BAD NIGHT AT BURNING ROCK - GARNETT ELLIOTT
Shari pulled into the campsite late afternoon. She’d almost missed the sign. The gravel lot had one other vehicle parked, a dusty Toyota pickup. Beyond that lay two concrete picnic tables and a crude restroom, the walls painted olive green. Creosote hemmed the little clearing on three sides.
She got out. The first thing that hit her was the stillness. Absolute. No wind to rustle the plant life. Nothing but ceaseless blue overhead.
People come here to die.
Her athletic shoes crunched gravel as she followed a trail past the restroom, towards a concrete building not much bigger than a toll booth. The seal for National Parks and Recreation was affixed to the window.
“You the student?”
A middle-aged man came lurching around the building’s side, towards her. He wore a light green shirt and dark green slacks, his gut bulging out over the waist. Scraggly beard. It took her a moment to realize he was in uniform.
“Name’s Carl,” he said, and stuck out a hand.
“Shari.” His grip seemed to linger too long. “I’m from the university, yes. I would’ve gotten here sooner, but I was up late last night at the health center. We had a potential suicide.”
“I’m getting used to it.”
“I suppose I am, too.” Carl settled his hands on his hips and let out a breath. He wore sunglasses, but she could swear he was leering at her underneath the scratched lenses.
“So, you want to show me this rock everyone’s been talking about?”
From fifty feet away the sight failed to impress. It looked like a big red boulder, plopped down on an otherwise flat expanse of scrub and sand.
“I don’t get it,” Shari said. “Are people jumping off that thing? It doesn’t look high enough to kill anybody.”
Carl laughed. “No, no. They wait until the sun sets behind it. Usually. The rock turns all crimson, like it’s on fire. Why they call it ‘Burning Rock.’ Then, most times, they shoot themselves.”
“How many have you found?”
“Me personally? Seven. Christ, the first one was enough.”
They’d hiked a quarter mile down a ravine to get here. Not too far for someone determined to end it.
“Let me show you one more thing,” Carl said. “Kind of creepy, but I think you should see it.”
He lead her past a stand of ocotillios to the rock’s base. Several little crosses, the kind you sometimes see along the highway, had been thrust there. Garlands of dried flowers. Withered photographs. Pieces of stationery paper, with messages written on them. She picked up one near her shoe. A woman’s cursive handwriting read: ‘You’re gone now, and the rest of my life is just filling the time.’
She let the paper flutter to the ground.
Jesus, it was creepy.
“I think you’ve got your work cut out for you,” Carl said.
Evening was coming.
A pair of bikers roared into the lot. They sat on a picnic table, smoked cigarettes, and flicked the butts into the creosote bushes. Shari watched from a distance. It dawned on her she hadn’t thought this through. Did she just go up to people? Ask how they were doing?
“Don’t worry about those two,” Carl said, shuffling up behind her. “Jackasses. Do us all a favor if they snuffed it.”
But the bikers didn’t linger. Another round of smokes and they were climbing back on their motorcycles, kicking the engines over.
“How late do you stay?” Shari asked.
“However long it’s going to take. I’m not exactly on the clock out here. You want to hang around a little past sundown, that’s fine with me. I’ll be in my office.”
At sundown a beat-up Saturn rattled onto the lot. The driver got out; a lone guy with sandy blond hair and polo shirt. Fanny pack around his waist. He marched towards the Burning Rock trail and something about the way he moved sparked Shari’s intuition.
She followed him.
Halfway down the ravine he must’ve heard her catching up, because he turned around. He had puffy little bags under his eyes.
“I’m from the university,” Shari said. “We’re, ah, doing a survey. About why people come here.”
He stared at her in the failing light.
“So can I ask--”
“This is a public place.”
“Well, yeah,” Shari said, smiling, feeling her skin prickle, “it is, but what the university wants to know--”
“Lady, I came here to take pictures of the sunset.” He pointed towards his pack. “That okay with you? I want strangers to come up and chat with me, I’ll go to a bar.”
He looked so angry for a second she thought he was going to hit her. Just the two of them out here, with help a quarter-mile away. But he turned again and stalked off.
