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Serpent Gateby Michael Mcgarrity
Kevin Kerney sat in an unmarked state police car across the street from the Shaffer Hotel in Mountainair, New Mexico, waiting for Robert Cordova to show up. Kerney had tracked Cordova to the state mental hospital in Las Vegas, only to discover that he had run off two days earlier. Cordova was a schizophrenic with a history of disappearing from the state hospital as soon as he was stabilized on medication.
A hospital psychiatrist had told Kerney that Cordova had no permanent residence and usually went back to his hometown of Mountainair after running off. Eventually he'd show up at the health clinic in town, looking for cigarette or coffee money, or he'd be found wandering the streets in a full-blown psychotic episode.
Kerney had already checked for Cordova at the clinic. The secretary hadn't seen Robert, nor had the other locals Kerney spoke with, but everybody he questioned noted Cordova liked to hang out in front of the Shaffer Hotel.
Twenty minutes into Kerney's wait, the information proved to be right on the money. A scruffy-looking man with an untamed beard and tangled dark hair came scurrying down the street around the corner from the state highway that ran next to the hotel. Filthy high-top sneakers with no laces slapped against his bare ankles as he hurried to a low fence in front of a small park and gazebo adjacent to the hotel. He stopped dead in his tracks and wheeled to face the fence.
Before the man turned, Kerney got a good look, consulted a mug shot, and made a positive ID. A runt of a man in his mid-thirties, no more than five foot four without an ounce of fat, Cordova wore tattered jeans that hung low on his hips and a soiled plaid shirt, too large for his skinny frame, that ballooned around his waist. It was a chilly early November day and Cordova wasn't wearing a coat.
Cordova interlaced his fingers at the back of his head, stuck both thumbs in his ears, did an abrupt about-face, and started marching from one end of the fence to the other in a rigid measured cadence, as though he were a sentry on patrol.
The fence bordering the park was a stunning piece of folk art. The railings, posts, and two gates were fashioned out of hand-formed concrete imbedded with an amazing array of icons depicting two-headed animals, fanciful birds, stylized fish, and human figures, all made with odd-shaped colorful stones. Smack in the center of the fence, a long serpent with an arrowhead tail writhed and coiled, its head sporting a sharklike fin, the base of its neck sprouting incongruous insect legs.
On the railing above the serpent, the artist had signed and dated his work, using pebbles and hand-cut fragments of shale to spell out BUILT BY POP SHAFFER 1931. Shaffer had also built the hotel he'd named after himself.
Kerney stayed in his unit with the motor off and the window open watching Cordova parade up and down, his thumbs jammed in his ears, shaking his head vigorously.
Cordova's bizarre behavior made Kerney hold back from making an approach. He didn't know much about Cordova's mental condition other than that the man heard voices and talked to Jesus Christ a lot. Kerney didn't want to fight his way through Cordova's delusions; he needed Cordova to be rational when he questioned him.
Six months ago, Cordova had been interviewed about the murder of Patrolman Paul Gillespie. He'd been completely incoherent at the time, in the middle of a psychotic break. After the interview, Cordova disappeared and could not be found again for further questioning. Kerney hoped he could learn something from Cordova that might help him get a handle on the case. He was running out of leads on an investigation going nowhere.
The murder had stymied the state police and the FBI. Officer Gillespie had been found shot once in the head with his own handgun at the Mountainair police station on the opening night of the annual town rodeo. Virtually every resident of Mountainair and the surrounding area had attended the event, including Gillespie, who was on duty at the time. He was seen leaving the rodeo grounds during the calf-roping finals. An hour later his body was discovered by Neil Ordway, chief of the two-man force.
A month after Kerney's friend Andy Baca had been appointed chief of the New Mexico State Police, he had reached out for Kerney, given him a badge, and sent him down to Mountainair to find Gillespie's killer. For almost four weeks Kerney had been making the eighty-mile drive from Santa Fe to Mountainair, spending his days running down every possible lead. So far, he had nothing to show for the effort.
Cordova suddenly stopped marching, pulled his thumbs out of his ears, and ran a hand over the serpent icon in the fence. To Kerney it seemed almost like a caress. Cordova turned, looked in Kerney's direction, raised his face toward the weak November sun, and smiled. His body relaxed and his face lost some of its tightness.
Kerney thought maybe the time was right to approach Cordova. He got out of the car, and as he crossed the street Cordova extended his hand like a pistol, sighted with one eye, and pulled off an imaginary round.
"Are you a cop?" Cordova called out as he walked toward Kerney in a tough-guy strut.
