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CHAPTER THREE

Two separate fire departments responded to the 9-1-1 call Joanna placed from a creaky rotary-dial phone on the wall in Clyde Philips' kitchen. One truck arrived from the Pomerene Volunteer Fire Department, as did another engine and ambulance from Benson. One by one, Belle Philips' would-be rescuers disappeared into the house. Meanwhile, Sheriff Joanna Brady went out to the Blazer and radioed back the department. Larry Kendrick, head of the department’s dispatch unit, happened to be on duty.

"Put me through to Detective Carpenter," she said. Ernie Carpenter was her department's lead homicide investigator. "When I'm done speaking to him, I'll need to talk to Dick Voland as well."

"'This isn't exactly your lucky day," Larry told her "Ernie just went home with a migraine headache, and Deputy Voland is locked up in the conference room with the guys from the MJF "

The Multi-Jurisdiction Force was a group of officers from various jurisdictions that had handed together to deal with crime along or near the U.S./Mexican border. Cochise County 's eighty-mile stretch of international line made Joanna's department the natural headquarters for such a group working what law enforcement had dubbed Cocaine Alley.

"What about Detective Carbajal?" Joanna asked. "Is he in?" Jaime Carbajal was Cochise County 's newly minted homicide detective. His promotion from deputy to detective had happened on Sheriff Brady's watch.

"Jaime's in," Larry said. "I can patch you through to him."

"Good. By the time I finish with him, maybe you can pry Dick free from the MJF long enough for me to talk to him. We have a situation up here in Pomerene that could be either a homicide or a suicide."

"But I thought…"

"You thought what?"

"I understood the nine-one-one call to say that the incident in Pomerene involved a woman with injuries. Something about a bed falling through the floor."

"Right," Joanna said grimly, "but that's only half of it. She and the bed fell, all right, but so did a body. The dead man happened to be on the bed at the time."

"Oh, boy," Larry said. "Okay, then, here's Detective Carbajal."

Jaime came on the line. "What gives, Sheriff Brady?"

"I need you up here in Pomerene," Joanna told him. "ASAP. We've got a dead man with a garbage bag on his head and cinched tight around his neck." Looking down at her tan suit, Joanna caught a glimpse of the grime running down the front of her skirt, blouse, and blazer. "Not only is he dead," she added, "the bed he was on fell into the crawl space under his house. It's a mess down there, so whatever you do, don't show up wearing good clothes."

"Whereabouts in Pomerene?" Jaime asked.

"Four-two-six Rimrock. Do you know where that is?"

"Not exactly," Jaime said, "but I'll find it. Pomerene isn't that big, and Dispatch has the new county emergency map. Larry Kendrick can give me directions over the radio while I'm on my way. Will you still be on the scene when I get there, or do I need to get the details from you now?"

Joanna glanced first at her watch and then at the waiting ambulance. It was now almost twenty minutes since the six firemen and two EMTs had disappeared through Clyde Philips' front door. It seemed likely that they were having some difficulty strapping Belle's oversized body to a stretcher and then hauling her up out of the crawl space.

"Believe me," Joanna said, "I'll be here."

"Okay," Jaime said. "I'm on my way. You want me to send you back to Dispatch?"

"Please."

"I called Chief Deputy Voland out of his meeting. He's right here," Larry told her. "Hang on while I put him on the line."

"I understand you've got a homicide up there?" Dick Voland demanded at once. "Where? Who?"

"Clyde Philips, that gun dealer Frank was telling us about earlier this morning. I went by his house in Pomerene to see if he might have any idea who would be shooting up Alton Hosfield's Triple C with a fifty-caliber sniper rifle. The trouble is, Philips was already dead when I got here-dead in his bed."

"You're saying somebody killed him?" Voland asked.

"I don't know for sure. He had a garbage bag fastened around his neck, so it could be a homicide or a suicide, either one."

"Have you notified Doc Winfield yet?" Voland asked. As of the first of July, Dr. George Winfield, former Cochise County Coroner, had taken on the revised title of Cochise County Medical Examiner. And as of several months prior to that, by virtue of marrying the widowed Eleanor Lathrop, he had assumed the role of stepfather to Sheriff Joanna Brady. Under ordinary circumstances, Joanna's call to 9-1-1 would have been followed immediately by a call to Doc Winfield. Right that minute, however, the pair of newlyweds was out of town.

"He's away, remember?" Joanna said. "On his honeymoon."

"Oh, that's right. The cruise to Alaska. I keep forgetting. So I guess somebody needs to call Pima County and have them send in a pinch hitter."

