At 9:17 p.m. that Wednesday night in early June, cradled deep in the leather of my reading chair, I turned to page 107 in Peterson’s History of the Single-Shot Cartridge Rifle in the United States Military. I settled in and opened to where I’d left off reading three weeks before. I half expected the damn phone to ring, because that’s the sort of day it had been—myriad little interruptions, this person and that wanting a slice of my time. But that’s what I was paid for. If I didn’t respond to each request, legitimate or oddball, I had no reason to be carrying the badge as undersheriff of Posadas County.
For days like this one, my hundred-year-old spreading adobe was a perfect hideaway. I wasn’t a social animal. My eldest daughter, Camille, is fond of referring to me as “the Badger” because of my habits. I liked a dark, deep burrow. My adobe, with its two-foot-thick walls, small windows, and the forest of surrounding weed trees, was just the ticket. I couldn’t hear the voices of children playing down the street at the mobile home park. I couldn’t hear the whine of tires or the loud flutter of jake brakes up on the interstate.
What drew my attention to the clock this evening was the distant shriek of tires tearing rubber and the loud, dull whump that followed. Two lesser contacts and a final ground shaker followed. Whump, then bang, blang, BAM. Just like that, with a pulse or two between each concussion. The clock jerked to 9:18. Sounds have a way of wandering when they’re out of context. The collision might have been up on the interstate behind my adobe, the concussion filtered through the five acres of undisciplined overgrowth that obscured my property. Or even out on Grande Avenue, the main north-south drag through the Village of Posadas, two blocks west of my home.
The concussions were so massive that not for one second did I think that my nearest neighbor, Ennio Roybal, had once again backed his aging Buick into the side of his own garage. They weren’t those sorts of almost delicate sounds.
Still listening hard, I placed the bookmark and gently slid the slender volume onto the end table beside my chair. The window in my bedroom was open, but I heard no voices, no screams. Maybe that was a good thing.
I picked up the phone at my right elbow and punched in a string of numbers, and waited for the circuits to connect.
“Posadas County Sheriff’s Department, Beuler.”
“Chad, this is Gastner. I just heard a hell of a crash that sounded like an MVA. Has anyone called you yet?”
“Been quiet, Sheriff. Really quiet.” That’s the way Beuler liked it, I knew. He worked part-time, sharing dispatch with us and the village PD, and made do with his pension from the railroad and the nickel-dime salary we paid him. Tall and gawky with a receding chin line that damn near blended with his Adam’s apple, he had no ambition to advance higher up the ladder within either the Sheriff’s Department or the Posadas PD, even though we’d made the offer several times.
Still, Beuler was absolutely dependable, and that’s all that mattered to me. He cheerfully agreed to take any dispatcher’s shift—days, swing, or graveyard—at any time.
“Okay. I’m going to see what I can find. Keep the numbers handy. Payson is on?”
“He is, covering swing for Baker. And complaining about having the new guy as a ride-along.”
“That’s good for him. Builds character.” Sergeant Lars Payson loved to hear himself talk. He was an endless font of bad jokes, critiques of the latest proof of the public’s stupidity, or his own biased take on the politics of the day. On the other hand, the “new guy,” fresh out of the academy and taciturn as a rock, was Payson’s opposite. If rookie Deputy Robert Torrez needed three words to get a thought across, he’d try to do it in one or two.
The new guy’s reticence wasn’t because of laziness. Coming from a large family that included sisters as well as brothers, perhaps he just had grown weary of trying to slip a word in edgewise. He was scheduled to start his tour on the day shift in the morning. But here he was, an informal ride-along, during the swing shift—that odd time at the end of the day when people were most apt to do something stupid fueled by job anxiety, family friction, too much alcohol, or a dip into other recreational drugs. Swing shift was where the action was.
For now, Torrez was assigned to working days, the standard procedure that gave rookies the chance to learn the county and its people—all seven thousand of them. Having been bread-and-buttered in Posadas, Torrez was as local as they came. Anyone he wasn’t related to, he probably knew. And I had been delighted when Sheriff Salcido slid Torrez’ application across my desk. The sheriff didn’t need my approval, but he was good about that sort of thing.
I had known Robert Torrez, eldest son of Modesto and Ariana Torrez, since he was in middle school. I knew his older sister, who worked over at the Motor Vehicle Department. I knew the other five siblings, from nineteen-year-old Ricardo, now serving in the Navy, down to eight-year-old Ivanita—and all the others in between.
“Have Payson head this way. This was more than somebody just knocking over a trash can. In the meantime, I’ll be out and about. Let me know. Stay sharp.”
“You got it, sir.” Even as he said that, I could hear the phone in the background. I didn’t tie up one of the phone lines waiting. Boots, gun, hat, and handheld radio, and in two minutes I was out the door into the cool fragrance of that June night.