Okay, this wasn’t working.
Instinct told her she should be pestering the guy until he showed her what he had in that pack. Instead, she stood there. Mr. Angry Man’s silhouette grew smaller, hiking with purpose towards the big red boulder.
Tomorrow, she’d have to talk with Dr. Mott. Figure out some kind of protocol for this.
Walking back up the trail, towards her car, she strained her ears against the desert’s absolute quiet, ready to flinch at the echo of a gunshot.
“It’s too awkward. Going up to people with no pretense. And if you made the decision, drove out all that way to kill yourself, are you really going to let some college student talk you out of it?”
Dr. Mott steepled his fingers. “You mean you feel awkward, approaching them. Alright, it’s awkward. So’s suicide.”
He had silver-gray hair cut to Seventies proportions, a full moustache and little round glasses. Success crowded every available surface of his office; diplomas, certificates, framed letters, bronze plaques. Biggest ego in the Psychology department, and she’d been assigned to him.
“So you tell people you're taking a survey,” he went on. “An ice-breaker. We could print up actual forms, get you a clipboard. After some questions you’ll have a feel for who really might be at risk, and shift into counselor mode.”
“Is that ethical, though? Lying about why I’m really there?”
“There’s something else.” She remembered Angry Man’s face, still fresh from last evening.
“It’s--you know I’m not that squeamish, but the campsite’s out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s not, exactly, safe.”
His lips curled beneath the expanse of moustache. “Parks and Rec told me they’d have someone with you at all times.”
“Yeah.” But I don’t feel that safe around him.
“Look, Shari, are you getting second thoughts about the project? Because I don’t need to remind you, it’s important. State’s got no budget left, and people are blowing their brains out. This is a chance for the university to work with the community. We need the PR, believe me.”
She remembered the crosses scattered around Burning Rock. Suicide hit the living, not the dead. “Okay. Okay, but--”
The door to Mott’s office creaked open. A cute undergraduate’s face framed there, smiling, some Slovakian girl Shari had met before, giving Mott a timid wave. She wore a tight blouse. Mott’s eyes shined with focus and Shari sensed there’d be no more discussion about her assignment at Burning Rock.
Carl had called her into the little concrete building. She’d been about to sit down on an offered chair and froze, lips parted, because two feet of mottled crimson and black death squatted there. A Gila Monster, eyes gleaming up at her.
Carl laughed so hard he hiccupped.
Another couple seconds, she noticed the lizard wasn’t breathing. Its eyes twinkled like glass beads.
Carl picked the thing up by its stiff tail. “Ol’ Lennie here, I bring him out for the kids. They get a real kick.”
She wanted to give him a real kick.
“You know the legend about Gila Monsters, don’t you?” He leaned close, not sensing how pissed off she was. “When they bite they clamp their jaws shut. Only the sound of thunder makes them let go.”
He reached over and pinched a chunk of her forearm, as if to demonstrate. His breath smelled like microwave dinners and loneliness. She planted her palm on his chest. Pushed back, not so hard that he stumbled, but firm enough he’d know he wasn’t crossing this line again.
“I’ll be outside,” she said, and left the cramped office.
Outside the sun had yet to sink far. Maybe an hour or so before evening, and no other cars but theirs in the lot. Her clipboard lay on the edge of a picnic table. She fought the urge to fling it into the nearest creosote.
Useless. This whole assignment was useless.
Carl came out of the office and slunk to the lot’s opposite end. He jabbed a cigarette in his mouth, somehow conveying hurt through the sunglasses and thick beard.
Second day on the job and she already knew too much about him.
She’d been surprised, how willing he was to stay late, until she put it together he had nothing to go home to. The depressing part was, neither did she. Just a studio apartment in a bad neighborhood. A mountain bike she never used. A long-distance relationship back in St. Louis, petering away through e-mails and instant messages that came further and further apart.
The thought hit her: maybe this thing she was trying so hard to prevent, it wasn’t such a bad idea.
Carl left without warning, still in a huff. He slammed the door to his pickup and tore off as evening was about to descend.
Well, screw it.
