Home on the Mange: A Little Tombstone Cozy Mystery


When Earp develops a case of mange and requires treatment, the last thing Emma expects to find is Earp's new vet lying facedown on the floor of the clinic exam room in a pool of blood.

With only a bloodied rodeo trophy and a hateful message scrawled in lipstick next to the poor woman's head to go on, it's up to Emma to find out who hit Dr. Vance in the back of the head and why.

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Chapter One

Earp, the ancient and irritable pug I’d inherited from my Great Aunt Geraldine along with the dilapidated premises of Little Tombstone, was scratching himself again.

Earp’s daily activities generally consist (in equal parts) of dozing in the corner of my apartment kitchen with his head resting on the ample belly of Hercules, his pot-bellied pig companion, and—when not in repose—dogging the footsteps of ten-year-old Maxwell, the pug’s favorite human. Earp is waiting for crumbs to drop from the snacks the kid seems to be constantly consuming. Unfortunately, during the past week, Earp had added a third major activity to his limited repertoire. The pug had taken up scratching himself as a major pass time.

Something had to be done.

Earlier in the day, I’d taken Earp over to see Dr. Bagley at the vet clinic. Dr. Bagley had given Earp a once over and announced that the pug had mange.

“I’ll have to take a skin scraping and analyze it to know for sure what kind of mite is causing the infection,” Dr. Bagley had told me.

She’d then taken the sample, much against Earp’s will. He’d bared his teeth and growled at Dr. Bagley, but he hadn’t bitten.

He’s only actually bitten on a handful of occasions. One notable exception to Earp’s no-bite policy having been when my ex-husband, Frank, decided to land a hot air balloon in the street in front of the Bird Cage Cafe and declare his undying love for me because his mistress had left him. Frank’s I-can’t-live-without-you-speech hadn’t gone well. And Earp hadn’t been the only inhabitant of Little Tombstone who’d conspired to send my odious ex off into the sunset, but I digress. The salient point is that Earp is not a biter.

Dr. Bagley seemed unfazed by the pug’s ill-tempered outburst. I suppose she’s probably seen thousands of dogs in her long career. She can probably tell just by observation, which dogs will make good on their threats, and which will not.

“I’ll call you when I’ve had a chance to look at this sample under the microscope,” Dr. Bagley had told me after she’d deprived Earp of a sampling of his infected hide.

The vet had then bundled us off so she could deal with her next patient, a four-year-old Persian cat named Polly. Polly’s owner had informed me as to the cat’s particulars while we’d all been stuck in the clinic’s tiny reception area together. Polly had yowled her head off inside her carrier throughout the wait, which had not pleased Earp one bit, although it probably helped that the pug was half-deaf.

I’d had no such luck. Polly’s proud owner referred to the cat’s vocalizations as “singing,” but it seemed to me that Polly lacked talent as a vocalist and ought to be brushing up on her skills as a mouser if she intended to earn her keep.

Our Friday excursion to the vet had been a trying ordeal, and it was only half-over since Dr. Bagley had only proffered up a partial diagnosis on the spot. That initial visit to the clinic had concluded at ten in the morning; it was now late afternoon, and my phone was ringing.

“It’s Sarcoptic Mange,” Dr. Bagley told me. “You’ll have to come back in for a tube of ointment. I’ll be out, but Dr. Vance will be here until five.”

Dr. Reba Vance was new to Dr. Bagley’s vet clinic, but she wasn’t new to Amatista.

According to Juanita, proprietress of the Bird Cage Café and lifelong resident of the village, Reba was something of a local celebrity. Back in the day, Reba Vance had been a rodeo queen and, according to Juanita, was still quite a beauty.

After quitting the rodeo scene in her mid-twenties, Reba had belatedly gone off to college and later to vet school. Now, at thirty-six, she was finally coming back to where she’d started: the sleepy village of Amatista, New Mexico.

“She must still have family in the area?” I’d asked Juanita.

“Sort of,” she’d replied. “Blake Vance is her ex-husband.”

I had never met Blake, but apparently, he’d also been big on the rodeo circuit a decade or so back.

“I’m sure Reba makes a very good vet,” Juanita had told me. “She was always so good with horses.”

I hoped she was equally good with geriatric pugs. I was curious to meet this aging-rodeo queen-turned-veterinarian and doubly eager to relieve poor Earp of his irritating skin condition. As soon as I got off the phone with Dr. Bagley, I leashed Earp up and headed over on foot to the Amatista Vet Clinic a quarter-mile away from Little Tombstone on the south side of the village.

