At the very end of the street a Dalmatian was running wildly around a spotlessly-clean fire truck, its tongue lolling from one side of its mouth. Ally watched the dog try and dodge the streams of water that splattered down the sides of the vehicle, clearly enjoying every moment of the game only it was playing.
Jesus, Ally thought, staring hard at the sight through the fogged-up windows, this town even had a firehouse Dalmatian. She couldn't decide if that made it even more picturesque or disturbingly cloying. She saw the firefighters laughing, although she couldn't hear them over the noise of the diner around her. The dog had moved a little too slowly, maybe on purpose, and had been rewarded with a wet sponge smacking it on the hindquarters. It didn't seem to mind. The risk only made the game more fun, apparently.
She didn't know the name of this town but not for the first time she wondered if it was twinned with Stepford. It was, at least at first glance, the kind of place most city folk dreamed of whenever the bad side of urban life reared its ugly head. The kind of town, after all, where hunky firefighters would strip to the waist and spend hours washing their vehicle, even on a surprisingly chilly autumn evening.
All men, unfortunately. Shame there wasn't a hot, redheaded female firefighter amongst the crew, Ally thought wistfully. One with a nice taut body and a temper that matched her job and her hair, at least when she was in the sack. That was the kind of fantasy Ally could lose herself in, one that would make moving to this all-too-perfect little 'burb worthwhile. Any place is paradise from a warm bed.
Small trees lined both sides of the wide street. No doubt earlier in the year they would have formed a rich and beautiful canopy; now they were all starkly bare. Naturally, the sidewalks had been swept clear of fallen leaves already. Civic pride, Ally supposed. She imagined in a month or so there would be Christmas lights wrapped around the trunk of each tree so that at night the street looked magical, while back in the early days of summer, red, white and blue bunting and garland would be festooned everywhere. All in all, it was a little appley slice of all-American heaven. Which made it all the worse that hell was fast approaching.
Her breath fogged a small patch of the window, near a thin crack that ran across her reflection. She smiled sadly when she saw a crude stick figure appear, starkly contrasted against the dull red of their car outside. Some kid must have drawn it earlier in the day; either that or the diner staff cleaned far less often than she hoped. She knew why the image made her feel so oddly sad but tried not to think about it.
"This looks like a nice little town," she said finally, more to break the silence than anything else. She looked over at the woman opposite her and did her best to turn the smile up a notch. That usually worked wonders. This time, just like it had every time over the last twelve hours or so, it prompted only a frosty glare in reply. "I mean it. Very uncommercialized. I didn't see a single drive-thru on the way in, did you? Explains why you dragged me in here, I suppose."
Here, in this case, was a rundown diner named King's, close to the highway exit ramp. Americana in an aging, somewhat neglected nutshell. Discolored red paint barely clung to the walls, the décor was all peeling chrome and the booth seats were faded naugahyde with yellowing foam showing between the many rips and tears. Still, old and shabby it may be but the neglect only added to the diner's appeal.
Ally chuckled quietly to herself. She supposed the same could be said of her. She certainly felt old lately and pretty damned neglected too. Her body ached and her face hurt. But she liked to think her charms could still work wonders. Not so far, apparently. It was like talking to a brick wall, and one that was covered in a thick sheet of ice.
She waited a few seconds for a response. When none was forthcoming she spoke up again. "Yep, this is a really sweet little town. Doesn't that bother you?"
Well, two words more than she had spoken in a while. That was an improvement, Ally supposed. She decided to push a little. "I'm serious. Pretty soon this town will look like all the others we've left behind us. That doesn't upset you? Not even a tiny bit?"
"I have more important things on my mind."
"Really? I find that hard to believe."
"Well, Alice, you should always try to believe six impossible things before breakfast."
"Oh, very clever," Ally said, rolling her eyes in an exaggerated fashion. That prompted a twitch at the corner of the other woman's mouth, which Ally supposed was about as close to smiling as she would ever come. Well, if that was all she could get, she'd take it. For now, at least. She'd keep working at getting something better.
"Heard that one before, have you?"
"Once or twice. At least it suggests you could be well-read. Aside from that, this is going to be more like supper than breakfast."
She waved away the objection as if she was batting away a bothersome fly, then glanced impatiently around the diner yet again. "You're lucky I decided to stop at all. I'm beginning to think we should have just kept going."
"You said we needed gas."
"Well then, not much choice was there?" When her only answer was another scowl, Ally effortlessly changed the subject. "You know, I wish you'd call me Ally. Everyone does."
"I suppose I should think myself lucky you've stopped calling me Ms. Cole. I don't suppose you'd like to share your first name?" They'd been stuck together for almost twelve hours and she still didn't know it.
Back to words of one syllable, Ally thought, and not too many of those. Never mind. Even if she was caught in paradise, no matter how temporarily, she shouldn't be surprised that some of the angels were a little disagreeable. "You'd rather I keep calling you Marshal?"
"Deputy Marshal. And no, I'd rather you shut the fuck up."
There was no real anger behind the words, at least not as far as Ally could tell. A little frustration, perhaps, most likely directed more at the strangely absent diner staff than at her. It's not like any of this was truly her fault, not really. Ally suspected all of the anger had been burned out of Weiss this morning, exhausted on the side of the road outside Las Vegas, like a highway flare spluttering out in the pouring rain. It may have died fast but it had burned so strongly. Ally still had the bruises to prove that.
Not for the first time, Ally chose to bite her tongue.
Quietly, she studied the woman opposite her. She'd had plenty of opportunities to do that recently. Weiss had skin the color of wild hazelnuts, smooth and almost blemish free. She was light-eyed where Ally was dark, as short as Ally was tall, and curvaceous, fit and toned just as Ally was angular, slim and gangly. She kept her hair neatly braided in long cornrows, while Ally's own mop was short and usually beyond control. And beyond the physical, she was aggressive, stubborn, career-minded, focused to the point of being obsessive, and so unrelentingly serious.
In short, she was everything Ally wasn't, and knowing that was driving Ally crazy. Assuming of course that she wasn't a little - just a very little - crazy already. And if Ally thought about what had happened over the last day too much or too often, then a little crazy could definitely be considered an understatement.
Ally couldn't stay quiet forever. She knew it, and strongly suspected the Marshal - sorry, Deputy Marshal - knew it too. She was a talker, always had been. It was one of the few things about her she could not change, try as she might. Not that she ever tried very hard. But at the same time, she was wary of pissing Weiss off any further.
Instead, she moved some of the condiments aside so she could read the black and white placemat. "Man is born alone and dies alone. Hmm..." she said thoughtfully, "not sure if that's true. I mean, when I was born my mother was there. At least, I assume she was. Not to mention my father, and the midwife, and..."
"Kind of missing the point, aren't you?"
"You think so? I was just thinking that the opposite is true. You usually have plenty of company when you're born and when you die..."
"Not everyone," Weiss said again, a joyless look settling across her face.
Ally moved on as quickly as she could, aware that if she hadn't said the wrong thing, she'd come pretty damn close. "Well, people usually come to the wake or the funeral or whatever shindig you throw."
"You're already dead by then."
"You know what I mean. Birth, death, plenty of company. It's the long drawn-out bit in the middle where you tend to be alone."
"Yeah, says me. This is the longest I've spent in the company of another woman that I can remember."
"Love 'em and leave 'em type, are you?"
"I wouldn't say that."
"No, I guess you're not. Seems to me you're much better at leaving than loving."
That hurt. Ally tried not to let it show but she didn't quite catch herself in time. She saw the Deputy Marshal had caught the reaction. She was smirking, the way she always did when she scored a point, and that probably hurt Ally more than the words actually had. After all, deny it out loud as she might, Ally would probably have to admit to herself that what Weiss said had been right. She'd never been very good at relationships. No, that was not entirely true. She was great at starting relationships, she could say that at least; it was the upkeep that always got away from her. She couldn't remember any relationship she'd ever been in that hadn't soured, usually within the first few weeks, as soon as the initial excitement had worn off.
Still, the remark was nothing in the grand scheme of things. A little victory. Maybe those were all Weiss ever achieved in life.
It wasn't as if the comments she kept making were particularly snide or cutting, just brutally honest. Maybe Weiss lacked a few of the social graces, but she wasn't inept, just uncaring. Hardened to the world, perhaps. No, Ally thought, that wasn't quite it. Perhaps it was more that Weiss had a way of cutting through all the crap and getting right to the unvarnished truth, the truths that always hurt the most. It probably worked wonders during interrogations. Maybe that was why she'd fallen into this line of work. Or maybe it was a skill she had picked up wherever she had been trained.
Ally forced another smile and did her best to change the subject. "King's Diner. I suppose that's appropriate. What's this town called anyway?"
"Great. Never heard of it," Ally said. She'd fallen asleep when they were still well inside Nevada, somewhere near Coaldale, and only woken when she had felt the car slow to exit the highway. Even when she'd been awake she hadn't recognized many of the names on the road signs they'd passed. That wasn't so surprising considering they had been mostly confined to back roads. At first Weiss had stubbornly kept trying to get on the highway but she'd eventually given up. Ally glanced at the clock on the wall. A little past six. That meant a journey that should have taken less than nine hours had so far taken nearly eleven, and they most likely still had a ways to go. "Still," she went on, "I guess that won't matter soon."
"Not unless we get to Sacramento."
"Still sticking to that theory, are you?"
Weiss glared at her viciously. She opened her mouth as if to say something. Fortunately, Ally was saved by the long overdue arrival of the waitress, a blue-haired woman who looked as if she might have helped Noah herd the animals onto the Ark. When she spoke, her voice sounded even older.
"Sorry for the wait, honey, we're a little short-staffed right now," the waitress said, each word creaking out in shower of dust, cheap perfume, and nicotine. "Everyone seems to have the darn flu."
Ally glanced at Weiss and raised an eyebrow mockingly, as if the word 'darn' proved her point about the parochial nature of small towns. "Well, there are worse things out there," she said non-committedly.
"You said it, hon." The waitress frowned down at Ally. She took in the swelling, the bruises, and the cuts and scrapes on Ally's face, and clucked her tongue disapprovingly. "You look like you been in a few wars yourself. Everything okay here?"
"Everything's fine," Weiss said sharply, jumping in before Ally could even open her mouth to speak.
The waitress nodded slowly, disbelief still evident on her face. Then, as she studied Ally once again, her demeanor brightened suddenly. "Hey, you know who you look like?"
Without thinking, Ally gave her what she always thought of as her most professional smile. Way too sweet, plenty of teeth showing, and not an ounce of sincerity. It usually worked wonders, although its effect was probably diluted a little by the swollen lip and one cracked tooth. She doubted even her crappy agent would ever stoop so low as to book her to perform in such an out-of-the-way spot as Silvertip Valley but it never hurt to impress a potential audience member. Remember the little people, her agent was always saying, as if her one and only client was such a big shot.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw that the recognition had pissed Weiss off even further. She felt bad, just for a second, but all the same she felt her smile shift to something a little more genuine. "Yeah, I get that a lot."
"I mean, you really do. You could pass for his daughter."
Ally tilted her head down, ever so slightly, as if she was shy, and looked up through her lashes. Her voice lowered a little and her upper lip curled as she spoke. It was an extraordinary transformation, one that never failed to win people over. "Why, thank you, ma'am, thank you very much."
The waitress laughed out loud and held a hand up to her mouth. "That's really good!"
"It's how I make my living."
"One of the ways," Weiss said acidly. "Now, can we order?"
"Sure thing, honey," said the waitress, tugging a notepad and pencil from her apron. "Now, what can we get you?"
"Give me a mug of decaf and some toast."
"You want anything else? Eggs? Bacon?"
"Just toast. You want anything on it aside from butter? Jelly?"
"Just the toast will be fine."
Weiss didn't give Ally a chance to speak. "She'll have coffee."
"I'm hungry," Ally protested.
"Tough. Just coffee. Regular."
The waitress finished scribbling in her notepad and glanced between the two seated women. When she finally spoke, she directed her question towards Ally, giving her a look that was half-quizzical and half-disapproving. "She control the purse strings, does she?"
"I suppose you could say that. She likes to think she controls everything."
"Oh, one of those. Well, that and the coffee and the toast will probably give you an ulcer."
Weiss scowled, turning her head away. She reached into her inner jacket pocket and fished out a pack of Camel Blues. "If the ulcer comes as quickly as the food, I should worry," she muttered under her breath.
She needn't have bothered lowering her voice, the waitress hadn't heard. She was distracted by an elderly black man who, over in the far corner of the diner by the restroom doors, was reaching up to pound loudly on the side of an ancient television set that hung above the counter. The screen showed nothing but static, although thankfully the volume was muted.
"Joe! Will you leave the darn thing alone? Get back to your chess game!"
