Sat
Mar 2 2013 1:00pm
Scratchgravel Road: New Excerpt
Tricia Fields

Scratchgravel Road by Tricia FieldsAn excerpt of Scratchgravel Road by Tricia Fields, the second book in the series featuring Texas police chief Josie Gray (available March 5, 2013).

It was pure luck that Josie Gray spotted Cassidy Harper’s car, abandoned on the side of the road. If she hadn’t, then she’d never have found Cassidy, lying nearly dead of heatstroke on the desert sand beside the body of a Mexican immigrant. But Cassidy can’t explain why she was out for a walk in the midday desert heat, let alone how she happened upon the corpse. And once Josie sees the ominous wounds on the man’s body, she knows she needs to find the answer fast, before her own life is in danger. 

Chapter 1

Teresa Cruz knew that people watched her. There’s nothing more satisfying than catching a cop’s kid, her mom had told her. Yet here she was, standing in front of a pickup truck an hour past town curfew, with Enrico Gomez, the twenty-year-old guy her mother had forbidden her from seeing.

“No cars past here,” he said, pointing down into the Hollow.

Teresa looked out into the black desert but could see nothing. She had cotton-mouth and her eyes stung from the hot night wind. She felt Enrico fumble in the dark for her hand, then wrap her fingers inside his.

“You scared?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

She shrugged, not trusting her voice.

“Stay with me, you’ll be fine. Everybody’s cool. We walk down a slope into the Hollow. Can’t see it from the road. Cops don’t even know it’s here.”

Teresa’s throat constricted.

“Even if she drove by here she couldn’t see the cars from Scratchgravel.”

She turned away from him. He had misjudged her silence.

He dropped her hand and dug into his front pocket. “I got a surprise. Hold your hand out flat.”

She held her palm out and watched him twist open the top of a small container. He laid a round mirror in her hand and she forced herself not to pull back.

She felt suddenly self-conscious, too young in her shorts and flip-flops and tank top. She wore her black hair straight, falling just below her shoulder blades, and worried Enrico’s friends would look down on her—just some sixteen-year-old girl. She had no idea who would be there but was too proud to ask.

“Hold still,” he said.

She held her hand motionless, torn between the fear of getting caught and the thrill of watching.

In his other hand he flipped open his cell phone and shone the dim light onto the mirror, where he tapped out a line from the container. He handed her his cell phone and she held the light over his hand as he tightened the lid on the small vial, stuffed it back in his pocket, then bent over her hand and used a thin straw to snort the powder into his nose.

Teresa felt nauseous. She had crossed a line her mother would never forgive, certainly never understand.

In the pale light Teresa watched him shove his hand back into his front pocket. “Want a hit?”

She shook her head.

“You ever done a line?” he asked.

She said nothing.

“Come on, girl. You’ll feel like Superman. Feel like you can do anything. Just a small one.”

He unscrewed the lid and her skin prickled.

“Let’s just go,” she said.

He hesitated and then replaced the lid and shoved it back in his pocket. She should have told him the truth—she didn’t want it. She liked Enrico, but she didn’t like the person she became when she was with him.

He walked back to the truck’s driver side door and she listened as he turned the key and rolled the windows up, then locked the doors.

It was a warm July night and the air felt hot on her skin. The sky was wide open with a three-quarter moon that cast a deep purple light, revealing the jagged shadows of desert cactus and low-lying mountain ranges in the distance.

He came back and stood in front of her. “You know anyone who’s been out here?”

Like most high school kids, she had heard of the Hollow but never been. It was a desert hideout accessible by invitation only. A kid didn’t wander into the Hollow without being asked first by a regular. By someone who had already been accepted. Rumors ran through school about what went on: drugs, sex, alcohol, but it was the allure of the unknown that made kids talk.

She shook her head no.

“That’s cool. Just relax. Street etiquette, right?”

“I know.” She did not know. She had no idea what she would say. She felt entirely out of place and wanted him to promise not to leave her side.

Taking her hand again, he laced his fingers between her own and began walking.

Enrico pointed toward the land in front of them. “Look. You don’t need lights now.”

