Showing posts with label marie s. crosswell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label marie s. crosswell. Show all posts

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Killers and Samaritans, fiction by Marie S. Crosswell

November 2005

Athens, Texas

She’s waiting for him at the bar in the town’s only worthwhile dive, and he takes the empty stool on her right, the two of them fitting together like long-lost puzzle pieces. He signals to the bartender, who takes his time coming over, and gives his cousin a good look.

“Hey, you,” he says.

“Hey,” she replies, looking back at him. She throws him a smile that goes out as fast as a match flame in the wind.

    River orders a beer and waits for the bartender to leave him and Roz alone again before speaking. “Why the spontaneous visit?”

“Well, I don’t have a reason to be in Dallas, on account of I got my ass suspended for two weeks,” says Roz, before taking a drink from her glass.

“Damn. What’d you do?”

“Beat the shit out of a suspect. While he was in custody.”

“Did he deserve it?” River says.

“They always deserve it,” says Roz.

She’s a detective in the Dallas PD Criminal Investigation Department’s Assault Unit. Most of the cases the unit handles are physical or sexual assaults. Roz deliberately chose the unit when she made detective so she could go after rapists and woman-beaters.

“Is that suspension with or without pay?” River says, sipping on his beer.

“I’m gettin’ paid,” Roz replies. “Not that I care.”

“Well, if you don’t need the money, I’ll be more than happy to take it off your hands. I’m out of a job.”

Roz looks at her cousin. “Since when?”

“About a week ago. Company decided to lay some people off, I guess, and I was on the list.”

“Shit. I’m sorry. What are you going to do?”

River shakes his head. “I don’t know. There’s not exactly a whole lot of decent-paying work in town for a guy like me.”

He’s got a pronounced limp from his deployment in Afghanistan and no college degree. He may be smart and hard-working, but he’s also a gay black man in a predominantly white Texas town. He’s pretty good at hiding the gay part, but there’s no hiding his skin.

“I could try another oil and gas company,” he says. “I just don’t know if that’s what I want.”

Roz reaches into her back pocket and takes out her lighter, then digs a pack of Marlboro Lights out of her shirt pocket. She pulls two cigarettes from the pack, lights one in her mouth, and hands the other to River.

“Guess it is that kind of time,” he says and leans toward her, so she can light his cigarette for him.

Soon, the cousins are sitting in a haze, the glow of the neon lights behind the bar softened around the edges. They sit with their elbows on the bar top and their heads bobbing low between their shoulders. River tries to blow a smoke ring but only lets out a long plume toward the ceiling. Roz fiddles with her lighter, turning it over in her hands.

“Maybe it’s time to get out,” she says.

“Out of this place?” River replies.

“Out of Athens. I’ve never understood why you moved out here.”

River shrugs and takes the cigarette from his mouth, holding it between his fingers as he sips on his beer. “It’s not a bad place to live. Where would I move to if I left?”

Roz shoots him a look.

River gives her one of his own. “You know how I feel about big cities.”

“Dallas has suburbs,” says Roz. “Satellite towns. You could live in one of those.”

“Do you even like Dallas?”

“I don’t hate it any more than I do the rest of the world.”

River smirks.

Roz glances at the old TV set mounted above the bar, not far from where she and River sit, and the headline on the screen makes her straighten out of her slouch and pull the cigarette from her lips. “Hey, turn that up,” she says to the bartender.

The bartender raises the volume just enough for Roz and River to hear the broadcast. It’s the ten o’clock local news, covering the whole East Texas region. “The search continues for 15-year-old Jewel Gardner in Athens,” says the bleach blonde reporter. “Local police have not officially labeled the teen’s disappearance a case of foul play but also haven’t ruled it out. Jewel was last seen on Friday, November 9 around 10 o’clock at night. She was wearing blue jeans, a burgundy Athens High hoodie, and black sneakers.”

A photograph of a young black girl with her hair in braids appears on the TV screen next to identifying physical information. She’s 5’6, 140 pounds.

    “If you have any information on Jewel Gardner’s whereabouts, please call the anonymous police tip hotline at 903-675-5459,” the reporter says, concluding the segment with a grimace of a smile.

Roz turns to look at River. “Did you know about this?” she says.

“Heard about it, yeah,” he replies. “I sure hope that girl is okay.”

“She’s not.” Roz drains her glass in one quick drink. “I’m going to talk to the cops, find out what they know.”


“What do you mean, why? It’s been a week, and that girl is still missing. After the first forty-eight hours, the chances of a missing person getting found alive nosedives, and more time passing makes it worse. Who knows if the cops around here are even capable of dealing with something like this properly?”

