|Publisher:||Brash Books Llc|
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I got home at dusk and saw the shoe box on the steps of my Airstream. It wasn't there when I left. The hackles went up on my neck. I didn't even know I had hackles, but there they were. My trailer park sits on empty desert with nothing but jackrabbits and saguaros for miles around. Nobody lands at Double Wide by accident, unless they're lost or on the run.
The box was a message.
Opal Sanchez hustled up to the driver's window and gripped my forearm with two iron hands. "I've been waiting for you, Mr. Whip," she said. "You're late coming home."
Opal had been my tenant for six months. She showed up on foot, walked straight off the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation. She wouldn't tell me why she was hoofing through the desert alone, anything about her family, or what went wrong at her village. All I knew was that she was seventeen and needed a place.
"What do you mean late? I just went to town for groceries."
She studied the dangerous sky. Hanging black clouds took the tops off the mountains, and a wind had kicked up. Monsoon. That was good news. It had been the hottest day of the summer so far, and a storm would cool things down.
Opal said, "It's going to rain. Hard, hard. It suu-ure is."
"Don't you know better than to stand outside in a storm? Is something wrong?" Her face looked like the devil had just paid a visit. Her eyes shifted to the box, back to me, and then to the box again.
I said, "Yeah, I'm getting the same vibe," and sat there thinking things over.
The feeling hit that if I knew what was good for me, I'd throw the Bronco into reverse and gun it, leaving Double Wide forever. But lousy decisions had become my trademark. I had to be coming up on the record, and it seemed a shame to stop.
"Tell you what," I said. "I'm going to go eat and not worry about whatever's in that box. Pretend it isn't there. If I don't open it, it can sit there forever, right? Does that work for you?"
Opal nodded, mouth hanging open, eyes bulging.
Supper was leftover steak and refried beans with a bottle of Tecate. I took my time eating and tried not to think about the box. You can guess how that worked out. Every few minutes I got up and peered out the door.
The rain had started, fat drops angling down, popping onto rooftops. Opal was still standing out there. I hollered for her to get inside, but I don't think she heard me over the swirling wind.
Maybe that wind would carry the box off to hell, and I could get on with my life.
The storm roared like a monster. It whipped trailer doors open and shut, rattled the railings on my corral, and generally made it sound like the end of the world had arrived.
With my lights blinking on and off, I sat at the kitchen table sipping my beer. I made a game of it. In the darkness, a sip, and in the light, the bottle went back to the table.
Waiting, waiting. Then the lights flipped off again, and I stole another sip.
They say people don't know how to have fun anymore.
A desert monsoon changes everything. That far-off time before the clouds gathered, all of an hour before, is gone, washed away like a bad memory. Your troubles from the fire of midday have been cleared from the register, and in the liberating cool of the evening, life is completely different.
Your second chance has arrived. That's the West for you, the home of second chances.
When the lights came back on for good, I walked outside breathing in as much of that glorious wet air as my lungs could hold. The box was still there, and I'd grown curious.
What could be heavy enough to hold it down against the wind?
See what I mean about mistakes?
A rock kept the lid in place. I tossed it away. Bundle, one of my black Labs, peered out from underneath Opal's trailer, turned his face to the sky, and howled. Opal stood behind me, hair matted from the rain, clothes soaked, a specter in the post-storm light.
The object inside was wrinkled and beginning to darken with decay, from canvas colored to blood purple. My first thought was a fish, but we don't get many of those in the desert, and fish don't have fingers.
A glove? That was more hope than reality. I stared a moment longer to confirm that I was looking at a human hand.
That wasn't the worst of it. I recognized the former owner, if that's the correct term. Letters on the back of each of the four fingers of the right hand, between the second and third knuckles, spelled out M-A-R-Y. Between the thumb and forefinger was a small, sharply drawn tattoo of the Blessed Virgin's face.
Years before, at the ridiculous age of seventeen, I signed a contract to play professional baseball. I could throw a BB through a keyhole at a hundred yards. My catcher was Rolando Molina. We worked together beautifully, became close friends.
I last saw Rolando two years ago at the front door of a rehab center in Malibu. Two smiling brutes in lab coats escorted him inside to begin treatment for a serious cocaine problem.
I looked down at his rotting hand, thinking, I don't want the trouble that's coming. I don't want to go back out into the world. I want to stay at Double Wide with my dogs, my tenants who don't pay, and my bygone dreams.
But if you live by the known rules of life, the right and wrong of things, some decisions are made for you. Cutting off my friend's hand and stuffing it into a shoe box was all the way wrong. I had to find out what happened to Rolando Molina.
I slipped the hand into a clear plastic bag and put it into my storage freezer behind the Airstream. My hands shook so hard I could barely hold it. I covered the freezer lid in a heavy canvas and went back around to the front.
