Parked high on a side road on the flank of the second highest peak in the San Cristobal mountains, peacefully surveying what soon would no longer be his responsibility as a sheriff, almost-seventy Bill Gastner could think that the night would be without incident. He'd be wrong. He doesn't foresee that a car full of alcohol-inspired adolescents would run into his automobile. Nor that the driver would take off and disappear in the nearby woods. Far from uneventful, this night turns out to be one of the toughest in Bill Gastner's many years as undersheriff and then sheriff in this sparsely populated border area of New Mexico. Gastner knows the young driver and his family - including the soon-to-be-sheriff, Bobby Torrez. Taken into custody from his home, the prisoner seems far too upset about being arrested. During the trip to the jail he makes a desperate attempt to flee again, an attempt that ends in his being hit and killed by an oncoming truck. Gastner has to dig deep to learn what is behind this tragic overreaction to a serious but unfortunately common DWI arrest. With the imminent election, the visit of Gastner's former deputy with her surgeon husband and their two very active young ones and the near riot the dead youth's neighbors stage when his father dies suddenly, the sheriff's last few days in office are not as uneventful as he had hoped. But Gastner stoically retrieves the law-enforcement tools he has packed away, including his talent for detection, his diplomacy, and his just plain common sense. He has used them all successfully for many years, and it's a joy to watch him use them one more time.
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Bag LimitA Posadas County Mystery
By Steven F. Havill
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2011 Steven F. Havill
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI should have been home, sunken comfortably in my leather recliner with a fresh pot of coffee gradually turning to battery acid in the kitchen and my recently purchased copy of Dayne Mercer's Storm over Chicamauga open on my lap.
Instead, just as the digital clock on the dashboard clicked over to 11:07 PM that Friday night, I turned my county car off the pavement of State Highway 56 and maneuvered twenty yards up a narrow fire road on the northwest flank of Santa Lucia Peak, the second highest hump in the San Cristbal range.
To call the San Cristbals "mountains" might have been a stretch, except for tourists from one of those midwestern places where the highest promontory in the county is the downtown bank building.
The rumpled, weather-scarred Santa Lucia Peak managed 8,117 feet above sea level—a few feet lower than San Cristbal to its west. That lofty height would have been impressive had the mountain's base been at sea level, instead of the 5,890 feet that it was.
I had discovered this particular spot on Santa Lucia Peak years before. Skirting a sheer rock outcropping that plunged away from the state highway's serpentine guardrails, the little forest road wandered off to the east to who knows where. I'd never followed it more than the handful of yards.
What I wanted was a vantage point, and by backing just far enough into the little two-track so that headlights of traffic on 56 wouldn't reflect off the bright white of the patrol car, I had myself a quiet, remote nook.
From there, the view of Posadas County to the north and east lay unobstructed. If I had the urge to talk to someone or listen to deputies yammer license plates back to dispatch, the county's radio repeater was a mile behind me on San Cristbal Peak, as was the mobile phone company's tower. Reception was loud and clear.
Twenty miles northeast nestled the village of Posadas, a tight little collection of lights in an otherwise dark prairie. Running east-west, the interstate formed a winking necklace across the county. With binoculars, I could pick out a few ranches that dotted the void to the north.
Even on a blustery November night, the grandstand view of Posadas County was the best blood pressure medication I'd ever found ... the pure recreation of letting the mind wander, to touch first this base and then that, to skip from subject to subject, worry to worry, without interruption.
No one sat in the passenger seat, wondering what the hell I was thinking. No one ran out of patience, drumming his fingers on the vinyl dashboard. No one objected to the cold air coming through the half-open windows along with the potpourri of a thousand scents and wild sounds. No one tried to fill the silence with small talk.
I enjoyed my own company and that was hard to explain to someone who otherwise might think that I was just an old, fat, lonely insomniac. I would cheerfully admit to three of the four.
