SATURDAY NIGHT IN THE YEAR OF THE GOOD THIEF
An original story by Ursula Kincaid
DISCLAIMERS: Limited scenes of violence, a single sex scene that I’d like to think of as torrid but which is probably more accurately described as embarrassing, and lots of cussing. I like women who swear, what can I say? Oh, and in case you couldn’t guess, this is kind of my attempt to write a story in the mold of The Twilight Zone. I also wanted to write a story in which the two lead characters don’t actually like each other, even if they end up sleeping together, more through need than want. I got fed up writing about soul mates and love at first sight and all that nonsense. :)
The following story is © 2012 and is written purely for entertainment purposes. It cannot be reproduced in any shape or form without the author's prior consent. This story would have never seen the light of day without my two beta-readers, to whom I am eternally grateful. Many thanks to both Jess and Lacepriest. And try not to worry; the world was not damaged during the production of this story. Don’t believe me? Go look out your window. See? No damage. Not by me, anyway.
At the very end of the street a Dalmatian was running wildly around a spotlessly-clean fire truck, its tongue lolling from one side of its mouth. Ally watched the dog try and dodge the streams of water that splattered down the sides of the vehicle, clearly enjoying every moment of the game only it was playing.
Jesus, Ally thought, staring hard at the sight through the fogged-up windows, this town even had a firehouse Dalmatian. She couldn’t decide if that made it even more picturesque or disturbingly cloying. She saw the firefighters laughing, although she couldn’t hear them over the noise of the diner around her. The dog had moved a little too slowly, maybe on purpose, and had been rewarded with a wet sponge smacking it on the hindquarters. It didn’t seem to mind. The risk only made the game more fun, apparently.
She didn’t know the name of this town but not for the first time she wondered if it was twinned with Stepford. It was, at least at first glance, the kind of place most city folk dreamed of whenever the bad side of urban life reared its ugly head. The kind of town, after all, where hunky firefighters would strip to the waist and spend hours washing their vehicle, even on a surprisingly chilly autumn evening.
All men, unfortunately. Shame there wasn’t a hot, redheaded female firefighter amongst the crew, Ally thought wistfully. One with a nice taut body and a temper that matched her job and her hair, at least when she was in the sack. That was the kind of fantasy Ally could lose herself in, one that would make moving to this all-too-perfect little ’burb worthwhile. Any place is paradise from a warm bed.
Small trees lined both sides of the wide street. No doubt earlier in the year they would have formed a rich and beautiful canopy; now they were all starkly bare. Naturally, the sidewalks had been swept clear of fallen leaves already. Civic pride, Ally supposed. She imagined in a month or so there would be Christmas lights wrapped around the trunk of each tree so that at night the street looked magical, while back in the early days of summer, red, white and blue bunting and garland would be festooned everywhere. All in all, it was a little appley slice of all-American heaven. Which made it all the worse that hell was fast approaching.
Her breath fogged a small patch of the window, near a thin crack that ran across her reflection. She smiled sadly when she saw a crude stick figure appear, starkly contrasted against the dull red of their car outside. Some kid must have drawn it earlier in the day; either that or the diner staff cleaned far less often than she hoped. She knew why the image made her feel so oddly sad but tried not to think about it.
“This looks like a nice little town,” she said finally, more to break the silence than anything else. She looked over at the woman opposite her and did her best to turn the smile up a notch. That usually worked wonders. This time, just like it had every time over the last twelve hours or so, it prompted only a frosty glare in reply. “I mean it. Very uncommercialized. I didn’t see a single drive-thru on the way in, did you? Explains why you dragged me in here, I suppose.”
Here, in this case, was a rundown diner named King’s, close to the highway exit ramp. Americana in an aging, somewhat neglected nutshell. Discolored red paint barely clung to the walls, the décor was all peeling chrome and the booth seats were faded naugahyde with yellowing foam showing between the many rips and tears. Still, old and shabby it may be but the neglect only added to the diner’s appeal.
Ally chuckled quietly to herself. She supposed the same could be said of her. She certainly felt old lately and pretty damned neglected too. Her body ached and her face hurt. But she liked to think her charms could still work wonders. Not so far, apparently. It was like talking to a brick wall, and one that was covered in a thick sheet of ice.
She waited a few seconds for a response. When none was forthcoming she spoke up again. “Yep, this is a really sweet little town. Doesn’t that bother you?”
Well, two words more than she had spoken in a while. That was an improvement, Ally supposed. She decided to push a little. “I’m serious. Pretty soon this town will look like all the others we’ve left behind us. That doesn’t upset you? Not even a tiny bit?”
“I have more important things on my mind.”
“Really? I find that hard to believe.”
“Well, Alice, you should always try to believe six impossible things before breakfast.”
“Oh, very clever,” Ally said, rolling her eyes in an exaggerated fashion. That prompted a twitch at the corner of the other woman’s mouth, which Ally supposed was about as close to smiling as she would ever come. Well, if that was all she could get, she’d take it. For now, at least. She’d keep working at getting something better.
“Heard that one before, have you?”
“Once or twice. At least it suggests you could be well-read. Aside from that, this is going to be more like supper than breakfast.”
She waved away the objection as if she was batting away a bothersome fly, then glanced impatiently around the diner yet again. “You’re lucky I decided to stop at all. I’m beginning to think we should have just kept going.”
“You said we needed gas.”
“Well then, not much choice was there?” When her only answer was another scowl, Ally effortlessly changed the subject. “You know, I wish you’d call me Ally. Everyone does.”
“I suppose I should think myself lucky you’ve stopped calling me Ms. Cole. I don’t suppose you’d like to share your first name?” They’d been stuck together for almost twelve hours and she still didn’t know it.
Back to words of one syllable, Ally thought, and not too many of those. Never mind. Even if she was caught in paradise, no matter how temporarily, she shouldn’t be surprised that some of the angels were a little disagreeable. “You’d rather I keep calling you Marshal?”
“Deputy Marshal. And no, I’d rather you shut the fuck up.”
There was no real anger behind the words, at least not as far as Ally could tell. A little frustration, perhaps, most likely directed more at the strangely absent diner staff than at her. It’s not like any of this was truly her fault, not really. Ally suspected all of the anger had been burned out of Weiss this morning, exhausted on the side of the road outside Las Vegas, like a highway flare spluttering out in the pouring rain. It may have died fast but it had burned so strongly. Ally still had the bruises to prove that.
Not for the first time, Ally chose to bite her tongue.
Quietly, she studied the woman opposite her. She’d had plenty of opportunities to do that recently. Weiss had skin the color of wild hazelnuts, smooth and almost blemish free. She was light-eyed where Ally was dark, as short as Ally was tall, and curvaceous, fit and toned just as Ally was angular, slim and gangly. She kept her hair neatly braided in long cornrows, while Ally’s own mop was short and usually beyond control. And beyond the physical, she was aggressive, stubborn, career-minded, focused to the point of being obsessive, and so unrelentingly serious.
In short, she was everything Ally wasn’t, and knowing that was driving Ally crazy. Assuming of course that she wasn’t a little – just a very little – crazy already. And if Ally thought about what had happened over the last day too much or too often, then a little crazy could definitely be considered an understatement.
Ally couldn’t stay quiet forever. She knew it, and strongly suspected the Marshal – sorry, Deputy Marshal – knew it too. She was a talker, always had been. It was one of the few things about her she could not change, try as she might. Not that she ever tried very hard. But at the same time, she was wary of pissing Weiss off any further.
Instead, she moved some of the condiments aside so she could read the black and white placemat. “Man is born alone and dies alone. Hmm...” she said thoughtfully, “not sure if that’s true. I mean, when I was born my mother was there. At least, I assume she was. Not to mention my father, and the midwife, and...”
“Kind of missing the point, aren’t you?”
“You think so? I was just thinking that the opposite is true. You usually have plenty of company when you’re born and when you die...”
“Not everyone,” Weiss said again, a joyless look settling across her face.
Ally moved on as quickly as she could, aware that if she hadn’t said the wrong thing, she’d come pretty damn close. “Well, people usually come to the wake or the funeral or whatever shindig you throw.”
“You’re already dead by then.”
“You know what I mean. Birth, death, plenty of company. It’s the long drawn-out bit in the middle where you tend to be alone.”
“Yeah, says me. This is the longest I’ve spent in the company of another woman that I can remember.”
“Love ‘em and leave ‘em type, are you?”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“No, I guess you’re not. Seems to me you’re much better at leaving than loving.”
That hurt. Ally tried not to let it show but she didn’t quite catch herself in time. She saw the Deputy Marshal had caught the reaction. She was smirking, the way she always did when she scored a point, and that probably hurt Ally more than the words actually had. After all, deny it out loud as she might, Ally would probably have to admit to herself that what Weiss said had been right. She’d never been very good at relationships. No, that was not entirely true. She was great at starting relationships, she could say that at least; it was the upkeep that always got away from her. She couldn’t remember any relationship she’d ever been in that hadn’t soured, usually within the first few weeks, as soon as the initial excitement had worn off.
Still, the remark was nothing in the grand scheme of things. A little victory. Maybe those were all Weiss ever achieved in life.
It wasn’t as if the comments she kept making were particularly snide or cutting, just brutally honest. Maybe Weiss lacked a few of the social graces, but she wasn’t inept, just uncaring. Hardened to the world, perhaps. No, Ally thought, that wasn’t quite it. Perhaps it was more that Weiss had a way of cutting through all the crap and getting right to the unvarnished truth, the truths that always hurt the most. It probably worked wonders during interrogations. Maybe that was why she’d fallen into this line of work. Or maybe it was a skill she had picked up wherever she had been trained.
Ally forced another smile and did her best to change the subject. “King’s Diner. I suppose that’s appropriate. What’s this town called anyway?”
“Great. Never heard of it,” Ally said. She’d fallen asleep when they were still well inside Nevada, somewhere near Coaldale, and only woken when she had felt the car slow to exit the highway. Even when she’d been awake she hadn’t recognized many of the names on the road signs they’d passed. That wasn’t so surprising considering they had been mostly confined to back roads. At first Weiss had stubbornly kept trying to get on the highway but she’d eventually given up. Ally glanced at the clock on the wall. A little past six. That meant a journey that should have taken less than nine hours had so far taken nearly eleven, and they most likely still had a ways to go. “Still,” she went on, “I guess that won’t matter soon.”
“Not unless we get to Sacramento.”
“Still sticking to that theory, are you?”
Weiss glared at her viciously. She opened her mouth as if to say something. Fortunately, Ally was saved by the long overdue arrival of the waitress, a blue-haired woman who looked as if she might have helped Noah herd the animals onto the Ark. When she spoke, her voice sounded even older.
“Sorry for the wait, honey, we’re a little short-staffed right now,” the waitress said, each word creaking out in shower of dust, cheap perfume, and nicotine. “Everyone seems to have the darn flu.”
Ally glanced at Weiss and raised an eyebrow mockingly, as if the word ‘darn’ proved her point about the parochial nature of small towns. “Well, there are worse things out there,” she said non-committedly.
“You said it, hon.” The waitress frowned down at Ally. She took in the swelling, the bruises, and the cuts and scrapes on Ally’s face, and clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “You look like you been in a few wars yourself. Everything okay here?”
“Everything’s fine,” Weiss said sharply, jumping in before Ally could even open her mouth to speak.
The waitress nodded slowly, disbelief still evident on her face. Then, as she studied Ally once again, her demeanor brightened suddenly. “Hey, you know who you look like?”
Without thinking, Ally gave her what she always thought of as her most professional smile. Way too sweet, plenty of teeth showing, and not an ounce of sincerity. It usually worked wonders, although its effect was probably diluted a little by the swollen lip and one cracked tooth. She doubted even her crappy agent would ever stoop so low as to book her to perform in such an out-of-the-way spot as Silvertip Valley but it never hurt to impress a potential audience member. Remember the little people, her agent was always saying, as if her one and only client was such a big shot.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw that the recognition had pissed Weiss off even further. She felt bad, just for a second, but all the same she felt her smile shift to something a little more genuine. “Yeah, I get that a lot.”
“I mean, you really do. You could pass for his daughter.”
Ally tilted her head down, ever so slightly, as if she was shy, and looked up through her lashes. Her voice lowered a little and her upper lip curled as she spoke. It was an extraordinary transformation, one that never failed to win people over. “Why, thank you, ma’am, thank you very much.”
The waitress laughed out loud and held a hand up to her mouth. “That’s really good!”
“It’s how I make my living.”
“One of the ways,” Weiss said acidly. “Now, can we order?”
“Sure thing, honey,” said the waitress, tugging a notepad and pencil from her apron. “Now, what can we get you?”
“Give me a mug of decaf and some toast.”
“You want anything else? Eggs? Bacon?”
“Just toast. You want anything on it aside from butter? Jelly?”
“Just the toast will be fine.”
Weiss didn’t give Ally a chance to speak. “She’ll have coffee.”
“I’m hungry,” Ally protested.
“Tough. Just coffee. Regular.”
The waitress finished scribbling in her notepad and glanced between the two seated women. When she finally spoke, she directed her question towards Ally, giving her a look that was half-quizzical and half-disapproving. “She control the purse strings, does she?”
“I suppose you could say that. She likes to think she controls everything.”
“Oh, one of those. Well, that and the coffee and the toast will probably give you an ulcer.”
Weiss scowled, turning her head away. She reached into her inner jacket pocket and fished out a pack of Camel Blues. “If the ulcer comes as quickly as the food, I should worry,” she muttered under her breath.
She needn’t have bothered lowering her voice, the waitress hadn’t heard. She was distracted by an elderly black man who, over in the far corner of the diner by the restroom doors, was reaching up to pound loudly on the side of an ancient television set that hung above the counter. The screen showed nothing but static, although thankfully the volume was muted.
“Joe! Will you leave the darn thing alone? Get back to your chess game!”
The old man glared at her resentfully for a second, then gave the set one more hefty thump before sitting down on his stool once again, muttering something about wanting to watch a Twilight Zone marathon.
“Darn thing’s been on the blink all day. Nothing but static since we switched it on.” The waitress turned back to their table and frowned. “Oh, sorry, honey, we’re non-smoking in here.”
Weiss froze with a cigarette half-raised to her mouth. “You’re kidding, right?”
“You’re welcome to smoke on the steps and the grass won’t pay no mind.”
“In this weather?”
“You city folk always feel the cold more. Mind you, the weatherman on Channel 28 said we’d get snow tonight.”
Ally exchanged a furtive glance with the Deputy Marshal. “You’d better hope not,” she said quietly.
“It’s not so bad, honey,” the waitress said, glancing up at the darkening evening sky through the dirty window. “An early snowfall really helps the town out. It’s good for business. More snow means more tourists, all eager to ski.”
“Not this snow. And we’re not tourists.”
“So you won’t be hitting the slopes then?”
Shaking her head, Ally lifted her hands from her lap. She held them both up close together, almost as if she was deep in prayer, but only because the handcuffs inhibited her. “Sorry,” she said with a sad smile, “but I doubt she’d let me.”
* * * * *
There was a stuffed toy panda in the footwell on the right side of the car. It squeaked in protest when Deputy Delaney stood on it as she clambered across the seat. The driver’s side wasn’t locked but it had been the passenger’s door that had been left wide open and Delaney wasn’t stupid enough to risk smudging any fingerprints. Silly, really, but she couldn’t help hoping this could be more than it seemed.
It was obvious the car had spun off the road, plunging down the embankment and coming to an abrupt halt against a tree. Not with enough force to do any great damage, but enough to probably put the engine out of commission, smash the front grill and one headlight, and to require an expensive amount of bodywork. Still, they’d probably been luckier than they had any right to be, Delaney thought, as the impact had prevented the car from rolling. As it was, it had probably been quite a jolt.
What wasn’t obvious was what had happened to the occupants. The car had been empty when she’d found it. It couldn’t have been here that long. The engine was still ticking over and she’d bet five to one that if she touched the slightly crumpled hood she’d find it still warm. There was an easy answer to that though, wasn’t there? They had walked into town to get help.
But this was the only road into town so she was damn sure she would have seen anyone walking along the berm as she drove up. Was it possible they had walked off into the woods, up into the mountains? She dismissed the thought. Even tourists wouldn’t be that stupid, surely?
Something about the accident bugged her. It might have been nothing, but all the same she could feel the hope building. This could be it.
Delaney had only been with the Sheriff’s Department a little longer than six months, having moved up to Silvertip Valley in the spring from Lake Tahoe, where she’d been a security guard at the North Pine Mall since leaving high school. They’d been asking for volunteers and she’d jumped at the chance. They hadn’t wanted her, of course, just like the city police back in Tahoe hadn’t wanted her, just like the high school cheerleading squad hadn’t wanted her, and just like her parents hadn’t really wanted her. Of course, none of them had actually ever said as much.
But it turned out she was the best Silvertip was going to get. The number of volunteers had been abysmally low. Apparently, not many cops wanted to spend the summer months watching over a veritable ghost town and the winter months dealing with a bunch of spoiled rich kids and drunken frat boys.
So they had accepted her, if somewhat grudgingly and very ungraciously. ‘The best of a bad bunch’ was one insult she had heard more than once over the summer, whispered in furtive conversations around the water cooler and laughed about over a few drinks at Blanco’s. ‘The meanest girl in town’, that was another. And she was pretty certain even Sheriff Whitaker hated her, although at least he was professional enough not to let it show too much.
Delaney had always wanted to be a cop. She wasn’t entirely sure why. Her father had said she was trying to make her mark on life in the only way she could, but Delaney wasn’t sure that was quite right. Whatever the reason, she had dreamed about it for as long as she could remember. And just as her ambition of being a cop had finally come true, if only in a small-town way, she knew that one day her dream of being involved in a major investigation would also be realized. A crime so big it would get some serious attention. Which meant, of course, that she would be the center of attention, even if it was just for a short while. First on the scene and all that.
Her breath fogged in front of her as she swung her flashlight around the interior of the car. As the sun had begun to set, it was getting noticeably darker. Colder, too. So much for global warming, Delaney thought. She thought she had seen snow further on up the road as she pulled her cruiser over. The sky to the east was a stark white. That struck Delaney as a little odd, but then maybe that was what the onset of winter looked like in the mountains. How would she know? If a snowstorm was on its way, Delaney thought, they’d need to get more people up here soon. Provided, of course, she could convince the Sheriff that this was something serious. No easy task that, seeing as how she hadn’t entirely convinced herself yet.
She peered around the car, doing her best not to disturb anything. The keys were still in the ignition. The gas gauge read empty or damn near it. Well, Delaney thought, wasn’t that strange? Still, it explained why the car hadn’t crashed into the tree so hard. They must have been coasting on empty and then lost control somehow. Ice, maybe? Sure, it was chilly but it wasn’t that cold yet, right? Again, maybe it was a mountain thing. What was that saying they had round here? ‘When the snow is on the roses…’ She couldn’t remember how the end went, but it was something like that. She had no idea what it meant, of course, only guessing that it had something to do with the fast-changing weather, and no one in the town was likely to be nice enough to explain it to her.
Not for the first time, Delaney found herself feeling a bit out of her depth. If she could ask someone, if there was someone she could talk to who wouldn’t laugh at her, then maybe she’d know a little more.
Her mother, God rot her, had tried to talk Delaney out of moving up to the mountains. For her own selfish reasons only, of course. As much as her parents despised her, they still needed her. Her father was housebound and required a good amount of care, a burden all the family had shared except for her brother. He wasn’t expected to, oh no, not him. Not the golden child. Not the perfect son. No, he was allowed to leave and go join the Navy, wasn’t he? He didn’t get the nightly lectures about shirking family responsibilities or have all his wages sucked up just to pay the rent and buy groceries and supplement the pittance her mother earned. No, Blake could do no wrong, while she could do nothing but.
