Authors Note: This book had another life, but was never on Amazon. When I first wrote it, I intended it to be a Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery, but when I was done, I knew it wasn’t Tempe. I changed the setting and the characters and for its new life, updated and made some corrections. For my Tempe fans, I’m sure you’ll recognize similarities.
Despite the yellow rain hat and slicker, Deputy Leslie York wore over her uniform, water dripped down the back of her neck as soon as she stepped from her white sheriff's Bronco.
Wasn't it ever going to stop raining? She'd thought she'd go home early--if you could call midnight early.
The weather had driven most of the residents of the old gold-mining town of Copper Creek indoors. She hadn't passed a single car going either direction on the road that led higher into the mountains, or the highway that wound around in a southerly direction to the county seat of Manzanita or east toward Sequoia National Park.
But the dispatcher had ruined that plan by calling for Leslie to investigate reported gunfire at the intersection of the main artery through town and Orchard Road, a remote area on the way towards the higher elevations of the Sierra.
It probably wasn't anything, the folks in Copper Creek fired guns at marauding wild animals, rattlesnakes and quite often, just for the fun of it. Sometimes it seemed as though the town had remained in a time long past; even the retirees from southern California dressed and acted like they lived in the wild West.
“Oh, Officer York, thank God you're here.” A desperate sounding female dashed through the downpour toward Leslie.
Directing her flashlight beam at the fast approaching figure, Leslie recognized Mandy Cordova, one of the waitresses employed by Copper Creek's Cafe. The young woman’s hair clung darkly to her head, her blue eyes huge behind owlish glasses. She didn't wear a jacket, and her cotton blouse and pants were soaked through.
“Mandy, what's the trouble here?" Leslie shone the flashlight on past the girl. Peering over the top of her head, Leslie spotted the rear of a late model, silver Chevy pickup jutting into the intersection. And as soon as Leslie noticed the oversized tires, she knew who the truck belonged to--Todd Kees.
“I think they killed him. I couldn't bear to look."
Mandy gasped as she talked. “My God, it was horrible. I thought they were going to kill me too."
“Slow down, Mandy. Who got killed? Exactly what happened?" Leslie switched the flashlight to her left hand and unfastened her holster.
Mandy began to sob. Through the flood of tears and sniffles, she managed to wheeze, "Todd. It's Todd. I’m sure he's dead."
Mandy and Todd were what the older folks described as “courting”. Leslie called it “going together”, no telling what the latest description might be. If she remembered tomorrow, she'd ask her sixteen-year-old son, Jake.
“Where is Todd?" Leslie asked.
Mandy bawled louder, pointing toward the truck.
"Stay here," Leslie ordered even though Mandy didn’t seem at all interested in tagging along.
Following the flashlight beam, Leslie approached the front of the vehicle with caution, her hand hovering above her holster. She soon realized no one else was anywhere around.
The Chevy's headlights were on, illuminating the road ahead and just a bit of the thick growth of fir and cedar trees on either side. The only homes were scattered and tucked away much farther on Orchard, and at least a half mile down on the highway.
Crumpled on the road, looking more like a heap of rags than a person, lay Todd Kees. Leslie dashed to his side. Kneeling, she pressed her fingers against his carotid artery, knowing even before she did so, that he was dead. His shirt was unbuttoned, and though the downpour had washed away most of the blood, Leslie saw what looked like a bullet hole through the front of his white T-shirt and odd, dark geometric markings across it and his beige trousers. Besides being shot, he'd also been run over.
Hurrying back to Mandy, Leslie asked, "Who did this? What kind of car were they driving?" If she had any sort of description she could radio in, the murderers might be captured on their way back to Copper Creek.
"I don't know." Mandy wailed. "I couldn't see them very well. It was raining too hard."
"Think hard, Mandy. You must have noticed something. How many were there? What happened?"
"They forced us off the road. I think Todd knew them. One of the men yanked Todd's door open and pulled him out. There were at least two others, they began shoving Todd around and yelling. Then one pulled a gun and shot him." Mandy shuddered.
"Could you make out anything they said?"
"I couldn't hear anything but my own screams. I'm sorry."
"What about the suspect’s vehicle? Was it a car or a truck?”
"I dunno, I'm not very good at recognizing cars."
"Was it old or new? Dark or light?"
"Not real new, but not exactly old either. And I think it was dark, but I couldn't tell for sure. It was raining too hard and I was scared to death. I thought they were going to hurt me too." Mandy pushed her glasses up her nose.
"Get in the Bronco," Leslie said as she opened the passenger door. "I have to report Todd's murder, and then we'll wait for the detectives to arrive. There's some coffee in my thermos under the seat, Mandy. Help yourself."
Leslie radioed in the information about the murder, but before taking shelter from the rain, she decided to make a perfunctory examination of the area. If there were any tire tracks or other evidence they might all be washed away before the detectives arrived.
The only illumination came from the beam of Leslie's flashlight and the head lamps of Todd's truck. She didn't touch the body again, but made ever widening circles around it. There was nothing unusual to be seen on the asphalt of the road, just a growing puddle of water as the storm continued relentlessly. When she reached the side of the road, the stretch of bare ground had been turned to muck. What was left of several crisscrossing tire tracks would soon be obliterated, but from what was still visible it looked to her like the same geometric pattern she'd spied on Todd's shirt and slacks.
She shined the flashlight out farther. What had once been nothing more than a deep rut just beyond the shoulder had become a swiftly moving stream. Beyond the rushing water, a barren bramble patch created an effective barrier to the trees climbing the steep hillside beyond. The rain had transformed other gullies into streams, ditches into creeks, meadows into ponds. Copper Creek, a lazy, meandering river most of the year had changed into a raging torrent.
If the rain continued much longer in the same manner, those living in the low areas along the river might be in danger.