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The tranquility of the mountain community of Bear Creek is disrupted by a runaway fugitive, a vicious murderer, and a raging forest fire. Deputy Tempe Crabtree is threatened by all three.
Book 14 of the Tempe Crabtree Mystery series
The dispatcher reported an escaped fugitive had been spotted headed for the small mountain community of Bear Creek. Deputy Tempe Crabtree was ordered to cooperate with the federal and county authorities. It was her first day back from a vacation which had included her son’s wedding. She’d also received a report of a missing woman.
Late October and nearly dark, Tempe knew she wouldn’t be spending time with her husband during the next few hours.
The fugitive, Morris Delano, escaped from deputies while being transferred from the county jail to another county for trial. Delano had originally been captured after a long and successful bank robbing spree that covered several Southern California counties. Local deputies boasted about their ability to catch the suspect while he attempted to rob a local bank in Tulare County after he’d eluded capture by much larger cities’ law enforcement. Their boasts didn’t amount to much now that they’d lost him.
Deputy Marshals had been called in to organize the search.
Besides his description, what the authorities thought they knew was the man made his getaway in a stolen white, late model Chevy truck and headed up the highway toward the mountains of the Southern Sierra and the small community of Bear Creek.
Tempe received a call from a resident who’d noticed an abandoned Chevy truck a couple of miles above town on one of the bridges that crossed Bear Creek, the river the town was named after. Wearing her tan deputy uniform, she shrugged into her official jacket. As usual, she wore her long black hair in a single braid.
She called in the information and proceeded to the scene in her own white truck with the official Tulare County Sheriff’s logo on the sides.
Because the deputies and the marshals weren’t far behind, they arrived before she’d had much time to examine the abandoned vehicle. The driver’s door stood open and she’d only had time to glance inside.
Uniformed men poured out of official cars and trucks they parked on the main highway.
One of the marshals, wearing a bullet proof vest over a gray shirt, a fully-equipped belt, and black pants, stepped up to her. The man towered over her. Unusual.
“Deputy Crabtree, I’m Marshal Gallegos. Did you spot the driver of this vehicle?”
“No, Sir. I arrived only a few minutes ago. The key is still in the ignition. It appears he ran out of gas.”
“Do you have any idea where he might have gone?” Gallegos asked.
“Not really. The highway heads east toward isolated private residences, campgrounds, Tapper Lodge and eventually dead ends in the forest. There are many side streets and lanes, but none of them go anywhere. There’s only one other rough road that heads back toward town, eventually going through the Indian reservation. Only a few cabins and no year round residents are there.”
“And back the other way?”
“The town you just came through with homes on both sides of the river all the way back to Dennison.”
“We’ve got our work cut out for us then. If you get any reports of a stranger trying to break in anywhere, let us know.”
She waited for him to give her other instructions, but he ignored her. Since she was an Indian she was surprised he didn’t want her to help track the suspect. She guessed he didn’t want her on the search, perhaps because of her ethnic background, or maybe he didn’t like women in law enforcement. It certainly wasn’t the first time she’d run into such prejudices. “Anything else you’d like me to do?”
“We have it covered.” He didn’t bother looking at her.
A deputy with a dog arrived.
“Might be a good idea if you searched along the river,” Tempe said. “The water is low right now. Your suspect could have easily crossed over in several places.”
“We’ll handle it.” Marshal Gallegos sounded annoyed.
Marshal Gallegos barked orders to the men gathered. He sent the deputy with the dog down the side of the river bank. The other men fanned out in both directions.
Since she wasn’t needed, she decided to check on the whereabouts of the missing woman. She’d been given an address of a large vacation home farther up in the mountains. It belonged to the wealthy Konstanzer family. During the thirties, they’d bought many acres in the mountains, with the idea of building a ski resort. When the plan hadn’t been received with enthusiasm by the county planning commission, they found another area for their resort. They kept their vacation home, though as far as Tempe knew, their descendants didn’t use it more than one or two times a year.
According to the report she’d received, it was the granddaughter, Mariah Konstanzer, who was missing.
Tempe knew little about Mariah except that at times her photo turned up in magazines like “People” on the arm of a movie star or famous business man. The only time Tempe had seen Mariah in person was when Tempe investigated a burglary at the vacation house. Mariah had arrived to spend a few days and found the front door unlocked, the backdoor lock broken, and several items missing. She didn’t seem upset, and stated what was taken could easily be replaced.
Tempe remembered her as a willowy type, with long dark hair. Her rather plain looks were enhanced by make-up.
It was impossible to know when the burglary happened, and no fingerprints could be identified. Burglaries in remote areas without nearby neighbors often went unsolved.
Tempe vaguely remembered Mariah Konstanzer saying she’d tell her parents to hire
someone willing to serve as a caretaker. Tempe didn’t know whether or not that had happened. After letting the dispatcher know she was no longer needed on the search for the fugitive and planned to check the house of the missing woman, she called her husband, Hutch. “I’m going to be late.” She explained what was going on.