“What if they won’t talk to you?” says River.

A muscle in Roz’s jaw ripples, as she stares into the mirror peeping through the liquor bottles and old photographs on the wall opposite of her. “Then I’ll get answers on my own.”

River lifts his eyebrows but knows better than to argue with his cousin when she’s in this kind of mood. “Guess you need a place to crash for the night.” All of the tension in Roz’s body dissolves, and she looks at him again with a soft expression. “If you don’t mind.”

River half-smiles at her. “I could use the company,” he says.


Athens PD gives Roz their thin file on the Jewel Gardner disappearance without more than a little prodding. She half-lies about working the Texas Killing Fields cases and suspecting a connection.

River waits for her in Roz’s ’67 Mercury Cougar parked outside the station, watching the vehicles pass on the road behind him in his side mirror. He catches a couple of uniformed cops eyeing him suspiciously as they go in and out of the building, but having Roz with him puts his mind mostly at ease. Roz isn’t just a Dallas detective. She’s also a white woman, though she shares a Native American grandmother with River.

After ten minutes, Roz returns and climbs back into the driver’s seat with the manila folder in hand. “They got nothing,” she says. “This girl is fucked if we don’t find her.”

“We?” says River.

“You have something better to do?”

“I’m not a cop.”

“You don’t need to be. We’re not going to do anything a civilian couldn’t do. We’re just going to go talk to her family and friends and see if we can pick up a trail out there at the lake.”

“Lake Athens?”

Roz nods. “That’s where she disappeared.”

He tries not to imagine the fifteen-year old’s corpse in that cold water, milky white eyes open.

Roz starts the car, the engine roaring to life, and shifts gears. “If you don’t want to get involved, I can always take you home. But I could use the help,” she says.

They trade looks.

“All right,” says River. “But I’m counting on you to keep me out of trouble.”

“I think the best I can do is keep you out of jail,” Roz replies. 

  “Good enough for me.”


They drive out to Lake Athens with Roz’s notes from interviewing Jewel’s mother and best friend tucked into the case file, Jewel’s school picture clipped to the front of the folder. They find the spot where Jewel’s friend claimed she was last seen, though it’s only a best guess. Crime scenes always look different in the dark.

Athens PD has already searched the area, a five mile radius according to their report. Roz and River don’t see any glaring sign of Jewel’s abduction or any indication she was ever here. They find public bathrooms along the paved walking trail not far from where Jewel and her friends were hanging out, and Roz checks out the women’s bathroom, while River stands outside and smokes a cigarette.

The bathroom is small and dingy, with only two stalls and a concrete floor. She catches her reflection in one of the dirty mirrors above the sinks: surly, brown eyes and a short, lesbian haircut. She shines her flashlight on the walls and the floor, looking for blood stains and objects either Jewel or the kidnapper might’ve dropped. She doesn’t see anything, but Roz can’t shake her gut feeling that something happened here.

This is where a man ambushed Jewel, far enough away from the other kids that they couldn’t hear her scream. Maybe she fought back, or maybe the man knocked her out before carrying her to his car. He could’ve hidden in one of the darkened corners or in the other stall, waiting for one of the high school girls to walk in alone. Did Jewel see him before he attacked her? Did she try to call for help?

When Roz comes out of the bathroom, River’s staring at a white, teenage girl on a bicycle who watches him with sullen blue eyes. She looks seventeen or eighteen, rode hard and put away wet. She blinks at the two cousins, then turns her bike around and starts pedaling away, slow enough for them to catch up with her.

They follow the girl off the trail and down a skinny dirt path, keeping their distance. She peers over her shoulder at them more than once as she rides ahead, making sure they’re still behind her.

Roz and River stop when they see where she’s leading them, but she keeps going until she slips off her bike and leaves it capsized on the ground.

Dozens of Polaroid photographs flap in the breeze from yards of fishing line that zigzag through the trees. The girl used wooden clothes pins to secure the pictures to the line. The cousins watch her as she makes her way past several rows of images, clearly knowing what she’s looking for.

There’s an old Volkswagen van parked not far from the lines, the vehicle’s paint faded and chipped. It looks like it might not even run anymore, tires sagging a little into the soft soil. No sign of anyone else besides the girl in the camp site. 

  She brings the cousins a single Polaroid and holds it out to them. Roz takes it, and she and River look at the image: a Texas license plate on an unidentifiable car. The photo was snapped at night.

“Find the man who drives that,” the girl says. “He’s the one you want.”

      “Did you see him?” Roz replies. “Did you see him take a black girl?”

The blonde takes a step back. “That’s all I can tell you.”