Teresa made out the silhouettes of two small mountain ranges to the north. Creosote bushes, agave, Spanish daggers, and mesquite clumps blended with large boulders that disguised vehicles from view. Enrico was right; her eyes had adjusted and the land spread out before her like a movie screen. It was the same desert she’d grown up in, but everything looked different. The boulders and bushes she wouldn’t have given a second thought to in the daylight now appeared to hide things inside their shadows.

“How will you find the truck with no lights?” she asked.

Enrico laughed. “You stick by me. Ain’t nothing to worry about.”

His hair was cut military style, short on the sides, longer on top, and he wore the loose jeans and tight shirt of guys who claimed gang status. She could feel the energy buzzing through his body, his grip on her hand so tight it hurt.

As he pulled her along she struggled to keep her bearings, beginning to feel anxious that she couldn’t find her way out on her own. Enrico had pulled off of Scratchgravel Road onto an arroyo that she hadn’t even known existed. He had put the truck into four-wheel drive and followed the arroyo heading east for close to a mile before stopping. There were a half-dozen trucks and Jeeps parked behind the tail end of a small mountain range that appeared to have been chopped into pieces. It made good cover for the vehicles and the Hollow that lay somewhere on the other side.

Enrico laid his arm over her shoulder and it felt heavy. He was built thick and worked out obsessively. She struggled to keep up with him, worrying she would trip over a cactus, leaving cuts that she would struggle to explain to her mother the next day.

She smelled the sweet musky smoke before she saw the faint light from the bonfire in the distance. Enrico put a finger to his lips and they listened to hushed laughter, maybe fifty feet in front of them. She couldn’t tell if the voices’ owners were walking or were inside a vehicle. After a few seconds the sounds faded into the distance.

With no city lights the stars and moon lit the desert floor a soft gray. The ground appeared to be reflecting back the absorbed light from the sun’s afternoon glare. The light from the fire, still partially hidden behind a large boulder, appeared bright suddenly.

“It’s a half-mile walk from here. You cool?” he asked.

“I’m fine.”

“Watch for the long skinny cactus. They rip into your skin like a fishing hook. Hurts like hell to pull them out.”

Enrico stopped suddenly and Teresa ran into his side. He pointed to his left, toward the road, in the direction of an approaching vehicle. “Hold up. Truck’s coming.”

They stood and watched the yellow parking lights of a dark-colored, full-size pickup as it drove slowly forward, just to the north of them. Without a word, they both crouched in the sand and watched the truck slow to a crawl, then circle behind a large thick grove of bushes roughly thirty feet in front of them.

“Don’t you know all these people?” she whispered.

“Nobody comes to the Hollow off Scratchgravel like that,” he said, pointing in the direction of the truck. “Got to be safe.”

She wondered what he meant. Safe from the cops?

The truck stopped. The driver exited, slammed the door, and walked to the back end.

“What the hell’s this guy doing?” Enrico said.

Teresa could feel his arm tense against hers like he was ready to take off after the guy in the truck. Enrico had an intensity that she respected, like he could handle anything.

The man laid the tailgate down and dragged something forward. They heard him grunt, obviously struggling with the load. Teresa wondered if they were watching a drug exchange. The Rio Grande, the border to Mexico, was less than a mile away, and crossing it in the middle of nowhere was no big deal. The Border Patrol rarely made it to Artemis. With two thousand miles of international border their little town barely got noticed, and drug mules and coyotes transporting illegals were part of life.

The man at the back of the truck continued to struggle for another minute, and then they heard a heavy thud as the load hit the ground. The man bent and worked for several seconds arranging something, then stood abruptly, shut the tailgate, and walked back to the driver’s side. They listened as he shoved the truck into gear and drove slowly away, around the bushes and back the same way he came, straight back out to the road.

Enrico stood and Teresa grabbed ahold of the back of his shirt. “Maybe we should turn back. If that’s a load of weed we should get out of here.”

Instead, he walked forward, toward the dark mass lying on the ground. Teresa followed a few feet behind him.

Enrico stopped suddenly and threw his arm out to stop her. “Son of a bitch.”

Looking over his shoulder, she gasped and stifled a scream into her fist.

