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Case XII: Chapter 1: A Social Call Interrupted

Matthew Dudley was engaged in his normal daily routine, sitting in the Main Dining Room at La Vida Aureo, enjoying a second cup of coffee and reading The Wall Street Journal.  Paloma Angostura had just returned to the kitchen to begin preparing the noon meal. Dudley didn’t notice Isabella Duncan, La Vida Aureo’s Executive Director as she approached and quietly sat down across the table from him.

“Oh. Good Morning, Isabella. I didn’t see you sneak up on me.”

“Sorry to startle you, Doc. I was out walking and noticed you sitting here.”

“Don’t worry, Isabella, I about finished with my paper and was headed to the Second Floor to look at a leaky faucet in Mrs. Thomas’ apartment.”

“I wasn’t checking up on you, Doc.  You should know by now that I trust you explicitly.  But, before you dash off, I need your input on something.”

“I know, Isabella.  I just didn’t want anyone to complain to you that I was loafing on the job.  I saw Mrs. Branch wandering around this morning and I assume she believes it is her duty to report everything she sees, or suspects, to you.”

“Not to worry. We both have had plenty of interesting and exciting experiences with her and know to take her “helpful input” with a grain of salt.

“Right!  I wanted to review our overall occupancy and readiness situation with you.  I don’t think there are any casitas available, but I believe there may be one or two vacant suites in the Independent Living Wing of the Main Building.  I’d appreciate it if you would let me know if there are any maintenance or repair issues to address before I allow someone new to move in.  Thanks, Doc.  I knew I could count on you.”

 

As Dudley had suspected, Millicent Branch was out and about.  Mrs. Branch had been a La Vida Aureo Resident for a number of years and had taken it upon herself to walk through the campus virtually every day and report her observations to Isabella Duncan. Today, however, she was on a much different mission. She was walking directly to the Second Floor of the Main Building carrying a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry in a brightly-colored gift bag for a social call on Mrs. Harriet Aldridge.  As she approached Mrs. Aldridge’s apartment, she noticed Staff Supervisor Frida Savino standing in the doorway.

“I’m here to call on Mrs. Aldridge and would appreciate it if you would move out of my way,” said Mrs. Branch with an air of indignity.

“Oh, Señora Branch, I don’t think you should enter the apartment.  There has been a terrible accident and Mrs. Aldridge appears to be unconscious.  I’ve asked one of the girls to go and get Señora Duncan and Señor Dudley.”

“What are you talking about? I talked to Harriet just a short while ago and she is obviously expecting me.  Please get out of my way!”

“I’m sorry, Señora Branch. I cannot allow you to enter until Señora Duncan arrives.”

Millicent Branch stormed away and met Isabella Duncan at the top of the main staircase.  “That Mexican girl is being very rude to me and won’t let me into Mrs. Aldridge’s apartment.  I expect you to do something about it.”

Isabella Duncan paused only briefly. “Please calm down, Mrs. Branch. It is important that I find out exactly what is going on and I would appreciate it if you would clear the hallway.  The Fire Department and Paramedics will be here any moment.  Thank you.”

 

Just then, Matthew Dudley arrived on the Second Floor leading two Albuquerque Firemen and two Paramedics.  The Paramedics walked quickly into Mrs. Aldridge’s apartment and immediately started to assess the situation and her condition.  Isabella Duncan stood nearby intensely observing while Matthew Dudley and Frida Savino tried to keep the hallway clear from the gathering group of curious on-lookers.

After working on Mrs. Aldridge for about fifteen minutes, one of the Paramedics stood up and walked over to Isabella and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Ms. Duncan. Mrs. Aldridge is dead.  There wasn’t really anything we could do. I’m pretty certain she was dead before we arrived. I’m sorry.”

“Can you tell me anything?  She was fairly active here and I never noticed any signs of illness.  I’d have to check here records to be absolutely certain, but I don’t believe she reported any significant medical conditions.”

“It isn’t typically our role to determine the actual cause of death but I suggest you contact the Police.  We are required to notify them of any unaccompanied deaths like this. I can tell you that there is a large contusion on the back of her head as if she fell and hit the end table next to the sofa.  My guess is that contributed to her death, but I imagine the Police will want to have the Medical Examiner look at the situation in detail and draw their own conclusions.”

“Thank you.  I appreciate your very prompt response and your being straight-forward with me; I’ll handle things with the Police from here.  I’m going to ask someone to escort all of you out of the building so that you don’t get side-tracked by any of our overly curious Residents.”

“Thank you and again I’m sorry about the situation.”

 

Isabella walked into the hallway and approached Dudley and Frida Savino.  “Doc, would you escort the Team get out of the building so they can get on their way?  Then, please meet me in my office. Frida, please securely lock Mrs. Aldridge’s apartment and then come to my office.  The Police will be arriving shortly and I’m sure they will want to talk to you.”

Turning to the small group of Residents gathered in the hallway, Isabella said, “There has been an accident and I would appreciate it if you would all go on about your own activities.  As soon as I have more information, I will let everyone know.  Thank you.”

Then, ignoring Millicent Branch who was waving her hand for attention, Isabella turned and went quickly to her office to call Lt. Frank Garcia of the Albuquerque Metropolitan Police.

 

Case XII: Chapter 2: Not Another Death at the Old Folks’ Home

Isabella Duncan, Matthew Dudley and Frida Savino were sitting in Isabella’s office when Lt. Garcia arrived a short time later.

“I got your call, Isabella and came as soon as I was able. You said there had been a death of a Resident and that the EMT recommended you call me.  Can you give me a bit more information?  By the way, it is good to see all of you again and I hope this doesn’t develop into an unfortunate situation.”

“It is good to see you as well, Lieutenant, and I share your thought about this situation.”

“Mrs. Harriet Aldridge came here almost three years ago and was a pleasant person with an interesting background.  She was bilingual and seemed to get along with most everyone here, although she tended to keep to herself. I believe she had some sort of relationship with Ynez Barela and I occasionally saw them together in the Dining Room speaking Spanish with one another woman. Señora Angostura may be able to tell you more about that.”

“Good. That will give a reason to visit with Paloma. Did Mrs. Aldridge have any family?”

“Harriet had been a widow for quite some time. I believe she has a daughter who lives here in Albuquerque or maybe somewhere in the East Mountains; I’d have to check the files to be certain.  Anyway, her daughter and son-in-law visit about once-a-month. I don’t believe there is any other family that I’m aware of.”

“OK. I’ll need any contact information you have on file.  Would you like for me to contact the daughter or would you prefer to do it?”

“Let’s wait until you’ve had a chance to look at the situation and we can decide before you leave.”

“That makes sense.  Now, if you could tell me exactly what happened and what you know about the situation.”

“Lieutenant, this is Frida Savino, the Supervisor for that Section of the Independent Living Unit.  She was the one who actually discovered Mrs. Aldridge.  Frida, please tell Lt. Garcia what happened.”

It had been less than two hours since Frida discovered Mrs. Aldridge and she was still somewhat shaken by the events.  She took another drink of water and looked directly at Lt. Garcia.  “Actually, it was Elena, the person responsible for the apartment who first noticed Mrs. Aldridge lying on the floor.  She remembered her training and did not touch anything, including Mrs. Aldridge.  Elena immediately came and got me. I was just a few steps down the hallway. When I entered the apartment, I called out to Mrs. Aldridge several times as I moved closer to where she was lying on the floor.  When she did not respond, I immediately sent Elena to notify Señora Duncan and Señor Dudley.  I then stood in the doorway to wait for them and to make sure no one entered the apartment.”

“Very good, Señora Savino.  You did exactly the correct things.  I assume you also did not touch or move any objects that were near the body or in the apartment”?

“No, Sir.  Elena was scheduled to clean the apartment this morning and Mrs. Aldridge often goes for a walk or out with her daughter on those days. Elena entered the apartment and saw Mrs. Aldridge on the floor and immediately came and got me.”

“OK, thank you.  I may have some more questions and will want to talk to you and Elena again after I’ve been to the apartment, but I think that will be enough for now.”

Turning to Matthew Dudley, Garcia said, “Doc, could you take me to the apartment and make sure no one enters while I have a look around?”

 

As the two men walked to the second floor, Garcia put in a call to the Coroner’s office and asked that Dr. George Hernandez come to La Vida Aureo as soon as possible.  He also made arrangements to transport Mrs. Aldridge’s body to the City Morgue.

Dudley opened the apartment door but remained in the doorway to allow Garcia time to examine the scene without interruption.  When Dudley saw that no one was in the hallway, he closed the door and began looking around. Mrs. Aldridge was lying on the floor at one end of the Living Room near the entrance to the Kitchen.  Garcia was kneeling over her body and closely examining the carpet.  As Dudley approached, Garcia looked up.  “I suspect the EMT was right; there appears to be a large and severe contusion on the side of her head which may have been the cause of death.  There is also a glass near her body and some type of spilled liquid.  I’ll have one of the Forensic Techs come over and take some samples.  I’ll wait for Hernandez to have a look; he always seems to come up with ways to make my life more interesting.”

“I agree, Lieutenant.  Whatever was in that glass may not be important, but it’s probably wise to analyze it.  From what I’ve heard, her daughter can get pretty worked up at times and I’d hate to see her make things difficult for you.”

“Thanks for the heads-up, Doc.  I’ve seen too many cases where a family member doesn’t want to accept the simple explanation and becomes unreasonable.  I think I’ll leave any further investigation of the body to the Coroner and look around the rest of the apartment.”

Garcia called Tom Bowers, Senior Forensic Technician and went into the Kitchen and began looking in the cabinets and pantry.  Dudley continued to walk around the Living Room, casually examining the bookshelves and photographs.  He heard a heavy pounding on the apartment door followed by a loud voice.  “Garcia, are you in there?  C’mon, open up if you expect me to do my job.”

Garcia came back into the Living Room and opened the door.  “It’s nice to see you again, too, George.”

“You know how much I look forward to coming to this Old Folks Home where there seems to be no end to the unusual ways these geezers can die.”

“Well, I hate to disappoint you, George, but this looks pretty straight-forward.  I wouldn’t have even bothered to call you, but you know how Department procedures are and how I try to avoid inter-departmental controversy. “

“Yeah, yeah.  Just tell me what we’re looking at, if you don’t mind.”

“It looks like Mrs. Aldridge fell and hit her head on this end table. I noticed a rather large contusion on the side of her head. There’s a glass on the floor and spilled liquid of some sort. I’ve called Tom Bowers to come over and take some samples, etc.  That’s about it.  I had just begun looking around the apartment when you arrived.  Oh, and I assume you remember Matthew Dudley.  He lives here and has been helpful to me in the past.”

“Mr. Dudley, it’s nice to see you again.  It seems like we only meet under unfortunate circumstances.“

Turning back to Lt. Garcia, Hernandez smiled, “Now, Frank, if you’ll be so kind as to let me look at this poor woman’s body.  And, when Bowers arrives, make sure he gets samples from this table; it looks like blood and hair on this upper edge.”

Tom Bowers, the Senior Forensic Technician with the Albuquerque Police Department arrived as Garcia and Dudley were exiting the apartment into the hallway.  Garcia described the situation to Bowers with directions to look closely at the liquid spilled on the carpet, the suspect end table as well as the area around Mrs. Aldridge’s body.  “It appears that this may be a case of an older person falling and hitting her head on a sharp corner of a table, but I know you will use your best judgment and be completely thorough in your investigation.  Please let me know when you have some information for me to review.  Oh, and be careful; Dr. Hernandez is particularly testy today. I think coming here to investigate deaths of these Seniors really upsets him; I know he has an aging mother and this may hit too close to home.”

 

Dudley and Garcia walked back toward the Main Lobby where Isabella Duncan was standing looking out the large front window.  “Thanks for coming so promptly, Lieutenant.  I put a call in to Mrs. Aldridge’s daughter, but had to leave a message.  Please let me know when you have any additional information that I can share with her, particularly when the body can be released.”

“Will do, Isabella. I hope this turns out to be just an unfortunate accident.”  Garcia shook hands with Matthew Dudley and headed to the Visitor’s Parking Lot.

Case XI: Chapter 1: Dueling Divas

Matthew Dudley was sitting in the Main Dining Room with Isabella Duncan discussing all the recent events that had such a major impact on everyone.  Paloma Angostura was busy in the kitchen but made time to join them as often as she could.  All three remained committed to the success of La Vida Aureo and to the safety and well-being of the Residents.  But the murder of Cesar Ramirez by another Resident on the grounds of the community made them realize that there were some major modifications that were necessary.  The most obvious improvement that needed to be made was to make the entire facility and its surroundings significantly more secure.  “I absolutely do not want this place to have the feel of a prison,” said Isabella. “I have always prided myself in creating an environment that was pleasant and supportive.  The Residents should never feel as though we’re restricting them in any way.”

“I agree, Isabella,” added Dudley.  “But, at the same time, we must realize that we have Residents here who really do need to be restricted for their own safety. I mean, we have people who are quite capable of living independently and in their own detached casita. At the same time, most of the folks in our Memory Care Unit are certainly not able to move about freely and safely.  And, then there are the Residents in Assisted Living who represent all of the conditions between these two extremes.  I think you would agree that it would be unfair to apply the same conditions to everyone.”

“I know you’re correct, Doc.  It is a complex situation, but we must not lose sight of one of our principles to treat all residents with respect and dignity.  Perhaps we should not try to solve this issue without some input from the Residents themselves.”

“That makes a lot of sense, Isabella.  Let me talk with the Community Assist Team and get their input as to the best way to approach gathering that input.  Perhaps there is a way to make this a positive experience for everyone involved, particularly the Residents.”

“The other thing that has me very concerned, Doc, is the ease with which Mr. Salazar was able to fool all of us by pretending to have Alzheimer’s.  He was able to claim a loss of memory and use that as an excuse for his behavior.  His behaviors were so convincing and we never thought that it might all be an act.  He could have easily gotten away with murder. I am certainly not an expert in the field, but we’ve got to find a way to never let this happen again.  One of the strengths of La Vida Aureo is that we believe we can accommodate individuals at all stages of life from totally independent to total care.  I realize now that this strength is also a potential major vulnerability.”

“I am painfully aware that I know very little about Alzheimer’s so pardon my simplistic suggestion.  In our Physical Therapy Department, we have established a series of tests that we use, not only for diagnostic purposes, but also to detect fraud.  By repeating and recording a person’s physical tests, we are able to determine more about an injury or if they are simply faking.  I assume there are some sort of mental and maybe physical tests to measure mental capability.  Would it be possible to adapt those somehow similar to what we do in Physical Therapy to at least give some indication?  Maybe it would help us prevent someone trying to become a Resident under fraudulent conditions.”

“I don’t know, Doc.  Let me talk to some medical professionals and the folks at the Alzheimer’s Association and see if that is a possibility.”

