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The Summerland: Mariposa, #1

The Summerland: Mariposa, #1

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The Summerland: Mariposa, #1

Length:
290 pages
4 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Mar 5, 2017
ISBN:
9781386327431
Format:
Book

Description

Sheriff Bill Ashton's life is good, quiet, until the bodies of five women are discovered in the remote foothills and all hell breaks loose. Then another woman disappears, leaving her estranged sister's stolen car and half a million in cash behind as their only clues.

Air Force Captain Arden Jones hasn't spoken to her sister in years, but Samantha's disappearance galvanizes her, sending her to small-town America in search of the black sheep of the family.

Thrown together by circumstance, Bill and Arden explore Samantha's disappearance and her probable connection to the murdered women. Neither expects, nor welcomes, the attraction that surges between them, or the fact that setting aside long-held beliefs may be the only way to stop a madman bent on creating the perfect woman, the one true goddess central to the Wiccan religion, Diana.

Publisher:
Released:
Mar 5, 2017
ISBN:
9781386327431
Format:
Book

About the author

I’m a great believer in Fate. Yeah, with a capital “F”. And I write in those terms. Why? Probably because my beloved husband said he fell in love with me the first time he saw me. You might ask if it was a two-way gig… In a word, uh-uh. Not that he wasn’t fine to the extreme, but I wasn’t looking for forever…more of a fun vacation experience. Yeah, so now we’ve muddled our way through almost 30 years of marriage, and I have to admit to his superior intuition on that one!! So, if you’re looking for an Alpha hero who just happens to “know” his life-mate when he sees them, don’t be overly surprised. If you like your heroes in uniform (be they cops, firefighters, or military) and your heroines with a bit of quirk, then wing by my website www.tlschaefer.com and check out an excerpt or two to wet your whistle! Don't forget to check out my Facebook, and Twitter pages as well!

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The Summerland - TL Schaefer

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Chapter One

Mariposa County Sheriff Bill Ashton looked down at the scattered skeletal remains, stone-faced in his impassive review of the ground before him. The crime scene, and there was no doubt it was one, had been horribly corrupted by both time and the two teenage boys who had stumbled across it in this remote foothill ravine. Empty eye sockets leered up at him eerily.

The victim’s forehead was punctuated by a small, neat hole, presumably a .22 or .25 caliber since he could see no discernable exit wound. He knew what a small caliber bullet could do to the inside of someone’s head, and winced at the picture his mind formed. At least these remains were skeletal. He’d found through long, painful experience that you could be almost clinical in your assessment of a skeleton.

His deputies swarmed over the brushy hillside in the baking afternoon sun, looking for any additional bone fragments that may have been scattered by foraging coyotes or ravens. Until they were finished, his examination of the scene was on hold, except for general observations.

This was a hell of a state of affairs, he thought wearily, relaxing his controlled expression. He rubbed a callused hand over half a day’s worth of stubble, then absently stroked the hairline scar that arched just over his temple and disappeared under the battered cowboy hat he wore. Murders didn’t happen in Mariposa very often, but when they did they usually involved family members or significant others.

A cry further down the rutted dirt road brought the Sheriff’s head up and set his long legs into motion. He charged into the underbrush beside the track and blanched as the second body came into view. These remains, as with the other, had been dispatched by a single bullet hole to the head. If this wasn’t a set of execution-style murders, then he was Mickey Mouse.

Jesus Fucking Christ! What the hell is this? The totally unnecessary epitaph came from directly behind him and belonged to his esteemed colleague, Joe Whelan, the medical examiner.

I dunno Joe, we may have a small problem here. Looks like two vics with the same damned placement and caliber. But then again, that’s your department, huh?

Taking off his age-worn Stetson, Ashton absently shuffled it from hand to hand as his faded blue eyes swept the scene, scanning the remote hillside. The detached, ‘cop’ section of his brain noted that death was always unforgiving, no matter how beautiful the landscape it occurred in.