Sometimes, when she was on duty in the station at nights, when there was no one else around and when the only sounds you could hear were the drip, drip, drip of the coffee percolator and the constant buzz of the fluorescent lighting, she felt guilty. But each time, she convinced herself that she couldn’t have stayed with her folks. If she had, she would have gone insane sooner or later. Probably sooner. The job offer from the Silvertip Valley Sheriff’s Department had been the light at the end of her own gloomy and despondent tunnel.
Besides, she was tired of being a small fish in a big pond. Sometimes you had to choose to jump into a smaller pond, even if it meant you were still a guppy surrounded by piranhas that didn’t particularly appreciate you invading their territory.
Delaney leaned back, twisting at a painful angle to fit between the front seats so she could examine the back. The beam of her flashlight played over the black seats until she saw an even darker spot. She reached out and ran her fingers across the stain. The tips of her gloves came back red. A trace of blood. Her heart raced.
More than a trace, she realized as the shaft of light ran down the stained fabric. If someone had damn near bled out back here, she wouldn’t be surprised. A large portion of the back seat, almost the entirety of the part behind the driver, was stained in so much blood, more blood than she had ever seen. It looked like none of it had dried yet. The darkest parts were near the top. At a guess, assuming whoever had sat here was taller than her, which was more than likely, the injury must have been around the shoulder or upper chest area. Not good. And she was sure the injury couldn’t have come from the wreck, as there had been no blood in either of the front seats. Even if she assumed the passenger wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, the driver would have been hurt just as bad, surely? Besides, the accident hadn’t looked that bad. Even the windshield was still intact.
She tried to suppress a growing sense of excitement. The beam of her flashlight waggled erratically as she began to move backwards, scrambling to get out of the abandoned car. There was a sudden reflection from a small triangle of something white from under the passenger seat. She reached down and tugged the item free. Money. A neatly stacked inch-thick bundle of twenty-dollar bills, held together by a paper band. Only banks kept money like that, didn’t they?
Jesus, Delaney thought, what the hell had she stumbled on to here? She dropped the money and climbed back out of the white sedan as quickly as she could. Better to leave this alone, at least for now. As much as she wanted to claim this little crime scene as her own, to grab all the glory for herself, she knew better. This was too big for her to handle. A good cop knew when she was out of her depth, and when to call in her superiors. And if there was one thing Delaney truly longed to be more than a cop, it was a good cop. She honestly hadn’t realized that until she saw the blood.
Hurrying, Delaney clambered back up to the blacktop. From the car, she had been able to see another path made in the grassy incline, chunks of loosened sod and gouges in mud that clearly showed where several people had climbed, none too easily. But then they wouldn’t have, the deputy reasoned, not if they had been carrying or supporting a badly wounded friend. So then what? Where did they go after they reached the road?
After a momentary pause at the top to get her breath back, she swung her flashlight further on up the road, the beam falling on the curve of the barely visible skid marks where the car had careened off. Was that snow? It sure as hell looked like it. Even in the gloom of the approaching night, Delaney could see how the end of the road was nothing but a solid white wall.
There was something not quite right about the approaching storm, Delaney thought. The snow was so thick, impossible to see through or past, and it was gradually moving towards her. That couldn’t be right, could it? There was only a little wind, blowing down off the mountains, so how in the name of all that was holy could the storm be coming her way so fast? And the few snowflakes she could see against the dark woods nearest to her seemed to be falling so slowly. It was almost as if they weren’t falling at all but instead just appearing in mid-air. No, Delaney thought, that would be impossible.
She turned away from the snowfall, walking back towards where her cruiser was parked, the red flashing lightbar casting bloody shadows across the road. Her free hand moved up to her shoulder radio. “Dispatch?”
She heard the sigh before Blanche, the department’s matronly caretaker and switchboard operator, even spoke. She chose to ignore it. “You don’t have to say ‘dispatch’, Whitney. This isn’t the big city.”
No, not even close, Delaney thought. If she had been smart enough to think of a biting reply, she still wouldn’t have said anything. She’d had more than enough run-ins with the department’s support staff in her first few weeks to learn it simply wasn’t worth it.
“Blanche, I’ve got an abandoned car off the highway, just past exit twelve. California tags. Can you patch me through to the Sheriff?”
“The Sheriff has more important things on his mind lately. He’s dealing with a situation at the diner now. He’s not going to be happy if you drag his butt all the way out there for nothing.” She couldn’t have sounded less interested if she had tried. And from past experience, Delaney knew Blanche wasn’t keen on trying, at least not where she was concerned.
“This is kind of important, Blanche.”
“Aren’t they all, Whitney?
Again, she ignored the slight. Two slights, really, seeing as how she had made it very clear to everyone that she hated her first name. Only Blanche could manage to be so insulting with so little effort. She took a quick breath, taking the moment to stare back down the slope at the vehicle. “The car’s off the road, there’s nobody in it. But there’s a good amount of blood inside and some money.”
“Money? Have you been going through the change trays, Whitney? Found some pennies?”
“Probably about two or three thousand dollars, actually,” Delaney countered, trying not to let the satisfaction in her voice show. “Looks like it came from a bank or check-cashing place or something.”
There was silence for a few seconds, then a harsh hiss of static. It didn’t look like Blanche was going to reply. Sulking, probably. Delaney looked up the road again, away from the town. The beam of her flashlight reflected right back at her, a perfect circle in the gradually approaching wall of snow.
Delaney touched her radio again. “Dis...” She caught herself just in time. “Blanche?”
“What is it, Whitney? I’m talking to Sheriff Whitaker right now, alright?”
“There’s a snowstorm coming.”
“What are you, the weather report?”
Yeah, and forget you, Delaney thought, but she didn’t say it. There was no point in making waves.
“It’s strange...” And it was too. Again, Delaney was bothered by something odd about the falling snow, something she wasn’t quite sure her mind could pin down. Maybe it was the adrenalin, the trembling she could feel in her legs, caused by the excitement at finding the car and the blood and the money. Maybe that was why she was having trouble thinking straight. Maybe it was something else. The sheer fact that the snowstorm had blocked out so much that she was used to seeing; no sky, grey, black or otherwise, no mountains, no trees, no highway.
It was strangely hypnotic, trapping her like a frantic writer staring at a blank piece of paper, or a projection screen after the film has long since run out. There was the strongest feeling that there should have been something there, and worse still, that it was her fault that there wasn’t. That meant it was difficult for Delaney to tear her eyes away, to stop searching for something... anything...
A burst of static over the radio and Blanche’s sharp voice snapped Delaney out of her reverie. “For God’s sake, Whitney, there’s nothing strange about snow. It’s a little early, sure, but it’s not unheard of.”
“It’s like a wall of white,” Delaney said quietly as she began to walk up the road towards the falling snow. She had to get closer. It could be a hazard to traffic, she thought as justification. Not that there was any traffic, which was odd in itself. This wasn’t a busy road by any stretch of the imagination, not at this time of year, but she hadn’t seen a moving car since she got here. Maybe she should get some flares from her cruiser.
Another burst of static reminded her of her radio. She pressed down with her thumb on the send button again. “I mean I’ve seen it with rain before but not with snow.”
“Whitney, I... what are you talking about?”
“You know when you’re driving and there’s that moment when you pass through it?”
“Through what, Whitney?”
“Through the wall of rain,” Delaney said impatiently. Wasn’t Blanche even listening to her? “When it rains, it really pours, usually. But here, one minute it’s pouring and the next it’s not. And when you look back you can see the line on the road, one side soaking wet, the other bone dry. You know what I mean?”
“Nobody knows what you mean, Whitney.”
Delaney wasn’t listening any more. “Well, it’s like that. But I’ve never seen it with snow before. Honestly, Blanche, the snow is so thick I can’t see through it. And I’m standing so close...”
She was too. The wall of snow was only a few feet away, so close she could almost reach out and touch it... and she wanted to. She could feel its presence on her skin. The deputy had expected that, to feel the sheer freezing cold pouring out of this much snow, but this wasn’t quite right. It made her skin tingle, like each pore was stinging and every cell aching to be free and apart, like her body wanted to be in a million different places at once.
Delaney couldn’t turn away, couldn’t stop staring into the whiteness. Her left hand, which normally rested easily on her holster, rose up and stretched out, almost as if it had a will of its own. A solitary snowflake had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, resting directly in front of her field of vision. It didn’t fall. It taunted her, tugging at her flesh so hard it ached.
The deputy’s radio squawked again. “Whitney? Are you there, Whitney?”
She didn’t answer. Her fingertip brushed the very edge of the snowflake.
And then she screamed.
* * * * *
Weiss watched the elderly waitress hang up the payphone. Like the rest of the diner, the phone was old and tired-looking. Horrible tan plastic, chipped in places, with a clunky large handset and a rotary dial, hanging beneath a badly painted sign that read ‘619-239-KING’. Weiss hadn’t seen a dial like that in more than a decade. Whether the phone was a deliberate kitsch throwback or just a sign of the diner’s steady decline over the years, Weiss wasn’t sure. She strongly suspected the latter. She doubted anything in the diner had changed since the late seventies and that included the staff and clientele. She guessed as soon as she and Cole had walked in the door, the average age of everyone in the restaurant immediately dropped by thirty years or thereabouts. The place stank of stale coffee, grease and too many tired years.
If the food in the freezers back in the kitchen was anywhere near as old as everything else in the diner, Weiss was glad she had just ordered toast. Although, that was more to do with the amount of cash she had, which wasn’t much. She figured there was no point in trying to pay with her credit or debit cards; if her cellphone no longer worked then her bank cards wouldn’t either, for the same reason. And there was little or no point asking to use the diner’s payphone. They could evidently still make local calls here, which was something, but the lines outside the valley were probably already gone.
She hadn’t wanted to pull over at the diner but she was so tired. Around twelve hours and five hundred miles or more of solid driving had taken its toll. As much as she wanted – no, needed – to keep going, and more importantly as much as she hated the idea of appearing weak in front of her prisoner (that was never a good idea regardless of the circumstances), she’d had no choice but to pull off the highway. She was bone-weary and really needed to stretch her legs and take a five minute break. But that five minutes had now dragged into twenty and she was beginning to worry they’d been here too long. And the longer they stayed here, the harder it would inevitably be to get moving again.
Cole had slept in the passenger seat for the last few hours, only stirring when she had felt the rental car pull off the main highway. The sleep seemed to have done her some good, Weiss thought, more’s the pity. If nothing else, Cole had proved much more talkative than she had before. You’d almost believe what they’d both been through over the last half-a-day hadn’t affected her at all. And the swelling on Cole’s face had gone down a little, although the skin around her left eye and cheekbone was just beginning to discolor, a staggering of dull blue coming to the fore. The scrape across her long nose was scabbing too.
During the drive Weiss had been tempted several times to wake her, just to ensure her prisoner suffered as much as she was. But she hadn’t, although she wasn’t entirely sure why. She had told herself at the time that she just wanted to relish the peace and quiet. But now she wasn’t so sure. The quiet had given her time to think, which had been a very bad idea.
She had soon learned that thinking too much about what happened earlier in the day would, in the long run, probably drive her completely mad. If she wasn’t mad already... and wasn’t that a sobering thought? The memory was fuzzy, difficult to focus on, and quickly gave her a headache if she tried too hard. It was like trying to hold on to a greased balloon full of Jell-O. You may logically know what it was but it still made no sense somehow, and then every time you tried to get a grip on it, something revolting pushed back at you and the whole thing slipped away. Was that what insanity felt like? Disassociation, wasn’t that a sign of schizophrenia?
No, she wasn’t mad. She just wasn’t. She couldn’t be. Madness might have been reaching for her, but so far she was keeping out of its clutches.
Devlin was dead, she was sure of that much. She wasn’t quite sure how he had died though. And she had watched it happen. Yeah, Weiss thought, there was the Jell-O again. One moment Devlin was there, standing in front of her with that goofy smile of his, and then in another moment he wasn’t. It was the moment in between that Weiss couldn’t focus on. She remembered a flash of white... no, lots of flashes, blinding her, as if she was a celebrity suddenly ambushed by the paparazzi. Her retinas burning hotly with dark spots, which was funny, because she thought it would have been cold... why was that again? Snow, that’s right... she remembered snow approaching... was that the whiteness? And no, the spots weren’t dark. Everything else was.
She shook her head frantically, like a dog trying to dry itself. It seemed to do the trick. The thoughts were thrown free like dirty water. A droplet landed on her hand. She was crying, she realized suddenly, and wiped hurriedly at her face. Stupid. It was just exhaustion. That’s why they’d pulled over, after all.
Well, not the only reason. The empty gas tank warning light on the dashboard had been lit up for the last dozen miles or so. They’d need to find a gas station next, assuming this one-horse town even had a gas station. If not, well, there were still options. Weiss firmly believed there were always options, no matter how bad the situation; you just had to keep looking until you found them. Maybe they could siphon some gas from a few parked cars when no one was looking. She hadn’t done that since she was a teenager. Technically illegal, of course, but if they got caught then flashing the badge would probably solve everything. Besides, it wasn’t as if anyone in the town would be driving anywhere soon. The townspeople appeared oblivious to what was coming. Maybe that was a good thing, Weiss thought.
Everything would be alright once they got to Sacramento. Then Cole would no longer be her problem and someone, anyone, would have to know what the hell was going on. Maybe that asshole Moran would know. He always thought he had all the answers. They’d make a move soon, Weiss decided. Where the hell was the waitress with their order? Thank God she hadn’t ordered anything more complicated than toast. How hard was freaking toast? If they had to wait much longer, Weiss decided, then they’d just walk out. They couldn’t waste any more time.
As if summoned by her thoughts, the waitress hovered into view carrying two half-full coffee pots. Weiss speedily brushed at her face again, just to be on the safe side. She caught Cole staring at her with a look of... was that concern? What the hell was that about? She glared at the prisoner, hopefully making her point. Don’t you dare say anything, she thought, just don’t you dare.
“Here’s your coffee, hon,” the waitress said, pouring from the red-trimmed pot into one of the mugs she had placed on their table earlier. She was talking only to Cole, of course. If she hadn’t shown a preference between the two women before, then Weiss could easily spot one now. Probably everyone in the diner could.
“And the toast?”
The waitress wouldn’t meet her eye, Weiss noticed. She briefly wondered why – shame perhaps or a simple dislike – then dismissed the thought as idle curiosity. What did it matter? She and Cole would be out of this town before long. Still, at least the waitress was all smiles again, although now it was fairly easy to tell the smiles were fake and forced. Huh, Weiss thought, she and Cole had something in common then.
As the waitress spoke, the fluorescent lights overhead flickered once and went out, plunging the diner into near-darkness. At the same time, the television set went dark and the radio on the counter, which up until now had been stuck on the oldies channel and was midway through That’s All by Genesis, fell silent. An inventive string of curses came from the kitchen and a chorus of moans ran around the diner.
“Oh, darn it!” The waitress looked up at the ceiling. She didn’t move for a few seconds, perhaps hoping that somehow just by staring at the lights it would change things. “The power’s out too now? Well, if that don’t just beat all. Still, it will probably come back on soon.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Weiss said. Cole caught her eye again, so she shrugged.
“Looks like your toast might take a little longer, hon,” the waitress said, pouring some coffee from the other pot. She did her best to hide a small smirk, and then turned a worried look upon Cole. “Aren’t you cold in just that frock?”
Cole shook her head. All the same, she tugged at the thin white cotton dress she was wearing. Not too smart, Weiss thought. There was a blood stain on the right side of the dress. With the way they were sitting, chances were good that the waitress couldn’t see it, but trying to pull it out of sight only drew attention.
“You might be soon. If the power’s out, the heat won’t last long. I can get you a blanket, if you like.”
It was funny, Weiss thought. She’d assumed the locals would support her, would be wary and suspicious of a criminal in their midst. The badge usually inspired support, even if reluctantly. Respect the badge, fear the gun, as the saying went. She’d expected a little anger at her for bringing a handcuffed prisoner in here, but not hostility. And she certainly hadn’t expected them to be sympathetic to Cole. Stupid of her, really. Small town minds, always seeing things in such polarizing terms. Everything was always so simple. There were no levels of complexity in a hegemony after all. No room for dissent in a community like this.
Or maybe she was being unfair and maybe it wasn’t that at all. Maybe it was just Cole’s innate charisma. She certainly could be charming. It had cut away any wariness of the diner staff so easily and so quickly. Well, it wouldn’t work on her, Weiss vowed. No way in hell.
The waitress left, promising to check on the toast. Weiss didn’t hold out any hope. She watched Cole wince as she took a cautious sip from her mug. Either the coffee wasn’t to her taste or her face was hurting her. Weiss didn’t really care either way.
She didn’t touch her own mug, choosing to let the beverage cool a little. Instead she took a moment to look around the gloomy diner once more. Most of the other booths in the diner were empty. A nervous looking man in a cheap and badly-fitting black suit sat in the booth behind Cole, dabbing at some ketchup he’d spilt on his otherwise pristine white shirt. A traveling salesman, perhaps? Or an office grunt? Did a town this small and so reliant on the winter sports trade have offices? A young couple occupied the booth in the far corner. Neither of them seemed to have even noticed the power was out. They had only a table between them but it might as well have been an ocean. Leaning against the sill with one arm lazily stretched out, the man hadn’t stopped staring out of the window for the last ten minutes. The woman was squinting at a book and half-heartedly stabbing at a plate of wilting salad with the fork she held in her other hand.
It seemed the regulars all sat on stools at the bar. A couple of trucker types, the elderly man still complaining about the TV (although with perhaps more reason to now), and a stout matronly woman with a face like a bulldog that was used to being smacked on the nose, chewing on a half-moon cookie.
Weiss glanced at her watch. They really needed to be hitting the road soon.
“I would have thought they’d use a riddle or a joke,” Cole said out of the blue. “Like what’s black and white and red all over?”
Weiss added some sugar to her coffee and then took a gulp. Stale, as she expected, and not too warm. She put her mug back down on the table. The black coffee rippled against the edges of the stark white ceramic. She looked back at her prisoner, confused by the sudden comment. “What?”
“A newspaper, usually. Although I suppose I could also say me. What’s black and blue and white and red all over, that would fit better.”
“Are you listening to me?”
“No, not really.”
“I meant on the placemat. Most places like this have a joke. Not famous quotations.”
“Can’t be that famous,” Weiss said disinterestedly. She’d been blinded for a second by a pair of bright headlights that ran across the window as a car moved off the road and into the parking lot. “I’ve never heard it before.”
Cole sipped at her coffee slowly, watching Weiss through lowered eyes. She probably thought she was being coy. “That doesn’t necessarily follow,” she said after a while. Then, she hurriedly lowered her mug and leaned forward conspiratorially. “Where do you think they get their power?”
“How should I know?”
“If they’ve lost power here, that could mean the power station’s been... well, you know. And if we knew where that was, we could work out how close...”
Weiss held up a hand and interrupted her. “Don’t read too much into this. It’s probably just a coincidence.”
“You don’t believe that.”
She was right, Weiss didn’t. But she wasn’t about to admit as much and so chose not to reply. Instead, she turned away to look out of the window again. A black-and-white police cruiser was pulling up outside.
Well, that didn’t take long, Weiss thought bitterly. If Cole had noticed, she gave no sign. Weiss suspected she probably had but was deliberately playing it cool, most likely keeping an eye out for possible escape routes. She was shit out of luck there.
