Selected as a Finalist for the 2022 Killer Nashville Claymore Award for Best Mystery!
Somewhere North of the Rio Grande
If an oasis of tranquility is what you are looking for, you’d be wise to avoid the rugged borderlands between Texas and Mexico, especially at night.
Transnational commerce never sleeps along the winding, serpentine swathe of territory separating the two neighboring countries, where certain entrepreneurs prefer the cover of darkness while transporting their products to eagerly awaiting markets.
This night was no exception.
It was pitch black outside, and what little light there was came from the thin sliver of moon overhead. The lack of visibility was both a blessing—they could not easily see her—and a curse, since she could not see them, either. She had long since lost track of time.
Battered and bruised, the desperate young woman clawed her way through the open field, hoping against hope that she could create more separation between herself and the people searching for her. Sharp branches from the dense mesquite brush snagged her clothing and tore at her skin, leaving long, bloody lacerations covering her arms and legs.
She was too numb from exhaustion to feel the pain any longer.
Her fresh, hundred-dollar manicure—she had gotten it the day before in preparation for a college friend’s wedding this weekend—was now a ragged mess of broken, splintered fingernails, the dark red color now a mixture of polish and blood.
Her breathing was ragged, and her heart felt as if it was about to explode.
For the past hour, the woman had been scrambling for her life. She had originally been part of a group of thirty women—all of them young, blonde, and attractive—who were being smuggled southbound from Austin to a consignee in Monterrey, Mexico.
From there, well, who really knew? South America. Asia. Middle East.
Her abductors had stopped periodically along the way to allow the women to rest. She had slipped away from the group to respond to the call of nature, but when she heard them gathering everyone to continue the journey, she decided to hang back out of sight, just to see if she was missed.
She was not, at least not for several minutes.
She immediately realized this might be her only chance to escape from these horrible people—whoever they were—and flee into the night. She had no idea of where she was, or where she was going, only that she needed to get as far away from these monsters as she could.
She tried to be as quiet as humanly possible as she methodically increased the separation from the group, understanding that they would eventually notice she was missing and send someone to find her. Her ever-increasing exhaustion caused her to stop every three or four minutes, where she would remain deathly silent, listening for any sign they were looking for her, while she gathered her strength to carry on.
For the most part, all she could hear was the monotonous droning of cicadas, interrupted only by the occasional howling of coyotes out on their evening hunt for food.
Every so often, she could hear the faint sound of humans in the distance. She could not see them in the darkness of the moonless night, but the sound of their voices traveled well in the cool, crisp night air.
There seemed to be two of them, both speaking in Spanish.
She knew from her recent trek with the caravan of abducted women that they were armed with what appeared to be high-tech crossbows that would allow them to kill without being heard. Judging from the intensity of the sound, she could tell they were closing in on her. One of them was singing—painfully off-key—the popular Mexican folk song, “La Cucaracha.”
Her breathing was ragged and her throat raw from extreme exertion. She found herself stopping ever more frequently to catch her breath. She was barefoot, having lost one of her shoes during her desperate scramble for life through the dense brush. Her calf muscles burned. The throbbing pain from her bloody, battered feet was almost unbearable.
She took three slow, deep breaths, exhaling quietly through her nose, before continuing her flight away from the sound of her pursuers.
A cold burst of wind hit her from the east, reminding her that it was almost Thanksgiving. On the South Texas Plains, that meant cold nights. The wind also carried the pungent odor of a nearby squadron of javelinas —often called stink pigs—that made breathing even more of a struggle.
While Javelinas may look like pigs and smell like skunks, they are neither. In fact, they are part of the same family as the hippopotamus, although not anywhere near as large…about the size of a sixty-pound dog.
Every once in a while, she could hear the sound of the two men in the distance, laughing loudly and appearing to be enjoying themselves. Occasionally, one of them would call out to her, referring to her as señorita.
She had no clue as to where she was. She just knew that if they caught her, she would almost certainly pay a steep price.
* * * * *
Her head bowed, her hands on her knees, she gasped for air, not knowing how much longer she could keep running.
