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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

When Joanna left University Medical Center, she had every intention of going straight home. But as she drove down I-10 toward Benson, she couldn't get what Belle Philips had said out of her mind: "Talk to Ruben Ramos.”

Because of the Arizona Organization of Chiefs of Police, Joanna did know a little about Benson's police chief, Ruben Ramos-the broad outline, at any rate. She knew, for example, that he was Benson-born and -bred. He had started out as a lowly patrolman in Benson, joining the city police force right after high school and commuting on a part-time basis to the university in Tucson, where he had eventually earned a degree in criminal justice. He had risen through the ranks and had been chief for five or six years. Other than that, she knew

Turning off the freeway, she started down the hill into Benson. A few seconds later, she spotted a city patrol car parked off to the side of the road just beyond the bowling alley. She drove past, then reconsidered. After making a U-turn in the middle of the highway, she back up the hill to the patrol car.

"Can I help you, lady?" the officer asked, shining a flashlight in Joanna's eyes without bothering to set foot outside the comfort of his air-conditioned vehicle.

Joanna whipped out her badge. "I'm Sheriff Brady," she said. "I was wondering if it would be possible to talk to Chief Ramos."

"Is this important? After all, it's the middle of the night."

"You have a dispatcher, don't you?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Have Dispatch call Chief Ramos on the phone. Tell him I have to talk to him and that I'll be glad to come by his house if need be. Tell him it's about his son."

With a shrug of his shoulders, the officer reached for his radio. After several exchanges back and forth, he returned it to its clip. "The chief says he'll come here. He wants you to wait."

That struck Joanna as odd. Had she been awakened in the middle of the night by a fellow law enforcement officer needing to speak to her in person, she would probably have asked him to stop by the house or the department. A middle-of-the-night rendezvous in a deserted summertime parking lot would not have been her first choice.

A minute or two later, an emergency call of some kind came in. With lights flashing, the patrol car sped off to answer it, leaving Joanna alone in the lot. She waited there for another five minutes or so until an unmarked, two-year-old Crown Victoria pulled up beside her. She recognized Ruben Ramos as soon as he rolled down the window.

"Let's cut to the chase," he said without preamble. "What's Frankie done now?"

"I'm sure by now you've heard about Clyde Philips-"

"Look," Ramos interrupted, "when you're a cop, you raise your kids under a damn microscope, And with three of the four, it worked fine. But Frankie's something else. I just didn't want it on his record, okay? The kid's got a hard enough row to hoe without that."

"You didn't want what on his record?"

"It wasn't that big a deal," Ramos continued. "Booze only, no drugs, nothing like that. If there had been drugs there, too, well, that would have been another story. But kids have been getting adults to buy their booze ever since Prohibition went out the window. Frankie was drinking. So what? He would have had a Minor in Possession and that would have been the extent of it. And Clyde would have been charged with providing alcohol to a minor and maybe an open container. I talked to a few people," Ruben added. "And the paperwork ended up not going anywhere. Maybe it was illegal. Hell, I know it was illegal, but I don't know too many fathers who wouldn't do that for one of their kids. If they could, that is."

Taken aback, Joanna realized there was a yawning gulf between what she had come to discuss with Chief Ruben Ramos and what he thought she had come to discuss. "You think that's what this is all about?" she asked. "That I asked to see you because your son was caught in possession of alcohol?"

"Isn't it?"

Joanna shook her head.

Ruben stared at her, his eyes narrowing. "Wait a minute here, you don't think Frankie had something to do with what happened to Clyde Philips, do you? You can't be serous. It couldn't be." He looked incredulous.

"Tell me about the MIP," Joanna said.

"Somebody put you up to this, somebody who's out to get me," Ramos muttered. "Who is it? Somebody on the City Council? I probably shouldn't even be talking to you without having an attorney present."

"Chief Ramos, I am not out to get you. I'm dealing with a series of homicides-four, to be exact, including Clyde Philips. A serial killer is loose in Cochise County. I need your help and your son's help as well."

"What kind of help?"

"You've told me yourself that Frankie had some connection to Clyde Philips. I suspect the killer did, too. All I want from your son is for him to give us the names of some of Clyde's other pals. Was there anyone besides Frankie involved in the incident where your son wasn't arrested?"

Ramos shook his head. "No, it was just the two of them. They were driving back to Frankie's place and Clyde missed a turn. They went into a ditch. No damage. According to what I was told, Clyde wasn't all that drunk. It wasn't that big a deal. At least that's what Eddy said."

"Eddy?" Joanna repeated. "You mean Eddy Sandoval?"

