Ghost Tree

Ghost Tree Front -180A migrant worker is found shot to death on Copper Mountain,

north of the town of Granite, Arizona, throwing the county sheriff’s department into a turmoil. Then Granite High School is broken into. Are the two incidents connected? That’s something Belle Evans, newly hired security counselor for the school system, is trying to find out.

Belle’s experience as a counselor and her training at the police academy have given her the qualifications for the job. Still, she’s not quite prepared to deal with Carl Rey Escobedo, the angry boy who broke into the school the year before. Carl, in not very pleasant terms, insists he didn’t do it this time.

Belle seeks help from Sheriff McFarland, but he has his hands full with the killing on Copper Mountain and the search for a companion to the murdered man now on the loose somewhere in town. As the two cases begin to merge, what Belle thought was simply a matter of theft turns out to involve her in a far more dangerous game until she becomes the target of a killer.

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Excerpt

Chapter One

Several inches of new snow covered the side of Copper Mountain. It lay like a blanket over the arms of ponderosa and whitened the roofs of the few brave cabins that dotted the primitive area. The quarter moon reflected off the surface and lit the Arizona landscape, exposing the two men stumbling down the slope. The older man lost his footing frequently, letting out a soft moan each time he fell. The younger, always ahead, turned back to help. They wore thin jackets, old and torn, and sandals with thin socks so that the snow burned their feet and the frigid wind knifed through them. They spoke in hushed Spanish.

“Hurry. Hurry, old one. We must keep going.” But when he brought his hand away from the other man’s side it was warm with blood.

“You go, Jorge. I hold you back. They will come and shoot you, too.”

In response, the young man propelled his companion forward, past the trees along the snowy trail, fear etching his face in the moonlight, cold seeping into his bones.

As they descended, the ponderosa and aspen became less frequent. They reached the bed of a small stream, the narrow puddles of ice glistening. The old man could barely stay on his feet now, the whole left side of his shirt dark with the soaking of blood. He stumbled almost every step. Panic showed in the younger man’s face and in his movements as he tried to keep his companion erect and in motion.

Up ahead an ancient gnarled cottonwood loomed like a giant hovering above them. It’s knotted trunk, twisted in three directions, sent out huge branches at unusual angles. And the towering pale fringe of twigs moving in the wind caught the moonlight like a monstrous, swaying ghost.

When they reached the trunk, the old man slid down into the snow, unable to move. Jorge tried to pull him up but the dead weight was too much for his waning strength.

The voice sounded so weak, the words barely came out. “Go, boy. Save yourself.”

“I cannot leave you, old man.”

The gray head shuddered. “Then – then we will both die here.”

Jorge paused for a long time, panic, concern, fear, compassion all warring in his face.

“Go,” the old man whispered. “Go. You have a wife and child to care for back home.”

Wind whistled mournfully through the bare branches above them. Jorge stood a moment longer, tears reflecting the moonlight that filtered through the branches. The other man’s eyes were closed now and his chest barely moved. Jorge pulled the freezing air into his lungs as though in resolve and started down the side of Copper Mountain while the Ghost Tree wrapped its shadow about the old man as he lay dying in its arms.

Belle Evans pulled into the Granite High School parking lot, got out of her maroon Honda, and hugged her winter coat close around her. Her wool slacks didn’t seem to keep out the morning chill. Arizona in December, halfway up the mountains, was a different world from the valley where Phoenix sprawled. The granite peaks even higher up were still capped in white from this week’s storms. And though most of the snow had melted down here at five thousand feet and the sun shone through patchy clouds, the sharp wind had ice in its breath. It flipped her short brown curls and chaffed her late forties skin. Nature was not kind to the human body, she decided. Not once you hit middle age.

Friday now. They’d been back from Thanksgiving break for less than a week, the visit with her daughter Ellie who’d flown out from Cleveland still fresh in her mind, and already trouble in the trenches. And, of course, Ned Stambaugh was frantic as usual. Ned was the high school counselor, supposedly the one who dealt with student problems. But since the Granite Unified School System had hired Belle nearly a year ago for the new position of security counselor – on a trial basis only – Ned called her for anything more serious than a sliver in the finger. Or so it seemed to her.

