Authors: J. A. Jance
“Investigators volunteer their services and expertise, although TLC handles their expenses, pays for laboratory facilities and analyses. TLC also supplies clerical and other support personnel. There are monthly meetings—mostly in Phoenix but sometimes in Denver—where people come and make presentations about their particular cold cases. The presenters are usually family members who understand that their local law enforcement agencies are either unwilling or unable to invest additional assets on what they regard as a dead-end investigation. Sometimes two or three TLC members will tackle a case. Other times, the group will vote to approach it en masse.
“G. T. Farrell was a young campus cop at Arizona State University when Ursula Brinker was murdered. Over the years he stayed in touch with Hedda and Toby. He’s one of our founding members, and he wanted to know if you—”
Brandon Walker could barely believe his ears. Here was someone offering him a hand off the scrap heap of life—someone who thought Brandon Walker still had what it took in terms of experience and expertise to make a difference.
“Don’t say another word,” Brandon Walker said, finishing off his Campari. “I’m in. Next time you see Geet Farrell, tell him I owe him big.”
“Tell him yourself,” Ralph Ames replied. “The next meeting is two weeks from now at the Westin in Denver. I’ll have the TLC travel agent contact you about flight arrangements.”
Ames picked up his menu and drew a pair of reading glasses out of his pocket. “Since that’s out of the way,” he added, perusing the selections, “how about some lunch?”
Of course it had been a snap decision, and Brandon had beaten himself up about it later on. He had lunged at Ralph Ames’s ego-salvaging proposal like a drowning sailor grabbing for a lifeline, and later wondered if he’d appeared too desperate. Brandon doubted Ralph Ames had even the dimmest concept of being cast off and ignored—how living a forgotten half-life made you second-guess everything you’d ever done.
But six months later, Brandon Walker knew that, snap decision or not, hooking up with Ralph Ames and TLC hadn’t been wrong. It had given him his life back—his life and purpose, both. And now, thanks to Fat Crack Ortiz, Brandon Walker had the responsibility for a case that needed to be shepherded into and through The Last Chance.
He was surprised by how excited he felt and, at the same time, how guilty. As he carried the iced-tea-laden tray back into the living room, he was only too aware that his own rush of newfound happiness came as a direct result of someone else’s long-term hurt and heartbreak.
Brandon Walker suddenly had a job to do and a case to work on—a real case. Emma Ortiz and Hedda Brinker had nothing in common but their two murdered daughters. And because of them, Brandon Walker had returned from the dead.
Maria Elena Dominguez lay
naked on the bed and waited, drowning in despair. She had no way to tell time. In this darkened room with no windows and only a tiny pinprick of light over the corner toilet, she didn’t know if it was night or day. She didn’t know if she’d been here for weeks or months or years. All she knew was that at some time, the overhead light would flash on, temporarily blinding her. Then the latch would click, the door would creak open, and once again she would be plunged into a living hell.
She had been glad to see Señor the Doctor at the bus that sunny afternoon in Nogales, which now seemed so very long ago. She had been thrilled to think that he and his wife—the woman with the bright green eyes and beautiful silver hair—were the ones who were taking her in. And he had been so kind to her as they left the bus station behind and drove across the border at Nogales in a shiny black car that smelled of what had to be new leather. The seat had felt soft as a feather lingering against the bare skin of her legs.
There had been no question about her papers. In fact, no one had even bothered to look at them. Instead, the guard had leaned down, peered across the seat at her. He then smiled, saluted the driver, and waved them on. That was all there was to it. Minutes later they were gliding along far faster than the lumbering bus, only this time they traveled on a fine wide roadway—a wonderfully smooth highway—that stretched out ahead of them like a length of gray satin ribbon. And for the first time in her life, Maria Elena was riding in a car where the air flowing out of the vent was so impossibly cool that she shivered with cold.
Señor the Doctor had asked if she was hungry or thirsty. When she had nodded yes, he had reached behind the seat and produced a basket containing a sumptuous feast—bananas and chunks of sharp yellow cheese. When she had eaten her fill, he produced a thermos.
