“Three ten, PCS.” Dispatcher Ernie Wheeler’s voice sounded vaguely mechanical over the radio.
“Finally,” Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman said aloud. The dash clock announced eleven forty-five p.m. on the Friday three days before Christmas. The last call she’d taken was a lost dog report at 8:08 that same evening, resolved fifteen minutes later—the aging, deaf, and half-blind Jack Russell mix was found snoozing on a neighbor’s pillowed porch swing after dining on two bowls of cat food. The “daring rescue” had earned Estelle a smothering hug from the elderly dog’s invalid owner, Florence Atencio.
The undersheriff had been sympathetic, since Fudgie the Jack Russell was Mrs. Atencio’s truest companion. The Christmas season was hard enough on the lonely without a missing beloved pet.
The swing shift she had been covering for Lieutenant Jackie Taber would end in a few minutes, but Estelle wasn’t tired. Deputy Tom Pasquale had come on duty a half hour earlier for the graveyard shift and Estelle was confident that tiny Posadas County, New Mexico, was in safe hands. Like Mrs. Atencio, though, she could admit to being a bit lonely, and had no inclination to go home to an empty house. To avoid that earlier, she had volunteered to cover Jackie’s swing shift when Jackie had taken a couple of days of leave to visit her ailing mother in Kansas City.
Friday nights were potentially a showcase for less-than-attractive human behavior, but so far, the rare threat of snow that might bring a white Christmas had kept things quiet.
She keyed the mike in response. “PCS, three ten.”
“Three ten, ten twenty-one, three oh four.”
“Ten four.” Estelle took a moment to wonder why Deputy Pasquale needed to communicate by phone, rather than a prompt and simple radio call. With no traffic, she slowed the Charger to a fast walk along State 61 and fished out her cell phone. Pasquale’s number flashed on the screen and she keyed it in.
“Just one second,” the deputy said by way of greeting. She could hear him talking to someone, and then he came back on the line. “Estelle, I’m about a hundred yards beyond mile marker twenty-one on State 56. I just picked up Derry Fisher. I think he’s okay, and I got him all bundled up in a wool blanket. I don’t have a child seat or nothin’, and he’s had some exposure, so I called out one of the EMT units. They’re rolling now. They’ll be with me in about a minute.”
“Yep. The little tyke. You know the folks. Penny and Darrell? I don’t get it, but this time the little bugger was all by himself, tryin’ to ride his Scamper along the shoulder of the road. How’s that for strange? It looks to me like the kid got dumped. He isn’t all that coherent, but I got ‘dada’ and ‘truck’ out of him and he pointed up the road toward town. It’s snowin’ like a son-of-a-gun right now. Just a little bit ago, Darrell Fisher passed me in his pickup goin’ northbound, right by the intersection of 61. So if Daddy kicked him out of the truck, I figure the kid was outside for maybe five, six minutes. He’s wearing a T-shirt and his wad of diapers, socks, and sneakers. I don’t know what Dad was thinking.”
“If at all. No sign of them? They didn’t dump him out, drive a little ways, and then turn around to pick him up? Some version of the old fed-up parent’s threat, ‘If you don’t stop that, you’re going to walk home!’”
“My dad used to say that to me and my brother all the time. I don’t remember him doin’ that when I was two and half, though. And I haven’t seen any hint of Darrell turning around to come back.” He paused, and Estelle could hear motion. “Yeah. Come here. That’s the way. You warm now?” The child said something incomprehensible, and Pasquale added, “Now he wants a hug. Oh, good. Here comes the ambulance. You’re kind of stinky, little man.”
“I’ll meet you at the hospital, Thomas. I’m out past María, so it’ll be a few minutes. No sign of Darrell returning yet? Or Penny? She works at the hospital, or did.”
“Nope. You remember them gettin’ into it a couple weeks ago at the Family Supermarket, and one of the clerks was going to file charges against Penny for assault? She clobbered Darrell in the head with a bag of frozen chicken. The clerk never filed, and Darrell let it slide.”
“Is it possible to get photos at the spot where the boy was dropped off?”
“I’m going to try, but things are gettin’ kind of white down this way.”
“Do your best. I’ll meet you at the hospital in a few minutes. I’ll give Gayle a call. Children, Youth, and Families will be involved in this.”
“Roger that. A Merry Christmas to all, huh?”
The snow was snaking across the state highway, looking for someplace to settle. Estelle’s Charger, with rear-wheel drive and altogether too much power, wasn’t happy on the slick asphalt, and she took her time, passing first through the tiny village of María and then out onto the great flat expanse of southern Posadas County. She flipped on the wipers and made a mental note to pick up Jackie’s SUV after she’d finished at the hospital.
“Three ten, can you ten nineteen for a passenger?” This time, Ernie Wheeler’s voice carried a faintly amused note.
“It’ll be a few minutes. I need to swing by the hospital to talk with some folks. I’ll be stopping by the office to pick up a different vehicle in a bit. Ask him if that suits him.”
“He’s nodding yes.”
