Read Before She Dies Online

Authors: Steven F. Havill

Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General

Before She Dies (7 page)

BOOK: Before She Dies
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I drove southwest, toward that intersection with the county road. My hands involuntarily gripped the steering wheel tighter as the white lines clicked by. Peña would have pulled up at the stop sign, at which point he would have been able to see the headlights of the parked patrol car a quarter-mile east, to his left.

A dark smudge and some white chalk on the pavement, along with a few trampled weeds on the shoulder, were all that marked the spot. I slowed 310 to an idle. An oncoming car dashed by, no doubt curious why anyone would stop in the middle of nowhere.

Paul Enciños and Linda Real would have had no reason to do so unless another vehicle was stopped along the shoulder of the road.

In another quarter of a mile, I turned right onto County Road 14, and as 310’s front tires crunched onto gravel, the late afternoon sun winked off metal to my left, further up the highway. Someone was parked in a small grove of elms that struggled for life near one of the highway department’s stash of crushed stone.

I continued up the county road for half a mile and then turned around, nearly planting the front wheels of my patrol car in a small arroyo. As I drove back, I opened my window and took a deep breath. Francisco Peña said he didn’t see anything until he actually drove by the scene of the shooting. And true enough, most of County Road 14 ambled up and down through dips and cuts and arroyos, around runty stands of juniper and cholla. The state highway intersection wasn’t visible until I approached within a hundred yards of the stop sign.

At any time during that hundred yards, though, I could see east along the state road. Had there been more than one vehicle parked along the shoulder of the highway, Francisco Peña would have been able to see it.

I hesitated at the stop sign and then turned right. The car I had seen was parked behind a mound of crusher fines, impossible to see eastbound, and not much more than a glint for westbound traffic. I circled the pile, drove around a parked asphalt roller, and pulled up beside the other vehicle.

I saw the passenger side window buzz down and I switched off the engine of the patrol car.

In the distance I could hear oncoming traffic, so I waited until it shot past—a single late-model sedan with New Mexico plates. The tire noise faded and that wonderful, heavy silence of the open prairie settled once more.

Estelle Reyes-Guzman looked across at me. From the lack of radio traffic, she knew as well as I did that our roadblocks sealing Posadas County had produced nothing but expense and inconvenience.

I wasn’t particularly surprised to find her parked in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but the sound of night winds, coyotes, and rare traffic for company. As a little kid growing up in northern Mexico, Estelle Reyes had probably been the sort to seek out a dark corner for private moments.

I conjured up a mental image of her as she might have been twenty years before and saw a tiny, thin six-year-old waif sitting with her back against a cool, dark adobe wall, arms folded around her knees, skinny elbows jutting out. Under the mop of black hair were those two incredible eyes looking out at the world, contemplating, evaluating.

“What have you decided?” I said, and even though a vehicle’s width and more separated us, my quiet question sounded like a shout.

Estelle Reyes-Guzman didn’t answer for a long moment, but finally she shifted a little in her seat and said, “I think you and I need to go over and talk with Victor Sánchez, sir.”

Chapter 11

During the twenty-four hours since the shooting, a dozen cops of one stripe or another had talked with Victor Sánchez. The owner of the Broken Spur Saloon and Trading Post was no charmer in the first place. Quick-tempered, beady-eyed, his saloon was his own private hot rock under which he lurked.

And as Sergeant Bob Torrez had discovered in days past, Sánchez evidently felt he was the target of cops who had nothing better to do than harass an honest business man. I was certain that Sánchez had sold his share of liquor to intoxicated customers over the years. And I was sure that he didn’t check IDs as closely as he could have. But I went into his saloon that evening just as sure as I could be that he had nothing to do with the murder of Paul Enciños and the wounding of Linda Real.

I didn’t know what Estelle had in mind. She probably could have earned a good living as a high-stakes poker player with her inscrutable face. She’d tell me what she was thinking in her own good time—I’d learned that over the years.