The Crown Vic started easily, but that was its only virtue. The power steering squalled as I swung out of the driveway, and the transmission held first gear far beyond normal range, finally up-shifting with an unhealthy lurch.
Out of Guadalupe Terrace to Escondido Lane, and I saw Ennio Roybal’s Buick parked right where it should be, with no fresh dents in the garage siding. A few yards farther on, no one stirred at the Ranchero Mobile Home Park. With all the patrol car’s windows down, I could hear the sporadic traffic up on the interstate to the north…it didn’t sound as if anyone was pausing to rubberneck a crash scene.
At the intersection with Grande, I slowed for a moment. North or south? Pick one. I turned north just as the radio lit.
“Three ten, PCS.” The crappy radio reception almost blanked Beuler out.
“Go ahead. And ten-one.” Beuler responded to my numerical complaint about radio reception and slowed his speech accordingly, upping the volume as well.
“Ten forty-five with probable injuries right at the interstate overpass. Three oh three is in route. ETA two minutes.”
“Affirmative. I see it.” Just to the north of my secluded neighborhood, State Highway 56 angled in from the southwest from Regál, then swung north to enter the village. It immediately widened to become four lanes as it joined State 61, the route connecting the village of Posadas with the tiny hamlet of María to the southeast. The two routes, 56 and 61, merged to form Grande Boulevard. Those four lanes ducked under the interstate. Four concrete pillars supported the center span of the super highway, growing out of the littered carpet of the gravel median.
Debris now covered all four lanes of Grande, both north and southbound, with the explosion of wreckage scattered under the overpass. I stopped the county car in the middle of the street, trying to think of a way to block both sides of 56/61 and the two interstate off-ramps as well. I needed about five of me, but the decision was made when I saw to my left a form crumpled on the pavement not far from the stop sign of the exit ramp. A foot clad in a tennis shoe jutted upward. This was not just an old coat discarded by some vagrant.
I bolted out of the car, leaving it crosswise in the center of the highway, lights ablaze. The mangled remains of a victim lay just off the pavement on the shoulder, face crushed into the oil and stone, his skull split open. One leg was twisted up over his back until his right foot touched the back of his left ear.
Even as I palmed my handheld radio, I knelt and touched two fingers to the youngster’s bloody neck, trying to find the pulse amid the mangle of flesh. Nothing. I heard the howl of a powerful engine and saw the bloom of emergency lights approaching, southbound on Grande. Sergeant Lars Payson reached the northern-most support pillar of the overpass and stood on the brakes, stopping the patrol car crosswise to block Grande’s southbound lanes.
My first inclination was to sprint over to the wreck, but Payson and his ride-along would beat me there. The dead youngster at my feet needed protection from traffic. I took a step away, trying to take in the whole picture. After cartwheeling two or three times, the wreckage of the boxy Chevy Suburban had folded itself, passenger side first, around one of the massive highway support pillars. Other than the pinging of cooling metal, the place was silent. No cries of pain, no groans.
In cruel irony, the smashed truck had taken out the descanso, a white cross and religious souvenirs, marking the spot where the year before Freddy Sandoval had lost his bout with the same interchange buttress. The drunken Freddy had been northbound on NM 61, and his aging Plymouth wagon had strayed—like a homing missile—straight into the interstate support pillar.
Sergeant Payson and his ride-along got out of the car, and I saw that it had been the rookie, Deputy Robert Torrez, who had been driving. And I guessed, from the look on the young cop’s face, harshly illuminated by the one functional streetlight, that I wasn’t the only one who recognized the crushed Suburban.
I keyed the radio, trying to watch five places at once, including the immediate threat of an active interstate exit ramp. “PCS, three ten and three oh three are ten six this location. Ten fifty-five, ten sixty-three. Multiple. Start the call-in list. And the S.P.s.”
“Ten four, three ten.” Off in the distance, I heard more sirens. My number code mumbo-jumbo would expedite the whole crew—off-duty deputies, ambulance, village officer, a state trooper or two if they were in the neighborhood, and the county coroner. The spectators would arrive without being called.
I knelt again by the body, this time turned so that I was facing up the interstate exit ramp. Brains, bone, and blood mixed with gravel. The massive head, neck, and upper-torso injuries were not survivable. I guessed that he’d been flung out on the Suburban’s first catapulting rollover, to be crushed into the asphalt by the heavy vehicle. There was enough remaining of the right side of his face that I recognized sixteen-year-old Orlando Torrez, the rookie deputy’s little brother.
Unless he could tear apart steel with his fingers, there would be little that Sergeant Payson could do for whoever was crushed inside the mangled Suburban. And the condition of the occupants must have been gruesomely obvious, because in a moment I saw Sergeant Payson clamp a hand on the deputy’s shoulder and point back toward me. Payson kept his husky, urgent voice low, and Torrez nodded, the nod turning to a despairing headshake.
