Granite Justice

Granite 200The violence in today’s schools calls for a new way of dealing with students.

When one of the students, a Mexican boy, is killed by the father of his girlfriend, Belle Evans, the security counselor, gets involved. But what starts out looking like a hate crime ends up involving a larger cast of characters. Belle doesn’t always believe in doing things the orthodox way, which sometimes brings her into conflict with local school and law officials, especially Sheriff Eli McFarland. The murders pile up and in her efforts to keep the boy’s girlfriend from being a victim, Belle becomes a target herself.

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Excerpt

Chapter One

A brittle dawn wind rushed down the mountainside a hundred miles southwest of the San Francisco Peaks to whip up the parched earth of the Arizona high desert. It swept through stands of ponderosa and piñon pine on the slopes, whisked past prickly pear and juniper clinging to the arid valley floors, gouged the empty arroyos that scored vast stretches of land and formed a flurry of dust as it fought to escape the granite walls of Lame Horse Canyon. Beside the canyon road, wind lashed the shirttails of the boy who lay still and cold in the growing light.
Arms sprawled, his sightless eyes were aimed at the mauve streaks of cirrus against the deepening blue. Large pools of blood had soaked into the hard soil beneath him from the bullet hole in his head and another in his chest. A raven circled above on the uplift of wind. From a bear grass thicket a striped lizard scurried past the lifeless hand to warm itself on a rock as the sun emerged.
The clatter of a motor pierced the stillness of the canyon. A Ford pickup, forty-some years old, its color unrecognizable now, its innards in dire need of repair, rattled along the canyon track, throwing up dust caught and scattered by the wind. As the truck drew near, the sound echoed around the walls of the canyon, the vibrations scaring the lizard who ran for cover.
The vehicle rounded the bend and clanked to a sudden stop, its chassis jiggling with the rumble of the motor. A moment went by before a man stepped out, leaving the door ajar. He stumbled around the front to stare down at the still form at the side of the road.
Unwashed jeans and a flannel shirt flapped in the wind against the man’s emaciated body. His battered felt cowboy hat covered a nearly bald head while whiskers stained with tobacco camouflaged the wrinkles of age and hard living. His pale eyes squinted down at the body.
Virgil Hibbits was the town scavenger whose only home was his ‘67 Ford pickup. They also called him ‘Crack’ since it was said he’d fried his brain on the stuff some years ago up in Flagstaff. Hibbits made his morning rounds looking for lost items to sell. This canyon was a favorite rendezvous for teens looking to get laid. In the throes of passion they often dropped more than their pants. So Hibbits made the trek out here a couple of times a week.
Now he searched the ground around the body, checking for any leavings. Next he knelt down to search the pockets, swearing as his muscles and bones complained. The boy, almost a man, was dark – black hair, olive skin, a ‘Mex’ to Hibbits. The bullet to the head had split the skull part way with the impact, spilling more than blood. Flecks from the wound dotted the boy’s hair and the ground beneath. Ants had already discovered the morsels.
Hibbits thought he might have seen him out here before, maybe with the Poole girl. But his own brain didn’t hold onto details. They seemed to elude him the way dreams often did on waking.
He found a wallet with a driver’s license but no money, a handful of change and some car keys. He took the change, left the wallet and, since he didn’t see a vehicle around, stuck the keys back where he’d found them. Getting to his feet, he stared at the body a long time before it occurred to him to report this. The sheriff would want to know. They might give him a reward for the information. This was big news. Maybe they’d stick him on TV. Him, Virgil Hibbits.
He climbed back into his pickup, slammed the door, made a U-turn, running over one leg of the body by the side of the road, and headed back down the track to town. Wind scattered the dust trail he left behind.