No point hanging around. Not the way she was feeling. She got the car started and pulled onto the road, thinking how the next couple weeks were going to be hell. Tomorrow, she’d have to make some kind of overture to Carl.
A BMW appeared in the opposite lane ahead. It roared past, the driver’s pale face and gritted teeth visible for a second. The same intuition that had warned her about Angry Man struck a gong in her brain.
She glanced at her rearview. The BMW swerved into the lot she’d just left, kicking up dust and spewing gravel.
Awful hurry to get to a campsite.
But she wasn’t going back to check on him. No way.
Cursing herself four minutes later, she found a widened shoulder on the road and turned into it, slowing so she could pull a U.
One quick look. See if the guy was alright and she’d be back on her way.
But when she got there, the BMW’s cab light was on and the front passenger door open a crack. Nobody inside. She cut her engine and waited, scanning the rest of the lot. It wasn’t so dark she could miss anyone standing around.
Maybe the driver had gone to the restroom. That would explain his hurry. She slipped out of the car and drifted over to the stalls. A six inch gap stretched from the top of the wall to the roof. Normally, standing this close you could hear everything going on inside.
She turned to the Burning Rock trail.
A slice of early moon had already risen above the scrub-lined horizon. No need to get a flashlight. She took a tentative step. Pictured Mott’s face, his smug features melting into surprise when he found out she’d thwarted a suicide.
Okay, that was getting ahead of herself. And this could be dangerous, going after someone in the near darkness, alone.
She went anyway. Hurried down the ravine trail, keeping an eye on where she planted her feet. The silhouette of Burning Rock loomed ahead. Its fire had already winked out with the sunset; now it looked like a tombstone, gray and black. Some thirty feet away she made out a smaller shadow. Bulky, moving slow, and she caught the gleam of a shaved head. The driver?
He carried something heavy slung over one shoulder. She was still closing when the object registered, made her feet stop.
A woman's body.
Her dark hair hung down like spikes, splaying out against the back of the driver’s white dress shirt. One of her arms hung down, too. Almost bone-thin, with the hand frozen into an outstretched claw.
Whatever this was, it didn’t look like an about-to-happen suicide.
She ducked behind an ironwood bush, reaching for the cell phone in her pocket. The campsite had some reception; she’d experimented the day before and found she could get a signal.
Enough to make a nine-one-one call.
When her breathing had slowed, she flipped the cell open. The screen lit and a high-pitched chime echoed into the silence, telling her a message was waiting.
The driver’s head whipped around.
Christ. She’d forgotten the dead quiet surrounding this place. The cell’s glow suddenly felt like a rescue flare, and she cupped the thing in her shaking hands. Bald Man’s eyes raked the trail. Could he see her?
He shrugged the body off his shoulder. The way the woman slumped when she struck the ground, Shari knew she was dead. Or so unconscious she was in a coma. His hand went to the back of his slacks and came out with a gleaming piece of metal. He held it at waist-level. Snap, snap, snap.
She didn’t realize they were shots. Not immediately. A bullet rattled an ironwood branch about a foot to her right and she found herself moving, plowing off the trail and into the scrub. Branches reached out, snagged. She was wearing shorts, and her bare legs brushed spines, rough bark, leaves. Instinctively, she headed towards the lot.
Something rustled the bushes not far behind. She could picture the bald man in pursuit, his gun, and the thought gave her a frantic burst of speed. She scrabbled up an incline, almost tripping over a cluster of roots. The lot’s single sodium light winked up ahead. Maybe not so smart, making for a lit area, but all she could think was getting in her car and driving bat-out-of-hell fast.
She broke free of the scrub, her feet touching gravel. The BMW and her car waited twenty feet distant. She bolted, one hand already struggling through her pocket for the keys, and a concrete waste-bin nearby spanged as a bullet struck it, ricocheted off into brush.
She dropped. Crawled behind a picnic table, expecting the next shot to pick her off. But the shot didn’t come. She watched in quiet horror as the creosote along the lot’s edge parted. The bald man came limping out. He winced with each step, a half-dozen pads of cholla cactus stuck to his left leg. Despite the obvious pain, his eyes blazed like headlamps over the lot.