On that particular Friday night, I was savoring the considerable joys of anticipation. The list was a rich one. If the voters had any sense, come Tuesday Undersheriff Robert Torrez would become the next sheriff of Posadas County, joining a long and sometimes distinguished lineage of lawmen who had all become tired of hearing the question "Sheriff of where?"
Unless something had seeped into the drinking water and fermented the voters' good judgment, Bob Torrez was a shoo-in to win the election. Running against him was a daffy woman who had spent twenty years running for every elective office in the county—a woman who could design a hell of an overpass for the State Highway Department, but who didn't have an iota of law enforcement experience.
Torrez's only other opponent had been Mike Rhodes, a retiring state police sergeant. After a lackluster campaign that won him the Republican nomination, Rhodes endured some well- publicized in-law problems. He had given up the idea of elected office, pulled out of the election, and moved his wife and family to Missouri.
As far as I was concerned, Bob Torrez would be undersheriff on November 6, and when the votes were tallied on November 7, I planned to toss him the sheriff's badge and the keys to my desk. He could call himself whatever he wished: sheriff, acting sheriff, sheriff-elect, undersheriff-until-January ... whatever. I didn't care what the state constitution might say about the orderly transition of the powers of elective office. For me, November 7 was my last day as sheriff of Posadas County.
In the past, circumstances had prompted me to put off retirement more than once, and I currently held an office to which I neither had been elected nor to which I had aspired. Enough was enough. November 7 was it.
That was the extent of my retirement planning—but not of my anticipation. On Sunday afternoon, Francis and Estelle Guzman were flying into El Paso from Rochester, Minnesota, in company with my two godurchins, Francisco and Carlos. I hadn't seen them in more than five months, and the delight of that reunion was tempered only a little by concern.
In a moment of weakness I'd offered the Guzman family accommodations at my rambling, spacious old adobe on Guadalupe Terrace, since the electricity and water were shut off in the place they still owned on South Twelfth Street. The thought of the two high-powered children racing through the dark sanctum of my fragile old home gave me pause.
My promise to handcuff four-year-old Francisco Guzman to a tree outside if he didn't behave himself produced nothing but a cackle of glee.
Choosing Election Day for a family holiday wasn't as bizarre as it might first seem. Estelle Reyes-Guzman had spent nearly a decade with the Posadas County Sheriff's Department herself, including a week-long stint as undersheriff just before she, her physician husband, and the two kids had moved to the wilds of Minnesota. Two years before that, she'd tried her hand at politics when she ran for sheriff and was soundly trounced. I had planned to retire then, too.
I knew that the Minnesota life was in flux for the Guzmans, but had tried to stay out of their way. I even refrained from sending them care packages of green chile or decent salsa, that cruel trick that New Mexicans do to other New Mexicans who are forced to suffer outside the state for any length of time. I didn't know what the Guzmans planned. If Estelle wanted to confide in me, she would do so in her own good time ... I'd learned that over the years. I was just pleased that they had timed their arrival so that they could help the new sheriff-elect celebrate.
The clock on the dashboard clicked to 11:30, and four miles away I could see the wink of headlights as someone pulled out of the parking lot and headed west from the Broken Spur Saloon down on Route 56. In a few minutes, if they didn't turn north at County Road 14, they would start up the long twisting slope toward Regal Pass, taking them past my parking spot. For most of their trip, I'd have a grandstand view as their headlights sliced open the night.
No sooner had the car straightened itself out on the pavement and headed west than another set of headlights popped on, this time a quarter mile east of the saloon. Winking red lights blossomed, and I grinned. I leaned forward and turned up the police radio. The sound of car engines carried in the quiet night air as currents wafted up the back slope of the mountain.
The flashing lights pulled close behind the first car, but it didn't slow. As if tied together, the two cars plunged past the intersection with County Road 14, both heading west. When the car started up the hill without slackening its pace and managed to pull away from the county vehicle, I keyed the mike.
"Three oh eight, three ten is at the top of the hill. You want me to cut him off?"
"Negative, sir. I'm backing off. I know where the kid lives."