Kerney stopped and nodded.
Cordova smiled broadly. His teeth were chipped and badly stained. His beard had dried gobs in it, but Kerney couldn't even guess what the substance might be.
Cordova put his wrists together at his waist. "Cuff me and take me to jail. I'm hungry."
Cordova gave off a ripe odor of vomit and urine, and his breath reeked of stale cigarette smoke. Kerney forced down a gag reflex. At six feet one inch, he loomed over the man. He stepped back in an attempt to get away from Cordova's rankness.
"How about I buy you a pack of smokes and a meal?" he countered, nodding in the direction of the hotel.
"I said I want to go to jail," Cordova said crankily, craning his neck to look at Kerney. "I'm a fucking mental patient. You're supposed to take me to jail."
"Maybe later, if you cooperate."
Cordova stared in disgust at Kerney.
Behind the dirt, the beard, the unruly hair, and the chipped stained teeth, Cordova's eyes looked clear.
"How come you limp?" Cordova asked.
"I got shot," Kerney answered, thinking back to the incident that had ended his career as chief of detectives with the Santa Fe PD. An old friend and fellow officer had failed to back him up on a stakeout. The end result was one dead drug dealer, permanent damage to Kerney's right knee, and a partially destroyed gut.
"Were you a cop when it happened?"
"Yeah, I was."
Cordova threw a couple of jabs in the air at an imaginary opponent. "I'd never let that happen to me. I'd fuck somebody up if they tried that shit."
"I bet you would," Kerney replied. "Do you want that meal and pack of smokes?" He inclined his head toward the hotel.
"What do you want?" Cordova asked.
"Just to talk."
"They won't let me in there."
"They will if you're with me."
Cordova grunted and looked Kerney up and down. Kerney's jacket was open, and Robert didn't see a gun. "What kind of cop are you, anyway? You're not even wearing a pistola."
"Do you think I need it?"
"Of course you do."
Kerney nodded, stepped to the car, unlocked it, got his holstered sidearm, and strapped it on his belt. "Better?"
"Yeah. Now maybe they'll let me in the restaurant. Can I order anything I want?"
"Anything. I'm buying."
Robert held up two fingers, both stained nicotine yellow. "Two packs of smokes."
"Name your brand," Kerney replied as he walked Robert to the hotel entrance.
It was mid-morning and the hotel dining room was empty except for a young, round waitress who sat reading the newspaper at the lunch counter along the back wall. Kerney got Cordova settled at a table by the window that gave a view across the street of an empty single-story building and vacant lot.
"What about my cigarettes?" he asked, as he grabbed a menu, crossed his legs, and started wiggling his foot. The loose, filthy sneaker slapped against his heel with a dull smacking sound.
"After we eat," Kerney replied.
Robert grunted in dissatisfaction.
Kerney waited for the waitress to notice them. The ceiling was another folk art masterpiece by Pop Shaffer. Dark wooden beams and handmade chandeliers were painted with an intricate tapestry of Native American symbols and mythical figures, some of which looked like they came strictly from Pop Shaffer's imagination. Kerney's gaze jumped from image to image; it was almost too much to take in at one sitting.
Tired of waiting, Kerney cleared his throat. The waitress turned, glanced at Robert, nodded to Kerney, slipped off the lunch counter seat, and walked through the swinging doors into the kitchen.
"She's calling the cops," Robert predicted.
"Why would she do that?"
"Because the last time I was in here, I threw an ashtray at her."
"Did you hit her?"
"Nope, she ducked. Aren't you going to ask me why I did it?" His foot wiggle accelerated a bit.
"Do you want to tell me?"
Cordova smiled wickedly. "Nope."
The waitress reappeared and walked to the table. She stood as far away from Cordova as she could, using Kerney as a shield.
"I can't serve you," she said to Kerney.
"Yes, you can." He held out his open badge case. "This is police business."
"I know who you are," the woman said, looking over the top of her eyeglasses. Her watery brown eyes blinked rapidly. She had stringy brown hair pinned back in a bun, most of which had unraveled against her neck. Her testy expression made her double chin more noticeable.
"I still can't serve you."
Kerney smiled pleasantly. "Tell your boss if we don't get served, I'll have every state health-and-safety inspector I can think of down here tomorrow morning, crawling all over the place looking for violations."
Cordova grinned in delight as the woman turned and walked stiffly back to the kitchen.
"That was bad," he said to Kerney. "You put her down, man. I never had a cop do anything like that for me before. They usually treat me like shit."
