“Hey, bitch. Get out before we come for you.”
Ellie hit the ‘Delete’ button. She had heard the flat, metallic voice many times before. The threat was the same. There was little point in saving the message. She’d played the original one for the police chief months ago. He’d shrugged, looked at her with sad brown eyes and said there was nothing he could do.
She leaned back in her chair and stared up at the ceiling, counting the tiny holes in the panels until her hands stopped shaking. Beyond the flimsy walls of her office, a forklift truck wheeled in the latest depressing shipment of commodities—tinned meat, boxed cheese, powdered milk. Anonymous boxes stacked on shelves that had once housed a cornucopia of excess before the Walmart had shut down, the last hold-out against the Depression.
“Twenty-two, twenty-three…” It was taking longer than usual to slow her pulse. Ellie’s hands stopped shaking. She sat up, wiped her clammy hands on her jeans and wished her office had a window. She hated the brightly lit box. All the pictures in the world couldn’t transform it into anything other than a bureaucrat’s cheerless cell—another wonderful day at the office, another day serving penance for her stupidity. Ellie reached for her coffee and tried to ignore the burnt-toast taste. She nearly dropped the mug when Maria rapped on the door.
Maria poked her head around the door. “Your nine o’clock appointment is here.”
Ellie glanced at the clock. It was only eight-forty-five. She hated people who turned up early, especially first thing in the morning, before she’d had a chance to ease into the day. “Remind me who it is, again?”
“Duncan Harris, he’s a journalist. The Brit, remember?”
Ellie had a vague memory of an Englishman phoning her. He was doing a series of feature articles for a British paper on Dust Bowl America. Someone had given him her name and he wanted to talk to her. “All right.” She put her phone on ‘Send Calls’. “Wheel him in. I suppose he’ll want to see everything, so keep my diary empty for the rest of the day.”
“If it’s any comfort,” Maria whispered, “he’s not bad looking.”
Ellie smiled. “That’s all right, then. I’ll even forgive him for turning up early.”
“It’s probably no bad thing. It’s going to be fucking hot today, if you’ll pardon the French. It’s already ninety-five out there. You’ll be better off showing him around now before it gets too hot.”
“Why the hell would anyone want to come here during the monsoon?”
“Maybe he didn’t realize…”
“He soon will, poor guy.” Ellie opened the top drawer of her desk and swept everything from the desktop into it. “Send him in.”
Maria returned a minute or two later with the journalist. Ellie took one glance at him and wished she’d made more of an effort with herself before she’d left the house. She rose and shook his hand. His grip was warm and firm and he offered her a smile made brighter by a day’s worth of dark stubble. He sank into the other chair and Maria disappeared, promising to return with more coffee.
“So, how can I help you?” Ellie looked at him. She was too used to the local rednecks with their goatee beards, white T-shirts and John Deere caps. Duncan Harris wore a pale blue shirt open at the throat, faded jeans, and already appeared as if he was suffering from the heat.
“A friend of mine in DC gave me your name. He said you’d be a good person to speak to about how bad things are in Arizona.”
“Well, they’re certainly bad. You might’ve noticed that.”
“It seems fairly bleak.”
“When you’ve had your coffee, I’ll take you on the Grand Tour.”
He removed a recorder from a bag and set it on the desk between them. “Do you mind being recorded?”
“No, just turn it off when I give you any off-the-record stuff.” There were things she wanted to say that didn’t need to be getting back to Washington.
“That’s not a problem.” He smiled again and Ellie tried to figure out whether his eyes were brown or browny-green.
“How long have you been here?”
“Twelve years. I met my husband during our last year at U of A. He persuaded me to move here with him. He was born here and his dad wanted him to take over the family business. I’d grown up back East, in upstate New York, so I liked the idea of living somewhere where I didn’t have to put up with loads of snow every winter.” She sighed and looked at the ceiling for a moment. “I didn’t realize what a poor town it was. When we moved back here, there was a big housing boom. It was crazy, there were people camping out overnight at sales offices, waiting to buy a brand new house. Everyone here was really excited. They all thought great things were going to happen. It was a good time. Mike’s family had a landscaping business. We were all run off our feet with new clients. All those commuters to Phoenix and Tucson who didn’t have time to maintain their yards, we did it for them. The whole state was going crazy with the boom.” She sighed again then sipped her cold coffee. “The trouble was, everyone put their eggs into the housing basket. When the economy went south, so did everyone else.”