 

Chapter 2

At noon on Monday, Chief Josie Gray followed her bloodhound outside, then locked the front door of her small adobe house in the foothills of the Chinati Mountains. She watched Chester lope up the long lane behind her house to the cabin owned by her closest friend, Dell Seapus. His place was the dog’s second home while Josie went to work. She unlocked the driver’s-side door of her dusty blue and white jeep and leaned in to start the car. The blast of hot air sent her back to the shade of the front porch while the car cooled. Her police uniform was standard garb: thick gray pants, navy blue short-sleeved shirt, and heavy black work boots that made little sense in the West Texas desert, but the mayor and commissioners were convinced they conveyed the proper image. Josie wore her uniform carefully pressed and the brass polished. She recognized that her public image as chief of police had to remain impeccable on every level. Not everyone thought a thirty-three-year-old woman fit that role.

She pulled her cell phone out of her uniform shirt pocket and called dispatcher Louise Hagerty, to log on for second shift.

“Anything going on?” she asked.

“Otto’s taking a report at the Gun Club. Tiny called and said somebody stole all the trash cans from behind his store.”

Josie sighed.

Lou told her she was cleaning out the refrigerator and wanted Josie to tell Otto to quit leaving open Coke cans on the shelves. Lou was a forty-seven-year-old chain smoker with a voice like sandpaper who complained about having to work as secretary, detective, intake officer, custodian, and psychologist on top of her real job as dispatcher. But Josie knew Lou was first rate at all her various tasks, and probably would have complained bitterly if someone tried to take one away from her.

“I’ll talk to him,” Josie said. “I’m going to drive by the watchtower before I come into town. Call me if you need anything.”

With the steering wheel cool enough to touch, Josie backed out of her driveway onto Schenck Road, the gravel lane that led to her and Dell’s property. The Chihuahuan Desert spread out before her, sparsely marked with cactus, scrub bushes, and pinyon pine, with not another house in sight for miles. Josie drove slowly down the lane, appreciating the quiet and the solitude.

She glanced down at the gold medallion that lay in the tray on her console; her father’s ten-year award for his service as a police officer. It was the only memento she had of her father’s work as an officer and she kept it with her, a talisman to protect her on the job. Her father had been killed in a line-of-duty accident when she was eight, and in her own mind, it had always been a given that she would become a cop as well. Looking out at the lonely desert before her she knew the job was a good fit. She preferred watching people to talking with them, asking questions rather than answering them.

Cassidy Harper wiped the sweat out of her eyes with the sleeve of her T-shirt and turned to face the road, a quarter mile back through scorched desert sand, to where her water bottle sat in the front seat of her car. With thirty minutes before Leo returned home, there was no time to turn around.

She pulled a folded piece of paper out of the front pocket of her shorts and stared at the words she had heard two days ago. At one-thirty in the morning she had awoken to the sound of Leo’s voice in the other room. She got out of bed and crept down the hallway to see him sitting in the dark on the living room floor, hunched over the phone. She had only caught pieces of his conversation before the fear of being caught eavesdropping forced her back into bed. But she’d grabbed a pen, and a paperback book from her nightstand, and in the light from the digital clock she scribbled down fragments of the conversation she had heard on a blank page: I’ll take...to Scratchgravel Road. Half mile before River Road, on the right. A quarter mile downhill. Can’t see...from the road.

Then he’d disappeared for three hours. Gotten in his car and driven away without waking her up or leaving her a note about where he was going. Cassidy had remained rigid when Leo crawled back into bed near dawn the next morning. He had curled away from her and said nothing. A mix of fear and anger kept her from saying anything that morning, but she couldn’t let it go.

Over dinner that evening, she had asked where he had gone in the middle of the night. He’d given her a startled look and then concocted some ridiculous answer about not being able to sleep. “I just took a ride, got some fresh air. I didn’t want to wake you.” Bullshit, she’d thought.

Cassidy had allowed the words she had written down to chew at her for two days, but the not knowing was driving her crazy. She’d heard rumors about a dirt road somewhere off of Scratchgravel that led to a place where kids partied on the weekends. The druggies called it the Hollow. But she had never known Leo to take drugs or even show any interest; he rarely even drank alcohol. None of it made any sense.

With fewer than 2,500 people, Artemis was a remote desert town situated on a dead-end road between two ghost towns. For an outsider, it was not an easy place to meet people, especially if you didn’t fit the mold. Cassidy wasn’t sure what the mold was, but it obviously wasn’t an out-of-work physics teacher. Leo had no friends and only a part-time research job he worked at from home. She was basically his only friend in Artemis, or so she had thought, and she couldn’t imagine who he would be meeting at one in the morning. So she had decided to investigate. She wanted proof before he had the opportunity to spin the lies she was sure would follow.

