The Reptilian Factor
THE REPTILIAN FACTOR
Have I mentioned before that I hate snakes? Absolutely, positively despise the creepy-crawly critters. Damn cold-blooded, scaly, slithering, fork tongued, venom injecting, limbless creatures. Anything without legs and has to squirm upon the ground is taboo for me. Squamata my butta’, Squamata being the zoological order these squirmy reptiles belong to, along with lizards. Hey, I don’t like lizards either, but at least they have legs. I suppose reptiles in general give me the creepy crawlies, and oh yeah, I’m not too damn fond of spiders as well. Okay, sue me, it’s not my problem that I hate anything that slithers, has more than four legs, buzzes around and bites, or has a stinger.
So then, you would think that one of the last places I might decide to live would be within good old Tucson, Arizona. Surrounded by dirt, sand, cactus, sagebrush, scorpions, tarantulas, and snakes galore, especially rattlers, one would think I’d run away screaming ‘no way Jose’. Well, guess again, that’s exactly where I ended up because of a brand new job. I’ve always been a Pennsylvania girl, born in Greensburg, PA near Pittsburgh, through Lancaster (Amish country), and ending up in Philly, City of Brotherly Love. However, after being a police officer for ten years in various departments and finally completing my Masters in Criminal Justice, I felt it would take too long to get into the detective division on the Philadelphia PD so I started searching around for other opportunities. Presto, Tucson was looking for someone on their Night Detective Detail, recent grads welcome. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I submitted an application.
A month later I got an e-mail to contact a Sergeant Meredith Hayes which I promptly did. She set up a phone interview the next day with Detective Michael Robertson. Two weeks after that I took a much needed week of vacation, flew to Tucson and had what I thought was a pretty decent interview with three different people. I stuck around for three days to scour the area and found that I really liked it even though it was hotter than Hades on one of the days. Then I headed up to Scottsdale outside of Phoenix to visit Aunt Mary and Uncle Ken. But the interview must’ve gone well because three weeks after that they called and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. That night I decided to happily drink myself to sleep with Tequila Sunrises. Actually, only two large ones put me flat on my butt.
So Amelia, (I prefer to be called Amy), Stephenson strolled into the precinct the next morning (yes, I had a headache) and gave her two week notice. They weren’t thrilled that I was leaving, saying how much they valued my work and service, that I had a future there if I could hold on. But what the hell, I’m 38 and not getting any younger. It was tough leaving Mark Jacobs, my partner of two plus years and a number of other cops I had gotten friendly with. Yet it was time to move on since I had been in the proverbial Philly rut (and I’m not talking about the numerous pot holes either), for the last year or so.
I didn’t have to report to work in Tucson for one whole month so it gave me plenty of time to pack, get a mover (praying that they wouldn’t screw up my delivery), and depart with enough leeway to take my time since I was driving there. Five years previously I had driven straight through to Scottsdale with my sister Jen when our uncle got pretty sick with a heart attack. We made it in just over 48 hours, taking turns sleeping, driving, eating, and stopping for potty breaks. But there was no way I was going to kill myself doing that again. Since I drove my Toyota Rav 4, the one thing that really struck me as I entered Arizona through the glorious State of Texas was all the damn emptiness, cactus, and sagebrush. It was everywhere! When I visited previously for the interview I mainly stayed in town with a side trip up to the ski lodge on Mt. Lemon. The terrain of Tucson compared to Phoenix/Scottsdale in the north is starkly different. So I wondered if I had made a mistake, being a Philly girl and always surrounded by trees and changes of seasons.
Not to worry though for within a month I was actually thrilled with my new home, as well as the night shift to which I was now a full time team member of. After all, I was Detective Amy Stephenson and I had taken the next step up the ladder of success. Sometimes I still had to pinch myself. The night shift crew welcomed me warmly for the most part. The captain and lieutenant seemed like forward thinking, give-a-girl-a-break guys, so I was anxious to prove they had not made a mistake in selecting me out of probably hundreds of potential candidates. There were, however, a few assholes that still existed in the dark ages. You know the type, those miserable jerk-offs who feel that women should never be detectives, or even be part of the police force other than desk duty, handling pencils instead of guns and running for coffee.
Thankfully my new partner was not one of those creeps. Detective Manuel Corroda, Manny for short, was of Mexican decent, dark skinned, about 5’10” in heels (he wore cowboy boots all the time), and handsome as a runway model. The first time I saw him my blood pressure soared at least ten points and I had to fan myself with a folder clutched in my hand, mumbling to myself, ‘down girl, hold it together’.
