23

“Did she do it?” Sheriff Martin Holman met me at the back door of the sheriff’s office, and he spoke in a hoarse whisper.

“Who? And do what?” I asked, pausing on the bottom steps.

“That girl, Vanessa Davila. Do you think she killed Maria Ibarra?”

I looked at Martin’s eager face and slowly shook my head. “Martin,” I said and stepped up so that I could put my hand on his shoulder. He was four inches taller than I was, and he probably hadn’t forgotten that it was his hand that signed my paycheck every month. But he still accepted the fatherly gesture and even leaned forward a little to hear my words of wisdom.

“Martin, every soul that we bring up these steps is not necessarily under suspicion of murder, even if a murder took place. And in this particular instance, to the best of our knowledge, the victim wasn’t murdered.” I patted his shoulder. “Dumped by some son of a bitch, but not murdered. Stop being so eager.”

I gave him a final pat and pushed past. He followed me down the narrow hallway to my office as if I actually had some answers. “She’s in the conference room with Torrez and Mrs. Bishop.” Just as I stepped into my office he added, “We’re waiting on Estelle.”

“She may be tied up most of the night out at the accident site,” I said, and headed for a chair.

“No, she radioed in that it wouldn’t be more than ten minutes. She was at the hospital.”

I nodded. “Fair enough. Let me tell you what we have.” I sat down heavily. “We have a girl who choked to death.”

“That part, I know,” Holman said testily. I waved a hand for him to be patient.

“She choked to death on a piece of pizza. Somewhere, we don’t know where. Someone, we don’t know who, dumped her body under the bleachers. A real good Samaritan that person was. We know where and with whom the victim was living sometime before the time of her death…but not necessarily at the time of her death.”

“But you don’t know what relationship Miguel Orosco is to Maria Ibarra,” Holman added quickly.

“Just so. We don’t. And you bring up a good point. What we don’t know makes a more impressive file than what we do know. In the first place, that girl”-and I pointed in the general direction of the upstairs conference room-“is the only person who was seen with Maria Ibarra outside of regular school hours during the past day or so. Apparently Vanessa Davila and Maria Ibarra might have been friends.”

“You don’t sound very positive,” Holman murmured.

“No, I’m not. It’s the word of one convenience store clerk, and not a very dependable clerk at that. Glen Archer doesn’t remember the two girls together, but then again he doesn’t really remember Maria Ibarra in the first place, alone or otherwise.”

“All right, so we don’t know who she was hanging out with, other than maybe this Davila girl.”

“Right. And before that, we don’t know how Maria got herself linked up with Orosco. There’s a Mexican connection there that we may never solve, unless we get just plain lucky. We don’t know who was in the two vehicles that Wes Crocker reports seeing behind the school. We don’t know what kind of vehicles they were. We don’t know just when they were there. Do you want the rest of the list?”

Holman shrugged, but it was a bleak shrug. “Sure.”

“We don’t know if the vehicles behind the school are related to Maria Ibarra’s misfortune. We’re not sure if she died near there, or somewhere else and was dumped. We received one anonymous telephone tip that reported the body, but other than that, not one word from anyone.”

“I just can’t imagine someone sitting there, watching a girl choke to death, and not doing something about it,” Holman muttered. “I mean, even I know the Heimlich maneuver.”

“People are capable of all kinds of delightful behavior, Martin, as you are well aware. And if you don’t mind me changing the subject in midlist, we don’t know if the hit-and-run incident involving Wesley Crocker was an accident or not. We don’t know what kind of vehicle it was, or who was driving it. We don’t know if it is connected in any way to Maria’s death. Right now, my suspicion is that it is not.”

I folded my hands over my belly, leaned back, swung one foot up on my desk, and smiled at Sheriff Martin Holman.

He frowned and looked down at the worn wooden floor, and I tipped my head back, popping the vertebrae in my neck. Every time one popped, the ringing in my left ear changed pitch. Perhaps orchestral tinnitus could be a new hobby for me.

Holman shoved his hands in his pockets and walked across the room to the window, then turned and walked back to my desk, a habit that told me he was thinking as hard as he could and getting nowhere. “Did you make any progress today at all?”

That was a loaded question, and I knew it. But pretending wasn’t in my nature, so I settled for a simple, “Other than finding Vanessa Davila? No. But the outlook isn’t entirely bleak.”

“It’s not?”

