A Novel

      Alex made her way slowly down the mountain, following the Pecos River canyon to the village of Pecos. From there, she turned west onto two-lane Highway Fifty. She was reluctant to leave the verdant valley, and stopped three times to take pictures. By the time she joined the Interstate, the sun was below the western escarpment of Glorieta Mesa, creating finger-like shafts of orange-white light that fanned out across the sky. Past the steep cut of Apache Canyon, she watched the purple and gold sunset against the horizon dominated by the Ortiz and Sandia mountains to the south. To the north, her right, the majestic Sangre de Cristo range was bathed in golden light on dark green.
      Although the temperature inside the vehicle belied her, she felt cold, as though she had fallen into Holy Ghost Creek again. After her change of clothes in Mark Cassidy’s bathroom, she was warm, and in more than one way. There was something about the man. What was the matter with her? Didn’t she love her husband? Wasn’t she supposed to love him after a quarter century? She had a home, family, friends, and children, although the latter were now essentially independent. She sighed as she realized she was only now admitting just how unhappy she really was. There was such a big world out there; so much she yearned for, to see and to feel; to experience. Yet her past tugged at her, beckoning her to remain, something of which Ted reminded her often. Was she required to remain in a failed marriage? She thought of their church pastor, with whom she had consulted this past week. She shuddered at the realization that at the same time he admonished her to stay bound by her matrimonial oath, he was insinuating himself on her. The idea, the possibility alone, of his touching her, made her ill. Then there was this beautiful, rugged country, with which she had fallen in love. Mark Cassidy, in some way, represented this place to her. She didn’t know him, nor he her, and she had been in his presence for less than three hours. She shook her head.
      She was in sight of Santa Fé when the cellular phone clipped to the center console chirped.
      “Yes. Jackie?”
      “Yeah. Hi. Where are you?”
      “Just outside Santa Fé. Is anything wrong?”
      “I thought dad was supposed to be back today. We were going to meet for lunch, and he didn’t show up.”
      “Oh? Did you call the office?”
      “Yes, but Maria hasn’t seen him, and he hasn’t called.”
      “Do you know if he was supposed to be in the office today?”
      “I thought so, yes.”
      “Well, hm . . .”
      “He probably got tied up and had to stay over, honey.”
      “Don’t worry.”
      “Okay, mom. Where you headed?”
      “Oh, yeah. Well, see you later. Have fun.”
      “Thanks. Love ya’. Bye.”
      “Love ya’, mom. Bye”
      Alex parked in the lot as near as she could to the main supermarket door. She entered, grabbed a basket and wheeled through the store. She bought two bottles of local red wine, cheese, sour dough bread, high-grain breakfast cereal, milk, juice, fruit, pasta, eggs, and a small beef steak.
      Betty had been a family friend for more than fifteen years. She and her husband partied with Ted and her, joined them for dinner, helped with the kids as they had with theirs. They had partnered with them at church functions. Betty had moved to Santa Fé more than four years ago, after her divorce.
      It was totally dark as Alex turned the last corner onto Betty’s street. The house was the third from the corner. She thought about how it was one of those “Santa Fé style” houses; a pseudo-Pueblo, frame stucco, designed to resemble an adobe structure, with fake vigas protruding from two of the exterior walls. She knew that in reality it was a neat, three-bedroom tract house, most likely built by a contractor from California. Betty traveled often, and she, Alex and the family had an open invitation to use the place when they were in town, whether she was home or not. In the spur of the moment she had not checked, but knew Betty was supposed to be traveling.
      She parked in front of the double car garage, grabbed the groceries from the passenger seat, and headed for the front door. Odd, she thought; the porch light was out. Betty normally left it burning, regardless. There were perishables in the sacks that needed to go into the refrigerator. She’d return for her personal things in a few minutes. Alex put the sacks down on the porch floor, fished in the blackness of her purse for the key, and opened the door. She found the switch to the hall light, then made her way to the kitchen. She put the groceries on the counter before returning for her purse and bags, and locking the car. She made sure the porch light was on.
      After putting the groceries away and parking her luggage in a corner of the kitchen, she headed for the guest bathroom. She flicked the hall light on as she went. The master bedroom door was open, and as she passed, she saw something in the shadows from the corner of her eye which caught her attention. She saw in the half-light that the king-size bed was unmade, the covers draped to the floor. Her heart racing, she stopped, took a step into the dark room, then reached for the light switch. A lamp on the far side of the bed came on. The opposite, matching table fixture lay on the floor, shade bent, bulb dark. On the carpeted floor, protruding from the edge of the shadow cast by the bed, was a leg and a bare foot. Before she budged from her frozen position, she knew whose foot it was. Nearly panicked and dizzy, she backed up to the doorframe and supported her weight with her right hand while her left covered her heaving chest. Her breathing coming fast, eyes wide, she peered around the edge of the door, then stepped fearfully into the room.
      As she moved closer, she saw that a man lay on his back, his head in a small patch of dried blood. It ran down the front and side of his face and had caked on the light-colored carpet. His eyes and mouth were half open, his body at a crazy, unnatural angle. His right hand was on his bare chest, his left arm stretched out under the bed. The only article of clothing he wore were the bottoms to a pair of pajamas that she also recognized. It was her husband, Ted.
