Scavengers: A Posadas County Mystery #11

Scavengers: A Posadas County Mystery #11

A man's body is found in the unforgiving New Mexico desert, his face so smashed that identification is impossible. It's the beginning of a brutal murder spree that will soon ...

About The Author

Steven F Havill

Steven F. Havill is the author of 24 novels set in the American west. He lives with his wife, Kathleen, ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Posadas County Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman parked her Expedition between the deputy’s unit and the chain-link fence surrounding the gravel pit. She sat for a few minutes with the engine switched off and the driver’s-side window open. Five hundred yards east, Deputy Jackie Taber stood on a slight rise in the prairie, waiting.

With the radio on the short-range frequency, Estelle pushed the transmit bar. “Do you need anything from your vehicle, Jackie?” Given the choice whether to jolt and jar over the prairie in the stiffly sprung department unit or walk, it was predictable which route the deputy had taken. It wouldn’t have surprised Estelle to see Jackie sitting on a rock, sketch pad in hand.

“That’s negative, ma’am.”

“I’ll be over in a few minutes.” The radio barked static twice by way of confirmation. In the distance, a raven vented a single raucous croak of his own, irritated at being driven away from his lunch. The sound floated clear and clean with no wind to play tricks. Beside the Expedition, a few sparse wands of prairie grass stood delicately motionless, their seed hulls long since blown.

The rest of the prairie was bare limestone gravel, a rough table of rocks running the gamut from irregular pinhead grains to great sharp-edged slabs the size of Volkswagens. Wedged in here and there were scrawny creosote bushes with February-bare limbs, cholla cacti spotted with the peculiar mange that reduced them to gray skeletons, and little gray stick-sprays that in a few months would bloom tiny flowers the color of the blistering summer sun.

Dispatcher Gayle Torrez had hit it right when she’d described this particular patch of southeastern Posadas County as “bleak.” Estelle Reyes-Guzman had worked for the Posadas County Sheriff ’s Department for twelve years, not counting the nine months that she, her physician husband Francis, and the two boys had spent in Minnesota. Not once in more than a decade had she occasion to visit this spot. Not once had the need for human law intruded on this stretch of nothing.

An enterprising goat would have to work hard to keep his belly off his backbone here. Rattlesnakes could find a lizard, horned toad, or packrat to sink fangs into every couple of weeks. An ambitious coyote might find something lean to kill on his way through to greener pastures. The ravens would clean up slim pickings afterward. That was it. Even the easy-to-please vultures were still wintering down south where there’d be lots of dead things stinking in the sun. And now someone had found a pile of bones that hadn’t once been a jackrabbit, steer, or lonely, wandering burro.

Estelle didn’t bother to ask dispatch for details. If Jackie Taber said a body was lying out on the prairie, then there was a body. With a fatality, no matter the cause of misadventure, the call from dispatch to the sheriff or undersheriff was automatic. Estelle regarded the expanse of barren prairie in front of her. Whoever had died had done so without much of an audience. To the south, the nearest set of prying eyes lived at the Bordwell ranch, but it was unlikely that old Milton Bordwell had ridden this far afield to find a place to drop dead, even though this land had once been his. And if Milton had witnessed the incident, he would have called Sheriff Robert Torrez. The two were hunting buddies from decades back, until Milton became too crippled to hike the rugged San Cristóbals.

With no oil lurking in underground puddles, no uranium ticking away in the rocks, and no copper spreading its filaments through the matrix, Milton Bordwell had grown tired of paying property taxes on prairie too useless to graze a steer. He sold five hundred acres to Dale and Perry MacInerny for two hundred and fifty dollars an acre and figured he’d made the best of the deal. Dale and Perry knew exactly where the wealth was. Had this day not been a Sunday, the cacophony of their stone crusher, front-end loaders, and the ponderous trucks with their belly- dump trailers would have made the Posadas County undersheriff ’s quiet contemplation impossible. MacInerny Sand and Gravel supplied builders and highway contractors across southern New Mexico and northern Mexico. Dale hadn’t told his brother yet, but when the hole behind the chain-link fence sank deep enough, he planned to offer it as a landfill to some rich, garbage-fouled city.

Estelle looked at the massive padlock that secured the gate through the MacInerny’s fence and let her gaze travel along the silver expanse of fencing toward the east, beyond the final corner post that marked MacInernys’ gravel pit, out five hundred yards to where the deputy waited patiently.

