Deputy Samantha Cody finally bagged her man. The jury’s verdict: three counts of murder in the first with special circumstances and a recommendation of death by lethal injection. Only Judge Westbrooke’s final decree stands between Richard Earl Garrett and death row. After three weeks of an exhausting trial and being haunted by images of the three sacrificially mutilated children, Sam’s only wish is to wash her hands of Garrett, whose only defense is “the devil made me do it.” Just as the chaos in Mercer’s Corner settles down enough for Sam to focus on her dream of entering the world of women’s professional boxing, the jury foreman and two members of the jury die under suspicious circumstances.
When more murders occur, each with Garrett’s signature, a cadre of characters flocks to the tiny California high desert town, from pseudo-Satanic followers to a crazed reverend with his First Church of God disciples. Soon the town is whipped into a lynch-mob frenzy, and Sam’s world of hard facts and pragmatism has quickly spun out of control.
She fired up the engine and headed north through town, toward the freeway. The call had been from Sheriff Charlie Walker. A major accident, involving a gasoline truck, had occurred on I-40 East four miles west of town. She flipped on the roof-mounted flashing lights and accelerated down the on-ramp, merging onto I-40 West.
A mile from the accident site, she could see a red-orange ball of fire, which lit the night as if the sun had crashed into the desert. As she cut through the wide median, flames seemed to tower above her, licking at the low-hanging scattered clouds, painting their undersides orange. A thick plume of oily smoke churned skyward, obliterating the half moon, which peeked between the clouds, and cast the desert into an even deeper darkness, intensifying the glow of the blaze.
She eased across the eastbound lanes and parked off the roadway. Stepping from the Jeep, she took in the spectacle before her.
The smoldering gasoline truck had consumed most of its cargo and been reduced to a hissing metal carcass, which glowed a cherry red. The flames, though still leaping thirty feet in the air, diminished minute by minute. Two firemen wrestled with anaconda-like hoses and directed thick streams of water at the wreck, which sputtered in protest and released clouds of steam into the sky. The air was thick and rancid with the smell of burnt petroleum, like an old service station, its floor slicked with years of dripping oil pans. The entire scene looked like an Irwin Allen disaster movie.
An overturned Camaro had cut a 150-foot-long trench in the desert floor with its roof before coming to rest against a condo-sized boulder. A rusted station wagon, its right front wheel folded beneath its frame, hugged a droopy Catalpa Willow as if seeking protection much as a child pulls bed covers over its head to escape the troll that lurks in the shadowed corner of his room. A frazzled family of four huddled nearby. Sixty cars lined the freeway shoulder, their wide-eyed occupants coalesced in several groups, some talking, some staring silently, all hoping to see something gruesome no doubt.