Weiss shivered in the chill air of the night as she walked back to the rental car. The whiskey bottle, firmly stuck in her outside jacket pocket, swung to and fro as she moved, clinking against the badge at her waist. The heaviness of it made her jacket a little lop-sided, the neckline pulling and chafing at her neck. She turned her collar up against the cold wind, using the opportunity to pull the fabric straight again. It didn’t help.

She got about four steps away from the motel’s reception before missing its warmth, and only five or six steps before she realized the car was empty.

So Cole had run after all. She was glad she wasn’t carrying the bottle, for there was a good chance she would have dropped it in shock. She could feel her heart suddenly start to pump a lot harder and she scolded herself for being so surprised. She should have known, fuck it all.

She was just about to break into a sprint, for all the good it would do, when Cole walked around the corner from the stairwell. She was smiling, evidently pleased with herself about something, but her expression changed when their eyes met. Obviously Weiss wasn’t doing that good of a job of hiding her anger, not that she was trying.

“I told you to stay in the car!” Weiss snapped as Cole approached. Strangely, she didn’t sound as angry as she thought she would. There was a tiny sense of relief bubbling up from underneath the words and she wasn’t sure she liked it. She knew why it was there, why it was coming to the surface only now. She didn’t want to face this alone anymore, and Cole was the only other person in the world who not only knew what was going on, but understood what it felt like to be trapped in the middle of it all.

“No,” Cole countered, pouting a little, “you told me to stay here, which is what I did.”

There was no point in arguing, Weiss realized. Technically, Cole was right anyway, but even if she chose to ignore that, and she easily could, then arguing would only make things worse. No worse than admitting Cole was right, mind you. All the same she didn’t want to fight, she just wanted to spend her last few hours in the reasonably pleasant company of a good woman... well, a not-so-good woman, she thought... and trying to crawl inside the whiskey bottle. Quarrelling now, especially over something as trivial as this, could ruin that.

So she swallowed her anger as best she could. She tried counting to ten. For the first time ever, it helped. Cole did come back, after all, and before Weiss had reached the count of six. She noticed that there was a drop of fresh blood on Cole’s right shin, so dark against the paleness of her skin. Weiss watched the shiny droplet trickle down over the top of the Doc Martens boot. Somehow it helped her calm down more as she finished counting.

“Where did you feel such an urgent need to go?”

“I wanted to stretch my legs. And I found a vending machine.” She had her arms full of packets of chips, candy, and a couple of cans of soda. It reminded Weiss suddenly of the first time she had laid eyes on her in that dirty wing mirror. God, was that only this morning, Weiss wondered? It seemed so long ago. That same white dress, once pristine and freshly laundered, was now frayed, dirty and bloodstained. Cole herself wasn’t much better off. Amazing the damage just a single day could do.

“There’s no need to look so worried,” Cole went on, as she dumped the snacks she was carrying on the roof of the rental car. A Coke Zero can skidded on the metal and began rolling towards the edge. Acting quickly, Cole reached out and caught it before it could fall to the sidewalk. She moved the snacks around briefly, organizing them in some way perhaps, then looked back at Weiss. “Like I said, where exactly did you think I was going to run to?”

“Your type sometimes just run.”

Frowning, Cole tilted her head, evidently not believing what Weiss had just said and certainly not pleased about it. “My type?” she said coldly, pursing her lips. She held her arms up, one fist clenched within the other in front of her chest, adopting a posture which almost could have been mistaken for prayer. However, the experienced Weiss easily recognized it as angrily defensive; she had seen the like so many times before, both in her line of work and personal life. “You don’t have a clue what my type is, Marshal.”

“Deputy Marshal. And for the last time, when I tell you to do something, you do it. That includes staying put.”

“Does it really matter? I came back. Besides, I don’t think I’m your responsibility any more, am I?”

“That’s not for you to say.”

Cole sighed, but then made a visible effort to smile, lowering her hands again. When she spoke, her voice took on a reconciliatory tone. “I thought we could do with something to eat. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. We should have ordered something at the diner.”

I did,” Weiss couldn’t resist pointing out, stressing the first word. She spoke without thinking and regretted it almost as soon as the words left her mouth. It would only keep the argument going.

“Didn’t get to eat it though, did you?”

This was really getting them nowhere, Weiss thought. They could spend all night throwing barbs at each other, as much as she didn’t want to, but if they were going to they might as well do it in the warmth of their room.

As if in answer, the wind picked up again, a cold gust abruptly blowing hard across the parking lot. A corner of the tarpaulin covering the swimming pool broke loose, the material whipping up and down, cracking against the concrete and the whole thing rippling. Although they were partly sheltered by the car, Cole shivered. Her bare skin, Weiss saw, so pale and smooth, was prickled with goose bumps. She must be freezing, Weiss thought. They really should get inside.

Like always, however, she wasn’t quite sure how to get out of an argument when it had started. Escalation always seemed to be the only way she could go. She tried to change the subject, knowing how that usually just infuriated others.

“How did you get all that stuff?” she said, gesturing at the junk food in Cole’s arms.

“That depends.”

“On what?”

Cole shrugged, looking a little sheepish. “On what you want to believe. You could think I found some spare change lying loose in the car and used that...”

Which wasn’t very likely, Weiss thought, with it being a rental car and the motel’s generator probably not providing power to the luxuries like vending machines.

“Or,” Cole continued, “you could just assume I kicked the glass in and took what I wanted.”

“You’re supposed to be honest, aren’t you?”

“Fair point. But just like going straight, being honest takes some adjustment time. Let me put it this way, I’m both very hungry and very glad I’m wearing my boots.”

“You’re hungry, and that’s supposed to justify theft?”

“No, only to explain it,” she said, giving a little smile of victory. “Just like how I’m sure you’re going to explain that bottle of booze, right?”

Weiss instinctively turned away slightly, a little embarrassed and trying to hide the bottle from view. Even though she had offered to pay for it, she had kind of coerced the poor clerk into giving it up. But she certainly hadn’t stolen it. Let Cole think that if she wanted to; surely she assumed everyone would fall to her level sooner or later. She certainly seemed pleased by the assumption, that was for sure.

“Shut up,” was all that Weiss could think of to say. Not her most clever retort, not by a long shot. But she was tired, hungry, and fearing the worst, so she wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Did you get a room?”

Weiss didn’t answer for a long while. It seemed like an easy out, another swift change of subject. It seemed so easy when someone else did it, so troublesome when she tried. But she was wary of letting the argument go just yet, as if it was a tiger she had firmly by the tail. It could still hurt her but as long as she kept a grip, she remained somewhat in control. Letting go meant getting hurt much worse.

She finally spoke, if only because it seemed that Cole was just about to prompt her. She changed the subject herself, knowing she was only doing it to try to gain a fraction more control back.

“Why didn’t you run?”

Cole looked surprised by the question, but then her expression quickly changed to one of impatience. “I’ve told you twice. There’s nowhere for me to go.”

“That’s the only reason?”

“Were you expecting another?”

Weiss frowned, choosing her next words very carefully. “I can usually spot a lie pretty well,” she said, “and that one stands out a mile.”

Shifting her weight from one leg to another, Cole shivered again from the cold, and glanced across the parking lot back towards the highway. The hem of her dress, barely mid-thigh level, rippled as the breeze caught it. She must have caught Weiss glancing down, as she took hold of the hem and tugged it downwards, but it did no good. It was an odd sign of self-consciousness, Weiss thought, and the first time she’d seen Cole seem uncomfortable all day. Maybe she was getting to Cole just as much as Cole had been getting to her.

Cole ran her hands through her short hair, messing it up further. Strangely, it still looked good somehow; that tousled, uncared-for look she had going for her really worked. She held her head for a second, and in the poor light it looked like her white fingers disappeared into the black of her hair. She was touching the scalp wound, Weiss realized, and she briefly wondered if Cole was in pain.

“Alright, Marshal, you want the truth,” Cole eventually said. “I can understand that. But you should know I’ve never been very good at being honest, no matter how hard I try. And believe me or not, I’ve been trying real hard lately. I suppose the truth and me have never really gotten along all that well.”

She looked down at the ground, tried again to tug at the bottom of her dress and then gave up with a shrug. “But why the hell not? What harm can it do now?” She gave a little depreciative half-chuckle to herself, and then stared Weiss straight in the eye.

“The truth is, Marshal, that while you said you wanted to die in comfort,” she gestured around her at the motel, “such as it is, I just don’t want to die alone.”

The answer surprised Weiss. She could only think of one thing to say in reply to it.

“You won’t,” she said. “We’ll be together.” And she meant it.

* * * * *

As soon as she flicked on the light switch, Ally was disappointed that the motel room was almost exactly as she had expected. She would have been pleased if it had been a little better, at least amused for a short while if it had been any worse, but she would have been nothing short of amazed if it had been anything other than what it turned out to be.

If you’ve seen one moderately cheap motel room, Ally thought, then you’ve seen them all. The same beige paint on the thin walls, the same dull white ceilings, doors, and woodwork, the same fawn-colored carpet, the same cheap but functional furniture. Everything was designed to be as inoffensive as possible, with the end result being it was hard to think of any legal ways the room could be any more unappealing.

The only indication of color was the bedspread, a riot of reds and yellows that really didn’t belong with the rest of the décor. When seen against the dullness of the walls it jarred the eyes, and the effect was made all the worse by twin zebra-striped pillows. Classy.

Still, if there was one thing Ally had learned from life, it was how to live with disappointment. She dropped the snacks on to the large dresser that ran along one wall. A checkerboard sat on the dresser beside the small television set. While Weiss moved past her to check the bathroom, Ally idly moved a red piece from a black square, jumping it over a stranded white. Maybe all the rooms had a board like this one, a little gimmick the motel’s owners probably thought both clever and welcoming.

“Nice,” she muttered, looking around the room one more time, hoping that upon second inspection it wouldn’t look so bad. Again, she was disappointed.

“You get what you pay for,” Weiss said, coming back into the room.

“Not if you steal it.” Ally regretted saying it as soon as the words left her mouth. The angry glare it elicited from the other woman made her wince. She smiled weakly in reply, trying her best to show it was only a joke. “Relax, I’m just kidding.”

Ally crossed the room to sit on the edge of the bed. She bounced up and down a couple of times. “Well, the mattress is comfortable enough. A few thousand bed bugs can’t be wrong, right? So what’s the plan?”

“What makes you think I have a plan?”

“You strike me as the kind of woman who likes making rules, regardless of what’s going on. I know I’ve said this already but first dates with you must be a lot of fun. Heavily regimented, I’ll bet, probably with a detailed minute-by-minute itinerary, but a whole lot of fun nonetheless.”

“You’re probably right.”

“About the rules-making or the dates?” Ally couldn’t resist teasing a little. The worst it could do was provoke Weiss into beating her again, and she strongly believed that threat was long past. At best, it might chip away at another of the barriers Weiss kept around her. She’d do a lot more than that for another smile, given the opportunity.

Weiss scowled. “Both. Not that you need to know but I’m stunning on first dates.”

Well, that was a shock, Ally thought, and maybe a little success too. Another little fracture in those barriers, perhaps. It was certainly the first hint that Weiss had any kind of personal life. She smiled and pushed a little harder. “You’re not impressing me so far.”

“That’s because this isn’t a date.”

“No? Playful banter, strong alcohol, a little physicality, and then ending up in a cheap hotel room in handcuffs? Sure seems like a date to me.”

“Your typical date, maybe. In any case, I guess I plan on waiting for...” She hesitated, having obviously noticed that the sudden reminder of what was coming had made Ally cringe. “On waiting this out.”

The Deputy Marshal pulled the whiskey bottle from her jacket pocket and placed it on top of the television. Then she crouched to search through the dresser’s drawers, eventually finding two glass tumblers. Standing, she held one up to the light and examined it. She didn’t inspect the other. Presumably that was intended to be Ally’s.

“Not to mention getting as drunk as I can in the meantime,” Weiss continued, turning back to face Ally. “Care to join me?”

Ally held up her hands and waggled the handcuffs again. “Am I allowed?”

“No,” Weiss admitted. She had already poured a liberal amount of the whiskey into two glasses. “Not at all. But you strike me as the sort of woman who likes not following rules.”

Ally smiled, took the offered glass – noting as she did that she had been wrong, this was the one Weiss had scrutinized – and raised it in salute. “Touché.”

She took a long drink, draining the glass, which turned out to be a mistake. The strong alcohol caught her by surprise, burning her throat and making her eyes tear up. Worse, her broken tooth started throbbing again. And she couldn’t prevent herself from coughing heavily, embarrassing though that was.

“Wow,” she spluttered, her voice croaking, “that burns.”

Even through her watering eyes, she could tell Weiss was having trouble keeping from laughing. The Marshal raised her own glass and took a small drink, if only, it seemed, to hide her smile as best she could.

“Try to sip it,” Weiss instructed, “not gulp it. It’s a drink you savor, not one you guzzle down.”

Ally coughed once more. “Good to know. Would have been better a minute ago though. I thought we were trying to get drunk.”

“We are. But even doing that has rules, whether you believe them or not.”

Ally turned the near-empty glass around in her hands, staring at the last few drops of the amber liquid, her eyes chasing them around. “Or if you choose to follow them or not?”

“Indeed. You weren’t a very successful thief, were you?”

Ally wiped at her eyes, which gave her some time to think about how best to answer that. The change in subject surprised her, even if the question didn’t. Weiss evidently believed in getting straight to the point. Subtle wasn’t her middle name. Although it would do for now, seeing as how Ally still didn’t know even her first name. Marshal Unidentified Subtle Weiss. The mental image of some old pastor dunking Weiss’ head underwater and then naming her that particularly mouthful almost made Ally giggle. Maybe it was more the thought of the uptight Weiss being in such an undignified position that amused her so.

She tried to stop thinking about it, guessing that Weiss wouldn’t be pleased if she learned what Ally thought was so funny. In Ally’s experience, most religious people were seriously lacking in the sense of humor department, and even fewer of them recognized the failing. She was pretty sure Weiss was a Christian of some sort, but she was only guessing at Baptist. It seemed to fit her. Maybe she’d dare ask her about it later. Maybe, if it came up.

After some thought, Ally finally admitted what Weiss had said was true. “Not really, no. Another reason to give it up, I suppose. But why would you say that?”

“Aside from the murder?” Weiss said, looking incredulous. She instantly held up a hand to stem any angry denial. “I know, you’re innocent. But I actually meant because you’re not used to the finer things. Like this whiskey, for instance.”

“I guess not. What about you?”

“What about me?”

“You seem to know what you’re talking about. At least where alcohol’s concerned. So are you a successful Marshal, Marshal?”

“Weiss. Just call me Weiss.”

“No first name?”

“Does it really matter?”

“I’d like to know.”

“All the more reason not to tell you.”

Ally smiled, shaking her head in disbelief. “Stubborn. Why am I always attracted to stubborn women?”

That got a reaction, she was pleased to see. Another little shove, another little skirt around the defenses. Weiss glanced sharply at her, frowning, and opened her mouth to say something. No doubt it would be a reprimand. That being so, Ally didn’t give her the chance.

“So, Weiss...” She played with the name a little, letting it bounce around her mouth. It was the first time she’d dared to use it. “Are you loosening up a little, letting me call you by your name?”

“No, I’m just sick of reminding you I’m a Deputy Marshal.”

“Well, Weiss, you haven’t answered the question.”

“No, I haven’t.” Weiss had been leaning casually against the dresser, but now she pushed herself off and turned away, reaching for the bottle again. “You want another?”

Ally nodded. As strong as the whiskey might be, one glass wasn’t about to get her drunk. “Sure. But can we drink outside, do you think? I don’t like confined spaces.”

“You can say that after living in that trailer?” Weiss said, taking Ally’s glass and then pouring out two more large drinks.

“I did an eighteen-month stretch in Florence McClure in 2008 and I was lucky to get out so early.” Ally was pretty sure the Marshal knew that. She would bet anything that Weiss had at least perused her criminal record, read up on her as much as possible before heading out from Sacramento in the very early hours of this morning. After all, there had been plenty of hints throughout the day that she knew much more about her than Ally would like.

Still, nothing she could do about that now, she supposed. And it made a refreshing change. She normally kept people in the dark about her history and personal life, even when she trusted them. Maybe having someone know practically all her dirty little secrets would help keep her honest, especially with herself.

“Even minimum security’s no fun,” she went on, “believe me. Ever since then, I kinda get a little freaked out when I’m cooped up for too long.”

Weiss grabbed both tumblers with one hand, sticking her fingers inside the glasses to hold them together. With a clink, some of the whiskey spilt over on to the dresser. With alcohol that strong, Ally was half-expecting the veneer to start bubbling. Still, it would probably kill any of the germs Weiss had on her fingers.

Weiss picked up the bottle by its neck with her free hand, and then gestured towards the doorway. “Then let’s go sit outside for as long as we can,” she said, and there was a kindness in her voice Ally was certain she hadn’t heard before.

* * * * *

Their room was on the second floor. From the breezeway outside their door, they could see down into the parking lot, the courtyard with the swimming pool, even across the highway and to the forested embankment beyond. If the power had still been on anywhere but here, Ally guessed they might have seen the lights of the town in the distance. Now there was nothing but darkness all around.

However, there was light coming. You could see it off in the distance, just behind the mountains, an unearthly white glow that pulsed unnaturally, like some twisted version of the coming dawn. There was no way of telling how close the nothingness was or how fast it was moving towards them. It defied any attempt to pin it down; doing so was futile, like trying to hold onto time itself by pressing a finger against the hour hand of a clock, and only served to give her a headache. Instead, Ally tried to keep her eyes focused on the darkness of their nearest surroundings. It wasn’t easy, but it helped.

Behind her, Weiss left the door to their room wide open. Ally thought about asking her to pull it closed, in the hope of saving some of the room’s warmth, but quickly decided it wasn’t worth bothering. It might all come to an end out here anyway.

Ally leaned against a brick pillar and glanced both ways down the breezeway. She caught Weiss studying her and grinned self-consciously, then shrugged a half-hearted apology. “You could lock the handcuffs to the railing, if you like.”

The railing ran between each of the pillars that were dotted about ten yards apart along the walkway. Thick white paint did a bad job of covering the rusting metal. Another little sign of how rundown the motel was.

Weiss shook her head. “I think we’re a little beyond that now, aren’t we?”

There was a lot more emphasis on the word ‘we’ now, Ally thought, that was for sure. “You tell me. I’m still wearing these,” she held up both hands again to show off the handcuffs, “and I can’t tell you how much I detest large jewelry.”