Roz and River walk to the car with the Polaroid, and Roz runs the plate number, on the phone with Dallas PD. The vehicle belongs to one Adam Burke of Acrid, Texas.


On the road westbound that night, Roz and River ride in silence, trying to keep their cool. They’re both aware they should leave this situation in the hands of the Athens Police Department, aware they have no legal right to do anything to Burke short of Roz’s ability to arrest him—and even that is questionable.

“How are you really?” she says, twenty minutes east of Acrid.

River looks at her, and she glances at him.

“I’m lonely enough, I’m in this car with you right now,” he says. “I don’t mean that I don’t want to help you or be with you. I just mean, I know how south this could go, but I’m here anyway. How are you?”

Roz squeezes the steering wheel and clenches her jaw, eyes fixed on the road. “You know I’ve never been a happy person,” she says.

“Yeah. But that doesn’t answer my question.”

She hesitates, then says, “I was waiting for that piece of shit I assaulted. Waiting for weeks, months. I wanted to get my hands on someone. I’ve been trying to work the Texas Killing Fields cold cases in my spare time—and I’m nowhere. I’m nowhere, and who knows how many of those evil pricks are still out there, still raping and killing women. It’s all I can think about, River. I want to destroy them. And maybe this guy, Burke, is one of them. Maybe he’s been putting women in those fields for years, and Jewel is just his latest victim. Maybe she’s already fucking out there. I don’t know. I just know I want him. I want him all to myself.”

River lets the confession hang in the air between them for a while, processing it. He knows, without fully understanding, that his cousin is in some dark and dangerous head space. But he can’t blame her. The world is full of people who deserve revenge, and he’s one of them. Maybe that’s why he’s following her.

“You’re lonely too,” River says. “Always have been.”

Roz swallows and keeps her eyes on the road. “That’s not why I care about this.”

“Never said it was.”

They’re quiet for a minute, alone on the two-lane highway, headlights the only thing cutting through the dark for miles. Whatever they’re going to now, they’re going together. They have no one else.

River reaches over and lays his hand on Roz’s shoulder, heavy and gentle. She loosens her grip on the steering wheel.


Acrid, Texas rises out of the darkness along State Route 45, just north of Corsicana—the kind of place you visit in nightmares, alien but familiar, like a traumatic memory your mind erased but your body can’t forget. Its neon and fluorescent white lights glower against a starless, black sky, calling travelers to the gas station, motel, liquor store, grocery, and the unnamed bar lying in wait at the northern edge of town. There’s not a warm body or moving vehicle in sight, the silence interrupted only by the bulbs buzzing in the gas station canopy when Roz and River get out of the car.

A bell jingles when they enter the small convenience store, the sound splitting the air like a glass dish shattering in an empty room. They almost expect to find the cash register unmanned, the store deserted, but an older man in a faded striped cowboy shirt is sitting behind the counter, smoking a cigarette and poring over a newspaper. He looks up and watches them approach but doesn’t smile into his gray mustache, wariness plain in his eyes. He’s not wearing a nametag.

He checks his watch, as if he was expecting them and they’re late. “Can I help you?” he says, thick East Texas accent laced with west Arkansas. Roz goes right up to the counter, slaps the Polaroid down and pins it under her forefinger, pushing it across the countertop. “You know where we can find the driver of that vehicle?” she says.

The man looks at the photo, his expression unchanged. “You got a name?”

“Adam Burke,” says River. “The vehicle’s registered to an Acrid address.”

The man draws on his cigarette, then holds it between his fingers, lowering his hand to the counter. He holds up the Polaroid in his other hand and looks at it again, like he has to divine Burke’s location out of the image somehow. He glances from Roz to River and back again. “What’s he done?” the man says. “Won a sweepstakes,” says Roz.

    The clerk doesn’t crack his somber expression. He knows exactly where Burke is. She can see it. For a moment, she wonders if he’s going to lie to protect the son of a bitch from a reckoning he can’t predict or imagine.

Instead, he prints out a scrap of blank receipt paper and writes something down on it, then gives it to Roz. She doesn’t even look at the note, maintaining eye contact with the clerk. “You want something for the road, cousin?” she says.

“Not from here,” River replies, standing close at her shoulder.

Outside again in the chilly night, they stop at their respective car doors, and Roz reads the note.

“Directions,” she says. “He gave us directions.”

They look at each other over the roof of the Cougar. One of the canopy bulbs flickers above them.


