Tempe is assigned to investigate the disappearance of a child with ties to the Yanduchi reservation. Her search leads her to seek the help of a Yanduchi shaman and the participation in a traditional ceremonial putting Tempe at odds with her preacher husband.
Marilyn Meredith is the author of over thirty books in several genres, but mainly mystery. She embraced electronic publishing before anyone knew much about it. She taught writing for Writer's Digest School for ten years and served as an instructor at the Maui Writers Retreat, has been a judge for several writing contest, was a founding member of the San Joaquin chapter of Sisters in Crime, serves on the board of directors of the Public Safety Writers Association, is also a member of EPIC and Mystery Writers of America.
Marilyn lives in the foothills of the Southern Sierra in California in a place much like Bear Creek where her heroine Tempe Crabtree serves as a resident deputy. She is married to the "cute sailor" she met on a blind date many years ago and is grateful for all the support he gives her and her writing career every day. She is proud of the fact that she and her husband raised five children and now are grandparents to eighteen and great-grands to thirteen.
"What happens in my books is the only place in my life where I have any control," Marilyn says, smiling.
"My little girl's gone! You gotta find her." With arms flailing, the woman ran toward Tempe as she climbed out of her official, white Blazer.
Tempe Crabtree, resident deputy for Bear Creek, a small mountain community in the southern Sierra, had been awakened by a call from the dispatcher. A child had been reported missing from the campground at Lake Dennison. By this time of year, after a rainless California summer, much of the reservoir's water had been used for irrigation. What was left was a dull pewter.
As she pulled a small notebook and pen from the breast pocket of her crisply creased khaki shirt, she noted the small crowd that had gathered--mostly senior citizens and
fishermen. "When did you notice she was missing?"
The woman raked her fingers through straggly long brown hair. Dark smudges underlined hazel eyes. Despite the early morning chill, she wore a T-shirt that didn't cover her mid-section. A tanned expanse of goose-bumped skin was exposed. Her jeans were tight, faded and soiled, her feet bare. "My other kids told me." She waved her hand toward two children hovering behind a skinny blond man clad only in dirty Levis.
"What's your name?" Tempe asked. She noted the old Plymouth station wagon with rumpled sleeping bags in the back, parked beside a small, battered tent.
"Jan Leaphorn. That's my boyfriend, Andy. These are my other kids. Junior and Sarah."
Tempe studied the woman's features again, the last name making her wonder if she might be Native American. Being part Yanduchi herself, Tempe had recently become more aware of her own heritage. With her nearly black hair, her golden skin, and high cheekbones, Tempe was more obviously Indian than Jan Leaphorn. However, there was something about the familiar straight line of her nose, the slight up-tilt of her eyes that made Tempe sure the woman was also at least part Indian.
"Tell me about your missing child."
Jan's eyes filled with tears, she wiped her nose with
the back of her hand. "Vicky is only three. I can't imagine where ...." She began to cry.
The man stepped forward and put his arms around her. "It's okay, babe. She couldn't have gotten too far away."
The woman sobbed against his bare chest.
The children pressed themselves against their mother's legs.
"I know you're upset. But you must give me enough information so we have something to go on. What does Vicky look like?"
Jan wiped her eyes with her hands. The fingers were raw where the nails had been chewed to the quick. She took a deep breath before speaking. "She looks a lot like Sarah, just darker coloring." She smoothed the honey-brown hair of the little girl who clung to her. Big eyes stared fearfully at Tempe. "The kids were all sleeping in the tent."
"Who let you know Vicky was missing?"
The boy, who looked to be about seven, brushed a long strand of brown hair away from his dirty face and stepped forward. "Me. I woke up and Vicky wasn't in the tent. She wasn't anywhere outside either."
"How long ago was this?" Tempe asked.
Jan shrugged and gazed at her boyfriend.
"Maybe a half hour. We been looking for her ourselves. But when she didn't turn up, and none of the other people
around here saw her, we decided we better call for help." The skinny man tucked one hand into his Levi's pocket.
"Are you the children's father?"
"Uh ... no." His eyes didn't meet Tempe's, and he shifted his feet.
"What was your name again?" Tempe asked.
