Estelle Reyes-Guzman scrunched down into the sofa, a large pillow clutched to her chest, face buried in the pillow’s soft corduroy to stifle her laughter. Across the room, her two small sons sat on the piano bench, elbow to elbow, creating a remark- able coordination of sound and story. The oldest, six-year-old Francisco, provided the music as his nimble fingers danced on the keyboard. Four-year-old Carlos narrated. He held a large children’s book open on his lap, and even though he couldn’t read the words, Carlos had heard the story so often that he knew it by heart, using the pictures as his cue.
In the story, a sweaty, dejected javalina—the ubiquitous wild pig of the southwest—shuffled across the bleak desert at high noon. Even the towering cacti provided no shade from the sun that blistered his tender hide. The plodding, monotonous bass notes of the piano accompanied the little pig as the scene unwound in Francisco’s head and through his brother’s narration. The little pig looked up, squinting into the sun. As he did so, a triplet of high piano notes, as light and quick as the wink of sun reflecting from a discarded can, made him flinch. He wiped his brow with a colorful bandana and heaved a great sigh, and even as Carlos said the words, “I’m sooooo hot and tired,”
Francisco’s fingers executed a weary glissando that wandered down the keyboard. Both boys giggled.
Their mother, the sole audience member for this particular performance, suppressed a laugh, not wanting to distract her sons even though they had performed this particular story so many times that everyone in the household knew it by heart. Still, each performance brought new discoveries. And this time, Posadas County Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman savored the moment for herself.
The Christmas season had brought a rare visit from her husband’s aunt, Sofía Tournál, from Veracruz, Mexico. Sofía was a favorite of the two little boys, perhaps because she was so skilled, in her own dignified, quiet way, at drawing them into lengthy conversations that challenged their agile little minds. Estelle loved her aunt dearly and treasured her visits.
After a day of nonstop visiting, baking, and cooking, often as a triumvirate with her mother and Sofía, Estelle was ready to draw into herself for a few minutes. Used to long moments by herself, in company only with her own thoughts, Estelle felt the constant onslaught of holiday cheer coaxing her toward dark, quiet corners. Ever perceptive, Sofía had whisked Estelle’s mother off to an early Christmas Eve church service, leaving Estelle alone with her husband and the two boys. With the children fully engaged, Dr. Francis Guzman had taken a few minutes to escape into the sanctuary of his office.
Estelle nestled on the sofa, shoes off, an afghan fluffed around her shoulders, absorbed in the remarkable mixing of story and soundtrack by her two sons. She was further lulled by the aromas that filled the house, especially from the large cauldron of posole on the kitchen range. The tangy chile and spices fought with the remnant fragrance of the final batch of tiny sugared pastries that Sofía had conjured.
There were no telephones in the desert world of the story- book javalinas that Christmas Eve. When the phone jangled, it wasn’t a sound effect. Estelle groaned and refused to move. By the second ring, six-year-old Francisco Guzman had interrupted the story flow, matched the telephone’s pitch on the piano, and mimicked the jangling telephone with a trill in unison.
“Telephone, Mamá,” he bellowed without missing a beat. “Thanks, hijo,” Estelle sighed. She shifted around on the sofa, and by the time she reached across to the end table and picked up the telephone receiver, it had jangled twice more.
“Guzman,” she said, and watched as the two boys huddled in whispered collaboration over the book. Francisco’s hands curled together in his lap, trapped by the conscious effort not to touch the keys while his mother was on the telephone.
Estelle listened to a moment of silence—almost long enough for her to guess that it was a telephone solicitor calling—before a voice on the phone said hesitantly, “Is this Estelle?”