Whoever the driver was, he was smart. The cruiser had not moved into a parking space but instead had pulled up behind Weiss’ sedan, blocking them in entirely. Must have spotted the rental tags maybe, Weiss mused, or perhaps just taking an interest in the only vehicle that wasn’t a battered pick-up or more than ten years old.
The headlights went out. As the driver’s door swung open, Weiss caught a glimpse of the large gold and black star painted there and half of the motto. Alpine County - To serve... Just the local Sheriff’s Department then, as she had guessed. Shouldn’t be too much of a problem. She’d bluff through this if she could, and threaten and bluster if all else failed.
Another patrol car was pulling into the parking lot from the opposite end. So they were arriving mob-handed. Sensible, if a little like overkill. Damn it, why had the woman shown off her handcuffs?
Weiss considered waiting for them to come to her but quickly decided against it. Devlin had been fond of saying that the best defense is a good offense and, although he was more often wrong than right, she felt it was advice she should be following now. Her hand went up to her left temple, rubbing away the short shock of pain.
She expected the local cops to be curious as to what she was doing here, escorting a prisoner through their town without a partner, without any kind of back-up, and most importantly, without alerting them first. Not that she could have warned them in advance even if she had wanted to. So taking the offensive, she thought, would at least keep them on the back foot and give her and Cole a slim chance to get out of here.
You’d think the cops’ curiosity would be sated with an open and honest conversation. It often wouldn’t be, mostly due to the small town cop mentality. Petty officialdom could often throw up barriers when none were needed. Knowing the way her luck was going today, she’d get nothing but barriers. And besides, this time even an open and honest conversation would raise more questions than it would answers. If she didn’t want to be stuck here for hours on end, she would have to watch what she said. She had to play this very, very carefully.
She got to her feet and fumbled in her jacket pocket for a few bills.
“Are we leaving?” Ally frowned as Weiss put her money on the table. “You could leave her a bigger tip. Come on, it’s not like money’s going to matter soon.”
“That’s all the money I have, save thirty or forty bucks I was keeping back for gas. Besides, she didn’t really earn a good tip. Now, stay here.”
She hadn’t noticed then, Weiss thought. That was surprising. She motioned to the window.
“Ah,” said Cole as understanding dawned on her and she stared out at the two police cars. “An authority dick-measuring contest. You’re going to be at something of a disadvantage, aren’t you?”
“I’m going to have to go and smooth things over, if that’s what you mean,” Weiss said. Her voice lowered and took on a determined ‘don’t-test-me’ tone. “So stay here.”
“Where else am I going to go?”
“You want I should cuff you to something? I don’t want you leaving that seat, you understand me?”
“Alright already, you’ve made your point. I won’t go anywhere.” Cole took another sip from her coffee. Not that she had much choice but she was cradling the mug with both hands as if for warmth. The cut on her lip had opened up again, leaving a spot of red on the white rim.
As Weiss turned to go, Cole spoke again. “It’s about taking responsibility for your actions.”
“What?” Weiss looked back at her, frowning. “What the fuck are you talking about now? Are you confessing?”
Cole shook her head and gestured at the table. “The quotation on the placemat. It’s something Vishnugupta was supposed to have said, although they haven’t got the whole thing down here. But it’s about karma; good deeds being rewarded, bad ones being punished, that kind of thing. I’m still not sure I agree. It’s all very cut and dried. I don’t like the idea that there are only ever two sides to a story. Not everyone is simply good or bad.”
“You would say so. And how do you know all that?” Weiss said with a sneer. “No, don’t tell me. You dated an Indian princess back in Vegas.”
Cole nodded, smiling. “Something like that. Indian, yes. Princess, no. She was a stripper, actually. Be careful.”
“I’m surprised you’re concerned for my safety.”
“I’m not. But I trust you a little more than I trust those guys,” Cole said, gesturing at the deputies waiting outside.
“Thanks for nothing.”
Weiss pushed the door of the diner open and stepped down into the parking lot. There were two deputies by the second cruiser; both immediately reached for their sidearms. They didn’t draw the weapons but they made a show of unclipping their holsters and leaving their hands real close. Great, Weiss thought, this was turning into a scene from a bad spaghetti Western. If any tumbleweeds rolled by she was calling it quits.
She instinctively wanted to check her own firearm, a small Glock 22 automatic pistol she kept in a holster at the small of her back. But she knew doing so would only escalate matters so she reined in the impulse. Best to keep things calm and friendly. Smile, she reminded herself. Show them you’re harmless.
She wanted to tug up the collar of her black jacket against the cold. The temperature had dropped a little since she and Cole had driven into town and there was a chilly breeze blowing down from the mountaintop, made all the worse by her stay in the comfortable warmth of the diner. She shivered, feeling the cold through the thin fabric of her tee.
The Sheriff himself, distinguishable not only by his badge of rank but also his much more relaxed attitude, was waiting for her to come to him. A little display of power, one that she’d encountered often enough. Still, she was thankful he did not touch his gun. Instead, he had his arms crossed and was leaning against the fender of his patrol car. She could hear the engine still ticking over beneath the hood.
He was a tall man, easily more than six feet, although how much so was hard to tell with the way he was slouching. But he was not a large man, no muscle-bound gym-obsessed jock. In fact, he was probably a little too thin for his height. She noticed that his belt was fastened at a freshly-cut notch. Had he lost a lot of weight recently, she wondered?
A quick glance at his face told Weiss that her guess was right. Lines creased a grey face partly shadowed by the dark brown Stetson. The eyes were bloodshot. He looked haggard and worn-out. With his salt-and-pepper beard, he looked all of sixty, but she guessed he could have been as young as forty or so. All the same, his uniform was immaculate. Not a trace of dirt, a razor sharp crease in the pants, a crisply laundered shirt with gleaming brass buttons, and shoes polished to a startling shine.
She tugged at the collar of the cheap white tee she wore underneath her jacket. She knew she didn’t look too presentable. Her suit was rumpled after so long sitting in the car, dirty here and there, although she’d done her best to clean it up where she could, and even torn in one place. She hoped that in the darkness she’d pass muster.
He actually touched the brim of his Stetson as she approached. It was a gesture that seemed a little too affected to be natural. “Sheriff Whitaker, ma’am,” he said. There was a drawl to his voice, not an accent so much, just a laidback tone to each word as if speaking was too much of an effort.
Weiss went on the offensive right from the get-go. “I’m a Deputy with the Marshals Service, escorting a prisoner from Las Vegas back to Sacramento. We’re just passing through; we stopped to get gas and something to eat. We’ll be out of here and on our way shortly.” She had to crane her neck to look up at him, even though he was slouching.
“Are you now?” he said, responding only to her first statement as he looked her up and down. He didn’t seem to approve of what he saw. “And I suppose you have some ID to back that up?”
She reached inside her jacket, making sure that he saw the badge at her waist as she did so. To his credit he didn’t resort to cliché and ask her to do so slowly. In fact, he hardly reacted at all. She passed over the wallet that contained her ID card. He flipped it open, studied it for a long while, and then passed it back to her.
“You seem surprised,” Weiss said.
“I do? What about?”
“That I’m a Deputy Marshal. Is that because I’m black or because I’m a woman?”
“Actually it’s because you’re so short. You’re a little off the beaten track, aren’t you?”
“I would have thought you would have flown. Quicker, safer, after all.”
Weiss shrugged. “Budget cuts, you know how it is.”
“The prisoner and me.”
“No one else?”
“No.” She had hesitated before answering and he noticed, raising his eyebrows. He might have been a small town hick but he wasn’t dumb, she realized. Not at reading people, anyway. Again, she reminded herself to be careful of what she said and how she said it.
“This prisoner, is he dangerous?”
“She,” Weiss corrected, “and no, she’s not.” Where did that come from, she wondered? She hadn’t meant to say anything, and if she had then she should have been truthful. Cole was dangerous, at least according to the arrest warrant out on her. You don’t get much more dangerous than a wanted murderer, after all.
But she didn’t seem it, Weiss realized. Sure, some killers didn’t, she knew that, or at least the smart ones were more than capable of hiding their true nature. All the same, Cole appeared so unthreatening, so innocuous, that it was hard to believe she was able to murder anyone. Fuck, Cole hadn’t even fought back this morning, just laid there and taken what was being dished out. Without complaint either; Weiss remembered Cole just sitting in a sullen silence in the passenger seat, gingerly cleaning her cuts and scrapes with a wet napkin.
And before that, Cole had kept protesting her innocence. She’d eventually realized she wasn’t getting anywhere and given up. But had some of it sunk in, Weiss wondered? Cole had a record, sure, but her file stated that she had no discernible history of violence, aside from one drunken brawl four years ago due to a love triangle that had gone sour and had sweetened again just as fast. Plenty of confidence tricks and a few minor thefts, but no jobs ever ending in violence. In fact, looking through some of the old case reports it seemed a lot of the victims actually liked Cole, really liked her, and seemed disappointed that she had turned out to be nothing more than a petty thief intent on ripping them off. It was that annoyingly innocent charm she had, Weiss thought. Was it working on her, despite what she kept asserting to herself? Weiss couldn’t help but wonder. Was that why she’d risked leaving her alone in the diner? No, that couldn’t be it. Fuck, no.
“I ask because if you’re on your own,” Whitaker said, getting Weiss’ attention again, “then your prisoner is presumably in our local diner without supervision. That’s an awfully dumb thing to do.”
It certainly was. Weiss glanced furtively back at the diner window. She could just about make out Cole, still seated at their booth, chatting amiably with the waitress who was refilling her coffee mug. “She’s not going anywhere,” she said, with a little more conviction than she felt, “and she won’t try anything.”
He gave that a moment’s thought. It was clear he didn’t like what he was hearing. “Something special about you, is there?”
She was startled by the question. “Me? No, I’m just a run of the mill eighty-two.”
“So how come you’re alone? Or is that a budgetary thing too?”
Weiss sighed. That was the third time he’d referenced her lack of a partner. He wasn’t going to let this go then. “I wasn’t. I started the day working with another Marshal, Lonan Devlin. It should have been an easy task. Easy, routine, and tedious. But things went south real fast.”
“Yeah, they have a way of doing that in this line of work,” the Sheriff said sympathetically. But there was an edge beneath the words, which came to the fore in his next question. “So where is he? And what exactly happened?”
Wiping at her face wearily, Weiss realized she was going to have to explain something of what happened. If she didn’t, he’d probably hold her and Cole here for as long as he could, using any excuse he could find. On any other day that wouldn’t have mattered, although it still would have seriously pissed Weiss off. But today she just couldn’t afford too great of a delay.
Shivering again, she pulled a packet of Camel cigarettes from her jacket pocket. If she was going to be stuck out here in the cold for a while, she might as well take the opportunity to smoke a little. The Sheriff lit her cigarette with a cheap Zippo lighter; she reluctantly offered him the pack but he declined. He carries a lighter but doesn’t smoke, she wondered? Cancer, maybe? It would explain the weight loss.
The sweet tobacco tasted so good as she sucked it down into her lungs, warming her deep inside. It felt comforting. She yawned suddenly, covering her mouth with her free hand. Fuck, she was tired. Exhausted, really. It had been one long day. She could lie down on the cold tarmac beneath her feet and she would bet she’d still fall right asleep.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be on this assignment,” she said with a bitter smile. “Duffy is our liaison with JPATS. He’s normally responsible for transporting prisoners and such. But he called in sick, so Devlin and I got the short stick. As usual.
“Cole, in there,” she gestured over her shoulder with a thumb, towards the diner, “had a warrant out for her on a murder charge. She’s a petty thief and con artist, as well as a part-time Elvis impersonator, if you can believe that, so murder is a big step up for her. Small scale for us, though. Normally we wouldn’t bother.”
“So why did you?” Whitaker asked.
She shrugged. “We help out state law enforcement when we can. It’s sometimes easier asking us to help across state lines then getting any assistance from another state. Anyway, she’s supposed to have murdered a fence in Elmhurst. Sacramento P.D. had no suspects until a witness came forward. Not a particularly reliable witness, though. Another thief, a sleazebag called Schwarz.”
“Any chance she’s innocent?”
Weiss shook her head and then took another drag on her cigarette. The tip glowed bright orange against the darkening sky. “She says so, but they always do, don’t they? Schwarz brought a fair bit of evidence with him, which apparently the local cops had somehow overlooked. They seem to think they have a good case. Anyway, not my problem, is it? I’m just delivering her back to the capital.”
“The whole assignment got off to a bad start,” Weiss went on. “We had to drive through the night and then our car broke down about half-an-hour outside Vegas. Devlin arranged to get a rental but that was a piece of shit. And then when we finally get to the detention center in the early hours of the morning, we’re informed Cole’s not in custody like they had said she was. That leaves us up the creek.
“Devlin wanted to go home but I was all for staying. He gave in eventually. Anyway, we kick up enough of a fuss that the LVMPD starts getting embarrassed and finally agrees to go out and get her. Yeah, they knew where she was, they just hadn’t bothered to arrest her yet. So we drive out there with a couple of dozen of Las Vegas’ finest, using the word very loosely, and a SWAT team.”
Weiss paused, giving herself time to think. She stared off into the distance for a long while, almost tempting the Sheriff to prod her into continuing. She was surprised he didn’t. She would have thought a man like him would have been a lot less patient.
“Cole lived in a trailer park, in a crappy neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. She may be a thief, but she’s not a successful one. Or at least, she hides it well. The place was about as low-rent as they come...”
* * * * *
There were two plastic pink flamingos stuck in the yard they were watching. If there was one thing more fake-looking than the women in this city, Weiss thought, then those birds were it. The pink was almost neon in color, as if the manufacturer had taken a look at the prototype, quickly decided that it looked too natural and declared something had to be done about it.
It wasn’t much of a yard, Weiss would have to admit. She doubted it even qualified for the word as any yard she’d ever seen had grass, or at least plenty of mud and some patches of crabgrass. A strip of green AstroTurf, no less bright than the flamingos, and bordered by whitewashed tires cut in half, hardly seemed worth the effort of even pretending to be a yard.
The mail box was hanging off its post by a thin shred of steel and a single remaining screw. The old trailer it served didn’t seem to be in much better shape. The white paint was peeling, the metalwork rusting, one window was cracked, and the screen door was more tear than screen. And this was one of the nicer trailers in the whole park.
She and Devlin sat in their rental car, a considerable distance away from the target location, at the none-too-subtle request of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. So far away, in fact, that they were actually nearer the park’s entrance. The local cops had made a point of forcing the two Deputy Marshals out of the way, probably in revenge for all the aggravation they’d been put through due to Weiss and Devlin’s complaints. And by that, Weiss meant mostly her. Devlin seemed more interested in getting back to Sacramento. When pushed, he had admitted he had Kings tickets and didn’t want to miss the game this evening.
The car radio was on, at a volume a little too high for Weiss’ tastes. A weather forecaster was expressing surprise at such a sudden cold front sweeping in. Enough of that shit. She leaned forward to switch the radio off, then tried playing with the air conditioning. It was hot, even so early in the morning.
“You couldn’t get a better car than this?”
Devlin yawned noisily, then gave her a sharp look. “What do you want? I had to wait for the damn rental place to open and then they were having computer trouble and wouldn’t take any of our cards. I had to pay with my own damn cash. You can bet I won’t be reimbursed. I can just kiss that money goodbye, I suppose. Jesus, what a complete fuck-up this has turned out to be.”
“You said it.” Weiss gave up on the air conditioning after another second or two of fiddling. It must have been designed with only two settings; off and puffs of warmer smoke. Not much use in this temperature, either way. She found herself half-hoping that the cold spell would really materialize. “And don’t…”
“I know, I know. Don’t blaspheme. What time is it, anyway?”
Glancing at her watch, Weiss couldn’t keep herself from yawning too. “About six.”
“I’m telling you, if I miss this game...” Devlin half-heartedly pounded the steering wheel with a fist, letting his frustration show. “The Kings could be playing in Anaheim next season, I swear.”
“Yeah, could be,” Weiss said, nodding absent-mindedly. She’d heard this complaint before. It wasn’t like Devlin ever talked about much else. “This wouldn’t have happened if Duffy had been here.”
“Instead of me?”
“Instead of both of us.”
“Not his fault he was sick.”
“Sick, my ass,” Weiss said with a snarl. “The bastard’s no sicker than I am.”
“Well...” Devlin began. The smile that was playing around his lips quickly vanished as he caught her eye. “I mean, it doesn’t matter, does it?”
“I guess not.” Weiss turned away from him and started staring out of the passenger window. “Viva La fucking Vegas.”
They sat in silence for a while, then Devlin smacked her in the arm to get her attention. When she turned to look at him, obviously about to say something cutting and rude, if not particularly witty, he nodded towards the trailer. “They’re going in.”
Finally, Weiss thought. Maybe they could get this all over and done with in under an hour or two and then be back in Sacramento by late afternoon. Devlin might make his Kings game after all.
She watched through the dim early morning light as the small SWAT team approached the trailer. They moved well, keeping low and in cover, jogging forward in a disciplined manner, which was surprising seeing how unprofessionally this whole situation had been handled. Considering how long their truck had been parked around the corner they might as well have walked up to the door and knocked. If the suspect... Alice Cole, Weiss reminded herself, and what a ridiculous-sounding name that was... didn’t know they were coming before today, she probably did by now. Sure, she wouldn’t have seen anything if she looked out of a window, but there were plenty of other people in the trailer park who would, and Weiss imagined that the inhabitants looked out for each other. How many outstanding warrants could be resolved with a good sweep through this shithole, she wondered?
Still, once they got going the SWAT team looked like they knew what they were doing. They certainly weren’t taking any chances. When everything was in place, they hammered in the door and quickly burst in, hoping to overwhelm anyone inside. Pretty soon all eight heavily armed and armored team members were inside.
It must have been cramped in there, Weiss thought, as the trailer was on the small side. Still, that meant the search didn’t take long. Within a few minutes the SWAT team had filed out – without any prisoner in tow. One of the LVMPD detectives, the one with the weedy looking moustache who had already tried hitting on Weiss several times despite the early hour, talked briefly to the sergeant in charge of the SWAT team, and then turned towards the Deputy Marshals’ car and gave them an over-exaggerated shrug. The goofy smile showed how clearly upset he was by the bad news. Shit, Weiss thought angrily, wasn’t anyone taking this seriously?
“She’s not in there?” Devlin said incredulously. “Well, this keeps getting better and better. So what now? Weiss?”
Weiss didn’t answer. She was too busy looking in her wing mirror, focusing on something else. Not that she really believed what she saw. He might have meant it sarcastically, but Devlin was right; this was getting better and better.
She saw Cole reflected in the wing mirror, having obviously just turned the corner and walked into the trailer park. Weiss recognized her from both the photos on file and the description she’d memorized. Short black hair, deliberately kept unruly, a nose that was perhaps a little too long for the rest of the face, and a wide mouth. She couldn’t see her eyes, as Cole was wearing a large pair of gold-rimmed sunglasses, but she knew they were a dark hazel.
Cole had a thin, stick-like figure, not much of which was hidden by a thin white dress that most of the women Weiss knew would consider too flimsy and diaphanous for sleepwear, let alone a trip to the local market. Maybe in Vegas the women wandered around in their underwear at all hours. Modesty was a commodity in short supply here, it seemed. She had good legs though, even if she showed a little too much of them, and wore a clunky pair of Doc Marten boots that were probably two sizes too big for her and which she probably thought made her look quirky and cute. It was a look that did her no favors, not in Weiss’ eyes. Her arms were full, clutching two packed paper bags of groceries to her chest.
