Shadow of the Raven

Shadow of the Raven

by David Sundstrand

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Overview

Francisco Flynn is an officer in Land Management in the Mojave Desert, and he wouldn't have it any other way. The son of an Irish immigrant railroad man and a half-Mexican, half-Paiute mother, he lives in the caboose that his father brought up to a hilltop when the railroad stopped running there. Frank loves the desert and the animals that live there. He loathes the wealthy hunters who hire Indians to lead them to where they can shoot Bighorn rams and take their heads to hang as trophies on the walls of their fancy studies.

Over the years, Frank has come upon dead bodies—-the remains of people who got lost and ran out of water, their corpses drying into mummies in the desert heat. But now he finds a dead man who has only recently lost his life, and it looks very much like he's been murdered. His shoes are gone, he's shirtless, and there is no canteen anywhere in sight.

A day or so later, Frank hears word of a trio of bikers who have blown into town looking for a missing comrade. They pick fights in the local bar and don't hesitate to kill when it suits them. Frank is certain that the dead man he found is connected to them, and that many people could be endangered, including the woman reporter he has learned to love. Frank will do anything to rid "his" desert of the bikers who are spreading danger and hate, including putting his own life on the line.

With Shadow of the Raven, David Sundstrand adds a shining new voice to Southwestern crime fiction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250005434
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/06/2007
Series: Frank Flynn Mystery Series , #1
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

David Sundstrand was a longshoreman, a soldier, and a railroad brakeman, and served in the merchant marine before going to college on the G. I. Bill to study English literature. He liked being a student almost as much as being a ne'er-do-well and might have stayed in college permanently were it not for the constraints of having to make a living. After many years of teaching English in high school and college, he decided to change hats and write something himself. He lives in Reno, Nevada, with his wife, Jacquelyn, two dogs, and a cat.

Read an Excerpt

Shadow of the Raven

1

 

 

Finding another dead body ruined Frank Flynn's day off. He had planned to hike up to the spring, watch the bighorn sheep, maybe take a picture or two. But that was out of the question now. The air stank of rotting flesh.

This was the third corpse in six months, and he knew that he would again be the butt of black humor back at the Bureau of Land Management station in Ridgecrest. He didn't need this. First the guy in the motor home and then the "mummy."

After two months' worth of needling about the mummy, the Boris Karloff stuff had finally tailed off. He'd come across the mummy at the bottom of one of the many abandoned mine shafts that dotted the Mojave Desert. A desiccated corpse, the skin like parchment, dead for more than a year.

But this corpse was swollen, discolored, and putrid. The body lay propped between the canyon wall and a wedge of sharp rock that protruded from the sandy wash like the fin of some huge black shark. The facial features were no longer recognizable, the purplish skin fissured with dark cracks. The torso was shirtless, the legs stretched out in front at a thirty-degree angle. Ravens had been at the eyes, nose, and feet. Bare feet—odd, where were his boots?

Frank scanned the immediate area. A camouflage fatigue cap lay in the sand near the base of the canyon wall. Otherwise, there was nothing except the dead guy. Very dumb, if he had decided to go on a summer walk in the Mojave Desert without shirt or shoes. Frank didn't think he had. He looked at the feet again. Where theravens had been at them, the toe bones protruded from the swollen flesh like blackened twigs.

He took a kerchief from his pants pocket, moistened it with water from his canteen, and tied it over his nose and mouth, bandit-style. Holding his breath, he bent over the corpse and examined it with care. The splits and cracks in the soles of the feet had apparently happened before death. They were packed with sand and dirt. It must have been difficult and painful to walk on those damaged feet.

He thought about the forced marches in basic training, his feet crammed into the stiff new leather boots. He'd had to soak his feet to get his socks off, glued to his skin with dried blood, but this must have been worse, much worse.

He spotted a remnant of cloth clinging to the top of the right foot. Evidently, the dead man had tried to wrap his feet, probably with the missing shirt, but where were the boots? For that matter, he seemed to be wholly without the barest essentials of survival. No canteen. No pack. No boots. Apparently, he had been coming down the canyon. It was difficult to tell for sure. There were too many tracks, but in Frank's experience, people tended to die facing in the direction they were traveling, incomplete journeys. The dead man's journey had ended here in Surprise Canyon, next to petroglyphs of bighorn sheep and the stick figures of dancing hunters in frozen pursuit.

Flynn unsnapped his cell phone and punched in the number for headquarters. He'd brought the phone along this time despite the fact that it was usually useless in the canyons.

