They murdered her sister. They threatened her church. Their day of reckoning is at hand.
Cici Gurule is a freewheeling, progressive reverend who’ll stop at nothing to protect her flock. When she finds the dead body of a parishioner in the nearby Santa Fe National Forest, she’s horrified to realize the victim bears the same stab wounds that ended her twin sister’s life one year earlier.
Together with her detective friend and loyal pair of Great Pyrenees, she vows to hunt down the killer before she’s forced to officiate another funeral. Soon, however, Cici discovers her sister was on the trail of a deep-rooted criminal operation… and her death was no random act of violence.
Now that the criminals are out for Cici’s blood, the pastor must catch the wolf by the tail before it goes in for the kill.
A Pilgrimage to Death is a high-octane mystery thriller. If you like motorcycling sleuths, fast-paced action, and a dash of humor, then you’ll love Alexa Padgett’s edge-of-your-seat novel.
Cecilia Gurule was a reverend for God’s sake. She dealt in souls—the broken, empty, seeking, and, yes, the dead.Bodies? Not her wheelhouse.At least they weren’t until that Tuesday afternoon when Domine Deus
decided to test both her faith and her life.
She came within a bullet of losing both.
Cecilia, who much preferred Cici, met Sam in the parking lot of the Aspen Vista Trail. She was late. Not really her fault, but typical, thanks to her parishioners’ unwillingness to accept Tuesdays as her one day per week away from the church.
Wide and rocky, the trail snaked over eleven miles up the side of the mountain following an old forest service road. While the incline was never scramble steep, it rose at a consistent pace, switching back with views toward the city or up to the ski basin. A few narrow runnels of water—not big enough to be considered creeks—dribbled from the remaining snowpack.
Cici suggested it last week because both she and Sam had the weekday off, meaning fewer hikers on the bottom part of the trail, and they could spend the three-plus hours needed to reach the summit.
Unfortunately, Cici suggested the trail before she made plans to breakfast with the widowed Mrs. Sanchez, whose son worked out at the state penitentiary on NM-14.
“I don’t understand these kids.” Mrs. Sanchez wiped her mouth with her napkin, leaving a smear of bright red on the paper. Her lips were the same light bronze as her craggy skin, hints of the crimson lipstick settled into the faint lines bisecting her lower lip.
“Juanito has one more year at that fancy private school. He has a pretty girlfriend. Yet he cannot be happy? He causes his father such heartache, Reverend.” She picked up her coffee mug and shoved it toward Cici. “You talk to the boy for his father. Set him straight.”
“I’ll do what I can, Mrs. Sanchez.”
“Humph.” The woman set her mug down with a crack, her dark, deep-set eyes glaring from between folds of skin. Without the bright lipstick, her mouth seemed hidden under the wrinkles.
“I’m old, Reverend. I cannot control the boy. His father, Miguel, spent most of the last year picking up extra shifts for the tuition at St. Michaels. Juanito needs to respect the rules we set for him.”
“Which are?” Cici asked.
Mrs. Sanchez tossed her napkin onto her plate with the half-finished breakfast burrito. Cici picked up her own warm tortilla and bit into the wrap, enjoying the spicy flavors of green chile and sausage. One thing about Mrs. Sanchez: she was a fine cook.
“No seeing that girl past ten p.m. Good grades—all A’s so that he’s ready to go to Tech in a year. That’s what he needs—a good education, more choices. Not this . . . this mess with girls.”
“He did receive all A’s last year, and it’s summer break now. Shouldn’t Juan have the chance to focus on his job or maybe even spend time with Jaycee?”
“No more time with the girlfriend,” Mrs. Sanchez said with a sharp motion of her hand. “That’s how I’ll end up a great-grandmother. The boy needs more school. He is not yet eighteen.” Her face crumpled. “He is the age we lost his brother, Marco, Reverend. You know this. Juan is all the family has left.”
“Who was it this time?” Sam Chastain, Cici’s friend and hiking partner, asked. He pulled on a tattered ball cap—probably the one Cici’s twin sister, Anna Carmen, gave him years ago—and pulled on his backpack, settling it comfortably over his gray Red River T-shirt.
His short, dark ponytail stuck through the hole in the back like a bristle-brush. He slid on a pair of Ray-Bans to protect his gunmetal-blue eyes.
