While investigating a murder, Leslie York, the resident deputy of the mining town of Copper Creek, finds herself stranded on the wrong side of the creek when it turns into a raging torrent. Others driven from their homes by the flood gather together, but one of them turns up dead.
When Leslie begins to suspect the victim's death was murder, she
suddenly finds herself in peril, struggling for life in the angry
GUILT BY ASSOCIATION -- The author comments:
Hearing many stories about "the big flood" in Springville gave
me the idea for Guilt by Association. This also started
out as a Tempe story, but developed into a different tale though
also about a female deputy and her beginning relationship with the
local preacher. It also gave me a chance to explore what happens
when a group of "nice" people are stranded together with someone
they all have reason to dislike.
"In this taut, fast-moving novel, Meredith deftly describes the powerful
flood, presents sharply drawn characters, and keeps the suspense building.
At the same time she handles Leslie and Mark's warm but unsettled romance
with the tenderness it deserves."--Ilene Sirocca, THE RUNNING RIVER READER
Despite the yellow rain hat and slicker
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 ruined that plan
by calling for Leslie to investigate reported gunfire at the intersection
off 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 remained in a time long past; even the retirees
from southern California dressed and acted as if they lived in the
"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 Café. 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, spotted the rear of a late model, silver Chevy pickup
jutting into the intersection. Leslie spotted the oversized tires
and knew 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 phrase 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
"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 cautiously, 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, it looked as if he'd
been run over too.
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?"
Mandy shuddered."They forced us off
the road. Todd acted mad. I think he 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, and then one pulled
a gun and shot him."
"Could you make out anything they
"I couldn't hear anything but me
screaming. I'm sorry."
"What about the vehicle? Was it a
car or a truck?"
"I dunno, I'm not very good at recognizing
"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,
only a growing puddle of water as the storm continued relentlessly.
When she reached the side of the road, the stretch of bare ground
had turned to muck. What was left of several crisscrossing tire
tracks would soon be obliterated, but from what remained it looked
to her like the same geometric pattern she'd spied on Todd's shirt
She aimed the beam of the flashlight
farther out. What had 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 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 for trouble. Leslie returned to the Bronco for her Polaroid.
Mandy hunched over the thermos lid,
her long hair hanging dankly around her. She lifted her head and
blinked at Leslie. "Whatcha' gonna do?"
"Take some pictures of the tire tracks."
"I can't believe what's happened."
"Yes, I know. Try to relax, the detectives
will be here soon and they'll have lots of questions for you."
Blinking her huge myopic eyes from
behind the magnifying lens of her glasses, Mandy said, "But I already
told you everything I know."
"I'm afraid the detectives always
like to hear the whole story for themselves." Leslie shut the door
and sloshed through the puddles to the body.
Only smudges were left of the muddy
tracks on the victim's clothing, but she took a picture anyway,
stuffing it into the pocket of her raincoat to develop. The tracks
on the shoulder of the road were nearly obliterated too, but Leslie
snapped several pictures.
There was nothing else for her to
do but get back into the Bronco and wait with Mandy for the detectives.
After pulling off her hat, Leslie
switched on the overhead lamp, and pulled down the sun visor to
check herself in the mirror attached to it. As she'd expected, the
dampness plastered her short, light brown hair to her head. Her
green eyes revealed her tiredness. She wiped at a smudge on her
cheek with a tissue.
Leaving the light on, Leslie pulled
a clipboard from beneath the seat. "Tell me, Mandy, what brought
you and Todd up here? There's nothing around to speak of except
for pretty scenery, but you sure can't see it on this kind of night."
Mandy hunched her narrow shoulders,
tears welling in her eyes as she turned toward Leslie. "We'd just
been driving around, talking, you know. Todd turned in here with
the intentions of parking, I suppose. When we first started going
together, we used to come up here all the time and park alongside
"What time did you get here?"
