Slab City, C A is more riddled with intrigue than an Ellery Queen novel. It is ridiculous to set a detective story here. Slab City itself is a detective story.

At sunrise, a camouflage pickup with roll bars careened past my campsite on a remote creosote flat a mile south of the The Last Free Place. I picked this detached spot on its fringe nine months ago because isolation is my definition of freedom. No one has passed here until this speeding pickup. It bounced up-and-down on springs along a virgin track past an Ironwood tree, and disappeared.

I lay pondering for five minutes, and rose. The tracks led until the road petered into open pathless desert. Intent on the tracks, head down, I felt as much as heard someone brush behind me. I twisted to see a person in a mid-calf dress over red longjohns and curly blonde locks tucked under a sweeping white sunhat that hid the face marching with intent at a diagonal just behind me, who did not respond to my cheery 'Good Morning'. I followed the truck treads rather than the masculine stride of the hiker across the sand that stretched wide around, as flat as a killing floor.

I lost the track on a stretch of desert pavement and had to circle for thirty minutes to pick it up again. It entered a concentrated arena of sand dunes where I hoped it was a four-wheel drive, but 30 minutes later I heard the low-gear grind and shouts of a stuck vehicle. I topped a dune and spied two stuck vehicles: the pickup and a battered rose sedan. The pickup had sunk to the hubs in sugar sand trying to pull out the sedan that had nose-dived by intent into a dune.

Without a word, I joined a braless broomstick girl pushing the pickup, and noticed it was filled with scrap, some of it from my camp including my water. Nonetheless, we shrugged after failing to extract either vehicle from their sandpits, and shook calloused hands. The pickup driver stepped out blinking, and somehow looked familiar. The same size as the hiker who had been walking the opposite direction.

'It took me an hour to find this yahoo!' he exclaimed. 'She borrowed my car and got it stuck. Then she borrowed my truck and got it stuck!'

'Is there a second lady in your party?' I asked. Two dual blank faces. Soon they hollered at each other like a couple of rattlers about the predicament, heat, and fighting over the last drops of water in my purloined jug. I rose like Dune and yelled, 'Let's get help from Salvation Mountain.' She stayed with the vehicles, and the white haired owner who had just joined her now accompanied me.

As we walked he droned about an enlightened city on earth, how he should spank the girl for getting his vehicles stuck, and how he spliced love scenes of porno movies into John Wayne movies.

In thirty minutes, we rapped on the door of the Salvation Mountain painter and begged a tow from his 1950s tractor splashed with sunflowers. The white haired man vanished as we loaded the tractor scoop with a 50' towline, rusty shovel, high jack, and gallon of water. I climbed in the scoop, and we began the mile slog through sugar sand, until the painter decided he could go no farther. He cut the engine, hooked a knee around the saddle, built himself a smoke, and as I jumped from the scoop, offered, 'Did you hear about the double murder last night?' 'No,' I replied. 'About midnight, it was a girl's last free moments who was stabbed in the stomach and her throat cut.'

'That's terrible, and the second?' He replied, 'The Youth think they got the right guy.' The Imperial County Sheriffs are so despised by Slab City residents, and vice versa, that two vigilante groups formed long ago: Oldsters, who are a handful of ex-military and bikers, and the Youth, who step in when something goes amiss within their peers. The painter sparked the tractor, and I walked the short distance over sugar sand to the bogged vehicles to deliver the bad news.

The thin girl with dragon tattoos in leather pants and halter top blurted, 'Where is the freak?' 'Who?' I enquired. She answered, 'The owner.' 'Disappeared.' Her upper lip trembled until the nose ring nearly dislodged, and then she firmed it, and muttered, 'Go with me back to our camp, and I'll show you something you won't believe is possible anywhere but in Slab City.'

We slogged through the sand like tortoises to the encampment of the odd girl and stranger guy. He wasn't there. She opened the trailer door and we peeked in: There was a mannequin that looked like her, sitting on the toilet with limbs that she claimed had been dislodged one-by-one over the past three days since she had been hired as a housekeeper. There were hundreds of VHS tapes of westerns and porn, a pile of wigs, and she led me to a 4' high pile of clothes she said she had cleaned from the trailer that included blouses and dresses matted with blood. I pawed through them, and at the bottom of the stack was a stick cross that she had fashioned from creosote and tied with twine. She said that she put it there to ward off the negative energy of the blood.

One doesn't go to the police in these parts or he'll get thrown in jail. I've made about 100 complaints over the past months about their misconduct, and been harassed for it. Wary as I was, I was also curious. So I removed my sunglasses, accepted a 2' kitchen knife from the girl who had been honorably discharged from the U.S. Marines for agoraphobia, and checked the rest of the trailer – under the bed and closets - before she would enter the trailer with me.

This wasn't a time to discuss another man's moral outlook. I'm known for equanimity in pickles, an accord with all the factions, and chess-like problem solving abilities in hobo bloomers with rope suspenders like a barrel, and 20 pounds of ankle weights – one hollowed out like a Batman Utility Belt to hold a compass, rope, paperback, and lighter, and duct tape tapering off on my nose like an inquisitive insect. After I finished consoling the girl, I pulled a cell phone out of my Batman ankle belt and called the San Francisco FBI. Within an hour the place was swarming with sheriffs.

I had left, because a really good detective never gets married to the plot.


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