Devlin must have noticed Weiss staring, as he glanced upwards at the rearview mirror and then swore loudly. “Is that her?”
Weiss didn’t say anything, just blindly reached for the door handle. She saw Cole’s mouth fall agape. The paper bags fell from her arms as she took in the heavily armed cops swarming all over her home. Oranges rolled across the hot tarmac and a carton of Oreo’s split open, scattering the dark cookies everywhere.
It was hard to say who moved faster. Weiss was already moving before the groceries hit the ground, popping her door open and twisting out, dropping into a sprint almost immediately. Not fast enough. Cole turned as quick as a snake and took off running. And she moved quickly Weiss noticed, like the devil himself was after her. Well, Weiss didn’t think of herself as being that bad, but if she was made to run for too long Cole would find out just how bad she was.
There was a sizeable gap between the Marshals’ rented car and the fleeing suspect right from the start, and even more of a distance between them and the rest of the trailer park. Not that it made much of a difference, as none of the Vegas cops had noticed anything amiss yet.
Weiss’ feet kicked aside some of the rolling fruit as she dashed after the suspect. Thank God she had dressed for comfort today, choosing to wear her Converse instead of a pair of heels. She could hear Devlin moving after her, the old man moving much more slowly out of the gate, and he was yelling back to the other cops as he ran. Cole could really move, Weiss realized, even in those dumb boots. Try as she might to keep up, Weiss found herself being easily outdistanced. After exiting the trailer park, the dark-haired suspect turned sharply to her right and ran pell-mell down the street, past rundown stores.
By the time Weiss followed around the bend, Cole was already at least a couple of hundred yards up the street and turning another corner into an alleyway, disappearing from sight. That was bad news. In a foot chase you never wanted to lose sight of your suspect. As Weiss reached the corner, she slowed. Contrary to what you saw on cheap television shows and bad action movies, it wasn’t that sensible to charge around blind corners when pursuing fleeing suspects, regardless of how dangerous, or not, they were supposed to be. That was a surefire way to get your head blown off sooner or later.
She pulled her pistol free of the holster at the small of her back, flicked the safety off, and then steadied her two-handed grip. A deep breath, then she stepped around the corner...
...and went flying backwards, knocked off her feet. Cole had collided with her. Weiss fell to the concrete, the impact jarring her spine painfully. She lost hold of her gun, which scattered across the sidewalk until it hit the base of a still-glowing streetlight nearby. She swore under her breath and flailed out wildly. Cole was already falling, having not expected to have run right smack into her pursuer, but managed to keep to her feet until she stumbled over Weiss. She fell to one side of the Deputy Marshal, scrambled to her hands and knees, but then Weiss grabbed an ankle, tripping her up again. The suspect lashed out with her foot, not too hard, but still connecting painfully with Weiss’ shoulder.
“Get off me!” Cole yelled as she kicked backwards, more in an effort to break free than to do any damage. “Please, let me go!”
Weiss swore again, loudly, mostly at shock rather than from anger, then ducked her head out of the way of another strike from the boot. She rolled over, trying to get to her feet. Her back hurt badly as she moved and the pain caused her to lose her grip on the suspect.
But Devlin had caught up with them by now and he piled on top of Cole, grabbing her arms and pushing her to the ground. Without a shred of dignity, Cole continued to struggle as hard as she could. Weiss stiffly got to her feet and retrieved her gun from where it lay. Her lower back flared in agony as she bent over and her left shoulder was stinging.
“Stop struggling, goddamn it!” Devlin cursed at the writhing woman, but as he was two hundred and fifty pounds at least and she was a waif-like stick insect, her efforts were mostly in vain. She’d lost her sunglasses somewhere, maybe in the alley.
“I haven’t done anything! Honestly! You have to let me go! You don’t understand...”
“Yeah, that’s what they all say.” Kneeling on her, Devlin forced Cole’s arms behind her back. Swiftly, with a free hand, he reached behind his back to get his handcuffs, slipping them on the still resisting woman, not without considerable difficulty. “Funny how the people who use the word ‘honestly’ usually don’t have a clue what it means.”
“US Marshals,” Weiss interrupted coldly, moving her shoulder in a circular motion to shake off the tingling. She bent over again, ignoring the flicker of pain she felt in her spine, placing her hands on her thighs and trying to get her breath back. “Alice Cole, there’s a warrant out for your arrest in the state of California for...” The words came out between heavy pants as she fought to regain her composure. She needed to quit smoking.
“We’re in trouble, don’t you get it? You have to...”
Devlin got to his feet, pulling Cole up roughly with him by holding on to the cuffs. It wasn’t protocol and it hurt like hell, but it had the advantage of usually shutting suspects up. Not in this case. She kept yelling but Weiss wasn’t listening. The sooner she said her piece, the sooner the pair of them could get Cole in the car and they could be on the road again. She continued. “...for the murder of Lucius DeWitte. We’re here to transport you back to Sacramento to stand trial.”
Her words finally sank in and Cole immediately fell silent, as if she’d been slapped across the face. “Lucius is dead?” she said quietly. She blinked slowly, taking her time to think over what was said, and then glanced between the two Marshals. If she wasn’t truly surprised by the news, Weiss thought, then she was one hell of a good actress.
Weiss gripped Cole hard by the elbow and tried to turn her around, intending on walking her back to the trailer park, but her captive twisted free again. Swearing, Weiss grabbed hold of her again and shook her, hard. She really did look like Elvis, at least when he was younger, Weiss thought, studying her for a second now that she finally had the chance to look at her close-up. The same long, thin face, the full lips, strong jaw and dark eyes. Cole was attractive in a way, Weiss thought, if you liked that sort of butch look; not pretty, not cute, but oddly handsome. Yes, that was the word, handsome. A fucking female Elvis impersonator, Weiss thought derisively. It could only happen in Vegas. The thief part could happen anywhere.
“I didn’t...” Cole began, staring directly at Weiss. She seemed to suddenly sense arguing was futile. She shook her head and her voice became louder and more urgent. “It doesn’t matter. We have to get out of here! Now!”
“That’s the general idea,” Weiss told her, “now shut up.”
“You’re not listening! I mean it, we have to...”
“What did she just say?” Devlin said. “Are you deaf or something?”
“Fine, then fucking arrest me, why don’t you?! Just let’s get out of here! Please!”
Cole was terrified, Weiss realized, but if not of being arrested for murder, then what? And why would she be so anxious to get away, only to end up being escorted to jail? She had originally believed the suspect had ambushed her, had deliberately turned around and leapt past her in an effort to flee, maybe after seeing that the alleyway was a dead-end or something. But it was now slowly beginning to dawn on Weiss that Cole might have been running from something else, and it was only her bad luck that she immediately ran slap-bang dead into the Marshal chasing after her, and maybe only a little good luck that she didn’t get her head blown clean off.
But all that luck aside, Weiss couldn’t help wondering what on earth could panic someone like Cole so much that she’d turn and run back towards her pursuers in the hopes of getting arrested? What could she possibly think would be worse than facing a murder charge?
The same thought must have occurred to Devlin. Weiss saw that while she was keeping a close eye on their suspect, her partner was staring past them both, frowning in puzzlement at something back down the alley from which Cole had run from.
“What the hell is that?” he said, quietly.
Weiss turned and followed the direction of Devlin’s staring. Oddly, she couldn’t see very far, no more than a hundred yards. There was a wall of white running across the alley that seemed to swallow up everything, as if a high-rise laundry had dropped a pristine clean sheet from the top of the buildings to block the alley entirely. For a moment, Weiss’ brain locked on to that thought, praying that it was true even as logic started convincing her it couldn’t be. An advertising stunt this stupid was out of the question, surely?
It couldn’t be linen, as much as she hoped it was. A single sheet wouldn’t be as large as all that, couldn’t be that clean, that blindingly pristine, and would ripple or shake, even just a little. And there was no top... shouldn’t there be a top to it somewhere? There was a stabbing pain at the back of Weiss’ skull suddenly and she didn’t know why.
You couldn’t see past it, or through it, to the streets beyond. Weiss kept looking up, her eyes flicking back and forth as she desperately searched for the edge, any edge, but the whiteness just seemed to continue higher and higher, the crystal blue of the Nevada sky bleeding into it, until it hurt her eyes and she had to look away, not able to bear to look at it any longer.
She had to blink to get her vision back. Each time she closed her eyes they burned. It felt like she’d been staring at the sun for just a moment too long.
Devlin brushed past her, moving towards the nothingness. He stumbled as his toe caught on a piece of uneven concrete in the sidewalk, but barely noticed and didn’t even look down. Weiss made sure to keep a tight grip on Cole’s arm, as she felt the woman try to twist free as her partner stepped away.
“Is that snow?” Weiss asked of no one in particular.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Cole said, keeping her head turned away. “Does it look like snow to you?”
Weiss ignored her. She had to think this through. But if the sheer whiteness of what she was looking at hurt her eyes, thinking about it too much seemed to hurt her head. It could be snow, surely? Even here in Las Vegas that might be possible. But she knew it couldn’t be. It simply wasn’t cold enough for snow, even at this time of the year. At six o’clock this morning she had found it warm enough still to be comfortable in just a light summer suit. But the weather forecast had reported a coming cold snap. The throbbing in Weiss’ temples was getting worse. Snow, not snow, snow.
“It’s moving...” Devlin said softly, continuing to move forward.
It was too. Sometimes it seemed to be creeping along, inch by inch, but then when Weiss blinked it had suddenly moved forward a foot or more. Like it was somehow aware of exactly when she wasn’t looking. Like it was moving towards her... or for her. She couldn’t stop staring at it... no, that wasn’t quite true. If she tried, if she focused really hard and thought about something else like the pain in her back or the grip she had on her perp’s elbow or the paperwork she was going to have to fill out later today, then she could tear her gaze away, but it wasn’t easy at all. It hurt more to not look then it did to look. It hurt her heart. She wanted to keep staring.
“Don’t look at it!” said Cole urgently, noticing Weiss’ dazed state. At least she wasn’t yelling any more. Cole gestured forward. “See that bike?”
Reluctantly looking away from the nothingness for a second, Weiss saw a high-quality bicycle lying on its side a little way down the alley, half-hidden by the snow... or whatever it was. The back wheel, the only visible wheel, was still slowly spinning.
“What? What about it?”
“It was a courier,” Cole said. “He... vanished...”
A rush of anger welled up within Weiss. She’d really had enough of this shit for one day. Somehow, the emotion helped her to resist staring at the bleached-out nothingness. “What the fuck are you talking about?” she snapped.
Cole looked distraught, near tears, as if her own anger and desperation had leeched out of her, leaving in its place only sadness and regret. “He rode right into it... it was horrible... I couldn’t see for a second and then his bike just toppled over, like he’d run into a brick wall or something. That’s when I started running. I mean...”
Weiss knew what she meant. “Well, where is he? Where is the courier?”
“I told you, he vanished. One second he was ahead of me, riding down the alleyway as slow as you like, and then the next he was gone. You’re not listening, are you? When it fell, his bike was hardly touching that... it... and that was only a minute ago.”
“Don’t you see? It’s moving and it’s getting faster!” Urgency had returned to Cole’s voice. So there was some fight left in her, Weiss thought. “We have to get out of here!”
“There are snowflakes,” Devlin called out over his shoulder, looking down and to the left.
Weiss mentally kicked herself. She had forgotten about her partner for a moment, which was not only stupid but decidedly dangerous. Cole had distracted her, but Weiss imagined she often distracted women, although not quite in this unusual manner. She looked over at Devlin, raising her free hand, trying to shield her eyes from the glare of the whiteness. Shit, it was like snow-blindness only a hundred times worse.
Devlin was right again though, at least to a point. It wasn’t truly a solid wall of white, Weiss saw now, at any rate not at the very edges. At the forefront there were particles floating in the air, of all different sizes, some no bigger than a pinhead, others as large as quarters. The whole thing now looked like the worst example of static on an old TV set.
They were impossible to see when looked at against the whiteness, but at an angle they were just about visible against the dark red bricks of the alley’s walls. And no, she noticed, they weren’t floating and they certainly weren’t snowflakes. They were just white spots, like little holes in reality, or absences of... well, just about anything, she thought... and they just hung in the air wherever they appeared. More and more emerged out of nowhere, until the tiny spots became small spots, small spots grew into large spots, and large spots became huge expanses of white, and that was what gave the whole thing the appearance of moving. But it wasn’t, Weiss realized, it was growing.
She watched as Devlin reached out to touch one of the dots of nothingness.
Weiss felt her heart lurch abruptly and wasn’t exactly sure why. She stepped forward quickly, letting her grip on Cole go without thinking. “Lonan, don’t!” she said. She heard a tremor of dread in her voice and it sickened her. Nothing in life had ever frightened her before – well, almost nothing – so why now?
Devlin turned his head to look at her but didn’t lower his arm. He smiled at her, that fucking infuriating smile of his that he only ever flashed when he thought he knew better than her. “It’s fine,” he told her, “there’s nothing there.”
The tip of his forefinger brushed the very edge of a white spot. And he was right, suddenly there was nothing there.
Just like that, Devlin had vanished. One moment he had been there, moving, talking, breathing... existing. And the next there was a sickening bellow of pain that couldn’t have possibly come from him, followed almost instantly by a flash of white light that blinded Weiss for a second or two. She blinked, and as she did so, the recollection of a college history lesson came back to her.
It was odd how the mind worked. The oddest things could summon up a memory, like the scent of a flower, the taste of an enjoyable but long-forgotten meal, or a few bars from a familiar tune. And they didn’t get much more odd than this, Weiss guessed. She had been nineteen, a freshman in name only, with a jaded cynicism that belied her age. Nagasaki and Hiroshima meant nothing to her and she couldn’t care less. But then she had been jolted out of her protective shell, horrified when the professor had shown the class photographs of the aftermath of both bombings. It hadn’t been the rubble, the destruction, the death toll, or the pain and suffering that had shocked the young Weiss so much. It had been the photos of the shadows. She still could clearly remember the professor’s evocative description, explaining how the blast of each atomic bomb was so powerful and so intense it seared the very image of its victims onto walls, like a permanent burnt shadow of something that no longer existed.
She knew why the memory had surfaced. Terrifyingly, right now she was witnessing the reverse. The image of Devlin was seared painfully into her retinas, not in shadow but in light, his form an agonizing and blinding white. Everything else was darkened, blurred and less clear, either because the white somehow leeched the light from around it, or the surroundings perhaps just looked dark in comparison.
Weiss stared in silence at the now empty alleyway, her eyes watering as she blinked them, her vision slowly returning to normal. She was finding it hard to breathe, feeling like she’d been punched incredibly hard in the chest. Two years ago she’d been shot just below her collarbone, the bullet only stopped by the ballistic vest she always wore while working. The impact had broken two ribs, stopped her heart for a brief moment, and left a huge lasting bruise. And that pain failed to compare to what she was now feeling.
“Fuck...” Weiss said finally. The word slipped out her mouth like air from a slashed tire, slow and distressing.
The nothingness inched closer. It seemed to be moving a little faster. She stared at it and in return it sang to her. She could feel the whiteness inside her head, like tendrils wrapping around parts of her mind and tugging, tugging, tugging, ever so gently, desperately wanting her to accept the nothingness, to be at one with it, to be truly nothing. Her arms dropped to her side and she took one hesitant step forward.
Suddenly, Weiss felt a sharp, bony elbow dig into her ribs.
“Don’t look at it!” Cole hissed urgently. “It’s coming towards us! I don’t know what the hell is going on but if you don’t want that to happen to you, Marshal whatever your damn name is, we have to run!” She turned away and began running, almost tripping and falling as she tried to keep her balance with her arms cuffed behind her back.
Not thinking, acting purely on survival instinct, Weiss tore her gaze away from the alleyway and followed.
* * * * *
They sprinted back to the trailer park as fast as they could. Quite why Cole had headed back there Weiss didn’t know. Perhaps she thought the cops waiting for her there would protect her somehow, or perhaps she was just heading home without thinking, like a wounded animal heading back to the safety of the burrow. Weiss could understand that; she kind of felt the same. Sacramento was calling her.
But there was no safety to be found. Just as if the wounded animal had found the hunter and his hounds waiting, as Weiss ran into the trailer park’s entrance she saw Cole had come to a sudden halt. The whiteness had already reached this point too, just beginning to envelope the large black SWAT van parked a hundred yards up ahead.
Cole was looking around, her head snapping to and fro. If she wasn’t freaking out completely, she was getting pretty damn close, that much was obvious. Weiss couldn’t blame her; she felt like freaking out herself. The trailer park wasn’t quite parallel with the alleyway where they’d lost Devlin, the entrance being a little further south really, but even so if the whiteness was already moving through here then it had sped up even more since they last saw it.
The SWAT team was nowhere in sight. But there were still some of Las Vegas’ finest around. Most of them were standing stock still, staring at the oncoming nothingness. A few had fallen on their knees, praying perhaps. One was crying. What unsettled Weiss most about that was that he didn’t seem to be crying because of sorrow. As she watched, there was a flash of light off to the right, which she only just caught in the corner of her eye. It still stung like mad though. None of the cops seemed to react in any way.
“Why the fuck aren’t they running?” Cole said.
The question seemed rhetorical. Even if it wasn’t, Weiss wasn’t about to waste time answering. She knew why. She knew what the cops were feeling. She could sense the whiteness reaching out for her again, already wrenching at her thoughts. She made fists of her hands, digging her nails painfully into her palms. It did the trick.
They had to move faster, Weiss realized, and that meant running was no longer an option.
“Get in the car!” she screamed, sprinting past Cole. She had to take a deep breath just to be able to talk and that hurt her lungs. The run had left her panting heavily. Cole, fuck her, seemed to be hardly even winded. She really should quit smoking. Tomorrow, she swore, she would give up smoking then, if she lived so long.
“The red Camry!” Weiss said, pointing.
Cole reached the car first, having easily overtaken the gasping Weiss. She twisted, groping for the handle on the passenger side, fumbling behind the small of her back, then growing more frantic as logic told her the door wouldn’t open but her mind still wouldn’t accept the futility of trying.
“It’s locked! Unlock the fucking door!”
Fuck, Weiss thought. Devlin had the keys. And Devlin was gone. A stabbing pain shot through her skull as she remembered how he had disappeared. Unlike the white outline of her partner, the memory was fuzzy for some reason, hard to focus on. Each time she did, her head hurt.
She focused on something else instead. Scooping up a half-brick from the edge of a trailer’s makeshift garden, she smashed the driver’s window, reached in and unlocked the door. She scrambled in, reached over and pushed the passenger’s side door open.
As Cole scrambled awkwardly in, unable to pull the door shut after her due to her handcuffs, Weiss jammed a ballpoint pen into the gap between the plastic panels on the steering column and pried it partly open. She clawed at the wires inside, jerking them free. Her fingertips were bleeding, she noticed, probably from the broken glass.
“You don’t have keys?” Cole said in disbelief.
Weiss glanced up. Through the dust-streaked windshield she could see the nothingness bearing down on the car. It seemed even faster than before. Cole’s trailer was now no longer in site as the white passed over the yard. The plastic pink flamingos were the last to go.
“Shut up,” she said, “and unless you have an explanation, something that makes sense out of all this, then don’t say another fucking word.” She touched two bare wires together. Nothing. Fuck, she hadn’t done this in so long. She grabbed another wire, touched that to the first, and then gave a silent prayer when the engine came to life.
* * * * *
It took them three-quarters of an hour to escape the city, which Weiss guessed was about twice as long as it had taken her and Devlin to drive into from the outskirts earlier that morning.
