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CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

“I’m looking down on a light blue, older model panel truck."

Awash in relief, Joanna rammed the Blazer into gear. "Which way?" she demanded. "Ask him which way." Frank relayed the question.

"Toward the pass," Kries answered. "Up Road Three-Seven-One, Redington Road, almost to Piety Hill."

"Can you find that on the map, Frank?" Joanna asked.

"It's right here," her chief deputy said, using his index finger to point to the spot. "According to this, it looks to be seven or eight miles beyond the Redington junction."

"Can you tell what the situation is on the ground?" she asked.

"I was told to make just a single pass," Todd Kries said, "so that's what I did. It looks like he's down in a wash. He may have a flat tire. The truck is sitting funny, like maybe it's jacked up or something."

"And the ATV is still in the back?"

"Can't tell. The back doors are open but I can't see inside. What do you want me to do now, Sheriff Brady? I’m alone at the moment, but if you'd like me to, I could go back as far as Tanque Verde Road, where Pima County is setting up a roadblock. They're supposed to be bringing in some sharpshooters. Maybe I could fly one of them out here with me, along with some additional fire power, too."

"Good idea," Joanna said. "Do that. It'll give my deputy and me a chance to get closer. But don't go in until I give the word, understand?"

"Got it. You don't have to convince me," Todd Kries said. "If the guy's packing a fifty-caliber, I'm not in the market to be a hero. I've got a wife and two point three kids at home."

Joanna jammed the gas pedal all the way to the floor. She was just getting up a head of steam when the Blazer rounded a curve and came face-to-face with a small herd of foraging cattle. The Herefords-wild-eyed yearlings, mostly-seemed astonished to find a vehicle bearing down on them on that seldom used road. They stood in the middle of it, stricken and staring, before finally kicking up their hooves and leaping out of the way at the last possible second.

Out of the corner of her eye Joanna saw Frank Montoya grip the hand rest as the last calf, bare inches from the Blazer's front bumper, dashed to safety. "Hold it there, fireball," he said. "If we're going to be in a fight, I'd as soon be alive when we get there."

Usually Joanna would have balked at the idea of some-body backseat driving, but this time she knew she was pushing the envelope. "Sorry about that," she told him. "I'll slow down."

"Thanks." Picking up the radio mike, Frank checked in with Dispatch. "Did everybody hear what's going on with Pima County?" he asked.

"We've got it," Larry Kendrick said. "We'll pass the word on to everybody else."

"What are you going to do?" Sonja Hosfield asked from the backseat.

Trying to listen to the radio transmissions, Joanna was annoyed to have Sonja talking to her. Carrying on a conversation was an unwelcome distraction. She answered all the same.

"We're going to try to get as close to Ryan's truck as we can. When we stop and Chief Deputy Montoya and I jump out, you're to stay put, Mrs. Hosfield. Understand? Under no circumstances are you to set foot outside the car until either he or I give you the all-clear."

Sonja, however, gave no indication she had even heard. "Is Ryan going to die?" she asked.

"That depends," Joanna said.

"On what?"

"On how well we plan the confrontation, for one thing," Joanna told her. "It depends on whether we're able to get there before he knows we're coming. And," she added pointedly, "it depends on whether Frank and I have any distractions."

"I don't want him to," Sonja said. "Live, I mean. If Jake's dead, Ryan should be dead, too."

"That'll be up to the courts," Joanna said. "To a judge and a jury. Based on what I know about Ryan Merritt, he sounds like a good candidate for death by injection. Or at least life without parole."

"I want to see him dead now," Sonja insisted.

"Please, Mrs. Hosfield. I can't talk anymore. I've got to concentrate. Frank, what are you carrying?"

"I've got my nine-millimeter," he said. "And my Glock."

"Great," Joanna said. "Between us we have two Glocks, a nine-millimeter, and a Colt 2000. That's not much when you're stacking them up against a deer rifle, at least one fifty-caliber, and God knows what else."

"So we're a little outgunned," Frank returned. "Maybe even seriously outgunned. We'll just have to play it smart."