"Bingo," Joanna said. "That was the arrangement. I was hoping we'd manage to skate through without needing to do that. Since we haven't, I'd like you to make the call. I'm stuck here in Pomerene for the duration, waiting for the EMTs to haul the victim's injured ex-wife out of the crawl space under the house."

"So what is it, then?" Voland asked. "Some kind of domestic?"

"I'm not sure what it is, although I don't think DV is too likely," Joanna told him. "Anyway, once you settle things with Pima County, I'll need you to do something else. Clyde has a locked gun shop out behind his house. It isn't necessarily part of the crime scene itself, and neither is his truck. We'll need to go through both of those in order to find out whether or not robbery is part of the motive for what happened here."

"You want me to stop off and pick up a warrant?"

"That's right."

"Okay, then," Voland replied. "I'll be there as soon as I can.”

Just as Joanna ended the call, Clyde Philips' front door opened. First one and then another of the firemen emerged. For more than a minute the two stood conferring, studying the door. The old-fashioned door was narrower than expected, and working Belle Philips' stretcher out through it was no easy task. It took several minutes of back-and-forthing before the EMTs finally managed to squeeze the heavily laden stretcher out onto the porch. As they loaded the gurney into the waiting ambulance, one of the firemen, red-faced and mopping grimy sweat from his brow, came over to where Joanna was standing. "How do you guys do it?" he demanded.

"Do what?" she asked.

"Stand the smell," he replied. "Do you get used to it, or what?"

Joanna shook her head. "I don't think anybody ever gets used to it."

The fireman shuddered. "Well, give me a fire any day of the week. In fact, give me two or three."

Just then the ambulance started to move. With siren blaring, it made a quick U-turn and started back up Rimrock. "Where are they taking her?" Joanna asked.

" University Medical Center in Tucson," the fireman replied. "One of the EMTs said he thought she probably broke both her hip and her shoulder. Although I'd say broken bones are the least of her problems."

"What's the matter?" Joanna asked, giving him a searching look. "You think she has internal injuries as well?"

The fireman-the name embroidered on his shirt pocket said "Lt. Spaulding"-shook his head. "Somebody said the dead guy was her husband, right?"

"Ex-husband," Joanna replied.

"So if she's the killer, her bones'll be the least of her troubles."

Moments before, Dick Voland had instantly assumed Clyde Philips' death had something to do with domestic violence. Now Lt. Spaulding was making the same assumption. "What makes you say that?" Joanna asked.

Spaulding shrugged. "Isn't that the way it usually works? Somebody gets murdered and the killer turns out to be either the wife or the husband, or the ex-wife or ex-husband."

Closing her eyes, Joanna recalled Belle Philips' inane chatter as she headed into the bedroom, as well as her desperate attempts to awaken her presumably sleeping former husband. Was it conceivable that Belle Philips was that accomplished an actress? Could she possibly have murdered Clyde herself and then put on a such a flawless performance when it came to finding his body a day or so later? As far as Joanna was concerned, it didn't seem likely, but still those preconceived notions-backed by statistics-carried a lot of weight. There could be little doubt that when it came time for a homicide investigation, Belle Philips would be a prime suspect.

"Ex-wives do kill ex-husbands on occasion," Joanna conceded, "but I'm not at all sure that's what happened here."

Spaulding shrugged once more. "I read a lot of true crime-just for entertainment. And I watch those forensics shows on The Learning Channel. It's kind of a hobby of mine. That's how I know about some of this stuff. I hope we didn't do too much damage to your crime scene, Sheriff Brady. We had a hell of a time lifting her up and out of there."

"I'm sure it'll be fine," Joanna assured him.

"I guess we'll be on our way, then," he said. "It looks to me as though the boys have pretty much gathered up all the equipment. I have to keep on their cases to pick up all their stuff-the bandage wrappers, plastic bags, and packaging. Otherwise they just rip 'em and leave 'em.”

Once the firemen had taken their trucks and left, Joanna made her way back inside the house. She moved gingerly now, careful not to touch anything, even though she knew it was far too late for that. Despite her reassuring comment to Spaulding, she saw at once that damage to the crime scene was considerable.

For one thing, the entire floor, from the bedroom out through the front door, was covered with literally dozens of grimy footprints-hers included-left behind by dirt that had come up from the crawl space on the soles of shoes and on the firemen's heavy-duty boots. If Clyde Philips had been murdered, and if the murderer had left behind some trace evidence of a footprint, it would be gone now, obliterated by everyone else's tracks.