Weiss ignored the unspoken request to remove the cuffs and instead handed her one of the full glasses. Ally took it, spilling some of the alcohol over the rim as she did so, the warm liquid dripping slowly down her fingers. She balanced the glass precariously on the thin railing edge and then wiped her hands on the bottom of her dress. The once pristine white fabric was grubby, blood-stained and torn. Like her, it had been through a lot since the early hours of this morning, and they both were near to falling apart.

She took another drink, sipping it this time just as Weiss had told her to. It still burned her throat and stung her lips, but not as bad as before. She ached all over; her bruised cheekbone still throbbed painfully, the cuts on her legs and arms smarted, and her broken tooth hurt like hell. But the alcohol was at least slowly beginning to dull all the pain and for that she was grateful.

“It’s reached the mountains,” Weiss said. “At least I think it has. It might be a lot closer. Hard to tell.”

The comment instinctively made Ally want to look up at the approaching whiteness but she bit back the temptation. It seemed Weiss could get a slightly better grasp on where it was than she could.

“I wonder if people in the town know what’s happening yet.”

“It’s not like they could miss it,” Ally said. “We should tell them.”

Weiss shrugged in answer. “We could. But what good would it do? Even if they believed us, and I very much doubt they would, they’re trapped here now just as much as we are.”

“I guess so. Although that doesn’t mean I have to like it. It’s a shame.”

“It is,” Weiss said. She nodded towards Cole’s still nearly-full glass. “Drinking will help.”

“No, it won’t.” But she took another little drink all the same. It burned less each time. Either she was getting used to the taste or she was already getting drunk enough not to notice. The whiskey had an odd smoky taste to it, a little sweetness too, she didn’t know how else to describe it. She didn’t particularly care for the taste but that really wasn’t why she was drinking.

“No, it won’t,” Weiss repeated, “but it will make the lie a little easier to believe. That’s the best thing about alcohol, the way it smoothes out all the edges in life. Makes it so easy to turn to.”

Ally frowned. There was an opening there, for sure, it certainly wasn’t hard to spot. All the same, she hesitated. If she pushed, it might be another breakthrough, maybe one a little larger than all the others she’d made so far today, but at the same time, she was scared of pushing too hard. One misstep here and Ally could find all her hard work come to nothing.

After a deep breath, she took a risk. The words came out in a rush. “Are you speaking from past experience there, Weiss?”

“I suppose.”

Weiss seemed abruptly guarded, and Ally wondered if she had overstepped. She plunged on recklessly, figuring that even if she made things worse then at least she shouldn’t have too long to endure the resulting fallout.

“You can’t give a straight answer to anything, can you? Maybe we’re both in the wrong line of work.”

“I...” Weiss began, then hesitated again. She took a drink, not a sip, Ally noticed, but a very long drink. Maybe she needed it, maybe she was buying time. She ended up draining the glass. Ally saw that the Marshal’s hands were trembling. That could have been the cold, Ally thought, but she suddenly regretted asking. She felt a pang of sympathy strike at her heart.

Weiss refilled her own glass, then spoke again. “There are some questions I don’t like answering.”

Ally nodded, understanding. “You don’t have to. I shouldn’t have pressured you. Talking takes my mind off what’s coming, that’s all.”

Weiss nodded. She took another drink, sipping again, then came forward to lean on the railing. When she spoke, she didn’t look at Ally, instead just stared unseeing down at the swimming pool.

“When I was young, we lived only a few blocks from our school. Me and a bunch of my friends used to walk together to school every morning and back every afternoon. Parents probably wouldn’t let a few kids walk on their own to school these days, but it was a different time, you know? No one thought of the dangers back then, least of all my mom. Getting the kids out from underfoot was all she cared about most mornings.”

She sighed. “I think I was about eleven when I first saw Harry. The last time I saw him I was fourteen. I remember because it was the day after my birthday that everyone was suddenly talking about him. Nobody wanted to talk about him before, of course. It was much easier to ignore homelessness. Some things never change, right?

“I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? He was a vagrant who just turned up out of nowhere one day. Always hanging around the same corner talking to anyone who would listen and more often than not no one would, so he’d just jabber on to himself. Muttering under his breath all the time, like he couldn’t stop. Maybe he couldn’t. Some people thought he was crazy. No one knew his real name, not then. Turns out it was Harry, but if anyone had known that for sure, no one had ever told us. Everyone just called him Harry because they thought he was a junkie. He wasn’t. An alcoholic sure, but never a junkie.

“We used to tease him all the time. Throwing rocks at him, that kind of thing, and then, later, as teenagers, we all ‘matured’ and just started the name calling. We’d follow him as he would shuffle away, muttering to himself. Every day, for three years we’d do that.”

She caught Ally looking at her and shrugged. “Yeah, not my proudest moment. I suppose I could say I was just a kid, but still…”

“I can remember him now, clear as anything.” She shut her eyes as if it would prove her point, as if it would allow Ally to see the mental image she was dredging up from years long past. “It’s the smell I remember most. He stunk to high heaven. Body odor, rot, filth, and over it all was the stench of alcohol. He must have spilt more on himself than he ever could have drunk. I don’t think I ever saw him without a bottle in his hand, usually this stuff, funnily enough. Heaven only knows where he got the money from. People used to give him hand-outs now and then, I remember, although even then I used to think he’d get more bang for his buck buying cheap beer.”

“What happened to him?” Ally asked.

“The day after I turned fourteen, I went to school as usual, only Harry was nowhere to be seen. I don’t think I really noticed. We’d grown tired of him by then. At school though, we learned why he wasn’t around. Turns out the night before, while I was eating cake and opening presents, a local gang had started abusing Harry too. Although they didn’t stop. They ended up kicking him to death in the local park.”

Ally opened her mouth to say something, as she felt she had to, but then realized there was nothing she could say. Weiss didn’t give her the chance, anyway.

“No one cared. What was one more dead hobo, right? The police only did a cursory investigation, asked a few questions of everyone in the neighborhood, took some bits of evidence, that kind of thing. Maybe it would have been different in a rich white neighborhood but in a poor black one, well, I guess there was never really a chance at justice. That was a lesson I had to learn sooner or later, I suppose. So anyway, the police spent a few days patrolling, just trying to get themselves noticed, and then it was over. No more Harry. And no one cared.

“No one but my mom. She cried for a long while and I didn’t know why. I asked her, even though my brothers told me not to. That was the only time my mom ever hit me. Just that once, she slapped me. Hard. Real hard.” Weiss turned her head, almost as if she could still feel the sting of that long ago blow. “I think she was more shocked by that than I was. You see, I’d never asked about my dad before, or why he was missing. I didn’t even know I was asking about him then, not really.”

“Harry was…” Ally began. Her voice trailed off.

Weiss nodded. “Yeah, Harry was my father. I got the whole story from an aunt a few years later, right before I went to college. Funny, really, how a family can keep such secrets. I think my mom told my brothers, but no one told me, not until I asked. Not answering difficult questions apparently runs in the family just as much as alcoholism does.”

She gave Ally a little rueful smile. “Bad joke, sorry. Apparently, my father had mental issues and difficulty coping with life. Alcohol seemed to be the answer. But it only made things worse. He started talking to himself, a little too often and a little too loudly. And then he walked out. He just up and left one day, and disappeared without a word. I was only two, my brothers four and five, so we forgot all about him over time.

“When he turned up again, my mom recognized him, of course, but wanted nothing to do with him. She never really forgave him for running out on us, not even after he was killed. I don’t think anybody else knew who he was. The neighborhood had changed a lot in ten years and not many people who knew him back then were still living there.

“And he didn’t want to be with us anyway. As best as I can figure it, he was just returning to somewhere familiar to him. And he ended up dying all alone. And no one cared.

“That’s why I went into law enforcement, I guess. Maybe I was seeking forgiveness back then, maybe I still am, I don’t know. I like to think it’s just so I can tell people that at least one person cares, even when it seems like no one does. Everyone deserves justice, no matter how poor or crazy or forgotten or... well, you get the idea.”

Weiss grimaced and as she pushed herself off the railing and straightened up, she reached up to rub her forehead. “I haven’t told anyone that before, not even Devlin. I don’t know why I told you that. I suppose because there’s no one else to tell.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” Ally said. And maybe it was because deep-down Weiss simply couldn’t be a hard-ass twenty-four seven. After all, just because the world was ending didn’t mean she had to tell someone. She still could have kept quiet about it all, couldn’t she?

“I need a cigarette.” Weiss looked down at her near-empty glass and reached into her jacket pocket to pull out a packet of Camels. “And another drink too. Fuck.”

“What’s wrong?”

Weiss shook the cigarette pack to show it was empty.

Ally smiled. “Well, consider yourself lucky. I may not be a successful thief but I am a considerate and generous one. There was a cigarette vending machine next to the snack machine downstairs, fortunately with glass that was just as broken.”

“They still have those?”

“Apparently,” Ally said. She had been amazed too, thinking they’d done away with such machines decades ago. It was another quaint little reminder of how charmingly backward this town was. She nodded towards the motel room. “There are two packs on the dresser. I didn’t know if you smoked Menthol or not, so I got one of each. You want me to get them?”

“No, don’t bother,” Weiss said, “I’ll go. Stay put though, okay?”

That was meant to make her smile, Ally guessed, and it worked. She nodded. She had been taken aback by how much the Marshal had opened up to her. All the same, when Weiss reappeared with a fresh cigarette pack in hand, Ally decided to make a concerted effort to change the subject. She didn’t want Weiss dwelling on bad memories from her past, no more than she wanted to think about any of the many mistakes she’d made in her life. As she remembered her own father saying every time bad news beckoned, there was enough of a bad storm coming without stepping outside without an umbrella and raincoat.

Weiss clumsily lowered herself to sit underneath the window to their room, her back resting against the brickwork and her legs stretching out across the breezeway. She tore off the cellophane wrapper and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it with a black plastic Zippo. She inhaled hard, taking a deep lungful, and let the smoke out slowly.

“Oh, that’s good,” she said softly.

Ally could see the tip of the cigarette glowing bright orange as Weiss inhaled. The evening was getting darker, despite the oncoming nothingness. Somehow, and for the life of her Ally couldn’t figure out how, the night was still falling, even though the world was coming to an end. One last show of defiance on nature’s part, perhaps. Not so much raging against the dying of the light, Ally thought, but rather against the light itself. Wise men at their end know dark is right.

She put her empty glass down on the walkway and while Weiss reached out to refill it and her own, sank down to sit opposite the Marshal. She chose to sit cross-legged, unlike Weiss, and rested her back in between the brick pillar and the railing. It wasn’t very comfortable but at least she was turned away from the mountains and what was heading towards them. One less way it would be on her mind.

The bottle was now only a third full, Ally noticed when Weiss screwed the cap back on. They were making slow headway.

She awkwardly groped for something to say and came up short. “So what kind of name is Weiss, anyway?” She winced even as she said it. Yeah, she thought, this won’t go anywhere good.

Caught raising her tumbler almost to her mouth, Weiss paused, frowning. She put the glass down beside her and took another long drag on her cigarette before answering.

“You don’t like it?”

“It’s just odd, that’s all.”

“What’s odd about it?”

“Well...” Ally said slowly, conscious that she was treading on thin ice with the way this conversation had gone, “you’re black.”

“So?”

Weiss was still grinning, so Ally was pretty sure she hadn’t upset her. Instead, she seemed to find Ally’s discomfort amusing. Ally shrugged and took a hasty drink. She was glad she was sitting down. This might only be her third glass but the whiskey was certainly strong as all get out.

“I don’t know. Black and German names don’t really go together, do they?”

“You don’t think there are any black people in Germany?”

“Well, no, not really. But I suppose I hadn’t really given it much thought.”

“It’s Austrian, anyway,” Weiss said, “not German.”

“Same difference.”

“Subtle difference. My family’s originally from Mozambique, although that’s going back a long time. My great-grandparents emigrated shortly after the end of the First World War. They couldn’t speak much English, so at Ellis Island they were forced to take the name of their Austrian employer from back in Africa. The name stuck, although I have a great-uncle who insists it’s a slave name and makes us all call him Waaswa.”

She emptied her own glass, licked her lips, and then smiled, seeming embarrassed. “Sorry.”

Ally was a little startled by the apology. She felt an immediate impulse to make fun of it or of Weiss, but she had barely enough presence of mind to rein herself in. Instead, she asked, “For what?”

Weiss looked around, evidently searching for a trashcan, then shrugged, gave up, and just tapped ash from the end of her cigarette on to the concrete floor. “I’m talking too much. I tend to get that way when I’ve had a bit to drink.”

Well, it was a lot better than earlier, Ally thought. During the excruciatingly long road trip getting a single word from Weiss had been like squeezing blood from an anemic stone. “Hardly,” she said. “I’m sure if we average it out over the day, I’m still way ahead.”

Weiss laughed at that, which pleased Ally considerably. She ran a hand quickly through her hair and then fanned her face. It was probably the alcohol, she knew, but she was feeling unpleasantly warm. Her skin seemed to be burning. Fortunately, the night air felt lovingly cool when a breeze passed by, but it was more often still than not. Even the wind was slowly dying, it seemed.

“You know what?” Ally said. “I think I prefer me when you’re drunk.”

Weiss continued to grin, turning her head away to look down the highway, back towards the town. “Me too. There was a church down in the town. We passed it on the way in. An old wooden building, white with a tall spire, big black window frames. Must be beautiful in the summer.”

“So?”

The grin faded slowly. “I was wondering if we should have gone there.”

For what purpose, Ally wondered? She doubted it was to save money. The motel room was cheap, sure, she imagined they didn’t come much cheaper, although spending the night in a church would have been a lot cheaper. But it would have raised questions, them not leaving when they had promised to do so, and the idea of that hard-nosed Sheriff confronting them didn’t bear thinking about. To Ally, then, it seemed that the church was a decidedly bad idea with a lot more cons than pros.

Perhaps Weiss was seeking a good old-fashioned sanctuary then? Maybe she was hoping to find something more than just a shelter for the night.

Weiss looked back at Ally. “Are you religious at all, Cole?”

“No,” Ally said, draining her glass and waving it at Weiss for a refill. “There are too many things on which God and I don’t see eye to eye. My family’s pretty devout though. Just another way in which I’m the black sheep. So you, you’re in law enforcement, a Christian... no chance you vote Republican then?”

“Fuck, no,” Weiss said vehemently, topping up Ally’s glass as she spoke.

“Thank your God for that. I can deal with the first two but that last one’s a deal breaker.”

“Excuse me?”

“In the women I date, I mean.”

Weiss stared at her for a long while, her mouth hanging open. When she finally shut it, her jaw had taken on a determined set. It was only now that Ally realized the conversation had gotten away from her, slipped out of her control as easily as all those little memories had slipped away when the nothingness had reached for her. She beat a hasty retreat behind her glass.

“What makes you think I’m gay?” Weiss eventually said. Her voice sounded stern all of sudden, all trace of the humor Ally had seen over the last half-hour or so gone.

“Lucky guess,” said Ally with an indifferent shrug. Two glasses of whiskey ago, even one maybe, she would have been more careful with her choice of words. Now, she didn’t see the point. What was the worst that could happen, after all? “Sorry, it’s not that hard to tell. Well, you are, aren’t you?”

Another hesitation. “It’s not so...”

Ally finished her sentence for her. “Black and white?”

“I was going to say simple. Not that it matters, anyway, seeing as how you’re not my type.”

“Shame, because you’re really mine.”

Weiss gave out a snort of laughter. Ally wasn’t sure how to take that, but she was relieved that the grim side of the Marshal hadn’t lasted very long. She ran a finger around the neckline of her dress, tugging at the material where it had stuck to her skin and wishing for another cool breeze. She was feeling warm again.

“Is that the best you’ve got, Cole?”

“Probably. Works on the women I usually date. I could try a cheesy pick-up line, if you like.”

“Like that wasn’t? Oh, I have to hear this. Please, be my guest.”

“Well, how about if I told you I like my women just how I like my coffee?”

“Going for the black angle again, are we?”

“Actually I was going to say hot and bitter, but easy to make.”

Another short burst of laughter. Each time, Ally enjoyed hearing that a little more. Odd, that.

“Is that right?” Weiss said, stubbing out the dog-end on the concrete. “Fuck, you think a lot of yourself.”

“Yeah, I do,” Ally admitted, “but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. You really are hot.”

Weiss waved away the compliment. She lit another cigarette, throwing the pack down beside her, and inhaled deeply. She was savoring the flavor of the tobacco, as if it was going to be her last ever chance to taste it. Which, Ally thought, it might very well be.

“I think the alcohol is getting to you,” Weiss said, motioning to Ally’s glass with her own. “On any other night, I think I’d cut you off, just to be safe.”

Interesting choice of words, Ally thought. Just whose safety was she so concerned about? Ally’s, for drinking too much? Or her own, for fear of what a drunken Ally might do? She suspected it was a bit of both but more of the latter, especially considering the turn the conversation had taken in the last few minutes.

Ally looked down at the half-empty tumbler in her hand. Still, Weiss was probably right when all was said and done. She was feeling a little lightheaded already. She took another drink, downing the whiskey in one, and the taste of it made her grimace and shake her head in revulsion. No point doing things by halves, after all.

“I’m serious,” Ally said, holding out the glass for yet another refill. When Weiss hesitated, Ally waggled her hand with a ‘come on’ motion. It was enough to win over Weiss’ reluctance. “Especially when you drop the f-bomb. You have a cute little way of digging your teeth into your bottom lip when you say the word ‘fuck’. Swearing doesn’t really suit you, but damn it’s cute when you do. Which is just as well, ‘cos you do it a lot.”

Weiss looked away, staring down the breezeway. She’d embarrassed her, Ally realized.

“Sorry, I can get carried away sometimes. But that’s life, right? It’s all a matter of balance. Too much fun and you end up in these.” She held up both hands, showing the handcuffs to drive home her point. “Too little and you end up babysitting someone like me.”

Weiss looked back at her and gave a half-smile. “Don’t worry about it. There are worse things to tell someone.” She drained her own glass. “Come on, we need to make a bigger dent in this bottle.”

“I’m afraid I’m making hard work of it,” Ally said. “I’m still not sure I like the taste.”

“You get used to it. And I strongly suspect you’ve no idea what good, hard work is.”

“No, what good is it?”

Weiss laughed again.

