Big Gamble :
A Kevin Kerney Novel
By Michael McGarrity
Published by E P Dutton
July 2002; 0-525-94656-X; 320 pages
The cement block walls of the abandoned building kept the fire fairly well contained until the roof ignited. Then wind whipped burning embers into the dry grass along the shoulder of the highway. In the predawn light, Deputy Sheriff Clayton Istee watched the volunteer firefighters chase down and drown rivulets of orange flames that snaked quickly through the grass. A year of drought had made any fire dangerous, and the incessant spring winds that rolled across Carrizozo and the surrounding rangeland could easily transform a cinder into a catastrophe engulfing the whole valley.
Flames licked through the boarded---up side doorway and the long opening at the front of the structure, which had once served as a counter for baskets of apples and jugs of fresh pressed cider. Under a steady stream of water from a pumper truck, the remnants of the roof crashed in, showering brilliant pinpoint sparks into the sky, momentarily illuminating a large, somewhat---faded plywood sign nailed to the building that read:
Hewitt was Clayton Istee's new boss. Three months ago, after five years with the Mescalero Tribal Police, Clayton had accepted the sheriff's long---standing job offer. His decision hadn't made his mother or his wife particularly happy, but Clayton was glad to get away from the petty politics and cronyism of the tribal administrators.
Ray Bonnell, the volunteer fire chief, stepped up to Clayton's side. One of Paul Hewitt's best friends, Bonnell could be found just about every weekday morning having an early cup of coffee with the sheriff at the Dugout Bar & Grill. In his sixties, with the thick upper body of a man who'd spent a lifetime doing hard physical work, Bonnell was a third-generation native of the valley. He ranched, owned a local propane gas delivery company, and ran the fire department in his spare time.
"Smell that?" Bonnell asked.
"Know what it is?" Bonnell asked.
"Burned flesh," Clayton answered.
"Yep. You got yourself a crispy critter inside. Let's just hope it isn't somebody we knew, or worse yet, somebody we knew and liked. Best to tell Sheriff Hewitt."
"He's already rolling," Clayton replied. "ETA ten minutes."
Bonnell smiled. "Paul said you were a good one. Guess I don't need to tell you how to do your job."
"I'll take all the help I can get, Chief," Clayton said.
"Then help yourself to the spare pair of Wellington boots in the back of my truck," Bonnell said with a laugh as he moved away. "You're gonna need them. After we soak down the inside of that fruit stand it's gonna be a soggy, god-awful mess."
All the burned grass along the roadside had been covered with dirt and doused. Firefighters walked in circles around the charred patches of earth checking for hot spots, hosing down anything that looked like it could combust or flare up again. At the burned-out building two men on ladders directed high-pressure jets of water into the guts of the structure.
Soon murky black water started oozing out the door frame. Clayton went to Bonnell's truck, got the rubber boots, and put them on, figuring whatever crime scene evidence there was inside the building had to be pretty well trashed. Nothing could be done about it. Putting the fire completely out was the first priority, especially since the warmth of the early morning sun topping the mountains had stirred up strong gusts coursing out of the canyons.
The men on the ladders shut down their hoses. At the front of the burned-out door Bonnell motioned for Clayton to join him. He plodded toward Bonnell in the squeaky rubber boots.
"This place hasn't been used for years," Bonnell said, shining his light inside. Most of a plank floor at the back of the structure had been burned away, revealing a partial basement.
Bonnell froze the beam of his flashlight on what appeared to be a pile of burned rags under a window. "There's your crispy critter," he said.
Clayton nodded. He could see a seared, blackened forearm and hand protruding from the rag pile. "What's with the basement?" he asked.
"It was probably a cold-storage cellar for produce," Bonnell replied as he swept his light back and forth. "We're looking for fire behavior here, Deputy. So far I don't see anything abnormal. The flames burned up and out, just like they were supposed to."
"Are you calling it accidental?"
"Not yet, but I don't see a burn pattern that suggests an accelerant was used."
Clayton gazed at the deep pool of black water that was quickly draining into the cellar. "What a mess."
Bonnell snorted and slapped Clayton on the shoulder. "Come on, Deputy, let's get in there, get muddy, and find out what we've got."