Neither Estelle nor I had had the chance to talk with Victor Sánchez since the incident. Other officers had interviewed the man, and according to their reports, the saloon owner knew no more than the rest of us.

But Estelle was chewing on something, and a few minutes of peace and quiet in a dark, cozy saloon wouldn’t hurt. Whatever the owner’s rattlesnake personality, the Broken Spur provided infinitely more creature comforts than parking behind a gravel pile along the highway.

We drove into the saloon’s parking lot and I parked 310 beside a blue Dodge three-quarter-ton pickup whose bottom half was armored with inch-thick, sun-dried caliche. A blue Queensland healer pup stood guard in the back over a rubble of ranch tools, oil cans, and half a dozen partial spools of barbed wire.

As I got out of the patrol car, the dog stood on two of the full wire rolls like a king of the mountain, looking down at me.

“I would think that would hurt,” I said, and the dog lowered his head and beat the air into a frenzy with his tail. Either his paw pads were tough or he was too stupid to mind the barbs.

Estelle parked her unmarked car beside 310. She got out and stood for a minute, listening, looking, surveying the parking lot. The pickup that belonged to Victor Jr. was parked beside the building in the shade of several elm saplings. On the other side of the Dodge and the healer pup were three other vehicles, two local and one with California plates. Beyond that, parked diagonally for easy exit, was another ranch truck hitched to a twenty-foot-long livestock trailer.

The Broken Spur Saloon and Trading Post was cave dark, and our eyes, tired from a day of squinting into the New Mexico winter sun, were slow to adjust.

I stepped in the door and stopped next to the cigarette machine. Across a faded, scuffed Mexican imitation of a Navajo rug was a glass counter full of belt buckles, packets labeled as rattlesnake eggs, porcelain figurines, and other detritus that must have attracted tourists now and then. Maybe if I had to live in some place like Cleveland I’d get a kick out of showing my friends the New Mexico scorpion encased in plastic that I’d bought “right down there near the border.”

My gaze drifted up to the zoo of antelope trophies gathering dust on the dingy white plastered wall. Two big buck pronghorns kept musty vigil over a piece of plywood framed with braided rope. The plywood displayed a collection of
“Barbbed Wire of Posadas County.”
There must have been fifty varieties of rusted wire tacked to the mount, with some dating back to the late 1870s when they were first patented. By the 1940s, most of the county ranchers had decided it wasn’t so much barbed wire that they needed for successful cow-calf operations as it was rainfall.

“Two for dinner, sir?”

I hadn’t heard the girl approach, and I turned with a start. The hostess smiled pleasantly, her plump, acne-scarred face framed by long, curly black hair. She was the kind of kid who probably didn’t turn many sober heads now, but when she reached fifty she would have grown into her features. Her gaze shifted from me to Estelle and back again.

“Is Victor here?” I asked.

“Mr. Sánchez? Let me go see.”

The bar was through a doorway to the left. To the right was a small dining room. Straight down the hall was the kitchen, and the hostess headed that way. Estelle browsed the foyer and then stepped briefly into the bar. I didn’t follow. The tobacco smoke would be thick and I didn’t need the temptation. The cigarette machine behind me was bad enough.

I saw the hostess stop in the kitchen doorway, leaning against the doorjamb as if she weren’t allowed to trespass. After a minute’s earnest conversation, she recoiled a step and Victor Sánchez appeared, a large carving knife in one hand and a bunch of celery in the other. He looked out at us and then waved the celery in dismissal. He disappeared and the hostess turned and smiled at us hopefully, maybe thinking that we’d see the obvious and leave.

I remained rooted under the
wire, so she padded back down the hall, her head down in that “please don’t kill the messenger” posture she’d probably learned early in this job.

“Mr. Sánchez said he can’t talk with you now.”

