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He straddled the Harley and pressed the starter button. The engine kicked in at once. He revved it a little, then shut it off The woman said, "Who are you?" "I can't tell you that.”


"But why not?" "This one's too sensational. It'll make nationwide headlines.”


"I don't understand.”


"They'd splash my picture everywhere. I like my privacy.”


A small utility rack was bolted to the back of the Harley. Jim used his belt to strap the shotgun to it.


With a tremor of vulnerability in her voice that broke his heart, Lisa said, "We owe you so much.”


He looked at her, then at Susie. The girl had one slender arm around her mother, clinging tightly. She was not listening to their conversation. Her eyes were out of focus, blank-and her mind seemed far away. Her free hand was at her mouth, and she was chewing on her knuckle; she had actually broken the skin and drawn her own blood.


He averted his eyes and stared down at the cycle again.


"You don't owe me anything," he said.


"But you saved-" "Not everyone," he said quickly. "Not everyone I should have.”


The distant growl of an approaching car drew their attention to the east.


They watched a souped-up black Trans Am swim out of the water mirages.


With a screech of brakes, it stopped in front of them. Red flames were painted on the fender back of the front wheel, and the rims of both the wheel wells were protected with fancy chrome trim. Fat twin chrome tailpipes glistened like liquid mercury in the fierce desert sun.


The driver got out. He was about thirty. His thick black hair was combed away from his face, full on the sides, a ducktail in back. He was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up to reveal tattoos on both biceps.


"Somethin' wrong here?" he asked across the car.


Jim stared at him for a beat, then said, "These people need a ride to the nearest town.”


As the man came around the Trans Am, the passenger door opened, and a woman got out. She was a couple of years younger than her companion, dressed in baggy tan shorts, a white halter top, and a white bandana Unruly dyed-blond hair sprayed out around that piece of headgear, framing a face so heavily made up that it looked like a testing ground for Max Factor. She wore too much clunky costume jewelry, as well: big dangling silver earrings; three strands of glass beads in different shades of red; two bracelets on each wrist, a watch, and four rings. On the upper slope of her left breast was a blue and pink butterfly tattoo.


"You break down?" she asked.


Jim said, "The motor home has a flat.”


"I'm Frank," the guy said. "This is Verna." He was chewing gum.


"I'll help you fix the tire.”


Jim shook his head. "We can't use the motor home anyway. There's a dead man in it.”


"Dead man?" "And another one over there," Jim said, gesturing beyond the Road king.


Verna was wide-eyed.


Frank stopped chewing his gum for a beat, glanced at the shotgun on the Harley rack, then looked at Jim again. "You kill them?" "Yeah. Because they kidnapped this woman and her child.”


Frank studied him a moment, then glanced at Lisa. "That true?" he asked her.


She nodded.


"Jesus jumpin' catfish," Verna said.


Jim glanced at Susie. She was in another world, and she would need some professional help to reenter this one. He was certain she couldn't hear a thing they said.


Curiously, he felt as detached as the child looked. He was still sinking into that internal darkness, and before long it would swallow him completely. He told Frank: "These guys I killed-they wasted the husband. . . the father. His body's in a station wagon a couple of miles west of here.”


"Oh, shit," Frank said, "that's a rough one.”


Verna drew against Frank's side and shuddered.


"I want you to take them to the nearest town, fast as you can. Get medical attention for them. Then contact the state police, get them out here.”


"Sure," Frank said.


But Lisa said, "Wait. . . no. . . I can't. . ." Jim went to her, and she whispered to him: "They look like. . . I can't. . . . I'm just afraid. . .”


Jim put a hand on her shoulder, stared directly into her eyes.


"Things aren't always what they appear to be. Frank and Verna are okay.


You trust me?" "Yes. Now. of course" "Then believe me. You can trust them.”


"But how can you know?" she asked, her voice breaking.


"I know," he said firmly.


She continued to meet his eyes for a few seconds, then nodded and said, "All right.”


The rest was easy. As docile as if she had been drugged, Susie allowed herself to be lifted into the back seat. Her mother joined her there, cuddled her. When Frank was behind the wheel again and Verna at his side, Jim gratefully accepted a can of root beer from their ice chest.


