Tempe Crabtree, resident deputy of Bear Creek, a small community in the southern Sierra, as once again finds herself torn between loyalty to her minister husband, her job, and her Native American heritage. The wingbeat of an owl–a harbinger of danger...Suspicious newcomers and a hidden marijuana farm...A false accusation, shaken faith, a grandfather’s heartache...And murder.
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.
"May I see your license and registration, please?" Tempe Crabtree, resident deputy for Bear Creek and surrounding area, leaned down and peered in the front window at the driver. Stale cigarette smoke drifted toward her.
A battered Jeep from another era had been flying up the highway heading toward the mountains. Tempe followed in her official white Blazer. It took both the lights and the siren to get the driver of the Jeep to pull over. Speeding wasn't uncommon, especially when residents of the tiny foothill community returned home from their jobs in the valley. Tempe knew all the commuters' vehicles by sight, but she didn't recognize the Jeep.
Before approaching the car, she called in the license
number to the dispatcher at the sub-station in Dennison, the nearest city. While she waited, Tempe peered over the top of her sunglasses as the driver, a woman with a wild, curly brown mane, glanced around nervously.
Seeing the tangled hair caused Tempe to think of her own. Automatically, she checked the large barrette holding her thick braid to the back of her head. Her straight black hair, golden skin and high cheekbones were reminders of the Indian heritage from her maternal grandmother. After a few minutes, the dispatcher reported the vehicle was registered to a Lorenzo Montelongo of Long Beach.
The woman didn't make eye contact with Tempe. "What did I do, Officer?" she asked, her voice sounding husky like she smoked too much.
"Speeding. You were doing at least seventy and this is a fifty-five mile zone. May I see your driver's license, car registration and proof of insurance please?" Tempe noted that the woman's eyebrows were no more than a thin penciled line. Make-up didn't conceal the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. Though she looked middle-aged, Tempe guessed she could be younger. She wore dirty jeans and a faded blue sweatshirt.
"Damn speedometer doesn’t work. Didn't seem like I was going too fast," she growled but still didn't look directly at Tempe.
"Take my word for it, you were. Your license, please." At least there wasn't alcohol on her breath and no empty beer cans among the fast food wrappers and old newspapers on the floor. Several large packages were in the back.
After digging in a battered leather purse on the seat beside her, with a rough hand with torn fingernails and ground-in dirt, the driver handed Tempe a license. Her name was Sue Montelongo with the same Long Beach address given to Tempe by the dispatcher. Her birth date made her only thirty-two, but she seemed at least ten years older.
"On vacation?" Tempe asked.
Ms. Montelongo's eyes narrowed, "What business is that of yours?"
Oh, dear, this woman was going to be difficult. Difficult people were never able to merely do what they were asked.
"Your license gives a Southern California address. If you've moved, you need to get a new license."
"Just visiting," she snapped, grabbing back her license.
"Oh, really? Who're you visiting?"
"Nobody you'd know."
"You can't be sure about that. I know most folks up here in the mountains."
"Not these people." She gripped the wheel tightly and stared straight ahead, sighing impatiently.
"I need to see the registration and proof of insurance too," Tempe reminded her. The way the woman was acting, Tempe wouldn't have been surprised if she drove off. Something about Sue Montelongo wasn’t quite right. Tempe was always wary of someone who wouldn’t make eye contact.
Though Montelongo opened the glove compartment and began rummaging around in it, she complained, "Just write the ticket, why don't you?"
"I'll take care of it."
"I bet you will." Montelongo began tossing scraps of paper from the compartment onto the floor and mumbling under her breath.
Her actions were suspicious enough Tempe decided she ought to have Ms. Montelongo get out of the car. Tempe knew she'd have to be careful. A person with such a nasty disposition was capable of violence.
Before she could instruct the woman, the radio on Tempe's belt crackled to life. It was the dispatcher telling her to report to the Sergeant at the substation as soon as possible.
"This is your lucky day, ma’am. I'm going to let you go with a warning."
Sue Montelongo leaned against the seat. "Yeah?" For the first time she peered directly at Tempe, the surprise in her pale blue eyes not completely concealing the underlying animosity. "Yeah. Take it easy from now on."