She was exhausted and every muscle in her body was on fire. The good news is that she had not heard their voices for at least five minutes. Nor could she detect any bouncing lights that might be coming from their flashlights.
Maybe I’m safe, she thought to herself.
She stretched out her arms, reigniting the sharp pain from the lacerations inflicted by the scrub brush.
She knew that she still had to keep going, but for the first time in hours, she began to believe she might live to see the sunrise.
That was the instant before a twenty-two-inch carbon crossbow arrow pierced her chest while traveling at four-hundred-forty feet per second.
* * * * *
Valdez County Sheriff's Office
Sheriff Hanna Neumann-Martinez had a noon yoga class three days a week, so she was just arriving back at work when her cellphone rang.
“Hey, Hanna, it’s me, Charlie Barcelona,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “We’ve had a fatal accident out here at the Yeager Ranch. One of our hunting groups found a dead body. It doesn’t appear to be one of our guests, but we’re double-checking now just to make sure.”
Carlos “Charlie” Barcelona was the current chairman of the Valdez County Javelina Harvest, which over the years had transitioned from an annual get together for the local bubbas into an international charitable event that last year raised more than fifteen million dollars to help combat teen drug abuse in rural Texas.
This year’s Harvest had exactly one hundred hunters participating at an entry fee of ten thousand dollars each.
She opened the bottom desk drawer and tossed her embroidered Mexican handbag inside before closing the drawer and sitting down in her black, ergonomically designed desk chair. She was not your typical Texas border county sheriff, not by any stretch of the imagination.
First off, she was only twenty-seven, a full thirty years younger than the previous sheriff, who had retired suddenly and moved north with his wife to Fredericksburg, over in the Hill Country.
Unlike just about everyone else in town, she was not from Valdez County, having moved to the South Texas Plains from Austin just two years earlier when her newlywed husband was hired by the city of Arroyo Seco to be its economic development director.
At five-ten, she was taller than most women around town, and was thin as a rail. She typically wore her long blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, and favored flashy, colorful eyeglasses. Today, she had chosen deep purple cat-eye frames, which complemented the wildflower print shirt she was wearing with her skinny jeans.
Rather than the cowboy boots favored by most folks in this part of Texas, she preferred to wear expensive hiking boots imported from Europe. She wore her badge in a leather holder hooked over her belt.
As she would often say, you can take the girl out of Austin, but you can’t take the Austin out of the girl.
“Who died?” she asked, trying to appear nonchalant, when in truth her heart was racing at ninety miles an hour. This would be her first death case since her surprise election as sheriff six months earlier in a contest that was a classic testament to the unexpected consequences of low voter turnout.
“We don’t know,” he said. “I’m pretty sure she was not one of the guests, though.”
She had never met Barcelona before her decision to run for sheriff a year ago. Most people in town seemed to like him, and he had always been nice to her. Still, there was something about him that did not sit easy with her.
“How did she die, Charlie?”
“Shot with a crossbow, dead to the heart. I was going to send a doctor out there just in case, but the guide in charge of the group that found the body assures me she’s dead.”
“Is he positive? I mean, is the guide a doctor or a nurse or something like that?”
"No, but he spent a year in Afghanistan as an infantryman, so I’m pretty sure he would recognize the basic symptoms.”
While it was not uncommon to occasionally run across the lifeless bodies of people trying to sneak over the border, those were generally due to a combination of exhaustion and exposure. Valdez County was far enough off the beaten path that drug runners did not seem to use it because the transportation infrastructure on both sides of the border in that area was minimal. Arrest records seemed to confirm that belief.
At least, that was the conventional wisdom passed along to her by the senior deputies in the Valdez County Sheriff’s Office. She figured they must know what they’re talking about. After all, why would anyone lie about something like that?
Granted, cross-border traffic in the county had increased dramatically in the past year or so—as it had all along the Rio Grande—but she felt the majority was small groups of families desperately hoping for a better life.
As her most experienced deputies frequently explained to her, the bulk of the high-volume drug traffic crossed the border elsewhere, where it could be quickly moved along into the interior of Texas and beyond. That made perfect sense to her, so she never questioned the basic premise.