“Do you drink coffee?” he had asked.
she said, although it had been years since she had any. She poured it herself into the top of the thermos. She savored the aroma that boiled up into her nostrils from the steam. And when she tasted it, the coffee was sweet and dark on her tongue, just the way her mother had made it. And that was all she remembered. When she awakened next, she was in this room and on this bed. And the doctor, who knew for sure that she and her friends did not have AIDS, took what she had kept from the drug dealers and killers at El Asilo Seguro. The doctor took that, and far more besides, enjoying her suffering and laughing at her when she cried out in pain.
He always brought her food—for afterward. She didn’t know if he intended it as a punishment or a reward. Hoping to starve to death and put an end to her misery, Maria Elena at first had tried not eating the food and had flushed it down the toilet that sat, squat and ugly as a gray ghost, in the dimly lit far corner of the room. But something had gone wrong. The toilet had backed up, and Señor the Doctor had figured out what she was doing. He had beaten her then—beaten her with a thin, sharp strap—until she’d been left with bloody welts all over her body. After that, he watched her while she ate, making certain she swallowed every morsel.
Lying naked, shackled, and miserable on the bed, Maria Elena grieved for herself and also for her friend, for Madelina. She knew now that for Madelina, too, there had been no nice family waiting in the United States. Perhaps Señor the Doctor had simply tired of her. Or perhaps she had been lucky—really lucky—and died. There would be no meeting of two old friends at some pretty place someday. And the old times they might have discussed if they had met—the bad times in Colima and at El Asilo Seguro—had been heaven on earth compared to this.
And what of Señora Duarte?
Maria Elena wondered. Did she know what would become of the “lucky” girls she was sending to their supposed patrons, their benefactors? It was a question that haunted Maria Elena. She had struggled with it alone in the dark until she had finally reached a conclusion that had plunged her even deeper into despair. Of course, Señora Duarte had known. She had known everything. She was part of it. And that was why it had all happened so fast and with no warning. Once a girl was chosen, she went away that very day, without ever going back to the other children, without leaving any hint of what had happened or where she was going with the others—the unchosen ones—who remained.
No, she and Madelina and who knew how many others had disappeared without a trace, just as Maria Elena’s mother and brother had disappeared that day in Chiapas. Once Maria Elena had hoped and prayed to Mother Mary that Mama and Pepé were still alive. Now she prayed that they were dead. And she prayed that she might die, too. It was her only hope.
At the end of a long, sleepless night, Erik LaGrange sat sipping coffee on his patio and welcomed the sun as it edged up over the Rincons. It was Saturday morning. He didn’t have to go in to work today, which meant he could put off facing the music until Monday at least.
You’re only thirty-five,
he told himself again, as he had countless times overnight.
Losing a job isn’t the end of the world. You’ve got no wife, no kids, no responsibilities. You can go somewhere else and start over. So what’s the problem?
The problem was, Erik knew he’d be going job hunting with no references and with the added burden of a huge black spot on his reputation. In even the best of times, nonprofit development jobs weren’t easy to come by. With corporate and private giving down, jobs like the cushy one he’d had for the past five years were now, as Grandma Johnson would have said, scarce as hen’s teeth. And since he’d spent most of those five years screwing his boss’s wife…
Grandma Johnson would have had more than a little to say on that subject as well. “You should have thought about that a long time ago” was the most likely one. Undoubtedly, she would have added something about making one’s bed and lying in it.
Erik missed Gladys Johnson dreadfully—her cheerful disposition, her way of always looking on the bright side of things, and yes, even that sometimes very sharp Scandinavian tongue of hers. She had read Erik the riot act often enough as he was growing up, but he had never doubted that those scoldings were rooted in love.
Grandma had been Erik’s rock. True north on his compass. The only parent he had ever known or needed or wanted. She had been everything to him—mother/father, aunt/uncle, sister/brother. And, until he made it into junior high, she had also been his best friend. He could remember riding in the car with her singing along with one of her well-worn cassette tapes. Erik’s favorite had always been the one where Helen Reddy sang “You and Me Against the World.” The song was supposedly about a mother and her little girl, but Erik always pretended the song had been written just for his grandma and him.
