Excerpts from Desert Vendetta:
Chapter One: The body
As soon as Deputy Steve Ritter saw the rolled-up tarp dumped in the desert he knew his day was shot.
Already, Ritter was counting the days until his retirement. Only 19 years to go if he sticks it out this long, he thought. Too bad his abbreviated career with another police agency didn’t count toward his future.
Exiled a year ago to the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office, usually working the area south of Bullhead City, his beat now consisted of a zillion acres of dust, an old gold-mining ghost town and those odd square miles that were not part of the Fort Mohave Indian Reservation. Hardly anybody lived out there, so he spent most of his time driving in the heat and working occasional traffic pileups on Highway 95.
He had it made a year ago. Working for the Bullhead City Police Department, in a city where people actually lived. All 30,000 of them, though the population would double when the snowbirds came in. They’d bring their RVs into town after summer was over, clog up the roads and Wal-Mart checkout lines, drive across the Colorado River to gamble at the dozen casinos and spend the next few months being crime victims. At least there was action, crucial for someone who basically leaked adrenalin like the 25-year-old Ritter. He still wondered why he jumped to the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office.
Oatman was part of his beat, but most deputies didn’t bother to spend much time there. The town was home to 150, and many of those were miners who didn’t have much use for law enforcement. While the town straddled old Route 66, the stretch coming in from Kingman was too treacherous for all but the most daredevil drivers. That road passed over a mountain and through deserted hamlets such as Gold Road and Sitgreaves Pass, and if your car broke down on that stretch the desert animals might find you before any humans do. Nearly everyone took the two-lane Boundary Cone Road, coming in from the south and the town of Riverbend. Usually the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office sent an officer through Oatman once a day if there was enough time and gas to do so. If it wasn’t such a tourist draw on weekends Ritter wouldn’t waste time or mileage going up there.
His beat also included Riverbend, a relatively new town in Mohave County. Another place that had no real reason to exist though it sat directly across the Colorado river from the Nevada town of Sagebrush with its lone casino. Riverbend and Sagebrush came long after the first casino boom transformed Mohave County from a spot in the middle of the desert to a populated spot in the middle of the desert. Another quiet day, and the only exciting thing happening was the heat. At 9 a.m. it already was past 90 with a predicted high of 125 and single-digit humidity. Even with his air conditioner running full blast, sweat dribbled from Ritter’s blond flat-top haircut.
He keyed his radio microphone. “I’m at Boundary Cone Road at Highway 95. Want me to go up?”
“Might as well.”
“Going up.” He made his turn and headed straight for the triangular mountain to the east. At one time Boundary Cone was an active volcano; now it stood guard over Oatman. The old mining town had good crowds during the weekend, with people wanting to see a genuine ghost town. But the mystique ended on Sundays. All weekend the town’s three bars did breakout business and a troupe of locals staged Old West gunfights in the street, but only the locals stayed around during the week. This Tuesday the trip up the hill was to be as unexciting as any other.
Ritter thought he saw something about mile up the road. A bit of blue, definitely out of place. A rolled-up tarp, it looked like. He shook his head. People were always dumping their junk out here.
He parked along the road, popped his trunk and got out of the car. This wasn’t a high-risk situation, he thought. Just some trash thrown out in the desert. Better to be prepared, though. He patted his hips to make sure he had his gun and handheld radio before leaving the cruiser. Walking in sand was different from anything else; it was hard to get traction in the deep sand and even going a few feet got tiring.
Desert brush hid most of the tarp from the road, but as he moved closer Ritter could see all of it, including the pair of feet sticking out one end.
Great, he thought. Another homeless guy. But they usually hung out closer to the river. And they’re usually not wearing slacks and nearly-new running shoes either.
He tapped the sole of the guy’s foot with his baton and didn’t get any response. Another, more insistent attempt to rouse him.
Then he noticed the shotgun lying next to the tarp. A cheapie pump-action WalMart special; this put him on full alert. He stepped back, pulled his cell phone off his belt and took a few pictures of the bundle and weapon.
