PART 1 HIGHWAY 50
"Oh! Oh, Jesus! Gross!"
"What, Mary, what?"
"Didn't you see it?"
She looked at him, and in the harsh desert sunlight he saw that a lot of the color had gone out of her face, leaving just the marks of sunburn on her cheeks and across her brow, where not even a strong sunblock cream would entirely protect her. She was very fair and burned easily.
"On that sign. That speed-limit sign."
"'What about it?"
"There was a dead cat on it, Peter! Nailed there or glued there or some damned thing." He hit the brake pedal. She grabbed his shoulder at once. "Don't you even think about going back."
"But - "
"But what? Did you want to take a picture of it? No way, Josd. If I have to look at that again, I'll throw up."
"Was it a white cat?" He could see the back of a sign in the rearview mirror - the speed-limit sign she was talking about, presumably - but that was all. And when they'd passed it, he had been looking off in the other direction, at some birds flying toward the nearest wedge of mountains. Strictly attending to the highway was not something one had to do every second out here; Nevada called its stretch of U.S. 50 "The Loneliest Highway in America," and in Peter Jackson's opinion, it lived up to its billing. Of course he was a New York boy, and he supposed he might be suffering a cumulative case of the creeps. Desert ago-raphobia, Ballroom Syndrome, something like that.
"No, it was a tiger-stripe," she said. "What difference does it make?"
"I thought maybe Satanists in the desert," he said. "This place is supposed to be filled with weirdos, isn't that what Marielle said?"
" 'Intense' was the word she used," Mary said. " 'Cen-tral Nevada's full of intense people.' Quote-unquote. Gary said pretty much the same. But since we haven't seen anybody since we crossed the California state line - "
"Well, in Falion - "
"Pit-stops don't count," she said. "Although even there, the people . . ." She gave him a funny, helpless look that he didn't see often in her face these days, although it had been common enough in the months following her miscarriage.
"Why are they here, Pete? I mean, I can understand Vegas and Reno . . . even Winnemucca and Wendover. . .
"The people who come from Utah to gamble there call Wendover Bend Over," Peter said, grinning. "Gary told me that."
She ignored him. "But the rest of the state . . . the people who are here, why do they come and why do they stay? I know I was born and raised in New York, so probably I can't understand, but - "
"You're sure that wasn't a white cat? Or a black one?" He glanced back into the rearview, but at just under sev-enty miles an hour, the speed-limit sign had already faded into a mottled background of sand, mesquite, and dull brown foothills. There was finally another vehicle behind them, though; he could see a hot sunstar reflection prick-ing off its windshield. Maybe a mile back. Maybe two.
"No, tiger-stripe, I told you. Answer my question. Who are the central Nevada taxpayers, and what's in it for them?"
He shrugged. "There aren't many taxpayers out here'. Fallon's the biggest town on Highway 50, and that's mostly farming. It says in the guidebook that they dammed their lake and made irrigation possible. Canta-loupes is what they grow, mostly. And I think there's a military base nearby. Fallon was a Pony Express stop, did you know that?"
"I'd leave," she said. "Just pick up my cantaloupes and go."
He touched her left breast briefly with his right hand. "That's a nice set of cantaloupes, ma'am."
"Thanks. Not just Fallon, either. Any state where you can't see a house or even a tree, in any direction, and they nail cats to speed-limit signs. I'd leave."
"Well, it's a zone-of-perception thing," he said, speak-ing carefully. Sometimes he couldn't tell when Mary was serious and when she was just gassing, and this was one of those times. "As someone who was raised in an urban environment, a place like the Great Basin is just outside your zone, that's all. Mine too, for that matter. The sky alone is enough to freak me out. Ever since we left this morning, I've felt it up there, pressing down on me."
"Me, too. There's too goddam much of it."
"Are you sorry we came this way?" He glanced up into the rearview and saw the vehicle behind them was closer now. Not a truck, which was just about all they'd seen since leaving Fallon (and all headed the other way, west), but a car. Really burning up the road, too.
She thought about it, then shook her head. "No. It was good to see Gary and Marielle, and Lake Tahoe - "
"Beautiful, wasn't it?"
"Incredible. Even this . . ." Mary looked out the win-dow. "It's not without beauty, I'm not saying that. And I suppose I'll remember it the rest of my life. But it's . .
