Steven Cooper Excerpt: Desert Remains

Desert Remains by Steven Cooper is the first book in the new Gus Parker and Alex Mills series (available October 10, 2017).

Someone is filling the desert caves around Phoenix with bodies—a madman who, in a taunting ritual, is leaving behind a record of his crimes etched into the stone. With no leads and no suspects, Detective Alex Mills sees a case spinning out of control. City leaders want the case solved yesterday, and another detective wants to elbow Mills out of the way. As the body count rises, Mills turns to Gus Parker, an “intuitive medium” whose murky visions sometimes point to real clues. It's an unorthodox approach, but Mills is desperate.

When Parker is brought to the crime scenes, he sees visions of a house on fire and a screaming child. But what does it mean? He struggles to interpret his psychic messages, knowing that the killer is one step ahead and that in this vast desert, the next murder could happen anywhere. Nor does it help that he's always been unlucky in love and now finds himself the prey of a lovelorn stalker. She is throwing him off his game.

Someone will win this contest, and both Parker and Mills fear it will be the cunning, ruthless killer, who is able to use the trackless landscape as a cover for his brutal crimes.


Her name is Elizabeth Spears.

She has blue eyes and short blond hair.

Her address is 9223 South Nightbird Trail. That’s nearby in a section of Phoenix known as Ahwatukee. Many people don’t like to say Ahwatukee because the word sounds kind of doltish, especially the accent on TOO-key, and the name is often met by nervous laughter and blushing faces as if it’s the Native American word for “toilet,” which it isn’t. The translation is really quite lovely, romantic even. Ahwatukee comes from the ancient language of the Pima Indians, and it means “House of Dreams.”

Elizabeth Spears is twenty-seven years old.

Her birthday was last month.

She’s five feet six inches tall. Although it’s hard to tell from this angle.

She is bejeweled. A string of shimmering stones clings to her wrist, likewise her neck, in hues of amber and gold, like the hues of the cave that shelters her.

Elizabeth Spears is an organ donor.

Homicide detective Alex Mills of the Phoenix Police Department hands the victim’s driver’s license to another investigator at the scene and now kneels beside the body. One. Two. Three. Four. He’s counting the stab wounds. Careful not to contaminate or alter the scene, the crime techs are surrounding the body like a surgical team. He doesn’t want to get in the way. There’s blood everywhere. Five. Six. Seven. They all have a job to do. There are rubber gloves and flash photography.

Yellow tape and tweezers. Eight, nine, ten. Eleven. For all this commotion, he hears very little beyond his own counting. There is a stillness here in this barren cave in the middle of the desert, and Mills knows instinctively that stillness is all that there ever was and all that there ever will be. He understands this quiet reverence of the desert where winds blow in flawless circles, sometimes rising to the sky in pillars of swirling dust, sometimes hushed and invisible like the modesty of prayer.

It’s five thirty. The sun won’t set for two more hours. The slow unfolding of gold has just begun, as it always does, still yellowish now, still yellowish for a while, and then there will be the perpetual anointment of the desert, that timeless sanctification, that brings beauty to this desolate place. Tonight the beauty will be haunting when it collides with evil.

Mills rises slowly. When he turned forty a few years back, the new decade in life immediately yanked at his knees, greeting him with the ache and pain of every jump shot, every sprint, every hurdle he had ever performed in his quest for athletic excellence, which, he had promised himself, would compensate for his academic mediocrity. For the most part it had. And then one day, just one day out of nowhere, he started reading. Okay, that’s not exactly true. One day he met an English major named Corinne Wiley who was as head over heels in love with literature as he was with her. Dickens was the fastest route to her heart. So was, God help him, Shakespeare. Corinne married a dentist, but Mills still loves a good book.

He studies the wall of the cave. Finally he gets a good view. Every responder had all but genuflected in front of that wall like sycophants at an art professor’s opening. Mills understands the fascination; he feels it bubble in his blood. About an hour before, when he had first arrived at the crime scene, one of the other detectives, he thinks it was Chase, pointed at the wall and said, “What the fuck is that?”

“That ain’t no petroglyph,” the police photographer replied as he started to burst out shots, some with flash, others without.

“No shit,” Chase barked. “Unless we got a new tribe that just arrived in the desert and started sacrificing people.”

 “For all we know it’s illegal immigrants. I mean, hell, they’re the newest tribe.”

Mills knows who said that. It was Detective Morton Myers. Morton Myers is an English-only ton of lard who couldn’t chase a tortoise from a crime scene if his next Double Whopper with cheese depended on it.

Mills soaks in the desecration of the cave. In the absence of a body it would be horrible vandalism. In the presence of a body it’s horrifying.

The killer left a portrait of the murder.

A rude carving, at least ten feet wide and five feet tall, depicts a man in a cowboy hat, perhaps a bandana as well, plunging a knife into the chest of a woman bent over his knee.

Alex Mills looks down at Elizabeth Spears and confirms that the chest wound on the wall matches a chest wound on her body. He looks back to the drawing. In it Elizabeth’s eyes are wide with terror. Her mouth is twisted. The artwork is elementary at best. A fifth grader’s rendition of bloody murder.

Mills steps away from the circle of dried blood around the body of Elizabeth Spears and takes a wider view of the scene: This cave, just below a hiking trail, just above a pebbly wash; this body exposed as if there were nothing to hide. Nearly open to the public. A vista in itself.

Elizabeth Spears could not have been dead for very long.

There is no evidence her body had been visited upon by carnivores. No signs at all that she had been taken for carrion.

A male jogger who is still out there somewhere talking to investigators discovered her body. Mills consults his notebook. Mark Green. That’s his name, the jogger who found the body and then vomited several times before he could compose himself enough to dial 911.

“Is that your vomit?” Myers had asked him, pointing to the overlapping piles on the ground.

Mark Green nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Is it some kind of evidence?” “It’s evidence you got a weak stomach, heh-heh,” the detective told him.

Myers needs a desk job desperately.

Detective Alex Mills needs some evidence desperately, some leads, the ah-hah moment, if you will. If there is evidence of a struggle it has been erased, presumably by a meticulous killer who wants the only version of the crime to be the version he has carved into the wall.

He has left behind no murder weapon.

He has left behind no carving tools.

He has left behind Elizabeth Spears, probably a hiker or a jogger, a young woman who’s maybe a regular out here, who finds her solace here or her joy, who sees the desert as a gift to be taken, a gift to be used with pious respect. Or maybe this was her training ground, her proving ground.

Maybe the killer was not a man.

The calamitous crankology of maybes begins to rattle like pots and pans in Detective Alex Mills’s sleuthish brain. And now he feels empowered by the crankology. The crankology is his real training ground; it is also his mojo.

Mojo, shmojo.

Mills can already hear the TV choppers fluttering above like big, beastly carcass seekers. He knows a swarm of reporters cannot be far behind. Timothy Chase, the scene investigator, has told a few officers to tape off the trailhead.

Mills looks again at the body of Elizabeth Spears and, as he always does when he is sent to a murder scene, begins to interview the victim. Who are you? he asks. What happened here?


Copyright © 2017 Steven Cooper.

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Steven Cooper is a freelance writer, video producer, and the author of three previous novels. A former television reporter, he has received multiple Emmy awards and nominations, a National Edward R. Murrow Award, and Associated Press awards. He taught writing at Rollins College (Winter Park, FL) from 2007 to 2012.

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