Then he closed Verna's door, leaned down to the open window, and thanked her and Frank.


"You're not waitin' here for the cops, are you?" Frank asked.


"No.”


"You're not in trouble, you know. You're the hero here.”


"I know. But I'm not waiting.”


Frank nodded. "You got your reasons, I guess. You want us to say you was a bald guy with dark eyes, hitched a ride with a trucker going east?" "No. Don't lie. Don't lie for me.”


"Whatever you want," Frank said.


Verna said, "Don't worry. We'll take good care of them.”


"I know you will," Jim said.


He drank the root beer and watched the Trans Am until it had driven out of sight.


He climbed on the Harley, thumbed the starter button, used the long heavy shift to slide the gear wheel into place, rolled in a little throttle, released the clutch, and rode across the highway. He went off the shoulder, down the slight incline, onto the floor of the desert, and headed directly south into the immense and inhospitable Mojave.


For a while he rode at over seventy miles an hour, though he had no protection from the wind because the SP had no fairing. He was badly buffeted, and his eyes filled repeatedly with tears that he tried to blame entirely on the raw, hot air that assaulted him.


Strangely, he did not mind the heat. In fact he didn't even feel it. He was sweating, yet he felt cool.


He lost track of time. Perhaps an hour had passed when he realized that he had left the plains and was moving across barren hills the color of rust.


He reduced his speed. His route was now filled with twists and turns between rocky outcroppings, but the SP was the machine for it.


It had dew inches more suspension travel fore and aft than did the regular FXRS, with compatible spring and shock rates, plus twin disc brakes on the front -which meant he could corner like a stunt rider when the terrain threw surprises at him.


After a while he was no longer cool. He was cold.


The sun seemed to be fading, though he knew it was still early after noon. Darkness was closing on him from within.


Eventually he stopped in the shadow of a rock monolith about a quarter of a mile long and three hundred feet high. Weathered into eerie shapes by ages of wind and sun and by the rare but torrential rains that swept Mojave, the formation thrust out of the desert floor like the ruins of an ancient temple now half buried in sand.


He propped the Harley on its kickstand.


He sat down on the shaded earth.


After a moment he stretched out on his side. He drew up his knees.


and folded his arms across his chest.


He had stopped not a moment too soon. The darkness filled him completely , and he fell away into an abyss of despair.


Later, in the last hour of daylight, he found himself on the Harley again, riding across gray and rose-colored flats where clumps of mesquite bristled. Dead, sun-blackened tumbleweed chased him in a breeze that smelled of powdered iron and salt.


He vaguely remembered breaking open a cactus and sucking the moisture out of the water-heavy pulp at the core of the plant, but he was dry again. Desperately thirsty.


As he came over a gentle rise and throttled down a little, he saw a small town about two miles ahead, buildings clustered along a highway. A scattering of trees looked supernaturally lush after the desolation-physical end spiritual-through which he had traveled for the past several hours.


Half convinced that the town was only an apparition, he angled toward it nevertheless.


Suddenly, silhouetted against a sky that was growing purple and red with the onset of twilight, the spire of a church appeared, a cross at its pinnacle. Though he realized that he was to some extent delirious and that his delirium was at least partly related to serious dehydration, Jim turned at once toward the church. He felt as if he needed the solace of its interior spaces more than he needed water.


Half a mile from the town, he rode the Harley into an arroyo and left it there on its side. The soft sand walls of the channel gave way easily under his hands, and he quickly covered the bike.


He had assumed he could walk the last half mile with relative ease. But he was worse off than he had realized. His vision swam in and out of focus.


His lips burned, his tongue stuck to the roof of his dry mouth, and his throat was sore-as if he were in the grip of a virulent fever.


The muscles in his legs began to cramp and throb, and each foot seemed to be encased in a concrete boot.


He must have blacked out on his feet, because the next thing he knew, he was on the brick steps of the white clapboard church, with no recollection of the last few hundred yards of his journey. The words R LADY OF THE DESERT Were On a brass plaque beside the double doors.


He had been a Catholic once. In a part of his heart, he still was Catholic. He had been many things-Methodist, Jew, Buddhist, Baptist, Moslem, Hindu, Taoist, more-and although he was no longer any them in practice, he was still all of them in experience.


