Tears welled in Andy Shephorn’s eyes. Proportioned to match his features, the tears seemed as large as grapes, and he was striving not to spill them.
Mrs. Fischer saw his distress and said, “Oh, dear, it wasn’t a grisly ending, not at all. Oscar and I were in a lovely restaurant. We’d had a divine dinner. He finished the last of his dessert, as good a crème brûlée as ever we’d tasted. As he put down the spoon, his eyes widened, and he said to me, ‘Oh, I think the time has come to say good-bye,’ and he slumped dead in his chair.”
Knuckling the tears out of his eyes, Shephorn said, “He was a fine man. Except for him, I’d never have met Penny.”
“He knew she was the perfect wife for you.”
I could smell the salt in his tears, I swear I could, and the spray starch in his uniform shirt, the scent of which was liberated by his body heat. The limo felt humid, a laundry on wheels.
“By the way,” Mrs. Fischer said, “this young man is my new chauffeur, Thomas.”
Officer Shephorn didn’t extend his grief-wet hand, which was almost twice the size of one of my hands. “I’m pleased to meet you, Tom.”
Pressed back in my seat to give his formidable head as much room as possible, I said, “Likewise, sir,” my voice miraculously restored to me, a mute no more.
“You’ve got big shoes to fill, Oscar’s shoes.”
“I’m aware, sir.”
“And you never will have a stroke of good fortune better than to find yourself under the wing of Edie Fischer.” Before I could reply, Shephorn said to my passenger, “Is Tom here smoothed out yet?”
“Not yet,” she said. “He’s only been with me less than an hour. And he’s not fully blue yet, either. But he’s far more blue and a lot smoother than anyone his age I’ve ever met. He’ll be fully blue and smooth in no time.”
“Good. That’s good. With the Oscar news, I’m almost afraid to ask—how’s Heathcliff?”
“Heath is still dead, dear.”
“But otherwise all right?”
“Oh, yes, he’s perfect. Listen, Andy dear, I’d love to chat all day, but we’re in something of a hurry.”
“Where do you need to be?” the cop asked.
She said, “Somewhere south of here, we don’t know where, but we’ll know the place when we get there.”
“Would you like a police escort? I can clear the way ahead of you, no problem.”
“You’re a sweetie,” Mrs. Fischer told him, “but this is a thing we have to do ourselves.”
“You always have been independent. But I guess that’s the way.”
“That’s the way,” Mrs. Fischer agreed.
When Andy Shephorn extracted his head from the driver’s window, fresh air rushed in as if a cork had been popped from a bottle. As he stepped aside, sunshine found me, and it felt good on my face.
I didn’t power up the window until we were on the highway once more, accelerating.
In the rearview mirror, Andy Shephorn stood where we had left him, looking after us. He didn’t actually raise his hand to his brow, but he seemed to be in the posture that accompanied a salute, as if my elderly passenger were a senior officer.
My psychic magnetism was engaged but not in high gear, the rhinestone cowboy lurking in the back of my mind, mostly a shadow, except for blue eyes that seemed to whirlpool like flushed water. While Mrs. Fischer and Officer Shephorn had been schmoozing, the trucker, would-be burner of helpless children, had opened a wider lead on us. Even at ninety miles an hour, we wouldn’t find him in the next few minutes. When we were closer to him, then I would need to focus more intently on the memory of his face.
I said, “How long have you known Officer Shephorn?”
“About eighteen years. We had a flat tire. That was another limousine. Oscar was seventy-four and entirely fit, but when Andy came along and saw the situation, he insisted that Oscar step aside and let him change the tire.”
“So in return, Oscar introduced him to his ideal mate?”
“Penny. She’s smart, pretty, ambitious, and loves kids. She has a degree in viniculture.”
Mrs. Fischer patted my shoulder. “Child, you’re no such thing. No one can know every word in the language. Viniculture is the study of winemaking. Penny already had some land, some vines, when she met Andy Shephorn. Every year she—they—grow the place a little more, sell another hundred cases above what they sold last year. Soon it’ll be another four hundred, then another seven hundred. State police can retire after thirty years. Then he’ll work with her in the winery. By the time they turn the place over to their kids—nine, not the eight they’re planning—the brand will be famous. They’ll have to build an entire trophy room at the winery just to display all their awards, and it’ll be their family business for generations.”
