Northern Apache County, Arizona
The Mustang gas station is a weird outpost of humankind off Highway 191, white LED lights glaring in the middle of pitch blackness at eleven forty-three PM. Spark pulls her ‘64 Chevy Malibu up to an empty pump. It’s dead silent outside except for her boot heels knocking the pavement as she crosses the lot to the convenience store, no one on the road and only the clerk’s vehicle parked in one of the spaces facing the storefront.
She doesn’t like the bell on the door jingling. She doesn’t like having her presence announced. Doesn’t like the clerk, name-tag: Luci, glancing up from her magazine. She moves to the coolers on the wall to the right of the entrance and scans the alcohol, even though she knows what she’s buying.
The bell rings again, and she turns her head to peer over her shoulder, down the aisle behind her. Two people, one male and one female, in their twenties.
“Hey, Luci,” says the male.
“Hey, guys,” the clerk says. “Where you coming from so late?”
The female stranger disappears into the next aisle. There’s a rustling of candy wrappers.
“You know Jake Howland?” says the male, his voice young and hushed. “Lived over by Del Muerto? He had that red Dodge pickup with the cracked windshield?”
Spark leans into the cooler and pulls out a tall can six-pack of Coors.
“It was his funeral. We didn’t know him real well, but our friend did.”
The female stranger slaps a bag of something onto the counter. The male stranger asks for a bottle of Wild Turkey.
“How’d he die?” the clerk says, the register beeping as she rings up the items.
“Shot himself,” the female tells her, tone louder than the male’s and laced with apathy. “The story we heard at the after party was, some sicko killed his brother and left the body in the desert somewhere. What was the brother’s name? Rob? He was missing for like ten days or something, and then Jake found his body. He was naked and tied up. They lived together, so I guess Jake couldn’t deal with being alone.”
“They know who the killer is?”
“No,” the male stranger says. “I don’t think they’re going to look either.”
He and his female companion walk out, the bell ringing after them.
Spark turns around and crosses the store, fingers curled into the cardboard handle of the Coors pack. She swings it up onto the counter and says, “I want thirty on four. Gimme two packs of Marlboro Reds and a bottle of Red Stag.”
The clerk picks the cigarettes and whiskey off the shelves behind the counter and sets them down next to the register. Spark takes her leather billfold out of her back pocket and puts some cash down on the counter. She sticks one cigarette pack in the breast pocket of her jacket and the other one in the brown paper bag with the whiskey, curls her arm around the bag and walks back outside with her free hand clawed into the beer.
The two strangers and their vehicle are gone. She listens to the faint buzz of the canopy lights above her, as she fills her tank and smokes. The noise reminds her of a fly trapped in a jar.
She starts the car and catches a glimpse of herself in the rear-view mirror—sees something in her eyes she hasn’t seen in a long time.
Spark drives up to Del Muerto the next morning. She looks for Jake Howland’s red Dodge truck until she finds it parked alongside a little house at the end of a narrow dirt road northwest of town. A smaller, older, white pick-up is parked in the carport on the opposite side of the house. Must’ve belonged to his brother.
The house is whitewashed with sea green trim on the window frames and roof. The screen door creaks on its hinges when she opens it. The front door is unlocked.
She stands on the thin carpet in her cowboy boots and surveys the home. The living room’s furnished with an old TV, a brown plaid sofa, wood coffee table decorated with a dirty ashtray and empty liquor and beer bottles. The kitchen’s in the back, with another door leading outside that she can see from the entrance. She steps into the corridor off to the right of the living room and finds a small bathroom with a shower and one bedroom with two twin sized beds pushed against opposite walls. A single barrel shotgun is mounted on the back wall between the beds. No pictures. Nothing of women or children.
She searches the night tables, the spaces between the mattresses and box springs, the dresser, and the closet. Walks out of the bedroom and through the house cradling the shotgun, a long handled axe, two knives, and a loaded .357 revolver in one arm.
The kitchen’s bright, as if the threshold on the floor separating it from the rest of the house is a boundary that sunlight won’t cross. There’s a cheap, plastic table with three chairs and another ashtray full of cigarette butts. A few dirty dishes in the sink. Beer, bread, and moldy cheese in the refrigerator. Cold coffee still in the pot.
She steps outside through the back door, still wearing her sunglasses, and lights another cigarette with her free hand. Her eyes track across the landscape behind the house, left to right, where the rust-colored desert meets the sky. She debates which truck to check first and settles on the brother’s.
Sure enough, the bench seat in the white Ford F-150 is stained with blood, sunlight turned red where it filters through the cab’s rear window on the passenger side. Empty bottle of Jim Beam Devil’s Cut in the floor. The stench of death still hasn’t faded from the interior.