Earp is not big on walks, but Dr. Bagley insists he needs the exercise, so I ignored the old pug’s grumbling. I set off with a pocket full of treats in case that’s what it took to coax Earp into motion and a bottle of water and a collapsible dog dish, just in case the heat got the best of us en route.

We finally got to the clinic after stopping half a dozen times. We paused once for water and five times for tantalizing smells. Three of the olfactory detours were for irresistible patches of earth impregnated with scents undetectable to the human nose. One was for a half-eaten hamburger, which I allowed Earp to approach, and the final delay was to investigate what turned out to be a dead rat in an advanced state of decay. I had the gravest difficulty convincing the pug to leave the cadaverous rodent alone.

In the end, I had to pick Earp up and carry him for the next block before setting him down again and coaxing him into action by tossing a treat into his path.

We both arrived at Dr. Bagley’s Clinic hot, panting, and a trifle out of sorts.

There was not a single vehicle in the small, graveled parking lot outside the old concrete block clinic building, which had originally housed a gas station. Years ago, the old filling station had been driven out of business by the truck stop that had gone in a few miles further north on Highway 14.

As I pushed open the front door, a bell tinkled, announcing our arrival. The front counter, once the domain of the gas station attendant, was deserted. Neither Julia, Dr. Bagley’s office manager, nor either of her techs, Artie or Candice, responded when I called out. For that matter, neither did Dr. Vance.

To the left of the counter was the door that once led into the old double bays of the garage. The old garage was now divided into three exam rooms, Dr. Bagley’s office, and a storage room, all connected by a central hallway. I walked to the door that led into the hallway and pushed it open. I called out again—still, no answer.

I wondered if there had been some miscommunication between Dr. Bagley and Dr. Vance, or perhaps the new vet, overwhelmed by adjusting to an unfamiliar work environment, had simply forgotten that I was coming to pick up Earp’s ointment.

If that was the case, however, Dr. Vance had also forgotten to lock up when she went home.

The doors to two of the exam rooms and to the office were open. I stuck my head into all three, but they were deserted. The door to the third exam room was closed, and as I approached it and knocked, Earp growled and backed away from the door. I knocked again and pulled a treat from my pocket in an attempt to calm him down.

It didn’t work. Earp kept backing away from the door, which gave me a case of the creeps. I let go of Earp’s leash, allowed him to wriggle backward into the empty exam room directly across from the closed door, and shut him inside. I knocked once more at the closed exam room door, then tried the knob, which turned easily in my hand.

It was silly to be so jumpy, I told myself, but my voice sounded small and shaky as I called out one more time for Dr. Vance as I pushed the door open.

At first, I thought I was alone in the room, but as I rounded the waist-high counter in the middle that served as the exam table, I spotted a teal-blue cowboy boot.

I could not have imagined a more improbable scene.

A tall, willowy woman wearing a white lab coat lay sprawled face-down on the linoleum floor, her long, blond hair matted with blood. She’d obviously been hit in the back of the head with something, and I didn’t have to look far to find the weapon.

A substantial brass trophy which featured a horse on top lay at the woman’s booted feet, and next to her head someone—and I could only suppose it was the same person who’d hit her on the head—had scrawled, “Die Reba Die” in bright pink lipstick. I knew the vile message had been written with lipstick because the abandoned tube lay next to the hateful words scrawled on the linoleum.

It was one of the weirdest scenes I’d ever laid eyes on, but I didn’t take time to examine the blood-covered trophy or the lipstick message. I was far too worried about the victim.

With shaky hands, I dialed 911 and held the phone to my ear with one hand as I approached the body sprawled on the floor. I was sure the woman was dead until she let out a moan.

Chapter Two

I’m afraid that the 911 dispatcher found me less than coherent.

“Someone tried to kill my dog’s vet,” I said as soon as the voice on the other end confirmed that I’d reached emergency services.

“Name, please?” the voice said.

“Emma Iverson. I’m afraid she’s in a bad way.”

“Where are you calling from, Ms. Iverson?”

“The veterinary clinic in Amatista. She’s moaning a little, but—”

“Do you know the street address of your location?”

The poor woman on the floor let out another moan. The bleeding on the back of her head seemed to have more or less stopped. I remembered hearing somewhere that head wounds often appear worse than they actually are because the head tends to bleed more profusely when cut than other parts of the human anatomy.