Maria returned with more coffee and a scant handful of cookies. She set the tray on Ellie’s desk and departed with a wink.
Ellie poured his coffee and handed him the mug. She pushed the plate of cookies toward him. “It went downhill very fast. When you’ve had your coffee I’ll take you out and show you. It’s better than me sitting here talking about it. You need to see the mess for yourself.”
“How’d you end up in this job?”
“When the business began to fall apart, I got a job with the state, in the benefits office. It was a lucky break. It kept me and Mike safe for a couple of years until the state ran out of money.” Ellie stared past him, remembering. “The budget was a mess. The state government couldn’t agree on anything. It was like trying to spread a little bit of butter on a huge piece of bread. It didn’t help that the state congress and the state houses were full of idiots who were all too busy trying to score political points instead of keeping things ticking over. The governor was an idiot. It got so bad that even the undocumented migrants started heading back home.” She put her coffee down.
“After two years it got so messed up that the feds had to step in and bail us out. They set up an interim government. Before I knew it, I was a federal employee. I was one of the lucky ones…until Mike was killed.” Even after six years, it still hurt.
“What happened?” Harris’ voice was gentle.
Ellie fumbled in her pocket for a Kleenex. “Some morons from out of town were doing a beer run. They helped themselves to a thirty-pack from a convenience store and were in such a rush to get away that they drove on the wrong side of the road. The police said that Mike probably never knew what hit him. It was a head-on collision. They were going about ninety miles an hour.” She wiped her eyes.
“I’m sorry. That must’ve been dreadful for you.”
Ellie nodded. “It was dreadful for everyone. His father took it really hard. He was sick anyway, bad heart. He died about three months later. His mother moved back to California to live with her sister. If I had any sense, I would’ve left town and gone back east. But I didn’t have enough money. I’ve never had enough money. There was no question of selling the house because no one wanted to buy here. My salary pays the bills and that’s about it. I’ve put in for transfers, but there’s nothing.” She leaned over and hit the ‘Stop’ button on the recorder. “Off-the-record time. They want me to stay here. I’m so low down the totem pole that I don’t merit a transfer. I keep getting threats. I’ve told them, but they tell me not to worry, that all federal workers get threats.”
Harris’ eyes widened. “What kind of threats? From who?”
Ellie pulled a notebook from her desk and handed it to him. “There’s about fifty listed there. All saying the same thing and almost every day for the past two months. It could be anyone. There’s all kinds of crazy anti-government groups out here now. One pencil pusher managing a food distribution depot in a dead town in the middle of nowhere doesn’t merit the expense of protection.”
“What about the local police? Can’t they do something?”
“No. The chief told me to buy a gun. He’s operating on a wing and a prayer with three men and they have their hands full as it is.”
“Do you have a gun?”
“No. I can’t abide the things. I won’t have them in the house.”
“Don’t you think you ought to get one?”
“I keep thinking about it. I suppose I should.” Ellie took her car keys out of her pocket. “We should go before it gets too hot. Even with air conditioning in the car, it’s still going to be uncomfortable later.” She rose, wanting to get out of the office, away from the memories and the phone.
“Yeah, I noticed it was a bit warm.” Harris retrieved the recorder and put it back in his bag.
“Why did you come here at this time of year? Didn’t anyone tell you what it was like?”
“I’m on a schedule. I had no choice.” He followed her out of the office into the echoing cave of the depot. The fans were already operating at full tilt, the whomp-whomp-whomp a comforting rumble.
Ellie found Maria checking off boxes against an inventory list. “We’re out of here. If you need anything, give me a call.”
“All right, boss. Have a good time.”
“I guess we can start the tour here.” Ellie paused. “This used to be a Walmart until things went really bad. It was the last store standing. The government decided it was a good location for a commodities distribution center.”
