It is 7:23 on a Sunday morning when the Sheriff's Department in Clay, California, gets the call a woman has been murdered. The boy is at a pay phone by the entrance to the freeway. His dirt bike lies ten feet away, along the shoulder where he's dropped it. The wind weaves sand through the still-spinning tire spokes. He has to cup his hand over his ear to hear the officer's questions above the passing trucks. He relates a series of horrifying images, and after he hangs up he sits in the dirt and cries.
Two Sheriff's Department patrol cars speed out Route 138, Palmdale Boulevard, and then take the hard turn onto Route 15 heading northeast. They drive without sirens through Barstow, passing the ghost mining town of Calico, all clapboard and tin just north of the freeway.
Two deputies in one car. A sergeant in the other. They ride in black silence. After all, this is the country of Charles Manson and The Process and Sunset Boulevard witchcraft. It is the country that spawned such phrases as "Thou shalt kill" and "Helter Skelter."
At the Calico Road exit they find the boy by his dirt bike. He is a wispy excuse for twelve, and he holds the sergeant tightly as he is led to the patrol car. He guides them north, pointing the way up through Paradise Springs Road.
The wind grows worse, blowing its poisonous alkali chlorides and carbonates down from Inyo County and China Lake. Moving up through the Mojave Desert they pass the Calico Early Man Site, where scattered on the shores of ancient, dry Coyote Lake are the oldest known remains of our ancestors in North America. Here a solitary core of studied diggers found rudimentary tools of stone and arrows, fossilized fletchings, and puzzle parts of clay jugs. The crude trappings of commerce, the crude trappings of war.
The patrol cars move off the main road and onto a broken trail that traverses a forgotten playa set between the Calico Mountains and the Paradise Range. Their vehicles rock and heave over the sifting climb of slow dunes.
The boy's hand comes up and points again. His legs arch onto the seat in an almost fetal position. Ahead, the sergeant, one John Lee Bacon, makes out the antiquated silver-hulled trailer where the woman lives, shining dully through the dust. They pull up and stop, and as the three sheriffs step out of the vehicles they unsnap the guards on their pistols.
The blowing sand is like cut glass against their skin. The trailer stands before them, defined by a garden of bottle art mortared into cement stalagmites, rusting chassis, old chairs, and pitted road sign warnings within a labyrinth of cholla and creosote and yerba santa plants that the woman has grown for their powers of healing and poison.
Sergeant Bacon is twenty-four years old, but his ax-thin face already shows the early signs of dissipation. He orders one of the sheriffs to track his way around the trailer; the other will follow as a back-up.
The little they know of the woman has come from the boy, who occasionally rode his dirt bike across the playa to charm her out of a soda, and what they've picked up over their radios. She is called Hannah by those who know her. She has no last name. No driver's license. She has lived there as long as anyone remembers. Her skin is honey-colored black. Her hair is white and hangs in bush locks almost to her waist. She is known to walk barefoot for miles singing out loud, unafraid of snakes, cleaning the desert floor of debris. Some say she is mad, others are more pitying and call her harmless and eccentric. Occasionally she would be seen in the churches of the surrounding towns drinking beer from the bottle and laughing at the locals.
As they approach the screen door they hear the nickering of mobiles hung somewhere in the distance. Off-key brass and stone notes in a twilight chorus. John Lee can feel the sweat creeping out between his thumb and the hammer of his pistol.
They enter cautiously. The windows and air vents in the ceiling have been left open and the sand swirls around the frayed furnishings and unwashed dishes. The wind curls the edges of snapshots, taped to the walls, of passersby who once wandered across the barren plat and were caught by the woman's camera. A confusion of faces going back generations. Faces spotted up between wind-furled clippings from magazines and cookbooks, between pages of poetry and bits of humor. The wind tears at the backs of some of the clippings and they float away. But it is the stench that overwhelms the sheriffs.
John Lee glances at the deputy, who points to the floor. John Lee walks over to him and kneels down. He sees an arterial line of blood, dried the color of cheap wine and flecked with sand, running the length of the trailer toward a sheet hung across the bedroom doorway. The sheet lifts and turns like an apparition, then falls away. Through the sand both men can see the sheet had been hand-painted with a heraldic lily and a rose.
