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CHAPTER SEVEN

As she heeled the Blazer around and headed back for Pomerene Road, Joanna glanced at her watch. Six o'clock, straight up and down. She had stayed at the Triple C far longer than she had intended, and time had slipped away from her. Now, with exactly one hour before her date with Butch and with more than an hour's worth of driving between the Triple C and High Lonesome Ranch, she was headed for Rattlesnake Crossing, which lay in the opposite direction.

Rather than hightailing it for home and a relaxing evening of fun with someone whose company she had come to value, Sheriff Joanna Brady was, instead, off to investigate her second crime scene of the day-her second homicide of the day.

Slowing almost to a crawl on the rough, washboarded surface, she pulled her cell phone out of her purse once again and checked the roaming light to be sure she still had a signal. Then she punched in the memory code for Butch's Roundhouse Bar and Grill up in Peoria, near Phoenix. Obviously, since her date with Butch was scheduled for Bisbee-a minimum of four hours by car from the Phoenix area-he wouldn't be at the Roundhouse to take the call himself, not at the bar and restaurant downstairs or in his bachelor apartment upstairs. Nevertheless, Joanna knew from past experience that Butch Dixon was a conscientious business owner who never left town without leaving behind a telephone-number trail to let people know exactly where he'd be staying. That way, in case of any unforeseen circumstances or emergencies at his place of business, the daytime bartender and relief manager would have no difficulty in reaching him.

Punching SEND, Joanna waited, listening for the phone to ring. Then, because there was so much road noise, she held the phone away from her ear long enough to punch up the volume. When she put the phone back to her ear, an operator's recorded announcement was already well under way. "… you feel you have reached this number in error, please hang up and dial again. If you need help, hang up and dial the operator."

Puzzled, and scowling at the phone, Joanna punched RECALL. She studied the lit display long enough to verify that the number she had dialed was indeed that of the Roundhouse. Once again she pressed SEND. This time she was careful to hold the phone to her ear, only to hear the familiar but irritating sequence of a disconnect announcement. She listened to the message from beginning to end.

"The number you have reached has been disconnected. If you feel you have reached this number in error, please hang up and dial again. If you need help, hang up and dial the operator."

Disconnected! Joanna thought dazedly. How on earth could Butch's number be disconnected? And why wasn't there a forwarding referral to another number? How could that be?

The Blazer bounced across the rattle guard at the edge of the Triple C and lurched to a stop at the intersection of Triple C with Pomerene Road. Her stopping there had far more to do with a need to think than it did with the stop sign posted there. What on earth had happened?

Joanna waited while first one car and then another rumbled past. The second one she recognized. Seeing Detective Ernie Carpenter roar by in his private vehicle, the Mercury Marquis he called his "geezer car," was enough to shock Joanna out of her reverie. Not wanting to be left out of the loop, she quickly turned onto the road and followed him, maintaining just enough distance between his vehicle and hers to avoid most of the cloud of dust kicked up by his tires.

Following Ernie and operating on autopilot, Joanna continued to grapple with the puzzling problem of what had happened to Butch Dixon and his restaurant. She remembered how, during the past few weeks, he had told her over and over how busy he was. More than once she had allowed herself the smallest possible qualm that perhaps another woman had arrived on the scene. Now, though, other scenarios marched through her head. Maybe something terrible had happened to him, something Butch hadn't wanted to burden her with. What if his place had burned down? What if he had somehow landed in financial trouble and had simply run out of money? And if he hadn't left a forwarding phone number, how did he expect anyone-her included-to be able to get in touch with him?

For a few minutes she toyed with the idea of calling Dispatch and asking them to send an officer out to her place to meet Butch and tell him exactly what was going on. She considered the idea, then dismissed it. Prior to her arrival on the scene, the Cochise County Sheriff's Department had operated like a little fiefdom, with on-duty officers running personal errands on behalf of their supervisors. Under Joanna's administration, that practice had been expressly forbidden. And as someone who wanted to lead by example, Sheriff Brady couldn't afford to fly in the face of' the very rules she herself had created.