This is where Jake shot himself, sitting next to his brother’s empty space.
A dream catcher woven with bright pink and green threads still hangs from the rear-view mirror.
The Second American Civil War lasted three years, eight months, and six days. The exact number of dead is unknown, but anybody would guess in the millions. Once it ended, the West became territory for every flavor of deviant, a place of self-imposed exile. Western Escapism amounted to the good, sane and polite settling down in the eastern half of the country, and everybody else running in the opposite direction. There is no organized, state sanctioned police force here. No trials by jury. No prisons—except for the kind where sadists keep their hostages. Crime is avenged with more crime. Inhibitions are abandoned at the regional boundary line, and all that’s left in the weird wasteland of the West is the ugliness of pure freedom.
The desert’s littered with ghost towns from Texas to California, rejected as living space except for a handful of squatters and people on the move. Outside the big cities, occupants of the West shun anything resembling community like stray cats living in the same neighborhood. Too much proximity leads to violence.
The wilderness is dotted with trailers and cabins and small houses built by their inhabitants, hotels and motels converted to long-term residences, some vehicles serving as shelter for nomadic types.
Spark’s been living in a vintage Airstream Tradewind camper parked in the middle of nowhere south of Chinle and the Canyon de Chelly, since she killed the bastard who originally owned it. She can see her nearest neighbor to the east of her if she squints, but they’ve never met.
Some people know of her, throughout Navajo territory. They’re the ones who nicknamed her Spark. She’s heard different stories behind it. The one about her smoking a dead man’s cigarette, after she stabbed him in the throat. The one about her gouging out some dude’s eye with a spark plug, when he got too handsy with her. The one about her starting a brush fire in Duval County, Texas to cover up a drug deal gone wrong, of which she was the lone survivor.
She’s not interested in talking to people long enough to confirm what’s true and what’s bullshit. They can call her whatever they want. Her birth name’s buried in a cigar box with her brother’s ashes, outside of San Antonio, and if they want to know what it is, they can go find it.
No one’s a stranger to murder in the West, but a new one turns the locals skittish. Their eyes shift onto Spark when she walks into a campground the night after her visit to the Howland brothers’ house. Tattooed, bearded men in leather and bandannas who reek of alcohol and tobacco and sex. Long-legged women in studded skinny jeans and denim miniskirts, tits hanging out of their tops, looking like they scraped their mismatched cosmetics out of a looted drugstore.
A large bonfire burns at the center of the party, flames licking the chill air. A handful of people sit around the fire in rubber poolside chairs, a few of the men with women in their laps. Others stand around drinking and chatting and smoking cigarettes. A small circle of men play poker. An assortment of trailers, vehicles, and motorcycles are scattered on the outskirts of the party. A few guys are grilling burger patties, steaks, and hot dogs. People sit in truck beds with their legs dangling over the end as they watch two men brawl. A man’s got a woman pinned to the back of a trailer, the two of them groping each other as they suck face. Another woman screams from inside a different trailer as somebody screws her, and the couple must have an audience because male voices hoot and holler in harmony with her.
Spark doesn’t make eye contact with anyone as she beelines for Fat Buffalo, who’s sitting off from the crowd with his own small group of five companions seated on the ground at his feet. They’re passing around a bong, the smell of marijuana reaching Spark’s nose as she approaches.
Fat Buffalo is a lanky white guy in his late twenties who goes around wearing a giant Indian headdress with feathered tails reaching his ankles, his face always striped with paint in bright blue, red, and yellow. He rotates through mary jane, LSD, and peyote, and likes to wax pseudo-philosophical bullshit whenever he’s tripping. His followers consider him a mystic, a prophet, a spiritual teacher here to guide them through their desert exile. Spark pegged him for a dumb, racist piece of shit the moment she laid eyes on him. He’s stayed alive as long as he has because he’s a pacifist who knows how to avoid the hot-tempered. For a stoner, he’s got pretty good ears—which is why she wants an audience with him.
He glances up at her when she reaches him, smiling through a haze of smoke. He passes the glass bong to the woman sitting on his right and spreads his arms. “Sugar pie,” he says. “Where you been?”
“Fuck you,” Spark says. “Tell your groupies to get lost.”
Fat Buffalo hooks one arm behind him over the back of his chair. “You want a hit on Juicy Lou? I think it’d chill you out. You’re never in a good mood. What’s up with that?”
Spark just stands across from him with her arms folded tight against her chest, glaring.
