Read Slickrock Paradox Online

Authors: Stephen Legault

Tags: #Suspense, #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Hard-Boiled, #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General, #FICTION / Crime, #FICTION / Suspense

Slickrock Paradox

BOOK: Slickrock Paradox
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PRAISE FOR THE DURRANT WALLACE MYSTERY SERIES

“Legault . . . combines the guilty pleasure of a page-turning murder mystery with the brain food found in Pierre Berton's history books.” —
Avenue Magazine

“Legault knows his history, and that's what makes this novel shine.” —
The Globe and Mail

“A riveting and winning history mystery.” —
The Hamilton Spectator

“Legault knows there's a fine balance between developing rich characters and leaving enough mystery to maintain interest until the next adventure.” —
Calgary Herald

“The mystery . . . is first-rate, unfolding in a manner that keeps readers wondering whodunit until the very end.” —
Mysterious Reviews

“Stands proud among the best of the genre.” —
Rocky Mountain Outlook

“Legault does a good job developing this rich character while never allowing the suspense of the story to flag.” —
Quill & Quire

PRAISE FOR THE COLE BLACKWATER MYSTERY SERIES

“The Cole Blackwater stories are among the most riveting today, and
The Vanishing Track
is the best yet in this intensely dramatic series.” —
The Hamilton Spectator

“[The] best in the Cole Blackwater series.” —
The Globe and Mail

“Even though the source material lends itself to preaching and moralizing, Legault wisely sticks to telling a good story.” —
National Post

“A brutally honest look at life on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. A really great read.” —Senator Larry Campbell

1: THE RED ROCK CANYON MYSTERIES

For Jenn
For Silas and Rio
For Ann and Paul
With gratitude to Ruth and Frances
For Cactus Ed

SHE WAS NOT THERE.

Standing on a slab of naked sandstone, the fierce, dazzling light of midday bearing down on him, he thought this was the kind of place where if you lost something it would be hard to find again. Especially if that something was a person.

Silas Pearson stood with his hands at his sides, his fingers curled slightly as if attempting to hold onto something slowly slipping from his grasp. His face, brushed with graying whiskers, was shaded by an oversized, sweat-soaked, wide-brimmed hat, encrusted with red dust and faded from too much sun. He faced east, his shadow a slender disk at his feet.

He slipped his pack from his back and crouched on the coral pink stone, pulled a water bottle from the bag and unscrewed the top. He drank, a few precious beads of water trickling down into his rough beard. The water was cool and sweet; he'd frozen the bottle solid the night before, as was his routine, so that at midday it was still cold, the ice long gone. He tightened the lid before slipping it into his bag. He fiddled with the ring on his left hand, pulling at it, and noticed his hands were so swollen the ring would not move.

He stood and fished a worn and tattered topographic map from his shirt pocket. The reflection of the sun made it difficult to look at the white paper for very long. He regarded the map for a brief moment, looking up at the landscape to get his bearings, and then used a pencil to mark his route. He folded the map and put it away.

Silas set out again, walking over the corrugated sandstone, the soles of his light hiking shoes gripping the 100-million-year-old slickrock like Velcro. The earth tilted upward, so he pressed his legs into service to ascend a hump of barren stone. At the top, the landscape leveled out and the stone gave way to a sandy arroyo. There were trees here, though not the type Silas had become accustomed too in the dry upland forests of his recent past. These trees were stunted and tortured, growing a few feet each decade, existing more on hope and dogged perseverance than water or the desert's thin, dusty soil. Pinyon pines, their thick, bushy boughs decked with tightly whorled cones that the searing heat would soon pop open. And Utah juniper, deformed trunks bare and gray, twisted like an old man's body, their roots seizing the naked stone, drilling deep into the earth in search of moisture, tattered limbs clutching at the azure sky.

Silas scanned the undersized forest before him and began circling back and forth across the sandy rill. He stooped and peered in the shade of each bunched-up pine and in the lee of every juniper, slowly making his way eastward. Sweat soaked his shirt and hat and the waistband of his pants. He pushed away the trickling beads as they seeped through his eyebrows and burned his eyes. He wore no sunglasses despite the wicked glare, because he missed things that were in the shadows at midday if he wore them. It was too great a risk to take.