Jackie Taber had found a spot where she could watch both her vehicle and the bones. She stood on the rock-strewn rise, silhouetted against the morning sun. From any other direction, the buff tan of her uniform blended with the roll of prairie to make her all but invisible. A large woman with square shoulders and thick waist, her military experience still showed in the calm, easy way she carried herself.

Estelle grinned. “Perfecto,” she said aloud, and rummaged through the bulky camera bag until she found the lens that would let her frame the picture as she saw it in her mind’s eye. She twisted the lens onto the camera and got out of the Expedition, bag slung over her shoulder.

The deputy didn’t stroll to meet her, didn’t wave or shout. She stood quietly in her chosen spot and waited, a study in patience. Estelle hiked half the distance, stopped, and unslung the bag. She knelt and braced the camera, composing the scene so that Deputy Taber’s figure stood on the left, backlit by the hard morning sun, sharply contrasted with the tawny reach of prairie in front of her. No other man-made object intruded to spoil the view—no road, no power line, no stock tanks. The natural rise of the terrain hid the corpse. That was just as well. The victim was not Estelle’s idea of calendar art, regardless of his condition.

After shooting four different exposures, the undersheriff bagged the camera and continued on. Other than turning her head to watch Estelle’s progress over the rocks, Deputy Taber hadn’t moved an inch.

“This is a peaceful place,” Estelle said as she approached. “It is now, anyway,” Jackie Taber replied. Her soft, gentle voice contrasted with her burly appearance. Stetson riding a military two fingers above the bridge of her nose, Jackie stood with her hands at her sides, perfectly at ease. She didn’t ask why Estelle had taken the long-range photographs, but had watched the undersheriff choosing her route, taking time to examine everything—as if the five-hundred-yard hike was a Sunday outing with no particular agenda.

Reaching the deputy, Estelle halted and turned, looking back toward the gravel pit for reference. “Wow,” she said. She lowered her heavy camera bag to the ground as she looked for the first time at the body.

The corpse lay fifty feet away on an east-facing grade, spread-eagled on its back. From a distance, the body looked complete and fresh.

“Anyone we know?”

“I’m not sure that there’s enough there to recognize,” the deputy said.

Without drawing any closer, Estelle regarded the corpse for a moment, and then looked east. Power line towers marched north–south, visible now from the rise as black Ts against the brown prairie more than a mile away. To the south, she could see the foothills of the San Cristóbal Mountains. The interstate five miles to the north was out of sight and hearing, an asphalt slash across the prairie.

Jackie Taber watched as Estelle turned in place, taking in the panorama. Completing the circuit, her inspection returned to the corpse. “You didn’t see any tracks anywhere? No vehicle tracks?” Estelle asked.

“No, ma’am.”

“What a hike. Who called it in?”

The deputy looked up at the blank sky and then grinned at Estelle. “A student pilot was flying over here this morning on a flight from Las Cruces to Lordsburg. She saw it.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, ma’am. She reported it to Jim Bergin at the airport.” “She just looked down and saw him?”

“Yes, ma’am. That’s what she said.”

“It’ll be interesting to hear just how she did that,” Estelle said. “She’s still at the airport. After Jim called us, they flew back over here in Jim’s plane. I drove out and she was able to pinpoint the spot for me from the air. Saved us lots and lots of time. I could have been walkin’ around out here for a long time. I asked if she’d stick around for a little bit…that you’d want to talk with her.”

“We’ll see,” Estelle said. “How did you approach?”

“Right from here, ma’am. Straight in. Straight back. I didn’t touch the body or the clothing. I haven’t checked for ID or anything like that.” They heard the growl of vehicles and turned to see a red Jeep join the impromptu parking lot, followed by a small station wagon and one of the Posadas Emergency units.

“We have a few minutes before they make it over here. Let’s take a look.”

Before she’d finished the sentence, the radio on Deputy Taber’s belt squelched. “Three ten, can we drive over there?”

Estelle shook her head.

“That’s negative,” Taber said into the radio. “The ambulance may want to work its way over, but that’s all the tracks we want at the moment. Take your time.”

Estelle set off at a tangent, turning to walk a circle with a fifty-foot radius around the body. When they completed the circle, Estelle stopped, once more standing beside her camera bag. She frowned and turned to face west, toward Posadas and the two figures making their way across the prairie in front of the rocking and bouncing ambulance.

“The county road in to the MacInernys’ is the only access from State Sixty-one. Am I remembering right?” Estelle asked. “Yes, ma’am. There’s an old two-track south of here. I would guess a good two miles. It goes over to an abandoned windmill and stock-tank.”

