"Gastner is an incisive investigator whose two most valuable qualities are compassion and insomnia. Unlike other fictional detectives who approach murder as a personal affront, Gastner sees himself as the victims' advocate, striving to even the scales of justice for those no longer able to do it themselves."Booklist
When two baffling crimes strike Posadas County, New Mexico, Undersheriff Bill Gastner knows they're connected somehow. But as the case heats up he may have to call in reinforcements...
Bill Gastner, Undersheriff of Posadas County, may be getting on in years, but he's still as sharp as any other small town sheriff. When he gets a call that an elderly schoolteacher was found dead at the bottom of her basement stairs, he suspects it wasn't an accident. Something strange is going on...
He's also sure that elderly Reuben Fuentes knows nothing about the bodies scattered on his dusty, southern New Mexico ranch. Although the other county sheriffs want to arrest Fuentes and be done with the case, Bill isn't convinced. No spring chicken himself, Bill summons his former deputy, Estelle Reyes-Guzman, from Mexico to help clear the old man of suspicion. She's used to handling people who call her a 'lady cop' and can take anything thrown her way. Eventually this generation-spanning law enforcement team finds a thread tying all the crimes togethera killer with no conscience.
In this thrilling addition to Steven F. Havill's posadas County Mystery Series, Undersheriff Bill Gastner will have to rely on former deputy Estelle Reyes-Guzman to help him unravel a harrowing case that spans all of Posadas County.
- Check out the iconic series:
- Perfect for fans of C.J. Box and Michael McGarrity
- For readers who enjoy police procedurals and Southwest desert mysteries
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By Steven F. Havill
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 1994 Steven F. Havill
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAnna Hocking called the Posadas County sheriff's office at 9:14 P.M. on December 19. That's what the dispatcher said and that's what the telephone log confirmed. That same log showed that I responded to the call at 11:02 P.M. Two hours wasn't our normal response time—but I had a list of excuses as long as my arm. Some of them were even legitimate.
I parked the county car in the narrow driveway that ran through the weeds along the side of Mrs. Hocking's tiny adobe home. Knowing how skittish the old lady could be, I took my time before I got out. I sat in the car with the door ajar and the dome light on, jotting notes on my clipboard.
She would be able to see me easily if she was peering out the window, and she'd know I wasn't some creep intent on robbing her of her riches ... which included nothing much more exciting than a thin retirement check and an even thinner Social Security check, both deposited directly to Posadas State Bank.
The porch light wasn't on but the living room light was. Anna Hocking didn't answer my knock. I stepped to one side so that I was in the wash of light flooding out through the multipane window. The lace curtains were thin, ancient, and yellowed, and effectively blocked my view. After the fourth knock, I tried the door. It was locked.
"Mrs. Hocking, it's Bill Gastner," I called. I didn't need to be any more formal than that. She'd known me for years ... both my sons and one of my daughters had suffered through English with the old gal during their senior years in high school. My youngest daughter would have endured the experience too if Mrs. Hocking hadn't slipped on the stage during play rehearsal one October night and shattered her hip into a thousand pieces.
I switched on my flashlight and stepped off the porch. The first side window also looked into the living room, but the curtains were drawn and the old-fashioned paper roller shade was pulled as well. The kitchen window, high and narrow over the sink, gave me a slim picture—just enough light filtered in from the living room to make shadows.
The back porch screen door was open and I stepped inside. The porch was full of junk, from firewood that would never be burned to lawn furniture that would never see another barbecue. One window was blocked by a roller blind. Farther down the porch a second one, uncurtained, looked in on a vast inventory of cardboard boxes piled to the ceiling of what once had been a second bedroom.
I frowned. The only other window was on the west side of the house, a single pane of frosted glass that blocked the bathroom's view of the mobile home park next door.
I rapped on the back door, called out my name again, and waited. The house was silent. She hadn't driven anywhere. I knew I'd find Mrs. Hocking's '59 Chrysler in the old garage behind the house, covered by half an inch of dust and bird shit. She hadn't driven the car for ten years.
