Another Posadas County mystery with Estelle Reyes-Guzman as the undersheriff, but with the ever more popular Bill Gastner peering out of the wings to which he dispatched himself upon retirement. Estelle's new job continues to be far from easy, and now she is faced the death of a young woman on a motorcycle-- a death that could have been caused by improper driving from one of the county's traffic officers when he tried to stop her for speeding. But there is more than meets the eye. Gastner is there to help, but Estelle can go far to cope.
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A Discount for DeathA Posadas County Mystery
By Steven F. Havill
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2010 Steven F. Havill
All right reserved.
Chapter OneUndersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman stopped the unmarked county car at the curb on Bustos Avenue directly in front of Kealey's Dry Kleaners and Laundry. Even as she pushed the gearshift toward Park, Estelle saw Julia Kealey appear at the shop's door, hand reaching for the open-closed sign, ready to call it a day.
Julia flipped the sign but held the door open and watched with a sympathetic smile as the undersheriff pulled herself out of the patrol car and crossed the sidewalk. "You look like you've had an interesting Monday." She greeted Estelle in a voice husky from the mixture of cigarette smoke and dry-cleaning fumes.
"Interesting but endless." Estelle grinned, and then her dark face sobered. "How's Royce?"
"He's ... what would be the best word ... he's okay. Just okay." Julia let Estelle slip by into the shop. "He has some good days and some bad days. I keep kidding him that it's a victory if he can remember enough about the day to decide whether it's good or bad." She closed the door behind them and turned the bolt, adding with resignation, "Alzheimer's is nasty stuff, Sheriff. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."
Julia leaned against the counter as her only concession to fatigue. A stout, powerful woman, she looked ten years younger than the sixty-four that she was. She riffled through the ticket file and located Estelle's stub before the undersheriff had fished her half out of her pocket.
"Three pants suits," she said. "Just a sec."
Estelle's fingers drummed an unconscious beat on the Formica counter, and as the parade of bagged and tagged clothing hummed around the endless track she glanced at the clock. She had wanted to be home by five PM at the latest. That deadline was three hours and four minutes dead. She took a slow, deep breath and relaxed. Francisco and Carlos wouldn't care that she was late, although they'd be in a lather about the presents. The two little boys had no sense of time in the first place.
With any luck, the boys' father would be home to keep them occupied, but Estelle couldn't remember the last uninterrupted day that her physician husband had enjoyed. Still, it had been nice to imagine that the small, modest birthday party planned for that evening could happen without interruption.
The guest of honor would be the most philosophical of all. Bill Gastner, the padrino, or godfather, for Estelle's two little boys, had turned seventy-two—not a bad accomplishment for someone who knew the inside of a hospital nearly as well as he knew his own home. But he certainly wouldn't mind if Estelle was late to slice the cake. Thirty-two years as first undersheriff and then sheriff of Posadas County, New Mexico, had taught him all he needed to know about the vagaries of best-laid plans.
"Here you go," Julia said, and hung the plastic bags on the small rack beside the cash register. "There are movie stars who would like to look as elegant as you do, young lady," she said. "If anyone had told me that it was possible to look so good in a tan pants suit ..." She let the rest of the sentence drift off and smoothed the nearest plastic bag with her hand. "Well," she added before Estelle could reply. "That's twenty-three ninety."
"I really appreciate this, Julia," Estelle said. "If I get any behinder, I'm going to meet myself."
Julia laughed and handed the undersheriff her change with one hand while she lifted the hangers off the hook with the other. "And here I thought it had been dead quiet these past few days. I haven't heard any new juicy gossip in weeks."
Estelle took the clothing with another round of thanks, not rising to the light bait Julia had tossed out. "Thanks again, Julia."
The woman waved her hand in easy dismissal. "I'm usually here until eight-thirty anyway, before I get everything squared away." She turned the bolt and held the door. The cool October evening was crisp, welcome after the chemical atmosphere of the cleaners. "You take care now," Julia said, "and have a good week." She closed the door. As she stepped across the sidewalk, Estelle heard the door bolt click into place behind her.
Traffic was light on Bustos, the main east-west arterial through the village of Posadas. A single car approached in the curb lane from the east, and Estelle paused to let it pass before stepping out around the front fender of the patrol car. She recognized the driver as Maggie Archer, wife of the school superintendent, and lifted a hand in greeting as the Volvo station wagon passed. Across the street, a pickup with a rattling stock trailer pulled out of the Chevron station, east-bound, with a loud clatter of diesel.
As she reached for the door handle of her unmarked car, the cry of tires reached her on the light breeze. At the same time, the sound of two engines joined in, one the characteristic strangled bellow of a late-model V-8 working hard, the other the high-pitched warble of a motorcycle's two-stroke.
Estelle opened the door to toss the clothing on the seat. For a moment, she stood with the door open, leaning her weight on the window frame, listening. The eastbound ranch pickup had clattered into the distance. Somewhere off on the side streets to the north the two racing drivers were having a grand time. They'd roar through enough neighborhood stop signs that eventually someone would call the village police and complain. As Estelle listened, both vehicles turned south, heading toward Bustos.
