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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Sonja Hosfield stood absolutely still. "What is it, Sheriff Brady?" she asked. "What's going on? What's Ryan done now?"

"You gave him a weapon?" Joanna asked.

"I… yes. I told him he could use his dad's deer rifle. He caught me so much by surprise when he asked that I just said yes without thinking."

"What do you mean he caught you by surprise?"

"Ryan offered to take Jake along for the evening. All on his own, without my even suggesting it. I was pleased. The whole time he's been here, he's barely acknowledged his little brother's existence, while all Jake wants is to be included in what the big guys are doing. I was thrilled Ryan was willing to have Jake go along. Since they were just going to be right here on the ranch, I didn't think it would hurt anything. Sort of like Jake riding the ATV, even though he's too young to have a driver's license on a regular road. Not only that, having the two of them go off by themselves meant that Alton and I could have dinner alone for a change. Almost like a date. I may have graduated as a Home Ec major, but I don't have to prove it by cooking every meal every single day."

Frank got out of the Blazer. "Dick's gathering up everybody he can, including the Emergency Response Team. They're on their way."

Sonja looked alarmed. "Do you have any idea where the boys were going?" Joanna asked.

"I don't know," Sonja said, shaking her head. "They loaded Jake's ATV into the back of Ryan's truck. I told them to stay away from those areas where all those investigators have been working the past few days, but they could be anywhere else. It's a big ranch." She paused and frowned. "Sheriff Brady, I heard him say something about an Emergency Response Team. That means something's happened, something bad. You've got to tell me what it is."

"Where does your stepson stay?" Joanna asked. "Does Ryan have a room here in the house?"

"No, we have a little building out behind the barn, a combination house and toolshed. Back in the old days when Alton could still hire them, braceros used to stay there year-round. Now we usually hire people who live elsewhere. The place isn't much, but when Ryan came to live with us this summer, he wanted to stay there. He asked to stay there. So that's his home-when he's home, that is. He spends a lot of time in town with friends."

"What friends?"

Sonja shrugged. "I don't know, really. I've never met any of them. Remember, I'm only a stepmother. He doesn't tell me any more than he absolutely has to, but his dad probably knows."

"Could we see his room, Mrs. Hosfield?" Joanna asked. "If you'd be good enough to allow us access so we don't have to go tracking down a search warrant, it could save everybody a whole lot of time and trouble."

"Why would you need a search warrant?" Sonja said. "Of course you can see it. There's nothing there, nothing to hide. It's just a little apartment with a bed, a dresser, and a refrigerator."

She led them across the yard to the far side of the building where the truck had been parked. Half of it was a garage / toolshed. The other half of the building served as living quarters. When Sonja tried the door, it was locked. "That's funny," she said, looking back at Joanna. "There's nobody on the ranch except us. Why would Ryan need to lock his door?"

"Break it down, Frank," Joanna ordered, drawing her Colt. "That's all right with you, isn't it, Mrs. Hosfield?"

"Why, of course… if you think it's necessary."

The door shuddered under the first two blows from Frank Montoya's shoulder, but it didn't give way until he slammed into it a third time. It splintered into pieces that fell out of the jamb.

"Wait here," Joanna said, and then she stepped inside.

The room was hot. It was also dark and gloomy. The only light came from a single dingy window shrouded by dirt and cobwebs. Unfortunately, there was an odor in the air-a heavy, coppery smell that was all too familiar.

It took several seconds for Joanna's eyes to adjust to the dim light. When she could see, she noticed a terrible dark smudge on top of the narrow cot-a smudge and a small, still figure. Hoping that it wasn't what she thought and yet knowing it was, Joanna moved gingerly across the room to the bed.

"Don't let Mrs. Hosfield come in here, Frank," she warned. "There's a body in here. Keep her outside!"

"What is it?" Sonja called from outside the broken door. "For God's sake, someone tell me what's going on!"

Sickened, barely able to breathe, Joanna stood over that terrible scene and came face-to-face with the appalling knowledge that they had arrived too late. She reached down and touched Jake Hosfield's lifeless wrist. The body was still warm to the touch, but the boy was dead. The cute kid with the bright red hair was dead, and his hair was… gone.

Joanna closed her eyes. In her mind's eye she tried to replay the past few hours-the confrontation with Eddy Sandoval, the time spent thumbing through the yearbooks, the time it took rebooting the computer, the few minutes spent arguing with Sarah Holcomb and making sure she was safely out of town. All those moments and minutes had added up into too many. For Jake Hosfield, those seemingly inconsequential decisions had made all the difference-the difference between life and death.

