A Dead Nephew
Screenwriter Harry Essex claims there are “A thousand ways the desert can kill.” According to Auntie Agnes, a local tribal elder, an elusive killer is working hard to make it a thousand and one.
Louie Jacobs, a minor tried as an adult, was convicted of murdering Sacramento Lugo—his best friend and Auntie Agnes’ nephew. There’s plenty of evidence that points to Louie, and Louie supposedly confessed. Sacramento’s aunt is adamant that Louis didn’t do it.
After reviewing Louie Jacob’s case, Jessica agrees to try to get it reopened. She and her “Cat Pack” friends are soon caught up in another tricky whodunnit when they discover the main suspect is an illusory figure—the Cleaner Man. Does such a man even exist, or is he a creature of spirit and imagination? Who else has a reason to want Louie behind bars or dead?
Grab your copy of A Dead Nephew Jessica Huntington Desert Cities Mystery #6 by USA Today and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author, Anna Celeste Burke.
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Release date: April 11, 2020
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 440
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A Dead Nephew
Anna Celeste Burke
A Desert Killer
If screenwriter Harry Essex is right, there are “A thousand ways the desert can kill.” According to Auntie Agnes, a local tribal elder, an elusive killer is working hard to make it a thousand and one. The twist in my gut keeps telling me there’s truth to Agnes Lugo’s claim that the young man convicted of her nephew’s murder didn’t do it. That’s why I agreed to work on Louie Jacobs’ case. He was arrested and quickly convicted of murdering his friend, Sacramento Lugo. The rush to judgment bothered me, but worse was the fear that Lugo’s real killer was still at large, had killed before, and would do it again.
Beneath all the trappings of wealth in the Playground of Presidents, the shopping mecca that’s known as “The Rodeo Drive of the Desert,” and the red carpets rolled out for Hollywood royalty, we live in a desert. The seven desert cities from Palm Springs to Indio are tiny oases set amid a vast sweep of sand and scrub bounded by the San Bernardino Mountains to the north and the Santa Rosa Mountains to the south.
You don’t have to venture far from the glitz and glamour of Palm Springs to find wild, untamed places. That’s where Sacramento Lugo’s body was found. In a secluded spot on a tribal reservation not far from Indio, the Easternmost of the seven desert cities. As inhospitable as the wild places may seem, there are some people who seek them out. For Sacramento Lugo, Louie Jacobs’ hideaway in the desert was part campsite and part teen clubhouse—a place to get away from adults.
Lost souls and recluses are also drawn to the wilderness, but in search of solitude for other reasons. Occasionally, that includes human predators that dwell side by side with mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, and small things like scorpions and rattlesnakes. The wild creatures that prowl on four legs, or slither and scurry, generally leave you alone if you stay out of their way. That’s not always true about the predators who walk on two legs.
I’d never worried much about “stranger danger.” Despite a fear of strangers, most people are murdered by someone they know, including the person with whom they’re most intimate. That’s why members of law enforcement start by investigating those closest to the victim—partners, family, and friends.
Louie Jacobs had made it easy for them to zero in on him. He’d been found passed out with a bloody knife in one hand not far from the body of his friend. Louie and Sacramento were seen arguing earlier in the evening. Nothing in the police report said anyone else had been at the crime scene that night. Betsy Stark interrupted my reverie about the murder of Sacramento Lugo with more to say about the dangerous man she believed was roaming the desert, killing at will.
“If he’s targeting the homeless, we may never know how many lives he’s taken,” Betsy said as she sat in a chair opposite my desk. “The community makes efforts to transport them to shelters during the hottest and coldest nights in the desert, but we can’t find them all. Some refuse to go with us. Others take off from the shelters soon after they get there and disappear back into the desert. When they die, if their bodies are found, the desert gets the blame.”
“What makes you believe he’s targeting the homeless?”
“I’ll tell you what happened this morning, and you can draw your own conclusion, Jessica.”
“If you don’t calm down, Mr. Oliver, I’m going to call security. Our interview will be over. Is that clear?” The wreck of a man looked at me, shooting daggers from his eyes through the dull sheen created by whatever drug he’d taken before coming to the welfare office. It’s not the imagined sharp objects that worry me, it’s the real ones.
“Don’t tell me what to do. You got no right. I want help, now! Ain’t that clear?” He took a hammer from a pocket under the poncho he wore. Gripping it, he stood in front of the chair in the waiting room where he’d been sitting. I’d already taken away a nasty looking shiv, a Bowie knife, and a gun this week, and it was only Tuesday. At least the latest gun I’d confiscated wasn’t loaded.
