Page 6


From the glove box, she extracted a poofy black-and-green-plaid cap with a short bill and a plump upholstered button on top, the kind of thing sixty-year-old men wear when they buy a convertible sports car to impress women half their age.


“It belonged to Oscar. He had real style.”


“I hope his chauffeur’s uniform wasn’t a kilt. Ma’am, a hat isn’t much of a disguise.”


“Put it on. Put, put,” she insisted. From the glove compartment she withdrew a pair of sunglasses and handed them to me. “You can wear them, they aren’t prescription.”


Although the cap fit, I felt silly in it, as if I were trying to pass for a Scottish golfer circa 1910.


Zippering open a small leather case that she also took from the glove box, producing a two-ounce bottle containing a golden liquid, Mrs. Fischer said, “Let me paint some of this on your upper lip.”


“What’s that?”


“Spirit gum.” From the case, she plucked three or four little plastic bags. “Mustaches,” she said. “Different styles. A handlebar wouldn’t be right for your face. Something more modest. But not a pencil mustache, either. Too affected. Oh, I also have a chin beard!”


“Why would you carry a mustache-and-beard kit in your car?”


She seemed genuinely perplexed by my question. “Whyever wouldn’t I carry one?”


Gently but firmly I insisted, “I won’t wear a fake mustache.”


“Then a chin beard. You’ll be a whole new person.”


“I’ll look ridiculous.”


“Nonsense, Oddie. You’ll look impressively literary. With that cap and sunglasses and a chin beard, everyone will think you’re a famous poet.”


“What poet ever looked like that?”


“Virtually every beatnik poet, back in the day.”


“There are no beatniks anymore.”


“Because most of their poetry stank. You’ll write better,” she declared, unscrewing the cap from the bottle. “Stick out your chin.”


“I’m sorry, ma’am. No. I respect my elders and all that, and you’ve been especially kind, but I won’t glue a beard on my chin. I don’t want to look like Maynard G. Krebs.”


“Who is Maynard G. Krebs?”


“He was Dobie Gillis’s friend on that old TV series maybe fifty years ago, they’re always rerunning it somewhere.”


“You don’t look like a lard-ass couch potato.”


“Thank you, ma’am. I’m not. It’s just that everything sticks with me, like even the name of Dobie Gillis’s friend.”


She beamed with obvious delight as she screwed the cap back onto the bottle. “You’re such a nice boy—and a genius, too.”


“Not a genius. Far from it. I just have a sticky mind.” I reached out to shake her hand. “Good-bye, good luck, God bless.”


Patting my hand instead of shaking it, Mrs. Fischer said, “Take your time. I’ve got a good book to read.”


“I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I know I’m not coming back to you.”


“Of course you are. You’re my chauffeur.”


“I don’t want to put your life at risk.”


“Don’t be so hard on yourself, child. You’re a good driver.”


“I mean, I have dangerous enemies.”


“Everyone does, dear. Now, go have fun playing Miss Marple, and I’ll be here when you’re finished.”


Six


IN PLAID CAP AND SUNGLASSES, LOOKING LIKE A PRETEND Scottish poet golfer who left his chin beard at home, I approached the front doors of Star Truck. They slid open automatically with a pneumatic hiss, which seemed to be an expression of disdain at my appearance.


I was in a kind of lobby, a spotless space, about twenty feet wide and thirty long. As outside, the walls were clad in stainless steel, but up close, I could confirm that it was plastic, excellent fake steel but fake nonetheless.


To the left were glass doors under a red plastic sign that announced TRAVEL STORE in white letters. They sold everything from wrench sets to cushioned insoles, racy postcards to Bibles, audio books to zinc ointment. My psychic magnetism gave no indication that the rhinestone cowboy could be found in there.


The restaurant, to my left, would be divided into one area for ordinary motorists and another for professional drivers, who received quicker service. In this strange age of eager victims, no doubt there is always a legal action grinding through the courts, seeking to prohibit the partitioning of customers at truck stops, to forbid the serving of such high-cholesterol fare as cheese meatloaf, to require other choices besides country music on the jukebox, and to disallow trucker slang that can’t be understood by nontrucker customers.


In the center of the lobby stood a square kiosk, on each side of which a map revealed where to find the many services offered by Star Truck. The map wouldn’t help me locate the rhinestone cowboy, since it didn’t have a moving, blinking indicator light labeled PSYCHOPATH.