The old man glared at her resentfully for a second, then gave the set one more hefty thump before sitting down on his stool once again, muttering something about wanting to watch a Twilight Zone marathon.
"Darn thing's been on the blink all day. Nothing but static since we switched it on." The waitress turned back to their table and frowned. "Oh, sorry, honey, we're non-smoking in here."
Weiss froze with a cigarette half-raised to her mouth. "You're kidding, right?"
"You're welcome to smoke on the steps and the grass won't pay no mind."
"In this weather?"
"You city folk always feel the cold more. Mind you, the weatherman on Channel 28 said we'd get snow tonight."
Ally exchanged a furtive glance with the Deputy Marshal. "You'd better hope not," she said quietly.
"It's not so bad, honey," the waitress said, glancing up at the darkening evening sky through the dirty window. "An early snowfall really helps the town out. It's good for business. More snow means more tourists, all eager to ski."
"Not this snow. And we're not tourists."
"So you won't be hitting the slopes then?"
Shaking her head, Ally lifted her hands from her lap. She held them both up close together, almost as if she was deep in prayer, but only because the handcuffs inhibited her. "Sorry," she said with a sad smile, "but I doubt she'd let me."
* * * * *
There was a stuffed toy panda in the footwell on the right side of the car. It squeaked in protest when Deputy Delaney stood on it as she clambered across the seat. The driver's side wasn't locked but it had been the passenger's door that had been left wide open and Delaney wasn't stupid enough to risk smudging any fingerprints. Silly, really, but she couldn't help hoping this could be more than it seemed.
It was obvious the car had spun off the road, plunging down the embankment and coming to an abrupt halt against a tree. Not with enough force to do any great damage, but enough to probably put the engine out of commission, smash the front grill and one headlight, and to require an expensive amount of bodywork. Still, they'd probably been luckier than they had any right to be, Delaney thought, as the impact had prevented the car from rolling. As it was, it had probably been quite a jolt.
What wasn't obvious was what had happened to the occupants. The car had been empty when she'd found it. It couldn't have been here that long. The engine was still ticking over and she'd bet five to one that if she touched the slightly crumpled hood she'd find it still warm. There was an easy answer to that though, wasn't there? They had walked into town to get help.
But this was the only road into town so she was damn sure she would have seen anyone walking along the berm as she drove up. Was it possible they had walked off into the woods, up into the mountains? She dismissed the thought. Even tourists wouldn't be that stupid, surely?
Something about the accident bugged her. It might have been nothing, but all the same she could feel the hope building. This could be it.
Delaney had only been with the Sheriff's Department a little longer than six months, having moved up to Silvertip Valley in the spring from Lake Tahoe, where she'd been a security guard at the North Pine Mall since leaving high school. They'd been asking for volunteers and she'd jumped at the chance. They hadn't wanted her, of course, just like the city police back in Tahoe hadn't wanted her, just like the high school cheerleading squad hadn't wanted her, and just like her parents hadn't really wanted her. Of course, none of them had actually ever said as much.
But it turned out she was the best Silvertip was going to get. The number of volunteers had been abysmally low. Apparently, not many cops wanted to spend the summer months watching over a veritable ghost town and the winter months dealing with a bunch of spoiled rich kids and drunken frat boys.
So they had accepted her, if somewhat grudgingly and very ungraciously. 'The best of a bad bunch' was one insult she had heard more than once over the summer, whispered in furtive conversations around the water cooler and laughed about over a few drinks at Blanco's. 'The meanest girl in town', that was another. And she was pretty certain even Sheriff Whitaker hated her, although at least he was professional enough not to let it show too much.
Delaney had always wanted to be a cop. She wasn't entirely sure why. Her father had said she was trying to make her mark on life in the only way she could, but Delaney wasn't sure that was quite right. Whatever the reason, she had dreamed about it for as long as she could remember. And just as her ambition of being a cop had finally come true, if only in a small-town way, she knew that one day her dream of being involved in a major investigation would also be realized. A crime so big it would get some serious attention. Which meant, of course, that she would be the center of attention, even if it was just for a short while. First on the scene and all that.
Her breath fogged in front of her as she swung her flashlight around the interior of the car. As the sun had begun to set, it was getting noticeably darker. Colder, too. So much for global warming, Delaney thought. She thought she had seen snow further on up the road as she pulled her cruiser over. The sky to the east was a stark white. That struck Delaney as a little odd, but then maybe that was what the onset of winter looked like in the mountains. How would she know? If a snowstorm was on its way, Delaney thought, they'd need to get more people up here soon. Provided, of course, she could convince the Sheriff that this was something serious. No easy task that, seeing as how she hadn't entirely convinced herself yet.
She peered around the car, doing her best not to disturb anything. The keys were still in the ignition. The gas gauge read empty or damn near it. Well, Delaney thought, wasn't that strange? Still, it explained why the car hadn't crashed into the tree so hard. They must have been coasting on empty and then lost control somehow. Ice, maybe? Sure, it was chilly but it wasn't that cold yet, right? Again, maybe it was a mountain thing. What was that saying they had round here? 'When the snow is on the roses?' She couldn't remember how the end went, but it was something like that. She had no idea what it meant, of course, only guessing that it had something to do with the fast-changing weather, and no one in the town was likely to be nice enough to explain it to her.
Not for the first time, Delaney found herself feeling a bit out of her depth. If she could ask someone, if there was someone she could talk to who wouldn't laugh at her, then maybe she'd know a little more.
Her mother, God rot her, had tried to talk Delaney out of moving up to the mountains. For her own selfish reasons only, of course. As much as her parents despised her, they still needed her. Her father was housebound and required a good amount of care, a burden all the family had shared except for her brother. He wasn't expected to, oh no, not him. Not the golden child. Not the perfect son. No, he was allowed to leave and go join the Navy, wasn't he? He didn't get the nightly lectures about shirking family responsibilities or have all his wages sucked up just to pay the rent and buy groceries and supplement the pittance her mother earned. No, Blake could do no wrong, while she could do nothing but.
Sometimes, when she was on duty in the station at nights, when there was no one else around and when the only sounds you could hear were the drip, drip, drip of the coffee percolator and the constant buzz of the fluorescent lighting, she felt guilty. But each time, she convinced herself that she couldn't have stayed with her folks. If she had, she would have gone insane sooner or later. Probably sooner. The job offer from the Silvertip Valley Sheriff's Department had been the light at the end of her own gloomy and despondent tunnel.
Besides, she was tired of being a small fish in a big pond. Sometimes you had to choose to jump into a smaller pond, even if it meant you were still a guppy surrounded by piranhas that didn't particularly appreciate you invading their territory.
Delaney leaned back, twisting at a painful angle to fit between the front seats so she could examine the back. The beam of her flashlight played over the black seats until she saw an even darker spot. She reached out and ran her fingers across the stain. The tips of her gloves came back red. A trace of blood. Her heart raced.
More than a trace, she realized as the shaft of light ran down the stained fabric. If someone had damn near bled out back here, she wouldn't be surprised. A large portion of the back seat, almost the entirety of the part behind the driver, was stained in so much blood, more blood than she had ever seen. It looked like none of it had dried yet. The darkest parts were near the top. At a guess, assuming whoever had sat here was taller than her, which was more than likely, the injury must have been around the shoulder or upper chest area. Not good. And she was sure the injury couldn't have come from the wreck, as there had been no blood in either of the front seats. Even if she assumed the passenger wasn't wearing a seatbelt, the driver would have been hurt just as bad, surely? Besides, the accident hadn't looked that bad. Even the windshield was still intact.
She tried to suppress a growing sense of excitement. The beam of her flashlight waggled erratically as she began to move backwards, scrambling to get out of the abandoned car. There was a sudden reflection from a small triangle of something white from under the passenger seat. She reached down and tugged the item free. Money. A neatly stacked inch-thick bundle of twenty-dollar bills, held together by a paper band. Only banks kept money like that, didn't they?
Jesus, Delaney thought, what the hell had she stumbled on to here? She dropped the money and climbed back out of the white sedan as quickly as she could. Better to leave this alone, at least for now. As much as she wanted to claim this little crime scene as her own, to grab all the glory for herself, she knew better. This was too big for her to handle. A good cop knew when she was out of her depth, and when to call in her superiors. And if there was one thing Delaney truly longed to be more than a cop, it was a good cop. She honestly hadn't realized that until she saw the blood.
Hurrying, Delaney clambered back up to the blacktop. From the car, she had been able to see another path made in the grassy incline, chunks of loosened sod and gouges in mud that clearly showed where several people had climbed, none too easily. But then they wouldn't have, the deputy reasoned, not if they had been carrying or supporting a badly wounded friend. So then what? Where did they go after they reached the road?
After a momentary pause at the top to get her breath back, she swung her flashlight further on up the road, the beam falling on the curve of the barely visible skid marks where the car had careened off. Was that snow? It sure as hell looked like it. Even in the gloom of the approaching night, Delaney could see how the end of the road was nothing but a solid white wall.
There was something not quite right about the approaching storm, Delaney thought. The snow was so thick, impossible to see through or past, and it was gradually moving towards her. That couldn't be right, could it? There was only a little wind, blowing down off the mountains, so how in the name of all that was holy could the storm be coming her way so fast? And the few snowflakes she could see against the dark woods nearest to her seemed to be falling so slowly. It was almost as if they weren't falling at all but instead just appearing in mid-air. No, Delaney thought, that would be impossible.
She turned away from the snowfall, walking back towards where her cruiser was parked, the red flashing lightbar casting bloody shadows across the road. Her free hand moved up to her shoulder radio. "Dispatch?"
She heard the sigh before Blanche, the department's matronly caretaker and switchboard operator, even spoke. She chose to ignore it. "You don't have to say 'dispatch', Whitney. This isn't the big city."
No, not even close, Delaney thought. If she had been smart enough to think of a biting reply, she still wouldn't have said anything. She'd had more than enough run-ins with the department's support staff in her first few weeks to learn it simply wasn't worth it.
"Blanche, I've got an abandoned car off the highway, just past exit twelve. California tags. Can you patch me through to the Sheriff?"
"The Sheriff has more important things on his mind lately. He's dealing with a situation at the diner now. He's not going to be happy if you drag his butt all the way out there for nothing." She couldn't have sounded less interested if she had tried. And from past experience, Delaney knew Blanche wasn't keen on trying, at least not where she was concerned.
"This is kind of important, Blanche."
"Aren't they all, Whitney?
Again, she ignored the slight. Two slights, really, seeing as how she had made it very clear to everyone that she hated her first name. Only Blanche could manage to be so insulting with so little effort. She took a quick breath, taking the moment to stare back down the slope at the vehicle. "The car's off the road, there's nobody in it. But there's a good amount of blood inside and some money."
"Money? Have you been going through the change trays, Whitney? Found some pennies?"
"Probably about two or three thousand dollars, actually," Delaney countered, trying not to let the satisfaction in her voice show. "Looks like it came from a bank or check-cashing place or something."
There was silence for a few seconds, then a harsh hiss of static. It didn't look like Blanche was going to reply. Sulking, probably. Delaney looked up the road again, away from the town. The beam of her flashlight reflected right back at her, a perfect circle in the gradually approaching wall of snow.
Delaney touched her radio again. "Dis..." She caught herself just in time. "Blanche?"
"What is it, Whitney? I'm talking to Sheriff Whitaker right now, alright?"
"There's a snowstorm coming."
"What are you, the weather report?"
Yeah, and forget you, Delaney thought, but she didn't say it. There was no point in making waves.
"It's strange..." And it was too. Again, Delaney was bothered by something odd about the falling snow, something she wasn't quite sure her mind could pin down. Maybe it was the adrenalin, the trembling she could feel in her legs, caused by the excitement at finding the car and the blood and the money. Maybe that was why she was having trouble thinking straight. Maybe it was something else. The sheer fact that the snowstorm had blocked out so much that she was used to seeing; no sky, grey, black or otherwise, no mountains, no trees, no highway.
It was strangely hypnotic, trapping her like a frantic writer staring at a blank piece of paper, or a projection screen after the film has long since run out. There was the strongest feeling that there should have been something there, and worse still, that it was her fault that there wasn't. That meant it was difficult for Delaney to tear her eyes away, to stop searching for something... anything...
A burst of static over the radio and Blanche's sharp voice snapped Delaney out of her reverie. "For God's sake, Whitney, there's nothing strange about snow. It's a little early, sure, but it's not unheard of."
"It's like a wall of white," Delaney said quietly as she began to walk up the road towards the falling snow. She had to get closer. It could be a hazard to traffic, she thought as justification. Not that there was any traffic, which was odd in itself. This wasn't a busy road by any stretch of the imagination, not at this time of year, but she hadn't seen a moving car since she got here. Maybe she should get some flares from her cruiser.