The hunting guide had told Charlie the dead woman was neatly dressed, as if she had just come from work or a date. Perhaps she was a terrorist, or maybe even a troublesome bureaucrat or journalist who had run afoul of one of the cartels and been executed and dumped in the middle of nowhere.
“Do you have any idea about who shot her?” the sheriff asked, trying to imagine what an experienced law enforcement officer might say at a moment like this.
This was not the first time she had inwardly questioned the rashness of her decision to run for sheriff.
“No, and that’s the crazy thing, Hanna,” he said, calling her by her first name. Like most folks in the county, she was sure he still found it hard to believe that this young girl was actually the Valdez County Sheriff. "Nobody saw who shot her…and it is possible she may have been dead for a while.”
“Imagine that…nobody saw nothing,” she said sarcastically, attempting to sound like a grizzled old pro. In fact, all she knew about law enforcement was what she had seen on television and in the movies. “Well, I can be out there in about half an hour. In the meantime, do me a favor and secure the crime scene…and make sure nobody touches anything.”
“No problem. I can do that.”
“And bring everyone in from their hunting sites to the main encampment,” she said, starting to warm up to the prospect of her first real live death case. “Make sure everyone is accounted for, and whatever you do, don’t let anyone leave.”
As soon as she hung up the phone, she had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. To say that she would be conducting this investigation by the seat of her pants would be a major understatement.
She was nervous, and more than a little bit scared.
* * * * *
“Hey, Doc, what are you working on?” asked Lark Camacho, the Texas Ranger lieutenant in charge of the Laredo office, as he approached Doc Gunther’s workstation.
It was late on a Friday afternoon and the offices at the Department of Public Safety on Bob Bullock Loop in Laredo were nearly deserted in eager anticipation of the coming weekend.
“I just finished with my report on that county commissioner in the zoning kickback case,” said Gunther, who had recently transferred to Laredo from his previous assignment in Huntsville to be closer to his widowed mother in San Antonio.
“That’s going to really piss off some of the local bubbas,” said Camacho. “Randy Malone has been on the commissioners’ court for the last fifteen years. He’s like royalty in the courthouse.”
“Yeah, but the guy is also a crook.”
“I hear you, but you’d better watch your back,” said the lieutenant. “Payback is a bitch.”
A big man at six-four, two-forty, Gunther had played defensive end on the Texas Aggie football team two decades earlier. Because of his size, he rarely found himself involved in a fistfight. Most people simply looked at him and figured there must be a better way to resolve whatever differences they might have without getting the snot kicked out of them.
That was fine with Doc because, truth be told, now that he had hit forty, he was pretty sure he was nowhere near as tough as most people gave him credit for being. Still, perception is reality, at least until someone decides to test it. Fortunately for the mystique, people almost never did.
“I bet you’ve been asked this a hundred times, but how come you never pursued pro ball?” asked Camacho, who had only known Gunther by reputation prior to his recent assignment to Laredo. “An injury maybe?”
His reaction to a question like that was much different nowadays than it had been back right after he finished college. Going pro was something he had always dreamed of doing back when he was young, and a serious injury usually made for a good explanation as to why he did not. However, being honest with oneself is an important step in the process of growing up.
“No, my first serious injury actually came from a combat jump back when I was in the army. Pro ball didn’t work out because I probably wasn’t good enough to play at that level.”
Camacho nodded his head, saying, “Well, their loss is our gain.”
Gunther smiled but let the subject drop. Accepting the fact that he did not have NFL talent did not mean that it still didn’t bother him.
“So, what’s up, lieutenant? You got something for me?”
“I just got off the phone with the Valdez County Sheriff,” he said as he sat down in the gray government issue metal chair next to Doc’s desk.
Camacho was a year younger than Gunther, and was what folks considered a fast riser, reaching lieutenant while still in his thirties. Most figured he would wind up running things from Austin before he was done. He wasn’t a small man but, at six-feet, one-eighty pounds, he was not anywhere near as big as the hulky Gunther.
“They found a dead body out at the Javelina Harvest, and she asked for us to send a Ranger to help them investigate. We have a forensic team preparing to head out there as we speak.”