"This is Flynn."

"What's up, Frank? This is supposed to be your day off." She was barely coming in.

"Mmm, Lynn, tell Dave I need to talk with him."

"What's the matter, Frank? You stumble on some Manson leftovers?" It was starting already, even before he'd made his report. The Manson family had come to the Mojave for some private togetherness before their Hollywood fling, and now there were as many stories of encounters with Charlie and company among the desert denizens as there were sightings of Elvis in Las Vegas.

"Lynn, please tell Meecham I need to talk with him."

"Right away, Officer Flynn."

She sounded huffy. Well, now wasn't the time. Frank hiked a few yards up the canyon, away from the corpse. The sun hadn't crested the Panamints yet, but it was beginning to be hot. It would reach the low hundreds down in the Panamint Valley, and in Badwater, at the very bottom of Death Valley, it would approach 120 degrees. Mid-September, it was just beginning to cool off.

"Frank, Dave here. What's up?" Meecham's voice sounded guarded.

"I'm a couple miles up into Surprise Canyon from the end of the jeep track. Umm, Dave, there's a dead guy here. Looks to be gone for quite a while, maybe a week. It's kinda messy, Dave." Flynn paused.

"You kidding around, Frank?"

Flynn sighed. "I wish I were, but I'm not. There's a dead guy here without shirt or shoes, but it looks like he got here under his own power. Give the Sheriff's a call and find out what they want me to do. I think they ought to take a look."

"That's up to them, Frank. They'll have to send someone from the coroner's office to pick up the body, but you'll have to show them where it is. You'd better come on in, so you can be here when they show up."

More than an hour's drive to the Bureau of Land Management headquarters in Ridgecrest. "This is my day off, Dave. Send Sierra or Wilson. The dead guy's not hard to find. Hike up Surprise Canyon until you see him sitting in the sand, wondering why he can't see his toes. If they don't see him, they'll sure as hell smell him. He's wearing eau de fetid flesh. A little dab'll do ya."

"Come again?"

"Couldn't miss him in the dark, Dave. He stinks."

"Sierra and Wilson don't like dead guys. That seems to be your department, Frank." Meecham paused. "The thing is, you know where he is for sure. I don't want the guys from the county wandering around the desert looking for a body we can't find. So it's on you, Flynn. When do you think you can get here?"

No more "Frank," just "Flynn" now. He glanced at his watch:7:23. He looked up the sandy floor of the canyon, wondering what else was up there by the spring.

"I don't think this is all of it. I'm going to hike on up to the spring. Why don't you have our county law-enforcement brethren bring the body baggers and meet me where the jeep trail joins the power-line road. I'll be waiting for them at about ..." He stopped to calculate. If he moved fast, two hours to the spring, some time to look around up there, then an hour and a halfback to his truck. Another fifteen minutes of driving. "Say around twelve. As long as they don't send up a couple of pudgy puffers, everyone should be out by dark."

Meecham's voice sounded wary. "Sheriff's are not going to like this much, Frank."

Flynn started up the canyon, holding the phone to his ear. "Dave, what if there's another body up there? Something's not right. With all due respect for our brothers in uniform, can you picture a couple of Inyo County's finest hiking up Surprise Canyon to take a look around? Only if we had a complaint about naked hippie girls exposing themselves for passersby and handing out fruit." He waited, no response. "On the other hand, what if some civilian finds another rotting corpse up in the canyon? We'd look pretty damn derelict."

He'd played the "civilian" card. As the district ranger, Meecham hated the idea of civilians making the Bureau of Land Management look inept. He'd been especially sensitive since the Los Angeles Times had done an article that suggested that the BLM was a poor steward of public lands, more interested in grazing rights and mining interests than in the ecological health of the millions of acres over which it presided.

Outside criticism was one of Meecham's hot buttons. Nobody liked it much, but knowing the tender spots was damned handy when your superior needed a nudge into taking the initiative, or, to be more accurate, in letting him think he was taking the initiative.

"Okay, but don't screw up. Don't leave the county guys cooking in the sun. Let's get the stiff to the coroner, and let's get it done before dark."

"Thanks, Dave. It'll get done. I'll call when I get back into phone range, which won't be for a few hours."

 

 

The decapitated remains of a ram lay about twenty feet from the spring. It had been trying for the steep talus slope before being cut down. Near the pool, toppled on its side, lay an older ram with battered horns, the forelegs still partially folded back from where it had knelt to drink. Dried blood caked its right flank.

