20

Holman wasn’t pacing around the dispatch desk. He wasn’t pacing anywhere, as far as I could tell. The dispatcher, Ernie Wheeler, looked up from his paperback novel as Estelle and I walked into the building. The world might have been ending outside, but it seemed to me that all good dispatchers acted as if they lived completely insulated from the ruckus.

“Where’s his nibs?” I asked, checking my mailbox at the same time. It was empty, with no pink slip from the sheriff.

“He took 307 and said he was going to make himself visible.”

I stopped short and turned to stare at Ernie. He was a tall, gangly kid, maybe a year or two past thirty, who would have been cast in the lead role of Ichabod Crane had they been filming the remake in Posadas. He bobbed his head as if I were about to lop it off.

“He did what?”

“He took 307, sir.”

“Well, he can do that. He’s the sheriff.” Wheeler wasn’t stupid, and he knew I didn’t believe a word I said. Holman was sheriff, all right, duly elected. But he wasn’t a cop-never had been and probably never would be, no matter how many rinky-dink two-week FBI seminars he attended. Driving around in his personal, unmarked brown Buick was one thing. People could ignore him.

“Where did you say he went?”

“He said he was going to make himself visible, sir. That’s all he said.”

I gestured at the radio. “Ask him where the hell he is.” I glanced up at Estelle. “Goddamn elections.”

Wheeler swung his chair around and keyed the mike. “Three-oh-seven, PCS.”

After a moment, during which time he no doubt had been groping for the microphone, the sheriff replied much too loudly, “Ah, PCS, this is three oh seven.”

“Three-oh-seven, ten-twenty.”

There was a pause while Sheriff Holman mulled that over. Perhaps he was looking at the ten-code card on the back of the visor to find out what “twenty” stood for. Or maybe he didn’t know where the hell he was.

“Ah, PCS, I’m at mile marker one eight one.”

I heard a little chuckle from Ernie but kept my eyes glued to the microphone in front of us just in case Holman should materialize there. “Ten-four, three oh seven. What highway is that?” Wheeler asked. He grinned with delight, but kept the grin out of his voice.

“Ah, roger, PCS. I’m on State seventy eight.”

“Ten-four, three oh seven. PCS clear.”

Wheeler turned to me, and I shook my head. Estelle said helpfully, “Isn’t mile marker 181 a little bit east of the Posadas County line?”

“Yes, it is. And now I know what he means by making himself visible. The school bus carrying the team comes home that way…and so do all the revelers. Actually, except that it’s not our county, it’s a good spot.” I stepped over to the big wall map. “If he’s parked about here, just this side of San Pasquale, then traffic will see him before they start down through the breaks. That’s dangerous stretch of road.” I stepped back from the map. “Maybe they’ll think we’re out in force and behave themselves.” I shrugged. “What the hell.”

“What do you want to do about Vanessa Davila?” Estelle asked. “Put somebody on her place?”

I nodded. “Who’s on tonight…other than the self-appointed Martin?” I looked at the roster and grimaced. “Shit. Eddie Mitchell and Howard Bishop are on until midnight, then Tommy Mears alone midnight to eight. With Tom Pasquale at the hospital, the only one working the village will be the chief, which means there’s no one working the village.” I glanced at Wheeler. “You didn’t hear me say that, son.” He looked appropriately blank.

I looked at my watch. “I don’t have anything cooking at the moment. I’ll take 310 and go sit in the shadows. If Vanessa doesn’t show up by two-thirty or so, then it’s a safe bet that she’s camped out elsewhere for the night. I don’t have a clue where, unless it’s with her aunt.”

“I’ll check there,” Estelle said. “And she hangs around downtown a lot. She might be spending the night with friends.” She opened the yearbook and showed Vanessa Davila’s photograph to Wheeler. “This is the young lady we want to chat with. Vanessa Davila. She’s a ninth-grader, and her mother thinks she went to the game with somebody. We don’t know who. Tell Eddie Mitchell and Tom Mears to stay central and keep an eye open for her. I’ll make copies of her picture from the yearbook. They need to come in and pick those up.”

“Do you want this girl taken into custody if they see her?”

“Yes,” Estelle said. “We do. Tell them to bring her in for questioning. Call me the instant that they do that.”

“Me as well,” I said. I didn’t want to be caught painting windows again.

***

I parked 310 under a dense grove of elm saplings with the Ranchero Mobile Home Park fifty yards to my right. Escondido Lane was a narrow ribbon of hard-packed dirt, a faint tan strip in the moonlight. The browning leaves of the elms dappled the light from the moon and the park’s sodium vapor enough that the car was invisible.

With a deep sigh, I buzzed the window down an inch and then settled back to wait and listen. It would have been a perfect moment for a cup of coffee and a cigarette. I didn’t have either one. I tried to will my mind blank, but in a very few minutes, I found myself fretting about Martin Holman.

