I entered Principal Glen Archer’s office with relief. The halls behind me were filling rapidly with noisy kids, a vast sea of people-to-be, and Archer’s office was a quiet island. I had met Sergeant Robert Torrez in the lobby and reminded him that I didn’t want Officer Thomas Pasquale out of his sight for ten seconds. I had no illusions that they would find anything under the bleachers beyond what we already had. But daylight was always a different story. We could always hope.
By the time Torrez and Deputy Eddie Mitchell finished combing the bleachers and the rubble under them, we’d be sure.
Archer closed the door and indicated a couple of chairs. “Sit, sit,” he said to Estelle and me. His forehead was furrowed with worry and fatigue. “This has really thrown us for a loop. I just can’t believe it. This is the sort of thing that happens in big cities.” He shook his head. “It still might have been better if we’d just closed for the day.” He glanced at me and didn’t receive any support. “Do you want the counselor in on this?”
“Not just yet,” I said.
“No, thanks. Glen, what can you tell us about Maria Ibarra?”
He sat down heavily and rubbed his face. His complexion was pasty from lack of sleep and marbles could have tracked in the dark gutters under his eyes. “Before we get into that, let me ask you something. None of the deputies I spoke with earlier this morning would say whether this is a murder we’re working with, or what. I mean, what exactly happened to this girl, do we know?”
“Not yet. Dr. Guzman is working up a preliminary autopsy. Until he gives us something…” I shrugged. “Right now we’re treating it as a homicide. That’s all that makes sense.”
Glen Archer sighed and shook his head. “I knew who Maria Ibarra was. That’s about it. And that’s a hell of a thing for the principal of a small school to have to say. But that’s the size of it. I understand from Sergeant Torrez that you’re looking for the parents.” He shrugged. “I don’t know how much help we’ll be. I don’t think her situation was too…too…” He waved his hands, groping for the right words. Finally he settled for, “I’m not sure who she was living with. I was going to do some digging, but the sergeant told me to hold off.”
“How many kids do you have attending school now?”
“In this building? About three hundred and eighty, grades seven through twelve. Across the parking lot, K through six is about two seventy. Give or take.”
“What grade was Maria in?”
“We placed her in eighth grade. Being fifteen, maybe she should have gone into ninth, but she was small for her age. And Pat-Patricia Hyde-thought that she wasn’t ready for high school yet. She was very bright, apparently, but she spoke very little English.”
“When did she check in?”
“Late September. Maybe the first week in October. So she’s only been here a week or two, maybe a little longer.”
“And you never met her parents? Or guardians?”
Archer shook his head slowly. “I didn’t see her that day at all. Pat processed her enrollment. Let me call her in here.”
“Just a minute,” I said. “Before you do that, let me ask you a couple other things. We have reason to believe that close to the time that the girl’s body was discovered, two vehicles were parked behind the school. We don’t know yet if there is a connection.”
“There are lots of dark corners on this campus, Sheriff.”
“Yes, there are. How many kids drive their own vehicles to school?”
“You think a student was involved in this?” His forehead furrows deepened. “I guess it makes sense that there would be.”
“I don’t know.” My response was bald and unsympathetic, but it was the truth. “If there was a student involved in the death, and if that student was in one of those two vehicles, then the odds are good that one or both of the vehicles that were parked behind the school last night are out in your parking lot right now.”
Archer looked at me hard for a minute, then turned and pulled a black ring binder off the shelf behind his desk. “God, I hate this,” he said, and took a deep breath. “Here’s a list of parking permits.” He spread the binder open on his desk. “We don’t have a closed campus, as you are well aware. And the school board is as opposed as they can be to barbed wire and tall fences. But any student who drives to school has to have a window sticker.”
He ran his finger down the column of numbers. “Right now, we have two hundred and nineteen students who have been assigned stickers.” He looked up. “Do you want a copy of this?”
“But you don’t have a description of the vehicles that you think may be involved?”
“Not yet. And as I said, we don’t know for sure.”
“What else can I do to help?”
Estelle shifted in her seat. “We’d like an absentee list for yesterday, and today as well.”
Archer grimaced. “This is Friday, and we’ve got an away game tonight against Sierra Linda. The list is going to be longer than usual, but I’ll be happy to get it for you.”
The football game schedule for the Posadas Jaguars was taped to my refrigerator door. We’d beaten Sierra Linda once in our season opener at home, and I’d shouted myself hoarse from the top of the bleachers. Earlier in the week, during a moment of boredom, I had considered driving the ninety miles to watch the rematch.
“Did you have occasion to see Maria Ibarra while she was here at school?” Estelle asked.
“Sure. Of course.”
“Was there a particular group of kids that she hung around with? Did she have any friends in particular?”
“Now that I couldn’t tell you. Maybe Pat can, or one of Maria’s teachers. I tend to see kids either in here, or in clots out in the hall. Bunches of them together. It takes a while to really get to know one out of many. Some I never get to know beyond recognizing a face in a crowd. You really need to talk to Pat, though.” I nodded and he held up the book of parking patrons. “Let me make a copy of this for you, and I’ll call her in.”
Patricia Hyde must have been hovering near the office, because Glen Archer had only to open his door and beckon. At the same time I saw him hand the parking data book to a handsome kid who had been talking to one of the office secretaries. Archer spoke to the boy for a minute, giving him instructions, and I glanced at Estelle. She raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
Glen Archer started to close the door and hesitated.
“Do you folks want privacy? You want me to take a hike?”
I shook my head and he closed the door, ushering Patricia Hyde to one of the overstuffed chairs beside his bookcase.
