Authors: Jessica Speart
Tags: #Endangered species, #female sleuth, #Nevada, #Wildlife Smuggling, #special agent, #U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, #Jessica Speart, #environmental thriller, #Rachel Porter Mystery Series, #illegal wildlife trade, #nuclear waste, #Las Vegas, #wildlife mystery, #Desert tortoise, #Mojave Desert, #poaching
“YOU LEFT A MESSAGE THAT YOUR TORTOISES WERE STOLEN?”
“What was said quite precisely was that they vanished,” Holmes corrected me haughtily. “We have no evidence of a break-in.”
I could tell I was going to hate this kid. “For your information, I just jimmied the entry gate open—and by the look of it, I could probably do the same with the front door. So unless Houdini’s been here, I’d say your super juvees have been nabbed.” I switched on a light and began to look around.
Holmes stood stiff as a board. “Would you mind not poking at anything before asking?” He made me long for a cattle prod. “What time this morning did you realize that the tortoises were gone?”
He paused a moment. “I noticed they were missing two days ago.”
“Two days?” I was stunned. “Were you waiting for them to magically reappear? Or did you think that they’d gone out for a Burger King fix? Why did you wait so long to report this?”
“I thought they might have been borrowed.”
Maybe he’d been munching on magic mushrooms for the past two days. I’d have to report the kid to somebody—the job was crying out for a replacement.
Black Delta Night
A Rachel Porter Mystery
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 1998 by Jessica Speart
Author photo courtesy of George Brenner
Cover design by Pickle Group (
eBook editions by eBooks by Barb for
Published by the author
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 97-94764
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
First Avon Books printing: June 1998
In memory of Mollie Beattie,
the first female director of
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
who kicked in her share of doors
Thanks go to Ron Crayton for sharing his knowledge on Nevada and the Mojave Desert; George Stephen for helping bring the desert to life; Ken Goddard for technical and moral support; Jo Tyler for her continuing good suggestions; and my editor, Micki Nuding for pushing me further.
It was the glare
that first caught my eye. Sun glinted off metal, creating a flare of light that spread out over the scorched desert like liquid fire. From a distance, the object looked like a large metal roach. It was only as I approached closer that the insect metamorphosed into a black pickup truck.
I’d been based in Nevada for three long, hot months now and had heard stories about vehicles breaking down, their occupants foolishly stranded without any water.
“First your brain begins to boil and then your skin shrivels and cracks open so that the fluid in your body oozes out. Great for mummies. Lousy for your complexion, Rach.” Terri, my designated best friend from New Orleans, where I’d previously been based, had tried relentlessly to prevent me from moving out west.
“After that you become delirious, taking off your clothes and ripping out your hair while crawling toward an imaginary six-foot-tall piña colada,” he had continued, handing me an icy cold drink complete with a blue paper parasol floating on top.
Images of piña coladas danced in my head as I veered towards the lone pickup. The brain-curdling heat was enough to make me give serious thought to shedding my clothes; modesty be damned. What prevented me was those ten mysterious pounds that refused to go away, along with the fact that I tend to resemble a boiled lobster when I’m out in the sun for too long. I’d taken to wearing my mop of strawberry-blond curls twisted on top of my head rather than cut what I stubbornly considered to be my unofficial badge of youth. As for my complexion, Terri would have been apoplectic. His three cardinal rules were cleanse, exfoliate, and moisturize. My car got a better lube job than my face did, which was beginning to resemble the desert after a year-long drought.
I think the heat is best summed up by a local joke about a new arrival in Hell, who views its flames with trepidation. “But it’s a dry heat,” the devil responds.
A sandpaper-like wind blew through the open car window, rasping against my skin. Reaching into the cooler on the seat next to me, I pulled out a handkerchief as frigid as a winter day in New York and laid it against my neck, relishing the momentary rush of goose bumps. At one hundred ten degrees, it was another scorcher of a day in this blast furnace more commonly referred to as the Mojave, the Sahara of the West. The temperature hadn’t dipped below one hundred degrees all week.
My prime objective had been to imagine myself encased in a giant ice cube—no easy task, considering that the pitiful air conditioner in my old Chevy Blazer was on the fritz. Even when it had been working full blast, the car was like a poor man’s steam bath. So I couldn’t imagine why anyone would be parked of their own free will in the middle of the Nevada desert.
I turned off the blacktop onto a dirt road, past leafy creosote bushes and an array of yucca cactus, their stems as long and sharp as a battlefield of upright bayonets in a land that takes no prisoners. I had heard that it wasn’t uncommon to trip across bodies buried in the desert—so I came dangerously close to swerving off the dirt road as a figure rose up through hazy waves of heat like an unearthly specter. The form, resembling a demon levitating off the desert floor, slowly transformed itself into a tall, slim woman with a mane of jet-black hair. Looking just once in my direction, she sprinted over to the pickup and revved the engine. The tires spun giddily in place and the motor wailed to be set free. Finally finding the necessary traction, the pickup careened out, kicking up a line of dust devils in its wake.