No, she decided finally as she turned in under the arched gate marked "Rattlesnake Crossing." We'll have to let the chips fall where they may. I'll stop just long enough to make an appearance. Since Ernie's here to take charge, I won't have to hang around. With any kind of luck, Butch will wait at the house until I get there.

Once again Joanna found herself driving on a mile-long dirt track. The Triple C holdings were situated along the river bottom. Rattlesnake Crossing, however, like Martin Scorsby's Pecan Plantation, was located on the other side of the road-upland and away from the river itself. What Joanna knew about Rattlesnake Crossing was more countywide gossip than anything else.

Under the name The Crossing, the place had come into existence in the mid-seventies as a residential psychiatric treatment center for patients of Dr. Carlton A. Lamphere. Dr. Lamphere, a New York native and a devotee of R. Buckminster Fuller, had bought up a tract of land, sunk a well, and then created his treatment facility by building a massive main ranch house in the center of the property and scattering the rest of his hundred and twenty acres with twenty or more Fuller-inspired geodesic domes.

Lamphere, operating on the theory that his patients lacked the self-esteem that came of self-reliance, insisted that his clients stay in these individual "cabins," as they were called. There they were expected to live alone, commune with nature, and learn to face their personal demons. The patients' nonpenal solitary confinement was broken each day by the arrival of golf-cart-riding orderlies who delivered trays of proper macrobiotic vegetarian meals and clean linens. Other than the orderlies, the only visitor to the individual cabins was Dr. Lamphere, who came by regularly for counseling sessions and to make sure the patients were staying on course.

Everything was going fine at The Crossing until one patient, a twenty-two-year-old schizophrenic, returned home and immediately came down with severe flulike symptoms. Her mother correctly diagnosed morning sickness, and a court-ordered blood test established that Dr. Lamphere himself was most likely the father of the young woman's baby.

A subsequent investigation-one that had set the entire San Pedro Valley on its ear-had revealed that Dr. Lamphere's course of treatment had routinely included drugging and raping his female patients-with particular concentration on the younger and more attractive ones. Not only had he victimized the women, he had also managed to maintain such a high degree of mind control over them that not one of them had told. None of the other victimized patients had become pregnant, so had it not been for that single alert mother, Lamphere might never have been caught.

In the aftermath of the investigation, The Crossing was shut down. For years the geodesic domes sat empty and in danger of crumbling back into the desert. Then, surprisingly, in the early eighties, Rattlesnake Crossing had risen Phoenix-like from the ruins. Locals had scoffed at the idea of somebody running a summer camp for well-heeled grown-ups pretending to be Apache, but it seemed to be working. Almost fifteen years later, the place was still going strong with guests that purportedly came from all over the world.

Off to the right, sheltered behind a lush mesquite tree, Joanna caught sight of a tepee. "A tepee?" she wondered aloud. "Since when did Apaches use tepees?"

Fifty yards farther up the road, she caught sight of her first cabin, sheltered under a towering mesquite. The geodesic dome shape still remained, but it was concealed under a layer of woven ironwood and mesquite branches that gave it the look, at least, of the domed shelters the nomadic Apache had once called home. That's more like it, Joanna thought.

Up ahead, but just before a cluster of buildings that included the main house, barns, and corrals, Joanna saw a string of vehicles lining the right-hand side of the road. She pulled in and stopped directly behind Ernie Carpenter's Marquis. She had barely stepped out of the Blazer when a woman materialized in front of her.

The woman was dressed in a buckskin squaw dress and high-topped moccasins, both of which had been dyed black. Her whole body dripped with silver and turquoise, from the concha belt cinching in her narrow waist to the heavy squash-blossom necklace, the bottom of which disappeared into the shadowy crevasse of an extravagant d'ecolletage. Her hair, black but showing telltale gray at the roots, was pulled into a heavy bun at the nape of her neck. With her tan, windblown skin and dark, smoldering eyes, the fifty-something woman might have been an Indian. Until she opened her mouth. As soon as she spoke, the accent was pure New York.

"So what's the deal here?" she demanded.

"Deal?" Joanna repeated.