“You should do that more often,” Ally blurted out, causing Weiss to immediately look away. Again, she’d embarrassed her. Not one for taking compliments was this girl, Ally thought. Maybe she never got them, at least not personal ones. She stayed silent for a second or two, as much she hated to do so, as unpleasant thoughts kept creeping back into her head the longer she wasn’t distracted, but she did it so Weiss would be prompted to speak.

She didn’t take the hint and kept on the same subject, slipping from funny to serious, which annoyed Ally, but she tried her best not to let it show. “So, is your stage career going as well as your criminal one?”

Ally shrugged. “I’m doing okay, I guess. You can never go wrong in Las Vegas with something Elvis-related and people say I’m pretty good. You should see me when I’m in full costume and make-up. Of all the sights, I’m the one to see. Besides, as I’ve told you before, I’m going straight.”

“Is that right?” Weiss said. Her tone left no doubt in Ally’s mind that she didn’t believe it.

“Well, they don’t call Las Vegas the city of second chances for nothing. And I always liked to defy expectations. I was born on a Wednesday, and they say Wednesday’s child is full of woe.”

“You’re full of something.”

That was the first time Weiss had made Ally laugh so far today. And, Ally thought, wasn’t Weiss full of surprises? Turning the tables on her so quickly and all. Good to know that she could make her laugh. Even better to know she had a sense of humor in complete working order. In Ally’s experience, cops tended to hand that trait in as soon as they started training.

“Maybe,” Ally said, taking another small drink. “I’m not full of this whiskey yet, unfortunately.”

“So you want to tell me about DeWitte?”

The question sobered Ally up immediately. She put the tumbler down beside her, the glass clinking softly against the concrete. Maybe Weiss was right and she should quit drinking, at least for a while; maybe try to eat something first, give herself a chance to sober up a little more.

She hadn’t really thought too much about DeWitte since she had been paroled, had gone out of her way not to, but it was startling how often his name would keep cropping up, especially seeing as how she’d only seen him once since her release. Now he was dead and somehow he was still causing her grief. Murdered, so Weiss had said, and everyone, her included, seemed to think Ally was the most likely suspect. Her smile faded slowly as she thought about that.

“You still think I murdered him?”

“That’s not for me to say.”

“Oh, of course it isn’t,” Ally said sarcastically. “Even now, right? We could be the only two people left alive in the world and you’re still judging by pretending not to judge.”

She sighed and looked up at the ceiling of the breezeway. She couldn’t bring herself to look Weiss in the eye and she wouldn’t look behind her. Either way she would be bluntly reminded of what was coming. So instead she stared upward as she talked, studying the spreading cracks in the white stucco and the long dead flies trapped in the fluorescent light fixture, the latter buzzing perhaps because the former no longer could.

“I started robbing places about a year after I got to Las Vegas. I was desperate, although I know that’s no excuse. I got myself in a bit of bad luck and I thought I could see it through. I started with hotel rooms. It was easy enough. I’ve got quick hands and it was simple to flirt with a maid or a desk clerk or someone and steal a passkey. Then I’d keep a watch on some dumb tourists until they’d left their room, slip in, take what I wanted, and get out. Afterwards, I’d drop the passkey somewhere obvious, just so the person I stole it from thought they’d misplaced it. It hardly ever went wrong. And when it did I usually just bluffed myself out of trouble.

“I robbed places because I didn’t want to hurt anyone. And I chose tourists because, well, you know, they were tourists. Less likely to stick around and kick up a fuss. More likely to get drunk and think they’d just lost whatever it was I took. And I only took cash and credit cards to begin with, and I didn’t use the cards too often. Once or twice each, then threw them away. And I only bought small stuff with them too. Much less likely to attract unwanted attention that way.”

She risked a glance over at Weiss and immediately regretted it. The Marshal’s expression was pretty easy to read.

“Yeah, I know, real small scale, right? Pathetically so, in fact.

“Anyway, I met DeWitte by accident. An act of serendipity, I thought at the time, but looking back it was probably when everything started going wrong. No, that’s not true. I’d be blaming someone else if I said that. But it was another step on the way down, if you know what I mean.

“At the time, he struck me as just another one of the dumb tourists, although I didn’t rob him. Instead, he spotted me lifting a passkey. I may have quick hands, it’s just that he had quicker eyes. He let me rob a room or two, and then confronted me. When he found out I was only stealing cash and cards, he started laughing. Can you believe that? I couldn’t feel any damn lower at that point, let me tell you.

“So DeWitte suggested that I work for him, although he couched it a lot more evasively than that. I’d carry on the same way, stealing cash and keeping that for myself. But he also suggested I should start taking any jewelry I found. That, and any credit cards, I’d pass on for him to fence. He could get a lot more money out of the cards than I ever could and more safely too, and while I didn’t have a clue how to get rid of jewelry, he did. It just meant travelling to his pawn shop in Sacramento a couple of times each month, which was no big hardship. I could still steal the same way I had been but I was making a ton more money. It was perfect.”

Weiss interrupted. “Until you got caught.”

“Yeah, until I got caught. But I’ve done my time for that, thanks very much, and unlike thieving that wasn’t easy at all.”

“Prison’s not meant to be easy.”

“I guess not. Which is why, when I got out I decided to go straight. I told the parole board that. And I only saw DeWitte once more, about a year ago, and that was to tell him I quit. And yes, Marshal, I know I violated my conditions by visiting him. But if I hadn’t, he would have come and found me, and that probably would have been a lot worse in the long run.”

“He was murdered eleven months ago or so,” Weiss reminded her.

Ally looked back at her, frustrated that the truth wasn’t being believed. She tried not to let it show. “And I didn’t even know that until you told me this morning. I mean, I was a little surprised I didn’t hear from him again, but I thought I was only a minor cog in his grand schemes and he’d accepted me going straight. I guess I was wrong to be so hopeful.”

Weiss thought about that for a moment. “Easy to see how they could build a case against you, even with that. You go see him to tell him you’re not going to steal anymore, he gets angry and violent and you grab the knife to defend yourself.”

“No, I’ve told you already, I didn’t kill him!”

“Schwarz says you did.”

Ally rolled her eyes at that. “That bastard would say anything to save his own sorry hide.”

“You’re not wrong there,” Weiss said with a nod. “According to the file, Sacramento PD pulled him in on a robbery charge and he gave you up as fast as you like. The arresting detectives had never seen anything like it.”

“And that doesn’t strike anyone as suspicious? Like Schwarz was holding this in reserve, maybe, for whenever he landed in hot water? No one even thought he might be framing me?”

“Are you saying Schwarz killed DeWitte?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Schwarz is scum. I’m not saying he’d sell his own grandmother but he’d sure find two other grandmothers, cut them in half, sew the best halves together and sell the end result as a younger model. And he was always jealous of how much DeWitte preferred to work with me, if only because I made him more money. Believe me, DeWitte only dealt with Schwarz when he absolutely had to.” She paused. It was possible Schwarz had killed DeWitte, she supposed, but she doubted it. As much as she hated to admit it, while Schwarz might have been an asshole, she really couldn’t imagine him killing anyone. “All the same, I can’t see him murdering anyone.”

“People change. You’ve gone straight, for instance, or so you say.”

“Yeah, and you’ve started talking.”

It wasn’t one of her best retorts, that’s for sure, but Ally was pleased to see it earned at least a grudging smile from Weiss, if not a laugh.

“And started defending me too,” she added.

“Don’t get ideas. I’m just playing devil’s advocate, that’s all.”

“Sure you are. I’m telling you though, even if he didn’t kill DeWitte himself, Schwarz is lying through his teeth.”

“You would say that,” Weiss said. When the shocked Ally opened her mouth to say something, Weiss held a hand up to quiet her. The glowing cigarette tip traced patterns in the gloom as she moved. “Sorry, but you would say that if you were guilty.”

“I would if I were innocent too.”

Weiss nodded and then quickly moved on. “Fair enough. Your fingerprints were on the murder weapon.”

“My fingerprints were probably all over the store. Have you seen how much crap was in there? I’d often have to wait until legit customers had left before I could speak to DeWitte and I have sticky fingers, in case you didn’t guess already. I probably picked up everything in that store at least once. I don’t remember a dagger but I could have held it a dozen times.”

“Yeah, maybe, but the fingerprints, your past record, your dealings with DeWitte… all of that is bad enough. But Schwarz led the investigating team to a storage unit in Sacramento where they found that dagger and a bunch of other stolen goods. And the manager of said facility swore blind that you had rented that lock-up. Identified you from a photo, apparently.”

“And I suppose it would make no difference if I swore I’d never done any such thing?”

“No, I’m afraid not. It’s all pretty damning.”

Ally tilted her head back against the brick wall, closing her eyes for a moment. “I guess so. Great. Even if all this,” she gestured wildly behind her to the encroaching white expanse, but pointedly refusing to look, “hadn’t happened, I’d still be screwed, wouldn’t I?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

Ally felt like crying and then realized she already was. She’d made such a mess of things and she’d been trying so hard not to, not any more. She’d fucked up her life enough, had done her best to turn it around, and things had just gotten worse on her. She wiped at her eyes, with her hands, conscious of Weiss watching her.

Damn it, she had to stop crying. She reached down for the half-empty tumbler by her side, turning to alcohol only because there was nothing else to turn to right now. She almost choked on the whiskey.

“Well,” she said, trying not to cough, “not that it matters, but if it would change anything, I’d live with that. I mean, if me accepting what was coming to me would change any of this, would put it all back to the way it was, then I’d do it.”

Weiss studied her for a moment, then gave her a faint smile, one that Ally figured was meant to be encouraging. It didn’t help much more than the alcohol had. “I know,” Weiss said quietly.

“Fat lot of good that does me,” Ally said with more than a trace of bitterness in her voice. She held her head in her hands. “Fuck, I’ve really screwed everything up.”

“Maybe, but you’re trying to turn things around. That says something.”

“It says I’m an idiot, that’s what it says. Sure, I’m trying to change my ways. Too little, too late, though right?”

“Yeah,” Weiss said, “I’m too little and you’re too late.”

Ally was caught off guard and couldn’t help but laugh. She wiped at her eyes again. “A joke from the hard-ass Marshal, really? I must be getting to you.”

“No, more likely it’s the whiskey. Speaking of which, have another drink, why don’t you?”

As Weiss reached over to refill her glass, Ally gave her a weak grin in return. “I don’t mind your height. Sure you’re small, but as they say, it is better to have loved a short girl than not a tall.”

Weiss groaned at that, rolling her eyes. “Okay, I don’t think there’s enough whiskey left in the bottle to make that funny.”

“They can’t all be good. Even Elvis had his off days.”

“Yeah, and one really big one at the end. But I guess we all have that one coming.”

“I guess.”

Ally craned her head back again, pressing against the railing so she could see past the overhang of the breezeway’s ceiling. She stared up into the night sky for a long while.

“I can’t see the stars anymore,” she finally said. “There’s nothing but white above us now. God, it hurts.”

“Don’t look at it.”

“It’s hard not to.” And it was getting harder every second, Ally thought. The whiteness spread out above was entrancing. She could feel the nothingness reaching out for her, secreting its way into her mind and exhorting her to give up. Each little pull sent a shock of pain through her skull, like a fishhook was firmly embedded somewhere in her brain and as the line kept tugging, the barbs viciously tore at her sanity.

“I know,” Weiss said, reaching out to take a hard grip on Ally’s calf, her fingers digging painfully into the bruised and scabbed flesh. It hurt, but it was meant only to grab back her attention, and it worked. “But you have to try.”

Ally turned back to face Weiss and gave her a half-hearted smile. “Sorry,”

“No need to be. I can feel it too.”

Weiss took another long drag on her cigarette, then stubbed it out. She reached for the packet again.

“You should quit.”

“Smoking?” When Ally nodded, Weiss shrugged. “Maybe. I keep promising myself I will, sooner or later. Doesn’t seem worth worrying about it right now, does it?”

“I guess not.”

“You want to hear a story?”

Ally gaped at her, startled. “What?”

“You said earlier that talking helps take your mind off...” Weiss caught herself just in time. “It helps keep you distracted. A story from my childhood suddenly sprang to mind and I thought I’d share it, if you want.”

“Sure, why not?”

Pausing only to screw the cap back on the bottle of whiskey after refilling her own glass, Weiss went on, “Whenever she babysat us, usually when our mother was working nights at her second job, our grandmother used to tell us traditional family stories to get us to sleep. Didn’t often work. My brothers were little hellions and I usually didn’t get to hear everything she said. One story has always stuck with me though, and you mentioning the stars reminded me of it.

“You see, if you look up at the sky on a perfectly clear night, you can see countless stars, each twinkling in their own little dark kingdom. And each of those stars is a bright white, the brightest white you could ever imagine, but even so the darkness seems overwhelming, as if any minute a patch will just swallow up the light and another star will disappear.

“And it’s been that way forever. It’s a fight, you see, a battle between the darkness and the light. A battle that’s been going on for so long that no one, not a single person who’s ever drawn breath, can remember when it started. All we know is it will drag on forever until one side or the other wins out.

“One time, I dared to interrupt my grandmother when she was telling me all this, and got a slap upside the head for my trouble. But I wanted to know why the darkness was winning. After all, the stars are so few and the night is so dark. And you know what she told me?”

Ally shook her head.

“She said that I had it all wrong. In the beginning, she said, there had been nothing but darkness. And now, after so long, the light had finally begun to shine through.”

Ally didn’t say anything for a moment, thinking hard about what she’d been told. Finally, she frowned and spoke, “Huh. Did your grandmother ever say what would happen when the light won?”

“No, not that I remember.”

“Great. I guess we’ve solved that little problem, haven’t we?” Ally took another sip of her whiskey. Her hands were trembling again, she saw as she put the glass back down beside her. She told herself it was the frigid night air. She wasn’t frightened. She wasn’t.

She looked over at Weiss sheepishly, regretting her harsh tone, and sighed. “I used to have nightmares. When I was young, I mean. My parents put up with it as long as they could but eventually they had enough. There was nothing in the dark that wasn’t there in the light, that’s what they told me. I knew that wasn’t true.” She shot Weiss a weak half-smile. “All these years later, and who’d have thought the light would turn out to be the side I shouldn’t have trusted?”

Slowly, Weiss got to her feet. She had to put one hand out to the windowsill to steady herself; the other still firmly clutched the tumbler full of alcohol. She smiled guiltily at Ally.

“I think I’ve drunk a little too much,” she said, although her tone made the words sound more proud than confessional. She stepped over to the metal railing, transferred her hold to that for a second, then turned her back on the motel parking lot and sank down to sit beside Ally. Not just next to her, but right up alongside her. The closeness was surprising. So was the warmth. Up until now, Ally hadn’t realized how cold she really was.

It was probably just accidental, Ally thought. Weiss didn’t seem too steady on her feet and was using her as support as much as she had the sill and the railing.

“Still,” Weiss continued, “I’m not going to stop until I’ve drunk a lot too much.”

She poured herself another glassful, the amber liquid slopping over the sides. She didn’t seem to notice, or mind if she did. There wasn’t much left in the bottle, Ally noted. She thought Weiss had drunk considerably more of it than she had, but she couldn’t swear to it. Aside from being a little unsteady, Weiss seemed remarkably unaffected by the alcohol.

Ally looked down at her own half-empty glass. Her fourth, maybe? She couldn’t clearly remember. She took another small sip. “Well, I don’t think I’ve drunk this much in months. I’m really going to hate myself in the morning.”

“Just as well then that it doesn’t look like there will be a morning.”

“Yeah, well, that’s okay. I think I’ve started hating myself already.”

“That’s a bad habit to get into, trust me, and a harder one to get out of.”

“Speaking from experience, Weiss?”

“Oh yes, I think I am. I’ve lost too many people I care about to count.”

“Lovers?” Ally asked, taking a chance.

“Not so much. Never had much luck there. More family, I think.”

“You have a big family?”

Weiss nodded, lighting up another cigarette. She caught Ally’s disapproving look and pointedly ignored it. “Lots of cousins, uncles, aunts, some nephews and nieces. Both my brothers are married, with kids.”

“And you said your brothers are both older than you, right?”

“Yes, why?”

“It’s interesting, that’s all. It says a lot about you. I’m a good judge of people, after all.”

“Not that good.”

Not all traces of the hard-nosed Marshal had been washed away with alcohol then, Ally thought. All the same, she let that little jibe slide. “You’re trying to prove yourself. Your career, your attitude, everything about you screams a desperate need for approval from your older brothers.” She was about to add something about how to Weiss, her brothers probably represented the approval her dead father could no longer give her, but decided that probably wasn’t a wise move, even now. “I don’t imagine you’ve seen them recently, have you?”

“Shows what you know. I saw Colby at the end of last year.”

“So ten months or so? And you call that recent? What about your other brother?”

“I haven’t seen Doyle in a while, I’ll admit.”

“How long’s a while?”

“It’s got to be three years, maybe more. He doesn’t really approve of the way I live my life. Colby’s more... tolerant, I guess. Accepting’s not really the word.” She gave a little scornful snort. “Not by a long shot.”

Ally raised an eyebrow, as if this proved the point she had made earlier. “And your mother? When was the last time you saw her?”

“I went home for a visit last Christmas and saw everyone but Doyle. Actually, the only reason I agreed to show up was because he wasn’t going to be there for once. What’s your point? That I can’t care for and love people who I don’t see very often?”

“No,” Ally said hurriedly, “not at all. I really don’t have a point. Just trying to learn more about you, what makes you tick.”

“Yeah? Well, I think you know enough about me for now.” Weiss exhaled a cloud of smoke that Ally half-heartedly tried to wave away. She seemed suddenly uncomfortable. Perhaps the conversation had veered a little too close to home, Ally thought. “And I don’t tick.”

“No?”

“No. It’s more of an annoying clunking sound. So what about you?” She made an obvious and clumsy attempt to change the subject, but Ally went along with it anyway. It was better to keep talking about this, or anything, than fall silent for too long and let her mind wander back to what was fast approaching.

“What about me?”

“Do you have a family?”

Ally cast a suspicious sideways glance at Weiss. “You know I do. I’m assuming you read my file before coming to arrest me, right?” Then when the Deputy Marshal nodded, she added, “Why ask?”

“I was just trying to keep the conversation going, I suppose.”

“You suppose a lot of things. You should be more certain. What am I saying? I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone more certain.”

“Of what?” Weiss said with a frown.

“Of everything. It doesn’t matter. I’m just thinking aloud. Drinking too. Drinking and thinking, never a good combination.”

“I have trouble understanding what you’re talking about sometimes.”

