GRAND COUNTY DEPUTY SHERIFF Manny Rivera was unaccustomed to feeling nervous, but on this Valentine’s Day morning, as he drove his pickup south from Moab, Utah, toward his destination of Abiquiu, New Mexico, his stomach was unsettled. He was about to do something he’d never before attempted. And the final outcome of his quest was uncertain. What if Gloria Valdez rejected his marriage proposal? He reached down and felt the outline of the black, velvet-covered box in his pocket, making sure for the tenth time that he hadn’t forgotten to bring the engagement ring he’d bought. He was preoccupied with the nagging thought that maybe he should have discussed all this with her before buying the ring. He was sure she loved him—she’d told him so often enough—but it was possible she had no interest in marrying, having once been the victim of a brief and abusive marriage.
The more he dwelled on it, the more he wished he’d discussed the matter with her in advance. He knew that’s what most modern couples did—talk about marriage, having children, where they would live, what kind of ring she might want—but no, he’d decided he would propose just the way his father and grandfather had done it. Drop down on one knee, present the ring to the lady, and ask for her hand in marriage. Romantic, but risky. And maybe foolish. An opportunity for colossal disappointment and embarrassment. He drew in a deep breath and let it out. Too late to change course now. He’d already told Gloria he was bringing her a present. By the end of the day, he’d have his answer, one way or the other.
The buzzing of his cell phone interrupted his thoughts. He glanced at the display. The caller was Millie Ives, the Grand County sheriff’s dispatcher. He wondered for an instant why she would be calling him—she knew he was on leave for a week and he’d confided in her the delicate nature of his mission. Maybe she was calling to wish him good luck.
“Hi, Millie.”
“Manny, we have an emergency. Sheriff Anderson has cancelled your leave. What’s your twenty?”
“I’m on U.S. 491 about ten miles south of Cortez.”
“Turn around and head back. There’s an urgent situation that requires your attention.”
Rivera had experienced this kind of reversal in his personal plans before. In emergencies, leaves were cancelled. That’s just the way it was in the law enforcement business. But this time, the usual annoyance was accompanied by a mild sense of relief. He’d received a respite from the tension he felt all morning. He pulled over to the side of the road.
“What’s the emergency?”
“Sheriff Zilic just called Sheriff Anderson and asked to borrow you for a special assignment. Emmett Mitchell normally investigates all San Juan County capital crimes, but he was in an accident early this morning and isn’t available. Sheriff Zilic has no one else who’s experienced enough to conduct a murder investigation. He specifically asked for you.”
“What happened to Emmett? How serious is it?”
“His unit was T-boned by a pickup early this morning in Blanding. Drunk driver ran a red light. Emmett’s in the hospital with a broken leg, several cracked ribs, and multiple cuts and contusions. Doctors say he’ll be fine in a few days. Hard to believe someone would be inebriated so early in the day.”
Rivera was relieved to hear the prognosis. Mitchell was one of his closest friends. They’d often met for breakfast at the Rim Rock Diner in Moab and discussed their personal lives and the cases they were working on. Mitchell was fifteen years older than Rivera with a wife and four children. During Rivera’s early days as an investigator, their discussions had made the young deputy the beneficiary of Mitchell’s law enforcement experience and wisdom.
“I’m glad to hear he’ll be okay. What’s the special assignment Sheriff Zilic wants me for?”
“A married couple was found dead in the backcountry about twenty miles southeast of Blanding. She was shot in the chest and he in the temple. A revolver was found in the dead man’s hand. Sheriff Zilic said it looks like a murder-suicide, but he can’t be sure. He wants you to handle the investigation.” She read off the GPS coordinates. “It’s near Montezuma Canyon. Sheriff Zilic is waiting for you there.”
“Tell him I’m on my way.”
Rivera had known Sheriff Anthony Zilic for six years. He had worked with him on several cases where the crimes involved activities in both Grand County and San Juan County, the two adjacent counties which formed the southeast corner of Utah. One collaboration involved the illegal growing of marijuana on federal lands in the LaSal Mountains. Another involved the search for a man on the FBI’s most wanted list. Rivera had a high regard for Zilic and considered him a dedicated and competent law enforcement officer.
Rivera studied his maps for the shortest route. Heading back toward Cortez and driving west through McElmo Canyon into Utah looked like the best bet. From there to Zilic’s location would be a circuitous route of mostly unpaved back roads. He recognized from the maps that he was headed for one of the most unpopulated parts of the Utah backcountry. Rivera waited for a break in traffic, then made a U-turn and sped off.
He called Gloria and gave her the bad news. Her tone of voice revealed her disappointment, but she said she understood. As a deputy sheriff of Rio Arriba County in New Mexico, she’d faced the same situation many times herself when duty called. He promised to reschedule the trip as soon as his current assignment was completed. Rivera wondered if any of his previous girlfriends would have been so understanding about a last-minute cancellation of plans. He decided they would not have.
