The Opal Hunter

Kris Eton

 

Chapter One

Aaron Brady wiped the sweat and grime from his face with a blue bandanna, tipped his cowboy hat back, and glanced up at the burning desert sun. It hung low in the sky. Time to call it quits. Another lousy, useless day digging into the hillside. Hard yellow brown clay that yielded nothing. Not even so much as a stray piece of turquoise to make his efforts worthwhile.

He parked the backhoe next to two rusted Bobcats at the bottom of the shallow mine pit and climbed into his pickup.

How long had it been? He’d lost track. Living from hand to mouth on the fruits of a dead turquoise mine was a tough existence, but he was determined to find black opals here. Just like they had a few dozen miles east.

The dry Nevada wind blew dust into his eyes. As he made his way back home in his truck, gravel crunched under the wheels. A bologna sandwich and a cold beer was on his mind. Not like anything else could be. He’d eaten those sandwiches for the last week, morning, noon, and night. The bologna might taste like sawdust, but it fueled him through another backbreaking day of labor and sweat. And every day was one day closer to the discovery he knew was coming. Had to be coming.

He rounded the bend. His low-lying ranch house appeared ahead, along with something else. Something else he had known on some level would be waiting for him eventually. He could only hold them off so long. Any energy he had left in him ebbed away. He’d just hoped he could have had a little longer.

Aaron slammed his hand on the dash. “Fuck!”

He braked his truck so hard the rear end spun out in the gravel. He stopped just short of the industrial-sized tow trailer. A man with a droopy mustache and an oily baseball cap stood next to it, a clipboard in his hand.

“You Hank Brady?” The man spit a wad of chewing tobacco at Aaron’s feet.

“I’m Aaron Brady.” He wiped his brow again with the bandanna and tucked it in the rear pocket of his faded jeans. “Can I help you with something?” But he really didn’t need to ask. He knew why this man was here.

The man handed him the clipboard. “I’m here to pick up the backhoe. Mr. Brady’s six months past due.”

“Just take the fucking thing already.” Aaron kicked dust on the man’s boots. All he wanted was a damn sandwich and a beer. He didn’t want to deal with this shit. Why did they even pretend to be businesslike about it? He turned on his heel to go into the house.

“Where is it?” The man tailed after him. “This is a pretty big place. I had a hard enough time finding you off the interstate.”

Aaron stopped, but kept his back turned to the man. “Follow the road. The mine’s about three miles yonder. It’s in the pit. Keys are in it.”

He heard paper tearing.

“Here’s your receipt.”

Aaron glanced over his shoulder. Anger and defeat welled up inside him. This man was about to take his last best chance to find opals on this godforsaken land. How in the hell would he dig now? “Shove it up your ass.” He let the door slam behind him. He just didn’t care anymore.

After about two minutes, the tow truck grumbled and its gears cranked. It was driving away with his ambitions, his dreams. To think tomorrow he’d be digging with a pick rather than the trusty backhoe was a hard sock to the gut. An almost impossible task.

Aaron went to the refrigerator, pulled out the packet of bologna, and looked out the window as he made his sandwich. Miles of brown, dry Nevada desert. Scrub brush and a few cactuses dotted the desolate landscape. Somewhere out there a treasure trove of black opals waited to be found. His father believed it. And Aaron had to believe it. It was the only thing that got him up in the morning. That made all the sweat and the labor and the disappointment bearable.

He took a bite of his sandwich, not really tasting it, but his stomach felt less empty. The gnawing hunger quieted to a low rumble. A long pull on the ice-cold beer filled the rest of the empty space. Aaron finished his meal standing over the sink watching the last bit of the red desert sun sink over the distant Toiyabe Range and thinking about the swing of the pickax tomorrow when it hit the hard ground.

* * * *

Nina Delgado switched on her brights. Nighttime settled quickly in the desert. She’d been driving for a good four hours, and her eyes were starting to tire. It didn’t help much that she’d been driving the same bland, straight highway for miles. Although she’d lived in Nevada most of her life, the northeast part of the state was like a different planet. Empty, almost dead. A sharp contrast to the lights and action in Las Vegas. Not even a gas station for miles and miles.

It was her intention to do most of the driving today, get to the motel, and then wake up the next morning refreshed for her encounter with her client.

Her client.

That made it sound so civilized. Working for the IRS for the last five years, Nina was well-versed in creating a positive spin on the idea of taxes and audits. Not that it worked, but at least the government tried.

She was ready to kill her boss Greg though, for sending her on this wild-goose chase. She’d been asking for a more challenging case. Something she could sink her teeth into. But the Brady file wasn’t quite what she’d been hoping for. A failed turquoise mine with mounting debts and several mortgages. Not like there would be a lot here to salvage.

She glanced over at the briefcase on the seat next to her. Seven years’ worth of records to pore over. Unpaid taxes, late taxes, the possibility of undeclared income—it was possible she’d have to work on her first major property seizure.

Her headlights lit up the green and white sign. Garber, exit 2 miles. That’s where she was headed. Some rinky-dink town. When she’d done a search on the Internet, there’d only been a listing for one motel. The Garber Motel. No online reservations. She’d called and spoken with some woman who sounded half-drunk. Nina wasn’t surprised to hear they had availability.

“Thanks a lot, Greg,” she said to herself as she pulled off the interstate.

A sign pointing to the east stated Garber was another twenty miles down the road. It was so dark now, it felt as if she were driving on the moon. Another half hour, and she’d be there. Her stomach rumbled. She was glad for the chilaquiles her mother had insisted she take with her that morning. Road food did a number on her stomach, and she had a sinking feeling there wouldn’t be a whole lot of food choices once she arrived in Garber.

The dark shadow of an animal ran in front of her car. Too close.

Nina pressed hard on the brake. Her tires squealed on the asphalt, and her car slid onto the gravel shoulder.

“Shit!” She twisted the wheel in the opposite direction of the slide, hoping to get back control of her car. Her rear wheels bumped over something. Then the steering became difficult, lopsided.

She knew in her gut she had a flat.

“Holy fucking shit.” Her car came to a bumpy stop, half on the shoulder and half on the freeway. She pressed carefully on the gas, and the car limped all the way off the road. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

She set the car into park, grabbed the flashlight out of her glove compartment, and climbed out, almost afraid to look. A ragged hole gaped in her rear left tire.

“Dammit.” Leaning against the side of her car, she tapped on her Blackberry until she found the number for AAA in her phone list. This would be the last time she’d ask for a challenge at work. Even if she were passed over for the promotion to GS-13.

Her Blackberry beeped. Not a good sign.

No signal.

Holy Mother of God. This was the trip from hell.

 

 

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