Even as Undersheriff Robert Torrez said that, I saw the interval between the two vehicles stretch. In theory, what Torrez was trying to do should have worked. With a dangerous, winding mountain road coming up, there was no point in pressing a senseless chase until someone ended up crashed into a canyon or pulped against a scraggly juniper, grinding up himself and his passengers.
Torrez knew the driver, knew where he lived, knew that if he dropped back, the kid would slow down, stay alive, and pull into the home driveway thinking he'd beaten the deputies again. That's the way it should have worked. But that's not what the kid did. Taking his cue from all the highly paid, sober Hollywood stuntmen he'd watched in the movies, the kid tried for magic.
For a brief minute or two, as it snarled up the sweeping, smooth highway toward Regal Pass, the charging car was out of view, skirting around a couple of dry, brush-covered foothills. I could hear that he was still pushing pretty hard, a little engine flailing away. I saw a flash of lights through the trees and then, with a squawl of tires, the kid stood on the brakes and swerved into the narrow fire road ... the same dirt two-track in the middle of which was parked the aging sheriff of Posadas County.
Chapter TwoWhat the driver couldn't know was that after his car left the pavement, he had no more than fifty feet to haul his vehicle to a stop. That wasn't enough, even for a union-scale stunt driver with two or three rehearsals.
I had time to recognize the oncoming missile as some sort of little compact car, and I grabbed the steering wheel to brace myself. Just before his car T-boned mine, his headlights flicked off. It must have been a hell of a surprise. One instant, he was cleverly reaching for that switch to kill the headlights, and in the next found himself collecting an aging Ford Crown Victoria as a hood ornament.
The little car crashed into the left rear passenger door and quarter panel of 310, sending a shower of busted glass that sprayed the back of my head. The impact jolted the patrol car sideways, uncomfortably close to the yawning open spaces.
For about three seconds after that, things were pretty quiet. I could hear my heart pounding, and then a quiet tinkle as a few fragments of glass tilted out of the remains of the window behind me.
Without taking my eyes off the car, I reached out slowly and picked up the microphone. "Three oh eight, I've got company."
The radio squelch barked twice, but I was more interested in the voices coming from the little car. I didn't know if they had actually seen me sitting in the patrol car or not—it was possible that the driver had hit the lights before my presence registered on their hyperactive little pea brains.
The driver bailed out in a drunken dance that left him on his hands and knees, one hand clutching the open door, the other on the ground.
At the same time, with my flashlight a comfortable weight in my hand, I opened my own door, taking my time. I snapped on the beam and framed the wild-eyed face. The kid was sloshed. He let go of the door frame, reared to his feet, and took a staggering step toward the back of his car. I could smell the alcohol, the concentrated aroma from a six-pack that's had a wild ride around the inside of a car.
"Just hold it right there," I barked. He flattened against the car as if without its support his spine might turn to Jell-O and he'd fall on his face. He wasn't bleeding, and all four of his limbs bent in the right places. He just didn't know what to do with them.
With my free hand I fished the handcuffs from the back of my belt. "Turn around and put your hands on the car," I ordered. The other two occupants hadn't budged, and as long as they stayed put, things would be fine.
I twitched the light just enough to take a quick glance at the kid riding shotgun. He was rocking back and forth holding his face, blood pouring over his fingers. No doubt the dashboard had tap-danced across his mouth, lacing a few teeth through his lip. In the back a third party animal braced both hands against the seat in front of her, staring bug-eyed at me. Fourteen years old and the daughter of an acquaintance of mine, she had reason to be scared.
The kid standing by the car hadn't moved, and I gestured with the flashlight. "Turn around," I repeated. About that time, more lights poured through the trees, and Bob Torrez's patrol unit almost slid past the fire road. He turned in, the stiffly sprung vehicle jouncing on the ruts.
The kid took one look at the flashing red lights on the roof of the Expedition and spun away from me, darting around the back of the little car. He tripped over something and fell hard, then got up and lurched off down the lane toward the darkness. At one point he was headed straight for a thick grove of scrub oak, but he changed course at the last minute, picking up speed as he went.
