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CHAPTER NINE

For the next few minutes, standing there alone, Joanna turned her attention once again to the bones, which were visible from just below the knee down. The rope that bound the two limbs together was tied in a clumsy half hitch that would have been easy to undo-if, that is, the victim's hands had been free and she had known anything about ropes and knots.

If he kept her tied up, how did he get her up the mountain? Joanna wondered. Dead or alive, she couldn't have been carried. The mountain was too steep, the path too treacherous. So did he lure her here or did he force her at gun- or knifepoint? Or did they simply meet, expectedly or by accident, up here on this ledge? Perhaps the meeting was unexpected on the victim's part, but the presence of the rope shows advance planning on the killer's.

Premeditation was a necessary ingredient for a case of aggravated murder. If that was what her detectives were dealing with here, Joanna would have to make certain that every procedure was followed, every t crossed and every i dotted.

Ernie Carpenter, lugging two cumbersome equipment cases, came huffing and puffing up the ledge. "What do we have?" he asked, selling down his load near Joanna.

"A sicko," she answered. "A male sicko."

"You've already decided the killer's a male? What makes you say that?"

Joanna was startled to realize he was right, that she had decided, but she also understood that Ernie's question wasn't necessarily a criticism. He wanted to understand her rationale while at the same time drawing his own conclusions.

"Look at the rocks on the mound for starters," Joanna told him. "Some of them went tumbling down the mountain when the slide hit, but there must be more than a hundred or so left. How much do you think each of those little hummers weighs?"

"Ten pounds," Ernie guessed. "Some of 'em might go as high as fifteen to twenty."

"Right," Joanna said. "And look at the kind of rocks they are. They aren't from around here. They didn't come from the cliffs themselves. Those are river rocks, Ernie. Somebody went to the trouble of picking them out, one by one, and then hauling them all the way up here from down by the river. Even if the killer was strong enough to pack them two at a time, it still took a major effort on his part-effort and time both. So did piling them together all nice and neat.

"Next, take a look at this." Using the toe of her hiking boot, she pointed to the cross. "Once the rocks were in place, he manufactured this little grave marker and planted it at the head of his burial mound."

Ernie squatted and peered intently at the marker. "Underwear?" he asked.

Joanna nodded. "Bloodstained underwear."

Ernie sighed. "We'll bag this first thing."

"So call me a sexist if you want," Joanna continued, "but I can't see a woman doing this kind of thing-not the rocks and not making a trophy out of bloody underwear."

Ernie rubbed his chin. "I suppose you've got a point," he allowed.

"A point?"

"Right," he said. "The killer probably is a man. The next question is, was he a smart man or a dumb one?"

"What do you mean?"

"Like you said, it must have taken him a hell of a long time to drag all those rocks up here. What I'm wondering is whether he was smart enough to wear gloves the whole time he was doing it. And if not, is there a chance we've got some decent prints hiding in there out of the weather?"

"You're saying we should dust all the rocks for prints?"

"You've got it."

"But how? With a storm coming we can't possibly take the time to do that now…"

"The first thing we do is bring Deputy Sandoval's Bronco as close to the bottom of the ledge as we can get it. Then we load in as many rocks as it will carry and drag them back to the department."

That was the moment Fran Daly and Jamie Carbajal arrived with their own loads of equipment. Mike Wilson from Search and Rescue, also drafted into the role of pack animal, brought up the rear.

"You're kidding!" Fran Daly objected at once. "You want to haul all these rocks out and dust them for prints? That'll take for damned ever-all night long, probably. And I just saw a flash of lightning off over the Chiricahuas. If there's another storm rolling in from the east, we don't have time to catalog this whole pile of rocks."

The threatening storm was a legitimate concern. Still Ernie shot Joanna an exasperated look. Around the department, Detective Ernie Carpenter was known for his easygoing, long-suffering ways. In less than five minutes' worth of contact, Fran Daly had managed to outrun the man's considerable capacity for patience. That, too, had to be some kind of record.

