Keys to Nowhere: New Excerpt

Keys to Nowhere by Dorothy H. Hayes is the 3rd volume in the Carol Rossi Mystery series.

A Tucson vacation morphs into terror when two teenage girls and their aunt vanish. When the girls’ desperate parents beg their friend and Connecticut investigative journalist Carol Rossi for help, Rossi can’t refuse. She leaves her infant daughter, police detective husband, and treasured farm and animal sanctuary to lead the hunt through the desert. It’s 1985, and Rossi is chasing down a new kind of danger: the serial killer. When the Tucson police aren’t interested in her theories, Rossi acts alone before the killer can strike again.

Chapter One

He knew he looked the part when he stepped into the local diner on Speedway Boulevard. 

The hours of practice before a mirror had paid off. 

He wore the uniform of an Arizona Ranger: black pants and boots. White shirt. The white showed off the American flag patch on the left pocket and the five-point brass sheriff’s star on the right. On each shoulder was a patch with the outline of the state of Arizona and a silhouette of a cowboy on a rearing horse. His holstered firearm finished the picture. 

All in all, the uniform resembled a cop’s. 

It couldn’t be better. 

As soon as he entered Bob’s Burgers, he spotted the three tourists—two teenage girls and a woman in her thirties, no male with them. They were seated a couple of booths down, to the left of the entrance. The blonde woman was as pretty as a doll. She leaned over a map, and the two girls took in the diner as if for the first time. All three giggled with the carefree attitude of happy vacationers. 

He took a seat in a booth across from them, where he could make eye contact with the blonde, in particular, who seemed to be in charge. Maybe she was a relative. She was too young to be their mother. He wanted to hold her eyes for a second, shyly and innocently flirt with her. Let her know he liked her looks. But then, like an officer of the law, he’d turn away with a bit of authority, a fatherly figure protecting the public. On the cream-colored Formica table, he placed his brown leather folder and a copy of The Arizona Daily Star, perfect props. He opened the folder and started to read a letter of advertisement from some insurance company, gazing at it with heavy concern. 

He overheard them talking about Sabino Canyon. The older one had dark hair and eyes and tan skin. She started to look annoyed by the younger girl, probably her sister; the one with the curly copper-colored hair. There was a slight resemblance. The younger one was tiny but perfect. She looked about sixteen and was reading from a brochure. 

“Sabino Canyon looks really beautiful, Auntie.”

“Ginger, would you please drop the ‘Auntie’? You sound like you’re eight years old,” the older girl pleaded, smacking her own forehead in frustration.

“Auntie,” Ginger continued, “Oops, sorry—I mean, Aunt Diana—this sounds so good. We’ve got to get there now!” The girl threw her arm around her aunt as she rattled on without taking a breath. “We can move into our rental house later. It’s going to get too hot! It’s already a hundred degrees, and I’m not even exaggerating. Let’s first go to the visitor center. We can catch a shuttle bus to tour around,” she continued. “And there’s a parking lot. It says it right here, Aunt Diana! It’s on North Sabino Canyon Road, so parking is no problem. Listen to this,” she said, and removed her arm from around her aunt’s shoulder, reading aloud.

“‘Open-air shuttle buses and a number of trails provide access to this land of desert oases and rugged mountains. The shuttle buses travel on the paved road along the floor of the canyon, crossing Sabino Creek on nine low-water rock bridges, while drivers tell about the area's rich history and ecology. A second shuttle provides similar access to Bear Canyon.’ I think the seven falls are close to this,” she said. “We have to see them. It’s actually seven little falls, really cool. ‘You can get off the shuttle at any of the sites and re-board later.’ Doesn’t that sound so cool? I want to ride a bus by myself.” She leaned over and kissed her aunt, who was tickled by her precociousness. “‘You may choose to walk along these roads and hike the system of trails that leads deeper into the canyons and high country,” she said, continuing to read. “‘Sabino Lake Trail Number Thirty leads to a popular wetland bird watching spot. Phone Line Trail on the slope south of Sabino Creek provides spectacular views of the canyon.’”

While he pretended to read the newspaper, he could hear the debate run on about whether to first check into their rental house, or, given the rising temperature, head to the trails. They ate oatmeal, pancakes, and sliced bananas, all three of them. After they had finished breakfast without coming to a decision and were preparing to leave, he gulped the last of his coffee. When the waitress had asked him for his order, he had kept it to coffee. He had no appetite for food at times like this. His mind was focused on the target, preparing for what would come next. 

He hadn’t planned on three of them.

But he’d manage. 

Just before they got up to leave, he waved the waitress over for his check and was quick to sidle out of the booth. Once the woman had paid the cashier, and headed towards the glass door, where the girls waited just a few feet away, he handed her his check, with exact change, and smiled broadly at the cashier, who reciprocated. As the three left the diner, he joked around loudly, knowing they’d overhear him.

“If you had to pay for smiles, I couldn’t afford yours,” he said to the cashier. She giggled in response and waved off his comment, obviously knowing him. 

