Description: Three veterans of different wars, their lives once saved by magic, find themselves brought together in one of the most strange, remote, and cruel parts of the California desert. As serial killers ply their deadly trade, a young woman, abducted and endangered, seeks her own brand of justice for those who threatened her, and an ancient evil sprouts from beneath desert sands, these three war veterans must learn to embrace the terrifying bond they share. Written in powerful prose as dry and dangerous as its desert setting, The Slab, for all its horrors, is ultimately an epic tale of hope and redemption.
Billy Cobb hated the way the washboard road juddered the squad car. The road up from town was mostly paved, but once you got back into the maze of concrete slabs that made up the area folks just called the Slab, the road wasn’t maintained, and then even that primitive paved road petered out and became nothing but dirt and rock. A man needed a sport-ute out here, and that was a fact. Butler, of course, had his old Bronco, which he seemed to love like the wife he didn’t have. And, Billy thought as he pulled the car onto the Slab, it really should have been the Lieutenant checking out something like a human skull being discovered, not a Deputy, even though he knew that Ken was supposed to be meeting with that real estate guy today.
Man had a fine brain, and he was fair. But he was shy, Billy knew, not hide-in-a-closet shy but it was trouble just the same. It got in the way of doing his job sometimes.
The good part of it was that there would come a day when he would step down, and then Billy would be there, next in line, logical choice. From there it was only a few steps up to a job down in El Centro, maybe eventually Imperial County Sheriff. Sheriff Cobb had a natural ring to it, and when he was Sheriff he could requisition funds from the County to buy himself a new Expedition every year if he wanted it.
And Carrie Provost! Jesus God, why did she have to be the one to find it? If ever there was a reason that humans should be muzzled, she was it—the woman could talk all morning about the texture of her Corn Flakes. Give her something genuinely interesting, like finding a skull, and Billy figured there was a good possibility that he’d still be here come nightfall listening to her jaw about her discovery.
He slowed down as he wove his way among the mobile homes, trailers, buses, broken down cars and camper shells that made up the Slab. There were only a few locals out this morning, it seemed. Old Hal Shipp sat outside of his RV in a broken-down lawn chair, the kind with the ribbons of contrasting colors woven together, but half the ribbons on this one seemed to be sprung and trailing on the ground. Billy raised a hand to the old man, but got no response. Shipp’s wife, Virginia, stepped out of their ancient Minnie Winnie—wheels gone, rust-covered cinderblocks propping it up—with two tumblers of lemonade on a plastic tray in her hands. She smiled and nodded her head at Billy. She was a good woman—a saint, the way she put up with Hal, whose memory was shot and who, half the time, thought he was back fighting Nazis in World War Two. Billy touched the brim of his Smokey hat at her and kept going.
The Slab was a weird place, there was no getting around that. It was, literally, a series of vast slabs of cement poured on a flat stretch between the Chocolate Mountains and the Salton Sea. At the beginning of Hal Shipp’s war, the military had decided that the best place to train troops to fight the Nazis in North Africa was in one of America’s hottest and driest deserts. Imperial County fit that bill, and besides, this was California’s ass end, where the waste-brown Colorado dribbled down into Mexico, so there’d been a few farmers in the Valley but mostly empty land, and no one to complain about the noise. They’d built a camp up here, then abandoned it right after the war. There was nothing left of it but the slabs now.
Flat and level, the slabs were a perfect parking place for recreational vehicles. So that’s what they had become. But not primarily for tourists, although its population exploded during the winter months, with as many as two thousand snowbirds moving in and parking their mobile homes on any unclaimed stretch of cement or dirt. But during the hot months, most of the RVs here were, like the Shipps’, permanent fixtures. People lived on the Slab year round, even though there were no services like water or plumbing or electricity and they had to drive into Niland to pick up their mail, most of them, because it was cheap. As in, free. No one taxed them, no one came around to collect rent or mortgage payments. Anyone who could afford a broken-down motor home and a generator to power it and some food at the market in Salton Estates or Niland could live there. The Slab attracted society’s outcasts, retired folks, nudists, survivalists. A few drug dealers had set up shop there but they tended to be frowned upon, even ostracized. This was a white, conservative, blue-collar bunch, mostly, people tired of paying taxes and living by society’s rules. Imperial County’s only real concession to their existence was to send a school bus up, during the school year, to pick up the dozen or so young kids and haul them off to become educated.