“This is Eduardo,” the caller said, but Estelle had already recognized the husky, diffident voice of Eduardo Martinez, now several years retired after a long tenure as chief of police for the Village of Posadas. Eduardo had kept his school zones safe over the years, always happy to turn over any case more complex than shoplifting to the Posadas County Sheriff ’s Department. More than one village resident—including some of the Sheriff ’s Department deputies—assumed that Eduardo was simply lazy. Estelle knew that was far from the truth. Eduardo had his own strong beliefs about what constituted law enforcement and had no trouble determining when his tiny department needed help. “Well, Merry Christmas, sir. It’s good to hear from you,” Estelle said. She pushed herself out of the deep sofa, unwound the afghan, and walked toward the kitchen.
“Did I interrupt at a bad time?” the chief asked. In the background, Estelle could hear a television show, muffled conversation punctuated with bursts of canned laughter.
“Not at all.” She glanced at her watch and saw that it was ten minutes before seven. Her mother and Sofía Tournál would be returning shortly from the early Christmas Eve service at the tiny mission in Regál, a stone’s throw from the Mexican border twenty-five miles southwest of Posadas. Her husband was working on some secret thing back in the master bedroom, away from the prying eyes of their two inquisitive sons.
“How’s Essie?” Estelle asked. Eduardo and his wife, Essie Martinez, were like two peas from the same pod—short, rotund, gentle folks, who had created a large brood of short, round children who had then produced classroomsful of grandchildren.
“Oh, she’s fine. She’s off at church, I think. We got the family here for the holiday, you know, and they all went.” He laughed weakly. “It’s quite a crowd, these days. Say—” and he hesitated “—is your husband home, do you think?”
Estelle heard something else in Eduardo’s soft voice that touched off an alarm. “Sure, he’s here. Are you all right?”
“Well, I think so,” and once more Estelle heard the hesitation. “But if he’s there, maybe…”
“Just a second.” She was at the master bedroom in five strides and rapped a knuckle on the door. “Querido? Eduardo Martinez is on the phone for you.”
“I’ll pick up in here,” Dr. Guzman replied. “Come on in.”
As Estelle swung the door open, her husband had already turned away from the large computer screen that dominated the desk in the corner. He picked up the telephone extension beside the bed.
“Eduardo?” he said into the phone. “What’s going on?” He listened, his fingers drumming a slow roll on the nightstand. After a moment, he reached out and picked up a pencil, then scooted a small note pad closer. “Okay.” He listened again, turning to look at Estelle. He shook his head slowly, then turned back to the pad. “Okay, Eduardo, this is what I think we’d better do. You’ve been taking the Coumaxium right along?”
What should have been a simple “yes” or “no” answer became a wandering dissertation, and Francis fidgeted, finally interrupting. “Okay. Look, where are you right now? It doesn’t sound like you’re home.”
Again Francis waited for the explanation, and Estelle saw her husband’s forehead pucker as his frown deepened. “I think you should just wait right there, then. You’re at the motel by yourself?”
Estelle sat down on the bed, intrigued. “Then this is what I think we’d better do, Eduardo,” Francis said. “I think we’d better bring you on over to the emergency room. That’s going to be the fastest.” As Dr. Guzman listened, he looked over at Estelle and then rolled his eyes heavenward.
“No, no…I don’t want you to do that,” Francis said quickly. “Pop a couple of those aspirin you just bought. That’s the best thing to do right now. Take a couple and then just sit down and relax, okay? I’m going to have an ambulance swing by there to pick you up.”
His patient said something that made Francis grin. “Yeah, well,” the physician said, “I know it’s an expensive taxi, Eduardo, but sometimes…” He paused as Martinez launched into another string of excuses. “How about this,” Francis said, and he had to repeat himself until he was sure that Eduardo was listening. “I’m pleased that you think you’re feeling better, but how about this. I’ll swing by and check you out. How will that be? I have to go down to the hospital here in a little bit anyway, and it’ll only take me a minute to duck around by the motel. I’ll be there before you know it.”
After another moment of listening, he rose, moving closer to the nightstand. “Yes sir,” he said. “False alarms are a good thing. But we need to make sure that’s exactly what it is. Let’s be sure about this, Eduardo. Stay put, all right?”