      Close to fainting, and nauseous, Alex stepped back, and, about to leave, looked to her right and through the open door to the large bathroom. Even in the subdued light, she made out a dark patch on the tiled floor. She froze again, sure of what she would find. Moving slowly and furtively, she went to the half-open bathroom door and flicked the light on. Betty lay on the cold floor, her naked body in a fetal position, her head covered by a turbaned towel. She also lay in a small pool of blood. A white bath towel was clutched in her dead right hand.
      She turned and hurried from the bedroom with the wild thought that if she didn’t, one or both of the deceased would rise and threaten her, or that the killer, lurking in a closet, would chase her down and kill her as well. She stumbled down the hall, almost blind with shock and fear, rounded the corner, raced for the front door and threw it open. Unable to control herself, she leaned past the edge of the porch, and holding her midriff, retched, then lost her lunch into the bushes that paralleled the path to the porch.
      She stood, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, looked around at the silent, dark neighborhood, then staggered onto the concrete drive. Her breath coming in gasps, she closed, then opened, her eyes several times as though doing so might change the outcome; take her back in time as she teetered in an aimless circle. She leaned against her car for what seemed an eternity, then backed away and looked around through filmy, tear-filled eyes. There were no more than a half-dozen cars parked along the length of the street. Several, including a pickup truck, were parked in driveways up and down the street partially lit by a pair of widely-spaced bluish street lights. Several houses showed porch lights and windows gold from interior lights.
      It was then she realized she needed the bathroom, and urgently. Her skin crawling, she rushed back into the house, down the hall past the master bedroom and to the hall bath. As she sat on the toilet in the dark, she began to sob fitfully.
      Panting hard, but collecting herself, she went to her purse, then moved outside again at a fast walk. With the front door wide open, she keyed herself into the driver’s seat of her car. For some reason, she felt safe there. She could drive away should danger appear. Calmer, but still fighting off panic and hyperventilation, she picked up the cell phone which had remained on the dash. Trembling, she entered 911.
      Less than ten minutes later, two uniformed officers from the Santa Fé Police Department arrived in a patrol car, without lights or siren. The car pulled up into the drive and stopped at a crazy angle. The driver emerged cautiously, leaving his door open, and approached the house in a defensive posture, his .40 caliber semiautomatic pistol drawn and pointed as an extension of his out-stretched arm. He disappeared into the house.
      Alex sat against the seat back, oblivious, her head to one side, eyes closed, face wet and streaked. The other officer tapped on her driver-side window, and she jerked forward in surprise. She recovered and lowered the glass.
      “Ma’am,” he said. He had his right hand on the butt of his holstered side-arm, a long, black, metal flashlight, held near the bulb end, in his left. He played its beam across her face.
      Alex winced, mouth agape.
      “You the one that called?”
      “Yes.” She blinked her red eyes at him as he lowered the sharp light.
      “Please step out.” He backed away, still in a defensive pose, watching her carefully.
      Alex opened her door and eased out slowly as the patrolman looked her over, routinely watching for a weapon.
      “Please move to the front of the police vehicle. Over there, in the light. Next to the vehicle. Thank you.” He gestured.
      Dazed and confused, Alex hesitated for a second, then did as she was asked. Behind her, the cop shone his light inside her vehicle, playing the light shaft over and under the seats, dash and floor in a quick, well-studied routine. He then turned, closed the door and went to her at the same time the first officer emerged from the house.
      Although still panicky, Alex had the presence of mind to read the name on the second officer’s badge. It was Sandoval.
      Sandoval tucked his flashlight under his arm and removed a notebook from his black shirt pocket. “Your name, please?”
      The first officer, who had searched the house, stopped several paces away and signaled to Sandoval, who broke off his interview and joined him. At the same time, he pressed the button on the radio mike pinned to his shirt and spoke into it. Finished, he turned, faced Sandoval and spoke in a low tone. Sandoval nodded and turned back to Alex.
      “I’d like you to sit in the car.” He gestured with his flashlight, then inserted it into its leather hoop holster at his belt.
      Sandoval opened the rear door of the patrol car and Alex got in, confusion and fear masking her features. The officer closed the door, taking care not to injure her in the process.
      A second police cruiser arrived, driven by a woman officer. The passenger was a black man. Ten seconds later, a plain, brown sedan rolled up and parked behind both cruisers. A man in civilian clothes emerged and walked to the four uniformed officers, who were engaged in a conference.
      “Hey, Manny.” Officer Cohen, Sandoval’s partner, spoke.
      “Guys. Sharon. What we got?” Manny Griego stopped and put both hands on his belt, to which was attached a gold badge. He wore a beige windbreaker.
      “Two deceased,” Cohen said. “Man and a woman.” He jerked his head toward the house.
      Griego turned to glance at Alessandra Petersen who sat in the rear of the first patrol car. “And her?”
      “Called it in,” Sandoval said. “Pretty shook up.”