One thing that had always struck Billy Cobb as strange, which he noticed again as he threaded between the RVs, was the yard sales. People hauled the most bizarre crap out of their homes and put it up for sale, and their neighbors bought it, putting their own crap up for sale to make room for it. This formed the basis, as far as Billy could see, of most of the cash economy of Slab society. Outside the Hudsons’ Winnebago was a folded ping-pong table with a sign taped to it offering it for sale for five dollars. Never mind that there wasn’t a doublewide on the Slab with room inside it for a ping-pong table. By the weekend, somebody would have bought it, and they’d set it up under the shade they made by jamming poles into the dirt a dozen feet from their trailer and stretching a sheet between them, and they’d drink beer and play ping pong for a couple of weeks until it got old, at which point they’d sell it to some other neighbor for the same five bucks.
In the past few days, Billy noted, patriotism had flourished like a fast-growing fungus among these people who had willingly turned their backs on governments large and small. Flags, those printed in the newspapers and taped to windows, small plastic ones hung on foot-long sticks, and even a few full-sized cloth ones, were everywhere in evidence, competing for space with animal skulls, faded Christmas lights that had never been plugged in, random graffiti and other attempts at personalizing the mass-produced housing these people lived in.
Carrie Provost’s mobile home was the same as most of the others, in that it looked like it had been decorated by a coalition of the blind and the insane. An army of ceramic beings defended its ramparts: gnomes, trolls, elves, deer, sheep, geese, ducks, rabbits, and a single pig, on the side that Billy could see on his approach. Most of them were cracked or broken in some way—a good number of them having suffered bullet wounds somewhere along the way—but the pig looked brand new, pink and shiny in the morning sun.
Aluminum foil coated every window, which was not all that unusual in the desert. It deflected the heat that would otherwise be magnified by the window glass. In Carrie’s case, though, Billy thought it might serve the secondary purpose of blocking the radio transmissions of invading aliens. He had heard that she’d covered the whole roof of the trailer with the stuff too, but had never cared enough to climb up and check.
From rusting wire hangers, she had hung a wide and bizarre variety of found items from the edge of her roof. Anything discovered in the desert seemed to be fair game. The hollowed-out shell of an ocotillo branch hung next to the skeleton of a small bird, next to the carcass of a television set with its picture tube blown out, next to a shredded tire. The overall effect was strangely disturbing, a kind of museum of litter and cast-offs that meant nothing to anyone but its curator. Billy was a little surprised that Carrie had made the effort to find a phone so she could report the skull, rather than simply hanging it from yet another coat hanger.
He parked the Crown Victoria in front of her place, got out, and sauntered up to the door. It had taken him a couple of months, once he’d decided on law enforcement as a career, to perfect the walk he wanted to use. He’d adapted it from a John Wayne walk he’d seen. He kept his legs somewhat stiff, moving at the hips, arms swinging freely. He felt that this walk gave the impression of a coiled jungle beast, ready to run or strike at any moment, and emphasized the spread of his shoulders and the depth of his chest, two features of which he was especially proud. The chest, in particular, was the result of many hours on a weight bench in the back yard of his parents’ home in Brawley. He didn’t know if Carrie Provost was watching, or anyone else for that matter, but it didn’t matter. The walk was second nature by now.
Carrie had a screen door pulled closed, with an open interior door. Billy tapped on the screen. “Carrie!” he called. “Ms. Provost! You here?”
“Coming!” Carrie Provost called from inside the mobile home. There was a clattering noise, like sheet metal hitting a concrete floor, and then she appeared in the doorway a moment later. “Sorry about the racket,” she said. “I don’t have room to turn around in here.”
“We can talk outside if you’d rather, ma’am. It’s Deputy Cobb.” Truth to tell, he’d rather she came out than to set foot inside her place.
“Oh, you’re here about that skeleton head?”
“The skull you found, yes ma’am.”
She stepped down from inside, pushing open the screen. Carrie Provost was in her fifties, and she looked like she’d lived in the desert the entire time. Her skin was dark and leathered, muscles stringy, hair bleached and limp. She had big stained teeth and her eyes had that perpetual smoker’s squint, as if there was always smoke drifting into them even when she didn’t have a cigarette going. She wore a baggy T-shirt with a Marlboro logo on it, a giveaway at some long ago county fair or supermarket promotion, and her thin legs protruded from cut-off jeans. Rubber flip-flops on her scarred and wrinkled feet completed the ensemble.