“Ah, busy night, huh,” I said. The girl nodded, her face brightening with the hope that I wasn’t going to be as cranky as I looked.

I stepped past her and walked down the hall toward the kitchen. The hostess didn’t object or offer to present me to his highness. She murmured something to Estelle and then vanished into the bar to deal with customers she understood.

The kitchen smelled of Saturday night’s fajitas, grilling hamburger, and cleaning compounds. Victor Sánchez was working at the cutting board, chattering the celery into slivers with the knife. He looked up and saw Estelle and me standing in the doorway. He stopped cutting.

“I said I was busy.”

“I see that,” I said.

Sánchez was a squat man, beefy through the shoulders with short, muscular arms, thick wrists, and powerful, stubby-fingered hands. He tipped the board of celery into a bowl and turned toward the stove.

“You want something to eat?”

“No, thanks. I guess not.” I did, but Sánchez was fixing something that looked and smelled like chicken soup, and as far as I was concerned, that was health food.

“Y tú?”
he asked Estelle. I knew about ten words of Spanish, just enough to be surprised at the familiar greeting.

She shook her head.
“Queremos unos pocos minutos de tú tiempo, señor,”
she said.

Sánchez banged the bowl down on the table and turned to glare at us. I knew the look—I’d used it myself many times in the marines when conversing with idiot recruits.

“You know how many people I talk to today,
?” Estelle’s face remained impassive. He took a step closer and shook a stubby finger in her face. “All day long, in and out, in and out. Like flies. They ask, what’s this, what’s this, what’s this?”

“What do you expect?” I said quietly when he paused to take a breath. “One of our officers was killed just down the road. Do you think we’re going to wait until there’s a lull in your bar traffic to talk to you?”

Sánchez dropped the knife on the cutting board and wiped his hands on his clean, starched apron. “What does this place have to do with what happened?” he demanded. He turned back to Estelle and hunched his shoulders like an old bulldog. His words came machine-gun fast, and I guess maybe he thought Estelle would flinch. She listened impassively.
“Nada pasaba aquí. Nada. Ni siquiera una persona vio nada. Ahora, quita de medio.”
He chopped the air with the edge of his palm.

“He said nothing happened here, that no one saw anything… and to get out of his way,” Estelle said to me. Victor grunted.

He waved a hand in my direction. “He knows damn well what I said,
. All these cops, you drive away my customers. You cost me money.”

He turned back to his celery and dumped it into a stainless steel cooking pot on the stove. The tidbits disappeared into the bubbling soup and my stomach twinged a little with anticipation.

“Victor,” I said using my most conciliatory tone, “one of your customers might remember something. In a case like this, we don’t have much to go on. Any little detail that someone might remember. It could help us. Anything that happened that was even a little unusual.”

Several pieces of chicken were spread out on the cutting board as Sánchez went to work with the big knife, deftly separating skin and excess fat. He studiously ignored the two of us. As far as he was concerned, the conversation was over.

Estelle stepped close to the table and leaned over so that she was talking within two inches of Victor Sánchez’s ear. I saw one of his eyebrows rise a little.

“He oido decir que alguien cerca de aquí sabe mas,”
she said, her voice husky. “
Con tú ayuda

Victor Sánchez straightened up slowly, the knife motionless on the cutting board. He looked at me and grinned, at the same time nodding his head toward Estelle as if to tell me he knew he’d almost stepped in it.

“You tell your compadres, señor, that if I think of something I’ll let you know.” He pointed directly at Estelle.
“Tú, chinita, solamente.”
He pointed then at the door behind us. “Now leave me alone to my work. You want something else, you bring a warrant.”

Estelle ignored Sánchez’s dismissal and instead pulled out a small notebook from her purse. She leaned against the prep table and leafed through the pages.

“Señor, you told one of the deputies earlier that Francisco Peña came in at twelve minutes after eleven and shouted that there had been a shooting.”