She looked back toward her car, but it was behind a low hill, just out of view. She was not good at judging distances, but she was fairly certain she had walked at least a quarter of a mile. In the heat, it felt like five miles. Twenty-two years old, and she was stalking her lousy boyfriend in the desert.

Cassidy turned away from the road and began walking toward a patch of mesquite bushes and several large boulders about fifty feet in the distance. If there was nothing there she would turn back. Her head hurt, and the sun, now directly overhead, was making her dizzy and nauseous. She could see a depression in the sand directly in front of her, maybe another quarter of a mile from Scratchgravel, and she assumed it was the crater shaped area the kids called the Hollow. Curious, she wanted to check out the spot, but she would need to come back with water if she intended to hike any farther.

Fifteen feet from the small grove of bushes she caught wind of a horrible smell. She stopped and wrinkled her nose. It smelled putrid, like a rotting animal— not a familiar smell in the desert. She realized suddenly how hot she was. Her sweat evaporated instantly and it was difficult to measure how much water she had already lost.

Growing up in the swamps of the Everglades she had hated the dank decay that permeated everything she owned. When she left home at sixteen she hitchhiked west and stopped in Texas for the smell alone, the clean baked smell of desert dirt. She wrinkled her nose in disgust. Whatever it was now, a dead jackrabbit or coyote, it definitely did not smell clean.

There were six mesquite bushes, approximately five feet tall and just as wide, with only a sparse covering of small green leaves that allowed her to see through to the other side. Before she walked behind the first mesquite she noticed a lump. She held a hand over her eyes to block the sun’s glare and after several seconds she made out the shape of a body, a man, flat on his back.

“What the hell?” she said, her voice surprising her in the silence.

She walked quickly around the grove to the back side, then advanced several steps before her windpipe swelled with fear. She struggled to pull air down into her lungs. She put a hand to her mouth and dropped to her knees. The sand burned her skin as she crawled forward, a sickening curiosity pushing her on. Had Leo known about this man? Did he have something to do with this man’s death?

Cassidy’s long red hair hung in ringlets around her face. Sweat stung her eyes. Riding a wave of nausea she had a clear vision of her blistered body passed out beside the decaying corpse in front of her. Stray flies buzzed from the corpse toward her face in search of new prey. She watched the sand in front of her begin to move like ocean waves.

 

Josie pushed her sunglasses on to avoid increasing the spray of wrinkles around her eyes. At her age, the desert sun was just beginning to take a toll on her skin. She wore her brown shoulder-length hair straight, usually pulled back into a ponytail, which did nothing to soften her angular cheekbones and jawline. While on duty, Josie wore nothing that would draw attention to her physical appearance or gender.

She turned south onto Scratchgravel Road, toward River Road, which ran a parallel course with the Rio Grande. The river served as the fragile border between West Texas and Mexico. Across the river was Piedra Labrada, Artemis’s sister city. The fifty-mile strip of land on either side of the river was known locally as the territory, a once quiet area where two cultures had shared their differences peacefully for several hundred years. The cartels had recently chosen Artemis as their route into the United States, a disaster that taxed local law enforcement beyond all available resources. Since the Medrano and La Bestia cartels had begun negotiating over territory and drug routes in the area rather than killing each other over it, her small town of Artemis, Texas, had settled back into an uncomfortable peace. People wanted to believe the brutality was over, but the memories were fresh; the fear still dominated conversations at the diner and gas stations. She knew the peace was nothing more than temporary.

Josie made a habit of climbing the fifty-foot-tall watchtower built alongside the river at least once a week at various times of day and night to keep an eye on several hot spots for illegal crossings. She looked for signs on the ground: trash bags, discarded clothing, empty water bottles—all trash left behind by illegals lightening their load as they made their way across the desert. A shallow bend in the Rio Grande had been a recent crossing point for the Medrano cartel’s gun and drug running, but Josie hoped the entrance point had been shut down with the arrests of several high-ranking leaders.

