A woman answers a terrified cry for help…
A husband betrays his wife one last time…
The owner of an isolated hotel harbors a dangerous obsession…
A man succumbs to a fatal attraction…
They are four strangers whose lives converge on a lonely stretch of Arizona desert…four strangers brought together by the brutal murder of a beautiful woman. Each of them has a secret. And all of them have a reason to be afraid.
Now, someone else is going to die. For in the desert, under the merciless sun, there is no place to hide.
On location in the Arizona desert for the film Jagged Impact, Caroline Arnet and Luther van Cleeve take time out for some fun with their all-terrain vehicles.
Her first sight of the Hotel Sonora, looming like a pale ghost beneath a swale of thunderclouds, struck a chord of foreboding in Alex Cafarelli, resonating darkly with the phone call she’d received earlier today. Up until now, she’d thought she had imagined the edge of fear in her childhood friend’s voice. I just need you here, that’s all.
Can’t you tell me what it’s about?
You promised. No matter where we were, what we were doing. The pact, remember? I’d do it for you.
It was the underlying truth of that last jibe more than anything else which propelled Alex down the two-lane highway toward the Mexican border, dogged by an impending thunderstorm.
She’d almost missed the turnoff. The last rays of the sun pried under the Jeep’s visor, stabbing her retinas and blotting out detail, but she managed to pick out the indistinct shapes of cholla by their haloes. The wicked cactus covered the desert floor, their furred lobes poking out like a nest of searching caterpillars from atop straight, hairy trunks. Alex loved the desert, but in that instant, she saw it with a different eye and wondered if even the greatest science fiction mind could come up with anything this alien.
The sign flashed by on the right, metal pocked with bullet holes. It said HOTEL SONORA 4 MILES in letters the color of faded blood. Alex slammed on the brakes and the Jeep died right there. A graded dirt road ran arrow-straight to dark mountains.
Judging from the print on the sign, the hotel must have been around since Tom Mix’s first shoot-’em-up. Alex spotted a cardboard box on the verge inscribed with the large block letters JAGGED IMPACT and an arrow pointing down the road. Jagged Impact was the name of Caroline’s film.
Alex heard Caroline’s voice again, one part strain and one part petulance: I wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important.
Can’t you at least tell me what to expect?
Not on the phone. There’s a crowd here.
Alex stared at the low mountains, called “sky islands” by biologists: higher altitude plant and animal life zones separated from other mountains by vast expanses of desert. At the foot of the hills crouched the Hotel Sonora, its windows reflecting back the sunset.
And that was when she was gripped by deja vu, sudden, dizzying in its intensity. She’d never been here before, had never driven this road. But looking at the white hotel, she was suffocated by something akin to grief, as though she’d lost someone—or something—important to her.
Well, she had. But this feeling was apart from the other, the melancholy that had become part of her life over the past few months. This was urgent, fresh. Looking at the hotel filled her with dread. Alex was struck by the absurd notion that if she turned around now and drove back to Tucson, she would avoid whatever seemed to be waiting for her at the end of this road.
A breeze had sprung up, worrying the edges of the Jeep’s windows. A crow, its rusty voice harsh in the stillness, rowed to a nearby fencepost and folded its wings. Everything—the Jeep’s stalling, the wind, the crow, the white hotel—seemed familiar.
She shifted into reverse, backed up, and turned onto the road. The cassette player, which had shorted out some time ago, suddenly filled the Jeep with the dusky, put-up-or-shut-up voice of Little Feat’s Shaun Murphy, singing an evocative little number about Santeria called “All That You Can Stand.” Black magic matched Alex’s mood; the song, like the crow and the hotel, seemed to have been played on a lost track somewhere in another, parallel universe.
But as Alex drove, the sense of unreality gradually faded. Now the trailers and semis of the movie crew materialized from beyond a bluff not far from the hotel. Relief replaced the strangeness of a moment ago. This was the place, all right. Soon, she would know the answers to all her questions.
The first drops of rain hit the windshield—unusual weather for late spring in the desert. The sun disappeared. Squinting beyond the windshield wipers, Alex followed the road as it twisted up into the foothills. Someone had planted a row of buckhorn cholla, bluish-gray agave, and saguaros along the verge. The lane curved one more time, and there it was, the Hotel Sonora, about a quarter mile ahead.
The hotel was an uneasy marriage of Santa Fe pueblo and California mission styles. The building that housed the main entrance was pueblo style, the wood window frames, porch supports, and doors painted chocolate brown. Two wings topped by rust-red Spanish tile roofs angled back from the entrance, giving Alex the impression they might conceal a hacienda-style courtyard.