Dudley and Isabella were so engrossed in their conversation that they did not notice that Paloma had joined them at the table.

“Oh!  I’m so sorry, Paloma.  I did not see you.  Doc and I were talking about the deaths of Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Salazar and how deeply it affected everyone.  Those incidents also pointed out the need to change some of the things we do here to prevent a similar situation from occurring.”

“It is no problem, Señora Duncan.  The death of both men was a terrible tragedy. I believe we all know that Señor Salazar murdered Señor Ramirez, but his death was most unfortunate.  I guess God works in mysterious ways sometimes.”

“Perhaps,” replied Isabella. “But, it is my opinion that justice would have been better served if he had stood trial and the entire story had been made public. As it was, it just left Lt. Garcia with a mountain of paperwork which wasn’t much of a reward for his efforts.”

“Well, Señora, I know you are deeply concerned for the Residents and they are looking to you to provide guidance.  I’m confident that they will adapt to whatever changes and improvements you decide are necessary.”

“Pardon me for asking, Señora, but you have a very worried look on your face.  Is there anything wrong?”

“Thank you, Señor Doc.  You are most kind.  It is just that I have not heard from Francisco for many days and I worry about him.  He promises me that he is always careful, but I sense something different lately.  The last time we talked, he told me that his Department was trying to solve several recent murders in town that all seemed to be connected.  He said it looked like some kind of battle over territory involving the distribution and sale of drugs.  I worry that, when drugs are involved, people do very crazy things.”

“I’m sure the Lieutenant will be very careful, Señora.”

“I will still pray for him every night.”

Isabella Duncan, Matthew Dudley and Paloma Angostura were the very heart and soul of La Vida Aureo and their sense of responsibility weighed heavily on them at the moment.  They sat there in silence, each occupied with their own thoughts.

Finally, Dudley said, “We should not forget that there are some bright spots in our community.  I’ve noticed recently that two avowed enemies have somehow become best friends.  I believe that should be encouragement and proof to us all that anything is possible!”

This broke the sense of gloom and worry that had been present.  “You’ve noticed that Señora Branch and Señora Barela are friends?” smiled Paloma.

“Yes,” said Dudley. “I don’t know if they are actually friends or if they’ve simply declared a truce. I do know, Señora, you have been instrumental in getting them to this point, whatever it is.”

“It was not too difficult.  I discovered that they are both very interested in cooking and I told them they were welcome in my kitchen as long as they were kind and treated each other with respect.  But, do not be fooled, Señor Doc, both are strong, independent women with very strongly-held opinions and they disagree on many issues.”

“I guess I wasn’t aware of this,” said Isabella. “Are you telling me that Millicent Branch and Ynez Barela are now getting along?  That would be very good news indeed, for everyone one here. I was always afraid that one day they would come to blows here in the Dining Room.  I should complement them on this accomplishment. ”

“That might not be advisable, Isabella,” added Dudley.  “I suggest you might want to just observe and not run the risk of becoming collateral damage during one of their discussions.”

“I thought you said they were getting along?”

“They get along much like the Bickersons did on that old radio program.  I believe underneath it all they have a great deal of respect and care deeply for each other, but it isn’t obvious listening to them. Last week I was sitting here at this very table reading The Wall Street Journal when Mrs. Branch and Ms. Barela sat down a few tables away.  I think Mrs. Branch started the discussion by complaining that the City of Albuquerque had decided to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  Mrs. Branch thought it was shameful that the City would stop recognizing the man who discovered America which led to the eventual settlements at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown.  Ms. Barela pointed out that the Spanish had established settlements in New Mexico and California many years before. So, it became a discussion of whether the United States was settled from East to West, as Mrs. Branch maintained, or from South to North which was Ms. Barela’s contention.”

“So, how did it end up?” asked Isabella.

“Oh, I don’t know that it ever ended,” replied Dudley.  “You must realize, Isabella, they each have a totally different view of virtually everything and that defines who they are.  I seriously doubt that any of their discussions will ever change that.  At least, they could agree that Balloon Fiesta was a good thing.”

“I’m happy to hear that.  And, thank you, Señora Angostura, for bringing this truce about.  At least there is peace in some quarters!”

“Don’t get too comfortable, Isabella.  I suspect that we are in for some very lively discussions as October progresses.  Remember that Dia de los Muertos is only a few weeks away and there may be trouble in the air.”

As if on cue, Millicent Branch and Ynez Barela walked into the Dining Room.  The two women were smiling and seemed to be chatting amicably.  They looked around the room and spotting the others, walked over to the table and sat down.

“Good afternoon, Ladies,” said Isabella. “I trust you are both well. I apologize, but I have some important phone calls to make and cannot stay.” As she rose to leave, she smiled toward Dudley as if to say OK, I’m taking your advice and getting out of the way.

Millicent was the first to speak. “Ynez and I were talking about the important holidays in October.  I won’t bother you with how upset I am that the City decided to abandon Columbus Day and call it Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I want to ask Señora Angostura what kind of special dishes we could prepare for Halloween which is only a few weeks away.”

Before Paloma could respond, Ynez Barela spoke up. “Halloween is just a silly commercial day that’s just about candy.  It would be more appropriate if La Vida Aureo recognized Dia de los Muertos, a much more important holiday.  In my culture, we use this time to celebrate and honor those in our family who have passed.  Their spirits come to visit our homes for several days and we go to the cemetery and clean the grave sites and place fresh flowers.”

“What is all this Dia Muertos business,” asked Millicent?  “It sounds like another one of those crazy things you Catholics stole from the Indians.”

“It is true that the celebration of the dead goes back many centuries, to the Aztecs,” responded Ynez.  “But, it was a pagan and barbaric until the Spanish Priests intervened and made it more in keeping with the times.”

“And, I guess these same Priests made it coincide with some Catholic Holiday that was already on the calendar for the same time.”

“The Priests decided that the Indians should celebrate All Saints Day as a more appropriate means to honor the dead.”

“It still sounds like a lot of witchcraft and mysticism mumbo-jumbo if you ask me,” snorted Millicent.

“Whatever!  It still makes more sense than Halloween and handing out candy!”

Dudley had remained quiet to avoid getting involved and being accused of taking sides, which he knew to be a no-win situation.  Paloma was more confident and spoke up.  “Ladies, Señoras. Please, please.  I agree that this time of the year is more important than candy. I believe it is a time to honor those of our families that have passed and I know you both want their spirits or souls to be at peace. We know that many Residents have lost loved ones and some plan to go to the cemetery to visit grave sites and place fresh flowers.  With your help, I believe we can put up some decorations here in the Dining Room for Dia de los Muertos and All Saints Day and place large arrangements of marigolds around the room. Please help me make this a time of celebration.”

“We could place calacas and calaveras around the room as well,” suggested Ynez.

“Not those hideous skeletons and skulls,” argued Millicent.

“For many years, I was the model for La Calavera Catrina, the woman at the center of the celebration,” bragged Ynez.

Paloma decided it was time to speak again before things heated up again.  “Why don’t you both join me and Francisco’s family at the Marigold Parade in South Valley on the last Sunday in October?”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea, Paloma,” added Dudley. “Do you think Lt. Garcia would mind if I joined all of you?”

“He would be delighted to see you, Señor Doc.”

With that, it appeared that the truce had been restored, at least temporarily.  As Dudley rose to begin the tasks on his ToDo list for the day, he hoped that the latter part of October would remain peaceful.

 

 

Chapter 4: Dangerous Connections

There were two people sitting at the table when Cruz entered the Conference Room.   The man rose and extended his hand.  “Mr. Carabajal, my name is Frank Garcia of the Albuquerque Major Crimes unit and this is Agent Charlotte McGuire from the DEA.  We’d like to talk to you about Jaime Carabado.  We understand he is your cousin.  And, you are aware that it was his body we discovered in the dumpster this morning”

“Yes. But, I don’t know anything about that.”

“That’s fine, Mr. Carabajal. We are investigating his murder and hope that you can provide us some information that will aid us in catching his killer.”

Cruz always assumed that Jaime hung around with some pretty tough-acting guys, but didn’t think any of them capable of such a brutal murder. “OK, but I don’t know how I can help.”

Agent McGuire spoke next.  “Mr. Carabajal, are you familiar with a gang called the Tecolotes?”

“Sure, everybody’s heard of them, but I don’t know anything about them or even who they really are.  I have some friends who say they do, but I think they’re just saying that to sound important.”

“Do you know if Mr. Carabado was associated with them in any way?”

“I don’t think so.  Jaime liked to talk and act like a big shot tough-guy, but I think it was mostly just talk.”

Lt. Garcia tried a different approach.  “Mr. Carabajal, can you tell me a about what you do here at Comanche Aeronautics?”

Cruz got nervous.  He was pretty sure his drone activities with Jaime were not completely above-board and knew he had to be very careful about his answers. “I am an Apprentice and also go to school.  I’m talking math and science courses and hope someday to get a full-time position here.”

“That’s fine and I wish you the best of success.  Can you tell me what kind of projects you work on, specifically?”

“Well, I sort of help out wherever I’m needed.  That way, I can learn a bit about different areas as part of my training here.”

Agent McGuire had personally questioned a number of local drug dealers who claimed to have been put out of business recently, so she decided to press.  “Mr. Carabajal, are you aware that Mr. Carabado, your cousin, was a drug dealer?”

“No!” shouted Cruz. “Jaime may not have been a model citizen and I know he’d been in jail, but I swear he never had anything to do with selling drugs, ever!”

“Well, this may come as a shock to you, Mr. Carabajal, but we are certain that, not only was he a dealer, but that he had become a major player in Albuquerque in recent months.  And, you claim that you are totally unaware of any involvement he might have had?”

“No! No! No! Jaime would never be involved with that!”

Lt. Garcia interjected. “OK, Mr. Carabajal, I think that’s enough for today.  We appreciate your time.  We’ll contact you if we have further questions.  In the mean time, I suggest you concentrate on your studies and your work here.  Thank you.”

Cruz was sweating profusely as he rose from his chair.  Agent McGuire stared at him until he was completely out of the room.  “Why’d you let him off so easy, Garcia?  He knows something, perhaps quite a bit, and you just let him walk.”

“Look Agent McGuire, he’s just a scared kid.  I agree that he’s hiding something or maybe he’s just trying to protect the memory of his cousin, I don’t know.  He’s not going anywhere.  My gut tells me there’s a reason Carabado’s body was dumped here; somebody may want to scare Carabajal.  I believe we should keep an eye on him and maybe our killer will show up.”

Garcia and McGuire spent the next two hours talking to employees at Comanche Aeronautics and asking questions about Cruz Carabajal.  They received consistent information that Cruz was a hard-working kid and well liked throughout the organization.  No one had any information that would connect Cruz to his murdered cousin; no one even knew much him away from work.  Several people suggested that Garcia talk to Marty Shackleford, but he hadn’t shown up for work yet.

When Marty finally dragged himself to work after another sleepless night with his baby daughter, he was unaware of the murder and associated flurry of activity that morning.  He found Cruz sitting in his cubicle just staring at a blank computer screen.  Marty grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down across from Cruz. “Hey, Shadow, what’s up?  You look like a warmed-over burrito.  Can I do anything to cheer you up?”

“Nah, it’s nothing.  I’m OK.”

“Well, you know I’m here for you, buddy.”

As Marty got up to leave, Cruz shouted. “They found my cousin’s body in the dumpster this morning!  The police were here for hours and questioned me about him and his activities and everything.”

“Holy shit, Cruz!  Do they have any idea who killed him?”

“No.  They asked me if I knew anything, but I don’t.  Honest, Marty, I don’t know anything!”

“That’s OK.  The police always try to talk to everybody and since it was your cousin, I guess they figured you might have some useful information.  Why don’t you just get out of here for today?  Just remember that I’m always here if you need someone to talk to.”

Things only got worse for Cruz Carabajal.  For the next several days, he was aware that someone followed him all the way to work and was there waiting whenever he left to go to class.  Finally, a car pulled up beside of him as he walked.  “Get in, Cruz.  We need to have a little talk.”

Cruz hesitated. He noticed a man walking toward him and another coming from behind.  Cruz realized he had no choice and got in the large SUV with heavily-tinted windows.

“Cruz Carabajal, my little genius, you’ve been avoiding me,” said the heavily-tattooed man seated in the back seat next to him.  You cousin made promises to me and then reneged; that wasn’t a very smart move. I don’t like it when people make promises and then don’t honor their word. But, he told me something very interesting before he died.  He told me that you were the one who was actually building the drones for us.  At first, he wouldn’t tell me where he got them, so I had to use a harsher way of convincing him to tell me everything. Unfortunately, he died.  Now, I assume you’re a smart kid and don’t want to end up like your unfortunate cousin.  So, I’m going to tell you what you’re going to do and I don’t want any excuses.”

Cruz was terrified.  He guessed that these were the bad people Jaime had sold a few drones to and probably the same ones who had threatened and eventually killed him.  Cruz understood why Jaime was in such a panic.  He wished he could have helped, but it was too late.  Cruz now found himself in a similarly dangerous situation.  He would try to bargain his way out of it.  “Look, I don’t know what Jaime told you, but I don’t know how to build what you want.  The first drones were pretty simple stuff and that’s all I know how to do.  I really can’t help you.  Please let me go.  I won’t say anything to anybody.”

“It doesn’t work that way, Little Cousin.  I want these drones and you’re the person who’s going to get them for me.  I don’t really care what you know or don’t know.  What about that guy I see you hanging around with all the time; does he know how to build what I want?”

Cruz needed a way out. He realized that he had to deliver the drones or he would end up in the dumpster like his cousin.  But, he really didn’t have the skills and wasn’t sure Marty did either. In a panic, Cruz whispered, “I think he does.”

“Well, that wasn’t so hard, was it?  Now, you just get to work and get your buddy to help you.  I need at least one drone in about ten days.  Do you remember everything I want the drone to do, or do I have to prod your memory a bit?”

“No, I remember. Please don’t hurt me.  I’ll get your drone. I promise.”  Cruz could only think about getting out of the car and getting away from these guys as quickly as possible.

“OK, Little Cousin.  You can go, but remember we’ll be watching … all the time.”

Enrique Cortez was not one to leave anything to chance.  He hadn’t risen to be Leader of the Tecolotes by overlooking even the smallest detail.  He selected a few gang members to monitor Cruz’s activities and never let him of their sight, even for a moment. He also realized that he would have to make sure that this other person provided Cruz everything he needed to get the drone built and delivered on time. Even Jaime Carabado had said that Cruz needed help on this larger drone. Cortez had a specific plan in mind for this guy Cruz referred to as Marty.  That evening, he spoke privately with Eva Vasquez and explained how important it was for Cruz to have Marty’s full cooperation.  “I want use his wife as leverage to make sure I get what I need.  Locate her and make it obvious that she is being watched.  Create fear in her mind with your presence. Find ways to create more pressure through her if it becomes necessary.”