“No, Martin, it’s not. Sometime today or tomorrow or the next day or next week, bureaucrats willing, we may hear something from the state lab. There are blood, tissue, and hair samples that might help us. We’ll know exactly what killed the girl, and when, give or take. And when we’re finished interviewing Vanessa Davila, we’ll have an entire list of details to check out.”

I held up my right index finger and thumb, about a quarter inch apart. “Tiny pieces, Martin. Tiny, patient little pieces.” I swung my feet down and thumped the chair forward. “The trick is to give Estelle Reyes-Guzman time and room to work. She’s the best investigator there is. When she talks with the girl, trust me-if there’s something there, she’ll find it.”

Holman’s hands were still jammed in his pockets. “And if there’s nothing there?”

I shrugged. “That’s the way it is. And by the way, who was the fatal?”

Holman grimaced as that memory replayed itself. “Ryan House.” He saw that I was struggling to place the name and added, “He’s a senior. Co-captain of the basketball team. All-conference last year. Salutatorian of his class.” He waved a hand. “The list goes on. You remember him.”

“Uh,” I said, committing to neither a yes nor a no. “That’s interesting. His younger brother is the kid who was giving Officer Pasquale a hard time the other evening. How about the other one? The driver?”

“Another senior. Kid by the name of Dennis Wilton. His father works for the state highway department.”

“Ah, Wilton,” I said, remembering the name that the school-bus driver, Stub Moore, had given me.

Holman nodded. “Right. He’s a lucky kid. Apparently he suffered just a few bruises, a couple little cuts. That’s about it. The driver’s-side air bag worked just like it was meant to. And he was wearing his belt. Estelle was going to talk with him for a few minutes at the hospital before the sedation puts him out.”

I rubbed a hand over the sandpaper bristles of my short-cropped gray hair. “That’s what I need, a sedative habit.” I closed my eyes for a moment and then blinked at Holman. “But why are they keeping him if it’s just cuts and bruises?”

“A few hours for observation,” Holman said. “Apparently he’s not doing very well,” and he tapped the side of his skull. “It would be rough for anyone, but I’m told that the two boys were close friends.” Holman had been edging toward the door and he looked sideways at me. “Is everything all right?” He didn’t accept my shrug as an answer. “No, really. Are you okay?”

I settled for a simple nod.

He reached for the doorknob and glanced at his watch at the same time. “If Wesley Crocker is released later this morning, are you going to let him stay with you?”

“Why not?” It was easy keeping the enthusiasm out of my voice.

Holman smiled. “I always got the feeling that you prized your isolation and privacy out there in the woods.”

I chuckled and stood up too suddenly for my middle ear’s sake. I had to rest the knuckles of my right hand on the desk until my vision cleared. If Holman noticed, he didn’t say anything. “I’m not sure twenty trees make a woods, Martin. And I do value it,” I said. “But everything else is shot to hell, so that might as well go, too.”

Voices out in the hallway interrupted us, and Holman turned and looked past the doorjamb. “Detective Reyes-Guzman is back,” he said. It may have been the middle of a long night for everyone else, but Estelle Reyes-Guzman looked like she’d had her twelve hours of sleep. She appeared in my doorway, black briefcase in hand.

“Puzzling, sir. Really puzzling,” she said by way of greeting. She set the briefcase down on the straight chair just inside the doorway and ran both hands through her black hair, then froze in position with a hand on each side of her head. For the first time I saw the black circles under her eyes.

“What’s puzzling?” I said. “And sit down for a few minutes.”

She didn’t argue, but crossed the small room and sat in the leather chair by the wall map of Posadas County. Sheriff Holman drifted back into the room and closed the door.

“I had the pickup truck secured in the county shop so I can take another look tomorrow. Maybe you’d take a look, too, sir.”

I sat down, letting the old, familiar swivel chair soothe the tired bones. I’d been standing for two minutes, and that seemed long enough. Estelle was frowning and looking at the fingernail of her right index finger. She picked the cuticle without knowing what she was doing, and at the same time her lower lip pursed out. I’d known her long enough not to interrupt the patient thought process that was going on in that pretty head. Even Martin Holman knew better.

Finally she looked up at me. “Do you remember Ryan House?”

I shook my head. “Marty here told me that House was the one killed. The passenger. But I can’t bring him to mind. Show me a yearbook picture, and it’ll click.”

“It probably doesn’t matter. But that’s right…he wasn’t driving. Dennis Wilton was.”

“So I heard.”

“Ryan House was thrown out on impact. Through the windshield.”

“I saw that,” I said. “But Wilton is all right?”