This portion of his county had always reminded him of a living, medieval cathedral, like something you would see paintings of in history books. Black oaks wore a stately velvety coat of emerald moss, their thick, sturdy arms reaching for everything and nothing at the same time. Warring with the oaks for supremacy were the rod-straight bodies of huge Ponderosa Pines, evergreen boughs clawing toward the searing beauty of the sun. Beneath the grandeur of these monarchs, a graceful carpet of purple-blue lupine bobbed playfully in the searing breeze, their feet firmly entrenched in a thick layer of pine straw and oak leaves and red mountain clay.

That living carpet now crackled and shifted beneath each deputy's feet, concealing and revealing with each movement.

Ashton whistled slowly through his teeth and shook his head. This looks shitty no matter how you slice it. He turned to the throng of deputies slowly gathering, I want the entire cutoff road from Ponderosa Basin to Wawona sealed yesterday. No one but us in or out until we can figure out who the hell is dumping bodies up here. The first victim was one thing, this is an entirely new boat and I will not screw this up.

He turned to a pasty-faced deputy at his side and directed, You call everyone in, and I mean everyone. Get all of our reserve deputies up here to do control and containment, and every sworn deputy to do a proper hillside sweep. Now.

The scramble over granite through the thick buck brush and mesquite at ground level was anything but easy. In the end, their unwelcome quarry was surprisingly simple to locate. In the gruesome light of a fading day, five bodies in varying stages of decomposition were located and taped off. Each had been placed just off the roadway, in a loose circle with a diameter of at least twenty-five yards. A neat bullet wound pierced each skull like a grotesque punctuation mark.

Ashton ordered that the entire ten-mile road be marked as a crime scene and blocked the local freeway into Yosemite.

The newest body appeared to be only days old and was that of a young female. It hadn’t helped the searcher’s already queasy stomachs when Mark Lewis, the county’s newest physician and volunteer search and rescue worker, puked all over his expensive Timberlands upon discovering the last, freshest corpse. Bloated bluebottle flies swarmed the hillside in a touch-and-go pattern; making most of the searchers wonder how they’d missed it in the first place.

From an initial inspection of her body, Whelan had determined the obvious cause of death, and suggested calling in an entomologist to determine how long she’d been exposed to the blowflies and the elements. Late June in Mariposa was roughly akin to a day on the surface of the sun and the days had not been kind to Jane Doe Five. Most of her soft flesh had decayed, obscuring her facial features.

Bill Ashton was in a hell of a pickle, and he knew it. It was obvious that this had been going on for some time, and he had more than a gut feeling that a local was responsible for it. For one thing, the Ponderosa Basin-Wawona cutoff was not an easy road to drive upon or even to locate. It was a rutted wagon track on the best of days and a muddy, sticky mess on the rest. For the most part, only locals knew of the shortcut into Yosemite, and most of them held passes that would get them into the Park free year-round, so they didn’t need to circumnavigate the mess. Ashton just thanked God that those kids had found those bodies now, rather than twenty years down the line.

Absently scratching a long denim-clad leg, he let his gaze rove over the hillside once more, looking at it through the eyes of an experienced LAPD Homicide detective. He scanned the packed clay of the roadway nearest Jane Doe Five. No tire tracks, but then again, he wouldn’t have expected any. It hadn’t rained in almost a month. There wasn’t even any trash up here, it was so remote. He massaged the bridge of his nose and thought about what to do next. He really didn’t want to call the feds in until he at least had a little bit of a handle on this thing, but he didn’t want to endanger any more lives either.

They were damned lucky that Joe Whelan had decided to retire to the foothills five years ago, then assume the mantle of medical examiner because he was bored. A county and community the size of Mariposa didn’t warrant a full-time ME or even a real coroner. Not that they'd needed one up to this point, thought Ashton grimly.

