curved around behind my own property in Posadas. If my five acres hadn't been so choked with trees and brush, I could have looked out my den window and seen the Apodacas' house three hundred yards away.

    "I used to see him and his wife taking evening walks, but that was a while ago. Did he die, or what?"

    "No, he didn't. But we can't find his wife, Gloria."

    "What do you mean, you can't find her?"

    "Just that, sir. One of the neighbors told us that she hadn't seen Gloria in quite awhile ... that she'd been ill, you know."

    "It seems to me that she was frail a hundred years ago," I said. "Maybe she has Alzheimer's and wandered off. Did anyone ask?"

    "Gloria would be in her late eighties, so that's entirely possible, sir." Estelle said. "One of the village officers stopped by to check, and Florencio told him that she'd gone. That's all he would say. Not that she had died, just that she'd gone. That's all he would say."

    "Who was the officer who talked to him?"

    "Chief Martinez," Estelle said, and I looked heavenward. Eduardo Martinez was kindhearted, understanding, gentle, and stupid.

    "So let me guess. The chief assumed that when Florencio said 'She's gone,' he meant that his wife had gone to visit relatives or some such."


    "But you don't think that she did?"

    "No, sir. A couple of youngsters were in the lot across the street, building a tree house in one of those old cottonwoods. They found a grave. We're pretty sure it's hers."

    "Really? You think she died and her husband just planted her himself?"

    "Yes, sir. There was a small cross, and her name was carved in the wood."

    I shrugged. "Well, there you are, then. If you've got a grave, the odds are good you've found your corpse. So what's the deal? It's not illegal for her to die, and it's not illegal for him to bury her. Poor old guy. Where's the grave site? I don't remember their lot as being very big."

    "It's not on their property, sir," Estelle said, and then repeated what I hadn't caught the first time. "It's across the lane, on yours."

    I laughed. "You've got to be kidding."

    "No, sir."

    "You're saying that the old lady died, and Florencio dragged the body across the street, into my woods, and dug a grave ... under one of my trees?"

    "That's what it looks like, sir."

    "I'll be damned. Brassy old cuss, isn't he? I wonder what put that notion into his head. And he even made a cross, too, you say?"

    "Yes, sir. A simple wooden cross."

    "Well, that's sort of sweet," I said. "It's not quite the way things are done these days, but what the hell." I chuckled. "Gene Salazar is going to be ticked that he's out a prep and burial fee. I wonder what Florencio used for a casket."

    "I don't know, sir."

    "Well, I don't care, I guess," I said. "I don't walk around back there much. In fact, I probably haven't been on that particular spot in twenty years."

    "I didn't think you'd mind, but the village does. That's the area where they wanted to run the new water line, so there'd be service to DelSol Estates. They said that you'd given them an easement."

    "Oh," I said. "Yeah, I guess I did. Well, we certainly don't want to stand in the way of progress." I chuckled. "Or lie in the way. I didn't know there had been any interest in that DelSol development, anyway."

    "They're hoping, I think," Estelle said.

    "I'm sure we can work something out that will make everyone happy. If that's the biggest problem you're having, things must be going pretty smoothly."

    "That's one," Estelle said. "We're also having a rash of B and E's, sir. I think we've had something like eight residential burglaries in the past two weeks."

    "Kids again?" I remembered that the last rash of breaking-and-entering cases that Posadas County had endured featured a thirteen year-old punk as the mastermind.

    "Probably. We're not sure. Your house was one of them."

    "Shit," I said. "You're kidding." That was a waste of breath, of course, since Estelle Reyes-Guzman was not the kidding sort.

     "Apparently they gained access by busting out the bathroom window. They left the front door unlocked afterward. They did a thorough job of trashing the place."

    I felt my blood pressure start its slow, inexorable rise. "So you need an inventory?"

    "If you have one."

    "I don't. I'm not sure there was much that was worth taking. Just a bunch of books. I'd have to walk through the place to jog my memory."

    "Most of the books are scattered on the floor. The thieves dumped them off the shelves. They took the VCR but not the television."

    "Small loss."

    "And when you left, was the Civil War rifle and sword still mounted on the wall in your den?"


    "They took them, too."

    "Those little bastards."

    "Yes, sir."

    "Estelle, you might check that lockable filing cabinet just to the right of my desk. The little two-drawer unit. A couple of my handguns were in there, locked up."

    "That was gone, too."

    "The entire unit?"

    "Yes, sir."

    I closed my eyes and listened to the blood gurgling in my newly reamed pipes. "There were some papers in there that I can't afford to lose," I said finally.

    "I'm sorry, sir. We've got a couple of pretty solid leads that we're following. If we come up with anything, I'll let you know. And by the way, I had Bob Torrez nail a stout piece of plywood over the broken window in the bathroom."

    "Thanks. What about the garage? Any sign of entry there?"