"No sweat, Robert. What do you want to eat?"
The waitress returned and grudgingly took Robert's order of two cheeseburgers, a double order of french fries, and coffee.
Robert didn't talk while he waited for his meal to arrive. His gaze stayed locked on the pass-through window from the kitchen. He licked his lips and tapped a finger anxiously on the table. Kerney wondered when Robert had last eaten.
When the food came, Robert wolfed down the meal, hamburger juice dribbling into his beard. His foot didn't wiggle when he ate.
Finished, Robert picked at his broken teeth with a long fingernail, belched, and smiled. "Thanks," he said.
Robert rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. "Now I need a smoke."
"In a minute. I need to ask you a few questions."
"How well did you know Paul Gillespie?"
"He was a motherfucker. I'm glad he's dead."
"Why do you say that?"
Robert's brown eyes turned angry. "I went to high school with him. He was always hassling me. Pushing me around, picking fights, teasing me — stuff like that. It got worse when he became a cop."
"How did it get worse?"
Robert started to respond, glanced out the window, and clamped his mouth shut. Neil Ordway was walking toward the hotel entrance.
"How did Gillespie mistreat you?"
"He didn't do nothing," Cordova said, sneering in the direction of Ordway as the cop entered the dining room.
A middle-aged man with a square face, thinning blond hair, and a pinched nose, Ordway stood over the table and looked at Kerney and Robert. He grinned without showing his teeth. It made his cheeks puff out.
"What can I do for you, Chief?" Kerney asked.
"I came for Cordova. Seems he's run away from the Las Vegas funny farm again."
"Fuck you," Robert said, his eyes hooded. "I'm not going back there. I'm never going back there."
"Don't make this hard on yourself, Cordova," Ordway said, wrinkling his nose. "Jesus, you smell like shit."
"I'll take care of the situation with Cordova," Kerney interjected before Robert could reply.
Ordway pulled out a chair and sat. "Are you going to drive him back to Las Vegas?"
"I said I'll take care of it," Kerney repeated, holding Ordway's gaze. Ordway didn't flinch.
Robert leaned across the table, cleared his throat, and spat in Ordway's face.
Ordway blinked, rubbed a sleeve across his face, and grabbed a fistful of Robert's shirt. "You're going to jail for that, shithead."
Robert grinned and nodded in agreement.
Kerney clamped down on Ordway's arm. "Let him go," he ordered.
Ordway locked his gaze on Kerney. "Whatever you say," he said with a grin, releasing Cordova.
Free of Ordway's grip, Robert tipped over his chair and scampered out the door.
Ordway laughed as Robert disappeared from sight. "Well, it seems like he's run away. Isn't that a damn shame."
"Maybe you can tell me where to look," Kerney said calmly.
"Your guess is as good as mine. But if you think Cordova can help you, you're way off base."
"I'd still like to talk to him."
"He'll turn up again. He always does."
Kerney changed his tack. "I know you gave Gillespie excellent performance reviews, but did you ever have to discipline him for failure to perform his duties?"
"He was never late for work? He never had to be corrected about policies and procedures?"
"Sure, occasionally. It wasn't a big enough deal to require any official action."
"There was no evidence of conduct unbecoming an officer? No citizen complaints lodged against him?"
"Did Gillespie show signs of having a drinking problem? Was he closemouthed about what he did on his free time? Did he have a pattern of calling in sick after his days off?"
"I never saw him under the influence, either on duty or off."
"Did he have money problems?"
"You've seen his financial records. He lived within his means." Ordway shook his head and stood up. "You know what? I think this case has got you stumped, and you're looking for a way to save face. Questioning Paul's character isn't going to get you spit or make you any friends in this town."
Kerney got to his feet. "It sounds like Gillespie was a perfect cop."
"He did his job."
"I've heard that the town council isn't very happy with your performance."
"The hometown hero, who took their high school football team to the state finals way back when, was murdered. They think I should have made an arrest the day he got shot. They don't give a tinker's damn about the lack of a suspect."
"That puts you under a lot of pressure, I bet."
"Not anymore. I've resigned. I'm out of here at the end of the week." He turned on his heel to leave.
"Chief Ordway," Kerney called out.
Ordway stopped at the door and looked back at Kerney. "What?"
The waitress stood anchored behind the counter at the far end of the dining room, tilted slightly forward, intent on every word.
"If you find Robert Cordova, don't mess with him. Tell me where he is and I'll pick him up."
"Sure thing, hotshot."