It didn't take the cranky old ME long to make a determination. Each of the victims was female, aged sixteen to twenty-five years old. He couldn’t and wouldn’t speculate further until he’d done autopsies. To the Sheriff's disquieted eye, it almost looked like the corpses were gruesome anniversary presents a new gift for each and every year.

The First Fold

She will be my everything . She is all that is perfect and shimmery and woman. She will be my salvation.

She was stunning and brandished her femininity like a weapon. A cloud of Chanel surrounded her like a luxurious fog, enhancing her latent sexuality. The face looking back from the rear view mirror could have easily graced the cover of any fashion magazine. From her platinum-highlighted hair to the tips of her perfectly pedicured toes, she was the type of woman who made grown men gape and beautiful women green with envy. Looking into the passenger seat of the sporty Miata, she laughed a low, feline purr. The duffel bag to her right was full—bulging with the money that was hers and only hers, now. And as for the car, well that was just beauty in itself.

Finally, she could surround herself in the luxury that was her due. She was driving through this dusty, dirty section of central California to spend a few days in hiding at a cabin in Mammoth Lakes, and she would be damned if she weren’t going to enjoy herself, Carlos or no Carlos, feds or no feds.

And never, in a million years, would it occur to any of them that she’d gone further into the state. She knew that Carlos would send Teddy after her, there was no doubt in her mind about that. And the feds, well, they couldn't find their ass with both hands. She’d outsmarted them once again. Planes to the Caymans, the Bahamas and Switzerland would be scrutinized long before the search ever turned inward. And that would be her triumph. One half million dollars in unmarked, non-traceable bills—ah, what a world we live in.

As she rolled through the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Planada, her attention shifted to the rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevada. She shifted into fourth and left the town in the understated growl that only a small sports car seemed to produce. As dizzying rows of freshly furrowed earth whipped past, the radio played the latest techno-dance remake of a previously good song. She began to climb the shallow foothills, a candy-apple red spot lost amid the goldenrod fields and pastures, and noticed the temperature gauge on the dash begin to inch upward. By the time she reached the rest area the indicator was firmly in the red. Pulling into the well-maintained parking area, she shut off the engine. Her initial dismay turned to outright anger as steam began to billow out from beneath the hood. Uttering colorful obscenities, she flipped open her cell phone and dialed AAA.

It had not been a good day for Tony Ortiz. He had overslept, which meant he and the kids hadn’t had time for a real breakfast. His normal wrecker was in the shop with an engine problem, and to top it off he had to drive halfway to Merced to pick up some dumb tourist who didn’t know how to shift. All he knew was that he was on the lookout for a red Miata parked in one of the rest areas along Highway 140.

The car wasn’t hard to spot, and Tony pulled his truck alongside it no more than thirty minutes after he’d left Mariposa. He stepped out of the rig and looked around for the driver, but didn’t see a soul throughout the entire rest area. He knew they had to be around here somewhere, because the top was down and there was a big, expensive sports bag in the front seat. He eyeballed the restrooms, then heaved a sigh as he leaned back against the wrecker. After his allotted 15-minute wait time, he called the AAA dispatcher and asked her to initiate a callback.

He heard the ringing coming from the car, and almost smacked himself in the forehead. Of course they’d called from a cell phone. He looked into the interior of the sports car, looking for the phone so he could answer Jennifer, but it was nowhere to be seen. As the ringing continued, he looked at the duffel bag, then unzipped the top just as the phone went silent.

Forty-five minutes later he stood in his small bedroom, staring at the imposing sports bag sitting on the threadbare spread of his double bed. Next to it sat a sleek cellular telephone, one of the new gadgets that did everything but talk for you.

He didn’t know what had possessed him to take the darned thing. He remembered that one, quick, damning glimpse inside—the ocean of green he’d seen had overwhelmed him. He’d looked around furtively, trying to see if the driver was anywhere else in the rest area, but there was no one to be found. He’d taken the bag like a man in a dream and stowed it in one of the locked compartments of his wrecker, then contacted dispatch.

