DEPUTY SHERIFF MANNY RIVERA gripped the steering wheel tightly as he drove north out of Moab on US 191. His thoughts were fixated on Sheriff Denny Campbell, his new boss. He detested working for the man. Each successive encounter with Campbell increased Rivera’s urge to punch him in the mouth.
The ring tone of his new iPhone interrupted his brooding. He heard the familiar voice of Millie Ives, the sheriff’s dispatcher for as long as anyone could remember. She directed Rivera to proceed to the west end of Spring Canyon Point Road, a backcountry road in the remote and empty landscape west of Moab. A corpse had been discovered. Possible homicide.
He switched on the light bar of his Grand County Sheriff’s Department Ford F-150 pickup and sped toward the scene. He turned left on Highway 313, followed the switchbacks to the top of the mesa, and headed west, leaving the pavement and entering an undulating panorama of canyons, red-rock boulders, jagged outcroppings, and arroyos.
An hour later, he hit the brakes and slid to a stop on a rutted dirt road. He hopped out of his vehicle and trotted through the blackbrush and junipers toward the people in the distance.
Two men and a woman stood huddled together, their clothing and hairstyles reminding Rivera of hippies from the nineteen-sixties. The man with the shoulder-length grey hair and aviator sunglasses stepped forward with an anguished expression. He silently pointed a finger into a depression in the terrain.
Rivera saw a slender young woman with long blond hair sprawled face-up in the sandy bottom, her eyes open and her arms and legs awkwardly extended. She wore faded jeans and a white peasant blouse with embroidered flowers around the neck and waistline. He descended the bank, knelt down next to her, and felt for a pulse. She was dead. Her neck was marked with dark purple bruises and her eyes were bloodshot.
Rivera closed her eyelids with his fingertips and looked up at the group. "When did you find her?"
"About three hours ago," said the man in aviator sunglasses. "Her name is Sunshine. We call her Sunny."
"Three hours ago? What took you so long to call it in?"
"We’re from the MoonShadow commune over there." He pointed to an immense whaleback-shaped protrusion of sandstone a mile away. "There are twelve of us, or, there were twelve of us. Now eleven." His voice cracked as he spoke. "We live very simply. We have no cell phones or internet service, so James had to drive the pickup into Moab to inform the authorities."
Rivera climbed up the bank and brushed the sand off his trousers. He extracted his iPhone and called the sheriff’s dispatcher. He reported the situation and requested the Medical Examiner be sent immediately.
Rivera turned to the spokesman. "Are those your footprints down there?"
"Yes, Sir. I went in there to check on Sunny. A long time ago, I was an Army medic so I knew right away she was dead. I tried not to disturb anything."
"What is your name?"
"I’m Orin, leader of the commune."
Rivera pulled a notepad and ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket. "Last name?"
Orin glanced at his two companions as if soliciting their concurrence. "We’ve all abandoned our family names. We use first names only. If you live in a community of just twelve people, there’s no need for last names."
Rivera looked up from his notepad and studied Orin’s face. He appeared sincere and his response was matter-of-fact so Rivera decided not to press the matter. There would be plenty of time later to get everyone’s full name. He wrote down the man’s given name, then looked back into the depression. "All right Orin, I see your footprints and mine down there but I don’t see any for Sunshine."
"We had real heavy thunderstorms out here last night. Her footprints must have gotten washed away."
And her killer’s, Rivera thought to himself. "What can you tell me about Sunshine?"
"Well, she arrived at MoonShadow last September, just about a year ago. A man in a pickup truck dropped her off with her belongings. She just smiled and said she was a good cook and made jewelry. She was only eighteen, very young compared to the rest of us. I worried that she might not fit in because of the age difference, but we needed another cook to share the chores. We accepted her and assigned her to one of the living quarters. Turned out she fit in real well. Everyone loved her and sort of adopted her like a daughter."
"Do you know where she came from?"
She didn’t say. Our policy is not to pry. If one of our people wants to talk about his or her past, that’s fine. But we don’t pry."
Rivera took a deep breath and let it out. Turned to the other two people. "What are your names?"
The woman spoke first. She had tan, freckled skin and wore a man’s white shirt and faded jeans. Her graying brown hair hung to her waist. Rivera estimated she was in her mid-fifties. "My name is Helen. I’ve lived at the commune for fifteen years. This is so sad." She was trembling and tears ran down her cheeks. "Sunny was such a sweetheart."
Rivera nodded sympathetically. He jotted down her name and turned to the man standing next to her. He appeared to be in his late forties or early fifties. He was tall and thin with angular features, straight black hair, and a full beard. He wore jeans, a T-shirt, and a necklace strung with what appeared to be dried beans. "And you, Sir?"
"I’m Calvin." He avoided eye contact and spoke in a soft, almost inaudible voice with a southern drawl. "Been at MoonShadow now for about twelve years, I’d guess."
Rivera looked at Orin. "What were the three of you doing out here?"
"Well, including James who I sent into town to get help, the four of us were searching for Sunny. She didn’t come home last night."
"I saw her leaving MoonShadow around dusk," said Helen. "She headed west directly toward the oncoming thunderstorm. By the time the rains arrived at MoonShadow, it was dark and she still hadn’t returned. I told Orin I was worried about her but he said there was nothing we could do until dawn."
"It was too dark to go searching last night," said Orin. "And the rain was coming down in sheets. All we could do was hope Sunny found an alcove or an overhang so she could stay dry. At first light this morning, we set out in the same direction Helen saw Sunny heading last night. We spread out in a line, searching and calling her name. After about an hour, Calvin spotted her down there and shouted for us to hurry over."
Was it unusual for her to go out into the desert by herself like that?" asked Rivera.
"Not at all," said Helen. "She did it quite often. She’d go searching for pods or seeds or small colorful stones to use in making her jewelry. She made bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and even decorative jewelry boxes. And she was good at it. She made that necklace Calvin is wearing."
Calvin smiled, exposing a prominent overbite. He held up the necklace for Rivera to see. "Sunny told me they’re mesquite beans."
"Sometimes on weekends, she’d drive the pickup into Moab and sell her wares at the Farmer’s Market in Swanny Park," said Helen. "Her work was excellent so her jewelry was popular with the tourists."
Rivera jotted the information into his notepad. "Okay, thanks. The Medical Examiner is on his way out here now. He’ll take care of Sunshine’s body. I’d like for the three of you to return to the commune and wait for me there. After I get through here, I’ll come over. I’ll want to talk to everyone at the commune. And please don’t let anyone disturb anything in Sunshine’s quarters."
The three residents of the MoonShadow commune left as requested and slowly meandered through the rocks and brush toward home. Orin had his arm around Helen who was sobbing. Calvin trailed along behind them.
In the quiet of the high desert, Rivera could hear Helen’s plaintive voice. "Everybody loved Sunny. Why would anyone do such a thing?"
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