“I’ll have to go outside to find the address,” I told the dispatcher. “Shouldn’t I try and do something for the victim?”

“We can’t dispatch an ambulance until we have your exact location,” the voice on the other end of the phone informed me as if Amatista were big enough to get lost in.

It was like talking to one of those weird in-home voice-activated devices which, while privy to great swaths of the collective knowledge of humankind, is not necessarily at the ready with the particular bit of information you require.

I half expected to be offered a list of restaurants in a three-mile radius that offered delivery. Of course, there would be zero options on that list. We have only one restaurant, the Bird Cage Café, which does not deliver. If you blink as you pass through Amatista, you’ll miss it altogether.

Clearly, the officious voice on the other end of the line had never been to Amatista and didn’t know that there was only one vet clinic, it was visible from the highway, and any ambulance driver who’d ever been to Amatista, never mind the police, wouldn’t have any trouble finding it.

I decided to play along with the voice. There’s no use arguing in these situations.

I darted into the reception area and plucked a business card out of the little plexiglass holder on the counter.

“14378 Highway 14. The cross street is Calle Ocho.”

“Thaaannk you,” said the voice drawing out the a in an exaggerated show of exasperation. “I have dispatched emergency services to your location. They should be arriving in twenty to thirty minutes. Please stay on the line in case I need further information.”

That’s the problem with living way out in the middle of nowhere: when you need help, it takes ages to arrive. I decided that calling on local help was my best bet.

“I’m going to have to hang up on you, Alexa,” I told the impatient dispatcher.

“My name is not Alexa; it’s Cammie.”

“My apologies. I’m going to hang up and summon local help.”

“I’d advise you to stay on the line.”

“Can you tell me how to assist a woman lying face-down in a pool of her own blood?”

“Is the injured individual in any immediate danger?”

“Not unless her attacker returns,” I said.

“Do you know the identity of her attacker?”


“Do you have any reason to believe her attacker might return?”

I wanted to say, “How should I know?” but instead, I just said, “No,” and walked to the open door of the exam room, pulled it shut, and activated the button lock, just in case.

The dispatcher’s question increased my urgency to summon assistance or at least company.

Earp, who’d initially howled his little head off and thrown his body repeatedly against the closed door of the exam room across the hall after I’d locked him in, had gone quiet.

He was too quiet, which made me worry that the pug had gotten into something in there and was currently consuming it, edible or not.

“Don’t move the victim and wait for help to arrive,” the dispatcher told me.

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Don’t move the victim and wait for help to arrive,” she repeated as if reading off of a script.

That was not terribly helpful. I already knew how to do nothing.

“I’ll call back if there’s anything else you need to know,” I said and hung up before not-Alexa could repeat her instructions for the third time.

Unfortunately, we do not have a doctor living in Amatista. We do not even have a nurse. We have two vets, but one was currently incapacitated on the floor, and the only number I had for Dr. Bagley triggered a recorded message that I was pretty sure originated with the landline that rang a few times in reception before going silent.

We didn’t have a doctor. We didn’t have a nurse. We didn’t even have a vet available. So, I did the next best thing: I called a lawyer.

“Hello, Emma,” Jason Wendell said when he answered. “You ready for our date tonight?”

I was supposed to be going to see a musical in Santa Fe that evening with Jason, Amatista’s only lawyer and most eligible bachelor.

Mr. Wendell had gained the exalted status of most eligible on the strength of being under forty, gainfully employed, and possessing all of his original teeth and most of his original hair.

I had not been sure if our outing to see the Santa Fe Players perform The Music Man was supposed to be a “date” date or not. Our relationship was a bit ambiguous. I was 100% in favor of moving us out of the friend zone, but I was a little hazy about how Jason felt.

“There’s been a bit of a crisis. I could use some help,” I told Jason.

Calling a veterinarian lying prostrate on the floor of the Amatista animal clinic surrounded by a pool of her own blood “a bit of a crisis” was rather understating the case for Jason hurrying right over, but it turned out that he didn’t need a great deal of urging to come to my assistance.

“Where are you?” Jason asked.

I imagine he was expecting me to say that I was at Little Tombstone—the rundown roadside tourist attraction I’d inherited from my grandmother and late aunt. There’s a crisis at Little Tombstone every other week, but not generally of a violent nature. More often than not, it’s because some bit of the ramshackle premises has decided to detach itself from the rest, or a pipe has spontaneously sprung a leak.

