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CHAPTER NINETEEN

For several minutes after getting off the phone, Joanna simply sat and stared at the instrument. Her conversation with Monty Brainard had opened a gate, leading her into what seemed like the valley of the shadow of death. It had allowed her a nightmarish glimpse of someone totally evil. What she couldn't reconcile in her mind was Ruben Ramos' view of his son with what she had heard from the FBI agent.

Yes, Ruben and Frankie were estranged. But were they that estranged? And if Frankie had just graduated from high school, that meant he was only eighteen now. That would have made him sixteen at the time Rebecca Flowers was killed. Would a sixteen-year-old "sissy" have done such a thing?

And what about Brainard's claim that between that first killing and the next ones, the killer had most likely been incarcerated somewhere? Surely if Frankie Ramos had already been shipped off to juvie for the better part of two years, Ruben Ramos wouldn't have been so concerned about his being charged with either solicitation or minor in possession.

Then there was the nagging question of ethnicity. Brainard had claimed the killer had to be white. Joanna Brady had never met Frankie Ramos, but she had no doubt he was Hispanic. Maybe when it came to sorting white from Hispanic, the agent was just flat mistaken. After all, nobody ever claimed that criminal profiling was an exact science.

Joanna sat there for some time longer with her door shut and without the phone ringing off the hook for a change. Most of her departmental troops were out in the field doing their respective jobs. It was hardly surprising, then, that the Cochise County Justice Complex seemed unnaturally quiet.

In the brooding silence, letting her mind wander and wool-gather, Joanna Brady remembered something Belle Philips had said the night before: "Clyde liked boys." She hadn't said that he liked a single boy. She had used the plural. More than one. Several.

Joanna's heartbeat quickened in her breast. Maybe that was why Brainard's assessment wasn't adding up. Maybe he wasn't wrong, after all, because there was another boy involved in all this. Maybe Clyde Philips had kept a whole stable of young men around him. If so, Joanna had an idea of someone who might know-Clyde's neighbor, the talkative Sarah Holcomb.

The only question in her mind was whether or not Sarah would talk to her. Joanna's last contact with the woman had gone offtrack so badly that she was half tempted to have one of the two detectives do the honors. After a moment's consideration, however, she realized that both Ernie Carpenter and Jaime Carbajal were far too busy. Both of them were probably up to their eyeteeth interviewing the soon-to-be-departing guests from Rattlesnake Crossing.

No, Joanna told herself. This is something I can do. "Kristin," she said after grabbing up the phone, "if anybody needs me, I'm on my way to Pomerene to see how things are going. I'm forwarding my private calls to the cell phone, so you don't have to worry about trying to catch them."

"Any idea when you'll be back?"

Joanna glanced at her watch. It was almost three. "Probably not much later than six," she said.

Once in the Blazer, she turned on her emergency flashers and went streaking up through Bisbee and out the other side of the tunnel. It was another broiling-hot August after-noon. After five days of no rain, the summer monsoon season seemed little more than a distant memory. The desert was a hazy, blazing furnace. At the base of the Mule Mountains, looking out across the flat plain that stretched from Highway 80 all the way to the booming metropolis of Sierra Vista, Joanna spied a troop of dust devils twirling across the desert. They looked like so many reddish-brown soldiers jogging, zigzag-fashion, in the same general direction.

Once on Rimrock in Pomerene, Joanna pulled up into the welcome shade of the two tall cottonwoods that over-flowed Sarah Holcomb's tiny front yard. Next door, parked in front of Clyde Philips' house, sat one of the department's evidence vans. Joanna was relieved to see it. That meant her people were still working. Ongoing progress was being made.

Joanna's knock on Sarah Holcomb's door brought the lady herself. "Oh, it's you again," she said with a disdainful sniff. "I thought you said next time you'd send one of your detectives. What is it you want?"

It wasn't a particularly welcoming or auspicious beginning. "My detectives are all pretty much occupied at the moment," Joanna began.

"I should say so," Sarah Holcomb huffed. "We're havin' a regular crime wave around here lately. Yes, indeed, folks is just droppin' like flies. I don't remember us havin' this kind of a murder problem back when we had a man for a sheriff. Do you?"