Car keys in hand, Linda Dearborn, followed by her younger sister, Ginger, ran to the glistening white four-door Ford sedan. The steering wheel was boiling hot—untouchable, for that matter. They had never been victims of such a merciless sun.

Ginger, sixteen, only had a driving permit. Linda, barely eighteen, was still a new driver. Aunt Diana and the girls’ parents had forbidden them to drive on Tucson’s unfamiliar roads. It was one of the many conditions set before their parents had okayed the Arizona vacation with their favorite aunt. 

Aunt Diana was right behind them, smiling and warning them to be careful of cars pulling into the parking lot of Bob’s Burgers. 

“Look, girls, did you notice that, in the Southwest, parking lots are larger than at home, and the roads are wider? That’s because there’s more land than in the Northeast, and isn’t it great? Nobody has to pay for parking.”

Arizona was the state once referred to as the territory, she had told them. The girls were giddy to be with their aunt on this vacation to the territory. Here in the northeast side of town, with the bullet pockmarks in street signs along dusty desert roads in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, with no sidewalks and no houses for miles, it really did feel like the territory. 

Traveling with Aunt Diana was not at all like being with their parents. She was a high school teacher, after all. She was fun. She had her rules too, but she gave a little; she wasn’t always on them. 

The tall, slim ranger jogged down the diner’s front stairs to catch up to their aunt. He raised his voice and said, “Those aren’t your girls; you’re too young.” 

Diana found herself answering the warm voice without turning to look at him. She knew it was the friendly-looking ranger who had sat across from them, and whom she’d overheard joking with familiarity, with the waitress and cashier. She’d spied him from her peripheral vision and heard his footsteps behind her as they had left the premises. 

“They’re terrific. They’re my nieces,” she said, turning to look at him, but she couldn’t see his face with the blinding overhead sun and his face cast in a shadow of what she thought was his ten-gallon hat. But staring her right in the eyes was the sheriff’s badge and the American flag. And there was his considerable charm. She was thirty-two and at the moment unattached, so all kinds of possibilities raced through her mind.

“I couldn’t help but notice that you were reading a map,” he ventured. “I’m guessing you’re from out of town. Heading to Sabino Canyon, are you, by any chance?” 

She laughed. He had clearly heard Ginger read the brochure. 

“It’s a state mandate, you know—every Tucson visitor has to go to Sabino Canyon at least once,” he joked. “Do you know that some trails begin at twenty-eight hundred feet and climb to thirty-three hundred feet? Just imagine the view,” he continued good-naturedly. 

She turned to look at him again, this time giving him all of her attention, and shading her eyes for a better look. His voice sounded to her like a strumming guitar for some reason, soft and warm. Welcoming.

“Oh, we’re going there right now, thanks for asking. Wow, this is a bit of good luck, meeting a ranger. I was looking at the map to make sure we didn’t get lost on the way back up there,” she said with a chuckle. “Any landmarks I should look for?” She held out her hand. “I’m Diana Westlake.”

“Ralph Cummings,” he said, shaking her hand and noticing that it was delicate. “I’m heading there now. You can follow me, if you want.” He pointed to his orange and white Bronco parked a few cars away from hers. 

She spotted the Arizona Ranger’s insignia on the window and heaved a sigh of relief. You had to be wary of everyone these days, she thought.

“Not all of us have horses,” he said, watching her check out his Bronco. “That’s a four-wheel bronco,” he joked.

They were now standing to the left of the entrance to Bob’s Burgers. It was just past noon, and people flowed into the diner for lunch. She shot a concerned glance at the girls waiting in the car.

“So the rangers are the law enforcement for Sabino Canyon?” she asked, curious about what the rangers actually did. She had this image of them led by Teddy Roosevelt, part of his Rough Riders, the volunteer army that fought in the battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba, or guarding the Mexican border.

“No, we’re volunteers here to help out the police when we can,” he said modestly. “The Tucson Police are in charge, with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. I just have a house up in the canyon,” he explained. 

She liked his modesty. In his guitar-strumming voice, he continued, “And the Pima County Sheriff’s Department’s in charge of the Rincon District. That’s primarily Northeastern Pima County, which includes Sabino Canyon, Mt. Lemon, and other areas of the Coronado National Forest. It runs as far south as the Santa Cruz County line, to include Corona de Tucson, Vail, New Tucson, and the surrounding rural areas.” He stopped a second and said, “I hope I’m not boring you.” His brilliant blue eyes were dreamy, she noticed.

With another glance at the girls, she shook her head. 

“The Rincon District covers about eleven hundred square miles. The Pima County Sheriff’s office—it’s also called the Rincon Substation—is on East Tanque Verde Road, easy to find, not far from here. It’s open until five. I can even give you their telephone number.” 

She was feeling far more at ease with him as he spoke. Each guiding word demonstrated knowledge of the land, and a regard for her safety—and that of the girls and the residents of Tucson, for that matter. 

