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CHAPTER TWO

Driving toward Benson after lunch, Joanna called in to the department to let the staff know where she was going and when she'd be back. For the rest of the fifty-mile drive, she thought about Marianne and Jeff and Esther. Compared to her friends' life-and-death struggles, her concerns and conflicts about Butch Dixon seemed downright trivial. She felt guilty for even thinking about bothering Marianne with something so inconsequential.

Between Tombstone and St. David, Highway 80 curves through an area of alkaline-laced badlands. To Joanna, that stark part of the drive usually made her think of what she had once imagined the surface of the moon would be. But this year the summer's record-breaking rainy season had made moisture so plentiful that even there a carpet of wild, stringy grass had caught hold and sprouted, softening the harsh lines and turning the rugged desert green-a mirror and a metaphor for the miracle of life itself-clear, visible evidence of an unseen Hand at work.

"Look, God," Joanna Brady said aloud, as if He were right there in the Blazer with her-a concerned civilian, maybe, doing a ride-along. "Surely, if You can make grass grow here, You can figure out a way to save Esther Maculyea-Daniels. Please."

Beyond that, there was nothing Joanna could do but let go and let God.

A few miles later, at the traffic circle in Benson, she turned east off Highway 80 and followed the I-10 frontage road until she reached the turnoff for Pomerene. There, crossing the bridge across the San Pedro, she slowed enough to observe the awesome effect of water in the desert. Over the hum of the Blazer's powerful engine, she could hear the chatter of frogs. And above that, she heard the water.

Since an earthquake in the late 1800's the modern San Pedro usually carried little more than a trickle of mossy water in a wide expanse of dry and sandy riverbed. On that hot August day, however, the rushing tumult below the bridge was running almost bank to bank in a reddish-brown, foam-capped flood. Unfortunately, people accustomed to the river's usually placid guise often failed to give this transformed San Pedro the respect it deserved.

Summer rains had come early and often that year, starting in the middle of June. In the course of the past two months the renewed San Pedro, with its deadly change of personality, had claimed four separate victims. One carload of Sunday-afternoon picnickers had been washed away up near Palominas in the middle of July. That incident alone had resulted in three fatalities. A mother and two preschool children had died, while the father and two older children had been hospitalized. Then, in early August, a seventeen-year-old St. David youth had bet his buddies ten bucks that he could swim across the rain-swollen flood. He had lost both the ten-dollar wager and his life.

Joanna could see why. More than twenty-four hours after the last rain, a torrent of silt-laden water still churned north ward. Seeing it reminded her of the stories she had heard at her father's knee-stories D. H. Lathrop had heard from Cochise County old-timers. They had claimed that before the earthquake, there had once been so much water running in the San Pedro, they could float on rafts from Palominas north all the way to Winkelman, where the San Pedro River met up with the Gila. For years Joanna had privately scoffed at what she regarded as nothing more than tall tales on the order of Paul Bunyan's blue ox, Babe. Now, though, the raging river made those claims seem much more plausible.

Pomerene, a few miles on the other side of the bridge, seemed to have little justification for its continued existence. A few people-several hundred at most-seemed to live in the near vicinity, but for what reason, Joanna couldn't fathom. Some of the houses were fine, but the good ones were interspersed with tumbledown shacks and moldering mobile homes surrounded by rusted-steel shells of wrecked vehicles. The cheerfully sparkling and still brand-new street signs, assigned with ironic artistry by some bureaucrat locked up in the county addressing department, were wildly at odds with the sad reality of their surroundings.

It seemed to Joanna that Pomerene should have been a ghost town-that it should have been allowed to die the natural death of fading back into the sandy river bottom. Instead, it stubbornly persisted, hanging on like some punch-drunk fighter-hurt badly enough to be beyond help, but too far gone to have sense enough to lie down and die.

The down-at-heels hovels on Bella Vista Drive and Rimrock Circle in particular made places in Bisbee's Tin Town neighborhood seem prosperous by comparison. And Clyde Philips' tin-roofed shack at the far end of Rimrock could easily have been thrown together by the same turn-of-the-century carpenters who had built the mining-camp cabins that still clung like empty, dry locust husks to the red-rocked sides of Bisbee's B-Hill.

Climbing up onto the rickety front porch, Joanna knocked firmly on the grime-covered door. Even though she knocked several times, no one answered. Leaving the front door, she went to the side of the house past a dusty, faded blue Ford quarter-ton pickup. At the back door she knocked again-with similar results. No answer.

