by Martin Roy Hill
The year is 1987. America is clawing its way out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Washington pursues illegal and unpopular wars in Central America. In the wealthy desert playground of Palm Springs, storefronts that once catered to the rich sit empty and shuttered. Crowds of bored rich teenagers in designer clothing entertain themselves with expensive cars and cheap drugs, while those less fortunate haunt darkened street corners, offering themselves for sale.
This is the country to which war correspondent Peter Brandt returns. Physically and mentally scarred by the horrors he’s covered, Peter comes home to bury his ex-wife, TV reporter Robin Anderson, only to discover she had been brutally murdered. With the local police unwilling to investigate her death, Peter sets out with retired cop Matt Banyon to expose Robin’s killer. They uncover a shadowy world of anti-communists, drug smugglers, and corrupt politicians, and lay bare old wounds – including Peter’s deep guilt over his failed marriage. In a final, cliff-hanging struggle, Peter faces his own fears – and death in a dark and empty place.
Coachella Valley, California
A three-quarter moon bathed the dunes with a blue white light. It shimmered through ghostly rays that rose like apparitions from the still warm desert floor and gave the desolate landscape a spectral quality. Shadows moved in the haunting light, and the warm soft breeze gave rise to disembodied voices wheezing through dry, brittle creosote bushes. She turned at every sound, each crack of a broken twig, saw monsters in the movement of each rolling tumbleweed, and shivered in the warm desert night from the chill of her imagination.
Occasionally a car raced down the unlit two lane road, its headlights slicing slivers of light out of the black night. She watched each one approach, wondering if this was the one. Then, as the red tail lights faded into the dark distance, she scanned the road again for the right one, the one that would slow and turn into the narrow dirt access road. Somewhere in the distance, a coyote wailed.
“Never meet a contact in an out of the way place,” Peter once told her. “Always meet them somewhere where there’re a lot of people. People die in lonely and empty places.”
She could almost hear his voice telling her that. After all the years, Peter’s voice still came to her in small phrases. Short fragments of sentences, spoken in his quiet, halting manner, explaining what she should do, warning what she shouldn’t. “Never meet in out of the way places.”
She hadn’t much choice in choosing the rendezvous. The man she was meeting was very explicit: here or nowhere. And there were other conditions. No camera crew. No sound crew. No one but her. If he spotted a van or truck other than her own car, the meet was off. If he saw a helicopter flying over and a video transmission could be beamed to it, she could just color him gone.
In all honesty, she appreciated his precautions. The little she had told him of her findings had obviously convinced him that no one could be trusted. No one, not even those who worked for him. She was certain if anyone knew of the information she had, her life wouldn’t be worth the dirt she was standing on.
She thought of Peter again. Maybe he was right. Maybe the two of them should have left this place together. Maybe it would have been better for her career. Better for her and Peter. Maybe.
The young woman shook her head, and fingered the small tape recorder in her hand. The thought of the recorder’s contents made her mouth twist with distaste. She still felt unclean, but what else could she have done? She was desperate. She needed this story badly and it was the only way she could get the confirmation she needed. She shook the images the recorder conjured from her head and tried to look forward, into the future. This would be the story that lands her a job in a bigger market, she told herself. Maybe Los Angeles. Maybe a network. The indignity would be worth it.
“I just can’t take this place any longer,” she said aloud to no one, not certain whether she meant the patchwork of small communities she lived and worked in, or the empty desert surrounding them where she now stood alone.
Automobile lights appeared at the crest of a hill, then rolled down the incline and raced along the two lane road. The car slowed and turned into the access road, its headlights flaring momentarily as it bounced over a rut. It was a large vehicle, a four door model and, by the way it bounded over the dip, sturdily built. That, and the heavy roar of its powerful, supercharged engine, indicated it was well suited to both speed and the tortuous going of desert driving. It didn’t slow as it approached. Its headlights glared directly at the young woman, growing brighter as it streaked forward, blinding her to all. For a frightful moment she thought she had been betrayed, that the driver was aiming for her with no intention of stopping. She thought of jumping out of the way, but she could not move. In the heat of the desert night, she was frozen stiff with fear.
The car braked and came to a screeching, dust swirling halt just yards from the woman, the headlights still washing her in a blaze of white light. The glare revealed the features of a blonde in her late twenties, attractive but not beautiful, not even strikingly pretty. Her face was a shade too wide in the jaw, the nose too flat to be truly pretty, and her pale skin – bleached colorless by the headlights – was slightly pocked by a severe adolescent bout with acne. Her figure was tomboyish from years of high school and college athletics, but appealing in its slender firmness. Her looks were her nemesis; she could easily attract men, but producers didn’t believe she could attract viewers. So she was relegated to being a reporter, a couple minutes a night face on the local evening news, deprived of the anchor spot she wanted so badly.
Raising her arm against the glare, the young woman tried to see beyond the headlights. It was like trying to see beyond the sun. The car stood motionless for what seemed minutes, then the driver’s door opened. The woman tried to see inside the car, but the interior light failed to go on. The door closed with a loud crump, and a large, dark figure strode forward. At first he was only a dark shadow against the darker night, then a silhouette against the edge of the headlight’s glare. Then he walked into the light, and she recognized the man.
“You,” she answered. “Good.”
“You were expecting someone else?” the man asked.