After a sleepless night, Cruz Carabajal realized that he had to tell Marty Shackleford everything.  He had dragged Marty into this dangerous situation to save his own skin and, in the process, put him at equal risk. At the very least, he had to warn Marty about the very dangerous people Jaime had dealt with and about what Cruz knew was happening with the drones.  Cruz tried several times to initiate the conversation, but Marty was preoccupied with a new project he’d been assigned. Finally, Cruz just blurted it all out. “Marty, I’m in a world of trouble.  It has to do with my cousin and the drones we made for that lawyer. You’ve got to help me.  I don’t know what to do.  They want more drones and I can’t build them.  If I don’t, they’ll kill me like they did Jaime.”

“Whoa, slow down, Cruz.  What are you talking about?  What drones?  What lawyer?   Sit down and close the door.  What’s going on?”

Cruz tried to recount the entire story in logical order, but he kept coming back to the guy in the car who had threatened him.  With some prodding from Marty and making Cruz repeat the key points several times, Marty was able to get a reasonable understanding of the situation.  “So, let me get this straight.  Your cousin roped you into building a few drones for a lawyer that he subsequently sold to a local gang to support their drug business.  Is that about it?”

“Yeah, and now these guys want a really sophisticated drone for some other purpose.  It has to do all sorts of things.  And, they told me if I don’t deliver it, I’ll end up in the dumpster like Jaime.”

“Look, Cruz, everything you’ve done, from the first simple drone, is a violation of the trust I put in you not to mention the people here at Comanche.  You realize that you’ve put your future here in jeopardy?”

“I know that Marty and I’m really sorry.  At first, it was just fun and I convinced myself that I was using the technology for a good purpose.  I guess I should have not trusted my cousin as much as I did.  But, now things are really serious and I could end up dead.  These are really bad guys my cousin got involved with.  I can’t make the drone they want; I just don’t have the skills.  I know what I did was wrong.  I’m begging you, Marty, you have to help; I’ve got nowhere else to turn.”

“That’s fine, but you’re asking me to be part of something that is undoubtedly illegal and will probably ruin my career as well.  Comanche is everything to me and I can’t just throw it away because you were stupid and tried to impress your cousin.  I don’t know, Cruz.  I’m pretty sure I don’t want any parts of this.  I’m sorry.”

Cruz tried to keep the discussion going, but Marty got up and walked out onto the shop floor and started talking with some other engineers.  Cruz was at a loss.  He didn’t know where he could go and be safe.  After driving around town for a couple of hours, he headed south on I-25.  He had a cousin near Carrizozo and hoped he could stay there a few days.  Maybe Marty would decide to help him.

At dinner that evening, Debbie Shackleford found Marty unusually quiet.  She assumed that the lack of sleep was affecting them both and Marty just needed some peace and quiet.  She went to the nursery to check on the baby and Marty began clearing the table and doing the dishes. Suddenly, she heard a loud crash coming from the kitchen and ran to see what had happened.  Marty had thrown several dinner plates against the wall and was now on his hands and knees trying to pick up the hundreds of sharp pieces.  Debbie was shocked at this uncharacteristic behavior and knelt beside Marty on the floor and put her arms around him.  “Talk to me, Marty.”

Marty’s frustration had subsided and he told Debbie about Cruz’s situation, carefully leaving out the part about a potential death threat.  “You did the right thing, Marty.  You’ve worked too hard to succeed at Comanche and our future depends on it.  Besides, I suspect Cruz is exaggerating his story to avoid telling you the truth.  It sounds to me that he and his cousin got hooked up with some sleaze-bag lawyer and thought they could make some easy money.  He probably made a bunch of promises about what he could do with drones and is now in over his head.  It’s not your problem.  Now, let me hold the waste basket while you sweep up the remaining pieces.  On Saturday, we can go to Target and get some new dishes.”

With a smile on her face, Debbie Shackleford drove to work at La Vida Aureo the next morning with a stop at Los Niños Day Care with her baby daughter.  This was always a difficult part of the day for her, but Los Niños had come highly recommended.  As usual, she would return on her lunch hour to feed the baby and just hold her.  Today, however, Debbie found her baby daughter in the arms of a woman she had never seen before at Los Niños. “Who are you and what are you doing with my baby?” cried Debbie as she approached.  “I’ve never seen you here before.  Please just give me my baby!”

The woman smiled and handed the baby to Debbie.  “She is such a sweet child and is sleeping peacefully.  My name is Eva and I want you to deliver a message to your husband.  Enrique wants him to stop acting like a Boy Scout and help his friend Cruz.  It would be most unfortunate if something were to happen to him or to your beautiful child.”

Debbie was shaken and hurried inside to talk to a Supervisor.  “Who was that woman?  Why did you let her have my baby?  It was wrong! She could have stolen her!”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Shackleford.  She told me she was your new Nanny and it was her job to check on the baby while you were at work.  She sounded very convincing; she knew all about you and Marty and the baby and where you both work and everything.  Besides, she was always in my sight and never left the inside courtyard.  I’m terribly sorry if there was something wrong.”
“She is NOT our Nanny!  Do I look like the kind of person who could afford a Nanny?  And, even if I could, I would never hire someone like that.  Did you see all of the tattoos on her arms?” Debbie eventually calmed down a bit and made the Supervisor promise to keep the baby inside the remainder of the day.

Debbie drove back to La Vida Aureo but was still too upset to return to her desk.  Instead, she walked around the main courtyard and sat down on a wooden bench near the Navajo willow tree.  She buried her head in her hands and began to cry, softly at first and then more loudly. “My baby, my baby!” Her daughter was her whole life and represented the very essence of the life she was building with Marty.

Matthew Dudley was leaving the Main Building to return to his daily maintenance routine when Lt. Frank Garcia approached.  “Good afternoon, Lieutenant.  I hope there is nothing serious and this is just a social call.”

“Good day to you, Doc.  Yes, I’m just visiting.  I came to see Señora Angostura to receive some of her positive energy to revitalize my spirits.  This latest murder at Comanche Aeronautics is particularly disturbing.  I’m convinced it’s connected to the other drug-related killings, but I can’t figure out the Comanche connection.  Why dump the body there?   I suspect the Tecolote Gang is somehow involved, but we have been unable to make any arrests.  It seems like the dealers know our every move.  Internal Affairs has questioned almost every officer in the Department and are convinced there isn’t an internal leak.  We’re changing our communication protocol every day, but that hasn’t helped either.  To show how desperate we’ve become, the Chief has invited the DEA to assist!”

Dudley had seen the report of the murder at Comanche Aeronautics on the local news.  Like Garcia, the location didn’t make any sense.  He knew that Marty Shackleford worked there, but, that was probably just a coincidence.  “I know you’ll solve this, Lieutenant, particularly after you visit with Señora Angostura.  She has a wonderful way of providing people with strength to continue, even in the most difficult circumstances.  If you’ll excuse me, I have chores to attend to this afternoon.  Good luck.”

As he walked away, Ynez Barela rushed up to Matthew Dudley.  “Señor Dudley, she is here!  I heard her wailing and calling out for her lost children.”

“Calm down, Señora Barela.  Who is here?”
“It is La Llorona, the Woman in White.  She has come for Dia de los Muertos

Dudley tried to placate Señora Barela, telling her not to worry and that he would investigate immediately.  He found Debbie Shackleford sitting by the Navajo willow.  She was still crying and she was dressed in a beige skirt and white blouse.  Dudley sat down next to her and asked softly, “Mrs. Shackleford, is there anything I can do?  Can I get you something?  Can I call your husband, or someone?”
Through her sobs, Debbie related the incident at Los Niños.

“Why would that woman show up to threaten you?”

Debbie continued crying as she told Dudley about the previous evening’s episode with Marty involving Cruz Carabajal and the drones and Comanche Aeronautics.  Dudley listened intently and tried to put the pieces of these seemingly unrelated events in place.  Just as Debbie seemed to be gaining control, OJ Torreon walked up and tried to get Dudley’s attention.  Debbie pointed at him and screamed!

OJ backed away. Dudley held Debbie close to him.  “I’m so sorry, OJ,” she finally said.  “I just saw the tattoo on your arm and it scared me.  I didn’t mean to frighten you, or Mr. Dudley.”

“What was that about, Mrs. Shackleford?  You know OJ and have seen him many times before around here.  What frightened you so much?”

“It’s the tattoo on his arm.  The woman who was holding my baby had one just like it on her upper arm.  What does it mean?”

“It is from my youth,” replied OJ.  “I keep it to remind me how far I’ve come and that there are always bad people out there that I must stay away from.  I’m sorry if I upset you.”

Dudley knew that the tattoo on OJ’s arm was called Ojos de la Tecolote (eyes of the owl), the symbol of the Tecolote Gang.  OJ had shared that information with him on one of their drives to Cerrillos.

The earlier conversation with Lt. Garcia entered Dudley’s mind and he began to recognize connections between individual events.  “Mrs. Shackleford, would you and your husband be my guests at dinner this evening?  I know Señora Paloma has prepared a special dinner to begin the Dia de los Muertos celebration and it would be a nice break for you.”

“Oh, Mr. Dudley, that would be very nice.  I’m sure Marty would enjoy that and, besides, we’re a little short on dinner plates right now.”

After Debbie left to return to her office, Dudley turned to OJ. “I believe Mrs. Shackleford had some sort of upsetting encounter with someone from the Tecolote Gang today.  She said the woman told her that Enrique was watching her.  Does that name mean anything to you?”
“Oh, Señor Doc, Enrique is the Jefe of the Tecolotes and one very cruel dude.  He is the main reason I got away from them years ago.”

As he continued to sit beneath the Navajo willow, a pattern began to form in Dudley’s mind.  He thought he could visualize the various pieces coming together, but he had to be certain because he also sensed great danger. Inviting the Shacklefords to dinner would provide the opportunity to gather everyone affected by these events, including Lt. Garcia. The challenge for Dudley was to guide the conversation so that Garcia would come to the same conclusion that was gathering in Dudley’s mind.  Then it would be necessary to formulate a plan of action to conclude this situation without increasing the risks to anyone.

 

Chapter 5: Pancho Villa Show Down

 Dinner at La Vida Aureo that evening was a delightful affair.  Paloma Angostura had done her usual job of preparing a range of dishes to appeal to the varied tastes of the Residents. Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of the evening was that both Millicent Branch and Ynez Barela put away their on-going rivalry to be the Queen of the Evening to Baby Shackleford. There didn’t seem to be sufficient time for everyone to hold the child.  Debbie was understandably hesitant at first to allow anyone to come near her daughter, but Millicent was relentless.  Of course, Ynez tried to hold the child just a few moments longer than Millicent.  From that beginning, many of the Residents simply had to come over and make endearing comments.  Debbie finally relaxed and beamed with pride.

Dudley was reluctant to spoil the festive mood of the evening, but there was a most urgent and serious matter to address.  He guided Marty Shackleford, Frank Garcia and DEA Agent Charlotte McGuire to a small meeting room near the Main Lobby. He insisted that Debbie remain in the main Dining Room and supervise the Residents who were now vying for the position of First Godmother.

Dudley opened the discussion by re-introducing everyone.  “There are several pieces to this overall story,” he began. “It is important that everyone present have the benefit of all the information available. I suggest Lt. Garcia begin by reviewing their on-going investigation into drug trafficking in Albuquerque.  It would also be helpful to briefly talk about the Tecolote gang and its alleged role in these events. Then, Marty can relate his discussions with Cruz Carabajal and how he provided, perhaps unknowingly, surveillance drones and how they were used to avoid the police.”

After almost an hour of discussion and questions, Agent McGuire leaned forward in her seat.  “Let me see if I understand.  Cruz Carabajal built several drones that his cousin, Jaime Carabado, sold to the Tecolotes.  These drones were able to essentially monitor police activity throughout the City and thereby prevent the police from interfering with their drug selling business.  Is that about it?”

“It isn’t clear yet whether Cruz was totally aware of what his cousin was up to,” added Marty.  “Knowing Cruz, I believe he was just trying to impress his cousin.”

“But, even the initial activity of selling a drone to a lawyer to spy on cheating spouses isn’t legal and surely Cruz knew that,” said Garcia. “C’mon, Marty, Cruz isn’t that stupid. He was stealing from Comanche Aeronautics from the very beginning.”

“That is all in the past now,” interjected Dudley. “There will be plenty of time to decide whether Cruz broke any laws or was just very foolish. Right now, I believe there is a much more pressing issue concerning the Tecolotes’ plans.  Marty, based on what Cruz told you, can you give us some idea of what this new drone is capable of and perhaps what they are intending to do with it?”

“I believe their intent is to use a drone to carry a relatively large shipment of drugs from somewhere in Mexico into the US.  I would assume that the primary goal is to cross the border undetected. So, the source in Mexico probably is pretty close to the border and the same for the intended landing site, most likely in southern part of the State.”

“There ought to be a way to intercept the shipment and arrest the gang,” offered Dudley. “What do you think, Lieutenant?  Can we accomplish all that safely?”

Garcia thought for several minutes and then said, “I believe there should be a way, but it will require some effort on Marty’s part.  Marty, do you think the folks at Comanche Aeronautics would be willing to help?”

“I’m sure they are not happy about their drones being used for criminal purposes.  I believe I could convince them to help.”

“That’s really not your responsibility, Marty,” said Agent McGuire.  “There is a major role for you in this, but Garcia and I will talk to Comanche.  This new drone that the Tecolotes want will have to come from Comanche and you will be the one to build it.  But, I agree with Garcia, we can use the drone to accomplish our objectives.”

For the next hour, Lt. Garcia and Agent McGuire outlined a plan to intercept the drug shipment and arrest the Tecolote gang members.  A primary concern was to insure the safety of Marty and Debbie Shackleford while everything was being put into place.  Debbie and the baby would stay at Isabella Duncan’s home and Debbie would bring the baby to work each day.  Given the reactions at dinner this evening, Dudley knew there would be no shortage of willing baby sitters!

Garcia and McGuire would make confidential arrangements with the management of Comanche Aeronautics to allow Marty to build the drone.  Garcia would also arrange for several undercover officers to be present at all times to insure Marty’s safety.

The next morning, Marty called Cruz into his office. “OK, Cruz, I will help you build this drone, but you have to understand that I’m not happy about it at all.  I just hope we both don’t get fired when Management finds out.  Make sure you get correct information about the specs and plan to be here day and night until the drone is completed.”

Marty and Cruz worked non-stop for the next week building the drone. Over Cruz’s protests, Marty insisted that Cruz would pilot the drone. “I don’t want any part of what happens after this.  I just hope I can keep my job here.”