I have never once summoned Jason to deal with carpentry or plumbing emergencies. Jason Wendell wears imported, handmade leather loafers and starched white shirts. His strengths lie more in the intellectual realm, and he was probably next to useless when it came to rendering first aid. However, as we’d been instructed to do nothing but wait for help, I felt it would not be asking too much to request that Jason provide moral support.

“I’m at the vet clinic,” I told Jason as I knelt over Dr. Vance’s head and tried to decide if I should even touch her. “Dr. Bagley’s new vet appears to have been viciously attacked.”

“I’ll be right there,” said Jason and hung up.

Jason Wendell’s neat, modern concrete office building—which sticks out like a sore thumb in the sea of old adobe and wood frame structures that make up the rest of the village—was only a block away.

While I waited for Jason, I made sympathetic sounds in the direction of the injured woman, not that I believed she was in any condition to take comfort in them. I also made a pass around the room but discovered nothing except the possible source of the lipstick which Dr. Vance’s attacker had used to scribble his, or her, odious epithet.

A purse, which I assumed belonged to Reba, had been knocked to the floor, and the contents, including a bright pink billfold, spangled with rhinestones, a bottle of perfume—which fortunately had not broken as it fell—and a hairbrush lay scattered near the prostrate woman.

I was loathe to disturb the woman’s possessions and contaminate the crime scene, so I left them where they were. Besides, everything I could glean from the victim’s scattered belongings about the motive for hitting Reba on the back of the head was already apparent. It hadn’t been to get her cash or credit cards; her billfold remained snapped shut, and it looked like nothing from her purse had been disturbed save the lipstick.

Whoever had hit Dr. Vance in the back of the head must have snuck up on her, but perhaps it had been more of an impulsive attack than it appeared. Snatching up whatever happened to be at hand and scrawling a hateful message on the floor as an afterthought did not indicate—at least to my mind—a significant degree of premeditation.

The only thing it did suggest was that whoever had hit Reba in the back of the head wasn’t terribly fond of her, to put it mildly, or at least that’s the impression they’d wanted to make.

I supposed that a particularly clever thief who’d impulsively attacked Reba in an attempt to prevent her from reporting his actions might have scribbled the words “Die Reba Die” in an attempt to make the attack appear to be the result of a personal vendetta, but as I stood there making vaguely reassuring sounds at Reba, I decided that scenario was highly unlikely.

Besides, unless the thief had been targeting something kept elsewhere in the clinic, nothing appeared to have been stolen. A row of rodeo trophies, which I assumed were a recent addition to the exam room since Dr. Vance had joined Dr. Bagley’s practice, were neatly aligned on the top of the cabinet above the counter that flanked the wall behind the exam table.

I was tempted to reach up and take one down to examine it in leu of disturbing the bloodied trophy that lay at Reba’s feet, but when I walked over, I discovered I couldn’t even brush the bases with my fingertips when I went up on tip toe.

I glanced at the framed certificates on the walls, which attested to Reba Vance’s professional bonafides. One of the certificates was slightly askew as if someone had brushed up against it, but I resisted the impulse to straighten it.

Less than three minutes had passed when I heard the bell over the front door of reception tinkle and looked at the time on my phone, even though it had felt like I’d been waiting for twenty.

The speediness of this arrival put me on high alert. It was probably Jason, rushing to my assistance, but I called out his name through the door just to be sure.

When he answered back, I unlocked the door of the exam room.

“What happened?” he asked as he joined me in crouching over Reba’s body.

“It appears someone hit her in the back of the head with one of her own rodeo trophies.” I pointed to the bloodied trophy that lay almost at my feet. “What do you do for a semi-conscious person with a head wound?”

“You leave them be until help arrives. Do you know when that will be?”

I looked at my sent calls and did a little math in my head.

“Another fifteen to twenty-five minutes.”

“What’s her name?” Jason asked me.

“It must be Dr. Vance. Reba Vance. She’s who Earp had an appointment to see.”

“Reba,” Jason said, directly addressing the woman lying on the floor, “Can you hear me?”

It was just then that Earp started barking again and resumed throwing himself against the door of the exam room where he’d been confined against his will.

“I’d better let Earp out,” I told Jason and left him there, squatted on the floor next to the presumptive Dr. Vance’s body.