“No, but -” She turned and looked back at the empty road. “But out here there’s no telling what you could run into.”
Her contact turned and studied the road, nodding as if he admired the desolate location. “That’s true. You never know, do you?” He turned to face her. In the light his eyes looked hard, threatening. She had seen him angry before, but his eyes never struck her as they did now. Cold, dead. The eyes, she thought, of a killer.
“You have the tape you told me about?” he asked.
“I have an excerpt.”
His eyes seemed to grow meaner, angrier. “An excerpt? What do you mean an excerpt?”
She turned slightly on her heel and cleared her throat. “Some of what I recorded was of a – a personal nature,” she said. “I brought you an edited version with the pertinent conversation.”
She showed him the tape recorder, then turned it on. The machine came alive with the voices of two people, a man and a woman. The woman’s voice was her own. It was coy and teasing, the voice of intimacy, the words of a lover. The male voice responded in the guttural tones of male intimacy, yet with the bravado of a small boy bragging of his deeds. The young woman looked away as the tape played, afraid the flush she felt in her face would reveal her embarrassment. The man’s eyes slowly dropped from the recorder to the ground, his mouth turned down in disgust. Then the tape died out, and there was a long moment of silence.
“That’s a very interesting recording, Miss Anderson,” the man finally said. “You have an interesting way getting information.”
“I use whatever means are available to me,” she answered defiantly. She made a production of stopping the tape and rewinding it. “As you can see – or heard, I should say – my methods work.”
“And very well, too.” The man looked back at the car and nodded, then turned back to the woman. “Very well, indeed.”
The young woman’s eyes followed the man’s to the car. The passenger door opened with a creak, and another figure climbed out. She heard the crunch of footsteps in sand, then the figure emerged from the dark. The glare of the headlights revealed his identity.
“My God.” She half choked on the words. “What are you -“
The second man raised his right arm and pointed a large revolved at her. Her mouth formed in an attempt to scream, but the pistol shot cut her off. It was followed by another, each sounding like the roar of a cannon in the quiet of the desert night.
The double punch of the bullets threw the woman backwards. Two dark wounds appeared on her chest. The one nearest the heart spurted bright red blood. The second, farther to the right, oozed darker red. Twin exit wounds burst through her back, disgorging blood, muscle, flesh, and bone. She was thrown four feet before hitting the ground on her back. Then she tumbled several more feet, finally coming to rest against a thick, spiny creosote bush, one arm twisted behind her back, the other cocked under head. Her legs were entwined at odd angles.
His pistol still extended like a shield, the gunman walked up to the body and bent over, examining his handiwork. After a moment he stood straight and turned to his companion. “She’s gone.”
“She’d better be.” The first man stooped and picked up the tape recorder where it had fallen, then switched it on. Disgust twisted his features again as he listened. When it finished, he looked at his partner. The shooter dropped his head sheepishly, like a school boy caught red handed in some misdeed. “Brush this area down, then let’s go,” the first man ordered.
The gunman looked around and found a broken piece of desert brush that he used to sweep away their footprints. The first pocketed the recorder and climbed into the car, backing it slowly down the dirt road as the other man swept away both the tire tracks and his own retreating footsteps. When they reached the asphalt road, the gunman threw away the limb and climbed back into the car. Within seconds, the car disappeared into the darkness.
Robin Anderson, the young reporter, lay in the dirt unable to move. For what seemed a long time she laid there stunned and without a thought. Then she sensed someone near. She tried opening her eyes, but they were as lifeless as her arms and legs. She heard voices and tried to speak, but her mouth was frozen.
Nothing would work, nothing would move. She could feel her wounds, feel the life oozing from them. “My God!” she screamed, but there was no sound save her own thoughts and a deep throated rumble followed by a strange sweeping noise. The reddish light she seemed to sense rather than see faded away, as did the two strange noises she heard. Then there was quiet, pure silence like she’d never experienced before. Even the voice of her own thoughts seemed to be drifting inexorably away, as if falling into some deep canyon.
She realized suddenly her worst fear was coming true. She was dying, alone and without anyone she could call out to, anyone who would hold her, who could save her.
Alone in a dark and empty place.
I was given this book by the author for review and enjoyed it.
Within the darkened world we follow Peter Brandt, already weary of the human condition, who must investigate his ex-wife’s death, he the only one its seems that takes it seriously.
I don’t give spoilers so will say that this story is fast-paced, gritty (if somewhat despondent about the lives we lead and the powers that take advantage) and well written.
Worth reading if you enjoy crime novels with extra dimension.
About the Author
Martin Roy Hill is the author of the military mystery thriller, The Killing Depths, and the award-winning short story collection, Duty.
Martin spent more than 20 years as a staff reporter and editor for newspapers and magazines, before becoming a military analyst specializing in battlefield medical operations for the Navy. His freelance credits include Reader’s Digest, LIFE, Newsweek, Omni, American History, Coast Guard Magazine, Retired Officer Magazine, the Los Angeles Times Sunday Opinion Section, and many more.
Much of Martin’s freelance work involves historical topics, especially military history. He was a lead contributor to the 1995 WWII anthology, From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki: America at War, published by the Retired Officer Association (now called the Military Officer Association).
Martin’s new novel, Empty Places, a murder mystery, has just been released.