Authors: J. A. Jance
J. A. JANCE
To Loretta, in memory of Randy. Semper Fi.
THE CAR STOPPED IN THE MIDDLE OF A STRETCH OF ROUGH DIRT
road. In the silvery moonlight, the road was a light-colored ribbon cutting straight north through a forest of newly leafed mesquite trees. He had hoped to drive much farther before he stopped the car, but his study of Google Maps had let him down. This was a far more primitive road than he had been led to believe it would be. He had managed to pick his way around the boulder-littered crossings at the first two washes, but this one was impossible. The unfamiliar low-slung Passat wasn't going to make it.
There was a noisy thumping from inside the trunk. That meant she was awake, and that was fine with him. He wanted her to be awake and aware. He wanted her to know what was happening and why. That was the whole point. Otherwise, it would be a lot like being struck by lightning. God reached out and got you and you had no idea what was coming. That wasn't what this trip was about; wasn't what he was about. For him this was far more personal.
He pressed the button on the key fob, opened the back hatch, and removed the blanket he had used to cover her. As soon as the blanket came off, she began to struggle. That was all right. They were far enough away from civilization that no matter what she did, it wouldn't matter. No one would hear her. Out here in the cold night air of the Arizona desert, the two of them were entirely alone except for the occasional mournful cry of a coyote.
“Up and at 'em, sunshine,” he said. “You ready for a game of hide-and-seek?”
She shook her head desperately back and forth and made a whimpering noise that was probably some form of the word “please.” Through the duct tape, that was difficult to tell. Grabbing her by the underarms, he hauled her up and out of the vehicle and stood her upright, barefoot and swaying unsteadily, on the rough surface of the dirt road. She looked up at him. He could see the terror in her wide-eyed stare. He liked that. He had spent years anticipating this moment, and he didn't want to rush it.
“I'm going to take off the gag,” he said. “You can scream your head off if you want. No one will hear you.”
He had watched enough forensic TV to know that the cops loved looking for DNA on pieces of duct tape, so he had no intention of leaving any of that behind. Ditto for the nylon tie straps he had used to secure her hands and feet. Those had ID numbers that could be traced back to certain retailers. He would take those with him as well. Ditto his brass.
When he peeled off the duct tape, she surprised him. She didn't scream. “You don't need to do this,” she said. “Please let me go. Please.”
“No,” he said. “That's not how this is going to work. I'm going to let you loose now and give you a running start. Who knows? You may be able to run faster than I can shoot. Or maybe I'll miss.”
“I can't run,” she said. “I'm barefoot.”
“That's your problem. If you want to live, you'll run.”
When he pulled the box knife out of his pocket, she cringed away from him. That was fine. He liked the idea that she was afraid of being cut, but cutting wasn't what he had in mind. Instead, he used the knife to slice through her restraints and then stuffed them in his pockets along with the duct tape.
“There you go,” he said. “I'll give you to the count of ten. You run. I shoot. If I miss, you win. If I don't miss?” He shrugged. “Well, I guess that's the end of the story.”
“Please,” she begged again. “Please.”
She didn't need to say any more than that. He knew what she wanted, and he had no intention of giving it to her.
“You'd better get started, because as of now, I'm counting. One!”
She hesitated for only a moment, then she wheeled and started off into the desert, back the way they had come. That surprised him. He had expected her to cross the wash and then stick to the road. That would have given him a clear shot. If she managed to duck into a nearby thicket of mesquite trees, he'd have to go trailing after her.
So he didn't bother waiting until the count of ten. He got as far as four and then pulled the trigger. The first shot caught her in the leg. Stumbling forward, she fell to the ground as the second shot went over her head. She was still trying to get away, scrabbling forward on the rocky ground, dragging her crippled leg, when he came up behind her. He shot her three more times after that. The shots were meant more to maim than to kill. He had wanted her to suffer. If she died instantly, she missed the point. This was punishment, payback.
While she lay moaning on the ground, he went looking for his brass. He had shot her with a .38. He found all five casings and pocketed them as well.
Immediately after the first gunshot, a stark silence had fallen over the desert. Gradually, though, the night sounds returned. A nearby coyote howled, and another one off in the distance yipped a response. Far away he heard what sounded like a dog barking, but the barking stayed where it was without coming any closer. The shooter wasn't especially worried about anyone hearing the gunfire. After all, it was three o'clock in the morning, and the killing ground was suitably remote.
