Shadow’s Blade – Snippet 22

Closer to the road, huge saguaros grew beside equally impressive clusters of the organ pipe cacti for which the monument was named. They shared the desert floor with brittlebrush and creosote, mesquite and paloverde, chollas and ocotillos and prickly pears, creating a stunning palette of soft earth tones. A woodpecker flew across the road to one of the larger organ pipes, its wings flashing white and black, and a covey of quail ran along the roadside, the curved plumes on their foreheads bobbing comically. Ahead, beyond the entrance gate, the sheer, rugged cliffs of the Ajo Mountains appeared to glow red in the late afternoon sun.

I had been here once with my dad, many years ago, but I had forgotten how beautiful it was. More recently, the monument had been saddled with a bad reputation as one of the least safe of America’s national parks and monuments. The monument sits right on the border with Mexico, and since its establishment back in the 1930s, the park service had resisted efforts to put large fences along its southern edge. They preferred to keep the park scenic and natural, and to allow the free flow of wildlife through that section of the desert. I can understand their thinking. But as a result, Organ Pipe National Monument had long ago become a popular place for illegal crossings by immigrants as well as drug couriers. And in 2002, a park ranger named Kris Eggle was killed in a shootout with members of a Mexican drug cartel. That tragedy focused attention on the problem and convinced the service and border security to take more decisive action. They constructed a steel fence along the southern edge of the monument, which had curbed some of the motor traffic across the border.

Still, illegal crossings continue to this day, and the monument’s reputation as a somewhat dodgy vacation destination persists. This was one more reason why it seemed to me the perfect place for Gracie Davett and her kids to lie low. The campgrounds wouldn’t be crowded, and if they decided that fleeing the country made sense . . . well, the porousness of the border worked both ways.

I paid an entrance fee at the park gate, and drove through the scenic core of the monument, known as the Valley of the Ajo. Those stark cliffs loomed to the east, basking in the golden sunlight. Black vultures circled over the drive, the silvery patches at the ends of their wings catching the light, and lizards scuttled across the road, their tails held high as they vanished into the saltbrush. I couldn’t help but smile. At some point I would have to bring my dad back here.

I passed the visitor’s center, which was named for Eggle. Soon after, the road wound into the Twin Peaks campground.

For a few hours now, I had been wondering how best to approach Gracie. I didn’t want to scare her, but I knew that as soon as she saw the blur of magic on my face she would assume the worst and would throw assailing spells at me. I had confidence in my ability to ward myself against whatever spells she tried. Then again I’m sure the two guys she killed at the Burger Royale had been confident, too.

I eased the pickup onto the campground loop, and followed it to the far end, where the tent sites were located. I didn’t figure Gracie was driving an RV. I turned onto the first of the two “tents-only” rows, driving slowly past the sites like any newcomer trying to find a good place to pitch a tent. Some of the sites were taken. Two or three had tents pitched on them but no cars parked on the sites. People milled about on several of the others. But more than half of the campsites were empty. Reaching the end of this row, I had to circle all the way back to the front of the loop to try the second row, which was also the last row in the campground, farthest from the ranger station. About halfway down this road, I spotted what I’d been looking for. A silver Honda minivan sat parked next to a large blue and white domed tent.

At first I didn’t see any adults. But as I rolled past the van, I spotted a little girl sitting at the picnic table by the site’s fire grate. Pretty and grave, her skin nut brown, her dark hair hanging loose to her shoulders, she watched me, unblinking. I gazed back at her, remembering the picture of Gracie I’d seen at Amaya’s. This girl had to be her daughter. After a moment, I smiled, but her expression didn’t change. And as soon as I was past their site, she jumped up from the table and ran to the tent.

I hadn’t wanted to alarm them. Seems I’d failed already, and I had yet to say a word to any of them or even get out of the truck.