Another burst of static reminded her of her radio. She pressed down with her thumb on the send button again. "I mean I've seen it with rain before but not with snow."
"Whitney, I... what are you talking about?"
"You know when you're driving and there's that moment when you pass through it?"
"Through what, Whitney?"
"Through the wall of rain," Delaney said impatiently. Wasn't Blanche even listening to her? "When it rains, it really pours, usually. But here, one minute it's pouring and the next it's not. And when you look back you can see the line on the road, one side soaking wet, the other bone dry. You know what I mean?"
"Nobody knows what you mean, Whitney."
Delaney wasn't listening any more. "Well, it's like that. But I've never seen it with snow before. Honestly, Blanche, the snow is so thick I can't see through it. And I'm standing so close..."
She was too. The wall of snow was only a few feet away, so close she could almost reach out and touch it... and she wanted to. She could feel its presence on her skin. The deputy had expected that, to feel the sheer freezing cold pouring out of this much snow, but this wasn't quite right. It made her skin tingle, like each pore was stinging and every cell aching to be free and apart, like her body wanted to be in a million different places at once.
Delaney couldn't turn away, couldn't stop staring into the whiteness. Her left hand, which normally rested easily on her holster, rose up and stretched out, almost as if it had a will of its own. A solitary snowflake had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, resting directly in front of her field of vision. It didn't fall. It taunted her, tugging at her flesh so hard it ached.
The deputy's radio squawked again. "Whitney? Are you there, Whitney?"
She didn't answer. Her fingertip brushed the very edge of the snowflake.
And then she screamed.
* * * * *
Weiss watched the elderly waitress hang up the payphone. Like the rest of the diner, the phone was old and tired-looking. Horrible tan plastic, chipped in places, with a clunky large handset and a rotary dial, hanging beneath a badly painted sign that read '619-239-KING'. Weiss hadn't seen a dial like that in more than a decade. Whether the phone was a deliberate kitsch throwback or just a sign of the diner's steady decline over the years, Weiss wasn't sure. She strongly suspected the latter. She doubted anything in the diner had changed since the late seventies and that included the staff and clientele. She guessed as soon as she and Cole had walked in the door, the average age of everyone in the restaurant immediately dropped by thirty years or thereabouts. The place stank of stale coffee, grease and too many tired years.
If the food in the freezers back in the kitchen was anywhere near as old as everything else in the diner, Weiss was glad she had just ordered toast. Although, that was more to do with the amount of cash she had, which wasn't much. She figured there was no point in trying to pay with her credit or debit cards; if her cellphone no longer worked then her bank cards wouldn't either, for the same reason. And there was little or no point asking to use the diner's payphone. They could evidently still make local calls here, which was something, but the lines outside the valley were probably already gone.
She hadn't wanted to pull over at the diner but she was so tired. Around twelve hours and five hundred miles or more of solid driving had taken its toll. As much as she wanted - no, needed - to keep going, and more importantly as much as she hated the idea of appearing weak in front of her prisoner (that was never a good idea regardless of the circumstances), she'd had no choice but to pull off the highway. She was bone-weary and really needed to stretch her legs and take a five minute break. But that five minutes had now dragged into twenty and she was beginning to worry they'd been here too long. And the longer they stayed here, the harder it would inevitably be to get moving again.
Cole had slept in the passenger seat for the last few hours, only stirring when she had felt the rental car pull off the main highway. The sleep seemed to have done her some good, Weiss thought, more's the pity. If nothing else, Cole had proved much more talkative than she had before. You'd almost believe what they'd both been through over the last half-a-day hadn't affected her at all. And the swelling on Cole's face had gone down a little, although the skin around her left eye and cheekbone was just beginning to discolor, a staggering of dull blue coming to the fore. The scrape across her long nose was scabbing too.
During the drive Weiss had been tempted several times to wake her, just to ensure her prisoner suffered as much as she was. But she hadn't, although she wasn't entirely sure why. She had told herself at the time that she just wanted to relish the peace and quiet. But now she wasn't so sure. The quiet had given her time to think, which had been a very bad idea.
She had soon learned that thinking too much about what happened earlier in the day would, in the long run, probably drive her completely mad. If she wasn't mad already... and wasn't that a sobering thought? The memory was fuzzy, difficult to focus on, and quickly gave her a headache if she tried too hard. It was like trying to hold on to a greased balloon full of Jell-O. You may logically know what it was but it still made no sense somehow, and then every time you tried to get a grip on it, something revolting pushed back at you and the whole thing slipped away. Was that what insanity felt like? Disassociation, wasn't that a sign of schizophrenia?
No, she wasn't mad. She just wasn't. She couldn't be. Madness might have been reaching for her, but so far she was keeping out of its clutches.
Devlin was dead, she was sure of that much. She wasn't quite sure how he had died though. And she had watched it happen. Yeah, Weiss thought, there was the Jell-O again. One moment Devlin was there, standing in front of her with that goofy smile of his, and then in another moment he wasn't. It was the moment in between that Weiss couldn't focus on. She remembered a flash of white... no, lots of flashes, blinding her, as if she was a celebrity suddenly ambushed by the paparazzi. Her retinas burning hotly with dark spots, which was funny, because she thought it would have been cold... why was that again? Snow, that's right... she remembered snow approaching... was that the whiteness? And no, the spots weren't dark. Everything else was.
She shook her head frantically, like a dog trying to dry itself. It seemed to do the trick. The thoughts were thrown free like dirty water. A droplet landed on her hand. She was crying, she realized suddenly, and wiped hurriedly at her face. Stupid. It was just exhaustion. That's why they'd pulled over, after all.
Well, not the only reason. The empty gas tank warning light on the dashboard had been lit up for the last dozen miles or so. They'd need to find a gas station next, assuming this one-horse town even had a gas station. If not, well, there were still options. Weiss firmly believed there were always options, no matter how bad the situation; you just had to keep looking until you found them. Maybe they could siphon some gas from a few parked cars when no one was looking. She hadn't done that since she was a teenager. Technically illegal, of course, but if they got caught then flashing the badge would probably solve everything. Besides, it wasn't as if anyone in the town would be driving anywhere soon. The townspeople appeared oblivious to what was coming. Maybe that was a good thing, Weiss thought.
Everything would be alright once they got to Sacramento. Then Cole would no longer be her problem and someone, anyone, would have to know what the hell was going on. Maybe that asshole Moran would know. He always thought he had all the answers. They'd make a move soon, Weiss decided. Where the hell was the waitress with their order? Thank God she hadn't ordered anything more complicated than toast. How hard was freaking toast? If they had to wait much longer, Weiss decided, then they'd just walk out. They couldn't waste any more time.
As if summoned by her thoughts, the waitress hovered into view carrying two half-full coffee pots. Weiss speedily brushed at her face again, just to be on the safe side. She caught Cole staring at her with a look of... was that concern? What the hell was that about? She glared at the prisoner, hopefully making her point. Don't you dare say anything, she thought, just don't you dare.
"Here's your coffee, hon," the waitress said, pouring from the red-trimmed pot into one of the mugs she had placed on their table earlier. She was talking only to Cole, of course. If she hadn't shown a preference between the two women before, then Weiss could easily spot one now. Probably everyone in the diner could.
"And the toast?"
The waitress wouldn't meet her eye, Weiss noticed. She briefly wondered why - shame perhaps or a simple dislike - then dismissed the thought as idle curiosity. What did it matter? She and Cole would be out of this town before long. Still, at least the waitress was all smiles again, although now it was fairly easy to tell the smiles were fake and forced. Huh, Weiss thought, she and Cole had something in common then.
As the waitress spoke, the fluorescent lights overhead flickered once and went out, plunging the diner into near-darkness. At the same time, the television set went dark and the radio on the counter, which up until now had been stuck on the oldies channel and was midway through That's All
by Genesis, fell silent. An inventive string of curses came from the kitchen and a chorus of moans ran around the diner.
"Oh, darn it!" The waitress looked up at the ceiling. She didn't move for a few seconds, perhaps hoping that somehow just by staring at the lights it would change things. "The power's out too now? Well, if that don't just beat all. Still, it will probably come back on soon."
"I wouldn't bet on it," Weiss said. Cole caught her eye again, so she shrugged.
"Looks like your toast might take a little longer, hon," the waitress said, pouring some coffee from the other pot. She did her best to hide a small smirk, and then turned a worried look upon Cole. "Aren't you cold in just that frock?"
Cole shook her head. All the same, she tugged at the thin white cotton dress she was wearing. Not too smart, Weiss thought. There was a blood stain on the right side of the dress. With the way they were sitting, chances were good that the waitress couldn't see it, but trying to pull it out of sight only drew attention.
"You might be soon. If the power's out, the heat won't last long. I can get you a blanket, if you like."
It was funny, Weiss thought. She'd assumed the locals would support her, would be wary and suspicious of a criminal in their midst. The badge usually inspired support, even if reluctantly. Respect the badge, fear the gun, as the saying went. She'd expected a little anger at her for bringing a handcuffed prisoner in here, but not hostility. And she certainly hadn't expected them to be sympathetic to Cole. Stupid of her, really. Small town minds, always seeing things in such polarizing terms. Everything was always so simple. There were no levels of complexity in a hegemony after all. No room for dissent in a community like this.
Or maybe she was being unfair and maybe it wasn't that at all. Maybe it was just Cole's innate charisma. She certainly could be charming. It had cut away any wariness of the diner staff so easily and so quickly. Well, it wouldn't work on her, Weiss vowed. No way in hell.
The waitress left, promising to check on the toast. Weiss didn't hold out any hope. She watched Cole wince as she took a cautious sip from her mug. Either the coffee wasn't to her taste or her face was hurting her. Weiss didn't really care either way.
She didn't touch her own mug, choosing to let the beverage cool a little. Instead she took a moment to look around the gloomy diner once more. Most of the other booths in the diner were empty. A nervous looking man in a cheap and badly-fitting black suit sat in the booth behind Cole, dabbing at some ketchup he'd spilt on his otherwise pristine white shirt. A traveling salesman, perhaps? Or an office grunt? Did a town this small and so reliant on the winter sports trade have offices? A young couple occupied the booth in the far corner. Neither of them seemed to have even noticed the power was out. They had only a table between them but it might as well have been an ocean. Leaning against the sill with one arm lazily stretched out, the man hadn't stopped staring out of the window for the last ten minutes. The woman was squinting at a book and half-heartedly stabbing at a plate of wilting salad with the fork she held in her other hand.
It seemed the regulars all sat on stools at the bar. A couple of trucker types, the elderly man still complaining about the TV (although with perhaps more reason to now), and a stout matronly woman with a face like a bulldog that was used to being smacked on the nose, chewing on a half-moon cookie.
Weiss glanced at her watch. They really needed to be hitting the road soon.
"I would have thought they'd use a riddle or a joke," Cole said out of the blue. "Like what's black and white and red all over?"
Weiss added some sugar to her coffee and then took a gulp. Stale, as she expected, and not too warm. She put her mug back down on the table. The black coffee rippled against the edges of the stark white ceramic. She looked back at her prisoner, confused by the sudden comment. "What?"
"A newspaper, usually. Although I suppose I could also say me. What's black and blue and white and red all over, that would fit better."
"Are you listening to me?"
"No, not really."
"I meant on the placemat. Most places like this have a joke. Not famous quotations."
"Can't be that famous," Weiss said disinterestedly. She'd been blinded for a second by a pair of bright headlights that ran across the window as a car moved off the road and into the parking lot. "I've never heard it before."
Cole sipped at her coffee slowly, watching Weiss through lowered eyes. She probably thought she was being coy. "That doesn't necessarily follow," she said after a while. Then, she hurriedly lowered her mug and leaned forward conspiratorially. "Where do you think they get their power?"
"How should I know?"
"If they've lost power here, that could mean the power station's been... well, you know. And if we knew where that was, we could work out how close..."
Weiss held up a hand and interrupted her. "Don't read too much into this. It's probably just a coincidence."
"You don't believe that."
She was right, Weiss didn't. But she wasn't about to admit as much and so chose not to reply. Instead, she turned away to look out of the window again. A black-and-white police cruiser was pulling up outside.
Well, that didn't take long, Weiss thought bitterly. If Cole had noticed, she gave no sign. Weiss suspected she probably had but was deliberately playing it cool, most likely keeping an eye out for possible escape routes. She was shit out of luck there.
Whoever the driver was, he was smart. The cruiser had not moved into a parking space but instead had pulled up behind Weiss' sedan, blocking them in entirely. Must have spotted the rental tags maybe, Weiss mused, or perhaps just taking an interest in the only vehicle that wasn't a battered pick-up or more than ten years old.
The headlights went out. As the driver's door swung open, Weiss caught a glimpse of the large gold and black star painted there and half of the motto. Alpine County - To serve...