“Don’t they have a back-up deputy to take your place?”
“Doubt there’s anyone left. Everyone’s looking for the bank robber. Be sure to keep our house locked up. No telling where that guy is by now, but I have a feeling he’s following the river. If he’s smart, he’ll head back to town. Any place higher is rugged with no place to escape.”
“I’ll put your dinner in the refrigerator.”
“I’ll come home as soon as I can. Love you.”
“Love you too, be careful.”
Tempe knew she was nearing her objective when she passed a large clearing where someone planned to build an estate and several outbuildings. Because so many beautiful trees had been cut down and the hillside flattened, it had become a subject of controversy. Whoever moved into the place when it was finished might find the other residents of Bear Creek on the hostile side. What had once been a scenic slope and a place where many came in winter to play in the snow was now nothing more than an ugly eyesore.
Once she passed it and rounded two more curves, she reached her destination.
The Konstanzer vacation home perched atop a rocky knoll. Tall pine trees poked through odd places standing like irregular sentinels. Light poured out of the large front window that looked out over the forest below. Tempe drove up the circular driveway to the front of the house. She parked behind a new Toyota sedan, an obvious rental.
Besides the strong pine scent, Tempe could also smell wood smoke coming from the chimney.
Flat stones of varied size and shapes created wide steps leading to the massive front door with a stained a glass insert of a redwood tree. Tempe rang the bell. It sounded like cathedral chimes.
Only seconds passed before the door was opened. A woman in her mid-thirties perhaps, with chin-length blonde hair, dressed in a dark green long-sleeved T-shirt and black yoga pants, greeted her. “I’m so glad you’re here. I drove to Dennison to pick up supplies and run some errands. I’ve been gone several hours, and when I got back, I couldn’t find Mariah. It’s weird because I have the car we rented at the airport.”
“I’m Deputy Crabtree, and you are?”
“Oh, sorry. Amy, Amy Bennett. I’m Mariah’s personal assistant.”
“Did she tell you about her plans for the day?”
Amy shrugged. “She was still asleep when I left. At least I think she was. I didn’t hear anything from her bedroom.”
“Did you look in there when you returned?”
“Yes. The bed was slept in, but she wasn’t there.”
“When was the last time you saw her?” Tempe asked.
“Oh, goodness.” Amy ran her fingers through straight her hair. “Come in, please. I’m not thinking straight. Would you like a cup of coffee? I just made some.”
Ordinarily, Tempe would have passed on the invitation, but it had been a long day and she needed something to perk her up. “That would be great.”
She followed Amy through the large front room furnished with rustic wood furniture and many colorful pillows. A fire crackled in a massive stone fireplace. A circular staircase led to a second floor.
Amy led her into another large room that appeared to serve both as a kitchen and gathering place. The kitchen appliances had a vintage-look though in excellent condition. Knotty pine cupboards filled the walls. A large round table with twelve chairs dominated the room. Tile countertops flanked a double porcelain sink.
Tempe pulled out a chair and perched on the edge. “What an interesting room. It looks like a movie set from the late thirties or early forties.”
Amy poured two cups of coffee from an old-fashioned coffee pot setting on one of the stoves metal burners. “This is the way Mariah’s grandparents furnished the kitchen. Though her parents did some remodeling, they left the kitchen as it was. No one is here often enough to care. Besides, everything works fine. This old stuff never wears out.” She brought the cups to the table and sat near Tempe.
“Where do you think Ms. Konstanzer may have gone?”
“I have no idea since the only car we have is the rental I used this morning.” Amy sipped her coffee and didn’t seem distressed. “She isn’t the hiking type, but who knows, maybe she felt like having some exercise.”
“Does she know anyone in the area?” Tempe asked.
“There are neighbors, but none are close. Since I’ve been coming here with Mariah, no one has ever dropped in. She knows a few people from town, mainly from when she vacationed here as a kid. She’s introduced me to some of them when we’ve gone into town for dinner at the Inn. She’s been romantically involved with several men from here.”
“I’d like you to give me their names.”
“Oh, dear, I’ll have to think. I’m not sure I can remember. You’d have better luck asking the caretaker.”
“Who’s that?” Tempe asked.
Tempe knew Brogan. He grew up in Bear Creek and was several years older than her son Blair. She’d arrested Brogan twice for driving under the influence, and warned him many more times about being drunk and disorderly at local parties. It had been several years since she’d had any dealings with him though she had seen him in town and driving through. “How long has Summerlin worked for Ms. Konstanzer?”
“He doesn’t really work for Mariah, he works for her parents, though I don’t think they’ve been here in several years. Mariah hired him and she’s the one who deals with him.”
Tempe thought for a moment. “Where is Summerlin now?”
“Not here, or his car would be out front.”
