Somewhere, past the edge of reality lies a land called...
by Erin Halfelven
Chapter 1 - Los Perdidos
I drove my cruiser north along Interstate 15, heading for Los Perdidos; the silence of the desert night broken only by the hum of the engine and the occasional rattle of the radio. Nothing disturbed the peacefulness of moonlight and tumbleweeds and lines on the pavement, and that’s the way I liked it. Being a Sheriff’s Deputy could be a dangerous, exciting, stressful occupation but most of the time, it was just like this, especially on third shift, far away from the bustle of even small cities like Barstow.
Los Perdidos was barely a dot on the map, but it was one of the communities I was paid to patrol. At 3:05 a.m. I took the exit, the overpass and the short half-mile drive on Cabeza del Mono Road to the “main street” of the tiny town. Los Perdidos consists almost entirely of five avenues running more or less north-south crossed by seven streets running east-west in a sort of lop-sided triangle configuration. A few oddly placed spur roads heading off into the desert had probably led to mines in the old days. The cluster of fast food and cheap gas at the exit showed the only life at this late hour, but even the Jack in the Box had a zombie-like air.
I turned left on Prairie, right on Jasper and drove to the end of town, then right on Mesquite, crossed the main drag and right again on Turquoise back toward the freeway. I kept the speed down below twenty, just showing the colors. A few roads continued out of town toward the old mines that had once given L.P. it’s reason for existing. Other than to sell gas and food to travelers on the way to Las Vegas, I didn’t have a clue as to why anyone would live in such a place now. There’s been talk of putting in a private prison but after the problems with the one in Baker, nothing has come of the idea.
In the middle of town, where the two biggest streets crossed, sat one of those peculiar things you find in small towns: an ornate fountain, complete with the statue of a half-clothed nymph standing in the middle. This being a desert, in a state suffering through a drought, the water had been turned off for more than a decade and like everything else in Los Perdidos, the fountain and nymph were covered with dust and grit. I drove around the little plaza in the middle of the intersection without even looking at it.
The night stayed nice and quiet until I passed the convenience store the second time on my way down the road back to the freeway. Two people stood outside near the pumps, one a man wearing a trucking company ball cap and the other a tall woman in heels and a short skirt. They appeared to be arguing.
I touched my gingery mustache instead of frowning. I knew what it looked like, a woman dressed like that in the middle of the night at a truck stop but keeping the peace is my job, so I slowed down and cruised through the parking lot, almost stopping as I went between the pumps.
The woman turned immediately and approached my window. I already had the glass down, and I smiled at her. “Trouble?” I asked. I came to a complete stop.
“Only a little,” she said, bending down to look at me. “Could you give me a ride to the other end of town, officer. I need to get away from this asshole.”
I glanced at the trucker who looked pretty steamed. “Bitch,” he said.
She shrugged and looked her question at me again. She had a pile of messy blond hair and some tired-looking makeup. The dash did say it was 3:28 a.m., no one could expect freshness at that hour.
“Sure,” I said and called it in, “Car 206, offering assistance to citizen, Prairie and Tourmaline, Los Perdidos.” I used a ten code to indicate I was giving someone a ride.
“Copy,” acknowledged Dispatch.
She went around the car, and I unlocked the door for her from my console. Her companion said and did nothing but frown, knowing I had my eye on him.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Buckle up,” I told her, keeping an eye on Mr. Gruntled, the trucker. I could see his rig idling on the edge of the parking lot, a long hauler with a sleeper cab and the name of an Iowa firm on the door. The trailer had one of those detachable container freight boxes sitting on it with a Korean manufacturing company logo.
Once she had her seat belt on, I wheeled out of the lot and headed back toward the tiny downtown area. “Where to?” I asked.
“Sugarloaf and Garnet,” she said, “five up and two over.” She gestured then added, “I could have walked it but he would have followed me.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “You don’t want to walk that far in heels, I’m sure, anyway. I’m Deputy Corporal Gus Gallant. I’ll need your name for my log.”
She didn’t answer until we were out of the parking lot and onto Cabeza. “Roger Deloitte,” she said in a different voice than the one she’d been using.
I didn’t comment on the voice. I had suspected as much since I saw her Adam’s apple in profile, but as a deputy, I had met lots of different sorts of people. “Wow, can you write that on my pad? I’ll want to spell it right.” I indicated the notepad on the console.
She scribbled on the pad using the pencil I had chained to it. “He wanted to buy something I wasn’t selling,” she commented.
I nodded, and we left it at that until I got to her corner. “Let me drop you off right at your door,” I said.