Heart pounding in his ears now, Ritter stepped to the other end of the tarp and lifted a corner with his stick. Then staggered a few feet away as his breakfast worked itself up and out.
As soon as his stomach stopped quaking he got on the handheld and called for backup.
He looked again at the rolled-up tarp, one end now covered with black-and-blue-bodied flies. He hoped he wouldn’t have to look at what lay underneath again. Once was enough.
Chapter Two: The newsroom
“You sure you’re OK?”
“I’m always OK.” Alfredo Walker was tired of always being asked that question. It didn’t help that his boss, managing editor Vernon Arden, was the one asking.
“So long as you’re sure,” Arden seemed to be checking Fred’s eyes again. “Go out last night?”
“Yeah. Was home before midnight.”
Walker, called Fred by everyone except whatever family was still alive in El Paso, was used to this. It had been this way since his hitch with the L.A. Times ended in flames three years ago. Ever since he rear-ended a police car while on assignment. A field sobriety test showed him driving with a blood alcohol reading of close to .20, enough for him to lose his license and his job. The Times management knew they were firing a brilliant writer, but he just wasn’t worth the risk. Not after several warnings and a company-ordered stint in rehab anyway. It took a while for him to get his driver’s license back and find a publisher willing to take a chance on him, but he he did land on his feet. Sort of. He toiled for a struggling who-knows-why-it’s-there daily in the Inland Empire for a year while rebuilding his reputation, knowing that no matter what he did, his best days were behind him.
Now he was in some wasteland in northern Arizona, far away from the temptations of Southern California. Vernon, hired a year ago to head the Riverbend Courier newsroom, heard he was available and decided he still had the stuff to be a top-notch crime reporter with a change of scenery. So far Fred hadn’t disappointed, but the editor still kept tabs on him. Guess I’m always going to have to deal with that, Walker thought.
“Anything exciting?” Fred asked, nodding toward the police scanner that kept at a low drone on his desk.
“Nothing,” Vernon said. “Air’s been quiet all morning.”
Vernon and two reporters crowded around four desks in the newsroom that was about the size of a kid’s bedroom, with Fred sitting at the desk opposite Vernon. Across the mini-aisle, Richard Lawrence was multitasking; hammering away on his computer keyboard while on the phone with a City Hall source. Richard, in his early 30s, was the youngest of the four-man news crew by at least two decades but his work earned him the right to hang with this bunch of graybeards.
This crew, including fourth man Greg Martino, had more than 100 years of newspaper experience and two semesters of journalism school between them. Richard was the one with the education, but he dropped out of college after a year and started writing for a chain of weeklies in Tennessee and Virginia. Vernon heard about the youngster, who was then covering local politics for a daily in Johnson City, and hired him sight unseen. Richard closed out his Tennessee job on Friday, piled all his belongings — including his books, clothes, laptop, camping gear, rifle, two guitars and two amplifiers in his Camaro and hit the road Saturday morning. He made the week-long drive to Arizona, checked into a rent-by-the-week hotel in nearby Bullhead City the following Friday and submitted his first story for Monday’s edition.
Richard had finished his phone call and helped himself to some coffee, emptying the glass decanter.
“Hey, if I burn another pot of coffee, will y’all help me drink it?” he asked. His down-holler accent was sometimes incomprehensible to the guys in the newsroom but it always amused them. The ladies in the front office, especially Pam in personnel, adored him.
“Stupid question,” Vernon said. “Just make sure I can’t read through it.”
“Always.” He busied himself around the coffee maker again. “Where’s Greg? Making his rounds?”
“Yeah. He should be in later.”
Fred held up a hand and huddled closer to his scanner. “Man,” he said, “I sure don’t want that at this hour.”
“What?” Vernon wanted to know.
“Out in the desert.”
“That narrows it down.”
“No kidding.” Fred listened some more, writing in his reporter’s notebook. “Off Boundary Cone,” he finally said.
“So what happened?”
“They’re saying it’s just somebody wandering around.”
“What?” Richard asked. “Natural causes?”
“Nobody’s saying, but they called for all available units. Detective Haig, too.”