I didn’t care what the voters said-this particular sheriff was a civilian by training and more important, by inclination. Hell, he didn’t even wear a sidearm, not that he needed one for most of the county commissioner meetings that he attended. The patrol car he’d heisted included a 12-gauge shotgun in the dashboard rack, but I wasn’t sure he knew how to pop the lock.

In his own car, he could observe events and then call in the troops if need be. But folks expected that a marked police car would respond in an appropriate fashion-and not next week. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have cared if the good sheriff had ridden a palomino horse through downtown while he was dressed only in his Stetson. But the bizarre deaths of Maria Ibarra and Manny Orosco had trashed all of our normal circumstances.

I considered driving east and baby-sitting, but the last thing I wanted was for Vanessa Davila to slip back home, grab her bag, and head for Mexico.

Radio traffic was slow. Deputy Howard Bishop plodded his way around the county without a word. In sharp contrast, Eddie Mitchell’s clipped eastern accent kept the dispatcher busy with routine license plate checks. He was fond of driving through the parking lot of a restaurant or bar and reeling off plate numbers of vehicles he didn’t recognize for NCIC checks.

A few minutes before midnight, I heard both Bishop and Mitchell call in their mileage to dispatch and request that the gasoline pump be turned on. Any blockhead with a scanner knew then that the county was lying quiet and wide open.

Tom Mears went on duty a couple of minutes later, and dispatcher Erie Wheeler went home, replaced by T. C. Barnes, a former county highway department employee who’d managed to smash himself in the tailgate of one of the county’s dump trucks. He was slow, steady, and as dependable as they came. He worked nights part-time for us while his wife worked at the hospital.

After Tom Mears’s initial radio check, the county went quiet…so quiet I found myself wondering if the paint had dried yet on my kitchen window.

At 12:32 A.M., Martin Holman’s voice startled me.

“PCS, three-oh-seven. We’ve got an MVA just west of the Bar N B gate.” He sounded reasonably sure of himself. Maybe he’d rehearsed.

“Ten-four, three-oh-seven,” Barnes said. “Are you requesting an ambulance?”

“Ten-four, PCS.”

“And three-oh-eight, did you copy?”

I could hear the roar of Mear’s car in the background as he keyed the mike. “Ten-four, PCS.”

I looked across at the dark mobile home, weighing my options.

“Three-oh-seven, this is three-ten.”

I breathed a sigh of relief when Holman answered. I could hear his siren in the background. “Three-oh-seven.” He was breathing hard.

“Martin, what have you got there?”

“Three-ten, it looks like somebody went off the road just past the Baca place. They hit one of those big boulders. The school bus is stopped, too. We’re going to have the whole cavalcade here in a minute.”

“Shit,” I said and then keyed the mike. “Three-oh-seven, three-oh-eight is on his way. He’s about six minutes out. Was the bus involved in the accident?”

“I don’t think so, three-ten.”

“If the bus wasn’t involved, make sure that the occupants stay inside the bus. Inside the vehicle.”

“Ten-four.”

“If the bus was involved, make sure that all oncoming traffic is blocked, and that ambulatory occupants are escorted away from the bus, and away from the highway. No stragglers. Keep them in a tight group.”

“Ten-four, three-ten.”

The rest would have to depend on Sheriff Holman’s common sense. I pulled my car into gear and cursed again. We didn’t need a mess just now. We’d taken a step forward by discovering that Vanessa Davila existed. Now we were running backward.

I accelerated out onto Grande Avenue and turned on my emergency lights. The street was deserted, and I straddled the center line, giving myself all the choice there could be.

The town seemed to drag on forever until I broke free on County Road 43, heading up the hill toward the intersection with the state highway. The road was wide and clear, and I accelerated until an out-of-round front tire began to shake the steering wheel.

State Highway 78 split the northern part of the county as it came in from the northwest, dropping down past the airport and out toward the tiny hamlet of San Pasquale to the east. Ned Baca’s Bar N B Ranch straddled the county line, something that I’m sure drove the assessors of the two counties nuts.

Just west of Baca’s front gate, State 78 plunged down through a series of roller-coaster spills as it paralleled the dry washes and arroyos cut deep into the limestone and sand. No cow with any brains grazed there. It was colorful, bleak country-the kind of place where tourists pulled off the road to snap panoramic pictures to send home to Aunt Minnie to prove that, by God, they’d been where other people weren’t.

I crested a hill and saw a sea of headlights leading down into one of the deeper draws. It looked as if every car in Posadas County was linked nose to tail, forming an enormous westbound traffic jam. Leading the parade were the running lights of two school buses, and behind the buses were the winking emergency lights of a patrol car.

Deputy Mears had faced the same impressive confrontation, and he’d pulled to a stop squarely in the center of the highway. I pulled up behind him, turning my car diagonally across the highway.