Enrique Cortez provided very limited information to Cruz about the operation, only that they would operate out of Pancho Villa State Park, outside of Columbus, New Mexico and only a few miles north of the Mexican border.  He told Cruz that he would fly the drone to a specific location in Mexico and then return it to the Park a short time later that same night.  Cruz was to fly at a relatively low level and on an indirect course to avoid the Border Patrol surveillance balloons.

A date was set for the operation and the drone and control panel were loaded into a large cargo van for the drive south.  Cortez directed several of his most trusted lieutenants to ride with the drone and insisted that Cruz ride with him in the dark SUV.  Two more cars filled with Tecolote muscle completed the convoy.

They rendezvoused outside Columbus in a vacant lot late in the afternoon.  Cortez sent one group into Pancho Villa State Park as advance scouts who reported back.  “There are several RVs in the Park, all with out-of-state plates. There are a few old geezers snow bird types sitting around a camp fire, probably from Minnesota or someplace and trying to stay warm.  It looks pretty deserted.”

Enrique Cortez decided that everything was ready. “OK, let’s go! C’mon Little Cousin, it’s time for you to do your thing.” Not one to take chances, Cortez held a gun close to Cruz’s back as they walked toward the cargo van.

Sgt. Bernadette Armijo from the Albuquerque Major Crimes Unit was sitting in the Deming offices of the U.S. Border Patrol with Agent Alonzo Rodriguez and Marty Shackleford.  They were in a darkened conference room so that they could clearly watch the images on the large computer screen.  Sgt. Armijo spoke up as the screen began to flicker. “The game is afoot!  I always wanted to say that!”

“I just hope all of the modifications I secretly made to the drone’s control systems perform as designed,” said Marty nervously. “I should be able to take over all the flight controls from this terminal.

“I have the same concerns about my surveillance blimp,” added Agent Rodriguez. “But I’m sure everything will work out.”

Back at the Park, Cruz launched the drone and set it on a straight course into Mexico toward a remote location outside of the city of Paloma.  After about twenty minutes, Cortez received a ping on his cell phone, indicating that the drone had safely arrived at its destination.  “Now we wait.”

Another ping indicated that the drone was loaded and ready for its return trip to Pancho Villa State Park.  “OK, Little Cousin, remember to follow the zig-zag pattern we talked about.  Keep an eye out for that Border Patrol blimp and steer clear of it.”

A few minutes later, one of the Tecolotes who was watching through a set of powerful binoculars, signaled to Cortez that the drone had come into view. The Border Patrol blimp began to move on what appeared to be an intercept course with the drone.  Cortez pressed his gun into Cruz’s back. “Do something!” Before Cruz could regain his composure, the blimp veered away at an increased speed.

Agent Rodriguez was smiling. “Just thought I’d mess with them a bit.  OK, Marty, now it’s your turn.  Bernie, is everything ready in the Park?”

“Yes, I just got the signal from Garcia that the RVs are moving into position.”

Enrique Cortez stood in an open space near the far end of the Park, his gun firmly pressed against Cruz Carabajal’s back. “OK, now bring the drone slowly down over there next to the van where my men are standing.  Nice and easy now.  We don’t want to damage any of the precious cargo.”

Suddenly, the drone began to gain altitude and pick up speed.  Cruz frantically worked the controls, but the drone simply would not respond.  He felt the gun pressing harder in his back and Cortez’s hot breath on his neck.  “What’s going on,” Cortez demanded. “Get that damn drone on the ground, pronto!”

But, Cruz’s continued efforts had no effect.  The drone continued to climb and speed north, away from the Park and the waiting Tecolotes. An angry Cortez shouted to his gang. “Let’s get out of here. Something’s wrong.”  As he turned toward the van, he shot Cruz several times. “That will teach you not to screw with me again, you little bastard!”

The entire parking lot was suddenly flooded with light as all of the RVs were in a tight circle and blocking all exits from the Park.  Garcia was standing between two of the larger RVs with a bull horn. “Police! Everyone drop your weapons!  Face down on the ground! Hands out in front where I can see them! NOW!”

Several of the Tecolotes opened fire with automatic weapons and Cortez began firing toward Garcia’s location with his large hand gun.  The officers returned fire from behind concrete barricades that had been placed between the RVs. A DEA sniper perched atop a large RV shot Cortez and he dropped to the ground.  Two other gang members were also hit and fell. The intense fire fight was over in a matter of minutes as the remaining Tecolotes threw their weapons away and fell to the ground. The officers quickly moved in to disarm and handcuff the remaining and wounded Tecolotes.  Within a few minutes, the scene was secure.  Ambulances arrived to carry the wounded out and the dead were placed in other vehicles.  Agent McGuire found Cruz Carabajal who was still alive, but wounded badly; he had lost a considerable amount of blood.  She had him placed in a helicopter ambulance for transport to the Trauma Center in El Paso.

The drone landed safely in the Border Patrol parking in Deming much to the relief of Marty Shackleford.  Lt. Garcia and Agent McGuire arrived about two hours later to find Shackleford, Sgt Armijo and Agent Rodriguez enjoying a cold beer and a pizza in the Conference Room.  “I have Domino’s on stand-by,” chuckled Rodriguez.  “Tell me what you want and it’ll be here pronto!”

Sgt. Armijo was desperately trying not to laugh at her Boss since he had not completely removed his geezer outfit and the white powder from his normally coal-black hair.  “I assume the disguises were effective,” was all she could manage with a straight face.

“It’s been a long time since I did any undercover work,” smiled Garcia, “but posing as vacationing snow birds with our fancy RVs fooled the gang completely.”

“It helped that they were so focused on the drug shipment,” added Agent McGuire. “And, I’ll bet they were feeling pretty smug that they were using fancy technology to outwit the authorities.  Hubris is a dangerous thing!”

Marty Shckleford had been sitting quietly, relieved that this nightmare was almost over.  “What about Cruz?  Where is he? Did you arrest him?”

Lt. Garcia moved closer. “I’m sorry, Marty, but Cortez shot Mr. Carabajal several times when the drone didn’t land.  He was in pretty bad shape, but we transported him to the Trauma Center in El Paso.  As soon as I receive an update on his condition, I’ll let you know.  Right now, I suggest you call your wife.  She’s with Doc Dudley and I’m certain she’s been worried since you left Albuquerque.  It was a good idea to keep most of the details of this whole operation from her.  I suspect it might have been too much to ask of her to allow you to be here tonight.”

Dudley took the call.  Debbie Shackleford had fallen asleep a short while ago from exhaustion and the anxiety of the past few weeks.  “Don’t worry, Marty, she is fine and the baby is in capable hands, lots of them.”

Sgt. Armijo volunteered to remain in Deming to handle any miscellaneous items that arose and insure that all of the RVs were returned in good condition to the rental agency in Las Cruces.  While in Deming, she hoped there would be time for another enjoyable evening with Agent Rodriguez; she’d make sure of that!

Agent McGuire would be responsible for the captured drugs and the mountains of associated paperwork.  She and Rodriguez would coordinate their efforts to learn more about the drug source.  Paloma, Mexico had not been a major transit route in the past and they wanted to keep it that way.

Lt. Garcia walked over to Marty Shackleford and shook his hand.  “I want to express my thanks for your courage as well as your technical skills.  Without them, I don’t believe we could have accomplished all we did.  Hopefully, this will also put an end to the Tecolotes’ operations in Albuquerque, at least for a while.  Thanks again.  Now, if you’re finished with your pizza, why don’t you ride back to town with me?  If we’re lucky, we might just be in time for breakfast at La Vida Aureo.  I can promise you that Señora Angostura makes the best breakfast burrito you’ve ever had!”

 

Case X: Romeo is Dead

 

Chapter 1: Coitus Interruptus

 

Magdalena Torres was satisfied.  It was late in the afternoon and she sat in her easy chair in the sun looking out the large window of her casita.  Perhaps it was the large Manhattan she was sipping.  More likely, it was the post-coital glow from an afternoon of vigorous sex with Cesar Ramirez.

Things were much improved since his involvement in the death of Carmine Felicio (Case III, November, 2014) and the accusations of Dolores Waverly.  Although Magdalena permitted Cesar to see other women, he was, for all intent and purpose, on-call to her whenever she desired his services.  And, she had insisted that Cesar stop chasing that Anglo woman, JoAnne what’s-her-name.   Yes, Magdalena Torres was certainly satisfied with her life at La Vida Aureo.

Her late afternoon reverie was interrupted by a knock on her door. She rose slowly from her chair and was pleased to see Matthew Dudley standing on her patio.

Remembering his previous encounter with Mrs. Torres (Case II, October, 2014), he spoke with some apprehension. “Mrs. Torres, I was on my way back to the main building, but wanted to confirm that I will be here at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning to repair that leaking faucet in your bathroom.”

“Well, Señor Handyman, I will be expecting you.  And, please don’t forget to bring all of your tools with you,” she grinned and took another sip of her drink.   “If you’re going to the main building, perhaps you would walk with me.  It is almost time for dinner and I prefer to not walk alone.  I do not care for the way that so many men here look at me with lecherous eyes.”

Dudley thought to himself that it was the men who should be afraid of Mrs. Torres’ lechery, but said, “I would be glad to accompany you to the Dining Room.”

They had only walked a short distance from Mrs. Torres’ casita when Dudley spotted something on the ground, partially hidden among some decorative bushes along the walkway.  As he moved cautiously forward and knelt for a closer look, Torres pushed past him.

She immediately recognized the highly-polished black boots with extensive silver ornamentation and elevated heels; they had spent much of the afternoon under her bed.  As she moved closer, she saw a man in tight trousers and a colorful silk shirt lying face-down in the grass with a large knife protruding from his back.  “Mi Dios; it is Cesar”, she screamed and stumbled to one side.

Dudley quickly confirmed that the body lying in the grass was indeed Cesar Ramirez; the characteristic outfit was unmistakable.  He quickly dialed 911 and moved to comfort Mrs. Torres.

Lt. Frank Garcia arrived in a few minutes with Tom Bowers, an Assistant Medical Technician.  Dudley greeted Garcia as they approached the body.  “I was walking toward the Main Building with Mrs. Torres when we discovered the body, Lieutenant.  We haven’t touched anything and Mrs. Torres has returned to her casita which is just back this walkway a bit.  Of course, I did not disturb the body, but I’m certain it is Cesar Ramirez.”

“Not the same Ramirez I questioned in regard to that previous case when the woman was found dead in the stairwell?”

“Yes, Lieutenant, it is the same man.”

“Well, I guess I’ll have plenty of potential suspects to interview then!  Please just tell me, Doc, that this isn’t another one of those Kardashian-type Reality Dramas!  Anyway, Tom and I need to get to work.  I assume you need to tell Isabella about this latest incident?  I’ll meet you in her office as soon as I get Tom started here.”

“Thanks, Lieutenant.  I’ll be in Isabella’s office when you are free.”

Lt. Garcia and Tom Bowers began examining the body and surrounding area.  Tom looked up and said, “It looks pretty straight-forward, Lieutenant.  The only thing I see is this large knife in his back. There don’t seem to be any other injuries, but I’ll know more when we get a chance to perform a more complete examination.”

The two men looked around the scene and didn’t see any other evidence that could relate to the crime.  “I’ll trust you to get the body back to the Morgue, Tom. I’m going to stop in the Director’s office and see what else I can learn about our victim.  Let me know when your report is ready.  Thanks.”

Garcia found Matthew Dudley sitting in Isabella Duncan’s office just off of the main Lobby.  He knew Isabella was a highly professional woman and not easily upset, but she seemed visibly shaken by this most recent situation.  “I know this is a difficult time, Isabella, so I’ll try to be brief.  Based on my past experience with Mr. Ramirez, I’m afraid I’ll need to interview quite a few Residents.  I will try to be as unobtrusive as possible and not disturb any more folks than absolutely necessary.   What can either of you tell me about Mr. Ramirez’ most recent “activities”?”

Isabella Duncan gathered her thoughts and emotions before she spoke calmly. “Actually, Lieutenant, things had been relatively quiet since that unfortunate situation with Ms. Felicio.  Mr. Ramirez has pretty much behaved himself and not bothered any other female Residents.  At least, there haven’t been any complaints or rumors that have reached my desk.  Nonetheless, I presume you will want to talk to the same women who were involved before.  I suggest you also interview Mrs. Magdalena Torres.  It is my understanding that Mr. Ramirez was spending most of his time with her and that she kept a pretty tight leash on his “extracurricular activities”.   As it turns out, that situation benefited everyone; it kept two of our more aggressively romantic Residents occupied and basically out of circulation.”

“It was actually Mrs. Torres who initially recognized Mr. Ramirez’ body,” added Dudley. “She and I were walking down the path together when she first spotted his boots sticking out of the shrubbery.  I thought it would be OK if she went back to her casita rather than hang around the crime scene.  I’m sure she will be willing to talk to you.”

“Thanks, Doc.  Yeah, it was probably best to let her return to her place.  It would have only added to the confusion and distracted us from looking around. But, she is probably the first person I need to interview.  I assume that the other women who were involved with him before are still here at La Vida Aureo.  In addition to them, can you think of anyone else I should talk to?”

“Not off-hand, Lieutenant,” suggested Isabella.  “As I said, Mr. Ramirez had pretty much left other women alone and really never had too much to do with any of the male Residents.  If I think of anyone, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

“Thanks Isabella; and you too, Doc.  I’m going to swing by the Kitchen to pay my respects to Señora Angostura and then get back to the Station. I’ll begin my interviews tomorrow morning, if that’s convenient. I’ll certainly keep you posted as to anything we learn from the autopsy as well as the results of my interviews.”

“I know you will try to get this resolved as quickly as possible, Lieutenant.  Thank you.”

“You have my word, Isabella.”

Lt. Frank Garcia made his way to the Main Dining Room in search of Paloma Angostura.  Señora Angostura was the cook for La Vida Aureo and the woman who had essentially raised Garcia and successfully guided him through a difficult youth.  Garcia always made a point of stopping by to pay his respects.  He also knew that Señora Angostura was a valuable source of information about all the happenings at La Vida Aureo through what she referred to as her Sopapilla Network.  Many of the women who were part of La Vida Aureo’s staff would meet in the small room adjacent to the Main Dining Room each afternoon to wait for their ride home.  Angostura would provide a fresh batch of sopapillas and coffee and lemonade for the group. She could then sit quietly and listen as the women discussed the events of the day, which typically revealed the inner goings-on at the facility.  Garcia knew that there wasn’t much that happened that Señora Angostura wasn’t aware of or could readily find out.  This information was often invaluable to him as he sought to understand the motives and behaviors of some of the Residents.

