The Red Rock Killer: a quirky YA mystery novel filled with friendship and found family in the heart of larcenous Las Vegas

You can help bring The Red Rock Killer to life through Kickstarter from April 23-May 9/24.

My mom told me I could do whatever I wanted the whole summer I turned fourteen, so I decided to find the Red Rock Killer.

Let me back up. I sure hadn’t expected to find death the morning that me and my two best friends hiked the Red Rock Canyon, a conservation area 15 miles west of Las Vegas.

That Saturday morning, Callie Yang woke up me and Barstow right after rolling up her sleeping bag. “Let’s do Red Rock! Please.”

“No thanks, Cal. I downloaded a new game on Steam, and Edan wants to play Terraria.” Barstow Ness glanced at me for support while he hooked his glasses back behind his ears.

Now, I am NOT a hiker. I read, I game, I dance/flail with 1 Million Dance Studio’s online tutorials, and I research the Civil War for fun. In other words, I run away from fresh air and trees.

“‘We need the tonic of wildness,'” said Callie, wrapping her silky black hair in a bun. She’s a swimmer and likes running 5K’s for fun and crap like that.

I gave her the side eye, even though it’s hard to get mad at her when she looks like a ballerina with more shoulder muscles. “Is that a Mr. Carver quote?” Our history teacher writes a quote on the blackboard every day, using real chalk. He’s old school.

“No. I read it myself. It’s Henry David Thoreau.”

Barstow and I both raised our eyebrows at her.

“Okay, I read it on Goodreads. So what? It’s still true. I hate being cooped up in school all week and then gaming with you two all weekend. It’s my birthday in nine days. I need to get out with my Garden of Eden and my Barstonia.”

I groaned. My name is Edan Sze. Edan is Celtic for fire, which Mom says is perfect for a baby born in the desert.

It’s pronounced Eden, as in the Garden of. Since Sze sounds a bit like the letter Z, a few kids call me E-Z. Whatever works.

Callie had invoked the birthday rule. The birthday girl or boy gets to choose what we do on the big day. So we all got suited up for Red Rock, which meant sunscreen, socks, and running shoes. Everyone filled up their water bottles, officially ending the sleepover at my place.

I don’t know why, but my friends love coming over to our second floor apartment, even though the place is so small that I sleep on the living room couch and they have to push the coffee table toward the kitchen to make room for their sleeping bags on the floor. Not to mention that our downstairs neighbour, Mr. Villalobos, bangs on his ceiling with a broom handle if we walk too loud.

Mr. Villalobos also mixes up me and Callie because we’re both Asian girls, even though I’m shorter, plumper, and dyed the tips of my hair red. At least he can tell the difference between us and Barstow, a slim Black dude.

“Can your mom give us a ride?” asked Callie.

I yawned and checked my watch. Only 7 a.m. on a Sunday in June. Callie wakes up freakishly early because she hits the pool about now, and Barstow has insomnia. I’m the only kid who likes to sleep in like a normal person.

“Is he here?” Barstow whispered. He didn’t mean Mr. Villalobos.

I took a few steps into the front hallway and paused in front of the bathroom doorway to stare at the white solid wood door to Mom’s room. She’d gone on a date with her police boyfriend, Garrett Smith, last night. The closed door meant that she or both of them had come back while we crashed.

Barstow avoids the police, and I don’t blame him. His parents are successful entrepreneurs who run the Parent Teacher Association, but that won’t protect Barstow from a bullet. #BlackLivesMatter.

“We could take Wheelzz to Lovell Canyon,” said Callie, naming a local ride share.

“It’s your birthday. I’ll get it,” said Barstow, already opening up the Wheelzz app on his phone. His generous parents had set up a family account so he could book himself rides.

I shot him a grateful look. Mom doesn’t make tons of cash as a secretary for the Las Vegas Police Department. The Red Rock Canyon is a whole half hour’s drive away, depending on traffic. “My present will be your visitor fee,” I told Callie, checking my change purse. I touched the emergency $20 folded in my front right pocket, but that’s emergency money, like in case I get mugged.

Callie grinned. “We get in free ’cause we’re under 16.”

“Yay! I’ll chip in for the ride,” I told Barstow.

“E-Z, your money no good here,” Barstow said, standing up. “They’ll be here in twelve.” Just enough time to roll up my sheets and his sleeping bag, shove everything behind the couch, and slide the coffee table back in place in case Garrett woke up and threw a fit over the mess.

We grabbed apples and our water bottles and tiptoed past Mr. Villalobos’s apartment on ground level, but our neighbor followed us to the front door and shook his withered fist at us anyway. “You woke me up again. You sound like elephants.”

“Sorry, Mr. Villalobos.” Callie awarded him her best smile. She gets along the best with grown-ups.

“Were you moving furniture? I’ll call the cops next time for noise pollution.”

“Sorry, Mr. Villalobos,” Barstow and I called before slipping into our Wheelzz, a black Pontiac.

The driver, a middle-aged white guy in a button down shirt, listened to talk radio instead of chatting. Fine by us. He dropped us off in front of a sign that asked us to brush our shoes off to prevent the spread of invasive weeds. I did, even though only sand fell back out of my sneaker treads. “I never thought that we’d bring invasive species here,” I said.