Opal was sitting behind the wheel of the Bronco. I got in on the shotgun side and asked if she knew what was in the box. She stared straight ahead. I took that as a yes.
She said, "Are you gonna call the cops? I sure wouldn't."
That made me suspicious. "Is there something you want to tell me?"
"Course not." Pause. "Well, okay. There might be some people looking for me, is all."
"From the Rez. Busybodies that go peeking around, finding out what everybody's doing."
"Sounds like cops."
"No, duh. Who do you think it is?"
"I'm not even going to ask. Jesus."
Opal held her hand out for me to drop the keys into it, which I did. "Want to tell me where we're going?"
She pointed out the windshield. Paradise Mountain loomed two miles south, an indistinct darkness against the sky. At the peak sat a town that grew up around a gold mine that hadn't been worked since the late 1800s. The old buildings stood empty, but drug smugglers used them as a pass-through point and rest stop. Their route led off the mountain and through the wash right behind the Airstream.
Sometimes at night I could hear them down there talking things over. I kept a nine- millimeter Glock under my mattress in case they came out looking for a cup of coffee. The gun gave me options. Without it, all I could do was ask if they took cream.
Opal flipped on the high beams. "Check it out." She motioned to the dirt in front of the Bronco. "That loose ground holds on to tracks real good."
I got out and looked. The rain had washed the ground clean except for two curving ruts, probably where a vehicle had turned around and sped away toward the mountain.
Back in the Bronco, I said, "Deep tread and diamond grooves. I'm not much of a detective, but I'd say those tracks were made by a heavy truck. Had to be four-wheel drive. Nobody's going to tackle that mountain in a Ford Focus."
"A big red truck. Maybe an F-350."
"Let me take a stab at this. You were watching from your window, and somebody drove off the mountain, left the shoebox on my stoop, pulled a U-ey, and hauled ass back up there. And we're going to chase him. We're like a posse. Like those guys riding after Butch and Sundance."
She glanced over at me, confused. Opal had perfect, caramel skin, a jutting mouth, a wide flat nose, and brown eyes that hid nothing. Her body was round, and there was plenty of it. Her black hair was parted in the middle and flowed off her shoulders and all the way down her back. Straight, not a curl in it. The rain had left it gleaming.
I said, "You don't know Butch and Sundance?"
"Sure, I do. I seen them on YouTube. They do karaoke, right?"
"I can't see anything going wrong here. Really, I think we're good. Hold on a minute."
I ran inside and grabbed the Glock. Opal started the engine and revved it. At the familiar sound, Bundle came running and jumped into the back.
"Better hold on tight," Opal said.
She mashed the accelerator and banged across the open desert like somebody was chasing us. I reached up to grip the roll bar. Opal looked through the space between the wheel and the horn, her tongue showing between her lips.
The road was more of a two track. She could've stayed far to the right, keeping the wheels on the grassy hump between the ruts. But she made sure to drive into every cavernous puddle, spraying water far from our doors. We could only see to the end of the headlights, a tunnel-like stretch of sand, rock, and creosote bush cutting through the darkness.
As the road climbed, the jostling worsened. Opal tried putting the Bronco into four-wheel drive, but it kept dropping out of gear. Frustrated, she jammed the brakes and got out, leaving the motor running and the headlights on.
The rain had become a light drizzle. I grabbed my flashlight from the glove and flipped the dashboard switch on the four 120- watt day-lighter lamps rigged to the roll bar.
Opal walked ahead. When she reached the end of the beams, she stopped on her toes and windmilled her arms as if on a high cliff, and one more step would send her over the edge.
She spun and hoofed back to me. She had that ghostly face again. "You shouldn't go up there. Nope, nope. Better stay away."
"What's up there?"
"The breath of the Gila monster will set you on fire!"
"Knock off the crazy talk."
"That's serious business, Mr. Whip! Don't you do it!"
"Just wait here. I'll be right back."
I picked up the tire tracks again, and they matched, the same diamond tread. I whistled for Bundle. Doing his best warrior imitation, he darted into the darkness ahead, and I followed.
We hadn't gone a hundred yards past the headlights when he started barking. It began like normal backyard yapping and quickly accelerated, becoming the continuous, jaw-snapping growl of a frightened animal.
Running to the commotion, I lost my footing on the slick ground and pitched into a depression. My jaw smacked against something hard that wasn't the ground. The blow obliterated a few seconds of time, and when I returned to full consciousness, Bundle was jumping in circles and making the racket of a dozen mad hounds.
Trying to get up, I planted my palms on the chest of a dead man.
Rolando. I've found Rolando.
I'd seen bodies before, but none had ever looked deader. In the beam of my flashlight, the eyes were like a doll's, wide open, fixed, and big as hubcaps. The color had left them. There was nothing real about those eyes, no sense they'd ever seen anything at all. They were bottomless holes in a bloodless cardboard face.
