Washed Up (A Gracie Andersen Mystery Book 4)

BOOK: Washed Up (A Gracie Andersen Mystery Book 4)
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Washed

Up

 

 

Laurinda Wallace

 

Cover Design and Photo by Jesaro Photography

Back Cover Photo by Laurinda Wallace

Author Photo by Hannah Whaley Photography

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means-electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise-without prior written permission.

For information contact:

L. Wallace

PO Box 41
5●
Hereford, AZ  85615

This is a work of fiction. Any references to real events, businesses, organizations, and locales are intended only to give the fiction a sense of reality and authenticity. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead is coincidental
.

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2016 Laurinda Wallace

All rights reserved.

ISBN:  10-0692626948

 

ISBN-13:
978-0692626948

 

 

DEDICATION

 

 

To Clancy—a great dog and faithful companion.

A top-class Labrador Retriever.

 

2002 - 2015

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

 

The mystique of the Wild West is steeped in the wonderful place I now call home. The Huachuca Mountains, the San Pedro River, Tombstone, Bisbee, and most of all the people who live here, make Cochise County one of the best places you’ll find to visit when traveling the Southwest.

 

Its colorful history only adds to the intrigue and charm of the Land of Legends. Who hasn’t heard the tales of Geronimo, Wyatt Earp, or Ike Clanton? While mining and cattle ranching still remain, the high desert today is where cutting-edge technology is developed and vineyards produce award winning wine. The diverse wildlife, sky island ecosystems, and world-class birding makes southeastern Arizona a place for all sorts of adventure
s
.

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

 

Coronado National Forest, Hereford, AZ

The half-submerged body in the mountain stream confirmed Gracie’s misgivings about the timing of her vacation. She stumbled backward into Amanda Littlefield, turning away from the disfigured remains of the man sloshing against the bank of the stream that a few minutes ago had been touted as a pleasant rest stop. Amanda stifled a scream and clutched Gracie’s arm.

“Oh, no,” Amanda cried, twisting to dig into her backpack, finally fishing out a cell phone. “I’d better …”

The plump, middle-aged woman’s knees buckled, and Gracie caught her B & B hostess. She eased Amanda to the ground, steering her away from the grisly sight.

“Don’t look,” Gracie warned. “And take some deep breaths, head down.”

Amanda complied and pulled the backpack off, locating her water bottle. She gulped the liquid and took a couple of deep breaths before making the phone call.

“Gary, this is Amanda. I need some help. I just found … found a body at Miner’s Springs. I’m not sure ...”

The woman rose and walked unsteadily toward a pinkish-gray boulder and leaned against it, the cell phone still to her ear.

“I’m at the springs right now. We need help.”

Gracie joined the shaken woman, feeling a little unsteady herself.

“Are they coming?”

“It’ll be a few minutes. There are a couple of Border Patrol agents up there looking for illegals, so Gary’s bringing them too. How could this have happened?”

Gracie cringed, looking over Amanda’s shoulder at the battered body of a man, lying face up. The head and torso were partially submerged, his left leg wedged between two larger rocks. His hiking boot dangled above the water, a dragonfly resting on the toe.

Sitting down next to Amanda, she tried to distract herself by admiring the waterfalls that spilled prettily into the pool holding the body, before the stream pushed through some large boulders that rimmed the banks. Then it seemed to disappear among a pile of smaller rocks and a layer of dead leaves.

She’d been excited to explore the Huachuca Mountains this morning with Amanda, who was eager to introduce her guest to the unique “sky island” forested terrain in the high desert of southeastern Arizona.  Already, her expectation of sand and cactus had been pleasantly replaced with the lush grasslands in the valley and the thickly forested mountains that surrounded the B & B. There were plenty of prickly pears and other cactus varieties, but not the thorny landscape she’d imagined.

Taking a deep breath, her racing heart slowed and her wobbly legs stabilized. The sound of tromping feet obliged Gracie to look up. Two men in green uniforms hustled down the steep incline. One was already on a cell phone. She gave them a tight smile as they strode to the water and bent to check the body. One of the agents shook his head at his partner, dropping the lifeless arm back into the water. Amanda thrust her hands in the pockets of her jeans and backed away. Pounding of more feet caught Gracie’s attention. She looked up to see two men in T-shirts and jeans kicking up dust in their descent. It was probably the trail maintenance team. She and Amanda should be helping repair a section of washed-out trail somewhere above the waterfalls. She’d expected to shore up part of a switchback, not discover the remains of a stranger. A gray-haired, leanly built African-American man went directly to Amanda, while the other stopped and looked at the scene below.