Just the local Sheriff's Department then, as she had guessed. Shouldn't be too much of a problem. She'd bluff through this if she could, and threaten and bluster if all else failed.
Another patrol car was pulling into the parking lot from the opposite end. So they were arriving mob-handed. Sensible, if a little like overkill. Damn it, why had the woman shown off her handcuffs?
Weiss considered waiting for them to come to her but quickly decided against it. Devlin had been fond of saying that the best defense is a good offense and, although he was more often wrong than right, she felt it was advice she should be following now. Her hand went up to her left temple, rubbing away the short shock of pain.
She expected the local cops to be curious as to what she was doing here, escorting a prisoner through their town without a partner, without any kind of back-up, and most importantly, without alerting them first. Not that she could have warned them in advance even if she had wanted to. So taking the offensive, she thought, would at least keep them on the back foot and give her and Cole a slim chance to get out of here.
You'd think the cops' curiosity would be sated with an open and honest conversation. It often wouldn't be, mostly due to the small town cop mentality. Petty officialdom could often throw up barriers when none were needed. Knowing the way her luck was going today, she'd get nothing but barriers. And besides, this time even an open and honest conversation would raise more questions than it would answers. If she didn't want to be stuck here for hours on end, she would have to watch what she said. She had to play this very, very carefully.
She got to her feet and fumbled in her jacket pocket for a few bills.
"Are we leaving?" Ally frowned as Weiss put her money on the table. "You could leave her a bigger tip. Come on, it's not like money's going to matter soon."
"That's all the money I have, save thirty or forty bucks I was keeping back for gas. Besides, she didn't really earn a good tip. Now, stay here."
She hadn't noticed then, Weiss thought. That was surprising. She motioned to the window.
"Ah," said Cole as understanding dawned on her and she stared out at the two police cars. "An authority dick-measuring contest. You're going to be at something of a disadvantage, aren't you?"
"I'm going to have to go and smooth things over, if that's what you mean," Weiss said. Her voice lowered and took on a determined 'don't-test-me' tone. "So stay here."
"Where else am I going to go?"
"You want I should cuff you to something? I don't want you leaving that seat, you understand me?"
"Alright already, you've made your point. I won't go anywhere." Cole took another sip from her coffee. Not that she had much choice but she was cradling the mug with both hands as if for warmth. The cut on her lip had opened up again, leaving a spot of red on the white rim.
As Weiss turned to go, Cole spoke again. "It's about taking responsibility for your actions."
"What?" Weiss looked back at her, frowning. "What the fuck are you talking about now? Are you confessing?"
Cole shook her head and gestured at the table. "The quotation on the placemat. It's something Vishnugupta was supposed to have said, although they haven't got the whole thing down here. But it's about karma; good deeds being rewarded, bad ones being punished, that kind of thing. I'm still not sure I agree. It's all very cut and dried. I don't like the idea that there are only ever two sides to a story. Not everyone is simply good or bad."
"You would say so. And how do you know all that?" Weiss said with a sneer. "No, don't tell me. You dated an Indian princess back in Vegas."
Cole nodded, smiling. "Something like that. Indian, yes. Princess, no. She was a stripper, actually. Be careful."
"I'm surprised you're concerned for my safety."
"I'm not. But I trust you a little more than I trust those guys," Cole said, gesturing at the deputies waiting outside.
"Thanks for nothing."
Weiss pushed the door of the diner open and stepped down into the parking lot. There were two deputies by the second cruiser; both immediately reached for their sidearms. They didn't draw the weapons but they made a show of unclipping their holsters and leaving their hands real close. Great, Weiss thought, this was turning into a scene from a bad spaghetti Western. If any tumbleweeds rolled by she was calling it quits.
She instinctively wanted to check her own firearm, a small Glock 22 automatic pistol she kept in a holster at the small of her back. But she knew doing so would only escalate matters so she reined in the impulse. Best to keep things calm and friendly. Smile, she reminded herself. Show them you're harmless.
She wanted to tug up the collar of her black jacket against the cold. The temperature had dropped a little since she and Cole had driven into town and there was a chilly breeze blowing down from the mountaintop, made all the worse by her stay in the comfortable warmth of the diner. She shivered, feeling the cold through the thin fabric of her tee.
The Sheriff himself, distinguishable not only by his badge of rank but also his much more relaxed attitude, was waiting for her to come to him. A little display of power, one that she'd encountered often enough. Still, she was thankful he did not touch his gun. Instead, he had his arms crossed and was leaning against the fender of his patrol car. She could hear the engine still ticking over beneath the hood.
He was a tall man, easily more than six feet, although how much so was hard to tell with the way he was slouching. But he was not a large man, no muscle-bound gym-obsessed jock. In fact, he was probably a little too thin for his height. She noticed that his belt was fastened at a freshly-cut notch. Had he lost a lot of weight recently, she wondered?
A quick glance at his face told Weiss that her guess was right. Lines creased a grey face partly shadowed by the dark brown Stetson. The eyes were bloodshot. He looked haggard and worn-out. With his salt-and-pepper beard, he looked all of sixty, but she guessed he could have been as young as forty or so. All the same, his uniform was immaculate. Not a trace of dirt, a razor sharp crease in the pants, a crisply laundered shirt with gleaming brass buttons, and shoes polished to a startling shine.
She tugged at the collar of the cheap white tee she wore underneath her jacket. She knew she didn't look too presentable. Her suit was rumpled after so long sitting in the car, dirty here and there, although she'd done her best to clean it up where she could, and even torn in one place. She hoped that in the darkness she'd pass muster.
He actually touched the brim of his Stetson as she approached. It was a gesture that seemed a little too affected to be natural. "Sheriff Whitaker, ma'am," he said. There was a drawl to his voice, not an accent so much, just a laidback tone to each word as if speaking was too much of an effort.
Weiss went on the offensive right from the get-go. "I'm a Deputy with the Marshals Service, escorting a prisoner from Las Vegas back to Sacramento. We're just passing through; we stopped to get gas and something to eat. We'll be out of here and on our way shortly." She had to crane her neck to look up at him, even though he was slouching.
"Are you now?" he said, responding only to her first statement as he looked her up and down. He didn't seem to approve of what he saw. "And I suppose you have some ID to back that up?"
She reached inside her jacket, making sure that he saw the badge at her waist as she did so. To his credit he didn't resort to cliché and ask her to do so slowly. In fact, he hardly reacted at all. She passed over the wallet that contained her ID card. He flipped it open, studied it for a long while, and then passed it back to her.
"You seem surprised," Weiss said.
"I do? What about?"
"That I'm a Deputy Marshal. Is that because I'm black or because I'm a woman?"
"Actually it's because you're so short. You're a little off the beaten track, aren't you?"
"I would have thought you would have flown. Quicker, safer, after all."
Weiss shrugged. "Budget cuts, you know how it is."
"The prisoner and me."
"No one else?"
"No." She had hesitated before answering and he noticed, raising his eyebrows. He might have been a small town hick but he wasn't dumb, she realized. Not at reading people, anyway. Again, she reminded herself to be careful of what she said and how she said it.
"This prisoner, is he dangerous?"
"She," Weiss corrected, "and no, she's not." Where did that come from, she wondered? She hadn't meant to say anything, and if she had then she should have been truthful. Cole was dangerous, at least according to the arrest warrant out on her. You don't get much more dangerous than a wanted murderer, after all.
But she didn't seem it, Weiss realized. Sure, some killers didn't, she knew that, or at least the smart ones were more than capable of hiding their true nature. All the same, Cole appeared so unthreatening, so innocuous, that it was hard to believe she was able to murder anyone. Fuck, Cole hadn't even fought back this morning, just laid there and taken what was being dished out. Without complaint either; Weiss remembered Cole just sitting in a sullen silence in the passenger seat, gingerly cleaning her cuts and scrapes with a wet napkin.
And before that, Cole had kept protesting her innocence. She'd eventually realized she wasn't getting anywhere and given up. But had some of it sunk in, Weiss wondered? Cole had a record, sure, but her file stated that she had no discernible history of violence, aside from one drunken brawl four years ago due to a love triangle that had gone sour and had sweetened again just as fast. Plenty of confidence tricks and a few minor thefts, but no jobs ever ending in violence. In fact, looking through some of the old case reports it seemed a lot of the victims actually liked Cole, really liked her, and seemed disappointed that she had turned out to be nothing more than a petty thief intent on ripping them off. It was that annoyingly innocent charm she had, Weiss thought. Was it working on her, despite what she kept asserting to herself? Weiss couldn't help but wonder. Was that why she'd risked leaving her alone in the diner? No, that couldn't be it. Fuck, no.
"I ask because if you're on your own," Whitaker said, getting Weiss' attention again, "then your prisoner is presumably in our local diner without supervision. That's an awfully dumb thing to do."
It certainly was. Weiss glanced furtively back at the diner window. She could just about make out Cole, still seated at their booth, chatting amiably with the waitress who was refilling her coffee mug. "She's not going anywhere," she said, with a little more conviction than she felt, "and she won't try anything."
He gave that a moment's thought. It was clear he didn't like what he was hearing. "Something special about you, is there?"
She was startled by the question. "Me? No, I'm just a run of the mill eighty-two."
"So how come you're alone? Or is that a budgetary thing too?"
Weiss sighed. That was the third time he'd referenced her lack of a partner. He wasn't going to let this go then. "I wasn't. I started the day working with another Marshal, Lonan Devlin. It should have been an easy task. Easy, routine, and tedious. But things went south real fast."
"Yeah, they have a way of doing that in this line of work," the Sheriff said sympathetically. But there was an edge beneath the words, which came to the fore in his next question. "So where is he? And what exactly happened?"
Wiping at her face wearily, Weiss realized she was going to have to explain something of what happened. If she didn't, he'd probably hold her and Cole here for as long as he could, using any excuse he could find. On any other day that wouldn't have mattered, although it still would have seriously pissed Weiss off. But today she just couldn't afford too great of a delay.
Shivering again, she pulled a packet of Camel cigarettes from her jacket pocket. If she was going to be stuck out here in the cold for a while, she might as well take the opportunity to smoke a little. The Sheriff lit her cigarette with a cheap Zippo lighter; she reluctantly offered him the pack but he declined. He carries a lighter but doesn't smoke, she wondered? Cancer, maybe? It would explain the weight loss.
The sweet tobacco tasted so good as she sucked it down into her lungs, warming her deep inside. It felt comforting. She yawned suddenly, covering her mouth with her free hand. Fuck, she was tired. Exhausted, really. It had been one long day. She could lie down on the cold tarmac beneath her feet and she would bet she'd still fall right asleep.
"I wasn't even supposed to be on this assignment," she said with a bitter smile. "Duffy is our liaison with JPATS. He's normally responsible for transporting prisoners and such. But he called in sick, so Devlin and I got the short stick. As usual.
"Cole, in there," she gestured over her shoulder with a thumb, towards the diner, "had a warrant out for her on a murder charge. She's a petty thief and con artist, as well as a part-time Elvis impersonator, if you can believe that, so murder is a big step up for her. Small scale for us, though. Normally we wouldn't bother."
"So why did you?" Whitaker asked.
She shrugged. "We help out state law enforcement when we can. It's sometimes easier asking us to help across state lines then getting any assistance from another state. Anyway, she's supposed to have murdered a fence in Elmhurst. Sacramento P.D. had no suspects until a witness came forward. Not a particularly reliable witness, though. Another thief, a sleazebag called Schwarz."
"Any chance she's innocent?"
Weiss shook her head and then took another drag on her cigarette. The tip glowed bright orange against the darkening sky. "She says so, but they always do, don't they? Schwarz brought a fair bit of evidence with him, which apparently the local cops had somehow overlooked. They seem to think they have a good case. Anyway, not my problem, is it? I'm just delivering her back to the capital."
"The whole assignment got off to a bad start," Weiss went on. "We had to drive through the night and then our car broke down about half-an-hour outside Vegas. Devlin arranged to get a rental but that was a piece of shit. And then when we finally get to the detention center in the early hours of the morning, we're informed Cole's not in custody like they had said she was. That leaves us up the creek.
"Devlin wanted to go home but I was all for staying. He gave in eventually. Anyway, we kick up enough of a fuss that the LVMPD starts getting embarrassed and finally agrees to go out and get her. Yeah, they knew where she was, they just hadn't bothered to arrest her yet. So we drive out there with a couple of dozen of Las Vegas' finest, using the word very loosely, and a SWAT team."
Weiss paused, giving herself time to think. She stared off into the distance for a long while, almost tempting the Sheriff to prod her into continuing. She was surprised he didn't. She would have thought a man like him would have been a lot less patient.
