Coming from St. Martin's Minotaur on 9/9/2014:
"Recognize this?" says the redhead, raising a nine-millimeter pistol into my husband's face.
It's late. We're walking the scenic route home after closing the bar. Joe stops, watching the redhead's partner come around on my left side. They're both under twenty, with stubbly heads and slow, mean eyes.
"Sorry guys," Joe says, showing them his handsome, fuck-you grin. "We're dry."
"We don't want your money, guido," the redhead sneers. "It's too late for that."
A cop car ambles through the intersection at 20th and B, half a block behind him, and a familiar dread tickles the bottom of my stomach. I'm not really here, yet I've been here before; I know what's coming.
My hands jump to my ears seconds ahead of the shattering blast that takes half of Joe's head off, and I brace for the two slugs that will rip into my right side the next time I blink. I remember that they won't kill me. The cops will make the far corner in four and a half seconds and save my life. Not Joe's. He's already gone.
God damn it. Living through it once wasn't enough?
"That's gotta be her," somebody said.
I surfaced from the dream and found myself beached on the rear seat of a black Chevy SUV, blinking at the back of some guy's head. We were parked in a dark loading bay next to a bus station. Through the plate-glass window, I could see a big woman dressed in a gray button-down shirt and pressed navy twills coming in from the back.
The head -- Kang, his name was -- folded up yesterday's Washington Post and sat tense while his partner, Buford, traded identification with the woman inside the station. I don't know what the hell they were worried about. Black tactical boots, paramilitary swagger, dark hair pulled back tight -- she might as well have been wearing a sign that said 'cop,' for Christ's sake.
After a couple of minutes, Buford turned and jerked his thumb at us. Kang and I got out of the car.
Nobody had told me where I was going, but we had to be south of the Carolinas. The air was warm and thick, with a moist, grassy smell. Florida, maybe? It had been forty degrees and raining when we'd left Virginia on Tuesday morning, and I'd dressed for the weather. I took off my coat as we went inside, shifting my travel bag from one shoulder to the other.
The woman was bigger than I'd thought at first -- close to six feet and heavily broad, the smooth column of her neck rising from her shoulders like a mast from the deck of a ship. Her eyes were a nice golden brown, but they weren't friendly.
"I'm Teresa Hallstedt," she said, giving me a frank once-over. She seemed slightly puzzled.
"Want your money back?"
"No, but you might," she murmured. No pause, like she'd had it ready.
Kang guffawed and swatted the Post into my midsection. As a parting gift, I took it away from him without breaking any of his fingers. He and Buford muttered some farewell platitudes, shook hands all around, and beat it. My ears did a little victory dance. The two of them had been yammering nonstop since Knoxville.
The Amazon headed for the door she'd come through, without any more talk. I followed, liking the way she maneuvered herself -- plenty of swagger and taking up space like she deserved it; none of the shrinking, minimizing mannerisms that big women so often resort to. For about the millionth time since puberty, I wondered what it felt like to be tall.
Outside, I had to stop for a minute to steady myself. The night sky, no longer hidden by the loading bay roof, blasted into infinity overhead, impossibly vast and ending at a horizon that seemed very far away and too low. A weird lifting sensation, as if I were falling upwards. It felt like a stiff wind could come along and blow me straight to Canada.
"You coming or what?" the Amazon called across the empty parking lot.
Two and half years cooped up in various secure locations with cops and lawyers had made me a stranger to the outdoors. I shook off my vertigo and headed for the burgundy four-door Pontiac. We buckled up and pulled out onto a narrow two-lane road. She glanced over at my sweater. "You want the air?"
Before I could answer, a burbling chirp sounded, and she brought out a slim black rectangle with a glowing blue face. I glared at it, annoyed. I'm not a fan of the telephone, in any configuration. For my money, Bell attached his invention to the wall so you could get the hell away from it.
The Amazon listened for a few minutes, her lips compressing. "Fire there yet?" More listening, then, "Did she get a look at the guy?"
A green and white sign flashed by: Azula, Texas. Pop. 5141.
"I'm about five minutes out," the cop continued into her phone. "Yeah. OK, Benny. Thanks."
She beeped the thing off and put it away, seeming to forget that I was there. I didn't remind her.
We hummed along in silence for a while, the sparse ghosts of small houses sliding by out in the landscape, then the Pontiac slowed and rattled over a low bridge into a town square.
A stone courthouse held down the brown patch of grass at its center, a couple dozen weathered storefronts huddled around it like campers around a fire. The place could have done time for cuteness if half the buildings hadn't been boarded up or vacant. I felt the thing between my ears boot up the automatic cost-benefit analysis it always runs through when I lay eyes on derelict real estate. My mood started to lift. Maybe this exile to the sticks didn't have to be the end of life as I knew it.
