Michael McGarrity

The big gamble

Chapter 1

The cement block walls of the abandoned building kept the fire fairly well contained until the roof ignited. Then wind whipped burning embers into the dry grass along the shoulder of the highway. In the predawn light, Deputy Sheriff Clayton Istee watched the volunteer firefighters chase down and drown rivulets of orange flames that snaked quickly through the grass. A year of drought had made any fire dangerous, and the incessant spring winds that rolled across Carrizozo and the surrounding rangeland could easily transform a cinder into a catastrophe engulfing the whole valley.

Flames licked through the boarded-up side doorway and the long opening at the front of the structure, which had once served as a counter for baskets of apples and jugs of freshly pressed cider. Under a steady stream of water from a pumper truck, the remnants of the roof crashed in, showering brilliant pinpoint sparks into the sky, momentarily illuminating a large, somewhat faded plywood sign nailed to the building that read:


Hewitt was Clayton Istee's new boss. Three months ago, after five years with the Mescalero Tribal Police, Clayton had accepted the sheriff's long-standing job offer. His decision hadn't made his mother or his wife particularly happy, but Clayton was glad to get away from the petty politics and cronyism of the tribal administrators.

Ray Bonnell, the volunteer fire chief, stepped up to Clayton's side. One of Paul Hewitt's best friends, Bonnell could be found just about every weekday morning having an early cup of coffee with the sheriff at the Dugout Bar amp; Grill. In his sixties, with the thick upper body of a man who'd spent a lifetime doing hard physical work, Bonnell was a third-generation native of the valley. He ranched, owned a local propane gas delivery company, and ran the fire department in his spare time.

'Smell that?' Bonnell asked.

Clayton nodded.

'Know what it is?' Bonnell asked.

'Burned flesh,' Clayton answered.

'Yep. You got yourself a crispy critter inside. Let's just hope it isn't somebody we knew, or worse yet, somebody we knew and liked. Best to tell Sheriff Hewitt.'

'He's already rolling,' Clayton replied. 'ETA ten minutes.'

Bonnell smiled. 'Paul said you were a good one. Guess I don't need to tell you how to do your job.'

'I'll take all the help I can get, Chief,' Clayton said.

'Then help yourself to the spare pair of Wellington boots in the back of my truck,' Bonnell said with a laugh as he moved away. 'You're gonna need them. After we soak down the inside of that fruit stand it's gonna be a soggy, god-awful mess.'

All the burned grass along the roadside had been covered with dirt and doused. Firefighters walked in circles around the charred patches of earth checking for hot spots, hosing down anything that looked like it could combust or flare up again. At the burned-out building two men on ladders directed high-pressure jets of water into the guts of the structure.

Soon murky black water started oozing out the door frame. Clayton went to Bonnell's truck, got the rubber boots, and put them on, figuring whatever crime scene evidence there was inside the building had to be pretty well trashed. Nothing could be done about it. Putting the fire completely out was the first priority, especially since the warmth of the early morning sun topping the mountains had stirred up strong gusts coursing out of the canyons.

The men on the ladders shut down their hoses. At the front of the burned-out door Bonnell motioned for Clayton to join him. He plodded toward Bonnell in the squeaky rubber boots.

'This place hasn't been used for years,' Bonnell said, shining his light inside. Most of a plank floor at the back of the structure had been burned away, revealing a partial basement.

Bonnell froze the beam of his flashlight on what appeared to be a pile of burned rags under a window. 'There's your crispy critter,' he said.

Clayton nodded. He could see a seared, blackened forearm and hand protruding from the rag pile. 'What's with the basement?' he asked.

'It was probably a cold-storage cellar for produce,' Bonnell replied as he swept his light back and forth. 'We're looking for fire behavior here, Deputy. So far I don't see anything abnormal. The flames burned up and out, just like they were supposed to.'

'Are you calling it accidental?'

'Not yet, but I don't see a burn pattern that suggests an accelerant was used.'

Clayton gazed at the deep pool of black water that was quickly draining into the cellar. 'What a mess.'

Bonnell snorted and slapped Clayton on the shoulder. 'Come on, Deputy, let's get in there, get muddy, and find out what we've got.'

'First, I'd better call for the medical examiner,' Clayton said.

Bonnell pointed at a firefighter coiling hose at the back of the pumper truck. 'We've got one right here,' he said. 'Shorty Dawson will be more than willing to declare the victim dead.'

Clayton thought about the mess inside. Mud, debris, and charred pieces of the roof filled the enclosure, a lot of it covering the body. Conditions would make extracting the victim and searching for evidence time-consuming and tedious. Allowing too many people inside would only make it worse.

'Have Dawson make a visual inspection from the doorway,' Clayton said. 'I want to limit entry to just you and me until the crime scene techs arrive.'

'I'm sure Shorty will oblige,' Ray Bonnell said. The sound of a siren made him glance down the highway in the direction of Carrizozo. 'Here comes your boss. Shall we wait for him before we get started?'

'Might as well,' Clayton replied. 'When we get inside, I want you to do exactly what I say.'

'Now that the fire is out, it's your show,' Bonnell replied.

Paul Hewitt watched his young deputy work. Major felonies were not commonplace in Lincoln County, New Mexico, and while it was quite likely that the John Doe inside the fruit stand had died by accident, Clayton Istee was treating the investigation as a homicide, which was exactly the right thing to do.

Hewitt had aggressively recruited Clayton because of his college education, five years of patrol experience, and extensive training in major felony investigations. He'd kept a close eye on Clayton since his arrival and was pleased by the young man's work ethic, his professional conduct, and his seasoned patrol skills. Now, for the first time, Hewitt had a chance to observe Clayton conducting a crime scene investigation, and he liked what he saw.

After photographing and videotaping the scene, Clayton had approached the search for evidence as if it were an archeological dig. With Ray Bonnell's help he'd uncovered a partially burned backpack, a few charred remnants of a cheap sleeping bag, two empty pint whiskey bottles, some partially burned pieces of mud-encrusted firewood, singed scraps of a wool blanket, and a disposable cigarette lighter.

The firefighters and their equipment were long gone, the sun was high in the sky, and the day had heated up when the two men took a break.

Ray Bonnell leaned heavily against the front of Paul Hewitt's slick top unit, smearing dirt on the paint. 'Looks like our John Doe burned himself up,' he said to Paul. 'I'd say the point of origin for the blaze was the sleeping bag under the victim, probably started by a spark or a cigarette. My guess is that he built a fire to keep warm, slugged down two pints of whiskey, passed out, and never woke up. He may have died from smoke inhalation. We'll know for sure after the autopsy.'

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