      “Nance’ll be here in a few. Guess I’m primary.” Griego scanned the faces of his fellow policemen. “Anyone call O.M.I.?”
      “Not yet,” Cohen said. “Waiting for you.”
      “Good.” Griego turned fully to look at Alex, then glanced at the female officer. “Stay with her for now, okay, Sharon?”
      Sharon nodded assent.
      “‘Kay, guys, let’s have a look-see.” Griego started toward the house, followed by the other three.
      The black officer slowed, scouring the ground and the surroundings carefully as he moved.
      Griego squatted next to the body of the woman, latex gloves covering his hands, his arms resting on his knees. Sandoval, Cohen and Deering, the black officer, circled him immediately inside the bathroom door.
      He looked up. “I assume someone looked for a weapon.” His eyes moved from man to man.
      “I was first in,” Cohen said. “Nothing so far.”
      “Nothing in the woman’s car,” Sandoval said.
      “Stands to reason.” Griego stood up. “But—” He waved his hand, pointing first at the body on the cold, tile floor, then into the bedroom where the dead man lay. “Something’s not right.” He shook his head and rolled his eyes around, ever vigilant.
      The other three nodded and glanced at each other.
      “No passion,” Cohen said.
      “Clean,” Sandoval said.
      “Yep,” Griego added. “Targets.” He jabbed his finger at both men in turn, signaling agreement.
      “Targets?” Deering asked.
      Griego cocked his head. “Targets. They were targeted. It’s too clean. Professional stench about it. Look at the wounds. Both in the head. Small caliber. No exit wounds I can see. No sign of struggle. Surprise. Bang, bang and out.”
      At that moment, they were joined by a smaller, older man with a slight paunch. He wore civilian clothes. He walked up to the four officers, his hands in his pants pockets, his demeanor nonchalant. He wore a badge on his belt.
      Deering was first to notice him. “Hey, Nance.”
      “Gentlemen. Thanks for the invite.” Nance acknowledged each man in turn, then peered with almost disdainful curiosity at the bodies, rising up on one foot as he did. He looked at Griego. “You case agent?”
      “That’s me,” Griego answered. He both nodded and shook his head simultaneously, compressing his lips as he did.
      Nance pointed at Griego, then himself. “You primary, me co-pilot. What can I do fer ye?”
      “Woman out there in the cruiser called it in.” Griego held his arms out at this sides, fingers splayed, as though the gloves he wore were contaminated. “Apparently this guy’s her husband, and the gal here her friend.” He gestured at the deceased. “I kinda’ doubt she’s the perp, but we need to get as much outa’ her as we can. If you’d take her back to the ranch and talk to her. Take Sharon.”
      “Yassah, boss,” Nance said, saluting. “Mind if I spend a few looking around before I do the deed?”
      “Be my guest.” Griego swept his arm around. “Sandoval, maybe you and Cohen better see if any of the neighbors saw or heard anything.” He looked at his watch. “From the looks of the victims, I think we’re talking around four or five hours.”
      Nance approached the patrol car where Alex languished, said something to Sharon, who he found leaning against the patrol car, her arms folded. He peered into the rear of the vehicle, then opened the door to look closely at Alex. His hands went back into his pockets. “I’m detective Nance. Mrs. Petersen, is it?”
      Alex looked up at him, her eyes wide and red, her face pale. “Yes.”
      “Sorry about your loss, Mrs. Petersen. I know you’d like to get out of here, but we need to get some information from you.”
      “Okay. Now?”
      Nance cocked his head in an apologetic gesture. “Really best. Memory fades, you know, and in cases such as this, time is of the essence.”
      “Anyone you’d like to call? Lawyer, friend, family?”
      Alex thought a moment. “Yes.”
      “You have means?”
      Nance righted himself and arched his back to rid himself of the tightness developed from stooping. “Okay. Why don’t you call, then we’ll go to headquarters.”
      “More comfortable there.” He crinkled his face in a friendly half-wink, his hands still sunk into his pockets. He turned to Sharon, who had moved to stand next to him to watch Alex. “Transport her, okay?”
      “Sure.” She lowered her head to look into the car.
      Nance started to walk away, then returned. He ducked to look at Alex. “Mrs. Petersen, if you don’t mind, I’d like you to ride with officer Pettibone here. We’ll bring you back for your vehicle. Okay?”
      She looked up at him. “Okay. Yes.” She nodded.
      Alex had her cell phone in one hand and the business card Mark Cassidy had given her in the other. She keyed the number. Four rings later, she heard his voice.
      “Mark? Mark Cassidy?”
      “This is Alex. We met—”
      “Yes. I recognize your voice. You sound stressed. Problem?”
      She began to choke, but forced her words. “Yes. Serious. Very serious. I need help, and you’re the only one I know around here.”
      “Where are you?”
      She started to cry, then caught herself. “They’re taking me to headquarters.”
      “What?! Why?!”
      She choked again. “I can’t talk. Can you please come?”
      “I don’t—here, talk to the police.” She handed the little phone to Sharon, then bent over until her hands covered her face and her head was on her knees.