Late August and the stark morning sun, already high, warmed the interior of the maroon Honda as Belle Evans drove along Miner’s Creek Road toward Granite High School on a mission. She had to save Ned Stambaugh’s ass. Again.
Belle ran a hand through her cap of curly brown hair, the gray washed out with Nice ‘n Easy. Cool when she first got up, the temperature had reached the eighties already at nine o’clock. She knew she’d have to invest in a white vehicle now that she’d moved to a land where the sun actually did shine. And one that wouldn’t break apart on the dirt roads, more prevalent around here than paved ones. Maybe one of those huge white pickups that seemed to spring upon the landscape like growth during the monsoons.
Ned Stambaugh, the high school counselor, had called her office at the school board building this Monday morning and said he needed her. He didn’t say why. With Ned it could be anything. Why couldn’t he manage any of his own problems? How in hell had he managed before she came? She found herself spending more time at the high school than at any other building.
Barely two weeks into the school year in her relatively new position as Security Counselor and there was trouble already. Maybe another proposed fight between a Chicano gang and their white counterpart; she was fast realizing the extent of hatred and prejudice in this state. Or a bomb threat. Those happened all the time back East. No, he didn’t sound that frantic. And Ned, she was learning, sounded frantic when anything big was afoot. Still, Belle’s position required that she check out every call.
She turned up Spring Street, taking in her breath yet again at the sight of the crystal sun washing boulders and piñon pines along the roadside as she climbed the hill toward Granite High. Stark, rugged, hostile even, and yet infinitely compelling was this Southwestern landscape.
This winter she’d made the biggest move of her life. She’d left behind not only Cleveland, Ohio, but her two grown children who insisted they could lead their own lives without her immediate presence, and husband Larry, whom she’d finally gotten up the gumption to ditch after the last and most humiliating fiasco. A trial separation only, he’d reminded her, but one she was looking to make permanent.
Now she was out here, a world apart from what she’d always known, in the place she’d dreamed of living. Don’t ever get used to this land, she told herself. Never take this place for granted.
Belle pulled into the parking area of the school and stopped in the teachers’ lot. Time to see what species of ant Ned had up his ass today.