Beyond the lobby lay a wide corridor flanked by a large videogame arcade, a barbershop, a combination bakery and ice-cream store, a gift shop.… Except for the store windows and glass doors, almost every surface, from floor to ceiling, was either plastic or vinyl, almost seamless, bright and smooth and clean. These days, whether part of a chain or a family operation, most truck stops looked as if they had been extruded on site in a single continuous piece from a machine of fantastic proportions and capabilities.


Nevertheless, the place had a welcoming air, partly because everything was clean and bright, but also because so many of the truckers I passed looked like everybody’s favorite uncle or buddy in one movie or another. They tended to be beefy men with ruddy faces and work-worn hands. Most wore jeans or khakis, T-shirts or polos. Some had more John Wayne style than others, but most of them boasted at least one cowboy touch: a Stetson instead of the widely preferred baseball cap with trucking-related logo, a bronze bucking-horse belt buckle, cowboy boots instead of engineer boots or athletic shoes. Large bellies, where they overhung belts, somehow did not appear sloppy but seemed instead to be armor against a hostile world, and whether thin or heavy, these men looked as though they could take care of business, no matter what the business might be.


A few glanced at me, some nodded, and a couple of them smiled thinly. Most ignored me, perhaps because the stupid cap and the sunglasses indoors suggested that I might be problematic.


Of course, after a half decade of economic chaos and societal decay, the once robust fellowship of truckers had been tattered by competition for routes and loads, by the high cost of fuel, by the deteriorating condition of highways, and by an avalanche of new laws governing their jobs that made the freedom of the open road less free. Camaraderie had once been encouraged by CB radios, by a shared Americanism, and by simple faith. These days, their faith was everywhere mocked, their America seemed to be rusting away, and they turned inward more than they had once done.


Women truckers had been in the mix for quite a few years: Some were the wives of their co-drivers, some partnered with another woman, and a few were brave and alone. Like people everywhere, they came in all kinds of packages, but they tended to be prettier than most people supposed women truckers would be. All those I encountered on my ramblings through Star Truck smiled at me, every single one.


I figured I looked amusingly idiotic. But even after I took off the cap and turned the sunglasses to the top of my head, the ladies still smiled at me. I don’t know why. Nothing was hanging out of my nose. My traveling tongue didn’t discover a shred of breakfast ham or anything else wedged between my teeth.


Seeking my quarry, I roamed all over the public areas of the main building, from the tucked-away chapel on the ground floor to the upper floor, where I found the laundry room, the chiropractor’s office, the big TV lounge, and the showers. The showers were in a long corridor, behind a series of numbered and locked doors.


The attendant, a cheerful woman in a blue uniform, wore a name badge that identified her as ZILLA, like Godzilla without God. She was petite and appeared incapable of destroying a city.


After I paid the fee, Zilla gave me a fluffy towel with a washcloth and a clear plastic bag containing a miniature bar of soap, a tiny bottle of shampoo, and an equally tiny bottle of conditioner. When she reached for the key to Shower 7 that hung on the Peg-Board behind her, I asked if I could have Shower 5 instead. Zilla said they were all identical, and I explained that five was my lucky number. If she thought I was a geek for having a lucky-shower number, she didn’t show it.


Shower 5 was actually a complete no-frills bathroom with a toilet, a sink with a mirror above it, and a shower with a frosted-glass door fitted with a towel bar. The floors and walls were covered with glossy-white ceramic tile, including a built-in bench just outside of the large shower stall. Everything sparkled and appeared to be not just clean but sanitized. You would have been willing to stand barefoot on the floor, but you wouldn’t have been willing to eat off it.


Trucker teams often had sleeper tractors with a double bed, an under-counter refrigerator, and a microwave behind the cockpit, but they didn’t have a bathroom. On long hauls, they didn’t want to pay for a motel room just to take a quick shower.


After hanging the towel and the washcloth on the shower door and setting everything else on the counter beside the sink, I glanced in the mirror, decided I looked only slightly more buffoonish with the sunglasses atop my head, as if I had a second pair of eyes nestled in my hair, and then turned in place, studying the room.


Five isn’t my lucky number. I don’t actually have a lucky number any more than I have an official Odd Thomas tree or flower, or bird. Claiming to have a lucky number wasn’t a lie, at least not a serious one, because no one could possibly be harmed in any way by such a statement. It was instead a finesse. I finesse a lot.