“Mrs. Sanchez. I got a great breakfast out of the deal.”
“She want you to have the talk with Juan?” Sam asked.
Sam was a detective with the Santa Fe Police department and fellow search-and-rescue teammate. The two had known each other for decades. Cici grabbed her water bottle and checked her sneakers.
“Got a hat?” Sam asked. “You know you’re going to burn if you don’t wear one.”
Sam studied her features, his gaze resting on her high cheekbones that always burned thanks to the pale skin Cici and her sister inherited from their mother, along with the oval shape of her face and the long-lashed hazel eyes.
“Yep,” Cici said, settling the cap on her head and pulling her long, jet-black pony tail through the hole in the back.
Sam offered her a radio, which she took, clipping it to her thick, brown leather belt.
“Why are we carrying these?”
Sam shrugged. “Boss man wants everyone on the trails wearing ’em. Maybe because of the helicopter extraction earlier this year?”
They started up the trail, moving in tandem as if they’d been hiking together for years.
“She’s recovered,” Cici said. “I called the woman who fell off Big Tesuque and talked to her. Her ankle’s out of the cast.”
“Lot of ruckus for a broken ankle and some bruises,” Sam replied.
“She slid four hundred feet into that ravine, Sam. Cut the woman some slack.”
“Stupid to hike alone, and you know it. We wouldn’t have had to waste so many resources on her if she’d been smarter.”
Cici did, but her job was to see others’ points of view, to help them grow, both in their humanity and spirituality. Refusing to get pulled further into an argument with Sam, she continued to hike.
They matched pace for a while in companionable silence. Cici began to feel . . . not sad. She hadn’t been happy since Anna Carmen’s death. But in this moment, with the sun shining and the aspens whispering overhead, Cici’s lips lifted at the corners.
The call came over the radio clipped to her belt. The same message squawked from Sam’s radio. He stopped, his chest expanding with each hard breath. They’d hiked the steepest part of the Aspen Trail. Sam wiped the sweat off his brow and pulled in a deep breath. He unlatched his walkie-talkie and pressed the button on the side.
“Repeat that, please.”
“Missing hiker. Wife called it in when she got off the mountain.”
“She left him out here by himself?” Cici asked, already wrinkling her nose in disgust. People continued to disappoint her.
Sam shook his head. “Not now, Cici. What’s the trail?”
“Aspen Vista,” the voice said over the bits of static.
“We’re on it. Name, age, any other stats?”
“I know.” The voice crackled but the exasperation was clear even through the bad connection. “Donald . . . fifty . . . complain . . . heart.”
“Uh oh,” Cici murmured.
“Last known whereabouts?” Sam asked.
“Why’d the wife leave him there?” Cici muttered. “If he was in distress when she left him, he might not have survived while she strolled down the mountain.”
“Later,” Sam replied. He pressed the “Talk” button. “We’re a quarter mile from that location. Cici and I will start the sweep.”
“Roger . . . full crew coming in.”
“Great. From what you said, we’ll probably need it. Over and out.” Sam clipped the thick black radio to his belt again. He turned back to look at Cici, who’d crossed her arms and scowled down into the valley below.
“None of that, Cee. Not all people are your parents.”
“No, shit, detective,” she grunted.
“Hey,” Sam said, bumping her shoulder with his in a gentle gesture she’d come to expect from him over the last few years.
While they’d spent time together before her twin’s death, Cici made a point to seek him out more often after Anna Carmen’s funeral—especially once she’d made the decision to quit as the associate reverend from the large, wealthy church outside Boston—and move back home. He’d reciprocated by always being available, even during the difficult transition when he left the promising position on a joint task force in Denver. He’d been so excited to participate in that work because only the best people from the region were chosen, and Sam was one of the youngest. But, after explaining the situation to his boss, Agent Klein helped Sam move back in the detective bureau in Santa Fe.
“Priests aren’t supposed to use that kind of language,” he said.
Cici bumped him back, harder. Five male cousins within three years of her own age taught her a few important details—like how to fight dirty. “I’m not a priest. And not just because of my reproductive organs. I’m a reverend.”
