Page 5

In spite of the cycle, nothing about the Road king was suspicious.

In its wake Jim Ironheart was overcome by a sense of evil so strong there might as well have been a black tide washing over him with all the power of the sea behind it. He gagged as if he could smell the corruption of them to whom the motor home belonged.

At first he hesitated, afraid that any action he took might jeopardize woman and child who were evidently being held captive. But the worse thing he could do was delay. The longer the mother and daughter were in the hands of the people in the Road king, the less chance they had of coming out of it alive.

He swung into the passing lane. He intended to get a couple of miles ahead of them and block the road with his car.

In the Road king's rearview mirror, the driver must have seen Jim stop at the station wagon and get out to inspect it. Now he let the Camaro pull almost even before swinging the motor home sharply left, bashing it against the side of the car.

Metal shrieked against metal, and the car shuddered.

The steering wheel spun in Jim's hands. He fought for control and kept The Road king pulled away, then swerved back and bashed him again, ? driving him off the blacktop and onto the unpaved shoulder.

For a few hundred yards they rattled forward at high speed in those positions: the Road king in the wrong lane, risking a head-on collision with any oncoming traffic that might be masked by the curtains of heat and sun glare; the Camaro casting up huge clouds of dust behind it, speeding precariously along the brink of the two-foot drop-off that separated the raised roadbed from the desert floor beyond.

Even a light touch of the brakes might pull the car a few inches to the left, causing it to drop and roll. He only dared to ease up on the accelerator and let his speed fall gradually.

The driver of the Road king reacted, reducing his speed, too, hanging at Jim's side. Then the motor home moved inexorably to the left, inch by inch, edging relentlessly onto the dirt shoulder.

Being much the smaller and less powerful of the two vehicles, the Camaro could not resist the pressure. It was pushed leftward in spite of Jim's efforts to hold it steady. The front tire found the brink first, and that corner of the car dropped. He hit the brakes; it didn't matter any more.

Even as he jammed his foot down on the pedal, the rear wheel followed the front end into empty space. The Camaro tipped and rolled to the left.

Using a safety harness was a habit with him, so he was thrown sideways and forward, and his sunglasses flew off, but he didn't crack his face against the window post or shatter his breastbone against the steering wheel. Webs of cracks, like the work of a spider on Benzedrine, spread across the windshield. He squeezed his eyes shut, and gummy bits of tempered glass imploded over him. The car rolled again, then started to roll a third time but only made it halfway, coming to rest on its roof Hanging upside down in the harness, he was unhurt but badly shaken.

He choked on the clouds of white dust that poured in through the shattered windshield.

They'll be coming for me He fumbled frantically for the harness release, found it, and dropped the last few inches onto the ceiling of the overturned car. He was curled on top of the shotgun. He had been damn lucky the weapon hadn't discharged as it slammed around inside the tumbling Camaro.

Coming for me Disoriented, he needed a moment to find the door handle, which was over his head. He reached up, released it. At first the door would not open Then it swung outward with a metallic popping and squeaking.

He crawled off the ceiling, out onto the floor of the desert, feeling as though he had become trapped in a surreal Daliesque world of weird perspective He reached back in for the shotgun.

Though the ash-fine dust was beginning to settle, he was still coughing it out of his lungs. Clenching his teeth, he tried to swallow each cough. he needed to be quiet if he were to survive.

Neither as quick nor as inconspicuous as the small desert lizards the scooted across his path, Jim stayed low and dashed to a nearby arroyo When he arrived at the edge of that natural drainage channel, he discovered it was only about four feet deep. He slid over the lip, and his feet made a soft slapping sound as they hit the hard-packed bottom.

Crouching in that shallow declivity, he raised his head slowly to grow level and looked across the desert floor toward the overturned Camaro around which the haze of alkaline dust had not yet entirely dissipated.

the highway, the Road king finished reversing along the pavement and halted parallel to the wrecked car.

The door opened, and a man climbed out. Another man, having exited from the far side, hurried around the front of the motor home to join his companion. Neither of them was the kindly-retiree-on-a-budget that a might have imagined behind the wheel of that aging caravan. They appeared to be in their early thirties and as hard as heat-tempered dense rock. One of them wore his dark hair pulled back and knotted into redoubled ponytail-the passe style that kids now called a "dork knob" The other had short spiky hair on top, but his head was shaved on the sides-as if he thought he was in one of those old Mad Max movies. they wore sleeveless T-shirts, jeans, and cowboy boots, and both carried hand guns. They headed cautiously toward the Camaro, splitting up to approach it from opposite ends.

