Ken Butler had poured himself a second cup of coffee, but it had tasted funny and heíd opened the back door and poured it out into the little weed-choked lot behind his office. The Salton Estates substation was in what had once been a bait-and-tackle shop right on the main highway, and the bait shop owner had tried to grow a garden out back. When the Sheriffís Office took over, theyíd gutted the place except for a walk-in cooler that had been converted to a holding cell, and brought in a couple of desks and a teletype machine. Now Ken had a computer, a fax machine, and a couple of telephones to call his own as well. It was no high-tech wonderland but it did the job.
As he shook the coffee out of his mug he looked down the slope toward the cocoa brown waters of the Salton Sea, two hundred and some feet below sea level. After the little weed patch, there was nothing between here and the lakeís edge but mud. Even from here, he could see the glint of dead fish on the surface of the mud, and their smell was ever-present. He was used to that stink, though, and it wasnít as bad as when the algae bloomed and decomposed or selenium and other chemicals in the water killed off birds by the thousands, so it wasnít the Seaís odor that had made the coffee taste funny. It was only now, thinking it through, that he realized it was a coppery taste in the back of his throat that had been with him unnoticed since he woke up this morning.
The taste was at once familiar and rare, like a species that a birdwatcher has seen pictures of many times but only glimpsed once in the wild. Rare, because it had only come to him four or five timesfive, he corrected, because he could still enumerate themover the course of his fifty-two years on Godís green Earth. The first time had been on that day in Vietnam, the day he still thought of as the day in the tunnel, though heíd been a tunnel rat and had spent a good many days in tunnels.
Ken also thought of that day in a different wayas the day the magic came.
And when heíd tasted this peculiar flavor since, like fresh pennies caught inside his throat, those too had been on days when the magic had come back.
Which made today suddenly crystallize for him. Something would happen today, something strange and miraculous. It might be good or bad, but it was on the way, and there was no dodging it. Just over a week ago bad magic had struck in New York and Arlington, Virginia, but that hadnít been his magic. He was sure there was no relation to the strange taste in his mouth now.
He started to look back over everything that had happened since heíd rolled off his rack, just in case it had already taken place and heíd missed it. But he didnít get far at that before the front door opened behind him.
Glancing at his watch, he realized that it had to be his eleven oíclock appointment, right on time. He turned away from the Sea, closed the back door, and faced his visitor.
"Mr. Haynes," he said.
"Lieutenant," Ken corrected. "Thereís only one Sheriff, and he doesnít leave El Centro all that often."
"Sorry, Lieutenant." Carter Haynes stepped forward, hand out like a politician looking for a baby to kiss or a wad of cash to grab. Haynes dressed like a politician, too. His charcoal gray, pin-striped suit must have cost more than a thousand dollarsKen knew that he, a man who tended toward boot-cut Wranglers when out of uniform, had a tendency to underestimate the cost of fine clothesand the mere fact that Haynes wore a suit out here in the middle of the desert marked him for a fraud or a fool, in Ken Butlerís eyes. His thick black hair was carefully cut and combed off his face. He had intelligent brown eyes, widely spaced, and a fixed smile that looked genuine at the same time that it looked like a permanent feature. There was something a little unsettling in his skin, though, which was extraordinarily sallow, kind of unhealthy-looking beneath a layer of tan that looked so uniform is must have come from a salon rather than from being outside, and lips that were naturally as red as if theyíd been lipsticked. An interesting study in contradictions, Ken thought. Carter Haynes came across as a man to be reckoned with.
But not one to be trusted.
He pointed to the guest chair across from his desk, a wooden schoolteacherís chair. "Have a seat, Mr. Haynes. You have a good drive out? San Diego, isnít it?"
"Thatís right. It was very pleasant, thanks. Nice to get out of town occasionally." Carter sat down in the guest chair, his lean frame making it look comfortable somehow. Ken sat behind his own desk, suddenly conscious of his own boots, worn at the heel and toe-scuffed, in the presence of this expensively-dressed visitor.
"Guess Iím just a country man at heart," he said. "City living didnít agree with me."
"Itís certainly different than life out here."
"But you want to build out here."
"Thatís right," Carter said. "And I can tell you why. Itís because I know what lifeís like in the city. I know there are plenty of people, people like me in San Diego and Los Angeles and Orange County. People with plenty of money, but who are tired of the rat race, tired of the traffic and congestion and noise and crime. We want a place where we can get away from that, a place where thereís quiet and natural beauty and peace of mind. We could afford Palm Springs or Palm Desert, but those places are getting overbuilt. What we want is a place like Salton Estates. Especially now, when those who can afford to might be looking for a place they can go thatís out of harmís way. Nasty business back east, right?"
"Sure is," Ken answered. People who knew he was a Vietnam vet kept wanting to talk to him about the nationís war plans. He was tired of it, so he steered the conversation back to the matter at hand and away from the terrorist attacks that had dominated the national conversation since that awful Tuesday morning.