Montelongo didn't drive away until Tempe returned to the Blazer and made a U-turn on the highway. In her rear view mirror, she watched the Jeep until it disappeared around the first bend.
Picking up the receiver of the car radio, Tempe called the dispatcher. "Run a check on a Sue Montelongo." She rattled off Montelongo's statistics from the driver's license.
After driving a few minutes, the report came back to her. Though the woman had no outstanding warrants or wants, she did have a long arrest record mostly for drug use and sales, as well as some jail time. It would be interesting to know who she was visiting. Tempe was sure it wouldn't be long before Ms. Montelongo crossed her path again.
Bear Creek was a small community though it covered a large area, from the lake above Dennison into the Sierra Nevada, the eastern mountain range that ran nearly the length of California, creating a formidable border. Bear Creek was one of hundreds of communities nestled in the foothills along upward winding highways.
Born and raised in Bear Creek, Tempe had married a highway patrolman and moved away. When their son, Blair, was only two, a drunk driver left Tempe a widow. She returned to Bear Creek with her child and began using her maiden name of Crabtree because everyone did. After graduation from the police academy, she became a deputy sheriff.
It took a half hour to get from above the town of Bear Creek to the parking lot of the substation in the larger town of Dennison. Located away from the main highway going north and south through the state, the mostly agricultural town had seen little growth in the last two decades.
During the drive, the sun had disappeared behind the mountains. Tempe hoped Hutch, her husband of only a few months, and her son, Blair, enjoyed the chicken casserole she'd left them. She wondered when she'd be able to take a dinner break.
Tempe entered the utilitarian, boxy building and spotted the Sergeant coming out of his office. Sergeant Jerome Guthrie was one of the few men who could make Tempe feel small. Enormous, he towered over Tempe's five-foot-eight.
"Finally," he growled, his bushy graying eyebrows gathering in a frown.
"Came as fast as I could, Sergeant."
"Got a problem you might be able to give us a hand with." He whirled around, moving remarkably fast for his size and weight, and reentered his office. Plopping down in the chair behind his desk, he rubbed his meaty palm across the top of his salt-and-pepper crew cut. "Take a seat, Crabtree."
Tempe sat on one of two chairs and waited while Guthrie
flipped through several manila folders stacked on his desk. He pulled out one of them and opened it.
"There's been a big increase in marijuana sales all over the southern end of the valley. Narcotics suspect it's being grown somewhere in the mountains. Have you seen anything suspicious Bear Creek way?" Sergeant Guthrie was referring to the great San Joaquin valley, situated in the middle of the state. Tulare county was located in the southern end.
From time to time someone started a marijuana farm in
Tempe's territory. There had been several over the years found in the mountains on national forest land, usually by
accident. The last big marijuana cultivation was discovered
right in the city limits of Dennison. The plants, nearly ready for harvesting, were growing between overgrown hedges surrounding a large factory only two blocks from the sub-station.
"Guess it's time for me to visit some folks in the higher elevations to see if anyone's noticed any unusual activity."
"The narcs may be wrong. We've already made a check in town to see if anyone's been buying up large amounts of garden hose, electrical wire or PVC pipe." He shook his head. "No luck."
"What about the electric company? Anyone up my way have an unusually high bill these days?" Tempe asked, thinking someone might have an inside garden. If the crop were being grown in the mountains, it would make good business sense to do it inside. That way, with the proper lamps, the
growing season could go on year round.
"The narcs say not. To tell you the truth, Crabtree, I don't even know why they suspect it might be happening up your way. Guess they've investigated everywhere else in the county, and Bear Creek is the only place left."
"I'll nose around a bit and see what I can find out," Tempe said. The only suspicious person she could think of
was the women she'd just stopped for speeding. Except for her old arrest record, there was nothing to link her with the suspected marijuana operation.
"If you do uncover anything questionable, anything at all, don't follow up on it, Crabtree. Let the narcs know what you've found. They'll do the investigating. Your job is to keep law and order in Bear Creek. You've got your hands full keeping all the drunk cowboys in line."