She was amazed at how orderly everything seemed. As she sped north through the suburbs, driving as fast as she dared to get out of the city as quickly as possible, she found it almost surreal that life seemed to be going on as normal all around her. There was a little more traffic on the roads than earlier this morning but not much; it could have been routine based on the time of day. She checked her watch. Almost seven. Rush hour, she guessed, or whatever passed for it in this city. Even a city driven by an entertainment and leisure economy had to have regular folks doing regular jobs, just maybe not as many.
She did some quick math in her head. Nine hours or so on the road and they’d be back in Sacramento. They had to get there. That would solve everything. It was a thin hope, a threadbare one, but she clung to it all the same. She had to, or else there would be no point in continuing. And if life had taught her anything, it was that sometimes there was nothing else you could do but keep doing what you were doing.
Perhaps everything would be back to normal once they got back to Sacramento, Weiss told herself. Who knows, maybe this was all some huge practical joke. No, it couldn’t be, Weiss reluctantly admitted to herself. What she had seen would be impossible to fake. Besides, no one had that cruel of a sense of humor.
That same headache was back, she realized. Just one thought about that nothingness and the pain just flared up. There had to be an answer, some sense to be made of this. Weiss would tell someone in Sacramento and they would know what was going on and what to do. She wasn’t sure if anyone would even listen to her, but she would make herself heard. Someone had to know.
Weiss glanced to her right. If there was one person who knew, it was Cole, Weiss was sure of that. If not, then at the very least, Cole knew more than she was saying. Which right now, Weiss thought, wasn’t a lot. In fact, Cole hadn’t said a word since they’d left the trailer park. Maybe she was one of those rare perpetrators who knew it was always best to keep their mouths shut when dealing with the authorities, or even rarer, one of those who actually obeyed an order when it was given to them.
It didn’t matter. What Weiss really wanted to know was how Cole had resisted the effects of the nothingness when it called. She had often been nearer to it than Weiss, had been much nearer when she had been running from them, and so its call must have been much stronger to her. And Weiss had only just managed to resist it. So why the fuck didn’t it seem to bother Cole at all?
Maybe she should ask her, even if she had to get a little creative with her questions.
Weiss sighed. It made her passenger look over at her. Cole opened her mouth to speak and then obviously thought better of it as she turned away to look out of the window again. She shifted in her seat. She couldn’t have been comfortable, not with her arms trapped behind her in a seat that wasn’t designed to accommodate such a position.
The movement, a distraction from her worries, pissed Weiss off for some reason.
A road sign flashed overhead and she swore under her breath as she realized she had missed it. She had wanted to head south, to retrace the route she and Devlin had used to get here but the path they’d been forced to take to evade the ever increasing nothingness had pushed them further and further north. Finally they found themselves firmly stuck on Highway 95, heading into the hills just north of the city. It would probably take a little longer this way, even if the actual distance was shorter. She was just hoping they wouldn’t get lost. The shitty rental car didn’t even have a GPS system.
Weiss swerved the car into the left lane to speed past a slow-moving tanker-trailer. Glancing at the speedometer, she was surprised to see the needle was hovering near eighty. Taking her foot off the accelerator, she let the car slow a little. She was panicking and she didn’t like that. Her knuckles stood out a stark white against the black of the steering wheel. Her jaw hurt from being clenched tight for so long. Words of wisdom from a firearms instructor long ago came back to her. She had to keep herself calm, if only to keep herself alive. Anxiety never solved anything. She tried breathing deeply and slowly, but simply couldn’t concentrate well enough or long enough.
She slammed her fist against the steering wheel in frustration, startling Cole who jumped in her seat and turned to give her a worried glance.
Her temper was getting the better of her again, so Weiss tried counting to ten.
It didn’t help, but then it never did.
* * * * *
They reached the outskirts of the city after about half an hour of reckless driving and it was then that Weiss’ temper finally made the decision for her. She stepped on the brake pedal and began to pull over on the hard shoulder. This high in the hills, the number of vehicles on the road had dropped immensely. From the hectic rush hour traffic of the city, the highway seemed so very quiet. Cars were still passing in either direction every couple of minutes, but far less than she felt there should have been.
She felt a pang of sympathy for those vehicles heading towards the city. She had wondered briefly if she should be warning them, but how could she? She’d already tried calling her superiors, then her family, then anyone, but no luck. Her cellphone wasn’t working. No service, it said, so it wasn’t the battery. Maybe this thing, this event, whatever it was, had knocked out the phones. Or satellites even. Now that was a scary thought.
Cole spoke up as she felt the car slow, then the distinctive shuddering as the wheels hit gravel. “What’s going on?”
Weiss said nothing, instead just pulled on the handbrake and unclipped her seat belt. She got out of the car, walked around to other side and pulled the passenger door open.
Cole looked up at the Deputy Marshal, with a look of either confusion or fright on her face. Most likely it was a bit of both.
“What are you doing?”
Weiss reached for her but Cole squirmed back out of the way. “Hold on, you can’t...”
Not at all in the mood to argue, Weiss grabbed hold of Cole’s arm and pulled her bodily out of the car. It wasn’t tough to do. Weiss might be small in stature, but she was fit and athletic, had been trained well, and knew how to both restrain and move an unwilling suspect without too much trouble. Added to all that, it wasn’t as if Cole posed too great of a challenge, especially shackled as she was. She might be a foot or so taller than Weiss, but she was too thin and too weak to resist all that much.
Weiss pushed Cole hard in front of her, causing her to stumble slightly. Then, grabbing her under the armpit and dragging her around the trunk of the car, Weiss threw her bodily into the scrub on the side of the road. With only the thin cotton dress to protect her, Cole’s knees and shins were torn up as she landed heavily amidst the gravel and thickets.
Without any warning, Weiss kicked her hard in the stomach, then again in the ribs. Cole fell to one side, gasping in pain as the blow connected and her breath was forced from her lungs. She tried to get to her feet but Weiss shoved her down again and then punched her hard across the face, so hard the shock of it jolted all the way up her forearm. She heard the crack of a tooth. Cole yelled something incoherent and Weiss hit her again just to shut her up, then again just because she couldn’t think of anything better to do.
The third punch was enough. It wasn’t that she wanted to stop, because if she was truly honest with herself then she didn’t know why she’d started in the first place, and it wasn’t because nothing more was needed. Instead, it was because with each blow a little more of Weiss’ temper had been drawn out of her, like poison being sucked out of a wound. By the time she had driven Cole down to the ground yet again, she couldn’t even imagine why she had struck Cole to begin with.
She stepped back and leaned against the hood of the car, breathing deeply. She couldn’t quite believe what she had just done. She’d lost her temper with a criminal in custody before, plenty of times, sometimes even to the extent that Devlin had had to hold her back, but she’d never actually beaten one before. God, everything was spiraling out of control, and if there was one thing Weiss desired, it was control.
Hearing a vehicle slow behind her, Weiss turned around. The car, a cheap-looking red Kia, was almost coming to a full stop. Weiss opened her jacket so the car’s occupants got a clear view of the metal badge clipped to her belt. The car picked up speed again almost immediately, which right now was probably the wisest decision the driver could make.
She felt a breeze under her arm and pawed at her jacket, finding that she had torn it. The seam had split beneath the armpit. She pushed the fabric together with her fingers, as if that would somehow magically mend the tear. Stupid of her really. Her own knuckles were no longer white she noticed, oddly, but now red-raw. She stared at them for a moment, slowly turning her hands over to study the palms. She couldn’t stop her hands from shaking.
Cole was struggling to get up into a sitting position. It wasn’t easy with her hands cuffed behind her back. Her knees were scraped badly, there were deep scratches along her arms from the thorns, and a red stain the size of a tennis ball was slowly spreading across the lower right side of her dress, making the fabric look like a bad attempt at a Rorschach inkblot test. Weiss doubted she had kicked her hard enough to break a rib and pierce the skin, but it was only when Cole tilted her head up that Weiss saw how streaked with blood her mouth was. Her chin was caked with dark red sand, the blood droplets streaking her neck. She must have spat up on her dress while Weiss wasn’t looking, or maybe rolled in some of the blood that was gradually soaking into the gravel.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Cole said with a baleful look in her eye. She ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth, probing for the broken tooth. When she found it, she winced in pain. “You really didn’t.”
Weiss said nothing in reply for a while, instead choosing to let the accusation hang in the air. She looked down at the roadside, a tiny bit of shame gnawing away at her. Funny how humiliation so often took the place of anger.
“What’s going on?” she eventually asked.
“You heard me.” Weiss lowered her voice and did her best to make it have a more threatening tone. She’d like to think that tone made her sound scary and tough, but the truth was it probably did neither. She’d found it worked some of the time, scared some of the amateurs, but not always, and never against the experienced career criminals. Devlin had always thought it was funny, and liked doing a bad impression of her whenever he thought she wasn’t around. A sharp pain stabbed at her right behind the eyes.
Cole laughed bitterly. “What’s the matter with you, bad memory or something? You were beating the crap out of me until you got bored and wandered off. You want me to tell you the last place you hit me so we can pick this up again?”
“I meant, what happened in Vegas?”
“Las Vegas. Nobody calls it Vegas.”
“Everybody calls it Vegas.” Weiss sighed, annoyed at allowing herself to be distracted from the point. “What happened back there?”
“What happens in Vegas, stays...”
Ever impatient, Weiss interrupted. “Are you going to tell me?”
“How should I know? You think I know?”
“I think you know.”
Cole looked up at her. She frowned, studying the Marshal’s face, trying to discern if she was being serious or not. “How? I mean, what could possibly make you think I would know what in God’s name is going on?”
“It’s blasphemy to take the Lord’s name in vain, it’s a sin, or didn’t you know that either?”
Cole spat dark blood onto the ground. She watched the frothy glob of blood as it was slowly soaked up by the gravel, then turned her head slowly, grimacing in pain as she did so, to look back at the metropolis down in the valley below. Weiss didn’t need to follow her gaze to know what she was looking at. Even this early in the morning, the city of sin should have been ablaze with artificial light. Instead, you could hardly see the center of the city which had already been soaked up by the nothingness that just kept growing and growing. It was coming for them, Weiss knew it was, and the thought scared her so much.
And if that idea alone wasn’t terrifying enough, Weiss knew that looking would only cement the fear. It would hurt her eyes and her mind too. The few times she had dared to look in the rearview mirror on the drive up into the hills, she had almost ploughed into oncoming traffic. She hadn’t been able to wrap her mind around the abnormal shapes the nothingness would take on, the way it would twist and turn as it expanded, the way it reached up further than she could imagine... Weiss shuddered, just thinking about it. Staring had caused her brain to spasm, almost as if it were undergoing a mini-seizure. She couldn’t... wouldn’t... look that way again.
And cars were still heading in that direction, mindlessly moving towards their own demise. The drivers all seemed oblivious of what waited for them. Were she and Cole the only ones who could see it? Or perhaps you could only keep seeing it once you’d witnessed it up close. Shit, Weiss thought, someone had to have the answers she needed.
Cole shook her head violently, scowling at the pain the movement caused. It was a testament to the power of the scene down in the valley that she’d rather hurt herself than keep staring at it and suffer that way. She closed her eyes momentarily, the pain obviously too much, and in between the whine of vehicles passing behind her Weiss could hear each stuffed breath her captive took. Had she broken Cole’s nose? No, she doubted it. She couldn’t remember exactly everything about the fight (a rush of adrenaline and then the inevitable comedown would do that to a memory) but she thought her fists had connected mostly with Cole’s cheeks and jaw. Fight, she thought, wasn’t that a funny way to think of it? Even if you were charitable enough to call it a fight, then you’d have to admit it was one-sided.
“I know no more than you, Marshal,” Cole said after a while.
“Deputy Marshal. You ran from the...” Weiss struggled to find the right word to describe what she had seen and in the end could only fall back on what she had been calling it to herself since the very beginning. “...nothingness... before any of us.”
“Nothingness?” Cole seemed to consider the word for a second or two. “Yeah, I guess that fits. Really well, thinking about it. Not that I want to. And not that I can do anything but, it seems. Think about it, I mean. And I ran, Deputy Marshal, only because I saw it first, that’s all. I would have thought that was obvious.”
“You knew to run from it.”
“I’m a thief, I know when to run. Besides, you ran too once you saw what happened to...”
Hastily, Weiss cut her off. “Don’t you dare mention his name.”
“I don’t even know his name. Or yours, for that matter.”
“It was Devlin. Lonan Devlin. He is... was married, to Melanie. They’ve been together for fourteen years, have three children, the oldest of which turned eleven last week. Mel’s expecting the fourth this summer.”
Cole shifted in position, obviously feeling uncomfortable. She looked away, staring off into the scrubland that rose up around them. There was another long silence that seemed to drag on forever.
“Are you? Why the fuck should I believe you?”
“I may be a thief, but I’m an honest thief.”
“And you don’t see the contradiction there?”
“Not everything in life is as black and white as you would have it, Marshal.”
“I told you, it’s Deputy Marshal. You knew not to look at it. The nothingness.”
“I guessed. It hurt my eyes each time I did.” Cole sounded indignant. “Is that it? Or do you have anything else to throw at me apart from wild punches and even wilder accusations?”
Weiss did, actually, have one more thing. But she was wasting time here. There was no way of telling how fast the nothingness was growing; it could be speeding up exponentially. The more the nothingness spread, the less everything else there was, and that meant the more nothing there was, which in turn meant there was less everything else... Her head hurt again, a dull throb this time. Heaven forbid that the pain be the same every time, Weiss thought, that would be too easy to deal with.
She watched a small drop of blood slowly congeal on the side of the road, the redness of it a stark contrast to the white painted line and the hot black tarmac. As the droplet dried, another nearby was being soaked up by the remnants of a discarded week-old newspaper.
“Stand up,” she ordered after a sigh. Every minute they spent in sullen silence was another minute they weren’t putting between them and it. They had to get back on the road.
With a suspicious look, Cole struggled to get to her feet. Weiss pushed herself away from the car and stepped around her. Even a disinterested bystander would have been able to spot how much Cole tensed immediately once she lost sight of her captor. A little bit of a control freak apparently, Weiss thought.
Weiss fished in her pocket for her keys. She unlocked one side of the handcuffs and immediately Cole’s arms fell to her side. She rubbed at her free wrist and smiled, although that smile faded pretty rapidly when Weiss stepped around her and again took hold of her hands, pulling them together in front of her. There was a click as she locked the handcuffs back in place.
“Really?” Cole said
“It’s just so you’re more comfortable while we’re traveling. Be thankful I’m not leaving you cuffed as you were. Get in the car.”
Weiss gave her a gentle shove, but Cole pushed backwards. “Why should I?”
“You want to stay here? Looks to me like you don’t have a choice.”
“I could thumb a ride.”
“In cuffs? How many offers do you think you’d get?” Weiss looked down at Cole’s torn and bloody thin white dress. “Or maybe you’d get plenty, but I doubt you’d like any of them. Besides, we need to get to Sacramento.”
Cole was surprised. “You still plan on taking me in?”
“I have a job to do. And that’s why we came this far, after all.”
“Duty before all else, huh? Even now?”
“Especially now,” Weiss said with a curt nod. “If we can get to Sacramento, chances are someone can sort this mess out.”
“You believe that?”
Truth be told, Weiss wasn’t sure she did. She wasn’t even sure if Sacramento would be there. But everyone had to believe in something, no matter how transitory. She wondered what Cole believed in. Probably nothing. Her kind liked to use that excuse, she knew.
“Yes,” Weiss said after some thought, “and I suppose in that way you and I are pretty much opposites. Unlike you, I know little but I believe a lot.”
“Is that right? And here am I still not knowing your name. Remember?”
Weiss blinked in surprise. She realized that in all the confusion earlier she had never actually told Cole what her name was. She remembered identifying herself as a US Marshal but nothing more.
“It’s Weiss,” she said, a little reluctantly. “Now get in the car.”
Cole stared hard at the Deputy Marshal for a few seconds, and then glanced back at the city. Weiss could guess what she was thinking. Looking for an escape route most likely, or at the very least gauging if she was better off striking out her on own. She’d have to be fairly dumb to even think about heading back into the city and even dumber to run off into the desert. Honest or not, Weiss wasn’t sure, but she was pretty certain Cole wasn’t stupid.
Her suspicions were proven right, for at that moment Cole turned back to look her up and down. She could try it, Weiss thought, she certainly could try. If Cole ran she wouldn’t get very far, not this time. She could argue, of course, that was usually what criminals did when they found themselves painted into a corner. The five stages of thief, Devlin had liked to call it.
Woah. That pain again, as quick as a flash. She gritted her teeth and hung on to it this time, not yet willing to let this particular memory of Devlin go. Not just yet. What were the stages again? Devlin had expounded on them once, over a few beers at Milligans.
Denial of wrongdoing, that was first she remembered, then anger at the arresting officers, and then bargaining. There was always bargaining. And when that didn’t work, and it never did unless the cops were corrupt, depression followed with the realization that a lengthy prison sentence stretched out in front of them. That usually led to acceptance, whether they liked it or not.
But Cole didn’t argue. She pursed her lips, gave Weiss another quick once-over, and then walked around to the passenger’s side of the car. She pulled the door open, got in, and closed the door after her, all without saying anything. And as she surrendered, so the pain in Weiss’ head subsided.
Sighing, Weiss moved back to the car. She brushed broken glass out of the driver’s seat, being careful not to cut her hands any more than she already had. The last half-hour hadn’t been exactly comfortable driving but if she could get one of the two pains in the ass out of the car then the next few hours might seem a little better.
Cole didn’t look at her when she got in, just stared out of her window, resting her already bruising cheek against the glass. Weiss wondered if she’d gone too far with the beating earlier. Had all the fight gone out of Cole? She hoped not. As much as she didn’t want every single step on the way back to the capital to be a struggle, she also didn’t want to be dragging along an unwilling millstone, someone who’d given up totally and was just waiting for the inevitable.
No, she must be wrong. Sure, Cole hadn’t fought back, but then how could she with her hands cuffed behind her back? And she’d been willful enough afterwards, even if only in word and not deed. Most likely she was just thinking of a new approach, some new angle. Yes, that was more her style, Weiss thought.
The car grumbled to life, about as eager to get back on the road as Cole seemed to be. Willing, just not very happy about it. The tires skidded on the gravel for a second, stone chips clanging off the metal underside, then bit into tarmac as the sedan veered back onto the highway. The road was almost empty now, Weiss noted. Even less traffic was moving towards the city and none appeared to be coming from it, not anymore.
How did something like this happen, Weiss asked herself? How could it? And how could it all happen so quickly? One minute everything was normal, if a little screwed up, and then everything had suddenly capsized on her. The world was being pulled inside out, or so it seemed
She glanced at her watch again. Just past seven. She had a long day of driving ahead of her, but if she kept going, didn’t stop for anything, then they could reach Sacramento by the early evening, provided they didn’t end up getting sidetracked somehow.
* * * * *
Weiss hadn’t told Sheriff Whitaker the whole story, of course. He would never have believed her and even if he had, it would have just made everything a lot worse. The lie was easier, she found. Anything to get out of here and back on the road. She needed to get to Sacramento. Once there, everything would be fine. Yeah, she thought bitterly, throwing her cigarette onto the cracked tarmac and stepping on it, the lie is always easier.
So she had said nothing about the whiteness, the snow, or whatever the hell it was. Nothing about how Devlin had died, instead making something up on the fly about how he stayed in Vegas to complete some paperwork. Not very convincing but the Sheriff seemed to buy it. Likewise she hadn’t mentioned the beating she had given Cole; she doubted someone wound as tight as Whitaker would appreciate it.
