DEAD IN THE DESERT
Unlike Dead in L.A., this book consists of only one story, but it's longer. The narrative picks up a few months after the last one left off. It's summer and the sun is beating down on the southern California landscape. Jon and Leander have to brave the sweltering heat in their search of bodies and missing people in the desert--high and low.
I plan to write at least one more book possibly more. I suspect the next one will be a little darker. I feel these characters with their slow-burning romance fit for a series, but only time will tell.
Lipkin pulled up behind us. He wasn't alone—a woman climbed out of the passenger side. They made an interesting pair—a bulldog-faced white guy well into his forties and an attractive Latina at least a decade younger. She wore her curly, dark hair short, and her face serious, bordering on sour.
"My partner, Detective Cruz," Lipkin introduced her.
She greeted us with tight-lipped civility. I had an impression searching for dead bodies in the middle of nowhere with a psychic was not her idea of either detective work or a fun way to spend a Saturday. I understood the sentiment, but I wasn't happy to see her either. What the hell was Lipkin thinking? Was he gonna bring along the whole damn department next time?
Naturally, none of that ruffled Andy. He jammed a wide-brimmed straw hat on his head. "Do you have the…thing?" he asked Lipkin, after introductions.
The detective nodded and fetched a brown paper bag out of his car. From it he pulled out a gold watch, the kind nobody wore just to know the time. Too thick and heavy for anything but showing off.
Andy took the watch and just held it, eyes closed and head bowed, for several long seconds. At last, he spun on his heels and started walking, straight out into the landscape. There was nothing but dirt, sagebrush, and the occasional Joshua tree, as far as the eye could see, except for the line of mountains far off in the distance.
I took my place at Andy's side. He didn't pay much attention to his surroundings when he got into the zone. He'd walk into a den of rattlesnakes without noticing it. So I stayed next to him and I kept my eyes on the ground. The coppers trailed behind. They were arguing under their breaths. I couldn't make out the words, but caught the irritated pitch of Detective Cruz's tone and the low rumble of Lipkin's.
We were about a hundred yards from the road when Andy's steps faltered and he started ambling left and right. He stopped and a frown of indecision took over his face. I expected him to take his shoes off, like he had in a similar situation before, but instead he sat on the ground. After taking his hat off he lay back. The earth here was coarse: rocky sand, baked hard by the sun, but he paid no mind. He closed his eyes and pressed his fingers onto the dirt.
For minutes nothing happened. I positioned myself to cast a shadow over Andy's face. Lipkin had seen Andy at work before, so he waited stoically, but Cruz kept fidgeting and giving Lipkin the hairy eyeball. Once she opened her lips to say something but Lipkin gave her a look and she closed them again. She scowled at him something fierce but not a peep escaped her lips. We were all sweating like horses but we kept waiting.
At long last Andy opened his eyes and pushed himself into a sitting position. I saw right away he'd gotten wobbly so I helped him up. He leaned on me for a moment, before tottering away another twenty feet. The rest of us followed. He stopped and kicked the ground. "Right here."
I took off my backpack and first took out a bottle of water. Andy gratefully took it. Next I pulled out a camping shovel, unfolded it and handed it to Lipkin. He pulled a face but began to dig while the rest of us watched.
Andy downed half his water in one go. "Lots of bones in the ground," he said.
Cruz snickered. "In the middle of nowhere halfway between Vegas and L.A.? You don't say." Her expression said she wasn't about to be bamboozled by a couple of shysters.
I ignored her and patted the dirt off Andy's back. He kept chugging his water, and Lipkin kept digging.
"Hey, there's something here." Lipkin stopped and dropped onto his knees.
To her credit, Cruz immediately crouched next to him, and the two of them used their hands to carefully clear away enough soil to make sure the blue piece of fabric was attached to an actual body.
She straightened up, glared at the ground, at us, and finally at her partner. Her eyes narrowed. "Damn you, Gary!"
Lipkin stood too, the shovel dangling in his hand. "What did I do?" Traces of a smug smile showed on his usually inexpressive face. I got an inkling they had a habit of ribbing each other, like people working close together often did.
Cruz put her hands on her hips. "You crazy cracker. You must be the only cop ever to know a bona fide psychic to find a goddamn dead body in the middle of goddamn nowhere."
Lipkin's lips twitched. I thought he might have been smiling. "I love you too, Cruz."
"There goes our weekend." She sighed and cast her eyes around, taking in the vast, scorching nothingness.
She turned toward us. "So, kid, can you tell us how he died?"
"Violently, I assume, or you wouldn't be looking for him. Am I right?"
"Don't be a smartass, kid," she said in her cop tone.
"The name is Leander, but you can call me Mr. Thorne, Detective. And your guy has a bullet in his skull. That might have something to do with the cause of death, but it's not my area of expertise." He smiled sweetly and innocently but didn't fool anyone, least of all Detective Cruz, who glowered at him for a few seconds.
In the end she shook her head and turned to Lipkin. "We might as well call this in."
"Oh, you can have this back." Andy handed her the gold watch, which she took with resignation. Unfortunately for her, Andy had more bad news. "There's another one, over there, left of that Joshua tree. Body, I mean." He pointed toward the direction of the mountains. "It's been there longer though. Years."
Lipkin was instantly alert, like a dog spotting a squirrel. "How old?"
"Not sure. It's only bones. Not like him." Andy cast his eyes at the patch of human visible in the dirt.
Cruz narrowed her eyes. "No fucking way. We could be digging from here to Vegas and find a dozen bodies." She fixed Lipkin in her sights. "It could be any old gangster from God knows when."
"It's a child," Andy said.
She turned back and scrutinized Andy's expression. A moment later she snatched the shovel from Lipkin and marched off to the tree. "Here?"
Andy nodded. "Yup, right there. A couple of feet down."
I zipped up the backpack and hoisted it on my shoulders. I also picked up the straw hat and shoved it back on Andy's head. "Nice job. Now let's get out of here before we bake. You're already half-done."
"Where do you think you're going?" Lipkin barked.
"Back to L.A. We're done here. This is all police work now; you don't need us. Oh, you can return the shovel later. Happy digging!"
He gave me a dirty look, which filled me with glee.
Andy leaned into me as we made our way back to the road. "You all right?" I asked.
"Tired, but it'll pass. I don't envy them. They'll have a long weekend." He tipped his head in the general direction of the detectives.
"They dug their own beds, now they can sleep in them."
He chuckled. "The king of mixed metaphors strikes again. You know Gary's not a bad guy. Why are you always so aggro on him?"
"He's bossy, keeps dragging you into his old murder cases. What's not to dislike? You almost got yourself killed last time."
"First of all, my life wasn't really in danger…" He ignored my derisive snort. "Secondly, that had nothing to do with Gary."
He had me there, but it wouldn't have done to admit it. "Exactly. You have plenty of talent getting yourself into trouble without his help. Is he even paying you?"
Andy's silence was an answer enough.
"Oh great," I grumbled on. "You're giving him a freebie. Very generous of you."
He wound his arm around my waist. "You're an old grouch, but I love you anyway."
Now, that shut me up.
© Lou Harper, August 2013
All Rights Reserved.