"You're absolutely right, Mrs. Holcomb," Joanna said placatingly. "The kind of situation we're dealing with at the moment is absolutely unprecedented. And that's what I wanted to talk to you about."

"Well, come on in, then," Sarah said, tapping her cane impatiently. "No sense standin' here in the doorway and lettin' the cooler work on coolin' down the outside."

Once in the living room, Sarah motioned Joanna back onto the overstuffed and utterly uncomfortable sofa, while she herself perched on the frayed arm of a worn, chintz-covered easy chair. With the cane resting beside her, she peered peevishly at Joanna. "You know, I'd a lot druther be talkin' to a detective. Like one of those guys on the TV. I specially like Colombo, that fellow with the old wrinkled trench coat and the bad eye. To look at him you'd think he's dumb as a stump, but that's what trips people up. They end up tellin' him all kinds of important stuff even though they don't mean to. That's how he catches them.

"So now, then," she continued, "let's get on with it. I don't have all day to sit around jawin'. Why don't you just come out and tell me what it is you want to know."

Please, God, Joanna prayed, let me look dumb enough so Sarah tells me what I need to know, too. She said, "Were you aware that someone was working for Clyde-cleaning his shop, that kind of thing?"

"Sure. Clyde called him Frankie. Don't know his last name. Nice-enough-lookin' little guy, no bigger'n a minute. Came over almost every night. Used to be he'd just show up every now and then, but since the first of the summer, I'd say he's been comin' here most every day."

"But when I was talking to you the other day," Joanna countered, "how come you never mentioned anything about him?"

"As I recall the exact conversation," Sarah pointed out, "you wanted to know if I'd seen anythin' out of line. Anything unusual. Well, sir, Frankie and that little VW of his was here all the time. So that wasn't a bit out of line, then, was it? That's just plain ol' business as usual. I'da thought it was unusual if he didn't show up, which he did."

"He was here Saturday night?"

"Yes."

"What about Sunday?"

"I already told you, Sheriff Brady. I was in Tucson Sunday night. I had a doctor's appointment on Monday morning. So Frankie might've been here Sunday night and then again, he might not. I've got no way of knowin' either way."

"But you haven't seen him since then, right?"

"What makes you say that? I saw Frankie just this morning, as a matter of fact. Me and my cane was out taking our daily constitutional when he come barreling down Pomerene Road like the very devil hisself was after him. I waved, but him and that old van of his went by me in a cloud of smoke and dust. I don't think he even saw me standin' there. Get thinkin' about it, the sun was glarin' off the windshield so bad I'm not sure if it was Frankie driving. Maybe it was that friend of his."

"What friend?" Joanna felt her whole body come to tingling attention. She forced herself to stay relaxed. If she seemed too eager, Sarah Holcomb might spook and clam up once again.

"Don't rightly know his name, neither," Sarah said. "Don't think I ever heard him called by anything at all. He was just a guy who'd show up with Frankie now and again. He'd hang around out in the gun shop while Frankie dune his chores. I never saw him lift a finger to help, never carry anythin' in or out or nuthin', but I guess he kept Frankie company."

"Can you describe him?"

"Long drink of water. Sort of stringy yellow hair. Scrawny. Looked to me like he could have used a square meal or two. If I'da seen him on the street, I'd most likely've headed in the other direction. Looked like a no-account to me. I mean, here's poor little Frankie working his tail off, and that other lout never offered to help. Where I come from, friends pitch in when there's work to be done."

"So do you think this friend was from around here?"

"Can't say, but I suppose so, if he was hanging around here all the time. With the price of gas these days, that most pro'ly means he wasn't from too far away. But I don't know him, if that's what you mean. He's not one of the little kids who grew up in the neighborhood and went to school here and all like that. But then, neither was Frankie. Seems to me like there was always bunches of strange young 'uns hangin' around over to the Philips place. Not allus the same ones, mind you. Different ones would come and go from time to time. They sorta come in waves. Frankie and that friend of his come in the last wave. First time I seen Frankie was earlier this spring. The other one showed up a little later."

What was it Monty Brainard had said? Joanna wondered. Something about the killer being locked up until just before the killings started? With a recently arrived friend, that would work. It would make sense.