I pulled into an empty site two down from theirs and climbed out of the cab. As soon as my feet hit the ground, I felt the moon. My eyes were drawn to it; its pull was magnetic. It hung low in the eastern sky, pale and large, paralyzing in its beauty. It was still a half dozen days shy of full, but its weight on my mind felt as solid and real as the door of the pickup against my hand. Every phasing was bad — I had no reason to think that this one would be any worse than last month’s or the one before that. But at that moment, I found it hard to believe that we were still days away from the full. Maybe it was being out here in the desert, far from the city. Whatever the reason, the moon’s pull seemed more powerful here, more insistent.

I shook my head to clear my thoughts and walked around the campsite a bit, making it seem as though I were figuring out where I would place my tent. I made a point of not looking back toward Gracie’s minivan or that blue tent. The last thing I wanted was to spook them into leaving.

As it turned out, that wasn’t the danger.

The spell hit me between the shoulder blades with the force of a cannon ball. I went down hard, my face and chest slamming into the sand and gravel. My mouth throbbed painfully. I could tell I had split my lip; I hoped I hadn’t lost a tooth as well.

Before I could get up, a footfall scuffed behind me.

“Don’t even breathe,” a woman’s voice said. If she was scared, she hid it well. “Keep your hands where I can see them. And if I feel the slightest touch of magic, I swear to God I’ll blow your head off.”

I heard the tentative crunch of another step.

“Are you alone?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Who the hell are you?”

“My name’s Jay Fearsson.” I had trouble forming the words. My lip was already swelling, and I was talking into the ground. But I forged on. “I’m a private detective. Your parents hired me to find you.”

She laughed, dry and harsh. “That’s bullshit. Did Neil send you?”

“No. I swear, your parents did. I met them at Jacinto Amaya’s house. He’s paying me, but on their behalf.”

No answer. Apparently she hadn’t expected that.

“I guess your mom — Marisol — she teaches at Chofi’s school. That’s Amaya’s daughter. She loves your mom; Amaya said she’s the kid’s favorite teacher.” I was babbling, but I hoped that at least some of what I said might convince Gracie I was telling the truth.

“How did you find me?”

“Your mother said you like to camp, you and the kids. And after what happened at the restaurant, I figured you’d want to find an out of the way place to hide, somewhere cheap, something you could pay for without using a credit card. The campgrounds near Saguaro National Park would have been another choice, but it’s too obvious, too close to Tucson. So I guessed you were here.”

“Crap.” She said it in a low voice; I’m not sure she realized she had spoken aloud.

“It was either here or San Diego,” I said, still talking for the sake of it. I didn’t imagine I could win her trust with this soliloquy, but maybe I could keep her from shooting me. “The spell you put on I-10 around Casa Grande was a little heavy-handed. But then you didn’t use any magic at the exit off of I-8, which was smart. I think most people would keep driving toward California.”

“You didn’t.”

“That’s because I spoke to your mom. If she hadn’t mentioned camping, I wouldn’t have thought to come here.”

She said nothing, and for several seconds all was silent except for the distant liquid song of a canyon wren. Thinking perhaps I had convinced her to trust me, I moved my hands, bracing them on the rough ground so that I could push myself up.

“Don’t!” she said, before I could raise myself off the ground.

I held my hands up. “I was just going to get up.”

“I know damn well what you were going to do. And I’m telling you not to.”

“I’m here to help you, Gracie.”

“I don’t need help.”

“I disagree. I know who’s after you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean. Who do you know?”

“I know Saorla. And I also know the Phoenix police. I used to work for them.”

“A weremyste cop? I’m not sure I believe that, either.”

“Tell me about the silver-haired man.”

She didn’t answer right away. “What do you know about him?”

“I know that he can kill with a touch, that he can pull blood for a spell without having to cut someone. Do you know his name?”

“No.” She said it with some hesitation, leaving me unsure as to whether I should believe her.

“Had you seen him before the restaurant?”

“Possibly. I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember? He strikes me as someone I’d have trouble forgetting.”

“Well, that’s you. Get up.”