Chapter Three

Earp was ecstatic to be released from durance vile in the exam room across the hall from where poor Dr. Vance lay. The problem was that as soon as I let the pug out of one exam room, he wanted to get a look at what was going on in the other. All his earlier hesitation to enter the room containing the injured woman seemed to have evaporated.

Although the pug was leashed, it seemed fundamentally wrong to allow him to sniff at the soles of the poor woman’s teal blue cowboy boots, and that was the best-case scenario if I were to allow Earp into the room with Dr. Vance.

“I’m going to take Earp outside,” I called through the door to Jason as I grasped the pug by his collar.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” Jason asked as he opened the door a crack too small for Earp to wiggle through, although that didn’t prevent the pug from trying.

“I imagine whoever hit Dr. Vance in the back of the head is far from keen to get caught on the premises. I’ll keep watch for the police to arrive while I let Earp water a tumbleweed.”

I also intended to scope out the parking lot for any clues the brute who’d bludgeoned Reba might have left behind, but I didn’t tell Jason that.

Much like Earp, straining at the leash in my hands, my earlier terror had evaporated, and I was on high alert for indications to the identity of Reba’s would-be killer. Perhaps it was the fifteen pounds of geriatric canine valor that was straining at the end of his leash that emboldened me.

“I wish there was something we could do for her.” Jason gestured helplessly at the woman on the floor, who was still letting out a moan from time to time.

I was fairly certain that Reba was far too out of it to even acknowledge our presence in the room, but I supposed it was worth at least trying one last time to establish communication.

“Hold onto Earp,“ I told Jason.

As soon as I’d handed off the pug, who proceeded to bark excitedly from outside the doorway of the exam room, I came around to where Dr. Vance lay on the bloody linoleum.

The gash had all but stopped bleeding, but I could see that she had a nasty goose egg growing on the back of her head.

“Reba!” I said, gently touching her arm. “Can you hear me?”

All I got for my trouble was another moan.

“Can you hear me?” I repeated.

This time Reba’s one visible eye fluttered open, and she mumbled something that sounded like “go away.”

“Who did this to you?” I asked.

Reba moaned a second time but did not again open her eyes.

“Who hit you?” I tried once more.

I didn’t even get a third moan out of her in response to my appeal to identify her attacker. I decided it was fruitless to try any longer to get an answer out of Reba. The chances were good, seeing as she’d been struck on the back of the head, that she hadn’t even seen her attacker coming for her.

“I’m going outside,” I told Jason, taking Earp’s leash from his grasp.

“Call me if you see anyone hanging around. I don’t like you out there by yourself.”

“You’ll like standing in a puddle of pug pee even less,” I informed him and headed down the short hallway back through the reception area, where I noted the bell hanging over the glass swinging door which had tinkled on my arrival and later when Jason had come through it.

I wondered how easily the free-hanging bell might be disabled if one opened the door very gently from the outside. I was tempted to try opening and closing the door a few times to find out, but I didn’t want to disturb any prints that the police might be able to lift from it. I was careful not to touch the glass with my bare skin as I pushed the door open to go outside.

I could always come back later after the police had left the scene. Besides, I was fairly certain that since the building that housed the clinic used to function as a gas station, there must be at least one other way in and out.

The portion of the premises that used to house the double garage bay doors had been covered over with wood frame walls containing conventional windows. No one could have come in the front of the building except through the door Jason and I had used that opened into the small reception area. But what about the back? Was there another way in?

The back was where the tumbleweeds were anyway.

I crossed the graveled parking lot with Earp in tow. Right in front of the building, where the gas pumps used to be, was a concrete slab.

Earp was straining at his leash in an effort to go in the opposite direction I wanted to, which was around the side of the building to the back of the former gas station.

The pug was so insistent in wanting to go over to the concrete slab that I let him. It was fortunate that I indulged him because across the middle of the concrete slab was a set of bloody footprints.

I whipped out my phone and took a picture of the prints, then used my yardstick app to determine their size.

They looked like boot tracks—and the imprint looked much like what I imagined the footwear Reba was currently wearing would make—but I couldn’t tell if the boots had belonged to a small man or a medium-sized woman.

Whoever had been wearing the boots, however, had clearly fled the scene of the crime not long ago because the blood was still red. If the blood had been there long, it would have dried to a rusty brown in the hot sun.

