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CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Back in the Blazer, Joanna gripped the steering wheel with both hands and wondered what to do next. She opted final for calling the department. "Who's in?" she asked Kristin

"Nobody. Chief Deputy Montoya expected to be back l now, but the lady he was supposed to get to send to Tucson wouldn't go. He's been stuck at her house all afternoon."

"And not very happy about it, either, I'll bet," Joanna surmised. "Can we raise him on the radio?"

"I can't," Kristin said, "but I'm sure Dispatch can."

"Never mind," Joanna said. "I'm already as far as Benson. I can be in Pomerene by the time Dispatch gets us linked together. There are two things I need you to do for me. Number one, send a deputy over to Eddy Sandoval‘s place to pick up his cruiser. Then tell the patrol duty officer that Sandoval is off the roster until further notice."

"All right. Anything else?"

"Yes. Ask the records clerk to run a check on someone named Ryan Merritt. I don't have a date of birth, but he’s probably around twenty or so."

"Just here in Cochise County?" Kristin asked. "Or do you want a statewide check?"

The very fact that Kristin had asked the question was a sign that she was becoming more savvy. In the early days of Joanna's administration, the recently elected sheriff and her newly assigned secretary had been at loggerheads more often than not. Now Joanna sometimes found herself wondering if Kristin Marsten had actually grown that much smarter in the intervening months or if the changes in Kristin were a reflection of changes in Joanna herself.

"I'm glad you asked, Kristin," Joanna said. "A statewide check is what I need."

"Do you have an address?"

"No. He's currently living on the Triple C spread up in Cascabel. That address would be somewhere on Pomerene Road, although I can't give you the exact number. Before that, he most likely lived somewhere else. Try the Phoenix metropolitan area or maybe even Tucson."

"Do you want me to call you back on this, or can it wait until you get into the office?"

"Call me back," Joanna said. "I need the info ASAP."

Leaving Benson, Joanna drove straight to Sarah Holcomb's house in Pomerene. She found Chief Deputy Montoya dozing in the shade of one of Sarah's towering cottonwoods. Frank might have tried to convince Kristin that he was suffering, but in actual fact, it was clear to Joanna that he was being treated like an honored guest. An old Adirondack chair and matching footstool had been moved from the elderly woman's covered back porch to the shady front yard, along with a small wooden table. On the table sat a metal tray laden with napkins, a tall ice-filled glass, a generous pitcher of iced tea, and a platter of cookies.

Joanna parked the Blazer and went over to where he was sitting. "Hey, Frank," she said. "Wake up. No fair sleeping on the job."

He came to with a start. "I wasn't really sleeping," he said. "Just resting my eyes."

"Sure you were. I thought you were supposed to be guarding her. As in making sure nobody comes anywhere near her."

"I am," he said. "Nobody can get past me."

"I almost did," Joanna told him. "And what's the deal with all the cookies and the iced tea? I've interviewed this woman twice so far, and she's never offered me so much as a piece of gum."

Frank shrugged. "What can I tell you? Sarah must like me."

"Did you bring the yearbooks?"

"Yes," he said. "We've already been through all of them. We did that over lunch, to no avail. She claims she didn't recognize anybody."

"Where are they?"

"The yearbooks?"

Joanna nodded.

"In the back of my car," Frank said. "If you want to see them, I'll be glad to go get 'em." He headed for his Crown Victoria, his Civvy, as he affectionately called it.

Through overuse compounded by an error in purchasing, the Cochise County Sheriff's Department was long on Crown Victoria-type cruisers and short on four-wheel-drive vehicles. Because his position as chief for administration called for very little field work, Frank now drove one of the Ford sedans despised by the other deputies. With some money and a little technical know-how, Frank Montoya had managed to turn his departmental Crown Victoria into a credible mobile office.

"Here we are," he said, putting the books down on the table. "Eight yearbooks in all. hour from St. David and four from Benson."

Taking the top book off the Benson pile, Joanna quickly thumbed through it, checking each class listing for Ryan Merritt. "Are you looking for someone in particular?" Frank asked when she finished thumbing through the first book and started on the second.

"Yes," she said. "His name's Ryan Merritt. He's Alton Hosfield's son, Sonja's stepson."