Estelle settled into one of the leather chairs beside the computer table. “It isn’t a bother, Eduardo,” Francis said, and sighed in exasperation. “Just stay put, take a couple of aspirin, and wait for me. Don’t go driving off somewhere. Not even home. If I get down there and find out that you’ve driven off somewhere, I’m going to be pissed, Chief. Okay?” In a moment, he switched off and exhaled loudly. “Denial is a wonderful thing.”
“What’s he doing at the motel?” Estelle asked as Francis punched in the auto-dial for dispatch. With a minimum of words, he ordered an ambulance, dispatched to the Posadas Inn. As he did so, he gathered his wallet and keys.
“It’s only a half-dozen blocks from his house, and it has a traveler’s-aid vending machine,” Francis said as he hung up. “He was looking for some aspirin, and that’s not so easy to find on Christmas Eve. The motel is closer than the convenience store. He said that he couldn’t get his breath, and then when he sat down and tried to relax, he felt as if someone was sitting on him.” Francis put an arm around Estelle’s shoulders as he headed toward the door. “Before he went to the motel, he was home by himself, so that tells us something. He didn’t feel good enough to go out with the family.” He glanced at his watch and shook his head. “He says that last year when Essie fell and broke her hip, they called an ambulance and it cost ’em six hundred bucks for a ride across town.”
He paused and turned, encircling Estelle in a full bear hug. “It’ll just take a few minutes, querida. We’ll get him over to the ER and hang some wires on him to see what’s going on.” They stood silently, caught up in each other’s arms. “Gilbert and Sullivan have a nice concert going out there.”
“It’s delightful,” Estelle said. “They’re still doing the old standbys, but Francisco says he has a new story that he wants to play for Aunt Sofía when she and Mamá come home.”
“Well, don’t let him start until I get back,” Francis said.
Estelle followed her husband into the living room, where he scooped a lightweight windbreaker off the back of the sofa, walked over to the piano, and bent down so that his head was between the two boys. He whispered something that brought conspiratory giggles. Estelle walked her husband out to the car, ignoring the cut of the wind and the occasional mist of icy rain. There would be a trace of holiday snow on the San Cristóbal peaks by morning.
“Padrino is still coming over?” Francis asked as he slid into his SUV. “You guys baked enough this afternoon for an army. We need someone to help us chow our way through all those calories.”
“He promised that he would,” Estelle replied. She leaned through the window, and their kiss was a quick token. “Thanks for keeping an eye on the chief,” she said. “I hope everything is okay. We’ll see you in a bit. Be careful.”
Dr. Guzman backed the SUV out of the driveway and turned south on Twelfth Street, his affectionate wave belied by the expression of preoccupied concern on his face and the snarl of the engine as he floored the gas pedal. Estelle stood for a moment in the front yard of their sprawling, much added-to home, enjoying the chill of that December night. Light curtains of mist slanted through the wash of each streetlight and drew halos around the Christmas lights on porches and rooflines. The tropical disturbance hundreds of miles south had pumped the dank air northward, but the temperatures had refused to cooperate by chilling the mist and rain into snow.
The neighbors across the street had set out luminarias, using the traditional paper bags and candles. The bags sagged from the dampness, with half of the candles drowned. One of the bags had sagged against the lighted candle inside and flamed briefly, then subsided into a puddle of charred paper as the little bonfire winked out.
For another minute after her husband’s car disappeared down the street, Estelle remained outside, listening to the piano music that drifted out from the house. As the chill was beginning to seep through her sweater and she was turning toward the house, she heard the ambulance siren off in the distance, and that ran an icy finger up her spine. She stopped and watched as a large silver Mercedes whispered down the street and then into her driveway. “This is good,” her mother said in Spanish as Estelle helped her out of the car. “My daughter stands out in the rain, no hat, no coat. Los Dos have more sense,” she said, referring to her two grandchildren inside.
“The rain feels good, Mamá,” Estelle said. “How was the service?”