“So this guy walked in here,” Estelle said. “I didn’t see a single track from any kind of vehicle. Not even a mountain bike.”

“It’s pretty rocky.”

Estelle nodded. “Not enough to hide vehicle tracks, though.” She nudged a football-size rock with the toe of her shoe to show its light-colored underside. “Not a single rock out of place.”

With one camera slung over her shoulder and another in hand, she stepped toward the body, scanning the ground. “Let’s see what he can tell us,” she said.

At first glance, the corpse looked like a Halloween prank,  a suit of clothes stuffed with rags or crumpled newspaper for exaggerated form. The black nylon windbreaker was unzipped, falling away on the sides to reveal what had once been a white T-shirt. The jeans were worn and faded with the cuffs beginning to show signs of fraying, pulled up just far enough to reveal white athletic socks.

“Fancy shoes,” Deputy Taber said. The man’s multicolored running shoes were the sort of off-brand imitations that discount stores sold for nine bucks during special sales.

“We’ll want Linda to take close-ups of the soles,” Estelle said. “Cactus spines, pebbles, that sort of thing.” She said it more as a reminder to herself, and the deputy turned at the sound of voices and the idling engine of the ambulance.

“I’ll keep ’em back until you’re ready,” she said.

“Right where you were standing when I walked up,” Estelle replied. “But have Linda come over.” She knelt by the corpse’s head. Much of the soft tissues of the exposed face and neck were gone, leaving just the jagged, vague suggestion of features. Prairie scavengers might have accounted for much of the facial damage, but not the condition of the skull. From the prominence of the left mastoid, that bony protuberance just behind the ear, to the upper temporal ridge of the parietal bone, the upper left portion of the skullcap was missing.

Estelle settled back on her haunches and frowned. The frown deepened at the sound of a siren in the distance. A marked county unit arrived by the gravel pit in a cloud of dust, and she could hear the bark of Deputy Taber’s radio as the new arrival announced his presence. Deputy Dennis Collins liked to talk on the radio, the telephone, over E-mail, or a cup of coffee. Jackie was quick to cut him off, and in a moment, Estelle saw him jogging across the prairie, leaving the county car behind. Fortune had smiled when airport manager Jim Bergin first called the Sheriff ’s Office and Deputy Collins hadn’t been in the building to respond first to this call.

Estelle beckoned to Linda Real, and when the photographer joined her, said, “Sorry to tear you away on a Sunday morning.” “Is okay, is okay,” Linda said, eyes flicking over the corpse and the surrounding prairie. “This is gross.”

“Yep. And really interesting.” Estelle knelt and pointed at the skull damage with the tip of her pen. “We can blame the ravens for a lot of the soft tissue loss, but not for the open fractures.” “That’s more than I need to know already,” Linda said, but her hand was opening the cover of one of her camera bags. “Do we know who this is?” Linda wrinkled her nose and avoided kneeling down for a closer look. “Not yet.”

“Gunshot?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t look right, somehow. With a gunshot, there’s usually some wound of entrance that’s more or less obvious. I don’t see that. Of course, with most of the face missing…” She shrugged. “It’s just hard to tell. Gunshot is the most likely thing, I suppose.” She straightened up and looked at Linda. “I took a few general quick shots. What I’m most interested in are closeups of the victim’s shoe soles, this head damage…before he’s moved.”

“You got it.”

“And anything else that you can think of,” Estelle said. “Film’s cheap.” She lowered her voice another notch. “And by the way, I think I’ve got a good photo of Jackie for February.”

Linda flashed a lopsided smile. “Neat,” she said. “And I got an unbelievable shot yesterday of Tommy. He was in his grubbies, up to here”—she tapped her left elbow with her right hand— “working on his motorcycle.” She glanced around to make sure none of the others were within earshot. “Just the sheriff, Collins, and Abeyta to go, and we’ll have the whole gang.” She flashed a wider smile. “So neat.”

She gently placed her voluminous camera bag several paces from the corpse. While she rummaged for her equipment, Estelle motioned for the others to approach. Dr. Alan Perrone, the Posadas County Coroner and assistant state medical examiner, walked with his hands in his pockets, one click faster than a shuffle. His eyes were glued to the rough prairie under his feet. Dennis Collins hustled.

“What, did some wetback get lost?” Deputy Collins said as he started to step past Estelle. She reached out a hand and caught him by the sleeve of his uniform jacket, gently bringing him to a halt. He shot a puzzled glance at her, but she waited until Perrone, Deputy Taber, and the two EMTs had joined them.