I rapped again. The door was locked but easy to jimmy. My pocketknife slipped past the striker and the door opened a quarter of an inch, held on the inside by a hook. I popped that and swung the door open.
The house smelled musty, the odor of doilies that had missed their once-a-decade laundering and rugs that had accepted the offerings of a now long-dead terrier when he'd been at his most incontinent. My flashlight beam swept down the short hallway toward the front of the house.
"Mrs. Hocking? It's Bill Gastner. Are you home?"
I stepped into the kitchen and snapped on the overhead light. A colander of unpeeled potatoes rested by the sink. A half-full two-quart bottle of orange juice stood on the counter by the refrigerator. I left the light on and roamed out through the tiny dining room, the living room, the bathroom, and finally the bedroom. The bed was mussed, with the comforter thrown back.
The door of the utility room was ajar and I toed it open.
The smell was faint but unmistakable. "Ah, don't tell me," I said. The utility room, as in most houses, was an overflow room for the daily detritus we all need ... soaps, cleansers, brushes, brooms, paints, and a dozen other potions that old lady Hocking had stopped using years before. The hot water heater gurgled gently as it started another cycle. Beside the heater was the door down to the old-fashioned dugout basement. It was half open.
I crossed over, pushed it open the rest of the way, and swept the flashlight beam down the steep, cobweb-laced stairway. The cobwebs danced in the movement of stale air. I stood motionless, listening. Except for the hot water heater, the small adobe house was silent. But the faint odor wafted up from the cellar. I swung the light to the left and the beam's circle collected a pair of feet.
Moving cautiously I bent down until the light could shoot past the floor joists. Mrs. Hocking was crumpled on the dirt floor, her long gray hair about the color of the cellar dust.
Using one hand for support against the wall, I made my way down the stairs. The ancient wood groaned under my weight. That didn't bother me. The cobwebs that floated in the air above my head did, since I didn't know where the black widows were that had spent all that time spinning.
The cellar was tiny, no more than twelve feet square. A hundred years before, the house builders had dug it for the dirt and clay to make the adobe blocks.
On the wall ahead of me were five shelves, their two-by-four supports running from floor to ceiling. The vintage of some of the preserves that lined up soldier straight on the shelves probably ran back to Eisenhower's time.
I knelt down and placed a hand on the old woman's thin neck. Her skin was dry and cool. I shifted my fingers, trying for the pulse that I knew wasn't there. Her eyes were half open, as if she were considering waking up.
There was scarcely space between the stairway and the wall for even a child to curl up but Mrs. Hocking had managed. I stood up.
"What did you do this for, Anna," I said softly. I pulled out my notebook and wrote down the time and a couple of questions I wanted answered later on. Feeling as if I was invading the privacy of a dignified old friend, I once more swung the flashlight to illuminate the corpse.
Mrs. Hocking was dressed in her pajamas and a pink housecoat, the latter soiled from days of constant use. Both slippers still clung to her small feet. Her lower legs looked like frail bamboo stalks.
Without moving my own feet I turned at the waist, examining the cellar. The beam reflected off a two-cell flashlight that had rolled up against the wall under the shelves. Without touching it, I peered closely. The switch was visible, turned on. The batteries had given up.
Except for Anna Hocking and her flashlight, nothing was out of place. I heaved a sigh, glad that the thousands of students she'd taught over the years didn't have to remember her this way.
Being careful not to disturb anything, I stepped over to the stairway and climbed back upstairs. The telephone was in the living room. I dialed and Gayle Sedillos answered on the second ring.
"Gayle, I need an ambulance out at Anna Hocking's place. And give Emerson Clark a call. Tell him it's an unattended."
My dispatcher said, "Yes sir," and I gave her a couple of seconds to jot notes. She didn't ask questions, knowing full well that I'd fill her in—before just about anyone else—when the time was right.
"Has Bob Torrez come in yet?"
"Yes, sir. But he's in conference with Glenn Archer."