“The service was just fine,” Teresa Reyes said. “You should have gone.” She nodded toward the house as she navigated around the car’s front fender, Estelle at her elbow. “It wouldn’t hurt them, either. You go inside now.”
Sofía Tournál took Teresa’s other elbow. “We actually saw a little snow in Regál Pass,” she said, her Mexican accent thick and elegant as she diplomatically changed the subject. “Just enough to grace the trees.”
“As long as it doesn’t stick on the highway,” Estelle said. “We don’t need a string of tourists ending up in the ditch. I was beginning to be a little concerned about you two.”
At that, Teresa hesitated at the front step and turned toward her daughter. Perhaps she had heard the last notes of the siren as the ambulance sped south toward the motel. “You’re not working tonight, are you?”
“I hope not, Mamá.”
“Well, then,” Teresa said, as if that settled all matters about snow, Regál Pass, and tourists. “They decorated the church with a mountain of juniper boughs this year. I thought I was going to sneeze through the whole service. You should have seen it.” Together they maneuvered the three low steps of the front stoop, and four-year-old Carlos greeted them at the door. Francisco remained at the piano, now playing a slow, simple, and immensely sad piece of music. Sofía Tournál stepped inside, head cocked as she listened, eyes narrowed critically. Francisco finished the piece, looked up at his great aunt, and beamed. “I haven’t heard you play that before, hijo,” Sofía said.
“Mrs. Gracie gave it to me yesterday,” Francisco said matter-of-factly. Whichever of Mozart’s early works his piano teacher had found for Francisco, Estelle saw that the sheet music was not in evidence on the piano stand. If Mrs. Gracie had been impressed with the little boy’s almost instantaneous absorption of the music, she hadn’t commented when Estelle had picked him up after his twice-a-week lesson. “We’ll just see,” was her favorite comment. Over the years, Mrs. Gracie had no doubt mentored many children whose momentary passion for music would veer away in some other direction, leaving the piano silent. But Estelle knew that in this case, the wait was unwarranted. For little Francisco to abandon his music would be akin to abandoning his most cherished, closest friend.
“He was probably about your age when he wrote that,” Sofía said.
“I think so,” the little boy replied soberly. He played a chord so softly it was a mere kiss of the keys, then slid off the piano bench and carefully closed the lid.
Estelle had started to close the front door but stopped when she saw a shiny new Blazer idle to the curb in front of their house. “Here’s Padrino,” she said.
“Well, we all timed that with perfection, didn’t we?” Sofía said. “And I see Francis had to leave. His car is gone.”
“Not for long, I hope,” Estelle said.
Sofía held up both hands in mock self-defense as the two boys careened past her, their grandmother, and Estelle to plaster their faces against the glass of the storm door.
As he ambled up the front walk, former sheriff of Posadas County Bill Gastner saw the boys waiting. He stopped, a won- derful beetle-browed scowl darkening his heavy features. Shaking his head in disgust, he waved a hand in dismissal and started to turn back toward his vehicle.
That brought howls of delight from the boys. Francisco unlatched the door and plunged outside. In a moment, Gastner was escorted into the house, a child glommed onto each hand. “Ho, ho,” he said. He managed to extricate himself and reached out toward Sofía. “Did you guys go to Regál?” “Yes, we did,” she said, and returned Gastner’s hug.
“Brave or dumb,” he said. “One of the two.” Teresa had already covered half the distance toward her rocking chair, and she leaned against her walker. Gastner crossed to her and escorted her the remaining steps. “How’s Teresa?” he asked.
“Teresa’s fine,” the elderly woman said. She lowered herself into the rocker with a sigh. “That’s a wonderful shirt.”
Gastner looked down at the expanse of cozy blue flannel. “Something, huh?” he said. “Every once in a while, Camille hits the mark,” he added, referring to his eldest daughter. “Usually, she sends me health-food books, or some damn thing like that.”
Estelle appeared from the hallway where she’d gone to hang up coats, but the telephone cut off her greeting to Gastner. She veered to the kitchen to take the call.