Tony slowly shook his head, like a man waking from a deep slumber. No, he knew exactly why he’d taken the bag; it represented the future for his children. As a single father of two he knew exactly how hard it was to support a family, and he could think of some wonderful things to do with the amount of money that was in that bag.

The shrill ringing of the cell phone began again, the third time in the last half-hour. Tony stared at it like he might a rattlesnake, waiting for it to strike. His foot actually moved forward, his fingers stretching for it, before he caught himself. How in the hell was he supposed to answer it, and why should he? If he were smart he’d remove the battery and throw the thing in the closest Dumpster. Even as arguments raged through his head, his hand continued it’s downward motion until the phone rested in his palm. With a trembling finger he punched the receive button and listened.

I know you’re there you bitch, I can hear you breathing. The voice on the other end of the line was rough, ragged with anger. Answering that phone was the second biggest mistake you’ve ever made. You know what the first was, you thieving whore? Huh, do you? It was stealing my fucking money. Don’t you know they can trace cell phone calls now? Can’t wait to see you, babe. The voice was disconnected with a sharp, distinct click.

Tony set the phone back on the bedspread, his hands beginning to shake more violently as each second passed. He heard the front door bang as his kids filed in from an afternoon of play. Their clear, innocent voices jarred him back to reality, a world that he had been absent from the moment he discovered that bag.

Chapter Two

The upended San Jose State Spartans football helmet teetering on the thrashed generic metal desk was full of messages—full to overflowing—even at eight a.m. Sheriff Bill Ashton knew that one of the weak-in-the-knees, traffic-control, auxiliary deputies had blabbed, and blabbed as soon as his shift was over. God damn it! He had five dead bodies on top of all the other bullshit he dealt with on a daily basis as Sheriff. Now he would have to talk to the press and probably the goddamn FBI before this bitch of a day was through. What a way to start a Tuesday morning.

He ran a large, work-roughened hand through his light brown hair, teasing it out of it’s careful comb-down and warily eyed the mountain of messages and hastily scrawled crime scene observations scattered across the battered Army surplus desk. His office always resembled carefully choreographed chaos, and as the old saying went, he knew exactly where everything was. Buff manila folders were everywhere, strewn haphazardly throughout the room, leaving only two clear spaces, his creaky, battered swivel chair and the seat opposite his desk. The lilting strains of the Dixie Chicks crooned from one corner of the pile, muffled by two layers of files and a windbreaker.

Gail, the department secretary, had once attempted to tame the mess he called a filing system and had thrown everything out of whack for weeks. It had never happened again. Messy or no, it was his office and he’d keep it as he damned well pleased.

Bill Ashton was a large man, even in this day of big men. Two hundred and twenty pounds rode easily on his six foot, two inch frame, but there was no escaping the fact that too many beers during football season and fishing had contributed to the beginnings of a mini-Michelin. The soft, barely noticeable paunch beginning to develop around his midsection had become his latest obsession.

He knew that at thirty-five he was a far cry from over the hill, but he was also no longer the trim, fit athlete he’d been throughout high school and in college—never mind the fact that he ran at least four times a week and did enough sit-ups to make Stallone look like a puss. Then again, reaching your mid-thirties tended to do that to a man. It was just one of those facts about the universe that sucked. These days he was just happy he didn’t look like crap in his uniform when he wore it. Lately he’d tended more toward jeans and western shirts, and knew, without a doubt, that he was turning into his grandfather.

Irritably shifting his shoulder holster, he folded himself into his cheap office throne, bumping into a mammoth stack of Policeman’s Quarterly magazines and leaving them tottering precariously behind one of the squeaky, stubborn wheels of the chair. Grabbing a handful of the pink flimsies from inside the football helmet, he sifted through them, groaning inwardly as he read. They were all there, from the city fathers to the goddamn governor. He would gladly relinquish that reply to the mayor.