"First, I'd better call for the medical examiner," Clayton said.
Bonnell pointed at a firefighter coiling hose at the back of the pumper truck. "We've got one right here," he said. "Shorty Dawson will be more than willing to declare the victim dead."
Clayton thought about the mess inside. Mud, debris, and charred pieces of the roof filled the enclosure, a lot of it covering the body. Conditions would make extracting the victim and searching for evidence time-consuming and tedious. Allowing too many people inside would only make it worse.
"Have Dawson make a visual inspection from the doorway," Clayton said. "I want to limit entry to just you and me until the crime scene techs arrive."
"I'm sure Shorty will oblige," Ray Bonnell said. The sound of a siren made him glance down the highway in the direction of Carrizozo. "Here comes your boss. Shall we wait for him before we get started?"
"Might as well," Clayton replied. "When we get inside, I want you to do exactly what I say."
"Now that the fire is out, it's your show," Bonnell replied.
Paul Hewitt watched his young deputy work. Major felonies were not commonplace in Lincoln County, New Mexico, and while it was quite likely that the John Doe inside the fruit stand had died by accident, Clayton Istee was treating the investigation as a homicide, which was exactly the right thing to do.
Hewitt had aggressively recruited Clayton because of his college education, five years of patrol experience, and extensive training in major felony investigations. He'd kept a close eye on Clayton since his arrival and was pleased by the young man's work ethic, his professional conduct, and his seasoned patrol skills. Now, for the first time, Hewitt had a chance to observe Clayton conducting a crime scene investigation, and he liked what he saw.
After photographing and videotaping the scene, Clayton had approached the search for evidence as if it were an archeological dig. With Ray Bonnell's help he'd uncovered a partially burned backpack, a few charred remnants of a cheap sleeping bag, two empty pint whiskey bottles, some partially burned pieces of mud-encrusted firewood, singed scraps of a wool blanket, and a disposable cigarette lighter.
The firefighters and their equipment were long gone, the sun was high in the sky, and the day had heated up when the two men took a break.
Ray Bonnell leaned heavily against the front of Paul Hewitt's slick top unit, smearing dirt on the paint. "Looks like our John Doe burned himself up," he said to Paul. "I'd say the point of origin for the blaze was the sleeping bag under the victim, probably started by a spark or a cigarette. My guess is that he built a fire to keep warm, slugged down two pints of whiskey, passed out, and never woke up. He may have died from smoke inhalation. We'll know for sure after the autopsy."
Paul nodded in agreement and looked at Deputy Istee, who was splashing water on his grimy face. He'd removed his uniform shirt and shucked his weapon and equipment belt. His jeans and tee-shirt were stained dark brown and he was covered in mud. "Any ID on the victim?" Hewitt asked.
"Negative, so far," Clayton replied. "I still have to search the body and the backpack."
"He was probably a drifter," Hewitt said. "Wrap it up here as soon as you can."
Ray Bonnell shook his head. "Can't do that, Paul."
"Why not?" Hewitt asked, scanning Bonnell's face.
"We've got another body, Sheriff," Clayton said, "and what looks like a completely different crime scene."
"Show me," Hewitt replied.
Clayton took the sheriff to the doorway, clicked on the battery---operated flashlight, and beamed the light into the back part of the dark cellar.
Hewitt saw an exposed skull with a fractured forehead, covered with patches of what appeared to be leathery skin. Pressurized water from the fire hoses had revealed some of the torso and Hewitt could see what looked like swaths of fabric.
"It's a female skeleton," Clayton said. "The fracture to the skull was most likely from a blunt-force instrument. A clutch purse was buried with the body. According to the driver's license inside the purse, the victim's name was Anna Marie Montoya. She had a Santa Fe address."
"You're sure this is a separate incident?" Hewitt asked.
"There's no way she was killed in the fire," Bonnell said from behind Hewitt's shoulder.
"Any guesses on how long the body has been here?" Hewitt asked.
Clayton shrugged. "Her driver's license expired ten years ago."
"Let's hold off on doing any more until the state police crime techs get here," Hewitt said.
"Are you going to give the investigation to the state police?" Clayton asked.
