Under the color of law
Alonso Herrera, nicknamed Cloudy by his fellow Santa Fe police officers because of his piss-poor attitude and constant complaining, cursed as he rolled his unit to a stop in front of the metal security gate at the front end of a dirt driveway. He didn't like working day shifts, didn't like driving through snow and slush, and didn't like checking on some rich-bitch citizen an out-of-state relative was worried about.
He opened the window and punched the call button on the speaker box. An early-morning storm had left two inches of snow on the ground, and the cold wind felt raw against his face.
Fuck February, Herrera thought.
The absence of tire tracks in the driveway probably meant that Mrs.
Phyllis Terrell wasn't at home. He would have to hoof it up the driveway and get his feet wet and his shoes dirty, just to report he'd been unable to make contact with the occupant.
He reviewed the notes he'd scribbled when dispatch had assigned him the call. He was looking for Mrs. Phyllis Terrell, age fifty-two, five four, blond and blue, weight 120, health excellent.
When Terrell had failed to show up on an early-morning flight from Albuquerque to Washington, D. C." her sister, who had been waiting at the airport for her, immediately called the house only to get an answering machine.
The sister, Susan Straley, had then called the shift commander, made a big deal about how Terrell was an ambassador's wife, and asked to have an officer sent to check on the woman.
Ambassador to what, Herrera wondered. Santa Fe had more than its share of media celebrities, movie stars, trust funders, and rich arty-farty types, but the politicians who lived in the city were the local garden variety, not prominent national figures.
After buzzing again with no response, Herrera got out of his unit. The ex-chief of police had purchased white patrol cars for the department, which always looked like shit in bad weather. He hated driving a dirty unit, and today his vehicle was splattered with mud and road slush.
Herrera couldn't even begin to count the wasted hours he'd spent in this neighborhood. The high-tech security systems in these houses went off whenever some damn rodent ran across a floor or a lightning storm came too close.
He keyed his handheld radio, reported he would be on foot at the Terrell residence, and climbed over the four-foot gate. A snarling dog came out of nowhere. Before Herrera could retreat, it nipped hard at his leg. He shook it free, his trousers tearing as the dog let go. The mutt backed up, snarled again, and started another run at him. Herrera squirted it with pepper spray and scrambled back over the gate. The dog yelped, went prone, whined, and started working both paws at its eyes, trying to clear out the spray.
Herrera looked down at his leg and lifted the torn flap of fabric. His skin had been broken by the animal's teeth. He decided he hated fucking dogs and thought about shooting this one, but instead called for animal control.
The dog had wandered off by the time Matt Garcia, the animal control officer, arrived. After getting his snare from the truck, he looked at Herrera's leg. The puncture wound wasn't deep and the blood had stopped running.
Garcia raised his eyes to Cloudy's pinched, sour-looking face.
"What breed of dog was it?" he asked.
"How the hell should I know?" Herrera said.
"Big, about sixty pounds. At least knee high. Short hair. Black with a white chest. It just looked like an ugly mutt."
"You better hope I find it, and it has a current rabies vaccination,"
"Otherwise, you're not gonna like what happens next."
"I don't want to hear that shit," Herrera said with a worried glance at his leg.
"Go find the damn dog."
"Don't you want to help round him up?" Garcia asked with a grin.
"Just do your job," Herrera snapped.
He watched the young man swing easily over the gate and trot up the steep driveway that had been cut into the granite rock of the hillside.
He sucked in his thick gut and decided to add animal control officers to the list of people he didn't like, which up to now had only included his ex-wife, any and all civilians, and his asshole shift commanders.
While Garcia scrambled around trees and over rock outcroppings calling for the dog, Herrera turned his attention to the Terrell house. At least six times larger than his small subdivision tract home, it sat a hundred feet above him, sited to take advantage of the valley view and Atalaya Mountain across the way.
It had a deep portal bordered by a high patio wall that was under construction.
He heard a dog bark and switched his gaze to the driveway in time to see Garcia turn a corner, yanking the muzzled mutt along by the handle of the snare.
"You gotta go up there," Garcia called in a shaky voice as he approached.
Garcia stopped at the driveway gate. He was flustered.
"There's a dead woman inside the house lying next to the front door with a pair of scissors stuck in her chest. Some guy came out of the back of an RV parked by the garage and ran off when he saw me."
"Shit," Cloudy said, reaching across his chest for the microphone to the handheld that was clipped to his shirt.
"You went in the house?"
"I just followed the dog," Garcia said.
"The patio door was open."
"Describe the woman for me."
"Dead, for Chrissake," Garcia said.
"I didn't stop to take a close look."
Herrera stared at the dog.
"Does that piece-of-shit mutt have a current rabies tag?"
"Yeah, you're in luck," Garcia said.
"Walk him around to the road, put him in your truck, and stand by."
"I've got three pending calls," Garcia said.
"Not anymore you don't," Herrera said. He keyed the microphone and called in the homicide.
Lieutenant Salvador Molina, special-investigations commander, peered inside the open patio door of the Terrell residence. The victim lay on her back approximately three feet inside the house, with her feet pointing south toward the door. A blood pool darkened a thick Oriental rug. Dog tracks and human footprints wandered erratically across the floor of the expansive living room.