“If you want me to help you, you’ve got to give me the hammer, Mr. Oliver,” I spoke firmly, but calmly, to the wisp of a human blown in by the desert breeze. Short, dry and withered like a tumbleweed, he was bent and nearly mummified by what was probably some combination of desert heat, booze, and methamphetamine addiction. Mr. Oliver wasn’t long for this world; his body was already nearly embalmed and ready for the next. I could take him if I had to.
“You can’t have it. It ain’t safe out there, lady. You’d know that if you weren’t so high and mighty sitting around behind a desk all day.” He raised the hammer a bit as he said that.
“The name’s Betsy Stark, Mr. Oliver. You can call me Ms. Stark. Trust me, I ain’t no lady.” I stepped toward him slowly, but deliberately. He looked me up and down as all six feet two inches and one hundred eighty pounds of me towered over him. As he gawked, I reached out. The hammer was mine.
“Follow me,” I took him with me to my office. “With or without your hammer, if you come after me or anyone else in this office, it won’t be safe for you in here either.” As I said that I picked up “Bitsy Betsy.” The shiny baseball bat leaned against my desk. I’d never actually had to use it, except to make a point as I was now.
“Speak loudly, and carry a big stick,” was inscribed on the bat along with the “Bitsy Betsy” name. The bat was a gift from my coworkers, celebrating my second decade of service as a social worker. Not what I’d ever imagined I’d possess as a tool of my profession.
“Okay, so let’s get down to business, Mr. Oliver. Where is it you want to go? Just why do you want a bus ticket out of paradise?” I sat down and put Bitsy Betsy back in its place. Maybe it’s time to install metal detectors or screening devices at the door, I thought, as I waited for Mr. Oliver to collect his thoughts. I could practically see them. His thoughts, that is. They skittered all over the desk like spiders. Each sported Mr. Oliver’s head. Like Jeff Goldblum in that scene from The Fly. Of course, that would be off-putting to someone who came to the office looking for help. The metal detectors, I mean.
“The Cleaner Man’s at work again, Ms. Stark. He don’t like guys like me. I gotta go. I don’t care where. Send me to San Berdu, LA, over the state line into Arizona, it don’t matter! Give me a bus ticket and I’m outta here. This time it’s for good, deal?”
“I’m sorry. Did you say the Cleaner Man, Mr. Oliver?”
“Yes! We thought he was gone, killed, or somethin’. But now that demon is back.”
“He could hardly be a demon if you thought he was dead.”
“He’s the devil, I tell you.” The man was becoming agitated again. I quickly glanced to make sure Bitsy Betsy was still within easy reach before I asked him to explain.
“A silver-tongued devil, with a bit of the hellfire and brimstone preacher in him,” Betsy added apparently done narrating the events involving Mr. Oliver as they’d happened. “To hear Mr. Oliver tell it, the Cleaner Man’s wily. He befriends you and sympathizes with you because you have no friends or family to help you. Then he makes a pitch for you to turn to the god he supposedly represents—and away from whatever it is he says you ought to turn away from like stealing, alcohol, or drugs.”
“You and the people you work with must be saying about the same thing to all the Mr. Oliver’s in the desert.”
“Yes, but we don’t exact the same punishment if they don’t meet our expectations. According to Mr. Oliver, ‘The Cleaner Man looks like an angel—all dressed in white. He’s fooling you, though, ’cause he’s a devil in disguise. If you don’t get cleansed, you’re dead.’” As Betsy spoke, I could hear the cadence in her voice that Mr. Oliver must have used when he begged for her help to get out of town.
“Geez! That sounds like a strange new twist on an ‘Angel of Death’ killer, doesn’t it?” I asked. “Maybe the Cleaner Man has a background in health care.”
“That’s possible,” Betsy responded. “His religious bent also fits the profile, although it’s more vengeance than mercy he seems intent on delivering. Mercy killers or Angels of Death usually use a less visible means of sending their victims to meet their maker than the knife that killed Sacramento Lugo.”
“Obviously, Mr. Oliver’s not speaking from experience, or he’d no longer be alive,” I said. “How does he know so much about the Cleaner Man?”
“He wasn’t clear about that, but he’s in a shelter in Cathedral City if George Hernandez wants to have a chat with him. He needs to go easy, though. Mr. Oliver is truly terrified. The more he spoke, the more frantic he became, and the less sense he made,” Betsy replied.