"Come on, Sheriff Brady," Ruben Ramos said. "Don't climb Eddy's frame about all this. He and I go back a long way. He knew about some of the problems Alicia and I have had with Frankie. He was just trying to help out."

Joanna wasn't impressed. "Look, Chief, if I've got a deputy looking the other way at drunk-driving offenses, then my department has a serious problem, one I need to address. But for right now, catching a killer takes precedence over everything else. Just tell me what happened."

Ruben Ramos sighed. "It was June," he said. "Right after school got out. Frankie had just graduated. Not top in his class. Not even in the top half, but he did graduate. And I told him-I told all my kids-that as long as they were going to school, they had a place to stay. And the other three all took me at my word. They all graduated from college. One of 'em is even working on a doctorate at San Jose State. But Frankie wasn't having any of it. He said he didn't want to go to college, and he sure as hell wasn't athletic enough to get himself a scholarship the way my other son did. So I told him fine, do it your way. But I also told him that once he was out of high school, he was out of the house, too. I thought that as soon as he had to cut it in the big, cruel world, maybe he'd come to his senses and get his education same as I did."

Ramos paused, shook his head, then continued. "So Frankie graduates and he gets himself this little nothing job working for a roofing contractor. I told him the morning after graduation that he had two weeks to find a place to live. And he did, too. Next thing I knew, he was living in this wreck of a mobile home over in Pomerene. The place is a dump, but it was the best he could afford. He told me Clyde Philips owned the place and he was letting Frankie work off part of the rent by doing odd jobs around his gun shop-cleaning, sweeping, that kind of thing. The good thing about it was Frankie could work there at nights or on weekends when he wasn't doing his regular job.

"Alicia and I were real happy about that-more power to him. He was making his own way, maybe learning some-thing useful. I was happy about it right up until Eddy Sandoval called me because he'd found Clyde and Frankie in that ditch, with Frankie drunker'n a skunk. Eddy called me as a favor and asked me what I wanted him to do about it. I told him if he could see his way clear to let it slide, I'd really appreciate it."

"Then what happened?" Joanna asked.

"I talked to Frankie about it. I tried to explain to him what a stupid thing that was for him to pull. I told him a Minor-in-Possession conviction would screw up his insurance premiums and all that other stuff for years to come. He just sat there with that damned nose ring on his face, staring at me like I didn't know what the hell I was talking about, like I was some kind of moron. That's the problem with kids-they always think they know so much more than their parents do.

"I just gave up after that. I told him if it happened again, he was on his own. I wouldn't lift a finger to help him. And that's that," Ruben finished. "The long and the short of it. I've barely seen him since then. Neither has his mother."

For a time, Joanna didn't know how to respond. Despite Ruben's protestations of having washed his hands of responsibility for his son, he was obviously still very concerned. He had volunteered the story of Frankie's MIP thinking that was behind Joanna's midnight visit. She agreed the man had every reason to be worried about his son, but not for any of the reasons he thought. Compared to the specter of AIDS, dodging a moving violation was trivial. And what was worrying Joanna right then was what other things Frankie might have done for Clyde Philips besides sweeping in order to work off his rent. Was he only a part-time janitor, or was there a sexual relationship as well?

"Tell me about your son," she said at last.

Ruben shrugged his shoulders. "What else do you want to know?"

"What's he like?"

In the dim light of the bowling alley parking lot, Joanna saw the pained expression that flitted across Ruben Ramos' broad features. "I wanted Frankie to grow up," he said hopelessly. "All I wanted was for him to be a man. People used to tell me how sweet he was. I didn't want him to be sweet. I didn't want my son to be a sissy, but he is."

"What about Clyde Philips?" she asked. "What did you know about him?"

"Nothing much," Ruben replied. "He owned a gun shop and he's dead. I hear he liked to party-at least he used to "a while hack. I've been told that in the last little while he had let tip on the drinking. I figured liver damage probably got to him. That's what happens to guys who hit the sauce real heavy. And the night of the wreck, Frankie claimed Clyde hadn't had all that much to drink."

"Clyde Philips didn't have liver damage," Joanna said quietly. "He had AIDS. The medical examiner called me with the autopsy results just an hour or so ago."

For a moment Ruben Ramos didn't make the connection. "You mean AIDS-the disease queers get?" he asked.

Joanna nodded. "Homosexuals, needle-using drug addicts, prostitutes." She paused, not wanting to ask the next question, but knowing she had no choice. "Is there a chance Clyde Philips and your son were lovers?"

For a second there was no reaction at all, followed by a one-word explosion. "No!" Then, after another long, heart-breaking pause, Ruben nodded. "Probably," he said in a whisper. "I wondered about that-suspected it but I didn't want to believe it. I guess I thought if I ignored it long enough, it would go away. I always thought it was my fault Frankie turned out the way he did. I wondered if it was something I said or did to him when he was little. I tried to help him, really I did."

