High Country Nocturne: A David Mapstone Mystery #8

High Country Nocturne: A David Mapstone Mystery #8

A cache of diamonds is stolen in Phoenix. The prime suspect is former Maricopa County Sheriff Mike Peralta, now a private investigator. Disappearing into Arizona’s mountainous High Country, Peralta leaves ...

About The Author

Jon Talton

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan, the author of 12 novels, and a former columnist for the Arizona Republic. Talton now ...

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Chapter One

In the end, the truth was almost beside the point.

 

 

Chapter Two

Ten o’clock. Two o’clock. I knew the drill.

It had been many years since I had been pulled over by the police, almost as many years since I was a young deputy sheriff doing traffic stops myself. When I did, I wanted to see the driver’s hands right where mine rested now.

Ten o’clock and two o’clock on the steering wheel. Left hand at ten. Right hand at two. Where I could be sure he wasn’t concealing a gun.

Extra points if he had shut down the engine and held his driver’s license and vehicle registration.

Unless the driver was being extra careful because he was a bad guy.

Then I would be on extra guard.

Traffic stops were scary, especially if they were on lonely roads after midnight. It was you and the driver and anybody else in the car and the darkness. Backup might be miles away.

You might think you were pulling over a driver to tell him his taillight was out. Unless the driver had killed his girlfriend or robbed a Circle K five minutes before and didn’t know you were only being Deputy Helpful.

When I was a rookie, these stops were the only part of the job that scared me.

Now I was the driver and Sharon Peralta, my partner’s wife, sat beside me.

My hands rested at ten and two, and the digital clock read one o’clock in the morning.

I had taken a chance roaring north out of Phoenix on Inter- state 17 in her silver Lexus IS 250C convertible.

I took a chance doing ninety-five when the posted speed limit was twenty miles-per-hour lower. With budget cuts, traffic stops by the Department of Public Safety—the highway patrol—had plummeted so low that people started calling it the “shadow patrol.”

But the shadow patrol nailed me as I climbed out of Camp Verde. Red lights and blue lights followed me as I took an exit that led down a cut to a crossroads. I pulled off the pavement onto the dirt ten yards before a stop sign.

A spotlight swept the inside of the car, then focused on   our rearview mirror. That was standard procedure to keep the occupants of the stopped vehicle from seeing into the police car behind them.

I had already used the button to roll down the window when I heard the officer’s voice.

“Do you know why I stopped you, sir?”

A Southern accent washed through my ear canal. “I was speeding.”

A flashlight beam flashed across the interior, lingering on our laps and our feet. She asked for my driver’s license and registration. I handed them over.

She stood to the rear of the door so I couldn’t see her. Her tactics were sound.

“Please stay inside your vehicle, sir. And please shut off your lights.”

One didn’t hear many Southern accents in Arizona today, even though many of Phoenix’s early settlers were ex-Confederates. That accent had two broad and mutually exclusive presentations, hick and high-class magnolia. She was definitely the latter.

I said, “I’m sorry, Sharon.”

As if she hadn’t been through enough already. All the lights on the DPS cruiser shut down.

Just a few years ago, we would have been left in profound darkness, with only the highway, miraculously blasted through the rugged country, as a reminder of modernity. This was the exit to Montezuma’s Castle National Monument, seven-hundred-year-old cliff dwellings. At night, nobody would be here. The darkness would be primeval.

Now a tribal casino sat on a bluff to the east, polluting the high desert sky. If you asked me, it was a monstrosity. But nobody asked me. Nobody had asked me about adding five million people to the state since I was a child. I shook my head. “Who is Sharon Peralta?” The cop had returned, stepping lightly.

“I am.” Sharon leaned forward and squinted into the flash- light beam. Her eyes were tired.

“Is this your vehicle, ma’am?” She said that it was.

“Do you know this man?” “Yes, he’s a friend.”

“Sir, please step out of the car. Ma’am, you stay here.”

I had been afraid this might happen, so I came out with it. “I’m armed.”

“Why is that, sir?” The magnolia debutante voice didn’t seem stressed. And it was not as if she could ask to see my permit. Not in Arizona, which had some of the most liberal gun laws in the country.

“I’m a private investigator.”

She asked me where the gun was and I told her it was in a holster on my belt. Then she told me to place it slowly on the dash and I did, carefully, barrel forward, hand away from the trigger. My familiar Colt Python .357 magnum revolver. But with the four-inch ribbed barrel, it was a mean-looking firearm. Her flashlight beam lingered on it.