"Youíre planning to build on the Slab."
"Youíve managed to purchase that land?"
"Thatís right," Haynes said. "The governmentís been doing a lot of unloading lately. Closing military bases, selling off land they donít need or want. I happened to own some land they did want, near Yellowstone. We made a deal."
It wasnít Kenís place to criticize business decisions, but he knew that developers had come into the area before, hungry to make a killing, and they usually were lucky to get away with the clothes on their backs. Salton Estates had, in fact, been named for one of those would-be resort developments. Roads had been graded and paved, lots carefully marked off, a marina and a couple of model houses builtbut not enough people had wanted to buy into a beachfront resort where the sea might rise up and flood your home, dead fish would wash up onto your property every morning, and the chemical stink would keep you inside half the time. The developers had run out of money and interest. The marina was flooded now, the model houses stripped for parts, and the streets and lots mostly vacant.
"You know other people have tried to build resorts out here, right? Without notable success."
Carter Haynes rubbed his hands together like a hungry man sitting down to big meal. "I canít give away all my trade secrets, Lieutenant Butler," he replied. "But I can tell you that one of the major stumbling blocks those earlier investors had is about to go away. Another one already has."
"Thatís right. The first one is moneythose developers paid a premium for land right on the lake, with a nice view of the mountains behind. A beautiful spot, and worth premium prices. If the lake was healthier. But itís not, not so far. The Slab, though, is back away from the lake. You can see it but you canít smell it. And itís closer to the mountains, so those views are better."
"And whatís the other stumbling block?"
"Thatís the one I canít tell you about yet," Carter said. "Thatís my secret weapon."
Ken steepled his fingers, resting his upper lip and his salt-and-pepper mustache on their tips. "Fair enough," he said. "So tell me about what you expect from this meeting tonight."
"Iím prepared to make these people a generous offer," Carter said. "I own title to the Slab now, all legal and above-board, and I could just evict everyone. But I donít want to play the game that way. Those people are living there under a certain set of expectations, and itís time for those expectations to change. But that doesnít mean they should be screwed."
"I wonít argue with that."
"So I hope to get everyone, or as close to everyone as will come out, to gather around so I can tell them all at once what the offerís going to be. Of course, over the next few weeks weíll be visiting each one separately, signing releases and turning over checks."
"Theyíll like to hear that, I expect," Ken suggested. "But you might want to keep in mind the kind of people youíre dealing with This is a very independent-minded bunch. They tend to make Libertarians look like Socialists. You might be offering them something they can use, which is money, but youíre asking them to give up the one thing money canít buy, which is freedom."
"Do you think theyíre likely to get vocal?" Carter asked, a note of concern in his voice.
"I imagine youíll hear some raised voices."
"Iím assumingand I know what happens when you assume, but I do it anywaythat youíre expecting some dissent, and thatís why you want us there."
Carter nodded. "I figure it canít hurt."
"I donít have any doubt that theyíd let you down off the Slab alive, even if we werenít there to keep an eye on things. But weíll be there, just the same."
"That would be good," Carter said, his tongue running across his unnaturally red lips. "That would be really good."
Ken was about to say something else when a screech of brakes outside the office interrupted him. He glanced out the window, and saw only a cloud of dust hanging on the still air, then the tall shape of Billy Cobb loomed into view, heading for the door.
When he burst through it he held a stained plastic Vons bag in his right hand.
"That it?" Ken asked him.
"Itís human, Ken," Billy said. "And look. Itís" He stopped himself, noticing Carter Haynes for the first time. "Sorry, I didnít mean to interrupt your meeting. Itís just"
Ken pushed himself up from the desk and crossed the office. He gestured to the bag. "Let me see."
Billy held the bag open so Ken could look inside. He did so, lips pressed together, silently analyzing the bagís grim contents. He felt a sudden tug of urgency. Haynes was just a rich guy, a roadblock in the path of him doing his real job, and he wanted the guy out of his office.
When Ken had seen enough he looked up at Billy. "Get it down to El Centro, to the Coronerís office."
Billy paused, looking at Carter Haynes and back at Ken as if waiting for an introduction.
"Today," Ken added.
Billy tossed off his standard salute and left.
Returning to his desk, Ken said, "Sorry about that."
"Donít worry about it," Carter said graciously. "Everything okay?"
"There might be a bit of a snag to your meeting tonight, after all," Ken warned him. "Looks as if we may have an ongoing homicide investigation up at the Slab."
Carterís eyes widened. It was barely perceptible, but it was the first indication Ken had seen that the man could be made to lose his cool. When Carter Haynes spoke again, there was new tension in his voice.
"Do you think thatís absolutely necessary?"