"I don't know what difference it makes but it's Andy, Andy Muldock. Why are you wasting your time asking all these questions? Why don't you start looking for Vicky?" Muldock stepped in front of Jan and her children, drawing himself up to his full height, a tad shorter than Tempe's own five-eight.
"Perhaps I can be of some assistance." One of the on-lookers stepped forward. Middle-aged, with steel-gray hair, mustache and full beard, he looked like one of Santa's younger siblings. Red suspenders held up neatly pressed blue pants. A blue plaid shirt was tucked over a round belly. "Renard Philipson. I'm camped just over there." He pointed to a small aluminum trailer with fishing poles propped against the open door. An older model truck with a camper shell was parked alongside.
"Have you seen the missing child?" Tempe asked.
"Not today, unfortunately," Philipson said. "However, I do know what she looks like. I'd like to help any way I can."
"Did you hear or see anything unusual during the night
or this morning?" Tempe asked.
Philipson shook his head. His cheeks and lips were as rosy as if he'd rouged them. "I'm afraid not. But I'd be glad to help search for her. Surely she can't be very far away. She was just a little tyke."
An older woman clad in a cotton duster said, "We'll look for her too, as soon as we get dressed." Her husband, his striped pajama bottoms exposed beneath a white terry cloth robe, nodded in agreement.
"Thank you," Tempe said as a lake patrol truck pulled alongside her Blazer.
Tempe recognized the driver, though she couldn't remember his name. His fair hair bordered on being red, and his narrow face was a bright shade of pink.
"What's going on, Deputy?" he asked.
"Missing three-year-old. Disappeared from the tent she was sleeping in some time during the night."
The ranger frowned. "I was just coming to tell these folks they've got to move on. They've been camping here for two weeks. That's the limit."
"I don't think this is quite the time to be enforcing that rule. Give them a chance to find their little girl first, okay?"
"Listen, Deputy. They been letting their kids run wild ever since they arrived. It's a wonder something hasn't
happened to them before this." The ranger cast a disparaging expression at the family. "Besides, if we didn't enforce the two-week rule, the campground would be full of homeless people. There wouldn't be any room left for legitimate campers."
Tempe peered at his name tag. Gene Dunphy. Not the most compassionate of men. "Since you know what the child looks like, how about alerting everyone you see that she's missing?"
"Probably be faster if we just started dragging the lake," Ranger Dunphy muttered.
Fearful that the mother might have heard, Tempe glanced in her direction. Muldock had his arms around Jan, the children stared wide-eyed. Those that had gathered were already dispersing; Philipson seemed to be taking charge of the search. Plaid covered arms pointed in one direction and then the other.
"It may come to that if we can't locate her," Tempe said. "I'll see what I can do about bringing in some more manpower."
After lifting his nearly invisible eyebrows, the
ranger drove off.
Before returning to the family, Tempe used her radio to call the dispatcher, requesting help. More deputies were promised.
"So what are you going to do?" Muldock snarled, keeping his arm around Jan.
"Your fellow campers are beginning to look for her now.
The ranger will put the word out to everyone he sees. And more deputies are being dispatched. They should be arriving in the next few minutes. I have to ask some more questions."
Muldock started to say something, but Jan put her hand on his arm. "It's okay, honey. The deputy is only doing her job."
"Were you in the tent with the children?" Tempe asked.
"No, Andy and I've been sleeping in the back of the wagon. But we always leave the gate open. I could hear Vicky if she cried out in the night." Tears welled in Jan's eyes again.
"I'd like to see the tent," Tempe said.
"What the hell good is that going to do?" Andy snarled, the veins in his neck visible, fists balled at his sides. "We already know Vicky ain't in there."
"Please, Andy." Jan placed a hand on his chest. "Of course you can look in the tent. I'm afraid it's a mess. Three little kids playing in there all the time, you know how it is."
The family's shoes were in a jumble outside the tent. A pair of large, worn sneakers that probably belonged to Andy were mixed with women's leather sandals. and three pairs of children's tennies in descending sizes.
Jan held the flap aside as Tempe poked her head in the opening. The strong scent of urine assailed Tempe's nostrils. The dark, small interior was a tangle of blankets, pillows, and toys. Three dark green trash sacks overflowed with children's clothing. The chaos made it impossible to tell if there might have been a struggle of any kind.