The existence of tracks across the concrete pad in the parking lot opened a whole ‘nother can of worms. Why hadn’t there also been bloody tracks inside the vet clinic?

I hadn’t noticed a trail of bloody footprints leading out of the room where Dr. Vance had been attacked. Had whoever fled the scene immediately realized their shoes had become contaminated and taken their footwear off before they fled the building only to end up leaving a trail of prints after all when they crossed the concrete slab? Had Reba’s attacker only put their boots back on to cross the sharp graveled parking lot where the prints didn’t show?

Even this scenario failed to make sense to me. Could someone have gotten their boots that bloody and still succeeded in leaving no tracks in the exam room?

The bloody boot prints didn’t tell me much, but they did indicate the direction that the presumed attacker had fled. The footprints faded to near oblivion by the time they left the concrete slab, and there was no trace of them on the gravel between the slab and the highway. Had Dr. Vance’s attacker fled in a vehicle parked on the premises, or had he (or she) been picked up by an accomplice at the edge of the road?

It was impossible to know.

I decided not to walk out to the edge of the pavement of Highway 14 but instead took Earp around back where he insisted on lifting his leg not on a tumbleweed as I had hoped, but on the corner of the concrete block building.

Once Earp had completed his call with Mother Nature, we continued along the back of the building until we came to a heavy metal door.

It was the back entrance I had been hoping to find, and when I saw that the lock appeared damaged as if it had been forced open with the claw of a hammer, or perhaps a crowbar, I was confident that this was the way Reba Vance’s attacker had entered the building.

The brute might have left by the front, but it appeared that he (or she) had forced the back door open at some point prior to the attack. Had Reba’s attacker then lain in wait in the storeroom until the other members of Dr. Bagley’s staff had gone home? If this was the case, how had someone managed to pry the back door open without making so much noise they’d have drawn attention to themselves?

I didn’t like to think that it was my appointment to pick up Earp’s mange medicine which had meant Dr. Vance had remained behind at the clinic alone and vulnerable.

I checked the time on my phone to see how much was remaining before the expected arrival of the ambulance. They wouldn’t be there for another fifteen minutes, at the least, and unless there happened to be a Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Department deputy in the area already, it would be even longer before a member of law enforcement arrived on the scene.

I decided it was safe to snoop around without raising eyebrows.

The latch on the heavy metal door on the back wall of the clinic was so damaged that the door was already open a crack, so I gingerly opened it all the way by grasping the door near the bottom using a tissue from my pocket to avoid leaving any prints.

Were there any prints to be found on the back door, I decided, they would likely be up by the busted knob and the bent metal plate, which was supposed to have protected the latch from being jimmied open.

I got inside, still confident I had managed not to leave any additional human prints on the door, but I was not so sure about canine nose prints.

Earp found my actions fascinating. As I stood just inside the entrance to the small room, I kept a hand on Earp’s collar to prevent him from running amok. The only light into the storage room came through the open exterior door. One wall of the room was nearly obscured by cardboard boxes, but on the other wall was a row of locked cabinets. One of the cabinets had been forced open.

I picked my way around a few objects scattered on the floor to turn on the light, but when I flipped the switch, nothing happened. I used the light on my phone to peer inside the cabinet. It was half full of vials for injecting medication and a few small cardboard cartons containing bottles of pills.

The remaining items were tumbled, and a couple of vials lay broken on the floor. I wanted to get closer and read the labels on the vials, but I didn’t dare risk Earp getting cut.

Someone had clearly broken into the back door of the clinic and raided Dr. Bagley’s drug supply. My first thought was that Dr. Vance had surprised the thief in the act of absconding with his loot, but then I decided that theory didn’t hold water.

It was just as I was contemplating how the theft might have led to Reba getting struck in the back of the head with her own rodeo trophy that I heard a voice say, “What are you doing?”

Chapter Four

Officer Reyes and I have a history. It’s not that we have any personal connection or that there’s any bad blood between us; it’s just that ever since I inherited Little Tombstone from my Great Aunt Geraldine and took up permanent residence in the village of Amatista, I’ve seemed to have gotten tangled up in pretty much every occurrence of a criminal nature within a ten-mile radius of the town.

When Officer Reyes asked me what I was doing, I had an honest answer ready, ”Looking for clues.”

“Oh, it’s you, Ms. Iverson. Please remove your dog from the crime scene.”

I still had my hand on Earp’s collar, which was a good thing because the pug was growling softly to himself.