Maggie Archer's dark blue Volvo continued west at a sedate pace, its taillights receding under the halo of street lamps. Six blocks separated the spot where Estelle then stood from the intersection of Twelfth and Bustos, and as clearly as if they were homing missiles, the sounds of the two racing vehicles headed south toward that intersection.
The approach to Bustos Avenue on southbound Twelfth Street included an aging metal bridge, one of those structures with silver-painted steel lattice sides and a grilled roadbed that made tires hum. In deference to its years, the bridge was posted with a plethora of weight-limit warning signs. The trusses spanned an arroyo and an abandoned irrigation ditch, both of which would have been adequately served with a simple metal culvert. Whether functional or not, the "Bridge by the Don Juan" was the last of its kind in the county, preserved as a historical landmark. Even Estelle's young sons had learned to howl in unison with the tire noise for that brief instant of harmony whenever the family car crossed.
As more than one driver had proved in the past, the old bridge also doubled as an effective takeoff ramp if a vehicle hit the approach too quickly.
Two heartbeats before Maggie Archer's Volvo station wagon arrived at Twelfth Street, Estelle saw the motorcyclist rocket through the Stop sign and into the intersection. The streetlight by the Don Juan de Oate Restaurant flashed on the bike's yellow fenders. The machine was still half airborne, its front wheel pulled high and crossed wildly as if the rider was attempting to recover from a showboat motocross jump.
Instead of continuing straight through the intersection and diving onto South Twelfth Street, the rider attempted a turn left onto Bustos, crossing directly in front of Maggie Archer's station wagon. Estelle saw the flare of the Volvo's brake lights, and then the motorcycle was down.
A tire or foot peg grabbed asphalt and the machine flipped wildly across the street, shedding parts and its rider. At the same instant that the bike crashed into the southeast curb of Bustos Avenue and the unseated rider slammed into the base of the steel utility pole, a Posadas Village patrol car shot into the intersection, tires squealing. The car narrowly missed Maggie Archer's Volvo and continued across Bustos, skewing to a stop on Twelfth Street. The motorcycle finally crashed to a halt halfway across the front yard of the vacant rental house on the southeast corner of Twelfth and Bustos.
"Ay," Estelle gasped. She ducked inside, twisted the ignition key, and yanked the unmarked car into drive before the door slammed closed.
Even as she accelerated down the street toward the carnage, she palmed the mike. "PCS, three ten. Be advised of an MVA at Bustos and Twelfth involving a motorcycle. We'll need an ambulance. And notify Chief Mitchell."
"Three ten, PCS. Ten four." If dispatcher Ernie Wheeler said anything else, Estelle didn't hear him. She was watching the village patrolman as he clambered out of his car. She snapped on the grill lights of her own unit, and the officer stopped in his tracks the instant that he saw her approaching. His left hand drifted to the roof of his car as if he needed the added support to remain upright. The emergency lights in the roof rack hadn't been on when the police car rocketed into the intersection, and they remained dark now. Like a deer caught in headlights, the village officer froze.
Estelle swung her car broadside so that its bulk protected the tangled motorcycle from eastbound traffic. Maggie Archer's Volvo had drifted to a stop, its nose poking into the Twelfth Street intersection. The lump that had been the bike rider lay motionless, head down in the street, body awkwardly sprawled up over the curb near the base of the utility pole.
As she opened the door of 310, Estelle turned at the sound of another vehicle accelerating toward them from the east. Sheriff's Deputy Thomas Pasquale braked hard, stopping the county Expedition in the center of the westbound lanes, forming a "tee" with the back of Estelle's unit.
The village patrolman, Perry Kenderman, remained rooted in place as if he were a bewildered tourist frozen in a photograph. Estelle ignored him and sprinted to the biker's side. The sprawled figure was hardly larger than a child, twisted with hips up on the lip of the sidewalk and upper torso in the street's drainage basin.
The body had that tragically limp, deflated appearance of a flung doll, without a twitch, without a moan. Dreading the answer, Estelle knelt and reached out to touch two fingers to the soft skin of the victim's throat just below the helmet. Not a tremor stirred the large carotid artery, a vessel that should have been pounding with the excitement of the chase or racing with the trauma of broken bones.
One of the support bolts at the base of the utility pole had torn a chunk out of the side of the helmet. The wrenching impact had been violent enough to snap the cyclist's neck as the force of the collision wrapped her body around the base of the pole. Estelle gently slipped her fingers behind the biker's head, under the margin of the heavy helmet. She closed her eyes and felt a fracture so catastrophic that she could trace the irregularities of the shattered vertebrae.
The undersheriff sat back on her haunches and let out a long breath.
"Ambulance is on the way," Pasquale said. He had sprinted across from his vehicle and dropped to his knees beside Estelle. He reached out toward the cyclist's shoulders, but Estelle held up a hand sharply.
"Her neck's broken," she said. "Don't touch her. The EMTs are on the way."
"We got a clear airway?" Pasquale crouched down. The beam from his heavy flashlight reflected from the cracked plastic face shield as he bent forward to double-check for a pulse. Estelle felt her stomach churn. To pound the cyclist's heart back into motion, they'd have to move the body, straighten it out to clear the airway, support the neck. With the brain disconnected, there was no point.