Ms. Hyde’s eyes were red-rimmed and she sat on the edge of her chair with her hands clasped together on her knees. She was a stylish dresser, pushing forty, and tending to fat. She managed a tight smile and nodded at Estelle.
“Ms. Hyde, I’m sure you know why we’re here,” I said. “To tell you the truth, we’re looking for a starting point. If there’s anything you can tell us about Maria Ibarra, anything at all, we’d appreciate it. For starters, we’re having trouble finding out who she lived with.”
“I think she lived with an uncle.”
“An uncle? Is that this Miguel Orosco who’s listed on the student enrollment form?” I opened Maria Ibarra’s folder and held out the short form.
“I believe so, yes.”
“Did you have the opportunity to meet Mr. Orosco?” Estelle asked.
Patricia Hyde closed her eyes and shook her head. “She-Maria, that is-had the paperwork with her the first time I saw her.” She shrugged. “There was no reason to see the uncle, as long as the signatures were in order.”
“Where would Maria get these forms, Ms. Hyde?”
“Where would she get the forms? Here in the office?”
Patricia Hyde looked perplexed. “No. I mean, they’re not confidential or anything until they’re completed and become part of the student’s file.”
“So she could have just walked in and requested a set of paperwork?”
“I suppose. That’s not normally the way it’s done. Usually the parents come by and request all the information.”
Estelle Reyes-Guzman reached for the folder and gently leafed through the papers until she extracted one that listed the girl’s schedule. “Maria was taking regular eighth-grade courses, plus art and Spanish II?” she asked.
“Did she speak English, Ms. Hyde?”
The counselor shook her head. “Very little.”
“But she wasn’t enrolled in the bilingual program?”
Hyde shook her head. “She wanted to take Spanish instead.”
“Is that usual?”
“No, it’s not. But she seemed very bright. She was also very outspoken…and that’s unusual for Mexican children in our schools. Usually they’re quite shy at the beginning.”
“And she told you that she had attended school previously in Las Cruces?”
“Yes.” Patricia Hyde leaned forward and tapped a blue form. “We haven’t sent the r-f-r form yet.”
“Request for records,” Estelle prompted.
“Right. Normally we have everything sorted out by about Christmas.” Ms. Hyde’s smile was tight and humorless.
“Ms. Hyde, did Maria ride a bus to school?”
“No. She told me that her uncle brought her and picked her up.”
Estelle frowned. “And the uncle lists a post office box in Las Cruces as an address. Had he moved here, do you know?”
“I don’t know that. I guess that I just assumed that he had.”
The counselor’s voice had taken on an edge and Estelle held up a hand. “Please, I’m not being critical of your procedures, Ms. Hyde. I understand that this is a public institution.” She smiled that wonderful, warm, electric smile that lit up her otherwise dark features. “What was it that Mr. Gordon used to say to all the kids who tried to ditch his American History class…‘If you don’t walk through the door, I won’t have to try to teach you.’”
Ms. Hyde almost smiled, and so did I. Every one of my own four children had suffered through Wyatt Gordon’s classes. If they ever ditched, they had the sense not to tell me.
“The only paperwork that a student absolutely has to have before they’re allowed to continue coming to school is their immunization record. That’s state law.”
“Maria had hers?”
Ms. Hyde shook her head. “She said that her other school had the copy and would be sending it.”
“Is that something that you check up on fairly quickly?” I asked.
“Dawn Paddock would.”
“We’ll check with her,” I said, then added, “in the few days that you’ve had the opportunity to work with her, did Maria seem to have any particular circle of friends? Anyone she talked to?”
“No, and that’s something we work on. The person who could tell you more is Maria’s Spanish teacher, Roland Marquez.”
“Do you want me to call him in here?” Archer said, rising from his chair. A knock interrupted us, and Archer crossed to the door and opened it. “Ah, good. Thanks, Denny,” he said, accepting the parking book and copies from the office aide. He closed the door and handed the copies to me.
“Yes,” I said. “We’d like to meet with Mr. Marquez briefly. But before we do, I have a request.”
“I don’t mean to be unreasonable, but when we request information, would it be possible for it to go directly from you to us, rather than by way of the students?”
Archer frowned and looked perplexed. “I don’t follow.”
I held up the copies. “The young man who made these. I assume he’s a student?”
Archer opened his mouth to say something, and before any sound came out, the light came on in his head. “And I’m sorry. I just now realized. The contents of the book aren’t confidential, but there’s certainly no need for anyone to know that you requested those contents.”
“Exactly,” I said. “He talks, and then and then and then. And pretty soon, if we’re not careful, the killer knows what move we’re making before we make it. I’d rather that didn’t happen.”
Archer took another deep breath and I felt a twinge of sympathy for him. He glanced at his watch. “I really need to say something this morning on the announcements. Any suggestions?”
I glanced at Estelle and then at the poster on the wall behind her. The bold red letters announced 101 WAYS TO PRAISE A CHILD. “Glen, that’s your department. I’m not much into warm fuzzies or sugar-coating explanations.” I heaved myself to my feet. “You might tell ’em that if anyone goes behind the school and crosses the crime scene ribbon, they’ll be arrested. Other than that, I can’t think of a thing. Unless you think it would work to say, ‘Will the useless son of a bitch who killed Maria Ibarra come to the office immediately.’”
Glen Archer winced and looked at Patricia Hyde. “I wish it would be that easy.”
“So do we, Glen. Just keep your eyes and ears open. Let us know if you hear anything.”