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These two appeared to have been created in a cloning lab, using a genetic formula labeled presentable thugs. Although good-looking, clean-cut, and almost cuddly in their Eddie Bauer winter togs, they were a formidable pair, with necks thick enough to foil any garroting wire thinner than a winch cable and with shoulders of such massive width that they ought to be able to carry horses out of a burning stable.

The one with blond hair opened the trunk of the BMW and ordered Dusty to get into it. “And don’t do anything stupid, like trying to come out at me later with a lug wrench, because I’ll blow you away before you can swing it.”

Dusty glanced at Martie, but they both knew this wasn’t a good time to pull the Colt. Not with the two machine pistols trained on them. Their advantage wasn’t the concealed pistol; it was surprise, a pathetic advantage but an advantage nonetheless.

Angry at the delay, the blond moved fast and kicked Dusty’s legs out from under him, tumbling him to the ground. He screamed, “Get in the trunk!”

Reluctant to leave Martie alone with them but with no rational choice except to obey, Dusty got to his feet and climbed into the trunk of the car.

Martie could see her husband in there, on his side, peering out, face bleak. This was the pose of victims on the covers of tabloids, related to stories about Mafia hits, and the only things missing from the composition were the fixed stare of death and the blood.

As if weaving shroud cloth, snow shuttled into the trunk, laying a white weft first on Dusty’s eyebrows and lashes.

She had the sickening feeling she would never see him again.

The blond slammed the lid and twisted the key in the lock. He went around to the driver’s side and got in behind the wheel.

The second man pushed Martie into the backseat and quickly slid in after her. He was directly behind the driver.

Both gunmen moved with the grace of athletes, and their faces were not like those of traditional hired muscle. Unscarred, fresh, with high brows, good cheekbones, patrician noses, and square chins, either was a man whom an heiress could bring home to Mummy and Daddy without having her allowance slashed and her dowry reduced to one teapot. They looked so much alike that their essential clone nature was disguised only by hair color—dark blond, coppery red— and by personal style.

The blond seemed to be the more volatile of the two. Still hot because of Dusty’s hesitancy about getting into the trunk, he slammed the car into gear, spun the tires, causing gravel to clatter against the undercarriage, and he drove away from the Pastore ranch, toward the highway half a mile ahead.

The redhead smiled at Martie and raised his eyebrows, as though to say that sometimes his associate was a tribulation.

He held the machine pistol in one hand, pointed at the floor between his feet. He seemed unconcerned that Martie might offer effective resistance.

Indeed she could never have taken the weapon away from him or landed a disabling blow. As quick and big as he was, he would crush her windpipe with a hard chop of his elbow or pound her face through the side window.

Now more than ever, she needed Smilin’ Bob beside her, either in the flesh or in spirit. And with a fire ax.

She thought they were headed toward the highway to the south. In less than a quarter mile, however, they turned off the ranch road and traveled due east on a rutted track defined almost solely by the clear swath it carved through sagebrush, mesquite, and cactus.

If her memory of the map could be trusted—and judging by what she had seen of the landscape on the trip out from Santa Fe—nothing lay in this direction but wasteland.

Cascades of snow, a foaming Niagara of flakes, resisted the probing headlights, so a city might have waited ahead of them. She held out no hope for a metropolis, however, and expected instead a killing ground with unmarked graves.

“Where are we going?” she asked, because she thought they would expect her to be full of nervous questions.

“Lover’s lane,” said the driver, and his eyes in the rearview mirror met hers, looking for a thrill of fear.

“Who are you people?”

“Us? We’re the future,” the driver said.

Again, the man in the backseat smiled and raised his eyebrows, as if to mock his partner’s dramatic flair.

The BMW wasn’t moving as fast as it had been on the ranch road, though it was still going too fast for the terrain. Encountering a bad pothole, the car bounced hard; the muffler and the gas tank scraped on the down side of the bounce, and they were jolted again.

Because neither the redhead nor Martie was wearing a seat belt, they were lifted and rocked forward.

She seized the opportunity, reached behind herself, and slid her right hand up under her coat and sweater. She pulled the pistol from her belt while they were being pitched around.