“To be that scared, he must have had a personal encounter with the guy. Let’s hope he can give us more details about the Cleaner Man’s appearance or his real name. I wish I could go meet with him, but I’ve finally jumped through the hoops to meet with Louie Jacobs. I’ll call George and see if he can send someone to the shelter right away. Let’s hope Mr. Oliver is still there.”
“I drove him there, personally, checked him in, and told him I’d be back soon with a ticket out of here.” Betsy paused and cocked her head to one side. I must have reacted with surprise. “What’s that look about? I didn’t lie to Mr. Oliver. George can stash him in San Bernardino if there’s any value in what he has to say. In fact, I thought transporting him in a police cruiser might be safer than sending him off on a bus if he really does need to be protected from a man he’s describing as a serial killer.”
“Let me call George and see what he says.” Detective George Hernandez is no fan of my investigations into murder and mayhem. This is different since my snooping is related to a case.
“What can I do for you, Jessica?”
“I hope we can do something for you, Detective,” I replied, and briefly explained what was going on with Mr. Oliver. “Hang on a second.”
“What’s Mr. Oliver’s first name, Betsy?”
“Xavier,” she whispered.
“If you want to run a background check on him, his name is Xavier Oliver,” I said.
“I don’t mind telling you that when you agreed to help Louie Jacobs, I was sure you were off on a wild goose chase,” George responded. “I haven’t said anything to you because it’s a perfect way to keep you and your ‘Cat Pack’ busy. Mr. Oliver’s tale about the Cleaner Man doesn’t change my mind. What else would you expect from a homeless, meth-addled desert rat who’s decided it’s time to move on to greener pastures? If he’s not just yanking your chain to get a free ride, the Cleaner Man is a mirage from a combination of heat and drugs or booze. Are you sure this isn’t some guy Sacramento’s Aunt Agnes sent to speak to you?”
“I guess I wasn’t clear that he didn’t come to see me. Betsy Stark, who’s sitting here with me in my office, says Xavier Oliver showed up looking for help from Public Services.”
“Betsy’s even more tied into the local tribes than you are. Why not send Mr. Oliver to Betsy with a story that adds credibility to Agnes Lugo’s effort to get Louie Jacobs’ conviction overturned?” I rolled my eyes, and Betsy folded her arms.
“Why would Agnes want a new trial for the young man convicted of murdering her nephew unless she’s convinced the real killer is still out there? Can’t we have this discussion after you’ve spoken to Xavier?” The stubborn grunt on the other end of the phone irked me. I sighed and then continued to counter his objections. “First of all, Auntie Agnes didn’t need to send Xavier to me or Betsy. I’ve already taken Louie Jacobs’ case. Second, there was no need for deception. Auntie Agnes would have just told Betsy or me to speak to him if she’d discovered that Xavier Oliver had a story to tell about the Cleaner Man. Third, he couldn’t have known he’d be speaking to Betsy today when he showed up at her office. Normally, she’s not on the front lines. You know that as well as I do.”
“Okay, okay. I’ve got nothing better to do than chase down desert devils, do I? If you and Betsy are right, and the Cleaner Man’s been preying on homeless men like Xavier Oliver, he made a mistake when he killed Sacramento Lugo. He was a well-connected member of one of the richest tribes in the area.”
“It was a mistake for him, but a break for law enforcement. As preposterous as Agnes’ claim seems, Mr. Oliver’s independent account of a killer called the Cleaner Man adds credibility to her story. Let’s hope Xavier Oliver can tell you more about him.”
“He’d better have something concrete because Mr. Oliver’s word alone won’t help much,” George groused. “A second sighting of the so-called Cleaner Man does make it harder to write off Auntie Agnes as an old woman who’s out of her mind with grief and has more money than she knows what to do with.”
“The killer’s more likely than Auntie Agnes or Xavier Oliver to be the delusional one. How else could he believe he’s a self-appointed Angel of Death on a mission to rid the desert of drifters who don’t clean up their act? There’s no reason to believe he’s done killing. Someone needs to stop him.”
“I get it, Jessica. I’ll check it out. Not that I expect to learn anything to help you get Louie Jacobs’ conviction overturned. He was caught red-handed, standing over Sacramento’s body with the knife in his hand and no Cleaner Man in sight.”
“Who said Louie Jacobs was caught standing over the body?” I asked. That’s not what I read in the police report.”
“One of my officers told me that’s what one of the tribal officers told him. Don’t listen to me if you’ve read otherwise.”