A thick plume of gray smoke twisted up into the sky from a building on the far corner, to our left. Two fire trucks were parked at the curb in front, and a couple of guys in full hero regalia stood on the courthouse lawn, one with a radio pressed to the side of his face. A short way off, closer to us, a uniformed cop was talking to a tiny old woman at the open driver's side door of a police cruiser. She shaded her eyes against the headlights and stepped back as the Amazon pulled up alongside.
"Hey, Chief," the uniform said, walking over and laying his arm on the Pontiac's roof. He was maybe 35, small, dark, and hard-looking, with a bristle of black hair growing low on his forehead. Second generation, I bet myself.
"Anything?" the Amazon asked him.
He shook his head. "911 caller gave the same description as Sylvia did -- Caucasian, blonde, red gimme cap -- but he was long gone by the time we got here." He jerked his chin at the firefighters. "First-in found point of origin indicators that look fishy."
"Damn it," the Amazon muttered. She put the car in park and got out.
As the cops headed toward the firefighters, the old woman -- Sylvia, I presumed -- inched over and looked in at me. Her face was lined and folded like one of those dried apple dolls, with shiny black raisin eyes. Thin braids the color of sheet metal lay down the front of her patterned house dress.
I gave her the eyebrows and and she said, in a surprisingly deep voice, "What did you do?"
I considered telling her I'd just killed somebody's grandmother, but decided it was a little early to go off script. I hadn't even been in town for fifteen minutes.
"Nothing," I said. "I'm a friend of Teresa's."
The raisin eyes moved off my face to the suitcase in the back seat. "From where?"
"Boston," I said.
She smiled as if at a joke, and my radar went off. "What's funny?"
The cops were back before she could get an answer out, the Amazon asking her, "Sylvia, you sure you didn't recognize this runner?"
"All them white boys look the same to me," she shrugged.
The Amazon sighed and got back into the car, saying to the uniform, "Keep everybody here, will you, Benny? I'll be right back."
We bumped over the fire hoses criss-crossing the street and passed along the front of the courthouse. The Amazon tilted her head toward the row of buildings facing it and muttered, "You've got a job interview there tomorrow afternoon."
I took a look over my shoulder, drawing a bead on the only place with lights on. A row of Harley-Davidsons was parked at the curb in front, and a neon sign in the window read 'Guerra's.' Open at this hour, it could only be one thing.
"Get bored halfway through?" I asked the cop.
She cut her eyes at me. "What?"
"If you'd read my whole file, you'd know that I only helped out at the bar occasionally, as a favor to my father-in-law. Construction is my field, not slinging booze."
She made a face and started shaking her head before I stopped talking. "You're not in California anymore. Girls don't do that kind of work around here."
I gave her back the face. "But they're allowed to run the police department?"
"I'm not in hiding from a bunch of neo-Nazis who want to kill me," she pointed out. "I can afford to be weird. You can't."
Fucking cops. Everywhere you go, they're the same.
Away from the square, there didn't seem to be much of a town. We drove maybe half a mile on a curbless, pitted strip of asphalt apparently unrelated to the sporadic buildings in its vicinity, some of which might have been houses. After we turned right at a small church with a big graveyard, signs of habitation disappeared entirely except for a big white house up ahead on the right.
The Amazon stopped to let a car coming toward us exit the narrow gravel driveway before turning in. There was a young woman at the wheel, too busy keeping her beige four-door out of the ditch to acknowledge us. The Amazon glanced her way with a frown, and I felt a little zap of something come off her. It didn't last long enough for me to classify.
We parked on a bare patch of dirt under a low-hanging tree, and I followed the Amazon up onto a long screened porch facing the driveway. She unlocked a door and flipped on the lights, illuminating an antique kitchen with a Formica dinette against the wall, between two tall windows.
"I've gotta go deal with this fire situation," she said, twisting a brass skeleton key off her ring and handing it to me. "I'll come by in the morning so we can get each other up to speed. Call me on my cell if anything needs attention before then." She scribbled on the back of a card with a green ballpoint. I took it, and she disappeared down the porch steps.
In addition to the kitchen, there was a bathroom with an Olympic-sized claw foot tub, and a tiny room barely big enough to contain the queen-sized bed shoved sideways against the wall under a high window. Another door faced me across the narrow space alongside the bed, but it was locked and didn't open with the key. I decided I could survive the night without seeing my living room, and tossed my stuff into the closet. Then I went out to sit on the porch steps and take another look at that sky.