Squeezing her eyes shut to squelch the tears of rage that were forming and then holstering her weapon, Joanna wheeled and sprang back across the room, almost without touching the bare wooden floor. Outside, Frank stood just in front of the single wooden step with his fingers buried deep in the flesh of Sonja Hosfield's upper arm. For a second, Joanna thought he was physically restraining her, when in fact he was simply holding her upright. As soon as he let go of her arm, she sank down on the rough plank step like a lifeless doll.

"Not Jake," Sonja sobbed. "It can't be. Please, not my Jake."

Joanna saw the woman's mouth move, but she heard nothing. Something had happened to her in that darkened, bloody room. In those few seconds standing at Jake Hosfield's deathbed, she had confronted her own culpability. As sheriff, Joanna had sworn to save people like Jake from people like his half brother. That was her duty, her responsibility. She had failed, and that failure made her deaf to Sonja Hosfield's scream, inured her to the poor woman's pain, and galvanized her to action. If she paused for even a moment to give comfort, she wouldn't be doing what had to be done.

"Frank!" Joanna barked. "Give me the phone!"

Removing it from his jacket pocket, Frank tossed the phone to her. She caught it in midair and was dialing almost before it ever settled into her hand.

"Mrs. Hosfield, how long ago did Ryan leave?" she asked as her fingers raced across the keypad.

"I don't know. Ten minutes? Not much more than that."

"And did you see which way he turned when he reached the road?"

"No."

Frank said, "We didn't meet him along the road between here and Pomerene, so he must have gone the other way." Joanna nodded her acknowledgment as the emergency dispatcher answered the phone.

"Cochise County nine-one-one. What are you reporting?"

"This is Sheriff Brady. Put me through to Pima County nine-one-one. We've got a mutual-aid situation here. I've got to have help. Stay on the line so you'll know exactly what's going on. That way I won't have to repeat it."

"Yes, ma'am."

The connection was made within seconds, although it seemed much longer than that. A moment or two later, another voice came on the line. "This is the Pima County Sheriff's Department watch commander, Captain Leland White. What do you need, Sheriff Brady?"

"I'm out at Cascabel," she said. "I'm on the Triple C with a homicide that's happened within the last half hour. We've got a multiple-homicide suspect fleeing north on, Pomerene Road heading for Redington. Once there, he may turn west and shoot through the pass between the Rincons and the Catalinas. Or he might go straight on north toward Oracle. The third option is that he may hole up someplace to fight it out. I'm sure he thought he had several hours' head start on us. I'm betting he's making a run for it."

"What's his name?"

"Ryan Merritt."

"Age?"

"Twenty-two. But you can get all the specifics off his rap sheet. He's listed."

"You want us to post an APB on this guy?" Captain White asked.

"Yes, but when you do, remember, the suspect is armed and extremely dangerous. He may be in possession of one or more fifty-caliber sniper rifles with a kill range of a mile or more. But what I really need from you is a helicopter. Does your department have one?"

"No, we don't, but the City of Tucson does. When we need it, they charge us an hourly rate. I forget how much."

"It doesn't matter. Whatever it is, we'll pay it. We've got to have one."

"All right," Leland White said. "But we'll have to move fast. It won't be long before we lose the light. What kind of vehicle is he driving?"

"Blue Ford panel truck. Nineteen-sixties vintage with an ATV loaded into the back. Can't tell you the exact model." Joanna held the phone away from her mouth. "Mrs. Hosfield, is the truck licensed to your husband?" Sonja nodded dumbly.

"Captain White? Okay, the truck is licensed to Alton Hosfield of the Triple C Ranch in Cascabel. You should be able to find the details from the DMV. I have one officer with me. We're going to leave the Triple C and head north as far as Redington. If we don't catch up to the suspect before then, we'll wait at the junction there in hopes the helicopter will be able to point us in the right direction. And that's all I want from the chopper-directions. Tell the pilot he is not to make contact. If possible, I don't want Merritt to know we're after him. We'll be better off if he keeps moving. If he stops, he'll have time to deploy those rifles and tripods. If he does that, we could have wholesale slaughter on our hands." As if we don't already.

"But going after him with only one officer…" White began.