"Cole lived in a trailer park, in a crappy neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. She may be a thief, but she's not a successful one. Or at least, she hides it well. The place was about as low-rent as they come..."
* * * * *
There were two plastic pink flamingos stuck in the yard they were watching. If there was one thing more fake-looking than the women in this city, Weiss thought, then those birds were it. The pink was almost neon in color, as if the manufacturer had taken a look at the prototype, quickly decided that it looked too natural and declared something had to be done about it.
It wasn't much of a yard, Weiss would have to admit. She doubted it even qualified for the word as any yard she'd ever seen had grass, or at least plenty of mud and some patches of crabgrass. A strip of green AstroTurf, no less bright than the flamingos, and bordered by whitewashed tires cut in half, hardly seemed worth the effort of even pretending to be a yard.
The mail box was hanging off its post by a thin shred of steel and a single remaining screw. The old trailer it served didn't seem to be in much better shape. The white paint was peeling, the metalwork rusting, one window was cracked, and the screen door was more tear than screen. And this was one of the nicer trailers in the whole park.
She and Devlin sat in their rental car, a considerable distance away from the target location, at the none-too-subtle request of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. So far away, in fact, that they were actually nearer the park's entrance. The local cops had made a point of forcing the two Deputy Marshals out of the way, probably in revenge for all the aggravation they'd been put through due to Weiss and Devlin's complaints. And by that, Weiss meant mostly her. Devlin seemed more interested in getting back to Sacramento. When pushed, he had admitted he had Kings tickets and didn't want to miss the game this evening.
The car radio was on, at a volume a little too high for Weiss' tastes. A weather forecaster was expressing surprise at such a sudden cold front sweeping in. Enough of that shit. She leaned forward to switch the radio off, then tried playing with the air conditioning. It was hot, even so early in the morning.
"You couldn't get a better car than this?"
Devlin yawned noisily, then gave her a sharp look. "What do you want? I had to wait for the damn rental place to open and then they were having computer trouble and wouldn't take any of our cards. I had to pay with my own damn cash. You can bet I won't be reimbursed. I can just kiss that money goodbye, I suppose. Jesus, what a complete fuck-up this has turned out to be."
"You said it." Weiss gave up on the air conditioning after another second or two of fiddling. It must have been designed with only two settings; off and puffs of warmer smoke. Not much use in this temperature, either way. She found herself half-hoping that the cold spell would really materialize. "And don't?"
"I know, I know. Don't blaspheme. What time is it, anyway?"
Glancing at her watch, Weiss couldn't keep herself from yawning too. "About six."
"I'm telling you, if I miss this game..." Devlin half-heartedly pounded the steering wheel with a fist, letting his frustration show. "The Kings could be playing in Anaheim next season, I swear."
"Yeah, could be," Weiss said, nodding absent-mindedly. She'd heard this complaint before. It wasn't like Devlin ever talked about much else. "This wouldn't have happened if Duffy had been here."
"Instead of me?"
"Instead of both of us."
"Not his fault he was sick."
"Sick, my ass," Weiss said with a snarl. "The bastard's no sicker than I am."
"Well..." Devlin began. The smile that was playing around his lips quickly vanished as he caught her eye. "I mean, it doesn't matter, does it?"
"I guess not." Weiss turned away from him and started staring out of the passenger window. "Viva La fucking Vegas."
They sat in silence for a while, then Devlin smacked her in the arm to get her attention. When she turned to look at him, obviously about to say something cutting and rude, if not particularly witty, he nodded towards the trailer. "They're going in."
Finally, Weiss thought. Maybe they could get this all over and done with in under an hour or two and then be back in Sacramento by late afternoon. Devlin might make his Kings game after all.
She watched through the dim early morning light as the small SWAT team approached the trailer. They moved well, keeping low and in cover, jogging forward in a disciplined manner, which was surprising seeing how unprofessionally this whole situation had been handled. Considering how long their truck had been parked around the corner they might as well have walked up to the door and knocked. If the suspect... Alice Cole, Weiss reminded herself, and what a ridiculous-sounding name that was... didn't know they were coming before today, she probably did by now. Sure, she wouldn't have seen anything if she looked out of a window, but there were plenty of other people in the trailer park who would, and Weiss imagined that the inhabitants looked out for each other. How many outstanding warrants could be resolved with a good sweep through this shithole, she wondered?
Still, once they got going the SWAT team looked like they knew what they were doing. They certainly weren't taking any chances. When everything was in place, they hammered in the door and quickly burst in, hoping to overwhelm anyone inside. Pretty soon all eight heavily armed and armored team members were inside.
It must have been cramped in there, Weiss thought, as the trailer was on the small side. Still, that meant the search didn't take long. Within a few minutes the SWAT team had filed out - without any prisoner in tow. One of the LVMPD detectives, the one with the weedy looking moustache who had already tried hitting on Weiss several times despite the early hour, talked briefly to the sergeant in charge of the SWAT team, and then turned towards the Deputy Marshals' car and gave them an over-exaggerated shrug. The goofy smile showed how clearly upset he was by the bad news. Shit, Weiss thought angrily, wasn't anyone taking this seriously?
"She's not in there?" Devlin said incredulously. "Well, this keeps getting better and better. So what now? Weiss?"
Weiss didn't answer. She was too busy looking in her wing mirror, focusing on something else. Not that she really believed what she saw. He might have meant it sarcastically, but Devlin was right; this was getting better and better.
She saw Cole reflected in the wing mirror, having obviously just turned the corner and walked into the trailer park. Weiss recognized her from both the photos on file and the description she'd memorized. Short black hair, deliberately kept unruly, a nose that was perhaps a little too long for the rest of the face, and a wide mouth. She couldn't see her eyes, as Cole was wearing a large pair of gold-rimmed sunglasses, but she knew they were a dark hazel.
Cole had a thin, stick-like figure, not much of which was hidden by a thin white dress that most of the women Weiss knew would consider too flimsy and diaphanous for sleepwear, let alone a trip to the local market. Maybe in Vegas the women wandered around in their underwear at all hours. Modesty was a commodity in short supply here, it seemed. She had good legs though, even if she showed a little too much of them, and wore a clunky pair of Doc Marten boots that were probably two sizes too big for her and which she probably thought made her look quirky and cute. It was a look that did her no favors, not in Weiss' eyes. Her arms were full, clutching two packed paper bags of groceries to her chest.
Devlin must have noticed Weiss staring, as he glanced upwards at the rearview mirror and then swore loudly. "Is that her?"
Weiss didn't say anything, just blindly reached for the door handle. She saw Cole's mouth fall agape. The paper bags fell from her arms as she took in the heavily armed cops swarming all over her home. Oranges rolled across the hot tarmac and a carton of Oreo's split open, scattering the dark cookies everywhere.
It was hard to say who moved faster. Weiss was already moving before the groceries hit the ground, popping her door open and twisting out, dropping into a sprint almost immediately. Not fast enough. Cole turned as quick as a snake and took off running. And she moved quickly Weiss noticed, like the devil himself was after her. Well, Weiss didn't think of herself as being that bad, but if she was made to run for too long Cole would find out just how bad she was.
There was a sizeable gap between the Marshals' rented car and the fleeing suspect right from the start, and even more of a distance between them and the rest of the trailer park. Not that it made much of a difference, as none of the Vegas cops had noticed anything amiss yet.
Weiss' feet kicked aside some of the rolling fruit as she dashed after the suspect. Thank God she had dressed for comfort today, choosing to wear her Converse instead of a pair of heels. She could hear Devlin moving after her, the old man moving much more slowly out of the gate, and he was yelling back to the other cops as he ran. Cole could really move, Weiss realized, even in those dumb boots. Try as she might to keep up, Weiss found herself being easily outdistanced. After exiting the trailer park, the dark-haired suspect turned sharply to her right and ran pell-mell down the street, past rundown stores.
By the time Weiss followed around the bend, Cole was already at least a couple of hundred yards up the street and turning another corner into an alleyway, disappearing from sight. That was bad news. In a foot chase you never wanted to lose sight of your suspect. As Weiss reached the corner, she slowed. Contrary to what you saw on cheap television shows and bad action movies, it wasn't that sensible to charge around blind corners when pursuing fleeing suspects, regardless of how dangerous, or not, they were supposed to be. That was a surefire way to get your head blown off sooner or later.
She pulled her pistol free of the holster at the small of her back, flicked the safety off, and then steadied her two-handed grip. A deep breath, then she stepped around the corner...
...and went flying backwards, knocked off her feet. Cole had collided with her. Weiss fell to the concrete, the impact jarring her spine painfully. She lost hold of her gun, which scattered across the sidewalk until it hit the base of a still-glowing streetlight nearby. She swore under her breath and flailed out wildly. Cole was already falling, having not expected to have run right smack into her pursuer, but managed to keep to her feet until she stumbled over Weiss. She fell to one side of the Deputy Marshal, scrambled to her hands and knees, but then Weiss grabbed an ankle, tripping her up again. The suspect lashed out with her foot, not too hard, but still connecting painfully with Weiss' shoulder.
"Get off me!" Cole yelled as she kicked backwards, more in an effort to break free than to do any damage. "Please, let me go!"
Weiss swore again, loudly, mostly at shock rather than from anger, then ducked her head out of the way of another strike from the boot. She rolled over, trying to get to her feet. Her back hurt badly as she moved and the pain caused her to lose her grip on the suspect.
But Devlin had caught up with them by now and he piled on top of Cole, grabbing her arms and pushing her to the ground. Without a shred of dignity, Cole continued to struggle as hard as she could. Weiss stiffly got to her feet and retrieved her gun from where it lay. Her lower back flared in agony as she bent over and her left shoulder was stinging.
"Stop struggling, goddamn it!" Devlin cursed at the writhing woman, but as he was two hundred and fifty pounds at least and she was a waif-like stick insect, her efforts were mostly in vain. She'd lost her sunglasses somewhere, maybe in the alley.
"I haven't done anything! Honestly! You have to let me go! You don't understand..."
"Yeah, that's what they all say." Kneeling on her, Devlin forced Cole's arms behind her back. Swiftly, with a free hand, he reached behind his back to get his handcuffs, slipping them on the still resisting woman, not without considerable difficulty. "Funny how the people who use the word 'honestly' usually don't have a clue what it means."
"US Marshals," Weiss interrupted coldly, moving her shoulder in a circular motion to shake off the tingling. She bent over again, ignoring the flicker of pain she felt in her spine, placing her hands on her thighs and trying to get her breath back. "Alice Cole, there's a warrant out for your arrest in the state of California for..." The words came out between heavy pants as she fought to regain her composure. She needed to quit smoking.
"We're in trouble, don't you get it? You have to..."
Devlin got to his feet, pulling Cole up roughly with him by holding on to the cuffs. It wasn't protocol and it hurt like hell, but it had the advantage of usually shutting suspects up. Not in this case. She kept yelling but Weiss wasn't listening. The sooner she said her piece, the sooner the pair of them could get Cole in the car and they could be on the road again. She continued. "...for the murder of Lucius DeWitte. We're here to transport you back to Sacramento to stand trial."
Her words finally sank in and Cole immediately fell silent, as if she'd been slapped across the face. "Lucius is dead?" she said quietly. She blinked slowly, taking her time to think over what was said, and then glanced between the two Marshals. If she wasn't truly surprised by the news, Weiss thought, then she was one hell of a good actress.
Weiss gripped Cole hard by the elbow and tried to turn her around, intending on walking her back to the trailer park, but her captive twisted free again. Swearing, Weiss grabbed hold of her again and shook her, hard. She really did look like Elvis, at least when he was younger, Weiss thought, studying her for a second now that she finally had the chance to look at her close-up. The same long, thin face, the full lips, strong jaw and dark eyes. Cole was attractive in a way, Weiss thought, if you liked that sort of butch look; not pretty, not cute, but oddly handsome. Yes, that was the word, handsome. A fucking female Elvis impersonator, Weiss thought derisively. It could only happen in Vegas. The thief part could happen anywhere.
"I didn't..." Cole began, staring directly at Weiss. She seemed to suddenly sense arguing was futile. She shook her head and her voice became louder and more urgent. "It doesn't matter. We have to get out of here! Now!"
"That's the general idea," Weiss told her, "now shut up."
"You're not listening! I mean it, we have to..."
"What did she just say?" Devlin said. "Are you deaf or something?"
"Fine, then fucking arrest me, why don't you?! Just let's get out of here! Please!"
Cole was terrified, Weiss realized, but if not of being arrested for murder, then what? And why would she be so anxious to get away, only to end up being escorted to jail? She had originally believed the suspect had ambushed her, had deliberately turned around and leapt past her in an effort to flee, maybe after seeing that the alleyway was a dead-end or something. But it was now slowly beginning to dawn on Weiss that Cole might have been running from something else, and it was only her bad luck that she immediately ran slap-bang dead into the Marshal chasing after her, and maybe only a little good luck that she didn't get her head blown clean off.