“Anything else?”

Be respectful. That was another part of the drill. “No, ma’am.” It was even the truth. I didn’t take time to bring Speedloaders with extra ammunition or a backup piece after the phone call woke me at nine minutes after midnight Saturday morning. I was sleepy and in a hurry and on the drive up into the High Country, I thought this had been a rash move. Now, I was glad to have only one firearm to explain.

The flashlight clicked off.

“Please step out of the car.” Now her voice had lost its lilt. Or maybe I was being nervous. One thing was sure; I was wide-awake.

I opened the door and slid out, dropping my feet onto the hard-packed dirt and getting my first look at the DPS cop.

She was more than a head shorter than me, dressed in the standard uniform: tan slacks, tan long-sleeved shirt, shoulder patch in the shape of the state and colors of the state flag, seven-point gold star above her left pocket.

Thanks to the casino’s neon, I could see that her hair was strawberry blond, tied back in a bun. Her features seemed attractive, even the slightly weak chin. Her expression was camouflaged by shadows. Age? Around thirty.

“Walk to the back of the car and put your hands on the trunk, please, palms down.”

I did as she asked. The cold made me shiver. We were three thousand feet higher than Phoenix, where it was resort weather and the wrecking ball of summer only a bad memory. That was why Lindsey had given me my leather jacket. But it was in the back seat and I only had on a T-shirt, jeans, and athletic shoes. The metal of the trunk conducted the cold through my hands, adding to the discomfort. It must have been a quiet night for her to take this much time. Or she recognized Sharon’s last name. That might be problematic. I wished she would write the ticket, give me the lecture, and send me away with a “drive safely, sir.”

Instead, I heard a discomfiting snap and she told me to turn around.

Her gun was out, aimed at me. It was pointed at my face.

In the academy, they call this aiming at “the lethal T” or the “fatal T.” The T consisted of the eyes and nose, a shot guaranteed to kill instantly.

Officers are usually trained to shoot at a suspect’s “body of mass,” the torso. That is an easier, surer target. But more criminals are wearing body armor.

She was not in a combat shooting stance, with both hands on the weapon for stability. Instead, she held it confidently in one hand, her right. That was unusual.

Seeing her finger on the trigger heightened my concern. This was something definitely not taught at the academy.

Officers learn to keep the trigger finger aligned with the side of the gun’s lower receiver and slide—“ready to engage,” as the instructors put it. This prevents an accidental discharge.

But there it was, the pistol staring me in the eyes, the officer’s finger on the trigger.

This situation left me one cough or involuntary nerve spasm away from being shot and I wouldn’t live more than a few seconds. No time for last words. Words like, “Tell my wife I love her.” Or, “Why did you shoot me? I was unarmed.”

It is impossible to speak after your face has been torn apart and a bullet acts out the laws of physics inside your skull. Impossible, when you are already dead.

This is your brain, Mapstone. This is your brain blown out of the back of your head all over the bumper of Sharon’s fancy convertible.

“I’m not armed,” I said, forcing my voice to remain calm, its cadence slow, as I raised my hands. “I am not posing any threat to you. Please take your finger off the trigger.”

She didn’t do as I suggested.

I studied the gun. It was a semi-automatic, black with intimi- dating lines. I couldn’t identify the maker. It wasn’t the Glock that was standard with police.

A tractor-trailer rig approached on the Interstate, grinding uphill toward Flagstaff. If only the truck driver needed to pull off and came down the cut and somehow broke the spell that had this officer in its grasp. But then the semi was gone and the world around us was quiet. Not a single gambler came or went from the casino.

The nation’s sixth-largest city was only ninety miles south but it might as well have been on a different planet.

I had the tactical solutions of a can of cat food.

When I went through the academy too many years ago, I had learned how to disarm a shooter without having a gun myself. This involved stepping close inside her reach and doing a hard, straight-arm bar to dislodge the weapon. But she was too far away and I had never tried this desperate move in real life.

She seemed to read this thought and took one more step back, then crooked her arm close to her side, the gun still perfectly aimed. If the barrel were an eye, it could have winked at me.  I raised my empty hands higher, feeling the slick between the T-shirt and my skin.

“Why are you doing this?” My mouth was so dry it had trouble forming the words.

She cocked her head as if about to answer, then thought better of it.

“I used to be a cop,” I said. “I know how stressful a traffic stop can be.”