The Sheriff’s radio squawked. He turned away from Weiss and reached inside his cruiser to pull out the handset, the cable stretching taut. “Go ahead, Blanche.”
A woman’s voice, distorted and crackling. “Sheriff? We’re still without power here.”
“What do you want me to do about it, Blanche?”
A short silence. “Nothing, I guess, Sheriff. But there’s something strange going on up on the highway.”
Weiss felt her pulse quicken. After the day she’d had, she probably had a better understanding of what the word ‘strange’ meant than anyone else ever could. Except Cole, of course. She made a half-hearted attempt at pretending not to listen, although she wasn’t sure why she was bothering. The conversation wasn’t exactly quiet and the Sheriff most likely knew she could hear.
“What do you mean, strange?”
“Deputy Delaney called in a few minutes ago, saying she’d found a car spun off the road. No occupants but there was a lot of money inside and some blood too.”
He glanced at Weiss, who shrugged to show she knew nothing about it. He seemed unfazed. “Okay, I’ll head up there.” He made to return the receiver but was caught by the woman speaking again.
“Yes, Blanche, what is it?”
“Whitney said it was snowing.” Weiss closed her eyes and muttered a small prayer to herself. She had so hoped it wouldn’t be that, but she had known it would be.
“So? Blanche? You there?”
“Sorry, Sheriff, I’ve got a splitting headache. Came on all of a sudden, out of nowhere. Don’t quite know why. Whitney kept blabbering about the snow, like she’d never seen any before. And she hasn’t reported in since.”
The Sheriff paused, his thumb hovering over the button on the side of the handset. His brow was creased with thought. “Okay, Blanche,” he said eventually, “we’re finished here at the diner anyway. Nothing to worry about. And I’m sure Whitney is fine, no need for concern. She can take care of herself. Or so she tells us, often enough.”
He signed off, then returned the receiver to its mounting on the dashboard of his patrol car. The deputies over on the other side of the parking lot must have been listening in on the open channel, as they both climbed back into their cruiser and quickly drove off.
“I suppose it’s nothing, right?”
The question was directed at her, Weiss realized. She caught herself and then gave him a hard look. She didn’t say anything. She wasn’t quite sure what to say, or what he wanted her to say. She looked down at the ground, unable to meet his eye.
He pressed the point. “I didn’t just lie to one of my people, did I?” When she still didn’t answer, he prompted her. “Well, is there anything I should be worried about?”
“No,” she said in the end, “nothing.” She surprised herself with how easy that particular lie came to her lips. Making a sacrifice just so she could be safe, she thought. Was that because her belief in getting to Sacramento outweighed everything, or was it simply just cowardice on her part? Right now, she didn’t care. She hated herself for lying, regardless of the reason.
The Sheriff nodded slowly, then turned away without saying anything and got back in his cruiser. The engine kicked into life and the lightbar on the roof lit up. Red shadows flickered over the parking lot. Weiss wasn’t sure if he believed her or not, but was certainly thankful he was leaving.
Not quite yet, he wasn’t. Whitaker leaned across the passenger seat and wound down the window. “I want you out of my town, Deputy Marshal Weiss,” he said, looking up at her. “No messing. I don’t know what in God’s name is going on with you but I don’t like it. Go pay your tab, get some gas for your car, and get out of Silvertip. Am I making myself clear?”
“Good.” He paused, frowning, tilting his head as if listening to something. “What the hell is that?”
She heard it too now. Someone was singing. A cappella, a little off-key here and there, but the tune was easily recognizable. And the annoying thing about the song was that Weiss certainly was lonesome tonight.
“It’s Elvis fucking Presley,” she said with a snarl, and as the police cruiser pulled away, she took off at a run back towards the diner.
* * * * *
Weiss nearly pulled the diner door off its hinges in her haste to get back inside. She had sprinted across the parking lot, only a short distance, but was so angry that she was breathing heavily. If Devlin had been here he would have been warning innocent bystanders that the look on her face showed she wasn’t to be messed with.
Everyone turned to look at her, startled by her sudden entrance. Most of them had moved down to one end of the diner, by the restrooms, and Cole had gone with them. She was standing there beside the nearest booth, her mouth still half-open in song. She was surrounded by diner customers, waitresses, even some of the kitchen staff; they were all sitting at that booth or nearby and were now all staring at Weiss like she was nuts. Not for the first time today, Weiss was beginning to wonder if popular opinion was right.
One of the cooks had even found a guitar somewhere and had been strumming along, stopping only when the door clattered open, and the last jangling notes were still hanging in the air as Weiss stood there snarling in angry disbelief at what was going on.
A moment before she’d stormed in, they’d all been looking at Cole with upturned adoring faces. Lit by a dozen candles, Cole wasn’t even bothering to hide the handcuffs anymore. She’d apparently won them all over with that infuriating charm of hers, that likeability she possessed somehow. Everything came easy to her, didn’t it?
The silence was deafening. It was a pity, in a way, Weiss thought. As ridiculous as it sounded, Cole had a nice, low voice and she sang the song well, if not exactly identically to how the King had. There was more of a country twang in her vocals than blues, but it was still pleasant sounding. Sultry, that was the word best suited to it, Weiss thought, with a little sadness there. With her voice, her charm, and her look, Weiss now had no problem seeing how Cole could make a living wage easily enough. A legal wage, anyway.
Weiss shook her head. What the hell was she thinking? Everyone else might be falling for Cole’s charms, but she sure as fuck wasn’t about to. She had a moment’s grace as everyone was still staring at her, so she strode forward and pushed Cole hard, almost knocking her off her feet. Cole yelped in pain, sprawled backwards, barely managing to grab the booth’s table to keep her balance. Weiss grabbed her arms, pulling her around and shoving her unceremoniously through the restroom doors.
If anyone in the diner was upset with her behavior, they said nothing and made no move to stop her. Weiss didn’t consider herself a fool; she knew most likely that was down to fear than anything else. Respect the badge, fear the gun. She imagined Cole had probably told them all who she was, although they’d most likely already guessed she had something to do with law enforcement, and on top of that they’d all seen her be confronted by the local Sheriff and not back down a step. The mean look on her face might also have done something to deter everyone, but Weiss doubted it.
She followed Cole through into the restroom. The skinny would-be Elvis had stumbled as she hit the swinging door and fallen onto the checkerboard tiles, cracking her head against the underside of a white porcelain basin. She was just pushing herself up into a sitting position, cursing loudly, when Weiss pushed the door firmly shut and dragged the large metal trashcan across as a temporary barricade.
When Weiss turned, she saw Cole was gingerly touching her scalp, feeling beneath her jet black hair on the left side of her head. Her fingertips came away bloody and she swore again. It was only a trace, Weiss thought, hardly life-threatening.
They were lucky there was a small window over in the right wall, the grimy panes letting in a small amount of the dying light, or else the restroom would have been pitch-black. As it was, Weiss had to squint to see anything clearly. She leaned against the door, further adding her weight to the barrier. You could never be too careful, and the last thing she wanted right now was anyone in the diner summoning up the courage to intervene.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Seeing as how she was barely controlling her temper, the words came out as a low hiss, but that was alright. It would keep anyone else from hearing anything that was said. Every cloud, Weiss thought, and all that bullshit.
“She asked me to,” Cole grumbled, still feeling the cut on her scalp and wincing from the pain. “They all did.”
Weiss sneered in disbelief. She thought it was much more likely that Cole had been unable to resist the limelight. Left to her own devices for just a few minutes, she had probably grown tired of not being the center of attention. “They asked you to sing?”
“Yes! There’s no television, no radio...”
“Oh, they were bored so you thought you’d start entertaining the room?”
“Yes, partly,” Cole protested. “But not just that. They were getting nervous, anxious, wondering what the hell was going on. I was trying to get their minds off it, to distract them just until you got back. I figured you wouldn’t want them asking too many questions.”
Well, she was right there, Weiss thought, there was no point starting a panic. Still, her temper hadn’t quite subsided yet and she certainly wasn’t about to admit she was wrong, even if what Cole had said made a good amount of sense. Assuming she was telling the truth, of course. And there was no such thing as an honest thief, everyone knew that.
“Do you think this is a fucking joke?”
“No,” Cole protested, “you know I don’t. I’ve said so, often enough.”
“There are people dying out there!”
“You don’t know that!”
Weiss drew back as if she’d been slapped across the face. She gaped at the woman on the floor for a moment, not understanding what had just been said.
“What?” she finally said, and only because she really couldn’t think of anything smarter to say and Cole seemed willing to let the silence linger on and on.
“You don’t know that they’re dying.”
“You’re kidding, aren’t you? What the fuck else do you think is happening to them?”
“I don’t know,” Cole said, although she didn’t seem to sure about that. Her voice had taken on a pleading tone. “Why do you keep asking me? I don’t know anything more about what’s going on than you do, and that seems to be only a fraction more than anyone sitting out there drinking that terrible coffee.”
She looked up through her eyelashes, keeping her head bent low. It made her eyes appear darker, smoky even, and her entire appearance took on an ethereal quality, even with the bruises and swelling. It was quite a startling transformation, moving her from the quite cute category all the way to breathtaking. But then she probably knew it did, Weiss thought. It seemed a little too rehearsed to be natural. Another move, another scam. It was all Cole knew, she guessed.
A trickle of blood was slowly running down Cole’s temple. She brushed at it with her fingers, spoiling the effect. You’re blaming me, aren’t you? That makes sense, I suppose.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s your job. To you, everything is somebody’s fault. There’s no such thing as accidents, right? Not as far as you’re concerned, I’ll bet. So in one way, this particular creek we’re both firmly wedged up is just like every other, at least to you. It has to be somebody’s fault. And as I’m the easiest available target, you blame me.”
There was some truth in her words, Weiss thought. She was blaming Cole, after all. And it might – just might – have been only because she needed to find a reason behind all this, or at least just reason itself. And there didn’t seem to be any. It was chaotic, random, arbitrary, and she hated that. So holding Cole accountable was easy. And besides, there was no one else to blame. No, Weiss corrected herself, there was one other person, but she wasn’t about to go down that route.
“Well,” she began hesitantly, and even to her it sounded weak, “you’re the only one who hasn’t been affected.”
Cole didn’t say anything for a second, just stared at her. When she spoke, Weiss realized she was angry now too. It was the first time she’d gotten mad. Even when she was being pummeled at the side of the road she had kept up her guard, not letting her emotions show. And if Weiss was any judge of character, and she prided herself that she was, this wasn’t another ploy. The anger seemed real enough, but that only meant it might have been the first real emotion Cole had bared the whole day.
“I haven’t?” Cole said loudly, making Weiss glance down at the door behind her. “You think I haven’t lost family and friends? You think there was no one back in Las Vegas that I didn’t care about? And they’re all gone, aren’t they? Unless they’re oh so damn lucky like us and got out, or weren’t there to begin with. But even then, who knows how far this thing has spread? It might have started in New York or Washington or even Europe for all we know. I have family on the east coast that could have been dead for hours, days, who knows? But do you give a damn? No, of course not. You’re too damn self-absorbed to think anyone else could have lost someone.”
“That’s not what I meant!” Weiss was backpedalling now. “When I see it, when others see it, it calls to us. I still can feel it, even now. Like it’s reaching for me, annoyed that I ran from it. It doesn’t call to you.”
“Yes it does!” Cole snapped back. She was crying, Weiss saw, slow tears running down over her cheeks, making her bruises glisten in the poor light. “Of course it does. You really think I don’t feel it? There’s grubby little fingers inside my skull, squeezing and pulling. It’s worse when I remember what happened... which is another reason why I’m trying to keep my mind distracted.”
Fuck, Weiss thought, she had hid that well. She wondered briefly if Cole was lying again but dismissed the thought quickly. Her description sounded too much like what Weiss was feeling herself to be anything but the truth. How could she know that, if she wasn’t feeling it herself?
“You haven’t said anything,” she said. Not about that, anyway, she almost added.
“Was there any point in me saying anything? When I think about it, my head starts throbbing, like one of the worst migraines I’ve ever had. So I’ve tried to sleep and when I haven’t been able to sleep I’ve talked about nonsense, just to keep my mind off it. Just like I was doing out there...“ She gestured towards the door of the restroom, out towards the diner, then wiped at her face, drying her tears. “...to keep them from realizing what was coming. When it called to me, I just did my best to ignore it.”
“You did a good job.”
“Well, maybe I’ve just got more willpower than you, did you ever think about that? And is that why you’re blaming me? Just because I didn’t mention that I was creeped out and in pain?”
Weiss laid her last remaining card on the table. “It’s following you.”
“What?” Cole frowned in surprise and then let out a loud snort of laughter. “Who says? It could be following either of us. Did you think about that? No, of course not. Did it ever cross your hidebound little mind that it could be following you? Fuck, that’s quite a leap of logic, Marshal. No, let me take that back. If logic was a cliff, you’ve just taken a perfect nosedive right off it. Into a sea of insanity, no less. Un-fucking-believable. Aren’t you supposed to be a detective?”
“No,” the sullen Weiss said. She honestly had never considered the likelihood that the nothingness was following her, although now that she thought about it she had to admit it was possible. Earlier, during a rare moment on the road when Cole had fallen silent, Weiss’ thoughts had been allowed to return to the desperate situation they found themselves in and she had hoped the nothingness might not be following anyone. After thinking it over for a short while, she had dismissed the possibility, realizing that it made the events of the day far too random for her liking. There had to be a reason behind all this madness, there just had to be. Devlin had been one of those people who could accept accidents, serendipity, coincidences, and all that kind of nonsense. He often teased her for being the complete opposite. Everything happened for a reason, that’s what she always believed, and all that happened was part of a plan. You just had to keep trying the pieces together until they fit.
“You’re not?” Cole asked.
“I told you, I’m a Deputy...”
“Yeah, yeah. A Deputy Marshal, although how that’s different to any other cop I don’t know. I’m just a dumb thief, right? A thief who’s never committed a single violent act before, and who you arrested for the murder of a guy I’ve got no reason to harm, haven’t seen in months, and all on the word of that loser Schwarz. And as I’ve tried telling you several times, that’s just because I...”
“Shut up!” Weiss snapped. She was trying to concentrate and the constant chatter didn’t make it any easier. Neither did the crack of pain that shot through her head again. What was she thinking about? Something about Devlin, it had to be, hence the pain, and about jigsaws or something... It was getting harder and harder to remember anything concrete about Devlin, she realized. Each time a memory of her partner came to her, it would wriggle away like a fish that was a little too clever for the baited hook. And left in its place was a shooting pain that made her feel like her skull was about to crack open. Weiss wasn’t exactly sure why, but the loss of the memories frightened her.
“You do nothing but talk and it’s driving me insane,” said Weiss through clenched teeth.
“Yeah, I talk too much. Big fucking surprise. At least I’m not afraid to express myself.”
“Shut up, for... just shut up. You’re one of the few people who know what’s going on...”
“I’ve told you, I fucking don’t! I know nothing about this!”
Weiss took another deep breath. She thought about counting to ten but doubted she could even focus enough to count in her current frame of mind. She had to get a grip, had to get her temper under control.
“Even if that were true...”
“If? Oh come on, you really can’t believe that! I’ve dated enough dumb women to know a smart one when I see her, and you’re way up on the scale, believe you me.”
Was it flattery now, Weiss thought, or did she really mean that? It was getting harder to tell and not just because of the fading light in the restroom made it tricky to read Cole’s face. She wondered what other tricks Cole had up her sleeve yet to try.
“Even if that were true,” Weiss repeated, “then you are still one of the few people alive who know what’s happening, No one else does.” Or, she thought, pausing, if they do then there’s no way of knowing. For all it mattered, she and Cole were alone, trapped in the knowledge that people were dying, or whatever Cole thought was happening to them, and unable to tell anyone or do anything about it. It pissed Weiss off, although she was beginning to worry that this was more due to her being stuck in this calamity along with Cole, rather than the situation itself. “And you’re in here, laughing, having a party, and putting on a fucking show!”
“What do you expect me to do? You want me be all miserable and angry, like you? You want me to just give up? Well, fuck that. If I’m going to die, and there’s a damn good chance I will soon, then I’m going to at least pretend to be happy. And besides...”
She left the sentence hanging for a second, long enough for the impatient Weiss to interrupt with a scowl. “What?”
“I don’t just talk. I sing as well.”
Weiss turned her head away quickly.
“Is that a smile?” Cole said, unable to hide her own grin. Oh, she was so pleased with herself, wasn’t she? “Hard to tell in this light. It is, isn’t it?”
“Shut up,” said Weiss, although with much less force than she had before. It was kind of hard to sound angry when your mouth wouldn’t behave and you could hardly stop from smiling, let alone manage a scowl.
Cole stretched suddenly, arching her back and pulling her arms out directly overhead. Weiss heard her joints crack from all the way across the room. The echo was also surprisingly loud in the confines of the restroom, bouncing off the tiled walls. “So are we done here?” Cole said, lowering her arms but then tilted her head from side to side, stretching out her neck now. A droplet of blood fell on the very center of a white tile. The wound hadn’t dried up yet then. That was worrying. “Or are you going to waste some time beating me again?”
“About that...” Weiss began, somewhat hesitantly.
“Don’t apologize, please. I can’t stand women who apologize.”
“I wasn’t about to. I was just going to say I shouldn’t have done it.”
Cole gave her that look again, slowly glancing up from beneath heavy lashes. It seemed a lot more genuine this time, Weiss thought, and that worried her. Either she was getting a lot better at reading Cole, which was unlikely, even though she’d love to think so, or Cole was getting a lot better at fooling her.
“I understand, believe me,” Cole said softly. “I know you’re angry and it’s just how you’re dealing with this. Just the same as I deal with it by pretending it isn’t happening. You get me?”
Weiss held Cole’s look for a short while, hoping to get a better read on her, then nodded. Just as she did so, there was a gentle rapping on the restroom door. The lid of the trashcan swung to and fro with each knock and the movement drew her attention away from the woman sitting on the tiled floor.
A male voice called out from beyond the door, with an odd mix of bravery and timidity. “Are you...” A pause followed that was a little too long to be anything but deliberate. “...ladies... okay?”
Weiss glanced back at Cole, who surprisingly was trying to stifle some giggling. The intended insult had apparently amused her and she was holding both hands over her mouth, although that did little to hide her laughter. Her eyes were glistening and her shoulders were shaking uncontrollably. Weiss couldn’t help but smile at the sudden outburst of glee, although she turned her head away so as not to show it.
“We’re fine,” she said, gesturing at Cole to shush her. It didn’t work. Cole continued to giggle, hardly bothering to hide it now, and Weiss could hardly hear what was said next.
“Both of you?”
“Everything’s good, thanks,” Cole managed to get out, stifling another fit of giggles as best she could, after getting a pointed stare from Weiss. “Nothing to worry about. Just a friendly discussion.”
Weiss waited until she heard footsteps backing away from the door, then moved the trashcan back to where she had found it. If she concentrated she could just hear the murmur of concerned conversation further back in the diner. If it had taken the diner’s occupants this long to summon up the courage to intervene this much, then they would probably waste more time now arguing about what to do next.
Cole spoke suddenly, causing Weiss to turn back to her. “Oh, I needed that,” she said, wiping at her eyes again. “Although I suppose there’s nothing to laugh about, not really. So what now?”
“Why ask me? What makes you think I have all the answers?”