“Only sometimes?” Ally agreed, managing a weak smile. “I can’t be drunk enough yet.”

“Yeah? And just how drunk is enough?”

After draining her glass, Ally raised an eyebrow. “Depends what you had in mind, Weiss.”

Without needing to be asked, Weiss refilled her glass immediately. She pursed her lips in disappointment, studying the empty bottle. “Well, that’s the last of it, so whatever I was thinking I guess I’ll be out of luck. Better make that glass last.”

“Yeah, maybe. And yes, I have a family and before you ask, we’re not that close. I guess that’s another thing we have in common.”

“Another? What was the first?”

Ally ignored the question. “Anyway, I have an older sister, who’s a PA for a legal firm back in Jersey, and Babe, well, he went into the family business with my father and my uncle.”

“You have a brother called Babe?”

Ally shrugged. “Don’t ask. It’s just a tradition amongst some Italian-American families, the youngest boy is always nicknamed Babe. Sometimes it sticks, sometimes it doesn’t. With Samuel it stuck. He hates it but he shouldn’t complain. Not only is he the youngest but he’s the only boy, and he was a long time coming. He’s eight years younger than me. My parents spoil him rotten.”

“You seem bitter.”

“I guess I am a little.”

“Your parents run a deli, don’t they?”

“In Little Ferry,” Ally said with a nod.

“And you didn’t want to go into that line of work?”

“No, not really. And my whole family never really approved of me, of anything I did, really. And pretty early on I decided that if I couldn’t get their approval I might as well go the whole hog and really piss them off. Moving out west was just another way to prove my point. Fat lot of good it did me.”

“What do you mean?”

Ally sighed, and she guiltily realized only after the fact that it was perhaps a little too theatrical. She blamed the whiskey, which was easy enough. “You know, Weiss, to some people running is a sport. To others, it’s a means of getting from A to B. Me, I just ran because staying still would have made my family happy. And now I think they’re glad to see my heels. No pleasing them.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

“You don’t know my family,” Ally said indignantly. “Maybe I was a little unfair in criticizing you for not seeing your family often enough. I haven’t seen my sister for more than a year and I haven’t even talked to my parents since I got parole.”

“You like your sister?”

“Luce? She’s okay,” said Ally with a small shrug of her shoulders. “The worst of a good lot, which is probably why we got on most of the time. She was the only person to visit me when I was in McClure. No one else bothered and she had to come all the way from Ferry.”

“No Indian stripper? No would-be nurse?”

“No. I told you, Weiss, running has become a habit for me, even if it gets me nowhere. It’s easier to run out on women than it is to make an effort to stick with them. The only reason I’ve stuck round you for so long is ‘cos you damn well won’t let me go. And there you are, my life story in a nutshell. Frightened of being alone, but I work so hard at pushing everyone away.”

Ally paused, catching an off look in Weiss’ eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“How do I know this isn’t all a con? It’s what you do, after all.”

“It’s what I used to do. And who am I conning? You’re the one plying me with drink, after all. That wasn’t my idea, remember?”

“You’re not answering my question.”

“Oh, I am, it’s just you don’t like the answer. Alright, what good would it do me? Have you thought of that?” She gestured over her shoulder, back behind her, past the balcony, out towards the encroaching nothingness. “I told you, there’s nowhere for me to run, not anymore. I’m beginning to think there wasn’t, even before all this happened.”

“So you’re being honest with me? You’ve just decided to confess all your sins to a perfect stranger?”

“You started it. Anyway, I don’t really think we can consider each other strangers anymore, Weiss, and I don’t know about you but I’m far from perfect. Besides, confessing isn’t my idea of how I want to spend my final hours. Oh sure, I could find that church you spotted and start praying to a God I’ve never believed in. Sorry, but it’s true. I could die with hypocritical words on my tongue, I suppose, if that’s what you think is best, but to me it doesn’t seem any better than any other way of dying. Anyway, it’s worse than that.” Ally caught Weiss’ eye again. “I mean about the world. I don’t think it is really ending.”

“Then what would you call it?”

“Ceasing to exist.”

“Same thing.”

“No, not really. Maybe I’m not explaining this very well.”

Weiss groaned, rubbing her temples. “You’re not explaining it at all. First time I’ve ever got the hangover when I’m not done with the drinking yet.”

“You ever watch any of the old Looney Tunes cartoons?”

“Yeah, sometimes. One of my nephews loves them. But then he’s only four.”

“You ever seen the one where Daffy keeps finding the scenery changing behind him, then he realizes the guy who’s drawing the cartoon is Bugs messing with him?”

“I guess...” Weiss said, in a tone that made it clear she didn’t know exactly what Ally was talking about.

All the same, Ally continued. She’d been thinking about this for a while, mostly between dozing in the car during the afternoon, and it felt good to put her thoughts into words. She’d almost mentioned the idea when Weiss had thrown her across the diner restroom but the cut in her head had hurt her and each throbbing burst of pain was a not-so-gentle reminder to keep her mouth shut. Now, she felt either brave enough, or foolish enough, but most likely just drunk enough, to give the idea voice.

“Screwball,” she said, smiling ruefully to herself, “that still makes me laugh. Well, anyway it’s kind of like that. People sometimes talk about the human race potentially being wiped out but they never mean it literally, not like this. It’s not just that pretty soon everything will be gone, it’s much worse than that. It’s as if everything will never have existed. You worry that the slate’s being wiped clean. I’m scared that there won’t even be a slate anymore.”

She paused for a second and then went on. “Somewhere up there, there’s a pissed off artist with a huge 2B pencil and he’s slowly erasing all his rough sketches.”

“And you said you didn’t believe in God,” said Weiss dryly.

That made Ally laugh, covering her mouth with her hands, and in turn, that made Weiss smile.

“You could be right though,” Weiss said when Ally’s shoulders had finally stopped shaking and she was wiping at her eyes. “Whenever I think of Devlin my head starts aching. Mostly it’s just a little pain, but the more I think of him the more it hurts. And the more detail I try to remember, the worse the pain gets.” Then, as if to prove her point, she reached up and held the flat of her palm to her forehead, screwing her eyes up tight and letting out the barest of moans. “Crap, my head’s really hurting now.”

She stayed that way for a little longer than Ally liked. “You okay?”

“Yeah, just give me a second. I think of him and I get the pain, and the pain reminds me that I’m thinking of him, so...”

“I get it,” Ally said, “really I do. It’s Luce, for me. If I think of her, just the barest passing thought, it feels like someone’s hammering tacks into my skull.”

Another low moan escaped Weiss’ lips. She was wincing now.

“Sorry.”

“What for?” Weiss asked through gritted teeth.

“Reminding you of Devlin. I didn’t mean to.”

“Don’t apologize for that. I won’t give this…” She searched for the right words and came up empty. “I won’t be forced to forget him, not by anyone or anything, even it kills me. Still, you could be right. Maybe Devlin’s not dead at all. Maybe he was never alive and all I have are the memories no one else ever wanted. But I suppose it doesn’t matter in the end, does it? Gone is gone.”

Ally shook her head. “No, it matters. I don’t mind telling you, if I’m right, then it terrifies me. I know, I know,” she went on, catching the look in the Marshal’s eye, “I said I wasn’t scared of dying so much and I really think that’s true. No, what scares the shit out of me is not existing. Of never having existed. I want my life to have meant something. I want to mean something.”

“To someone?”

“I guess so. Back to not being alone, right?” She gave a weak half-smile. It was the best she could manage right now. She was trembling, she realized. Maybe it was just the cold. Maybe not. “I know it’s stupid. I know I’m stupid. And I know it ain’t going to happen, I’m not going be safe, not anytime soon. But I still want to feel safe.”

“Right.”

“Guess I’ve said that before.”

Weiss nodded. “No, but you didn’t need to. And anyway, I might have said this before too. You’re not alone.”

Then the Marshal shifted position unexpectedly, placing her own empty glass on the floor beside her and reaching an arm around the surprised Ally’s shoulders. Her grip was tight, perhaps a little too tight, the fingers digging into Ally’s pale skin, but all the same Ally didn’t object. She thought she knew why she was being held so strongly, suspecting Weiss needed to literally feel that she was still there, and she guessed that while the hug was meant to comfort her it offered just as much solace to Weiss, even if she most likely would never admit so.

She felt herself being pulled into the hug and welcomed it, shuffling down a little, leaning in, and resting her head on Weiss’ shoulder.

They stayed that way for a long time, trapped in the embrace by a desperate need, if only because there might not be anyone else left to touch, not any more.

After a while, the lights by the pool flickered and went out. A second later the overhead lighting followed suit. The dim reflections in the motel room’s window disappeared, leaving it a solid pane of black. Either the motel’s generator had finally run out of gas or the nothingness had already reached that far.

There was still some light, enough at least to see by, but from where, Ally didn’t know. And she was too achy, too drunk, and too sad to care. She refused to move, keeping her head on Weiss’ shoulder, feeling the gentle movement of each breath.

The sudden silence was unsettling. Ally could no longer hear the soft, steady chugging of the genny, the humming of the emergency lights, or the irregular slapping of the striped tarp on the poolside whenever the cool mountain wind caught it. When Weiss shifted uncomfortably, the unexpected clinking of glass on cement when she knocked over the empty bottle was startling.

“You see it?” Weiss asked quietly, glancing over her shoulder.

“I’m pretending not to.”

“A lot of good that will do.” Weiss tugged her arm free, to Ally’s disappointment, and struggled to her feet. “We should go inside.”

“Sure. Why not? Might as well keep fighting for as long as we can, right? Kicking and screaming?”

“I hope not.”

Ally looked up, squinting into the dusk at the woman standing over her, and shot her a half-hearted grin. It wasn’t easy, seeing as how she felt like crying again. “You’re no fun, Weiss.”

“Says you.”

Reluctantly, Ally took the offered hand and let herself be hauled up, perhaps a little too fast. Her head spun and she staggered against the railing, clutching it with both hands. The vast expanse of whiteness rolled before her and she had to turn quickly back towards the motel so as to avoid looking at it, which was a mistake as it only made things worse. Her stomach lurched up just as fast as she had and made unwelcome advances on her throat.

“I think I might be sick,” she said weakly, clasping a hand over her mouth. All that alcohol and no food had not been a good idea, after all.

* * * * *

Ally stared in the mirror that was screwed into the wall above the basin. There was a large crack in it that ran across one bottom corner. From where she stood, her hands firmly clutching the cool porcelain rim of the sink, it looked as if someone had drawn a diagonal jagged line across her heart with a thick black marker. Cut here.

It was much darker inside the bathroom, with only a tiny window built into the shower stall allowing the barest of light in. A bare bulb jutted out of a socket over the mirror but there was no point even trying it.

She glared at her reflection and didn’t particularly like what she saw.

Her hair was a mess, but that was okay, it usually was. She ran her hands through it a few times anyway. There were dark circles under her eyes, making her look more tired than she felt, which she wouldn’t have thought was possible. Her left cheek was badly bruised, a crazy mix of blue and brown discoloration. It was swollen too, tender to the touch, and she winced in pain when she pressed it gingerly with her fingertips. Her jaw ached. She didn’t dare open her mouth to check on her broken tooth.

God, she was filthy too. She tugged at the neckline of her dress, the fabric more a grubby grey now than the pristine white it had been this morning. The stain on her side, where she’d coughed up a mouthful of blood, was now a dark splash of carmine. Sure, she had probably looked worse sometime, she figured, but she couldn’t remember when. Maybe that year or more she spent in prison orange.

She closed her eyes for a second, fighting another wave of nausea. Her fingers gripped the basin’s edge just a little tighter, her knuckles whitening. It passed just as quickly as it had come. She glanced up at her own mirror image again and saw the fear in her own eyes.

It had been stupid of her to get so drunk. Weiss had even had to help her into the bathroom, where Ally had immediately dropped down beside the sink, splaying her legs out on the cool black-and-white tiles, and then had asked to be left alone for just a little while.

Instead, Weiss had stayed for a second, pulling back the shower curtain, trying to allow as much light in as possible, and threw a cursory glance towards the small window. She didn’t have to be so concerned, as Ally seriously doubted she could fit through the frame even if she tried. And it would have taken a while just to get the pane unstuck, as it looked like it had been painted over several times, never very carefully.

Besides, she had thought as Weiss had knelt down beside her, even if she did get the window open without alerting the Marshal, where could she go? Why run anymore?

Weiss had taken the time to unlace her boots, slowly, delicately, as if she was fearful of hurting her anymore, or more likely perhaps just wary of being vomited on. When she’d tugged the second boot off her hands had lingered on Ally’s calf perhaps just a little too long.

Their eyes caught, just for a second, and then Weiss had looked away. “You should clean these wounds,” she had said, before clambering to her feet and leaving, pulling the door shut behind her with a soft click. There was no lock.

Ally had let her leave without saying anything. If she had opened her mouth, some foolish words would have been the least of her worries. She was already feeling better by then, so long as she stayed still, but she wasn’t about to take the chance.

So she sat there for a long while, trying to calm her nervous stomach. She just about managed to keep the whiskey down and the room had finally stopped spinning. When, at long last, she struggled to her feet, it lurched around her one last time, then settled down again.

And now she stood before the sink, staring at her reflection, unable to look away from her bruised and swollen face, like an anti-Narcissus. The dull light creeping in through the window framed her. It wasn’t really light, she knew that, just as she knew she’d never see sunshine again. It was the nothingness, ever edging closer, intruding even on this limited refuge.

She briefly wondered why the nothingness was centered on this town, this motel, this room even. It couldn’t truly be a coincidence. What was it Weiss had said? ‘It’s following you.’ Not for the first time Ally considered Weiss could have been right? Really? Was this all her fault?

Ally snorted in self-contempt, the sudden twitch of her cheek painful. Some questions are never answered, she thought, and some aren’t even worth asking.

She turned on the cold faucet, not expecting for there to be any water. There was some however, perhaps the last few gallons from the motel’s tanks, so she let it run.

There was a gentle knocking from behind her.

“You okay?” Weiss called through the door.

She lied. It was so easy to fall back into bad habits, after all. “Sure. Be out in a minute.”

Suddenly, and she didn’t know why, she remembered the promise she’d made to Luce on one of those rare prison visits. I swear, she had been coerced into saying, I swear that I won’t give up.

It was her reflection, she realized. She’d seen that look before, mirrored in the thick plexiglass that divided cons from their visitors, the crosshatching embedded deep in the glass cutting her likeness to shreds. It was those shameful, sorry eyes that jogged her memory. That and another lie. And still Luce had seen her through it all.

Her head ached. The sink was near full. She twisted the faucet off and then splashed some cold water on her face. It didn’t make a difference. No matter how hard you tried, some sins couldn’t be washed away.

* * * * *

Weiss hurriedly drew the curtains. The fabric was too thin to completely stem the weak light coming through but it helped, plunging the room into a twilight-like gloom. Even that was bothersome, like an itch just out of reach. How it could be so light when it was late at night and when the world outside no longer existed, she didn’t know. Still, she could ignore the itch if she tried hard, and if she did that long enough, she’d forget about it.

Besides, keeping out the light wasn’t why she pulled the curtains closed. Privacy wasn’t really a concern either. There was no one out there left, after all.

No, she was doing this for Cole’s sake. Too much alcohol was just a small part of her problem right now. Weiss guessed Cole was close to cracking. She’d seen it before, plenty of times. You can only push someone so far before they snapped, and all the nothingness outside did nothing but push. She figured Cole didn’t need to be seeing the encroaching whiteness reaching for the window.

The thing about pushing was that it was predictable, up to a point. You pushed, they resisted, so you pushed a little more, and they yielded. But if you kept pushing, there would come a time when they broke, and that’s when it got unpredictable. Like most cops, whatever department, service, or agency they belonged to, Weiss hated unpredictability.

Maybe that’s why she was dealing with all this a little better than Cole seemed to be. Sure, the nothingness, and all that went with it, scared her in a way she’d never been scared before. It was the powerlessness of it all, she thought. At least the nothingness was predictable. It kept coming, relentlessly surging towards them, unavoidable.

She could have left.

The thought came to Weiss without warning, but as unwelcome as it was, it wouldn’t go away. Sure, she could have left at any time. She could have unlocked Cole’s handcuffs, have told her to fuck off out of her sight, and could even have turned a blind eye to the oncoming storm. She could have just walked away. She hadn’t had to stay, did she?

So then, the question remained: why was she still here?

This morning, justice had been all that mattered to her. Now it didn’t seem all that important. Stranger still, she wasn’t sure what had taken its place. Integrity, maybe? No, probably not. She’d given up enough today. Her integrity had definitely gone out of the window. She glanced over at the curtains. Well, it was as good a place as any for it, she supposed.

So what then? What was left? Service, that’s all. When was the last time someone had asked her for help? She couldn’t remember, any more than she could remember when was the last she time she spent half an hour talking to someone that wasn’t either Devlin or a suspect. She held her head for a second, until the pain subsided.

Maybe that was why she was staying. Not because it was her job and not because it was the right thing to do but simply because Cole had asked her to. And perhaps that was enough.

Weiss flicked the lightswitch more out of habit than for any other reason. No harm in trying. No luck either. Maybe the nothingness was like an overcharged light bulb, she thought, glowing brighter and brighter, buzzing louder and louder, until it would finally blow. Maybe the darkness that followed, if such a thing was possible, would be even more terrible.

Without thinking, her fingers went to the small silver crucifix that hung around her neck. Dear God, she prayed silently, here’s a question you’ve never heard before. Why me?

She sighed. She was stuck in a motel room, in the middle of nowhere, with a woman she’d beaten and mistreated and with whom she had absolutely nothing in common, a woman who couldn’t be much more different to her if she tried, and Weiss firmly believed that Cole was trying.

Weiss crossed back to the dresser and ripped open a small packet of Oreo cookies which Cole had ‘liberated’ from the vending machine down in the hotel’s foyer. She raised one cookie to her lips but then threw it back onto the dresser. She wasn’t really that hungry, which surprised her. Considering she’d eaten next to nothing all day, you’d think she would be.

There were candles among the vending machine debris, Weiss noticed. She briefly wondered where Cole had found those, then remembered there had been some back in the diner. Maybe Cole had been clever enough to ask for some. Most likely she’d thought herself cleverer still and had stolen a few when no one was looking.

Weiss dug a half-empty box of matches out from her pocket, from beneath her cigarettes and a piece of card, and lit all three. Then, placing two in front of the television in the hopes the screen would reflect some of the light, she put the third on one of the bedside cabinets. The twilight subsided a fraction. The flickering candlelight cast the oddest of dark shadows across the white ceiling.