Frank closed his eyes, the sickening sight of the slaughtered sheep vivid in his mind's eye. Why were the sights of death and destruction so permanently imprinted? Some primitive survival response cataloging scenes of violence for easy access to the memory. ¡Peligro, hombre! Danger! Look out! La jornada de la muerte termina aquí. The journey of death ends here. He felt the hair on the back of his neck lift. Was he alone?

Moving only his eyes first, and then slowly turning his head, he carefully surveyed the small spring-fed meadow that gave Surprise Canyon its name. He looked along the ridge lines of the canyon walls and then above the cliff face where the spring slipped over a rocky shelf in a shower of cool water into the pool below. Only then did he allow himself to approach the spring and return his attention to the detritus of death.

Frank recognized the ram's dark saddle of wool and the broomed horns. His breath came in quick gasps. For a few moments, he was seized by a ragged rage. He had watched this old ram's comings and goings for more than three years. It was one of his old friends, but its huge horns had marked it for death. But why hadn't the hunter taken the head?

The mayhem at the spring provided few answers and raised more questions. Obviously, the dead guy down the canyon had been a poacher. These animals had been butchered. Probably taken down with an automatic rifle. There weren't many hunters left who followed the old codes. This sorry excuse for a sportsman hadn't even made a pretense.

Possibly the dead guy was a headhunter for one of the taxidermists who doctored up heads or sold trophies to instant sportsmen too busy to hunt their own. He'd heard of it, even seen the results: trophy horns taken from an old ram long dead from natural causes, remounted on the head of a ewe killed for her skull and skin. Ready-made trophies were even easier to come by than the sad results of the guaranteed hunts provided by unscrupulous guides. Must be a wonderful sight, hunters blasting away at animals released from pens, so tranquilized that they could hardly walk.

Or maybe the guy was just another jerk who lived by the credo that defied nature: If it moves, shoot it. If it's green, cut it down. If it's brown, burn it. There were enough of those good citizens to last a lifetime. But if the poacher had been taking heads for sale, why had he left the head on the big ram? It was a head that would have made the "book." Frank squatted in front of the head, trying not to breathe the stink of dead flesh. It was bad, but not as bad as the smell of dead Homo sapiens, which somehow seemed to evoke a repulsion bordering on the primeval.

The ram's right horn had been "broomed" back about two or three inches where it had curled up, obstructing his vision. Many old rams had broomed tips. The big rams did this themselves, rubbing the points of their horns against the rocks to remove the horn tip blocking their line of sight. They depended almost entirely on their keen vision to elude predators. A ram whose vision was obstructed was a ram with a short lease on life. So nature had developed this way of compensating the dominant rams with huge horns. The broomed tips frustrated the trophy hunters who sought to make the record book and decorate their dens with perfect horns, but there was an easy solution for one-trip hunters—epoxy and fiberglass. If the taxidermist was good, only an expert could detect the fraud.

Frank saw that the left horn had been badly damaged, four or five inches of the tip broken away and part of the central horn mass shattered and split. Not too unusual for these old rams to have scars from mating battles, but this damage was recent. Chunks of hornhad been torn away, leaving jagged craters and sharp edges that showed no signs of wear. Most likely, the damage to the horn had been done by the poacher, the horn smashed by rifle fire. The bodies of the downed sheep were too bloated to determine easily how many times they had been hit, but it was obvious that the corpse of the headless ram had been shot to hell.

Frank poked around in the sandy dirt of the rock blind where the poacher had hidden. There was empty brass all over the ground, bright, shiny brass from a .223. Must have let off a thirty-round clip, he thought. It looked as if the poacher had hidden at the far point of the blind and let go when the sheep had come down to drink. Why had he been at the end of the blind, away from the spring? The point had been to kill sheep, so why not be even closer? He walked over to the near end of the blind and examined the ground.

The sandy soil was shaped into a smooth concave depression about two feet from the wall. It would just fit someone's butt if he were sitting facing the spring. A butt print. He wondered how that would play in court. He smiled, the corners of his mouth tugged down as he imagined the scenario. And how do you know, Officer Flynn, that this individual is the perpetrator of this hideous slaughter? We have a positive butt print, Your Honor. It's a forensic technique recently developed by the FBI. It's how we identify the real assholes, Your Honor.