Kerney watched him leave, thinking Ordway had been a cop long enough to know that without a suspect, the victim became the prime focus of attention. But politics in small towns were played based on blood ties, and Ordway was the outsider, imported because Gillespie hadn't met the state training and experience qualifications for the chief's position. What if Gillespie had been a bad apple and Ordway had turned a blind eye to it, not wanting to fire the hometown ex-hero of the high school gridiron? It would be really stupid to admit that he let an unethical or crooked officer remain on the job in order to keep the town council placated. Such an admission would end Ordway's career in law enforcement.
From what Kerney had seen of Ordway during the past four weeks, he would be no great loss to the profession.
He dropped some bills on the table to cover Robert's meal and the tip, and smiled at the waitress. She lowered her gaze and got busy wiping down the immaculate countertop.
A railroad town established in the early part of the century, Mountainair sat among the foothills to the Manzano Mountains. A state highway dissected Main Street, curved in front of the local elementary school, and continued past a gas station, motel, and some abandoned commercial buildings before making a straight run west toward the mountains. Main Street, a two-block-long strip with some retail stores, a post office, and a National Park Service building, boasted no trees, no traffic lights, and no pedestrians. Some of the buildings were vacant, and barren display shelves behind plate-glass windows created a rhythm of continual decline.
Kerney drove the strip several times looking for Robert, who was nowhere to be found. He stopped next to the post office and spotted Neil Ordway's police car parked in front of the town hall and police station.
The police station, which housed the police dispatch office and the magistrate court, had a concrete front with a thunderbird design perched above an ornamental pillar that separated two entry doors. Ordway's office took up the second floor of the adjacent town hall.
Kerney wondered if Ordway had snagged Robert in spite of his warning to leave the man alone. He switched his police radio to Ordway's frequency. If Robert was in custody, Kerney would know it when Ordway left to take him back to Las Vegas. He would keep looking until then.
Mountainair had no distinct neighborhoods to speak of, except for a string of middle-class, ranch-style houses and a few restored Victorian cottages near the high school. Even there, scattered between neat yards and tidy homes, an occasional empty lot with an old foundation or a sagging, weather-beaten house open to the elements broke any impression of a well-defined neighborhood.
Kerney did a slow patrol and checked each empty house before heading across the main drag, where the pavement quickly turned to dirt, and a string of houses, several churches, some shacks, sheds, and uninhabited cabins sputtered to a stop at a fence to an unused pasture.
Kerney kept looking, found nothing, returned to the main drag, and stopped at the grocery store to buy two packs of cigarettes. Ordway's cruiser was still parked outside city hall when he came out. He headed east on the state highway in the hope that Robert might be hitchhiking out of town. He drove to the Estancia cutoff before giving up and turning around to scout the road west of town. He shut down the hunt near the Abo Ruins National Monument and made his way back to the village.
He topped out at the hill on the outskirts of Mountainair just as a small herd of pinto horses swooped up a shallow arroyo and trotted along the highway fence. It was a pretty sight, and Kerney slowed to watch until the horses disappeared into a draw.
Mountainair had faded with the demise of dry land farming and the decline of railroad traffic. But its beautiful setting pulled tourists in and kept the place alive. It was a gateway to the wilderness that spread over the southern end of the Manzano Mountains, which were brushed at the summits with the first dusting of snow.
To the south a heavily forested mesa sheared off half of the horizon, and thick, slow-moving clouds in the blue-gray November sky rolled toward the village. Kerney had been taught by his ranching father to read the weather, and the day promised moisture sometime soon.
Mountainair was not completely unfamiliar to Kerney. After finishing a brief stint as the interim sheriff of Catron County in the southwest part of the state, Kerney had looked at a section of land for sale in the high country outside Mountainair. It was summer grazing pasture infested with cocklebur, hound's-tongue, and prickly pear cactus — sure signs of overgrazing. It would take years to bring it back, and Kerney needed land that he could put to use immediately to produce income and make the mortgage payments, if he was ever going to get back into ranching.
With only enough money for a modest down payment, everything else he'd looked at was either way out of his price range or too small in size for raising cattle.
Kerney's parents had lost their ranch in the Tularosa Basin when White Sands Missile Range, a top-secret testing facility in the heart of south-central New Mexico, had expanded. The day they moved, military policemen and federal agents escorted the family off the spread to the Rocking J Ranch, where Kerney's father had taken a job as foreman.
That was the day Kerney's dream of owning a ranch was born. He had kept his hopes alive for almost forty years. While living on the Rocking J, during his college years, in Vietnam as a platoon leader near the end of the war, and throughout his career in law enforcement, Kerney had never let go of the dream.