I was drawn to Shower 5 by psychic magnetism. Considering that I was searching for the rhinestone cowboy and considering that this room was unoccupied, I’m not sure what I expected to find.


If he had been here earlier, perhaps I detected a residue of psychic energy much the way that a bloodhound can track an escaped convict by the scent of the man’s shed skin cells, drops of sweat, and other spoor.


Although the shower room smelled of a lemon-scented disinfectant and seemed to have been thoroughly cleaned between users, I sought paranormal evidence of my quarry by touching the chrome spigots on the sink, the flush handle on the toilet, and the pull on the shower door. None of them inspired a frisson of weirdness reminiscent of the trucker in the supermarket parking lot.


As I considered whether I should turn on the water and pretend to take a shower for the benefit of Zilla at the attendant’s desk or just leave without explanation, movement at the periphery of vision caused me to turn to my left in alarm. I remained alone. The activity seemed to be in the mirror, to which I stood at such a severe angle that I could not see what moved impossibly in the reflection of this stilled chamber.


When I stepped to the sink, the shower room in the mirror was not lined with white tiles. The walls were bare concrete. Instead of several flush-mounted lights in the ceiling, a single fixture with a cone-shaped metal shade dangled on a chain. Although I felt no draft, the hanging lamp swung lazily, its swooning circle of light causing phantoms of shadow to glide around like dancers in a slow waltz.


Something spattered wetly against my right cheek, and I turned to find myself no longer in the Star Truck shower room but in a drab chamber, as grim as a dungeon, with concrete walls like those in the mirror. Maybe not concrete. It was more like … the idea of concrete. I don’t know what I mean by that. And now I felt the draft that swayed the hanging lamp. More startling than the sudden change of venue was the presence of the rhinestone cowboy, whose spittle slid down my face.


His materialization, like a summoned demon manifesting inside a pentagram, caused my breath to catch in my throat, and the big .45 Sig Sauer pistol with the silencer, aimed at my face, fully paralyzed me.


My only weapon was my wit, and though it could wound, it could not kill. In fact, at that moment, I couldn’t think of a cutting line and, disgusted by the gob of spit, I said only, “Yuck.”


In the gloom, the spiky white hair made him look like one of those troll dolls that, to me, have always appeared less cute than psychotic. His cyanide-blue eyes, which seemed to glow from within, matched the poisonous character of his words: “Are you all out of Granny Smiths and Red Delicious, Johnny Appleseed? I’d like it if you explained to me who and what you are, but I’d like it even better if you were just dead.”


Without giving me the courtesy of a brief reprieve to tell him what I would like, he pulled the trigger, and the flesh of my throat dissolved like glass, a thousand shards of pain shattering through me as blood fountained up my throat and drowning darkness pulled me down.


Seven


DEATH PROVED TO BE DREAMLESS, IF DEATH IT WAS, AND then I woke, lying on the white-tile floor.


The sunglasses had been flung off my head and broken at the bridge. They lay directly under the fluffy white towel and washcloth that hung from the bar on the door to the roomy shower stall.


I was on my side, in the fetal position, and I might have been crying for my mommy if Mother hadn’t been a deeply disturbed woman who, during my childhood, had often threatened me with a gun. I was raised not with the principles of Dr. Benjamin Spock in mind, but according to the even darker theories of Dr. Jekyll.


I felt no pain, but I was reluctant to raise a hand to my throat, for fear of finding torn flesh, a gaping wound. When I dared to swallow, however, I was able to do so, and I realized both that I could breathe and that the taste of blood didn’t foul my mouth.


Having lost my reason for existence when I lost Stormy Llewellyn nineteen months earlier, I lived a life I didn’t need. Although I had no fear of death, I hoped to avoid excruciating pain, long suffering, and concussion-induced blackouts from which I would awake with embarrassing tattoos. Now I was relieved to find myself mysteriously alive, relieved largely because I had pledged to protect Annamaria from those who would kill her, because I felt compelled to save the three innocent children that the cowboy trucker intended to set afire, and because suddenly I had a fierce appetite for a platter of cheese meatloaf, steak fries, and coleslaw, which I hoped to satisfy before I died again and stayed dead.


One good thing about a condemned man’s last meal is that he doesn’t have to worry about acid reflux.


Getting to my feet, I realized that I wasn’t alone. I spun toward the other with less than balletic grace, as Baryshnikov might have moved if he had ever performed Swan Lake while drunk, my hands out in front of me as if to catch any bullets that might shortly be in flight.

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