As the car settled down, Martie held the gun at her side, on the seat, against her thigh, letting her unbuttoned jacket trail over it. Her body also blocked the redhead’s view of the Colt.

The driver’s pistol was probably on the seat at his side, within easy reach.

Beside Martie, the redhead was still gripping his gun in his right hand, between his knees, muzzle aimed at the floor.

Action. Action informed by intelligence and a moral perspective. She trusted her intelligence. Murder wasn’t moral, of course, though killing in self-defense surely was.

But the time wasn’t right.

Timing. Timing was equally important in ballet and gunplay.

She’d heard that somewhere. Unfortunately, in spite of her visits to the shooting range, having shot at nothing more than paper silhouettes of the human form, she knew nothing about either ballet or gunplay.

“You’ll never get away with this,” she said, letting them hear the genuine terror in her voice, because it would reinforce their conviction that she was helpless.

The driver was amused. To his partner, he said, with a mock tremor of doubt in his voice, “Zachary, you think we’ll get away with this?”

“Yeah,” said the redhead. He raised his eyebrows again and shrugged.

“Zachary,” the driver said, “what do we call an operation like this?”

“A simple hump and dump,” said Zachary.

“You hear that, girl? With the emphasis on simple. Nothing to it. A walk in the park. A piece of cake.”

“You know, Kevin, for me,” Zachary said, “the emphasis is on hump.”

Kevin laughed. “Girl, since you’re the humpee and you and your husband are the dumpees, it’s naturally a big deal to you. But it’s no big deal to us, is it, Zachary?”


“And it won’t be to the cops, either. Tell her where she’s going, Zachary.”

“With me, to Orgasmo City.”

“Man, you’re delusional but fun. And after Orgasmo City?”

“You’re going down an old Indian well,” Zachary told Martie, “and God knows how deep into the aquifer under it.”

“Been no Indians living there or using it for more than three hundred years,” Kevin explained.

“Wouldn’t want to contaminate anybody’s drinking water,” said Zachary. “Federal offense.”

“Nobody’ll ever find your bodies. Maybe after your car crash, you just wandered off into the desert, got disoriented and lost in the storm, and froze to death.”

As the speed of the car dropped, eerie shapes appeared in the snow on both sides. They were low and undulant, pale formations reflecting the headlights, gliding past like ghost ships in a fog. Weathered ruins. Fragments of buildings, the stacked-stone and adobe walls of a long-abandoned settlement.

When Kevin braked to a stop and put the car in park, Martie turned toward Zachary and jammed the .45 Colt into his side so hard that his face clutched in pain.

His eyes revealed a man who was both fearless and pitiless, but not a stupid man. Without her saying a word, he dropped the machine pistol onto the floor between his feet.

“What?” Kevin asked, instinct serving him well.

As the driver sought Martie in the rearview mirror, she said, “Reach behind and put your hands on the headrest, you sonofabitch.”

Kevin hesitated.

“Now,” Martie screamed, “before I gut-shoot this moron and blow out the back of your head. Hands on the headrest where I can see them.”

“We have a situation here,” Zachary confirmed.

Kevin’s right shoulder dropped slightly, as he started to reach for the machine pistol on the front seat.

“HANDS ON THE HEADREST NOW, YOU FUCKER!” she roared, and she was shocked to hear how totally psychotic she sounded, not like a woman merely playing at being tough, but like a genuine crazy person, and in fact she probably was crazy right now, totally psychotic with raw fear.

Sitting up straight again, Kevin reached behind himself with both hands and gripped the headrest.

With the Colt jammed into his gut, Zachary was going to behave, because she could pull the trigger faster than he could move.

“You got off that plane with nothing but carry-ons,” Kevin said.

“Shut up. I’m thinking.”

Martie didn’t want to kill anyone, not even human garbage like this, not if it could be avoided. But how to avoid it? How could she get out of the car and get them out of the car, too, without giving them a chance to try anything?

Kevin wouldn’t leave it alone. “Nothing but carry-ons, so where did you get a gun?”

Two of them to watch. All that movement getting out. Moments of imbalance, vulnerability.

“Where did you get the gun?” Kevin persisted.

“I pulled it out of your buddy’s ass. Now shut up?’

Going out of the driver’s side, she’d have to turn her back on one of them, at some point. No good.