Adam Burke lives at the end of a long, winding, dirt road east of town, the house hidden behind a cluster of hackberry trees. No neighbors or outposts of civilization in sight. He doesn’t even have a street name or a sign. Roz and River follow the road as far as Roz thinks is safe, headlights switched off, tires rolling slowly over the gravel. They leave the car behind them in the road and walk the rest of the way, shrouded in darkness, watching the shadows move. It’s so quiet, their every footstep sounds like an announcement of their presence, and they can only hope that if Burke’s home, he’s not listening. They don’t need to comment aloud on what they’re both thinking: whatever happens out here, they’re on their own. Miles away from the nearest police station, the nearest hospital, and other human beings. No one can hear Jewel calling for help. No one can interrupt Roz and River punishing Adam Burke. No one can save them if Burke overpowers them.

When Roz and River finally arrive at the house, they find it completely darkened. It looks abandoned, except for the old sedan parked in the driveway. The license plate matches the homeless girl’s Polaroid. The house is a small two-story without a fence or a front yard or a garage. They head for the back, Roz leading River with her personal sidearm drawn and ready. They try to move as quietly as they can, and she keeps her eyes on the house, watching for movement inside.

The backyard doesn’t look much different than the front: overgrown grass peppered with weeds, the hackberry trees wrapping around the western side of the house, and the lot stretching into the obscure distance unbounded. There’s nothing in the yard except an old wooden shed with a metal roof.

      River points to the sign of Jewel’s presence, and Roz stares it down like it’s a wild animal ready to eat her alive, one she has no choice but to kill. A thick chain and a padlock on the shed door.

Pushed up against the back of the house is a workman’s table with ominous-looking tools hung up on the wall above it and piled on the shelf below the tabletop. Roz looks for a big set of pliers but doesn’t find any, resisting the urge to kick the table in frustration. She searches the yard with her eyes as if the pliers might appear out of thin air, then forgets them when she notices an ax on the wood pile stacked against the other half of the house wall.

She grabs it and brings it to River, who’s watching her with the kindling of fear in his eyes.

“He better keep it sharp,” she murmurs. “Don’t start swinging until the lights come on.”

She turns around and starts heading for the back door of the house.

“Roz!” River whispers. “What am I supposed to do?”

He looks lost now, and it occurs to her that even though he’s a war veteran, he hasn’t dealt with anything like this before.

“Take her back to the car,” Roz tells him. “Whatever happens, don’t let this motherfucker put his hands on her again. I left the keys on the driver’s seat.”

River looks even more bewildered at the idea of leaving Roz behind in this hell hole, but she means every word she says.

The screen door creaks as loud as a horn when she opens it. The proper door is unlocked, and she slips inside, leading with her gun. Everything outside the present moment and her immediate surroundings evaporates, her hearing suddenly sharper, her eyes quickly adjusting to the dark. She doesn’t even think about River and Jewel now. Her world shrinks to this matchbox of a house and Adam Burke—the thing she’s been hunting her entire career. 

  She stalks through the kitchen and the living room, ready for him to spring into her path at any moment, the safety switched off on her Colt. The shadows and shards of starlight filtering through the windows rustle around her, like spirits occupying the predator’s lair. Every step she takes is deliberate, careful, quiet.

Burke is not asleep on the living room sofa or in the recliner. He’s not in the small bathroom on the ground floor. She stops at the foot of the staircase and looks up to the landing at the top, knowing he must be up there, maybe dead asleep or maybe waiting for her.

Outside, River looks for the first light in the house windows. He hasn’t heard a sound from inside the shed. He’s so afraid, the back of his neck tingles. His breathing is shallow. Is he about to find Jewel’s dead body in that shed? Is his cousin about to get herself killed?

Roz climbs the stairs, taking her time, hearing and feeling the steps creak and shift beneath her. Her skin prickles, fine hairs ready to rise. She watches the shadows move against the wall of the staircase, eyes fixed on the second floor above her as she fears some sign of Burke waking.

When she reaches the landing, she stops and listens for any noise ahead of her. She can’t see much in this darkness, but she can make out at least three doors: what must be two bedrooms and a bathroom. She picks one of the doors to try, guessing it’s the master suite, and tries her best to slide her feet over the floor without picking them up much.

She closes her hand over the door knob, her gun in her other hand, and slowly twists the knob, pushing the door open just enough to slide her arm into the room and find the light switch on the wall.

River sees a light come on in the upstairs window, and his breath hitches. He turns toward the shed and says, “Jewel? If you’re in there and you can hear me, don’t be afraid. I’m here to help you. I have to break the chain on the door to get you out.” He grips the ax in both hands, palms sweating, and starts swinging. The ax blade colliding with the chain sends a loud, metallic clang and rattle through the night. He looks over his shoulder and up at the lit window, hoping like hell that Roz doesn’t need saving.

