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CHAPTER EIGHT

While Ernie Carpenter set off to find Mike Wilson, Joanna went to the rear of her Blazer and hauled out the small suitcase she kept there, packed with what she called her "just-in-case clothes"-a Cochise County Sheriff's Department T-shirt, jeans, and hiking boots. Sitting inside the vehicle, she managed to change from her skirt, blazer, and heels into something more appropriate for a crime-scene investigation. Still, looking at the ground-in grime already on the skirt and blazer, she realized the change of wardrobe had come far too late. The damage from climbing in and out of Clyde Philips' crawl space had already been done-a bit like locking the barn door long after the horse was gone.

Joanna was dressed and out of the Blazer when Detective Carpenter returned with Mike Wilson in tow. "Did you get hold of Jaime?" Ernie asked.

She nodded. "According to Dispatch, he's on his way and bringing Dr. Daly with him. We could just as well wait here until they show up. That way we'll have only one caravan going in and out rather than two or three."

"It's getting late," Ernie remarked, glancing at the sun falling low in the west.

"You have lights in the van, don't you?"

Ernie nodded. "That's all right, then," Joanna said. "We'll wait."

And they did. Considering the distance involved, Detective Jaime Carbajal and Dr. Fran Daly arrived at the rendezvous on Rattlesnake Crossing within twenty minutes-far less time than it should have taken. As Dr. Daly and Jaime stepped out of their respective vehicles, Joanna handled the introductions. "So where's the new body?" Fran Daly asked.

"Across the river and up on those cliffs," Mike Wilson told her. He turned around and gave her van a critical once-over. "Is that thing four-wheel drive?"

"No," Fran answered. "Why?"

"Because it's pretty rough terrain between here and there," he said. "And we have to cross the river besides. If I were you, I'd leave the van here and ride with someone else, someone who has all-wheel drive."

That wasn't a suggestion Fran Daly was prepared to accept without an argument. "What about my equipment?" she demanded.

"Depending on how much you have, we could probably load it into one of our vehicles," Ernie offered.

"All right, then," Fran agreed. "I suppose that will have to do."

While she supervised the transfer of necessary equipment, Joanna eased up to Detective Carbajal. "How did it go?" she asked.

Jaime shrugged. "She's into bugs."

"Bugs?"

"'that's right. Especially flies and maggots. She just took a Course in forensic entomology. She thinks she'll be able to use the stage of development of maggots found on the body to help estimate time of death."

"I see," Joanna said, although she wasn't eager for more details. "So when did Clyde Philips die?"

"Beats me," Jaime replied. "If she's figured it out, you don't think she'd bother to tell me, do you? After all, I'm just a lowly detective, and I'm not from Pima County, either. It turns out our guys aren't even good enough to come pick up the body. I offered, but she insisted on calling for a Pima County van to collect it."

"What a surprise," Joanna said. "That way they'll be able to charge us time and mileage for the driver, too. It'll probably cost a fortune."

Moments later, Dr. Daly asked, "We're finally loaded, so who do I ride with?"

Joanna glanced at Jaime Carbajal's face. He'd already spent several long hours with Dr. Daly that afternoon, and it showed. She decided to give the man a break. "Detectives Carpenter and Carbajal can ride together in their van," she said. "You come with me in the Blazer."

"Let's get going, then," Dr. Daly said. "What are we waiting for? The sun's almost down."

"We have lights along," Joanna told her.

Fran Daly grunted in reply, climbed into Joanna's Blazer, and slammed the door.

The three vehicles sorted themselves into a line with Mike Wilson leading the caravan, Joanna behind him, and Ernie and Jaime bringing up the rear. Wilson led them back down the road that wound away from the main buildings at Rattlesnake Crossing. Instead of turning onto Pomerene Road, though, he took them across that and onto an even narrower dirt track that meandered first through a fenced grassy pasture and then into mesquite-tangled river bottom.

Approaching the San Pedro, Joanna grew apprehensive. In the Arizona desert, crossing a monsoon-swollen stream or river can he dangerous, even in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The last time she remembered seeing the river had been hours earlier, when she had crossed the bridge outside Benson. There, within the confines of fairly narrow banks, the water had been a roaring flood. Here, though, hours later, and in a spot where the banks were half a mile or so wide, the flow had spread out, calmed, and slowed.