"We'll take the time," Joanna insisted. "I heard thunder, too, and I've already taken precautions. Deputy Sandoval went back down the mountain to gather up some tarps. We'll go as far as we can before the rain gets here, cover whatever we haven't managed to accumulate in the meantime, and then come back for the rest when the weather improves. Sandoval has already taken some pictures, but you'll probably want your own. So while you three set up lights and start taking photos, I'll go down and help Eddy and Mike position the Bronco for loading."

"All right," Fran Daly said. "First we collect bugs. After that we take pictures."

Bringing the Bronco into position turned out to be far easier said than done. Parking it directly next to the mound would have placed it too close to the slide and to the edge of the gully as well. Rather than risk it tumbling down into the arroyo, they were forced to leave the vehicle some distance from the ledge. Only after considerable maneuvering did they finally settle on parking it with the hood facing down the steep mountainside and with the tailgates as near as possible to the ledge and rock pile for ease of loading.

As soon as the Bronco was in place, the group formed into a line and began dismantling the pile of rocks. Grunting with effort, they passed the small round boulders fire-brigade-style, hefting them from one pair of gloved hands to another. Joanna, the last link in the human chain, took the rocks Mike Wilson handed down to her. Then she pivoted and heaved them into the waiting Bronco, letting them roll across the carpeted floorboard and come to rest against either the back of the seat or each other.

It was slow, painstaking, sweaty, and labor-intensive work. When they started, a resigned but still grumbling Fran Daly took charge of removing each boulder. Just because she didn't approve didn't mean she wasn't prepared to do a good job. Not only did she take photos prior to removal of each rock, she also labeled each one after first sketching its relative position to its neighbors. That way, if it became necessary to reconstruct the mound later on in a laboratory or courtroom setting, the evidence technicians would have a blueprint for reassembling the rocky pieces of the puzzle.

From her station near the Bronco's tailgates, Joanna was too far below the ledge and the action to be able to see exactly what was going on. Each time she turned to await the next boulder, she watched the grotesque play of shadows on the lamplit cliff face far above her. Since she had no direct view of the burial mound, her only way of accessing the work crew's progress was by seeing the load of rocks grow inside the creaking Bronco. At last, when the overloaded Bronco could hold no more, Joanna called a halt. While Mike Wilson and Deputy Sandoval went to remove the loaded vehicle and replace it with an empty one, an exhausted Joanna Brady hauled her sweaty body back up onto the ledge.

Ernie Carpenter met her there and handed her a bottle of water. "You'd better have something to drink before you drop," he said.

Joanna took the bottle, twisted off the lid, and gratefully swilled down most of the contents. The ounce or two left in the bottom of the bottle she poured over the top of her head, letting the water run through her hair and down her shirt. She hoped the water might help cool her, but it didn't do very much.

Joanna stared off to the horizon, where periodic flashes of lightning continually backlit a towering cloud bank. "Evidence or no evidence," she muttered, "I say bring on the rain."

"Don't let her Highness hear you say that," Ernie said, nodding toward Fran Daly, who was crouched on all fours next to what remained of the burial mound. "We're pretty well down to the body now. If it starts to rain before she finishes up, I'm afraid she'll go nuts."

"She already is nuts," Joanna said. "But what's going on? From down where I've been standing, I couldn't see a thing."

"You didn't notice that Dr. Daly got awfully quiet all of a sudden?" Ernie asked.

"Well, I did, but…"

"Maybe you'd better come take a look."

With the body almost totally uncovered, the stench of carrion was far worse than before. Joanna had been working far enough from the body to have to reacclimate herself to the awful odor and fight down her gag reflexes all over again. Approaching the site, she saw that Ernie was right. The majority of the rocks were gone and the corpse was mostly uncovered. Only the tops of the shoulders and head still remained hidden from view. What was visible lay pale and ghostly in a dark shadow that looked at first like it might be a pool of water.

