Ancient ruins, haunted memories, and a ruthless criminal combine with a touch of mystic presence in this taut mystery about a crime we all must address.
Maggie, a National Park Ranger of Native American descent, is back at The Castle—a six-hundred-year-old pueblo carved into a limestone cliff in Arizona’s Verde Valley. Maggie, who suffers from depression, has been through several traumas: the gang rape she suffered while in the Coast Guard, the sudden death of her ten-year-old son, and a suicide attempt.
One evening, she chases a young Native American boy through the park and gasps as he climbs the face of The Castle cliff and disappears into the pueblo. When searchers find no child, Maggie’s friends believe she’s suffering from depression-induced hallucinations.
Maggie has several men in her life. The baker, newcomer Jim Casey, who always greets her with a warm smile and pink boxes filled with sweet delicacies. Brett Collins, a scuba diver who is doing scientific studies in Montezuma Well, a dangerous cylindrical depression that houses strange creatures found nowhere else on Earth. Dave, an amiable waiter with whom she’s had a one-night stand, and her new boss Glen.
One of these men is a serial rapist and Maggie is his next target.
In a thrilling and terrifying denouement, Maggie faces her rapist and conquers her worst fears once and for all.
Anne Butler Montgomery has worked as a television sportscaster, newspaper and magazine writer, teacher, amateur baseball umpire, and high school football referee. Her first TV job came at WRBL‐TV in Columbus, Georgia, and led to positions at WROC‐TV in Rochester, New York, KTSP‐TV in Phoenix, Arizona, and ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut, where she anchored the Emmy and ACE award‐winning SportsCenter. She finished her on‐camera broadcasting career with a two‐year stint as the studio host for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. Montgomery was a freelance and/or staff reporter for six publications, writing sports, features, movie reviews, and archaeological pieces. Her previous novels are A Light in the Desert, The Scent of Rain, and Wild Horses on the Salt. Montgomery taught journalism and communications at South Mountain High School in Phoenix for 20 years. She is a foster mom to three sons, and spent 40 years officiating amateur sports, including football, baseball, ice hockey, soccer, and basketball. When she can, she indulges in her passions: rock collecting, scuba diving, musical theater, and playing her guitar.
Excerpt of The Castle
“Holy crap!” Maggie dropped the phone. Someone peered from outside the darkened window. A child. Big eyes in a bronze face. “Hey! You can’t….” But the boy—nine maybe ten—disappeared. She heard a laugh, a light tinkling sound like tiny brass bells on the breeze.
Maggie scrambled for the phone, punched in the number, and made her report. Then she grabbed a flashlight from under the counter and bolted out the back door of the Visitor Center.
A half-moon lit the concrete trail. There was no sign of the boy. The wind pushed through massive Arizona Sycamores, their star-shaped leaves fluttered, the sound mimicking a stream rushing over small river rocks. Maggie rushed down the path. Her Nikes would have served her better than the brown ankle boots that were part of her uniform.
The laughter came again, this time from the wild land amidst the rocks—huge slabs of fractured white limestone that over the centuries had tumbled down the escarpment. Striving to avoid the vicious prickly pear that dotted the slope and the jagged pieces of stone that could slice skin like a honed blade, Maggie left the safety of the trail and pushed past the mesquite and pungent creosote bushes toward the base of the cliff, boots crunching on the rocky rubble that littered the ground.
Her gaze drifted up the sheer stone wall to The Castle, a prehistoric edifice almost iridescent in the moonlight. She could make out the small windows and even ancient logs that jutted from the structure, all of which had been felled and carted up the cliff face many hundreds of years earlier.
Maggie gasped. To her horror, she saw the boy ascending the wall. She flashed on the day she’d scaled the precipice with archaeology students from New Mexico State University. A seasoned climber, she was comfortable in the harness and helmet, but the ladders were touchy. The feel of rock beneath her hands and feet provided a much more solid sense of security. But there were no ladders propped against the ragged limestone now, nor was the child dressed in any protective gear. In fact, he didn’t appear to be wearing clothes at all.