Estelle nodded. “Physically, I guess. They were close friends. And Wilton is blaming himself.”

“That would be expected,” I said. “So what’s puzzling?”

“Stub Moore, the driver of the lead bus, says that the pickup truck that Wilton was driving passed his bus on a long downgrade. Although the truck was going faster than the speed limit, Boyd said that the speed wasn’t excessive for passing.”

“And then he lost it somehow, and went off the side of the highway,” I said.

“It sounded pretty cut and dried to me,” the sheriff added, but Estelle shook her head.

“Moore said the pickup was half a mile or more ahead of him when he saw the lights just drift off the road to the right.” She swept her hand out in front of her, and then held it suspended in space. “He said it looked like the driver maybe fell asleep.”

“That could happen,” Holman said. “That late at night? Why not.”

“It could, but put yourself in that pickup truck. Sure, it’s late. They’re heading home from an exciting football game. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive. The boys might have stayed in Sierra Linda for a few minutes after the game to get something to eat. They caught up with the buses somewhere near Baca’s ranch. And a few minutes later, when the bus started into that section of highway that looks like a roller coaster, Wilton decided to pass.”

“What’s your point, Estelle?” Holman asked abruptly. He glanced at his watch.

“Dennis Wilton might not have known the road very well,” I said. “He might not have had occasion to drive it often.”

“That never stopped most teenage drivers from passing,” Holman said.

I hooked my hands behind my head and regarded Estelle. Her thought processes had always amused me, running in nice, true lineal lines from A to B to C. In the eight years I’d known her, I couldn’t recall a single incident of her engaging in idle chatter.

“True.” Estelle nodded. “And think about them passing. Maybe some of the kids in the bus were asleep, but probably most of them weren’t. They’re too wired after a conference win. And the driver said that they were noisy. He had trouble getting them to stay in their seats. So, as the pickup drives by, we’ve got kids looking out the window, probably responding to waves or honks or what have you from the two boys in the pickup truck.”

“Remember last year,” I said, “when one of the Posadas wrestlers hung his butt out the bus window and mooned half a mile of downtown Belen?”

Estelle nodded. “With all that kind of behavior that we expect, it seems odd to me that a minute or so after the pickup pulls back into its lane ahead of the bus, the kid who’s driving just simply falls asleep.”

The room fell silent as both Martin Holman and I regarded Estelle Reyes-Guzman.

“But…” Holman said when the silence stretched too long.

Estelle raised an eyebrow and waited.

“How else?” he added and held up his hands.

“I don’t know how else,” Estelle said quietly.

“What are you going to do?” Holman asked, and he sounded a bit nervous.

“I want to talk with Dennis Wilton some more,” she said. “I want to hear what he has to say. And the bus driver gave me names of some of the kids who were riding on that side of the bus, kids who would have seen the pickup go by. I suppose it’s entirely possible that the two boys were half asleep when they cruised by the bus. I just find it strange that the very act of passing a game bus wouldn’t stir the adrenaline just a little bit and keep them alert for a while longer.” Estelle pushed herself out of the chair. “I asked the parents for a blood test and they agreed. We didn’t need to go through the hassle of a court order. We’ll see what those results say.”

“You think they might have been on something?” I asked.

“It’s possible. We didn’t find anything like that in the truck, but it’s possible.”

“Do you think they were drinking?” Holman asked.

“Maybe. I couldn’t smell anything, but you never know. I don’t think the doctors would have given Dennis Wilton a sedative if he’d been drunk.”

“That would make it vehicular homicide, if he was intoxicated,” Holman said.

“Yes, it would, sir.”

He sighed loudly. “Jesus Christ,” he said and looked heavenward. “That’s all we need. First the girl, now this.”

I had been gazing at Estelle during the exchange, watching her expression. She turned and when our eyes met, I knew that she’d told us most of what she knew. Most.

The anticipation did more for me than ten cups of coffee. I pushed myself out of the chair and said, “One case at a time. Dennis Wilton isn’t going anywhere. We caught up with Vanessa Davila and she and Mama are waiting for us upstairs. Let’s go chat with them for a few minutes. Then we’ll take a look at that truck.” I turned and smiled at Martin Holman. “Then maybe we can have a domestic knife fight or two. Maybe even a rabid dog. Spice this evening up.”

Holman looked long suffering. “It’s three ten in the morning,” he said. “The evening was shot to hell a long time ago.”

“You’ll get used to that, Sheriff,” I said.

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