Hewitt had recruited Clayton to complete the staffing of his major felony investigation unit, made up of three specially trained field officers. His twelve-man department was too small and underfunded to manage felony cases any other way. But with the addition of Clayton, Hewitt now had a unit that could do a hell of a lot more than take a report, collect evidence, interview witnesses, or get an occasional voluntary confession from some feebleminded perp.
At least, he hoped they could. Up to now, the unit was untested. It was time to see what they could do.
"It's your case, Deputy," Hewitt said. "Call in the team."
Clayton stripped off his plastic gloves. "I'll get them rolling."
Ray Bonnell watched Clayton walk to his unit to make the call. "I think you hired yourself a good one, Paul," he said.
"I do believe you're right," Hewitt said.
"How come I'm all dirty and you're all spick-and-span clean?" Ray asked, brushing dirt off his pants and eying Hewitt's freshly pressed shirt.
Paul Hewitt smiled. "You do look a mess, Ray. How about you wipe the dirt off your face, wash your hands, and I buy you some biscuits and gravy?"
"I could use some breakfast," Bonnell replied.
Sergeant Oscar Quinones and Deputy Von Dillingham arrived in a hurry. Clayton briefed them, paying particular attention to how the men reacted to the news that he'd been assigned by the sheriff as lead investigator. He didn't need an attitude flashed at him for being placed in charge.
Quinones didn't even flinch. A retired border patrol supervisor who'd been with the department for five years, he'd worked on many task forces, investigations, and multiagency operations run by lower-ranking officers.
"Where do you want us to start?" Quinones said when Clayton finished.
"We'll work it as two separate crime scenes," Clayton said, looking at Dillingham for a reaction, "starting with the male victim. Search the body and the backpack, and bag and tag all evidence. Then we'll do a field search around the perimeter."
Dillingham pulled a toothpick from his mouth and smiled. "What about the female victim?"
"We treat it as a buried body and do an excavation," Clayton said. "But not until victim number one is removed and all evidence recovered."
"Sounds like a plan," Dillingham said.
The crime scene techs appeared as they were finishing up the perimeter search. Motorists passing by slowed down to check out the emergency vehicles parked just off the highway, creating a potentially hazardous situation. At Clayton's request, another deputy was sent out to keep traffic moving and the curious locals at bay.
The officers and the techs worked deep into the night. Piece by piece, they brought out an accumulation of trash, broken pieces of old wooden fruit baskets, bits of rope, a rotting ball of twine, and several cracked glass gallon jugs. In the cellar, they used tweezers, paint brushes, magnifying glasses, trowels, and other small tools to dig around the female victim for evidence. The most surprising discovery came when the female skeleton was finally unearthed. Patches of leathery skin showed that the dry cellar had caused a certain degree of mummification. Bits and pieces of apparel still covered parts of the trunk and lower extremities. Earrings lay next to the skull, and a turquoise and silver ring loosely encircled a finger bone.
By the time the search concluded and the bodies were removed, midnight had come and gone. Another hour passed doing some preliminary paperwork. Clayton released Quinones and Dillingham and drove home feeling fairly certain, based on a missing---person report in the computerized National Crime Information Center's files, that the dead woman was Anna Marie Montoya, who had disappeared from Santa Fe without a trace eleven years ago.
A match of the victim's teeth with dental records would make the identification conclusive. The state police tech supervisor promised to track down the dental records first thing in the morning and call him with the results.
The Istee family lived on a dirt road just outside the tribal village of Mescalero. Nestled in tall pines at the end of the lane, the house had two bedrooms and only one bath, which was woefully inadequate for a family of four. Soon his son and daughter would need their own rooms, so next up on Clayton's home improvement list was a master bedroom and bath off the living room, away from the children, which he would build himself. He'd spent hours drawing up the plans and figuring out a budget with his wife, Grace. Financially, he could swing it. But with the new job, finding the time to do it was the problem.
In the kitchen Clayton stripped off his dirt---caked clothes, cleaned up as best he could at the sink, and slipped quietly into bed without disturbing Grace. He slept hard until his son, Wendell, jumped on the bed to wake him up.