But all that luck aside, Weiss couldn't help wondering what on earth could panic someone like Cole so much that she'd turn and run back towards her pursuers in the hopes of getting arrested? What could she possibly think would be worse than facing a murder charge?
The same thought must have occurred to Devlin. Weiss saw that while she was keeping a close eye on their suspect, her partner was staring past them both, frowning in puzzlement at something back down the alley from which Cole had run from.
"What the hell is that?" he said, quietly.
Weiss turned and followed the direction of Devlin's staring. Oddly, she couldn't see very far, no more than a hundred yards. There was a wall of white running across the alley that seemed to swallow up everything, as if a high-rise laundry had dropped a pristine clean sheet from the top of the buildings to block the alley entirely. For a moment, Weiss' brain locked on to that thought, praying that it was true even as logic started convincing her it couldn't be. An advertising stunt this stupid was out of the question, surely?
It couldn't be linen, as much as she hoped it was. A single sheet wouldn't be as large as all that, couldn't be that clean, that blindingly pristine, and would ripple or shake, even just a little. And there was no top... shouldn't there be a top to it somewhere? There was a stabbing pain at the back of Weiss' skull suddenly and she didn't know why.
You couldn't see past it, or through it, to the streets beyond. Weiss kept looking up, her eyes flicking back and forth as she desperately searched for the edge, any edge, but the whiteness just seemed to continue higher and higher, the crystal blue of the Nevada sky bleeding into it, until it hurt her eyes and she had to look away, not able to bear to look at it any longer.
She had to blink to get her vision back. Each time she closed her eyes they burned. It felt like she'd been staring at the sun for just a moment too long.
Devlin brushed past her, moving towards the nothingness. He stumbled as his toe caught on a piece of uneven concrete in the sidewalk, but barely noticed and didn't even look down. Weiss made sure to keep a tight grip on Cole's arm, as she felt the woman try to twist free as her partner stepped away.
"Is that snow?" Weiss asked of no one in particular.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Cole said, keeping her head turned away. "Does it look like snow to you?"
Weiss ignored her. She had to think this through. But if the sheer whiteness of what she was looking at hurt her eyes, thinking about it too much seemed to hurt her head. It could be snow, surely? Even here in Las Vegas that might be possible. But she knew it couldn't be. It simply wasn't cold enough for snow, even at this time of the year. At six o'clock this morning she had found it warm enough still to be comfortable in just a light summer suit. But the weather forecast had reported a coming cold snap. The throbbing in Weiss' temples was getting worse. Snow, not snow, snow.
"It's moving..." Devlin said softly, continuing to move forward.
It was too. Sometimes it seemed to be creeping along, inch by inch, but then when Weiss blinked it had suddenly moved forward a foot or more. Like it was somehow aware of exactly when she wasn't looking. Like it was moving towards her... or for her. She couldn't stop staring at it... no, that wasn't quite true. If she tried, if she focused really hard and thought about something else like the pain in her back or the grip she had on her perp's elbow or the paperwork she was going to have to fill out later today, then she could tear her gaze away, but it wasn't easy at all. It hurt more to not look then it did to look. It hurt her heart. She wanted to keep staring.
"Don't look at it!" said Cole urgently, noticing Weiss' dazed state. At least she wasn't yelling any more. Cole gestured forward. "See that bike?"
Reluctantly looking away from the nothingness for a second, Weiss saw a high-quality bicycle lying on its side a little way down the alley, half-hidden by the snow... or whatever it was. The back wheel, the only visible wheel, was still slowly spinning.
"What? What about it?"
"It was a courier," Cole said. "He... vanished..."
A rush of anger welled up within Weiss. She'd really had enough of this shit for one day. Somehow, the emotion helped her to resist staring at the bleached-out nothingness. "What the fuck are you talking about?" she snapped.
Cole looked distraught, near tears, as if her own anger and desperation had leeched out of her, leaving in its place only sadness and regret. "He rode right into it... it was horrible... I couldn't see for a second and then his bike just toppled over, like he'd run into a brick wall or something. That's when I started running. I mean..."
Weiss knew what she meant. "Well, where is he? Where is the courier?"
"I told you, he vanished. One second he was ahead of me, riding down the alleyway as slow as you like, and then the next he was gone. You're not listening, are you? When it fell, his bike was hardly touching that... it... and that was only a minute ago."
"Don't you see? It's moving and it's getting faster!" Urgency had returned to Cole's voice. So there was some fight left in her, Weiss thought. "We have to get out of here!"
"There are snowflakes," Devlin called out over his shoulder, looking down and to the left.
Weiss mentally kicked herself. She had forgotten about her partner for a moment, which was not only stupid but decidedly dangerous. Cole had distracted her, but Weiss imagined she often distracted women, although not quite in this unusual manner. She looked over at Devlin, raising her free hand, trying to shield her eyes from the glare of the whiteness. Shit, it was like snow-blindness only a hundred times worse.
Devlin was right again though, at least to a point. It wasn't truly a solid wall of white, Weiss saw now, at any rate not at the very edges. At the forefront there were particles floating in the air, of all different sizes, some no bigger than a pinhead, others as large as quarters. The whole thing now looked like the worst example of static on an old TV set.
They were impossible to see when looked at against the whiteness, but at an angle they were just about visible against the dark red bricks of the alley's walls. And no, she noticed, they weren't floating and they certainly weren't snowflakes. They were just white spots, like little holes in reality, or absences of... well, just about anything, she thought... and they just hung in the air wherever they appeared. More and more emerged out of nowhere, until the tiny spots became small spots, small spots grew into large spots, and large spots became huge expanses of white, and that was what gave the whole thing the appearance of moving. But it wasn't, Weiss realized, it was growing.
She watched as Devlin reached out to touch one of the dots of nothingness.
Weiss felt her heart lurch abruptly and wasn't exactly sure why. She stepped forward quickly, letting her grip on Cole go without thinking. "Lonan, don't!" she said. She heard a tremor of dread in her voice and it sickened her. Nothing in life had ever frightened her before - well, almost nothing - so why now?
Devlin turned his head to look at her but didn't lower his arm. He smiled at her, that fucking infuriating smile of his that he only ever flashed when he thought he knew better than her. "It's fine," he told her, "there's nothing there."
The tip of his forefinger brushed the very edge of a white spot. And he was right, suddenly there was nothing there.
Just like that, Devlin had vanished. One moment he had been there, moving, talking, breathing... existing. And the next there was a sickening bellow of pain that couldn't have possibly come from him, followed almost instantly by a flash of white light that blinded Weiss for a second or two. She blinked, and as she did so, the recollection of a college history lesson came back to her.
It was odd how the mind worked. The oddest things could summon up a memory, like the scent of a flower, the taste of an enjoyable but long-forgotten meal, or a few bars from a familiar tune. And they didn't get much more odd than this, Weiss guessed. She had been nineteen, a freshman in name only, with a jaded cynicism that belied her age. Nagasaki and Hiroshima meant nothing to her and she couldn't care less. But then she had been jolted out of her protective shell, horrified when the professor had shown the class photographs of the aftermath of both bombings. It hadn't been the rubble, the destruction, the death toll, or the pain and suffering that had shocked the young Weiss so much. It had been the photos of the shadows. She still could clearly remember the professor's evocative description, explaining how the blast of each atomic bomb was so powerful and so intense it seared the very image of its victims onto walls, like a permanent burnt shadow of something that no longer existed.
She knew why the memory had surfaced. Terrifyingly, right now she was witnessing the reverse. The image of Devlin was seared painfully into her retinas, not in shadow but in light, his form an agonizing and blinding white. Everything else was darkened, blurred and less clear, either because the white somehow leeched the light from around it, or the surroundings perhaps just looked dark in comparison.
Weiss stared in silence at the now empty alleyway, her eyes watering as she blinked them, her vision slowly returning to normal. She was finding it hard to breathe, feeling like she'd been punched incredibly hard in the chest. Two years ago she'd been shot just below her collarbone, the bullet only stopped by the ballistic vest she always wore while working. The impact had broken two ribs, stopped her heart for a brief moment, and left a huge lasting bruise. And that pain failed to compare to what she was now feeling.
"Fuck..." Weiss said finally. The word slipped out her mouth like air from a slashed tire, slow and distressing.
The nothingness inched closer. It seemed to be moving a little faster. She stared at it and in return it sang to her. She could feel the whiteness inside her head, like tendrils wrapping around parts of her mind and tugging, tugging, tugging, ever so gently, desperately wanting her to accept the nothingness, to be at one with it, to be truly nothing. Her arms dropped to her side and she took one hesitant step forward.
Suddenly, Weiss felt a sharp, bony elbow dig into her ribs.
"Don't look at it!" Cole hissed urgently. "It's coming towards us! I don't know what the hell is going on but if you don't want that to happen to you, Marshal whatever your damn name is, we have to run!" She turned away and began running, almost tripping and falling as she tried to keep her balance with her arms cuffed behind her back.
Not thinking, acting purely on survival instinct, Weiss tore her gaze away from the alleyway and followed.
* * * * *
They sprinted back to the trailer park as fast as they could. Quite why Cole had headed back there Weiss didn't know. Perhaps she thought the cops waiting for her there would protect her somehow, or perhaps she was just heading home without thinking, like a wounded animal heading back to the safety of the burrow. Weiss could understand that; she kind of felt the same. Sacramento was calling her.
But there was no safety to be found. Just as if the wounded animal had found the hunter and his hounds waiting, as Weiss ran into the trailer park's entrance she saw Cole had come to a sudden halt. The whiteness had already reached this point too, just beginning to envelope the large black SWAT van parked a hundred yards up ahead.
Cole was looking around, her head snapping to and fro. If she wasn't freaking out completely, she was getting pretty damn close, that much was obvious. Weiss couldn't blame her; she felt like freaking out herself. The trailer park wasn't quite parallel with the alleyway where they'd lost Devlin, the entrance being a little further south really, but even so if the whiteness was already moving through here then it had sped up even more since they last saw it.
The SWAT team was nowhere in sight. But there were still some of Las Vegas' finest around. Most of them were standing stock still, staring at the oncoming nothingness. A few had fallen on their knees, praying perhaps. One was crying. What unsettled Weiss most about that was that he didn't seem to be crying because of sorrow. As she watched, there was a flash of light off to the right, which she only just caught in the corner of her eye. It still stung like mad though. None of the cops seemed to react in any way.
"Why the fuck aren't they running?" Cole said.
The question seemed rhetorical. Even if it wasn't, Weiss wasn't about to waste time answering. She knew why. She knew what the cops were feeling. She could sense the whiteness reaching out for her again, already wrenching at her thoughts. She made fists of her hands, digging her nails painfully into her palms. It did the trick.
They had to move faster, Weiss realized, and that meant running was no longer an option.
"Get in the car!" she screamed, sprinting past Cole. She had to take a deep breath just to be able to talk and that hurt her lungs. The run had left her panting heavily. Cole, fuck her, seemed to be hardly even winded. She really should quit smoking. Tomorrow, she swore, she would give up smoking then, if she lived so long.
"The red Camry!" Weiss said, pointing.
Cole reached the car first, having easily overtaken the gasping Weiss. She twisted, groping for the handle on the passenger side, fumbling behind the small of her back, then growing more frantic as logic told her the door wouldn't open but her mind still wouldn't accept the futility of trying.
"It's locked! Unlock the fucking door!"
Fuck, Weiss thought. Devlin had the keys. And Devlin was gone. A stabbing pain shot through her skull as she remembered how he had disappeared. Unlike the white outline of her partner, the memory was fuzzy for some reason, hard to focus on. Each time she did, her head hurt.
She focused on something else instead. Scooping up a half-brick from the edge of a trailer's makeshift garden, she smashed the driver's window, reached in and unlocked the door. She scrambled in, reached over and pushed the passenger's side door open.
As Cole scrambled awkwardly in, unable to pull the door shut after her due to her handcuffs, Weiss jammed a ballpoint pen into the gap between the plastic panels on the steering column and pried it partly open. She clawed at the wires inside, jerking them free. Her fingertips were bleeding, she noticed, probably from the broken glass.
"You don't have keys?" Cole said in disbelief.
Weiss glanced up. Through the dust-streaked windshield she could see the nothingness bearing down on the car. It seemed even faster than before. Cole's trailer was now no longer in site as the white passed over the yard. The plastic pink flamingos were the last to go.
"Shut up," she said, "and unless you have an explanation, something that makes sense out of all this, then don't say another fucking word." She touched two bare wires together. Nothing. Fuck, she hadn't done this in so long. She grabbed another wire, touched that to the first, and then gave a silent prayer when the engine came to life.