“Government food. We serve a big area. Everyone can come here for food. We dole it out on a rotating basis, according to social security numbers.”
“What kind of food?” Harris prodded at a box on a shelf. “Cheese in a box?”
“Don’t knock it. It’s good stuff. We’ve got Spam, cereal, powdered milk, dried eggs, canned beef, rice, flour, beans. It’s not gourmet but it keeps a lot of people ticking over. We’re lucky here. The Mormon Church has a huge farm down the road and they always send us fresh produce and help out. A lot of people grow their own food and keep livestock. I know you wouldn’t think it, but if you keep things watered, the soil is good here. I’ll show you.” Ellie walked toward the doors. They slid open with a hiss, admitting a blast of furnace heat.
“Jesus Christ,” her companion said. “It’s fucking hot.”
“It’s still early. Wait until late afternoon.” She glanced at the sky to the north and east. A few stray puffs of cloud hung over the White Mountains and away to the north. “We might get lucky. If those clouds hold together, we’ll get a storm. We’ve had a crappy monsoon so far.” She hoped it would come from the north. They were always the best storms, slow moving and wild. Ellie had long since learned not to take rain for granted. Every storm was an event.
“How often does it rain here?”
She unlocked the car. “During the monsoon, if it’s a good one, we’ll get six or seven storms. We get rain in the winter too. If we’re lucky we’ll get about eight inches of rain a year.”
“This is desert.” She smiled at his incredulity.
“Christ, we can get that in a day or two on a bad day back home.”
Ellie turned the key in the ignition and put the air conditioning on full. Cold, stale air blasted from the ducts. “Yeah, I remember those days too, when I lived in New York.” She backed out of the space and headed for the main road. The mountains were lost in a haze. A pair of dust devils danced around each other on a distant field. Her companion was silent as she headed south. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him staring out of the window. She recognized the ‘oh my God, this place is a mess’ look.
She took the first right, slowing down to avoid the cracks and potholes on the road that led to an older neighborhood. Most of the front yards had been turned over to gravel and hedged with cactus and bougainvillea, to keep out intruders and provide shade. Elderly mesquites cast shadows on the uneven sidewalks and on rusted, abandoned trucks. There were few weeds here because people still cared for the place. Tired block walls and faded wooden fences hid back yards that were filled with tidy rows of vegetables. A few people sat on their front porches and waved when Ellie drove past.
“This is one of the better neighborhoods. Most of the people here have lived here a long time. The houses don’t look so great but at least they’re all occupied. I live just around the corner.” She turned into the cul-de-sac and into a drive. “I should get us some water. Come in.”
Duncan followed Ellie into the house. It was cool and dark with shadows from the trees outside. He stood in the silent living room and listened to the somnolent ticking of the clock while she rummaged through her fridge. It was like any other living room. A comfortable, overstuffed sofa, piled with cushions. A book rested, open, over the arm and on a little side table there was a jumble of photographs in frames. Duncan put his hands in his pockets and wandered around. There were more photographs on the walls, jostling for space between paintings of desert scenes. He recognized a younger Ellie, hair caught in the wind as she smiled for the camera in front of a saguaro cactus. A tall man, easy in jeans and a white T-shirt, stood beside her, his arm draped over her shoulders.
“That was Mike and me, about a year before he was killed.” Her voice made him jump. She handed him a large, cold bottle of water.
Duncan glanced at her. He doubted that she had smiled like that for six years. Her gray eyes were distant and the heat flattened her tawny hair. He tried to work out how old she was. She seemed too weary and tired for someone who was only thirty-four. He thought about the threats, the dates and times listed in the notebook, and was scared for her.
“We should get a move on,” she told him. “We really don’t want to be out there later.”
He followed her back to the car and wondered how it could possibly get hotter. He tugged his shirt away from his skin and envied Ellie’s apparent ease with the heat. He was glad when she turned the air conditioning back on and reversed out of the drive.