So when Lieutenant Collins called me into his office only to find Manuel leaning casually against a bookcase and then being introduced to my new partner, well I was flustered and excited at the same time. I quickly found out he was happily married though with four children so that made it all easier for me to digest. But still, I’m a single woman and just like the guys, it sure as hell doesn’t hurt anything to just take a little look-see and admire the flesh.
That was exactly one year ago almost to the day and by this time I was completely absorbed into the department as just one of the guys now. I had won over two of the three dinosaurs to my side. The only one left was an old codger ready for the retirement heap, Carl Most, and he sure as hell wasn’t the most likeable guy anyway. Manny told me not to worry about it, that Carl really didn’t like anybody, especially wetbacks. Don’t worry because Manny didn’t mind being called that. He had thick skin and we bounced sharp barbs off each other all the time so taking flack was part of the job.
Acquiring a taste for Mexican food, the real stuff that is, was another matter entirely. Back in Philly my primary Mexican cuisine was at Taco Bell and chili from Wendy’s. I didn’t realize that you needed a fire hose when you ate a real, honest to goodness taco, burrito, tamale, or anything else from south of the border. Manny got a charge out of taking me to only the ‘original’ places, where the food was genuine and the ingredients put hair on your chest. That aspect I informed him I could totally do without since it would look a little strange when I wore something low cut to show any cleavage, which rarely happened anyway. But I stuck to it, finally creating a toughened palate so that the full taste of the food could be savored. Sadly, I could not figure out how to toughen the other end because what goes in as fire generally has to come out the same way. I know, that’s disgusting, but I can get that way sometimes.
Upon arriving in Tucson one year ago I rented a small apartment. I figured there was no reason to go hog wild in the beginning. All I needed was a place to hang my clothes, eat, sleep, and take a crap. But over this past year I was feeling itchy to have more so I started looking with the help of Barbara Mays, a very cool realtor, to locate a decent size house. After all, I did like it here, felt it was now my home, and moving into a house of my own would make things pretty much complete. I didn’t need a white picket fence because quite frankly in Tucson, there was no grass to speak of, only colored rocks so the small fence would’ve looked out of place. Yes, the house would mean some security, but I did still look forward to sharing it with somebody, especially a dog and/or cat rather than lizards, scorpions, and black widows. Okay, so if a nice guy happened to come along I wouldn’t mind sharing that part of my life either, as long as he wasn’t a low-life, scum-sucking leech. I had enough of those guys back in Philly.
So we found a cute little ranch style right near the edge of town heading towards Mt. Lemon so I was still within the city limits and had the Catalina mountain range outside my back door. How cool is that? The price was right, falling nicely into my budget so I took my first week of vacation and moved in two weeks ago. The dog would come soon enough I figured, but I had to really consider my work schedule and how much the poor pooch would be alone. Since I work nights, and often had to toil longer depending on whatever case I was lucky enough to catch hold of, I needed to find somebody good and trustworthy in my new neighborhood to check on doggie or kitty during daylight hours. A cat was no problem and I was considering that route first. After all, put down fresh litter, water and food, you could go away for days even though they might be angry when you got back. I have always loved the Siamese breed after spending an earlier part of my life with two wonderful little guys, Loki and Ming, who are now in feline heaven.
For the present I decided to just get used to my new abode, have the house as spider and lizard proof as humanly possible considering where I now hung my bra and carefully placed my shoes, those being great havens for tarantulas and scorpions. Not the bras unless I left them on the floor. I also looked forward to making friends within the neighborhood, several who had already welcomed me with small house warming gifts. My work shift made it hard to meet people. Possibly I would be lucky enough to meet my eventual pet sitter and if he happened to be cute, then I would suffer through the pain.
Lying awake I glanced over at the alarm clock which glowed 1:00 pm in big green letters. Rolling over and stretching, I hit the switch for the beeper to not go off. One of the things I’ve had to try and get used to in working the night detail was sleeping during the day. I’m somewhat better at it now at least. I was lucky enough to have a friend who hooked up a timer for me so that my two air conditioning units would pop on at exactly midnight so when I got home from a long night of pursuing hardened criminals at least the house would be cool. My shift ended at 3:00 a.m. and with no traffic at that time of day (or morning depending on how you looked at it) I could arrive home in less than fifteen minutes. When I had the apartment, I hated running the A/C all the time but then found the place to be too darn hot for sleeping. When I do finally get a dog or cat, then I will most probably have central air installed. I had been saving up for just that contingency, but I wasn’t at that point yet.