She shrugged off her jacket, and with pursed lips studied the rip in the arm of the fabric for a second, then threw it over the back of the room’s only chair. The card slipped out of the jacket pocket and fell to the floor. She stooped to pick it up, then unfolded it.

A sharp stab of pain shot through her head. Devlin had given her the card early this morning, which seemed so long ago. She remembered him laughing at it, making some stupid comment about what passed for entertainment in Vegas. At the time, she hadn’t given it a second glance, just folded it neatly in half and stuffed it into her pocket.

But she looked at it now. It was a cheaply produced glossy advertising leaflet, showing a picture of Cole in full Elvis get-up, dark hair slicked up into a pompadour, big mirrored sunglasses, the white jumpsuit, sweat beading her face. It wasn’t the greatest of photos, Weiss thought, but she guessed it had been taken in mid-concert. Brightly colored lettering proclaimed Cole to be ‘the Drag King of Rock ‘n’ Roll!’ and ‘the next best thing since Elvis Herselvis!’.

Weiss smiled sadly, then folded the card up again and hid it beneath her jacket. There was no point mentioning it to Cole. It would just be another reminder of what could no longer be.

She walked across the room to the bathroom door, thought about opening it for just a second, then instead rapped lightly with her knuckles.

“You okay?”

There was a moment’s pause, just long enough to worry Weiss, not quite long enough to make her kick the door open.

“Sure,” Cole called out, her muffled voice sounding anything but. “Be out in a minute.”

Weiss frowned but said nothing more. Impatiently, she crossed back to the window without really knowing why. She couldn’t help but part the curtains ever so slightly, just enough for her to look out. She hadn’t meant to, had tried hard not to, but she still looked outside all the same.

The nothingness was creeping past the railing, the pitted white metal already hard to make out. She couldn’t help wonder what drove it, why it grew so slowly at times and then so quickly at others. But in her heart of hearts she knew there were no answers. Life was like that sometimes. On a bad day, and today was as bad as they came, the best you could hope for was to find the truth most people agreed upon.

She stared blankly as the nothingness inched past the brick pillars, reaching for the empty whiskey bottle and the discarded glasses. Her hand twitched, just once, as if it was trying to tug the curtain closed again. It seemed to have more sense than she did.

She could feel the nothingness inside her head, settling in all the little gaps in her memory it had made earlier. One second it called to her, a soft and persuasive cry that urged her to just step outside and to reach out towards the expanse of white just as it reached for her. The next, it clawed at her thoughts, desperately hooking itself into her mind, twisting and wrenching, scattering memories like chalk dust.

With considerable effort, Weiss tore her gaze away. She let the curtains fall back into place and turned back to look instead at the closed bathroom. She needed to keep Cole distracted, keep her mind off what was coming as much as she could. It would be so easy to give in, she knew. So she’d get Cole to talk a little more, she thought, do her best to let her lead the conversation.

And if Cole didn’t want to talk, well… out of the blue an idea occurred to Weiss, one she couldn’t shake off no matter how hard she tried. Worse still, the more she tried the more it coalesced into a fully formed thought. And as she bit her knuckles, uncertain of why this was popping into her head right now, the thought became a certainty.

The door to the bathroom opened and Cole stepped out. She looked pale, weak, her skin almost colorless, a stark contrast to her unruly black hair. She’d tried washing the blood out of her white dress but had only succeeded in spreading the stain out further.

“You feeling any better?” Weiss asked.

Cole nodded. “Sure. Sorry about that.” She glanced at the candles, then began to pace up and down, walking from one door to the other, from the restroom to the motel room’s door.

“No problem.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve got this drunk. I’ll be okay so long as I don’t think about it.”

“Yeah,” Weiss said with a small sigh, “that’s becoming second nature. You sure that’s helping?”

“What?”

Weiss made a motion of pacing with her fingers.

“Oh,” said Cole, shrugging. All the same she didn’t stop, just kept walking back and forth. “It takes my mind off things.”

“Would you rather talk instead?”

“About what?”

“Whatever you want.”

Weiss reached behind her back and pulled her still-holstered gun free from her belt, placing it on the bedside cabinet. Her useless cellphone followed, then her wallet. She hesitated, then undid the clasp of her necklace too, tugging the small silver crucifix out from her tee. She held the cross in her hand for just a second, gently running her thumb over the calvary. There is no god but God, she thought.

Cole had stopped pacing. She stood over by the room’s door, staring intently at the necklace that Weiss held.

“Something wrong?” Weiss said, carefully placing the crucifix beside her wallet, curling the chain links into a neat circular pile.

“Do you think they have a Bible here?”

Well, wasn’t that a surprising turnaround, Weiss thought? Had Cole decided, now that desperation had finally set in, to pray to that God she didn’t believe in. She sat down on the end of the bed, feeling the old, weak springs give alarmingly beneath her.

“Most places like this do,” she said. “Gideons, at a guess. Why do you ask?”

Cole shrugged and leaned back against the door. “I don’t know. I was just thinking it must be comforting to be religious. It would probably help me feel safer. Does it help you?”

“It did.”

“Did?”

“Until you started talking about people never having existed,” Weiss said, then sighed. “I would hope God couldn’t be that cruel.”

Cole considered that for a moment. “I contemplated being a nun when I left school. You look surprised. You don’t think I could cut it as a nun?”

“No,” said Weiss honestly, “but I was more shocked at you using the word contemplate in a sentence.”

Cole burst out laughing at that. It was good to hear, Weiss thought, maybe it would help her keep it together for just a little while longer. She really was close to breaking, Weiss could see that now. She’d suspected as much but it was no comfort to be proven right. She guessed that would be how most atheists felt if they ever managed to finally prove God didn’t exist.

“Funny,” Cole said sarcastically, “real funny. And here was I thinking your training sucked out any semblance of a sense of humor.”

Weiss was tempted to make another remark about semblance but decided against it. “So why didn’t you take it up?”

“What?”

“Get thee to a nunnery, woman.”

“Oh, that. I’ve told you, religion was never for me, and that’s kind of the first thing they expect. Not believing is a major disadvantage at the acceptance interview, you know? Besides, I really don’t think they’d appreciate Elvis songs at vespers, not even his gospel tunes. Although I’ve moved an audience to tears before, singing ‘Mansion on the Hilltop’.”

Weiss smiled dutifully at that. “I may have said this before, but I think it bears repeating. You really do think something of yourself, don’t you?”

“Big family, remember?” said Cole dismissively. “It was always easy to get lost in the crowd. I learned very early on that I should think highly of myself, as chances are no one else will. At least this is one way in which we’re alike.”

Weiss couldn’t help but bristle at that. “We are not alike,” she said emphatically.

“No?” Cole was still smiling. “You’re telling me you don’t think a lot of yourself?”

“I...” Weiss almost denied it but caught herself. If she couldn’t be honest now, when could she? “I suppose I do. I have to.”

“Yeah, we both do.”

Right then, something changed. It was only a subtle change, hardly noticeable and just as hard to define. A dimming of the light, perhaps, or the air pressure falling, or something else entirely. If asked, assuming there had been anyone else left alive in the world to ask them, neither woman would have been able to explain what it was. But both of them were immediately aware of it. Weiss instinctively glanced towards the door, then the curtained window.

“It’s at the balcony, isn’t it?” Cole asked. There might have been tears in her eyes; it was hard to tell in the wavering candlelight.

Weiss could feel the nothingness grasping at her thoughts, scratching at the inside of her skull, trying to get out as desperately as the Abbé Faria. She forced herself to ignore it and at the same time tried her best to sound reassuring. “Try not to think about it.”

“What do you think I’m doing?”

“Tell me something.”

“What?”

It didn’t matter, Weiss thought. She just had to distract Cole for a little longer. “Anything. Come on, you haven’t had a problem talking before.”

Cole flashed her a weak smile, then wiped at her eyes. “I wanted to travel. There is so much world to see. I’ve never been to Spain. I don’t suppose I’ll get the chance now.”

“Don’t be so sure. At my guess in another ten minutes or so you’ll be able to see the whole world just by looking around this room.” Weiss kicked herself as soon as she said it. “Sorry.”

“Forget it. Talking doesn’t seem to be taking my mind off it anyway.”

A long pause followed. Cole seemed to be thinking about what to say next. When she finally spoke, in hushed tones, she didn’t look at Weiss, just kept her gaze fixed on a particular spot on the floor.

“I tried killing myself in prison, did you know that?”

“Yes.”

“It’s in the file, I suppose.”

“Yes.” When Cole looked up sharply, obviously caught between being humiliated by the sins of her past and angry at having her privacy invaded, Weiss hastily added, “Prisons tend to keep note of… things like that.”

“So you know why?”

“I know what the file says. Severe depression.”

Another laugh, although this was nothing like earlier. It was a bitter, resentful bark of a laugh that made Weiss regret saying anything. “I guess that’s as good a reason as any, right?” Cole said.

“I guess. Is it right?”

She shrugged as if it was unimportant, then shook her head. “No,” she said, “no, I don’t think it is. It was the predictability that really got to me. The knowing what every day would bring without fail. The same routine over and over again, day after day, stretching out in front of me for two long years. Knowing what was coming and that I couldn’t do anything about it. Like I said before, I was lucky they let me out so early. If they hadn’t, I would have tried again.”

Weiss didn’t know what to say. She did glance over her shoulder, quickly, back towards the bedside cabinet, but not so that Cole didn’t catch the anxious look.

“Don’t worry, Weiss, I’m not going to try to take the easy way out or anything. I don’t like guns, never have.”

“The thought never...” she began, then let the lie die on her lips. There was no point.

“Yeah, sure. However little you might think of me, Weiss, I’m in this ‘til the end. However soon it comes.”

Cole pushed herself away from the door and began walking back towards the restroom. Her bare feet made soft little thuds on the thin carpet.

“Please don’t start pacing again, it’s driving me crazy.”

“I’m not like you! I can’t just stand here and do nothing. I told you, I don’t like being cooped up.”

“You don’t really have a choice.”

“I know!” Cole snapped, then turned her back on Weiss, leaning against the dresser, gripping the edge tightly. Her shoulders heaved suddenly.

“So talk to me,” Weiss said softly, getting to her feet. “C’mon, turn around, look at me.”

Cole did so, however reluctantly. “Sorry, I just can’t think straight and I don’t know what to talk about.”

“Then don’t talk.”

“What else am I supposed to do?”

Weiss reached out and took hold of the short chain that coupled both cuffs together. She could feel Cole’s cool skin against the edges of her palm as her fingers wrapped around the links. She yanked hard, twisting the links a little, using the compliance techniques she’d learned years ago.

Cole was caught off-balance and stumbled forward, almost losing her footing. Her breath was knocked from her as she collided with the shorter woman but at the same time she was steadied by Weiss wrapping her free hand around her waist. She found her shackled hands pressing against Weiss’ stomach, and now they were pinned firmly between them, Weiss was able to slip her other hand up to grip the nape of Cole’s neck too.

She opened her mouth to speak but Weiss didn’t give her the chance, gently but firmly applying pressure to lower Cole’s head, and then their lips met.

Weiss knew she should have realized it would come to this, sooner or later. The possibility had bugged her for a long while, even if it had only coalesced into a certainty a little while ago. She had let her hands linger a little too long on Cole’s calves when removing her boots, not realizing at the time how much she’d wanted to run her hands up those long legs, but knowing it now. And she had wrapped an arm tightly around the younger woman’s shoulders when they were out on the balcony, holding her closer than she really should have, hoping to console her, but now she wondered who had been comforted the most.

There was the verbal sparring too, that annoying easy charm of Cole’s that caught at her worse than any physical contact had. The lop-sided smile that made her pulse race, the blatant flirting that made her heart pound. She had cursed her own body for betraying her, had fought back by throwing up walls, refocusing on what seemed more important, and keeping a professional distance.

In the end it hadn’t made a single jot of difference, had it?

She kept a tight grip on Cole’s neck, feeling the slight resistance fade away as the kiss was returned. Cole’s eyes gradually closed as she surrendered, her lips parting ever so slightly to accept Weiss’ gently thrusting tongue.

The kiss finally broke. Weiss felt the cool air catch on her wet lips. The air was heavy with sticky unease.

“You have to back off,” Cole whispered.

Weiss released her grip, letting her hands fall to her sides, and took a hesitant step backwards. She tried to say something, anything, but no words would come to her. She swallowed thickly, feeling the heat of embarrassment rush into her cheeks, and almost turned away. Almost.

Then she saw that Cole was smiling.

“I need some freedom here, Weiss. No point in being uncomfortable,” Cole said. She raised her shackled hands, slipping them over Weiss’ head, and now she used the cuffs to pull Weiss back towards her.

Weiss felt the cool steel links touch the back of her neck and she shivered uncontrollably. She smiled as she allowed herself to be drawn near again, relinquishing just that little tiny bit of control. Her hands found Cole’s hips and for a moment they stayed that way, like two dancers who didn’t know what to do now the music had stopped.

* * * * *

Ally lowered her head, allowing herself to be kissed again, enjoying the heady sensation of Weiss’ soft lips gently touching hers. The Marshal tasted of cheap tobacco and expensive alcohol, and Ally was surprised at how much she enjoyed the combination. And beneath a day’s worth of sweat and smoke Ally could smell the faintest scent of an expensive fragrance, Aliage perhaps. She wasn’t so sure that suited Weiss but she liked it all the same.

She brushed the back of Weiss’ head with her thumbs, absently twisting the beaded short braids of hair, enjoying the little subconscious twitches each light touch elicited from the shorter woman. It nearly made her forget all about the nothingness that now scratched at the inside of her skull almost as frantically as it scratched at the door, but not quite.

The second kiss was hesitant, lighter, slower, cautious even, almost as if Weiss was having doubts. Ally found herself strangely disappointed. She recognized her body’s reaction, that undeniable yearning, that slow burn. She could already feel a heat rising deep within her even as their lips drew apart, a single strand of saliva caught between them for an instant only. Weiss turned her head and wiped at her mouth, smiling in embarrassment, strangely shy over such a small thing.

Her fears were fleeting, allayed by Weiss raising one hand to grip the nape of Ally’s neck tightly. The subsequent kisses were none of those things. Weiss kissed with a passion she probably showed for nothing else in life, a bunch of short aggressive kisses, one following quickly after another. Her large, soft lips pressed hard against Ally’s own, her tongue darting and probing, but never lingering. It was an onslaught to be endured rather than a seduction to be savored.

It made sense that Weiss would kiss that way, Ally thought. It wasn’t subtle, not particularly kind, and it certainly wasn’t gentle. Instead, it was honest, up-front, and full of sound and fury that just needed an outlet.

Behind her, one of the candles on the dresser guttered briefly and then went out with a soft hiss. A swirl of smoke spiraled upwards. A dying shadow walked across the far wall as Ally lost herself momentarily in Weiss’ fervent kisses.

She had been a little surprised by Weiss’ approach. She knew Weiss was attracted to her, she’d have to be blind or a fool not to see that, but she figured the Marshal’s self-control was too strong, that she would be able to resist her desire. Ally’s casual flirting may have started out as just another needling way she could get under Weiss’ skin, a way to stop herself from fretting too much, but towards the end there she had meant every word. She had desperately needed Weiss to return her attention; there was nothing else she could feel good about stealing.

Perhaps she’d gotten through those hardened defenses once or twice, and she strongly believed Weiss had even flirted back, maybe, just a little. It was hard to tell. All the same, Ally suspected her struggle had done nothing but amuse herself. She had been near giving up. Being hauled into that first kiss had come as something of a shock.

Still, despite being caught off-guard she wasn’t all that surprised at how Weiss kissed her, how inelegantly, how clumsily, and how fervently. She guessed that Weiss’ blunt way of charging forward was how Weiss approached any sexual encounter. Why would she approach sex any differently than she did everything else in life? She was used to being in control and to her, this would be no different.

Well, let her think she was in charge now as before, Ally thought. It was easier that way.

Not just easier, she admitted to herself. Ally needed this; she hadn’t realized how much until Weiss had taken a firm hold of her neck. She could feel her heart beat hard against her lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Her legs grew suddenly weak and she felt a white-hot burning building deep within her, at her very core.

Weiss seemed not to pick up on the urgent need. Her kisses had moved down, tracing Ally’s jawline, moving under her chin and forcing her to tilt her head back ever so slightly, then down to her neck. But then she looked up and pulled away very slightly despite Ally’s heartfelt – and completely unintended – moan of regret.

“What’s wrong?”

“Are you sure about this?” Weiss asked, her breathing heavy.

She was evidently still worried that this wasn’t such a good idea, Ally realized, perhaps unable to get past her own innate professionalism. It was strange, even with the world ending, how there were still some things you could give up and others you couldn’t, and what rules you would still break and those you’d stand by. Or at least make a show of trying.

Well, Ally was with her on that one. She wasn’t so sure it was a good idea either. But it didn’t matter. She needed this. And she’d help Weiss past her reticence too, if need be.

“No,” Ally said truthfully after the smallest of hesitations. “Well, mostly no. With a little bit of yes thrown in.”

“I can stop...”

“Don’t you dare!” Damn it! For a cop, the woman could be obtuse. “You do and I will be guilty of a murder!”

Not funny but then it wasn’t meant to be. She goddamn needed this. It still almost earned her a reproach from Weiss but Ally cut her off, covering her mouth with her own.

The kiss that followed was even more awkward and passionate, more desperate, than before, only stopping when their teeth clashed together painfully. It was as if her response had finally allowed Weiss to be free, so much more so than Ally could be, and she had reveled in that newly found freedom.

Weiss reached down with both hands to clutch at the hem of Ally’s bloodstained white dress, pulling it up over her hips, revealing her white hipster panties. Obediently, Ally raised her hands over her head, allowing the Marshal to pull it all the way over her shoulders, up over her head and along her arms. Weiss had to rip the fragile shoulder straps just to get the dress past the handcuffs and the frustration, brief as it was, showed. She impatiently hurled the ruined dress into the far corner of the room before sitting back on the edge of the bed, pulling Ally along to stand in front of her.

If Ally minded the damage done to her dress, and she wasn’t sure she did, she didn’t say so. In one way she was damn glad to be rid of it. Besides, at that moment she had other things on her mind.