About a half mile before reaching the watchtower she spotted a light blue economy-sized car parked on the east side of the road. As she approached, she made out Texas plates. The car looked as if it had lost at a game of bumper cars; there were multiple dents, faded paint, a smashed left taillight, and a loose right fender. Josie thought the car looked like Cassidy Harper’s, a girl who had worked as a fill-in janitor at the Artemis Police Department for a few months last year. Josie had liked the girl and had offered her some advice that Cassidy seemed to want but never followed. Josie met Cassidy’s type frequently; many of the people she arrested weren’t bad, they just made horrible choices.

Josie parked behind the vehicle and surveyed the area, scanning for movement. She saw no one. She walked around the car and found all of the windows up and the car doors locked. A woman’s yellow tote bag lay on the backseat and about a dozen music CDs were scattered over the passenger seat in the front. Nothing looked tampered with. It looked as if she had parked and taken off hiking on a day forecast to hit 104 degrees.

Josie called the plate in to Lou and climbed onto the hood of her jeep, and then the roof, to view the area. A quarter mile east of her jeep she saw two shapes that she was certain were not native. The shapes were in the midst of a group of bushes so she was not able to distinguish what they were, but the coloring was off. She could make out bright yellow, and a patch of navy blue, neither of which were colors found in the desert in late July.

Worried the shapes could be people suffering from heat exhaustion, Josie climbed down from her vehicle to grab a small pair of binoculars from her glove box. Lou radioed back confirmation that the car belonged to Cassidy Harper: twenty-two years old, red hair, brown eyes, five foot four, 119 pounds, a resident at 110 River Road in Artemis. Josie told her to send Otto her way for assistance, and then got back up on the roof of her car.

She yelled Cassidy’s name twice, but saw no movement through her binoculars.

With her heart pounding now, Josie climbed back down, slid inside her jeep, and threw it into four-wheel drive. She could think of no rational reason for Cassidy to be outside. She’d lived in Artemis long enough to know this kind of heat killed in a hurry.

Resisting the urge to floor it, she drove slowly into the desert, feeling her way, sensing the movement of the tires in the sand beneath her. There were areas she wouldn’t take the jeep, even in four-wheel-drive, because the sand was so soft the tires would get buried. Having never driven off-road in this area, she advanced carefully.

Josie rarely became emotionally tangled with other people’s lives but occasionally her guard slipped. Cassidy had remained in Josie’s thoughts since leaving the department. The girl lived her life by being at the wrong place at the wrong time and Josie often wondered about the situation with her boyfriend. She hoped it hadn’t just ended in tragedy.

About fifty feet from what she was now certain were bodies, Josie felt the sand give way under her tires. Rather than chance getting the jeep buried, she grabbed her water bottle from the center console and opened the door, leaving the jeep and its air conditioner running. She pulled her gun and ran toward the bodies.

As she approached it was obvious she was facing the possibility of two dead. She found Cassidy, lying on her side, her face in the sand. Josie glanced at the body lying ten feet to the left of Cassidy but didn’t bother checking vital signs. The man was already dead: swollen, deteriorating, and smelling rank. He had been there a few days. Even with the decomposition she could tell he was not Cassidy’s boyfriend.

Josie kneeled close to Cassidy’s head to block the sun from her face and placed two fingers on her neck. The girl’s face was bright red and her pulse racing. Her skin was dry to the touch and Josie feared heatstroke, which could turn fatal fast.

She pulled her portable radio out of her belt and signaled Lou.

“Call the clinic. Tell them we have a probable heatstroke. I need a medic fast. She needs IV fluids. Then call Otto. We have a dead male. Possible illegal. Body is due east of the blue Ford Focus on Scratchgravel Road. Call the coroner.”

During her time as a custodian at the police department, Cassidy had been good-natured and friendly. She had been a hard worker and Josie had hated to see her leave when their regular custodian came back from his medical leave. Jimmy was a sixty-something-year-old who was slow and quiet and rarely interacted with anyone in the department. Cassidy had been a welcome addition.

She lived with a man quite a few years older than she was, an odd guy, close to forty years old with a long scruffy beard and dark eyes that bothered Josie. During a traffic stop several years ago, he had avoided Josie’s eyes, never once meeting her gaze. She could not imagine what the attraction was for this pretty young girl.