"One is all I have right now," Joanna said. "And one is a hell of a lot better than none."

"What about roadblocks?"

"I've got reinforcements coming from Bisbee, but it'll take time to put them in place. They'll establish a roadblock on Cascabel Road between here and Pomerene, but if you could set some up on your end, that would be great."

"Okay. You've got it. I'll get Tucson on the horn right now. How do I get back to you after I talk to them?"

"By radio," she said. "I'm using my cell phone at the moment, but I don't know how much farther into the mountains we'll still have a signal. Cochise County Dispatch, were you listening to this whole thing?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Pass all that information along to Dick Voland. And contact Fran Daly at the Pima County Medical Examiner's office. Tell her we're going to need her services down here one last time. Have her come out to the Triple C, to the little combination toolshed/apartment out behind the house. That's where the latest victim is."

"Will do. Anything else?"

"Not now. We're heading out."

All the while she was talking, Joanna and Frank had both been moving back toward the Blazer. Now, with the call finished, Joanna started to climb into the driver's seat.

"Take me along," Sonja Hosfield said from two steps behind her. "I want to go, too."

"No," Joanna replied. "That's impossible."

"Please."

"Absolutely not. Out of the question. This is a potentially lethal situation, Mrs. Hosfield. We can't possibly have civilians along-"

"Sheriff Brady, what if Ryan comes back?" Frank interjected. "What if we're wrong and he isn't heading out of Dodge? We can't just leave Mrs. Hosfield here alone with no way of defending herself."

"You have a car," Joanna said to Sonja. "Drive into Benson. Find your husband and tell him what's happened."

"But she's unarmed," Frank pointed out. "Ryan may have taken a position somewhere between here and there. If so, he could ambush her along the way."

Joanna thought about that-about the possibility of adding yet another victim to Ryan Merritt's terrible death count. "All right," she said, relenting. "No more arguing. Get in back, Mrs. Hosfield. When I give an order, you follow it. Understood?"

Sonja nodded mutely and reached for the door handle. "There's a milk crate in the backseat with a Kevlar vest in it," Joanna continued. "Take that out and put it on." Not that a Kevlar vest is going to do anybody much good, she thought. Fifty-caliber bullets will go through bullet-resistant vests like they're made of paper.

Once in the Blazer, Joanna fastened her seat belt, switched on the ignition, and slammed the vehicle into gear. "Frank, there's an Arizona atlas in the pocket behind my seat. Get it out and let's see how many places he could turn off between here and there."

While Frank dragged out Joanna's dog-eared copy of the Arizona Road and Recreation Atlas and flipped through its pages, she raced the Blazer down the narrow private road that cut through Alton Hosfield's irrigated pasture, past a placid herd of calmly grazing Herefords. Their lives haven't changed, Joanna thought, even though everything else has.

"How could he kill his own brother?" Sonja Hosfield was asking from the backseat. Under such appalling circumstances, Joanna found the woman's voice unnervingly calm-far steadier than anyone would have expected. "How could he do that?"

How could Cain kill Abel? Joanna wondered. She said, "As far as we can tell, your stepson is a natural-born killer, Mrs. Hosfield. So far, we're fairly certain that he's killed six people-five of them in just the last week. There could be more, though, other victims we as yet know nothing about."

"Six people!" Sonja whispered. "I tried to tell him, but…

"What are you talking about?"

"My husband. Before Ryan ever came here, I tried to tell Alton that boy was trouble, but I never dreamed, never imagined, that he could do something so… appalling. His mother's a mess, and I was afraid he would be, too. That we'd have to watch him constantly. Alton told me I was imagining things. He said all the boy needed was a chance and that I was being paranoid."

You weren't paranoid, Joanna thought. Not at all.

"But Alton's Ryan's father, and he was determined to try, so I went along with it," Sonja continued. "He felt so guilty about what happened between him and Lindsey. She was Alton's first wife, you see. One of the world's worst mothers. She put Alton through hell, and the kids, too. Ryan and Felicia-Ryan's younger sister-practically had to raise, themselves. Lindsey gave them no supervision, no guidance, and once she left, she pretty much cut off sill contact between Alton and his children.

"It's no wonder Ryan got in trouble, then. We didn't even know about it when he was locked up the first time and sent to Adobe Mountain. They let him out on parole and he was locked back up again within minutes. That was the first we heard anything about it-the second time, when they put him in Florence."

"For what?" Joanna asked. "What was he locked up for the first time?"