Jim drew down below the top of the arroyo, turned right-which was approximately west-and rushed in a crouch along the shallow channel He glanced back to see if he was leaving a trail, but the silt, baked under months of fierce sun since the last rain, did not take footprints.

After about fifty feet, the arroyo abruptly angled to the south, left.

Sixty feet thereafter it disappeared into a culvert that led under the highway.

Hope swept through him but did not still the tremors of fear that had shaken him continuously since he had found the dying man in the station wagon. He felt as if he was going to puke. But he had not eaten breakfast and had nothing to toss up. No matter what the nutritionists said, sometimes it paid to skip a meal.

Full of deep shade, the concrete culvert was comparatively cool.

He was tempted to stop and hide there-and hope they would give up, go away.

He couldn't do that, of course. He wasn't a coward. But even if his conscience had allowed him to buy into a little cowardice this time, the mysterious force driving him would not permit him to cut and run. To some extent, he was a marionette on strings invisible, at the mercy of a puppeteer unseen, in a puppet-theater play with a plot he could not understand and a theme that eluded him.

A few tumbleweed had found their way into the culvert, and their brittle spines raked him as he shoved through the barrier they had formed. He came out on the other side of the highway, into another arm of the arroyo, and scrambled up the wall of that parched channel.

Lying belly-first on the desert floor, he slithered to the edge of the elevated roadbed and eased up to look across the pavement, east toward the motor home. Beyond the Road king, he could see the Camaro like a dead roach on its back. The two men were standing near it, together now.

Evidently, they had just checked the car and knew he was not in it.

They were talking animatedly, but they were too far away for Jim to hear what they were saying. A couple of words carried to him, but they were faded by distance and distorted by the furnace-dry air.

Sweat kept trickling into his eyes, blurring his vision. He blotted his face with his sleeve and squinted at the men again.

They were moving slowly away from the Camaro now, deeper into the desert. One of them was wary, swiveling his head from side to side, and the other studied the ground as they moved, no doubt searching for signs of Jim's passage. Just his luck, one of them would turn out to have been raised by Indian scouts, and they'd be all over him faster than an iguana on a sand beetle.

From the west came the sound of an engine, low at first but growing rapidly louder even as Jim turned his head to look in that direction.

Out of a waterfall mirage came a Peterbilt. From Jim's low vantage point, the truck looked so huge that it didn't even seem like a truck but like some futuristic war machine that had traveled backward in time from the twenty-second century.

The driver of the Peterbilt would see the overturned Camaro. In the traditional Samaritan spirit that most truckers showed on the road, he would stop to offer assistance. His arrival would rattle the two killers, and while they were distracted, Jim would get the drop on them.

He had it all figured out-except it didn't work that way. The Peterbilt didn't slow as it approached, and Jim realized he was going to have to flag it down. But before he could even rise up, the big truck swept past with n dragon roar and a blast of hot wind, breaking the speed limit by a Guinness margin, as if it were a judgment wagon driven by a demon and loaded with souls that the devil wanted in hell right now Jim fought the urge to leap up and yell after it: Where's your tradition Samaritan spirit, you shithead? Silence returned to the hot day.

On the far side of the road, the two killers looked after the Peterbilt for moment, then continued their search for Jim.

Furious and scared, he eased back from the shoulder of the highway; flattened out again, and belly-crawled eastward toward the motor home, dragging the shotgun with him. The elevated roadbed was between him and them; they could not possibly see him, yet he more than half expected them to sprint across the blacktop and pump half a dozen rounds into him When he dared look up again, he was directly opposite the parked Road king, which blocked the two men from his view. If he couldn't see them, they couldn't see him. He scrambled to his feet and crossed the pavement to the passenger side of the motor home.

The door on that flank was a third of the way from the front bumper at the rear, not opposite the driver's door. It was ajar.

He took hold of the handle. Then he realized that a third man might have stayed inside with the woman and girl. He couldn't risk going in there until he had dealt with the two outside, for he might be trapped between gunmen.