“Unplug the damn thing,” Gastner called. “Christmas Eve is off-limits.”
“That’s right,” Teresa grumbled with surprising vehemence. “I try to tell her that, but she won’t listen.”
The Sheriff ’s Department beeper on Estelle’s belt chirped simultaneously. She picked up the phone, at the same time turning on the portable hand-held radio that sat in its charger by the telephone.
“Guzman,” she said, and she couldn’t help glancing at the clock and seeing that barely nine minutes had elapsed since she had answered Eduardo’s call.
“Hey,” the quiet voice of Sheriff Robert Torrez said. “Do I need to send Irma over?”
Estelle hesitated an instant, bringing herself up to speed with the sheriff’s cryptic conversational habits. Irma Sedillos, Bobby’s sister-in-law, worked as the Guzman family’s nana, bringing order to a frenetic household. With Sofía Tournál visiting and always more than willing to babysit the two boys, Irma had taken a much-deserved vacation for Christmas Eve to be with her immediate family. The sheriff ’s question meant that Estelle’s few moments of familial bliss were over.
“No. We’re covered,” she said. “What’s up, Bobby?”
“A couple of minutes ago, your hubby called 911 dispatch for an ambulance at the motel.”
“Yes, he did. For Chief Martinez.”
“Okay.” If the sheriff was surprised, he didn’t react. “About thirty seconds after that call from Dr. Francis, someone at the motel called dispatch to report some kind of incident, maybe an assault. One victim down. I don’t know who called. Maybe the desk clerk, I don’t know. I’m headin’ that way now. Mike Sisneros took the call, so he’ll be about there by now. He was a couple miles south.”
“I’ll be right down,” Estelle said. “Essie and the family are all at church, by the way.”
“Okay,” Torrez said. “I’ll take care of that when we know what the hell is goin’ on. You sure you’re covered there?”
“Yes. I’m on my way.”
She placed the telephone gently back in the cradle, then looked up to see Bill Gastner regarding her.
“It’s Eduardo Martinez,” she repeated. “But…” She covered the rest of it with a helpless shrug.
“Uh-oh,” he said quietly, and his heavy features sagged. “Dead?”
Gastner didn’t ask for elaboration, but shrugged back into his jacket. “Mind if I ride along?”
“I could use the company,” she replied, already heading toward the hall closet.
“We’ll be fine,” Sofía called from the living room.
“Poor Essie,” Teresa Reyes said, proving once again that her octogenarian hearing was as keen as ever. “Not such a merry Christmas for her.”
“We’ll be back as soon as we can,” Estelle said, crossing quickly to her mother for a quick peck on the cheek.
“We know how that goes,” her mother said.
The drive from one end of Posadas to the other took no more than a few minutes, especially with Bustos and Grande avenues nearly deserted. Just before they reached the interstate, Estelle slowed and swung into the parking lot of the Posadas Inn, once part of a well-advertised national chain but now a weath- erbeaten relic of its former self. High on its pedestal, the neon sign announced free t.v., restaurant, american owned. This time the mist played kaleidoscopic halos of red, blue, and white, slanting across the parking lot of the Posadas Inn and muting the harsh, flashing lights of the emergency vehicles. Estelle pulled her unmarked county car to a stop beside the bulk of the ambulance. Twenty yards away, a group hunched around a figure partially covered with a bright yellow rain slicker. The body lay close to the curb, a pace or two from an older-model sedan with out-of-state license plates.
Estelle had never thought of Eduardo Martinez as a small man, but the lump under the slicker could have been mistaken at a distance for a child.
“Shit,” Bill Gastner muttered, more to himself than anyone. She glanced at him as she pulled on her black baseball cap. His big, rough face was set in a scowl, teeth clenched to make his already square, prominent jaw all the more pugnacious. His comment wasn’t directed against the weather. He was looking at the same thing that had made her blood run cold—a yellow plastic crime scene tape that delineated the area around Eduardo Martinez’s body.