“Who’s Haig again?”
“Homicide. Sounds like the sheriff will be there too. I’d better head on over.” Fred drained his coffee cup, slung his camera bag over his shoulder, clipped his cell phone and police scanner to his belt and skittered out of the newsroom.
A minute later, they heard Walker’s engine race as he peeled out of the parking lot. Vernon shot a look at Richard.
“Must be a good story,” the young reporter said without looking up from his terminal. “He usually drives like a 90-year-old.”
“He’d better not tail-end another cop car, or I’ll never hear the end of it,” Vernon said.
Chapter Three: Roadblock
Fred Walker, doing 65 on Highway 95, hooked a right on Boundary Cone and slowed down when he saw the cop cars. He counted a half dozen of them, plus an unmarked primer-gray Crown Vic. That, he remembered, was Haig’s car. He pulled up behind the unmarked car, a safe distance away.
“What do we have?” he asked, taking a few pictures of the scene.
“Hey, Fred,” Sheriff Ben Holmes greeted him. “Slow news day?”
“Howdy, sheriff. It was until you guys livened it up.”
“Didn’t mean to.”
“What do you have, a dead guy?”
“Looks that way.”
“Thought so, since you and Detective Haig are both here.”
Haig, a balding detective with his belly protruding over his slacks and silver belt buckle, looked up when he heard his name. Fred took a few steps toward him. “What’s going on?”
“You either talk to me or Sgt. Lewis,” the sheriff said.
“Really. When did you start doing that?”
“Been doing it.”
“Yeah, when I get my reports at the station. I always talk to the detectives when I’m on the scene.”
“Me or Sgt. Lewis. That’s how we’re doing it now.”
Now that’s a way to control the information coming out of there, he thought. “Right. OK sheriff, what do we have?”
“Looks like a single shotgun round to the face. ‘Bout tore his head off. Weapon found next to the body.”
Fred looked up, saw one of the deputies handling the shotgun with gloved hands.
“Whoa. A suicide or a homicide?”
“Suicide, most likely,” Holmes said.
“I didn’t know Haig did suicides.”
“We’re not ruling anything out, but at the end of the day it’ll probably go down as a suicide.”
End of the day, my butt, Fred wanted to say. End of the day this. “Gotcha. Cover all your bases. Who was he?”
“Don’t know. Victim didn’t have any ID.”
“And I’m assuming you can’t tell by looking, either.”
“Right. Face pretty much gone, can’t tell by dental work. Have to hope we have fingerprints on file. Probably need to go to Las Vegas Metro for that.”
“Total shot in the dark, but everybody around here works across the river. If he does they’ll have his prints.”
Across the river, Fred knew, meant a casino employee. “Probably. So what do you do now?”
“Go over the physical evidence.”
“You already took the victim out of here, I’m assuming?”
“Coroner already picked him up.”
“How about his car? I don’t see any but yours here.”
“We’re still looking. Nothing’s been reported.”
“So he walked over here carrying a shotgun? He’s got guts.”
“We’re still investigating.”
“I’ll at least need to string together a physical description of the guy for my story. Besides the messed-up face, that is.”
“OK,” Holmes consulted his notes. “White male, about 5-foot-6, I’m guessing 150 pounds, medium complexion, brown hair, I’ll say mid-30s. Can’t help you on the eye color.”
“Works for me, so far. What was he wearing?”
“Black slacks. Blue T-shirt. Blue windbreaker. Black running shoes, Nikes I think.”
“Black slacks? Casino employee for sure.”
“How do you know?”
“Who else would wear those out in public?”
Holmes looked at Fred for a few seconds before nodding. “Good call.”
“You sure I can’t talk to Haig?”
“What for? We gave you everything we have.”
Yeah, buddy, Fred thought. And I have some oceanfront property in Mohave County to sell you. “So that’s it, so far? Maybe suicide, not ruling out homicide, shotgun, black slacks, running shoes.”
“He was wearing the shoes?”
“Both of them?”
Well, scratch the suicide angle, Fred thought.