Paloma greeted Garcia as he walked into the kitchen from the Dining Room.  “Francisco, mi hijoComo esta?  Your eyes tell me that you are here with sad news.  I just heard about Señor Ramirez and it is most unfortunate.”

Madre, I know Señor Ramirez was not among your favorite people, but it is indeed a tragedy that he was murdered.   Mrs. Duncan told me that he had been on his “good behavior” recently, but I wanted to also ask you about him.”

“That is true.  I have not seen him strutting about the Dining Room bothering the women for several months.  I believe he spends much of his time with Señora Torres.”

“That is reassuring.  What about that group of women that met in here each day; the group that included Ms. Felicio?”

“Oh, they still come here almost every day, the three.  I’ve noticed that they get along much better since Señora Felicio’s death. They now actually play cards or dominoes and often invite a fourth person to join in.  And the conversation is more respectful than before, but I don’t think they are very open with each other.”

“Have you noticed Mr. Ramirez around any of them?  Do you think that any of them would want to harm him in any way?”

“No.  He does not stop to talk with them whenever he is in here. Señora Waverly was very angry with him some time ago, as you know, but even she seems to ignore him.  I believe she spends time with a man who is not a Resident. “

“Thank you very much, Madre.  I think it would still be wise to talk to the three of them just in case they have any information that would help me find out who murdered Mr. Ramirez.”

“I think that is wise, Francisco.  Please be careful as you go about your duties.  Know that you are always in my prayers. Adios

Dudley had remained in Isabella Duncan’s office after Lt. Garcia left.  “This is a most unfortunate situation, Isabella.  Even though Ramirez had been pretty much on his good behavior of late, I can’t help but think that there were still some Residents who resented him.  Even with that, I find it hard to believe that anyone here was angry enough to want to kill him.  Lt. Garcia didn’t mention it while he was here, but it looked like a rather violent attack to me.  Whoever did this exhibited a significant amount of anger or frustration.  If it’s OK with you, I think I’ll do a bit of investigating on my own.  Maybe someone on the Staff is aware of something that could have precipitated this crime.”

“You’re assuming that it was another Resident who murdered Ramirez?”

“I guess there’s always the possibility that someone from the Outside came in and killed him.  It could be a jealous husband or boyfriend from some affair in Ramirez’ past.  Hopefully a Resident or Staff member would have noticed any outsiders walking around looking for Ramirez.  I would assume that any such person would have to come here several times to be able to plan such an ambush.  There are just too many possibilities in this particular situation, but I feel obligated to help Lt. Garcia as much as possible.”

“That’s fine, Doc, but remember you have a responsibility to ALL of the Residents. And, it would be a shame to neglect the Community Assist Team as they rely on you a great deal.   Ramirez is dead and there is nothing you can do about that fact.  It is really Garcia’s job to find his killer, not yours.”

“I understand completely, Isabella.”

 

Chapter 3: Garcia’s Initial Investigation

 

As promised, Lt. Frank Garcia arrived at La Vida Aureo the next morning to begin his initial investigation into the murder of Cesar Ramirez.  He went to the Main Dining Room where he assumed he could find the Residents he wanted to interview.  Paloma Angostura greeted Lt. Garcia warmly, as always, and told him that Señora Torres had not come to the Dining Room this morning for breakfast.

“I guess I am not too surprised,” replied Garcia. “I assume she is still considerably upset by yesterday’s events.  I’ll go to her casita; perhaps she’ll be more comfortable to talk there.”

Magdalena Torres answered her door promptly and asked Lt. Garcia to come in.  She directed him to a chair in her living room.

“Señora Torres, my name is Frank Garcia and I’m with the Albuquerque Major Crimes Unit.  I’m in charge of the investigation concerning Señor Ramirez’s death, which we are treating as a homicide.    Do you have any questions before we begin?”

“No, Lieutenant.  That is fine.  I’ll answer your questions as best I can.”

“Thank you, Señora Torres. I understand that you are the one who actually discovered Señor Ramirez’s body.  Would you please tell me approximately when that was and whether you were alone when you found him?”

“I nearly tripped over his feet on my way to the Main Dining Room for dinner late yesterday afternoon, at about 5:30.  He was lying in some bushes and his boots were visible from the walkway.  I was walking with that nice Handyman, Mr. Dudley, at the time.”

“I see.  And, had you been walking with Mr. Dudley for very long?”

“No. He had come here to my casita a short while earlier to confirm an appointment to do some plumbing repairs and I asked him to walk to the Dining Room with me.  I get uncomfortable walking alone and having so many men stare at me.”

“And, before you discovered Señor Ramirez’s body, when was the last time you saw him?”

“He was visiting me here yesterday afternoon.”

“The entire afternoon?  May I ask what you were doing during that time?”

“Well, we weren’t playing canasta!”

“Oh, I see. Sorry. While he was here, did he give any indication that he was concerned that someone might want to do him harm?”

“Not really.  Look, Cesar wasn’t really involved with very many people here, at least not of late.  And, I don’t believe he was afraid of anyone in particular.  But, mark my words, Lieutenant, there are some muy loco women here and I know some of them don’t particularly care for him.  I can think of several who are not above wanting to hurt him, but none have the courage or strength for murder.”

“Nevertheless, I would like to decide that for myself. Would you be willing to give me the names of these women?”

“You should talk to the Waverly woman and particularly that Anglo puta, JoAnne Elliott.  Cesar’s friend Jorge Sandoval might know of others; I don’t.”

Lt. Garcia had not met Jorge Sandoval although his name had come up during the investigation of Carmine Felicio’s death; he was Ramirez’s initial alibi.  Garcia would ask Dudley to take him to meet Sandoval.  For the time being, he had no more questions for Señora Torres.  “Thank you, Señora, for your time. I have no more questions at this time.  Once again, I am sorry for your loss.  I know Señor Ramirez meant a lot to you.”

“Just find this person who did this horrible thing, and quickly.”

 

Dudley was in the Main Dining Room reviewing his ToDo list for the day.  He had talked to Señora Angostura about Ramirez’s murder and they had discussed potential suspects.  Like Lt. Garcia, Dudley asked Paloma about the so-called Queer Quartet of women who had been the focus of so much of Ramirez’s attention.  Paloma told Dudley that Ramirez hadn’t bothered them much lately and, in fact, had pretty much stopped his daily stroll through the Dining Room.  And, Dudley was personally aware that Ramirez had stayed away from JoAnne Elliott.  It was Dudley’s opinion that, despite the potential for several women to be angry with Ramirez, his murder looked more like the work of a man.  That led him back to the thought of a jealous husband or boyfriend and possibly someone who was not a Resident.  He had shared this opinion with Paloma and she agreed that the murderer was probably not a woman, but wasn’t convinced that an Outsider was involved.  “I believe that I would have been told if there was a strange man wandering about the grounds”, she said.

Knowing the extent and efficiency of Paloma’s Sopapilla Network, Dudley was forced to seriously question that particular theory. He remained troubled, however, about Isabella’s less-than-subtle comment that solving this crime was Lt. Garcia’s responsibility, not his.  Regardless of how unlikely it was, if the killer was indeed a Resident, Dudley believed he was in a better position to unmask him than Lt. Garcia.

Dudley realized that it was time to stop speculating and attend to his responsibilities.  As he rose to leave, he noticed Minot Atkinson near the elevators talking with Mary Thomas. Both women were laughing and as the elevator doors opened, Mary Thomas reached up and hugged Minot Atkinson.  Minot turned toward the Dining Room and greeted Dudley warmly.

“It is good to see you, too, Miss Atkinson.  I saw you with Mrs. Thomas a moment ago and was unaware that you knew her.”

“Oh, Mr. Dudley, our initial meeting was quite an accident.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have stuck my nose in her business the way I did, but I think everything turned out really well, particularly for her.”

“I’m pleased to hear that.  In my previous experience with Mrs. Thomas, she was a very troubled person.  But, from what I just witnessed, she seems to be much happier.”

“Allow me to share a confidence with you. About a month ago, I was here in the Lobby and I noticed Mrs. Thomas wheeling herself toward the elevators. I went over to press the UP button for her and noticed a book in her lap that was some sort of Self-Help clap-trap. I guess it is just my nature and I struck up a conversation with her about what she was seeking in that particular text.  As we talked, she opened up a bit and my sixth sense told me that there might be a simple solution to her anger and frustration.  Without embarrassing you with the details, I suggested she call a friend of mine who works at the Women’s Self-Serve Resource Center in town.

That must have worked.  I got a text message from my friend Emily saying that she had talked with Mrs. Thomas at length and made some suggestions to deal with her frustration and pent-up emotions.  I’m pretty sure that Mrs. Thomas now has other ways to release her anxieties than that bottle of whiskey she used to rely on.”

“There’s no need to tell me any more than that, Minot.  I’m just glad that Mrs. Thomas is happy and I agree that almost any solution is better than the bottle.  Thank you for being so considerate.  I’ll catch up with the Team in the next few days.  Have a pleasant rest of the day.”

Dudley turned toward an Exit when he noticed Lt. Garcia heading in his direction.

”Say, Doc.  Can you direct me to a Jorge Sandoval?  I remember that he was one of Ramirez’s few male friends and I’d like to talk to him.   Mrs. Torres seemed to think that he could shed some light on the situation.  It was her opinion that it was an angry woman who murdered Ramirez, but, based on what I saw of the scene, I don’t think that’s very likely. Anyway, maybe Sandoval has some less biased information.”

A thought occurred to Dudley.  He would take Garcia up to Sandoval’s apartment on the third floor which would give him an excuse to call on Mary Thomas.  Even though he agreed that the killer was most likely a man, he had to satisfy his curiosity about the past women in Ramirez’s life to eliminate that possibility.  In his mind, a jealous boyfriend or past lover was still a possibility, however remote.

Dudley was pleased when Jorge Sandoval opened the door to his apartment to notice that his large-screen TV was filled with a soccer match.  Dudley introduced Lt. Garcia and turned to leave.  “Señor Doc, it is much better to watch the football on my TV now, don’t you agree,” said Sandoval with a large grin.

“Señor Sandoval”, began Garcia, I have a few questions about your friend Cesar Ramirez.”

“Certainly, Lieutenant, anything I can do to help you catch this person who did this terrible thing to my good friend Cesar.”

“Thank you, Señor Sandoval.  We did not talk when Señor Ramirez was involved in the situation surrounding the unfortunate death of Ms. Felicio, but I understand that you were aware of all of his relationships with various women here at La Vida Aureo.  I am led to believe that he had given up most of those activities and was loyal, if I can use that word, to Señora Torres.  Is that correct?”

“Oh, yes.  Cesar discovered that Señora Torres could be quite satisfying, if you see my meaning.   Even though he still flirted with other women on occasion, he spent most of his time with Señora Torres.”

“Did she not object?  I find it somewhat hard to believe that a woman like her would not be jealous.”

“She is quite a remarkable person.  I once heard her tell Cesar that she didn’t care where he got his appetite as long as he came to her for what she called the “main course!”

“Oh, er, I see.  Anyway, given Señor Ramirez’s numerous past affairs, is it possible that there could be a jealous husband, former husband or boyfriend that wanted to do him harm?”

“I guess that is always possible, but Cesar was no fool.  He may have flirted with many, many women, but he was very careful and particular about who he actually spent real time with.  You must understand, Lieutenant, it was much more about the appearance of his activities than the reality.  He loved his reputation and did everything he could to build himself up, particularly in the eyes of women. For Cesar, it was always the show that mattered! ”

“Gracias, Señor Sandoval, for your time.  If you think of anything that could help, please call me.  Here is my card.”

 

Dudley had walked a short distance down the hall and knocked on the door to Mary Thomas’ apartment.   “Mrs. Thomas, I hope I am not disturbing you.  I was on this floor and just wanted to stop in to see how you were doing.  I don’t mean to intrude, or if this is an inconvenient time …”

“Oh, no, please come in Mr. Dudley.  I’m doing much better.  Thank you for asking.”

“I just happened to notice that you were talking to Miss Atkinson downstairs.  She is part of our Community Assist Program and has been doing some wonderful things as part of that new effort. She mentioned that she thought you were doing better.”

“Community Assist?  That’s funny; although what she did for me was more of a personal assist.  Based on her help, I’m doing much, much better.  As long as Amazon delivers my monthly supply of batteries, I’ll be JUST FINE!”

“Oh! If you have a few minutes, I’d like to ask you some questions about the ladies you sit with almost every day, Miss Waverly and Miss Caballo.  I’m sure you heard about Mr. Ramirez’s death and I know he had some involvement with at least Miss Waverly in the past.  I’m just curious about any recent involvements, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.  Basically, none of us have had any involvement with Mr. Ramirez since that unfortunate accident.  Dolores was the one actually involved with him, but she dumped him almost immediately.  Since then, she found a very nice gentlemen at the church she’s been attending someplace in town.  To hear her tell the story, this gentleman has helped her discover and experience The Rapture.  Personally, I don’t know if that’s a religious thing or not, but Dolores seems very happy and that’s all that matters to me.”

“The situation with Estelle-Elena is a bit more complicated.  You may recall that she was always the one who made openly suggestive remarks to every man who happened by and bragged about the long string of lovers she’d had since her Quinceañera and Prom.  The truth of the matter is that she was raped on both occasions and hasn’t been with a man since.  Her overt behavior was just her way of hiding some very deep and painful feelings from her past.  You may have also heard rumors about her carryings-on with some of the young girls on the Staff.  Well, Estelle has found a true soul-mate with a woman on the Staff, a mature woman who had tolerated a very abusive husband for many years. Evidently she and Estelle were talking one afternoon and realized that they had much in common and they grew closer from that point.  I don’t know the exact nature of their relationship, but Estelle is content and has given up her act as a femme fatale.”

Dudley sat quietly for several minutes; he had not expected such a detailed description of the personal lives of these women; he was only asking about Cesar Ramirez.  “So, I guess it’s safe to assume that none of you has had much involvement with Mr. Ramirez”?

“We have had NO involvement with him and, frankly I was glad when he gave up coming into the Dining Room each day and acting like “God’s Gift to Women!”

“Thank you for your time, Mrs. Thomas and I’m glad to learn that Miss Atkinson was able to help you in some way.”

“No problem, Mr. Dudley and when you see Miss Atkinson, please thank her again for me.  Please tell her that she opened a totally new world for me and that I can take care of all my needs by myself!”

 

Dudley met Lt. Garcia as both men went downstairs toward the Main Lobby. “I trust your interview with Mr. Sandoval was productive, Lieutenant.”

“Well, he was cooperative, but I didn’t really learn anything new.  His comments were pretty consistent with those from Mrs. Torres.  Apparently, Ramirez had been on his best behavior for quite some time and neither could think of anyone that would want to harm him, much less kill him. So, at this point, I don’t have any potential suspects and I don’t even have a motive. All I have is the knife from Ramirez’s back that we recovered at the crime scene. I’ve got to admit, Doc, I’m pretty stumped with this one.”