“We were about to check into the Tucson Inn on North Sabino Canyon Road, but early this morning we took a ride up to Sabino Canyon and I spotted these really lovely homes for rent, and thought why not? I had no idea we could rent a house in the canyon. A week’s stay for all three of us is more expensive in the inn.” She laughed and attempted to look straight at him, continuing to shade her eyes. It was still hard to get a clear look at his face in the glaring sun, especially with the hat shading it. 

But it was fun talking to him, an adult. The girls, after all, were just kids. The territory also seemed a reprieve from the driven Northeast, with its proximity to D.C. and its constant media bombardment about Reagan, Gorbachev, nuclear weapons, and the upcoming fortieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a high school teacher, she was grateful to leave it all behind. She sighed with relief to finally feel on vacation, and in the quiet desert, talking to a real live Arizona Ranger.

“We can always leave the canyon and go tour other places,” she continued, shrugging her shoulders under her scoop-neck yellow shirt. Her thick blonde hair was pulled up in a ponytail and she thought she looked near her best. She’d had time to unwind, so her face seemed fuller and less drawn from job stress. 

“Anyway, I called from a local gas station. We found a house we really liked. We just picked up the keys at the real estate office on the way over here! And we’re moving in!” Her voice was overflowing with excitement. “Good thing we didn’t check into the inn first before our ride up there. Our bags are in the car. We just have to pick up a few essential food items and that’s it. It’s got a spectacular view and we love to hike. We’ll also ride the trams. It couldn’t be more perfect. That reminds me—I have to call my sister and let her know about our move,” she said, surprising herself with the candid way she was talking to Ralph. “The only way she allowed me to take the girls on a trip was that I promised to call her twice a day, morning and night.” She shook her head, demonstrating how difficult it had been. “But I understand her worry. In fact, we have to call when we get to the house. You see we called this morning, but that was before I found the house. God forbid she calls us later at the Tucson Inn and we’re not there!” She giggled as she waved her arms in the air. “She’ll go crazy! There’ll be hell to pay!” 

She was being funny at her sister’s expense, she realized; her sister would have every right to worry if she couldn’t reach them. 

“Well, you can follow me,” he said. “I’ve hiked just about every bit of the canyon.” 

“Auntie!” Ginger shouted from the open window of the car, unable to resist the term of endearment. Linda issued another protesting groan. “It’s nice and cool in here, now,” Ginger continued, gently urging her “Auntie” to the car. 

Diana waved an okay, thinking that the ranger was in his late thirties, just a few years older than she was. He went on to promise not to lose them as they traveled up busy Speedway Boulevard, one of the busiest and least attractive areas of Tucson; a hodgepodge of fast food restaurants, small shops, strip malls, seemingly without zoning of any nature. 

As she walked to the car, he called, “If you have the address, I could probably lead you to your rental blindfolded,” he chuckled.

She wasn’t surprised by his offer. He appeared so helpful and sincere. Minutes after talking with him, she had dismissed any qualms. She was cautious, however, especially of men, given the two beautiful young girls in her care. If anything happened to them, how would she ever tell her sister and her brother-in-law? 

I can let down my guard a little, with Ranger Ralph with me, she thought, and chuckled at the hokey tag. If anything, she’d feel safer with the ranger showing them to their rental. She told him the address: “Six Hundred Desert Star.”

“Just follow me. That’s an easy address to find,” he said. “But let me give you the general directions, just in case we get separated.” He walked back toward her, and she walked a few steps in his direction until they didn’t have to shout.

“It’s only about seven miles away,” he said. “You head east on Speedway,” he said, pointing to the road. “Turn left onto North Pantano Road, make a left on Wrightstown Road, then bear left onto East Tanque Verde Road. That road changes to North Kolb Road—better remember that—then turn right onto North Sabino Canyon Road, and, hey, you’re practically there. The last intersection is East Sunrise Drive. If you reach East Sabino Crest you’ve gone too far.” He was pointing all the time, waving an arm around, and he seemed dead serious while he rattled off the directions and the list of desert roads of the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. When she looked totally puzzled, he started to laugh.

“Funny, Ralph. You had me there. But I’ve got a notepad in the car, and a good memory,” she said. “Some of the names sounded familiar because we were just up there, but…”

“Don’t worry,” he interrupted, moving closer, and now leaning down to look at her and patting her back. “I promise not to lose you, Diana,” he said, using her name for the first time, while gazing into her eyes and seeming dead serious.

She liked the sound of her name on his lips, like a melody played on his soft guitar-strumming voice. She flashed him a huge smile, glad that she and the ranger had hit it off.

 

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Dorothy H. Hayes is the author of Murder at the P&Z and Broken Window from Mainly Murder Press. She’s been known to blog at Women of Mystery. 

Read all posts by Dorothy H. Hayes for Criminal Element.

Comments

  1. Dorothy H. Hayess

    Thank you for the introducing Keys to Nowhere to mystery readers.

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