As he approached me, Torrez kept looking back over his shoulder at the wreckage. He couldn’t walk a straight line, and if I hadn’t known better I’d have pegged him as a drunk. I stood up, and Torrez’ eyes locked on the body of his younger brother. Of the seven Torrez siblings, Orlando was six years younger than Robert. The awful cloud of disbelief settled on big brother’s shoulders as he hustled toward me.
Behind us, the interstate’s unguarded exit ramp couldn’t be ignored. We couldn’t just stand there exchanging sympathies, offering a likely target for someone speeding off the interstate. I reached out a supportive hand toward Torrez, at the same time keeping an eye on the long exit ramp. He ignored my gesture.
His swarthy, handsome face ashen, Torrez said nothing as he knelt beside his brother. I swept the area with my flashlight. The intersection’s huge arc light cast hard shadows, and I turned toward the ramp behind me. Even in the artificial light, the Suburban’s tire scrubs were clear, marking a plunging course down the exit slope. Sure enough, the youngster had been catapulted out on the first violent roll-over.
“He was with Elli,” Torrez said behind me. I half-turned as he pushed himself to his feet and looked at me. “He was with Elli. She’s inside the truck.” Elli. Elli Torrez, one year younger than Orlando.
“Three oh three, three ten.”
“Three oh three.” Payson was behind the wreck, where the metal was twisted and pummeled by the interstate’s support column.
“I count two. Passenger compartment is compromised, but from what I can see, two. You got one more?”
“Affirmative with one. But I’m looking.”
The rookie deputy already knew the status of the Suburban’s two remaining passengers, if that’s all there were. He’d seen his little sister and knew she was gone. But maybe…maybe if he could rip the bloodied steel cocoon from around her, there might be a chance. If he could somehow push the pieces back together…I knew the illogical desperation he felt just then.
Deputy Torrez turned back toward the Suburban, but I caught him by the elbow, hoping I could distract him with practical matters.
“Right now we need to close this ramp, Robert. Right now, before some tired tourist drives through the middle of this.” If Payson had found one of the passengers still alive—if I had been mistaken in my initial, quick assessment based on seeing altogether too many of these collisions, and we could have done something to render aid—the sergeant would have shouted for help.
I clamped a hand hard on the young man’s elbow. He was a head taller than me at six-foot-four, and powerfully built. But as I snapped, “Take my unit,” I shook him hard. “Take my car up this ramp and block the interstate exit lane, diagonally, facing traffic. Use lots of flares. We’ll get all the help we can. Everyone is rolling on this.” Torrez stood immobile. “Right now, Deputy. Take my unit.”
Payson’s flashlight darted this way and that, and I hoped that he hadn’t pinpointed yet another victim.
“Elli was with him,” Torrez said again, voice a whisper.
“I hear you, and I’m sorry.” I took him by the elbow again and tried to turn him—like trying to turn a planted oak tree. Putting my hand in the center of his chest, I eased him away. “The EMTs will be here in a minute. There’s nothing you can do for the victims. But listen—” and I raised my voice “—we need this ramp blocked before some half-wit slams right in the middle of us.” It seemed logical to give the young man something to do, something to help him work around the numbness.
Even as he turned toward 310, I heard another vehicle up on the interstate, tires hissing on the change of pavement as he slowed for the exit. I started to jog up the ramp, staying right in the middle of the lane, the beam from my flashlight cutting quick arcs. Sure enough, a white pickup with white Texas plates appeared, and the driver had just hit the downslope when he saw me huffing up the center of the ramp, my portly figure framed by the bloom of emergency lights. He stabbed the brakes. No one was following behind, and he rolled down the window as he reached me.
“Park it right here. It’s going to be a spell.” The driver surprised the hell out of me. No lame “What happened?” or “Is anyone hurt?” comments.
Instead, he glanced in his rearview mirror and then at me as he said abruptly, “What can I do to help?”
I looked hard at him, saw a middle-aged, burly guy with a buzz-cut shorter than mine, a guy whose eyes were locked on the dark form of Orlando Torrez’ corpse on down the ramp. From our vantage point, we could look past the victim and see the remains of the Suburban tangled around the pillar. He held up an identification wallet. I hit it with my light and saw that Carl Beason carried a lieutenant’s shield with the El Paso PD.
“Lieutenant, we need to make sure that no one comes down this ramp.” As I spoke, I flattened myself against the lieutenant’s pickup as Deputy Torrez started to skin past us, keeping my Crown Vic on the pavement, every light ablaze. I held up a hand to stop him.