Frozen, she watched the boy mount the wall like an animal, arms and legs working with almost preternatural ease. Then Maggie saw the child hoist himself over the ledge before he disappeared into the cave that held The Castle in its belly.
At six-foot-three, Jess Sorenson towered over her friend. She folded the slim spiral notebook and tucked the pad into the back pocket of her uniform pants. Like Maggie, Jess sported a gray button-down short-sleeve shirt and forest green slacks. But Jess was a National Park Service Law Enforcement officer, so she also wore a sidearm.
“You don’t believe me.” Maggie slumped into a desk chair in the office at the Montezuma Castle Visitor Center.
“I’m just saying that we’ve had a search team out here for,” Jess checked her watch, “five hours now. And they’ve found nothing. And you have to admit….”
“They think I’m still crazy, right?” Maggie jumped from the chair and paced the room, a palm pressed against her forehead.
“I didn’t say that, but….” Jess creased her brow. “You know I have to ask.”
“No, I’m no longer medicated, if that’s what you’re curious about.” Maggie turned toward the east-facing windows of the Visitor Center, where the morning sun had yet to offer even a hint of illumination.
Jess nodded and reached again for the notebook. She jotted the information in blue ink, stuck the pen in her breast pocket, and ran her fingers through short, shockingly white hair. “Maybe you need some more time off,” she said softly.
Maggie closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I know what I saw.”
Jess stared for a long time. “I believe you. But the other guys….” She spread her hands wide.
“I have to work, Jess. Sitting around is doing me no good. I just think too much when I’m alone. When I’m here, I feel better. I can’t go back to the house.”
“I know.” Jess perched on the corner of a nearby desk. “So, what do you want to do? Should we file a report with the local authorities? Ask if any young boys are missing?”
“They’ll send me home.”
“But what if a child is out there injured?” Maggie pointed toward The Castle, unable stop tears from spilling down her cheeks.
“Do you think the child was hurt?”
Maggie blew out a breath and closed her eyes. She pictured the boy scaling the wall like one of the ubiquitous brown lizards that scampered among the rocks, his tinkling laughter playing on the breeze. Suddenly the memory seemed wrong. How could the vision be real? She stared at Jess, frowned, and collapsed into a chair.
Jess got up, walked over to Maggie, and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “I’m gonna call the guys off. Let’s get you to bed.”
Maggie lifted her head and peered from bleary eyes. “What about the report?”
“I think we need to err on the side of caution and tell the local folks, just in case. But maybe we can make it sound not so….”
“Crazy?” Maggie finished the sentence.
“Come on, now.”
Maggie allowed Jess to help her from the chair. Then she picked up the straw-colored hat with the flat brim and dark leather band that symbolized her profession. Her job was all that mattered now. By making the report Maggie was putting her employment at risk. But what if a child was lost or injured, and they stopped the search because she chose to say nothing? Maggie couldn’t live with that.
Maggie dragged herself from bed. After slipping on a pair of khaki shorts and an overly large navy-blue T-shirt bearing the words Plant Lady: I dig dirt, she made a cup of instant coffee, heavily laced with sugar and milk.
Maggie pushed through the screen door to the tiny porch that fronted her one-bedroom apartment, let the door snap shut behind her, and placed the steaming mug on a round wrought iron table. She’d slept until noon—not a surprise considering her run in with the boy/spirit/hallucination—so the sun was directly overhead. Birds chattered noisily in the surrounding bushes and trees. A speckled brown and white roadrunner, who sprinted about the grounds frequently and exhibited little fear of humans, tilted his head as she sat at the table, then went back to pecking among the rocks in a search for insects and lizards.
The apartment, one of several in a tidy row, sat on National Park land, just a short walk from The Castle. One of the benefits of being a National Park Ranger was the opportunity to live at work. Maggie had recently requested one of the simple flats—a bedroom, kitchenette, tiny living room, and bath—because the thought of returning to her house on Beaver Creek was overwhelming. Memories lingered there, once vibrant and joyful, now nothing but dust and shadow, thoughts that clawed at her gut like a small rodent anxious to eat its way out. She fingered the ragged scars that bisected her wrists—cuts that were partially concealed by a pair of colorful tattoos—then stared at the cerulean blue of the high desert sky.
