His face was flushed and he was breathing hard when the cruiser coasted to a halt on a widened stretch of the shoulder.
I can honestly say that for the first time I was thankful to climb out into the heat and did so the first second I was physically able.
Surprisingly, it felt like it was starting to cool off. It might even have dropped below a hundred. I wouldn’t have bet my life on it, but even if it was all in my head, I was grateful for the illusion.
The arrow-straight dirt road shot back toward the wavering horizon, where the blood-red sun was preparing to slink off into oblivion. The leaves of the bushes looked like they were on fire. To the east, the Baboquivari Mountains rose abruptly from the flat terrain, giant red rocks that made me somewhat nostalgic for the Garden of the Gods back home in Colorado. Shadows had even started to form behind some of the taller formations and in the steep canyons. And over it all lorded Baboquivari Peak like the angry fist of a dictator, somewhere beneath which the god who led my ancestors from the underworld sat inside of his maze, rubbing his palms together and plotting mischief.
Leave it to Chief Antone to kill my rising spirits.
“Don’t get too excited about the falling temperatures. All that means is the snakes and scorpions are going to start coming out to hunt. And, believe me, they’re going to be hungry and pissed off.”
“I know exactly how they feel.”
Antone smirked, mounted what appeared to be a trailhead, and struck off toward the mountains. I followed, but at a reasonable distance. I figured it was probably best to let him take the lead, considering he was the one who actually knew where we were going. That, and he was a bigger target for the rattlesnakes to strike.
Don’t let anyone tell you I can’t be considerate when I have to.
Antone was remarkably lithe for such a large man. He scaled those hills and trails like he was part mountain goat. Granted, he held onto his belt with one hand the entire time to keep his pants up, but we made excellent time and reached the canyon itself before sunset.
I had to marvel when I turned around and stared off across the desert and the miles of seamless sand and rolling hills that stretched off into eternity. Everything glimmered with an almost ethereal red glow. There was a strange beauty to the landscape that was perhaps enhanced by the inherent danger of it. I felt somehow triumphant, as though I had both bested it and been accepted by it. As though I had survived some sort of trial by fire, the reward for which was a momentary glimpse behind the veil, a peek at the gentle soul lurking beneath the deadly exterior.
Antone clapped me on the shoulder. I glanced back to see him nodding to himself with an almost wistful smile.
“We’re burning daylight,” he said, and led me deeper into the advancing shadows, which had begun to fill the canyon like floodwaters.
The scuffing sound of our footsteps echoed back at us from the canyon walls, which grew steeper and taller until they nearly blocked out the sky. Skeletal shrubs grew from the cracks in the rocks and tufts of wild grasses and ambitious creosotes and sage fought over the pockets of sand where the occasional ray of light reached the ground. A ribbon of sand suggested that a trickle of water had flowed through here somewhat recently, and the rocks were marked with old water lines from the sporadic flash floods. There were a ton of footprints, one of top of another, moving single-file into the mountains. Trash and shed clothing were heaped against the rocks in some places, dropped right onto the ground in others. I saw weathered burlap sacks and crumpled wads of duct tape from the massive bricks of marijuana smugglers carried on their backs. I heard the rattle of diamondback tails more often than I would have liked, but never actually saw one. An owl hooted, a forlorn mooning sound, and bat wings whistled overhead. Stars materialized from the blue sky as the black of night encroached from the east.
My sweat cooled and then froze. I had goose bumps, which was a divine sensation after allowing my body to maintain such a high temperature for so long. Crazy to think that it was probably still in the mid-eighties. The air was crisp and dry. I felt alive in a way that I hadn’t before. It was almost as though I’d reached some sort of truce with the earth and we’d both agreed to a ceasefire, largely because the constant battles had gone on for so long that we’d forgotten who started the war in the first place.
Or maybe I was just mentally and physically exhausted and in desperate need of sleep.
“Just up ahead.” Antone was wheezing, but showed no outward sign of slowing. “Past the fork.”
“Why the rush?”
Two thinner canyons merged ahead of us at a large stone formation that looked almost like a giant coyote in profile, sitting on its haunches with its snout raised to the sky. Its legs were eroded and discolored. Sand and desiccated weeds had swept up its back. Its rear end led to a narrow passage that wended to the right into the shadow of Baboquivari Peak. Antone led me down the opposite fork, which was even narrower. Ancient petroglyphs were barely visible on the stone walls where time and the elements had conspired to erase them, smoothing designs that must have been etched by hands as old as the Sonoran itself. The walls lowered to the point that I could see the cacti and brambles lining the edges, at least where there was enough dirt to take root. Other stretches were lined with rocks perched so precariously it was a miracle they didn’t fall on our heads.
I recognized the trail from the crime scene photographs, and I knew exactly where we were when the bottleneck formed ahead of us. The canyon had veered to the left as we walked, funneling us to the north. I could see just the upper crescent of the setting sun to my left, framed by two tall stone formations. It shined between them and through a crevice in the canyon wall in such a way that it cast a spotlight onto the giant faded smiley face.
“He knows this area intimately.”
“That’s why the rush. You needed to see it like this. It wasn’t just meant to be viewed. It was meant to be viewed at this precise moment.”
I stared at the massive design. The blood had dried and flaked away in sections, but the image was still more or less intact. I could even still see the ovular impressions of the pads on the canine paw the unsub had used as a brush. It was similar to the one I had seen earlier, only missing the strokes that showed the hint of the circular shape of the head, as though the picture became one step closer to completion from one instance to the next, chronologically speaking. I couldn’t find any corresponding Native American symbology, nor was there any modern societal correlation. I felt as though there were a deeper meaning I just couldn’t quite grasp. A tip of the tongue kind of thing. All I could say with any certainty was that not only was the killer thoroughly enjoying himself, he had every intention of continuing to complete his design unless we figured out a way to make him stop.
I heard the crunching sound of footsteps and whirled, my Beretta already drawn and sighted on the source of the noise. Three people rounded the bend. I nearly drilled a hole through the forehead of the first and another through center mass of the second before my mind caught up with my instincts. The man in the lead wore his shirt tied over his head and jeans that were more dirt than denim. His shoes were mini porcupines of cactus needles. The woman to his right looked like she’d picked out her best blouse and blue jeans for a picnic in the park, but they were now ripped and tattered. She wore sandals that had obviously once had heels and her feet were caked with a crust of blood mixed with sand. The third figure was a young girl who couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. Her tears had dried in muddy smears on her cheeks and her hair was a nest of tangles. Her pretty white dress was shredded and filthy, her bare legs scraped so deeply in some places that they were going to have to be stitched closed when the dirt was eventually irrigated from the wounds.