Ken just looked at him for a moment. "Itís a homicide investigation," he said. "It isnít something I can just sweep under the rug."
Carter looked around the office, waving a hand to indicate the surroundings. "You have a nice little set-up here, in a Mayberry kind of way," he said. "Just imagine what you could do if you had an actual tax base here in Salton Estates. Luxury homes, real property taxes. You and Deputy Fife could buy some new trucks, upgrade that PC, maybe hire someone to answer the phones, you know?"
"And I wouldnít object to that," Ken countered. "But that doesnít mean Iím going to stall this investigation, if it turns out to be warranted."
"Thereís a chance it wonít?" Carterís tone was hopeful.
"There will have to be some questions answered," Ken replied. "I donít know that it will turn out to be a full-fledged murder case. Thatíll depend on the lab results."
"Iíll keep my fingers crossed," Carter said.
"Somehow," Ken observed, "you donít strike me as a man who relies a lot on luck."
Four of them had made the annual Dove Hunt for all thirteen years. Vic Bradford had joined two years in. One of them, Ray Dixon, was a relative newcomer, with only seven years. And this was the second year without Hal Shipp, who was still missed by everyone.
Vic Bradford took mental stock as they cruised the towns of southern Riverside County. By now, it was all ritualized, done the same way every September. The first day, they said goodbye to their wives and families and piled into someoneís car, this time Cam Hensleyís Navigator. They drove up to the cabin they kept in a remote valley outside Blythe, unloaded their gear and groceries, and got down to some heavy drinking. The booze and storytelling went on most of the night, and finally they crashed for a few hours. The next day, bleary-eyed and hung over, the Dove Hunt began in earnest.
When theyíd first invited him to take part, Vic had felt a tangle of conflicting emotions. He had just turned thirty-two, still young but starting to think, now and again, about thirty-five and then the inevitable slide into the forties and beyond. He was past that now, of course, and he realized that the forties werenít as bad as heíd feared back then. Now, though, it was his fifties that loomed, and that really scared him.
He had felt honored to be asked. Heíd heard that the other guys were going out hunting, of course. Then once he learned what it was really all about, he was appalled and intrigued and excited all at once.
He was only peripherally a part of their crowd, he thought, until he realized that not having obvious social ties was part of the whole idea. Cam Hensley looked like an accountant, with his balding, graying hair and thick black glasses, but he was one of the wealthiest men in the Valley, owning tens of thousands of acres of prime farmland. The thing that bugged Vic about him was his forehead, bulbous, as if he had extra brains inside there trying to get out. And while his hairline had receded almost to the point of nonexistence, right at the top and center of that huge forehead was this patch of black hair, an island of hair, unconnected to the rest, that Cam refused to shave. He kept it trimmed, which was newuntil a couple of years ago, heíd grown it out and tried to connect it to his other remnants of hair by creative combing. But still, it looked like an aberration and Vic wished heíd just shave it already.
Silver-haired, tanned, and fit, Kerry Williams owned a Caterpillar dealership in El Centro. Kerry maintained an air of mystery about himself, though he occasionally talked about intelligence work in Central America during the eighties. Vic was never sure how much of that talk was true and how much of it was self-aggrandizing bullshit. He had no real reason to doubt Kerryís word, but the self-aggrandizing part was undeniable. Kerry Williams considered himself a leader of men, and if this group was any indication then maybe he was.
Terrance Berkley and R.J. Rocknowski were closer to Vicís social status and income level. Vic and Rock actually lived right on the Slab, while Terrance had a mobile home in a park in Niland, almost on that townís border with Salton Estates. He paid for his berth, but at least he had plumbing and power, and since he lived with his wife and her twelve-year-old son from her first marriage, things like phones and an address were more important to him. With his Marine-length haircut and broad shoulders, Ray Dixon looked like the soldier Kerry had once been, even though heíd never been in the military at all. Ray worked at the sugar plant in Brawley and lived down there, in a second floor apartment, with his wife. They had come together at their kidsí Little League gamesCam and Terrance both had boysat church functions or political fund raisers, at planning board meetings, at boat rental docks on the Salton, at the liquor store buying suds. There hadnít been any master plan, any grand design. They were just a group of men who ran into one another around the area, found that they had common interests, and decided to put together a hunting trip.
But that first one had not gone according to plan. No one could say, or would say, whose idea it was, though Vic suspected Kerry Williams. Kerry was the one, after all, with the special ops experience. In his shadowy Latin American, he implied, he had developed certain tastes that were hard to satisfy in El Norte. And he had the strongest personality; he could talk the other guys into nearly anything.
Strike the "nearly," Vic thought. He had already proven that, thirteen times over.