He reaches behind him, arm flailing until his hand closes around the metal leg of another chair. He pulls the chair up alongside his own, the ashtray sliding forward on the seat and spilling cigarette butts everywhere. He grabs the ashtray and drops it in the center of the circle before him, brushes the chair off, and gestures at Spark to sit.
She uncrosses her arms and rounds the right half of the groupie circle, hands in loose fists at her side. She sits in the chair and shoots the groupies a mean eye, warning them not to speak, eavesdrop, or look at her. They avert their gaze and busy themselves with the bong and rolling papers.
Spark leans toward Fat Buffalo and says, “What do you know about the Howland brothers?”
Fat Buffalo wrinkles his nose like he smells a rotten corpse. “That’s bad juju you’re bringing in my field. They ain’t been dead long enough to speak of. Didn’t someone teach you about energy of the dead?”
“Do me a favor and shove the superstitious bull crap up your ass,” Spark says. “I need facts. I heard one of em was murdered. Sounded like something I’ve seen before.”
Fat Buffalo gives her the kind of look that tells her he’s not as high as he seems. The bong comes back around, the woman sitting to Spark’s left holding it out to Fat Buffalo without paying Spark attention. He takes it and sets the round base on his seat between his thighs. He reaches down and grabs a handful of ice cubes out of the little cooler under his chair, drops them into the bong’s long neck, and ignites his lighter into the bowl. He sticks his face into the mouthpiece and inhales, white smoke traveling up from the water in the base through the ice-filled neck.
“Rob Howland,” he says, blowing a stream of smoke through his teeth. He faces forward, staring into space, hands curled over the ends of his chair’s armrests. “The older brother. He was missing, then appeared in the middle of a playa. Pretty clear he’d been strangled. There was a bruise line on his neck. I didn’t see the body myself, but I’m sure he must’ve been raped a few times, before or after expiring. ‘s what the Gopher does.”
“Who the hell is the Gopher?” says Spark.
“A whack job. Doesn’t talk to anyone. I don’t know if he can. He’ll disappear for months, then show up somewhere unexpected. Just lurking. Looking for his next victim, I guess.”
“You know he’s killed other people?”
“Sure,” says Fat Buffalo. “He always leaves the bodies the same way. I think there was three others, before the Howland dude. Women.”
“Why the fuck hasn’t anyone put him down?” Spark says, her voice pitched low.
“Not many people know of him. Ones who do, don’t care to mess with him. He hangs around the Tire Factory, when he’s out of hiding. Mostly just watches, I hear.”
The Tire Factory is an old warehouse on the outskirts of Chinle, looks like a barn made out of metal, where a bunch of sadomasochists hold torture orgies. Sometimes, they film themselves and sell the porn. A few people have died there. Nobody knows if the deaths were deliberate or accidental.
“Where’s he live?” Spark asks.
Fat Buffalo looks at her again, his eyes bloodshot, his clean shaven face juvenile past the paint and headdress feathers. “You know I don’t participate in violence, one way or the other.”
“If you think there’s such a thing as neutrality, you can fuck yourself. Do you know where he lives or not?”
He reaches down between his legs for an ice cube and runs it over his bottom lip, now looking away from her. “I don’t. But if I had to guess, I’d say the Canyon.”
Spark turns her head to the left and peers at the bonfire. A man’s stoking it with more wood, and the orange embers whirling in the air look like glow-in-the-dark dust motes.
“Why don’t you leave it alone, dude?” Fat Buffalo croons, drawing his words out.
Spark watches men file out of the screaming woman’s trailer. A minute passes in between the last man leaving with his belt still unbuckled and the woman herself appearing in the trailer doorway, smoking a cigarette, the neckline of her sweater drooping off her left shoulder and exposing her bra strap.
“What’s the Gopher look like?” Spark says.
Fat Buffalo leans forward to take the bong from the girl next to her. “Like Satan,” he says. “If Satan were a caveman who buys his clothes at Walmart.”
Spark cuts through the campground again on her way back to the car. This time, hardly anyone pays attention. She takes a look at the party once behind the wheel, the reflection of the bonfire flames dancing across her windshield. She reaches under her seat for the bottle of Red Stag she stashed there and drinks.
She starts staking out the Tire Factory at night. She parks behind the building and keeps her distance, the thick blackness of night swallowing her car. She keeps her window rolled down and smokes, tapping the ash onto the ground outside and watching the back door for a crack of light. The shape of her prey. On occasion, she’ll hear a muted scream from the inside. She stays until she’s buzzed from the whiskey and can’t stand to breathe the air anymore, three or four in the morning. Most of the vehicles in the dirt lot around the front of the warehouse remain.