". . . creepy," he finished for her. "If you're from New York, at least."
"Damned right," she said. "Urban Zone of Perception. And even if we'd taken 1-80. it's all desert."
"Yep. Tumbling tumbleweeds." He looked into the mirror again, the lenses of the glasses he wore for driving glinting in the sun. The oncomer was a police-car, doing at least ninety. He squeezed over toward the shoulder until the righthand wheels began to rumble on the hardpan and spume up dust.
"Pete? What are you doing?"
Another look into the mirrors Big chrome grille, coming up fast and reflecting such a savage oblong of sun that he had to squint. . but he thought the car was white, which meant it wasn't the State Police.
"Making myself small," Peter said. "Wee sleekit cowrin beastie. There's a cop behind us and he's in a hurry. Maybe he's got a line on - "
The police-car blasted by, making the Acura which belonged to Peter's sister rock in its backwash. It was indeed white, and dusty from the doorhandles down. There was a decal on the side, but the car was gone before Pete caught more than a glimpse of it. DES-something. Destry, maybe. That was a good name for a Nevada town out here in the big lonely.
" - on the guy who nailed the cat to the speed-limit sign," Peter finished.
"Why's he going so fast with his flashers off?"
"Who's there to run them for out here?"
"Well," she said, giving him that odd-funny look again, "there's nobody but we."
He opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again. She was right. The cop must have been seeing them for at least as long as they'd been seeing him, maybe longer, so why hadn't he flipped on his lights and flashers, just to be safe? Of course Peter had known enough to get over on his own, give the cop as much of the road as he possibly could, but still -
The police car's taillights suddenly came on. Peter hit his own brake without even thinking of it, although he had already slowed to sixty and the cruiser was far enough ahead so there was no chance of a collision. Then the cruiser swerved over into the westbound lane.
"What's he doing?" Mary asked.
"I don't know, exactly."
But of course he knew: he was slowing down. From his cut-em-off-at-the-pass eighty-five or ninety he had dropped to fifty. Frowning, not wanting to catch up and not knowing why, Peter slowed even more himself. The speedometer of Deirdre's car dropped down toward forty.
"Peter?" Mary sounded alarmed. "Peter, I don't like this."
"It's all right," he said, but was it? He stared at the cop-car, now tooling slowly up the westbound lane to his left, and wondered. He tried to get a look at the person behind the wheel and couldn't. The cruiser's rear window was caked with desert dust.
Its taillights, also caked with dust, flickered briefly as the car slowed even more. Now it was doing barely thirty. A tumbleweed bounced into the road, and the cruiser's radial tires crushed it under. It came out the back looking to Peter Jackson like a nestle of broken fingers. All at once he was frightened, very close to terror, in fact, and he hadn't the slightest idea why.
Because Nevada's full of intense people, Marielle said so and Gary agreed, and this is how intense people act. In - a word, weird.
Of course that was bullshit, this really wasn't weird, not very weird, anyhow, although -
The cop-car taillights flickered some more. Peter pressed his own brake in response, not even thinking about what he was doing for a second, then looking at the speedometer and seeing he was down to twenty-five.
"What does he want, Pete?" By now, that was pretty obvious. "To be behind us again. Why?"
"I don't know."
"Why didn't he just pull over on the shoulder and let us go past, if that's what he wants?"
"I don't know that, either."
"What are you going to - "
"Go by, of course." And then, for no reason at all, he added: "After all, we didn't nail the goddam cat to the speed-limit sign."
He pushed down on the accelerator and immediately began to catch up with the dusty cruiser, which was now floating along at no more than twenty.
Mary grabbed the shoulder of his blue workshirt hard enough for him to feel the pressure of her short finger nails. "No, don't."
"Mare, there's not a lot else I can do."
And the conversation was already obsolete, because he was going by even as he spoke. Deirdre's Acura drew alongside the dusty white Caprice, then passed it. Peter looked through two pieces of glass and saw very little. A big shape, a man-shape, that was about all. Plus the sense that the driver of the police-car was looking back at him.
Peter glanced down at the decal on the passenger door.
Now he had time to read it: DESPERATION POLICE DEPARTMENT in gold letters below the town seal, which appeared to be a miner and a horseman shaking hands.