"If you don't mind a little help," Frank suggested, "we can probably hurry this job along."

There was only one unchecked yearbook remaining, the last one from St. David, when Joanna's cell phone crowed. As she juggled it out of her purse, Frank made a face.

"You're the sheriff," he said. "Couldn't you find a ring that sounds a little more dignified?"

Joanna ignored the gibe. "Yes," she said into the phone. "What do you have for us, Kristin?" Seconds later, she held the phone away from her mouth. "Don't you have a mobile fax rigged up in your Civvy?"

"Sure do," he said. "It's hooked up to a slick little laptop."

Joanna went back to the phone. "Yes, Kristin," she said. "Go ahead and send it to Chief Deputy Montoya's mobile fax machine. Does it include a mug shot? Great. What about fingerprints? Amen. Send the whole thing. And thanks, Kristin. Good work."

"Send what whole thing?" Frank Montoya asked as he gathered and restacked the collection of yearbooks.

"Ryan Merritt's rap sheet," Joanna said. "It even includes a mug shot."

"The fax does have a small problem at the moment."

"What's that?"

"The printer went off-line. I sent it in for repairs. Whatever material Kristin sends will show up on the screen, though. We can look at it there."

"Look at it nothing," Joanna said. "We're going to show it to Sarah Holcomb."

"Showing a single photo like this isn't going to comply with the montage requirements," Frank began. "Shouldn't we-"

"Lives are at stake," Joanna interrupted. "Bring it."

Within two minutes Frank and Joanna were sitting in the front seat of Frank's Crown Victoria, peering through the glaring afternoon light into the dimly lit computer screen.

"There's too much light here," Frank said. "We'll have to take it inside to be able to see it." He unplugged the laptop, folded it under his arm, and carted it out of the car and up the steps onto Sarah Holcomb's front porch. She answered his knock with a charming smile that faded as soon as she caught sight of Joanna.

"Why, Deputy Montoya," she said, returning her gaze to his face, "is there something more I can do for you?"

"Yes, Mrs. Holcomb, there is. I have a computer here with a picture I need you to take a look at. If you don't mind our coming in to show it to you, that is. There's too much light outside for you to read the screen."

"That beats all," Sarah said. "Never heard of havin' too much light to read by. Usually it's the other way around. Is this somethin' that's on what they call the Innernet? One of those chat-room kinds of things? Although how people can sit around havin' a chat inside a computer is more'n I can figure."

"It's a little like the Internet," Frank allowed, "only it's not exactly the same thing. May we come in?"

"Sure," Sarah said. "You could just as well."

Frank led the way into the house. Rather than being bullied onto the unsittable sofa, he headed for the dining room table. Sarah followed, brandishing her cane more than leaning on it. "You're sure this won't scratch the finish or nothin'?" she asked as Frank started to put the laptop down on her highly polished table.

"No," he said. "It'll be fine."

"And won't you need a place to plug it in?"

"No, ma'am. It works off a battery."

"Like a flashlight, you mean? Lordy, Lordy, what will they think of next!"

It took the better part of a minute for the computer to reboot and recreate the file. Sarah watched the process in abject astonishment. Once Frank had called up the proper files, Joanna glimpsed a fax cover sheet followed by two more pages. The fourth page held a picture. Maybe it wasn't quite as sharp as it might have been with the help of a good laser printer, but the likeness was close enough for Joanna. She recognized Alton Hosfield's son at once. The likeness was close enough for Sarah Holcomb, too.

"That's him, all right," she said. "That's little Frankie's friend. How'd you find him? And what's his name again?"

"Merritt," Joanna said. "Ryan Merritt."

Sarah shook her head. "Never heard tell of no Merritts. Must not be from around these parts."

He's from around here, all right, Joanna thought. From far closer than anyone ever imagined.

"So, then," Sarah was saying, "is that all there is to it? Is that all I have to do?"

"No, Mrs. Holcomb, it isn't. I'm going to have to insist that you spend at least tonight and maybe tomorrow night as well in Tucson with your daughter."