“I’ll show you one of the ‘boom’ subdivisions now. You’ll see there’s a big difference.” She turned right and drove through the silent neighborhood. “We nearly bought one of the new homes. I always wanted a place with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.” Her laugh was ironic. “Those show homes were so seductive. Pretty colors, nice furniture, walk-in closets as big as a bedroom. We were so tempted. Then we realized that they’d cost a fortune to keep cool in the summer, all those high ceilings and big, open upstairs spaces. I’m so glad we didn’t. I know our house is old, but it’s mine, there’s no mortgage and the neighbors are great.”
“Old?” He didn’t think the house was older than fifty years. He thought of his flat back in London, on the top floor of a Georgian house that was over two hundred years old.
Another laugh. “I guess it’s all relative. This isn’t an old town. The first white people settled here about a hundred years ago.”
Duncan stared out of the window at the flat expanse of desert and wondered why anyone in their right mind would’ve settled here. There was nothing. Clumps of tumbleweed gave the illusion that green things could grow here, but that was it.
“Here we are.” Ellie turned off. “I’ll show you the house we nearly bought.”
Beyond a neglected verge, wild with out of control bougainvillea, oleander and Texas sage, a crumbling block wall shielded a sweep of beige houses. A broken monument welcomed visitors to S g aro Ranch.
“This was one of the first developments to feel the pinch.” She pulled over to the side of the road. “A lot of investors had bought into this place. They rented their properties out, their tenants stopped paying the rent, stopped looking after their places and, in the end, disappeared. Took off elsewhere. The investors no longer had the rent income to cover the mortgages. The banks moved in, foreclosed and, after about two years, house after house was deserted. Then the developers went belly up, no one was paying their homeowners association fees, so there was no one to pay the landscapers. The tumbleweeds moved in. The City did their best to try and get things tidied up but they were fighting a losing battle.” She pulled away and followed the long sweeping curve toward the first cluster of houses.
There were gaps in the tidy rows, like gaps in a mouth full of broken teeth. Windows nailed over with faded plywood. A few blank walls were decorated with graffiti, mainly gang tags. One or two sported elaborate murals. Duncan found his camera, rolled down the window and took some photographs.
“We had some problems with arsonists.” Ellie turned the car onto an empty street. All that remained were the blackened stumps of homes. Charred timbers pointed toward the sky. Crumbled stucco walls were painted with water stains. “Luckily, this street was already deserted. The best the fire department could do was a managed retreat, to stop the fire from spreading. The whole sky was lit up that night.” She slowed the car to a crawl and stopped. “This would’ve been our house.”
There was nothing but an empty space. Weeds overwhelmed the gravel and green veils of goat head thorns spread across the shattered sidewalk. Dead, pale tumbleweeds nestled in a monstrous pile against the block wall at the back of the site. Duncan reckoned it was at least twenty feet deep. “Jesus Christ,” he whispered.
“Yeah, it was bad.” Her voice was heavy. “We had fire engines from three different cities here, plus the ones from the Rez. I remember we all stood in the street and watched it, well, the glow anyway. For a while we were worried that the whole town would go up.”
He thought, given what he’d already seen, that it would’ve been a kindness if it had.
Ellie moved the car away. “We have at least three other places like this. Burnt out and deserted. Unless you’re really keen to see them, there’s plenty of other stuff I can show you. Besides which, half these houses have bee colonies in them… African bees. It’s not a good idea to hang around.”
“I think I’ve seen enough of this.” He put his camera away and took a sip of water.
“I don’t blame you. I hate coming here. It feels like I imagine Chernobyl would feel, without the radioactivity.”
“Yeah. It does feel a bit like that.” Duncan remembered his one visit there and shuddered.
“You’ve been there?”
“Once. That was enough.” He didn’t want to talk about that. He was relieved when she drove away from the subdivision. It wasn’t hard to imagine how hopeful everyone must’ve been when the new houses started going up and how bad it must’ve been when everything started to go wrong.
She turned on the radio. “I want to hear the weather forecast.”
Duncan wasn’t sure that he wanted to. He guessed it was at least one hundred and five. Clouds were knitting together across the northern horizon. The weatherman said there was a fifty percent chance of storms in the south central desert.