I was tempted to let Earp go roam the sagebrush behind the clinic on his own for a few minutes while I continued to poke around since Officer Reyes had not told me to remove myself from the crime scene, but my better judgment prevailed as Earp continued low-level verbal hostilities aimed in the officer’s general direction.

I know that Officer Reyes is one of the good guys, but apparently, Earp wasn’t so sure, or perhaps he’d not been growling at the officer at all. The following day, I would discover that despite my best efforts to keep him away from the broken glass, Earp had gotten a tiny shard from one of the shattered vials embedded in his paw. This required a time-consuming removal which was traumatic for us both.

“Go around front to the parking lot,” Officer Reyes told me as I crouched in the pool of sunlight coming through the open door onto the center of the linoleum floor of the storage room. “My partner will take your statement.”

“How’s Reba?” I asked as I stood to my feet, keeping Earp on a short leash.

“They’re loading her up in the ambulance.”

“They sure got here fast. I didn’t hear a siren.”

Officer Reyes made no additional comments; he just cleared his throat loudly and motioned me out the open door and into the blinding sunlight.

I went around front and, as instructed, gave my statement to an Officer Jones while the paramedics wheeled Reba out of the clinic and loaded her into the ambulance.

“Are you new to the force?” I asked.

“I’ve been working for the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s department for three months. Before that, I worked ten years for the Albuquerque Police Department,” Officer Jones informed me. “Now, tell me exactly how you came to be at the clinic this afternoon.”

I told Officer Jones all about Earp’s mange and presented the pug’s unsightly coat as evidence. I then told her everything I’d observed from the moment I’d entered the clinic to the moment I’d stepped outside, leaving the injured Dr. Vance under the watchful eye of Jason.

I left out the trail of bloody footprints across the concrete pad in the parking lot, the smashed lock on the backdoor, and the raided medicine cabinet. If the combined powers of observation possessed by the two police officers investigating the crime scene couldn’t detect those major clues, then there was very little hope of ever bringing Reba Vance’s attacker to justice.

“You guys sure got here fast,” I said just as Officer Jones was wrapping up the filling in of her form and thanking me for my time and cooperation. “The ambulance, too. You all must have been nearby.”

Officer Jones looked at me strangely before saying, “Officer Reyes and I came from all the way down by Cedar Grove.”

“That’s not possible,” I said as I pulled out my phone and checked my call history. “I called this in twenty-five minutes ago, and you have already been here ten.”

“Are you sure?” said Officer Jones.

I held up the screen for her to view.

“Well, someone must have called it in before you because we were dispatched forty-five minutes ago,” the officer insisted.

I would have liked to quiz Officer Jones about this 911 call that had apparently preceded my discovery of Reba Vance alone on the floor of the clinic exam room, but it was just as I’d opened my mouth to speak that Dr. Bagley arrived.

Roberta Bagley came to a halt so abruptly that her pickup sent up a hail of gravel that hit the police cruiser parked in front of the clinic with enough force that I could hear a series of tiny pings as the bits of rock hit the paintwork.

“That’s Dr. Bagley,” I told Officer Jones. “She owns the clinic.”

Dr. Bagley is a weather-beaten woman of indeterminate but mature years. She could be a twin to Amatista’s mayor, Nancy Flynn, who is also over sixty, but no one seems to know by how much. Both Roberta Bagley and Nancy Flynn have the same wiry build and no-nonsense toughness.

“What happened?” Dr. Bagley hollered across the parking lot as she was still striding over to where I stood with Officer Jones.

I opened my mouth to answer, but Officer Jones beat me to it.

Earp, who has mixed feelings about Dr. Bagley, retreated behind my legs until he realized that, unlike every other encounter he’d had with her, he was not presently the center of attention and was in no immediate danger of being subjected to painful and humiliating procedures.

On some level, I think Earp realizes that Dr. Bagley invariably has his best interests at heart, but on another level, there’s nothing he’d like more than to clamp onto her wrist with his teeth and refuse to let go.

By the time Officer Jones had finished explaining the situation to Dr. Bagley and had informed the vet that she’d have to wait outside her clinic until the police were done “processing the scene,” Earp had fallen asleep with his chin resting on the toes of my shoes. It seemed that the combination of the walk over to the clinic from Little Tombstone and the tantrum he’d thrown after being imprisoned in the exam room had him completely tuckered out.

