Anna Hocking called the Posadas County sheriff’s office at 9:14 P.M. on December 19. That’s what the dispatcher said and that’s what the telephone log confirmed. That same log showed that I responded to the call at 11:02 P.M. Two hours wasn’t our normal response time—but I had a list of excuses as long as my arm. Some of them were even legitimate.
I parked the county car in the narrow driveway that ran through the weeds along the side of Mrs. Hocking’s tiny adobe home. Knowing how skittish the old lady could be, I took my time before I got out. I sat in the car with the door ajar and the dome light on, jotting notes on my clipboard.
She would be able to see me easily if she was peering out the window, and she’d know I wasn’t some creep intent on robbing her of her riches…which included nothing much more exciting than a thin retirement check and an even thinner Social Security check, both deposited directly to Posadas State Bank.
The porch light wasn’t on but the living room light was. Anna Hocking didn’t answer my knock. I stepped to one side so that I was in the wash of light flooding out through the multipane window. The lace curtains were thin, ancient, and yellowed, and effectively blocked my view. After the fourth knock, I tried the door. It was locked.
“Mrs. Hocking, it’s Bill Gastner,” I called. I didn’t need to be any more formal than that. She’d known me for years…both my sons and one of my daughters had suffered through English with the old gal during their senior years in high school. My youngest daughter would have endured the experience too if Mrs. Hocking hadn’t slipped on the stage during play rehearsal one October night and shattered her hip into a thousand pieces.
I switched on my flashlight and stepped off the porch. The first side window also looked into the living room, but the curtains were drawn and the old-fashioned paper roller shade was pulled as well. The kitchen window, high and narrow over the sink, gave me a slim picture—just enough light filtered in from the living room to make shadows.
The back porch screen door was open and I stepped inside. The porch was full of junk, from firewood that would never be burned to lawn furniture that would never see another barbecue. One window was blocked by a roller blind. Farther down the porch a second one, uncurtained, looked in on a vast inventory of cardboard boxes piled to the ceiling of what once had been a second bedroom.
I frowned. The only other window was on the west side of the house, a single pane of frosted glass that blocked the bathroom’s view of the mobile home park next door.
I rapped on the back door, called out my name again, and waited. The house was silent. She hadn’t driven anywhere. I knew I’d find Mrs. Hocking’s ’59 Chrysler in the old garage behind the house, covered by half an inch of dust and bird shit. She hadn’t driven the car for ten years.
I rapped again. The door was locked but easy to jimmy. My pocketknife slipped past the striker and the door opened a quarter of an inch, held on the inside by a hook. I popped that and swung the door open.
The house smelled musty, the odor of doilies that had missed their once-a-decade laundering and rugs that had accepted the offerings of a now long-dead terrier when he’d been at his most incontinent. My flashlight beam swept down the short hallway toward the front of the house.
“Mrs. Hocking? It’s Bill Gastner. Are you home?”
I stepped into the kitchen and snapped on the overhead light. A colander of unpeeled potatoes rested by the sink. A half-full two-quart bottle of orange juice stood on the counter by the refrigerator. I left the light on and roamed out through the tiny dining room, the living room, the bathroom, and finally the bedroom. The bed was mussed, with the comforter thrown back.
The door of the utility room was ajar and I toed it open.
The smell was faint but unmistakable. “Ah, don’t tell me,” I said. The utility room, as in most houses, was an overflow room for the daily detritus we all need…soaps, cleansers, brushes, brooms, paints, and a dozen other potions that old lady Hocking had stopped using years before. The hot water heater gurgled gently as it started another cycle. Beside the heater was the door down to the old-fashioned dugout basement. It was half open.
I crossed over, pushed it open the rest of the way, and swept the flashlight beam down the steep, cobweb-laced stairway. The cobwebs danced in the movement of stale air. I stood motionless, listening. Except for the hot water heater, the small adobe house was silent. But the faint odor wafted up from the cellar. I swung the light to the left and the beam’s circle collected a pair of feet. Moving cautiously I bent down until the light could shoot past the floor joists. Mrs. Hocking was crumpled on the dirt floor, her long gray hair about the color of the cellar dust.
Using one hand for support against the wall, I made my way down the stairs. The ancient wood groaned under my weight. That didn’t bother me. The cobwebs that floated in the air above my head did, since I didn’t know where the black widows were that had spent all that time spinning.
The cellar was tiny, no more than twelve feet square. A hundred years before, the house builders had dug it for the dirt and clay to make the adobe blocks.
On the wall ahead of me were five shelves, their two-by-four supports running from floor to ceiling. The vintage of some of the preserves that lined up soldier straight on the shelves probably ran back to Eisenhower’s time.
I knelt down and placed a hand on the old woman’s thin neck. Her skin was dry and cool. I shifted my fingers, trying for the pulse that I knew wasn’t there. Her eyes were half open, as if she were considering waking up.
There was scarcely space between the stairway and the wall for even a child to curl up but Mrs. Hocking had managed. I stood up. “What did you do this for, Anna,” I said softly. I pulled out my notebook and wrote down the time and a couple of questions
I wanted answered later on. Feeling as if I was invading the privacy of a dignified old friend, I once more swung the flashlight to illuminate the corpse.
Mrs. Hocking was dressed in her pajamas and a pink housecoat, the latter soiled from days of constant use. Both slippers still clung to her small feet. Her lower legs looked like frail bamboo stalks.
Without moving my own feet I turned at the waist, examining the cellar. The beam reflected off a two-cell flashlight that had rolled up against the wall under the shelves. Without touching it, I peered closely. The switch was visible, turned on. The batteries had given up.
Except for Anna Hocking and her flashlight, nothing was out of place. I heaved a sigh, glad that the thousands of students she’d taught over the years didn’t have to remember her this way.
Being careful not to disturb anything, I stepped over to the stairway and climbed back upstairs. The telephone was in the living room. I dialed and Gayle Sedillos answered on the second ring.
“Gayle, I need an ambulance out at Anna Hocking’s place.
And give Emerson Clark a call. Tell him it’s an unattended.”
My dispatcher said, “Yes sir,” and I gave her a couple of seconds to jot notes. She didn’t ask questions, knowing full well that I’d fill her in—before just about anyone else—when the time was right.
“And Gayle—” “Sir?”
“Has Bob Torrez come in yet?”
“Yes, sir. But he’s in conference with Glenn Archer.”
I cursed my short memory. “Tell ’em to send Archer home. We’ll get to him in the morning. Or on Monday. There’s nothing we’re going to do about that scuffle right now anyway. I need Bob out here.”
Archer was the high school principal. He’d grumble that our department was ignoring him again, but I didn’t see a round of fisticuffs after a Friday night basketball game as any big deal.
I hung up the phone and glanced at the time. I had about six minutes before Deputy Torrez arrived. Coroner Emerson Clark would be sound asleep, nestled in beside his wife of fifty-eight years, when his telephone rang. He’d be grumpy as hell, but he wouldn’t argue with Gayle. He would arrive in less than ten minutes.
I went out on the back porch and sat on one of the window sills, my back against the screen, and waited—and wished that I’d arrived within six minutes of Anna Hocking’s last telephone call.