Murder in the Desert
By Elizabeth Cutright
(Excerpted from “East Junction” – a novel in progress)
Sheriff?” Bernice Pale’s voice crackled over the car radio, the static initially masking the tone of her voice. At first, Sheriff Lance Waddell thought she was just a little early for the hourly radio check in. Sixty years old with a full head of hair and a gut to match, Lance Waddell looked like someone who could find lucrative employment as a department store Santa. He still shaved every day, wore a bleached and pressed undershirt, and never left the house without a handkerchief and his grandfather’s pocket watch. After years of meticulous drilling by his socialite mother and manners conscious wife, Lance still tipped his hat to ladies and held open doors for everyone young and old. He was a gentleman in a policeman’s uniform oxymoron that could only sustain itself in an isolated desert community like Nueva Paza.
Ignoring the radio call, Lance continued to chew the double decker cheeseburger his nephew had courteously dropped off on his way home from a late-night shift at La Mesa Cafe. Whenever he got stuck with a night beat, Lance spent most of his time dreaming about that burger, made special by Stu Nelson, the short order cook at the newly named greasy spoon that locals still stubbornly called Luanne’s. Luanne herself was long gone – off to Phoenix and a house full of grandkids. Her niece took over, revamping the menu and the decor, but old timers like Lance depended on Stu to deliver their favorite meals: like Lance’s double cheeseburger on rye bread with just the right touch of salsa.
Balancing the burger to stave off an oncoming salsa attack on his shirt sleeve, Lance cast his eyes about the blank desert landscape that lay unmoving outside the tinted window of his squad car. Nothing every happens here, he thought to himself. It was an insight he’d grown to loath and depend on over the last ten years.
“Sheriff Waddell?” Bernice’s gravely, smoker’s voice destroyed his reverie. Eighty-five years old and crusty as ever. Lately the talk around town was that her memory was fading fast. People recounted how she stopped them on the street and addressed them by the names of their parents or grandparents. She could still spin a tale about her father working the railroad during the Depression – directing the old Santa Fe line through the Mojave Desert for twelve hours to put food on the table – but ask her about last Christmas, or even last weekend, and she’d begin to answer in vague cliches to hide her disorientation. Some people assumed it was Alzheimer’s, but Lance felt that anyone who’d lived through two world wars and the Great Depression deserved to have selective memory.
Lance often wished his memory would somehow short circuit and erase some of the thirty-five years he’d spent on the San Diego police department, where rape, murder and drug overdoses were the perennial specials of the day. He’d moved as far east as he could manage – across the desert and right up to the Arizona border – to escape all that: To find freedom from the crime of the inner city, and to finally cut all ties with the manipulative, shrewish woman he’d mistakenly decided to marry in the hubris of youth. In Nueva Paz, Lance was a well loved and consistently respected voice of reason, tempered by years of experience. Quickly rising from deputy to detective, he’d developed a reputation for fairness and open-mindedness amongst a majority of the town’s population – a rare thing in a town who’s racial and socio economic divisions were literally aligned along different sides of the railroad tracks that cut a neatly east-west through town. He’d been elected Sheriff 7 years ago, and during that time, crime remained stable and manageable – offenses ranged from stolen lawn ornaments to pot smoking by the abandoned station house to the occasional wayward drunk.
“Sheriff? It’s Bernice down here at the station. Are you there? Do you copy? Over.:” The static couldn’t hide the panic in Bernice’s latest plea. Lance choked down the last bite of his burger and grabbed for the handset, which slipped out of his salsa covered hands several times before he finally got a grip and answered the page.
“Bernice, I’m here. Now what’s got your panties all in a bunch?” Lance smiled to himself in the darkness, anticipating the a chuckle that would never come. Later, while sitting in the witness box, staring at the members of the jury, Lance’s whole body cringed as the transcript of this particular police dispatch was read into the record. The words would hang there, right above the jury box, and he’d wonder how he ever thought a saying like that could be funny.
“Oh shit, Lance. We got us a situation here. It’s pretty bad. They need you to head on over to East Junction as quick as you can.”
“That’s clear to the other side of the county line Bernice. It’s not even my jurisdiction. Tell ‘em to call the state patrol. Those bastards have got nothing better to do.”
Silence enveloped the squad car, a shiny new vehicle bought through a town fund-raiser and probably not officially sanctioned. Out here, in the desert, Lance figured he could take the risk and forgo reporting the donation. The idea of tramping all over the “Staties” territory and invoking their guaranteed curiosity irritated him to no end. In any event, why should he start all the preliminary work on the case when those idiots could come in and fuck the whole damn thing up anyway? It’d happened before, and all Lance got for his effort was a sneer.
A blast of static made him jump.
“It’s on our side of the tracks out there,” Bernice was trying to hide her irritation, he could tell that right away. But the panic still lingered, and that frightened him, “Deputy Curtin thinks it’s best you go out there ASAP. I’ve tried to raise Nathaniel and Boomer a couple o times, but they’re not near the car I guess.”
“Jesus woman! What in the hell justifies rounding up every man on the clock?”
“They found a body out there Lance. Beaten and bloodied. Probably a rape.” There was a pause as Bernice let the news sink in, “It’s Harper’s granddaughter Lance, the one Nathaniel’s been living with.”
He knew all about the cliches: murder in a small town. Nevertheless, he’d always swear that was the moment. The moment Sheriff Lance Waddell knew things would never be the same. Homicide had come in and beaten down the door, and his beloved town with its Fourth of July parades, girl scout bake sales and winning baseball team, would forever be a different place. Less a haven and more a repetition of the world at large. At that moment, he finally acknowledged the rumblings of the past who’s warnings he’d failed, or refused, to recognize. Little things, like graffiti on the playground, a needle at the local park, the ever increasing polarization of the small community he protected.
Lance swung his new car out onto the deserted dirt road and headed towards the east side of town. While expertly dodging the pot holes and ruts that defied even the most sophisticated vehicle suspension system, Lance shook his head and swore. He knew who everyone would blame: the Mexicans. He damned the God that would let this murder happen two feet South, landing it all quite neatly into his jurisdiction. He viciously turned the car onto the main road, flipping on the siren and grabbing the radio.
“Tell them I’m on my way.”