He wondered if he would ever be able to achieve it. It didn't look promising.
He pulled up in front of Pop Shaffer's hotel to find Ordway using a side-handle baton in a wrist lock on Robert to force him toward the squad car. The waitress watched the action through the plate-glass window of the dining room.
"Let him go," Kerney ordered, slamming his car door to get Ordway's attention.
"Butt out, Kerney," Ordway said. "This is my business."
Kerney quickly closed the distance to Ordway.
"Move, Cordova," Ordway commanded. He applied more force to the hold. Robert gasped in pain and lurched toward the police car.
"I said, let him go," Kerney repeated, grabbing Ordway's shoulder.
"Sure thing, hotshot," Ordway said as he pulled free, released Robert, and swung at Kerney with the baton.
Kerney kicked Ordway in the nuts. He dropped the baton, fell to his knees, and grabbed his groin.
After disarming Ordway, Kerney looked for Robert, who stood next to him, bouncing on his toes in delight.
"Kick him again," Robert said, as he threw uppercuts into the air.
"Wait for me by the fence."
"Fuck you," Robert replied, still punching the air. "You lied to me."
"You promised me some smokes, man."
"They're in my car, on the passenger seat. Go get them. Then wait by the fence."
"Okay" Robert grumbled, moving away.
Kerney moved behind Ordway, stood him up, put the baton against his throat, and applied some pressure. "You're not a man who takes advice easily," he said.
"Fuck you," Ordway gurgled.
"I could file charges against you," Kerney said. "Unlawful arrest. Use of excessive force. Do you want that kind of grief?"
Ordway thought about it and shook his head.
"I didn't think so." Kerney released the pressure, pushed Ordway out of kicking distance, and circled around to look the man in the eyes. "Take my advice, Ordway. Find a civilian job. I don't think you're cut out to be a cop."
Ordway's expression turned ugly when Kerney locked his handgun, baton, and car keys inside the police cruiser.
"That should slow you down," Kerney said to Ordway. "Get in my car, Robert."
"I thought you wanted to go to jail."
Robert beamed. "Can I smoke in your car?"
"No, but I'll stop along the way so you can have a cigarette or two."
"Humor me," Kerney replied.
Kerney let Robert sit up front wearing no cuffs. He fought off Cordova's bad smell by running the air conditioner with the window cracked, even though the cloudy late afternoon had dropped the temperature into the low forties.
"You're supposed to cuff me and lock me in the back. I'm an escaped mental patient."
"You don't like sitting up front?" Kerney asked.
"Yeah, I do. I need a cigarette."
They had just passed the Mountainair town limit sign. Kerney pulled off the road next to a cottonwood tree and got out with Robert, who quickly lit up. The cloud cover broke, and for a moment the high mesa south of the village shimmered in pale yellow sunlight.
"You were in town the night Paul Gillespie was killed," Kerney said.
Robert exhaled. "Who?"
"Paul Gillespie, the police officer."
Robert tugged at his beard. "I don't know him."
"You went to high school with him."
Robert shrugged indifferently and looked away. "I don't remember."
"Did you see Gillespie get killed?"
"I've never seen anybody get killed. But I'd like to. That would be neat."
"Do you know who killed him?"
The wind picked up and Robert started to shiver. "I'm cold," he whined, grinding out his cigarette with his sneaker. "Am I going to jail or not?"
"You're going. Get in," Kerney answered, gesturing at the car.
Kerney drove for a time without talking, keeping one eye on Robert, whose foot beat a steady tattoo on the floorboard. Kerney wondered if the habit signaled anxiety. He decided to test the theory.
"Did you see Gillespie the night he was killed?"
Robert's foot started bouncing off the floorboard. "I saw Satan."
"What was Satan doing?"
Robert's foot jiggled wildly. "Raping my daughter."
"Where did it happen?"
Kerney remembered the peculiar stone snake on Pop Shaffer's fence. "Do you mean by the fence next to the hotel?"
"Yeah." Robert changed his mind. "No, not there."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Okay," Kerney said gently. "Tell me about your daughter." As far as he knew, Robert was childless.
"She's in heaven with Jesus," Robert replied flatly, as he gripped the back of his skull with his fingers and stuck his thumbs in his ears.
"Is that where Satan rapes her?" Kerney asked loudly, trying to get through to Robert.
Robert grunted and shut his eyes. The conversation was over.
