Desolation Canyon by P. J. Tracy: Cover Reveal and Excerpt
By Crime HQJuly 5, 2021
A perfect Los Angeles morning: a cloudless sky so devastatingly blue, you’d swear God had Photoshopped it; a hint of sea in the air that embraced you in a balmy hug; palm fronds waving laconically in a gentle breeze. Beautiful people strolled Santa Monica sidewalks and disappeared into polished storefronts that enticed capacious wallets to open wide.
It wasn’t the kind of morning that evoked thoughts of death in normal people. But Margaret Nolan wasn’t normal.
It’s surreal, Maggie, like your life gets split in half the minute you hear the news: before and after, that’s all there is. Part of me wishes I didn’t know, but it’s too late for that, there’s no going back. I have a killer inside and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Sophie had died of brain cancer five years ago, at the age of twenty-seven, and there was no going back—not for her, not for her family, not for the other people who’d loved her. These unbidden memories of a perfectly sunny, perfectly tragic day with her best friend slinked into Nolan’s mind as she drove down Montana Avenue toward Palisades Park and the ocean.
She wasn’t carrying a terminal diagnosis, but she understood before and after in a different context: before you killed somebody and after you killed somebody. Loss of innocence affected every human being on the planet at one point or another, in one way or another, but the details mattered.
Her interview with the department psychologist had been desultory and unhelpful—it was just something you did after a shooting so your superiors could feel good about your mental health before they put you back on the street. Her brother Max would have had something profound to say on the subject of taking human life, but those words had gone to the grave with him. She was on her own.
The killer inside. No going back.
Days off were the hardest, because they gave her time to think. The empty hours stretched out before her, leaving space in her mind for a continual instant replay loop of those last deadly seconds. It was critical to fill that malevolent space with other things, so she’d devised a regimen to stay thoughtless, busy, and disciplined. It rarely varied.
Mornings consisted of biking the Strand—number one on her agenda for today—or hiking Runyon Canyon. Afterward, she’d hit the gym for weight training and stop at Sprouts on the way home to buy expensive, organic food that would invariably end up rotting in her refrigerator. Then it was laundry, house cleaning, and organizing things that had been left in disarray throughout the week.
The reward for her diligence was a bottle of wine and a dinner-sized bowl of popcorn in front of the TV while baby artichokes and grass-fed lamb languished unprepared, unwanted. At midnight, she would slide beneath the covers and sleep fitfully. Notably absent from her new schedule were visits to the gun range.
This routine of avoidance was beginning to aggravate her. Not only was it unproductive and probably detrimental, it was frighteningly analogous to her mother’s recent behavior. The very behavior she loathed and railed against. Judge not lest you be judged.
The revelation was as distressing as it was motivational—today was going to be different, by God. She hadn’t fired a weapon since that night in Beverly Hills two months ago, and it was time to get back to the range. Kill a silhouette instead of a real person. Face it and move on. Sophie had, confronting far worse. Make her proud.
While Nolan was unloading at the range, a woman who’d dropped her last name years ago—like Madonna or Rihanna—was crawling through a ragged hole cut from a rusty, metal-link fence in the desert. Marielle winced when the sharp, cut ends scored her bare arms and drew blood. Hello, tetanus, good luck getting a shot anytime soon. Stupid, stupid, stupid. In spite of the unbearable heat, she should have worn long sleeves.
Another mistake to add to the long list of them. So many bad choices, big and small. But that was all changing now. There would never be full absolution for her, but it was way past time for penance.
She found a packet of tissues in her duffel and blotted her wounds, then wiped the blood from the spines of metal that had gouged her. The sand had soaked up the fallen droplets, but she smoothed it anyway, erasing her presence here. Nobody knew this place, she was reasonably certain of that, but now was not a time to be careless. Her daughter’s life depended on it, and she would protect her or die trying.
The entrance to the abandoned mine was mostly in shadow now, but there was enough light to see that the rotting timbers supporting it were canting inward under the weight of the earth above it. There were a million horrible ways to die, and being buried alive was very near the top of her list. But she’d come to realize there were worse things than death.
She tossed the duffel through the dark mouth and that slightest of concussions caused a shower of dirt to rain down on the canvas. What would happen if there was a tremor, or God forbid, a bona fide earthquake while she and Serena were in there? She knew exactly what would happen: the mine would implode and collapse on them, just like this whole plan might. But there weren’t any other options. It was time to spin the wheel of fortune and let the universe decide. It was waiting for her, so said the seductive promise that had brought her to this hellhole in the first place.
Marielle dropped to her hands and knees and crept through the opening into stale, dusty blackness so complete, she felt like she’d been swallowed. She didn’t believe it was remotely safe in here, but the mine provided a perfect view of the valley floor. She would be able to see the truck coming, even with the headlights off. If it didn’t happen this week, when Paul was away from the compound, it might be a month before they could try again, and she didn’t want to think about what could happen in a month.
You’re going to be running for the rest of your life. Serena deserves better.
Serena did deserve better, but that was a problem to solve later. Right now, it was simply about survival, so she dragged the duffel deeper into the cave until a fetid smell stopped her. Until now, it hadn’t occurred to her that the mine might have been repurposed by some animal, possibly a dangerous one. But the dangerous animals only lived up in the mountains. Didn’t they?
With trembling hands, she fumbled for her penlight so she could scare away whatever man-eating beast might be lurking in the inky blackness beyond, or at least meet her maker before it ripped her head off. Out of darkness, let light shine.
When she finally found it and clicked it on, the corona of light landed on a lumpy, dark rock with metallic veins and speckles that reflected off the rough surface. Serena would love it and do something imaginative with it, so she stashed it in the duffel for her birthday next month.