“Nothing’s been disturbed, sir,” she said to the physician. “Just my Sunday morning,” he replied. “Who’s this?”

“I have no idea.”

Perrone nodded and surveyed the landscape. “Huh,” he said at length. “How’s little Carlos, by the way?”

“A miserable little kid,” Estelle said. “And now mother is down with the same crud, I think.”

“She wouldn’t get a flu shot. That’s what your husband said.” “Nope. She wouldn’t. Last fall when we were still up in Minnesota, Francis even threatened to stick her with the shot while she was asleep. That didn’t work, either. Stubborn to the end.” Perrone chuckled. “Let’s see what trouble this one got into,” he said, and ambled toward the corpse. He stood with his hands still in his pockets, looking down at the body. “He sure as hell is dead,” he said. Deputy Collins circled around to the other side and bent down, reaching toward the pocket of the victim’s jacket. Perrone held up a hand. “Not yet, Dennis. Nothing gets moved yet.”

Collins took a deep breath of exasperation, and Perrone added, “Once the body is disturbed, that’s it. You never get a second chance.”

“I know,” Collins said, the reply an automatic reflex rather than the truth. “I was just going to check for some identification.” Estelle watched him closely to make sure that his hands didn’t stray, glad that it had been the formidable Perrone who’d spoken up. Collins was scheduled to attend the next session of the law enforcement academy in Santa Fe. Until then, he was an uncertified gopher—spending his time delivering unglamorous civil paperwork and champing at the bit.

“That can wait,” Perrone replied. For the next twenty minutes, they worked the area without touching the body. It was Perrone who froze in his tracks, looking down.

“And what’s this,” he said, beckoning Estelle. He knelt and pointed with his chrome pen. “Good-sized chunk of skullcap, is what I’d guess,” he said. He turned and regarded the corpse, fifteen feet to the east. “So we know one thing,” he added as Estelle silently examined the fragment of bone. “He wasn’t killed somewhere else and dragged here. My first guess is that he was shot, and dropped in his tracks. Either this flew over here, or some critter toyed with it for a while, cleaning off all the good stuff.” “Gross,” Linda Real said again. Collins looked  expectantly at Estelle, as if waiting for her to pronounce some profundity that would lead directly to someone’s arrest. The undersheriff remained silent, after a minute handing the bagged skull fragment to Collins for labeling.

“What do you want me to put on here?” he asked.

“Just fill in the blanks, Dennis,” Estelle said. “Date, time, location. Use ‘skull fragment’ for description.”

Linda continued with an array of cameras, photographing in color, black-and-white, and finally with video—close-up and panorama. Jackie Taber methodically collected samples of the stained gravel under the man’s head and shoulders and passed them to Collins, whose printing on the evidence bag labels turned out to be so neat and precise that at first glance the let- tering looked as if it came from a word processor.

Perrone’s interest focused on the head wound, but he was noncommittal. “Interesting,” he allowed. “Maybe gunshot, maybe more than that. Really interesting.”

He reached out and lifted the corners of the black jacket. The V-necked white T-shirt was bloodstained near the collar but otherwise showed no evidence of intrusion. “Huh,” the physician said. “I don’t see evidence of any other wounds other than what I’d expect from the ravens. Let’s roll him over.”

Estelle nodded. Linda crouched off to one side, the video camera watching the process.

Deputy Collins put a hand on the man’s shoulder while Perrone lifted at the hip. With the body rolled just far enough that it rested on its side, Perrone stopped, frowning. The small of the victim’s back had been resting on a football-size rock, the sharp corners of the limestone digging into the skin where the T-shirt was hiked up.

“Huh,” Perrone murmured.

Clare Parker, one of the EMTs who had been standing patiently to one side, stepped forward and added his leverage so that Perrone could free his hands.

“Linda,” Perrone said, “Get me a picture of this, will you? A still, not video.” He crouched, head close to the earth. When Linda joined him, he pointed with the eraser end of a pencil. “I want this area right here. It looks like the rock caught him on the back when he fell.” Collins’ face was pale, but he and Parker held the body in place as Linda Real fussed with her light meter.

“When was the last moisture out here?” Perrone asked. “Three weeks, at least.”