When Kerney pulled into the sally port at the Torrance County jail, Cordova removed his thumbs from his ears, popped out of the car, and waited at the door to the booking alcove while Kerney locked his handgun in a weapon box.
"Hurry up," Robert barked, snapping his fingers.
Kerney pressed the button to the booking alcove, and the electronic door latch snapped open. Inside, Robert immediately relaxed. He smiled at the female guard behind the glassed-in booking counter and began emptying his pockets.
The guard, a sturdy-looking woman with broad shoulders and a close-cropped haircut, welcomed Robert back with a greeting and a grin.
"What's the charge?" the guard asked, eyeing Kerney skeptically.
"Protective custody," Kerney answered. "Twenty-four-hour hold."
She nodded knowingly and pushed a form through the slot at the bottom of the glass. "Fill this out. Has he had anything to eat?"
"Lunch," Kerney replied, as he completed the paperwork. "But he's probably hungry again."
"Did you search him?"
"Pat down only."
The woman nodded.
Robert tapped Kerney on the shoulder. "I left my cigarettes in your car."
"I'll get them for you." Kerney took a ten-dollar bill from his wallet and pushed it through the slot along with the booking form. "Put the ten bucks in his canteen account. He may need a few things while he's here."
The woman smiled at him as he left to get Robert's smokes. When he returned, Robert was inside the secure area sitting calmly in a chair. Kerney passed the cigarettes through to the guard.
"Are you taking him back to Las Vegas?" she asked.
"He doesn't seem to want to go."
"Then why are you holding him?"
"He may be a witness to a crime. I'm hoping he'll talk to me. So far, I haven't gotten very much out of him."
The woman nodded. "Give him the night to settle in. Robert does real well here. He likes the structure. We'll clean him up, give him a meal or two, and he'll be a new man by morning."
"I hope you're right," Kerney said.
"He just told me you were his friend," the guard said. "I've never heard him say that about a police officer before. You might get lucky."
"I could use some luck."
Robert waved gaily at Kerney as the guard buzzed him out the door to the sally port.
Sixty miles east of Mountainair, Kerney waited in the gathering night outside the old Vaughn train station for the arrival of a westbound freight out of Amarillo. On it, he hoped, was Floyd Wilson, a crew chief for the Southern Pacific, who had left Mountainair the morning after the Gillespie shooting. Wilson had been transferred off a track-replacement job west of Mountainair and reassigned to a spur-line construction project in Texas.
As far as Kerney knew, Wilson had never been interviewed during the initial investigation.
Parked next to the dark station house, Kerney sat in the car with the engine running, the heater on, and the window rolled down. Robert's odor still permeated the vehicle.
At the end of a siding, barely visible in the gloom, a warning sign where the tracks ended read DERAIL. It neatly summarized Kerney's sense of futility about the case.
An occasional car rolled down the highway that paralleled the train tracks, rubber singing on the pavement. But the dominant sound came from the wind that cut across the Staked Plains, a vast, high desert plateau that encompassed thousands of square miles of eastern New Mexico.
The wind drove a light rain against Kerney's cheek, and he turned on the car wipers so he could see down the line. The flash of light from the lead locomotive showed long before the sound of the engine reached Kerney's ears. If the train blew through town without stopping, it meant Kerney would have to make the long drive to Amarillo sometime soon. On the phone, Wilson had told him he knew nothing about the case, and didn't want to lose time away from his job. Kerney had called Wilson's boss, who agreed to let Wilson make the trip to meet with Kerney on company time. He hoped Wilson was on the train.
The train stopped and a man of average height, carrying an overnight bag, climbed out of the locomotive and walked wearily toward the car. Kerney got out to greet him.
Floyd Wilson offered Kerney his hand with little enthusiasm. A man pushing sixty, Wilson had a full head of gray hair, a deeply lined face, thick, droopy eyebrows, and a condition on his neck that bleached out the pigment of his skin.
"I don't see how I can help you, Mr. Kerney."
"I'm glad you're willing to try, Mr. Wilson. Thanks for coming."
"No sweat," Floyd said.
"Let me buy you dinner."
"In this town that means the cholesterol plate."
At the only open diner in town, a cheerless establishment with Formica tables, tattered chairs, a cracked linoleum floor, and faded posters tacked on the walls, Kerney and Floyd Wilson sat by a window streaked with smoke and grease. Outside, the wind had diminished and fat snowflakes drifted against the glass, melting instantly.
"I was at the Shaffer Hotel the night that policeman got shot," Floyd said. "Me and my crew were in the game room on the second floor, drinking beer and playing pool."