The identity of the “he” was no mystery. Only one person asked for a ride-along in the middle of a cold, bleak December night.
“I know it. I know it. I know it.” Darrell Fisher sat on the blue molded plastic chair just outside the emergency room cubicle, hands clasped together between his knees. Exactly whom he was talking to was unclear, and he rocked back and forth as if in bladder agony. His jeans and T-shirt showed a thin body just on the soft side of wiry, as if he’d once weighed thirty pounds more and then dieted down faster than his skin could shrink. His long fair hair was frazzled over ears with lobes sporting the latest fad in self-mutilation, a pair of dime-sized holes rimmed with black plastic inserts. A thin mustache blended into a sparse chin tuft that did nothing for his long, pale face.
Outside in the unpredictable New Mexico weather, neither the little boy nor his father had been wearing a coat. Like father, like son, Estelle thought.
Deputy Tom Pasquale stood within quick, easy reach of Darrell Fisher. Pasquale looked heavenward in tired resignation as Estelle entered the waiting room, but Darrell kept his gaze concentrated on the floor tiles. “Amy’s gettin’ the boy all warmed up,” the deputy said.
Estelle moved the cubicle’s curtain far enough to one side that she could slip through. Inside the cubicle, Nurse Practitioner Amy Salinger had bundled little Derry Fisher in a heated blanket and was trying to interest the child in a covered child’s thermal cup without much success.
“A good shot of brandy would be just the ticket,” she remarked and glanced over at Estelle. “He’s no worse for wear, though.” She watched Estelle as the undersheriff bent and unwound the blanket just enough to examine the little boy’s tiny feet. “All ten accounted for and working fine,” Amy said. “I’m glad he was outside for just a few minutes.”
“That’s for sure.” Estelle straightened up and snugged the warm blanket back around Derry’s feet, and then pulled it close around the child’s ears. “He—” A ruckus outside in the waiting room interrupted her, and she parted the curtain in time to see Deputy Pasquale envelope a large, beet-faced woman in a bear hug.
“You were down at Al’s, weren’t you?” the woman shouted. “I have to work late, and I can’t trust you to stay home with the boy.” Dressed in stretch slacks and a baggy sweat shirt that didn’t complement her blocky body, Penny Fisher trembled with rage. “Let go of me, you big freak,” she howled, twisting in Pasquale’s restraining arms. She managed to raise one forearm and pointed a finger at her husband, who cringed back. “You went down to Al’s, didn’t you?”
“Just for a little bit,” Darrell whimpered. “Really. Maria was there, too, playing with Derry.”
“At midnight in the middle of a blizzard?” Penny twisted against the deputy’s grip. “Are you going to let go of me, or am I going to have to—” She lashed out with a thick-soled work shoe, catching Pasquale on the side of the calf. One arm worked loose and smacked the deputy on the side of the head.
“Lady,” Pasquale said, his voice full of calm resignation. With an expert twist, he spun her face-first against the wall with her nose pressed against the colorful poster explaining patient rights when unable to pay for medical care. The handcuffs snicked in place, securing first one wrist and then the other.
“What do you think…?” Penny bellowed. “Get these off of me.”
“You’re going to have to do some serious calming down,” Pasquale said matter-of-factly.
“Calm? Are you kidding me?” She glared at Estelle, who had stepped between the husband and wife. Husband remained cowering in the chair. “And what do you want? What, Bobby is too busy to come out on a night like this?”
“Derry is fine,” Estelle said, ignoring the distraught woman’s snipe at Sheriff Robert Torrez. “I’m sure that’s the first thing you’ll want to know.”
“I have to see him.”
“In a few minutes. First you need to calm down and get a hold of yourself.”
The woman huffed a deep breath, and tapped her forehead a couple of times against the wall, not hard enough to dent the sheetrock, but enough to jar the clock above her head. When she looked back at Estelle, a couple of tears were sliding down her cheeks. “This has to stop,” she said. “This is it.” Her gaze drifted over to her husband. “This worthless piece of shit…”
The ER door opened and Lester Gutierrez bustled in, almost as wide as he was tall, deep-set black eyes under heavy brows darting from person to person. The nylon jacket he wore over a crisp white shirt and black pants sported three-inch tall letters across the back that announced Hospital Security. He pointed the short antenna of his radio at Penny Fisher. “You’re going to behave yourself, Miss Penny. I mean what’s going on here? I could hear you all the way down the hall.”
“It’s just my former husband being stupid again,” she said. “The hopeless son-of-a-bitch kicked our son out of the truck and was making him walk home through all this snow.” She jerked her head back to indicate Deputy Pasquale. “And I’m the one in handcuffs. Go figure that.”
“Former husband?” Darrell bleated.
Penny’s face wrinkled into a sarcastic smile. “Yes, former. I’ve had enough of you and your dip-shit brother and his girlfriend of the moment and that whole dip-shit crowd of drug-heads down there.”
Darrell squirmed sideways in his chair and said, just loud enough to be heard, “Well, you ain’t such a grand catch yourself, woman.”