“I’m so sorry, Emma,” was the first thing Dr. Bagley said after Officer Jones walked away.

Jason was coming out the front door of the clinic, and it appeared that he had not yet made his statement. I cringed as I watched him leave his prints on the glass door leading out of reception, but I belatedly realized it was probably fruitless for the police to bother with trying to lift prints off the door. Amatista might just be a hamlet, but on an average day, scores of people might have gone into the vet clinic.

“There’s nothing to be sorry to me about,” I told Dr. Bagley. “It’s poor Dr. Vance—”

Half of me wanted to confide in Dr. Bagley the whole gruesome scene, but the other half wanted to spare her the trauma of knowing all the gory details. It was enough that Dr. Bagley knew that her colleague had been struck in the back of the head and rendered unconscious; she didn’t need to know about the blood or the vile message scrawled in lipstick next to Reba’s head.

“Juanita told me Reba’s ex-husband still lives here. Does Dr. Vance have any other friends or family in the area?” I asked.

“She does,” said Dr. Bagley. “Reba grew up here as an only child, and both her parents live in Phoenix now, but she has several old friends from the rodeo circuit in the area.”

“Are Dr. Vance and her ex-husband on good terms?” I asked.

It was a bit cliché, but there is a reason that whenever someone gets murdered, the first person to get scrutinized is the significant other of the victim.

True, Reba Vance hadn’t been murdered, but I couldn’t help thinking that had likely been the intention of whoever had hit her on the back of the head with that trophy.

“Reba’s ex-husband has remarried,” Dr. Bagley told me, “and even though Crystal, his new wife, has been Reba’s best friend since high school, and you would think that would be hard to get past, all three of them seem to be on good terms with each other.”


“Yes, Reba was just telling me yesterday that Blake helped her move into her new place.”


“Reba’s ex-husband.”

I couldn’t help wondering how Crystal, wife number two, felt about her husband helping Reba, wife number one, settle into her new home.

“Did Reba say anything to you about feeling threatened by anyone since her return to Amatista?” I asked Dr. Bagley.

“Not a word. She seemed excited about having a fresh start.”

“Did you know that your supply closet in the back was also broken into?” I asked, changing the subject entirely. “Someone busted up the medicine cabinet, and there are broken vials all over the floor.”

Whoever had called Dr. Bagley to the scene had clearly not disclosed that bit of information because she took it big.

“Not again!” she said.

“This has happened before?”

“Yes, but not for quite some time. Every couple of weeks for a while, there’d be a vial here and there go missing, but for the last six months, that’s all stopped.”

“This time, it looks like someone pried the backdoor open and broke the lock,” I said.

“Oh, that’s been like that for years,” said Dr. Bagley. “That’s why I had a barrel bolt latch installed on the inside of the door. Don’t tell me they managed to bust that from the outside.”

I was regretting that I hadn’t taken the time to examine the inside of the back door into the storeroom. I’d taken for granted that the damage to the door was recent, but apparently, it was old news that someone had pried the door open ages ago.

“I didn’t notice the latch on the inside,” I admitted. “So maybe whoever broke into the storeroom cabinets actually came in through the front and then escaped out the back.”

“I may already know who the culprit is,” said Dr. Bagley grimly. “You don’t need to bust the locks when you have access to a key. I’m going to have to change the locks again, not that it will probably do much good.”

“Who do you think is doing it?”

Roberta Bagley pressed her lips together.

“You have no proof?” I asked.

“Not exactly, and besides, it’s complicated.”

This was intriguingly vague.

“You don’t think whoever broke into the medicine cabinet was the same person who hit Dr. Vance on the back of the head?” I asked.

Dr. Bagley shrugged but said she’d be shocked if it was, although you never could be sure what a person was capable of given sufficient motivation.

“Is it someone who works for you?” I asked.

Roberta didn’t answer, but the fact she suspected one of her employees of stealing drugs from her was written all over her face.

I let the matter drop. Besides Reba Vance, Dr. Bagley employed three others: Julia Throckmorton, who was the receptionist and office manager, and Artie Fuentes and Candice Wright, who were techs.

It seemed that Dr. Bagley suspected one of the three of stealing drugs from the premises. I couldn’t help wondering if it was one of those three who’d also struck Reba Vance on the back of the head, although to what aim I was unsure.

I was pondering whether or not to quiz Dr. Bagley further on her employees when Jason finished giving his statement to Officer Jones and started heading our way.

End of Sample

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