The shape of a man waits under the blanket on the bed, not stirring even in the room’s bright light. Roz draws closer, pointing her gun at him, and once she stands at the bedside, she can see him: Adam Burke, lying on his back in a drunken sleep. Empty bottles clutter the night table and the floor around it. She checks her watch: quarter to eleven.

Roz points her gun at Burke’s head. If she kills him in his sleep, she’ll never know whether he’s one of the men who put bodies in the Texas Killing Fields along I-45. If she wakes him up, things could get dangerous. She’s got a pair of handcuffs on her; she could force him downstairs into the kitchen, restrain him, and torture him all night for answers. For pleasure.

“Hey!” she barks, voice raised. “Wake up.”

Burke twitches.

Roz kicks the bed. “I said wake up! Now!”

His eyes wander behind the lids. She presses the gun right against his neck, and a cold shock runs through her body.

He rolls his head toward her, opens his eyes, and sees her.

He bolts up against the headboard, ignoring the gun, gaze fixed on Roz. “Who the fuck are you?” he says “What are you doing in my house?”

“If you want to live, you better do everything I fucking tell you,” says Roz.

River hits the chain with the ax again, but it still doesn’t show any sign of breaking. He looks up at the house’s lit window but can’t hear anything. Then he realizes he’s trying to break into the shed the hard way. He starts chopping up the door itself, the weathered wood falling apart like tender meat. He keeps going until there’s a gaping hole in the middle of the door, pulling the loose pieces of wood away and tossing them on the ground.

Once enough of the door has been cleared for him to enter the shed, he drops the ax and takes out the mini flashlight he brought with him, shining it into the shed’s pitch black interior before stepping inside.

Adam Burke grabs Roz’s gun with both hands and yanks it away. She fires as he seizes the weapon, the bullet blowing out the window with a loud BANG! SMASH! She refuses to let go of the gun, tumbling into the bed with Burke. They wrestle around like two cats in a fight, the gun goes off again, and he throws her off the bed and onto the floor. She loses the gun, landing on her belly.

“You came to the wrong fucking house, bitch,” Burke says, feet hitting the floor on the other side of the bed.

Roz is about to slide under the bed when she sees something there she never would’ve expected: a long, metal pipe. Maybe a piece of the bed frame Burke never bothered to install.

River finds Jewel Gardner in the shed, curled up in the back corner, staring at him in terrified silence. She’s dirty, dressed only in a bra and jeans,

barefoot with dried tear tracks down her face. She’s hugging her knees to her chest. “Hey,” he says, trying to use a gentle voice, lips flickering with a forced smile. “I’m River. I’m going to get you out of here.”

Roz reaches under the bed, hand closing around the pipe.

Burke comes around to her, pointing the gun at her, his bared teeth glistening.

She scoots under the bed, then back out again from the foot, springing up behind him.

Just as he turns toward her, she strikes his forearms with the pipe, and he drops the gun with a yelp. She swings the pipe at his head, his neck whipping around at the impact.

    River carries Jewel out of the backyard and down the dirt driveway, past Burke’s car, jerking on his good leg under Jewel’s weight. The girl keeps her arms looped around his neck. She doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t cry. She must be in shock. He’s too worried about the gunshots he heard to feel anger or relief for the girl. All he can do is focus on getting to the Cougar where it waits out of sight, a little ways down the road.

Burke lies on the floor, knocked out cold. A huge, red-purple welt starts to swell across the left side of his face and head, blood surfacing through the abraded skin. Roz’s heart races in her chest, adrenaline surging through her body, and she looks at him, feeling the heft of the pipe in her hand. She turns out the light and waits for her vision to adjust to the darkness again, to the starlight coming in through the broken window. She takes a few steps up to Burke’s side, grips the pipe in both hands, raises it above her head, and brings it down on him.

She hits him again and again, until the muscles in her shoulders and back and arms burn, his blood hot and viscous, splattered across her clothes and face and bare neck. She hears his bones break, his skull crack and cave in, his flesh splitting open in dozens of little places. She doesn’t stop until the roaring void inside of her goes quiet, until the hunger disappears.

She lowers the pipe to her side, chest heaving, and for a split second as she looks down at his formless silhouette, she feels the urge to get down on her hands and knees and drink from the puddles of blood that surround him. Put her mouth on the gaping wound where his face used to be and suck.

Marie S. Crosswell writes short and long fiction, usually in the crime genre. Her novellas Texas, Hold Your Queens; Lone Star on a Cowboy Heart; Alchemy; and Cold, Cold Water are available wherever ebooks are sold. Her novel The Silence of Lightning is forthcoming from NineStar Press. She's a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and lives in the American West.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Tinder by Marie S. Crosswell

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.