“Gary,” Amanda called out.

The man’s eyes widened in what Gracie suspected was recognition when he stared at the lifeless form, lying in the water.

“Ohh …” Gary Regan groaned. “I … I hate to say this, but it looks like Manny. He wasn’t answering his phone.”

Amanda nodded in agreement. “It’s gotta be Manny. I recognize the shirt and the hiking boots.”

“Hey, everybody, stay up above,” the taller of the Border Patrol agents instructed them. “We don’t want the scene contaminated.”

The agent motioned for them to join a yet unidentified man who stood on the upper trail. Amanda quickly joined the man, Gary on her heels. Gracie kept her distance, suddenly feeling like a fifth wheel and not sure what she should do next.

“Gracie. Come on over. We could be here a while,” Amanda called to her.

The men shifted to look at Gracie. Faces were grim, but both managed to offer wan smiles.

“This is Gracie Andersen,” said Amanda. “She’s a guest at the ranch, hailing from back east. Not exactly what I expected to find when I dragged her up here this morning.”

Amanda jabbed a thumb at the men. “Hank and Gary.”

Gracie returned the stiff greetings, studying the agents who now stood talking on the bank below.

The group began to settle in for a long wait on law enforcement. Gracie took the cue and found a small boulder with enough flat surface to provide a seat. The
statement by the Border Patrol agent suddenly hit her. She turned to Amanda, who wedged herself in next to her.

“Do they think it’s a crime scene? What did he mean by ‘we don’t want the scene contaminated’?”

The gray-haired woman shrugged, her lips pressed tightly together. Amanda slid off her perch to join Gary, who stood watching the agents. The air smelled of dust, charred wood, and the spicy juniper that dotted the mountainside. Two large sycamores shaded the stream, and then a break in the trees offered Gracie a glimpse of the San Pedro River valley. She wished she could truly enjoy the view, but her stomach remained unsettled from the ugly discovery in the water.

“Gracie, I’m Hank Ramage,” the dark-haired, lightly bearded man stepped forward and extended a hand to her. “This is a terrible thing to happen up here today. Gary’s right. I think it must be Manny. Probably had a heart attack. I know he was seeing the doctor quite a bit lately.” He took off a worn cowboy hat, wiping sweat with a dirty bandanna from his pocket.

“A heart attack?” Gracie blurted out.

Hank’s face reddened, and he began to knock dust off his jeans before sitting down on a gnarled stump.

She was confused. Her first impression had been that the man had probably fallen from the overhang above the water or maybe someone had helped him over the edge since the Border Patrol agents wanted to preserve the scene. Maybe they were being extra cautious. But then, maybe the guy had a heart attack above the water and fell over the cliff. She may have been hasty in her assessment of the man’s observation.

Gracie shifted uneasily, looking for another conversation starter. “Does he … Manny have family?”

Hank turned back, his features more composed. “Yeah. He’s got a couple of adult sons. They work for the government somewhere back east. He and his wife took in a foster kid a few months ago. Manny’s been trying to get him straightened out.”

“Oh,” Gracie said slowly.

Scattering stones and heavy footsteps from the trail above announced the arrival of a brown-uniformed man who appeared from behind some large boulders flanking the trail.

“Hey, Armando!” Hank called.

“What’s happening here?” Armando asked.

According to the patch on his shirt, Armando Ortiz was a Park Service ranger. He removed a cap, wiping sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. His black hair was cropped close to his head, his features topped with heavy eyebrows. His physique bespoke of regular weight lifting.

Gary stepped forward, putting a hand on the ranger’s shoulder. “I’m pretty sure we’ve found Manny. It’s bad.” He nodded his head toward the water below.

“What?”

The ranger twisted away from Gary, making short work of the distance between him and the Border Patrol agents.

The distant rumble of thunder and a sudden whoosh of wind turned everyone’s attention to the darkening sky. Gary shook his head and rubbed his hands together.

“We don’t want to be caught in a storm up here. Maybe we should at least get back to the trailhead,” he suggested.

“I’m with you. Let me ask Armando,” Hank offered, already starting the descent to the stream.

The ranger waved him back and joined the uneasy group. He pulled a small notebook from his breast pocket. “Did anyone hear anything this morning? Yelling? Anything unusual?”

“No. Nothing out of the ordinary,” Gary responded. “Anybody else hear something?”

“Not a thing,” Amanda said.