"Yeah. I mean, what's going on? That guy up there…" She pointed toward a group of men that included Ernie Carpenter. "The tall one, right there. He told me the woman in the next car would tell me what was up. After all, it's my sister-in-law they found up there. I want to see Katrina. I'm one of her closest relatives. Why the hell won't somebody let me through?"

Joanna pulled out her badge and flashed it. "I'm Sheriff Brady," she said. "And your name is?"

"Crow Woman," was the reply.

Joanna had to bite her tongue to keep from repealing that as well. "Is that a first name or a last name?" she asked.

"It's my name," Crow Woman replied. "Legally. I changed it after I got my divorce. I went to court and it cost me four hundred bucks. Now tell me, Sheriff Brady, what the hell is going on?"

"I don't know," Joanna said truthfully. "As you saw, I just arrived myself, but if you'll excuse me for a moment, I'll go see what I can find out."

Leaving Crow Woman where she stood, Joanna approached the group of men congregated around the white Bronco that served as Search and Rescue's command vehicle. Detective Ernie Carpenter broke away from the others as she approached.

"The lady back there wants to know what's going on," Joanna told him. "Did Search and Rescue find a body or not?"

"Yes, they did," Ernie replied.

"Where is it?"

"About two miles west of here," Ernie said, pointing. "The boys from S and R tell me that she was on a shelf of cliff on the other side of the river. According to Mike Wilson, they've cordoned off the area and left Deputy Sandoval to guard it. Mike says there's a place where the river widens out enough that we should be able to drive across in the Blazer. If we follow him, Mike'll take us to the crime scene."

"So it is Katrina Berridge, then," Joanna said with a resigned sigh. She had hoped S and R would find the woman alive. "I guess I'll go get Crow Woman. The three of us can ride up together."

"Who's Crow Woman?" Ernie asked.

"Her," Joanna said, pointing back to the woman who 'dill stood leaning on the Blazer's fender. "That's her legal name-Crow Woman. She also happens to be the dead woman's sister-in-law."

"I don't think so," Ernie said.

"Well, of course she is," Joanna returned impatiently. "She just told me so herself. She wants to know what's going on and she wants to view the body. I know that's not standard procedure, but why not? We could just as well let her do it now as later. Since Doc Winfield is out of town, we'll be working with Fran Daly on this case as well as the one in Pomerene. The body will be up in Tucson, so it'll take a lot less time if we get the whole identification thing done now, rather than waiting until later."

"I don't think that's such a good idea-"

Impatiently, Joanna rushed on without giving Ernie a chance to finish what he was saying. "All right, then, I suppose you're right. We shouldn't drag her along to the crime scene, but when it's time to transport the body, maybe we could stop here long enough to get the job done. Once the body's in Tucson, what'll take a few minutes tonight will take all day tomorrow. Either you or Detective Carbajal will have to come all the way out here, pick up Crow Woman or Katrina's husband, take them up to Tucson for the ID, and then bring them back again. I say let's do it now and get it over with, once and-"

"It's not her," Ernie Carpenter interrupted.

Joanna stopped. "Not her? But I thought…"

Knitting his bushy eyebrows together, Ernie shifted his considerable weight back and forth. "Katrina Berridge disappeared from Rattlesnake Crossing sometime yesterday afternoon," he said. "According to Mike Wilson, the body they found today has been dead much longer than that. Several weeks, anyway."

"You're saying somebody else is dead?" Joanna asked. "Some other victim is here, one that we didn't even know about?"

Ernie nodded. ''That's right_"

Who is it, then?"

"No way to tell. No ID was found, and very little cloth lug, either. She was buried under a pile of rocks, which pretty well rules out natural causes. One of the dogs found her."

"Any idea what she died of?"

Ernie shook his head. "Not yet anyway, not without an autopsy."

Joanna tried to come to grips with the dynamics of this new situation. Someone else was dead, someone no one had even bothered to report as missing. In the meantime, the initial object of the Search and Rescue mission still hadn't been located.

"What about the Berridge woman, then?" she asked.

"'That's what I was discussing with Mike Wilson and the S and R guys just as you showed up. Finding this other body and dealing with it has pretty much put a wrench in the works. Also, the crime scene is right in the middle of the area they were searching. Between preserving evidence and the sun going down, I'd say they're pretty much out of business for tonight. Mike says they can be back here first thing in the morning and take another crack at it then."