"Nobody ever told us. The first we knew there was a problem was when Ryan wrote to Alton from Florence and asked if he could come here when he finished serving his sentence. I was against it. I was afraid of the kind of influence someone like that might have on-" Sonja's voice broke. "On Jake," she finally said. "I was so afraid of what might happen to Jake."

They rattled across the cattle guard and turned north. "But your husband let him come anyway?" Joanna asked. "Over your objections?"

After a few moments, Sonja regained control enough to answer and nod. "Alton thought we could help. Thought the combination of living out here, doing hard physical labor, and having a loving family around him would somehow remake Ryan. Fix him. Make up for all those years of neglect. Once Ryan got here, Alton tried to explain that he had fought for custody when he and Lindsey divorced. That he had wanted to keep both Ryan and Felicia with him here on the ranch. He tried to explain that those were different times back then, when men didn't get awarded custody no matter what.

"And Ryan did seem to listen. I mean, he wasn't nearly as bad to be around as I had thought. Once he knew what was expected, he pitched in with work around the place. Alton said he was a good worker. He didn't know much about living on a ranch, though he was willing to learn. But when he wasn't working, he didn't hang around with us. He wasn't much interested in having a family kind of relationship."

Sonja lapsed into silence, and Joanna looked at her watch. How long it would take for the helicopter to cross Redington Pass depended on the chopper's speed and the physical location when it was contacted. Tucson had expanded to fill a wide swath of valley from east to west and north to south. A location on the far west or north side of town could add as much as twenty miles to the distance.

"What are you seeing?" she asked Frank who, in brooding silence, was studying the map.

"There are little roads that lead off into the mountains, but they mostly don't go anywhere. We should probably put a roadblock up on Muleshoe Road between the Nature Conservancy Center and Willcox. Then, up beyond Redington, there are forest service roads as well. The real problem, though, is that since he has access to an ATV, there's no reason he couldn't go right around whatever roadblocks we do throw up."

"Good point," Joanna said. "But go ahead and call for them anyway. And while you're at it, see if you can get a fix on the helicopter's location. The sun will be going down pretty soon. When it does, we'll be screwed."

Speeding along the deserted road, Joanna kept up the velocity as much as possible. At fifty miles an hour, the washboards disappeared, but loose gravel made the twisting corners as slippery as icy pavement. At that rate they were fast coming up on Redington, coming up on the place where the road would split off in different directions. There Joanna would be forced to make a critical decision. Depending on which fork she chose, she would either he right on Ryan Merritt's fleeing trail or off in the hinterlands and headed in the wrong direction.

While Frank repeatedly attempted to contact the helicopter by radio, Joanna glanced in the rearview mirror and caught sight of a now dry-eyed Sonja Hosfield staring out the window. "Did one of my deputies come see you a few weeks back?" Joanna asked. "Somebody named Eddy Sandoval?"

"Yes. It wasn't very long after Ryan got here. Deputy Sandoval came by one afternoon while Alton and Ryan were working in the fields. The deputy didn't say straight out what he wanted or what it was all about, but he hinted around that it had something to do with Ryan. I put my two cents' worth in right then and there. I told him Ryan Merritt was an adult and responsible for his own actions; that if Ryan got himself in trouble again, he'd have to get himself out of it. I gave Ryan the same message later that night. I wanted him to know that if he screwed up, he was on his own. That his daddy wasn't going to fix it for him."

The speeding Blazer arrived at the first junction just out-side Redington. There was nothing for Joanna to do but pull over and wait for information from the helicopter while Sonja Hosfield went on talking and unburdening herself.

"It sounded good," she was saying. "I really read him the riot act. I told him if there was even a hint of any more trouble, he'd have to find himself some other place to live. I meant it, too. I meant every word. The only problem is, I never would have been able to make it stick."

"Why not?" Joanna asked.

"Because Alton wouldn't have backed me up on it. He would have come to Ryan's rescue again. He loves him, you see. Ryan is his firstborn son. Alton loves him to distraction, no matter what. And that's why my little Jake is dead now. It isn't fair. How can that-"

A voice cul in on them from the radio in the dash. "Sheriff Brady, can you read me?"

"Yes."

"This is Todd Kries with the Tucson PD," a voice said over the rattling racket of a flying helicopter. "Hold on. I think maybe we just got lucky."


CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE | Rattlesnake Crossing | CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE







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