Though the door seemed to weigh more than the boulder that had covered the mouth of Christ's tomb, he managed to pull it open. He went inside.


The church was much cooler than the twilight Mojave, but not really cooL It smelled of myrrh and spikenard and the slightly sweetish odor of burning votive candles, causing memories of his Catholic days to flood back him, making him feel at home.


At the doorway between narthex and nave, he dipped two fingers in holy-water font and crossed himself He cupped his hands in the liquid, brought them to his mouth, and drank. The water tasted like blood: He looked into the white marble basin in horror, certain that it was brimming with gore, but he saw only water and the dim, shimmering reflection of his own face.


He realized that his parched and stinging lips were split. He lick them. The blood was his own.


Then he found himself on his knees at the front of the nave, leaning against the sanctuary railing, praying, and he did not know how he gotten there. Must have blacked out again.


The last of the day had blown away as if it were a pale skin of dust, a hot night wind pressed at the church windows. The only illumination was from a bulb in the narthex, the flickering flames of half a dozen votive candles in red-glass containers, and a small spotlight shining down on the crucifix.


Jim saw that his own face was painted on the figure of Christ.


He blinked his burning eyes and looked again. This time he saw the face of the dead man in the station wagon. The sacred countenance metamorphosed into the face of Jim s mother, his father, the child named Susie, Lisa then it was no face at all, just a black oval, as the killer's face had been black oval when he had turned to shoot at Jim inside the shadow-fill Road king.


Indeed, it wasn't Christ on the cross now, it was the killer. He open his eyes, looked at Jim, and smiled. He jerked his feet free of the vertical support, a nail still bristling from one of them, a black nail hole in the other. He wrenched his hands free, too, a spike still piercing each palm and he just drifted down to the floor, as if gravity had no claim on him accept what he chose to allow it. He started across the altar platform toward the railing, toward Jim.


Jim's heart was racing, but he told himself that what he saw was only a delusion. The product of a fevered mind. Nothing more.


The killer reached him. Touched his face. The hand was as soft as rotting meat and as cold as a liquid gas.


Like a true believer in a tent revival, collapsing under the empowered hand of a faith healer, Jim shivered and fell away into darkness.


A white-walled room.


A narrow bed.


Spare and humble furnishings.


Night at the windows.


He drifted in and out of bad dreams. Each time that he regained a consciousness, which was never for longer than a minute or two, he saw the same man hovering over him: about fifty, balding, slightly plump, with ?hick eyebrows and a squashed nose.


Sometimes the stranger gently worked an ointment into Jim's face, and sometimes he applied compresses soaked in ice water. He lifted Jim's head off the pillows and encouraged him to drink cool water through a straw Because the man's eyes were marked by concern and kindness, Jim didn't protest.


Besides, he had neither the voice nor the energy to protest. His throat felt as if he had swallowed kerosene and then a match. He did not have strength even to lift a hand an inch off the sheets.


"Just rest," the stranger said. "You're suffering heatstroke and a sunburn.”


Windburn. That's the worst of it, Jim thought, remembering the Harley SP, which had not been equipped with a plexiglass fairing for weather protection.


Light at the windows. A new day.


His eyes were sore.


His face felt worse than ever. Swollen.


The stranger was wearing a clerical collar.


"Priest," Jim said in a coarse and whispery voice that didn't sound his own.


ù "I found you in the church, unconscious.”


"Our Lady of the Desert.”


Lifting Jim off the pillows again, he said, "That's right. I'm Father Geary. Leo Geary.”


Jim was able to help himself a little this time. The water tasted sweet.


Father Geary said, "What were you doing in the desert?" "Wandering.”


"Why?" Jim didn't answer.


"Where did you come from?" Jim said nothing.


"What is your name?" "Jim.”


"You're not carrying any ID.”


"Not this time, no.”


"What do you mean by that?" Jim was silent.


ù' The priest said, "There was three thousand dollars in cash in your pockets. " "Take what you need.”


The priest stared at him, then smiled. "Better be careful what you offer, son. This is a poor church. We need all we can get.”


Later still, Jim woke again. The priest was not there. The house was silent. Once in a while a rafter creaked and a window rattled softly as desert wind stirred fitfully outside.

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