"Mommy says you made a big mess in the kitchen," Wendell said when Clayton opened his eyes.
Wendell, age three and fast approaching four, had recently turned into something of a motormouth, and Clayton was secretly hoping this new behavior wouldn't last too long. "Your mother said that?"
"Uh---huh. The floor and the sink are all yucky."
"Go clean it up for me," Clayton said.
"Mommy already did."
"Then go away and let me sleep," Clayton said.
" 'Cause it's breakfast," Wendell said.
"Okay, I'm up."
Clayton pulled on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt, and with Wendell leading the way, found his wife and his two-year-old daughter, Hannah, at the kitchen table.
"I got him up," Wendell said proudly as he slid into his chair.
The family took its meals at a table in a dining nook adjacent to the kitchen. After tearing out a partial wall that originally separated the two areas, Clayton had added a bay window to bring in light and create a feeling of openness. He took his chair at the head of the table, which gave him a view of the woods at the side of the house, and smiled at his wife and daughter.
In her high chair, Hannah, who considered herself an adult, spooned cereal into her mouth and looked at her brother with quiet, thoughtful eyes. Then she wrinkled her nose at him.
"She made a face at me," Wendell said.
"Yes, she did," Clayton said. "Eat your breakfast." He turned to Grace. "I caught a homicide case yesterday."
"You were so late coming home, I thought something important might have happened," Grace said.
"What's a homicide?" Wendell asked.
"A very bad thing," Clayton said, rubbing Wendell's head. "Almost as bad as interrupting people when they're talking."
Wendell dropped his eyes and stuck a spoonful of cereal in his mouth.
Keeping Wendell quiet with occasional long, cool looks, Clayton summarized his activities at the fruit stand for Grace.
She listened without interruption. "It sounds very complex," she said when Clayton finished.
Clayton nodded. "It was."
"Well, you said you wanted a job with a challenge."
"Are you being sarcastic?" Clayton asked. He studied his pretty wife's face, searching her calm dark eyes for any sign of discontent.
"What's sarcastic?" Wendell asked.
"We'll look it up together in the dictionary later, Wendell," Grace said gently. "No, I'm not. You have to stop thinking that I'm unhappy because you changed jobs."
"You've been complaining that I'm hardly home."
"Not complaining, just noting." Grace looked at her children and smiled. "We all miss you."
"You should smile more," Clayton said.
"It is not my nature," Grace said, as her smile widened.
"You're so modest," Clayton said, teasing.
Grace lifted her chin. "Of course, I'm a respectable, married woman," she replied, teasing him back. Her expression turned serious. "You've been among the dead. Wear something black today to protect against the ghost sickness."
Clayton nodded. "I may have to go up to Santa Fe."
"I'd like to go with you," Wendell said.
Hannah banged her little fist on the high chair's hinged table. "I get down now," she said.
Grace released her and put her on the floor. She made a beeline for Clayton. He picked her up, put her on his lap, and gave her a kiss.
"When will you know?" Grace asked.
"I'll call you later today."
In the l960s a beautiful two-story red brick courthouse on the main street in Carrizozo had been demolished and replaced by a nondescript building constructed on the same site. Clayton had only seen pictures of the imposing old courthouse, but those photographs looked a hell of a lot more inviting than the sterile functionalism of the present building.
Tucked away in part of the courthouse, the sheriff's department suffered from a serious lack of space. Clayton used a small desk pushed up against a wall in the hallway that led to the supply closet to do his paperwork and organize all his supporting documentation.
First he worked on the John Doe case. Based on the remnants of information found in the backpack, the victim was likely one Joseph John Humphrey, a homeless Vietnam veteran originally from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Among Humphrey's few belongings was the business card of a Veterans Administration alcoholism counselor in Albuquerque. He spoke to the counselor, faxed a copy of Humphrey's driver's license photo to the man, and got a quick identity confirmation. He also learned that Humphrey had been diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer and had no more than three months to live.
After disconnecting, he phoned Shorty Dawson, the ME, for a preliminary cause-of-death report.
"I can't tell you anything definite," Dawson replied. "The victim's flesh and clothing were melted together. The body is gonna have to be peeled like an onion. Then they can open him up and take a look inside."