A line of green neon followed the undulating roofline of the main building and glowed eerily in the stormy light. Beneath it, a row of wood vigas poked out of the stuccoed facade like the pegs in Frankenstein’s neck. The hotel rose up out of a cactus garden, and the mountains, the sky islands, loomed close.
The rain picked up, drumming on the Jeep’s hood. Alex parked in the closest space and ran for the door. A purple bug light shimmered in the rain, fastened to the lintel of the deep porch.
As Alex climbed up the timeworn brick steps to the portal, she heard the sizzle-spit as the light zapped some hapless bug.
Inside, she went directly to the check-in desk, taking in the decor with one sweep of her gaze. Hardwood floors, Navajo and Peruvian rugs scattered like islands, potted cactus, iron chandeliers, lodgepole pine vigas. The ancient ceiling fans moved slowly through the heavy air like boat oars. The man at the desk was Hispanic. Maybe it was the white suit, but he reminded her of Peter Lorre in Casablanca. He handed her the key to her room and told her that Ms. Arnet was still out on the shoot.
She reached for her plastic.
“Your room’s been taken care of.”
Of course. Caroline Arnet was one of three or four actresses in Hollywood who could guarantee box office. Why would she quibble over a hotel bill?
In her room, Alex paced the wooden floor, staring out the window at the darkness, unsettled by the rain. She’d busted her tail getting here, and now she had to wait.
Nick McCutcheon sensed the storm coming. He squatted on his heels beside the fire ring, studying the tire prints.
Four-wheel drive, judging from the road, which was little more than two tire-ruts washed out in places and impassible to a regular vehicle. The tracks fit Del’s description of a full-size Ford truck. There weren’t many footprints around here—the ground was rocky and what little dirt there was was thin—but judging from the fragments he’d seen, someone wore combat or hiking boots, waffled tread. It was hard to tell if this was the vehicle Del Walker had seen. Could just as easily have been off-roaders out here for a beer party, although they’d left it pretty neat if that were the case.
Lightning flickered on the horizon, bringing with it the smell of ozone. The wind whipped up, ruffling the deputy’s dark hair as he strode to the Ford Bronco with the Gilpin County sheriff’s decal on the door. He would stop by Delbert Walker’s place on the way back and tell him what he’d found, although he didn’t expect to be thanked. More often than not, Delbert would stand on his front stoop and yell his complaints at Nick across a junk-strewn yard while his dog hurled itself against its chain. The dog was a vicious brute which looked to Nick like a cross between a pit bull and a Norwegian elkhound—incredibly ugly, except for the oddly whimsical curl in its tail.
Delbert called the sheriff’s department at least twice a month to complain about trespassers on his property. The sheriff derived a perverse pleasure out of sending Nick, contending with a snicker that in a county this sparse, old Del was probably one-sixth of his constituency, and he needed the best man for the job. Nick accepted the sheriff’s intended slight without a word, dutifully driving out every time to take a report. Truthfully, he didn’t mind going. This close to the border, a trespasser could be anything from an illegal alien to a drug smuggler. Last summer, he had found two Guatemalans wandering on Del’s property, delirious from exposure to the Arizona sun and lack of water. They’d been abandoned by a coyote who had pocketed their money and left them to die. Another few hours and it would have been too late.
Their rescue had landed Sheriff Johnson coverage on the local and national news. The clip looked good in his reelection campaign television ad.
Nick was glad he’d brought his jacket and his broad-brimmed Smokey hat, which deflected the driving rain, because Del made him stand out on the front step and talk through the screen door.
“That’s it? A fire ring? What are we payin’ you people for?” demanded Walker.
“Whoever it was is gone now. There’s not much I can do.”
“That’s it—just take another one of your goddamned useless reports and forget about it. I’m a citizen of this country, and as such, I demand some respect. I already told you the military wants my land for maneuvers. There’s a little thing called Eminent Domain—you go look it up if you don’t believe me—and that’s how they’re gonna cheat me out of what’s mine. Ruby Ridge was the tip of the iceberg.”
Nick McCutcheon sighed. “Let’s go over it again. What exactly did you see?”
“I called you last week,” Walker grumbled. “Saw the same guy, but did you come out then? Hell no.”
“I’m here now and I’m getting soaked. How about letting me in?”
Reluctantly, Delbert Walker opened the screen door. “Stay on the mat. I don’t want you dripping on the floor.”
There was nothing so rewarding as public service.