It was only when Joanna was standing right over it that she realized what it was-saponification. That was the official, three-dollar word for the crime-scene reality of what happens to decomposing bodies. Body fluids and fat had rendered out, leaving behind a coating of fatty acid that spilled a black, greasy stain across the surface of the rock.

Joanna walked up to where Fran Daly was using a set of hemostats to pluck something off the ground. Whatever it was, it was so small that from where Joanna stood, she couldn't see what was going into the evidence bag. "What are you finding?" she asked.

Dr. Daly didn't look up. "Bone fragments," she answered.

Expecting a more detailed answer, Joanna waited for some time. When the medical examiner said nothing more, Joanna nudged the woman again. "So how's it going?"

This time Fran Daly stopped what she was doing and stared up at Joanna. "You've got yourself a real son of a bitch here, Sheriff Brady," she said. "A real mean son of a bitch. I've found three separate sets of bullet fragments so far. As soon as I finish gathering these bits of bone, I'll go looking for the fourth."

"You're saying the victim died of bullet wounds? And how can you possibly know how many bullets were used?"

"This guy didn't shoot her to kill her; I believe he shot her so she'd be helpless," Fran said. "He shattered both kneecaps and both elbows and then left her here to die-to bleed to death."

Joanna felt sick. "What kind of an animal would do such a thing?"

"Animals wouldn't," Fran Daly replied. "Most animals I know are better people than that."

Minutes later, when Sandoval and Wilson finished trading Broncos, Joanna stayed up top while Eddy manned the tailgate position below the ledge. Enough of the rocks were gone now so that from the shoulders up only a single layer remained. Even so, Joanna fell into the rhythm of silently moving rocks without necessarily watching what was being uncovered by their removal.

"Dear God in heaven!"

On the ledge, Fran Daly's groaned exclamation brought loading to a sudden halt. "What is it?" Joanna asked. "What's wrong?"

"Look."

Only the lower legs, exposed to sun, air, and animals, had been totally stripped clean of flesh. Under the protective layer of rocks, much of the rest of the desiccated body remained intact. The woman's tapered fingernails, covered with some kind of brightly colored enamel, still glowed purple in the artificial light. For some reason, the condition of those undamaged nails made Joanna think that the rest of the body would be pretty much whole as well. But that wasn't the case. Without a shred of either hair or skin, the back of the woman's skull glowed white and naked in the light.

"She's been scalped," Fran croaked.

The very idea was enough to take Joanna's breath away. "Scalped? How can that be?"

"Look for yourself."

For a moment Joanna stared at the bare skull in appalled fascination. Scalping was something ugly out of the Old West, something she suspected had happened far more often in the world of cheap fiction and B-grade movies than it had in real life. But still, here it was, staring back at her from the body of a murder victim in modern-day Cochise County. From the body of someone Sheriff Joanna Brady had sworn to serve and protect.

The Indian wars were long over in southern Arizona. Geronimo had surrendered to General Crook and had led his remaining ragtag band of warriors into ignominious exile in Florida. Cochise County might have been named after an Apache chief, but there were very few Apaches left in that part of the country. Real Apaches, that is.

But a few miles away from where Joanna stood at that moment, there was another Indian encampment, one made up of a band of self-declared "Apaches." She glanced back at Ernie and caught his eye.

"First thing tomorrow morning," she said, "you and Jamie and I will pay an official visit to Rattlesnake Crossing. I'm betting one of the warrior wannabes from there has declared war on the human race."

It was after midnight before Joanna finally headed for home. Miraculously, the threatened rainstorm had moved north into Graham County without ever hitting the crime scene. Once the body was loaded into a van-a second Pima County morgue van-Joanna had ordered the vicinity of the burial mound covered with tarps. That done, she and her weary collection of investigators had called it a job. If there was anything left to find, it would be better to search for it in daylight.