* * * * *
It took them three-quarters of an hour to escape the city, which Weiss guessed was about twice as long as it had taken her and Devlin to drive into from the outskirts earlier that morning.
She was amazed at how orderly everything seemed. As she sped north through the suburbs, driving as fast as she dared to get out of the city as quickly as possible, she found it almost surreal that life seemed to be going on as normal all around her. There was a little more traffic on the roads than earlier this morning but not much; it could have been routine based on the time of day. She checked her watch. Almost seven. Rush hour, she guessed, or whatever passed for it in this city. Even a city driven by an entertainment and leisure economy had to have regular folks doing regular jobs, just maybe not as many.
She did some quick math in her head. Nine hours or so on the road and they'd be back in Sacramento. They had to get there. That would solve everything. It was a thin hope, a threadbare one, but she clung to it all the same. She had to, or else there would be no point in continuing. And if life had taught her anything, it was that sometimes there was nothing else you could do but keep doing what you were doing.
Perhaps everything would be back to normal once they got back to Sacramento, Weiss told herself. Who knows, maybe this was all some huge practical joke. No, it couldn't be, Weiss reluctantly admitted to herself. What she had seen would be impossible to fake. Besides, no one had that cruel of a sense of humor.
That same headache was back, she realized. Just one thought about that nothingness and the pain just flared up. There had to be an answer, some sense to be made of this. Weiss would tell someone in Sacramento and they would know what was going on and what to do. She wasn't sure if anyone would even listen to her, but she would make herself heard. Someone had to know.
Weiss glanced to her right. If there was one person who knew, it was Cole, Weiss was sure of that. If not, then at the very least, Cole knew more than she was saying. Which right now, Weiss thought, wasn't a lot. In fact, Cole hadn't said a word since they'd left the trailer park. Maybe she was one of those rare perpetrators who knew it was always best to keep their mouths shut when dealing with the authorities, or even rarer, one of those who actually obeyed an order when it was given to them.
It didn't matter. What Weiss really wanted to know was how Cole had resisted the effects of the nothingness when it called. She had often been nearer to it than Weiss, had been much nearer when she had been running from them, and so its call must have been much stronger to her. And Weiss had only just managed to resist it. So why the fuck didn't it seem to bother Cole at all?
Maybe she should ask her, even if she had to get a little creative with her questions.
Weiss sighed. It made her passenger look over at her. Cole opened her mouth to speak and then obviously thought better of it as she turned away to look out of the window again. She shifted in her seat. She couldn't have been comfortable, not with her arms trapped behind her in a seat that wasn't designed to accommodate such a position.
The movement, a distraction from her worries, pissed Weiss off for some reason.
A road sign flashed overhead and she swore under her breath as she realized she had missed it. She had wanted to head south, to retrace the route she and Devlin had used to get here but the path they'd been forced to take to evade the ever increasing nothingness had pushed them further and further north. Finally they found themselves firmly stuck on Highway 95, heading into the hills just north of the city. It would probably take a little longer this way, even if the actual distance was shorter. She was just hoping they wouldn't get lost. The shitty rental car didn't even have a GPS system.
Weiss swerved the car into the left lane to speed past a slow-moving tanker-trailer. Glancing at the speedometer, she was surprised to see the needle was hovering near eighty. Taking her foot off the accelerator, she let the car slow a little. She was panicking and she didn't like that. Her knuckles stood out a stark white against the black of the steering wheel. Her jaw hurt from being clenched tight for so long. Words of wisdom from a firearms instructor long ago came back to her. She had to keep herself calm, if only to keep herself alive. Anxiety never solved anything. She tried breathing deeply and slowly, but simply couldn't concentrate well enough or long enough.
She slammed her fist against the steering wheel in frustration, startling Cole who jumped in her seat and turned to give her a worried glance.
Her temper was getting the better of her again, so Weiss tried counting to ten.
It didn't help, but then it never did.
* * * * *
They reached the outskirts of the city after about half an hour of reckless driving and it was then that Weiss' temper finally made the decision for her. She stepped on the brake pedal and began to pull over on the hard shoulder. This high in the hills, the number of vehicles on the road had dropped immensely. From the hectic rush hour traffic of the city, the highway seemed so very quiet. Cars were still passing in either direction every couple of minutes, but far less than she felt there should have been.
She felt a pang of sympathy for those vehicles heading towards the city. She had wondered briefly if she should be warning them, but how could she? She'd already tried calling her superiors, then her family, then anyone, but no luck. Her cellphone wasn't working. No service, it said, so it wasn't the battery. Maybe this thing, this event, whatever it was, had knocked out the phones. Or satellites even. Now that was a scary thought.
Cole spoke up as she felt the car slow, then the distinctive shuddering as the wheels hit gravel. "What's going on?"
Weiss said nothing, instead just pulled on the handbrake and unclipped her seat belt. She got out of the car, walked around to other side and pulled the passenger door open.
Cole looked up at the Deputy Marshal, with a look of either confusion or fright on her face. Most likely it was a bit of both.
"What are you doing?"
Weiss reached for her but Cole squirmed back out of the way. "Hold on, you can't..."
Not at all in the mood to argue, Weiss grabbed hold of Cole's arm and pulled her bodily out of the car. It wasn't tough to do. Weiss might be small in stature, but she was fit and athletic, had been trained well, and knew how to both restrain and move an unwilling suspect without too much trouble. Added to all that, it wasn't as if Cole posed too great of a challenge, especially shackled as she was. She might be a foot or so taller than Weiss, but she was too thin and too weak to resist all that much.
Weiss pushed Cole hard in front of her, causing her to stumble slightly. Then, grabbing her under the armpit and dragging her around the trunk of the car, Weiss threw her bodily into the scrub on the side of the road. With only the thin cotton dress to protect her, Cole's knees and shins were torn up as she landed heavily amidst the gravel and thickets.
Without any warning, Weiss kicked her hard in the stomach, then again in the ribs. Cole fell to one side, gasping in pain as the blow connected and her breath was forced from her lungs. She tried to get to her feet but Weiss shoved her down again and then punched her hard across the face, so hard the shock of it jolted all the way up her forearm. She heard the crack of a tooth. Cole yelled something incoherent and Weiss hit her again just to shut her up, then again just because she couldn't think of anything better to do.
The third punch was enough. It wasn't that she wanted to stop, because if she was truly honest with herself then she didn't know why she'd started in the first place, and it wasn't because nothing more was needed. Instead, it was because with each blow a little more of Weiss' temper had been drawn out of her, like poison being sucked out of a wound. By the time she had driven Cole down to the ground yet again, she couldn't even imagine why she had struck Cole to begin with.
She stepped back and leaned against the hood of the car, breathing deeply. She couldn't quite believe what she had just done. She'd lost her temper with a criminal in custody before, plenty of times, sometimes even to the extent that Devlin had had to hold her back, but she'd never actually beaten one before. God, everything was spiraling out of control, and if there was one thing Weiss desired, it was control.
Hearing a vehicle slow behind her, Weiss turned around. The car, a cheap-looking red Kia, was almost coming to a full stop. Weiss opened her jacket so the car's occupants got a clear view of the metal badge clipped to her belt. The car picked up speed again almost immediately, which right now was probably the wisest decision the driver could make.
She felt a breeze under her arm and pawed at her jacket, finding that she had torn it. The seam had split beneath the armpit. She pushed the fabric together with her fingers, as if that would somehow magically mend the tear. Stupid of her really. Her own knuckles were no longer white she noticed, oddly, but now red-raw. She stared at them for a moment, slowly turning her hands over to study the palms. She couldn't stop her hands from shaking.
Cole was struggling to get up into a sitting position. It wasn't easy with her hands cuffed behind her back. Her knees were scraped badly, there were deep scratches along her arms from the thorns, and a red stain the size of a tennis ball was slowly spreading across the lower right side of her dress, making the fabric look like a bad attempt at a Rorschach inkblot test. Weiss doubted she had kicked her hard enough to break a rib and pierce the skin, but it was only when Cole tilted her head up that Weiss saw how streaked with blood her mouth was. Her chin was caked with dark red sand, the blood droplets streaking her neck. She must have spat up on her dress while Weiss wasn't looking, or maybe rolled in some of the blood that was gradually soaking into the gravel.
"You didn't have to do that," Cole said with a baleful look in her eye. She ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth, probing for the broken tooth. When she found it, she winced in pain. "You really didn't."
Weiss said nothing in reply for a while, instead choosing to let the accusation hang in the air. She looked down at the roadside, a tiny bit of shame gnawing away at her. Funny how humiliation so often took the place of anger.
"What's going on?" she eventually asked.
"You heard me." Weiss lowered her voice and did her best to make it have a more threatening tone. She'd like to think that tone made her sound scary and tough, but the truth was it probably did neither. She'd found it worked some of the time, scared some of the amateurs, but not always, and never against the experienced career criminals. Devlin had always thought it was funny, and liked doing a bad impression of her whenever he thought she wasn't around. A sharp pain stabbed at her right behind the eyes.
Cole laughed bitterly. "What's the matter with you, bad memory or something? You were beating the crap out of me until you got bored and wandered off. You want me to tell you the last place you hit me so we can pick this up again?"
"I meant, what happened in Vegas?"
"Las Vegas. Nobody calls it Vegas."
"Everybody calls it Vegas." Weiss sighed, annoyed at allowing herself to be distracted from the point. "What happened back there?"
"What happens in Vegas, stays..."
Ever impatient, Weiss interrupted. "Are you going to tell me?"
"How should I know? You think I know?"
"I think you know."
Cole looked up at her. She frowned, studying the Marshal's face, trying to discern if she was being serious or not. "How? I mean, what could possibly make you think I would know what in God's name is going on?"
"It's blasphemy to take the Lord's name in vain, it's a sin, or didn't you know that either?"
Cole spat dark blood onto the ground. She watched the frothy glob of blood as it was slowly soaked up by the gravel, then turned her head slowly, grimacing in pain as she did so, to look back at the metropolis down in the valley below. Weiss didn't need to follow her gaze to know what she was looking at. Even this early in the morning, the city of sin should have been ablaze with artificial light. Instead, you could hardly see the center of the city which had already been soaked up by the nothingness that just kept growing and growing. It was coming for them, Weiss knew it was, and the thought scared her so much.
And if that idea alone wasn't terrifying enough, Weiss knew that looking would only cement the fear. It would hurt her eyes and her mind too. The few times she had dared to look in the rearview mirror on the drive up into the hills, she had almost ploughed into oncoming traffic. She hadn't been able to wrap her mind around the abnormal shapes the nothingness would take on, the way it would twist and turn as it expanded, the way it reached up further than she could imagine... Weiss shuddered, just thinking about it. Staring had caused her brain to spasm, almost as if it were undergoing a mini-seizure. She couldn't... wouldn't... look that way again.
And cars were still heading in that direction, mindlessly moving towards their own demise. The drivers all seemed oblivious of what waited for them. Were she and Cole the only ones who could see it? Or perhaps you could only keep seeing it once you'd witnessed it up close. Shit, Weiss thought, someone had to have the answers she needed.
Cole shook her head violently, scowling at the pain the movement caused. It was a testament to the power of the scene down in the valley that she'd rather hurt herself than keep staring at it and suffer that way. She closed her eyes momentarily, the pain obviously too much, and in between the whine of vehicles passing behind her Weiss could hear each stuffed breath her captive took. Had she broken Cole's nose? No, she doubted it. She couldn't remember exactly everything about the fight (a rush of adrenaline and then the inevitable comedown would do that to a memory) but she thought her fists had connected mostly with Cole's cheeks and jaw. Fight, she thought, wasn't that a funny way to think of it? Even if you were charitable enough to call it a fight, then you'd have to admit it was one-sided.
"I know no more than you, Marshal," Cole said after a while.
"Deputy Marshal. You ran from the..." Weiss struggled to find the right word to describe what she had seen and in the end could only fall back on what she had been calling it to herself since the very beginning. "...nothingness... before any of us."
"Nothingness?" Cole seemed to consider the word for a second or two. "Yeah, I guess that fits. Really well, thinking about it. Not that I want to. And not that I can do anything but, it seems. Think about it, I mean. And I ran, Deputy Marshal, only because I saw it first, that's all. I would have thought that was obvious."
"You knew to run from it."
"I'm a thief, I know when to run. Besides, you ran too once you saw what happened to..."
Hastily, Weiss cut her off. "Don't you dare mention his name."
"I don't even know his name. Or yours, for that matter."
"It was Devlin. Lonan Devlin. He is... was married, to Melanie. They've been together for fourteen years, have three children, the oldest of which turned eleven last week. Mel's expecting the fourth this summer."