“I guess it is possible that someone from outside this community could have killed him, but that doesn’t seem very likely.  I know you’ve talked to Señora Angostura and you’re aware that she has eyes and ears everywhere, so to speak. She claims that there haven’t been any suspicious characters lurking about the grounds in recent weeks.  But, from what I observed, that knife was not an ordinary knife, certainly not the kind you see every day.”

“I agree, it looked pretty unusual, like some sort of ceremonial piece or heirloom or something like that. Maybe Dr. Hernandez or the forensic guys have found something that would at least give me a place to start.

“I certainly hope so. Look, Lieutenant, Isabella told me to keep my nose out of this, but I’ve already talked to a few Residents and haven’t learned anything that would help.  I’ll keep trying, though.”

“I appreciate it, Doc.  And, I promise not to mention anything to Isabella; your secret is safe with me.  Well, I’m headed back downtown. ”

With that, the two men shook hands and went their separate ways.  Dudley had some important repairs to address and really needed to catch up with Beth Ford and the Community Assist Team. He remained troubled by Mrs. Thomas’s comment that Miss Caballo was involved, perhaps even romantically, with a member of the Staff. He knew he would have to discuss this with Señora Angostura at the first opportunity.

 

Chapter 6: A Break in the Case

Lt. Garcia remained frustrated by the lack of progress in this murder investigation.  He had welcomed Dudley’s information about the ceremonial knife used as the murder weapon, but was disappointed that Dudley hadn’t uncovered any more information. Garcia was sitting at his desk staring at the image of the knife on his computer screen when Tom Bowers, the forensic technician entered his office.

“I hope you have some good news for me, Tom.”

“Good news, bad news, Lieutenant.  I was able to lift several prints from the knife.  Some are really very old, so I focused on the newest ones and those are essentially complete prints.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that I have been unable to find a match in any of our databases.  It’s possible that our killer has never been arrested and printed, which is pretty unusual these days.”

“Is it possible, Tom, there’s some reason we can’t find a match?  I can’t imagine that this guy hasn’t been in trouble before.  Suppose he got in trouble as a minor and any arrest records are sealed.  Would those show up?”

“Probably not.  But, I didn’t look into that possibility.  That might require a court order to gain access to that category of records.”

“Damn it, Tom, this is a murder inquiry and the knife is all we have to go on at the present.  You get started on the search and I’ll have the paperwork on your desk within the hour.”

Garcia went to see Judge Fajardo in his chambers and was told to return in twenty minutes for the order.  He went back to his office and continued to stare at the computer screen.  Sergeant Bernadette Armijo arrived a few minutes later with papers in her hand and a big smile on her face.  “I assume you’re looking for this.  I’ll take it to Bowers and come right back. I see you’ve had that picture of a knife on your screen all morning.  I assume that’s the murder weapon.”

“Yeah, and I’m hoping Bowers can identify the prints he lifted from it. He wasn’t able to find a match in the normal databases so the court order you delivered will let him have limited access to any records that are sealed.  I just can’t believe that our killer hasn’t been in trouble in the past.”

“It looks like some kind of ceremonial knife,” commented Sgt. Armijo, trying to placate or distract Garcia until Bowers returned.

“That’s what I heard from Doc Dudley and Ray Little Feather.  But, Doc also told me that there aren’t any Native Americans currently living at La Vida Aureo.  So, that would make our killer an outsider and the other facts don’t support that theory.”

Tom Bowers could hardly hide the smug look on his face as he sauntered into Garcia’s’ office.  “I got a match, Lieutenant!  You were correct.  The match was contained in a sealed case, but it wasn’t a minor like you suspected.  It’s kinda strange.”

“Just tell me, Tom, before I come across my desk to rip that sheet of paper out of your hands!”

“OK, OK.  The prints belong to a guy named Lucero Salazar and the case had to do with the alleged rape of a minor a few years ago.  The case was in the small town of Las Colitas up north some place.  Salazar was put on probation and that’s all that’s in the file.”

“I’ve heard of the Salazar family,” added Sgt. Armijo.  “If it’s the same family, they are major power brokers in State politics.  They operate mostly behind the scenes, but their name shows up in the Journal from time to time. And, if I remember, Las Colitas is one of those towns like Española that was founded a long time ago.”

Garcia was thrilled.  Now, he had a name, but he still had to locate Salazar and find some way to place him at La Vida Aureo at the time of the murder.  After a few minutes, he slapped himself in the forehead. “Stupid”, he said out-loud. “Why don’t I just call Isabella Duncan and ask if Salazar is a Resident?  I might just get lucky. Besides, if that doesn’t work, I have other ways to find him.”

Garcia’s euphoria was temporary.  Isabella Duncan told him that Lucero Salazar was indeed a Resident, but he was in the Memory Care Unit and was experiencing severe symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  Garcia decided that this was his best and only solid lead and, after briefly describing the fingerprint match, asked Isabella to arrange a meeting with Salazar as soon as possible.  Isabella suggested that Dudley also be present since he had retrieved Salazar from wandering the grounds and that might make the interview appear less threatening.

The interview took place that afternoon and was one of the most frustrating experiences of Garcia’s career.  Through the session, Lucero Salazar never once actually looked at Garcia.  Instead, he stared off at a point on the wall.  Salazar claimed he couldn’t recall ever meeting anyone named Cesar Ramirez.  Garcia showed Salazar the knife and Salazar remarked that “it was pretty”, but couldn’t recall ever seeing it before.  Garcia told Salazar that his prints were found on the knife and Salazar’s eyes just wandered toward the ceiling with no verbal response.  Garcia repeatedly tried to engage Salazar, but to little or no avail.  His infrequent responses were irrelevant to the questions asked.  In frustration, Garcia finally produced a fingerprint kit and retook Salazar’s prints.  He could compare these fresh prints with those lifted from the knife; he wouldn’t have to relay of records that were years out-of-date.

Dudley escorted Salazar back upstairs to the Memory Care Unit.  He found Lt. Garcia in the Dining Room nursing a cup of coffee.  “I guess that went pretty poorly, Lieutenant.  It didn’t sound to me like you got any useful information or even a mild response from Salazar.  And, on several occasions, you went at him pretty hard, but got nothing.”

“Yeah, well at least I got a fresh set of prints.  What do you think, Doc?  The little bit of evidence we have points directly to him.  It’s hard for me to imagine that he was mentally competent enough to plan and execute a savage murder just a short while ago and now be a total mental case and claim to have no memory at all.”

“I agree, Lieutenant.” Recalling the comments that Emilio Sandoval had made, Dudley said, “I guess it’s possible for him to be faking this whole thing, but I have to admit, he’s pretty convincing.  I did notice one thing, however.  You asked him the names of several people here at La Vida Aureo, to see if you got any reaction. I may be imagining this, but I believe I saw him actually focus his eyes when you mentioned Mrs. Torres. It’s probably a long shot, but she may be the connection between Salazar and Ramirez.  I suppose jealousy could be an incentive for murder.”

“That’s not a bad idea, Doc.  I’ll try to talk to her while I’m here.  It can’t be any less frustrating.  But, before I let go of Salazar as a suspect, I’m going to have him thoroughly examined by one of our doctors. I just don’t buy his act.”

 

Mrs. Magdalena Torres greeted Lt. Garcia abruptly.  “Well, have you found Cesar’s killer yet?  It’s been almost a month now.”

“We’re following up on some leads, Mrs. Torres.  If you have a few minutes, I’d like to ask you some questions that might help in our investigation.”

“I’m sorry for being so abrupt, Lieutenant.  I really miss Cesar and the thought of a killer running around loose makes me uncomfortable.  Please come in and ask your questions.  I assume you believe it was some jealous woman who did this horrible thing.”

“You know I can’t discuss the case with you, Mrs. Torres, but we’re pretty certain that the killer was not a woman.  Anyway, if I could ask you if you know a man here at La Vida Aureo named Lucero Salazar.”

Magdalena Torres’ reaction surprised Garcia.  “Oh, I know him alright!  Despite all of my efforts to avoid him and repeatedly telling him to stop bothering me, he just wouldn’t take No for an answer. He kept following me around and showing up here at my casita. Finally, I asked Cesar to speak to him. Cesar told me that he tried to convince Salazar that there were plenty of other women here and to leave me alone.”

“Do you know if that helped?”

“No. It only made things worse.  If I know Cesar, he probably bragged to Salazar about me and how fortunate he was to have me all to himself.  Afterwards, Salazar showed up and tried to convince me that he was a much better catch and how foolish I was to be wasting my time with a loser like Cesar.  He got pretty worked up about it and stormed out of here when I told him to get lost and never bother me again.”

“That’s very interesting, Mrs. Torres.  In any of your encounters with Mr. Salazar, did he ever appear to have any memory problems or any other indications of mental illness?”

“Well, if you want my opinion, I think he was totally loco!”

“I’m sure.  But did he ever seem like he couldn’t remember things or appear confused?”

“Look, Lieutenant, that guy was very insistent and very clear about what he wanted.  I don’t think he was the least bit confused, about anything!”

“Thank you for your time, Mrs. Torres, you’ve been most helpful.”

“Like I said before, Lieutenant, just get Cesar’s killer, the sooner, the better.”

 

Lt. Garcia spent the next few days trying to think through the case.  He was not at all surprised that the new set of prints matched those taken from the murder weapon exactly.  He was more convinced than ever that Lucero Salazar had murdered Cesar Ramirez in a fit of jealousy, likely over the affections of Mrs. Torres. He just couldn’t figure out a way to break through Salazar’s act of Alzheimer’s.  Garcia knew he had to proceed carefully to avoid Salazar getting away with murder because of his purported mental illness.  The first step was to have Salazar examined by one or more competent physicians that were not under the influence of the powerful Salazar family.

 

Later that afternoon, Lt. Garcia went to the office of Assistant District Attorney Susan Otero to outline his approach and get her fully prepared to prosecute Salazar for murder.  ADA Otero did not agree with Garcia’s approach and questioned whether he had sufficient evidence to secure a conviction.  “Look, Lieutenant, you are aware that the Police are still under investigation by the Department of Justice for that case involving the homeless man who was severely mentally ill.  We simply cannot afford any more negative publicity.  Before you do anything rash like locking Salazar up on some unfounded suspicion, why don’t we arrange a comprehensive battery of tests to see if your suspect is faking it or not.”

Garcia was not pleased, but at least this seemed like a reasonable next step.  In his gut, he didn’t trust Salazar.  He feared that Salazar was a dangerous person and he cared too much for the people at La Vida Aureo to have him walking around loose as a potential threat to women.

Despite her promise to act quickly, ADA Otero had major misgivings about this case.  It was not just the current problems of the Albuquerque Police, it was much closer to home.  Otero’s own father had been exhibiting these same symptoms for several months, but her entire family was in denial.  They simply could not accept that he had Alzheimer’s and consequently refused a formal diagnosis.

Garcia waited and waited, growing more impatient and frustrated as the days passed without any word from ADA Otero.  His calls were not returned, nor were his emails.  She never seemed to be in her office.  He knew he could not act without having her on board, so he just waited.

 

Lucero Salazar was emboldened by the perceived success of his interview with Lt. Garcia.  He was confident that the police would not be able to file any charges against him as long as he exhibited a diminished mental capability.  He decided to treat himself to an extended walk around the grounds, perhaps he would venture across the busy street toward the strip mall.  He had been practicing his helpless-old-man routine which always elicited attention, allowing him to get physically close and put his hands on the unsuspecting female Good Samaritan.

Dudley had called OJ Torreon earlier that morning and asked him to accompany him to Home Depot to purchase some fixtures needed for a few repairs. Dudley enjoyed OJ’s company and his pick-up truck was invaluable on these occasions. As they turned onto the busy street, a man darted out from between two parked cars and into their path.  Neither OJ nor Dudley saw the man and the collision was unavoidable.  They had just started to move and the impact wasn’t that hard; the man was simply knocked to the ground.

Dudley jumped from the truck and ran to the man, calling to OJ to dial 911. The man was lying on his back with his head against the curb. There was no visible blood and Dudley thought the man had just been stunned by the modest impact.  Dudley was surprised as he looked closer; it was Lucero Salazar.  “He must been wandering again and actually left the grounds through the main gate,” thought Dudley.  Dudley felt for a pulse and leaned closely to check for breathing.  Detecting no obvious life signs, Dudley began to administer CPR.  OJ had moved his truck to the curb and ran toward Dudley and the fallen man.  “I called 911 and the police and an ambulance are on their way.”

The police blocked the mid-morning traffic so that the ambulance could park a few feet away.  Dudley and OJ backed away as the EMTs began to administer to Salazar.  Without saying anything, they placed him on a stretcher and in a head restraint, loaded him into the ambulance and sped toward the University Trauma Center.

Dudley and OJ were both shaken by the collision but were able to provide details to the officer in charge of the scene.  Dudley provided Salazar’s identity as well as information about his residence and his apparent mental condition.  “We’ve had previous incidents of Mr. Salazar’s wandering about, but he’s never tried to leave the grounds before.  He must have walked out through the main gate because there is an eight-foot high decorative fence around the entire property.  If you have any further questions, Officer, please come to the Main Building.”

 

Dudley was still sitting in Isabella’s office with OJ describing the recent events when her phone rang.  “Ms. Duncan, it’s Lt. Garcia.  I assume you’ve already heard about the traffic accident involving Doc and OJ?”

“They’re both sitting here in my office, Lieutenant.”

“Well, I have to report that Mr. Salazar was pronounced Dead-on-Arrival when the ambulance reached the Trauma Center. Please tell Doc and OJ that I’ve met with the on-scene officer and there will be no charges filed against them.”

“It is a terrible thing for Mr. Salazar to be killed and I feel a certain responsibility that he was able to get out onto that busy street.  But, I’m relieved that there won’t be any charges against Doc or OJ.  I guess that’s some consolation.  If you need any additional information from our files concerning Mr. Salazar, please let me know.”

“Thank you, Ms. Duncan.  If I need anything, I’ll let you know.”

“Thank you for the call, Lieutenant.”

 

Garcia hung up the phone and went to the Morgue where Salazar’s body was just arriving.  Dr. George Hernandez, the Bernalillo County Chief Medical Examiner was in his office completing the necessary paperwork from a recently-completed autopsy.  “Well, if it isn’t my favorite Policeman.  What brings you to my humble habitat, Señor Investigador?”

“George, I need to ask a favor.”

“Oh, you want me to solve another murder case for you?”

“Not this time.  I’m saving your considerable expertise for a really complex case.  There’s a dead body that just arrived from a traffic accident this morning.”

“Oh, I get it.  A high-speed police chase resulting in a fatality and you want me to show that the police were not at fault?”