"You didn't go out?" Kerney asked.
"Nope. I had a late dinner in the dining room and turned in early. I didn't even hear about the shooting until the next day, just before I left."
"Did you know Gillespie, or have any dealings with him?"
Floyd scratched his head. "Not really. I knew who he was, but that was about it. I didn't spend much time in town. Replacing track and ties on a main line is a sunup-to-sundown job."
"Did you ever see him act inappropriately?"
"You mean tough-guy stuff?"
"Not personally, but some of my crew said he acted like a badass when we first got to town. He settled down after we'd been there for a while."
"Did any of your crew spend time with Gillespie? Socialize with him?"
"I don't think so."
"Do you know Robert Cordova?"
"The name doesn't ring a bell."
"He's a skinny guy, about five-four. He likes to hang out by the fence next to the hotel."
Floyd nodded. "You mean the crazy guy? The one that walks around with his fingers in his ears talking to himself?"
"Sure, I know him. Hell, I think everybody in Mountainair knows who he is. He really gets around."
"Gets around?" Kerney repeated.
"Sometimes I'd see him when I was on the job. He liked to walk along the railroad right-of-way. I kept telling him he was trespassing, but it never seemed to sink in."
"Did you see him anywhere else?"
"Once I saw him walking up a ridge about a half mile from the tracks, west of town."
"You're sure it was Cordova?"
"Yeah. After a while, he came back and caught a ride into town, with one of my people."
"When did you see him there?" Kerney asked.
"A couple of days before that policeman was killed. Do you think Cordova killed the cop?"
"I don't know what to think about Robert. Did you see him on the day of the murder?"
"Yeah, as a matter of fact I did. I was coming down the main drag after work and I saw him talking to some woman in front of the grocery store."
"Did you recognize her?"
"No. She was in a pickup truck. Cordova was standing by the driver's door, so I didn't get a good look at her."
"Did you notice anything else?"
"I think the woman was a veterinarian, or she works for one. She was pulling a horse trailer, and it had the name of a veterinary service painted on the side panel."
"Do you remember the name?"
"No. It said something about specializing in large animals. That's all I recall."
The waitress brought dinner, and Kerney picked at an overcooked ham steak and some soggy vegetables. With part of his stomach shot away, Kerney found eating in greasy spoons to be a real chore; the food usually didn't sit well. He gave up on trying to force down the meal and made small talk until Wilson was ready to check in at the motel.
He paid for dinner, took Floyd to the motel, paid for the room, thanked Wilson for his time, and started the drive back to Mountainair. It was well into the night, and the brewing snowstorm looked like it could turn nasty, but he wanted to talk to one more person before heading back home to Santa Fe.
Marcia Yearwood, the physician's assistant who ran the rural health clinic in Mountainair, promptly answered Kerney's knock at her front door.
"Yes, what is it?"
She was a pleasant-looking woman in her thirties, with big, perfectly round brown eyes accentuated by eyeglasses, and a wide mouth that hinted at an easy smile. She wore sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and slippers.
Kerney showed her his badge. "May I have a few minutes of your time?"
"It's not a medical emergency, I take it?"
"Not at all."
Yearwood's home, a single-story stone structure near the high school, sat well back on a heavily treed lot. The front room contained a couch with two matching chairs and a coffee table, grouped in front of a fireplace. There were some tasteful fine art posters on the walls, including a Georgia O'Keeffe print and several Gustave Baumann reproductions. Books and magazines were scattered about within easy reach, and on the floor next to the couch was a canvas bag filled with embroidery yarn. The fireplace had a crackling cedar fire going that warmed the room nicely. From the feel of the place, Kerney guessed Yearwood was unattached.
"What can I do for you, Officer?" Marcia asked, as she gestured for Kerney to join her on the couch.
Kerney obliged. "I understand that Robert Cordova gets his medication from you when he's in Mountainair."
Marcia sat at the end of the couch and turned to face Kerney directly. "Yes. I dispense it through an arrangement with the psychiatrist at the state mental hospital. Is Robert in some sort of trouble?"
She brushed a strand of long dark hair away from her face and looked at Kerney more closely. "You're the investigator looking into Paul Gillespie's murder." She stiffened a bit and crossed her legs. "Surely you don't think Robert is a suspect."
"He doesn't strike me as a killer."
Marcia answered with an agreeing smile. "He's not. Robert's normal behavior — if you can call it that — is all bravado and posturing. The onset of his illness came during adolescence. Besides being schizophrenic, he's fixated at a juvenile stage of development."