"If you can figure out how to put her spine back together so the air will do some good," Estelle whispered.
"Well, Christ," Pasquale said. "It is a girl, isn't it."
"Yes." Estelle pushed herself to her feet and looked across at Patrolman Perry Kenderman. The officer had moved a step or two further away from his car and now stood in the middle of the street, hands locked behind his head as if he expected someone to slap handcuffs on his wrists. "Ay," Estelle said. "This is all wrong."
"Pardon?" Pasquale looked up at her, but she shook her head.
"Stay with her," she said. "And call in for some help. We need to perimeter this entire intersection." She nodded toward Maggie Archer as the deputy reached for his radio. The woman had gotten out of her car and now stood by the door, arms folded and hugging herself, not daring to move. "And make sure Mrs. Archer doesn't drive off." Far down the street to the east, she heard the wail of the ambulance as it pulled out of the Posadas General Hospital parking lot, less than a minute away.
Chapter TwoPatrolman Perry Kenderman's angular face was pale, and as Estelle approached, she could see his deer-in-headlights gaze shift from the motionless form under the utility pole to the dark figure of Maggie Archer across the street, and then to the rapidly approaching ambulance. Only when Estelle reached out and touched him on the shoulder did he turn and acknowledge her presence.
"Perry, tell me what happened." She watched his face. His heavy lips moved, but whatever it was that he wanted to say stuck in his throat. Estelle waited. Kenderman had been hired as a full-time village patrolman just months before by Chief Eddie Mitchell, but he'd served long enough as a part-timer to know the job. Perry Kenderman had proved himself steady and dependable. No particular flame drove his ambition—just what the village fathers appreciated.
Estelle glanced back over her shoulder as the ambulance pulled to a stop and the two EMTs bailed out. Deputy Pasquale had been kneeling by the fallen rider, and he rose to step out of the way as the two EMTs approached. Estelle turned once more to the patrolman.
She knew that Kenderman had seen his share of accidents. Less than a month before, he'd responded to the scene of a pickup truck rollover that had killed a two-year-old. Estelle had arrived in time to see Kenderman working frantically with the EMTs trying to save the child's life. He hadn't frozen in his tracks then.
But tonight, he'd been struck dumb. There was nothing anyone could do for the motorcyclist, Estelle knew, but Kenderman didn't. From such a spill, the norm would have been broken bones, pavement burns, maybe some lacerations from the bolts at the bottom of the utility pole. Kenderman could have handled any of those injuries as a first responder. But he had not taken a step. With a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, Estelle could guess why the patrolman had been stunned into silence.
His patrol car, askew in the street, was effectively blocking Twelfth, and Estelle moved past him and leaned inside the vehicle. She turned on the red lights and paused before straightening up, looking at the radio.
"Perry, talk to me," she said quietly. "I want you to tell me what happened."
"She wouldn't stop," Kenderman said, finally finding his voice. This time he looked fully at Estelle, and she could see that he'd returned from whatever mental hideout he'd initially chosen.
"This started out as a routine traffic stop?" Estelle kept her tone neutral, noncommittal, hoping that the leading question would serve to prime the officer's pump.
Kenderman's head bobbed a bit, as if he couldn't decide whether to nod or shake.
"Where did you first see the bike?"
"Up ... up on ..." and he paused. "She was comin' down toward the bridge, there, on Twelfth Street. She run the stop sign at Highland."
"You were parked there, or coming up behind, or what?"
"I ... I was comin' out of Highland the other way."
Estelle turned and looked north, past the Don Juan de Oate Restaurant, toward the small silver bridge. Highland Court, a narrow lane that was actually only five or six blocks long, crossed Twelfth Street a scant two blocks before the bridge. She looked back at Kenderman. His Adam's apple jumped as he gulped air.
"You knew who the cyclist was?"
He shook his head quickly, and Estelle saw his eyes dance away. She regarded him silently.
"I need to make sure I understand," she said finally. "Where were you when you first saw the motorcycle?"
Kenderman frowned at the pavement. "I was eastbound on Highlands."
"On which side of Twelfth?"
"West." He nodded as if the image had finally coalesced in his mind.
"You were coming up on the intersection of Highland and Twelfth, then?" He nodded again. "And where was the motorcycle?"
"It was comin' down Twelfth toward me. Southbound."
"And you said it ran a stop sign?" The question obviously jarred Kenderman, since Estelle was sure he would know as well as anyone that there was no stop sign posted on the through street.
Kenderman ran a hand over his face in frustration. "She was comin' west on Highland. That's what I mean. Christ, all this happened so fast." He put both hands over his face, shuddered a deep breath, and then extended them toward Estelle. "She was comin' west on Highland, got to the stop sign at Twelfth, and ran right through, right there in front of me."
"And that's the first time you saw the bike?"
"What do you mean?"
"You hadn't been in pursuit earlier? This was your first encounter?"
"The first time." Kenderman's voice had firmed up some, and he gazed off into space, his head shaking slowly.
Excerpted from A Discount for Death by Steven F. Havill Copyright © 2010 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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