Waiting for Lou to respond, Josie opened the water bottle and took Cassidy’s head in her hand, tilting it up, trying to wake her and get her to drink something. There was no response. She poured water over Cassidy’s face and her wrists, attempting to lower her body temperature. Cassidy’s hand moved but nothing more. Josie stood and put the water bottle in her gun belt. She bent at the knees and lifted Cassidy’s torso over her shoulder, then used her leg muscles to slowly stand and balance herself. She took careful steps through the fine sand back to her jeep. In the intensity of the afternoon heat, each breath felt like fire, but she had to get Cassidy into air-conditioning until the medic arrived.

Josie stood at a trim five feet seven inches, but the walk to the car was slow. The heat magnified every movement, slowing every bodily function. Just as she started to worry the girl would not make it in time she saw the dust of an approaching car, then the unmistakable flash of Otto’s patrol lights.

Officer Otto Podowski was sixty years old, a large man with little tolerance for the desert heat. He drove his own jeep to where Josie had parked, then ran to her and took the young woman over his own shoulder, carrying her the last forty feet to Josie’s car. She ran ahead and opened the backseat door, then helped Otto position Cassidy inside.

“Paramedic’s been called. I’ll try and get some water into her,” Josie said, climbing in beside Cassidy and slamming the back door.

Otto got into the driver’s seat of Josie’s jeep and aimed the air vents toward the backseat. Josie slowly poured water over the girl’s face. Her body was limp and leaning against Josie’s side. Otto turned the jeep around and headed out to the road to meet up with the paramedic.

“Is that the Harper girl?” he asked.

“Yes. She’s not doing well. Her face is red. Her pulse is rapid, and she’s not opened her eyes since I arrived.”

As Otto maneuvered carefully through the sand, Josie filled him in on the position of Cassidy and the dead body when she arrived.

“Think she found the body and passed out?” he asked.

Josie glanced up and saw Otto looking at her in the rearview mirror. She shook her head in doubt. “What are the odds Cassidy would pick this spot to take a hike on a day like this? She couldn’t have seen anything from the road. I had to climb on the roof of my jeep before I realized something was out there. It’s not like she saw someone and ran to help.”

“Since when did you quit believing in coincidence?”

“My first year on the job.” She looked away from him and tried to pour a trickle of water into Cassidy’s mouth again.

Otto pulled the jeep onto the side of the road as the ambulance made the turn onto Scratchgravel so fast Josie thought it might tip.

“That guy drives like a maniac. I’m gonna cite him for reckless driving after this is all over,” Otto said.

“Cut him a break. He’s just a kid.”

“You were hired on as a kid too, but you didn’t drive like a jackass.”

Thirteen years prior, while he was still chief, Otto had hired Josie as an officer. He had retired as the chief three years ago after a hip replacement surgery and aching knees kept him from doing the job he expected of himself. Josie had applied for the job as chief with Otto’s encouragement and he had been quick to accept her as his boss when she received the promotion.

Marvin Levin hopped out of the ambulance already sweating heavily in his EMS uniform. He had a paunch, and walked as if his belly slowed him down and annoyed him. He left the engine running and went directly to the back of the unit and opened the double doors.

Otto and Josie climbed out of the jeep and opened both back doors. Josie helped Marvin roll the stretcher over to the jeep.

“Fill me in,” Marvin said, already looking into the backseat.

“A female, twenty-two years old. Possible heatstroke,” Josie said.

Josie helped Marvin pull the girl out of the backseat and lay her on the stretcher. Marvin strapped her body down, and they rolled her back to the ambulance and slid her inside. He climbed into the back and started preparing IV fluids as Josie explained what she knew.

“I found her a quarter mile east of here. Passed out. She’s unresponsive. Won’t take any water.” Josie watched Marvin slide the needle smoothly into Cassidy’s arm and get the fluid dripping into her body. “She hasn’t opened her eyes since I got here.”

“Any idea how long she’s been outside?” Marvin asked. He pulled packs of ice out of a small freezer and laid them in between her inner arms and her body, her armpits, and her groin.

“No idea.”

He stood up quickly and headed toward the front of the ambulance. “Anybody taking the ride with me?”

Otto motioned Josie into the back of the ambulance. “Go on. See if you can get something out of her when she wakes up. I’ll get measurements.”