Ellie smiled. “Good, it’s about time.” She turned back onto the main road. “Now I can show you beautiful downtown Rio Seco.”
The irony in her voice made him smile. “That bad, eh?”
“Yeah. It’s bad.” The boulevard was quiet. A few drivers waved or honked their horns when Ellie passed them. “It’s a small town,” she told him. “I’ve been around a while so most people know me.” She waved to someone as she turned left at traffic lights. “Welcome to Main Street, USA, Rio Seco style.”
Duncan stared through the dusty windscreen. The main street was a wide expanse of cracked, gray tarmac. The old brick and stucco buildings were boarded up and decorated with graffiti. Weeds sprouted from the pavements. He couldn’t believe it when a tumbleweed rolled across the street.
“A few years ago, they tried really hard to bring new businesses in. There were one or two who moved in, fixed up their buildings and stayed for a while. But, when the money runs low, who can justify spending fifty bucks on a pair of shoes, or thirty bucks on a meal?” Ellie sighed. “Mike and I ate some nice meals here.” She pointed to a stucco building. A metal canopy had collapsed onto the sidewalk and the windows were smashed. Pigeons nested shamelessly in the gutters and windowsills. The shop next door was open. A few people sat on the sidewalk outside, smoking cigarettes and drinking out of bottles concealed by brown paper bags.
“If you need meth, or crack, or whatever, Bosie’s Market is your friend,” Ellie said.
“Won’t the police do anything?”
“Nah. There’s not enough officers to mount a raid. Besides which, no one seems to cause any trouble there. It’s kind of a live and let live thing.”
The store was the only sign of life on the street. The next street wasn’t much better. Duncan kept thinking of an old zombie film.
“I’ve got one errand to run,” she told him. “Let’s go to the railroad.” She turned the car around and headed toward the edge of town, past row upon row of empty, crumbling buildings. Duncan was convinced that he would have nightmares about the place for a long time to come. He glanced at Ellie, who didn’t seem the least bit bothered by the desolation she drove through. She slowed the car when the road rose a little and turned to the left, onto a broad swath of gray cinder dirt, dotted by clumps of tumbleweed. An ancient building, a rusting mess of corrugated metal, rose out of the wasteland. The front was a gaping black maw. A handful of men sat in the entryway, fanning themselves. They stood when Ellie parked in front of the building. Duncan peered past her into the shadows. There were a dozen or so people in there, seeking dubious refuge from the heat.
“I guess in the old days, people would’ve called this a hobo camp.” Ellie turned off the engine and opened the door. “They’re just travelers, trying to find somewhere worth staying, so there’s no need to be afraid.” She climbed out of the car. Duncan, reluctant to leave the air conditioning, followed. The heat hit him like a slap.
“Hi, Ollie.” Ellie opened the car boot. “Here’s this week’s goodies.” She looked at Duncan. “Can you give me a hand with these boxes?”
Duncan stared into the trunk. It was full of cardboard boxes, packed with the same food he’d seen in the depot. “Yeah, no problem.”
“I always set aside a few boxes for here,” Ellie said. “No one ever thinks of them.”
“Hey, Miss Ellie.” A lean, pale man with a scrappy beard and gap-toothed grin took a couple of the boxes. “How ya doin’ today?”
“I’m just fine, Ollie. How’s everyone here?”
“We’re good. The City got the faucet working again so we’re good for water.” He glanced at Duncan. “Who’s your friend?”
“This is Duncan, he’s from England. He’s a reporter.”
“No shit?” Ollie grinned. “Cool. I’d shake your hand, man, but…you know…with all these boxes.”
“No problem. Where do you want these?”
“Put ‘em in that corner of the shed.” Ollie nodded toward a far corner. Several people stood up, equally disheveled and weary. They helped stow the boxes into the corner. Duncan counted at least a dozen people taking shelter from the relentless heat. He wondered what desperation had driven them to this place.
“Do you think they’d mind if I asked some questions?” he whispered to Ellie as she closed the trunk.
She smiled. “I think they’d appreciate some interest. Everyone here pretends they don’t exist. If it wasn’t for me they probably wouldn’t get fed. I stay around and talk to them, when I can.”
