Scratchgravel Road

A Mystery

Josie Gray Mysteries (Volume 2)

Tricia Fields

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

ONE
 

Teresa Cruz knew that people watched her. There’s nothing more satisfying than catching a cop’s kid, her mom had told her. Yet here she was, standing in front of a pickup truck an hour past town curfew, with Enrico Gomez, the twenty-year-old guy her mother had forbidden her from seeing.
“No cars past here,” he said, pointing down into the Hollow.
Teresa looked out into the black desert but could see nothing. She had cotton mouth and her eyes stung from the hot night wind. She felt Enrico fumble in the dark for her hand, then wrap her fingers inside his.
“You scared?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
She shrugged, not trusting her voice.
“Stay with me, you’ll be fine. Everybody’s cool. We walk down a slope into the Hollow. Can’t see it from the road. Cops don’t even know it’s here.”
Teresa’s throat constricted.
“Even if she drove by here she couldn’t see the cars from Scratchgravel.”
She turned away from him. He had misjudged her silence.
He dropped her hand and dug into his front pocket. “I got a surprise. Hold your hand out flat.”
She held her palm out and watched him twist open the top of a small container. He laid a round mirror in her hand and she forced herself not to pull back.
She felt suddenly self-conscious, too young in her shorts and flip-flops and tank top. She wore her black hair straight, falling just below her shoulder blades, and worried Enrico’s friends would look down on her—just some sixteen-year-old girl. She had no idea who would be there but was too proud to ask.
“Hold still,” he said.
She held her hand motionless, torn between the fear of getting caught and the thrill of watching.
In his other hand he flipped open his cell phone and shone the dim light onto the mirror, where he tapped out a line from the container. He handed her his cell phone and she held the light over his hand as he tightened the lid on the small vial, stuffed it back in his pocket, then bent over her hand and used a thin straw to snort the powder into his nose.
Teresa felt nauseous. She had crossed a line her mother would never forgive, certainly never understand.
In the pale light Teresa watched him shove his hand back into his front pocket. “Want a hit?”
She shook her head.
“You ever done a line?” he asked.
She said nothing.
“Come on, girl. You’ll feel like Superman. Feel like you can do anything. Just a small one.”
He unscrewed the lid and her skin prickled.
“Let’s just go,” she said.
He hesitated and then replaced the lid and shoved it back in his pocket. She should have told him the truth—she didn’t want it. She liked Enrico, but she didn’t like the person she became when she was with him.
He walked back to the truck’s driver-side door and she listened as he turned the key and rolled the windows up, then locked the doors.
It was a warm July night and the air felt hot on her skin. The sky was wide open with a three-quarter moon that cast a deep purple light, revealing the jagged shadows of desert cactus and low-lying mountain ranges in the distance.
He came back and stood in front of her. “You know anyone who’s been out here?”
Like most high school kids, she had heard of the Hollow but never been. It was a desert hideout accessible by invitation only. A kid didn’t wander into the Hollow without being asked first by a regular. By someone who had already been accepted. Rumors ran through school about what went on: drugs, sex, alcohol, but it was the allure of the unknown that made kids talk.
She shook her head no.
“That’s cool. Just relax. Street etiquette, right?”
“I know.” She did not know. She had no idea what she would say. She felt entirely out of place and wanted him to promise not to leave her side.
Taking her hand again, he laced his fingers between her own and began walking.
Enrico pointed toward the land in front of them. “Look. You don’t need lights now.”
Teresa made out the silhouettes of two small mountain ranges to the north. Creosote bushes, agave, Spanish daggers, and mesquite clumps blended with large boulders that disguised vehicles from view. Enrico was right; her eyes had adjusted and the land spread out before her like a movie screen. It was the same desert she’d grown up in, but everything looked different. The boulders and bushes she wouldn’t have given a second thought to in the daylight now appeared to hide things inside their shadows.
“How will you find the truck with no lights?” she asked.
Enrico laughed. “You stick by me. Ain’t nothing to worry about.”
His hair was cut military style, short on the sides, longer on top, and he wore the loose jeans and tight shirt of guys who claimed gang status. She could feel the energy buzzing through his body, his grip on her hand so tight it hurt.
As he pulled her along she struggled to keep her bearings, beginning to feel anxious that she couldn’t find her way out on her own. Enrico had pulled off of Scratchgravel Road onto an arroyo that she hadn’t even known existed. He had put the truck into four-wheel drive and followed the arroyo heading east for close to a mile before stopping. There were a half-dozen trucks and Jeeps parked behind the tail end of a small mountain range that appeared to have been chopped into pieces. It made good cover for the vehicles and the Hollow that lay somewhere on the other side.
Enrico laid his arm over her shoulder and it felt heavy. He was built thick and worked out obsessively. She struggled to keep up with him, worrying she would trip over a cactus, leaving cuts that she would struggle to explain to her mother the next day.
She smelled the sweet musky smoke before she saw the faint light from the bonfire in the distance. Enrico put a finger to his lips and they listened to hushed laughter, maybe fifty feet in front of them. She couldn’t tell if the voices’ owners were walking or were inside a vehicle. After a few seconds the sounds faded into the distance.
With no city lights the stars and moon lit the desert floor a soft gray. The ground appeared to be reflecting back the absorbed light from the sun’s afternoon glare. The light from the fire, still partially hidden behind a large boulder, appeared bright suddenly.
“It’s a half-mile walk from here. You cool?” he asked.
“I’m fine.”
“Watch for the long skinny cactus. They rip into your skin like a fishing hook. Hurts like hell to pull them out.”
Enrico stopped suddenly and Teresa ran into his side. He pointed to his left, toward the road, in the direction of an approaching vehicle. “Hold up. Truck’s coming.”
They stood and watched the yellow parking lights of a dark-colored, full-size pickup as it drove slowly forward, just to the north of them. Without a word, they both crouched in the sand and watched the truck slow to a crawl, then circle behind a large thick grove of bushes roughly thirty feet in front of them.
“Don’t you know all these people?” she whispered.
“Nobody comes to the Hollow off Scratchgravel like that,” he said, pointing in the direction of the truck. “Got to be safe.”
She wondered what he meant. Safe from the cops?
The truck stopped. The driver exited, slammed the door, and walked to the back end.
“What the hell’s this guy doing?” Enrico said.
Teresa could feel his arm tense against hers like he was ready to take off after the guy in the truck. Enrico had an intensity that she respected, like he could handle anything.
The man laid the tailgate down and dragged something forward. They heard him grunt, obviously struggling with the load. Teresa wondered if they were watching a drug exchange. The Rio Grande, the border to Mexico, was less than a mile away, and crossing it in the middle of nowhere was no big deal. The Border Patrol rarely made it to Artemis. With two thousand miles of international border their little town barely got noticed, and drug mules and coyotes transporting illegals were part of life.
The man at the back of the truck continued to struggle for another minute, and then they heard a heavy thud as the load hit the ground. The man bent and worked for several seconds arranging something, then stood abruptly, shut the tailgate, and walked back to the driver’s side. They listened as he shoved the truck into gear and drove slowly away, around the bushes and back the same way he came, straight back out to the road.
Enrico stood and Teresa grabbed ahold of the back of his shirt. “Maybe we should turn back. If that’s a load of weed we should get out of here.”
Instead, he walked forward, toward the dark mass lying on the ground. Teresa followed a few feet behind him.
Enrico stopped suddenly and threw his arm out to stop her. “Son of a bitch.”
Looking over his shoulder, she gasped and stifled a scream into her fist.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Tricia Fields