As liquefied sand filtered out of moving water, it settled to the bottom, covering the river's floor with a firm, hard-packed layer that made for relatively easy driving. The Blazer was almost across and Joanna was about to breathe a sigh of relief when Mike Wilson's lead vehicle dropped into an invisible but still deep channel. It took all of Joanna's considerable driving skill to fight the Blazer through the swiftly flowing current and to bring it up and out on the other side.

It was only then, after they had emerged from the river and started negotiating the steep foothills on the other side, that Fran Daly spoke for the first time. "Mind if I smoke?"

With the other woman's nerves showing, Joanna could have rubbed it in. After all, the county's required NO SMOKING sign was posted on the glove box. But right then, with two people dead and Doc Winfield out of town, Joanna needed Fran Daly's help. Instead of hiding behind the sign, Joanna opted for reasonableness.

"Not if you roll down the window," she said.

Moments later, after exhaling a cloud of smoke, Fran leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes. She looked tired.

"What's this new deal now?" she asked. "Who is it this time? Do we have a name?"

Joanna shook her head. "Not so far. Our S and R guys have been out here most of the afternoon looking for a woman who wandered away from home yesterday. Her name's Katrina Berridge and she lives back there on that ranch, the one where we all met. According to her sister-in law, Katrina left home sometime after noon yesterday, and she hasn't been seen or heard from since. Once the twenty-four-hour missing-persons deadline passed, my guys started conducting an official search. It was one of the Search and Rescue dogs that turned up this other body."

"So you're saying the body we're going to investigate isn't hers?" Fran Daly asked. "It isn't the missing woman?"

"Right."

"How do we know that for sure?"

Joanna bristled at what sounded like the snide suggestion that her officers were most likely incompetent-as though they weren't smart enough or well trained enough to differentiate between an old corpse and a new one. It took a real effort on her part to keep from snapping.

"We know that because Mike Wilson said so," she replied evenly.

"I see." Fran Daly shrugged. "Maybe he's right," she added, "but your people aren't exactly batting a thousand, you know."

"What do you mean by that?"

"When whoever it was called me up in Tucson…"

"Dick Voland," Joanna reminded her once more. "He's my chief deputy."

"Right. Mr. Voland told me that the guy in Pomerene, Clyde Philips, was a homicide victim. Where he got that idea, I don't know."

He got it from me, Joanna thought. She said, "You're saying he wasn't murdered?"

Fran blew another cloud of smoke. "I doubt it," she said. "I think he got himself all liquored up, put the bag over his head, cinched it shut with a belt, and then waited for the combination of booze and lack of oxygen to do the trick."

"You're saying he committed suicide. Did you find a note?" Joanna asked.

"Good as," Fran said.

"And what would that be?"

"You saw the body, didn't you?"

Joanna tried to recall the chaotic scene in the bedroom with the dead man lying naked on the bed and Belle Philips shaking him, shaking and shrieking.

"Yes," Joanna replied.

"So you saw the lesions?"

Reminded now, she recalled that one detail, the series of angry red marks on the man's white skin-on his chest, belly, and thigh. She had noticed them only long enough for them to register as some kind of surface wounds, but that was just before Belle had leaped on the body, collapsing both the bed and the floor into the darkened crawl space below. In all the confusion that followed, that single detail had slipped out of Joanna's consciousness.

"I saw something," Joanna admitted. "They looked like wounds of some kind, stab wounds, maybe."

"Not stab wounds," Fran Daly insisted. "Lesions. Whenever I've seen lesions like that before, they've been on AIDS patients. I can't be sure without blood work, of course, but I'm guessing that the autopsy will bear me out on this. Clyde Philips might still have been able to get around on his own, but he wouldn't have been able to for long. He was suffering from AIDS-full-blown AIDS. Instead of hanging around to fight it, he used the bag and his belt and took the short way out. I don't know that I blame him. If I were in his shoes, I might very well do the same thing."

"But without a note," Joanna objected, "how can you be sure? And what about his guns?"

"Guns? What guns?" Fran Daly asked.