Granite High School, housing fifteen hundred plus students, was built like a campus, not like the single building schools back East. Five two-story buildings, letters A through E, ranged around a courtyard of grass and small pines and dotted with concrete benches and tables. It was known for the pile of granite boulders at one side looking a little like a haystack made of rock. Belle always had the feeling of entering a college. Until she checked out the kids.
Typical high school. Boys’ pants – shorts this time of year – hanging around their crotch, girls’ be-ringed bellybuttons crying ‘check me out.’ Tattoos ruled. Then she thought about some of the friends of her daughter Ellie at college in Cleveland and decided that maybe the two levels weren’t so different after all. Stambaugh’s office was in Building A. She waved at a group of students she knew and headed for it.
“The girl won’t talk to me,” Ned told Belle, jumping up from the desk the minute she appeared in his office. It was a Spartan place, painted an indiscriminate tan, files and records housed neatly in cubbyholes and drawers, a picture of the Grand Canyon on one wall, a group of awards on another. “She says something’s wrong but she won’t tell me what.”
Ned, in long-sleeved shirt and tie, in spite of summer, was tall and muscular, clean-shaven and good-looking. Belle guessed somewhere in his late thirties – maybe ten years her junior. He had the appearance of a football coach. But she’d learned early on that his appearance didn’t even reach his second layer of skin. The real Ned Stambaugh was a fussy man, forever afraid of criticism and rejection. He was married but his wife was busy with her career as the manager of the local Dillard’s. No children.
When Belle had first met Ned the third Monday of January – her beginning day on the job – he’d cowered at the very mention of the administration, all but genuflected as Superintendent Cummerford suggested he show Belle the ropes.
She’d discovered that Ned’s specialty was scheduling and helping kids get into college. He seemed genuinely concerned for his charges, never stinting in his efforts to alter schedules, provide a haven from stress, allow students to discuss their differences. But his understanding of the human psyche was sadly limited. He apparently couldn’t comprehend the inner workings of kids, why they behaved as they did. Why they weren’t all like him.
Belle, on the other hand, knew teenagers were a mass of raw emotions. No longer children but not yet adults, they saw issues as black and white with no in betweens. And they latched onto first impressions with savage permanence.
“Maybe this girl just needs a woman’s touch,” Belle suggested. “Where is she now?”
“In my conference room.” He nodded toward a closed door in the office, looking nervous and out of his realm. “I tried sending her back to class but she wouldn’t go. I’m just not sure what to do with her.”
He handed Belle a student folder which she looked over briefly. Lily Poole, age seventeen, a junior, grades good, no prior office referrals. Then she followed him to the door, not sure how she could help the situation if Ned couldn’t handle it. Wait – what was she thinking? Ned handle it? She opened the door and walked in.
The girl was tall and lithe with long auburn hair and hazel eyes that swam with sorrow. In worn blue jeans and a flowered blouse that looked like it had been pulled from the bottom of a laundry basket, she appeared wretched. And she had a fresh bruise purpling her jaw that she’d tried to cover with make-up. At sight of the bruise, Belle swung a hard glance at Ned and he shrugged, looking as lost as the girl. Just like him not to mention this little tidbit of information.
“Mrs. Evans, this is Lily Poole,” Ned said. “Lily, Mrs. Evans is a counselor in our school system. She works in all the schools to coordinate –” He halted, obviously uneasy with the phrase ‘school security.’
Belle helped him out. “I coordinate counseling problems that are district wide.” No one in the system was comfortable with the necessity for security in their school. They’d hired her last January because she’d convinced them of their need for her services. Previously the school had tried having an officer from the police department visit on a regular basis, but he’d apparently come on as the heavy and the students had shied away from him. Besides, uniforms made kids skittish. Still, hers was a tenuous position, her first twelve months here a trial run. No pressure there.
Belle took a seat next to the girl. Ned’s conference room was bare, unwelcoming. A round table and four hard chairs furnished it. Vinyl flooring, fluorescent lights and no pictures made it seem more like a police interrogation room than a school facility. She wondered how he ever dealt with students in such an atmosphere. She nodded at Ned to leave, took a breath as he closed the door and turned to Lily Poole.
“Mr. Stambaugh says you’re upset about something, Lily.” The girl glanced at her folded hands, her complexion pale in spite of the Arizona tan. Belle waited for her to speak. When nothing was forthcoming, she said. “Can you tell me about it?” Still nothing. “Does it have anything to do with the bruise on your jaw?”
This time the girl turned away, shoving auburn hair behind her right ear.
Belle sat back, crossed her legs, moved into a position of ease. “I understand you’re a junior this year, Lily. Do you like school?”
Lily, face still averted, nodded. A response.
“Do you get good grades?”
Another nod.
“Any classes you like in particular?”