With heavy flashlight in hand, I got out of the car and trudged down the pavement.

With a sigh of relief, I saw that the two school buses were undamaged. In fact, despite the awesome display of rubberneckers, the accident appeared to involve a single late-model pickup truck that had tangled with a boulder the size of a house.

Tom Mears was working inside the cab of the pickup truck with three other men, and Martin Holman was doing his best to hold a light for them. Stub Moore, the driver of one of the school buses, was standing by the door of the first school bus, and I hurried over toward him. They sure as hell didn’t need me in the way over by the wreck.

“Did you see this, Stub?”

A sea of eager faces craned from the bus, and I motioned for Moore to close the door of the bus. He did, and then said, “Yep. They passed me a ways back, before the Baca place. In fact, it was about where the sheriff was parked. They wasn’t going all that fast. And they was a ways ahead of me by the time we got here. But it looked to me like they might have fell asleep. Just kind of drifted off to the right, and then pow.” He smacked his fist. “Right through the fence and into that rock.”

“No swerve or anything?”

“No, sir. Just drifted over, like I said.”

“Who was it, do you know? Did you recognize the vehicle?” I turned and looked ahead toward the wreck. The vehicle was a tangle, resting at odds with the boulder and the highway. It had hit solidly and bounced sideways.

“I’d guess it to be the Wilton boy’s truck.”

I grimaced. Who was in the truck didn’t matter just then, and I stepped back away from the bus and scanned the long line of traffic. “All right. Look, let’s get you out of here.” I paused as an ambulance crested the hill from Posadas. “As soon as that ambulance has parked, pull your bus as far over to the left as possible and walk it on by.”

“You got it.”

And as the buses passed, every face was pasted to a window. In another minute, Eddie Mitchell arrived in civilian clothes, and I gratefully passed traffic control off to him. Within three minutes, the spectators were gone and the deputies had room to work.

From the first tire marks off the pavement, the pickup truck had traveled 151 feet before it struck the corner of the limestone boulder’s flat face. There were no skid marks, no indication that the driver had yanked the steering wheel. Like a guided missile, the vehicle had tracked straight and true.

After being unlucky enough to fall asleep, the driver had bargained with fate pretty well. The pickup was less than a year old, with all the options. The air bag in the steering wheel had deployed just right and his seatbelt and shoulder harness had been snug. From all appearances, the truck had been traveling nearly sixty miles an hour when it had struck the rock, but the driver had been pillowed enough that the collapsing cab hadn’t cut him to pieces or crushed him to pudding.

His buddy hadn’t done so well. The truck had struck the rock face just to the right of center. If he’d been awake, the passenger had had one brief moment when his head-on view was nothing but limestone. The truck didn’t have a passenger air bag, and if the passenger had been wearing his seatbelt, it hadn’t followed him out of the truck. He’d gone ballistic and after blasting through the powdered windshield had made solid contact with the limestone rock. If the truck hadn’t bounced to the left after the impact, the kid would have landed right back on the crushed hood.

I winced and turned away. Martin Holman had surrendered his place to the EMTs, and he grabbed my arm.

“It looks like just the two of them,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“Are you going to call Estelle, or do you want me to?”

“I’ll do it,” I said. As I turned to walk back to 310, I wondered if Vanessa Davila had been in one of the cars that had filed by the wreckage, or if hers had been one of the faces pressed against the bus window. The thought had never occurred to me to step up into the bus and check. I stopped and turned to Holman.

“You don’t need me here,” I said. “We’re staking out a place at the trailer park for a young girl who was seen with Maria Ibarra earlier. We had information that she might have been at the game.” I nodded down the now-dark highway. “While you people are finishing up here, I’m going to see if I can corral her.”

“You’ll be back at the office later tonight?”

“Yes.”

Holman took a step closer and touched my elbow again. “No, I mean…really. You’ll be at the office?”

I looked at the sheriff for a long minute, and then nodded again. “If the kid we’re after isn’t home by now, there’s no point in sticking around the rest of the night watching. I’ll be at the office.”

“Okay, because we need to talk.”

“If I’m not there when you get back, just give me a call.”

Holman smiled and his eyes narrowed. “I’ve been doing that all day, Bill.”

I didn’t have anything to say to that. I climbed into 310 and headed back toward Posadas. Less than three miles from town, Estelle’s unmarked county car flashed by, and my radio barked a couple of times. She’d seen me and could figure out easily enough where I was headed.

I reflected that Martin Holman had handled himself with surprising competence. Of course, it was a simple enough traffic accident, but still he’d managed pretty well. And then I realized that I was brooding not so much about Holman’s performance, but about having to explain my own.

Posadas was buzzing when I drove back into town. I slowed to my usual crawl, window down and radio low. “All right, Vanessa, where the hell are you?” I said.

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