"Chief Ramos, I-"

"He was arrested one other time," Ruben went on. "Besides that MIP thing over in Pomerene. One other time that I didn't mention. Because I was ashamed to-ashamed that a son of mine would turn out that way and do such a thing."

"What kind of thing?" Joanna asked.

"He was arrested in downtown Tucson," Ruben Ramos said. "For soliciting an act of prostitution. With a male undercover cop. I got him out of that scrape, too. But I warned him if he ever did it again, I'd kill him myself." Chief Ramos took a deep breath. "What do you want me to do?"

"I need to talk to Frankie," Joanna said. "As I told you earlier, we have reason to think that the Philips murder is linked to several others-two here and one near Phoenix. At least one of those cases includes weapons that may have been taken from Clyde's gun shop. That means the killer might be a customer of Clyde's or else an acquaintance. So far, all the paperwork is missing from the shop, right along with the guns. If Frankie worked there, he might be able to help fill in some of the blanks."

Ruben straightened his shoulders. "All right, then," he said. "Let's go talk to him. We'll wake him up. Do you want to take both cars?"

"Sure," Joanna said. "That's probably a good idea. You lead; I'll follow."

At that time of night there was very little traffic. To reach Pomerene, they had to drive from the bowling alley parking lot on the far west side of the town, through Benson, and all the way out to the other side of town. In the process, they didn't meet a single vehicle. Even the Benson patrolman Joanna had spoken to earlier seemed to have disappeared entirely.

Once in Pomerene, they drove past Rimrock, the street where Clyde Philips had lived. A quarter of a mile beyond that, Ruben Ramos' Crown Victoria turned left onto a track that was more alley than it was street. The track led back through fender-high weeds and grass until it stopped in front of a deteriorating mobile home. There were no lights on, nor were there any vehicles parked in front of it.

"That's funny," Ruben said when Joanna joined him outside his Ford. "Frankie has an old VW bus. I wonder where it is."

Watching her footing, Joanna followed Ruben onto a sagging wooden deck that had been tacked onto the front of the building. Metal columns that had once held an awning of some kind still stood upright, hut the awning itself was long gone. Ruben stomped across the porch and pounded on the metal door, "Frankie," he bellowed. "Come on out. I've got to talk to you."

There was no answer, so Ruben knocked again, harder this time. The aging structure seemed to shudder beneath the powerful blows. "Frankie, I said get your ass out here! Now!"

Joanna said, "It's all right. We can come back later with a-"

Just then Ruben grabbed the doorknob and yanked it toward him. With the hinges screeching in protest, the door came off in his hands. Ruben Ramos marched inside, switching on lights as he went. Joanna followed at his heels as he charged from room to room.

"Frankie, where the hell are you?"

The place had clearly been closed up for days, and it was an oven. A messy, moldy oven with dirty dishes and leftover food rotting on the counters and in the sink. They went through the entire place, but it was empty. Nobody was home and there were no clothes in any of the closets or drawers.

"I think he's gone," Ruben said. "Moved out." "Looks that way," Joanna agreed.

They were retracing their steps through the house, and Joanna was thinking about the possibility of returning the next day with a search warrant when a scrap of paper caught her eye. Moving it with the toe of her shoe, Joanna dragged it out from under the couch far enough to be able to read it. The paper turned out to be an invoice-from Pomerene Guns and Ammo to the City of Lordsburg-for a sniper rifle priced at forty-five hundred dollars.

Standing behind Joanna, Ruben Ramos read it over her shoulder. "Damn," he muttered finally. "It figures. You said the paperwork was missing from the gun shop, didn't you?"

Joanna nodded.

Ruben looked around the bleak living room one last time. "So whatever's happened, Frankie's probably in on.”

"That's how it looks," she said.

"Well, I'd better go, then," the chief of police said. "For one thing, I need to tell Alicia so she'll know what we're up against. Then I'll call Marv Keller."

"Who's he?"

"The roofing contractor Frankie was working for. Obviously Frankie's taken off. Marv will be able to tell us when he bailed."

The shift from father to cop was subtle, but it was there nonetheless. In a world of good guys and bad guys, Frankie Ramos had removed himself from his father's team and thrown in his lot with the opposition. That meant he was pitting himself against his father and everything Ruben Ramos stood for.

Leaving things as they found them, they left the trailer then and walked back out into the night air. While Ruben tried to reposition the door against the wall, Joanna reached into her purse and pulled out her phone. "Call Marv Keller now," she said.