Sánchez grunted something I didn’t hear. “How did you happen to know it was twelve after eleven?” Estelle asked.

“Because I was standing at the bar and happened to be facing the door.”

Estelle flipped forward a page in her notes. “And there is a clock right by the door, sir.”

Sánchez looked up sharply at her. “
, you think I didn’t tell the truth…”

Estelle shook her head. “I need to make sure that the deputy who told me was correct, señor. You told him that Francisco busted in like maybe he had an accident or something. And then?”

“You know the story as good as me,” Sánchez muttered as he hacked at the chicken.

Estelle dutifully continued. “After Francisco settled down enough to tell you what was wrong, you called the state police. The nine-one-one relay connected you with the Sheriff’s Department. Most of your customers went outside, and at least four of them drove down the road to the scene.”

“Six of them went outside. I told ’em
no toquen alguna cosa
…nothing,” Sánchez said. He wagged a finger. “Don’t touch nothing.”

“All right. So…” I turned to Estelle quizzically.

“Mr. Sánchez said that last night he had no patrons other than those known to him. I have a list here, if you want to see them.”

I shook my head. “So, no strangers in the place all evening?”

“That’s right,” Sánchez muttered.

“And there were no disturbances of any kind that amounted to anything,
no luchas
?” Estelle prompted.

Victor Sánchez dumped a pile of hacked chicken into the soup pot and walked over to a refrigerator to collect a package of baby carrots. He took a deep breath as if becoming resigned to our presence.

He spilled the carrots out on the board, slicing each one lengthwise and then across, building a mound of perfect little carrot quarters. After processing about ten, Sánchez shrugged. “Pat Torrance, he drank too much. It looked like he was going to puke, so I asked him to go out back before he made a mess of my bar.”

“And that’s all? One drunk cowboy?”

“Es todo.”

“It appears that it was a pretty quiet night up until then, sir,” Estelle said to me. “No strangers, nothing unusual.” She closed her notebook and slipped it back in her purse. “Mr. Sánchez, when was the last time you spoke with Sergeant Torrez?”

For a moment, Victor Sánchez’s face was blank. Estelle folded her arms and leaned against the table. “The deputy who arrested Tammy Woodruff, sir.”

Sánchez’s eyes narrowed.
“Conózcolo, señorita.”
Estelle ignored the emphasis Sánchez placed on the jibe at her age and appearance. True enough, Estelle Reyes-Guzman was far from matronly.

She smiled faintly.
“Bueno. Cuando estaba el tiempo último cuando hablaba con él?”
Sánchez shot a sideways glance at me. I raised an eyebrow as if I understood Estelle perfectly and was waiting for an answer.

“I spoke with him Friday night only.”

“Not since then?”


Estelle looked down at the growing pile of carrots. “Did someone mention to you last night…after Francisco and the others left and the police came…did someone mention to you which patrol car was involved in the shooting? Did someone mention who the deputy was?”

It was Sánchez’s turn to look puzzled, and if he was faking it, he was a great actor.

“Nobody said nothing about which one, señora. I found out that it was Paul Enciños only after Pat Torrance came back and told me that is who it was.”

“Torrance was recovered by then?”

Sánchez shrugged and almost smiled. “
Podria andar
. But he did not go down to the place. He said he heard from someone else out in the parking lot that it was Enciños. I know him, you know. I know his family.”

“Enciños, you mean?”


“But no one said anything about which patrol car was involved?”

Sánchez cocked his head and frowned at Estelle. “No. What difference does it make?”

She didn’t answer but pushed away from the table as Sánchez collected the last of the carrots for the soup.

“Sir, thank you. If there’s anything else, I’ll be in touch.”

Sánchez shook his head and started toward the refrigerator again.
“No más, chiquita, no más.”

We stepped outside. Beyond the circle of the sodium-vapor light in the parking lot, the prairie stretched away into the chilled darkness of that February evening.

BOOK: Before She Dies
4.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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