"I dunno exactly. I don't even know
what time it is now." She massaged her bare wrist as if to point
out she didn't have a watch.
Leslie glanced at hers. "It's almost
one-thirty. How long were you here before the attack?"
"Only a few minutes. Todd turned
the corner and hadn't parked the truck before this car pulled in
ahead of us, and those guys leaped out."
"Were the truck's headlights on as
they are now?"
"I suppose so."
"You should have been able to see
them pretty well."
Mandy blinked again. "It all happened
so fast. It was pouring down rain and it was hard to see." She paused
and licked her thin lips. "And I think they were wearing ski masks...yes,
that's right, they all had on ski masks."
H'mmm. Why hadn't she mentioned that
before? "Then you really couldn't even tell what color hair they
The girl shook her head. "Even if
I had been able to see their hair, I don't think color or anything
else would have registered. I was scared out of my mind, Officer
York. When they yanked Todd out of the car, I just screamed and
I kept my hands over my eyes!"
She had to have noticed something.
"Did anyone say anything? Did they give you any idea what they wanted
"No, they didn't say anything until
they had him in front of their car, then they were all yelling,
but I couldn't understand anything they were saying."
"Were they big or little guys? Any
of them fat? What kind of clothes were they wearing? Cowboy stuff?
Think, Mandy, it's important."
Again she hunched her shoulders.
"They were about the same size as Todd, just average, between five
nine and six foot. And all I can remember about their clothes is
they all wore dark stuff. Dark ski masks, dark jackets, dark pants...and
Sounded like a hit team. Leslie had
never seen such a group except in the movies. Why would a hit team
be after Todd? As far as Leslie knew, except for some over-indulgence
in beer drinking at parties and rodeo time, Todd didn't have a problem
with liquor or any other drugs, and certainly she'd never suspected
him of being a dealer.
"Was Todd in some kind of trouble,
"I...I...I don't think so."
There was enough hesitation in her
answer to make Leslie wonder. "Mandy, Todd is dead. If you want
to help us find out who killed him, you're going to have to open
up with me...and the detectives when they get here."
"He seemed different lately. You
know, edgy, nervous I guess, but he never told me what it was all
about," Mandy said in a rush.
"Do you think he could have been
involved with drugs?"
Mandy gasped and her hands fluttered
to her mouth. "What do you mean? Like pot?" The girl's face flushed,
and Leslie knew immediately that smoking marijuana had been one
of the couples' pastimes.
"I was thinking about something more
on the lines of crack or coke. Heroin maybe."
"Oh, no! Not Todd!" She shook her
head vigorously. "But then again...no...but maybe that would explain
the strange way he was acting."
"And how was that?" Leslie asked.
Before Mandy could answer, a dark
blue sedan pulled in behind Leslie's Bronco. She recognized it as
belonging to Detective Cannon. In Manzanita county, the sheriff's
detectives often used their own cars. "The detectives are here,"
Leslie said as she jammed the yellow rain hat back onto her head.
She could hear a siren in the distance.
An ambulance, no doubt, though Todd no longer had the need for one.
"What's going to happen now?" Mandy
Smiling reassuringly, Leslie said,
"Just sit tight."
She met the detectives at the back
of her Bronco. "Sorry to have to call you out on such a lousy night."
"Yeah," Detective Cannon growled
as he hunched into a beige raincoat, rain already dripping from
his unprotected short hair and onto his sharp facial bones and off
the end of his long nose. He towered over Leslie, most men did.
The shorter and rounder Detective
Westphal reached out his pudgy hand, which Leslie shook. He peered
through the rain at her, his thick lips lifted in what might have
been his version of a smile. "What've you got here, York?"
"Murder. The victim is a local by
the name of Todd Kees. He was shot. His girlfriend, also from Copper
Creek, says she saw it happen from the cab of Kees' truck."
"What about the suspects?" Cannon
Leslie related the meager descriptions
Mandy gave her.
