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5 · Rocks
Before exiting I-40, Elisha looked to her right. There it was. A mass of black rock sitting above a patchwork of green bushes and desert sand. Mounds of cinder surrounded the long-dead volcano like a procession of worshippers, eventually bleeding into each other until they became one with their god.
Elisha circled the crater and parked along a group of cars on the south-eastern side. There were at least fifteen vehicles. A nice crowd. She looked down and smirked. Before arriving, Elisha had made a brief shopping detour and narrowed down her outfit choices: Amateur Geologist or Jane Tourist. In the end, she chose the latter. The gaudy I (Heart) California t-shirt tucked into her blue “mom jeans,” clean white tennis shoes, and fanny pack may have been taking things to the extreme, but as she looked at the other visitors, she realized she hadn’t strayed too far from reality. Among the rock hounds were high-waisted snowbirds escaping the cold weather of the northern climes and day-trippers either on their way back from gambling, or perhaps driving up from Los Angeles.
Get a taste of the exotic Mojave Desert! Visit an ancient volcano!
She pulled up next to a family of four picnicking out of the back of their SUV. They had probably snapped a few photos, taken a couple of lava rocks to place in their front yard, and were now wrapping up the day with a meal.
Elisha’s stomach rumbled at the sight. She wanted to smack herself for being so focused on other details so as to forget snacks. Working hungry was inconvenient and an opening for weakness. She decided she would head to the closest diner after her reconnaissance and grab a bite before getting back to the task at hand.
She stepped outside of her air-conditioned car and into the imposing heat. It had to be at least a hundred degrees outside. Leaving the hotel, it had been warm, but the sun seemed twice as intense this deep into the desert. Elisha was glad the crater peaked at a mere three hundred feet.
She grabbed the camera from the passenger seat and dropped the strap over her neck. Binoculars would have been ideal but they would have likely drawn attention, even if there were only a few people around; especially if there were only a few people around. There was only so much a “goofy tourist” could get away with. She settled for a camera with a somewhat decent zoom lens. Photos were par for the course in a place like this.
Elisha locked her car and began to climb. Along the carved out path, she passed a family of three whose black labrador looked like he had been over the hike since he got out of the car. Behind them was one of those aforementioned snowbirds who should have been sweating through his long-sleeve shirt and slacks but appeared to be no worse for the wear. And then there were several groups of people speaking languages she couldn’t understand. Elisha knew the desert fascinated foreign visitors, especially Eastern Europeans and the Japanese who didn’t have anything quite like it in their neighborhoods.
After ten minutes, she reached the summit. Elisha pretended to examine some of the rocks. As expected, they were black and full of holes. Before she could pull out her camera, a group of the Japanese tourists approached and asked if she wouldn’t mind taking their photo. At least she assumed that’s what they wanted. Through broken English and hand gestures, Elisha hoped they would be happy with whatever developed.
They left and she finally attached the long-range lens to her camera. She held it to her eye and panned slowly. Her handler had mentioned a shack sitting in a depression and though it seemed she could see a long way, it could have been under ten miles as there appeared to be nothing but more rock, weeds, and sand. She wondered if the crater was not such a great vantage point after all. A skulk through the desert at night may be her only option. Not something she was looking forward to. Elisha was ready to give up, but then something faint caught her attention.
She pulled the camera away, blinked and rubbed the sweat from her eyes, then looked again.
Yes, there was something. A small path. A hint of a trail. It could hardly be called much more but a tiny track appeared to wind gently around the creosote and rose up to the horizon of southern mountains before almost disappearing over a lip. It was inconspicuous and didn’t seem to lead anywhere but away. Could it have been a mere animal trail? Something made by wild burros trekking for water? Maybe that lip was the beginning of the valley. Heat waves danced along the ground and could be causing all sorts of illusions, but Elisha had nothing else to go on. She had to be decisive.
With her destination in mind, Elisha’s stomach reminded her about that diner a few exits back in Newberry Springs and so she headed back down the trail, her mind running through the possible scenarios of that evening. Who was the old man? Why had the orders come from the top? It was a given that there was a certain amount of mystery to her job and that swung both ways. She was never asked about her tactics, either. They only asked that she be discreet and move on when the job was complete. So she had violated the last request a few times, but she was obviously good enough for that to be overlooked.
By the time she got back to her vehicle, the family of four was gone. Elisha started the car. The welcome air compressor kicked in and the clock showed it was nearly 4:00PM. Elisha knew the sun would set in a couple of hours. She got moving in order to circulate the cold air and punched on the radio dial. She adjusted the tuner until the static disappeared, replaced by an ad for tires that was just ending. A weatherman came on and mentioned the possibility for flash floods. Elisha looked out her window. There was not a cloud in the sky.