As this was his first visit to Delbert’s sanctum sanctorum, Nick took a moment to look around. The room was lit by a single light bulb. The cupboards and counter were a surprising shade of dirty pink, and there were dishes and Pet Milk cans piled in the sink. Water from the stained ceiling plunked into six pans on the warped linoleum floor. A green Formica-topped kitchen table with metal legs was the centerpiece of the room; on it, a disassembled gun and a cleaning kit rested on a bed of newspapers. The Norwegian pit bull (for lack of a better term) lay curled on an oval braided rug which had assimilated the grunge of decades into its weave. The dog’s lips wrinkled up in a silent snarl. Briefly, Nick regretted not staying out in the rain. “Now,” he said, flipping back his pad in his best imitation of a bureaucrat, “what exactly did you see?”
“This time or last time?”
“I saw this soldier boy. He was parked near those damn towers—you know they can hear you when you use one of them things? They can hear every goddamned word you say, and if you don’t think the police state doesn’t use that information, they put it together with your credit history …”
Delbert looked at him as if he were an idiot. “The phone towers. I don’t know what you call ‘em—microwave towers, antennas for those bastard cellular phones. From when they was gonna build that boondoggle down here, the retirement community, you know, one of Charlie Keating’s S&L rip-offs. The government bailed ‘em out with taxpayer money …”
Nick let Delbert work himself up into a sputter until he stalled like a car on too rich a mixture. Calmly, Nick led him back to the subject. “He was over by the phone towers.”
“Those towers go right by my land. He was on my property,” the rancher said defiantly, “using the phone. And he was watching me, like he was suspicious. Suspicious of me, and it’s my property!”
“You saw him again today?”
“I wouldn’t’ve seen him except the fence is down near the border and I don’t want no more aliens comin’ through. They got lawyers now, you know.”
“That was this morning.”
“He was camping. Had to get through three gates to get out there. All of ’em marked clear as day, ‘No Trespassing.’”
Nick described the place he’d found.
“That sounds about right.”
“Can you describe him in detail?”
“Don’t you hear good? He’s in the military. The truck was tan-colored. Army’s my guess, and it had a camper shell on it. You know, it wasn’t the first time I saw him near them towers, but he wasn’t on my property those times, so I just minded my own business.”
“Caucasian? Black? Hispanic?”
“He was white. I’ll give him that.”
“Tall, thin, fat, short?”
“He was wearing a camouflage hat. You gonna do anything?” he added as Nick dosed his book.
“I’ll keep an eye out.”
For answer, Del spat into one of the pans on the floor.
Nick left under a barrage of abuse. To hear Walker tell it, he was personally responsible for big government, big brother, the BATF, and unwanted teenage pregnancies.
On his way back to the station, Nick tried to figure out what some guy in fatigues was doing way out here using a cellular phone, if that was in fact what he was doing. He doubted the man was a drug smuggler. Delbert might be paranoid, but he was right about cellular phones; they were easy to listen in on. Probably the guy was a hunter checking in with his wife. Or a coyote with a camper shell full of illegals, arranging for a rendezvous. Nick made a mental note to alert Border Patrol.
He pulled into the substation’s muddy lot just as the rain abated. His headlights washed over the tan single-wide trailer situated on the low bench of land overlooking the border town of Palo, Gilpin County’s equivalent of Siberia, seventy miles from department headquarters at the county seat in New Year.
He noticed that someone had uprooted the sign he’d put by the edge of the road. He got out and picked it up, shoved the post deep into the mud, and stood back to survey his handiwork: NICK McCUTCHEON FOR SHERIFF.
A Cottonwood tree marked the boundary of the sheriff’s office property. Nick had been careful to put his sign on the other side, on Bureau of Land Management land. He knew that Kyle Johnson was behind the sign removal, even though it was illegal. Johnson’s own signs (significantly larger) cluttered every roadside in the county.
Nick grinned. Some people might chafe at being consigned to a lonely outpost on the outskirts of a border town. But sometimes, the seventy-mile distance between Nick and Sheriff Kyle Johnson wasn’t nearly far enough.
After ringing Caroline’s room for the fifth time, Alex wandered down to the restaurant for dinner. She was served lukewarm shrimp scampi and a glass of red wine that could have rivaled battery acid for flavor. The waiter clearly sympathized with her single state, but not enough to seat her in one of the many empty booths near the windows. Instead, she was treated to the charming view of steaming pots and white aprons every time the kitchen door swung open. By the time she thought to speak up, the waiter had already brought the wine. He looked completely put out at the idea of moving her.
Alex pushed the issue, perhaps because she already felt like a fool for coming out here.
When Caroline calls, Alex comes running. It had been like that since fifth grade.
The familiar tightness in her stomach returned. All these years and the cruelty of her classmates still affected her.
She saw her torturers, lurking in the hallways, waiting by the school gates. They made fun of her father’s long beard and ponytail when he picked her up from school. Her clothes were new age. Her name—Rainbow—was hilarious.