I cursed my short memory. "Tell 'em to send Archer home. We'll get to him in the morning. Or on Monday. There's nothing we're going to do about that scuffle right now anyway. I need Bob out here."
Archer was the high school principal. He'd grumble that our department was ignoring him again, but I didn't see a round of fisticuffs after a Friday night basketball game as any big deal.
I hung up the phone and glanced at the time. I had about six minutes before Deputy Torrez arrived. Coroner Emerson Clark would be sound asleep, nestled in beside his wife of fifty-eight years, when his telephone rang. He'd be grumpy as hell, but he wouldn't argue with Gayle. He would arrive in less than ten minutes.
I went out on the back porch and sat on one of the window sills, my back against the screen, and waited—and wished that I'd arrived within six minutes of Anna Hocking's last telephone call.
Chapter TwoDr. Emerson Clark looked at the stairway and stopped, one hand on each side of the door jamb.
"Oh boy," he muttered. Both Deputy Robert Torrez and I reached out a hand to steady him but he waved us off. "I'm not that goddamned old," he said. He was, but we didn't argue. He went down the stairs one at a time, both hands on the rough wood of the floor joists. I followed. Bob Torrez waited at the head of the stairs, probing through the cobwebs with his flashlight.
"She used this place all these years and never had a damn lightbulb installed," Clark said. He reached the bottom and regarded the tiny, almost doll-like remains of Anna Hocking. "What time did you get here?"
"Shortly after eleven."
Clark used one hand against the dirt cellar wall for support as he lowered himself to his knees. He felt for a pulse, waited several seconds, then took one of Anna Hocking's hands in his. He gently flexed the fingers, then just knelt quietly for a minute.
"She called you?" he asked.
"Was she hearing spooks again?"
"I never asked Gayle. I assumed so."
"What time did she call ... not that it's any of my business."
"Shortly after nine."
Clark lifted an eyebrow but otherwise said nothing. He reached out and stroked the thin wisps of hair away from Anna Hocking's neck. His examination was brief. His own fingers were arthritic and beginning to hook, but they were still strong and sure. I'd had confidence in him nineteen years before when he'd taken my oldest son's knee apart and put it back together, and I had no doubts now.
"I'd break into a million pieces too if I were 86 years old and took a tumble like that," he said. "She probably hooked a toe on something. Or maybe a stroke. Autopsy will show."
"There's a loose corner of linoleum right here by the first step," Deputy Torrez said. He still hadn't come down into the basement.
"Well, maybe that's it," Clark said. "I can imagine her hitting the wall there with her head on the way down. That would account for the little scrape on her forehead." He looked at me, expectant.
I held out a hand and this time Clark accepted the help. He came to his feet with a grunt. He turned his own light this way and that, looking around the cellar. "I can think of more comforting places to check out," he said.
"By the time she got down here, it probably didn't matter much," I said.
"There's that," Clark said. He looked down at the corpse again. "I've known her for close to thirty years, Bill. Remember when she broke her hip at school that night?" I nodded. "Bruce Wayland and I worked on her for almost four hours. Hell of a hip job."
He shuffled to the stairway and looked up at Bob Torrez. "You afraid of the dark, son?"
"No, sir," Torrez said. "And sheriff, Linda Rael wants to know if she can come in."
"You've got to be kidding," I said and Clark laughed a dry, short cackle. "She's outside?"
Torrez looked just a trifle uncomfortable. "She rode down with me. She was in the office when you called."
"Then let her sit in the car. This is a private home, for God's sake. Tell the ambulance crew we'll be ready for them as soon as we take a set of pictures." I followed Clark up the stairs and then went outside to fetch the camera kit from the trunk of the car. I glanced down the driveway and saw Linda Rael's dark figure in Torrez's car. The dome light was on. Who knew what she was reading. Probably the deputy's patrol log.
It wasn't until Torrez had mentioned her name that I remembered the letter of permission our county attorney had drawn up so that the young reporter could ride with the deputies on patrol.