Torrez appeared, framed in the headlights. He and I stood and watched as the kid zigged out of the beam of my flashlight.
Torrez showed no inclination to spring into action, and instead said, "Well, that's neat."
I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but I sure as hell wasn't going to run after the kid. At seventy years old and three days from retirement, I wasn't about to run after anything.
Torrez turned the beam of his own light into the car. "Pretty good idea you had, to let Matt drive your car, Toby," he said. He bent down and rested his forearms on the windowsill. The kid was in no mood for sarcasm, and responded with a pathetic whimper. "Let me see your face," Torrez said and reached into the car. With one hand on top of the kid's head, he held him quiet. The youngster still managed to cringe downward, his hands trying to ward off the undersheriff's monstrous paw.
"Move your hands," Torrez commanded, and the kid let them sink halfway to his lap, poised and ready should some part of his injured anatomy decide to fall off. With my light from the other side, Torrez could see the damage, and after a moment he said, "Sit tight. You'll be all right."
He turned the light on the girl in the back. "Nice night, eh?" he said. "You all right?"
She managed a nod.
"No cuts, no hurts?"
She shook her head.
"You sit tight too," he said, and turned back to me. "If you'd request an ambulance, I'll get something for Toby's face."
"I don't need no ambulance," the kid said thickly, the first coherent words I'd heard him utter. He leaned forward toward the dash. He looked as if he was about to throw up.
"I'm sure you don't, tough guy," Torrez said. "Stay in the car." He grinned at me, and then hustled back to the Expedition. I waited until he returned before turning to the radio to hail dispatch.
Now that Torrez had put a name to him, I recognized the injured youngster as Toby Gordan. His mother, Emilita, was going to be really pleased. She worked as a custodian at Posadas County Hospital and lived just a handful of blocks from her work. That was convenient too, since her only car was now a couple of feet shorter than it had been.
With an ambulance on the way, a clean compress holding Toby's remaining teeth and lip in place, and the girl snuffling but otherwise behaving herself in the backseat, I said to Torrez, "What do you want to do about the driver?" I indicated the darkness into which he'd fled.
"Like I said, I know where he lives," Torrez said. He straightened up and rested a beefy arm on the roof of the car. "That's Matt Baca, my uncle Sosimo's oldest kid." He ducked his head and looked in the car. "That's who was driving, right?"
Toby Gordan managed a "mmmph" through his tears and loose teeth, but the girl in back, Jessie Montoya, nodded.
"Where'd you guys get all the beer? Did Victor Sanchez sell it to you?" Torrez asked, but Jessie just looked down at the floor mats. Sanchez owned the Broken Spur Saloon on State 56 where the chase had started, and he knew better. Torrez sighed and glanced at the luminous dial of his watch. "I just caught a glimpse of him, but it looked like our runner was wearing a T-shirt and jeans," Torrez said. "No coat."
"That's it," I said.
Torrez leaned away from the car and looked up into the night. The scrub oak leaves were fitful against a clear and star-studded sky. The moon had slipped behind the bulk of Santa Lucia. The kid would be running by feel and by guess. As drunk as he was, he wouldn't have much luck with either one.
"It's not going to freeze tonight," Torrez said. "He'll be all right as long as he doesn't trip and break his neck."
"Which he's apt to do," I said. "You've been down this road?" I realized that it was a dumb question before the words were out of my mouth.
"Lots of times," Torrez said. His passion was hunting, and wherever anything with fur or feathers went, there went Robert. "It dead-ends about two miles to the east, along this ridge. If he makes it that far, he'll have to run another three miles cross-country to reach the power-line access road over the top. He ain't going to do that. Not at night." He looked at the sky again. "Well," he said, and glanced at me. "I'm going to stroll on after him a little bit, just in case he discovers some sense out there and changes his mind." He shifted his handheld radio on his belt a bit, fiddling with one of the knobs. "I'm on channel three."
Excerpted from Bag Limit by Steven F. Havill Copyright © 2011 by Steven F. Havill. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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