“Pop the trunk.” When Torrez did so, I found one of the small yellow tarps, folded tightly in its baggie. I retrieved it, slipped a flare out of the box, and slammed the trunk lid down. I slapped the door. “Everything you need is in the back,” I said to Torrez, but the car was already rolling.
Beason pulled his Chevy into reverse, the well-concealed wiggle-waggles blossoming in the truck’s grill. “We’ll take care of it,” he said, and backed up the ramp after Torrez. The young deputy would angle the sedan across the exit ramp where it first split away from the eastbound lanes. A tractor-trailer thundered by in the far lane, not bothering to slow down.
I took the tarp and headed back down the ramp, pausing long enough to cover Orlando Torrez’ body. Five feet away, clear of the tarp and the first bloom of grass on the shoulder, I shoved the flare’s base nail into the ground and snapped the striker against the top.
By the time I reached the Suburban, Sergeant Payson was walking north, away from the wreckage, to intercept the first rescue vehicle and one of the village patrol units. That confirmed for me that there was nothing we could do for the other two victims, both of whom were trapped either in or under the truck. If one or both had been alive and pumping blood, Payson would never have left their sides. The mere fact that the sergeant was walking to meet the crews told me all I needed to know.
Payson sent the first arriving village unit up the westbound exit ramp on the far side of the interstate, and as other officers arrived, we would disperse them as we could. I saw Tony Abeyta, one of the village part-timers whom I thought the county should head-hunt away from the village. He’d parked his personal vehicle north of the overpass, helping to block lanes. I winked my flashlight at him, and he jogged over.
“Stay with the victim.” I nodded back at the tarp. “We’re covered topside, but watch the ramp behind you and don’t turn your back on 56 and 61. No one comes through.” I didn’t wait for questions, but strode back toward the Suburban.
This wasn’t one of those thirty-miles-an-hour jobs where bumpers, fenders, and a chrome strip or two were dinged and dented. The destruction was catastrophic, with the engine block lying fifty feet north in a puddle of oil, the big Suburban’s frame sheered, the passenger compartment twisted and gaping.
Elli Torrez had been crushed between the buckled roof and door, sandwiched against the concrete bridge support. I couldn’t reach her to check for a pulse, but the blank, staring eye and cleaved skull told the whole story. Deputy Robert Torrez would carry that as a final memory of his sister.
The other passenger was somehow locked under the truck. One leg up to mid-calf projected out from the tangle of steel. I couldn’t find a pulse, couldn’t tell if the leg was even attached to a body.
A small gaggle of rubber-neckers gathered at the north entrance to the overpass, and I suppose that, the budget being as tight as it was, we could have sold tickets.
I took a deep breath. “PCS, three ten.”
“Go ahead, three ten.”
“Make sure the rescue team is headed this way. We’re going to need the jaws.”
“Ten four. Sergeant Payson already called it.”
The painstaking accident reconstruction to follow would shed some light, but the results of the crash looked typical. Careening much too fast, the heavy Suburban had left broad, sweeping skid marks on the exit ramp, rolled once, and then careened across the intersection where the change in vector had collapsed tires and then forced a triple somersault. Its flight had been abruptly smashed to a halt against the concrete bridge support. The driver and Orlando and Elli Torrez would have been flailed about like rag dolls, the crash would not have been survivable, even with seat belts snugged tight.
“What do you have on the ramp?” Sergeant Payson’s voice was soft over my handheld, using the car-to-car channel that hopefully was a little bit private. He was in the process of directing another village car into position, blocking southbound on Grande, then he turned and walked my way.
“One ejected.” I kept my voice down. “It’s one of the deputy’s younger brothers. His little sister is in the wreck, pinned against the column.”
“Just the two in the Suburban as far as you could determine?”
“Affirmative. They’re both gone. No doubt at all this time.”
“So most likely three occupants. The tire marks make me think that the Torrez kid was the first one ejected. Maybe yes, maybe no. As soon as you have someone to break free, make sure the whole area is surveyed. All of the triangle, every inch. It’d be hell come first light to find a fourth youngster dead in the weeds a little farther up the ramp.” I took a long, ragged breath. “I put Deputy Torrez up on the interstate, blocking the exit ramp. He doesn’t need to be part of this. The first passerby was a lieutenant from El Paso PD. He’s assisting Torrez now.”
I stepped aside to allow the fire rescue truck to pull in closer, staying out of the mad scramble of rescue workers who would bring the metal-forcing jaws into play. Payson, satisfied that the streets were blocked, jogged back to join the effort, but paused when he was within earshot without using the radio.
“I couldn’t see the one jammed under the truck. I tried to find an ankle pulse, but…” He shrugged helplessly. “It’ll be hell gettin’ him out of there.”
I didn’t need to check the Suburban’s tag. “The vehicle belongs to Willis Browning.”
“Yep,” Payson said again. And that just about covered it.