Darwin's Blade

By: Dab Simmons

CHAPTER ONE

“A IS FOR HOLE”



THE PHONE RANG a few minutes after four in the morning. “You like accidents, Dar. You owe it to yourself to come see this one.”

“I don’t like accidents,” said Dar. He did not ask who was calling. He recognized Paul Cameron’s voice even though he and Cameron had not been in touch for over a year. Cameron was a CHP officer working out of Palm Springs.

“All right, then,” said Cameron, “you like puzzles.”

Dar swiveled to read his clock. “Not at four-oh-eight A.M.,” he said.

“This one’s worth it.” The connection sounded hollow, as if it were a radio patch or a cell phone.

“Where?”

“Montezuma Valley Road,” said Cameron. “Just a mile inside the canyon, where S22 comes out of the hills into the desert.”

“Jesus Christ,” muttered Dar. “You’re talking Borrego Springs. It would take me more than ninety minutes to get there.”

“Not if you drive your black car,” said Cameron, his chuckle blending with the rasp and static of the poor connection.

“What kind of accident would bring me almost all the way to Borrego Springs before breakfast?” said Dar, sitting up now. “Multiple vehicle?”

“We don’t know,” said Officer Cameron. His voice still sounded amused.

“What do you mean you don’t know? Don’t you have anyone at the scene yet?”

“I’m calling from the scene,” said Cameron through the static.

“And you can’t tell how many vehicles were involved?” Dar found himself wishing that he had a cigarette in the drawer of his bedside table. He had given up smoking ten years earlier, just after the death of his wife, but he still got the craving at odd times.

“We can’t even ascertain beyond a reasonable doubt what kind of vehicle or vehicles was or were involved,” said Cameron, his voice taking on that official, strained-syntax, preliterate lilt that cops used when speaking in their official capacity.

“You mean what make?” said Dar. He rubbed his chin, heard the sandpaper scratch there, and shook his head. He had seen plenty of high-speed vehicular accidents where the make and model of the car were not immediately apparent. Especially at night.

“I mean we don’t know if this is a car, more than one car, a plane, or a fucking UFO crash,” said Cameron. “If you don’t see this one, Darwin, you’ll regret it for the rest of your days.”

“What do you…” Dar began, and stopped. Cameron had broken the connection. Dar swung his legs over the edge of the bed, looked out at the dark beyond the glass of his tall condo windows, muttered, “Shit,” and got up to take a fast shower.

It took him two minutes less than an hour to drive there from San Diego, pushing the Acura NSX hard through the canyon turns, slamming it into high gear on the long straights, and leaving the radar detector in the tiny glove compartment because he assumed that all of the highway patrol cars working S22 would be at the scene of the accident. It was paling toward sunrise as he began the long 6-percent grade, four-thousand-foot descent past Ranchita toward Borrega Springs and the Anza-Borrega Desert.

One of the problems with being an accident reconstruction specialist, Dar was thinking as he shifted the NSX into third and took a decreasing-radius turn effortlessly, with only the throaty purr of the exhaust marking the deceleration and then the shift back up to speed, is that almost every mile of every damned highway holds the memory of someone’s fatal stupidity. The NSX roared up a low rise in the predawn glow and then growled down the long, twisty descent into the canyon some miles below.

There, thought Dar, glancing quickly at an unremarkable stretch of old single-height guardrail set on wooden posts flashing past on the outside of a tight turn. Right there.

A little more than five years ago, Dar had arrived at that point only thirty-five minutes after a school bus had struck that stretch of old guardrail, scraped along it for more than sixty feet, and plunged over the embankment, rolled three times down the steep, boulder-strewn hillside, and had come to rest on its side, with its shattered roof in the narrow stream below. The bus had been owned by the Desert Springs School District and was returning from an “Eco-Week” overnight camping trip in the mountains, carrying forty-one sixth-grade students and two teachers. When Dar arrived, ambulances and Flight-For-Life helicopters were still carrying off seriously injured children, a mob of rescue workers was handing litters hand over hand up the rocky slope, and yellow plastic tarps covered at least three small bodies on the rocks below. When the final tally came in, six children and one teacher were dead, twenty-four students were seriously injured—including one boy who would be a paraplegic for the rest of his life—and the bus driver received cuts, bruises, and a broken left arm.

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