“I didn’t either,” Hank confirmed. “We were digging out the trail and shoring it up where the rains had washed it out.” He scuffed the ground with his hiking boot. “Manny was supposed to meet us by 7:30, but never showed.”

“Do you think he lost his balance and fell?” Amanda asked.

“I really don’t know, Amanda. I’m not even sure it’s Manny. That’ll be something for the medical examiner to figure out.” The ranger glanced over at Gracie. “I know everybody else here, but you. Can I get your name, miss?”

“Gracie Andersen. I’m staying at Amanda’s B & B.”

He scribbled the information into the notebook and tucked it into his pocket.

“What about us getting out of here before that storm comes in?” Gary asked. “We’re due for some real rain.”

The ranger considered the request, glancing back at the Border Patrol agents standing at the water’s edge with the body.

“I guess that’s all right. I’ve got everybody’s contact information.” He rubbed his jaw, still considering. “Yeah. Go ahead.”

One of the Border Patrol agents yelled, “Hey!” motioning Ortiz back to the pool. After a brief conversation, the park ranger returned to the group.

“On second thought, Agent Carlisle will escort you to the parking lot. There’ll be formal statements needed. It looks like we’ve got a suspicious death here.”

It was exactly what Gracie didn’t want to hear. This could ruin a perfectly nice vacation.

The hike back to the parking lot was much quicker and less taxing than the ascent. Gracie easily kept pace with the experienced group, which was gratifying after lagging behind her older hostess on the climb. Two black SUVs with U.S. government plates and an ambulance were in the trailhead’s parking lot. A crew of EMTs carrying a foldup stretcher were about to tackle the switchback. Taking a swig from her almost empty water bottle, Gracie watched four men in identical polo shirts exit the SUVs and join the ambulance crew on the trail.

A breeze fluttered through the trees, followed within seconds by thunder. Glad for the safety of Amanda’s beat-up Ford pickup, Gracie slammed the door against the approaching storm.

What kind of dumb luck was it to stumble onto a dead body in the first few days of a long-awaited vacation? Marc, no doubt, would be pleased as punch to find her in the middle of another suspicious death investigation. At least she had absolutely no ties to whoever was in the water. She couldn’t possibly know any suspects either. She had her fingers crossed that it was an accidental fall or even a heart attack that would get her out of a witness situation with Arizona law enforcement. However, the condition of the body left plenty of room for foul play, and the agents must have seen something to confirm that.

Two Cochise County deputies met them in the parking lot and began taking their statements. She was the only one of the four who didn’t know Manny, and her interview was mercifully short. Her driver’s license, her vacation plans, and a description of the scene were recorded quickly. Amanda’s interview was finished before Gary’s and Hank’s. Amanda, looking pale and shaky, headed for her pickup.

“Do you want me to drive?” Gracie asked.

Amanda’s eyes were a little weepy, and she grasped the steering wheel so that her knuckles were white.

“No. Thanks though. I’m really sorry, Gracie. Really sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m sorry about your friend … if it’s really him. Maybe it’s not and he …”

Amanda shook her head. “It’s Manny. I’d bet money on it.”

She started the engine and pulled out onto the highway.

“That rain looks like it’s coming soon,” Gracie remarked, trying to change the subject.

Thunderheads shadowed the Huachucas, and she thought she’d spotted a couple of flashes of lightning. She didn’t envy the men navigating a body in a litter down the mountain. Hopefully they’d make it before any serious rain fell.

“It’s hard to tell where it’ll rain down here in the valley, but the mountains are going to really get nailed.” Amanda seemed to be reading Gracie’s thoughts. “I sure hope they get him off the mountain before it cuts loose.”

Gracie nodded and sighed. A beep from her phone alerted her to a text. She swiped the screen and read, “Meeting you at the ranch. Are you all right?”

Word sure traveled fast in law enforcement.

***

Marc’s truck was in the B & B’s parking lot. He was scratching the heads of the resident border collie and a three-legged Rhodesian ridgeback, Molly and Cochise respectively, who were the designated greeters. Cochise had tangled with a rattlesnake as a pup and lost his leg to the nasty venom. He was undeterred from patrolling the grounds and kept an eye out for hawks and coyotes. Amanda kept a small barn-red
henhouse, with a flock of Rhode Island reds and Americanas in a wire enclosure. He was their personal security guard, keeping aerial and terrestrial intruders away. Gracie thoroughly enjoyed watching his methodical circuit every morning, the missing left hind leg apparently of no consequence.

BOOK: Washed Up (A Gracie Andersen Mystery Book 4)
11.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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