“Nothing that sinister. Well, maybe it is.  This guy was hit by a pick-up that probably wasn’t doing five miles-per-hour and, according to witnesses, hit his head on the curb. My guess is that it was the impact with the curb, not the collision with the truck that killed him.”

“Well, if you already know the answer, you can just fill out the paperwork and I can knock off early for a change.”

“C’mon, George, I’m serious and there is something I need to know about this guy. While you’re in his head looking around for the cause of death, would you please note the condition of his brain?”

“No problemo.    You want to tell me why you’re so interested?”

“Do you still prefer single-malt scotch?”

“Go home, Frank.  I’ll be in your office in the morning for coffee.  And, yes I do.”

 

Lt. Frank Garcia waited nervously the next morning, suspecting that Dr. Hernandez was deliberately pulling his chain, by making him wait.  Hernandez entered the office and simply held out his hand.  Garcia reached under his desk and handed Hernandez the brown paper bag containing the decorative box.  “Your guy died of a head injury.  As you suspected, it was not much of a blow.  I’ve seen much, much worse around here. It just caught him in the wrong place.”

“What about the condition of his brain?”

“Oh, yeah, almost forgot. You did mention that you were interested in that.  His brain was in perfect working order as far as I could tell.  No damage, no deterioration, 100 percent there, etc. If you had given me a bit longer, I probably could have told you his IQ!”

“Not necessary.  You’re certain that there was no evidence of deterioration?’

“Frank, look, I even cut a slice off to check, since I assumed you weren’t telling me exactly what you were looking for.  There was no evidence of anything abnormal.”

“Thanks, George.  I have one more favor to ask.  In your formal report, don’t mention that part of your examination, just the analysis to determine the cause of death. OK?”

“Sure, that’s what I’m paid to do. Do you mind telling me why?”

“Let’s just say that he comes from a very important family and I suspect they would be upset if we discovered that he was mentally sound.  I’d really appreciate it.”

“From the label on this box, I’d say you’ve earned that much.  Have a nice day!”

 

There was one more thing Garcia needed to do before he could close the file on Cesar Ramirez’s murder investigation.   Over coffee in the Dining Room at La Vida Aureo, he related the finding of the autopsy to Isabela Duncan, Matthew Dudley and Paloma Angostura.   “I know I can count of your utmost discretion on this matter.  I’m certain Lucero Salazar murdered Cesar Ramirez in a fit of jealousy concerning Mrs. Torres.  I still need to figure out exactly how to complete the paperwork to officially close the case to the satisfaction of the ADA, but that’s my problem.  As always, I appreciate your help in getting to the bottom of this.”

“You’re welcome, Lieutenant,” said Isabella.  For our part, we’re carefully reviewing our own procedures.  We must make the grounds more secure and we must be much more diligent about screening potential new Residents.”

“Well, it looks like we all have some work to do.”

 

 

Case IX: Chapter 1: Crime Scene Investigation

Dr. George Hernandez, the Chief Medical Examiner for Bernalillo County was kneeling beside the body of an elderly man.  “I’ve got to hand it to you Frank, the folks here at La Vida Aureo certainly have a way of making my life more interesting.”

“Skip the commentary, George. Please just give me the basic facts.”

“You won’t believe it, but I think this old geezer was electrocuted, most likely sometime yesterday afternoon.  I’ll know more when I get him on the table.”

Although Paloma Angostura had told Matthew Dudley that the man’s name was Conrad Alexander, Dudley always thought of him as The Wall Street Journal Man.  It was ironic that this man, who was the retired CEO of New Mexico Power & Light would die by electrocution.

 

After the body was removed, Lt. Garcia and Tom Bowers, the Forensic Technician, conducted a thorough search of Conrad Alexander’s apartment.  There really wasn’t much out of the ordinary.  Bowers collected the electrical cord that was found in Alexander’s mouth, but found little else to cause suspicion.  Garcia looked around the modest apartment and discovered a calendar on a small desk, open to the current week.  There were no entries for today, but the name Don Pearson was written in the noon- time space for the previous day.  There were also a few miscellaneous pieces of mail, all addressed to Mr. Conrad Alexander at La Vida Aureo.

Bowers looked over Garcia’s shoulder. “This guy must have really been “old school”.  I haven’t seen one of these paper version Franklin Planners in about a hundred years.  I assume that means we probably won’t find an iPhone lying around in here either.”

“Did you find anything else worth noting in the apartment, Tom?”

“Nada, Lieutenant.  I guess the killer stuck that electrical cord in his mouth and turned on the juice.  He certainly didn’t leave anything else that I could find. I just can’t imagine how you could pull that off. I mean, why would someone sit still with that in his mouth, waiting to get zapped?”

“Thanks for your insight, Tom. I guess we’ll just have to wait for the autopsy to be completed to see if that provides any more information.  Why don’t you take the electrical cord and the Planner back to the lab and see if you can recover any prints from either of them.  I’m going to try to talk to a few witnesses and see if anyone can add to what little we seem to have found.”

Lt. Garcia was eager to talk to the cleaning person who had discovered the body.  Martina Trujillo was sitting on a folding chair in the hallway, just outside Alexander’s apartment. She was sobbing heavily and Matthew Dudley and another woman were with her trying to console her.  “Afternoon, Doc. I assume this is the woman who discovered the body?”

“Yes, Lieutenant.  Her name is Martina Trujillo and she is currently assigned to this area of the Independent Living Unit.  And, this is Frida Savino, Miss Trujillo’s Supervisor.”

“Señora Trujillo, I would like to ask you a few questions if you feel up to it.”

“I will try.”

“Thank you. Can you tell me exactly what you saw when you entered Mr. Alexander’s apartment today?”

Si. Señor Alexander is such a nice gentleman.  He always speaks kindly to me and always asks about my Papa. I came to his apartment this morning, as I do most every day and he was sitting in that big chair by the window.  I said Buenos Dias, Señor Alexander, as I always do when I enter.  He did not answer.  That was unusual, since he is always doing something around the apartment.  When I walked over to the chair, I saw that wire hanging from his mouth.  I screamed and ran out into the hallway.”

“Martina was crying and screaming when I noticed her in the hallway”, added Frida Savino. “She would not go back into the apartment so I did and also saw Mr. Alexander in the chair, just as Martina said.  Señor Dudley must have heard Martina’s scream, because he came into the apartment then.”

“That’s correct, Lieutenant.  I saw Mr. Alexander and immediately dialed 911 and then went to find Isabella.  I returned to this floor and Frida and Martina were sitting in the hallway.  I closed the apartment door and waited for you to arrive.”

“Thanks, Doc.  Can you think of anything else that might help?’

“Not really, Lieutenant.  As Martina said, Mr. Alexander was a gentleman and pretty much kept to himself.  I’m sorry I can’t be of more assistance.”

“Thank you, Señora Trujillo and Señora Savino.  That will be all for now, but I may want to return to talk to you in a few days, if that would be convenient. Thanks, as always, Doc.  I’m going to stop downstairs and talk with Isabella to see what information is in her files about Mr. Alexander.”

 

Lt. Garcia knocked on the door to Isabella Duncan’s office which was normally open.  He found her sitting at her desk crying softly.  “I’m sorry to intrude, Isabella, but I’d like to ask you a few questions about Mr. Alexander, if it’s convenient.”

“Oh, Frank.  This is terrible.  You cannot imagine how this makes me feel. The last thing we need here at La Vida Aureo is another murder.  We’ve been working so hard on our reputation and then this has to happen.  I’m sure this will all end up in the paper and on TV and La Doña Jaramillo will want to know what I’m doing to keep our Residents safe.  I’m sorry, Frank, for being so upset.  How can I help you? I suspect you’ll want to see Mr. Alexander’s file.”

“That would help, Isabella.  And, you have my assurance that we will move as quickly as possible to find out what happened and identify the responsible person.”

“Thank you, Frank.  I got Mr. Alexander’s file out, but I’m afraid there’s not much information in it.  He purchased a two-year lease on one of our apartments in the Independent Living Unit and paid for it up-front; that was about eighteen months ago. His Application simply states that he is Retired, but not much else.  He lists a Serafino Huerfano as his emergency contact; I believe he was Alexander’s lawyer.  The Application states that he was a widower and had no other family.  I know he has talked to Paloma Angostura and to Doc; one of them may be able to tell you more about him.”

“Thanks, Isabella.  I think I’ll go to the Dining Room and see if I can speak with Paloma and maybe catch Doc.  Thanks again and I am truly sorry this had to happen here.”

Garcia meets Dudley as he leaves Isabella’s office. “Doc, can you add anything to what was said upstairs?”

“Sorry, Lieutenant, I only spoke to Mr. Alexander briefly. He left his copy of the Wall Street Journal for me every morning after he had breakfast in the Dining Room.  That was basically my only contact with him.”

“Thanks, Doc, I’d certainly appreciate it if you’d keep your eyes and ears open and let me know if you learn anything that would help with my investigation.”

Paloma Angostura was sitting at one of the tables in the Dining Room, sipping on a cup of tea when Garcia entered.  “Oh, Francisco, I am so sad about what has happened to Señor Alexander.  He was such a kind gentleman.”

“Can you tell me anything else about him, Madre?”

“Only that he tried to hide his sadness.  I sensed that he was carrying a large burden of some kind, but would not discuss it with me, no matter how I tried.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.  I don’t know if it has any bearing on his murder, but I appreciate your telling me.  I suspect foul play of some sort, but it’s really too early to tell. I must go now; there is much work to be done.”

“I’ll say a prayer for you, Francisco.”

 

On his way back to Police Headquarters, Lt. Garcia called Sgt. Bernadette Armijo and asked her to come to his office. “Bernie, this man who was apparently murdered at La Vida Aureo, Conrad Alexander, does not appear to me to be just another retired old guy.  The people I spoke to there had only very positive things to say about him.  His name sounds familiar. I would appreciate it if you would see what you can find out from public records, newspapers, TV, that sort of thing.”

“No problemo, Boss.”

Garcia was eager to learn what Dr. Hernandez had discovered with his autopsy and what the forensic guys found on the electrical cord found in Alexander’s mouth. But, that would have to wait until at least tomorrow morning.

 

The next morning, Lt. Frank Garcia was still on his first cup of coffee when Dr. George Hernandez and Forensic Technician Tom Bowers came to his office. Hernandez, being the senior of the two men, spoke first.  “You know, Lieutenant, I am indebted to you for making my otherwise boring life interesting.  Your cases are far more interesting and rewarding than my usual fare.  Here in Albuquerque, I mostly get dead bodies that are the result of stupid, self-inflicted death like drunk drivers, bar fight murders, jealous husband murders, drug overdoses and the like. But, your stiffs tend to brighten my day.”

“C’mon, George, enough of that.  You know how important La Vida Aureo is to me and I really don’t appreciate your feeble attempts at being clever.  What did you learn from Mr. Alexander’s autopsy?”

“OK, OK; don’t be so touchy, Frank. Your Mr. Alexander was definitely electrocuted.  The bare wire in his mouth and the burn marks on his tongue and in his mouth are pretty conclusive.  I estimate the time of death as sometime early afternoon yesterday.  Another thing; there were relatively fresh marks on his wrists that are consistent with being tied with some sort of coarse rope.  When I examined the contents of his stomach, there was evidence of a large quantity of pain killers.  That should be confirmed when the blood work comes back, but I’m pretty certain.”

“What do you make of all that?”

“Well, Frank, not to be too much of a cynic and acknowledging that you’re the detective, I’d say someone drugged him, tied him up, stuck the bare wire in his mouth and turned on the juice.  I just don’t see how anyone could do that to themselves.  I’d say you’re looking at a homicide.”

“You’re probably correct, George. I agree with you that it would be pretty unlikely to be suicide. Damn!”

“What I don’t get, Hernandez continued, is why anyone would go to all the bother for such a complex way to murder someone.  When I opened him up, it was obvious that this guy was dying. His body was full of cancer.  There was no reason to kill him; he probably would have been dead in a few months anyway, at the most.”

“That makes no sense to me.  Maybe the killer didn’t know that Alexander was dying.  Or, maybe there’s something I’m overlooking.  Tom, were you able to find anything on the wire?”

“Not much, Lieutenant.  There were some prints on the wire, but I couldn’t find a match in any of our regular databases; I’m still looking, however.  I compared them to prints I lifted from the Franklin Planner and several items in the apartment and they are definitely not Alexanders.”

“Thanks, guys.  So far, everything points to murder and that someone went to a lot of trouble to pull this off.  I appreciate your promptness.  Let me know if you come across anything else.”

 

Based on his initial observations at the crime scene, the information from Hernandez and Bowers was not a surprise to Garcia.  He had hoped for a different outcome than to have to investigate another murder at La Vida Aureo.  Regardless, he would pursue the investigation rigorously and try to remain detached and objective.  He was determined to find the killer as quickly as possible. He would return and have a longer discussion with Martina Trujillo and maybe Doc had learned something that would help.  He also knew that he would have to locate and interview this Donald Pearsall whose name was in the appointment book at about the time Hernandez placed the time of death.  And, there was the lawyer, Serafino Huerfano, that Alexander had named as his emergency contact.  Garcia knew he had several leads to follow.

Garcia had begun to make a list of people to interview when Sgt. Armijo knocked on his open door.  “Sorry to barge in, Lieutenant, but I was able to find out quite a bit about our Mr. Alexander.  Apparently, he was the former CEO of New Mexico Power & Light and retired a little over two years ago.  The Journal article says he retired for “personal reasons” and I’m sure that’s corporate-speak for something.  Since he was an important figure in the business world, I’m sure there’s a lot more information available.  It also appears that he was very active in the community and involved in quite a bit of charitable work and other notable things. I’ll keep digging. I just wanted to let you know that he wasn’t just some run-of-the-mill old guy at La Vida Aureo.”

“Thanks, Bernie. I appreciate your usual efficiency and energy.”

Frank Garcia sat back in his chair and asked himself, “If Conrad Alexander was such a good guy, why would someone want to kill him?”

 

Chapter 2: Information Gathering

Matthew Dudley was walking through the Independent Living Unit a few days later, with no particular direction in mind.  In principle, he was attending to a series of minor repair and maintenance projects, but his mind was elsewhere.  He remained deeply troubled by the apparent murder of Conrad Alexander.  He felt a sense of guilt for not reaching out to Alexander as they passed almost daily in the Dining Room, particularly after Paloma had expressed concern over his sadness.

He was also frustrated that he had not been able to be of any assistance to Lt. Garcia in solving this crime.  Whoever had done this terrible thing had not left any clues in the apartment and Dudley had been back several times to look around.

As he continued down the hallway, he noticed Martina Trujillo sitting on the floor. She had her knees pulled up tightly to her chest and was sobbing softly.  Dudley approached quietly and sat down on the floor next to her.  “I am also very sad, Martina, about Mr. Alexander’s death.”