She wore no bra, she rarely did, and the cold air felt so good on her bare skin. Pelle d’oca, she thought, closing her eyes, and then gasped as she felt Weiss’ tongue touch her stomach, drifting from just above her hips, skimming up to just above her belly-button. She couldn’t help but shiver. She gently rested her bound hands on the top of the Marshal’s head, her fingers grasping at the tightly woven cornrows.

The pointed tip of Weiss’ tongue first moved in a circular, then in a slow, sensual S-pattern, then back to the same circle. It took Ally a second to gather that she was delicately tracing the small yin-yang symbol on the left side of her stomach, a foolish tattoo that she’d never really wanted, and had regretted from the very moment she’d been talked into getting it.

“Oh God,” Ally said throatily, tilting her head back as Weiss kissed the very center of the tattoo.

The kisses moved up, gentler now. She still winced when those lips barely touched the large bruise that discolored the pale skin at her ribs, then gasped again as they found the softness of her small breasts. Weiss reached up with her left hand, her right still keeping a firm grip on Ally’s thigh, and fumbled at her, long fingers encircling one small breast and the thumb brushing over the erect nub. Ally savored the soft wet touch of Weiss’ mouth upon her other breast, finding it suddenly hard to breathe when she felt the woman’s tongue quickly flick across her nipple.

A low moan escaped Ally’s lips as Weiss straightened up again and her lips left her tense body. The Marshal twisted out from under Ally’s shackled hands and got to her feet, hastily pulling off her own tee. At the same time, Ally was reaching for Weiss’ belt, her fingers struggling with the buckle. She couldn’t quite manage it. She blamed her clumsiness on the handcuffs limiting her movement, but she knew it wasn’t true. She swore under her breath as she struggled.

“Let me,” Weiss said, her tone gentle but commanding, placing her strong hands on the taller woman’s shoulders. Ally found herself being turned around and pushed down on to the bed. She lay back and watched impatiently as Weiss undressed, first hastily kicking off her Converse. The impatience almost got to her, almost made her want to touch herself, but she fought the temptation, knowing better was to come.

The room suddenly brightened. The nothingness had now reached the motel room and the wall, the door, and the window were slowly being swallowed up. Ally hadn’t taken her eyes off Weiss, being caught up in the impromptu and inelegant striptease, and so she saw her give the window a brief worried look.

A wan smile touched Ally’s lips. Who would have thought this was the same hard-assed Marshal from this morning, the tightly-wound woman who placed her duty above all? No doubt Weiss justified this little ethical lapse to herself in some way, perhaps seeing it as a way of distracting Ally, of keeping her mind off what was coming.

And there was some truth in that. It had worked, hadn’t it? Up until now Ally hadn’t given the approaching end a second thought.

Ally was sure there was more to it than that though. Weiss wanted her. She’d suspected as much for a long time even if she had thought it was a need that would never have been acted on. The anger, the aggression, the constant verbal sparring, all of that was just how Weiss dealt with how she felt, repressing desire under a wafer-thin veneer of professionalism. It was almost flirting, although it hurt a little too much for Ally’s tastes.

And as she looked back at Weiss, she admitted to herself that it was rather satisfying to be proven right. Weiss did want her... no, she needed Ally, just as much as Ally needed her.

As she stepped out of her slacks, Weiss looked up and caught Ally watching her. Any other woman might have been ashamed at being caught staring, but Ally had never seen the point in hiding what you longed for. So she didn’t look away, although her smile grew a lot wider. Weiss must have seen that as a challenge. Although she was obviously uncomfortable, she refused to back down, and didn’t look away either.

Now clad only in her underwear, Weiss clambered on to the bed, pushing Ally down flat on her back, brooking no argument. Climbing up her body, Weiss straddled the handcuffed woman, keeping Ally’s legs pinned together with her knees. Then she ducked her head to kiss her again, softly and tenderly at first, just brushing her lips oh so lightly against Ally’s mouth. Her tongue just barely licked at the pale woman’s lips.

It wasn’t enough of a distraction, not this time. Weiss must have seen Ally glance towards the window as she took hold of her chin and held it firm, preventing Ally from turning her head.

“Don’t,” she said quietly but sternly. “This isn’t about anything but you and me, remember that. Make this a memory it can’t take from you.”

“I…” Ally began, but she didn’t know what she meant to say, so fell silent, giving Weiss a feeble smile instead.

Weiss made the smile vanish by kissing her again, roughly this time, and still kept a hand on her, letting it rest lightly on Ally’s collarbone. Another quick kiss followed, just as hard as the first, then another, as if each was meant to rid herself of some of the burning eagerness she was obviously feeling but instead each only served to fan the flames even higher.

Ally winced again, grunting in pain.

“Did I hurt you?” Weiss said in sudden concern. She shifted position again, rolling over so that she now lay on her side. Ally could feel the warmth of her skin as Weiss moved closer, pressing herself against Ally’s body.

“My cheek is sore, that’s all. I hope you fuck as hard as you punch.”

“Sure, just only when you’re in handcuffs.”

That raised another smile from Ally, a stronger, more natural one this time. “You going to take these things off?”

“No,” Weiss said, “I’ve kinda got used to you being in them. Now, get your arms above your head.”

The smile turned into a wide grin. “A control freak even in-between the sheets. I should have known.” All the same she complied, raising her arms onto the pillows above her. Her fingers pressed down into the mattress, sneaking into the gap and curling up to grip the underside of the wooden headboard.

“Shut up,” Weiss ordered, “and unless you’re watching me, close your eyes.”

“Sure, whatever you...”

Then she could say nothing, as Weiss’ hand found her breasts again and it was all she could do to stop herself from groaning aloud. She felt her breast being cupped, the softness yielding to Weiss’ strong touch, and then felt the hardened nipple being pinched between forefinger and thumb, enough to elicit a sudden gasp but not quite enough to hurt.

At the same time she could feel Weiss’ breath on her shoulder, and a second later felt those soft, wide lips touching the side of her neck, moving downwards, agonizingly slow.

With Weiss shuffling a little lower on the bed, Ally obediently closed her eyes. Weiss had been right, after all. It was easier for her to lose herself in the moment that way and, much more importantly, she had to try to block out what remained of the motel room. Don’t think about it, she thought, don’t give it headroom, don’t even think about it. Focus on Weiss, she told herself over and over again, focus, concentrate on what she’s doing...

Again, she felt Weiss’ mouth upon her breasts, the tongue circling one firm nipple, then the lips closing around it and Weiss sucking softly. Ally almost dared to move her hands down, as she wanted to touch her and she wanted to keep her there.

No such luck.

Weiss rose up a little again. One hand now lay on the left side of Ally’s stomach, resting gently on the discolored flesh. The other pushed Ally’s own hands back down, keeping them firmly embedded in the pillows above her head. Weiss had to stay in control even now, while all the time she was pushing Ally closer and closer to losing it. She was so close already, trying to fight the need that was filling her.

The hand on her stomach moved down a little further, the slender, perfectly manicured fingers easing beneath the white cotton of Ally’s panties. Ally couldn’t help but tremble in anticipation.

The fingertips slid down over smooth skin, brushed through her soft patch of hair, down just a little further, barely touching the slick wetness she found there. Weiss ran a fingernail along the folds of Ally’s womanhood, gently scratching the tender flesh there, smiling as the caress sent another shudder through her lover’s body.

Ally’s breath caught in her throat as she felt a single finger slip easily inside her. Weiss began to move her hand back and forth, her finger effortlessly sliding in and out. After just a few moments another finger joined the first, and Ally felt herself tighten around them.

Ally wanted to say something, anything, to encourage Weiss’ actions but she hardly dared speak. Her back arched as Weiss’ thumb found her engorged clit, gently tweaking it along with each insistent thrust of her fingers. She was panting for air as her body moved with a will of its own, her pelvis thrusting against the palm of Weiss’ hand. She could feel the pressure surging between her legs and she could only grunt wordlessly as Weiss kept up the rapid motion.

Weiss shifted suddenly, positioning herself over Ally’s right thigh, pinning her own hand and rubbing her own crotch against the bruised flesh. Ally gasped as a jolt of pain shot up her leg, gritting her teeth just to get through it. As the pain ebbed away she could feel the hotness of Weiss almost burning her thigh. The woman needed release almost as much as Ally did.

And she was greedy, letting her eagerness run away with her. Ally wasn’t about to let that happen.

“Too fast,” she said. The words came out almost as a growl. “Slow down, please... Weiss, please...”

She was ignored. Weiss continued to frantically drive her fingers deep inside her, running her thumb over her clitoris, unevenly stroking it with each thrust. At the same time, she pushed herself against Ally’s responsive body, wrapping one leg over and around both of Ally’s so she could get as close as possible.

Ally’s fingers caught the underside of the headboard again, gripping it so tightly that her knuckles turned white. She choked back a cry. She felt that familiar ache inside, that mounting sensation as her pleasure grew. No point in slowing now.

Her head rolled to one side, away from Weiss, and she almost bit her own bicep just to keep from yelling. Her breath came in fast gasps. “Going… to come…”

She had wanted this to last but now she was so near she couldn’t hold it back. Weiss thrust even faster, her fingers pounding into Ally as she bucked uncontrollably against the dark-skinned woman’s hand, and then she climaxed, her muscles tensing tightly as she felt her body plummet blissfully down into release.

After a moment, Weiss slipped her hand out from Ally’s panties and moved her arm up to snake around her waist. Weiss then kissed her neck, calming the woman as her tall, paper-thin body quivered. Ally felt the absence greatly, her breathing heavy, her chest rising and falling as she groaned in a mix of gratification and disappointment.

“Good?” Weiss said, her tongue touching an earlobe, flicking over the silver earring stud. When she caught Ally’s eye, she had a wide self-satisfied smile on her face, so cat-like that Ally almost expected to see yellow feathers at the corner of her mouth.

“Mmm…” Ally murmured. “Too fast, but good.”

Slowly, ever so slowly, Ally’s breathing steadied, made all the easier by the tight embrace Weiss held her in. She lay perfectly still for a long while, reveling in the satisfied feeling, letting the fulfilled ache ebb away, and the tremors subside. She felt so weak, like she could hardly move, her limbs were so heavy. Weiss seemed content to let her rest, holding her tightly, nuzzling at her neck and shoulder, her own passion seeming to be under control for the moment,

Another candle flickered and went out, leaving only the one beside the bed still alight. The room seemed oddly brighter without it. The nothingness was so close now, reaching across the threadbare carpet, swallowing up the dresser, almost entirely encircling the bed.

Ally sighed. So much for just losing herself in the moment. “We don’t have long, do we?”

Weiss rose up, propping herself up on one elbow. She gently traced the pattern of the tattoo on Ally’s stomach with her fingernail. The gentle touch made Ally tremble.

“Long enough.”

Ally dared to lower her arms, feeling the stiffness in her shoulders, then cupped Weiss’ face in her hands, the steel links of her cuffs glinting, and drew the Marshal in close to kiss her intensely. Her cheek throbbed in pain and she could smell the strong odor of mingled sweat and her own arousal in the cold air, but that was okay. It gave her something else to focus on, assuming Weiss didn’t have anything else in mind.

She did.

Weiss broke the kiss, lightly sucking at Ally’s bottom lip for one last second, and running her tongue very gently along the cut she had inflicted earlier in the day. The slight stab of pain was quickly forgotten when Ally saw that Weiss, half-sitting up, was reaching behind her own back to unclasp her bra, then slowly, ever so slowly, sliding the black garment down her arms.

She was beautiful, Ally thought, so desperately beautiful. Weiss had an athlete’s physique; small breasts, a perfect curve to her ribs, limbs evenly muscled and toned, stomach flat. Her coffee-dark skin gleamed with sweat in the candlelight.

Ally could smell Weiss now. That sweat mixed with the now familiar hint of tobacco, the expensive fragrance, and most of all that underlying current of excitement. She eagerly reached out to touch the dark-skinned woman’s breasts but Weiss quickly caught her hands and held them firmly, barely inches away from her body.

Weiss caught Ally’s eyes just as steadily as she held the bound wrists.

“I want you to taste me,” she said, speaking quietly but in a tone that made it clear she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Ally nodded. “Anything.”

As Weiss lay back, Ally shuffled down the bed, keeping her eyes on Weiss as much as she could, trying not to think about the nothingness that edged ever closer. She moved over so that she knelt between Weiss’ legs, nudging them apart a little more. With her bound hands she eased Weiss’ panties down as far as she could over her muscular thighs.

Like the bra, the panties struck her as much more feminine than she might have expected. Black cotton, high-cut, and trimmed in lace. Ally would have put money on Weiss being the boxer shorts type.

“Could you raise yourself up a little?” she said, her face coloring at having to ask such an awkward question.

Weiss complied, steadying herself on the bed with her elbows and scooting down a little, allowing Ally to get her hands underneath the Marshal’s firm buttocks. Her legs, still constrained by her underwear, could part no further.

She lowered her head, her tongue immediately finding the delicate folds and trailing along the very edges of those swollen lips. She could taste the intoxicating desire, reveled in the welcoming heat, smelled the sheer need.

Slowly and deliberately, she moved upwards, her tongue finding and circling Weiss’ clit. The merest touch made Weiss shudder, so she stayed there for a long moment, lapping at the swelling clitoris hungrily. Then her tongue unhurriedly returned to those slick folds, gliding through them, thrusting between them, each and every movement eliciting a soft cry from Weiss.

Her hands gripped Weiss’ ass tightly, pulling the other woman’s body up towards her. Back to the clit again, not with her tongue this time but with her lips, sucking fiercely on the throbbing clit, even daring to nip gently at it with her teeth. She heard Weiss call out in ecstasy. Another quick caress of the swollen bud with just the very tip of her tongue, barely even touching it, and then Ally returned her attention to those soft, fleshy lips.

Weiss reached down with one hand to grip the back of Ally’s head, her fingers grasping a tight hold on her hair, keeping Ally locked firmly in place. Not that Ally needed any such encouragement. She yearned to share this moment with Weiss, with a woman who up until a day ago had been a complete stranger, who had since beaten her, mistreated her, doubted her, but who now, more than anything, was all that remained of her life.

She sensed Weiss’ orgasm begin to build and increased her tempo. The dark-skinned woman’s breath became labored and she convulsed beneath Ally’s caresses. Ally glanced up, seeing Weiss’ head rolling back, her eyes scrunched closed, her white teeth biting hard into her lower lip as she swore, dragging out the f-word for an impossibly long time as her climax rocked her body.

Ally pulled free and as carefully as she could, for the nothingness had now reached the narrow edge of the bed, moved up to lay beside Weiss. The quilt didn’t move much under her weight, which nagged at the back of her mind as she settled down beside the still panting Weiss. It was like the white emptiness was somehow bearing down on the quilt, as if some unseen force had placed heavy stones at all four corners.

Feeling incredibly tired all of a sudden, Ally yawned. She kept her eyes on Weiss, not daring to look anywhere else, but the nothingness shifted into her view no matter what, almost as easily as it crept back into her thoughts.

Weiss lay unmoving for the longest time, her eyes firmly closed, the sound of her breathing loud in the stillness of what little space remained.

Ally lazily ran her fingers up Weiss’ thigh, over her hip, and almost up to the flat stomach, only then wearily letting her hands fall between them. She lay back, resting her head on Weiss’s shoulder, relishing the heat, the dampness of Weiss’ sweat-laden skin, the heaving of her chest as she breathed so deeply. Ally could feel Weiss’ heartbeat pounding through her still trembling body.

After a while Weiss reached down, scrabbling to pull up her underwear, as if she was suddenly embarrassed by her nakedness. Ally groaned in displeasure at having her comfortable position disturbed, even for just a moment, but then was silenced when Weiss sank back into the pillows and wrapped an arm around her.

Just then, the nothingness took the last candle from them.

* * * * *

If Weiss could, she’d get away from Cole, just for a minute or two. She could feel that strange combination of panic and guilt welling up inside her, that little touch of shame that always nagged at her at these moments. This was different, of course, but only by being worse.

She needed space, room to breathe, and felt an overwhelming need to hide, even if only from herself. It was a routine she knew by heart. Normally, burning with shame, she would crawl under her blankets, just for a minute or two, just until she got her head back together. She was unable to help herself, not until the walls were cemented back in place.

Although the feeling had never been this strong before, never enough to make her want to run so bad. But then there had never been someone to run from, had there?

She supposed Cole would find that amusing if she dared mention it. For once, Weiss would be the one on the run. But as Cole had pointed out often enough there was nowhere left to go.

Her mind quickly turned to God and then away again just as fast. That upset her, the fact she couldn’t find solace in the usual way. Not so much a lapse of faith, no, that still burned as brightly inside her as it ever had, instead just an oddly unanswered prayer. It was like finding the doors to your church locked on a Sunday morning. You went home and prayed alone, that’s all. A church might close its doors on you but God never would.

Without thinking, she glanced at her watch. Cole didn’t move. Her breathing was so steady, her long body so still, Weiss would almost swear she was asleep.

Two minutes past midnight. It was Sunday, she realized. How funny was that?

She felt Cole’s warm breath on her neck. The other woman was snuggling into her as closely as she could, her hands trapped between them, and her slender legs wrapped tightly around her own. Another uncomfortable reason Weiss couldn’t leave. Cole was clinging to her as if she was hanging on for dear life. It was an appropriate enough thought, Weiss supposed, if somewhat disturbing. Cloying too; it wouldn’t leave her alone.

It disturbed her because Cole was asking too much. Weiss was powerless, knowing she couldn’t protect her any longer, it was way past that, and the knowledge hurt. Cole was her responsibility and she’d let her down. Worse, she hadn’t even been able to keep her hands off her. That was dereliction of duty, plain and simple. And it wasn’t just Cole she’d let down, but also Lonan, the Service, her family, everybody.

She stared upwards, blinking as she tried to keep the ceiling in focus. Her eyes burned a little. It took her a second to realize that there was no ceiling anymore. The nothingness had begun to descend towards them, engulfing the low hanging light fixture. If she could have seen the floor, Weiss would have bet that was gone now too. To her sides there was hardly any room left. A good quarter of the bed had been swallowed up already.

If nothing else, and she supposed now there was nothing else, there was no longer any point in arguing that the nothingness wasn’t following them, either seeking out Cole or her or… Weiss gulped nervously. Or both of them. Now wasn’t that an interesting thought? Weiss guessed she should consider that ironic but instead she just found it frustrating. After all, there were easier ways for God to get his point across, and all of them a lot less final too.

Did it matter, she wondered? After all, whoever the nothingness was reaching out for more, the end result would still be the same.