"Great. Any bright ideas?"

"We could always wait," Frank suggested. "Give our reinforcements a chance to come on-line."

"Waiting would also give Ryan a chance to take up a defensive position and dig in. No, that won't work."

"So we keep going instead," Frank said. "We get as close as we can, then we ad-lib like crazy."

"Did you ever take any drama classes in school?" Joanna asked.

"Drama?" Frank echoed. "Me? Are you kidding?"

"Well, I did. At good old Bisbee High. Mr. Vorhees, the drama instructor, always used to tell us, 'Ad-libbing is for amateurs.' "

Even though she had to fight to keep the Blazer on the washboarded road, Joanna glanced in Frank Montoya's direction long enough to catch some of the heat from the scathing look he leveled in her direction.

"With all due respect," Frank returned, "when Mr. Vorhees said that, I doubt he was looking down the barrel of a Barrett fifty-caliber."

Surprisingly enough, Joanna and Frank both laughed then, hooting and giggling. Sonja Hosfield probably thinks we're nuts, Joanna thought. But she understood the tension-easing and lifesaving power of laughter in situations like this. It was a way to take the pressure off long enough to stay alert and alive.

"How much farther?" Sonja asked.

"We can't tell," Joanna said. "We probably won't know until we get there."

Just then Todd Kries' voice boomed out of the radio and made her jump. "Sheriff' Brady, I'm coining back now. I've got myself not one but two armed deputies. Both of them with high-powered rifles and night-vision sights for when the sun goes down. We're just now crossing back over the top of the pass. How close are you and where are your reinforcements?"

"The reinforcements are still a long way out," Joanna told him. "They're passing Cascabel now. As for me, I don't know where the hell we are. The speedometer is showing seven miles since we turned onto Redington Road. Maybe we've already missed him. He may have finished changing his tire and moved on."

"I don't think so. I've been keeping an eye out for traffic on the road. According to my estimate, you're almost there. Do you want me to go in and take another look?"

"No," Joanna said. "Hang back a little. The sound of a helicopter can carry a long way out in the middle of nowhere. Wait until Frank and I have actually made visual contact. As soon as we do, I'll call you in."

"Okey-dokey," Todd Kries said. "We'll just sit up here and twiddle our thumbs until you give the word."

The Blazer rounded a sharp curve. After that the road dropped away like a plunging roller coaster. At the bottom of the steep drop, sitting crookedly across a sandy wash, was Ryan Merritt's blue truck.

"We've got him," Frank shouted into the radio. "Come on in, Officer Kries. Bring in your troops. Now's the time."

Earlier, Todd Kries had said the panel truck was sitting crooked. It still was. At first Joanna thought it might be stuck in the sand rather than up on a jack. And there, plain to see, was Ryan Merritt himself, standing at the back of his truck and trying to wrestle the ATV out of the bed through the open back doors at the end of the truck. As the Blazer came over the rise, he must have heard the sound of an approaching vehicle. He turned briefly and looked at them, then turned his attention back to the truck. In the next few seconds Joanna realized that they had arrived just at the critical instant of his unloading the vehicle. He was balancing most of the ATV in midair. Had he relaxed his hold, he might have dropped it.

As he continued to wrestle the ATV, Joanna slammed on the brakes. "Hit the bricks, Frank. I'm right behind you."

To Joanna's dismay, Frank didn't respond with instant compliance. Instead, he thumbed down the speak button on the radio one more time. "We're out of the Blazer, Kries. I'm going right. Sheriff Brady's going left. Tell those sharp-shooters of yours to go after him, not us."

With that Frank threw the radio down and bailed out of the truck. Joanna paused long enough to look back at Sonja. "Remember, stay down!" she ordered. "If you see things are going bad-if you see that Frank and I are losing it-put the Blazer in reverse and get the hell out of here. Understand?"

Sonja nodded wordlessly.

Leaving the engine running and drawing her Colt, Joanna dropped out of the Blazer. She hit the ground rolling, shoulder first, and came to rest against a pillow-sized boulder. The force of hitting the rock knocked the wind out of her lungs and sent the Colt spinning away from her hand. Only when she had retrieved the gun did she realize how badly she had hurt her shoulder. Her whole arm was numb. It was all she could do to maintain her hold on the Colt's grip.