Moaning like a stirring wolf who had just awoke from a dream of running with the pack, I stretched one last time and jumped (okay, slid) out of bed and stumbled half naked to the bathroom. I definitely had to pee so I sat down and reached for the half-read paper from yesterday. The big headline screamed out at me:
ONE MORE STRANGE DEATH OCCURS IN CITY OF TUCSON
The article droned on about another victim being totally mauled and horribly half-devoured behind a country and western bar out along Benson Highway. Apparently his pick-up truck (I found that most cowboys drove pick-up trucks) was parked around back and nobody noticed it there until the bartender left around 2:15 a.m. after cleaning up. Grabbing a flashlight from the trunk of his car he poked around a little and noticed a brownish looking stain on the ground that led about twenty yards to a line of sagebrush (what else). Even before getting there he started holding his nose and swatting at nasty insects buzzing around. After vomiting up his breakfast he called the police who quickly responded and began documenting the fourth mangled victim discovered within a two week time span. The brownish color had been blood, quite a bit of blood actually, leading from the driver’s side door to the surrounding desert. No foot prints to speak of, at least not that of the shoed variety. The prints seemed to be from something living for sure, but not wearing footwear, and not completely human looking either.
So take a guess which lucky detective team caught the first case two weeks ago, and only one hour from shift’s end? You win the prize, Detectives Manuel Corroda and Amy Stephenson. Over the next two weeks there had been three other deaths including the recent cowboy, the others being a nurse getting off her shift, a teacher out walking her dog (which also was missing), and a newspaper delivery guy who was dropping off his last bundles at a convenience store which had not yet opened for business.
Tossing the paper into the trash can I lowered my head in my hands and wondered how soon I would be getting a phone call from Manny. As if I possessed telepathic powers, thirty seconds later my cell phone began singing. Quickly wiping myself clean, I stumbled into the bedroom, jumped on the bed, and reached for the jangling phone.
“Yeah Manny, I was waiting for your call. Where are you?”
“About three minutes from your house. Figured you probably just woke up so I have coffee. Are you decent enough for me to venture inside?”
“Hey, you know I’m never decent and maybe I don’t want to be either with you approaching my doorstep,” smiling broadly since I knew how embarrassed he got when I talked sex with him.
“You’re such a slut, you know that? I’m a very devoted father, happily married, and a devout Catholic. Why do you want to corrupt me?”
“That’s not what your wife told me the other night,” I shot back, knowing this playful jabbing back and forth was about to end.
He laughed. “Okay, down girl. I’ll be there in two minutes so get dressed. We have things to do, people to interview, evidence to accumulate.”
“Damn, you’re no fun partner. Okay, I’ll be in the shower when you get here, just come in. You have a key,” I said, sliding off the bed and heading for the bathroom. “And if you want to scrub my back just let me know before you barge in. I’m not about to act out ‘Pyscho’ (for those of you who had seen that movie) in real life.”
There was no answer so I knew that I had reached the end of what kidding he would take. Flipping the phone closed I tossed it on the bed, grabbed a towel from the closet, and turned on the faucets. I was in no mood for a hot shower so I tested the water until it was just barely warm and then stepped under the spray. It felt good and woke me up fairly quickly. I could feel a slight breeze stir the curtain so I knew that Manuel had come inside.
I yelled out, “Hey baby, I missed you. I’m in here and the water’s warm.”
After washing and drying my hair, I pulled on a pair of black slacks and a short sleeved white blouse. It was just see through enough that I could definitely hold the attention of any male I had to interview, sometimes female as well depending on her sexual persuasion. Slipping on a pair of black canvass shoes which were extremely comfortable, especially since I had been on my feet quite a bit lately, I headed out the bedroom door and down the hallway towards the kitchen. Manny stood nonchalantly against the sink sipping his large, black coffee. Christ he was handsome.
“Why do you do that?” I inquired.
“Do what? I’m standing here drinking coffee waiting for you.”
“Are you aware of how much you always look like you’re posing for the cover of GQ?”
He shook his head and stepped towards the table, swinging out a chair, turning it around and then straddling the seat. “Amy, you’re just too damn intense sometimes. Let’s get off the sex theme, okay?”
I walked past his right shoulder, turned and punched him in the arm.
“Ouch, what the hell was that for?” he whined, just like a little baby.
Grabbing the other coffee, I opened the fridge and grabbed the carton of milk, poured enough in to make the coffee look almost white, then dumped in about three heaping teaspoons of sugar. My granny had taught me how to drink coffee all doctored up and as a result I could never in a lifetime get used to it bitter and black.
“You know I’m only kidding, so don’t get your panties in an uproar and quit being a sissy ‘cause you could kick my ass anytime you wanted to Mr. Macho Guy.”
He figured not answering me would put an end to the conversation. Grabbing the newspaper he jabbed angrily at the headlines with his right index finger.
“We need to come up with answers quickly Amy, I mean like today. This is the fourth person slaughtered by something monstrous, or someone extremely evil. Quite frankly, the ‘something’ is becoming a viable option,” he said, finishing up his coffee and tossing it in the trash can.