Nodding, Joanna looked back up the road to where Crow Woman still stood waiting for an answer. "I suppose I'd holler go tell her," she said. "The news was awful enough to begin with, and this is that much worse. I'll also have Dispatch contact Fran Daly."

"You mentioned her before," Ernie said. "Who is she?"

"Dr. Fran Daly," Joanna replied. "She's Doc Winfield's pinch-hitting investigator from the Pima County ME's office. She and Jaime have spent the afternoon locked up in a collapsed crawl space back in Pomerene on another homicide. I don't believe Dr. Daly was happy to be working with us on that first case. When she finds out about this one, I doubt she'll be thrilled."

"So what?" Ernie said. "In this business, them's the breaks."

Walking back toward the Blazer, Joanna tried to think of what to say to Crow Woman. For someone who had pre-pared herself for the worst, would she regard this reprieve as a blessing or a curse?

"Well?" Crow Woman demanded impatiently.

"There's no point in your seeing her," Joanna said. "The dead woman isn't your sister-in-law."

"Not Katrina?" Crow Woman echoed faintly. "But I thought… I understood…"

"So did we all," Joanna replied grimly. "But my investigators say that the body that was found has been out in the desert far longer than your sister-in-law has been missing."

"So you're saying Trina may still be okay?"

"She may be. Let's hope, anyway. It isn't like she's been out in the boonies in the dead of winter. Then we'd have to worry about hypothermia. It's not cold at all, and currently there is water available."

"But you said they found a body." Crow Woman sounded anxious. "Who's dead, then?"

"We don't have any way of knowing," Joanna answered. "Not yet. That's what we're trying to find out."

"Was this person murdered? Is it a man or a woman?"

"Please," Joanna said. "We're just starting our investigation. What I'm telling you is that the victim is not your sister-in-law. Beyond that, I can't tell you anything more."

Crow Woman wasn't interested in taking no for an answer. "Look," she said, "I have a business to run here. If people are being killed on or near my property, I need to know about it. I have guests to protect. And if one person has been murdered, then that's probably what's happened to Trina as well."

Joanna hesitated, puzzling over exactly how to address Crow Woman. Is Crow her first name and Woman her last? Joanna wondered.

"Ms. Crow Woman," Sheriff Brady said finally, assuming her most official-sounding tone, "please don't leap to any unfounded conclusions. Until Detective Carpenter and I actually visit the crime scene, there's no way for us to know whether or not it's on your property. I can assure you that, as the investigation progresses, you will be kept informed. And as for your sister-in-law, the Search and Rescue team will he going back out first thing in the morning to look for her."

"In the morning," Crow Woman echoed. "What's the muter with them going back out right now? It won't be dark for a while yet."

"We're doing the best we can," Joanna replied gently. "For your sister-in-law and for the dead woman as well. Why don't you just go on back home and let my people and me do our jobs."

She turned away from Crow Woman, reached into the Blazer, and pulled the radio microphone off the hook. She radioed through to Tica Romero at Dispatch.

"Tica," she said, "I need you to reach Chief Deputy Voland or Detective Carbajal back in Pomerene. Tell them that as soon as they finish with the Clyde Philips crime scene, they'll need to bring Dr. Daly up here to Rattlesnake Crossing. Tell Detective Carbajal there's another homicide on tap that we'll need Fran Daly to investigate."

"Does that clear the missing-person case, then?" Tica asked.

Joanna looked back at the black-clad figure of Crow Woman striding away toward the cluster of buildings that made up the core of Rattlesnake Crossing. She wanted to be sure Katrina Berridge's sister-in-law was well beyond hearing distance before she spoke again.

"No," she said with a sigh. "I almost wish it did, but it doesn't. Trina Berridge is still missing. It's somebody else who's dead."

Tica Romero whistled. "What's happening around here?" she demanded. "Two murders in one day? Isn't that some kind of record?"

"It's a record, all right," Joanna answered. It sure as hell is!


CHAPTER SIX | Rattlesnake Crossing | CHAPTER EIGHT







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