More than an hour later, when she was finally driving up the narrow dirt road that led to High Lonesome Ranch with Sadie and Tigger racing out to greet her, she saw two extra sets of tire tracks that had been left behind in the dirt.

Now who… Joanna didn't even finish framing the question before she knew the answer. Butch Dixon! Butch had come to take her to dinner and she had forgotten all about it-had forgotten all about him. She had stood the poor guy up. In typical homicide-cop fashion, she had become so embroiled with the body on the ledge that personal obligations had slipped her mind completely.

There was a note pinned to the screen door with a bent paper clip. "You must be tied up," it said. "Sorry I missed you. Butch."

Tired, dirty, and frustrated-pained by guilt and kicking herself for it-Joanna slammed her way into the house. She was mad at herself, but, unaccountably, she was also mad at Butch. After all, she hadn't meant to stand him up. She had tried to contact him. It wasn't her fault that he hadn't left a telephone trail do she could have caught tip with him in a timely fashion and let him know what was happening.

She slopped in the laundry room, stripped off her soiled clothes, and stuffed them into the washer. Then she went straight to the phone to check for messages, hoping there would he one from Butch. There was a single message, a short one from Marianne, that had come in at eleven-fifty. "It's Mari. I'll talk to you in the morning."

And that was all. Disappointed that there was no further message from Butch and believing it was far too late to call Marianne back, Joanna headed for the shower. She stood under the steamy water, letting it roll off her stiff and aching body. And in the course of that overly long and what Eleanor would have regarded as an "extravagant" shower, Joanna Brady made a disturbing connection.

She remembered all the times her mother had been irate with her father because D. H. Lathrop had gotten himself entangled in some case or other and had missed dinner or one of Joanna's Christmas programs at church or a dinner date Eleanor had set her heart on attending. And there had been times over the years, while Andy was a deputy, that Joanna and he had played out that same drama, following almost the exact same script. Andy would come home late, and Joanna would be at the door to meet him and gripe at him for getting so involved in what he was doing that he had missed Jenny's parent/teacher conference at school or her T-ball game down at the park.

Turning off the water, Joanna stepped out of the tub, wrapped a towel around her dripping body, and stared at her image in the steam-fogged mirror. "I don't believe it," she told her reflection. "The shoe is on the other damn foot now, isn't it!"

And it was true. Joanna Brady had changed. Without realizing it, she had turned into a real cop, into someone for whom a homicide investigation became paramount and took precedence over everything else. Shaking her head, she staggered out of the bathroom. How the hell did that happen? she wondered.

Naked and still damp, she fell into bed. She was so exhausted that she should have dropped off right away. But she didn't. She kept seeing that bare, bony skull glowing tip at her in the glare of Ernie Carpenter's battery-powered trouble light.

Finally, after an hour, she got up, went out to the kitchen, and poured herself a shot of whiskey, emptying the last of the Wild Turkey that Marianne Maculyea had brought her the night Andy died.

That, too, reminded Joanna of other times, of times Andy had come home work-exhausted, had gone to bed, but had tossed and turned and been unable to sleep. How many times had she hassled him for that, too? she wondered now. How many times had she given the man hell for sitting in the kitchen in the dark late at night-for sitting and brooding?

"Sorry, Andy," she said aloud, raising her glass in his memory. "Please forgive me. I didn't know what I was talking about."

Had there been more booze in the house, she might have been tempted to have another drink. As it was, though, she drank only the one, and then she went to bed. She might have tossed and turned some more, but the whiskey, combined with the hard physical labor of moving all those rocks, made further brooding impossible.

She lay down on the bed, put her head on the pillow, pulled the sheet up around her shoulders, and fell sleep. Not sound sleep. Not a deeply restful sleep, but sleep haunted by vague and disturbing nightmares that disappeared as soon as she awoke and tried to recall them.

Considering all she'd been through that day, maybe that was just as well.


CHAPTER EIGHT | Rattlesnake Crossing | CHAPTER TEN







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