No, it mattered. It always mattered. She could… she caught the mistake, smiled a desperately weary smile… she would meet her end in this dingy little motel room, on the outskirts of a rundown tourist trap that had seen better days, in the arms of a woman who… well, who admittedly could be charming, approachable and downright sexy as anyone Weiss had ever known, but who was also nothing more than a low-rent thief, a petty con artist, and most likely a murderer too.

But she could still face it with some dignity.

Still trembling, Weiss struggled to regain her composure, to steady her breathing a little. She wanted to be calm at the very end. At least that would be something, a show of resistance worth making no matter how small and futile it might seem, no matter that no one would ever know of it.

Cole murmured something into her neck, so quietly Weiss didn’t catch it. She almost said something and then thought better of it. It hadn’t been a question, no response seemed necessary. She felt self-conscious still, had so immediately after Cole had had crawled up to lay beside her.

She thought of the climax that had been wrung from her body, teased out of her with consummate ease. It had been a while since she’d felt anything like that and that had been at her own hands, never with another woman. She had wanted to, had always wanted to, for as far back as she could remember, but she’d made promises, hadn’t she?

And even her own best efforts had been nothing like that. Cole’s every touch had sent shivers through her body, little flashes of pleasure, each fizzling out only after sparking off another. She had tried to hide her body’s reaction though, just to keep control. No doubt some women would have found Weiss’ ingenuousness appealing, perhaps even attractive, even if they only yearned to be the one to take all that innocence away. But she had doubted Cole would be like that. Most likely, she guessed, Cole would have found it amusing.

She stifled a yawn. She was exhausted.

Cole shifted slightly, obviously trying to get more comfortable. She was evidently still awake, for as she moved she planted a soft kiss on Weiss’ shoulder. Unbidden, the remorse rose within Weiss once again. It was that familiar pang of guilt, something that weighed so heavily on her whenever she lay in her bed back in Sacramento, thinking of women she’d most likely never know, of what they could do, of how they would touch her.

But this was much, much worse. Weiss knew she had willingly, eagerly even, made love to Cole and in doing so had broken all those promises. She wondered if she’d thrown it all away. She had been saving herself. She’d promised that to both her mother and pastor, and she guessed even God, in a way. Of course, they had all thought she was promising something else, the pastor out of ignorance, her mother out of the strongest possible denial. But all the same she’d stuck to it. She had drove many an interested woman away because of those promises. She had always needed a commitment before she went too far with any woman, which had meant she had never gone that far.

But circumstances always change, she thought, don’t they? And they don’t change much more than this. Surely no one would hold her to her promises now, not that there was anyone left who could.

Besides, she guessed God would forgive her. And if he didn’t she would probably find out soon enough.

Speaking of which, she should move. The nothingness was inching over the quilt, ever closer, enclosing them in a tiny little bubble that was all that remained of reality. She should do something.

In a minute, Weiss told herself. I just need a minute to myself. Please.

She didn’t get it. She could see tiny dots of white against the multi-colored bedspread, each growing larger, and then more and more appearing. They were so close now, the spots almost reaching her.

Weiss kissed the top of Cole’s head, smelling the faintest scent of strawberries, too sweet and artificial to be anything but her shampoo.

“Cole?”

“Mmm…” Cole murmured. “Ally, please.”

Weiss ignored that. “I need to move.”

Cole raised her head and gave her a confused look. “Am I hurting you?”

“No, but…”

“Then did you want me to…?” Cole let the question hang with a mischievous smile.

“No!” Weiss realized she had spoken too sharply when Cole suddenly looked dejected. She made an effort to soften her tone. “I’d… I’d like that… no, it’s just there’s not much space left…”

Cole looked past Weiss towards the nothingness. The smile slowly faded from her face, only to be replaced by a look of abject terror.

“Oh no…” she said, in a voice so low that could hardly be heard. “Please, no…”

Weiss pushed her back down on to the bed. The mattress should have given more under her as she moved. She tried not to think about that. She had spent too much time trying to figure this all out, pointlessly. She twisted over, scrambling so she was on top of the other woman, ducking her head so Cole could loop her handcuffed arms around her.

Cole grunted in discomfort when Weiss settled. Weiss was trying to keep as much of her weight off Cole as possible but it wasn’t easy. Still, to her credit Cole didn’t complain. Instead, she looked to the other side of the bed, hoping that the nothingness had not spread so far as she feared. Weiss didn’t have to look to know she would be disappointed.

“Please…”

“It’s okay,” Weiss whispered.

“No, it isn’t!” Cole said. She was crying. This wasn’t the sobbing of sorrow, there was no distressing wailing, her chest wasn’t heaving as she wept, her face wasn’t scrunched up in grief. Instead the tears just flowed easily down her face. It was the weeping of someone who was so close to giving up. “Please don’t let me go!”

“I won’t.”

“Oh God…”

It was closer, Weiss realized. The nothingness had consumed the space she’d only just vacated so quickly, like it was suddenly tired of waiting.

“Don’t move,” she said urgently. “We can make the morning, just don’t move.”

Weiss pushed herself up with one hand, slowly, carefully, just in case there was nothing above her, then used the other hand to touch Cole’s chin, ever so lightly. It got her attention.

They stared into each other’s eyes, hazel into the darkest green. For them now, there was nothing else to see. The white expanse edged even nearer. After just a second, although it seemed so much longer, Weiss had to lower herself again. She didn’t dare keep her distance any longer.

They embraced, holding each other so tightly. Weiss could feel Cole’s fingers clutching at her, gripping at her back painfully hard. They clung to each other out of desperation, one praying, one hoping, but each wanting the same small miracle; if they just held on, just for a little bit longer, then there might be a chance.

“Weiss, please…” Cole now had her eyes closed tight, the tears slowly seeping out of the corners.

“I’m here,” Weiss said, trying her best to sound calm. It didn’t work. “Look at me. Look at me!”

And then she saw it. A single impossibly tiny pinprick of white had appeared out of nowhere, right above Cole’s left eye.

“Cole, don’t…” was all Weiss managed to say before she realized her mistake.

Cole opened her eyes. Her eyelashes, those long, mascara free lashes, caught on the little spot of nothingness. Cole didn’t see it, maybe she couldn’t focus that close, that well, or that fast, but she somehow knew what had happened. Her mouth fell open in a scream of absolute agony.

Once again Weiss saw that blinding flash of light that burned her retinas so badly. Then she was falling, less than a foot, onto the bed, for Ally was no longer there, and Weiss fell down onto that tiny dot of white herself.

The pain was unbearable but at least it didn’t last long.

* * * * *

White. Nothing but white.

When Weiss woke, that was all she could see at first. Her vision cleared gradually and after a long moment she could just about make out countless little grey lines, which soon became uneven ridges, undulating waves in the whiteness. She wasn’t sure they were moving, but they sure seemed to be. Staring at them soon made her feel sick to her stomach.

At the same time, her head was engulfed in pain. There was an erratic pounding that wouldn’t leave her alone, each thump driving a deep reverberation of agony through her skull, and below that was a more regular and slow drumbeat of an ache, pulsing at the back of her head. If this wasn’t a full-blown migraine, Weiss didn’t know what was.

She blinked.

Strangely, it was just that blinking, something so simple, so natural, and so automatic, that made her realize she was still alive. When she closed her eyes the whiteness went away. Not completely, perhaps, the bright light still burned reddishly through her eyelids, but at least she could filter it out a little.

Unfortunately, she could not say the same for the pain. The pounding stopped for a while, it was hard to say how long, but that only made the throbbing at the very top of her spine feel so much worse. But at least now, that too was a blessing in disguise. The pain, terrible as it might be, was another small indication that she was alive.

She was still in the motel room, Weiss finally realized. The rippling whiteness had been nothing more than the crude stucco plastered over the ceiling.

Weiss twisted her head to look around. That proved to be a mistake. More pain, like a white hot flame, shot up her neck and exploded like fireworks inside her head.

She lay still for a long moment, allowing the pain to gradually subside into just the dullest of aches. Her mouth felt incredibly dry, her tongue like a lead weight. She couldn’t feel her left arm at all; it was stretched across the pillows and Cole’s head was heavily pressing down on it. Cole was evidently a sound sleeper, not even stirring as Weiss moved.

As the throbbing pain eased, allowing Weiss to gather her thoughts again, she realized that this was just a hangover, nothing a few ibuprofen and some strong coffee wouldn’t cure. The pounding was something else though. It was the door.

Someone was knocking, she thought, and that simple idea made her so happy. No, they weren’t knocking; they were hammering on the door impatiently. On any day long past, that would at best have made her count to ten and at worst cause her temper to flare up uncontrollably. Along with everything else – the poorly plastered ceiling, the weight of Cole’s sleeping form, the hangover pain, the blinking, all of it – that sound now filled her with such relief she suddenly felt like crying. It meant she was alive.

Tears did come after a while. As she blinked them away, the droplets slowly rolled down her cheeks to settle into cold pools in her ears. She was alive. Cole shifted slightly, murmuring something in her sleep. They were both alive. Silently she sent a quick but heartfelt prayer of thanks to God.

She knew she would have cried for a long time if she let herself. Instead, she wiped at her face with her free hand and tried to pull herself together. Looking past Cole, she managed to raise part of her trapped arm to check her watch. It was a little past nine. More than eight hours had passed since the nothingness had taken Cole from her. Had she been sleeping all that time?

The hammering on the door continued. Someone called out and she recognized the voice. Her heart leapt. It wasn’t possible.

With a pang of regret, Weiss quickly left the warmth of the bed and the warmer still embrace of Cole. She shivered almost immediately against the chilly morning air. The power was back on, she could tell by the blinking of the alarm clock, but the heating hadn’t kicked in yet.

Weiss shook her numb arm, trying to get some feeling back into it, and then looked back at the still sleeping Cole. The pale woman seemed oblivious to the world, not disturbed in the slightest by Weiss’ absence or the loud and persistent knocking. If it wasn’t for the gentle rise and fall of the bedspread Weiss would almost think she wasn’t breathing.

From what she had learned of Cole, Weiss imagined her as the sort of woman who would stay awake for as long as she could, desperate to eke every little bit of pleasure out of a day, and then when she finally crawled into her bed she would sleep forever. All those late nights, bright lights, and adoring fans would exhaust her, no doubt about that. And she’d probably never see the irony there.

Weiss thought about waking her, just so she too would know of the miracle. But she quickly decided against it. Let her sleep, Weiss thought. That way any awkward questions could be avoided, for a short while at least.

Cole moaned softly. At some time during the night the pale woman had rolled on to her side, so she could snuggle even closer to Weiss. For such a tall woman, she could certainly ball herself up into a small space. She looked so incredibly peaceful.

For just a second, Weiss thought about stealing back into bed with her, easing her way under the quilt and letting herself be pulled between those long legs once again. The warmth beckoned her, the closeness called to her, and the desire burned at her. She bit her bottom lip, her teeth almost drawing blood.

But then another round of knocking broke the spell, so she sighed and reached for her clothes instead.

Weiss hastily pulled on her tee-shirt, the fabric cold against her skin. She felt briefly uncomfortable in the day-old dirt and sweat that caked the top, but tried not to think about it. That was second nature after yesterday. It was like she’d been caught in the rain, gotten soaked to the bone, and had stripped off and gotten dry, only to now have to put on those wet clothes once again. She shuddered, fought against the feeling, then yanked open the door.

Looking angry, Devlin stood in the doorway, one hand still raised as if to continue banging on the door. She’d been right. She had recognized the voice, after all.

Almost near tears again, Weiss threw her arms around Devlin, catching him completely off-guard and propelling him backwards, to jar painfully against the nearest brick pillar. Somewhat surprised, he still hugged her back and as he held her, she took his face in her hands, simply overjoyed at seeing him again, and kissed him. She actually kissed him.

He colored, his cheeks reddening brightly as he reached up to grab her hands. “What the fuck is wrong with you? You act like you thought you’d never see me again!”

Weiss blinked away tears, trying not to let him see how close to the truth he’d got. She put on a brave face and tried her best to smile as he pushed her away, gently, so as not to upset her.

Obviously uncomfortable with what must have struck him as her weird behavior, Devlin took a step to one side and let her go.

“Jesus, get a grip!” When she didn’t say anything at that, too lost in the joy of the moment, he stared at her with a worried expression. “No reprimand for blaspheming? Something really must be wrong.”

“No,” she said through a watery smile, “I don’t think so, not any more. It’s good to see you, Lonan. Where did you get to?”

“Funny, I was going to ask you the same thing.”

Weiss opened her mouth to say something but nothing came to mind. Was there any point in trying to explain what had happened? Had any of it really happened? Devlin had vanished in a flash of blinding light, swallowed up by the nothingness, she knew that, she had seen it. And yet here he was, standing right in front of her, flesh and blood. But then, Weiss guessed, the same could be said of her. And of Cole too. Of everyone.

“It’s a long story,” she finally managed to say. It wasn’t enough but she imagined nothing would be. She swallowed a couple of times, her mouth still feeling dry.

She shivered, suddenly feeling the cold. It was freezing out here on the balcony. She remembered that the grey-haired waitress in the diner yesterday had said the forecast was calling for an early snowfall. It looked like the weathermen had been right. Snow was falling, very lightly, covering the tarmac of the courtyard below with a thin sheen of blueish-grey. Her hangover seemed to kick up a notch, just for a second, then the pain faded away as quickly as it had flared. She wondered if that was the holes in her memory slowly filling up again; the more she remembered, the less it hurt. Maybe, she thought, maybe not. She tried to think of a memory it had taken from her but it was impossible. She guessed it was pointless to try to remember what exactly she had forgotten.

When she moved, her bare feet touched the glass whiskey bottle. It rolled a few inches from where she had left it late last night, across the cold cement of the breezeway, coming to rest against the rusting railing with a soft clink. She wished there was something in it. She needed a drink.

Her breath fogged heavily in front of her face. She crossed her arms, trying to keep the warmth from escaping by holding on to it.

“It had better be,” Devlin said grouchily. “The last I saw of you was in Vegas, running back to the trailer park with the suspect in tow. I didn’t know what you were playing at. One minute I’m helping that cycle-courier back up on to his feet and the next I turn around and you’ve both vanished. Luckily I caught a glimpse of you halfway down the street.”

Weiss nodded vaguely. She remembered that bicycle now, lying on the ground with the spokes of the still spinning rear wheel catching the early morning light. But there had been no courier, had there? And then, seconds later, Devlin had vanished. Or had he? If Devlin remembered things differently, then it couldn’t have happened, could it? But it did happen. To her, anyway. Maybe to Cole too.

“No snow?” she asked warily, wondering, not for the first time, if she’d gone mad.

No, she wasn’t mad. Maybe she had been, for a day or so. Maybe she’d been running from sanity and it was only now catching up with her. The shock of it all was like having your head forced under a cold shower.

“What?” He gave her a quizzical look. “Snow? In Vegas? Are you crazy?”

She smiled weakly. At least she wasn’t alone in wondering. “There was a cold snap…”

“Sure, for Vegas. Nothing like here. Are you sure you’re feeling alright?”

“Yeah, I think so. Maybe.” Weiss sighed. She had to tell him. God alone knew how she would, but he’d also give her the courage to do it. She hoped the words would come on their own, once she got started. “Alright, Devlin, you want to know what happened?”

He immediately shook his head, holding up a hand to keep her from saying anything more. “Stow it,” he said, still grumpy. “You must have had a good reason for wandering off.”

“We…” Weiss began, then caught herself as Devlin looked sharply at her. “I did. But you don’t want to know what it is? Are you sure?”

“Not as much as you don’t want to tell it, that much is obvious. I’m your partner. I trust you, you should know that by now.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

She believed him. Anyone else and she might not. Devlin trusted her, always had, right from the moment they’d been paired together. He welcomed her into his life, his family, never questioned her or doubted her, even kept her in line on the rare occasions she needed him to. He was that kind of guy. It probably came back to burn him more often than not.

Weiss had never before been so thankful for someone’s trust in her. She felt like crying again and so bit her tongue. And she wanted to hug him again too but knew that wouldn’t be appreciated, so she kept herself in check. It wasn’t easy.

“So how much trouble are we in?”

“We?” He flashed her that annoying smile of his that always suggested he thought he knew better than she did. She let it go. “None, actually.”

“What?” She stared at him, unbelieving. Amidst the jumble of thoughts that had been racing through her brain since she woke, and particularly since she found him at her door, there had been the nagging worry that if things really were back to normal, then she had an awful lot of explaining to do.

“Relax, will you? I covered your ass.” His smiled widened a little more as he glanced downwards. “Which is more than that tee-shirt’s doing.”

Weiss swore, pulling down at the hem of the shirt self-consciously. He was right. Tug as she might, it barely hid her underwear. She could feel her face burning up from embarrassment.

“What, no comeback?” he said. “None of your usual witty retorts, like a solid punch in the gut?”

“Things change.”

He laughed. “No, never. Not you.”

“You’d be surprised. I had a rough night yesterday. Take advantage of it, why don’t you?”

“I’d never dare.“ He glanced down at her bare legs again. “You must be freezing. You need your jacket or something?”

Weiss glanced at the open door of her motel room. She didn’t really want to go back in there, not right now.

“I’m okay.”

“Sure about that, are you?” His smile faded as he eyed her skeptically. He let the question go unanswered. “So where’s Cole?”

She was definitely blushing now. He must have seen that, although she made another attempt to tug her tee downwards, in the hopes it would throw of his suspicions as to why. Not much of a chance of that; he was even better at reading people than she was and they’d worked together a long time. Hastily, she nodded back towards the room.

“In there. Don’t worry, she’s not going anywhere.”

“Do I look worried?”

Again, Devlin let the question hang in the air. He turned away before she could answer, leaning against the railing and staring out towards the mountains in the distance. “I can’t see why you’d want to end up here.”

Weiss stepped forward to stand next to him. There was a small layer of undisturbed snow on the top of the railing. Her breath caught in her throat as she reached out to touch the whiteness. Her fingertip stopped an inch away, stayed there for a second, then she pulled her hand away. You never know, she thought.

The motel courtyard below was no longer empty, she noted. There were several more cars parked in the lot below, including two Sheriff’s Department cruisers. Strangely, over on the far side, there were also a number of news media vans parked around the far side of the lot, although she didn’t recognize any of the logos or station identifiers. She guessed they were all for local network affiliates. Small town news. The briefest of concerns that they might be here after her and Cole flitted through her mind, but she dismissed the worry. The reporters and camera crews seemed to be idly milling around, chatting with each other, waiting for something to happen. If they were after her and Cole, they would have been up here already, Weiss supposed.