Trying to decide what to do next, Joanna glanced around. At the end of the driveway, in place of an ordinary garage, was a slump-block building that looked like an armed fortress. Or a jail. Rolls of razor wire lined the tops of the walls. The only windows were narrow slits on either side of a steel door, barred in front by a heavy-duty wrought-iron grille. Approaching the door, Joanna could tell that the slits were covered by one-way glass that allowed whoever was inside the building to see out without offering even a glimpse of what was on the other side of the wall.

Fastened to the grille was a hand-lettered sign that announced, NO TRESPASSING. THESE PREMISES GUARDED BY A LOADED AK-47. GO AHEAD. MAKE MY DAY.

Great, Joanna thought as she stepped forward and punched a doorbell that had been built into the casement of one of the windows. Just what we need. A gun nut with a Clint Eastwood complex.

Pressing the button, she strained to hear whether or not the bell actually worked. Up on the roof, an air-conditioning unit of some kind rumbled away. Over the din of that, it was difficult to tell if the bell did indeed function, but between the grille and the concrete-block construction, knocking on either the door or the wall wasn't an option.

While waiting for someone to answer, Joanna studied her surroundings, expecting to find some kind of electronic monitoring equipment focused on the door. As far as she could see, however, Clyde Philips counted on old-fashioned armory kinds of protection rather than newfangled gadgets. She rang the bell a second time and waited once more. Still no one came to the door. She was about to give up and Walk away when a woman's gravelly voice startled her.

" Clyde 's pro'ly over to Belle's. His truck's here, so he musta walked."

Joanna turned to see a sun-baked old woman standing on the sagging back porch of the house next door. "Where's that?" she asked.

"Belle's?" the old woman asked, and Joanna nodded. “It’s his ex-wife's place. Uptown." The woman pointed vaguely to the left with a gnarled cane. "Over on Old Pomerene Road."

"Will I have any trouble finding it?"

"Hell’s bells," the woman said. "Hardly. It's the only restaurant in town. But you'd better hurry if you want to catch lunch or Clyde, either one. Belle closes her doors at three sharp. After that, people have to go all the way into Benson if they want a bite to eat."

The woman was right. Belle Philips' place on Old Pomerene Road wasn't at all hard to find. Of the dozen or so storefronts on what passed for Main Street, only three still functioned as businesses. One of the three with lights on was the ground floor of a decrepit two-story building that looked as though a strong wind would blow it to smithereens.

At some time in the distant past, someone had gone to the trouble of covering the exterior with cedar shingles. Sun and heat had leached all the natural oils out of the wood, leaving it gray and brittle and almost charred around the edges. On the north and east sides of the building, the shingles, sagged in crooked, weary rows. On the west side of the building-the one that took the brunt of the sun-most of the shakes were missing completely, revealing in their stead a ghostly layer of faded red tarpaper painted to look like bricks.

The rest of the building didn't look much better. In both grimy front windows, chipped gold letters announced "Belle's Donuts and Eatery." Under one sign was a three-by-five card. On the card along with a hand-drawn ballpoint arrow that pointed to the word "Donuts," was the added notation "One hundred thousand two hundred served."

When Joanna pushed open the wood-framed glass door, a bell tinkled overheard. A heavyset woman, wearing a faded bandanna babushka-style on frizzy gray hair, stood leaning against what looked like a soda fountain counter. Under a massive apron she wore a sleeveless tank top. Folds of loose flesh dangled from upper arms a good eighteen inches around. Stubbing out a cigarette in a brimful ashtray, she quickly stowed it under the counter.

"Howdy," the woman said. "Saw you lookin' at my sign. I make 'em all myself-the doughnuts, I mean-and keep track of every dozen, although I only change the card once't a month or so."

"That's still a lot of doughnuts," Joanna said.

The woman grinned, showing several missing teeth, both lowers and uppers. She nodded sagely. "Yup, you bet it is. Don't just sell 'em here, of course. Take 'em to places like the county fair and Rex Allen Days and Heldorado over to Tombstone. That's always a good gig, Tombstone is. Most likely 'cause it's in October and colder'n a witch's tit by then. I hire me a couple of young kids, good-lookin' girls if I can find 'em, to do the actual sellin'. What can I get for you?"

Joanna was still more than pleasantly full from downing Daisy Maxwell's Cornish pasty, but she knew that ordering something from Belle would help smooth things along. "How about a cup of coffee?" she asked.

When the coffee came, it smelled acrid and old-as though it had been sitting in an almost empty pot on the burner for the better part of the day or maybe even longer. Usually Joanna drank her coffee black, but this strong stuff definitely called for making an exception.

