The late-afternoon sun angled across the sweep of the bunchgrass prairie, casting harsh shadows around mesas and on the lowlands where arroyos cut the sand into fantastic patterns. The wind gusted fitfully, as if nervous about the clouds forming over the San Cristobal Mountains to the south, along the Mexican border.
With my eyes closed, I could watch the changing patterns of shape, color, and texture. I could even see where an aging piñon clung in the loose, powdery soil on a distant rock outcropping, and I could see, in the shade under that piñon, a Saye’s ground squirrel industriously sifting through the piñon-nut hulls for one that held a morsel.
The image was strong enough that I could smell the prairie, and hear it, and even, sitting there quietly in my chair, imagine that I could feel the ghostings of fine sand particles across my bare feet.
The landscape would hold as long as I kept my eyes closed. If I opened them, I’d see the hedgerow that marked the back property line of my daughter’s home. And beyond that, if I cared to get up and stroll across a quarter acre of manicured bluegrass, I would catch a glimpse of power lines and rooftops, an expanse of suburbia that stretched, as far as I knew, all the way east to Lake Huron.
I had been sitting with a paperback novel open on my lap, head leaned back, eyes closed, soaking in the Michigan haze. The novel wasn’t worth reading, but it was good for appearances. Otherwise, I sure as hell would have looked like an invalid. I’d lost a few pounds—I had plenty to spare still, but decent green-chili burritos were difficult to find in central Michigan, and I woke up each morning with the feeling that I was fading fast.
Were I recuperating in New Mexico, where I belonged, the lack of proper food could have been offset by doses of sunshine strong enough to bake lizards. But that wasn’t the case, either. If the sun had been lit at all in Michigan that day, it was hidden somewhere behind a sky of flat, featureless stainless steel. So, with my eyes closed, I pretended.
My daughter Camille would have only chuckled if I complained, so I didn’t bother. Her one concession during the past three weeks had been letting me keep the wheelchair longer than necessary, but even its usefulness was fading. The gadget would have been even more comfy with a nice knitted afghan to spread across my lap, but my daughter would never have allowed that. She was into power recuperation.
I didn’t need the wheelchair, mind you. I took long morning and evening walks, sometimes in the company of one or more of my teenaged grandchildren, strolling around blocks of secluded, expensive homes with smooth black macadam driveways. There were no rattlesnakes, no goatheads to pick out of my socks later, no sand. I hated every step.
And for the past week, Camille had been making noises about sending the wheelchair back to the health-aids rental place from which it had come, but I had pointed out that of all the furniture on my daughter’s patio, the straight-backed aluminum speedster was the most comfortable. If I had slipped into one of the low Adirondack chairs, I never would have been able to heave my bulk up and out. The other choice was even more unattractive. The white wicker love seat had enough sharp cane ends sticking out that no matter which way I sat, some article of clothing was speared.
Behind me, I heard the back door open.
“Do you want to take a call from the sheriff’s office?” Camille possessed one of those voices that carried command in every sentence. If she had said, “It’s a beautiful day,” well then, by God, it had better just be a beautiful day, if it knew what was good for it. She was the oldest of my four children, and she had been boss since she was two years old.
“Why do they want to talk to me?” I asked, turning my head so I could see her. She shrugged, and waggled the receiver at me. She was wearing an apron, which meant that she was cooking something that would end up resembling health food. I frowned. “I don’t even know what county we’re in,” I added.
I had a fleeting vision of the local police hopelessly stymied by a tough case. They knew that their only hope lay with the aging, ailing undersheriff, who happened to be in town visiting relatives and recuperating from having his carotid arteries reamed out. I could see the harried captain of detectives reaching for the phone, saying with arched eyebrow to his sweating lieutenant, “Let’s call Gastner in.” It was indeed a fleeting vision, the sort of thing the mind dreams up when there’s too much free time.
“This is Genesee County,” Camille said, “but you’re off by about two thousand miles.” She grinned, her dark face softening until she looked like her mother. “The acting undersheriff wants to speak with you.” She put the receiver to her ear and said, “He hasn’t decided whether or not to get out of his chair, Estelle. Hang on a minute while I beat on him.”