"Where's the body now?" Clayton asked.
"In Albuquerque," Dawson replied. "We should get the final autopsy results by tomorrow. But, tentatively it sure looked to me like the guy sucked down carbon monoxide."
"How could you tell that?" Clayton asked. "The flesh was too burned to show any discoloration. Even if the skin had looked cherry red, lividity isn't conclusive for carbon monoxide poisoning."
There was a short silence before Dawson replied. "Look, Deputy, I said my opinion was just tentative. My job is to find the victim legally dead and offer an informed opinion as to cause and time of death. We'll both just have to wait for the autopsy to find out what really killed him."
"Thanks, Mr. Dawson," Clayton said.
He hung up wondering if Humphrey had committed suicide to avoid letting the cancer kill him. That didn't make any sense. Humphrey could have chosen many easier, less horrific ways to die than by smoke and fire. Maybe it was an accidental death. He decided to stop speculating about it until the autopsy report came in.
He filled out his paperwork, including a notation that if no family members could be found-the Harrisburg police were still looking-Humphrey's VA counselor would arrange to have the body cremated and interred in the National Cemetery at Fort Bayard, outside Silver City.
Humphrey's status as a Nam vet made Clayton think about his natural father, Kevin Kerney. He knew very little about Kerney's service experience other than that he'd served as an infantry lieutenant in Vietnam during the latter stage of the war. Until six months ago, Clayton hadn't even known that much. Then he'd busted Kerney for trespassing on Apache land, which ultimately led to his mother's disclosure of the long-kept secret of his father's identity.
Clayton had learned that his mother had once been Kerney's college sweetheart. She deliberately became pregnant without Kerney's knowledge just before he'd graduated and gone off to serve in Vietnam. For almost twenty-eight years, neither father nor son knew of each other's existence.
Clayton was still struggling with it all. He had no idea how Kerney was coping. What he did know was that Kerney had recently been installed as the Santa Fe police chief. He gave a passing thought to calling him to ask for information and assistance in the Anna Marie Montoya case.
He reached for the phone and pulled his hand back. Late last year, Kerney had stood on Clayton's front porch and given him two ten-thousand-dollar certificates of deposit for Wendell's and Hannah's education, with no strings attached. At the time, Clayton had been both stunned by the gift and suspicious of it. Thinking back over the event, which he'd repeatedly played through his mind, Clayton knew he'd handled it badly. Instead of being gracious, he'd challenged Kerney's gift-giving motives and failed to thank him for his generosity. Finally he'd never followed through on a promise to invite Kerney and his wife to dinner, in spite of Grace's nagging him to do so.
Because of his bungling, Clayton felt the opportunity to develop some sort of relationship with Kerney had come and gone. He didn't know what he could do, if anything, to set things right.
Although he lacked final confirmation that the earthly remains of Anna Marie Montoya had been discovered, Clayton had enough evidence to move ahead. The clutch purse with the ID, the jewelry and bits of clothing found at the scene that matched information contained in the NCIC missing person report, and the size and sex of the body made it almost positive. It was time to get rolling. He called the Santa Fe Police Department, identified himself, and got put through to a detective sergeant named Cruz Tafoya.
Tafoya heard Clayton out before asking questions. "Were you able to confirm the victim was killed at the crime scene?"
"No," Clayton replied, "and I don't think we'll be able to. Any trace evidence was washed away. Personally, I think she was killed elsewhere and then buried in the cellar. It's only five feet deep by eight feet square."
"So the killer had to know about the cellar," Tafoya noted. "Is the fruit stand still in use?"
"It's been abandoned for years," Clayton replied. "We're looking into who owns the property."
"Good idea," Tafoya said. "You're gonna want a copy of our case file."
"I'll put one together. Should I mail it or will you come and get it?"
"I'll let you know," Clayton replied, thinking he needed to clear travel plans with the sheriff. "But I'm probably coming to Santa Fe sometime soon."
"I'll have a detective update the file," Tafoya said. "At least the family will have some peace of mind about what happened to the victim."
"Yeah, there's that," Clayton said. "Once I get a positive ID, will your department notify the family?"
"I'll need to talk to the detective who handled the case."