I squeezed his shoulder and moved to the chair opposite him. He’s about five years older than I am and it was easy to see that these killings had been taking their toll on him. Hell, there was a few times during the last few weeks that I was beginning to judge whether I was really cut out for this detective bullshit.
“We will partner, I can feel something’s going to open up pretty soon. Let’s take a run out to the bar where this latest victim go killed, look around closer now that the techies are gone. Maybe we can come up with something they missed. I’ve been trying to find a common thread between the other three victims and can’t really come up with anything. Apparently these are all just random killings, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So it appears that there’s just something really bad out there killing when the opportunity arises.”
“Well, we’re a couple bad asses ourselves, so let’s find this monster and either arrest it, or make sure the bastard’s dead. We have to end this soon or we’ll be unemployed.”
I let him drive so I could finish off my coffee and think. In fact, we both were quiet, lost in our own thoughts about the case. After working together now for a year, we had gotten to know each other quite well, discovering that we both really needed to chew on things ourselves and then we’d merge our thoughts together. There happened to be two troublesome clues which had continued to bother me over the last few days. One was the amount of scales on the ground around the scene of the crimes. I’m talking scales like from a snake, but they were bigger than normal so the killer had to have just spread them about in order to confuse us. The other point was that at each of the first three murders, around the crime scene and then going off to eventually disappear was what seemed to be these wide tracks in the ground, like somebody was sliding something heavy. The tracks were not straight, but sort of curving back and forth. Gave me the willies to think what that might be.
As we pulled onto Benson Highway, Manny’s cell phone rang and brought me out of my trance-like state. I get that way when chewing on some facts or clues, trying to make something out of possibly nothing.
“Right…right…uh huh…you’re shitting me! Sweet Jesus, okay we’ll turn around and head straight over there.”
Turning my head, I stared at him waiting for a response. None came.
“What’s up partner?” I inquired, not really wanting to know the answer considering how quiet he had suddenly gotten.
Putting the phone in his pocket, he shook his head. “That was Gary Fredericks. Another body was just discovered in a gully behind the high school. They’re not certain, but it may be a young female student reported by her parents that she had not come home last night. I gather that the body is not in too gooda’ shape.”
“Damn, what’s happening around here?” I asked to nobody in particular, staring out the window at apparently many possible future victims. “What the hell are we dealing with?”
“I don’t know Amy, but I’m not sure this is being done by one person, or even if the killer is a person. Hell, this is freaking Arizona. A lot of weird shit happens around here, especially out in the desert, but this takes the cake.”
Turning my head to look straight ahead, my eyes got huge and I screamed.
“Watch out Manny, there’s something on the road.”
The squealing of brakes filled the air as did the burning rubber of tires, not only from Manny’s car, but the two vehicles in front of him, as well as at least one in the rear. It was a miracle that nobody crashed, but sure as hell there were some nerves shattered. Sliding off onto the gravelly shoulder, I opened the door before the car stopped, jumping out and reaching for my gun.
Looking back at the road, whatever had been rushing across the pavement had completely vanished, but what had it been? I saw that it was large, that’s for damn sure, and absolutely some kind of animal. I hate to say it looked like a huge lizard of some kind, but that’s the closest I could come to anything. Hell, I know there were plenty of lizards and snakes around Tucson, but something that large?
No way, absolutely no way. Maybe it was some type of large armadillo, really big, in fact. I shook my head, couldn’t have been. Maybe it was a dog, a coyote, a wolf? Nah, it definitely looked like some kind of reptile. I felt Manny move up beside me.
“See anything partner? What the hell was that anyway? It scared the shit out of me,” he half whispered, showing more fright than I had witnessed since being his partner.
I shook my head and laughed, more to ease my own taut nerves. “You’re not alone, that’s for sure. It looked like a big lizard, or some scuttling creature, right? There’s nothing that large around here though, but then you’ve lived around these parts much longer than I have. Ever see anything like that before?”
“Nope, nothing of that size, or that ugly. Where do you think it went?”
I walked off the pavement, venturing about five feet into the desert staring down at the ground until I found what I was looking for…prints. Kneeling down I tried to gauge the size and didn’t feel it was possible. They were much too large for any lizard that I was knowledgeable about.
“Find something?” Manny asked, still looking out over the long expanse of sagebrush and cactus.
“Prints, that’s about it. Oh well, it’s gone,” I said, standing up and holstering my firearm. “We’d better get going, there are no accidents to report, just a bunch of fractured nerves. Whatever it was, I don’t really want to meet up with it again.”
We climbed back into the car and Manny sped off towards another murder scene. Something told me that I didn’t want to see that one because it was apparent that it might be the youngest victim yet.