They told stories about the various Hunts, usually the same stories every year. But the guys who had been there that first year wouldnít talk about it except in the vaguest possible terms. They wouldnít describe exactly how it had gone down, and that secrecy carried over from year to year. People who heard about the Hunt asked questions and made a variety of assumptionsthat the men spent the week in Nevada, gambling and visiting brothels, that they went down to Mexico for the same thing but without so much of the gambling. Those who went on the trip were sworn to secrecy, though, and their close-mouthed satisfaction just made the speculation that much wilder. Vic was able to make some guesses about that first time, based on how the ritual had played out since heíd joined, but they would only be speculation.
As they always did, the second day after the hard night of drinking and shouting and laughing and, this year, bitching about the Muslimsthe bonding time that was required if any of them were to get through thisthey cruised the back roads of Riverside County, heartened by the sight of American flags fluttering in yards and from businesses and plastered to windows everywhere. Dove season was over, legallyit ran from September first to the fifteenth, then kicked in for another forty-five days in November. But they didnít want real dove hunters to be out while they were, so they habitually waited a week or two after the season closed. The delay just made the anticipation sweeter, and they didnít really give a damn if they brought home any birds.
Somewhere out there was their Dove.
This year, it was Ray Dixon who spotted her. It happened in Mecca, a few miles above the north shore of the Salton Sea.
"There!" Ray shouted anxiously. "Right there!" He pointed toward a mercado called Leonís. Its brown stucco wall was striped by the shadows of three date palms. Signs in Spanish filled its windows, completely obscuring any view in or out.
Stepping out of the door, oblivious to her fate, their Dove had a six-pack of Corona in one hand, and a plastic bag with some various dry groceries in it dangled from her other wrist. A thick tangle of rich black hair framed a pretty face, with huge brown eyes, smooth olive skin and a button nose. Her full lips were pulled into a private smile, as if sheíd just shared a joke with the shopkeeper inside. Heavy breasts stretched a form-fitting striped black and white tank top that tucked into tight brown jeans. Her sandals had thick wedge solestoo high for walking around town in, Vic thought, but they made her look taller than her five-six or so. All in all, she was a lovely girl, the prettiest one he could remember.
Cam, behind the wheel, slowed down as he passed her.
"Not bad," he said, appraising her as he drove by.
"What are you doing?" Ray demanded. "Youíll miss her! Go back!"
"Patience, my son," Cam said. He made a hard right at the next intersection. Heading around the block. "If it was too easy, it wouldnít be a Hunt."
"Iíd just hate to miss her," Ray insisted. "I mean, she was hot."
"I got to agree with you there," Rock said. "That body, she could do porn." The ability to do porn was, Vic had learned, the highest compliment Rock could pay a woman. Angelina Jolie, Nikki Cox, Ashley Judd, Dolly Parton, they were all tops in Rockís book because they could do porn. Not that they would, but they could. Janet Reno, Laura Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and Bea Arthur all shared a less elevated status, as women who could not do porn. It was, in its fashion, refreshingly non-ideological. Rock would vote for a woman for President, as long as the woman was built like Pam Anderson and her running mate carried the moral authority of Ron Jeremy.
Cam kept quiet, hanging another right, and then another. The woman had crossed the street and covered most of a block in the time it had taken them to circle around. The houses here were tiny stucco constructions on small lots, jammed right up next to one another. Cam gunned the engine a little and pulled up behind her. "See?" he said. "Put a little sport into it."
"Look at that ass," Ray Dixon said.
Vic had already done so, and found it exceptional.
"Oh yeah," Rock said. "She could be a star."
"Lookouts?" Cam had always been a practical man.
"Clear on my side," Terrance Berkley called from the front passenger seat. Terrance pretty much needed a bucket seat to himself or his bulk would spread all over the benchhe was a big, sloppy side of beef of a man with wild red hair that looked like he styled it with a blender.
"Nobody over here," Kerry Williams reported from the driverís side rear. Just the sound of Kerryís voice intimidated Vicit was low and gravelly and he always spoke with a tone of supreme authority. He was glad that he and Ray Dixon sat in the second row buckets, while Rock rode on the rear bench with Kerry. Rockís muscular arms were crossed, his ponytailed head whipping from side to side as he watched for witnesses.
With the street clear of visible onlookers, Cam gunned the Navigator again and pulled up ahead of the girl. She was aware of the SUVís presence now, and became even more so when Cam cut in front of her, one wheel jouncing up onto the sidewalk. Doors opened and men spilled out in a practiced move.
"Excuse me?" The girl said. She started to say more, but Rock slipped behind her and clapped a strong hand over her mouth. Cam grabbed her ankles and upended them. Within seconds, a gag had been tied across her mouth, her wrists had been bound with plastic handcuff strips, and sheíd been dropped in the Navigatorís luggage compartment. Cam hopped back behind the wheel and squealed away. No one had shown up on the street during the process.
Vic turned back to look at her, writhing on her side, eyes wide with terror, a film of tears and sweat sheening her cheeks.
The Dove Hunt was on.