"If he's still around," Tafoya said.
"Can you find out?" Clayton asked.
"Give me a minute."
In the receiver Clayton heard movement, footsteps, silence and then paper shuffling followed by Tafoya's breathing.
"Well, what do you know about that?" Tafoya said into the telephone.
"What?" Clayton asked.
"The original primary investigator on that case was our new police chief."
Clayton grunted in surprise. "Could you have Chief Kerney call me?" He rattled off his phone number.
"You got it," Tafoya replied.
Clayton hung up and walked to the sheriff's office. Paul Hewitt looked up from some paperwork on his desk and wondered why Clayton, who'd been relieved of patrol duties to work the homicide, had decided to wear a black cowboy shirt on a day that was going to be much too warm for such a garment.
"Would you like an update on the cases, Sheriff?" Clayton asked.
Hewitt gestured at a chair. "Have a seat and fire away."
Clayton left Sheriff Hewitt's office with authorization to conduct his investigation in Santa Fe, as needed. He was given a travel, meals, and lodging allowance and told to stay within budget or make up the difference out of his own pocket. He found Sergeant Quinones and Von Dillingham in the small staff lounge, inventorying evidence and doing paperwork.
"The county clerk's records show that the fruit stand is owned by Hiram Tully. He's got a Glencoe address," Quinones said, handing Clayton the information.
"I'll go talk to him," Clayton said.
"Are any autopsy reports in yet?" Dillingham asked.
"Not yet. Shorty Dawson thinks Humphrey died from carbon monoxide poisoning, but he's not sure."
"Shorty loves to play pathologist," Quinones said, logging an evidence bag on an inventory sheet. "We're almost done here. What's next?"
"Field interviews," Clayton said. "Find out if anyone who lives near the fruit stand saw or heard anything before the fire broke out. I'll be back to assist as soon as I can."
"Roger that," Quinones said, turning his attention to the bagged and tagged evidence.
Clayton left the office and drove the state road that took him past the burned-out fruit stand, through the ranching town of Capitan, and on to the historic hamlet of Lincoln, where rows of lovely old territorial buildings along a narrow pastoral valley drew tourists in search of the Billy the Kid legend.
Where the road ended at the Highway 70 junction, Clayton swung west toward Glencoe and found his way to the Tully place. A small valley settlement on the Ruidoso River surrounded by national forest, Glencoe consisted of farms and orchards, a post office, and a few businesses along the highway that funneled traffic east and west over the Sacramento Mountains.
The Tully ranch house was a beautifully maintained, low-slung, whitewashed adobe hacienda with a deep veranda. Several hundred yards behind the house the river wandered against the base of the mountains. On either side of the ranch house, apple orchards in early bloom fanned out and rolled down to the riverbank, putting a sweet scent into the air.
Early-to-leaf mature poplar trees overhung the residence, branches shimmering in the midmorning sun under a gentle breeze. Large ornamental evergreens bracketed carefully tended flower beds that bordered a semicircular driveway.
Clayton parked his unit, walked the gravel path to the veranda, and knocked on the front door. The woman who answered appeared to be in her late twenties, close to his own age. Attractive in a wholesome way, she had short-cut blond hair, hazel eyes, and perfectly straight white teeth.
Grace had already warned Clayton that Hannah would need braces. How she knew that with Hannah still years away from losing her baby teeth was a mystery to him. He identified himself to the woman and asked to speak to Hiram Tully.
"My grandfather recently had a stroke," the woman said. "He's in the hospital in Roswell."
"And you are?" Clayton asked.
"Page Seton," she said. "Why do you need to speak to my grandfather?"
"He's listed as the owner of an abandoned fruit stand on Highway three-eighty. It burned down last night."
"Really?" Seton said. "Was anyone hurt?"
"Two bodies were found inside."
Seton's eyes darkened. "That's terrible. Were they killed in the fire?"
"We're still investigating the cause of death," Clayton answered.
"That place has been boarded up for years. I drive by it all the time."
"Do you or any members of your family ever stop to inspect the property?"
Seton's expression tightened. "There's been no reason to. Whoever those poor people were, they trespassed. That property is posted with a keep-out sign. Are you suggesting negligence?"