Standing in the doorway to the bedroom, fighting off the all-pervasive odor, Joanna was shocked to see that the hole in the floor was much larger than it had been when she left. At first she thought that maybe the firemen had used saws to enlarge the hole in order to facilitate maneuvering the stretcher through it. On closer examination of the jagged-edged break, she realized that more of the floor had given way under the combined weight of several firemen and the two EMTs. What was even more disturbing was the fact that the new breakage in the termite-infested wood had occurred at almost the same spot where Joanna herself had climbed in and out of the crawl space.

Seeing it now, Joanna realized how very near she had come to falling. Wanting to get to the injured woman, she had crawled down after her without taking the time to call for backup or even to notify 9-1-1. Had the floor collapsed under her then, both she and Belle might have been trapped in the crawl space for hours before anyone noticed or came to help. Joanna had a cell phone, but she had left it plugged in in the Blazer when she and Belle had gone into the house.

She was still berating herself for her stupidity when Detective Carbajal showed up behind her. "Jesus Christ!" he exclaimed, peering over her shoulder. "It looks like a war zone in here. What happened? Did somebody blow the place apart with a stick or two of dynamite?"

"Termites, not dynamite," Joanna answered. "What you see is the case of the collapsing bed. Once it broke, it went right through the floor, taking two people along with it."

Jaime grinned. "How old were these people?" he asked. "If the bed broke, they must have been getting it on."

Gradually Joanna had become accustomed to crime-scene black humor. That was one of the tools homicide cops used to maintain their sanity. In spite of herself, she smiled.

"It wasn't like that," she explained. "Clyde Philips was already dead when Belle Philips, his ex-wife, tried to get on the bed with him. She's not exactly a lightweight. Having both of them on the bed was more than the frame or the floor could handle. She went right through the floor with him and got hurt pretty bad in the process. The firemen just finished lifting her out a few minutes ago."

"That's where all the footprints came from?" Jaime asked. "From the firemen?"

Joanna nodded. "Mine are in there, too," she said.

Jaime busied himself taking notes. "Where is she now?"

"On her way to Tucson – University Medical Center."

"And the body?"

"As far as I know, nobody's touched it. Clyde is still down in the crawl space," Joanna said.

"From what Dispatch said, you and the ex-wife were the ones who found him?"

Joanna nodded again.

"What exactly were you doing here, Sheriff Brady?" Detective Carbajal asked. "Somebody call you, or did you just happen to be in the neighborhood?"

"No," Joanna said. "I came here on purpose to talk to Clyde Philips. There's a shop out back where he ran a gun dealership. I was hoping to find out whether he could put me in touch with some of his sniper-rifle customers."

"Because of the Triple C case?"

"That's right. I stopped by earlier, between two and three. His truck was here, just like it is now. When he didn't answer the door, I checked with his former wife to see if she could help me locate him. Belle and I came here together. She was sure he was sound asleep and just didn't hear my knock. Instead, it turned out he was already dead."

"And the bed?"

Joanna shrugged. "When she realized he was dead, she went haywire-hysterical. She piled onto the bed with him, and it broke."

"You said Philips was a gun dealer?"

"That's right. Registered and everything."

"Any chance of a robbery motive?"

"I already thought of that," she said. "Dick Voland's picking up a search warrant before he comes."

"Good." Jaime stuffed his notebook back in his pocket and prepared to enter the bedroom. First he donned both face mask and gloves. Then he removed a camera from his pocket, taking the first crime-scene shot from the doorway of the bedroom. Knowing how vital those photographs would be, Joanna stepped aside.

"I'll wait outside," she told him. "But remember, termites have turned most this floor into so much sawdust, so be careful."

With apparent unconcern, the young detective lined up his camera and took another shot. "Any idea when the victim was last seen alive?"

"None," Joanna replied. "His next-door neighbor-I don't know her name-is the one who told me he might be al his ex-wife's-at her cafe. That's why I went there looking for him. But once we found the body, I never had a chance to ask her when the last time was that she saw him."

"And the ex-wife didn't give you any kind of alibi?"

"No," Joanna said.

Making a deliberate circle around the perimeter of the room, Jaime clicked the camera again. "Don't worry," he said. "Either Ernie'll check her out or I will."

"Sheriff Brady?"