Tempe had heard that admonition often enough. She was glad to have something unusual to work on. Most of her time was spent handing out speeding tickets, arresting drunk drivers, stopping fights, and taking burglary reports. Except for the occasional highway patrolman and the rangers in the national forest, Tempe was the only full-time law enforcement in Bear Creek. Her official hours were from four to midnight, five days a week. On her days off, during an emergency, another deputy might be sent up. Otherwise all calls were referred to her to take care of as she saw fit.
The radio was quiet all the way back to Bear Creek and Tempe decided to stop at the house for dinner. Inherited from an aunt, the cottage was built of redwood planks and had darkened with age. On one end was the living room, and at the other, a large kitchen. In between were two bedrooms. each with a bathroom off the connecting hallway.
Hutch's old blue-and-white Ford truck was parked in the driveway next to their small home, but Blair's VW bug was gone. A senior in high school, Blair was taking emergency medical technician classes at the community college in Dennison to help him with his duties as a volunteer fireman.
Hutch stood at the sink washing dishes as she entered. A broad smile brightened his face. "I wondered when you'd be able to get home." He held out his arms. and she snuggled against him.
Tempe forgot the job, taking in the clean scent of Hutch's spicy aftershave, to revel in the strength and love of his embrace.
Pulling away, a crease appeared above her husband's eyebrows. "Is something wrong?"
"No. What makes you think that?"
"You're not in a hurry to get back to work?"
Reaching up, she caressed his smooth, lightly freckled cheek. As usual his thick auburn hair needed combing. The concern he felt for her was apparent in his gray eyes behind his tortoise-shell framed glasses.
"Nothing much is happening tonight."
"Thank God," he breathed.
"I was just thinking how lucky I am to have you to come home to."
"Luck hasn't anything to do with it," he said, the smile back on his face. "The Lord meant for us to be together." Hutch was the minister of the only church in the nearby area.
"I'm glad." She stepped out of his arMs. "Is there anything left to eat?"
"It was so good, I had to remind Blair to leave you some. That young man can certainly put away the food."
Tempe chuckled. "I think he's still growing."
"While you're washing, I'll dish up your plate."
She kissed one of his deep dimples. "Thank you, sweetie."
While she ate, Hutch sat across the kitchen table from her and said that one of his older church members was having an emergency operation in the morning. "I know we planned to do some shopping, but as her pastor I need to be with her at the hospital. I'm sorry, but she doesn't have anyone else."
Tempe couldn't help feeling relieved. "It's okay. I've got something else I should do in the morning."
"What's that?" Hutch got up to pour her some more coffee.
"Take a ride into the mountains. The narcotics detectives think we might have someone growing marijuana up there again."
"Maybe we can go shopping later." Hutch returned the coffee pot to the stove with a tad more force than necessary. Hutch didn’t like it when she had to work more than just her four to midnight shift–something that happened often.
Tempe continued. "Thought I'd visit Joe Seaberry."
No irritation was apparent when Hutch turned around. "That's a good idea. Seaberry knows everything going on in the mountains, past and present."
"That's the truth. I'll have to listen to plenty before he'll ever get around to telling me what I want to hear."
"Too bad I can't go with you. Do you want anything else to eat?"
"No, thanks, sweetheart. Yes, I wish you could come." Most of the time she enjoyed having Hutch ride along with her when she was investigating on her own time.
"Give Joe my regards when you see him."
As Tempe went back to work, patrolling the highway between Lake Dennison and the mountains, she wondered if the narcotics officers were right and there was another big marijuana farm in her territory. Though she hadn't noticed anything or anyone unusual, she eagerly anticipated her visit with Joe Seaberry.
An owl dropped in front of the windshield, so close Tempe could see the yellow of its eyes and its extended talons. She braked hard to keep from striking it. The proximity of her vehicle obviously surprised the owl.
For a moment it seemed suspended in air. It turned its head toward Tempe, the unblinking eyes staring at her before it effortlessly lifted its wings and disappeared into
the dark night.
Though always aware of her Yanduchi heritage, Tempe had never claimed it until she’d participated in a ceremonial conducted by a local shaman. Ever since that night all of her senses were intensified. She attributed meanings to occurrences she might not have noted before.
Surely the appearance of the owl was an omen of some sort. Exactly what she didn't know, only that it meant something unusual was about to happen.