“With a predilection for curse words and a willingness to abuse your fellow man,” Sam said over his shoulder as he moved back into point position on the trail. He made a tsking sound. “C’mon, Rev. Let’s go rescue our guy. Maybe you’ll make the front page of the paper. Again.” He turned to wink, his lips lifting when Cici rolled his eyes.
“Ugh. One time, Sam.”
“That’s all it took for me to be able to tease you about it for the rest of your life.” He started to chuckle. “Whatever happened to the chicken?”
Cici glared while Sam struggled to keep a straight face.
“I don’t know.” She huffed. “Hopefully, it’s living a long, chicken-y life.”
She rolled her eyes again and began to climb; Sam fell into step to the left and a half-foot in front of her.
Sam’s foot shifted as loose slag slid out from under his thick-soled hiking boot. He slowed his pace, taking more care with where he stepped. No point in getting hurt on the way up—that would just make more work for the SAR crew already on its way.
“I can’t believe that little girl asked you to bless a chicken at the Pet Parade.”
“This is Santa Fe. Home of animal lovers and weirdness.”
Even though the sun beat down in thick, hot rays, Cici shivered. Something about this entire situation felt . . . well, off. She picked up the thread of their conversation to give herself something to do besides watch where she placed her feet and worry about what they’d find.
“Anyway, Yale wasn’t big on the cussing. Manhattan and Boston are where I picked up some choice words.”
“You were supposed to show those sinners how to rise above coarse language, sin, and all that shit.”
Cici shrugged. Not new ground here. She and Sam had bickered for years. That wasn’t saying much, really. She’d known most of the people in Santa Fe for years.
The aspen leaves rippled in the wind—a soft, fluttering roll of vegetation that sounded like a gentle, low tide—a strange phenomenon common here, high up in the Santa Fe National Forest where blue sky and slender white tree trunks seemed to merge. Typically, the sound soothed her.
Not now that she’d thought about her sister. The ache left by Anna Carmen’s death seemed to grow and weep, just as it always did when thoughts of her twin blindsided her.
Cici lifted her leg high to take her up to the next rock as sweat trickled down the middle of her back and her thighs began to ache with the deliciousness of hard use.
Cici cleared her head and organized her thoughts on these weekly hikes. Spending time outdoors with Sam became a weekly ritual more than six months ago. She looked forward to these hours-long jaunts because they helped her prepare a better sermon.
They turned the last sharp curve and Sam’s feet planted firmly into the path, blocking her view. He cursed—worse than her words. Cici’s heart hammered and the dread in her stomach shifted, heaving, as Cici edged around him.
“Wait, Cee. You don’t want to see this.”
Too late—and not as if she would have listened. Her throat tightened as she stared into the sightless eyes of Donald Johnson, one of the founding members of the church she’d taken over earlier this year.
A gust of wind slammed against her overheated skin and the soft rustling of the aspens built into the crash of waves. Or maybe it was her ears, thrumming with the rush of blood to her head.
She barely heard Sam call in their location.
Rigor mortis had already come and left his body before she and Sam found him, toppled off the large boulder, his stainless-steel canteen overturned and empty at his feet. The water stained the ground and his right hiking boot, making the leather darker, near black. Near as black as the blood on the rock and stuck to his Lobos T-shirt, trailing down onto his designer jeans.
Sam’s hand came down on her shoulder and she flinched, hard, but she didn’t look away from Donald. Two narrow gashes showed pink and a trickle of blood. His hands—large and hairy—nicked from the blade. A longer, deeper gash split open the meaty part of his hand almost as if he’d grappled with the blade.
But Cici focused on the large wolf logo. The UNM mascot seemed to have opened its mouth right above a wound in his back, ready to devour him.
Or maybe Cici, with memories of another murder. That wound . . .
With a degree in international marketing and a varied career path that includes content management for a web firm, marketing direction for a high-profile sports agency, and a two-year stint with a renowned literary agency, award-winning author Alexa Padgett has returned to her first love: writing fiction.
Alexa spent a good part of her youth traveling. From Budapest to Belize, Calgary to Coober Pedy, she soaked in the myriad smells, sounds, and feels of these gorgeous places, wishing she could live in them all—at least for a while. And she does in her books.
She lives in New Mexico with her husband, children, and Great Pyrenees pup, Ash. When not writing, schlepping, or volunteering, she can be found in her tiny kitchen, channeling her inner Barefoot Contessa.