"The guns in his shop," Joanna explained. "Clyde Philips was a gun dealer. He had a shop out back, behind his house. It should have been full of guns. But it wasn't. From the way it looks, sometime in the last few days somebody's cleaned the whole place out. Taking an armload of stolen weapons into consideration, would have thought we were dealing with a robbery / murder."

Fran ground out the remains of her half-smoked cigarette into the ashtray and then, before Joanna could stop her, the medical examiner removed the ashtray from the dashboard and tossed the contents out the window. Joanna watched in the rearview mirror, hoping there were no live embers left to start a fire.

"That's what happens when people who don't know what they're doing jump to erroneous conclusions," Fran said as she slammed the ashtray back into place. "From that point on, the accuracy of the whole investigation goes right out the window."

Joanna could see that once Fran Daly herself made an assumption-erroneous or otherwise-there was no changing her mind. Sheriff Brady considered volleying back some smart-mouthed response to that effect or raising hell about her tossing out her smoldering cigarette debris, but after a moment, she decided not to. Save your breath, Joanna told herself. Dr. Fran Daly was the way she was. No amount of crystal-clear argument on the sheriff's part was going to change the woman. Instead, Joanna concentrated on her driving and considered the implications of what Fran had said.

Who knows? Maybe she's right about Clyde Philips. Maybe he really did commit suicide. And if it turns out one of today's two murder victims wasn't murdered, maybe the second one-whoever she is-wasn't, either.

After leaving the river, the three-vehicle caravan traveled up and up through deepening twilight and steep, trackless terrain. Finally, Mike Wilson stopped his Bronco directly behind Eddy Sandoval's. Putting the Blazer in park and switching off the engine, Joanna stepped outside and stood staring at a solid wall of sheer and forbidding cliffs that jutted skyward far above them.

Just then a low rumble of thunder came rolling across the valley behind them. Here we go again, Joanna thought. Here was yet another crime scene where investigation and evidence collection would most likely have to take a back-seat to Mother Nature.

Deputy Eddy Sandoval had been sitting out of the heat in his idling Bronco. Now he came slipping down the steep hillside to meet them as Fran Daly heaved herself out of the Blazer. "Let's get a move on," she said. "Where's this body supposed to be?"

Once again Dr. Daly succeeded in tweaking Joanna. Cochise County was her jurisdiction, not Dr. Daly's. As the ranking officer on the scene, Sheriff Brady should have been the one calling the shots. That detail of line of command wasn't lost on Deputy Sandoval, who, without responding, glanced briefly at Joanna. She was gratified that he checked with her before answering the other woman's question.

"Right, Deputy Sandoval," Joanna said, nodding her okay. "Tell us where we're going."

"It's up there." He pointed toward the cliffs. "There's a narrow rock shelf that runs along the base. Most of the way it seems solid enough, but just beyond the body it breaks off into a gully. From the looks of it, that's the spot where most of the water drains off the upper cliffs. There's been enough runoff the last few weeks that some of the cliff broke away. When it slid down the mountain, it took a big chunk of the shelf right along with it."

"A landslide?" Fran asked, pausing from the task of unloading her equipment from Ernie and Jaime's van.

Deputy Sandoval nodded. "I went down into the wash and checked to see if it looked safe for people to walk out there. I don't think the bank is undermined, but…"

Having just witnessed the collapse of Clyde Philips' floor, Joanna wasn't taking any chances. "Show me," she said.

Obligingly, Eddy turned and started back up the hill, past the two parked Broncos. Joanna followed on his heels. "Wait," Dr. Daly yelped after them. "You can't go rushing over there without me. You're liable to disturb evidence. Let me get my stuff first."

Joanna didn't bother to stop, but she did reply. "It's been raining for weeks now," she called back over her shoulder. "If there ever was any evidence lying around loose up there, it's long gone by now."

Eddy led Joanna to the spot where he had climbed in and out of a sandy creek bed. They slogged through damp sand for some fifty yards. By the time they reached the place where the slide had come down the mountain, Joanna knew they were close to the body. She could smell it. No wonder the dogs focused in on this instead of Trina Berridge, she thought. They could probably smell it for miles. And no wonder, either, why Eddy Sandoval was waiting in his Bronco when we got here.