"Cream?" Joanna asked hopefully.

Belle nodded. "Sure. What kind of moo-juice you want? We got regular cream, half-and-half, canned, and cow-powder. Take your choice."

In that dingy, fly-speckled place, Joanna worried about the age and possible contamination of anything requiring refrigeration. She opted for Coffee-mate. When Belle delivered the jar, the crust of dry powder lining the bottom was so old and hard that Joanna had to chip it loose with her spoon before she could ladle the resulting lump into her cup Further examination of the almost empty jar showed no sign of any expiration date and no sign of a scanner barcode, either. Not good.

“You must be Belle Philips," Joanna said, stirring the brackish brew to dissolve the lump.

"'That's right," Belle said. "And who might you be?"

Joanna reached into her blazer pocket and pulled out her ID. "Whoee," Belle exclaimed, holding the card up to the light and squinting at it. "Don't guess I've ever met a sheriff before, leastways not in person. You're not here on account of somethin' I've done, are you?"

"I was actually looking for your former husband."

Belle grimaced. "It figures," she said. " Clyde 's always up to some fool off-the-wall thing. Me an' him split the sheets about six years ago now, and I say good riddance. Best thing I ever done. If I'da known how things would work out, I would of done it a lot sooner. Still see him most every day, though. Comes in here and has me cook hint his breakfast, but, by God, he pays me for it. Cash. Every day. None of this running-a-tab crap. If I'da had a brain in my head, I woulda done that the whole time we was married, too-charged him, that is. And not just for cooking his meals and washing his damned underwear, either." She grinned slyly. "If you get my meanin'."

Joanna nodded. She got it, all right. "So has he been in today? I tried stopping by both his house and his shop. His truck was there, but he didn't answer at either place."

Belle shrugged. "He hasn't been in so far, and once I close the doors at three o'clock, he'll be out of luck. Probably got himself a snootful last night and he's sleeping it off today. He does that, you know-drinks to excess. That's one of the reasons I divorced him-for drinking and carousing both."

"Well," Joanna said, "since he isn't home, is there anywhere else in town he might be?"

"My guess is he's in the refrigerator he calls a bedroom, sleeping the sleep of the dead, and can't hear you over the sound of that damned room air conditioner of his. That's another thing about him. The man's so tight his farts squeak. He's cheap as can be about everything, but not air-conditioning, no, ma'am. Keeps his shop and bedroom so cold they're like as not to freeze your butt. Us'ta be, I'd walk in there to go to bed in the summertime and my nipples would turn to ice. Now that I'm alone, I sleep upstairs here with just a single fan. Sometimes, even in the summer, I don't bother with that."

"Getting back to Clyde…" Joanna hinted.

"Want me to go over and wake him up for you?" Belle Philips offered. "We've been divorced a long time, but l still have a key. He coulda changed the locks, but like I said, he's so damned cheap…"

Glad of an excuse not to drink the awful coffee, Joanna pushed the still brimming cup aside. "That would be a real favor, if it's not too much trouble."

No trouble at all," Belle said. "All's I got to do is turn out the lights and lock the door. Since I'm my own boss, I can come back later on and finish cleaning up. I do that sometimes, anyway, especially if it gets too hot of an afternoon."

While she waddled over to the door and turned the CLOSED sign to the front, Joanna put a dollar bill down on the counter. The sign over the cash register said coffee cost seventy-five cents. After a moment's consideration, she added a quarter to the single.

Belle returned and plucked a huge, fringed leather purse out from under the counter. "Ready," she said, jangling a ring of keys. "My car or yours?"

"Let's take mine," Joanna told her. "It's parked right out front."

When Belle Philips clambered into the Blazer, the seat springs groaned under her weight. She had to struggle with the seat belt to get it to reach all the way around her. "Nice car," she commented, once she was finally fastened in. "Not like one of those little foreign rice buckets. That's mine over there." She pointed to an enormous old white-finned Cadillac. "'That one's real comfortable. That's one thing Clyde does for me, and I 'preciate it, too. Twice't a month or so, he goes down to Naco or Agua Prieta and brings me a couple of jerricans of regular old gas. You know, the leaded hint the kind you can't buy on this side of the line no more. If it weren't for that, I wouldn't be able to keep that old Caddy purring along. I just love that car. Couldn't stand to give it up."