“Oh, Señor Doc, he was such a kind man.  He reminded me of my own Papa before he got sick.”

Dudley asked, “So, Martina, how is your Papa?  I hope he is well.  And, how is your Mama?”

Dudley’s overture was met with more intense sobbing.  “My Papa is not well at all.  He keeps doing very strange things and he wanders away from home almost every night now.  My Mama is very tired and is unable to handle him any longer.  My brother and I try to help, but we have families of our own to care for.  Some of the neighbors are helping to find him when he goes out at night.  We just don’t know what to do.”

“Have you taken your Father to the doctor?  Maybe he could give you some suggestions.”

“No, my Papa refuses to go to the doctor. One of the older ladies in their neighborhood says that he is simply losing his mind. She told my Mama that this is common with old people, particularly men.”

“Martina, has anyone suggested that your Father may have a disease called Alzheimer’s or did he mention dementia?”

“No, but one of the other girls here at la Vida Aureo mentioned that about her Father when we were all talking after work one day.  Carolina said that the doctor did some tests like you do in school with her Father and then told them that this proved he had Alzheimer’s disease.”

“I am sorry to hear that your Father’s behavior is getting worse.  I know how hard you’ve worked to help him as he’s gotten older and what a burden it is on your whole family.  Would it be OK with you if I asked one of the women in our Community Assist Program to talk to you?  She may be able to give some information that might help.”

“I would like that, Señor Doc. Mila Espalin has talked with a group of us several times after work. She is a very nice lady.”

“I will ask her to make a point of talking to you about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  I’m sure she can give you some information to help you understand your Father and know what to expect.  Now, let’s dry those tears.  There are other Residents here who depend on you.  You have my promise that I am doing everything I can to help the police find out who did this terrible thing to Mr. Alexander.”

Despite his “pep talk” for Martina, Dudley was still struggling with his own emotions. He decided that he would go downstairs where he knew the Community Assist Team was currently meeting.  Hopefully, they were continuing to make progress on their key initiatives which always buoyed his spirits.

The meeting of the Team was in progress when Dudley slipped quietly into the conference room.  The Team had made considerable progress with their initiative for improved home safety.  They had prepared a series of Information Cards with simple things that people could do for themselves to reduce the risk of falls and other in-home injuries.  They had also begun talking with local contractors about doing more complicated modifications.

Minot Atkinson was leading an effort to develop a simple web-site where all of the information could be posted to make it readily available to a wider audience.  Her goal was to reach individuals who could use the information for their families, particularly those with aging parents or relatives.

As the individual Team members went about their Tasks, they continued to uncover additional situations of fraud and abuse within the healthcare system.  Team Leader, Beth Ford, had suggested that the Team hold their findings until near the end of the meeting.  She wanted to focus on all the positive gains and accomplishments.  And, she hoped that Matthew Dudley would attend so that they could discuss the best strategy for handling this information.  When she saw Dudley enter the room, she knew the time was appropriate to address this disturbing issue.  “OK, Team, we are making great progress.  In the few minutes left in today’s meeting, let’s turn our attention to the new things we’ve learned about personal information theft.  Why don’t you start, Mikaylah?”

“Thanks, Beth.  I guess because I’m the Newby, I find this activity particularly disturbing.  We’ve all noticed how there seems to be loads of home health-care agencies popping up all over the City. As I’ve driven around town, I made it a point to stop in several agencies and strike up a casual conversation.  In too many instances, the discussion turns quickly to the Agency’s need for personal information.  When I question that need, the response is typically that’s “the Law or the Regulations require it”.  They all just hide behind that flimsy excuse and will not discuss it further. Personally, I am suspicious.”

Arnetta Valencia spoke next.  “I have several long-time friends who are Nurse Practitioners.  They really enjoy interacting with patients and some have taken jobs doing home visits to perform an annual wellness check-up.  Some of the Insurance Companies have initiated this approach and I think it makes a lot of sense.  It is certainly consistent with our goal of keeping people in their homes longer.  The major part of this wellness survey is collecting information which is entered into a form on the insurance company’s web-site. Anyway, one of my friends told me of a situation where she noticed the same nondescript van at several of the homes she visited recently.  Since she connects to the web-site over a wireless network, she worried that her entries were being intercepted by someone in this van.  After her most recent visit where the same van was present, she approached the van to talk to the driver.  When he saw her coming, he sped away.  She did manage to get the license plate number which she reported to her Supervisor.  It’s an issue we’ve discussed before within the Team.  As more personal information is collected over computer networks, I believe the opportunities for theft will increase dramatically.  This just seems like one more instance where technology can be used for good and evil, almost simultaneously.”

“Thank you, Arnetta, anyone else?”

“I don’t know if this is a problem, or if someone was just to sound more important,” said Mila Espalin.  “One of the women at my church has a job with a small firm that processes health claims.  She told me that her firm is some sort of “middle-man” in the network between the patients, doctors, hospitals, clinics, insurance companies, etc. It is her job to review the claims that are submitted and insure that the proper codes are entered for each procedure.  As I understand it, that code determines who gets reimbursed and for how much.  As I said, I don’t know if she was just trying to impress me or she really acts this way.  She said that, with the Affordable Care Act, there are literally thousands of new code categories and she has to be knowledgeable about all of them.  Then she said that she could mark down any code she wanted and no one would ever know the difference.  She said that, if she’s having a bad day, or if she just feels like it, she can direct money or payment to almost anyone she wants, or make sure that no one gets anything at all.  It just seems to me that this is one more area that could easily be abused if someone had a mind to.”

“Thanks, Mila. Mr. Dudley, you’ve been sitting quietly in the back listening to these reports.  It is certainly not our job to try to correct these potentially harmful situations, but I feel this information needs to get to the proper authorities.  Would that Lieutenant Garcia who spoke to us a while ago be the proper person?”

“I suppose so, Beth.  But, it might make more sense to try to address these issues on a larger scale than through the local police.  It’s probably some combination of local and state, maybe even federal, authority. I don’t know.  I believe I will have an opportunity to talk to Lt. Garcia in the very near and I will mention it to him and ask his opinion.”

“Thank you, Mr. Dudley.  Well, if there is nothing else, I want to thank the Team for another positive meeting and continued progress.  Meeting adjourned!”

Dudley stopped Mila Espalin as they were leaving the conference room.  “Mila, could I ask a favor?”

“Certainly.”

“I believe you know Martina Trujillo who is part of the La Vida Aureo staff.  I understand that her Father’s mental condition continues to deteriorate. I don’t know if he has Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, but Martina and her Mother are struggling with ways to cope with his erratic and potentially dangerous behavior. Could you please talk with her and give her some suggestions?”

“I would be glad to.  In these situations, information is the key.  If Martina and her Mother knew what to expect and what behaviors are typical, perhaps they would be better able to cope with him.  I have some pamphlets from the local Alzheimer’s Association and I’m certain there are more available.  I will also give her the name of a support group that meets in her neighborhood, probably at the local library.  That should be another source of strength and encouragement.”

“Thank you, Mila.  I know Martina will be most appreciative.”

Lieutenant Garcia had continued his investigation and decided his first interview would be with Conrad Alexander’s lawyer, Serafino Huerfano.  Señor Huerfano was a partner in the prestigious Albuquerque law firm of Rothschild, Epstein, Schwartz and Huerfano with offices on the top three floors of the Wells Fargo Bank building downtown.   Garcia expected to be treated with minimal respect when he entered through the firm’s large oak doors. But, the receptionist greeted him warmly and said that he was to be taken to Mr. Huerfano immediately.

As Garcia entered the office, Huerfano rose from his large desk and walked to greet Garcia with an outstretched hand.  He directed Garcia to two large arm chairs in a corner of the spacious office. “Let’s sit over here where we can be more comfortable. Can I get you a coffee or water?  I presume you are here about my good friend Conrad Alexander.”

“Yes. I believe you are aware that you are listed as Mr. Alexander’s Emergency Contact at La Vida Aureo.  I understand that he has no other family and I was hoping that you could provide me with some general background information.”

“Certainly.  Conrad and I were friends for many years.  We first met when he was a young engineer trainee with the Power Company, working in southern New Mexico, near my home.  Over the years, as we each pursued our lives and careers, we remained in contact and established what you might call a tradition of meeting for a simple dinner on each other’s birthday.  Conrad was a many of exceptional integrity and vision and a true friend.”

“I am sorry for your loss, Señor Huerfano.  As his friend and lawyer, what do you know of his health issues?”

“Sadly, yes.  Conrad and his late wife were always conscientious about their affairs. He came to me after his wife’s death to update his personal will and estate planning.  It was at that time that he revealed to me just how serious his own health was and that the doctors had not given him very long to live.  It speaks to the character of the man that he put aside his own health concerns to care for his wife during her last and most difficult months.  In hindsight, I believe that may have exacerbated his own condition, but he would not have had it any other way.   I am named Executor of his estate and will perform my duties in a few weeks.

“Can you tell me anything about his career at New Mexico Power & Light or his civic activities?”

“I doubt that I can tell you much more than you could learn from various public sources.  There weren’t any secrets in Conrad’s life and, as an executive at the Power Company, most everything is a matter of public record.  The same probably holds for his civic and charitable work. You could talk to Graham Wright who was the former CEO and Board Chairman at the Company and Conrad’s mentor for much of his career.  He has an office on the tenth floor of this bldg.”

“Thanks, I’ll follow up with Mr. Wright.  I think you’ve already implied this, but can you think of anyone who would want to kill Mr. Alexander?”

“Absolutely not!  In all the years I knew Conrad, I never heard him speak against anyone.  I’m sure there were people he didn’t particularly care for, but he kept those feelings to himself.”

“Thank you once again for your time, Señor Huerfano.  Just one more question.  Does the name Donald Pearsall mean anything to you?”

“Not anything in particular, but I believe he is with the Power Company.  Graham could probably tell you if that is correct.”

Garcia decided, since he was in the building, he would see if he could talk with Graham Wright.  The sign on the door said simply Graham Wright and Garcia entered and was greeted by a receptionist/secretary.  Garcia presented his APD card and asked if Mr. Wright was available.  “No,” said the Secretary.  “You just missed him. He is at a luncheon meeting with the Mayor and Chamber of Commerce and should return later this afternoon.  I assume you’re here in connection with Mr. Alexander’s death.  It is such a tragedy.  He visited Mr. Wright on occasion and was always the perfect gentleman.  Shall I call you when Mr. Wright is available?”

“Thank you. I would appreciate that very much.  I will make myself available whenever is convenient with Mr. Wright.”

Garcia knew that an investigation of this sort would evolve slowly, but was frustrated that he hadn’t learned any new information so far.  New Mexico Power & Light’s corporate offices were only a few blocks away and Garcia decided to attempt to interview Donald Pearsall.  It was Pearsall’s name in Alexander’s calendar-planner that told Garcia that this interview would be different from the pleasantness with Señor Huerfano and probably Graham Wright.  Garcia realized that Pearsall might be the last person to see Alexander alive and, for that reason alone, was a potential suspect, or at least a “person of interest”.  For that reason, Garcia knew that he had to approach this interview cautiously and be alert to Pearsall’s voice and body language.

Pearsall’s suite of offices were on the top floor of the NMP&L building and Garcia was somewhat taken aback by its appearance.  Whereas Huerfano’s and Wright’s offices were understated elegance, Pearsall’s could only be described as ostentatious. “Early King Tut-style, thought Garcia. No wonder my electric bill keeps going up!” After presenting his card and stating his purpose, he was instructed to take a seat and the Receptionist said she would see if Mr. Pearsall was available.

About cooling his heels for about thirty minutes, Garcia was escorted down a long hallway to a large Conference Room where Donald Pearsall was in the final stages of loudly reprimanding someone over a speaker phone. The Secretary was apparently used to this behavior and simply waited until Pearsall abruptly ended the call.  “Mr. Pearsall, this is Lieutenant Garcia from the Albuquerque Police.”  She turned and quickly left the room, quietly closing the door behind her.

“I presume you’re here about Alexander’s death.  I am afraid I can’t help you.  It’s been a while since I saw Conrad, particularly after he moved to that Old Folk’s Home.   The paper said he was electrocuted.  How the Hell did that happen?”

Garcia decided to proceed slowly with Pearsall, realizing that there was nothing to be gained by provoking him, at least at this point.  In his mind, this was only Round One. “Thank you for taking time to see me, Mr. Pearsall.  I know you’re very busy.  I just have a few questions.  That is correct. It appears that Mr. Alexander was electrocuted and we’re treating it as a homicide.”

“What?  That makes no sense.  Are you sure Old Conrad didn’t just decide to do himself in?  I imaging he was pretty depressed.  I mean, his wife had died recently and he was living like a hermit in that place.”

“We’re looking at several possibilities at this time.  Can you tell me what your relationship was with Mr. Alexander?”

“Well, we obviously worked together here at NMP&L for most our careers, which I’m sure is general public knowledge, but we were usually in different Departments or locations.  I took over as CEO when he retired about the time his wife died.”

“Did you and Mr. Alexander see each other socially, or in any civic or charitable activities?”

“No.  Conrad was big into that kind of stuff, but my focus is on running this company and I have very little time for frivolous things.”

“I see.  Can you think of anyone who might want to harm Mr. Alexander?”

“Not really.  As I said, our paths didn’t cross that often.  But, you don’t get to the top of this Food Chain without pissing a few people off. I can tell you that from personal experience.”

“I know you’re busy, but I have one more question, if you don’t mind, Mr. Pearsall.  Can you tell me the last time you saw Mr. Alexander and where that would have been?’

“I told you, Lieutenant, we didn’t socialize and I didn’t see Conrad much after he left here.  I don’t remember exactly, but it must be a couple of months ago, maybe even more. I suspect it was at some sort of on-site company function.”

“Thank you again for your time, Mr. Pearsall.  If I have any further questions, I presume I can call you?”

“Just call my Secretary to make an appointment, but, as I said, I don’t think I can be of much help.  And Lieutenant, I would look more closely at the suicide angle if I were you.”

Garcia smiled to himself as he headed back toward the Receptionist’s area.  “You can count on seeing me again, you arrogant snob.  For at least Round Two and maybe Three and Four!”

As he walked back to APD Headquarters, a plan began to form in Garcia’s mind.  He was certain that most of what Pearsall had told him was false.  He was obviously hiding something.  The interview with Graham Wright was even more important and he hoped he could learn more about the relationship between Alexander and Pearsall as well as more about Pearsall himself.  He would also challenge Sgt. Armijo to really dig and see what else was available about these two men.  And, he needed to go back to La Vida Aureo and have another discussion with the woman who found Alexander’s body; maybe Doc could help there.