For the next several minutes she examined the walls of the arroyo. In the end, she agreed with Deputy Sandoval's assessment. As long as another gully-washer of a storm didn't break loose another several-ton hunk of cliff face, the shelf was probably safe enough. After that, they retraced their footsteps out of the wash and then made the steep climb up to the shelf.

Once they were out on the ledge, footing was somewhat more solid than it had been on the hillside, but it was still a long way from foolproof. Here and there, loose rocks and gravel lay along; the surface, wailing to trip the unwary. The shelf was five to six feet wide and not more than three to four feet tall. The problem was that beneath that three-foot sheer drop, the rocky flank of the mountainside fell away at an impossibly steep angle. Anyone tumbling off that first three foot cliff probably wouldn't stop rolling for a long, long, way.

Picking her way south along the cliff face, Joanna was thankful she wasn't particularly frightened of heights. She did worry, though, about the possibility of tripping over a dozing rattlesnake.

"Here you are," Eddy Sandoval said at last. He stopped and stepped aside, allowing Joanna to make her way past him and into the awful stench of rotting flesh. Fighting the urge to gag, she found herself staring down at a pile of rocks. Considering the broken cliff just above them, one might have assumed the pile had appeared there as a result of that slide. Except for one small detail. These were the wrong kind of rocks. In the wash below, Joanna had seen how the sandstone-like cliff had broken apart in long, rectangular brown chunks that looked almost as though they had been hacked apart with a saw blade. The round, smooth rocks forming the pile, colored a ghostly gray, were river rocks that someone had hauled up the mountainside one at a time.

The far end of the rock pile was where the slide had roared through, taking with it the rocks at that end. And there, where the river rocks were missing, lay two partially skeletalized human legs. On one of them most of the foot was still attached, while the other one was missing. At the ankle joint just above that remaining foot was a thick length of knotted rope that bound one leg to the other.

Joanna swallowed hard. Clyde Philips might have committed suicide. This person hadn't. She turned back to Eddy.

"You told Ernie it was a woman," she said. "But if that little bit of leg is all you can see, what makes you think its a female?"

Eddy Sandoval had been hanging back and holding a handkerchief over his mouth and nose. Now he switched on his flashlight and shone it on something at Joanna's feet, near what had to be the head of the burial mound.

"I guess we still don't know, not for sure, but I think it's a pretty good guess. Look at this."

Peering down, Joanna found herself standing over a short, makeshift cross. The marker had been crafted by using two twigs of mesquite bound together with what appeared to be strips of cloth. Taking Eddy's flashlight, Joanna squatted beside the cross in order to examine it more closely. It took several seconds before she realized the bindings-what she had assumed to be strips of material-were really articles of clothing: a sports bra and a pair of nylon panties. Both pieces of underwear appeared to have been white originally. Now they were stained with blotches of some dark substance.

In the dim glow of the flashlight, Joanna couldn't tell for sure what that substance was, but still she knew. The underwear was stained with blood. Lots of blood.

In Sheriff Brady's previous life, that awful discovery would have sent her reeling. Now she simply took a deep breath-took one and wished she hadn't. "You've photographed all of this, Deputy Sandoval?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

"Good, but I suspect the detectives will probably want to take their own pictures before we start bagging and inventorying evidence."

As she turned to look at the bier once more, another low growl of thunder rumbled across the valley. "We'd better hurry," she told him. "There's a storm coming. Go back down and there's anything you can help carry. And then you should probably round up as many plastic tarps as you can find just in case we get rained out before we have a chance to finish gathering evidence."

Nodding, Eddy Sandoval hurried away down the narrow shelf. Meanwhile, Joanna turned back to the mound of rocks and stared at the pair of protruding bones. Joanna's law enforcement studies had taught her that there is often a message in the position of the body, especially if the murderer has gone to the trouble of posing his handiwork.

This is posing, all right, Joanna told herself, gazing down the mountainside from this sheltered yet desolate spot, one that commanded a view of the entire river valley. It had taken time and effort to bring the rocks here, and the victim as well. This was posing, all right. With a capital P.


CHAPTER SEVEN | Rattlesnake Crossing | CHAPTER NINE







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