The high school was located on the northern outskirts of the town of Granite, near the town’s limits. It was laid out like a campus, the one and two-story tan brick buildings A through E surrounding a large courtyard distinguished by a pile of large granite boulders in the center. Pass bell rang as Belle entered the compound. The rooms erupted with bodies heading for the next class, or a chat with friends, or a quick smoke around the corner of a building. Many of the students wore T-shirts and no coats and Belle shivered for them. God bless the resilience of these young idiots, she thought.

After checking in with the main office strewn with Christmas tinsel and colored lights, and successfully avoiding a gossip session with Jenny, the principal’s secretary, Belle walked on down the hall to Ned Stambaugh’s. “The Bull Pen” was what students affectionately called the outer office which sent horror up poor Ned’s spine.

“I prefer to think of it as an island of sanctuary,” he’d told her on several occasions.

He’d thrown up a few posters spouting clichés about friendship and self-worth, but the students weren’t fooled. The place was basic institution – hard chairs, hard surfaces, hard surroundings, and steel-faced Verna Reilly, Ned’s secretary, sitting erect with disapproval at her desk behind the counter, beating away at her computer as though it were a specimen of vermin. Now she glanced up long enough to see who’d entered and motioned with her head toward the door of the counselor’s inner office.

“Thank God,” Ned cried, looking as though he were on the verge of tears. “I don’t know what to do with him. The boy’s unmanageable.”

Belle never ceased to wonder how this man got to be the high school counselor. He couldn’t seem to cope with the problems that arose. Tall, well built, in his late thirties and with a full head of dark hair, he looked like he could take on the world. But his personality was the antithesis of his appearance. Ned was great with the technical side of the job – scheduling, reports, keeping records. His immaculate desk and neat files were evidence. He just didn’t know how to deal with kids. Belle figured the reason he had the job was because he lost no opportunity to cow-tow to the higher-ups.

She took off her coat and hung it on the rack, the strap of her purse on top. “Okay, Ned, tell me what’s happened.”

“A theft,” he said, slumping into his chair, his expression despondent. “There’s been a theft. Someone broke into one of the windows in the gym office last night.”

“It was broken?”

He shook his head. “Apparently it had been left unlocked.”

She took a seat in one of the hard chairs facing him. “What was stolen?”

“Nothing in Mr. Burke’s office, but whoever it was went to the boys’ locker room. They took some towels, a few clothes, some of the equipment. Small items. But then they went on down to the cafeteria. Some items are missing there, too. Except that the cafeteria was, well, trashed according to Mrs. Chronenburg. Bottles broken, a refrigerator left open for food to spoil. The cooks were pretty upset. Mrs. Chronenburg hasn’t had time to make an itemized list yet, but here’s the one from Mr. Burke.”

He got up and brought her the list of what had been taken, then went back to sit behind his desk. Belle looked the list over.

“Did you call the police?”

Ned hesitated. “Mr. Ramey doesn’t want to involve them. At least not yet. He thought we could handle it ourselves.”

“Dear God,” she sighed. Harold Ramey, the principal, avoided publicity like a cat avoids a bath. “Ned, the police should be called. We need to find out who did this.”

“Well –” He hesitated again. “We think we know who did it.”

Belle raised her eyebrows at this, sitting forward. “Really? You know that already? How did you discover that?”

Ned adjusted his letter box and fidgeted with a pen at his sterile desk. “The boy has done this before. Last year he broke into the school and destroyed some of the equipment in the chemistry lab.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“It happened before you came here, a year ago last fall. The boy was a junior – still is, I’m afraid, even though he just turned eighteen in November.”

Belle’s position in the Granite system had begun in January starting the second semester of the school year before. “And last year they knew it was this boy?”

“He had an argument with Mr. Jantz, the Chemistry teacher. When we finally discovered it was him, he openly admitted it. He was even proud of the fact.”

“Did he admit it this time?”

Ned shook his head.

“Then why do you suspect him?”

The high school counselor laid his pen down and sat upright. “He had a confrontation with one of the cooks in the cafeteria this week. He swore at her, told her the food tasted like – well, bad, and threw his tray against the wall. She got upset and sent him to Mr. Ramey.” Ned rubbed his face. “The boy’s been nothing but trouble ever since he moved here four years ago. Fights with teachers, fights with students. He had words with a couple of boys when he first came and the next day their truck got vandalized. But we couldn’t prove any connection.”