"So where's the body?" Westphal asked,
wiping the raindrops from his face with his dimpled hand.
"In front of the truck," Leslie said,
and led the way. The detectives quickly outdistanced her.
"Did you find the murder weapon?"
Cannon tossed back over his shoulder.
"Is everything just like it was when
you arrived?" Westphal sighed as he squatted beside the body.
"Yes, except for some odd geometric
marks on his shirt that have mostly been washed away, and some tire
tracks over there on the shoulder. Probably gone now, thanks to
"Daggone." Cannon said.
"I did get some Polaroids of the
"Great." Westphal clapped her on
the back in a comradely fashion.
The ambulance arrived. The attendants,
outfitted in raincoats and hats, jumped out.
Westphal held up a warning hand to
keep them away. "What else can you tell us about the victim?"
"Kees worked for one of the local
construction outfits. He lived in town in one of the upstairs apartments
in that old brick building that houses some of the local businesses."
Leslie shrugged and added, "At least that's where he keeps his belongings.
Rumor has it that he's been staying most nights in Mandy's trailer,
and I've seen his truck there often enough to believe the rumor."
"What about the girl? Any chance
she might be implicated?" Cannon gestured back toward the truck.
Leslie wasn't thrilled with Mandy's
answers to her questions, but she didn't want to make any definite
decisions just yet. "If what she says is true, then no."
"You're hedging, York," Cannon said,
squinting at her even harder than usual.
"Question her yourself, and see what
you think." Leslie stifled a yawn. It had been a long day. She was
the only deputy stationed in Copper Creek. When anything unusual
happened Leslie often had to work overtime, and sometimes on her
"We will, we will," Westphal muttered.
Cannon and Westphal busied themselves
examining the corpse and the surrounding area and taking more pictures,
before allowing the EMTs to load the body into the back of their
vehicle. Leslie handed over her Polaroid shots of the body and the
tire tracks, and read them the questions she'd asked Mandy, along
with the girl's answers.
"It's too darn miserable to hang
around out here," Westphal complained.
Cannon agreed. "Even if there is
any evidence we'd never find it on a night like this. We'll question
the girl tomorrow." He snatched open the passenger door. "Miss Cordova?"
Mandy cringed under his scrutiny.
"I'm Detective Cannon. I want you
to meet me and my partner, Westphal, over at the sheriff's department
in Manzanita tomorrow at eleven. We have some questions we'd like
to ask you."
With trembling fingers, Mandy pushed
a damp strand of dark, honey-blonde hair from in front of her eyes.
"I already told Officer York everything I know."
"Tomorrow you can tell us."
"But I'm supposed to work ..."
"I don't think your boss will expect
you to work tomorrow after what you've been through."
His unusual charm disarmed Mandy,
and she attempted a smile. "Okay."
"Officer York will take you home
now. Maybe a good night's sleep will help you to remember some more
"Maybe...but I don't think so. Ah...what
about Todd's truck?"
"We have to hold it for evidence,"
* * *
The trailer park where Mandy lived
was built on a hillside above Copper Creek. The spaces that held
the single wide mobile homes and trailers were carved out like stair
steps leading down to a grassy park with picnic benches and rock
fire pits. Though it was too dark and rainy to see clearly, it seemed
as though the Copper Creek had risen several more inches since the
last time Leslie had checked.
"Does it seem to you like the river
is overflowing the bank?" Leslie asked her passenger.
"Huh? I dunno." Clearly, Mandy's
mind was on other matters rather than the rising water.
As soon as Leslie stopped in front
of Mandy's tiny trailer with her red VW bug parked alongside it,
the girl hopped out and dashed away. Leslie called after her, "Don't
forget your appointment tomorrow at eleven." But Mandy disappeared
inside her scarred and scruffy home without answering.
Leslie drove to the bottom of the
road where the park began and turned on her floodlight. What she
saw caused her stomach to lurch.