She trained the flashlight farther into the cavern and a scream she didn’t dare release almost erupted from her throat.
Animals hadn’t done this. Oh, no, animals didn’t arrange human bodies like strips of jerky to cure in the desert air. This was a man-made mausoleum. It was impossible to tell how long they’d been here, partially mummified as they were, and she wasn’t going to examine them more closely to try and find out. Whoever these poor souls had been, they were lost to the world here. If they’d been trying to get away, things had gone terribly wrong.
Not all dangerous things lived in the mountains. She should have realized that a long time ago.
* * *
Serena tugged the fleece blanket tighter around her shoulders against the creeping chill of the desert night. It was strange that a place as blistering as an oven during the day could get so cold once the sun went down. She’d asked Momma about it once a long time ago, and her answer had been immediate and resolute: the desert was a place of mystery and magic and salvation, and that’s why they’d moved here.
From a bad place, filled with sin.
I don’t remember the bad place.
That’s because I took you away when you were just a little baby. I had to save you. It’s important to know when to leave places, and to be brave enough to do it.
What happened to my daddy?
Father Paul is your daddy now. He’s the daddy of us all.
Serena didn’t really believe that Father Paul was her daddy or anybody else’s in the compound, but Momma wouldn’t talk about it anymore. She wouldn’t talk about the bad place, either, or explain how you knew when to leave someplace. It was so confusing, and all the missing pieces made her feel alone. Her friends didn’t understand, so she didn’t talk to them about it. She was content to let the desert kept her company, because it listened to her thoughts.
Finally feeling warm, she spread out her blanket and lay down on her back so she could look up at the sky. It was so beautiful, transformed from a hazy, pale daytime blue to a black velvet tapestry so thick with stars, she could feel it pressing down on her, pressing down on the world. Not in a suffocating way, but in a good, consoling way, like when she crawled into bed beneath her heavy, embroidered quilt.
The stars winked at her, like they were sharing secrets. And when she reached up into the dark, they seemed so close, like she could grab a handful of them right out of the air. What would it feel like to hold stars? And how would they look if she scattered them on the sand around her? Like the field of jewels in her favorite storybook, she decided.
Father Paul said that stars were actually the precious, shining souls of the departed, placed there by the Creator in the Heavens for all to see, reminding the faithful that there was beauty everywhere, even in death. He talked a lot about death during his sermons and how it was a gift of life everlasting, which was another thing that confused her. Why did you have to die to live? And what would happen if she somehow managed to grab a handful of stars? Would she really be grabbing a handful of souls, too? Would they be angry because she’d taken them away from their place in the sky when it wasn’t time for them to leave? These were some of the many questions she wanted to ask him, but she was too scared.
Serena jumped when she heard a knock on the cabin door far behind her, shattering the perfect silence. She rolled onto her belly and scuttled back until she was concealed by a cluster of desert holly. Light filled the rectangular opening framed by the cabin door, and she saw Momma silhouetted there, then Father Paul walking inside. He’d been coming a lot lately and she didn’t like to be around him, even though he was supposedly the daddy of them all. There was something about his eyes that made her feel icky inside.
If this was like the other nights he visited, they would talk about boring things like grown-ups did, so she rolled over again and stared up at the stars. She hadn’t intended to fall asleep, but apparently, she had, because the next thing she remembered, Momma’s whisper and touch wakened her, and she felt stiff and numb from the cold.
“Serena, you have to come inside now.”
“But the stars,” she mumbled groggily.
Momma enveloped her in her arms, sharing her warmth. “You feel like a Popsicle, my starry-eyed girl. Maybe I should have named you Star, you love them so much. But I didn’t know that when you were a baby. Come on, I’ll make us some cocoa.”
Cocoa was a special thing, and there were even little marshmallows floating on top, which made it more special. The sweet liquid spread warmth all through her body, to her face and fingers, right down to her toes. The feeling was almost as good as when she watched the star souls traverse the night sky.
Momma sat down across from her at the kitchen table. She looked so pretty in her flowered dress with the pearl buttons. She wore her dark, wavy hair loose, and parts of it looked almost blue under the light from the overhead fixture. But her eyes seemed sad and shiny, as if she’d been crying. The good feelings drained away. “Momma, what’s wrong? Did Father Paul make you sad?”
She took her hands and squeezed them, hard enough that it hurt, and her voice turned into a low, papery whisper. “Do you remember when I told you that it was important to know when to leave a place, and to be brave enough to do it?”
“It was a long time ago, but I remember.”
“Good. We have to leave here, Serena.”
Copyright © 2022 by P. J. Tracy. All rights reserved.
About Desolation Canyon by P. J. Tracy:
LAPD Detective Margaret Nolan is struggling to move forward. Her life can be divided into “before” and “after”—before Margaret killed someone in the line of duty, and after. Before the death of her brother, Max—who died while serving overseas—and after. Her mother won’t address it and her father is fine to let his wife put things in a box. Margaret feels her parents slowly slipping away.
The days off are the hardest, because they give Margaret time to think. A moment of weakness leads to cocktails with a colleague—an attraction she knows she shouldn’t give in to—at the luxurious Hotel Bel-Air bar. A stroll leads to a sinister discovery beneath the surface of Swan Lake—the body of a well-dressed, successful attorney. The Bel-Air is usually home to actors and celebrities, not crime scenes, and Nolan will get more than she bargained for out of this sinister case.
P.J. Tracy “seems to have found her literary sweet spot” (New York Times Book Review) with her dazzling new series, and in this second installment, fans get a deeper look into the complex characters who call Los Angeles home.