“English.” The voice was tentative.
“Teachers?”
Eyes back on the folded hands, she said, “Miz Perez, my English teacher.”
Belle didn’t know anything about Ms. Perez but she could have her sit in if necessary. She said, “My favorite teacher was Mr. Becker in sophomore chemistry. I was pretty lousy in science but he made me feel good about it anyway.” She scratched the back of her neck, wondering where that memory had come from.
“Miz Perez, she’s from Mexico. She’s awesome. Tells us all about her life there.”
“What about?” Belle eased the question in gently as though coaxing a rabbit out of the brush. She’d worked enough years with kids to know when to pounce and when to tread lightly.
For a moment Lily was mute again. Then she said, “About when she was a girl, how she cried over the poverty down there. She watched little kids die of hunger.” Lily turned to Belle, her eyes brooding. “It was so awful.”
“And you feel it as though it were happening to you?”
The girl didn’t seem conscious of wringing her hands. “Miz Perez, she makes you see things, makes you understand about the world. Like Julio does.”
Suddenly tears came and Lily turned away.
Belle let the silence stretch out. How many times had Ellie needed this kind of prodding to release her daily tragedies? How many times had the two of them sat at the supper table like this after the ‘men’ had finally left them alone? And then it came gushing out.
“Please Miz – ”
“Evans.”
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who I can talk to.” Lily whipped around in her chair, her eyes awash with tears, grasping her hands before her. “I’m so scared.”
Belle handed her a tissue box from the table. “Tell me, Lily. I’m here to help.”
“Julio,” she cried, hands to her face. “Oh my God! Julio. It’s all my fault. He’s – he’s dead. My dad killed him!”
Cold washed through Belle’s chest. Lily cried in earnest now so Belle got up and pulled the girl into her arms, letting her sob against her in pain and panic. When Ned peeked in the door, she shook her head to make him go away.
As the girl’s crying subsided, Belle held her at arm’s length and said, “Can you tell me about it?”
Lily hung her head, desperation oozing from her. “My dad hated him cause he’s Mexican. My dad hates Mexicans,” she spit out, her voice rising. “He’s a damned racist! I wish I could run away and leave him to rot.”
Belle let her go on for a few moments more, spewing out the anger and bile. Handing her the tissue box again, she sat her back down. “What about your mother, Lily?”
“She’s dead, too. He killed her.”
“He killed your mother? How do you know?”
“He pushed her when he was drunk. Pushed her against the counter. She – she –” The girl’s whole demeanor deflated.
Belle was at a loss. “What about brothers? Sisters?”
“I don’t have any.”
“So you live with your father?”
A nod.
Belle took in air, let it out. “Okay. Lily, how do you know your father killed your friend?”
“Julio? He was my lover. We were going to be married, Miz Evans.”
A new bout of sobbing began. Belle waited it out. When the sobs quieted, Belle said, “Can you tell me about it?”
Lily’s chest continued to heave but she managed to get her story out. “Julio asked me to meet him over by Lame Horse Canyon last night. That’s our meeting place – when I can’t see him at school. He said he had something to tell me. He was – he was –” She broke down again, devouring tissues.
Belle prodded her.
“He said he was going to get enough money so we could run off together. He’s been working like crazy to make money for us.”
“Your dad, is he abusive? Does he hit you?” Belle glanced at the bruise on the girl’s jaw.
Lily hesitated. “He didn’t used to be mean like that. Just since Julio and me’ve been dating. He never liked any of my boyfriends, but mostly Julio because he’s –”
“Mexican.”
Lily’s eyes burned with anger, then softened. “Julio said he’d have money soon and we could leave – leave my racist shit of a father, leave this place that doesn’t understand people like Julio. Miz Perez knows how it is. She’s helped us, talked to us sometimes.” She swept hair behind her ears with hands that shook.
Belle made a mental note to check out Ms. Perez who apparently left a strong impression on Lily. Maybe even influenced her choice of boyfriend. “All right, you met at the canyon. What happened?”
“Do you know Lame Horse Canyon? There’s only one way in and it’s hidden from the road. So we didn’t see my dad’s pickup until it was too late. He jumped out and started swearing at us. He called me a whore and he called Julio a dirty Spic rapist! He –he –”
Belle ran a hand over her mouth. “Is that where you got the bruise on your jaw?”
Lily nodded. “He began to beat Julio. I screamed at my dad but he didn’t quit. When my dad hit me, Julio hit him back and knocked him down, then told me to get out of there, to go.” The girl grabbed Belle’s arms. “I didn’t want to leave him there – leave him to deal with my dad. I saw the gun in my dad’s belt. I was so afraid, but Julio insisted. He yelled to get out of there fast. I didn’t know what to think so I – I just ran to my Jeep and drove away.”
Belle let it sink in. She got to her feet, walked the small space across the room, came back. “How do you know Julio’s dead, Lily? Maybe they just fought and that’s all.”
“He’s dead,” Lily told her with a cold finality that chilled the conference room air. “He didn’t call me afterwards and I couldn’t get hold of him. Then this morning I heard it on the radio. ‘Julio Morales, found beaten and shot to death in Lame Horse Canyon.’”

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