Late in the second week, what must be a Thursday or Friday, she’s listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire” on an old cassette tape, haze of cigarette smoke lingering inside the car. Thinking about her brother. Not as he was in the last few months of his life, not even in the last couple years. She sees him when he was twenty-three, when he still smiled, sees his clean-shaven boyish face and his black leather biker jacket, sees him driving the Malibu with a Camel hanging from his lips and the sun in his aviators. Before the War. That’s how she wants to remember him—and herself.
Somebody steps out of the Tire Factory’s back door, shedding white light into the desert like a ghost. She rolls the volume knob down on the radio to silence and tracks the silhouette as it moves out of the shadow of the warehouse and into the paler dark. A man, with a woman’s limp body folded over his shoulder, her long hair swinging behind him. He carries her around the corner to the south side of the warehouse, out of Spark’s sight. She hears a vehicle engine starting.
She waits until she sees the car pulling onto the paved road several yards from the Tire Factory, then starts her own. She switches off her headlights and keeps her eyes on the man’s red tail lights as they slink down the two lane highway.
He takes her south, then east. She knows he’s heading for the Canyon del Muerto ten minutes on. She watches him disappear toward the northern rim and slows to a stop, idling the Malibu on the road. She waits a few minutes, then switches her headlights on and makes a U-turn.
Spark was twenty-four years old when the War started, twenty-eight when it ended. Now, she’s thirty-two, and she feels ancient as the desert bedrock. Time drags on and slips away, untraceable in her solitude and inattention. Nothing changes in the West, except her own face in the mirror one grain of sand at a time. She’s just as hollow and low down today as she was when she crossed the boundary at the Texas-New Mexico state line. She lies awake in her bed every morning, staring at the steel ceiling, feeling it. The bottomless hole. Her grave eating her from the inside out.
She contemplates her gun. She realizes that her life has become a circle the whole of which she’s seen. It has nothing good in store. Most people come West to sin. All of them come to die. Maybe she didn’t know what she was doing when she drove into Arizona—but nah, she thinks, denial isn’t the same as ignorance.
Her brother was a few months shy of his thirty-second birthday when he died. She’s older than him now, older than her big brother. She can taste the bitterness of that in her blood, feel it blackening her heart. They’d talked about staying together forever, life partners regardless of the sex he had with other people. Spark told him she didn’t want to get married or take a lover, and he said to her one day on the Texas plains, halfway through the War, “I don’t want you to be alone, Bumblebee. And I like you too much to live without you.”
They fought the War together and survived. It was some belligerent drunk who shot him in the parking lot of a saloon five months after the country’s truce that killed him. She’s looked at the raised scars on her body hundreds of times since then and wondered what he did to earn his death. Once in a while, she acknowledges that it could’ve been him alone in the West, becoming what she’s become, and the selfless part of her is relieved it isn’t.
He’s better off dead than in her shoes.
Spark rides into the Canyon del Muerto on a black horse, the scars and tattoos on her bare, muscular arms and shoulders like war paint. Her Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum revolver and her battle knife weigh against her chest, one in each shoulder holster. A knife she took from the Howland brothers’ home is sheathed in soft leather and tucked into the back of her waistband. She holds onto the horse’s wild mane with one hand and grips her tomahawk in the other. A Marlboro Red hangs from her lips. She can taste the whiskey she drank earlier on her tongue.
Thin clouds streak and curl through the sky like cigarette smoke, the sun a shrinking blood orange in the teeth of mesas, buttes, and hoodoos. Shadows are filling the canyon, chasing out the light, obscuring the rust red color of the rock. There are Native American pictographs on the walls throughout the Canyon de Chelly National Monument: hunters on horseback, weird creatures that look half-man and half-lizard, person-shaped things with horns, hand prints the color of old blood. Reminders that the desert has been soaking up human life with unquenchable thirst for thousands of years and will outlast the species.
She remembered something when she was cleaning her weapons this morning—a dead body, her first year in Arizona. The woman was naked, wrists bound behind her and ankles bound, dry blood matting the hair at the back of her head. Somebody found her in the middle of the Painted Desert, south of Tuba City. Word got around and strangers showed up, until a small crowd circled around the corpse to speculate. Spark looked at her a long time, until the corpse’s image began to blur with all the dead she’d seen since becoming a warrior: who she’d killed, who she’d helped kill, who she’d watched die and who she’d come upon later. She left the naked woman and the spectators behind, knowing nobody would bury or burn her. The body would rot in the sun or feed scavengers, the bones abandoned clean and dry. Tarantula in the skull, rattler curling in the rib-cage.