Alex closed her eyes, her face hot. She remembered Ronda and Denise grabbing her in the PE shower. “Smelly hippie doesn’t even know to shave her legs! We’ll fix that!” And the next thing she knew, Ronda was holding her against the wall and Denise was shaving her legs, blood from a dozen nicks running into the drain. A crowd gathered. Miss Ball, the PE teacher, stood with her arms folded over her chest, a satisfied grin on her face.
In the corner of her eye, Alex saw Caroline Arnet, the most popular girl in school, step into the shower. Another tormentor.
Caroline plucked the razor from Denise’s hand. “Denise, you’re such a bitch. You’re just jealous because Rainbow’s been to Europe.”
“What does Europe have to do with it?” demanded Denise.
“If you’d ever been to Europe, you’d know they have a different standard of beauty there. In Italy, the women don’t shave their legs, andthey are gorgeous. Guys there think it’s sexy. As a matter of fact,” she added as she threw Alex a towel, “I think Rainbow’s a trendsetter. I’m not going to shave my legs either.” She held up the razor, a challenge in her gaze. First Denise, then Ronda looked away.
Caroline added, “Alex, you doing anything for lunch? Let’s go to Burger King—you can tell me all about your trip.”
Caroline didn’t shave her legs for the entire semester. And it was Caroline who encouraged Alex to pick her own name and have it changed legally. She chose Alexandria for the Egyptian city where she’d spent several memorable days with her parents the year before. Caroline quickly shortened it to Alex.
They hadn’t seen each other in fifteen years, since their last year of high school. Even though their fervent declarations of friendship had deteriorated to a Christmas card once a year, their parting was still fresh in her mind. When Alex moved to Arizona with her parents the summer of her senior year, they’d made a pact that if one of them needed help, the other would come.
Caroline’s call had come at a weak moment. Alex’s divorce would be final next week. She’d been knocking around her rock house in the Tucson Mountains, unable to concentrate on anything but the hollowness in the pit of her stomach. In truth, she welcomed the distraction. Seeing Caroline again was something to do, something else to think about besides work, which hadn’t been the salve she’d hoped for. And she had to admit she was curious. Although Caroline Arnet was popular in high school— particularly with the boys—she had come from a poor family. The unspoken label white trash had dogged her throughout her school years. Now she was famous. Had fame changed her?
Caroline had sounded truly rattled. As Alex listened to her voice, she pictured the waif-like creature who had become one of Hollywood’s biggest box office draws. Caroline, whose fragility had always reminded Alex of a wild deer. “I need you, Alex. You’re so smart. You’ll figure out what to do.”
Alex stared at her appointment book. The page was blank, except for a listlessly scrawled note at the top, “Photograph beetles,” followed by a question mark. “I can make it tomorrow,” she said.
“How about today? Please?”
Alex paused. There wasn’t anything keeping her from going, she realized. She had to mail off some slides to Ranger Rick and cash a check. That was the extent of her day. The drive to the border would take her two hours. “All right,” she said at last. “I’ll be there this afternoon. It’ll probably be late.”
“Oh God, Alex, thank you! I’ll see you when you get here.”
When Alex put down the phone, she realized there was another reason for her to go, something that would justify her trip down there. She’d read somewhere recently that a jaguarundi had been sighted in the Cascabels.
Impossible, Alex had thought at the time. There hadn’t been a confirmed sighting of the small wild cat in Arizona since 1938, when a rancher spotted what he thought to be a jaguarundi in the Huachuca Mountains east of here.
But she was looking for an excuse, and this one was as good as any. She leafed through the wildlife magazines in her office and found the reference to the jaguarundi an hour later at the bottom of the stack.
“The habitat of the jaguarundi, ocelot, and margay cat have diminished substantially, although there has been a report of an animal resembling the jaguarundi in the Cascabel Mountains in southern Arizona.”
It wasn’t much to go on. Alex was surprised at the stirring of excitement deep in her gut.
After packing her Jeep with everything she’d need for a night shoot, she made a stop at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. There she bought the jar of cat urine, which now resided in the honor bar between the smoked oysters and the champagne.
On her way back to her room from dinner, Alex stopped at the desk. Caroline had returned from her shoot, the desk clerk told her, but she’d left specific instructions not to be disturbed. So much for urgency
(J. Carson Black) delivers yet again...this atmospheric morsel is replete with anecdotes on Arizona wildlife, corrupt rural cops and recognizable Tucson references
Rural atmosphere and Hollywood glitz—with murder in the middle. Action and characters as sharp and prickly as the desert cactus
Carol Davis Luce, author of Night Stalker, Night Prey, and Night Game