“Louie became the one and only suspect in the murder of Sacramento Lugo so fast, who knows what was misstated or overlooked in the process?” I argued.
“The pressure was on, I’ll give you that,” George commented. “People in both the Anglo and tribal communities were calling for the murder to be solved quickly—for different reasons. Does Betsy want to meet me at the shelter in case Xavier Oliver needs her to hold his hand?”
“Why don’t I let you speak to her?” I handed my phone to Betsy, explaining what George wanted to know.
Detective George Hernandez is with the Cathedral City Police Department and is a good cop. If he gets on board, he’ll be a great ally in rounding up a sly killer. If Xavier Oliver’s correct, he’s been around for a while. He must be clever as well as devious to have evaded authorities—until now.
The Wrong Man
That the pressure was on to find Sacramento Lugo’s killer was an understatement. Unlike the desert vagabonds whose deaths may or may not even be discovered, the demise of an affluent local tribe member created an uproar. Wealthy members of the business community didn’t like it that someone had killed a rich young resident of the valley. Tribal members continue to be sensitive about the fact that the murder of young Native Americans often receives less attention than the killing of Anglo youth.
Some bands of local indigenous tribes have become very well off by leasing property on their reservations, earning revenue from opening hotels and casinos, or selling handmade products. There are still lots of poor tribe members. They got the kind of justice meted out to those who don’t have the money to hire high-priced lawyers. Louie Jacobs’ conviction was an oddly ironic resolution to the conflict. He’s also Native American, but a member of a less prosperous tribal community. If Sacramento’s Aunt was correct, Louie Jacobs was the wrong man.
In minutes, Betsy and George had arranged to meet at the shelter. The detective’s office is in Cathedral City, so he was much closer than Betsy. She stood to leave as I got out of my chair and walked around my desk to give the woman a hug.
“What choice did I have?” Betsy asked as she rubbed her head with both hands.
“Did Xavier Oliver’s story trigger one of your spells?” I asked as I stepped closer to check on her.
“Unfortunately, yes.” She embraced me in a big, bear hug. “Big-time!”
“Would you prefer that Kim or someone else met with George and Mr. Oliver?”
“No. I want to stick it out and learn as much as I can. Even if George doesn’t follow up, we must.”
I nodded in agreement with Betsy. The telltale twist in my gut responded before I could speak. My “gut feelings” weren’t all that different from Betsy’s ‘spells.’ However, the sensations she experienced were more vivid—like visions—and the pain they caused could be debilitating.
“Do you need to sit down for a few more minutes? Can I get you an aspirin?” I asked, worried about the woman who had winced in pain before she’d embraced me. She gazed at me with a spark in her dark eyes.
“You don’t take aspirin. It would mess with the truth you read in your belly,” Betsy said with a knowing look in her eyes.
“I can’t be certain about reading the truth, but aspirin does tear up my stomach. I have aspirin even if I don’t take it—other options too.” Then I shook my head. “You know that. I’m glad you feel well enough to tease me.”
It was as if she’d read my mind and teasing me about my “gut feelings” was a small joke she’d just played on me. The woman is remarkably perceptive even when she’s not having one of her spells. A grin spread across Betsy’s broad face, accentuating the beautiful high cheekbones that could have been a gift from her Cahuillan grandmother or her Mestizo mother. Her height and the curl in her thick black hair must have come from her Anglo father. Beyond that, he hadn’t given her much other than his last name.
“I’ll go now and see what other secrets Mr. Oliver has to reveal to us.” As she stepped away, I felt as if I’d lost the welcome shelter of a shady tree on a hot day. When Betsy opened the door to leave, Kim Reed, my legal assistant, stepped into my office.
“I’ve got a little news before we leave to meet with Louie Jacobs,” Kim said and smiled. “Hello, Betsy.”
Standing next to my petite legal assistant, Betsy appeared to be a giant. With her thick, dark unruly hair pulled back, and the muscles bulging in arms exposed by the sleeveless sheath she wore, Betsy evoked the mythical figure of an Amazonian warrior. By contrast, Kim Reed was a Ninja, or maybe one of the legendary Onna-bugeisha Samurai women. Not that Kim’s of Asian descent. Kim Reed knew even less about her family of origin than did Betsy. They share a fierceness as well as a capacity for resourcefulness and courage, which is why they both survived long enough to become my friends. Thank goodness, because I’ve gained so much from those friendships.