Her mind had gone off on such a compelling tangent that Joanna briefly lost track of what was being said. It took some effort to return to the interview. "So you saw Frankie's VW this morning?" she asked, hoping to smooth over the rough spot.

"What's the matter?" Sarah demanded indignantly. "Didn't I say it in plain enough English to suit you? Yes, I saw his van as clear as I'm seeing you."

“Which way was it going? Toward Benson or away from it?”

"Toward. Good thing I was walkin' on the left-hand side of the road. That way I saw him comin' and was able to get out of the way. Otherwise I'da been road kill and you coulda put me on the list with all them other folks as has been killed around these parts lately," she added meaningfully.

"Going back to the friend," Joanna said. "Can you tell me what kind of vehicle he drove?"

"Nope. I only ever saw him gettin' in and out of Frankie's little brown-and-orange van."

"Is there anyone else around here who might have seen this friend or who might be able to tell us more about him?" Joanna asked. "We need to know who he is and where he comes from."

"Beats me," Sarah Holcomb said. "I reckon the only way to do that is go up and down the road askin' everybody you meet." She smiled brightly. "But that's what detectives get paid to do, ain't it?"

"Yes," Joanna agreed. "It certainly is."

The conversation might have drifted on indefinitely if Joanna's cell phone hadn't chosen that moment to crow its distinctive ring from deep in the bowels of her purse.

"My land!" Sarah proclaimed when Joanna extracted the handset and answered it. "A phone in a purse! What will they think of next!"

"Sheriff Brady?" Tica Romero said urgently.

"Yes. What is it?"

"We've got a problem. A Southwest Gas guy was out checking the natural gas pipeline along the San Pedro, some-where between the bridge and Pomerene proper. He just called in to say he found a car-a wrecked brown-and-orange VW bus. He thinks there's a body inside, but since the van’s hanging half on and half off the riverbank, we won't be able lo get to it without a wrecker."

"Damn!" Joanna exclaimed. "Has anybody called Ruben Ramos?"

"Yes, ma'am. He's on his way."

"So am I," Joanna said. "What about Dr. Daly at the medical examiner's office up in Tucson?" she added. "Has anybody called her?"

"Chief Deputy Voland did that already. She's coming, too." Tica paused. "When is Doc Winfield due back?"

"Monday. Which may be fine for some people-like my mother, for instance-but it's not nearly soon enough for me."

Joanna ended the call and then turned back to Sarah Holcomb. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm going to have to go."

"I heard you say somethin' about callin' in the medical examiner. That means somebody else is dead, don't it?"

There wasn't much point in denying the obvious. "I'm afraid so."

"Who is it?" Sarah asked.

"We don't know yet, not for sure," Joanna replied. "And we can't release any kind of information until after we have a positive ID."

"You just go ahead and play coy if you want to," Sarah Holcomb returned, "but I've got a real bad feeling about all this. It's Frankie, isn't it?"

"Really, Mrs. Holcomb, I just can't say."

Sarah Holcomb, however, was undeterred. "And if he is the one," she continued, "I'm likely the very last person to see him alive. Which means, I suppose, there'll be another whole set of dumb questions. Right?"

"Maybe," Joanna said noncommittally while edging toward the door. "If that's the case, we'll be in touch."

"Well, if'n you do, get ‘hold of me in advance to set up an appointment," Sarah Holcomb admonished. "'That's the proper way to do things."

"Right," Joanna said, making her escape to the gate. "We'll definitely phone you in advance."

"And another thing, Sheriff Brady," Sarah called after her from the porch. "You do know what this country needs, don't you?"

With one hand on the relative safety of the Blazer's door, Joanna turned back. "No," she said. "What's that?"

"Another president like Richard Milhous Nixon," Sarah Holcomb replied staunchly. "Now, there was a man who believed in law and order." With that she and her cane disappeared into the house, slamming the door behind her.

Once the Blazer started, Joanna breathed a sigh of relief. Next time anybody has to talk to Sarah Holcomb, she told her-self, I'm sending in the reinforcements.

Back out on Pomerene Road, she came across the Southwest Gas guy in only a matter of minutes. He was standing on the shoulder of the road and waving both arms frantically to flag her down.