Seconds later, still rubbing her bruised shoulder, she heard the clatter of an arriving helicopter. Good as his word, Todd Kries had already dropped over the mountains and was bringing in his two sharpshooting deputies as promised. Way to go, Todd, Joanna thought, but before she could finish that train of thought, the engine of the ATV surged to lifer. Moments later, it came roaring down the road,

"Joanna," Frank shouted, "look out! He's coming your way!"

But then Joanna realized that Merritt wasn't coming toward her at all. He was actually aiming for the Blazer. In a flash of intuition, she realized that her four-wheel drive vehicle was what he was really after. A fateful flat tire had disabled Ryan Merritt's main means of escape. He had other transportation. For off-roading, the ATV was great, but long-term, it wouldn't move far enough or fast enough for him to get away. And it wouldn't carry any kind of payload, either.

As those thoughts flashed through Joanna's mind, she also realized that because the road was terribly rough right there, he was being forced to use both hands to drive. Both hands. For those few seconds, then, Ryan Merritt wasn't armed.

Measuring the distance between him and the Blazer and between herself and the Blazer, Joanna knew it would be a foot race-a life-and-death foot race. She also knew she had to get there first. Placing second wasn't an option. If Ryan beat her, the Blazer would be his. It was sitting there running with the key already in the ignition and with Sonja Hosfield trapped in the backseat.

He wouldn't hesitate at killing Sonja, any more than he would hesitate at killing someone else, Joanna thought.

Sometimes during the summer, before diving into the icy-cold, well-water depths of the Elks Club pool, Joanna would stand on the diving board and gulp a single preparatory breath. She did that now. Then she pushed up off the ground and propelled herself toward the Blazer.

She beat him there by mere inches, flying horizontally into the open driver's door from five feet away and sliding all the way across the seat. The knuckles of her fingers slammed against the door handle on the passenger side. Once again the Colt was knocked from her hand. This time it landed on the floorboard. By the time she had groped around and found it, Ryan Merritt was already behind her at the open door. And now he, too, was armed. He was raising the deer rifle to aim it when the deafening sound of a gunshot exploded in Joanna's ears.

She looked on in horror while a shocked expression froze on Ryan Merritt's face. The bullet smashed into his forehead, leaving a seemingly small hole. Then it exploded out the back of his head in a shower of gore. The half-raised deer rifle clattered to the ground. It fell backward, away from the open door. And so did he.

At first Joanna thought that Frank must have raced back to the far side of the Blazer and fired the fatal shot from there. But then she saw him. He was still yards away. The shot had come from much closer than that.

The sound of the shot reverberated in Joanna's ears. The smell of cordite stung her nostrils. Puzzled, she raised her-self up and turned around. In the backseat of the Blazer sat Sonja Hosfield. A small but deadly and still smoking pistol was gripped in her trembling hand.

"I wanted him dead," Sonja said simply. "Ryan deserved to be dead, and now he is."

"But where did the gun come from?" Joanna asked. "I thought…"

"It was in my purse," Sonja Hosfield explained. "It's always in my purse. I've carried it for years."

"You'd better hand it over," Joanna said. Without a word, Sonja Hosfield complied.

The next few minutes were a blur of activity. But when there was a pause in the action, Joanna tried to slip away on foot, putting a little distance between herself and the din of arriving emergency vehicles. Some thirty feet from the roadway, she sank down on a boulder. She had retrieved her cell phone from Frank. Unfortunately, her attempt at a discreet exit hadn't gone unnoticed. She had removed the phone from her pocket and was punching numbers into the keypad when Frank Montoya came surging through the undergrowth.

"What's the matter?" he asked anxiously. "Are you all right?"

"I'm okay," Joanna said shakily, holding up the phone so he could see it. "But if you don't mind, I need a little privacy-to call my daughter."


CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR | Rattlesnake Crossing | CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX







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