She nodded and stepped in beside the stretcher. Marvin turned the ambulance around and Josie shouted toward the front, “Hey! Drive like you got sense. I don’t want to end up in a ditch on the way there.”

“No worries,” he yelled, laughing at what he thought was a joke.

Sitting on a small bench beside Cassidy’s head, Josie pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. She dialed Officer Marta Cruz’s number. Marta was the third member of their three-person police department. Artemis needed at least five officers to handle the recent spate of violence, brought on by the cartels in northern Mexico, but resources were scarce. Marta wasn’t due in to work for several hours. Josie hated calling her off duty, but it was an accepted drawback of police work in a small town.

When Marta answered, Josie told her about finding Cassidy in the desert beside the dead body.

“Why am I not surprised to hear this?” Marta asked. “How can such a sweet girl attract so much stink?”

“The body is a male. I’m guessing he’s been outside two to four days. Looks like he might have been an illegal making a break for it. Check with Border Patrol and ICE for any recent missing persons reports.”

She felt the ambulance lurch through the lone stoplight in Artemis and continue forward. She could see the courthouse tower out of the front window and knew they were just a block from the Trauma Center.

Josie hung up with Marta, called the sheriff’s department, and asked for Sheriff Roy Martínez. He was a burly retired marine who took his job seriously, was fair-minded, and operated on the same shoestring budget she did. The sheriff also ran the Arroyo County Jail. The majority of his staff was needed just to keep the jail running smoothly, which left Josie’s police department in charge of both city crimes and often the county calls that the sheriff’s department should have taken.

The sheriff answered with a gruff, “Martínez.”

“Hey, Roy. It’s Josie. I’m headed to the hospital with a probable heatstroke victim. And we’ve got a body in the desert.”

“I heard from dispatch. I’m headed to Marfa in about ten minutes. I’ve got a prisoner transport. The body in the desert a Mexican?”

“That’s what I’m calling for. We’re not sure. It’s your case to take at this point, but I talked to Lou this morning and she says you’ve got problems.”

She listened as he blew air out in frustration. “I got one officer in Guadalajara for his wedding and two on sick leave. Peterson called in this morning. He’s got a broken leg and won’t be back for weeks. Fell off a ladder painting his damn kitchen.” He paused. “You okay to take this one?”

“Otto’s getting measurements now. I’m hoping with some fluids Cassidy will come around and tell us something about the body.

I’ll keep you posted.” She watched as the girl tried to move her arm, which was still strapped down to the stretcher. She moaned quietly and Josie took it for a positive sign.

“I appreciate it. I owe you one or two,” Martínez said.

Marvin pulled the ambulance up to the side entrance of the Arroyo County Trauma Center and killed the sirens. The building was split into two discrete halves, each with a green awning covering a separate entrance: one for the county health department, another for the Trauma Center. Mayor Moss had won a homeland security grant after 9/11, and the money was used to build and outfit a Trauma Center to deal with the increased border violence. Josie was amazed they had survived so long without the center when the closest hospital was two hours away in Alpine. It was the one credit Josie could give to the mayor.

Vie Blessings, the nurse on call, pushed through the Trauma Center’s double doors and rushed outside wearing a set of purple scrubs. Her expression was all business, but her spiked red hair and brightly colored makeup and eyeglasses indicated her real personality. Marvin met Vie at the back of the ambulance where the doors swung out as Josie stood from the bench.

“How is she?” Vie asked.

“She’s trying to move her arms some. She’s moaning too but hasn’t opened her eyes,” Josie said.

They pulled the stretcher out and the legs folded down and locked into place with a kick of Vie’s foot.

Vie nodded at Josie. “Got it from here. Give me a call in a couple hours.”

She and Marvin pushed the stretcher through the open doors, leaving Josie standing beside the ambulance in the hot afternoon sun.

Marvin called over his shoulder, “I’ll give you a ride back. Give me five minutes!”


Copyright © 2013 by Tricia Fields

For more information or to buy a copy, visit:

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Tricia Fields lives in a log cabin on a small farm with her husband and two daughters. She was born in Hawaii but has spent most of her life in small town Indiana, where her husband is a state trooper. She won the Tony Hillerman Prize for her first mystery, The Territory, which was also named a Sun-Sentinel Best Mystery Debut of the Year.

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