"I'm Sheriff Brady," Joanna told him, displaying her badge. "Is anybody else here yet?"

"Not so far. Name's Heck Tompkins. I'm a pipe inspector for Southwest Gas. With all the rain we've had the last few weeks, we try to go over the whole pipeline at least once a week, especially the parts of it that are so close to the river. That's where I was going when I saw the car-down to the river to check on the pipe. It's just over there."

Hobbled by her heels, Joanna limped across the rough terrain and over a low-lying hill until she was close enough to catch a glimpse of the dangling VW. One glance was enough to tell her that Tompkins' assessment was right. With the riverbank as eroded as it was in that spot, it was far too dangerous to try to get much closer to the vehicle than ten to fifteen feet away. But it was also possible to see the shadow of a figure slumped over the wheel on the driver's side.

Oddly enough, Joanna felt nothing but a sense of relief at seeing the body, a sense of closure. Whatever Frankie Ramos had done-whatever nightmares had driven him to commit his heinous crimes-he'd at least had the good sense to end it once and for all. It was over. Cochise County's first ever "spree" killer was out of commission. Joanna could hardly wait for morning to come so she'd be able to call Monty Brainard back in Washington, D.C., and tell him.

A tow truck dispatched from Benson was the next to arrive. The young driver was eager to get hooked up to the VW so he could tow it out and go on to his next call. "Sorry," Joanna told him, "this is a crime scene. You'll have to wait here until the medical examiner gives you the go-ahead."

"Says who?" the driver asked.

With an acne-covered face and close-set eyes, the tow-truck driver barely looked old enough or smart enough to drive. "I do," Joanna said, flashing her badge. "My name's Brady, Sheriff Joanna Brady."

"Oh," he said, blinking. "All right, then. I'll wait."

Chief Ruben Ramos' dusty Crown Victoria was the next vehicle to arrive on the scene. He jumped out of the driver's seat and was on his way across the hill toward the van before Joanna managed to head him off.

"This is a crime scene, Ruben. We have to wait for the medical examiner," she said, placing a restraining hand on his arm.

Ruben stopped and turned toward her. His face, glistening with sweat and tears, was wild with grief. "But what if Frankie isn't dead?" he demanded. "What if he needs help?"

“It's too late, Ruben. That car's been hire for a long time, hours most likely. Look at the tracks. The wind has all but obliterated them. And all the windows are rolled up. It's probably two hundred degrees inside that vehicle. Frankie may have been alive when he went over the edge, but he isn't now.”

Ruben Ramos' shoulders slumped. Shading his eyes with one hand, he stared at the VW for the better part of a minute, then turned and retreated to the road. There the group stood waiting in uncomfortable silence. To Joanna's surprise, the next arrival was none other than Dr. Fran Daly.

"We've got to stop meeting like this," the medical examiner said, climbing out of her van. "What have we got this time?"

For the next hour or so, a surprisingly agile Fran Daly dared the eroded riverbank to take crime-scene pictures. All the while pictures were being taken, all the while the tow truck was dragging the VW back onto solid ground, Joanna continued to hold tight to the fantasy that it was all over, that her "spree" killer was no more.

That theory began to fall apart as soon as the door to the van was opened wide enough to allow her to catch a glimpse of the person slumped behind the steering wheel. The plastic bag over the head and the belt fastened around the neck were easy enough to recognize. Still, they could have meant something else. They could have meant that Frankie Ramos had taken his own life.

But when Ruben Ramos asked that the bag be removed so he could make a positive ID, all hope for an end of things evaporated.

Once Fran Daly uncovered the bloody mess, Frankie's father uttered an awful groan and then simply crumpled to, the ground. Standing beside him, Joanna reached out and tried to break his fall. So did Heck Tompkins. Between the two of them, they probably helped some.

And then, while Dr. Fran Daly abandoned her forensic duties and rushed over to administer first aid, Joanna sprinted back to her Blazer to radio for help.

Cochise County's spree killer was no longer neglecting to mutilate his male victims.


CHAPTER EIGHTEEN | Rattlesnake Crossing | CHAPTER TWENTY







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