Still, it was definitely a butt print, and it was out of place unless there had been a second guy, a live guy who got away. A second guy might explain a lot. He poked around in the soft sand. Nothing. Then he spotted a glint of metallic reflection coming from the base of a brass casing. He pulled it from a sandy footprint; the boot had probably embedded it in the soil. A .300 Magnum. A bit more than needed for bighorns, but it had stopping power and a flat trajectory. Still, it struck Frank as overkill. The second-guy theory seemed confirmed. Maybe the second man knew what had happened to his partner's foot gear. Then again, maybe the dead guy had simply changed positions. Changed weapons?

Frank looked at his watch. It was 10:18. There wasn't any timeleft if he was going to meet the county guys on time. He'd already spent almost an hour looking around. Officially, the poaching problem was California Fish and Game's. BLM watched over the land but not the animals; they belonged to the state of California. The dead guy was the county's problem. But when something happened on BLM land, it was more than likely that BLM would be first on the scene. Frank wanted more time to poke around. Something was missing. There was a real possibility the dead guy had not been alone. He was also pretty sure that this was going to be a closed book.

But if there was another sheep killer wandering around the Mojave, Frank was going to do his best to make sure he got the trophy he deserved anyhow—at least a fine and some humiliation. Poachers never seemed to serve any real time. As far as Frank was concerned, nobody could give poachers what they deserved and stay on the right side of the law.

He was going to have to make tracks in order to meet the county guys on time.

 

 

It had not gone well. Why had they sent people so unused to being out in the desert? The county people hadn't been ready for a long walk in the desert sun. By the time they had reached the body (and that had taken almost two hours longer than Frank had estimated), the guys from the coroner's office had emptied their canteens and were eying his with undisguised desperation. Frank rationed out his water, sharing it with them. Deputy Harris of the Inyo County Sheriff's Department managed on his own, grimly sucking on the pebble that Frank suggested he put in his mouth to stimulate saliva.

By the time they bagged the body, it was past four o'clock, and Frank's plans of talking the deputy into returning to the spring to look around vaporized. "What the hell for, Flynn? If there is a crime scene, it's right here. And I'm not saying there's a crime. If an autopsy shows that there's been foul play, we'll search for a perp." Harris smirked. Frank kept his face blank. It was something he was good at. It caused people to underestimate him, become careless about what they said.

"The point is, Flynn, there's no way in hell I'm hiking around in this heat to go look at dead sheep and butt prints." Frank had shared his suspicions about a second guy, and Harris had said, "Butt print. Jesus, Flynn. What are you, an expert on butt prints? Does BLM have a butt-print file? The dead sheep are for Fish and Game. The dead guy's ours. So your worries are over, Flynn. None of this shit is in your jurisdiction."

Already, Frank wished he hadn't brought it up. Harris kept mumbling about butt prints all the way back to the vehicles. Somehow, Frank knew the word would get back to the BLM station in Ridgecrest. He could see Sierra's grinning face now, imagine him saying, Hey, it's Cisco Flynn, the world's only forensic buttologist. It wasn't the ribbing itself that would bother him but the invasion of his privacy. It was like pointing. His mother's people didn't point. It was considered more than rude, a personal violation. He'd have to learn to keep a lower profile, but the blood of Francis Flynn flowed in his veins, ever the Irish rebel. It was Frank's heritage, although he didn't pursue it as noisily as his father had.

Something about Frank's sense of discomfort made him a target for the wise guys like Sierra. Well, if he got lucky, maybe Deputy Harris would be too tired and thirsty from his hike in the sun to indulge in cop talk. Maybe something else would come along to occupy Sierra's talent for stand-up comedy. Still, he couldn't help wondering about the possibility of a second guy. He'd have to go back and take another look around. He could check out some of the watering holes on his time off and see if there was any talk. The desert was a big place with few people. The word spread magically from bar to bar. Stories of felonious frolics and sexual adventures were the stuff of barroom conversation. He could count on saloon gossip to keep him informed. The booze grapevine was quicker than the wire service.

There were a couple of places he particularly wanted to check out. He'd heard that some odd characters had bought the bar in Red Mountain. He'd seen the sign announcing UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT. GOOD FOOD AND DRINK NOW AVAILABLE. Time to pay a visit and see what kind of crazy person would buy a place named the Joshua TreeAthletic Club. No surprise there really. The Mojave was full of crazy people. Hell, he was living proof, an Irish mestizo living in a Southern Pacific caboose. No wonder Mary Alice had left him and gone back to L.A.

SHADOW OF THE RAVEN. Copyright © 2007 by David Sundstrand. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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