“Sounds like an angry fellow,” Belle said. She glanced around the office considering this. The picture of the San Francisco Peaks was perfectly aligned with a new one of the Grand Canyon. All the certificates hung side by side. Nothing out of place. And one tribute to the season, a small ‘Happy Holidays’ sign on the door. “So, what do you want? A confession?”

Ned looked embarrassed. “Mr. Ramey’s hoping to settle the matter without causing a fuss.”

Belle shook her head doubtfully. “Who is the boy?”

Ned didn’t have a chance to answer. The door to the inner conference room erupted and a teenager burst through, glaring at them. “What’s taking so fucking long?”

He was short and a little on the stocky side, olive skin under dirty jeans and a plaid flannel shirt that hadn’t been washed in a while. Dark, stringy hair fell to his shoulders and his brown eyes behind the hair smoldered at the two adults.

He turned to Belle. “Hey, bitch, you my lawyer?”

Belle glanced from the boy to the man, her expression a question. Ned cleared his throat and stood up. “Mrs. Evans, this is Carl Rey Escobedo.”

Belle got to her feet. “Sorry to disappoint you, Carl, but I’m just another school counselor.”

“Watch it! Name’s Carl Rey, bitch!”

“Gosh, and I thought it was ‘Prince Charming.’”

Ned cleared his throat again.

Belle moved forward, confronting the boy. Even at her limited height, she stood half a head taller. She stared down at him. “Let’s get something straight, Carl Rey. I’m Mrs. Evans to you. You call me bitch again and you can deal with the Granite police. That’s when you will need a lawyer and I doubt if he’ll be as nice as I am.”

The boy stiffened.

“Furthermore,” she continued, “the police would be very happy to put a young man with a mouth and an attitude like yours into a cell with a bunch of inmates who would teach you some manners.”

Ned came around the desk. “Mrs. Evans, I don’t – ”

Belle glanced over at him. “Excuse me, Mr. Stambaugh. Did you want to take care of this matter?”

Ned backed off.

Belle returned her gaze to the boy. “Shall we go back into the conference room and discuss this, Carl Rey?”

He looked as if he wanted to rebel again, but then his shoulders slumped in a ‘who gives a crap’ attitude and he walked back into the room. Belle followed him, glanced once more at Ned and shut the door.

Carl Rey took a seat. “Boy, lady, you ain’t like any of them others. You sure grab a guy by the balls.”

Belle sat facing him. “First rule, if you’re Carl Rey, I’m Mrs. Evans. Got that?”

He nodded. “Sure, Mz Evans,” he said in a snotty tone.

“Second rule, lose the attitude. And third, watch your language. Otherwise the GPD can have you and I won’t lift a finger to help.”

“Who needs your help?”

Belle gave a half smile. “Carl Rey, right now you need anybody you can get.”

“Shit, lady, you don’ scare me.”

She held up her hand. “What’s my name again?”

“Mz Evans.”

“And what did I say about language?”

He snarled and flopped back in his chair, arms crossed and eyes on his lap.

Belle settled back. “Let’s get down to business. Do you understand what you’ve been accused of?”

“Shit yeah. They said I –”

She held up a hand. “Language.”

He snarled sullenly.

She looked over the sheet Ned had given her. “It says here someone broke into a window in Mr. Burke’s office and took some items from the boys’ locker room.” She looked up.

“Din’ do it,” he snapped.

“It also says that a person – or persons – went to the cafeteria.”

“Din’ bust up no cafeteria, neither.” A slight smile played on his face. “Wish I had-a. Place needs busting up good.”

Belle considered him a moment. “Mr. Stambaugh tells me you vandalized Mr. Jantz’s chemistry lab last fall.”

“Yeah, and I got six months in fucking Juvy.” He saw her expression. “Sorry, jeez. Can’t say nothing round here.”

“Life’s rough, Carl Rey.” She looked down at the paper. “You admitted to trashing the chem. Lab?”

“Yeah, ‘cause I done it.”

“But you don’t admit to this?”

“Nope.” He lifted his chin, eyes meeting hers.

“Is that because you didn’t do it or because you don’t want another six months in ‘Juvy’?”

“Din’ do it, lady. Din’ fuc—din’ do it.” He shoved forward in his chair, his face mean but his dark eyes on the verge of tears. “Every damned thing happens round here, they blame me. Just cause I’m a Mex. Well, I ain’t the one this time. This time somebody else screwed up. So you better start looking someplace else for a loser to blame.”

 

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