Finding my daughter’s killer had gifted me with divorce papers and depleted a joint bank account. Also, I’d contracted and beaten typhoid, and had autographed more IOU’s than, aptly, considering our destination, an unlucky high-stakes gambler.
I could picture her killer’s face. The smooth, uninterrupted cheeks and the hair that unraveled from his head like filthy, brown broccoli florets. That steadfast grin and what I’d do to it.
On the way to Casino Morongo we stopped off for a few road sodas—beers—in our newly native City of Angels. For each of us—me, Tom Dibblee, Peter Nichols, and the newly betrothed Chris Black—a job with Trop was an offer none could’ve refused.
We recounted the fumbling telephone calls we’d received from previous Trop owner Kelsey Grammer while Tom played hot potato with his ball and chain; its plastic orb and links smelled like a disinfected playground. He released an unrestrained cackle, chewed on the symbolic toy, and recounted when he was called up from the literary minors.
“So Kelsey goes, ‘Thomas,’ then he burps and says, ‘South Carolina has outlived you.’ And I’m all, ‘I live in Georgia,’ and he’s like, ‘Ah, yes, yes, of course, Georgia. Georgia has outlived you, son.’”
Peter, Tom, and I laughed and slapped our knees.
Chris’s knuckles turned white around the steering wheel. They looked like grubs wrigglingly attempting exit from a cyst.
Tom unconcernedly swung his plastic ball and chain, nearly hitting Chris in the face. Chris pressed a button and all four windows portentously descended. He grabbed the novelty item and hurled it onto the parched desert earth. We went quiet and watched as the shiny, gray object bounced away, hitting a lone succulent off the dusty road we sped along.
“Aw man.” Tom nervously tapped out a samba beat on his tuxedo-panted thighs. You don’t ask Chris to turn a car around unless you’ve got health insurance. Which we all did (and do) through Trop. But still, we don’t have dental.
And so there we were, blitzkrieged and shadracked, as the massive structure of Casino Morongo entered our collective vision, however oddly, as if it were approaching the car rather than the other way around. A soft rain had begun to fall, and my three comrades squinted dead ahead through Chris’s spiderweb-cracked—but otherwise immaculate—windshield. I still had my eyes on those dozen dead deserts behind us. Chris’s camouflage-patterned tactical bag lay across the rest of the luggage, obscuring my view of our chalky wake.
The length of Seminole Drive—that barren, curving hell-course—was overcast with soot and mini-cyclones. Figures on horseback rode alongside the car. I told Peter to look—he’d been making a salad in a large bowl he’d brought along, slicing beets on a pink, ceramic cutting board he kept between the two of us where we held court in the back seat—but the rhythm of the knife against the cutting board continued. Peter isn’t oblivious. He’s confident in his carelessness and, like Chris and his topiaries, little will come between Peter and his salads.
So I stepped on his foot. But by the time he’d turned his attention to the window, the mysterious riders had disappeared into the wet dust.
Through my window I said goodbye to the sun, which was being eaten by the shadowy hills in the distance. Darkness was upon us. My mind strayed, ambling a murky path of thorny and bad memories.
So many attorneys. Their shiny gray suits. The search for my daughter’s body. The cops who didn’t care. The sleepless nights hoping she’d return, climb through my motel room window, and crawl into bed with me. Curl up under my arm like she’d done when she was little.
I snapped out of the past and into the present. I saw in the distance a shovel. Then another. A circle of them, maybe five, cracking the desert. The slight shade of what was maybe a pit. Not even a cactus to keep them company.
My sloshed mind was playing tricks.
I shook off the morbid mirage, sighed, and deleted a hateful voicemail from my wife without listening to it. The only sort she left anymore: a woman with one setting. Cleo wanted money. It’s an awful cliché. A boring, adult predilection for more, more, more. And, look, I’m no Marxist, but can we talk about something other than money? Something other than the divorce papers I’d misplaced? The hunt for the killer? I assumed we couldn’t.
Chris was navigating by instinct and in the direction of the monstrous lighthouse: some real Eye of Sauron shit, tractor beam pulling us toward it. None of us had gone through basic training, so in Chris we did trust.
Also, we were way, way drunker than he was.
“Seriously? No one else saw those guys?” I asked.
But I didn’t know how to describe them. Cowboys? Horse riders? The eschatological four horsemen? But there’d been more than four.
With no small measure of grace Peter passed me a road soda as well as an oatmeal cookie he’d unearthed uncrumbled from the recesses of his pure white painter’s overalls.
I thanked the cookie man and wondered if I’d be able to stand once we finally, actually got to Morongo.
I sucked on my beer. The cookie broke to pieces in my fist.
What was so troublesome? I was prepared. I had everything I needed to do my job and I’d been swallowing gulpfuls of confidence for hours. Why so much misplaced rage?
And it dawned on me: No music.
Chris’s caring fiancé had taken a screwdriver to Chris’s stereo and then a belt-sander and then a chainsaw. So Tom said—or exaggerated or whatever.
He, Chris, had been on his way to Sprouts to pick up, I dunno, sprouts of some kind, when Rudy Kazooti’s “Put It On The Ivories” came on the radio and Chris nearly put his fist through his windshield.
Hence the spiderwebs. And no music.
After what felt like a full day’s drive on Seminole Trail, we arrived duskwise to find that valet parking is nonexistent at Morongo. A formidable fellow dressed in black wrangled eight horses of varying color near the standing ashtrays.
A large sign set in an easel advertised a Peggy Lee lookalike contest.
WIN A BRAND NEW 2012 FORD FIESTA!!!
I espied the entrance, with its sliding doors and shaded windows. No sign of him yet. The killer. But he’d show. There was plenty of time.
Patrick Benjamin is a writer living near Los Angeles. He lives with his sister and grandmother.