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Penitent: A Sylvia Wilcox Mystery

Penitent: A Sylvia Wilcox Mystery

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The past is never truly dead, but Sylvia Wilcox is working to move forward in life. She’s taken a leave of absence from her private investigation agency—leaving her return date up in the air. She is working to construct a new life when a late-night phone call interrupts her hiatus.
Years have passed since Sylvia Wilcox mentioned a missing person case to Detective Chris Ruiz, but when he's placed in charge of a newly formed cold case task force, the story echoes in his head. The case file is thin with little evidence or notes to guide the investigation, but a dangerous trek into Wyoming's backcountry, reveals shocking evidence of a violent demise. 

Main Tropes

murder mystery, missing persons, private detective


When a missing person case turns into a cold case mystery, Sylvia must once again face the fact that the past is never dead.

Intro In Chapter One

Chapter One

Please don’t go back up there.

Chris Ruiz’s wife’s voice echoed in his head as he desperately searched for something solid to hold on to. He was scrambling along a narrow ledge that towered 10,000 feet above a lush valley. He’d only looked down once—a decision he now regretted. Loose shale rock slid down the side of the mountain as Chris grabbed hold of the side of a boulder and pulled himself up, and located another rock large enough to serve as a step. You’ll either make it, or you won’t. It was a line Chris had found soothing during his fifteen year career in law enforcement. Whenever he was in danger, he’d think, You’ll either make it, or you won’t. The somber thought ironically calmed his nerves and gave him the strength and courage to push through. After all, if he didn’t make it, he’d only be aware of his failure for a few moments. If he fell off the side of the mountain, the fall would be fatal. He imagined that on his way down, as he hurtled through time and space, he’d hear his wife’s voice again. Only this time, she’d be saying, I told you not to go back up there.

It was an unseasonably warm day in early spring atop the Wind River Range. The trails were empty and would remain so for the next few months. April wasn’t a good time to head out to high elevation because of the unpredictability of the weather, but Ruiz had learned from his father that spring was the best time to go if you wanted solitude—which was what he desired.  One minute sunshine was warming your face, and the next, a blanket of snow would cover the mountain in a matter of minutes. With this in mind, Sergeant Christopher Ruiz was doing his best to examine the area one more time before accepting that Father Jim was not in the mountains. He’d gone through all the cabins — which were full of graffiti and trash from vagrants—and searched the nearby ravines. Snow melt would have taken the bones down to the bottom of the mountain, so Ruiz walked the wash and checked the caves in the area. 

The priest, who was servicing parishioners in three small parishes in the area, had said, “By all means, go and search, but I can’t be there with you. I’ll be driving to Riverton that day in the morning and won’t be back until the evening. But Bishop Lancaster has granted you permission to check the area. You won’t be going by yourself, will you? I haven’t been up there, but I’ve heard that it’s pretty dangerous.”

“I will try to get some colleagues to travel with me, Father,” Ruiz lied.

“Good. We want Fr. Jim found and returned to his family, but nothing is worth your life. So please promise me you won’t go there by yourself.”

Ruiz felt a thin line of sweat form on the back of his neck. He hated lying to anyone, especially a man of the cloth, but there was no way anyone was going to entertain his baffling idea. 

“Father, if you could just pray for me, I’d really appreciate it.”

“Yes, of course. I’ll pray for you and your companions. What are their names?”

“Sylvia Wilcox will be accompanying me,” Ruiz said. He’d been surprised, and since Sylvia Wilcox was the person who’d sparked the hunt for Father Jim, her name was on the tip of his tongue.

“Only one? This Sylvia, is she also a detective?”

Ruiz hesitated. “Yes, she is a detective of sorts.”

The priest gave Ruiz a skeptical look, but his tired eyes indicated he was stretched too thin to lecture Ruiz on honesty.

“Very well. Christopher Ruiz and Sylvia Wilcox. Be safe, son,” the priest said as Ruiz left the rectory.

Ruiz hadn’t been sure he was in good enough shape to do this hike, but he had to try. The Wind River Range had been his playground when he was a teenager, but after several years in the southern part of the state, Ruiz knew he’d lost a step or two. He was determined to give it a try. If the craggy peaks prove to be insurmountable, I’ll turn back, Chris had told himself as he headed to the cliff, but now he had to keep going. He was at the point of no return. It would have been smart to take someone else with him, but for now, he wanted to work the hunch on his own.

This—the third time on the mountain—Chris was confident he would find what he was looking for. His father, a former sheepherder, had told him about a place tucked away at the top of one of the least picturesque scenes in the range. 

“Most people skip it. They don’t think nature on its own is beautiful, but that’s a mistake,” his father told him. 

“We would always go because it was peaceful there. There’s a small makeshift cross near a cave. The Jesuits that were here about twenty years before I arrived had hiked an ancient pilgrimage trail in Europe after the war. The history and beauty of the churches and crosses high up in the mountains, in brutal places, inspired them. They wanted to leave something like that behind in Wyoming, so they made a place of pilgrimage in an area people don’t travel often. You can scramble to it if you want a day hike, but the safer way is to split it into two days, especially in the springtime. It’s hard to get there, but not if you know the way. For some time there was a stream that gushed in the spring, with the snowmelt, but last I heard it was dry. Of the places to hike, it is not remarkable, but when you get there, it’s calm. That was why I liked going there.”

Chris had taken the shortcut. Snowfall from the previous winter rushed down the side of the mountain. Chris was soaked and shivering, saying a prayer in his head as he gathered his strength. Technically, he was on vacation. He felt guilty for working when he should be spending time with his family, but something about this case kept him up at night. As he ran his hand over the ledge above him, Chris said a silent prayer. Please let me be right about this. Finding a rock, grasping it with both hands, and pulling himself up, Chris felt his arms shake, noting that if they failed him, he’d tumble down the cliff face. His body would hit jagged rocks and possibly get banged into pieces before he made it to the bottom, where whatever was left of him would spatter against the valley floor. You’ve got one shot at this, he told himself before closing his eyes and concentrating. Focusing all his energy on his arms and forcing his body to the next level, using the side of the cliff as a stepping stone, and lifting himself up to a rocky ledge. Scrub brush and scatterings of burned tree trunks lined the cliff. The area had been partially scorched at some point, leaving the scenery opaque and uninviting. It wasn’t as picturesque as the surrounding mountains, so it would be a good place for a body to be hidden out of sight. 

The ground was hard and dry and filled with small rocks. Chris headed towards a bare patch of land, being led by the words of his father. There was a small stream that created a waterfall over the side of the mountain. He knew he was close. His father told him that the sheep would head to the area because there wasn’t a lot of water on the mountain. 

“I remember coming around the corner of the ledge, lifting myself up, and walking towards a small cave. There was a cross near the cave and if I wanted to make a statement about how much I hated religion, Catholicism in particular, but I also didn’t want to get caught, I’d go to that site. The message would be for the victim, not the world.”

“You’re assuming there is a message behind the disappearance?”

“A man calls and asks a priest to meet him for confession. The priest is never seen again. It’s definitely about religion.”

“Maybe,” Chris said.

“No. Definitely, son.”

Before the conversation with his father, Chris had been following other theories, but he’d learned that his father, who was both wise and a bit of mystic in Chris’s life, should never be ignored. 

“The thing that happened first is the thing that matters most.” His father said. Initially, Chris didn’t know what he meant, but now that he was standing on the ledge, he knew exactly what it meant.

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