Stranger still, over by the pool there was a podium decorated with the seal of the Sheriff’s Department. Behind that, she could make out the desk clerk she’d talked to last night. He was busy sweeping up broken glass from in front of two vending machines.

“As soon as you’d done your vanishing act,” Devlin said, “I called in. I told Grayson that the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department had screwed up yet again and got the wrong address, and that by the time we got to the right one, Cole had bolted.”

When he caught her looking at him disapprovingly, he shrugged. “Ah, stop worrying, it’s almost true. Grayson told me that we should do our best to work with Metro to find her. Well, as I figured you still had her in custody I told him that Metro were trying to pick up the slack and we’d hang around until they did.”

“And Grayson bought that?” asked Weiss doubtfully. Their direct superior was not known for being gullible and usually kept a really close eye on any kind of foul-ups.

Devlin laughed. “Sure, why not? That’s why Duffy was out sick apparently. He wanted nothing to do with Metro, they’d screwed him over royally before. Grayson didn’t like it, sure, but he knows what they’re like, and them not having Cole in custody before we got there helped.”

“Thanks, Lonan,” she said, although it didn’t seem enough. She reached out and touched his arm. He really had covered their asses. For all he knew, she and Cole could have been working together, running for the border. She wanted him to know how grateful she was but what more was there to say?

He smiled at her again. “I told you, I don’t want to know anything about it. I’m sure you had your reasons. Just remember this next time I’m having a drink or two and Melanie calls wanting to know why I’m working late.”

A thought occurred to Weiss. She frowned. “How did you find us, anyway?”

“Us?” he said teasingly and then gestured over the railing down towards the red Camry. “As soon as I realized you weren’t coming back, which was later than I would have liked, I contacted the rental company again. These places track all their cars, just another way they try to save a little money, I guess. You should know that. It wasn’t as easy as I hoped though. They were still having computer troubles all day yesterday, I don’t know if you remember.”

She did, vaguely, even though it hurt her head to do so.

“I had to flash the badge and apply a good deal of pressure just to get them to go along with me. And I had no way of getting myself another rental, thanks for that by the way, as I was completely out of cash. Luckily, the garage fixed our car by mid-afternoon. So I had to drive all night to get here and now I’m goddamn beat. You owe me.”

Yeah, Weiss thought, in more ways than one. She’d get him some tickets for another Kings’ game maybe, if she could. It wasn’t much but at least it would show him she was thankful.

“We still need to get Cole back to Sacramento,” she said.

He shook his head again. “No, we don’t actually. Grayson called me about half-an-hour ago. He tried calling you but had no more luck than I did. I told him your phone was on the fritz. You’re welcome, by the way.”

She ignored that. “And?”

“And the warrant’s been rescinded. Schwarz confessed to the whole thing.”

“What?” Weiss stared at Devlin in shock. She couldn’t believe it. Cole had protested her innocence all day long yesterday, taking every opportunity to remind the Deputy Marshal that she was not capable of murder, but Weiss had never really believed her. Even if at times, when she was at her weakest, her common sense dulled by alcohol and blunted by Cole’s incessant flirting, she had wanted to.

She glanced over her shoulder, back towards the motel room. Cole still showed no signs of surfacing. That was probably for the best for now.

“Yeah, I know,” Devlin was saying. “This whole thing’s been a huge waste of time. Apparently, he woke everyone in county jail early this morning screaming his head off. When they finally calmed him down, he asked for the arresting officers. And when those lazy bastards finally turned up, he spilled everything.”

“Such as?”

“Such as admitting to killing DeWitte. Schwarz said he met him on the pretense of having some goods fenced, then stabbed him. That simple.”

Weiss still wasn’t convinced. “But her fingerprints were on the knife…”

Devlin interrupted her. “Which has a hilt that unscrews, apparently. Schwarz took the blade off and left the handle around DeWitte’s store, knowing Cole would pick it up sooner or later. She’s that type apparently. Complete klepto. And before you ask, he got his girlfriend to open the rental storage unit in Cole’s name. Wore dark glasses, dyed and cut her hair, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she dropped a few casual references to Elvis too. Once Schwarz confessed, she wasted no time following suit. Blamed everything on him, as you’d expect.”

“I don’t get it. Why’d he confess? He was more than smart enough to put Cole in the frame, so why? And why now?”

“Said he had a bad dream,” Devlin said with a laugh, “can you believe that?”

Oh yes, Weiss could, all too easily. She felt a growing unease but still she had to ask. “What was the dream about, did he say?”

“The end of the world or some such nonsense. Said he couldn’t face his maker without a clear conscience. If only they all gave up so easy.”

Weiss guessed then that she and Cole weren’t the only ones who had been tormented by the nothingness, even if for him it had been nothing more than a nightmare. Perhaps he had dreamed of her and Cole, perhaps that was what resurrected his conscience. She had the sensation of icy fingers running up her spine, only to grab her around the neck and squeeze. She shivered, then coughed, suddenly finding it hard to breathe.

There was that little reminder of madness again, so familiar, so unwelcome.

If Devlin noticed her reaction, he said nothing about it. Maybe he just attributed it to the cold weather. Instead, he grinned at her. “So long story short, Cole’s a free woman again. I’m sure she’ll have to answer more than a few follow-up questions but that’s nothing for us to worry about.”

Weiss looked back down at the courtyard. It seemed that the hotel staff had spent the early hours of the morning cleaning up, sweeping up litter and fallen leaves. The tarpaulin that covered the pool had been secured again and its stripes were hardly visible now, a light dusting of snow transforming them into greyish blurs. There seemed to be more people down there now, Weiss thought, and they were still all waiting for something. She spotted Sheriff Whitaker by the motel entrance, chatting with a couple of deputies.

“So what’s going on down there?” she asked.

Devlin shrugged. “The local Sheriff’s Department is holding a press conference, I think. I only caught some of it from the news crews. Apparently, three guys robbed a bank upstate yesterday afternoon. Didn’t get away clean though. One of them took a bullet in the shoulder and to make matters worse they ran their car off the road just outside town.”

“See her?” Devlin leaned over the railing a little to point out the female deputy. “Well, late yesterday she stumbled across their car and got ambushed. After an exchange of fire, she killed one and apprehended the other two, single-handedly. Brave woman.”

“Someone has to be,” Weiss said, her voice heavy with sadness. Devlin frowned at her but she waved his concern away. “Sorry. Just tired of being afraid.”

“Of?”

“Of not taking chances.”

“Huh,” Devlin said, obviously not sure what to make of that. He plowed on regardless. “They’re certainly making a big deal of her. Still, you’ve got to admire her. I mean, can you believe it? All alone, outnumbered, out of her depth, not able to call for help, and staring death in the face. She’s got to be a strong woman just to get through all that with her sanity intact.”

“I guess.”

“So you want to tell her the good news, or shall I?”

Weiss tore her attention away from the scene unfolding in the courtyard below. Some of the hotel staff were checking the microphones attached to the podium and the reporters were beginning to gather together. It seemed like the press conference was about to start. She turned to look at Devlin, puzzled.

“What?” The pain scraping against the inside of her skull was finally ebbing away. Maybe this hangover wouldn’t last, Weiss thought. Maybe she hadn’t drunk all that much after all. Maybe she hadn’t made a fool of herself with Cole last night. Yeah, right. And maybe there were a hundred other lies waiting to be told.

“Cole,” Devlin said, and for one terrifying second Weiss worried that he might have somehow sensed she was thinking about her, but then she dismissed the thought as crazy. “Did you want me to tell her?”

“Oh.” She thought about that for a second, but then shook her head. It wouldn’t have been fair on Cole to have Devlin suddenly show up, explain everything, and then just set her free. She deserved more than that, although maybe not much more. “No, I’ll take care of it.”

“Are you sure? It means being diplomatic.”

“I’ll manage, wise-ass. Can you give me five minutes?”

“Sure.” Devlin hesitated for a moment, as if he was giving her one last chance to change her mind, and then turned to walk along the breezeway back towards the stairwell. “I’ll make it ten,” he called out, “or even longer, just to be on the safe side.”

When Devlin was gone, Weiss let out a long, deep sigh. She was shaking. She tried convincing herself that it was the cold finally getting to her but she knew that was only part of it. She was still finding it hard to believe; all they’d been through, all she’d done, all she’d lost. She had thought she was going to die, only to wake and find some of it she could claw back, while some remained firmly lost.

She looked back over the courtyard, watching the press conference unfold. She couldn’t hear what was being said but even at this distance she could see how forced Sheriff Whitaker’s smile was. He obviously didn’t think too much of his young deputy, but was keeping up a pretense for the cameras. A man like him wouldn’t want to show any cracks appearing, not in his precious department.

As the female deputy stepped up to the podium, there was a scattered round of polite applause and a sudden burst of irregular camera flashes, so bright that Weiss could still see the black dots for a second or two afterwards. She blinked a couple of times, trying to clear her vision. Why they needed to use their flashes on a bright morning like this she didn’t know.

The deputy seemed uncomfortable answering so many questions. She didn’t seem to be sure whether she should be looking at the news cameras or straight ahead or at the three or four regular cameras each time a flash went off. Still, Weiss thought, good luck to her. Let her enjoy her little moment in the sun.

Weiss heard a noisy yawn from behind her and spun around to see Cole staggering out of the motel room. She was wearing her dress again, having tied little knots in the busted shoulder straps, along with those ridiculous oversized boots. Cole had that hollow-eyed kind of look that suggested the worst kind of hangover. No, not the worst, Weiss corrected, the second worst perhaps.

She held Weiss’ jacket in her hands, offering it to her. Weiss took it, slipped it on, and immediately dug her hands into the pockets. Her fingers closed around the near-empty cigarette pack and the box of matches. She was still shivering a little. The thin material of the jacket wasn’t much protection against the cold but it was better than nothing.

“So, listen…” Weiss began weakly, not knowing quite what to say. What do you say, she thought, to someone who was taken from your very arms last night, pulled out of reality somehow, only to return the next morning? Weiss admitted it wasn’t exactly a resurrection but it was the closest to one she’d ever be likely to get.

After all, Cole must be in the same boat as her, mustn’t she? Unless, like Devlin, her memory had been recreated as soon as she had vanished. Maybe the only reason Weiss could remember everything was because she was the last to go. Maybe, given time, she’d remember everything differently too.

No, Weiss thought, that couldn’t be true. Cole was still here, her dress still torn where Weiss’ impatience had won out, her face still bruised where Weiss had hit her, and that smile, still knowing.

“Don’t worry,” Cole said, leaning casually against the door jamb. “I was awake before you. I was never very good at leaving a warm bed on a cold morning.”

“So you heard?”

A small nod of the head. “I heard.”

“How much?”

“All of it. Which I suppose is about right, as I understand none of it. How your partner could still be here and not be here, it’s beyond me.”

Weiss gave a small sigh of relief. So Cole did remember everything then. Good. At least she wasn’t alone in that. Weiss didn’t think she could bear that particular torment.

“Me neither, not really,” Weiss said. “If I had to make a guess…”

“And you don’t.”

“If I had to, then I would guess that what happened to us last night…” Cole grinned wickedly at that, which gave Weiss pause. She thought about rephrasing what she was saying but the words tumbled out before she could stop them. “…happened only to us. And don’t ask me to explain that either, because I can’t.”

“Not just us. Schwarz too.”

“Yeah, I guess. Although to him it was only a bad dream, that’s what Devlin said.”

“Heck or Heaven,” Cole said quietly, her smile fading.

“What?” Weiss was confused by the sudden change of subject. She tried to think about what Cole had said but her hangover, the noise from the courtyard, and the cold, made it difficult for her to concentrate.

Cole gestured at the now lit up sign at the entrance to the Checkerboard Heaven motel. No one had made any effort to replace the burned out bulbs.

“Heck or Heaven,” Cole repeated, “remember? You can keep them both, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Well, I hope that’s something we no longer have to worry about,” Weiss said, voicing a worry that had nagged at her since she woke. “Not for a while, anyway. Not unless it happens again. It could.”

“Sure, I guess. But it won’t.”

“And what makes you so sure?”

Cole flashed her another broad smile. Weiss recognized that one. She shouldn’t feel flattered. Everyone got it, free of charge.

“Faith, I guess. Besides if it does happen again I know where to find you, don’t I?” Cole twisted her hands together, quickly, and it took Weiss a second to figure out what she was doing. There was a soft ratcheting sound of metal teeth and then the handcuffs were off.

To her credit, Weiss thought she hid her surprise reasonably well. Her anger, not so much.

Weiss closed her eyes and tried to block out everything. One, two... She had forgotten just how maddening this woman could be. The constant little jibes, that annoying way she had of making the simplest thing sound like an insult, and now this.

She got to ten. Barely.

Cole at least had said nothing in the meantime. Maybe she’d caught wise by now, maybe she knew Weiss was counting under her breath. Weiss realized that Cole hadn’t picked the locks there and then, she couldn’t have, not so fast. That meant she’d somehow managed to unlock the cuffs in the motel room, possibly while listening to Weiss talking to Devlin, and had since kept them on loosely, just in case.

Now she held them out for Weiss to take. “Here you go.”

“Let me guess,” Weiss said wearily, taking the cuffs and dropping them in a pocket, “this is when I ask you if you were a magician’s assistant and you say no, but you dated one.”

There was a self-satisfied smirk on Cole’s lips now. “Yeah, well, what can I say. She taught me a few things before she did a disappearing act on me.”

“You could have done that at any time.”

“Yeah, I could have.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“I told you already.” Cole stretched, spreading her arms out wide, then moved around to stare at her reflection in the window. She ran a hand through her hair, then leaned forward for a closer look, turning her head. Her fingers touched her bruised cheek. “God, I look a mess. So everything’s back to normal then?”

“If you like.”

“Not much, no. I’m going to need therapy for years.” She saw Weiss’ reflection looking irritated and grinned. “That’s a joke, Weiss.”

Weiss’ expression didn’t change. “If you say so.”

“Ah,” Cole said, nodding, “really back to normal then. I get it. Suit yourself. It’s a pity though. I liked the Weiss I got to know, a hell of a lot better than the one everyone else knows. She was much more approachable. Cute too, when she tried, and she didn’t have to try all that hard.”

“It’s just...” Weiss began, still frowning. She knew what she wanted to say but the words wouldn’t come to her.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to explain,” Cole said, giving her a sad smile. “I get it. Or I think I do. Anyway, it’s not like I was expecting an apology or anything.”

“An apology? For what?” Weiss was momentarily taken aback. Then, Cole turned back to face her, leaned against the door jamb again and then gestured up at her bruised and swollen cheek. “Oh. I... that is... you could...”

Cole grinned. “Forget it. I’ve endured worse.”

“I was going to say,” Weiss said tentatively, taking a deep breath before continuing, “that you could think of last night as an apology. If you liked.”

The slender woman thought about that for a moment. “Yeah,” she finally said, “I suppose I could, but I won’t. There was nothing sorry about that.”

Weiss felt herself blushing almost immediately. She opened her mouth to say something but Cole beat her to it.

“Don’t get like that, please.”

“Like what?”

“Don’t be embarrassed. You’ve got nothing to feel ashamed of, Weiss, believe me. And I should know. Try living in the moment for once.”

“Like you do?”

“Sure,” Cole said, still grinning. “Why not? It’s nice to know I set a good example in one thing at least. Right now, I feel like crying I’m so happy. I’m alive, it’s over, and I’m free. And that’s all that matters. To me, anyway.”

“To me too,” Weiss said, “I mean... we made it, didn’t we?”

“We did. I don’t know how but I think it’s all thanks to you. And you don’t have to worry, Weiss, I’m not about to tell anyone about this.” Cole caught Weiss’ eye and spoke slowly, stressing what she said next. “Any of it.”

Weiss nodding, understanding.

“Well, I guess I should go figure some way of getting back home. Listen Weiss, if you’re ever in Las Vegas...”

“I think I can safely promise you I won’t be.”

“We’ll see. And that other Weiss, the one I got to know, the one I think I’m talking to now...”

Weiss frowned. “What about her?”

“Try to let her out once in a while, will you?” Cole said. “Let her have her day in the sun. She deserves it.”

With that, she pulled up one of the straps that had fallen off her shoulder, gave Weiss the smallest of sad smiles, then turned away and began to walk down the length of the breezeway.

Again, Weiss began to count under her breath. Not to control her temper, not this time, but instead to count footsteps leading away. She wanted to get to ten. She knew she should get to ten. At ten, she thought, she could let go. At ten, Cole would be turning the corner into the stairwell and almost out of sight.

At four, she pushed herself away from the railing.

“Cole, wait!” she called out. When she was ignored, she called out again. “Ally!”

That did the trick. Cole stopped in her tracks, half-turning to look back over her shoulder. She didn’t say anything, just stood stock still and waited for Weiss to say something.

That was the problem. Weiss knew what she wanted to say. She just didn’t know how to say it.

But as she couldn’t let the moment drag on forever, she took a deep breath and said the first thing that came to mind.

“It may not be much but for what’s it worth... I’m glad you were innocent.”

Cole gave her another smile. And this one wasn’t sad, wasn’t for an audience, and wasn’t free. This one had been earned.

“You’re right,” Cole said, “it’s not much. But I’ll take it. See you around, Weiss.”

She gave a little wave, almost shyly, barely raising her hand above her waist, and then she spun around and was gone.

After listening to the loud clumping of Cole’s boots on the stairs quickly fade away, Weiss turned back around. She brushed a little snow off the top of the railing, then leaned against it to look down on the motel courtyard. It looked like the press conference was wrapping up. Just in time too, as the snowfall was getting heavier by the minute. She watched the flakes drift down from the grey morning sky and shivered once again.

She’d go back inside in just a second. She’d turn on the heat, close the door, get dressed, and then sit on the bed until Devlin came back. Maybe she’d call her mother while she waited. It would be good to hear her voice.

But right now she wanted to stay where she was, to live in the moment. In the grand scheme of things, a minute or two wouldn’t matter.

She put her hands back in her pockets, felt the cigarette pack there. It was almost empty. Just one left. She was a little surprised by that, thinking there should have been more. She couldn’t remember smoking so many the night before. But then she’d been drunk, so maybe she had. And anyway, she had promised to quit so long as she lived to see today. It was just another of God’s gentle nudges.

She shook her last cigarette out, lit it with a trembling hand, and then inhaled the thick, warm smoke deeply. She sighed in contentment.

There was some fun to be had in breaking promises, after all.

THE END

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