Joanna knew what she meant. In fact, to a lesser degree, she felt the same kind of attachment to the county-owned Blazer. She remembered when the vehicle had been severely damaged by a dynamite explosion down near Douglas. The blast had blown out the windows and then sent a hail of shattered glass into the air, shredding both the head liner and the upholstery. After surveying the damage, the county insurance adjuster had totaled the vehicle. For months the damaged Blazer had languished in the departmental lot waiting to be cannibalized for parts, while Joanna had been forced into using one of the department's new, two-wheel-drive Crown Victoria cruisers. Two-wheel drive and a sedan-type construction, however, were a poor match for Cochise County 's miles of rural back roads.

After seeing some of Jeff Daniels' auto restoration handiwork, Joanna had prevailed on Frank Montoya to find a spot in the budget to pay for repairs. For far less money than the adjuster had estimated, Jeff Daniels had put the Blazer's interior back in almost perfect condition. There were still occasions when Joanna used one of the Crown Victorias, but usually she drove the Blazer, preferring that over anything else.

Less than three minutes after leaving the restaurant, Joanna stopped again outside Clyde Philips' house. Belle opened the car door and lumbered out. Standing on the decrepit front porch, she spent the better part of a minute digging through her capacious purse and finally extracting both a cigarette and a lighter. With the cigarette dangling from one corner of her mouth, Belle selected an old-fashioned skeleton key from her key ring, stuck it in the lock, pushed open the creaking door, and stepped inside.

Wrestling with probable-cause issues, Joanna hesitated, thinking it would be better if she remained outside until Clyde himself invited her into the house.

"It's okay if you wan'ta come on in," Belle called back to her.

Joanna considered. As far as she knew, no crime had been committed. She was there to talk with Clyde. The man certainly wasn’t a suspect in any ongoing investigation.

"So are you coming or not?" Belle urged.

Shrugging, Joanna stepped over the threshold. Her first Impression upon entering the hot and stuffy little house was that a goat lived there. The place stank. It smelled of dirty mocks and dirty underwear, old shoes, stale beer, and cigarettes. Even though the unscreened windows stood wide open, without air-conditioning, the heat inside the room was overwhelming. The room was tall and narrow with a rust-stained tin ceiling. A single light fixture dangled from the center of the room. Ratty, broken-down furniture was littered with a collection of beer cans, paper trash, garbage, and bugs.

"'That's the other thing about Clyde," Belle said. "His mama never taught him about cleanliness bein' next to godliness and all that, and he never did learn how to pick up after hisself, either. As you can see, once't I quit doing for him, the whole place went to hell in a handbasket. Hang on," she added. "If you think it's bad out here, you sure as heck don't want to see the bedroom. He allus sleeps in just his birthday suit with hardly any covers."

Joanna nodded. "You go on ahead," she agreed. "I'll be happy to wait out here."

Belle lumbered toward a short hallway. Beneath filthy, chipped linoleum, the aged plank floor groaned in protest with each passing step.

" Clyde?" Belle said tentatively, tapping on a dingy gray door that might once have been painted white. "You in there? It's me-Belle. There's somebody here to see you. A lady, so don't you come wanderin' out with no clothes on, you hear?"

There was no reply. In the answering stillness of the house, there was only a faint but insistent mechanical sound that Joanna assumed had to be coming from the bedroom air conditioner Belle had mentioned earlier.

Belle knocked on the door again. " Clyde?" she said insistently. "Listen here, you gotta wake up now. It's late. After three, but if you're very nice to me, I might consider whipping you up an omelet just because. Okay?"

Again there was no answer. Belle glanced apologetically over her shoulder in Joanna's direction. "Sorry about this. The man always did sleep like a damned log. Guess I'm gonna have'ta go give him a shake. If you'll just wait here…"

With that Belle opened the bedroom door. As soon as she did so, a chilly draft filtered into the room, carrying with it an evil-smelling vapor, one that totally obliterated all other odors. That putrid smell was one Sheriff Joanna Brady recognized and had encountered before-the awful scent of death and the rancid stench of decaying flesh. Without even seeing it, Joanna guessed what kind of horror lay beyond that open door, but for a time, Belle seemed oblivious.

" Clyde?" she said again. "Wake up, will you?"

Then, after a moment of silence with only the air conditioner humming in the background, the whole house was rent by a terrible, heart-wrenching, wordless shriek. Hearing it, Joanna cleared the living room in two long strides. When she reached the doorway, she stopped long enough to observe a scene that might have been lifted straight from some grade-B horror movie.