He widened his circling and took in a broader sweep of the folded landscape, finding a narrow defile in the tableland that promised shade, and he hunched at its edge a moment, consulting his map again. The contour lines bent slightly here, but otherwise the slot canyon didn't appear on his topographic sheet. Silas's sunburnt finger hovered over the place on the map, tracing the gorge's path east, toward the edge of the map. He'd have to check it. He slipped his pack off again, retrieving the water bottle. After a cool drink, he stepped to the edge of the crack and peered into its depths. It was a narrow crevice in the stone, impossible to tell if it was twenty or one hundred feet deep. This gorge
might
have offered the promise of shade, he reasoned, had it been sought. He put his feet on either side of the opening in the earth and stared down into the darkness, but could see nothing. Tucking his hat inside his pack, he set the bundle next to the cleft. He pulled out a small headlamp from his bag and strapped it on.

Silas drew a sharp breath and pressed himself between the stone walls, then slipped beneath the desert.

It was cooler in the cleft of naked rock, but it was very narrow and almost immediately he wished he hadn't started this descent. Below him the darkness seemed to pull at his feet with its cool, inviting depths. He wedged his shoulder against one side of the fissure, hands and feet against the other, and continued down. He glanced up after a minute to see the sky a thin white line above him. He edged downward again, his face was only six inches from the wall opposite him, the sky now gone.

Some people do this for fun
, he thought.

Silas's breath came in sharp staccato gulps, in part because of the tight fit in the iron lung of stone, in part because of the claustrophobic grip the earth had on him. He turned his head to regard the darkness all around him. It was possible that a person might fall into such a rent if they were not looking where they were going. Possible, but improbable; you could step over such a crevice and hardly notice it. He was suspended thirty feet or more below the surface now, and an unknown distance from the bottom. He began to shift himself eastward, his senses alert to any sound that might lead to a discovery.

He found the going strenuous. Three and a half years ago his body, more adept at standing at a university lectern, would have given out. But in the ensuing years he'd grown both strong and adept at this sort of subterranean exploration.

He pressed his hands flat against the cool surface of the sandstone before him, his back grating over the stone behind, his feet moving back and forth, finding what purchase they could on the grit of the rock. He continued inch by inch along the length of the narrow defile, the tiny light from his headlamp catching cracks and fissures and folds in the sinuous earth.

In a few minutes he came to a place where the defile opened a little and he found himself pushing the opposite wall with his arm fully extended. Sun trickled down from the grotto's opening far above and the stone glowed with an ethereal light. If he hadn't been obsessed with his morbid task, Silas might have appreciated, even taken pleasure in, the suspended moment in time there in his narrow slot.

Another twenty feet and the canyon constricted again, and this time he felt a jumble of basketball-sized chock stones beneath this feet. He rested for another moment, his light raking the bottom of the crevice, searching for any sign that told of previous human passage. There was none; there was nothing there. Stone, red dust suspended in the arc of his light, the middens of pack rats, nothing more. He drew a deep breath, his body nearly touching either side of the slot. He forced himself farther eastward along the rocky bottom, his face turned sideways so the light would lead him onwards. He looked up and could see no sign of the world beyond.

There came a moment when the walls pressed so closely together that Silas felt he might not be able to take another deep breath. He was a slender man, what might have passed for lean, except that his arms and shoulders and back were well developed from carrying a pack these last few years, his legs corded with long, sinuous muscle from thousands of miles trudged over canyon country.

Another twenty yards and Silas came to another complication. His light caught the lip of the canyon floor where it disappeared. Silas inched forward, his breath coming sharply. Despite the coolness of the canyon, sweat leaked from his thatch of gray hair, hanging in a drip on the end of his hooked nose.

He peered over the lip of the drop-off and could see the floor of the canyon continue twenty or more feet below. But the walls here were slickrock, the sandstone hollowed out and polished smooth by the purge of intermittent floods and coated with a fine dust. Too wide for him to reach across. He could likely put one foot down on the small stone protruding five or six feet below, then climb down the slickrock, but could he climb back up? The fine grit and light dusting of powder that coated much of the surface of the canyon country made these slabs, shoots and pour-offs deathtraps. What was often easy to descend could become perilous to ascend or vice versa; such was the paradox of slickrock country. Men died that way in the canyonlands, he reasoned. Women, too. He stood for a long moment, evaluating his prospects.

He could not count the number of times over the last three years that he had come to some lip, some corner, some precipice and weighed the odds: to continue his lonesome search and risk becoming like that which he sought, or turn around and live to search another day. He could climb out of the grotto, retrieve the harness and rope from the car, rappel down the overhang and then use his jumar—a small tool used to mechanically ascend a rope—to climb out again. But that would take several hours, and he was already tired. It seemed highly improbable that he would find what he was searching for here. He began his solemn ascent.

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