The morning was perfect. Early October, a clear sky, a symphony of songbirds, and here in the foothills of Southern Arizona’s secluded Dragoon Mountains, no sign of the urban pollution we had left behind in Phoenix. But there is always a snake in Eden. A hint of the serpent slithered into view when my horse topped the ridge and I saw a coyote tugging at something white.
Fabric. Protruding from a mound of fresh earth. “Warren!” I shouted. “Get back!”
Cops—and I had been one, once—know that few people bother to bury yardage. Not out here in the desert, they don’t. Perhaps a child’s pet lay underneath, a dog, a cat. But I saw no twig cross marker, something grieving children usually insisted upon.
Ignoring me, Warren galloped his horse up the slope and reined it in next to mine. I repeated my command, since the least amount of damage done to a body dump, the better, but, as he had so many times before, he misunderstood me. “Listen, Lena, I’m getting tired of all this, and your behavior isn’t helping.” Then, spotting the coyote, he fell silent.
Interrupted at its meal, the animal pivoted to face us. Fabric dangled from its teeth, one end of the cloth stained with blood.
“Do. Not. Move.” I told him, then dug my heels into my horse and charged the animal.
Snarling, it ran off, disappearing into a distant creosote thicket. It didn’t come out the other side, and I knew why. In the desert, animals took their meals where they found them, and a body dump could provide a two-day banquet, depending on the size of the victim. The coyote was simply waiting for us to move on.
I looked down at the small bundle of rags the animal had unearthed. No, not rags.
She was wrapped in white and from the condition of her body, not long dead. Her grave had been dug so shallowly that she lay half in, half out, of what was supposed to be her final resting place. An angel smothered in dirt.
At least the coyote hadn’t had time to do much damage. Behind me, Warren called, “Lena? That’s not a kid, is it?”
His twins were seven, and about this girl’s size. Unlike his little blondes, she was black, her fine-boned ebony face sculpted with delicate features. A beauty, even in death.
Keeping an eye on the creosote thicket lest the coyote reemerge, I rode back to him. “I’m afraid so. Give me your cell phone.”
With a shaking hand, he passed it to me. I punched in 9-1-1, said what needed to be said, and gave the dispatcher our location. Yes, a child. Yes, we would wait. I rang off, amazed at the steadiness in my voice.
Not yet ready to look down again, I stared up at that hard blue sky and saw vultures riding the thermals. I tried staring at the Dragoons, but that didn’t work, either. The mountains simply reminded me of other deaths. Once a sanctuary for Geronimo and Cochise during the Apache Wars of the late 1800s, they now served as a hiding place for the illegals who slipped over the nearby Mexican border on their way to Tucson. Mexican nationals, mostly, with a sprinkling of Central and South Americans. Every now and then the Border Patrol discovered a few Africans and Middle Easterners among them, desperate people seeking easier access to the U.S. than post-9/11 immigration policies allowed.
The illegals who were caught are among the lucky ones. The desert kills the others.
I looked down at the child and willed myself not to cry.
Cochise County Sheriff Bill Avery, accompanied by a deputy and a two-man forensics unit, arrived too long after my call. When I revealed my displeasure at the lag time, Avery, a desert-browned man with startling blue eyes, merely shrugged.
“We get this a lot, Ms. Jones. It’s a shame, but short of completing that fence between us and Mexico, there’s nothing we can do except collect the bodies when it all goes wrong.” His eyes were not devoid of compassion, but the flat line of his mouth revealed a peace officer who found it hard to care when there was so much to care about.
“Still. A child.”
Not even a blink. “The crossing’s tough on kids. Now tell me again what you two are doing way out here. Camping, did you say?”
Behind me, Warren made an exasperated sound. In his comfortable Hollywood world, law officers treated Oscar-winning film makers with respect. But this wasn’t California, it was the badlands of Southern Arizona, where Warren and I were nothing more than two strangers whose discovery had just made the sheriff’s job harder.
“Not really camping,” I told him. “We’re renting a tepee over at the Apache Dream Bed and Breakfast.”
One corner of the sheriff ’s mouth pulled up. “Oh, yeah. I know those things. Tepees, which the Apaches never used. All the amenities, including heat, beds, and champagne breakfasts.” He looked Warren up and down, taking in the designer jeans, custom-made ostrich-skin boots, the diamond-sprinkled Rolex. “Not from around here, are you, sir?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?” Warren snapped. “You need to get tracking dogs up here, a full forensics team. Undocumented alien or not, that child deserves a full investigation.” He started to say something else, then head down, walked away.
The sheriff watched him for a moment, then turned to me, his eyes flickering briefly over the scar on my forehead. “Actually, I did a quick check on you both and found out you’re an ex-cop who’s set up shop as a private investigator. Mr. Quinn over there’s some sort of movie director. I’d think this is a pretty unusual place for you two to be taking a vacation. Especially a sensitive soul like him.”
Having been in the sheriff’s position many times myself, I understood what he was doing, so I repeated my story. After finishing work on a documentary about a WWII German POW camp near Scottsdale, Warren had taken the raw footage to California for editing. I went along to do some consulting work on Desert Eagle, one of those over-glamorized television crime dramas that makes everyone involved obscene amounts of money. Three days ago, after finishing our respective duties, we embarked on a working vacation together, with Warren scouting the area for his new project: a documentary on the Apache Wars.
“You headed back to California after this?” It was hard to tell from Avery’s flat tone if he believed me or not.
“If you did all that checking, Sheriff, you know where Desert Investigations is based. The TV thing, I just fly from Sky Harbor to LAX, attend a production meeting, then fly home. When this gets cleared up, I’m returning to Scottsdale.”
Avery jerked his head toward Warren. “How about him?”
There was no point in telling him that during the past few months, my relationship with Warren had developed several conflicts. “Beverly Hills. He has a business to run, too.”
Then I paused. “Sheriff?”
Avery’s eyes were as cold as the day had become. “What?” “We didn’t know her.”
A dangerous smile. I’d been wrong. He did care.
An angry wind tore down from the Dragoons and whipped at the dead girl’s white wrappings. In the distance, a coyote howled. Her finder, lamenting the loss of his meal?
The sheriff winced at the sound. Like me, he had seen the bite marks on the child’s hand. “Damn things,” he said into the wind. “No wonder the ranchers shoot them.” Then he gestured at the tiny body, which the crime scene techs had now completely uncovered. “See how carefully she’s wrapped, Ms. Jones? That white stuff, it’s probably a shroud. She mattered to the person who buried her.”
Yet she had been abandoned in this wilderness. A beautiful little girl.
Left for the coyotes and vultures.