“Can I see it, ma’am? The skull?”
“Oh, sure, just a minute,” Carrie answered. She climbed the two steps back into the trailer. Every time the screen door flopped open the cloying stench of cigarettes wafted out, as if someone had emptied an ashtray into Billy’s mouth. He hated cigarette smoke.
Inside, there was another loud metallic rattling and then a muffled “Sorry!” from Carrie. A moment later, she reappeared with a plastic supermarket bag in her hands.
“Here you go. I put it in this Vons bag to keep it clean.” The skull’s outline could clearly be seen imprinting the hanging bag. She handed it to Billy, and he carefully set the bag down on the cement slab and opened it.
He was no forensic pathologist, but even through the scorch marks and black smudges of ash, the skull definitely looked human to him. A gold tooth shining up at him from the lower jaw clinched it. And the neat circular hole in the forehead, in combination with the larger, jagged one at the back of the skull, pointed to a cause of death. Billy felt his stomach flop like one of the Salton’s dying fish. This had just become a murder case, and he was the first officer on the scene.
“Looks like somebody punched his ticket, don’t it, Billy?” Carrie said. “That’s a bullet hole, right? I seen that on TV before. Exit wound out the back.”
“I’ll have to take it to the lab to be sure, ma’am,” Billy said, not wanting her amateur deduction to cloud his own professional judgment. “But it does look that way at a glance, yes.”
“Well, I’m no expert,” Carrie went on. “Just know what I see and hear, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes, ma’am. Can you tell me how you happened to find it?”
“Well, you know the fire pit, right?”
The fire pit was where, most nights, residents of the Slab gathered around a roaring bonfire to talk, drink beer, sometimes watch the “fireworks,” which is how they referred to military bombing runs in the Chocolates, and generally enjoy their freedom from both taxation and representation. “Yes ma’am.”
“Well, I was over there last night, at the fire pit. Just talking and, you know, hanging out with the neighbors, having a couple of beers, I guess. Anyways, I got close to the fire once to poke a stick in it, shove some logs around and all. And that’s when I thought I seen it, or something anyway that didn’t look quite right. It was hot and all, though, so I just left it until this morning. Then I went back and poked through the ashes a little, and there it was. That gold tooth just about glowed at me. I pulled it out of there and took it home and then went down to the Lippincotts’ because they have a cell phone, and I called the Sheriff. You don’t suppose it was Arabs put it there, do you? You know, like in New York?”
It took Billy a moment to make the connection, since he didn’t recall any Arabs putting a skull into a fire pit anywhere in New York. But then he decided that she must have meant the Islamic terrorists who had attacked the World Trade Center.
“No, ma’am,” he assured her. “I don’t believe it was. Do you remember who was at the fire pit when you found it?”
“I didn’t say anything at the time, because, like I said, I wasn’t sure what I seen, entirely. But the usual group was there, I guess, the Hudsons and the Lippincotts, Jim Trainor, the Shipps, Rusty Martin, Lettie Bosworth, Hank Dunn…I guess the McNultys were there for a bit.” She stopped, chewed her lower lip for a second. “But wouldn’t it make more sense to make a list of who wasn’t there? I mean, if you put somebody’s head in a fire pit, you probably wouldn’t want to be there when it was found, would you?”
“That depends on when it was put there, I guess,” Billy replied. “You don’t know that, do you? Unless you check it every morning?”
Carrie Provost hesitated before answering, as if considering whether or not to give away a secret. “You find some great things in there once in a while,” she said finally. She pointed to a metal lunchbox suspended on one of the coat hangers. It was fire-blackened and the plastic handle had melted, but it was probably from the 1960s, and the cast of Gilligan’s Island was still recognizable on the side. “I found that in the fire pit once. And money, now and again, coins, you know, not bills.”
Billy found himself strangely moved by this side of the woman. A little frightened, but moved just the same. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I’ll tell you what. If you can write me out two lists—one of the people you know were there last night, and one of the people you know who weren’t there last night, why then, I’ll check them out and maybe we’ll get someplace.”
“I guess I can do that,” she agreed.
“I can pick them up at the meeting tonight, if that’s all right.”
“Oh, the big meeting.” She nodded. “At the fire pit, yeah. I’ll be there.”
I’ll just bet you will, Billy thought. As he headed back to his squad car, he shook his head slowly. The Slab, he thought. What a weird f***ing place.