Duncan wondered why her approval mattered to him. He picked up his camera and his recorder and followed her back into the shelter.
“Mr. Harris is a reporter, from England,” she told them. “He’d like to talk to you, if you don’t mind.”
“I got no problem with that.” Ollie stowed the last of the boxes. He smiled at Duncan. “It’s nice to know that Miss Ellie here isn’t the only person who gives a damn.”
Someone offered Duncan a seat, an upended crate. He sat down and found himself surrounded by a semicircle of curious men, all eager to tell their stories. Ellie sat in the doorway, listening while they talked. Duncan glanced at her once or twice, surprised at the sorrow in her eyes. The stories were heartbreaking. Most of the men had once had decent jobs, homes and families. When things had gone wrong, families had fallen apart and homes had been taken back by the banks. Cars had been repossessed and the only thing to do was to hit the rails in search of work elsewhere. Most of them had ended up in Rio Seco to wait out the monsoon. They stayed there because Ellie took the trouble to feed them, the City set up fresh water for them and left them a chemical toilet. They were left alone and, in spite of the heat, they liked where they were staying.
Duncan took some photographs, individual portraits of each of the men and a few of them talking with Ellie. She knew them all, knew their stories and worried about their health. She’d persuaded the local doctor to stop by once a week to check on them and the Mormons brought them produce from their farm. When it was time to leave, they all stood in the doorway and waved her off as if they were bidding a much-loved relative farewell.
Ellie glanced at her watch. “Are you hungry?”
Breakfast—a stale Danish and a weak coffee at the hotel—seemed a long time ago. “I am.”
“Good. Do you like Mexican food?”
“It’s not bad.”
“I mean real Mexican food, not chain restaurant crap.”
Duncan thought guiltily of the plastic-crunchy chimichanga he’d eaten at a well-known national chain, served by a waitress in a lurid, apparently Mexican costume. The highlight of the meal had been the ice-cold bottle of Dos Equis beer. “It was chain restaurant crap.”
“Prepare to be educated.” She grinned and pulled into a parking space in front of a small stucco building. A board propped against the wall advertised the day’s special as green chili or red chili burritos. Duncan braced himself for another blast of hot air when he stepped out of the car.
Inside, the small restaurant was cool and dark. Strings of red chili lights adorned the walls and the room was buzzing with chatter. Duncan felt like a spare wheel, while his guide stopped at one or two tables to exchange greetings with people she knew. The proprietor, a small, fussy woman, bustled out of the kitchen and swept Ellie into a huge hug. “Miha, it’s so good to see you. Where have you been?”
“I’ve been busy.” Ellie’s voice was muffled by the hug. She stepped back. “I’ve brought someone with me. He’s a reporter, all the way from England, so you’d better not poison him.”
The woman laughed and shook Duncan’s hand. Her grip was fierce. “Welcome to Rio Seco. Since Ellie is too rude to make introductions, I’m Norma.”
“Duncan,” he replied. Good smells were escaping from the unseen kitchen—garlic, peppers and onions.
Norma steered them to a table at the back of the restaurant and returned with menus. She glanced sharply at Ellie. “I’m guessing no beer for you. You working?”
“Yeah. I’ll have a Diet Coke, please.”
“What about you, Mr. Duncan?”
“A beer would be nice. Dos Equis?” He was a journalist, he was allowed to drink on duty.
“Dos Equis it is.”
Ellie handed her the menu. “I’ll have the green chili burro.”
Duncan abandoned the menu. He had no idea what was what. He leaned back in his chair. “I have no idea. I’ll have what she’s having.”
“Good choice, Englishman.” Norma took their menus and disappeared into the kitchen.
Duncan heard her yelling something in Spanish above the clatter of pots and pans. A few minutes later, someone brought their drinks, a basket of tortilla chips and a bowl of salsa.
“Nice place,” he said, eyeing the salsa with distrust.
“It is.” She dunked a chip in the salsa. “It’s all right. The salsa’s a bit hot, but it’s safe.”
Duncan took a long draw of beer and looked at her. This, he decided, was the best day he’d spent in a long time.