Sarah tapped her cane on the floor. "Now, see here, Sheriff Brady. Mr. Montoya said that as long as I had someone here to look out for me-"

"That's not going to cut it anymore, Mrs. Holcomb. The man you've just identified is the prime suspect in five murders. That's five, as in one, two, three, four, five. At the moment, you and a discredited police officer are the only people who can link him to two of the dead. And if you're our only witness, I want to be damned sure nothing happens to you. Now, I can understand if you don't feel up to driving yourself at the moment. In fact, I'll be more than happy to have one of my deputies drive you there. Otherwise…"

"Otherwise what?" Sarah asked.

"I'll have no choice but to place you in protective custody. Mr. Montoya will drive you over to Bisbee to the Justice Complex and lock you up for the night."

"You mean in a cell?" a shocked Sarah demanded. "In jail?"

"In jail."

"Why, that's outrageous. I never heard of such a thing."

"Please, Mrs. Holcomb," Frank said smoothly. "Sheriff Brady is right. I'm sure you'd be much more comfortable at your daughter's house. Won't you call her now and let her know you're coming?"

"She won't be pleased, havin' me show up like this on such short notice. She likes to have plenty of warnin' so she can get the house all spiffed up before I come to call."

"I doubt she'll mind that much," Joanna said, "once you explain all the circumstances."

After a flurry of phone calls back and forth to Tucson, Sarah reluctantly agreed to go see her daughter. Meanwhile, Joanna read through the rap sheet.

"So what's the deal?" Frank asked when he finally had Sarah packed, loaded, and backing her Buick Century out of the drive and onto the street.

"Ryan Merritt's juvenile record is sealed," Joanna said. "1 have no idea what he did to land himself in the stammer for twenty-one months prior to his eighteenth birthday. They let him out of Adobe Mountain and he was loose for a total of three months before he was arrested again on a parole violation. Because he was no longer a juvenile, he ended up serving the rest of his sentence in Florence. He didn't get out of there until May fifteenth of this year."

"Does that mean he was out of juvie when Rebecca Flowers was murdered up in Phoenix?"

"We can't be sure because no one knows exactly when Rebecca was killed. But it looks right."

"So what do we do?" Frank asked. "Call in an Emergency Response Team and go stake out the Triple C?"

Joanna covered her eyes with her hands. "I'm thinking. I'm worried that if we try that, he might pull the kind of stunt Monty told me about."

"The FBI profiler," Frank said. "The guy I called for you yesterday. You never said you'd talked to him."

"That's because I didn't tell anybody," Joanna said. "You're the only one who knows."

"Tell me," Frank demanded. "What did he say?"

"Let's see… that the guy was young and white. That he'd had problems with authority figures. That he'd been in and out of prison and had no compunction about killing or hurting people. Monty also said he was probably leaving a message for us in the way he posed his victims. How does this sound to you, Frank? I think scattering dead bodies all over his father's property qualifies as a pretty strong message.

"Monty Brainard also said that our boy probably no longer cares whether or not he gets caught. He thinks he'll opt for going out in a hail of bullets, taking as many people with him as possible."

"Including his family."

"Right," Joanna said.

"But if we go up against him, he may very well be armed with some of Clyde Philips' fifty-caliber sniper rifles. Our guys won't be, so what are we going to do?"

"I don't know," Joanna said. "We can't pick him up for questioning because what we have now is strictly circumstantial. If we don't come up with enough to charge him, God only knows what will happen if we have to let him loose again. The problem is, the longer we wait to arrest him, the more danger his family is in. Sarah Holcomb told us Frankie Ramos was Ryan Merritt's friend. Look what happened to him."

For a long time neither Joanna nor Frank Montoya spoke. In the silence, there was nothing to be heard but the buzzing of a thousand locusts. High above them, a jet from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base arched across the blue sky, leaving behind a narrow band of condensation. Not the writing on the wall, Joanna thought. The hand of God writing on the sky.

"I have to warn them," she said.

"Warn who?" Frank asked.

"The Hosfields. I have to let them know."

"But if you warn them, aren't you warning Ryan, too? What if they tell him we're after him and he takes off? l ire might get away."

"But what if we're right about him? What if we keep our mouths shut long enough to collect evidence and he ends up killing his family before we actually get our act together? No," Joanna declared, making up her mind. "I'm going to go talk to them right now."