The strawberry blond Sphinx stared at me.

“Maybe you read about me. David Mapstone. I solved cold cases for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.”

She said, “I know who you are.”

The way she said it told me she meant more than a name she’d read on my driver’s license.

And my self-possession started to crack.

“Do we know each other? What’s your name?” I couldn’t make out her nametag or badge number.

Then she lowered pistol in the direction of my groin and smiled. “Where…?” That was as far as she got.

A pair of headlights on high beams. A car coming off the Interstate, headed toward us. I squinted and turned my head aside as the glare grew more intense. The car stopped behind her cruiser and kept its lights on.

More than a few beats passed in silence, her hair a halo in the backlights. I prayed it was another DPS unit and that an officer would talk her down.

She continued to face me. “Friends of yours?” Now it was my turn to say nothing.

She slipped the gun back into its holster with one clean move and snapped it in place.

The pleasant drawl returned to her voice, as if the past five minutes had never happened. She handed back my license and registration.

“You drive safely, sir.”

Within thirty seconds, she was gone, spewing dirt and rocks.

My savior behind the high beams remained.

My tongue tasted dust as wobbly legs conveyed me to the car and I put the Python back in its holster.

One last time, I turned and stared at the headlights.

After a few minutes, once we were back on the highway, I found the same headlights following us a quarter mile behind. I didn’t know who was inside, although I had a good guess. But I was certain they had saved my life.

Sharon looked me over. Sweat was coming through the T-shirt. “Are you all right, David?”

“Sure.”

“Really?”

“She let me off with a warning.”

And how. I set the cruise control at seventy-five as the Inter- state climbed and climbed toward Flagstaff.

Sharon stared at her lap, dark hair curtaining off her face, and said nothing more. This was unusual. Sharon was a master conversationalist. Weren’t all shrinks talkers? And they wanted you to talk. We had much to discuss, in fact. But I didn’t speak either, about what had happened minutes before at the traffic stop, about the telephone call that had brought us here, or everything that had come at us in the previous day. The silence was so profound that my breathing sounded like screams.

I silently replayed the scene by the side of the road. It was late. I had been awakened and forced to drive after a stressful day. The mind plays tricks.

But the finger on the trigger was no illusion.

And I replayed the angry metal click of the woman’s holster.

It bothered me for more reasons than the gun in my face.

The old Galco High-Ride holster that held my Python had a strip of leather that wrapped around the frame of the gun. It is called a retention strap, meant to keep an attacker from grabbing the gun and using it on you. I could get to the revolver easily by grasping the handle and moving my hand against the place the retention strap connected to the rest of the holster. It would come loose with a snap and I’d be ready to rock.

But that was old school. I cursed aloud.

“What it is, David?”

“It’s some inside baseball cop stuff. Probably nothing.”

She didn’t push it. It wasn’t inside baseball. Inside cop world.

Snap.

No.

Most law-enforcement officers didn’t use those retention straps now.

Manufacturers had advanced the security of holsters substantially so that it was much more difficult for the weapon to be taken in a struggle. It helped that the semiautomatic pistols cops carried had smooth butts, no exposed hammer like the Python’s to accommodate.

I stared into the red lights of a truck several car-lengths ahead, then signaled and moved to pass.

Now cops carried holsters classified as Level 2, Level 3, and even Level 4, based on the degree of protection they provided. But almost all had one element in common—to unholster the gun, the officer moved the strap forward. In the more advanced holsters, the pistol must be properly gripped and a lever switched.

None of these regulation holsters made a snap.

“She wasn’t…” I absently let the car slow down against the gravity of the mountain it needed to climb.

“What?” Sharon asked.

I pushed down the accelerator and we surged forward. “I was thinking. Always a surprising thing when I do it.”

She laughed and I kept silent.

I was thinking that perhaps the DPS officer was old school like me and refused to adopt a new holster.

Thinking perhaps she was not a police officer.

She pointed the gun at my crotch and said, “Where…?” Where, what? Where were we going? Where was Peralta?

As the cold sweat stayed with me, another thought came. If I saw her again, it would once more be in darkness and I wouldn’t get a second chance.

Sharon said, “Do you still get panic attacks, David?”

I ignored her and held my iPhone against the steering wheel, shakily texting Lindsey one character, an asterisk. I watched the iPhone screen as the message was delivered.

After a few tense seconds, Lindsey texted back. Another asterisk.

In our personal code, it meant one thing: leave the house immediately. Go.

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