Right then, though, Gladys Johnson and her sage advice—which had grown even wiser the older Erik got—had been gone from his life for ten years. There was no way she could dose him with a firestorm of well-earned criticism for his foolishness and then help see him through to the other side of the problem. No, in this case, Erik was going to have to manage all by himself.
Down on Skyline, a car horn honked impatiently. Overhead, a noisy jet streaked toward a landing at Davis Monthan Air Force Base several miles away. The jarring background noises sliced through Erik’s reverie and intruded on his thoughts.
“That’s what’s wrong with living in the city,” Grandma Johnson had told him countless times. “With all the traffic and noise, I can’t hear myself think. That’s when I wish I was back on the island, where it was just me and the woods and the water. Then, all I could think or dream about was how boring it was and how much I wanted to get away. Now I wish I could go back.”
Isle Royale was a long damned way from Tucson, Arizona, but remembering Grandma’s voice made Erik know what he needed to do—hear himself think. Hurrying into the house, he grabbed up his knapsack. He loaded it up with sunscreen, several bottles of water, and some food—a couple of sandwiches, some cheese, and a package of dried apricots. Then he donned thick socks and hiking boots and headed out the door.
Outside, Erik paused beside his pickup and considered whether or not he should drive the Tacoma to the trailhead. Even though he had truck keys in his pocket, he finally decided against it. These days, leaving a vehicle—a company vehicle, at that—parked at a trailhead was pretty much an open invitation to have it broken into and/or stolen. Besides, the trailhead to Finger Rock was only a mile or so from the Catalina foothills home he was house-sitting for Professor Raymond Rice and his wife, Frieda, who were off on a year-long sabbatical in France.
driving somewhere to go on a hike seems pretty dumb. Since the point is walking, why not start from here?
And so he did. Erik trudged off alone in the early-morning sunshine with the sky clean and blue above him. A few rock doves, a flock of quail, and a single watchful roadrunner noticed his solitary departure. So did a neighborhood dog or two, who barked briefly as he passed. In that upscale neighborhood people valued their privacy. Individual homes were set at least an acre apart and screened by carefully planted collections of native shrubbery and looming saguaros. As a consequence, none of Erik’s neighbors saw him go.
Since Erik’s pickup came and went from the driveway several times during the course of the day, those same privacy-loving neighbors assumed that the young man who was staying at the Rices’ place was spending a quiet Saturday going in and out and running errands just like everyone else. None of them saw or noticed anything at all out of the ordinary that day. For Erik LaGrange, that would make all the difference.
Fifteen miles across town,
on the edge of the Tucson Mountains, Brandon Walker, too, had spent a sleepless night. But his lack of sleep was due to an entirely different reason. For the first time in years, former sheriff Brandon Walker was excited—too excited to sleep. He had spent the entire night going over the previous day’s conversation with Emma Orozco and wondering what the hell he was going to do about it.
He had come back into the living room carrying a tray of iced tea to find Emma staring up at one of Rita Antone’s best baskets—a two-foot-wide medallion featuring the Tohono O’odham’s sacred symbol, the Man in the Maze. Usually the design was woven onto the white yucca background in a tough black fiber harvested from devil’s-claw pods. For this particular basket, however, Rita had crafted the maze by using yucca root, which, without benefit of any dye, resulted in a rusty red hue that resembled dried blood. That, of course, was what made this particular basket so valuable and so special, as Rita had once explained.
“For this basket,” Nana
had told Brandon Walker, “the yucca had to die.”
Emma Orozco stared up at the basket as if hoping that somewhere in the sacred curves of bloodred pattern she could find her own answers as well.
Brandon offered the tray of drinks. Emma murmured her thanks and daintily accepted an icy glass of tea while declining both lemon and sugar. Brandon helped himself to generous doses of both and then settled back into his favorite armchair.