Penny’s muscles bunched, and Deputy Pasquale put one hand on the cuffs and one on her left shoulder. “Settle,” he said.
“Look,” she said, “will you please take these off? I’m not going to do anything other than maybe break a chair over his worthless head.”
“Yep,” Pasquale said. “So I think we’ll leave ’em on for the time being. And kick me again and you’ll be wearin’ ankle wraps, too.”
The ER door opened once again, and Gayle Torrez stepped into the room. Statuesque, with an angular face just shy of beautiful, Gayle had worked for the Sheriff’s Department for years before marrying Sheriff Robert Torrez and then taking a job with the Children, Youth, and Families Division of the local Social Services. Seeing Gayle, Penny Fisher almost collapsed with relief.
“Oh, my God, Gayle…talk some sense into these people, please. That creature over there,” and Penny nodded toward her husband, “put little Derry out of the truck, what, at just about midnight? In the snow? And what, he’s supposed to ride his Scamper home in traffic? In his diapers?”
Gayle Torrez nodded at Deputy Pasquale. “How come the ’cuffs?”
“She kicked me, and hit me in the head. No big deal on that, but it appears she would really like to assault her husband.”
Penny snorted. “Listen to this guy. And you bet your life I’d like to assault him.”
Estelle stepped close to the woman, their faces inches apart. “Listen to me, Penny.” She reached out and placed a hand on Penny’s right shoulder. With Tom Pasquale keeping a hand on the cuffs, Penny was effectively blocked. Estelle lowered her voice.
“Derry is fine.” She held up an index finger. “That’s first. Now this is what’s going to happen, Penny. Because your husband is facing charges of reckless endangerment of a child, possible child abuse, and several other counts, it’s entirely possible that Judge Tate will want him to remain in custody overnight, at least until arraignment in the morning. That gives everybody a chance to cool down.”
“Then how come…?”
Estelle shook Penny’s shoulder, hard. “Be quiet and listen. You’re in handcuffs because you struck one of my officers and were behaving in a thoughtless manner. If you behave in a reasonable fashion, if the deputy doesn’t show physical signs of your assault, then maybe you’ll go home tonight with your son, and have the night to think things over.” She held up a hand when Penny looked as if she was preparing another blast.
“And then, if she’s available and can arrange a Saturday session, you will meet with Gayle in the morning. First you with a deputy accompanying you, then your husband, then, if Gayle gives the all-clear, the two of you together. It will be the job of Family Services to determine the possible risk to Derry if he remains in that home environment.” Estelle took a deep breath. “This is your chance, Penny.” She turned and regarded Darrell, who was still trying to blend in with the furnishings. “And yours, Darrell.” She looked back at Penny. “The two of you.”
Gayle Torrez smiled at Amy Salinger as the nurse chose that moment to open the curtain around the bed. Derry sat looking like a little gnome under his cozy wrap, and when he saw his mother, he immediately began to squirm out of the blanket, his ear-splitting, high voice repeating “mama” as fast as he could.
“I have a little man here who would really like to go home to bed,” Amy said, and as the nurse spoke, Estelle watched Penny Fisher’s face. Softness touched the hard planes, and the woman’s eyes riveted on her son.
“Are we all going to be smart about all this?” Estelle asked.
Penny nodded, the tears now flowing unchecked.
“We’ll shoot for ten o’clock tomorrow morning,” Gayle said. “We’ll start the ball rolling then. That’ll give Judge Tate plenty of time for Mr. Fisher’s arraignment.”
With a deft twist, Deputy Pasquale released the handcuffs, and Penny immediately bolted across the room to her son, scooping him up as he stretched out both arms to her. Making a point to stand between the woman and her husband, Pasquale motioned for Darrell Fisher to rise. When the man cleared the chair, Pasquale turned him to face the wall and cuffed him. Darrell started to whine something, and Pasquale said, “Behave yourself. Sit.”
“Do you have any questions?” Estelle asked Penny.
“I just want to take Derry home.”
“That’s where he belongs. You’re all right driving? You have a good child seat in your vehicle?”
“Then we’ll see you in the morning.” She slipped one of her business cards in the pocket of Penny’s jacket.
Bundling Derry close, Penny Fisher headed for the door, but stopped as she passed Deputy Pasquale. “I didn’t hurt you, really…”
“Be careful out there,” Pasquale said sternly. He reached out and ruffled Derry’s hair. “You’re the man,” he said, and pushed open the door for them.
As the door closed behind them, Darrell Fisher slumped in his chair, trying to find a way to sit comfortably with his hands cuffed behind his back.
Estelle stood looking down at him until he began to fidget, unable to hold her gaze. “That stunt you pulled tonight is what makes police officers want to retire early,” she said quietly. She turned to Pasquale. “Read him his rights and see if Tate will take care of this first thing in the morning.”
As Pasquale hauled the young man to his feet, Estelle slipped another one of her cards into his hip pocket. “For future reference, Mr. Fisher. As of now, start being a whole lot smarter than you have been.”