“Are you and Peter coming to dinner tonight?” Kim asked Betsy. It’s no wonder Peter March, the real warrior in our group of sleuthing friends, had fallen hard for Betsy. The ex-member of special forces who runs a high-end security firm here in the desert towers over Betsy at six-seven or six-eight. It’s her spirit, I’m sure, that had conquered Peter.
“We’ll be there. Jessica will fill you in about Xavier Oliver, our new witness to the existence of the Cleaner Man. At dinner, I’ll tell you both if Mr. Oliver remembers anything useful to Louie Jacobs’ case, and what George decides we should do with him.”
“Good! I hope we’ll have something to share with you after our meeting with Louie Jacobs. If there’s anything you learn that can’t wait, call me before dinner. Good luck with our ‘Doubting Thomas,’” I added as Kim stepped away from the doorway so Betsy could leave. Betsy waited another minute as I quickly explained to Kim what was going on.
“George Hernandez is convinced we’re chasing a phantom. Even after another person has come forward claiming a guy called the Cleaner Man is killing people—homeless people.” I went over the story I’d just told the detective to bring Kim up to speed on events. “George has agreed to speak to Xavier Oliver if he’s willing to answer the detective’s questions. Betsy says Xavier is terrified, and all he wants to do is get out of town.”
“Then he may not have much to say to George,” Kim responded. “From what you just told me, it’s almost as if Mr. Oliver believes the Cleaner Man is superhuman, or not human at all. Is that why he’s so scared? Or is he running because he’s knows something that can get him killed by an all too human killer?”
“Those are excellent questions,” Betsy responded. “I’ll ask Mr. Oliver, although the last thing our detective friend needs to hear is that Mr. Oliver believes he’s being chased by a demon.” Betsy rubbed her head again as she spoke.
“If that happens, George will get to have one of his ‘I told you so’ moments he loves so much. Part of George’s skepticism stems from the fact that at times Auntie Agnes has also spoken as if the Cleaner Man is a spirit creature—or possessed by one.”
“And, not a good one,” Kim remarked. “That can’t be all there is to it. What good does it do for Mr. Oliver to run if he’s being chased by an evil spirit? Or, for that matter, why would Auntie Agnes want us to challenge Louie Jacobs’ conviction for murder if the real killer is not of this realm?”
“Auntie Agnes believes the Cleaner Man is human,” Betsy argued. “I admit that she’s also concerned that Louie and Sacramento disturbed the banished spirit of the demon that’s resided in the Tahquitz Canyon for centuries. She’s not talking about possession, but she is concerned Louie Jacobs and Sacramento Lugo may be paying for their ignorance and lack of respect for the old ways.”
“Sacramento wasn’t murdered in Tahquitz Canyon. Had they been there before her nephew was killed?” I asked. I’d heard about the Tahquitz legend. There had been problems in that canyon, which included mysterious deaths. “Never mind. I suppose that’s a question for Louie Jacobs, isn’t it? I’m not concerned that the Cleaner Man’s murderous vengeance is inspired by the spirit of Tahquitz. I would like to know if that’s where Louie and her nephew encountered him.”
“Let’s hope Mr. Oliver’s had time to rest, eat, and calm down so he’ll be more forthcoming about exactly where he’s been hanging out and where he met the man who has him so terrified that he’s on the run. If he mentions Tahquitz Canyon, I’ll be surprised. After being closed for thirty years, the canyon hasn’t been the problem it once was. That’s still true since the Visitor Center opened and people are allowed in again. With all the hikers and locals traipsing through there now, plenty of people could have disturbed Tahquitz.” Then Betsy smirked. “If the Cleaner Man was a soul-stealing cannibal, it might be easier to believe he’s imbued with the spirit of the demon Tahquitz.”
“Thanks for making that creepy clarification for us,” I responded.
“There are also those who believe Tahquitz was vanquished by a legendary chief who turned him into the huge granite rock that bears Tahquitz’ name. Anyway, the canyon’s no longer a place for friends like Louie and Sacramento to hide from prying eyes or for people to hang out who are up to no good. I don’t believe that’s where we’ll find the Cleaner Man.” With that, Betsy left. When Kim sat down, I began to worry once more about Xavier Oliver’s terror.
“Will you remind me to ask Peter if we ought to take precautions with Auntie Agnes? She’s been so outspoken about the Cleaner Man. If he threatened Xavier Oliver, maybe he’s a danger to Auntie Agnes, too.”
“I’m sure Peter can do something if you and Betsy can get Agnes Lugo to accept the help,” Kim said.
“Betsy can be very persuasive. If necessary, she can go over Agnes’ head to Auntie Rosie.”
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