After passing through McElmo Canyon, he drove the back roads through canyons and across rolling mesa land, consulting his map and his GPS receiver as he drove. He headed north on the road through Montezuma Canyon, then turned east on a lonely gravel road marked BLM Route 347. He saw a few head of cattle grazing on each side of the road and a number of pump jacks—not surprising since this area was part of the great San Juan Basin oil and gas play.
Rivera continued down the gravel road, dodging potholes and ruts along the way. No need for speed limit signs on these roads, he thought. Anything over forty miles an hour and a vehicle would skid off the road and end up in a ditch. The road set its own speed limit.
For miles, he saw not a living soul or vehicle. Then he surmounted a rise in the terrain and spotted in the distance a cluster of vehicles parked on the right side of the road. He drove down the incline and pulled to a stop next to a four-foot high sandstone hoodoo in the shape of a mushroom. Parked nearby were a San Juan County sheriff’s department pickup truck, an empty Buick sedan with California license plates, an oil tanker truck with a driver standing next to it, and a second sheriff’s vehicle with a young-looking deputy sitting inside talking on the radio.
Rivera spotted Sheriff Zilic waving and coming toward him. Under the cream-colored Stetson pushed back on his head, Zilic’s pink face wore a look of concern. He was a large man, six feet tall and weighing about 230 pounds. At age sixty, he’d served the people of San Juan County for nearly twenty years. His large belly hung over his belt, yet he moved with a surprising agility. Rivera hopped out of his vehicle and the two men shook hands.
“Manny, I’m glad you’re here. I need some help. You’ve heard about Emmett?”
“Yes Sir, the dispatcher filled me in. Sounds like he’s going to be okay.”
““The doc says he’ll recover just fine, but right now he’s in no condition to conduct an investigation.” Zilic gestured for Rivera to follow him. “Manny, I got a situation here I don’t rightly understand. C’mon over here and take a look.” He handed Rivera a pair of disposable latex gloves.
They walked toward an old wooden shed with several of its vertical planks missing. A rusted fuel tank stood on supports nearby. Rivera noticed a tattered windsock hanging from a pole. It was then he realized that he was standing at the end of a rudimentary grass airstrip which ran in a southwesterly direction out across the undulating mesa land. The bodies of a man and a woman were sprawled on the ground not far from the shed. Yellow crime scene tape had been strung around the area.
The woman was lying on her back with what appeared to be a surprised look on her face. There was a bloodstain in the center of her chest. A few feet away, a man lay on his side with a wound to his right temple. He was gripping a .38 caliber revolver with his right hand. The couple appeared to be in their late sixties.
Rivera squatted next to them as he pulled on the gloves. “Who found them?”
Zilic pointed. “The driver of that oilfield tanker truck spotted them as he was passing by. He called it in. I asked him to wait in case you want to talk to him.”
“Did he touch anything?”
“He said he checked their pulses, realized they were dead, and then notified us. Said he didn’t move them or touch anything else.”
“Has the medical examiner been here yet?”
“Yeah, he just left. He pronounced them dead and said the gunshot wounds were the probable cause of death. Both have powder burns so they were shot up close. He said they’ve been dead three to six hours. We’ll do a preliminary autopsy at the mortuary in Blanding, extract the bullets for analysis, then ship the bodies to Salt Lake City so the State Medical Examiner can do a final autopsy. But the cause of death is pretty obvious.”
“Do we know who they are?”
“I checked the man’s wallet and the lady’s purse for IDs. Their names are Matthew and Wilma Mason. From San Francisco. Both sixty-eight years old. One odd thing though, there was a baggy containing a half-dozen marijuana joints in the lady’s purse.”
“We’re only a few miles from the Colorado border. Maybe they bought them in Cortez.”
“Yeah. Could be.”
“Has the family been notified?”
“Put your rifle on the ground and turn around,” ordered Rivera.
“I found a laminated card in the man’s wallet giving a name and phone number to call in case of an emergency—a daughter who lives in Tucson. I called her. She was very distraught, of course. She said she’ll be driving up here later today and will come by the office first thing in the morning.”
“Any idea of a motive?”
“None. There were about eight hundred dollars in the wallet and a few hundred more in the purse. If this was murder, the motive wasn’t robbery.”
“Rivera stood up and scanned the immediate area. The surface of the ground was too rocky for finding clear footprints.
“I assume the vehicle with the California plates is theirs.”
“That’s right. My deputy ran the plates. The car is registered to Matthew Mason.”
Rivera studied the corpses. They looked like anyone’s grandparents except for the way they were dressed. The woman was wearing a peasant dress and sandals. Around her neck was a twine necklace with a hammered-copper medallion in the shape of a peace symbol. A bouquet of plastic wildflowers decorated her gray hair. The man was wearing bell-bottom jeans, a puka shell necklace, and a faded, psychedelic-colored T-shirt that read Property of Haight-Ashbury. A large gold earring hung from his left earlobe. Rivera recognized the style of clothing they were wearing—it was from the 1960s. He shook his head, wondering what a 68-year-old couple from San Francisco was doing out here in the middle of nowhere. And why in the world were they dressed like hippies?
_Buy Paperback Edition_
_Buy Kindle Edition_