“Does he stay on the premises?” Tempe asked.
“Sometimes. He has a room on the other side of the staircase, near the pantry. I know he lives in Bear Creek. When no one plans to come to the house for a long period, Brogan shuts everything down and moves back to his own place.”
Though Tempe didn’t know where Brogan stayed, it would be easy enough to find out. “What else can you tell me about Ms. Konstanzer? Where does she live when she’s not here?”
Amy lifted her eyebrows. “She hasn’t got a home base except her parents’ home in Colorado. Mostly she travels.”
“Do you always accompany her?”
“Yes, except when she’s traveling with a male companion.” Amy leaned forward and lowered her voice. “There haven’t been as many lately. She recently broke up with a fellow she dated for a long time.”
Tempe finished her coffee and stood. “Show me around the house. We’ll make a thorough search. Let’s begin with Brogan’s room.”
Amy led Tempe through a door into a long hallway. At the end was an exit that opened onto a screened-in porch that led out to the backyard, though it was too dark to see much.
The next inside room contained a fairly new washer and dryer, along with several cupboards and shelves with cleaning supplies. A mop in a bucket, broom and dust pan, and an upright vacuum stood in a back corner.
Amy opened the next door. “This is Brogan’s.”
It was obvious the caretaker’s room hadn’t been intended for a bedroom. It wasn’t much bigger than a large closet. The furniture consisted of a single bed with rumpled covers, a small dresser, and a rack with hooks served as a closet. Only a plaid winter coat with a hood hung there. A pair of work boots stood beneath. A tiny desk held an older model TV.
When they stepped out, Amy pointed to the next door. “The downstairs bath. Of course this is the one Brogan uses.”
She opened the door on a surprisingly large room. A claw-footed tub sat on a raised platform, with a dark green shower curtain drawn around it. A toilet with an overhead tank with a chain sat in a corner. The floor was black and white tile. A wicker hamper stood opposite with several dark green towels spilling out of it. Brogan must’ve been around recently.
Leaving the bathroom, they came near the circular staircase. “All the other rooms are upstairs,” Amy said.
Amy led the way up the steps.
Tempe followed. “I’ll want to see each one.”
On the right side of the staircase, the hall led to only one large room. When Amy opened the door, the air smelled damp and musty.
“This is Mariah’s parents’ room. They haven’t been here in years. I’ll have to tell Brogan to air it out.” Amy turned on the light.
It was obvious the room had neither been occupied or cleaned in far too long. Dust had settled thickly on the furniture. Constructed of massive dark wood, the matching dresser and bed looked as though they had been purchased during the late sixties. The only color came from a handmade quilt with a pattern of bonnets created from many different materials.
Tempe stepped over to a large wardrobe and opened the double doors. The sharp smell of mothballs streamed out. Male and female outfits hung there, with shoes at the bottom. In the corner was a fur coat.
The oppressive stale air made Tempe apprehensive about what else they might find.
The second floor bath was at the top of the stairs. Besides being slightly more modern with a glass enclosed shower and a patterned linoleum floor, it was small, making Tempe think it had been added in later years.
Tempe stepped to the shower door and opened it. The tiled walls were dry. On a shelf inside were several bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and a ladies razor. Blue, yellow and white towels adorned two racks.
“Where’s Mariah’s room? Let me take a look at it.”
Amy led her past several rooms to the one on the end. She flung open the door and switched on the overhead light. The room smelled of a spicy perfume. A jumble of clothes spilled out of an open suitcase that sat on a bench at the foot of an unmade double bed. Several books and a Kindle sat on a nightstand, along with a small lamp. Curtained windows framed the blackness outside.
This room had a small closet. Tempe stepped over to it and opened it. Only a few clothes hung on hangers. “It doesn’t look like she planned to stay long.”
Amy shrugged. “I never know what her plans are until the last minute.”
“Did she mention why she wanted to come here this time?”
“She didn’t really tell me, but I think there was someone she wanted to see.”
“Really. Did she mention who?”
“No, but when she’s interested in someone, she’s always a bit antsy and more concerned about her looks than usual.”
“I take it that’s what happened.”
“Yes, I asked her what was going on, but she only told me to make a hair appointment for her at the beauty salon while I was in town. I did.”
Tempe followed Amy out. “Next room.”
“This one’s mine.” She flung open the door on the opposite side of the hall from Mariah’s.
It was smaller with twin beds, both made. On one, clothes were in neat piles. A duffle bag sat on the floor, along with two pairs of shoes. A dressing table with a mirror and drawers on either side stood against the wall.
Tempe opened the door to the closet. Nothing was in it except for empty hangers on a rod.
“A room similar to this one.”
It turned out to be another with a double bed, a small dresser, and an empty closet.
“Across the way is a utility room. We keep all the linens in there, dust mop and cleaning supplies for upstairs.”
“Let’s see it.”
Amy pulled open the door and screamed.