“Okay,” she agreed and directed me through the gate into a small mobile home park. In front of Space 14, she got out and thanked me again. “You really are Officer Gallant,” she said, showing a remarkable set of dimples.
I laughed. “Corporal Gallant, it’s worth $35 more a shift,” I said. I’d probably been fast-tracked into a corporal slot because of my military experience: fifteen years ending as a chief warrant officer investigator. Driving a police cruiser was a lot less stressful.
She stared at me a moment longer, and I knew what she was going to say. “Green eyes, you’ve got the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen.”
“Contacts,” I lied. People have been talking about my eyes since I first opened them, I suppose. I’m tired of telling them I don’t know if anyone else in my family has the same color because I don’t know anyone else in my family, having been raised in foster homes since before I could talk.
“Wow,” she said, then she turned and went up the short walk to her coach.
I watched while she opened her front door and slipped inside then I drove the loop through the park and got back on the street. Five minutes later, on my last pass through the business district, I glimpsed someone climbing out of a dumpster.
I thought what I had seen might have been an animal, perhaps a dog or coyote or one of the big Mexican coatimundi’s that sometimes wandered over from the river. Too big for a raccoon. I hadn’t seen a tail, though, and I really thought it might have been a person, probably a kid.
I went around the block to enter the alley from the other end and stopped the car with the headlights shining between the buildings. I saw the big yellow and white dumpster used for paper and cardboard waste in this county but no one around it. No animal either, nor one near the blue dumpster for regular trash. If there had been someone, they must have gone in a door or out the other end of the alley.
I rolled up the narrow way, looking for evidence that anyone had broken locks or forced any doors while telling Dispatch what I was doing and where. They acknowledged with a curt 10-code, even though those were no longer regulation. At the end of the alley, I looked both ways and turned left the way I had originally been headed.
At the corner, I stopped. The fountain lay due ahead of me, and I saw two figures standing in the middle. One would be the concrete nymph, the second looked about the same size but lighter in color with hair that moved in the wind.
I eased across the intersection and down the short block to Cabeza del Mono where the fountain sat in the middle of the crossing streets, with a miniature roundabout to let traffic go past.
My headlights and four street lamps illuminated a naked girl standing where the water should have been if the fountain had been operational. A girl she was, not a woman, probably somewhere between eleven and fifteen, with a barely developing figure and long blond hair that looked white in the bright lights.
She stared back at me calmly.
I called it in. “Say what?” said Dispatch. It sounded like Bernie Gutierrez, an older cop who had taken the Dispatch job rather than retirement after his knees gave up on him.
I repeated. “There’s a naked girl, young teenager probably, long blond hair, standing in the dry fountain on Cabeza del Mono in Los Perdidos. And I don’t mean the statue that’s normally there, this is a live girl.”
“What’s she doing?” Bernie wanted to know.
“Just staring at me so far. I’m going to get out and try to talk to her.”
“You want someone to wake up Child Services?”
“Yeah, might be good,” I agreed. The girl still stood there, almost as still as another statue except that she lifted a hand to push hair out of her eye when a gust of wind sent a lock of it into her face.
Before getting out of the car, I checked that I had everything I was supposed to carry; 9mm semi-automatic in a closed holster at one hip, taser and baton at the other, etc. I got out and stood up, clipping my radio to the back of my belt and retrieving a large LED flashlight from a door pocket. I even slipped my uniform cap over my thinning red-blond hair.
I tried cheerfulness, smiling at the girl. “Hi,” I said.
She didn’t say anything, so I stepped closer. The rim of the fountain was simply a two-foot-high decorative concrete wall, rounded on top. Anyone could easily step over it and stand where the girl stood on the aqua-tinted tiles of the fountain pool bottom. Dirt, leaves and trash had accumulated there, and the color did not show through at the moment.
I noted that her feet were bare and that she wore absolutely nothing, not even any jewelry. She didn’t seem alarmed or afraid, just looking back at me with mild interest.
I stepped closer again, putting one foot up on the curb around the fountain. “My name is Deputy Gus,” I said. “What’s yours?”
She still seemed interested, so I stepped up on the curb and paused, noticing some yellow chalk marks on the cement, like for a child’s game. She held a hand out to me as if to invite me to step over the wall and join her in the dry pool.
I lifted a leg to do so, careful of my balance. My radio made a burping noise, and she glanced at it. I stepped into the pool as she peered directly into my face and said, “How past grain again sick.”
Which made no sense at all I thought for a moment before darkness came up suddenly and swallowed all thinking.
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