She held up both hands and shook them, jingling the links in the handcuff chain. “I don’t. But I’m not the one in control here, am I? Besides, you’ve asked me plenty of questions that I couldn’t answer. Turnabout is fair play, right?” She winced as she spoke and touched her temple again.
Weiss crossed the floor and knelt beside her. “Let me look at that.”
She reached out and pushed aside Cole’s hands, then tried to part the short dark hair with her fingers, looking for the wound. There was a cut there, she saw in the brief second that Cole stayed still, which didn’t look too deep but was still bleeding.
Cole yelped in pain and pulled away. “It’s nothing. Cut it out, won’t you?”
“You’re a doctor now?”
“I dated a nurse once, if you must know. Well, not exactly a nurse. But she had the uniform.” Cole grinned triumphantly. “Another smile? Two smiles in as many minutes. I really think I’m getting to you, Marshal.”
She was too. “Deputy Marshal,” Weiss replied as coldly as she could, quickly fixing her face back into a stony impasse, “and no, you’re not. You’re just woozy from the head wound. Only a little, mind you. I doubt it’s even a concussion.”
“Yeah, and whose fault is that?”
“Keep still. It doesn’t look too bad. We should get it cleaned up soon though.”
“No, I think we’ve overstayed our welcome.”
“Not to sound like a broken record,” said Cole dryly, “but whose fault is that?”
Weiss grunted, which was about as an intelligent comment as she could make in response. After all, what Cole had said was true to an extent, and Weiss only had herself to blame. She was beginning to suspect that she had handled this wrong from the very beginning; not just the diner staff and the patrons, but the Sheriff, and most especially Cole. Perhaps the only thing she’d done right was to get them out of Vegas as quickly as possible.
Oh well, there was no point in kicking herself about it all now. What’s done is done. She had to focus on the future, even if it looked limited at best and decidedly bleak at worst. And right now, that meant moving on, doing so fast, and staying ahead of what was coming.
She slipped a hand under Cole’s armpit and hauled her to her feet.
“We’re leaving,” she said, her jaw taking on a determined set.
Cole almost lost her balance as she stood. She reached out to the nearest sink to steady herself. Weiss tightened her grasp to support her, gripping so hard that Cole yelped in pain. She didn’t lose her footing, however, just shivered against the cold. The heating must have cut out a while ago too, Weiss thought, although she had only just noticed herself.
“You said we needed gas,” she said, “remember? We’re not going to get much further on what’s left, are we?”
And wasn’t she just full of truths lately, Weiss thought? The annoyingly obvious ones too, the ones that really didn’t need to be said aloud. The rental car had less than a quarter of a tank left when they’d left Vegas early this morning, so she’d been forced to refill it in a Nevada gas station not long after, paying cash, and that had just about lasted until now. But with the needle of the gas gauge hovering firmly over the ‘E’ for a couple of miles before they’d pulled into the diner’s parking lot, they were in danger of running out. Better to be stranded here, she thought, than somewhere out on the highway. At least here, they had options. Maybe they could rent another car somewhere in town, although she imagined she’d be better served making Cole ask. With her charm she’d probably not only get the answers Weiss wouldn’t, she’d most likely get the car for free.
Still, the questions frayed at her already thin patience, making her snap in response. “The power’s out, remember?”
“No power means the pumps won’t work.”
Cole looked crestfallen. “I didn’t think of that.”
“I’m sure you didn’t. Even supposing they’ve got some in reserve, I’m running low on cash. I probably have just enough to fill the tank but I’d rather not spend it all now, just in case. And I’m assuming...” Weiss paused, biting her lower lip as she looked down at the flimsy white cotton dress, and surprised to find herself admiring the lithe figure beneath the fabric, albeit reluctantly. “...that you don’t have any extra bills hidden about your person.”
“No such luck. We could siphon some from other cars,” Cole said thoughtfully, “so long as we were careful. I wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of this town’s Sheriff. He struck me as the kind of guy who’d mete out his own particular brand of justice. Besides, I try not to piss off more than one cop a day, just for the sake of my own health.”
Weiss ignored the jibe. She hadn’t even been aware Cole had seen Sheriff Whitaker, although she guessed Cole had plenty of time to observe their conversation in the parking lot, right before she opted to start entertaining the diner’s occupants. Or distracting them, Weiss corrected herself. But she was right at least in her characterization of the Sheriff. That was a man Weiss didn’t want to tangle with any further if she could help it. She was fairly certain she could bully him into turning a blind eye to such a small scale crime, especially if she reminded him that it would mean she and Cole would leave his town all the sooner.
“Yeah, I thought of that,” she said. She still didn’t like the idea but it was a sign of the trouble they were in that Weiss actually considered it. Tried to justify it too. They could take a bunch of napkins from the diner, write an apology and a contact number on each, and slip one under the wipers of each car they stole from.
From that it was but a small step to another criminal idea. Maybe she was on the wrong side of this business, Weiss thought. If they couldn’t rent another car, perhaps they could steal one. It was a sign of her misspent youth that she knew how best to do so, and she’d proven as much to Cole once already today.
She shook her head, dismissing the thought. She hadn’t sunk that low, not yet. Maybe if they ran out of fuel on the highway, maybe then she’d reconsider. Maybe then she’d have no choice, right?
“No, we’re gonna move. We’ll get as far as we can.”
We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, Weiss thought, but she didn’t say anything, instead just shoved Cole towards the restroom door.
* * * * *
Ally studied the roadmap she had laid out on her lap and tried to make some kind of sense of it. She’d never been particularly good at directions, and worse still at reading maps, even those of areas she was familiar with, so she wasn’t surprised that she was having a little trouble with this one.
She double-checked the text, making sure she wasn’t holding it upside down, with a sly look to her side to make sure Weiss didn’t see her do it. She needn’t have worried; the Marshal was too busy concentrating on driving in the dark and the map appeared to be the right way up. Ally let out the tiniest of sighs in relief. Thankfully even she couldn’t be that useless with a map.
Whenever she travelled out of Las Vegas, which wasn’t often, she relied on either a GPS system, dragging along a reluctant friend as a guide, or making constant phone calls that usually served only to annoy her friends and get her lost even faster. Hopefully, the Marshal was a little better at navigating than she was.
Ally screwed up her face in concentration, studying the map once again in the soft glow of the car’s interior lights. It looked like Silvertip Valley, assuming she had correctly remembered the name of the town they’d just left, was stuck firmly on a fold, which made finding it a lot harder. When she finally had, the little dot had only been labeled ‘Silvertip’, so she wasn’t certain if this was even the right little dot or not. It didn’t help that she had been barely awake when they had driven into the town earlier this evening, so she didn’t know what highway this was supposed to be, and she’d pretty much missed every road sign there was, which wasn’t many. The last she’d seen was Jericho Road, but she couldn’t even find that on the map.
She sighed again, louder this time, still not attracting any attention from the driver, and gave up.
Folding the map neatly, if not exactly how she found it, she threw it haphazardly onto the dashboard. It was odd how the Marshal hadn’t objected when she’d reached into the glove compartment and rummaged through the contents. That was probably only because this was a rental car. If it had been her own, or whatever vehicle had been assigned to her, then Ally had no doubts that Weiss would have kicked up a fuss. Still, Ally took the unspoken permission as a potential sign of trust, albeit a very small one.
Not that she’d found much. A few napkins, presumably left behind by the last customer, the rental information – the Marshal and her partner had paid in cash first thing this morning, Ally saw, which was interesting – a bobby pin, and a few vacation brochures advertising places in Las Vegas she’d strongly advise tourists to stay away from.
“You sure this is the right way?” she asked.
“It’s the only way.”
Ally glanced across at the Marshal. She had thought she was making a little headway there and it had taken long enough. Her smile normally worked wonders and quickly too, but on Weiss it seemed to have had no effect. But although Ally had her faults and many of them – just ask any of her exes, all of whom would be more than happy to provide a long list – one positive trait she had was persistence. She had kept chipping away – another sweet smile here, a little joke there, the tiniest bit of flirtation whenever it seemed right, anything she could really – and slowly and surely at least some of Weiss’ defenses had crumbled.
Weiss had a nice smile, not that you’d ever know it. She obviously preferred to scowl, as if she was trying to appear tougher than her small stature suggested. She needn’t have bothered. Ally could have told her she was tough enough, even before the beating she’d suffered through. Maybe she had to be like that, just to get by in what Ally suspected was a male-dominated career. That was assuming that US Marshals were anything like regular cops, of course, although she honestly didn’t know anything about them. Then again, maybe for Weiss it was just a habit by now.
Making Weiss smile, almost laugh, back in the diner had seemed like such a big deal at the time. It had made Ally smile in return, an honest smile no less, which was something she really wasn’t used to. She had felt so foolishly proud of herself.
But since frog-marching her from the diner back to the car, Weiss had changed. It was like just being back on the road had reminded her to put up all the walls again and their interlude in the diner had just been an extremely short diversion. It was a pity, Ally thought. Under different circumstances... well, no, maybe it was best not to go there. No matter how they could have met, she and Weiss probably wouldn’t have liked each other. They were just too different.
Her eyes fell on Weiss’ hands, gripping the steering wheel in the perfect ten-and-two. She had nice fingers, long and thin, with very well-kept nails that shone when they caught the light. Perhaps mani-pedis were her only vice. No rings, wedding, engagement, or otherwise. And that was probably just as well, Ally thought, reaching up to touch her badly bruised cheek. That still hurt like hell. She tried to forget about the pain, looking back towards Weiss, noting how she didn’t wear much jewelry at all, if any; it looked like her ears weren’t even pierced.
You could tell a lot from someone’s hands, Ally had always thought. Weiss usually kept her hands closed, in fists or clenched around something. Another little indication of how defensive she was, how unwilling she was to open up.
But then she was a cop, of sorts, and if there was one profession that in Ally’s experience really had problems opening up, that was it. Never trust a cop, or she’d always thought. The corrupt ones were bad enough, they’d sell you out in a heartbeat, but at least they were honest about being dishonest. The ‘good’ cops were worse. They’d lie to you whenever they thought it was needed, and explain it away as a necessary evil just so they could go home and sleep at night. And Weiss didn’t look like she had any trouble sleeping.
Ally shivered suddenly. The cold night air was whipping into the car through the broken window, and she was freezing. She did her best to ignore it, although she dared a glance behind to see if there was a blanket in the backseat. No such luck.
Weiss was driving fast, probably dangerously so, especially at night. The headlights of the Camry stretched out far in front of them, but all the same they made very little difference. All it took was one blind corner, one careless move, or just an oncoming truck with a driver that wasn’t paying attention, and they wouldn’t have to worry about getting to Sacramento any more.
But they hadn’t seen another car on the road yet, so the chances of the worst happening seemed increasingly unlikely. She tried not to think about it, all the same, but that just let her mind wander to question why the road was so empty. The lack of traffic worried her a little, more than the possibility of being involved in a wreck.
“Not the only way, surely?” Ally said. “I mean, even if this one-horse town is just a two-road town, there’s still the road we came in on. We could backtrack until we found the highway again.” They’d done that once or twice before earlier in the day already.
“This is the highway.”
Weiss didn’t look like she was. Ally looked back at the road. Poorly paved, it was a narrow road with little or no markings. Even the dividing line was missing in some places, the scuffed paint being so old that it had worn away. This didn’t look like any highway she’d ever seen. Still, she could empathize with it, at a stretch anyway. Just like her it had seen better days but could still prove useful, and it had a yellow streak right down its back that only disappeared occasionally.
Ally was used to running. She was something of an expert at it, especially after all these years. As a teenager, she’d ran west, trying to put as much distance between herself and her overbearing family as she could. Since then it seemed she’d done nothing more with her life but alternate running from angry cops and even angrier lovers. Running was easy, she knew, and even more so when someone else was pulling you along.
It must have been less than a mile since they’d left town and already they had climbed higher into the mountains. The last building she’d seen had been an old rundown movie theater with plywood boards nailed over the glass doors. Hardly surprising. She assumed that the owners had only opened the place during the tourist season, which meant they lost money for a good two-thirds of the year. And even then, who would come to a town like this and spend each night at the movies? If you chose to come here, it would be for the skiing, snowboarding, and restful or romantic retreats to a little secluded cabin in the woods. Films would be the last thing on your mind.
The theater must have been shut down for some years. Or maybe they just showed old movies. The marquee high above, still done with black plastic letters each hand-mounted on the white background, had been advertising Pleasantville and Schindler’s List, which was probably the oddest combo she could think of. The neon red tubing around the hoarding was splintered and broken in places.
It had just been one disillusionment after another, Ally thought. From her vantage point inside the warmth of the diner, this town had seemed idyllic. But as Weiss drove through it, Ally had noticed the cracks appearing, little signs of dilapidation she hadn’t noticed before, like peeling paint and broken windows. The longer you knew it, the closer you looked, the more the wear and tear showed. Not for the first time this evening, Ally felt the same way.
As if reading her mind, Weiss glanced at her and said, “And there’s no way back, either.”
“When I was talking to the Sheriff, his dispatcher called him. One of his deputies had gone missing up on the highway, on the eastern side of the town.”
“Oh, fuck,” Ally said, turning pale suddenly. “That’s the road we came in on?”
“Yes. And before you even think it, it’s probably not a coincidence.” Too late, Ally thought. It may have been stupid of her but she had to hope. “I’m sure I didn’t hear all of it, but from what I did I know the deputy was babbling about some strange snow falling. Or not, as the case may be. Falling, that is.”
Ally’s heart sank a little further and she really hadn’t thought that was possible. “This way or nothing, then?” She tried to make herself sound cheerful. It didn’t sound very convincing, even to her.
“This way or walking out.”
She saw Weiss glancing down at the gas gauge again as they turned a sharp corner. Was she joking? Or did she really intend on walking all the way to Sacramento? Ally wouldn’t put it past the stubborn Marshal to do just that. And drag her along with her, of course, every step of the way. Through the mountains, at night, in the bitter cold weather of an early fall, with her dressed for a warm Las Vegas day. That’s assuming they could even find a route to walk.
Weiss slammed on the brakes suddenly. Ally, who had unfolded the map again, hoping to find another escape route and not accepting what Weiss had told her, felt herself lunge forward, then snapped back when the seat belt caught.
The car skidded only slightly, with Weiss turning into the arc and keeping the car firmly under her control. She’d probably gone through dangerous driving courses as part of her training. Another little sign of how much she liked to be in charge of everything. A little control freak was her Marshal, Ally thought.
She opened her mouth to ask what was going on, but as she looked up she saw the headlights playing across an expanse of white. Almost immediately her head began to pound again, like the worst hangover she’d ever had. She felt nauseous again too, her stomach heaving, although whether that was another side-effect of the nothingness or just related to that dredged-up memory of that hangover, she didn’t know.
For just a second, she tried to tell herself it was snow, but she knew better. It had caught up with them somehow. Worse, it had cut them off. She glanced down at the map again, hoping for inspiration, her vision blurred by sudden tears that she quickly blinked away, but the pain in her head meant she couldn’t make any sense of the images. She looked up again, turning to face Weiss rather than look at the nothingness that swallowed up the world ahead and the way it reached out for them both again.
The car came to a shuddering halt, with the headlights stretching out across the few yards between them and the nothingness, their light all but swallowed up. Weiss was putting together an impressive string of curses, which seemed to be all she could do right now. Ally couldn’t blame her.
Ally felt her heart pound, so hard it hurt her chest, and she was suddenly finding it difficult to breathe. She was close to panicking, she recognized the signs, and she closed her eyes, trying to focus on anything but what lay ahead. She needed some normality, something like the diner or her own home or a stage she knew, and she needed it quick. Fat chance, she thought. She looked over at Weiss again, wanting to ask for guidance but not knowing exactly how. What the hell were they supposed to do now?
Weiss, thank God, seemed to know, having shaken off her momentary indecision. She looked over her shoulder, threw the car into reverse, and slung her right arm around Ally’s headrest. Once more the car sped down the highway, although now it was moving backwards and heading back the way they came, although what good that would do was beyond Ally.
As much as Weiss seemed to be firmly in control of the car, Ally was once again grateful that there was no other traffic on the road. Travelling at high speeds in reverse, on a difficult mountain road, and with no lights to guide the way – that would end in disaster sooner or later. She felt the car lurch a little as Weiss pressed down on the accelerator. Perhaps Ally wasn’t the only one close to panicking, although that was a lot less comforting thought than it might have been, given the circumstances.
At least reversing was a good idea in one regard. The nothingness had swelled as their car had sat there, reaching out for them physically just as much as it was mentally. She could already feel those disgusting tendrils of nothingness slithering through her head somehow, creating empty spaces in her mind, forcing memories out to feed on, leaving a trail as they pulled, like a disobedient child leaving greasy fingertrails across a clean wall. She shuddered. Even if they lived through this, she doubted she’d ever get the stain of its touch out of her head. It couldn’t take that memory, could it? Not until last, just to keep up the torment.
“I think it’s moving faster,” she said, hoping by speaking that it would stop her imagination from running away. She heard a tremor in her voice. It was a little touch of fear again, which she didn’t like. She certainly didn’t like showing it in front of the Marshal. “Much faster than it was in Las Vegas.” Why the hell was that? Could Weiss have been correct in her belief that is was following her? Or perhaps Weiss, or both of them, or something else?
Weiss spoke through gritted teeth. “I know.”
The nothingness surged forward again, as if it was a wild beast pawing at captured prey. The whiteness enveloped all of Ally’s view just for a moment, swamping her peripheral vision, then the car pulled away from it again and she could see the darkness of the thick trees to each side. She blinked, her eyes burning like mad, and she felt warm tears on her cheeks. The more the nothingness took up of your view, Ally thought, or the longer you stared at it, the more it hurt. Worse, the harder it was to look away.
Another surge. It was toying with them, Ally thought, and this time she didn’t think it was her imagination that made her think so. “You have to drive faster! It’s getting closer!”
The car wobbled a little, threatening to escape control. Weiss braked suddenly, and as Ally felt the seat belt cinch into her again, she opened her mouth to ask what the Marshal thought she was doing. The question didn’t have a chance to get out, as at that moment Weiss slung the car into a lower gear and spun the steering wheel hard to the left.
Ally finally grasped what was going on. They weren’t stopping; instead, Weiss was spinning the car around in a tight bootleg turn. The beams of the headlights flickered through the trees that lined the highway, and then swooped across the black tarmac. Ally felt herself thrown against her side of the car by the sheer force of the turn. It was almost enough to make her throw up. For the first time she was grateful she hadn’t eaten all day.
“I know!” Weiss yelled with a vicious snarl as she stepped heavily on the accelerator again. “Now shut up and let me drive!”
As she stared into the wing mirror, Ally realized her guess had been proven correct after all. Weiss was starting to panic now too. It worried her, that her life, such as it was, lay in the hands of someone who seemed to be losing control, but while she hated that, she couldn’t really blame Weiss. If this wasn’t a time for panicking, she didn’t know a better one.
* * * * *
Weiss drove the car slowly past a kidney-shaped swimming pool, which was protected from the cold weather by a black-and-white striped cover. The plastic of the cover was cracked in places, the colors faded and worn, and litter was strewn all around it. It didn’t exactly instill any confidence in Weiss as to what the inside of the motel would be like.
The parking lot beyond the pool was almost deserted. She swung the car into the nearest empty space, pulled the handbrake on, and breathed out a deep sigh of relief. The engine spluttered and died before she could turn the key. Perfect timing. She may not have been surprised, but she was sure grateful. They’d most likely been running on fumes for the last ten minutes.
