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When Rachel discovers the decaying skeleton of a reclusive landowner and her home and office are bombed, her instincts tell her that the missing tortoises are at the center of all the mayhem. And as the deception, dirty dealing and fatal secrets escalate, Rachel finds herself deep in desert danger--from critters two-legged and otherwise!
It was the glare that first caught my eye. Sun glinted off metal, creating a flare of light that spread out over the scorched desert like liquid fire. From a distance, the object looked like a large metal roach. It was only as I approached closer that the insect metamorphosed into a black pickup truck.
I'd been based in Nevada for three long, hot months now and had heard stories about vehicles breaking down, their occupants foolishly stranded without any water.
"First your brain begins to boil and then your skin shrivels and cracks open so that the fluid in your body oozes out. Great for mummies. Lousy for your complexion, Rach." Terri, my designated best friend from New Orleans, where I'd previously been based, had tried relentlessly to prevent me from moving out west.
"After that you become delirious, taking off your clothes and ripping out your hair while crawling toward an imaginary six-foot-tall pina colada," he had continued, handing me an icy cold drink complete with a blue paper parasol floating on top.
Images of pina coladas danced in my head as I veered towards the lone pickup. The brain-curdling heat was enough to make me give serious thought to shedding my clothes; modesty be damned. What prevented me was those ten mysterious pounds that refused to go away, along with the fact that I tend to resemble a boiled lobster when I'm out in the sun for too long. I'd taken to wearing my mop of strawberry-blond curls twisted on top of my head rather than cut what I stubbornly considered to be my unofficial badge of youth. As for my complexion, Terri would have been apoplectic. His three cardinal rules werecleanse, exfoliate, and moisturize. My car got a better lube job than my face did, which was beginning to resemble the desert after a year-long drought.
I think the heat is best summed up by a local joke about a new arrival in Hell, who views its flames with trepidation. "But it's a dry heat," the devil responds.
A sandpaper-like wind blew through the open car window, rasping against my skin. Reaching into the cooler on the seat next to me, I pulled out a handkerchief as frigid as a winter day in New York and laid it against my neck, relishing the momentary rush of goose bumps. At one hundred ten degrees, it was another scorcher of a day in this blast furnace more commonly referred to as the Mojave, the Sahara of the West. The temperature hadn't dipped below one hundred degrees all week.
My prime objective had been to imagine myself encased in a giant ice cube-no easy task, considering that the pitiful air conditioner in my old Chevy Blazer was on the fritz. Even when it had been working full blast, the car was like a poor man's steam bath. So I couldn't imagine why anyone would be parked of their own free will in the middle of the Nevada desert.
I turned off the blacktop onto a dirt road, past leafy creosote bushes and an array of yucca cactus, their stems as long and sharp as a battlefield of upright bayonets in a land that takes no prisoners. I had heard that it wasn't uncommon to trip across bodies buried in the desert-so I came dangerously close to swerving off the dirt road as a figure rose up through hazy waves of heat like an unearthly specter. The form, resembling a demon levitating off the desert floor, slowly transformed itself into a tall, slim woman with a mane of jet-black hair. Looking just once in my direction, she sprinted over to the pickup and revved the engine. The tires spun giddily in place and the motor wailed to be set free. Finally finding the necessary traction, the pickup careened out, kicking up a line of dust devils in its wake.
I had no illusions about my popularity in these parts. To the local macho cowboys, who hate the government and anyone who works for it, a visit from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent is about as eagerly anticipated as a case of the clap. But the fact that she had taken off without so much as the usual obscene gesture set my suspicions on edge.
I peeled out after the pickup.
My foot pressed down hard on the pedal as I edged closer to the vehicle's rear end. If nothing else, I'd at least get the license plate number. But my desert apparition apparently wasn't overly fond of the DMV either. There was nothing to see but two catchy bumper stickers, America's version of the haiku.
I flashed my lights and beeped the horn. In return, a tapered hand snaked its way out the driver-side window, the middle finger raised in a salute. She seemed intent on leaving me behind, eating her dirt. I hit a patch of soft ground and the back end of the Blazer fishtailed like a hula dancer out of control. The pickup raced ahead screaming in glee.
I've never been one to take competition lightly-be it in aerobics class, faced with a thonged twenty-something version of the Energizer Bunny, or in a showdown against taxis in the streets of New York. I had no intention of losing a game of desert tag. Straightening the Blazer, I took off once again, my blood pounding along with the whirring of wheels as I watched the speedometer climb.
The Mojave whipped by like a video on fast forward. A field of razor-sharp cactus sprang into view and I dodged the obstacle, feeling ready to take on the Autobahm, when the fugitive pickup suddenly spun out of control, twirling in a dizzying one-eighty. When it finally came to a halt, we sat hood to hood, clenched in a power truck showdown. But before I could react, the woman sent her vehicle speeding backward across the desert floor, like a cartoon thrown in reverse.