Desperation, he thought. Even better than Destry. Much better.
As soon as he was past, the white car swung back into the eastbound lane, speeding up to stay on the Acura's bumper. They travelled that way for thirty or forty sec-onds (to Peter it felt considerably longer). Then the blue flashers on the Caprice's roof came on. Peter felt a sinking in his stomach, but it wasn't surprise. Not at all.
Mary still had hold of him, and now, as Peter swung onto the shoulder, she began digging in again.
"What are you doing? Peter, what are you doing?"
"Stopping. He's got his flashers on and he's pulling me over."
"1 don't like it," she said, looking nervously around. There was nothing to look at but desert, foothills, and leagues of blue sky. "What were we doing?"
"Speeding seems logical." He was looking in the out-side mirror. Above the words CAUTION OBJECTS MAY BE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR, he saw the dusty white driver's door of the cop-car swing open. A khaki leg swung out. It was prodigious. As the man it belonged to followed it out, swung the door of his cruiser closed, and settled his Smokey Bear hat on his head (he wouldn't have been wearing it in the car, Peter supposed; not enough clearance), Mary turned around to look. Her mouth dropped ajar.
"Holy God, he's the size of a football player!"
"At least," Peter said. Doing a rough mental calculation that used the roof of the car as a steering-point - about five feet - he guessed that the cop approaching Deirdre's Acura had to be at least six-five. And over two hundred and fifty pounds. Probably over three hundred.
Mary let go of him and scooted over against her door as far as she could, away from the approaching giant. On one hip the cop wore a gun as big as the rest of him, but his hands were empty - no clipboard, no citation-book. Peter didn't like that. He didn't know what it meant, but he didn't like it. In his entire career as a driver, which had included four speeding tickets as a teenager and one OUI (after the faculty Christmas party three years ago), he had never been approached by an empty-handed cop, and he most definitely didn't like it. His heartbeat, already faster than normal, sped up a little more. His heart wasn't pounding, at least not yet, but he sensed it could pound. That it could pound very easily.
You're being stupid, you know that, don't you? he asked himself. It's speeding, that's all, simple speeding. The posted limit is a joke and everyone knows it's a joke, but this guy's undoubtedly got a certain quota to meet. And when it comes to speeding tickets, out-of-staters are always best. You know that. So. . . what's that old Van Halen album title? Eat'em and Smile?
The cop stopped beside Peter's window, the buckle of his Sam Browne belt on a level with Peter's eyes. He did not bend but raised one fist (to Peter it looked the size of a Daisy canned ham) and made cranking gestures.
Peter took off his round rimless glasses, tucked them into his pocket, and rolled his window down. He was very aware of Mary's quick breathing from the passenger bucket. She sounded as if she had been jumping rope, or perhaps making love.
The cop did a slow, smooth, deep kneebend, bringing his huge and noncommittal face into the Jacksons' field of vision. A band of shadow, cast by the stiff brim of his trooper-style hat, lay across his brow. His skin was an uncomfortable-looking pink, and Peter guessed that, for all his size, this man got along with the sun no better than Mary did. His eyes were bright gray, direct but with no emotion in them. None that Peter could read, anyway. He could smell something, though. He thought maybe Old Spice.
The cop gave him only a brief glance, then his gaze was moving around the Acura's cabin, checking Mary first (American Wife, Caucasian, pretty face, good figure, low mileage, no visible scars), then looking at the cameras and bags and road-litter in the back seat. Not much road-litter yet; they'd only left Oregon three days before, and that included the day and a half they'd spent with Gary and Marielle Soderson, listening to old records and talking about old times.
The cop's eyes lingered on the pulled-out ashtray. Peter guessed he was looking for roaches, sniffing for the lin-gering aroma of pot or hash, and felt relieved. He hadn't smoked a joint in nearly fifteen years, had never tried coke, and had pretty much quit drinking after the Christ-mas party OUI. Smelling a little cannabis at the occasional rock show was as close to a drug experience as he ever came these days, and Mary had never bothered with the stuff at all - she sometimes referred to herself as a "drug virgin." There was nothing in the pulled-out ashtray but a couple of balled-up Juicy Fruit wrappers, and no discarded beer-cans or wine bottles in the back seat.