I stared, waiting for my mind to kick in and confirm, yes, this is my old friend.
Can't you tell? It's Rolando. Look closely.
Nothing came to me.
His hands! See if he has hands!
His left arm lay exposed at my feet, the hand in place. The right arm was trapped beneath his body. I bent over the corpse, dug my shoes into the ground, and pushed the body up far enough to lean my shoulder against it.
It was hard work, like trying to roll a dead horse. My breath came and went fast, mixed with spit and fear.
Holding him in place, I pulled his right arm free and held it in the air like a corner man celebrating with his boxer. With sweat and drizzle blurring my vision, I had to hold it right in front of my eyes to see it clearly.
The hand was there, attached to the arm.
The dead man was shirtless and looked athletic. His upper body and arms were well muscled. His head was nothing but skin all the way around, the hair razored off. He had a black beard of a few days' growth, and his mouth was a tight grimace along porcelain lips. Mexican, maybe late twenties. I fished through his pockets for identification and found nothing.
I saw no obvious sign of trauma on his chest or stomach. But blood had pooled in the dirt under his head, a small circle black in the darkness. I gritted my teeth, raised his head, and felt around. The tips of my fingers found two small holes behind his left ear.
The double tap is a cartel signature.
Something else about the dead man caught my attention.
His jeans were unbuckled and his belt gone. If the killer had stolen it, that said a lot. Not only was he able to kill up close, but after doing the deed, he had the stomach to wrestle the corpse for an article of clothing.
Opal was waiting in the passenger seat when I got back to the Bronco. I told her about falling — but not what I'd landed on — and started driving back to Double Wide.
I said, "Okay, we've got a red truck, possibly an F-350, right?"
"That's it." Opal sat with her legs folded underneath her. Her back was erect and her chin raised, an attitude that, seen in tight profile, might've appeared to project pride. But she was trying to see over the dash.
I said, "The guy that left the box, describe him."
"Full moon. What's that mean?"
"His head. It looked like the full moon."
"That's all you can give me?"
"How about you describe him? You seen him yourself, all dead up there."
"How'd you know that? And don't give me any more business about giant lizards."
"I got ears."
"Shot three times, right?"
"Twice. But nice try." Opal grinned, enjoying her little victory. "If the wind's right, you can hear a long way out here." She had a typical teenager's voice, cool, sweet, singsong, and loaded with drama when she needed it. She grew up speaking Tohono O'odham and you could hear its echo in the way she pronounced each word separately, a staggered sound with hard stops at the ends.
I asked if the driver was alone. She said there was something black next to him, maybe a passenger, maybe a jacket on the hook between the seats.
"If it was a man, he was teeny tiny," she said.
"Look, I'm keeping the hand. We're not saying anything to the cops about the hand."
"You don't need cops. I keep telling you."
"I can't leave that guy lying dead on the mountain."
"Ever heard of coyotes, Mr. Whip? Like, excuse me? Two days and he never existed."
"I've got enough trouble sleeping."
"You're such a saintly guy, a saint of the church. Like, seriously."
"That's me. A saint with a severed hand in his freezer. Remember, nothing about the hand. A strange truck came through, and we followed it up the mountain. That's it."
"Easy peasy." Opal flipped her wrist like it was a cinch. "I lie to white people all the time."
We bumped along the trail. The Bronco had no roof. It blew off a while back, and I hadn't gotten around to replacing it. My jaw felt like a block of granite that someone pounded with a jack-hammer every five seconds.
Double Wide sat in dim light at the bottom of the mountain. There wasn't much to the place, seven trailers along both sides of a dirt road lined with white-painted rocks. Those rocks had been my first community-improvement project.
After that I dug a hole outside the Airstream and installed a forty-foot flagpole with the American flag at the top. Cashmere Miller, one of my tenants, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, put up his own pole flying the marine corps flag.
I have a windmill to pump water, a corral with no horses, and out on the county road, next to the steer skulls hanging on the barbwire fence, I stood up a cardboard sign painted in red: Welcome to Double Wide, Arizona, Population Six.
As I pulled up outside the Airstream, I had my cell stuck to my ear talking to the 911 dispatcher. The sheriff would need forty minutes to drive over the mountain. I went inside, and Opal came with me.
My other black Lab, Chico, was lying on his side under my kitchen table. He didn't get up when he saw me but gave the floor a good hammering with his tail.
I filled his food bowl. He rolled upright and ate with the bowl between his paws, the tail sweeping the floor as he chewed. Without asking, Opal handed me a glass of milk, and I stepped outside again and sat at my midnight table to do some thinking.
What were you into, Rolando? Last I heard, the rehab had worked, and you were living happily in Mexico. How'd you wind up dismembered in a part of the world owned by drug smugglers?
Excerpted from "Double Wide"
Copyright © 2017 Leo W. Banks.
Excerpted by permission of Brash Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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