"That's not the focus of the investigation."
Seton's look darkened. "I'd better contact our lawyer anyway."
"Maybe you should," Clayton said. "Who has access to the property?"
"Just the family, and the realtor who has it listed for sale. We've been trying to sell it, but nobody is interested in an acre of highway frontage outside of town without water or electricity."
"Have you rented it out in the past twelve years?"
"Not to my knowledge. But my father would know for certain." Seton pulled her chin back and gave Clayton a chilly look. "Why twelve years? The stand has been there longer than that."
"I'm just gathering information, Ms. Seton. Who's the listing agent?"
Seton gave Clayton the name of a Carrizozo realtor.
"How long has it been up for sale?" Clayton asked.
"Ten years or more," Seton replied.
"Are you aware the fruit stand had a cellar?" Clayton asked.
Page Seton nodded. "The cellar served as cold storage for our apples and fresh cider."
"When was the last time it was used to sell fruit?" Clayton asked.
Seton paused. "Twenty years. Grandfather shut it down the year I turned seven."
"Has anyone-family, employees-been there since then?"
"It's impossible for me to answer that question," Seton replied. "We have seasonal workers. Some of them return every year, others will pick one crop for us and never come back, and there are always a few we have to let go. As far as family goes, you'll have to ask, and it's a pretty big clan, Deputy."
"The names and phone numbers of family members involved in the business will do for now," Clayton said.
"What exactly are you investigating, Deputy?"
"Unattended deaths, at this point, Ms. Seton. Has the fruit stand been used for any other purposes?"
"Parties, beer busts, a make-out place?"
Page Seton looked upward as if to seek divine relief from stupid questions. "Not by me, Deputy, and certainly not by any member of the family that I know of."
"I'll need those family names and phone numbers," Clayton said.
While Seton assembled the information, Clayton asked a few more questions. He left knowing that the Tully ranch and farm had been a family business for over a hundred and twenty years, that Page Seton was the financial officer of the company, and that the ranch operation was headquartered on the east side of the Capitan Mountains, where her parents, Morris and Lily Tully Seton, were staying while the spring works, a semiannual cattle roundup and calf-branding event, took place.
Clayton also learned that Hiram Tully's stroke had not hampered his ability to communicate. He decided to interview Tully first and then swing by the ranch on the back road to Capitan. In his unit, a four-by-four Ford Explorer, Clayton keyed the microphone and checked dispatch for messages. No calls had come in from either the Santa Fe PD or Chief Kerney, but the state police crime scene supervisor reported that a match had been made with the skeleton found in the cellar and Anna Marie Montoya's dental records.
Clayton's interviews with Hiram Tully and Morris and Lily Seton served only to confirm what Page Seton had told him. He came away thinking that he'd accomplished nothing more than eliminating some highly unlikely suspects. The chances of solving an eleven-year-old homicide were slim at best. If no creditable leads materialized, background investigations on everyone in the Tully family would need to be done.
He looked over the list of family members Page Seton had provided. Excluding the four people already interviewed, another eight would need to be contacted. He'd ask Quinones and Dillingham to start the ball rolling if they came up empty on the field interviews near the crime scene.
Even without any tangible progress, Clayton remained pumped about his assignment. He was particularly eager to go to Santa Fe and do some real digging into Anna Marie Montoya's past. Besides, it would be a kick to clear a case that had stymied Kerney. He smiled at the prospect of it.
The day was more than halfway gone. With all that was left to do, Clayton figured he had another full day or two of work before he could leave for Santa Fe. He called the tribal day-care center where Grace worked as a teacher and told her that he wasn't going out of town right away.
"When will you go?" Grace asked.
"I'm not sure yet," Clayton said. "Maybe the day after tomorrow.
"Sometime soon, I think all of us should go to Santa Fe."
"I can't take you and the kids with me."
"I know that," Grace said. "I'm thinking of a weekend family outing."
"If we left early in the morning, we could make it a day trip," Clayton said, thinking about how pricy Santa Fe could be.
"That wouldn't be enough time," Grace replied.
Since neither Clayton nor Grace worked in high-paying professions, Clayton constantly worried about family finances. "I thought we were saving money to build the addition," he said.