My pulse jumped, not from the threat of pummeling, but from the mention of Estelle Reyes-Guzman’s name. Camille saw the expression on my face. “The cord won’t reach,” she said, but I was already grunting myself upright.
“They make cordless phones now,” I muttered, but I knew that on her husband’s lowly earnings as an oral surgeon, they no doubt had to be careful about such luxuries.
Out of habit, I glanced at my watch and saw that it was 4:36. Flint, Michigan, was on eastern time, so it was siesta time in Posadas County, New Mexico. If I’d been home, I would have been just wrapping up lunch at the Don Juan de Oñate restaurant. But I wasn’t home.
Camille handed me the phone as I reached the screen door. “Gastner,” I said, sounding for all the world as if I’d been busy with something important.
Estelle Reyes-Guzman knew better, even from two thousand miles away. “I hope I didn’t wake you, sir,” she said.
Her voice was soft and musical. I grinned and ambled back toward the kitchen, doing my best not to trip over the cord. “I was right in the middle of a high-level meeting,” I said. “It’s good to hear from you.”
Estelle, chief of detectives for the Posadas County Sheriff ’s Department, had called several times during my convalescence, and I’d called her only two days before, enjoying a nice long chat at my son-in-law’s expense. He didn’t mind, and he even pointed out that what few calls I made were nothing compared to the communications havoc that his three teenagers could wreak.
In the background, I heard the squelch of the dispatcher’s radio. Knowing that Estelle was at the office peaked my interest, and it was logical that she hadn’t called just to chat.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“There were a couple of things Francis wanted me to ask you, and now I can’t remember what they were,” Estelle said.
Her physician husband could ask his own questions, and no doubt would when next we met eye-to-eye. “Tell him that I’ve lost a hundred pounds and that I’m running eight miles every morning. And that I’ve given up Mexican food entirely.”
“The latter I can believe, sir,” she said, “As long as you’re stuck up there.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
“I called because of a couple of things myself,” she said. “First of all, do you remember Florencio Apodaca?”
I should have responded, “Well, sure, of course I do,” but the name drew a blank. “Uh-huh,” I said instead, a grunt that could be construed either way.
“Mr. Apodaca is the old man who lives at the end of Escondido Lane, in that old adobe with the steep metal roof and—”
I interrupted her as my memory kicked into gear. “Sure,” I said. “Of course.” Escondido Lane curved around behind my own property in Posadas. If my five acres hadn’t been so choked with trees and brush, I could have looked out my den window and seen the Apodacas’ house three hundred yards away.
“I used to see him and his wife taking evening walks, but that was a while ago. Did he die, or what?”
“No, he didn’t. But we can’t find his wife, Gloria.” “What do you mean, you can’t find her?”
“Just that, sir. One of the neighbors told us that she hadn’t seen Gloria in quite awhile…that she’d been ill, you know.”
“It seems to me that she was frail a hundred years ago,” I said. “Maybe she has Alzheimer’s and wandered off. Did anyone ask?” “Gloria would be in her late eighties, so that’s entirely possible, sir.” Estelle said. “One of the village officers stopped by to check, and Florencio told him that she’d gone. That’s all he would say. Not that she had died, just that she’d gone. That’s all he would say.” “Who was the officer who talked to him?”
“Chief Martinez,” Estelle said, and I looked heavenward. Eduardo Martinez was kindhearted, understanding, gentle, and stupid.
“So let me guess. The chief assumed that when Florencio said ‘She’s gone,’ he meant that his wife had gone to visit relatives or some such.”
“But you don’t think that she did?”
“No, sir. A couple of youngsters were in the lot across the street, building a tree house in one of those old cottonwoods. They found a grave. We’re pretty sure it’s hers.”
“Really? You think she died and her husband just planted her himself?”
“Yes, sir. There was a small cross, and her name was carved in the wood.”
I shrugged. “Well, there you are, then. If you’ve got a grave, the odds are good you’ve found your corpse. So what’s the deal? It’s not illegal for her to die, and it’s not illegal for him to bury her. Poor old guy. Where’s the grave site? I don’t remember their lot as being very big.”
“It’s not on their property, sir,” Estelle said, and then repeated what I hadn’t caught the first time. “It’s across the lane, on yours.”
I laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding.” “No, sir.”
“You’re saying that the old lady died, and Florencio dragged the body across the street, into my woods, and dug a grave…under one of my trees?”
“That’s what it looks like, sir.”
“I’ll be damned. Brassy old cuss, isn’t he? I wonder what put that notion into his head. And he even made a cross, too, you say?”
“Yes, sir. A simple wooden cross.”
“Well, that’s sort of sweet,” I said. “It’s not quite the way things are done these days, but what the hell.” I chuckled. “Gene Salazar is going to be ticked that he’s out a prep and burial fee. I wonder what Florencio used for a casket.”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Well, I don’t care, I guess,” I said. “I don’t walk around back there much. In fact, I probably haven’t been on that particular spot in twenty years.”
“I didn’t think you’d mind, but the village does. That’s the area where they wanted to run the new water line, so there’d be service to DelSol Estates. They said that you’d given them an easement.” “Oh,” I said. “Yeah, I guess I did. Well, we certainly don’t want to stand in the way of progress.” I chuckled. “Or lie in the way. I didn’t know there had been any interest in that DelSol development, anyway.”
“They’re hoping, I think,” Estelle said.
“I’m sure we can work something out that will make everyone happy. If that’s the biggest problem you’re having, things must be going pretty smoothly.”
“That’s one,” Estelle said. “We’re also having a rash of B and E’s, sir. I think we’ve had something like eight residential burglaries in the past two weeks.”
“Kids again?” I remembered that the last rash of breaking-and-entering cases that Posadas County had endured featured a thirteen year-old punk as the mastermind.
“Probably. We’re not sure. Your house was one of them.”
“Shit,” I said. “You’re kidding.” That was a waste of breath, of course, since Estelle Reyes-Guzman was not the kidding sort.
“Apparently they gained access by busting out the bathroom window. They left the front door unlocked afterward. They did a thorough job of trashing the place.”
I felt my blood pressure start its slow, inexorable rise. “So you need an inventory?”
“If you have one.”
“I don’t. I’m not sure there was much that was worth taking. Just a bunch of books. I’d have to walk through the place to jog my memory.”
“Most of the books are scattered on the floor. The thieves dumped them off the shelves. They took the VCR but not the television.”
“And when you left, was the Civil War rifle and sword still mounted on the wall in your den?”
“They took them, too.” “Those little bastards.” “Yes, sir.”
“Estelle, you might check that lockable filing cabinet just to the right of my desk. The little two-drawer unit. A couple of my handguns were in there, locked up.”
“That was gone, too.” “The entire unit?” “Yes, sir.”
I closed my eyes and listened to the blood gurgling in my newly reamed pipes. “There were some papers in there that I can’t afford to lose,” I said finally.
“I’m sorry, sir. We’ve got a couple of pretty solid leads that we’re following. If we come up with anything, I’ll let you know. And by the way, I had Bob Torrez nail a stout piece of plywood over the broken window in the bathroom.”
“Thanks. What about the garage? Any sign of entry there?” “Apparently they didn’t get in there. The truck is all right.” “That’s the least of my worries,” I said. “It’s too bad they didn’t steal it. It’d be a hell of a lot easier to trace that than the smaller stuff.”
I reached across the kitchen counter and pulled the calendar toward me, flipping the page over to the next month, December. “I was planning on flying back to Las Cruces in a couple of weeks. On the third of December,” I said. “That’s a Wednesday. I could move it up and leave here the day after tomorrow. That’s November sixteenth. I’ve got a couple of things to wrap up here, but that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“If you can manage, sir, it would be a help. Otherwise, I can go through room by room and we can settle over the phone.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“Are you doing all right?”
“Nicely is the doctor’s favorite word now. Apparently cutting out a cheese burrito from each carotid artery made all the difference. Let me plan on catching a flight out of here on Sunday, then. That shouldn’t be any problem to arrange. I’ve got a meeting with a man tomorrow that I really don’t want to break, but after that, it should be fine.”
Estelle Reyes-Guzman didn’t ask me what the meeting was all about, but when I hung up the telephone a few minutes later, Camille appeared in the doorway, both hands on her hips in that “Oh no you don’t” posture I knew so well.