The expression on Phyllis Terrell's face seemed peaceful. It was a strong, attractive face with even features. She wore expensive diamond studs in her ears, and a larger single diamond on a gold chain around her neck. The scissors protruding from Terrell's chest looked like the type Molina's wife used whenever she tried to sew something.
Molina heard footsteps on the flagstone patio behind him. He'd been waiting for the crime-scene unit and the medical examiner to arrive, so he didn't look back.
"This area is off limits," he said.
"Go in through the garage door."
"What have you got so far, Lieutenant?"
Kevin Kerney asked.
Molina stiffened and turned. Kerney, the new Santa Fe police chief, looked past him at the body on the floor.
Kerney had been appointed at the first of the year over the muttered dismay of many officers who didn't like having a cop-killer for a boss no matter what the reason. The incident had happened last fall while Kerney was serving as a deputy chief of the New Mexico State Police.
The official story was that a dirty cop had started a gunfight he couldn't finish, but some on the force didn't buy it.
Kerney had been cleared by an independent internal-affairs investigation. But his resignation soon after the event fueled the flames of speculation. Now people were saying that the chief had managed to get hired through some political string-pulling.
If true, another good old boy had been made police chief by the mayor and city manager, which was enough to cause Molina to think about starting a short-timer's calendar. He had eight months and sixteen days left before he could retire with a maximum pension.
"We've got a mess, Chief," Molina said.
"The crime scene was contaminated by an animal-control officer who chased the dog that bit Officer Herrera."
"So I've heard," Kerney said.
"What's the status of the investigation?"
"The crime-scene unit and the ME are rolling. I've got four detectives doing a room-to-room plain-view search. A Mexican national has been living in an RV parked next to the garage. The RV was leased from a local company by Mrs. Terrell on a two-year contract. My guess is the man was hired to build the patio wall, and maybe some other stuff that needed doing, and Terrell provided him with a place to stay during construction. We found his personal belongings and clothes, plus some letters from Mexico addressed to a Santiago Terjo. I've got U. S.
Customs running a records check on the name to see if he's a legal or not."
"Have you confirmed that this is Phyllis Terrell?" Kerney asked.
Molina nodded, "From the photo on a driver's license we found in her purse."
The dead woman on the floor wore charcoal wool slacks, a turtleneck sweater, and a pair of expensive leather walking boots. Kerney noted the diamond jewelry.
"Have you ruled out robbery as a motive?"
"Pretty much. Her purse is on the kitchen counter with her airplane ticket in it, along with two thousand dollars, credit cards, and a wallet. Her travel bags were packed and ready to go."
"What time was her flight from Albuquerque?"
"Seven-twenty," Molina said.
"So, she was up, dressed, and ready to leave by six, at the latest,"
"That would be my guess," Molina said.
To take advantage of the views the double doors to the patio were glass.
Kerney looked out at the mountains that bracketed the small valley.
Tucked away a few miles from the plaza, it was an area few tourists visiting the city ever saw.
Once farmed by Hispanic families, the neighborhood was now an upscale address with multimillion-dollar retirement and vacation houses perched on the hillsides.
"Would you open your door to a stranger at that time of day?" Kerney asked, turning back to Molina.
"No way, Chief."
"Is this the door the dog came in?"
"Yeah. Matt Garcia said it was wide open."
"Does anything bother you about the scene?"
"It's too early to say."
"You're probably right. Mind if I take a look inside?" Kerney asked.
"You're the chief," Molina said.
"Thanks. I'll go in through the garage."
Lieutenant Molina watched Kerney walk away with his distinctive limp.
He remembered when Kerney had been the department's chief of detectives.
A gun battle with a drug dealer had supposedly ended his career with the Santa Fe PD.
But after a long period of recuperation Kerney had returned to law enforcement, serving briefly as a sheriff's lieutenant and a Forest Service ranger before joining the state police as an investigator.
Within weeks Kerney had been bumped up to a deputy-chief slot, which raised a lot of eyebrows in cop shops throughout the state.
Sal wondered what Kerney had in mind for the department. Over the last five years three previous chiefs had been brought in to kick butt, take names, and reorganize the department. Not one of them had given a rat's ass about what sworn personnel thought, needed, or would be willing to do to clean things up and improve the department.
If Kerney followed suit, he might well have a rebellion on his hands.
He watched Kerney turn the corner. Since starting the job, the chief had come to work every day dressed in civvies. Today Kerney wore a well-tailored sport coat, shirt and tie, dress slacks, and a very choice pair of cowboy boots. A lot of officers were grumbling about Kerney's clothes; they said that not wearing the uniform showed a lack of respect for the department. To them it wasn't a good sign of things to come.
Personally, Sal didn't care what Kerney wore, as long as he did the job professionally and treated people fairly. Whether he would or not remained to be seen.
Kerney had been known as a good boss when he was chief of detectives.
But Sal knew that there was only one constant about cops who moved high up the food chain: They changed. Sometimes radically and usually not for the better. He would wait and see which direction Kerney was headed.