Thankfully, they hadn’t seen the nothingness in almost as long. It had abruptly slowed after she’d turned the car around, no longer keeping up with them as they raced back into the town of Silvertip Valley. Truth be told, Weiss had no earthly idea of where she had intended ending up, instead concentrating solely on getting away. Only when the whiteness flooding the rearview mirror had finally disappeared, and her eyes had stopped stinging, and she had no longer felt that sickening influence creeping around the corners of her mind, only then did she start thinking about what to do next. Sadly, nothing much had come to mind.
So she drove. At the time, it was all she could do. At least they didn’t pass any police cruisers on their way back. It wouldn’t have been easy to explain to that hard-assed Sheriff why they were ignoring his ‘advice’. Still, it wasn’t very likely he’d be bothering them, Weiss thought. If he had indeed headed up to investigate his deputy’s not-so-mysterious disappearance, he was probably long gone by now. Come to think of it, they didn’t pass any vehicles at all. Even this far on the outskirts, the town seemed to be deserted. A few hours ago that would have seemed strange, even frightening, to her. But now, the exhausted and frantic Weiss no longer had the strength to do anything but just accept it and move on.
“A motel?” Cole said. She sounded offended. Weiss doubted it was because she was used to the finer things in life. “This is your big idea?”
Weiss sighed impatiently. “No, it’s my only idea.”
It was when they passed the derelict movie theatre on the Jericho road that she had thought of it. She really didn’t know what to do, although she was trying to appear calm and self-assured. While she could only hope she succeeded, she soon realized that her worries were misplaced. It seemed that Cole had been more concerned with getting to safety than to notice Weiss’ behavior. She had kept checking over her shoulder, even when the road had fallen into darkness again and they were approaching outskirts of the town.
With all the roads now firmly cut off, the town was their best bet. Although for what, Weiss hadn’t been exactly sure. Then they had driven past the theatre and her eye caught the tattered posters outside, the half torn down advertising marquee, and the plywood sheets nailed over the glass of the doors.
She was reminded of her short stay in Florida a few years back, when she reluctantly wasted time in a shitty hotel room rather than working with a FBI taskforce that hadn’t wanted her help in the first place. And when the two blonde fools in charge of the taskforce –and who, in Weiss’ not so humble opinion, didn’t stand a chance of catching the international jewel thief they had been after for years – had finally summoned up the nerve to ask her to leave, she found she couldn’t. A hurricane had swept up the coastline from Cuba while she’d been busy doing nothing and had trapped her in Miami for a little longer.
It was the plywood over the glass that dredged up the memory and at the same time showed her what to do. She remembered the staff of the flea-ridden Florida hotel she’d stayed in doing the same, in preparation for the gale-force winds that were on the way. People there were hunkering down, at least those who weren’t smart enough to get out of the city early enough, finding places to wait it out and hope for the best.
That’s what they had to do, Weiss had decided. They needed to be holed up somewhere. Only, there was no real point in trying to wait this out, was there? All the same, Weiss thought, it was better than running. She was exhausted; tired of continually dealing with Cole, tired of being expected to have all the answers, and most of all, tired of running.
When she saw the billboard advertising the Checkerboard Heaven motel, her decision was cemented. It wasn’t very likely they’d find anywhere better, or anything else at all for that matter, so she pulled the car into the parking lot as soon as possible.
It was something Cole should have been used to, Weiss thought. Perhaps she’d gone into hiding once or twice before in her career. Her criminal career, that was, although you never know, all it takes is one angry audience full of over-zealous Elvis admirers and the same need might apply. Cole’s impersonation might be good, and for all Weiss knew her stage show might be superb, but you couldn’t please everyone all the time.
Cole spoke, getting Weiss’ attention again. “So you’re giving up?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“You know we’re not going to be safe here, don’t you?” Even as Cole said it, Weiss could tell from her falling expression that she had realized how foolish it sounded. They weren’t going to be safe anywhere, not anymore, and perhaps it was foolish to assume they ever had been.
“You’re a smart woman...” Weiss began, but Cole quickly interrupted with a mischievous, if weary, grin.
“Compliments now? First you punch, then you praise. First dates with you must be a blast.”
It wasn’t her best effort, but all the same, and without thinking, Weiss gave a small smile of her own in reply. Almost immediately she wished she hadn’t. “I was going to say that you’re smart enough to know we’re not going to be safe anywhere. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to die running.”
“I don’t particularly want to die at all.”
“Yeah? I’m guessing this is your day to be shit out of luck then. You, me and everyone else. And if I’m going to die, then I’m not going to do it running. I’m not going to be sitting in a beat-up rental car. I want some comfort at least.”
Cole leaned over to look up at the motel through her window. There were some lights on, although Weiss only realized it now. She assumed they had a generator running. The central office was lit up and most of the exterior hallways had lights on, including the emergency signs. All the rooms were without lights, although whether that was because they didn’t have power, the inhabitants preferred the darkness, or simply because no one was stupid enough to stay here at the tail-end of the off-season, she didn’t know.
The neon sign that towered above the courtyard wasn’t lit up. From this distance, however, you could still make it out even through the gloom. It was kind of hard to miss, it was so tall. Checkerboard Heaven. Someone had obviously put a lot of thought into that and come up short. A series of over-sized chess pieces sat over the neon lettering. Even unlit, Weiss could see how some of the tubing had burned out, leaving only a few letters still working.
“Heck or heaven?” Cole read. “Sure, even the signs in this town are incapable of swearing. And you call this comfort?”
“Quit complaining. At least they have power. You have any better ideas?”
“I guess not. And it’s not like we have any choice, is it?”
Weiss noted the use of the term ‘we’ but said nothing. Maybe before Cole had thought she was the only one being left without options and maybe now she was finally realizing that Weiss was in exactly the same boat. That was something, she thought, although it was small consolation when you considered the boat to be holed, sinking fast, and miles from safety. At least before she had been able to cling on to the tiny hope that they might keep outrunning the nothingness. She assumed Cole had done the same. Now it was all around them, encircling them, squeezing closer like a noose being tightened around their collective necks. Up until fifteen minutes ago, their fate had been shared only at Weiss’ insistence; now the same fate was being forced on them solely by circumstance.
“I’m going to see about getting a room,” Weiss said, pushing open her door. “Stay here. I mean it.”
Hardly having moved from her seat, she hesitated, holding the door only an inch or two open. She glanced back at Cole’s hands, resting on her lap. She must have let the indecision prey on her mind a little too long, because Cole finally spoke.
The idea of lying to her flickered across Weiss’ thoughts, if only for a second, but there seemed little point in starting now. It was odd, she thought, that while all day she may have lied to Lonan, to the town’s Sheriff, to the cops back in Vegas, and more besides, she couldn’t recall lying to Cole before.
“I was considering locking you to the steering wheel,” she said finally.
“You’re kidding!” Cole gaped at her. She seemed affronted. “You still think I’m going to run?”
“You ran before,” Weiss reminded her.
“That was different. I can’t believe you still think I’m going to try to get away. I’m not expecting you to hand over your life savings to me or anything, and I don’t blame you for not trusting me in most things, but have I once, just once, tried to run since this morning?
“And anyway,” Cole went on, not waiting for an answer, “there’s not really anywhere left to run, is there?”
Weiss said nothing, if only because that was all she could think of to say. If she was ever honest with herself, and it was a rare day on which she was, then she would have to admit that often a few of the social graces would slip by her. If she wasn’t careful, then the nuances of a conversation she was heavily invested in would fly right over her head, and she would find herself out of her depth and drowning fast. Or else she’d say the wrong thing without thinking and then an argument would break out, as much as she tried to back up and fix things as best she could.
She’d found that happening to her often enough over the years, more so in her personal life than her professional. She’d lost count of the number of women who’d walked out on her, blaming that disappointingly common combination of her inattentiveness to them and her dedication to her job.
In her job, it wasn’t such a big deal. Funny how she could read most criminals well, sensing motives with each nervous twitch of the fingers, or easily spotting a half-truth with each flicker of the eyes. She could filter through all the shit, the lies they spun, the excuses they came up with, the weak alibis they dredged up, stabbing cleanly through to the heart of the matter.
It was something her bosses respected and admired in her. And like them, she’d always been more interested in the end result than how anyone got there. That’s why Lonan always said she couldn’t follow sports, not without sucking all the fun out of it for everyone else anyway. Even when she tried to feign interest for his sake, she was only ever really interested in the final scores of games. What did one game matter in itself, when it could have so little impact on the final standings of the season?
A stabbing pain flashed right down either temple, radiating through her forehead. She could feel the pain throbbing right behind her eyes, making her entire skull ache. Maybe she should consider a lobotomy. It would solve more than her headache, that was for sure.
Sure, she could do her job well, but dealing with people, that was a whole different matter. While her career was gradually working out, relationships were beyond her. It was just two distinct parts of her life which she just couldn’t get to balance. Cole didn’t seem to have that problem. All that charm of hers, that sly little smile she could use at just the perfect time, that peculiar tilt of her head, and even the tone of her voice - all of it worked wonders on practically everyone. No wonder she fell into running confidence tricks. Weiss was willing to lay even money that Cole could talk a nun out of one habit and into another.
But then, thinking about it a little more, maybe Cole did have a similar problem. For all Weiss knew, Cole’s theatrical career might have stalled. She had been living in a low class trailer park in a rough neighborhood, after all, buying cheap groceries and dressing... Weiss glanced down at Cole’s legs, barely covered by the thin cotton dress, taking in the scrapes and grazes, the scabbing cut over one knee. Dressing like she dressed, Weiss thought, and no one would put up with any deprivation like that if they were raking in cash from big audience shows.
More to the point, her criminal career was probably in a downward spiral too. After all, she had just been arrested for murder and, despite protesting her innocence throughout the day, she was more than likely to serve some serious prison time for it. And even if Weiss chose to ignore that little stumbling block, then Cole’s illicit activities could not have been going so well either. Again, her lifestyle sure as fuck suggested she wasn’t raking in much cash.
Perhaps she and Cole were just opposites. One knew best how to get what she wanted from her career, the other how best to get what she wanted from other people, and both had little or no luck the other way around.
“Alright, alright,” she said, holding up her hands to try to stem the flood of reproaches. She tried to sound conciliatory but still the words came out sounding a little more abrasive than she meant them to. Maybe she’d forgotten how to be sensitive. “Just stay put. And not like last time, you understand?”
Cole sank back into her seat, her shoulders sagging in a clear sign of defeat. She tilted her head back against the headrest and closed her eyes. “Don’t worry, Marshal,” she said, her voice sounding so weary, “I ran out of places to run a long time before today. I’m not going anywhere.”
Again, Weiss felt strongly she should say something, but for all the world she couldn’t think of anything else to say. Not that it would have been much of a bargain, she thought, as the world had shrunk considerably in the last twenty-four hours. So instead of speaking, Weiss got out of the car and shut the door behind her.
She shivered. Even with the broken window the interior of the car had offered some protection against the elements. Now a cruel wind picked up, blowing dust and dirt across the parking lot, and biting pitilessly into her skin. She felt the cold immediately, the chill seeping in through her clothes.
She left the car unlocked, which again made her hesitate ever so briefly, but at least this time she realized the futility of doing so before making herself look foolish. Weiss smiled bitterly to herself. Who said she couldn’t learn from her mistakes? It was ironic, of course, that she would finally start learning now that the world was actually ending. Anyway, she thought, locking the doors would probably madden Cole further, even if they both knew she could still get out easily. It would be another little reminder of the distrust that still existed between them.
Weiss looked up at the bright half-moon that hung low in the sky, its stark glow such a contrast against the pitch blackness of the night sky. She shivered, realizing that she might be one of the last people alive to see the moon.
* * * * *
The bored looking clerk didn’t even bother looking up as Weiss entered the motel’s reception. He must have heard her come in, as it was deathly quiet inside, and the bell over the door rang loudly. All the same, he ignored her as she approached. He was focused on a half-finished crossword puzzle in a folded up newspaper, and he only moved to write a quick word down as he obviously solved another clue.
Weiss was grateful for the warmth of a double-bar electric heater that hummed down on the floor, beside a dying yucca plant. The hot air felt so good as it blew around her calves. She wondered how much gas they had for their generator and how long the power would last. There was a large wall mirror behind the counter, which looked like it hadn’t been clean in a month. But in that regard, it matched the clerk, who right now was scratching his armpit and chewing on his pen, seemingly oblivious of Weiss.
Faint music was coming from speakers overhead. Weiss recognized the band, if not the song. The White Stripes. Not to her particular taste, not by a long shot, but she’d sure had enough of Elvis for one day.
She stood in front of the counter, waiting for the clerk to look up, growing more impatient with each second that passed. She felt her temper building. This was not how she wanted to be spending a single minute of her remaining time. She placed her hand flat over the crossword, blocking his view.
Finally he looked up at her. When he spoke, the drawl in his voice did little to hide his disinterest. “Can I help you?”
“Monochrome,” Weiss said softly.
“What?” He blinked at her in confusion. He had bad skin, oily and spotty, and couldn’t have been barely out of his teens. He seemed offended by her very presence, as if her showing up was an intrusion on his usually quiet night watch.
Weiss tapped a long finger on the newspaper. “Eight down, ten letters. Single color in decisive terms. Monochrome.”
“Oh,” he said, looking back down at the black and white squares. The red ink stood out starkly on the newspaper. He studied the puzzle for a moment, studying it now with a deep frown, looking much like an illiterate trying to read hieroglyphics, then looked back at Weiss. With a sharp click, he put the pen down on the countertop next to an open package of Oreo cookies. One lay half-eaten amidst crumbs, looking like a crescent moon. He hadn’t written down her answer, she noticed. “Did you need something?”
She could smell strong alcohol on his breath. She tried to ignore it. “I’d like a room,” she said, turning her head away slightly. “The cheapest you have.”
He sighed, like this was somehow an even bigger imposition than before. He gestured with his head towards an ancient laptop that sat on one corner of the counter. “The computer’s down.”
That was obviously expected to explain everything, Weiss thought. Still, she had known this would happen. The computer was most likely fine. Instead it was the phone lines that were down, which obviously meant no internet connection. Not that there was an internet to connect to, not any more. But he hadn’t mentioned the phones not working, so even if he was the motel’s brightest employee, and all the evidence pointed to the contrary, he probably wouldn’t have been able to put two and two together. Like everyone but her and Cole, he was oblivious to what was coming.
“So I can’t book you in. I won’t be able to run your credit card through the machine.”
“I have cash.” Weiss said. She just hoped it would be enough.
He thought about this for a long while, his mouth hanging open. Now Weiss couldn’t help but compare him to a cow who had suddenly forgotten how to chew the cud hanging out of its mouth.” I’d need to use a paper receipt,” he finally said with some reluctance. Writing out anything by hand was obviously not something he relished, except when it came to crossword puzzles.
Another heavy sigh. “I don’t have any here. There might be some in back.” He gestured with a thumb over his shoulder, to a door marked ‘Employees Only’.
“Well,” Weiss said, trying her best to keep her calm and giving him what she thought of as a genial smile, “do you think you could get one?”
He looked at her for a moment, then turned his head towards the door, then back to her. Momentous decisions like this could not be hurried, evidently. If, as Weiss suspected, he was weighing up the benefits of accepting one cash-paying customer against kicking her out and going back to his half-finished puzzle, of working and keeping his job against timewasting and losing it, then it was probably a lot easier than any of his crossword clues. He gave her a brief nod and then disappeared into the backroom.
While she waited for him to return, Weiss moved closer to the heater. It was going to be hard going back out into the cold night after this, she thought. She looked around at the small reception area. There was a metal trashcan beside one of the several chairs, empty save for a discarded paperback. A dog-eared and battered copy of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, and having tried to read that mess a few summers ago, she could easily understand why another guest had given up on it too.
She glanced at her watch, and then studied the crossword puzzle again. He’d got several clues wrong, she realized. In the mirror she saw a pair of headlights move down the highway far past the parking lot. She had to reverse the direction in her mind to understand they were heading out of town. She felt a brief touch of regret, knowing that whoever was in the car didn’t have long to live, and then a tiny bit of self-pity, knowing that she could do nothing about it.
There was a bottle of whiskey hidden beneath the counter; she caught sight of it in the reflection. That explained the smell of alcohol, she thought. She guessed working here, during the drudgery of the off-season, would be enough to drive anyone to drink. She’d only been standing here for five minutes and she felt like having one.
The clerk came back after another minute or so and slapped a book of receipts heavily down on the counter. Picking up his red pen again, oddly he licked the end, repositioned the carbon paper, and then asked her name, address, and for her credit card details. She gave them, tersely, growing impatient again.
“Thirty bucks,” he finally said, tearing the top copy of the receipt off and pushing it across the countertop towards her.
Weiss sighed in relief. It was close to all the cash she had left. “How much for the whiskey?”
As good as she was at reading guilt, Weiss guessed a blind man looking the other way would still have spotted the sudden change in behavior in the clerk. He glanced down at the whiskey bottle, immediately giving himself away, and licked his lips. Younger than twenty-one then, as she suspected. Or maybe just not supposed to be drinking on the job. Either way, it was always good to have a hold over someone, some little way you could twist their arm to get what you wanted.
Still, to his credit, he tried to bluff it out, his mood shifting to defensive and a little angry. Again, this was nothing she couldn’t handle.
“There’s a liquor store two blocks down,” he said. “You can’t miss it.”
“It’s late, I’m tired, and I don’t feel like driving.”
Weiss pulled her wallet out of her pocket, being sure to pull the jacket open wide enough so he got a glimpse of the metal star that hung on her belt. She did it subtly but slowly enough to get the point across.
It had the desired effect. He reached down and retrieved the bottle, pushing it across the countertop towards her, smiling nervously. “No charge.”
“Really?” She already had a hand on it, just to show the question was only a show of politeness and she wasn’t really giving him a choice. She glanced at the bottle’s label, seeing the sketch of two terriers printed on it, one black, one white, and immediately recognized the brand. Good stuff, she thought in surprise, better than she had expected. She strongly doubted the clerk had bought this down at the nearby liquor store. Her father had drunk himself to first poverty and then death, all on imported Black & White Whiskey. She wondered briefly if that was a portent of something to come. She guessed, given the circumstances she found herself in, that it had to be. It seemed it didn’t matter how much you tried, how hard you fought, how keenly you struggled, you couldn’t escape family tradition.
But on the other hand, not only was it good quality whiskey, the bottle was also still three-quarters full. More than enough to get her stinking drunk. Cole too, if she wanted. Weiss couldn’t think of a better way to see out the end than drinking herself senseless enough to forget what was happening. Even if that wasn’t possible, and even if it meant she felt like she was following in her father’s footsteps, the one thing she swore she would never do, now she was determined to try.
“Sure,” the clerk was saying. “The room service here is terrible, so it’s the least I can do to make up for it, officer.”
“Deputy Marshal,” she corrected him. Obviously he’d been too nervous to get that good a look at the badge. She took out two twenty-dollar bills from her wallet and handed them to him, smiling when she saw how much his hands were trembling. He pocketed the money himself, which made her wonder if he was going to lose the receipt once he was sure she and Cole had left.
“You have to see...” the clerk said.
Weiss stared at him blankly, thrown by the sudden change in topic. “What?”
“2C,” he repeated, sliding a key across to her. “That’s the room you have.”
Weiss looked down and saw the plastic fob attached to the key had ‘2C’ stamped on it in a large plain typeface. She reached out to take it, her hand hovering over it for just a little too long, as if she was about to pat the head of a dog with sharp teeth and a particularly nasty disposition.
Yeah, she thought, there was some things left in life, even in such a short time as she and Cole had, that she had to see. Like the bottom of an empty whiskey bottle to begin with.
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