He moved to the front of the Road king, and just as he reached the corner, he heard voices approaching. He froze, waiting for the guy with the weird haircut to come around the front bumper. But they stopped on the other side.

"-who gives a shit?" "-but he mighta seen our license number-" "-chances are, he's bad hurt-" "-wasn't no blood in the car" Jim sank to one knee by the tire, looked under the vehicle. They were standing on the other side, near the driver's door.

"-we just take the next southbound-" "-with cops on our tail" "-by the time he gets to any cops, we'll be in Arizona" "-you hope-" "-I know-" Rising, moving cautiously, Jim slipped around the front corner of the Road king. He eased past the first pair of headlights and the engine hatch "-cut across Arizona into New Mexico-" "-they got cops, too-" "-into Texas, put a few states between us, drive all night if we have to." Jim was grateful that the shoulder of the highway was dirt rather than loose gravel. He crept silently across it to the driver's-side headlights, staying low.

"-you know what piss-poor cooperation they got across state lines " "-he's out there somewhere, damn it" "-so're a million scorpions and rattlesnakes-" Jim stepped around to their side of the motor home, covering them with the shotgun. "Don't move!" For an instant they gaped at him the way he might have stared at a three-eyed Martian with a mouth in its forehead. They were only about eight feet away, close enough to spit on, which they looked like they deserved. At a distance they had appeared as dangerous as snakes with legs, and they still looked deadlier than anything that slithered in the desert.

They were holding their handguns, pointed at the ground. Jim thrust the shotgun at them and shouted, "Drop 'em, damn it!" Either they were the hardest of hard cases or they were nuts-probably both-because they didn't freeze at the sight of the shotgun. The guy with the redoubled ponytail flung himself to the ground and rolled.

Simultaneously, the refugee from Road Warrior brought up his pistol, and Jim pumped a round into the guy's chest at point-blank range, blowing him backward and down and all the way to hell.

The survivor's feet vanished as he wriggled under the Road king.

To avoid being shot in the foot and ankle, Jim grabbed the open door and jumped onto the step beside the driver's seat. Even as his feet left the ground, two shots boomed from under the motor home, and one of them punctured the tire beside which he'd been standing.

Instead of retreating into the Road king, he dropped back to the ground, fell flat, and shoved the shotgun under the vehicle, figuring to take his adversary by surprise. But the guy was already out from under on the other side. Jim could see only the black cowboy boots hurrying toward the rear of the motor home. The guy turned the corner-and vanished.

The ladder. At the right rear corner. Next to the racked motorcycle.

The bastard was going onto the roof Jim hustled all the way under the Road king before the killer could look over the edge of the roof, spot him, and fire down. It was no cooler beneath the vehicle, because the sun-scorched earthen shoulder radiated the heat it had been storing up since dawn.

Two cars roared by on the highway, one close after the other. He hadn't heard them coming, maybe because his heart was beating so hard that it felt as if he were inside a kettle drum. He cursed the motorists under his breath, then realized they couldn't be expected to stop when they saw a guy like Dork Knob prowling the top of the motor home with a handgun He had a better chance of winning if he continued to do the unexpected so he immediately crawled on his belly, fast as a marine under fire, to the rear of the Road king. He twisted onto his back, eased his head out past the rear bumper, and peered up across the Harley, at the ascending rungs that appeared to dwindle into blazing white sun.

The ladder was empty. The killer was already on the roof He might think that he had temporarily mystified his pursuer with his vanishing act and in any case he wouldn't expect to be followed with utter wrecklessness Jim slid all the way into the open and went up the ladder.

He gripped the hot siderail with one hand, holding the compact shotgun with the other, trying to ascend as soundlessly as possible. His adversary was surprisingly quiet on the aluminum surface above, making barely enough noises of his own to cover an occasional pop and squeak from the ladder rungs under Jim's feet.

At the top, Jim cautiously raised his head and squinted across the roof The killer was two-thirds of the way toward the front of the Road king, the right side, looking down. He was moving along on hands and knees which must have hurt; although the time-stained white paint reflected a little of the sun, it had stored sufficient heat to sting even well-callused hand and to penetrate blue denim. But if the guy was in pain, he didn't show it. He was evidently as suicidally macho as his dead buddy had been.

Jim eased up another rung.


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