None of us knew what Linda and her boss Jim Maestas were after, if anything. She could ride with us until we all retired for all I cared. Sheriff Martin Holman had different ideas, of course. He broke out in goosebumps at the very mention of the media sniffing for anything but the best public relations pieces ... those bland, awful things that most county sheriffs released around the holidays.
As undersheriff, I was supposed to sign the letter of permission as well. I hadn't yet, and as far as I knew the document was still buried under mounds of likewise worthless trash on my desk. It was probably right under the newest edition of the department budget—Holman wanted me to read that, too. I would rather have dropped a rock on my foot.
Linda saw me and didn't waste time. It had been thirty years since I could have got out of a car that fast. The ambulance had parked behind Torrez's car and its lights pulsed and bounced off the side of the house.
"Mr. Gastner," Linda Rael called. I set the camera case on the trunk lid and waited. She was a cute kid—maybe twenty-four with a round, dark face framed by one of those old-fashioned pageboy haircuts. I'd read her articles in the Posadas Register during the past year or so and she was a competent writer. I'd never noticed her opinions creeping into the stories, even when she was covering one of the deadly county commission meetings. Anyone who could keep a straight face reporting on that nonsense had to have iron will.
"Good evening, Ms. Rael."
"I was going to ask you if I could come inside."
"What changed your mind?" I asked and she looked briefly confused, then smiled.
"I mean, can I come inside?"
I hefted the camera bag. "I don't think so."
"Is the woman dead?"
"Yes." I started toward the back porch door.
"Sir," Linda Rael persisted, and I stopped and turned to face her.
"Look, Linda. Mrs. Hocking was an old woman who lived alone because she chose to do so. She tripped and fell down a flight of stairs. Maybe she had a stroke. But there's no foul play, no crime. It's just an unattended death. The only dignity she has remaining is what we preserve. The public has no rights in there. And we haven't notified any next of kin, so I'd rather that no one was in that house who doesn't need to be."
She didn't argue after that sermon, bless her. Instead she nodded once and said, "I'll wait in the car."
"I'd appreciate that," I said, still surprised to be off the hook so easily. "Were you at the game earlier this evening, by the way?"
She nodded and opened the door of the patrol car. "I got some good shots ... some of them were even of basketball." She grinned. Glenn Archer would be at least as nervous as Sheriff Holman. The two of them were a matched pair—public relations paranoids of the first order.
Inside, the two EMT's waited in the living room. "Give us five minutes," I said and went back down in the cellar. I make no claim to be an ace photographer but I burned enough film to make sure I had what I wanted.
Bob Torrez held a flashlight for me while I focused each frame. A full roll of film later, I was satisfied.
In another five minutes the ambulance had left with Anna Hocking's remains.
Upstairs, Torrez and I found what we needed on the first pass. The elderly woman's address book was in the top drawer of an old desk in the living room.
"I'll make a few calls," I said, slipping the book into my shirt pocket. "And by the way, you were out here just last week, weren't you?"
Torrez nodded. "She was hearing noises again, just like before." Anna Hocking's behavior in the past year had drifted toward the irrational as often as not. I had visited her a couple of times myself. All she had wanted was to talk, and when a deputy arrived, she'd have a few minutes of his time.
"I got raspberry that time."
"I beg your pardon?"
Torrez shrugged. "The bribe for coming out for a couple minutes. She gave me a jar of raspberry jam."
I looked at Torrez with amusement. He didn't smile much, but should have. He was one of Posadas County's most eligible bachelors—movie star handsome but so goddamned sober it was funny. I'd once asked him to ride the county float in the Fourth of July parade, pitching penny candy to the kids along the route. He'd been so straitlaced and forbidding that the kids almost wouldn't run out for the goodies.
"Did she give you something every time you came out?"
Torrez's voice was almost inaudible. "Yes, sir."
"She did this with other deputies too?"
My eyes narrowed. "How come I never got anything?"
"I don't know, sir. There's plenty downstairs, though. I'm sure nobody would miss any."
Excerpted from Twice Buried by Steven F. Havill Copyright © 1994 by Steven F. Havill. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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