“What the heck is a Javelina Harvest?” asked a puzzled Gunther, a sheepish smile on his face.
Despite having grown up in San Antonio, he had never heard of the event. Still, he always admired a catchy name.
“It’s an annual bowhunting event that attracts fat cats from around the country. They raise a lot of money to help combat teen drug abuse. It’s a pretty big deal in these parts.”
“Hmm,” said Doc, opening his bottom desk drawer with his foot and resting a boot on it before kicking back in his chair.
He had broken his left leg in two places during a parachute assault into Bashur, Iraq, back in 2003. It had healed just fine and did not inhibit his movement, except that he no longer ran like he used to. Even after all these years, though, elevating it still helped when it began to ache, as it typically did after spending long periods of time on his feet.
“So, what can you tell me about the sheriff?”
“She’s new in the job…in fact, you might say she’s brand new to the entire law enforcement profession. She won in a special election last spring…less than ten percent of the registered voters even bothered to show up. In a small community like Valdez County, a few people can make a big difference.”
“As long as you are at least eighteen and a registered voter in the county, I suppose anyone can run for sheriff in Texas,” said Doc, chuckling softly as he shook his head slowly in amazement. “I’ll bet the voters sure were surprised when the ballots were all counted.”
“Probably not half as surprised as she was, though,” said the lieutenant. “The turnout was pretty low. I heard that less than five hundred people actually voted in the sheriff’s election.”
“First one to two-fifty wins, huh?” asked Gunther as he rubbed the stubble on his face.
It wasn’t that he had not shaved that morning. He had. He was just one of those men whose “five o’clock shadow” usually began making its appearance right around lunchtime.
“That’s about the size of it. Scary, isn’t it?”
None of this information would be of any particular use to him in his impending investigation of the case, other than to alert him that he would be working with a novice sheriff. It did, however, give him an opportunity to get to know his new boss, with whom he had never worked before his recent assignment to Laredo.
He had been planning to hit the driving range for an hour or so before the sun set. It was a form of therapy for him, a physical activity that took his mind off work. He usually kept a driver, hybrid, and a pitching wedge in the gun rack mounted across the back window of his pickup truck.
He rarely if ever used the rack for guns because it was an open invitation to thieves. Even a Texas Ranger needs to exercise a modicum of common sense when it came to vehicle break-ins, just as everyone else does.
“When do I need to be there?” asked Gunther. It was already late Friday afternoon and both of his kids had sporting events on Saturday morning that he hoped to attend with his wife.
Camacho looked over at the digital clock on the far wall before saying, “As soon as you can get there. It’ll take you about an hour and a half to drive over to Arroyo Seco.”
Gunther groaned as he glanced at his wristwatch. It was nearly four.
“Well, I’d better give my wife the good news.”
“Oh, and one other thing, Doc,” he said. “I want you to do everything by the book on this case. You don’t want to give Randy Malone—or anyone else in the county courthouse, for that matter—any reason to raise any doubts in the minds of potential jurors as to your investigative skills.”
“Don’t worry about me, lieutenant.”
Camacho smiled and gently patted him twice on the shoulder as he rose from his chair. Everything he had ever heard about Gunther was good, but word had it that two captain slots would be coming open within the next year, and he wanted to ensure that he got one of them.
“By the book, Doc,” said Camacho, a wry smile on his face. “Oh, and you’d better hope your wife doesn’t look the sheriff up on social media. If she’s like my wife, she uses Facebook the same way we use NICS.”
NICS is the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
“Why? What’s the big deal?”
“I’m just saying that you might want to check out the sheriff’s picture before you tell your wife about your trip,” the lieutenant said as he rose from the chair, a wicked grin on his face. “I guarantee you that your wife will immediately consult The Facebook.”
Oh great, he thought to himself. I never had to worry until now about whether a sheriff was hot or not.
* * * * *
A rural Texas border community, mired in corruption, unexpectedly elects a twenty-seven-year-old woman with absolutely no law enforcement experience as the county sheriff, throwing a wrench into the plans of the local politicos and their cartel backers.
TROUBLE IN VALDEZ COUNTY is the first in the Doc Gunther series.