He didn't bother moving the body. For one thing, he didn't want to bring any blood evidence back into the car with him. Besides, with the coyotes out and about, he was sure they would deal with the body in their own time-honored fashion.
She was still alive and breathing shallowly as he turned to walk away. “Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust,” he said. “And it serves you right.”
LATE ON A THURSDAY AFTERNOON, SHERIFF JOANNA BRADY SAT AT
her desk in the Cochise County Justice Center outside Bisbee, Arizona, and studied the duty roster her chief deputy, Tom Hadlock, had dropped off an hour earlier.
Her former chief deputy, Frank Montoya, had been lured away from her department with the offer of a new jobâchief of police in nearby Sierra Vista. Looking for a replacement, Joanna had tapped her jail commander to step into the job. Tom was well qualified on paper, but he had found Frank's tenure as chief deputy to be a tough act to follow.
When Frank had been Joanna's second in command, he had handily juggled several sets of seemingly unrelated responsibilitiesâmedia relations, routine administrative chores, and information technology issuesâwith unflappable ease. Now, after more than a year in the position, Tom was finally growing into the job and had a far better handle on what needed to be done than he'd had in the beginning. Unfortunately, he still wasn't quite up to Frank Montoya standards.
After months of struggle, Tom had finally tamed the duty roster monster, handing Joanna a flawlessly executed copy of the upcoming month's schedule two days before she absolutely had to have it in hand. At this point, he was hard at work preparing a first go-down of the next year's budget. Joanna knew that he had placed several calls to Frank asking for pointers on both the budget and IT concerns, and she was grateful Frank had been willing to help.
The one place where Tom was still sadly lacking was in media relations. Faced with a camera or a reporter, the former jail commander morphed from your basic macho tough guy into a spluttering, tongue-tied neophyte. Six months of participation in a Toastmasters group in Sierra Vista had helped some, but it would take lots more time and effort before Tom Hadlock would be fully at ease in front of a bank of microphones and cameras.
When the phone on Joanna's desk rang, she glanced at her watch to check the time before picking it up. At home her husband, Butch Dixon, was battling a tough deadline for reviewing the copyedited manuscript of his latest crime novel. As a consequence, Joanna was on tap to pick up the kids. Her nearly sixteen-year-old daughter, Jenny, worked two hours a day after school as an aide in a local veterinarian's office. With equal parts anticipation and dread, Joanna was looking forward to the day, coming all too soon, when Jenny would have a driver's license of her own. Once that happened, driving her back and forth to work and school activities would no longer be a necessity.
Joanna and Butch's two-year-old, Dennis, spent five hours each afternoon at a preschool that operated in conjunction with their church in Old Bisbee. Dennis was a gregarious kid. When the older members of what Joanna termed the “gang of four”âJenny and the housekeeper's two grandsonsâhad gone off to school in the fall, Dennis had been lost on his own. When a spot had opened up in the preschool program at Tombstone Canyon United Methodist, they had signed him up for a half day four days a week.
Joanna's first thought was that the phone call would involve some hitch in picking up the kids. Or maybe Butch needed her to stop by the store to grab some last-minute item for dinner before she went home to High Lonesome Ranch. When she answered, however, it turned out that the call had nothing to do with the home front and everything to do with work.
“Jury's back,” Kristin Gregovich said.
Kristin was Joanna's secretary, and the returning jury in question was only a few steps away from Joanna's office at the Cochise County Justice Center, a joint facility that housed not only the sheriff's department and the jail, but also the Cochise County Superior Court offices and courtrooms. The case currently being tried there was one in which Joanna Brady had played a pivotal role.
More than a year earlier, an elderly woman named Philippa Brinson had gone AWOL from what was supposedly a state-of-the-art Alzheimer's group home near the Cochise County town of Palominas. Sheriff Brady had been one of several officers who had responded to the original missing persons call on Ms. Brinson.
But Caring Friends had turned out to be a far worse can of worms than anyone expected. For one thing, arriving officers had been dumbfounded by the appallingly unsanitary conditions in what was supposed to be a healthcare facility. The kitchen had been a food handler's nightmare, and they had found evidence that helpless residents had been routinely strapped to beds and chairs and left, trapped in their own bodily filth, for hours on end. A subsequent investigation had brought evidence to light that several Caring Friends patients had died as a result of serious infections that started out as bedsores.