John Lee stands and starts for the bedroom. The deputy follows. They step carefully past the tracings of blood that have pooled out where the floor wasn't level.
They turn the sheet back. The small grotto of a bedroom is filled with shells and fossil stones. The air is poisoned with flies and their noses begin to burn from the vile odor of rotting flesh. Then they see her, lying on her side at the foot of the bed.
One moment taints John Lee's dreams forever. He will see it all in fragments over and over again. The gas-bloated frame. The skin where it has burst apart and the open lesions rank with white maggots leeching pink-brown muscle. The bullet wound to the side of the skull that leaves shards of bone with blood and brain jelly trailing up the wall like the spanning wings of a bird. The eyes driven from their sockets by the concussion of the shot. The knife wounds across the back and chest that leave bloody chevrons on the woolly white seaman's sweater. The skin sluiced in bizarre patterns that border on ritual. And in a wrinkled turn of her coarse garment, a single pearl.
It will all become an indelible part of his subconscious.
All that night Homicide and Forensics units hunt for evidence, but the sand had beaten them to it, papering over whatever tracks and prints might have existed.
There is one slim lead. A son named Cyrus. Hannah had taken care of a child she'd found abandoned on Fort Dixon Road. He was a tall boy with large hands and brooding yellow-green eyes, and as he got older he carried himself like some solitary acolyte. Twice he'd been sent to juvenile hall in Los Angeles for possession of narcotics and assault. But this just dead-ends. The boy had run off three years before, when he was seventeen, and had not been seen since.
By morning the newspapers get word and they rush the playa in their Jeeps and Travelalls. They're hungry for a story, and this one reeks of lurid headlines.
One reporter, while wandering the playa, discovers in a dry riverbed a few hundred yards from the trailer a totem of sorts. Granite and limestone boulders squared up block by block form what resembles a primitive furnace. Etched into the rock are prehistoric signs. A bird. A bull. A tree. Symbols of earth and air, fire and water. And in the center is a snake devouring itself. The sign of Ourabouris. The same sign that is discovered during the autopsy to have been tattooed on Hannah's shoulder. All this the news draws up in squalid detail. Hannah's death is christened "The Furnace Creek Cult Murder."
Case's screams tear at her very bones and wrack the hallway outside her small apartment in the rehab house. She crouches on the bathroom floor before the toilet. She is only twenty-nine, but the free fall back into her two-hundred-dollar-a-day habit has left her gaunt. Her skin is yellow, her arms marked with blue-black welts. Two days off the junk. The third is always the black hole. A pure moment of hell before the resurrection.
Her stomach heaves in spasm. A guttural sucking out of the air. The woman in the apartment next door, trembling from the horrid screams, calls down to Anne.
Anne rushes through the dark hovel of the living room toward a crease of light, where she sees Case clawing at the white floor tiles, digging her chewed fingernails into the grouting.
Anne sits and tries to cradle Case in her arms. Case's head jerks toward her in jarring lurches.
She was a small girl again. Not more than ten. A street runaway with small pointed breasts. She was naked and she was being carried by four of them like some vestal virgin. She was taken and forced inside the skinned torso of a dead cow. There was blood everywhere. She could feel the sweet sticky hourglass of the cow's ribs press up against her own. The weight of its breastbone forcing air out of her. She felt as if she was going to suffocate and she gagged.
She vomits before she can reach the toilet. Anne tries to press twenty milligrams of Robaxin into Case's hand for the spasm, but she knocks the pills away and they twirl across the bare tiles.
"I'm gonna fuckin' go at this straight up."
"I'm gonna go at . . ."
"Why! Why suffer the withdrawal?"
Case rocks back and forth. "You're not gonna hear any of that 'It's not my fault' shit, or 'Nobody should blame me' or 'How can I help but be a heroin addict' and 'It's not so friggin' bad.' I want to suffer." She gasps. "Get it. Fuckin' A. I want to feel it all. I want to fuckin' bleed so I'll know . . ."
Anne stares at her, frightened. Case grabs hold of Anne's face, twisting her fingers through the woman's dreadlocks. "I want it to cut me to ribbons. Then I'll know."