    "Apparently they didn't get in there. The truck is all right."

    "That's the least of my worries," I said. "It's too bad they didn't steal it. It'd be a hell of a lot easier to trace that than the smaller stuff."

    I reached across the kitchen counter and pulled the calendar toward me, flipping the page over to the next month, December. "I was planning on flying back to Las Cruces in a couple of weeks. On the third of December," I said. "That's a Wednesday. I could move it up and leave here the day after tomorrow. That's November sixteenth. I've got a couple of things to wrap up here, but that shouldn't be a problem."

    "If you can manage, sir, it would be a help. Otherwise, I can go through room by room and we can settle over the phone."

    "That won't be necessary."

    "Are you doing all right?"

    "Nicely is the doctor's favorite word now. Apparently cutting out a cheese burrito from each carotid artery made all the difference. Let me plan on catching a flight out of here on Sunday, then. That shouldn't be any problem to arrange. I've got a meeting with a man tomorrow that I really don't want to break, but after that, it should be fine."

    Estelle Reyes-Guzman didn't ask me what the meeting was all about, but when I hung up the telephone a few minutes later, Camille appeared in the doorway, both hands on her hips in that "Oh no you don't" posture I knew so well.

Chapter Two

The plane touched down in El Paso to two surprises. The first was the weather. During the flight from Flint, Michigan, I had eagerly anticipated seeing the vast, sun-swept panorama of the Southwest. Despite her best efforts, the month that I had spent recuperating at my daughter's home seemed a lifetime, to a point where I was sure that I had grown mold cultures under my armpits. At least once during that sojourn in Michigan, the thought had crossed my mind that I might not be returning anywhere, ever.

    As the jet entered Texas airspace, I could see a low, thick cloud layer that spread northward from the Gulf of Mexico, blanketing El Paso and muting the wonderful dichotomy between earth and sky to a solid, dismal gray. There was no break in the cloud layer to the west over New Mexico, either, and I sighed.

    The jet sank into the stuff and I turned to glance at Camille to see if she had noticed the meteorological insult outside the plane. She was reading a book about the former prime minister of England. If she had any interest at all about her upcoming visit to Posadas, the little bleached New Mexican village where she'd grown up, that interest hadn't bubbled to the surface yet. Without missing a syllable in her reading, she lifted a hand and patted my arm in consolation.

    "Wonderful," I muttered just as the airliner touched down. The tires threw up great clouds of spray, and I watched through the scratched plexiglas as rain pounded the jet's aluminum skin and ran back to fountain off the trailing edges of the flaps.

    Of course the Southwest needed rain. It always did. That didn't mean I appreciated a homecoming greeted by a frog strangler, with no edges of the cloud on the horizon.

    Camille closed the book, twisted slightly in her seat, and squinted out the window. "Isn't that a wonderful sight," she said, sounding as if she meant it. "Maybe you'll get some real snow this winter if this moisture continues."

    I started to say that I couldn't think of a single reason why I would want to see snow, real or otherwise, but instead, I just grunted something that could have been mistaken for agreement. The airliner lumbered in toward the terminal, and I found myself looking for familiar faces behind the concourse's tinted glass.

    The walk into the building was welcome exercise after three hours sitting in a seat far too small for my frame. The rain was loud on the thin skin of the concourse's accordion walkway, and I noticed that Camille and I were hardly setting the pace as passengers deplaned and hustled into the terminal. People flowed around us like water rolling by a rock caught in the middle of a stream. I would never have suspected that so many souls had an interest in reaching El Paso on a bleak Sunday in mid-November.

    "Now if our luggage didn't go to Terre Haute, we'll be all set," I said. "And someone's supposed to be here to meet us." I had expected to see Estelle Reyes-Guzman's face in the crowd. That was my excuse for not immediately recognizing Posadas County sheriff's deputy Tom Pasquale's husky six-foot-two-inch frame.

    "Welcome back, sir," be said. I stopped in my tracks. He thrust out a hand, and, knowing what was coming, I tried not to flinch as the crushing handshake threatened to dust my arthritic knuckles. "I'm your ride," he added.

    I nodded and glanced over his shoulder, thinking that perhaps he hadn't traveled from Posadas to El Paso alone. He had. "Thanks," I said. "This is my daughter Camille." She favored the darkly handsome Pasquale with a radiant smile.

    "I've heard a lot about you," she said, making the comment sound like an innocent compliment. She then had the good sense to drop the discussion of personal résumés right there. During my stay in Michigan, our conversations had occasionally touched on some of the Sheriff's Department personnel. I'd told her some of the high points of Pasquale's career, beginning first when he was a part-timer with the village's three-man department.

    He'd caused more than his share of messes, but young Pasquale had determination, I gave him that. He had tried for three years to get on with the Sheriff's Department, and the road had been a rough one—made so as much by me as by anyone.