“That’s really specific, ma’am. For a prediction, I mean.”
“It’s not a prediction.”
“It’s not? Then what is it?”
“It’s what is.”
I thought about that, but I wasn’t enlightened. “You remind me of a girl I know named Annamaria.”
“About forty years ago, I knew an Annamaria Youdel. She was a gifted clothes designer and seamstress. She made all her own clothes. I guess she had to, considering she stood five feet two and weighed three hundred sixty pounds. She had two gold teeth right in front. She shaved her head every day and kept her eyebrows plucked. Her face was as smooth and pink and sweet as the face of a baby, though babies don’t have three chins.”
“Different Annamaria,” I said.
Theologians tell us that this is a fallen world, that Adam and Eve broke it when they fell from grace. Maybe you’re not a believer, but if you’re honest, you’ll have to agree that something is wrong with this place. Senseless violence, corrupting envy, greed, blind hatred, and willful ignorance seem to be proof that Earth has gone haywire, but so is the absurdity that we see everywhere. The people of a broken world, off the rails and wobbling trackless on their journeys to oblivion or meaning, are frequently going to be foolish, sometimes in entertaining ways. When amusing, their foolishness—and mine—can be a lamp that brightens my spirit in spite of all threats and suffering. I suspected that by the time this was done, Mrs. Fischer would leave me glowing.
I said, “So I guess you even know how many grandchildren Mr. and Mrs. Shephorn will have.”
“How many will be girls?”
I glanced away from the road. Mrs. Fischer’s smile was impish. Passing an eighteen-wheeler emblazoned with the Pepsi logo, recalling her answers to the peculiar questions that the policeman had asked, I said, “So I’ll be smoothed out and fully blue in no time.”
“That’s right, child. You’re already remarkably advanced.”
“What does that mean—to be smoothed out and fully blue?”
“You’ll understand when you’re smooth and blue.”
When I glanced at her, she winked at me again.
I asked, “Who’s Heathcliff?”
“Heath. My late husband. The one true love of my life. He died twenty-eight years ago this April.”
“Officer Shephorn knew your husband was dead.”
“But he asked if Heathcliff was ‘otherwise all right.’ ”
“You’re an excellent listener. I like that.”
“But then you said your husband was perfect.”
“And he is.”
“Dead but perfect.”
Instead of explaining that apparent paradox, Mrs. Fischer extracted a roll of chocolate candies from her huge black purse. She said, “Treat?”
Suddenly I felt pulled southward, not merely carried by the momentum of the hurtling Mercedes, but drawn by psychic magnetism. The rhinestone cowboy was no longer far ahead, and we were swiftly closing on him.
NO TRUCK STOP WILL EVER BE MISTAKEN FOR A FAR-FUTURE spaceport, but this one—Star Truck—had such a science-fiction feel that I would not have been much surprised if Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock had beamed down from an orbiting Starfleet retirement home in their bunny slippers, jammies, and walkers. The canopies over the many gas-pump islands were sleek stainless-steel ovals trimmed with neon tubing that, at night, would lend them a flying-saucer feel, and the pumps looked like platoons of robots at parade rest. The facade of the huge building was clad in stainless steel—probably a convincing plastic imitation of stainless—with the lines and the details of a classic Art Deco diner, but that didn’t give it the appeal its architect most likely intended; because of its size, the place had an ominous military quality, as if it must be the headquarters of the extraterrestrial overlord of an invading force from another planet.
The large property was fenced for security, an important feature for truckers in an increasingly lawless time that required many of them to pack guns, legally or not. Two extra-wide lanes led into the facility, two out, and they passed through the same gate, between barriers of chain-link, monitored by a pair of pole-mounted cameras. A banner above the entrance promised PARKING LOTS PATROLLED 24/7.
According to an enormous sign bordered by stars that most likely twinkled colorfully at night, Star Truck offered a smorgasbord of road-warrior services: ALL FUELS, 24-HOUR GARAGE SERVICE, RESTAURANT, SNACK BAR, MEN’S AND WOMEN’S SHOWERS, MOTEL ROOMS, LAUNDROMAT, BARBERSHOP, TV LOUNGE, GAME ARCADE, TRAVEL STORE, GIFT SHOP, CHAPEL.