Maggie, who’d grown up in the bulging metropolis of Phoenix, Arizona, had enjoyed the small-town feel of the Beaver Creek area, which encompassed the communities of Lake Montezuma, Rimrock, and McGuireville. On the way home from The Castle, she’d pass Vickie’s Grill—where a sign proclaimed you could get good home cooking—the Feed Store, and Candy’s Creek Side Cottage with its colorful kitschy décor that always made her smile. Further down the road stood the Montezuma-Rim Rock Fire Department, the town post office, and the most popular spot in town, Flora’s Bakery, where indescribably delicious confections came in pink boxes tied with twine. Then Maggie would turn onto the unpaved, dusty lane with the long row of metal mailboxes, mostly black and white and green, some with their red flags at attention, signaling mail within. Maggie’s was the fourth box from the right, turquoise with white flowers and a yellow butterfly that Charlie had insisted on.
Her tiny house was embraced by an ancient Arizona Sycamore, some of the tree’s branches having kissed the earth untold years earlier, after which they’d rebounded into the high desert sky, massive in their height and breadth. She’d felt connected to the tree with the mottled skin—pale green, brown, and white—cool to the touch, verdant star-shaped leaves. She couldn’t wrap her arms completely around the trunk, though she’d tried.
Charlie had loved the tree. Maggie stopped worrying as he’d grown older, no longer concerned that the boy might fall from the enormous limbs.
Bits of Charlie’s life assaulted her as she sipped her coffee. A hand-painted wooden frame clutching a picture of the two of them, smiling on a hike when he was six. A small pair of boots, laces untied, caked with dried red mud. The collection of minerals on the bedside table, including the strange geometrically-shaped white rocks called pseudomorphs, they’d found sifting through the sandy bottom of the open-pit salt mine in Camp Verde.
Maggie forced the thoughts away, not wanting to think about the house she still owned but dared not enter. For six months she’d stayed away. Jess periodically checked on the property and picked up the mail. Maggie continued to pay the mortgage, but the water and electricity had long since been turned off.
A half an hour and two cups of coffee later, Maggie stared at a Queen butterfly that rested on the wooden porch railing. The creature lazily opened and closed white-spotted orange and black wings, and flitted to a nearby patch of milkweed.
Maggie jumped, startled by the sound of a vehicle. A late model green Jeep Wrangler pulled to a stop in front of the last apartment in the complex. A tall man wearing a Colorado Rockies baseball cap unfolded himself from the driver’s seat and spoke into a cellphone as he slammed the door. He ended the call and slipped the phone into his back pocket. Then, he opened the rear of the vehicle and hoisted a large silver cylinder to his shoulder. His phone rang.
“What!” He walked up the wooden steps to the apartment. “I’ll call you back.” He put the cylinder on the porch floor and fumbled with a key.
Maggie recognized the object, strangely incongruous in the desert. It was a scuba tank.
The author has dedicated The Castle to all survivors of sexual violence, which has to be the worst abuse every woman fears.
Maggie is back at work as a Park Ranger, trying to lead a normal life after a rape ordeal. That’s if life and her memories will let her.
She meets many men in her job, and they all make her feel uncomfortable. How can she know who to trust?
Like Brett Collins, a serious scuba diver that she is assigned to assist. He seems decent enough and doesn’t even flirt with her. Her boss Glen, Jim Casey the baker and Dave the good looking, dark haired waiter, they all seem harmless, but try as she might, the thought that she could be in danger again will not leave her be.
I loved the way I learned more about the rapist as the story developed, all while I was trying to guess who he was. It was as if once I knew, then he would be caught and punished before anything bad happened!
The author tried hard with the sympathy card, but I couldn’t feel sorry for the serial rapist, sorry.
I also loved the history of the ancient ruins and the thread of mystery throughout the story, which did help to balance the pervading evil.
I cannot say I enjoyed reading this story, due to the subject matter, but it is brilliantly written and plotted, and I didn’t manage to guess who the rapist was until the very end!