I had no illusions about my popularity in these parts. To the local macho cowboys, who hate the government and anyone who works for it, a visit from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent is about as eagerly anticipated as a case of the clap. But the fact that she had taken off without so much as the usual obscene gesture set my suspicions on edge.
I peeled out after the pickup.
My foot pressed down hard on the pedal as I edged closer to the vehicle’s rear end. If nothing else, I’d at least get the license plate number. But my desert apparition apparently wasn’t overly fond of the DMV either. There was nothing to see but two catchy bumper stickers, America’s version of the haiku.
I flashed my lights and beeped the horn. In return, a tapered hand snaked its way out the driver-side window, the middle finger raised in a salute. She seemed intent on leaving me behind, eating her dirt. I hit a patch of soft ground and the back end of the Blazer fishtailed like a hula dancer out of control. The pickup raced ahead screaming in glee.
I’ve never been one to take competition lightly—be it in aerobics class, faced with a thonged twenty-something version of the Energizer Bunny, or in a showdown against taxis in the streets of New York. I had no intention of losing a game of desert tag. Straightening the Blazer, I took off once again, my blood pounding along with the whirring of wheels as I watched the speedometer climb.
The Mojave whipped by like a video on fast forward. A field of razor-sharp cactus sprang into view and I dodged the obstacle, feeling ready to take on the Autobahn, when the fugitive pickup suddenly spun out of control, twirling in a dizzying one-eighty. When it finally came to a halt, we sat hood to hood, clenched in a power truck showdown. But before I could react, the woman sent her vehicle speeding backward across the desert floor, like a cartoon thrown in reverse.
I jammed my foot down on the accelerator, feeling giddy as I gained on my prey, only to watch the pickup whirl around and perform yet another movie perfect one-eighty. Zooming ahead, it left me behind in a shower of gravel and dirt. I gritted my teeth in determination, flooring the Blazer for all it was worth. The speedometer flew past seventy, onto eighty, and was twitching toward ninety in a chase that would have made the Dukes of Hazzard proud when the pickup started to swerve like a drunk on a roll. I locked on, moving in for the kill, only to feel the ground inexplicably disappear beneath my wheels. The Blazer soared into the air on invisible wings before plunging back to earth, where it landed with a shattering WHOMP! I slammed on the brakes, my head hitting the roof with a sharp jolt as the Blazer skidded to a halt.
Damn! I growled in disgust and glanced in the rearview mirror. A deep washout lay like a trench in the ground. Though I’d been going fast enough to fly over the rut, the crash landing had stopped me cold. Left with no choice but to give up the chase and assess the damage, I tried to get out, but the door wouldn’t budge. I crawled out the window, cursing my miserable fate as I fell to the dusty desert floor. Dragging myself up, I gave the door a hard, swift kick before wrenching it open and climbing back inside. Damn car—had to be male.
This was my new life in Nevada. I was no longer up against those good ol’ boys of the South who brazenly stood with their rifles and plowed down a couple of hundred ducks in a field. Now I was dealing with a huge expanse of land and an endless number of culprits who were good at hit and run, slithering away from the scene as cunningly as snakes. It made me nostalgic for the bayous and the rednecks of Louisiana.
Disgruntled, I drove back to where the pickup had been parked, and walked over to a row of yuccas sporting black ribbons tied to their stems. At the foot of each cactus was a metal bucket buried in the sand, its rounded lip level with the ground. A piece of rough plywood had been placed across the top of each container, with just enough space left open so that small, curious critters could easily tumble inside.
Altogether, a row of twenty-five buckets sat planted as neatly as a flower garden. Most of them had already been emptied, but enough remained for me to guess what was going on. Some Wild West entrepreneur was illegally trapping reptiles to sell. A number of tarantulas, rattlesnakes, large, hairy scorpions, and an assortment of lizards sizzled in the sun as they clawed at the sides in a vain attempt to escape. Others lay at the bottom, already dead, or too exhausted to continue to try. If there’s one thing there’s an overabundance of in the Nevada desert it’s reptiles and bugs. Weigh those against the savvy cockroaches of New York City, and it’s a toss-up as to which makes me more squeamish.
But worst of all was that the remaining buckets also held baby desert tortoises—a threatened species throughout the Southwest. They were either dead or close to it, providing plenty of gourmet goodies for the trapped creepy crawlers to feed on.
I walked back to my Blazer, put on a pair of heavy leather gloves, and dug out a snap stick with a trigger attachment rigged onto its end. All my life I have begged relatives, friends, even perfect strangers to kill any spider in sight. I have an irrational fear of anything with more than four legs—and now I found myself trying to save the damn things. Taking a deep breath, I lowered the stick into a bucket and carefully grabbed onto one terrifying creature at a time, holding each one as far away as possible before releasing them under the blazing-hot sun.