The Gopher isn’t the first or only killer to leave his victims in the open desert, but Spark is sure that body was his doing. And there must have been others, between the woman and Rob Howland. Son of a bitch has been slithering in and out of this hole unchecked long enough.
She rides the well-worn trail that follows the arch of the northern rim, taking her time descending to the flat canyon bottom, eyes roaming over her surroundings. Come nightfall, the canyons will be pitch black, like a hidden mouth in the earth lying in wait for something to swallow. The stars are thick enough in the remote desert sky that she can count on them to guide her out. Guide her into the Gopher’s den.
She and her brother knew a man in the war who taught them how to track. She follows the signs the Gopher’s worn into his route through the canyon, as cool darkness sweeps through it and conceals her. She stops the horse when she sees an artificial light glowing in a cave a football field’s length away, white as the LED bulbs in the gas station canopy, and heads for it on foot.
She pauses at the cave entrance and listens for noise. Silence. She starts to venture in. Clothes are strewn throughout the entrance: a dress flung over a boulder, pants and shirts and jackets on the ground, bras stretched out like scraps of cowhide in a tannery, women’s underwear and separated shoes. A battery-powered flood light shines on a high up ledge near the back of the cave, the kind sold at gas stations throughout the West.
A woman’s naked corpse sits in a filthy fold-out chair, arms raised over her head with wrists bound and tied to a sharp upward-pointing snag on the rock wall behind her. She isn’t wounded, that Spark can see, but covered in new bruises bluish black and violet purple. Her mouth is open and her lips so dry, the skin cracks and flakes. She has long black hair and hasn’t been dead more than a day or two. She must’ve been the one carried out of the Tire Factory’s back door, over a man’s shoulder. He must’ve been the Gopher, scavenging that cesspit like the turkey vultures that search this desert for meat. Maybe the woman was already dead when he carried her out of there. Maybe she was just unconscious, and he tortured her a while before killing her.
Spark turns around when she hears a noise behind her. The Gopher’s standing less than two yards away, holding a bloodied club in one hand and a dead jack rabbit in the other. He’s wearing the horns of a ram on his head like a crown, and he stares at her with blue eyes clear as well water.
He drops the jack rabbit, she reaches for her gun, he lunges at her with his club raised. Before she can get the revolver out of its holster, he swings the club at her head, and she drops into a squat. Spark stands up again without her tomahawk, punches him in the face and wrenches the club out of the Gopher’s hand so fast, he doesn’t have time to resist. She throws it aside. He thrusts his hands out and starts to choke her. She knees him in the groin, he lets go, she picks up her tomahawk and slams it into the side of his neck at the base, too low to cut anything important.
She lets go of the handle and he staggers away from her with the weapon still lodged in him, a little blood running onto his skin and his shirt. His eyes bug out of his head in shock, and he makes a wet, harsh noise as he breathes. He looks only half-human, but somewhere in his face, she can see who he was long ago before succumbing to his urges, before letting the West take him into the depths of his lusts.
She pulls the revolver from her shoulder holster and shoots him three times, once in the head and twice in the chest. The gun blows most of his skull off, splattering the cave wall behind him, and the ram horns fly away and disappear. He collapses on his side, staining the ground with his blood.
Spark takes a deep heave of a breath and drops her arm, holding the gun at her side. Now, the air smells like fire. The cloud of white gun smoke hangs before her, slow to dissipate inside the cave. She coughs and grimaces, looking back at the woman in the chair.
She steps past the Gopher, gingerly in her boots as she holsters her gun, and severs the rope binding the woman’s wrists with the Howland brothers’ knife. She lowers the body to the cave floor and drags it out by the hands, into the darkness and starlight. She’s not going to go to the trouble of taking this dead weight out of the canyon, but she as sure hell isn’t going to leave the woman with her killer.
Spark finds a thin stream of water on the open canyon floor, that seems to flow deeper in than she can see. She leaves the body there, folding the hands around the Howland brother’s knife with the blade pointing up toward the woman’s chin like a bouquet. She stands back and catches her breath, then turns around and sees the horse waiting several paces behind her.
She rides up out of the Canyon del Muerto smoking a brand new cigarette, hankering for a whole bottle of Red Stag. The horse takes her back to the highway where she parked her car and disappears, folded into the night’s palette of blacks. She starts the Malibu, splits the dark with her headlights, and sits a minute at the wheel without shifting gears.
She looks at herself in the rear-view mirror. The drunk who shot her brother is still out there somewhere, maybe dead or maybe alive. Somebody else’s brother has been avenged.
She’s no different, and neither is the world.