In a moment, he’d spot her.
She must’ve dropped the phone, because her hands were empty. A fist-sized rock lay close by. She curled her fingers around it, taking comfort from the smoothness.
Light filled the lot as Carl’s Toyota pulled up.
The bald man didn’t hesitate. Blinking against the sudden glare, he raised his pistol to put four shots into the truck’s cab. Glass starred, but the windshield didn’t collapse. Still moving, the Toyota made a drunken swerve to the right. It struck a young mesquite tree and bent the trunk double before coming to a stop.
Shari heard groans over the engine’s rumble.
The headlights were no longer in the bald man’s face. He sighted down his pistol, taking aim at the Carl-shaped outline slumped against the dashboard.
Shari leapt up. The rock left her hand before she was aware of hurling it. Something funny about the slow way it moved, flipping end over end like the surrounding air had gone viscous, and then she realized everything was moving slow. The rock arced downwards and bounced off the bald man’s chest. Not the impact she was hoping for. He turned his attention from Carl’s truck to her, and the gun followed. She saw the barrel come floating up.
The bald man jerked. A hole had appeared mid-thigh, on the leg that wasn’t bristling with cactus. He doubled, looked back over to the truck where Carl was leaning out the driver’s side window, both hands shaking and wrapped around a fat revolver.
The second shot missed, or seemed to, but Bald Man was already moving, loping towards the BMW on his savaged legs. He tore the door open and got the engine turned over seconds later. The car made a skidding reverse, swerved, and shot out onto the highway.
Time, Shari noticed, had snapped back to normal speed.
She raced over to Carl’s truck. Half his body sagged out the window. The revolver dangled from his left hand, his finger curled through the trigger guard. He looked up at her, head lolling. Coughed.
“I came back to app--apologize,” he said.
She had a dim recollection: driving the bullet-riddled Toyota, squinting around cracks in the windshield as she flew over dark roads. Carl, hunched in the seat next to her. His chest making whistling sounds every time he breathed.
She’d been too afraid to move him to her own car.
The ER physician, the one who first examined Carl, had offered her Valium after treating the cuts to her legs and ankles. She was able to doze, despite the waiting room’s harsh fluorescents.
Someone touched her shoulder. She slapped the hand away, eyes snapping open to find the room changed. Sunlight streamed in through windows she swore had been black moments before.
Dr. Mott stood in front of her.
“You called me. Is it alright if I sit?”
“What time is it?”
He looked bleary-eyed, nervous. Not his usual self. He hunkered down on the chair next to her and propped his elbows on his knees. “I just spoke with medical staff. A bullet punctured Carl's lung, but he’s stable. Very lucky, you getting him to help so fast.”
“You talk to the police yet?”
She remembered a female officer, writing things down on a legal pad. That had been hours ago.
“I think so.”
“It was on the news this morning. The gunman--” He licked his lips. “Highway patrol found his car, about a hundred miles from the campsite. He’d died in there, Shari. Bled out through a wound in his thigh.”
All she could think was: good.
“There’s speculation he was a drug dealer, and the woman you saw, a client. Police think she overdosed and he took her to Burning Rock to make it look like a suicide.”
That made sense. As much as anything did, right now.
Mott tried out a smile. “You’re going to be a stronger person for all this, Shari. I know you had some concerns about your safety, and in retrospect the project might seem like it was a bad idea, a really bad one, but--”
His lips were trembling. It felt weird to see him like this, all his poise washed away. “--but I’d hope, I’d hope you realize my intent was good, and not pursue any, ah, legal repercussions...”
“You’re afraid I’ll sue,” she said.
“Because my career, right now? It’d be a blow. And the university? I’d like to think you had more loyalty than that, personally.”
She had to turn away. In the hospital parking lot, cars moved like predators and people darted to the curb, hurrying for safety.
BIO: Mr. Elliott lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. He’s had crime-type stories published or slated to appear in A Twist of Noir, Plots With Guns, Thuglit, Out of the Gutter, Beat to a Pulp, Powder Burn Flash, Hardluck Stories, Darkest Before the Dawn, and Shred of Evidence.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
11 hours ago