"A weekend trip to Santa Fe won't bankrupt us, Clayton."
"Yeah, you're right."
"Will you be home for dinner?"
"I don't see why not."
"I'll see you then," Grace said before hanging up.
He checked in with dispatch. Kerney still hadn't called back. He gave his ETA to Carrizozo and told the dispatcher he'd be at John Foley's real estate office when he got into town.
The office was in an old building where Central Avenue curved and became E Avenue. One of the town's first permanent structures, it had started out as a tin shop in the early part of the twentieth century. Foley's late-model Cadillac was parked at the side of the building.
Inside, Foley pressed a cup of coffee into Clayton's hands and sat with him, making small talk. A big man in his late seventies, Foley had slightly hunched shoulders and carried some extra pounds around his midsection that spilled over his tightly cinched belt and showy turquoise and silver buckle.
With some difficulty, Clayton guided Foley to the topic of the fruit stand. After talking about the fire, he got a short history of Foley's failed attempts to sell it. He asked if Foley had records on any prospective buyers that went back eleven or twelve years.
Foley shook his head. "I only keep information about potential clients who are solid prospects. I don't recall ever showing that property to a serious client. It's too far out of town to have any commercial value and there's no water, phone, or electricity to the property line."
"When was the last time you were out there?" Clayton asked.
"Let me think," Foley replied. "Two, three years ago. I showed it to a fella who was interested in starting a flea market and living on the property. But he didn't want to invest any money in extending the utilities and digging a well."
"Did you ever go into the fruit stand?"
"There was no need to," Foley said. "According to the Ruidoso newspaper, you found a murder victim in that fire."
"I didn't realize that information had been released."
Foley handed Clayton the newspaper. Sheriff Hewitt had not only briefed the press about the homicide, but had gone on at some length about assigning his highly-qualified Apache deputy, Clayton Istee, as lead investigator.
Clayton folded the newspaper, gave it back to Foley, thanked him for the coffee and his time, and left the office. He understood the sheriff's decision to go public about the homicide, but he would have liked to have been forewarned. He also wondered when all the sheriff's self-congratulatory public and private back-patting about hiring an Indian cop was going to end. Soon, he hoped. It was getting tiresome.
He sat in his unit and wrote up some notes before checking in with dispatch. Kerney still hadn't returned his call, and Quinones and Dillingham were reporting that no useful information had been gathered so far in their field interviews. But on a more positive note, there weren't any anxious messages from the sheriff asking for a status update.
He reached Quinones by radio and got the names of people who still needed to be contacted. If he hurried a bit, he could finish his part of the canvass, go back to the office to finish his paperwork, hold a quick team meeting, and call it a day.Copyright © 2002 Michael McGarrity
Reprinted with permission.
When a structure fire in an abandoned fruit stand in rural Lincoln county reveals the murdered body of a woman gone missing from Santa Fe years ago, Police Chief Kevin Kerney finds himself cooperating with his estranged son, a man he hardly knows, Deputy Sheriff Clayton Istee. While Kerney digs into the woman's past hoping to find clues that will lead to a credible suspect, Clayton must unravel two more homicides which seen on the surface totally unrelated.
As Kerney chases down clues that raise questions about the legitimacy of a highly-regarded modeling and talent agency, Clayton works to discover the indentity of a murder suspect alleged to have ties to prostitution and illegal gambling.
Set against the backdrop of the high mountains of southern New Mexico where gambling is big business and private sexual encounters for VIPs can discreetly be arranged, Kerney and Clayton must go up against rich and politically powerful opponents who are willing to protect their reputations at all costs.(back to top)
Michael McGarrity is a former deputy sheriff for Santa Fe County. He entered the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy in his forties, and upon graduation joined the Santa Fe Sheriff's Department. While there he established the first Sex Crimes Unit and led it to award-winning status, personally breaking many of the unit's most difficult cases. He has also served as an instructor a the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy and as an investigator for the new Mexico Public Defender's Office. He has also worked as a ranch hand, corporate consultant, and a psychotherapist in private practice. His first Kevin Kerney novel, Tularosa, was nominated for an Anthony Award. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his wife and son.