She turned to find. Deputy Eduardo Sandoval standing behind her. Of all Joanna's deputies, Eddy Sandoval-a beefy man in his mid-to-late forties-was the one with whom she had the least personal contact. Because he both lived and worked in the far northwestern sector of the county, he was the most physically removed from her office. And when he came to Bisbee to drop off a prisoner or make a court appearance, Sandoval wasn't one to hang around the Cochise County Justice Complex shooting the breeze.

"Hi, there, Eddy," Joanna said. "How long ago did you get here?"

"Just now," he said. "Sorry it took me so long. I was up at Cascabel taking a missing-person report when this call came in. I got here as fast as I could."

"Missing person?" Joanna asked. "What missing person?"

"About this time yesterday afternoon, a lady wandered off from that oddball dude ranch just up the road from the Triple C," Eddy answered. "You know the place I mean-the ranch they've started calling Rattlesnake Crossing."

Joanna frowned. "Isn't that the dude ranch where all the guests dress up like Indians and camp outside?"

Sandoval nodded. "Right," he said. "That's the one."

"So who's missing?" Joanna asked. ''One of the campers? The List thing we need about now is to have some tenderfoot who Thinks she's a born-again Apache go wandering off in the desert. It's the middle of August, for God's sake. Depending on where she's from, she'll die of heatstroke before we can call in Search and Rescue."

"Her name's Katrina Berridge," Sandoval replied. "And she's not one of the guests. She's more of an employee, I guess. Employee or partner, I'm not sure which. She's the owner's sister. As I understand it, the missing woman and her husband work there at the ranch. Katrina handles paperwork-reservations, finances, payroll, that kind of thing. Her husband's the handyman-does a little of everything. According to him, his wife went out for a walk yesterday afternoon and never came back."

"Any trouble on the home front?" Joanna asked.

Sandoval shook his head. "Not that I could tell. At least, none that the husband happened to mention."

"If she wasn't driving a vehicle when she left, does anyone have an idea of where she might have gone?"

"Nobody knows for sure," Sandoval replied. "According to the husband, each afternoon Rattlesnake Crossing has sort of a free period. All the people pretty much go their separate ways for a time-a few hours. I guess they're all supposed to use that time to get back in touch with nature. Anyway, when dinnertime came around and Katrina didn't show up, people weren't too worried, because I guess she's done that before-gone out for a walk and stayed out later than the others, watching a sunset or a moonrise or something. When she still wasn't home this morning, though, her husband-his name's…" Sandoval paused long enough to consult his notes. "Dan… no, Daniel Berridge-he said he went looking for her. He claims she has some favorite hangouts up in the cliffs alongside the river. Mr. Berridge said he looked up there for her this morning, but he couldn't find any trace of her."

"Wait a minute," Joanna said. "Aren't those cliffs just on the west side of the river?"

"Yes," Sandoval nodded. "They are."

"And isn't Rattlesnake Crossing Ranch on the other side?"

Sandoval nodded. "That's right, too."

"The river's been running like crazy ever since that storm the day before yesterday. If Katrina Berridge was going over to play on the cliffs, how did she manage to cross the river?"

Eddy Sandoval shrugged. "That's what I asked her husband. He said maybe she swam."

"Or maybe she never crossed it at all," Joanna said. "Maybe, for some reason or another, he's interested in having us look in one place and not in another."

Eddy Sandoval frowned. "You're thinking maybe the husband had something to do with whatever happened to her?"

The irony wasn't lost on Joanna. She had been disturbed by the fact that everyone seemed fully prepared to jump to the conclusion that Belle Philips had murdered Clyde. Now here she was, jumping to the same kinds of conclusions about Daniel Berridge.

"I'm not saying that, one way or the other," Joanna re-plied. "But if we're bringing in Search and Rescue…" She paused. "We have called them in, haven't we?"

He nodded. "That's right. They should be on their way."

"Good," she said. "When Search and Rescue gets here, or when Dick Voland does, tell whoever's in charge of the search that I want them to look on both sides of the San Pedro. You got that?"

"Got it."

"Where are you meeting them?"

"I told Dispatch I was coming here and that Search and Rescue should catch up with me here. In the meantime, is there anything else you need me to do, Sheriff Brady? I'll be glad to help out."

"As a matter of fact, there is," Joanna told him. "You stand right here in this doorway and watch Detective Carbajal Iike a hawk. That floor he's walking on is made of so much Swiss cheese. If it caves in under him, I want to know about it right away. Now, I'm going to go outside and start talking to the neighbors. We need to find out where and when's the last time someone saw Clyde Philips alive."


CHAPTER TWO | Rattlesnake Crossing | CHAPTER FOUR







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