Rooting out the duty roster, he noted that the patrol officers he had put on containment had all reported for duty and were on station. He had put only his most trusted deputies on the scene, holding it until the crime lab specialists could get there from Modesto. Placing a call late last night to his sister office requesting assistance with the processing of these crime scenes was one of the hardest things he had ever had to do. He expected them at any time this morning and would drive them out to the mountain himself.

Though he would never have used the words to describe himself, Bill Ashton was a cautious, careful man. He’d be damned if he would put a bunch of unseasoned hometown deputies on the task of collecting evidence on a case as big as this one looked. Even he was uncomfortable touching anything, and he’d pulled Homicide for five years. No, the most the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office could or would do right now were the basics. Secure the scene. Investigate any leads. Crowd control. Media handling.

Sifting through the piles of paper, he came up with the first of the neighborhood interviews. The area the bodies had been discovered in was so sparsely populated he doubted anyone had noticed anything, but then again, it was a small town, and small towns tended toward minding each other's business. Regardless, it was one of those steps every law enforcement officer was trained and required to take. Reaching blindly for the cup of coffee he’d placed somewhere on the desk, he settled back in his chair and began to read.

The Sheriff’s response to Gail’s polite knock on the door was anything but civilized. She cautiously poked her head into the office, giving him the eye as only a trained secretary could. Her once-over glance, honed after years of practice, showed exactly what state of mind her boss was in. Pasting on an apologetic smile, she entered the office, closing the door behind her. I’m sorry to interrupt you Bill. I know it’s been a hell of a morning, but I really think you need to see this. At his curt nod, she reopened the door and gestured into the waiting area.

Tony Ortiz entered the office, visibly trembling. Ashton had known him for a few years, ever since he and his kids had moved to the area from Fresno. In all his years as a cop, he’d never seen a man as scared as Tony was now.

He waved him to the ancient wooden chair opposite his desk, noting as he did the Gucci sports bag that the mechanic was toting. What can I do for you Tony, we’re kind of busy around here, you know?

Tony sucked in a deep breath. I know I shouldn’t have taken it Sheriff, but I just couldn’t seem to help myself. It was there, and no one else was and I kept thinking how my kids could go to college and have nice clothes and maybe we could buy a nicer house and...

Bill’s raised hand stopped the torrent. He leaned across the desk, looking Tony straight in the eye. Slow down man. What exactly are we talking about here?

Tony bit his lip, then lifted the sports bag onto the Sheriff’s cluttered desk. He unzipped the top and let Bill see the extent of his turmoil. The Sheriff whistled, long and low. Holy shit Tony. He looked back up at the troubled man. I think you’d better start from the beginning.

Ashton wanted a look at that car himself. His drive down the hill to the rest area was as uneventful as a normal day in Mariposa should be, except that the images of those dead women kept playing across the windshield, like a dark and gory movie. Over and over again until Bill thought he would scream. He knew he should be sitting at his desk right now, preparing a statement for the press, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. He’d never been a public speaker and talking about something like this over the hum and lights of a dozen cameras scared the crap out of him. This field trip was simply a diversion; something to take his mind away from the brutality he’d never thought would come home.

And then there it was, sitting right in the middle of the otherwise empty parking lot, like a bright and sparkling toy. He stepped slowly out of his Blazer, walking around the Miata like he might some exotic snake, eyeing it with a distinct unease. He didn’t know what was making him so edgy, causing his hackles to rise. Sure, finding that much money in an abandoned car was unusual, damned unusual.

Shit, to be honest it was suspicious as hell, but other than the fact that Tony had taken the cash home, no real crime had been committed. The telephone call Tony had received was just that, a telephone call. He had no reports of a missing person and didn’t see any immediate evidence of foul play. He had an abandoned car and a whole lot of money. So why was it making him just as nervous and jumpy as the five women laying in cold storage in the county morgue?

He finally approached the passenger side of the vehicle, snapping on a latex glove as he did so. He knew this was a job for the crime lab, but they were all busy up on the

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