He pushed his glasses back up his long, slender nose and turned his attention again to the wrecked face. “The ravens and a coyote or two could account for most of the soft tissue damage to the face and neck in just a day or two. But that’s after the body is ripe enough to attract their attention. With the condition of the rest of the body, my guess is that he hasn’t been here too long. I’m not talking months. Two weeks, three maybe. If a vehicle left tracks, they’d still be here.” He drew a pair of surgical gloves from his pocket and snapped them on. Collins looked eastward, his face paling a shade or two, as the physician gently probed around what was left of the victim’s lower face.

“His jaw’s been pulverized,” Perrone said. “I’m guessing somebody really pounded on him. Several really hard, sharp blows.” He held up a splinter of white. “This is part of a healthy tooth, Estelle. He’s been hit so hard that his teeth and jaw bones are just splinters. Nothing much on the ground, though, except blood. So he was lying pretty still when they worked him over.”

He gestured with his right hand. “Let him go on over.” Collins let out a sigh of relief as he released his hold on the corpse and stood up. “Now you need to check his pockets,” Perrone added.

The search didn’t take long.

“No wallet, no money, no nothing,” the deputy said. “Not even an inspection label.” He looked up, shaking his head. “Black hair, though. Small stature. I’ll bet he’s Mexican. He got himself crosswise with somebody.”

Alan Perrone looked up at Collins and grinned. “Black hair and small stature sure narrows it down, doesn’t it?”

“Well, it’s just most likely, is all,” the deputy said. “Out here, I mean. The border’s just a few miles south of here.” He stood up, hands on his hips, and turned his attention ninety degrees to the west. “The MacInernys’ is closest, though,” he said. When he noticed that the undersheriff was looking at him with interest, he added, “I mean, that’s a place to start, wouldn’t it be? The closest, most obvious place?”

“Yes, it is,” Estelle agreed. “While Jackie finishes up here, I’d like you to go have a chat with them. They should be home on a Sunday morning. See if they remember anything unusual in the past few weeks. Get back with Jackie as soon as you find out.” Almost as an afterthought, she added, “And Dennis, they don’t need to know the specifics of any of this.”

“You think we ought to tip our hand with them?” Collins asked. “I mean, if they’re involved somehow…”

“That’s unlikely,” Estelle said.

“I mean, it could be someone who works for the MacInernys.” “Think about that when you’re talking to them,” Estelle said.

“Use a light touch, as an old friend of mine likes to say.”

Perrone stood up and stripped off the rubber gloves. “There’s enough blood soaked into the ground or dried on the rocks to be consistent with this kind of injury, but that’s always kind of a puzzle. It’s just hard to tell. Although with this kind of head wound…” He frowned and glanced at Estelle. “Could have happened any number of ways, I suppose.”

“That brings us back to the problem of vehicle tracks,” Deputy Taber said. “Something has to show.” She turned at the waist, scanning the prairie.

“That’s right,” Collins said, a light suddenly dawning. “There aren’t any tracks out here from the gravel pit, are there?”

Estelle Reyes-Guzman glanced at her watch, ignoring Collins’ revelation. “Jackie, I’m going to run home for a few minutes, and then go down to the airport. I’d like to talk to the pilot before she flies off into the sunset.”

“Huh,” Alan Perrone said suddenly, and he reached out toward Estelle as if to hold her in place. “No, forget it,” he said with a shake of his head. “Let me talk to you later, all right? We’ll do a preliminary and see what it turns up.” He nodded at the two EMTs. “You can go ahead and pack him up,” he said. “I’ve seen all I’m going to be able to until we take him apart.”

“I keep thinking that we’re missing something,” Jackie said. “You are,” Perrone agreed. “A whole lot of somethings. Find the weapon that bashed in his face. That’s a good place to start.” The physician grinned without much humor. “And the one that blew his skull to pieces. And while you’re at it, a current driver’s license would be nice.”

Estelle shouldered her camera bag. “You’ll give me a call?” she said to Jackie, and the deputy nodded.

“I wanted to look around a bit more,” Taber said. “Then I’ll be in.”

“Look for a fist-sized chunk of rock with blood and tooth fragments,” Perrone said holding his hand as if cradling the weapon. “It takes more than one blow to cause that kind of skull damage. You’re talking about repeated blows to the face. Half a dozen or more.” He nodded at Estelle. “I’ll walk back with you.” “You think there’s a chance he was killed somewhere else and dumped?” Collins asked. “What about the tracks, then?”

Perrone shrugged. “I’m glad all I have to do is tell you what killed him.” He reached out and patted Deputy Collins on the arm. “Have at it.”

Mystery Delivered Monthly

The Poisoned Pen Press Newsletter

FacebookTwitterEmail
Goodreads