So then ease backward out of the passenger’s side. Make Zachary slide across the seat with her, keeping the gun in his belly, looking past him to Kevin in the front.

With the windshield wipers off, the snow began to spread a thin coverlet on the glass. The motion of the descending flakes made her dizzy.

Don’t look outside.

She met Zachary’s eyes.

He recognized her irresolution.

She almost looked away, realized that would be dangerous, and jammed the muzzle of the Colt even deeper into his gut, until he broke eye contact.

“Maybe it’s not a real gun,” Kevin said. “Maybe it’s plastic.”

“It’s real,” Zachary was quick to inform him.

Feeling her way backward, out of the car, would be tricky. Could hook her foot on the doorsill or hook up on the door itself. Could fall.

“You’re just damn housepainters,” Kevin said.

“I’m a video-game designer.”


“My husband’s the housepainter.”

And after she was out, when Zachary followed her, he would for a moment fill the open door, her gun in his belly, and Kevin would be blocked from her sight.

The only smart thing to do was shoot them while she had a clear advantage. Smilin’ Bob hadn’t told her what to do when intelligence and morality collided head-on.

“I don’t think the lady knows what’s next,” Zachary told his partner.

“Maybe we got a stalemate here,” Kevin said.

Action. If they thought she was incapable of ruthless action, then they would act.

Think. Think.


A winter scene frozen in a liquid-filled glass globe: the soft and rounded lines of ancient Indian ruins, silvered sage, a midnight-blue BMW, two men and one woman therein, another man unseen in the trunk—two dumpers and two dumpees—and nothing moving, everyone and everything as still as the empty universe before the Big Bang, except for the snow, a windless blizzard, which falls and falls as though a giant’s hand just shook the globe, an arctic winter’s worth of fine white snow.

“Zachary,” Martie finally said, “without turning away from me, using your left hand, open your door. Kevin, you keep your hands on the headrest.”

Zachary tried the door. “Locked.”

“Unlock it,” she said.

“Can’t. It’s the childproof master lock. He has to do it up front.”

“Where’s the lock release, Kevin?” Martie asked.

“On the console.”

If she allowed him to operate the lock release, his hand would be within inches of the machine pistol that was no doubt lying on the passenger's seat.

“Keep your hands on the headrest, Kevin.”

“What kind of video games you design?” Kevin asked, trying to distract her.

Ignoring him, Martie said, “You have a pocket knife, Zachary?”

“Pocket knife? No.”

“Too bad. If you so much as twitch, you’ll need a knife to dig two hollow points out of your intestines, because you’ll never live long enough to get to a hospital where a real doctor could do it”

As she slid backward across the seat, to a point at which she would be midway between the front headrests, Martie kept the pistol trained on the redhead, although the weapon would have been more intimidating if she could have continued to press the muzzle hard into his abdomen.

“In case you’re wondering,” she said, “this piece isn’t double-action. Single-action. No ten-pound pull. Four and half pounds, crisp and easy, so the barrel won’t wobble. Shots aren’t going to go wide or wild.”

She couldn’t see well enough into the front while sitting in the back, so she eased forward, rising off the seat, legs bent in a half squat, feet splayed and braced, twisted toward Zachary but her right shoulder against the back of the front seat, with a cross-body grip on the pistol. Awkward. Stupidly, dangerously awkward, but she couldn’t figure any other way to keep the weapon trained on Zachary and be able to watch Kevin's hand as he lowered it to the console.

She didn’t dare reach into the front seat herself. She would be unbalanced, completely distracted from Zachary.

Two angry Orcs and one Hobbit locked in a car. What are the chances that all three get out alive? Poor.

Either the Hobbit wins and moves on to the next level of play, or the game ends.

To peer into the front seat, she’d have to turn her head away from Zachary, leaving him visible only in her peripheral vision. “One sound of movement, one glimpse out of the corner of my eye, and you’re dead.”

“If you were me, I’d already be dead,” Zachary noted.

“Yeah, well, I’m not you, shithead. If you’re smart, you’ll sit tight and thank God you have a chance of coming out alive.”

Heart beating so hard it felt like it was tearing loose. That was okay. More blood to the brain. Clearer thinking.