"Is this the way it usually looks?" Tempe asked.
Peering inside, Jan said, "Pretty much. As soon as I pick-up, the kids demolish everything."
Tempe straightened, automatically checking the barrette which held her long braid to the back of her head. While she had the woman away from her boyfriend, Tempe thought it might be a good time to ask something else she'd been wondering about. "Where is the children's father?"
"Junior and Sarah's dad was killed in an accident. Hit a cement wall while speeding. As for Vicky's, who knows. Off fighting fires, I suppose. That's all he cares about." Jan dropped the flap and stared across the campground toward the smooth surface of the lake. A pair of ducks skimmed their way just above the shore line.
The woman's comment made Tempe think about her own
son. Blair, recently turned eighteen, also loved fire- fighting. He was a volunteer and had spent most of his summer at the fire station or fighting fires. A senior in high school, he was also taking fire science classes at the
community college. Tempe had raised Blair alone, after her highway patrol husband was killed in the line of duty sixteen years before.
"And you have legal custody of Vicky?" Tempe asked.
"Does your ex have visitation rights?"
She nodded again, but tipped her head and frowned. "What're you getting at? You don't think Billy would've ... nah."
"We have to consider every possibility. What kind of relationship do you have with Billy?"
"None! What do you think? We haven't seen hide nor hair of him all summer. But that's not unusual. When the fire season starts, he's gone. But you know, you might have something. Billy tried to get custody right after we broke up."
"He didn't get anywhere, what else? His grandmother would have to take care of Vicky when he was gone. She's nearly blind, can hardly take care of herself. Losing sure did make him mad, though."
"Mad enough that he might take matters into his own hands?"
"Well, yeah, I suppose. But I don't think he knows where we are." She hesitated a moment, tossing her lank hair behind her shoulder. "Not many people do."
"Surely you've told someone where you could be reached in case of an accident or something." Tempe knew many parents without legal custody stole their children.
"My aunt and uncle. They live on the reservation." The Bear Creek Indian reservation was tucked into a narrow valley about ten miles away from the lake.
"So it is possible that he could have asked them where you and Vicky were, right?"
"I guess. But it just doesn't sound like Billy."
With a deep crease between his small eyes, Andy approached. "What's going on now? When're you gonna start looking for the kid, Deputy?"
"She was just asking me about Billy," Jan said, linking her arm through his.
The crease deepened even more. "What about Billy?"
"Just wondering if he might have taken his little girl." Tempe watched Andy's reaction.
His eyes widened. A nerve in his cheek twitched. "That son-of-a-bitch better not have pulled anything like that."
"Don't get all up-tight, Andy," Jan soothed. "I don't think he did it. If he was back in town I'd have heard."
"We haven't even seen anyone for a week. I wouldn't put it past the sneaky bastard. When I get my hands on him, I'll wring his neck." A vein in Andy's temple bulged.
"Hush, Andy," Jan scolded sharply. Andy shrank back.
A white sheriff's sedan drove slowly down the road toward Tempe.
"It's about damn time," Andy muttered. "Now maybe you'll get a move on."
"I'd like for one of you to remain here at your campsite at all times," Tempe said.
Jan nodded. "I'm not going anywhere. I gotta feed these kids their breakfast. Poor Vicky. She must be starving. Please Deputy, hurry up and find her." She blinked her eyes and pressed her lips tightly, trying not to cry again.
"I'll do my best." Tempe would liked to have been more reassuring. but she had a bad feeling about the whereabouts of the missing child. Too many children disappeared without ever being heard from again.
It would have been simple for the three-year-old girl to leave the tent to go to the bathroom before anyone in the campground was awake. It was an easy walk to the water's edge, even for short chubby legs. Though the lake was low, the bottom was steep. Wading in even a little ways could have been disastrous for a toddler.
Perhaps Vicky's real father, Billy Leaphorn, had taken her. In that case, the result would be happier.
Tempe didn't want to consider another possibility--that
someone with darker motives had snatched the little girl from the tent.
She hurried away from the family to explain the situation to her colleague.