"Alone?"

"Look," she said, "the Triple C has been crawling with cops for days now. If a single officer shows up to talk to Alton and Sonja Hosfield, that's one thing. If a whole armored division shows up, that's something else. If I had killed three people in as many days and left a couple of other stray corpses lying around here and there besides, I'd head for the hills if I saw two or three cop cars drive into the yard all at once."

"You're right," Frank agreed. "Only one cop car, then, but with two cops in it. You and me, Joanna. Both of us together."

Joanna nodded. "Fair enough," she said.

Frank frowned. "But what if it goes bad? What if all hell breaks loose and he comes out with all barrels blazing?"

"That's what we have the cell phone for."

"By then it may be a little late to call for help."

"Who says we have to wait to call?" Joanna demanded. "We're going in the Blazer and I'm going to drive. While we're headed that way, you'll be on the horn to Dick Voland to bring in officers and position them as our backup."

They headed for the Blazer, climbed in, and fastened their seat belts. "Shouldn't we have Dispatch send for Eddy Sandoval? I don't know exactly where he is at the moment, but chances are he's closer to Cascabel than any of the other deputies."

"We can't call Eddy," Joanna said.

"Why not?"

"Because I just fired him."

"Oh," Frank Montoya said. "I see. Care to tell me about it?"

"Later. Talk to Dick first."

Frank did. Voland was back in his office at the justice complex when Frank finally reached him. After letting loose with a barrage of objections, Dick Voland finally gave up trying to talk Joanna out of her plan of action and began establishing contingency strategies. By the time things were settled, the Blazer had already turned off Pomerene Road onto the Triple C. When the Hosfields' tin-roofed Victorian came into view, nothing at all seemed amiss.

"It looks almost idyllic, doesn't it?" Joanna said.

"Right," Frank Montoya said. "And so did the farm-house in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood."

"I never read that," Joanna said.

"You don't have to," Frank told her. "We're living it."

As they drove into the yard, Joanna looked around anxiously, trying to catch sight of the faded blue panel truck Ryan Merritt had been driving three days earlier. There was no sign of it, or of the ATV, either. The door to the building where the truck had been parked stood wide open, and the space inside was clearly empty.

While Joanna was parking the Blazer outside the gate, the front door of the house opened and Sonja Hosfield, with a purse slung over one shoulder, came striding across the porch. Joanna was so relieved to see the woman alive that she had to restrain herself from running up to Sonja and giving her a hug.

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Hosfield," Joanna said, rolling down her window. "This is my chief deputy Frank Montoya."

"I'm glad to meet you, Mr. Montoya," Sonja said. Then she spoke directly to Joanna. "I wish you had called to let me know you were coming. I would have told you not to bother. Alton had a meeting in town this afternoon, so it's the cook's night out tonight. We're meeting in Benson. Alton's supposed to take me to dinner. In fact, I was just on my way out the door when you drove up."

"And your sons?" Joanna asked.

"They're gone, too. They left a couple of minutes ago, as a matter of fact. Ryan offered to take Jake up into the hills to do some target shooting."

Target shooting! Joanna thought. With twelve-year-old Jake! As her heart filled with dread, some of it must have surfaced on her facial features. Sonja covered her mouth with her hand.

"What's the matter?" Joanna asked.

Sonja shook her head. "I probably shouldn't have mentioned it."

"Shouldn't have mentioned what?"

"Target practice. You see, Ryan's been in some trouble with the law. It happened before he came here to stay with us, but I remember Alton saying that he's not allowed to have access to guns. Still, since the boys were just going to be on our own property, I didn't think it would matter that much."

Sonja stopped talking and stared questioningly into Joanna's face. "I mean, Ryan hasn't done anything wrong, has he? They won't put him back in jail for that, will they?"

"They might." Joanna opened her car door and stepped down onto the hard-packed ground. "It might actually be far worse than you think."

Behind her in the Blazer, she heard a series of cell-phone beeps as Frank Montoya redialed the department. "Houston," he said to Dick Voland. "We have a problem."


CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO | Rattlesnake Crossing | CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR







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