With her cigarette still in her mouth, Belle had crossed the room to where a male figure lay on an old-fashioned metal-framed bed with a sagging single mattress and no box springs. Just as she had predicted, the man was naked. Above him swirled a cloud of flies.

As Joanna stepped inside she saw Belle lift the man up by the shoulders. Belle began shaking him back and forth the way a heedless child might shake a loose-jointed Raggedy Andy doll. It was only then, when she raised the man off the pillow, that Joanna realized Clyde Philips wasn't entirely naked. A black plastic garbage bag covered his face and was fastened tightly around his neck with a belt.

Seeing the way the head flopped back and forth, there was no question in Joanna's mind that the bag had already completed its awful work. No amount of shaking would awaken him. Clyde Philips. He was dead.

"You gotta wake up, Clyde," Belle Philips was sobbing am she shook the body back and forth. "Don't joke with me now. It's not funny."

Fighting to control her gag reflexes, Joanna ventured far enough into the room to lay a restraining hand on the distraught woman's shoulder. "It's too late," she said gently. "Leave him be now, Belle. You'll have to leave him be."

Still holding her dead husband in a sitting position, Belle Philips swung around and glared at Joanna. The look on her face was one of such baleful rage that for an instant Joanna thought the other woman was about to take a swing at her. Warily trying to move out of range, she stepped back. And it was that one full step that saved her.

After a second or two, Belle seemed to lose interest in Joanna. Instead, she let go of the body. As the dead weight of Clyde Philips sank back onto the bed, she threw herself on top of it.

Watching from a few feet away, Joanna was mystified by the gesture. There was no sense to it. There was no way to tell if Belle hoped her smothering, all-enveloping embrace might warm the chilled body or somehow force breath back into the lifeless corpse. Suddenly, under the combined weight of both bodies, the frail old bedstead could bear no more. With a creak and a groan, it gave a lurch. Next, the two ends-head and foot alike-seemed to fold together like someone trying unsuccessfully to shuffle a gigantic deck of cards. Then the whole thing listed to one side, crashed to the floor, and disappeared as the wooden floor disintegrated beneath it.

Almost a minute went by before the dust cleared enough for Joanna to see what had happened. Coughing and squinting through tear-filled eyes, she found herself standing on the edge of a jagged wooden cliff. The aged floor, weakened by generations of hardworking termites, had simply collapsed into the earthen crawl space under the house.

Gingerly, Joanna edged over to the musty abyss and looked down. As the dust cleared, she could see a rough dirt surface five or six feet below. In the dim, dusty gloaming she could see Clyde -at least she caught a glimpse of one naked leg. She could also see the glowing end of the cigarette. Belle, however, was nowhere in sight.

"Belle?" Joanna called. "Are you there? Are you all right?"

No answer.

Joanna knew that the cool, moist earth underneath the house could very well be a haven for any number of unwelcome critters from black widow spiders to scorpions, centipedes, and worse. In her old life, Joanna Brady wouldn't have ventured into that crawl space on a bet. But now it was her job. Her duty. Belle Philips was down there, possibly badly hurt and most likely unconscious.

Looking around, Joanna located a bedside table that had been far enough from the hole that it hadn't tumbled in. Finding a floor joist that still seemed sturdy enough to hold her weight, Joanna lowered the table down as far as she could reach into the crawl space. She had to drop it the last foot or so, but fortunately, it landed upright and stayed that way. Thankful that her skirt and blazer were permanent press, she lowered herself onto the table and climbed down. Once in the crawl space, she spent a few minutes adjusting to the dim light so she could find Belle.

When the bed crashed through the floor, it had spilled Belle off and sent her rolling away from the hole. Fighting an attack of claustrophobia, Joanna finally located the unconscious woman lying with her head against the foundation. By then, Clyde Philips' ex-wife seemed to be coming around.

"Where am I?" she mumbled dazedly. "What happened?"

At the sound of Belle's voice, Joanna went limp with relief. She was grateful, too, for the woman's forgetfulness.

"You fell," Joanna said. "Don't move, because you may he hurt. I'm going for help."

Unfortunately, Belle Philips' blessed forgetfulness didn't last. "What about Clyde?" she demanded, reaching out and clutching at Joanna's arm before she managed to make her escape. "Where is he?"

“You can't help him, Belle," Joanna said firmly. "It's too late for him. I've got to get help for you. Promise me that you'll stay right here. That you won't move. Promise?"

There was a long moment of silence. "I promise," Belle wild finally, and then she began to cry.


CHAPTER ONE | Rattlesnake Crossing | CHAPTER THREE







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