    He'd finally made it—he'd graduated from the state law-enforcement academy and had been with our department for four months as a full-time officer. He still operated at a high state of eagerness. He hadn't yet been lulled into the bored stupor that made rural law enforcement so dangerous.

    Despite his drive and ambition, he had no interest in working for a larger metropolitan department. Posadas had been his home since birth, and I had no doubt that he would work there until he was old and doddering.

    "Estelle didn't come?" I asked, and started to trudge down the corridor toward the baggage-claim area.

    Pasquale shook his head. "They've got a manhunt going on right now, and she couldn't break away." He said it almost as an afterthought. He was trying not to walk sideways, looking at Camille and me—mostly at Camille. I don't know what he had expected. Perhaps he had thought my eldest daughter would be a small, feminine version of me. That would have been a scary vision.

    I stopped in the middle of the corridor and looked up at him. "A manhunt? For whom?"

    "Ah," Pasquale said, shaking his head in dismissal. "A kid got himself lost up on Cat Mesa. Apparently he walked away from a hunting camp. They'll find him."

    "How old is he?"

    "I think they said he was three."

    "Three? You're kidding. A local youngster?" I glanced outside at the glowering clouds. November in New Mexico could be lethal, even for experienced hikers who thought they were prepared.

    I could feel pressure on my arm from Camille, doing her gentle best to shag me toward our bags. She was one of those rare people who could walk, talk, and even chew gum at the same time.

    Pasquale nodded. "His mother's a woman named Tiffany Cole."

     "That doesn't ring a bell."

    "She moved here not too long ago, they were saying. Maybe a couple of years. Other than that, I don't know anything about her, except I don't see how she could just let a toddler go off like that."

    "We don't know the circumstances," I said. "Where were they camped?"

    "Up on top, just north of the Pipes." The Pipes were a series of jagged near-vertical rock outcroppings that stood in line like pieces of a giant limestone pipe organ. The local rock climbers liked to bruise themselves against the formations, struggling to the top, where there was room for two people to stand if they stayed really cozy.

    I frowned. "A three year-old out there by himself is going to be tough."

    "Well, there's no place for a kid to go up there in that country," Pasquale said with easy confidence, and then added again, "We'll find him."

    "And they were members of a hunting party?"

    Pasquale nodded. "That's probably what she was doing," he said. "Although with her, it might be hard to tell. She was camped with her boyfriend. We're not sure if anyone else was there or not."

    "You know this woman?"

    Pasquale glanced at me, a little uneasy. "No. I just meant that she didn't seem like the hunting type when I talked to her yesterday."

    "I see," I said. "Maybe just more like a party, then." I pointed ahead at the sign for the baggage claim. I had checked one battered old leather suitcase, as much a museum piece as practical. Camille didn't believe in traveling light, and we waited until her mammoth blue garment bag and two hard-shell suitcases thumped onto the belt.

    Pasquale picked up everything but the smallest suitcase as if they all were filled with helium. Camille took the remaining bag, and I followed along toward the rain, feeling useless.

    He'd parked the county car in an "Official Use Only" slot, just a few steps outside the electric doors, I frowned again, and Camille caught the expression and assumed I was irritated at the weather. I didn't bother to explain to her. No doubt Tom Pasquale was only doing what he'd been told. The unmarked sedan wouldn't be much help in a mountain-terrain search, but Pasquale would be. With his long legs and stamina, be could cover acres of rugged ground without missing a beat.

    Sheriff Martin Holman should have known better than to waste his manpower running a taxi service for me.

    Interstate 10 was only minutes from the airport, and as soon as we were on the highway heading north toward New Mexico, Pasquale drove so fast in the left-hand lane that even the trucks looked as if they were crawling. I didn't complain about the speed, and Camille had returned to life with the prime minister. If she heard my gentle sigh when we flashed into New Mexico, she didn't comment. The ride west from Las Cruces was even quicker.

    The village of Posadas was a mile off the interstate, and tourists didn't stop often. There wasn't much more to see standing still in the middle of town than there was thundering by on the highway at seventy-five miles an hour.

    A mile before the single exit, a large billboard announced the Posadas Inn, American-owned, family rates, and travel association-approved. Beyond that, a single sign with small lettering and a tiny arrow pointed to the off-ramp. That wasn't much of a greeting, but it was enough for me.

    Deputy Pasquale braked hard for the tight curve of the ramp, and if I had twisted my neck, I could have seen the grove of trees that marked my property south of the highway. No doubt my house was a mess, thanks to the bastards who'd ransacked it.

    At first, I had assumed that a gang of neighborhood kids had been responsible, tempted after they'd learned I was away from home. But Estelle Reyes-Guzman had said that my filing cabinet had been taken, and that didn't sound like the work of children.


Excerpted from Prolonged Exposure by Steven F. Havill. Copyright © 1998 by Steven F. Havill. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.

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