"You seem to know him well."
"Well enough. But that doesn't mean I can tell you more about him. His medical records are confidential. I've been told that he's eloped from Las Vegas."
Marcia laughed quickly. "It's a polite way of saying he escaped. After all, we don't want people to think mental hospitals are prisons."
"Not all. Have you seen him?"
"I have him in protective custody at the Torrance County jail."
Marcia sighed. "That's a relief. Each time he disappears I'm sure he's going to be found beaten to a pulp and left to die along some roadside."
"He doesn't want to go back to Las Vegas. I thought you could help."
She nodded her head in agreement. "He never wants to go back, but once he gets there and settles in to a routine, it's beneficial. Of course I'll help. I can see him in the morning. I'd like to be there when you see him."
Marcia's voice became guarded. "I don't intend to help you conduct an interrogation."
"I don't plan to interrogate him, Ms. Yearwood. There's a remote chance Robert may have seen something, or may know something about what happened the night Gillespie was shot. I need him to talk about it."
"That may not be easy."
Marcia tapped her finger against her lip. "Normally, I'd say no, but I think this time it will be okay. However, be warned: if you try to intimidate him, I'll stop you dead in your tracks."
"He doesn't like cops, you know."
Kerney smiled. "That's what I've heard. Is there some reason for it?"
"I don't know," Marcia replied with a slight shrug.
"He said he went to high school with Paul Gillespie."
"I believe he did."
"How would you characterize Gillespie?"
"He was a bit of a bully who had an eye for the girls."
Kerney had heard the same comment from several other sources, but had been unable to locate anyone who could provide specifics.
"Did he come on to you?"
"He wouldn't dare. Besides, I wasn't his type. He liked younger women."
"Anyone in particular?"
"I haven't the foggiest idea. But I'd see him chatting with teenage girls a lot after school got out."
"What makes that stand out in your mind?"
"He was always talking to the girls," Marcia answered. "The teenage boys he seemed to ignore, unless they were speeding or drinking beer at the town park after dark."
"Do you know if he was sexually or romantically involved with any of the girls?"
"No, I don't."
Marcia waved off the question. "There are rumors floating around about everybody who lives in this town. I pay no attention to them."
Kerney tried again: "Any rumors specifically about Gillespie?"
"Rumors, no. I've made it very clear to people that I'm not part of the local gossip mill. But several years ago, one of the high school girls who came to the clinic told me she thought Gillespie was creepy."
"Creepy in what way?"
"She baby-sat for the same family on a regular basis several times a month. Gillespie would always drive by the house three or four times a night whenever she was there. But only if her boyfriend wasn't with her."
"That's creepy enough," Kerney said. "I'd like to talk to her."
"I had a fairly close relationship with the girl, and I'm sure she would have told me if anything more had happened."
"How can I reach her?"
"Not easily. She's a medical technician serving in the navy on a hospital ship."
Kerney got the girl's name for the record. He could track her down through her parents or naval authorities, if necessary. "What can you tell me about Robert's family history?"
"He was born and raised in Mountainair. The family was very dysfunctional. Robert started getting in trouble with the police when he was fairly young. He spent some time in a foster home."
"Was he sent away?"
"No. He was placed with a family here in town."
"Who were the foster parents?"
"An older couple. I never met them. I believe they're both deceased."
"Does Robert have any siblings?"
"An older sister, but she moved to Texas years ago after her parents divorced and left the state. Robert says he has no contact with her."
"Does he stay in touch with his biological parents?"
"Not as far as I know."
"Does he have any children?"
Marcia made a face and shook her head. "No. You're asking about Satan raping his daughter, aren't you? That has been Robert's predominant delusion since the onset of his illness."
"I wonder what it means."
"I have no idea." Marcia rose from the couch, signaling that the discussion had ended.
Kerney stood up with her. "Do you know any of the local veterinarians?"
"I don't think there is one. Maybe in Estancia, but not here."
"Do you know a female veterinarian, or a woman who works for a vet?"
Marcia shook her head. "Sorry, I don't. But I'm sure one of the ranchers can tell you."
After making arrangements to meet Marcia Yearwood at the jail at mid-morning, Kerney started the long drive back to Santa Fe in a snowstorm that kept pushing drifts across the highway. He wondered if he was simply spinning his wheels. He decided to give it one more day before telling Andy Baca the investigation wasn't getting anywhere. He hated the idea that the case might go unsolved.
Copyright © 1998 by Michael McGarrity
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