In recent years, to save fuel, the tractors of most eighteen-wheelers had gotten more aerodynamic. If you could tune out the roar of the big engines, you might imagine that those sleek Peterbilts, Volvos, Freightliners, Macks, Fords, and Cats were gliding across the blacktop without effort, like antigravity craft in a Star Wars movie. Even the classic, boxy, battering-ram designs of Kenworth and Intercontinental had made some concessions to diminish wind resistance.
The flashy and sinister ProStar+ with the red-and-black tractor and the black trailer was parked among forty or fifty other rigs at the north end of the property. As I cruised slowly past, memorizing the license-plate number, I could see that no one was in the cab of the tractor, and I had no sense that the rhinestone cowboy might be with his vehicle.
Moments earlier, I had told Mrs. Fischer that the flamboyant trucker was planning three murders, but I hadn’t told her how I’d come across this information.
“That’s his rig,” I said, braking to a stop.
“Let’s set the cops on him.”
“No, see, I have some negative history with the police in Magic Beach, which isn’t that far from here. And the FBI might be looking for someone who fits my description. I haven’t been a bad boy, ma’am, but some exceedingly treacherous people got themselves shot to death and a whole lot of property got pretty much busted up. And I wouldn’t like to have to explain to the authorities how just a simple fry cook uncovered a plot to nuke four cities, took down several terrorists, and got out of that town with all his skin.”
“You aren’t a simple fry cook.”
“That’s my point, ma’am.”
She cocked her snow-capped head and gave me that cockatoo stare again. “You’re quite a riddle.”
“Look who’s talking.”
“So what you’re doing is like in those Agatha Christie novels—Miss Jane Marple, amateur detective?”
“I’m not much like Miss Jane Marple.”
“You’ve got a sweet face,” Mrs. Fischer said, and pinched my cheek. “I suspect your mind is as sharp as Miss Marple’s, although you haven’t given me much evidence of that yet.”
Edie Fischer didn’t look anything like my idea of Jane Marple, but if some network ever brought back The X-Files with Agents Mulder and Scully as eighty-somethings, she could pass for a geriatric Gillian Anderson, who had played Scully.
The rhinestone cowboy and his custom-painted eighteen-wheeler were as mysterious as Cigarette Smoking Man and everything else in that old and perpetually enigmatic TV show.
I said, “I’d give anything to know what he’s hauling.”
“Don’t say such a reckless thing, child. If I were the devil, I’d ask what you mean by ‘anything,’ and you’d probably convey the intensity of your curiosity by repeating ‘anything’ with emphasis, and just like that—zap!—you’d be inside that trailer, you’d see what it’s loaded with, but you’d have sold your immortal soul for next to nothing.”
“It can’t be that easy to sell your soul.”
“So now you’re a PhD in demonic negotiation? Where did you get your degree, sweetie, from an Internet university run by some fifty-year-old guy who lives in his parents’ basement and has nothing in his wardrobe but sweat suits?”
“It’s funny, ma’am, how sometimes you’re so sarcastic but it doesn’t sting.”
“Because of my dimples. Dimples are a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
“Anyway, you’re not the devil, Mrs. Fischer.”
“Call me Edie. Listen, child—if you’re at a party with a hundred people and one of them is the devil, he’ll be the last one you’d suspect.”
Piloting the limousine away from the trucks and past the pump islands, I said, “I’m not much for parties. Sometimes you have to wear a funny hat, sometimes they expect you to eat sushi, which is like eating bait. And there’s always some totally drunk girl who thinks you’re smitten by her, when what you’re wondering is if she’ll vomit on your shirt or instead on your shoes.”
“My point wasn’t parties, as you well know.”
At the south end of the sprawling complex, I parked the limo in a lot reserved for cars, pickups, and SUVs.
More or less thinking out loud, I said, “If he sees me before I see him, I’m probably toast.”
“Some amateur detectives are masters of disguise,” Mrs. Fischer said.
“Yeah, but Inspector Clouseau borrowed my master-of-disguise kit and never returned it.”
“Arm candy can be an effective disguise.”
“An adorable grandmother clinging to your arm for support.”
“I’m not involving you in this, ma’am. You don’t know me, how dangerous it is to be around me. I’m grateful for the ride, but we part company here.”