The hand that took Joanna's cell phone was visibly trembling, but by the time Chief Ramos spoke, he had himself under control. "Hey, Marv," he said. "Sorry to wake you, but this is important. Have you seen Frankie? He seems to be among the missing."

Unable to hear the other side of the conversation, Joanna waited until Ruben ended the call and gave the phone back to her. "Well?" she said.

"His last day of work was Friday. Came in and didn't say anything about not coming back, but Monday morning, somebody who claimed to be a friend of Frankie's called to say that he was quitting because he'd gotten another job with a contractor in Tucson. Marv said he didn't question it, because when a guy quits, he quits, and there's nothing he can do about it. He said he mailed Frankie's last paycheck here on Monday afternoon."

Joanna looked back at the darkened mobile home. Where does that leave us? she wondered. Is Frankie Ramos another victim, or is he a killer? Which is it?

"My detectives will get a search warrant and be here first thing in the morning," she said.

Ruben looked at her questioningly. "What about the door?" he asked.

And there was Joanna Brady, stuck in the same gray world of neither right nor wrong, the same one that hadtrapped a deputy named Eddy Sandoval when he had tried to help a friend, the father of a wayward son.

"The way I remember it," she said, "the door was al-ready off its hinges when we got here."

"Thanks," Ruben Ramos said. "I'd better go."

Joanna stood on the porch and watched him make his defeated way back to the Crown Victoria. An hour earlier, the man had been at home with his wife, peacefully asleep. Joanna's phone call had summoned Ruben Ramos out of dreamland and dragged him into a waking nightmare. First she had forced him to look at the very real possibility that his son might have been exposed to the AIDS virus. Now she had presented him with the likelihood that Frankie Ramos was a serial killer as well.

"Chief Ramos," Joanna called after him.

"What?"

"Did your son ever spend much time around Phoenix?"

"Not that I know of," he said. "Tucson's easy to get to from Benson. Phoenix isn't. Why?"

"Just wondering," she told him.

He drove out of the weed-choked yard. Feeling the weight of the man's heartbreak, Joanna had all she could do to climb into the Blazer to get herself home.

Why is it people want to have kids? she wondered as she drove. Parenthood sure as hell isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Joanna pulled into the yard at High Lonesome right at one-thirty. As usual, the dogs were glad to see her. But dogs were like that. It was their nature to always be glad to see whoever happened to come home, late or not. But thinking about Ruben and Alicia Ramos' mixed results in the parent-hood department had made Joanna consider her own parental efforts.

Right now, coming home in the middle of the night was fine-Jenny was in Oklahoma with her grandparents. But what if Jenny had been at home? She was still too young to be left by herself on a long summer's day. And yet Joanna's job required her to put in those long hours.

When she had first been elected sheriff, there were a few none-too-subtle puns about her being the "titular" head of the department. The only way to stifle those criticisms and to prove her detractors wrong had been to do the job and do it well. She had pulled the long shifts when necessary and had worked her heart out, making sure her officers had the equipment and support they needed to do their jobs.

In the process, Joanna had really earned the title of sheriff-made it her own. But she had done so at considerable cost, both to herself and to her daughter. Working hard made people expect that she would continue to work at that same level. In fact, that was what she herself expected. But what kind of long-term family crisis was being created by her doing an outstanding job at work? Ruben Ramos had supplied an answer that came chillingly close to home.

According to Ruben, three of his four kids were fine. Frankie, the youngest, was the joker in the deck, the loser. Had Ruben failed Frankie as a father because of his job? Because he had been so focused on moving up the ladder in the Benson Police Department? The other three kids were evidently older. Maybe they'd had the advantage of a less distracted, less work-involved father. Maybe that was why they were upstanding, productive citizens, while their baby brother was a suspect in a serial murder case.

But what were the implications in all that for Joanna and for Jenny? Ruben had four chances to succeed as a father. When it came to being a mother, Joanna Brady had one-Jenny. What worried her now was that perhaps, by doing a good job at work, she was damning Jenny to a lifetime of alienation and failure. Of all the things Ruben had said, one had rung especially true. Cops' kids did exist under a microscope. For good or ill, members of the community tended to exaggerate whatever they did. The bad things were worse and the good things were better if your parent-your father, usually-was a cop. That had been as true for Joanna as it was fur Frankie Ramos.

And so that night, as Joanna Brady crawled into bed, she included any number of parents in her prayers-Ruben and Alicia Ramos along with Jeff Daniels and Marianne Maculyea. Her own mother, Eleanor Lathrop Winfield, made the list, as did Joanna Lathrop Brady.


CHAPTER SIXTEEN | Rattlesnake Crossing | CHAPTER EIGHTEEN







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