“Edan, human beings are an invasive species,” said Barstow.

Callie gave him a high five before holding up her other hand for me.

I tapped it and tried to look cool while I segued into a quote I’d memorized. “‘It looks to me as though some men try to see how depraved they can be. Gambling, Card Playing, Profanity, Sabbath Breaking—'”

“What are you talking about?” Callie wrinkled her forehead.

“A quote from the Civil War. Between battles, the soldiers distracted themselves with gambling and swearing and other stuff. I figure it’s a trauma response. For my history project, I’ll divide the class into Blue and Grey. Mr. Carver said we could bet toothpicks on who’d win—”

“ANYway,” Callie cut me off, “thanks for hiking. I know you don’t like to move.”

“Rude,” said Barstow, while I protested, “I like to move my eyeballs for reading and video games.”

“Moves your fingers too,” said Barstow.

“Totally.” Our turn for a high five.

“Just sayin’, it’s extra special that you came out for my birthday,” said Callie.

I smiled at her. She’s one of my favorite people in the world, even though I don’t usually tell her. “HBD, Yang.”

At barely 7:40 a.m., on a relatively remote trail, I saw zero other people. Comforting yet also creepy. I texted my mom a pic of the three of us at the trailhead with a backdrop of a bunch of trees, partly for geolocation.

“Those are pinyon or juniper trees, I think,” said Callie.

Barstow grunted. He’s bigger than both of us and arguably likes inertia more than I do, but both of us amped up our best behavior for Callie’s birthday favor.

I closed my eyes to smell the trees, which smelled kind of like cedar and almost lemony. I wouldn’t admit it to Callie yet, but I loved getting away from the traffic and the tourists. I could feel myself taking deeper breaths while my shoulders relaxed.

Callie and Barstow moved ahead of me. I admired our shoes making treads in the sandy trail, but my backpack plastered against my back with sweat. I lifted the straps away from my shoulders.

Partly as an excuse to slow down, I pointed at a sign for the Handy Peak Loop trail. “You want to go there? Sounds like good juju for your birthday.”

“No!” Callie whipped off her sunglasses. “That’s not a real trail. Stay on this path.”

“Why is there a sign, then?” I carefully laid my backpack on my feet while I rested, letting my T-shirt air out.

“They’re building it. It’s not ready yet.”

Barstow pulled out his phone. “We could check out the beginning of the Handy Peak Loop. They started to build it.” He set off ahead of me, his shoes crunching in the sand.

I re-shouldered my backpack and followed him.

Callie hurried after us. “Hey. I’m the hiker.” And the athlete, she didn’t say. “If one of you breaks an ankle, it’s me who has to get you out.”

Barstow showed her the map on his cell phone.

She shook her head. “Not everywhere has reception. We’re out of town.”

Barstow twisted his phone to check the screen himself. “I’ve got three bars.”

“You could lose them any time. Seriously.”

“Even Barstow and me aren’t getting lost by taking two steps,” I said. Still, I started to turn around for the birthday girl, until I noticed something dark far in the distance, between the trees.

Something wider than a human, standing straight up, and unmoving.

“Don’t go off-path,” Callie shouted.

“I’m not moving, but you see that?” I pointed.

“Yes, sure. It looks like a barrel.” Callie shrugged, while I squinted to focus on that black shape, a bit narrower at the top and bottom.

Yep, a barrel as tall as my chest, maybe 50 feet away. Barstow and I exchanged a look.

“What’s a barrel doing here?” I asked.

“Maybe they’re using it for construction?” Callie pointed back at the regular trail. Hint, hint.

“Everything’s labeled for construction,” said Barstow, shading his eyes and trying to make out a label. “You have to know what’s inside. And they don’t really use barrels, as far as I know.”

“Maybe it’s a rain barrel, like I asked for my birthday,” I said. We need to collect rain whenever we can. Water is precious in the desert. I could do my part as long as Mr. Villalobos and other residents didn’t freak out about unsightly barrels on our property.

Barstow shook his head. “You see a spigot? I sure don’t.”

“That barrel’s in the trees and off-trail. C’mon, guys, let’s go!” Callie’s voice cracked.

I touched her shoulder. She pressed her lips together.

“Look.” Barstow grimaced. “I know these National Parks. They don’t clutter the landscape with garbage cans and rain barrels. My parents dragged me out to the main trails a few times. They keep rain barrels at the entrance, clearly labeled. Everything’s a teaching opportunity, right? Those barrels were painted bright white with a green and blue raindrop. Not black and hidden in the trees.”

My stomach curled in on itself.

“What are you saying?” Callie sweated under her sunscreen.

“I’m saying that we should take a picture of it and mark the spot. Then someone should call the park service and report the barrel. Just in case.”

And that was how we first got mixed up with the Red Rock Killer.

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Want more? Grab The Red Rock Killer, including the exclusive deluxe hardcover edition, months ahead of everyone else, through the Kickstarter April 23-May 9/24.

You’ll see why Edan got the thumbs up from mega-bestsellers R.L. Stine and Allison Brennan, and became a finalist for Killer Nashville’s Claymore Award.

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Hope to see you in Red Rock!