Cyrus clawed one hand onto her vagina and the other around her ass and he dragged her from the bloody carcass. She hung in his arms. He smeared his hand in the blood that covered the floor. He wiped it across his mouth and tongue and then he kissed her and pressed his tongue far enough into her mouth to make her choke. She retched and he pulled back and held her by the hair and whispered, "You are born again."
Fuckin' death. Her stomach contracts at the very words. Helpless, she's thrown through a flash fire of thoughts. You are born again. Vivid life moments, three frames in length. Gutter and Lena and Granny Boy. Flashbulb fast. Sinister and moving and tragic. Snippets out of some Jungian MTV nightmare. Every black-and-white blowjob and backlit truck-stop hump. Watching your tits mature in blue-ice light under the pawing sweat-filthed hands of businessmen and junked-out middle-class housewives. Just one great juke hole to the upside-down cross. You are born again. Grovelling at the spray-painted slogans of the Left-Handed Path. Serving his alleged only begotten son. Knifing drug dealers to cop their stashes in pitch-black parking lots on moonless nights. Robbing neon-framed gas station attendants for a few bucks or on a whim. Kicking some shopkeeper half to death 'cause Cyrus overheard him talking about his faith in Christ.
You are born again.
She grabs at the stanchions that support the sink. Two bars to a cage. Or the two pillars Samson pushed apart to cast down the temple. No fuckin' chance of that.
You are born again to the Left-Handed Path.
What she would do for a little juice right now. Just enough to . . .
You are born . . .
She forces herself to live through the final beating, when she broke from Cyrus. The boot-hard kicks that broke her sternum and fractured her skull and the taste of . . .
She begins to feel herself split apart.
"I will not break . . ."
She's living out a full dose of Mach One, and her teeth are clacking so hard they sound like the bones in some seer's cup right before the roll of prophecy. There's no sleep for junkies on the way down. None. Just reckless, restless nausea and diarrhea and cold sweats and fumbling speech.
"I will not break . . ."
Anne grabs a towel from the rack and wipes Case's cropped black hair, which sticks up in sweaty greased clumps. She wipes at the sweat pouring off the edge of her nose and chin.
The old rage puts on its wolf's-teeth mask. The tiled floor becomes the white stone slab waiting for her corpse. Case curls into a fetal position. Her drenched T-shirt clings to her back, and the cold from the tiles leaves her shivering.
Anne runs into the bedroom to get a blanket and covers her up.
"I will not break. I will not . . . I . . . will not . . . I will not. Fuck you, Cyrus. Fuck you. I will not break . . ."
She repeats the sentence over and over again. A delusional broken mantra she drives into the very essence of her being.
"I will not break. I . . . will not break. I will not . . ."
Saliva hangs in a string line from her lips to the floor. She hears a siren along Hollywood Boulevard swell up, shrill, then slowly slip away down past Western Avenue. She begins to cry. She cries from the center of her being. Cries for the little girl born to be left behind.
CHRISTMAS WEEK 1995
A small wooden windmill sits on top a mailbox near the entrance to a dirt driveway that crooks its way up a hill and onto a flat prow of stony ground and ends at a fifties-style ranch house. As the windmill's warped vanes creak, five figures emerge from the brush like a coven conjured out of the black earth.
They are a patchquilt of jeans and leathers. Bare-soled boots and chain-braided vests over scrubby T-shirts. One, a boy named Gutter, has a safety pin awled through his lower lip. Another, a girl named Lena, has her hair greased back and dyed up like a rainbow. Their faces and arms are tattooed with anarchistic designs. They have pistols and knives wedged into their belts and boots. As they fan into the darkness they are a vision of post-apocalyptic rock-and-roll revenants.
Cyrus stops them about fifty yards shy of the house and looks the grounds over. The bushes by the front door are tasseled with holiday lights and dance to the wind like illuminated ghosts. He looks back down at the road. Via Princessa cuts a silent, pitch-dark path around the hills toward the freeway. He listens and waits, his senses taking everything in quarter by quarter. The only sound is the windmill's rusted spoke arcing round its unvarying center. He gives orders silently, using a spartan wave of the blue barrel of his shotgun.
Excerpted from God Is a Bullet by Boston Teran. Copyright © 2002 by Boston Teran. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.