Cole shifted in position, obviously feeling uncomfortable. She looked away, staring off into the scrubland that rose up around them. There was another long silence that seemed to drag on forever.
"Are you? Why the fuck should I believe you?"
"I may be a thief, but I'm an honest thief."
"And you don't see the contradiction there?"
"Not everything in life is as black and white as you would have it, Marshal."
"I told you, it's Deputy Marshal. You knew not to look at it. The nothingness."
"I guessed. It hurt my eyes each time I did." Cole sounded indignant. "Is that it? Or do you have anything else to throw at me apart from wild punches and even wilder accusations?"
Weiss did, actually, have one more thing. But she was wasting time here. There was no way of telling how fast the nothingness was growing; it could be speeding up exponentially. The more the nothingness spread, the less everything else there was, and that meant the more nothing there was, which in turn meant there was less everything else... Her head hurt again, a dull throb this time. Heaven forbid that the pain be the same every time, Weiss thought, that would be too easy to deal with.
She watched a small drop of blood slowly congeal on the side of the road, the redness of it a stark contrast to the white painted line and the hot black tarmac. As the droplet dried, another nearby was being soaked up by the remnants of a discarded week-old newspaper.
"Stand up," she ordered after a sigh. Every minute they spent in sullen silence was another minute they weren't putting between them and it. They had to get back on the road.
With a suspicious look, Cole struggled to get to her feet. Weiss pushed herself away from the car and stepped around her. Even a disinterested bystander would have been able to spot how much Cole tensed immediately once she lost sight of her captor. A little bit of a control freak apparently, Weiss thought.
Weiss fished in her pocket for her keys. She unlocked one side of the handcuffs and immediately Cole's arms fell to her side. She rubbed at her free wrist and smiled, although that smile faded pretty rapidly when Weiss stepped around her and again took hold of her hands, pulling them together in front of her. There was a click as she locked the handcuffs back in place.
"Really?" Cole said
"It's just so you're more comfortable while we're traveling. Be thankful I'm not leaving you cuffed as you were. Get in the car."
Weiss gave her a gentle shove, but Cole pushed backwards. "Why should I?"
"You want to stay here? Looks to me like you don't have a choice."
"I could thumb a ride."
"In cuffs? How many offers do you think you'd get?" Weiss looked down at Cole's torn and bloody thin white dress. "Or maybe you'd get plenty, but I doubt you'd like any of them. Besides, we need to get to Sacramento."
Cole was surprised. "You still plan on taking me in?"
"I have a job to do. And that's why we came this far, after all."
"Duty before all else, huh? Even now?"
"Especially now," Weiss said with a curt nod. "If we can get to Sacramento, chances are someone can sort this mess out."
"You believe that?"
Truth be told, Weiss wasn't sure she did. She wasn't even sure if Sacramento would be there. But everyone had to believe in something, no matter how transitory. She wondered what Cole believed in. Probably nothing. Her kind liked to use that excuse, she knew.
"Yes," Weiss said after some thought, "and I suppose in that way you and I are pretty much opposites. Unlike you, I know little but I believe a lot."
"Is that right? And here am I still not knowing your name. Remember?"
Weiss blinked in surprise. She realized that in all the confusion earlier she had never actually told Cole what her name was. She remembered identifying herself as a US Marshal but nothing more.
"It's Weiss," she said, a little reluctantly. "Now get in the car."
Cole stared hard at the Deputy Marshal for a few seconds, and then glanced back at the city. Weiss could guess what she was thinking. Looking for an escape route most likely, or at the very least gauging if she was better off striking out her on own. She'd have to be fairly dumb to even think about heading back into the city and even dumber to run off into the desert. Honest or not, Weiss wasn't sure, but she was pretty certain Cole wasn't stupid.
Her suspicions were proven right, for at that moment Cole turned back to look her up and down. She could try it, Weiss thought, she certainly could try. If Cole ran she wouldn't get very far, not this time. She could argue, of course, that was usually what criminals did when they found themselves painted into a corner. The five stages of thief, Devlin had liked to call it.
Woah. That pain again, as quick as a flash. She gritted her teeth and hung on to it this time, not yet willing to let this particular memory of Devlin go. Not just yet. What were the stages again? Devlin had expounded on them once, over a few beers at Milligans.
Denial of wrongdoing, that was first she remembered, then anger at the arresting officers, and then bargaining. There was always bargaining. And when that didn't work, and it never did unless the cops were corrupt, depression followed with the realization that a lengthy prison sentence stretched out in front of them. That usually led to acceptance, whether they liked it or not.
But Cole didn't argue. She pursed her lips, gave Weiss another quick once-over, and then walked around to the passenger's side of the car. She pulled the door open, got in, and closed the door after her, all without saying anything. And as she surrendered, so the pain in Weiss' head subsided.
Sighing, Weiss moved back to the car. She brushed broken glass out of the driver's seat, being careful not to cut her hands any more than she already had. The last half-hour hadn't been exactly comfortable driving but if she could get one of the two pains in the ass out of the car then the next few hours might seem a little better.
Cole didn't look at her when she got in, just stared out of her window, resting her already bruising cheek against the glass. Weiss wondered if she'd gone too far with the beating earlier. Had all the fight gone out of Cole? She hoped not. As much as she didn't want every single step on the way back to the capital to be a struggle, she also didn't want to be dragging along an unwilling millstone, someone who'd given up totally and was just waiting for the inevitable.
No, she must be wrong. Sure, Cole hadn't fought back, but then how could she with her hands cuffed behind her back? And she'd been willful enough afterwards, even if only in word and not deed. Most likely she was just thinking of a new approach, some new angle. Yes, that was more her style, Weiss thought.
The car grumbled to life, about as eager to get back on the road as Cole seemed to be. Willing, just not very happy about it. The tires skidded on the gravel for a second, stone chips clanging off the metal underside, then bit into tarmac as the sedan veered back onto the highway. The road was almost empty now, Weiss noted. Even less traffic was moving towards the city and none appeared to be coming from it, not anymore.
How did something like this happen, Weiss asked herself? How could it? And how could it all happen so quickly? One minute everything was normal, if a little screwed up, and then everything had suddenly capsized on her. The world was being pulled inside out, or so it seemed
She glanced at her watch again. Just past seven. She had a long day of driving ahead of her, but if she kept going, didn't stop for anything, then they could reach Sacramento by the early evening, provided they didn't end up getting sidetracked somehow.
* * * * *
Weiss hadn't told Sheriff Whitaker the whole story, of course. He would never have believed her and even if he had, it would have just made everything a lot worse. The lie was easier, she found. Anything to get out of here and back on the road. She needed to get to Sacramento. Once there, everything would be fine. Yeah, she thought bitterly, throwing her cigarette onto the cracked tarmac and stepping on it, the lie is always easier.
So she had said nothing about the whiteness, the snow, or whatever the hell it was. Nothing about how Devlin had died, instead making something up on the fly about how he stayed in Vegas to complete some paperwork. Not very convincing but the Sheriff seemed to buy it. Likewise she hadn't mentioned the beating she had given Cole; she doubted someone wound as tight as Whitaker would appreciate it.
The Sheriff's radio squawked. He turned away from Weiss and reached inside his cruiser to pull out the handset, the cable stretching taut. "Go ahead, Blanche."
A woman's voice, distorted and crackling. "Sheriff? We're still without power here."
"What do you want me to do about it, Blanche?"
A short silence. "Nothing, I guess, Sheriff. But there's something strange going on up on the highway."
Weiss felt her pulse quicken. After the day she'd had, she probably had a better understanding of what the word 'strange' meant than anyone else ever could. Except Cole, of course. She made a half-hearted attempt at pretending not to listen, although she wasn't sure why she was bothering. The conversation wasn't exactly quiet and the Sheriff most likely knew she could hear.
"What do you mean, strange?"
"Deputy Delaney called in a few minutes ago, saying she'd found a car spun off the road. No occupants but there was a lot of money inside and some blood too."
He glanced at Weiss, who shrugged to show she knew nothing about it. He seemed unfazed. "Okay, I'll head up there." He made to return the receiver but was caught by the woman speaking again.
"Yes, Blanche, what is it?"
"Whitney said it was snowing." Weiss closed her eyes and muttered a small prayer to herself. She had so hoped it wouldn't be that, but she had known it would be.
"So? Blanche? You there?"
"Sorry, Sheriff, I've got a splitting headache. Came on all of a sudden, out of nowhere. Don't quite know why. Whitney kept blabbering about the snow, like she'd never seen any before. And she hasn't reported in since."
The Sheriff paused, his thumb hovering over the button on the side of the handset. His brow was creased with thought. "Okay, Blanche," he said eventually, "we're finished here at the diner anyway. Nothing to worry about. And I'm sure Whitney is fine, no need for concern. She can take care of herself. Or so she tells us, often enough."
He signed off, then returned the receiver to its mounting on the dashboard of his patrol car. The deputies over on the other side of the parking lot must have been listening in on the open channel, as they both climbed back into their cruiser and quickly drove off.
"I suppose it's nothing, right?"
The question was directed at her, Weiss realized. She caught herself and then gave him a hard look. She didn't say anything. She wasn't quite sure what to say, or what he wanted her to say. She looked down at the ground, unable to meet his eye.
He pressed the point. "I didn't just lie to one of my people, did I?" When she still didn't answer, he prompted her. "Well, is there anything I should be worried about?"
"No," she said in the end, "nothing." She surprised herself with how easy that particular lie came to her lips. Making a sacrifice just so she could be safe, she thought. Was that because her belief in getting to Sacramento outweighed everything, or was it simply just cowardice on her part? Right now, she didn't care. She hated herself for lying, regardless of the reason.
The Sheriff nodded slowly, then turned away without saying anything and got back in his cruiser. The engine kicked into life and the lightbar on the roof lit up. Red shadows flickered over the parking lot. Weiss wasn't sure if he believed her or not, but was certainly thankful he was leaving.
Not quite yet, he wasn't. Whitaker leaned across the passenger seat and wound down the window. "I want you out of my town, Deputy Marshal Weiss," he said, looking up at her. "No messing. I don't know what in God's name is going on with you but I don't like it. Go pay your tab, get some gas for your car, and get out of Silvertip. Am I making myself clear?"
"Good." He paused, frowning, tilting his head as if listening to something. "What the hell is that?"
She heard it too now. Someone was singing. A cappella, a little off-key here and there, but the tune was easily recognizable. And the annoying thing about the song was that Weiss certainly was lonesome tonight.
"It's Elvis fucking Presley," she said with a snarl, and as the police cruiser pulled away, she took off at a run back towards the diner.
* * * * *
Weiss nearly pulled the diner door off its hinges in her haste to get back inside. She had sprinted across the parking lot, only a short distance, but was so angry that she was breathing heavily. If Devlin had been here he would have been warning innocent bystanders that the look on her face showed she wasn't to be messed with.
Everyone turned to look at her, startled by her sudden entrance. Most of them had moved down to one end of the diner, by the restrooms, and Cole had gone with them. She was standing there beside the nearest booth, her mouth still half-open in song. She was surrounded by diner customers, waitresses, even some of the kitchen staff; they were all sitting at that booth or nearby and were now all staring at Weiss like she was nuts. Not for the first time today, Weiss was beginning to wonder if popular opinion was right.
One of the cooks had even found a guitar somewhere and had been strumming along, stopping only when the door clattered open, and the last jangling notes were still hanging in the air as Weiss stood there snarling in angry disbelief at what was going on.
A moment before she'd stormed in, they'd all been looking at Cole with upturned adoring faces. Lit by a dozen candles, Cole wasn't even bothering to hide the handcuffs anymore. She'd apparently won them all over with that infuriating charm of hers, that likeability she possessed somehow. Everything came easy to her, didn't it?
The silence was deafening. It was a pity, in a way, Weiss thought. As ridiculous as it sounded, Cole had a nice, low voice and she sang the song well, if not exactly identically to how the King had. There was more of a country twang in her vocals than blues, but it was still pleasant sounding. Sultry, that was the word best suited to it, Weiss thought, with a little sadness there. With her voice, her charm, and her look, Weiss now had no problem seeing how Cole could make a living wage easily enough. A legal wage, anyway.
Weiss shook her head. What the hell was she thinking? Everyone else might be falling for Cole's charms, but she sure as fuck wasn't about to. She had a moment's grace as everyone was still staring at her, so she strode forward and pushed Cole hard, almost knocking her off her feet. Cole yelped in pain, sprawled backwards, barely managing to grab the booth's table to keep her balance. Weiss grabbed her arms, pulling her around and shoving her unceremoniously through the restroom doors.
If anyone in the diner was upset with her behavior, they said nothing and made no move to stop her. Weiss didn't consider herself a fool; she knew most likely that was down to fear than anything else. Respect the badge, fear the gun. She imagined Cole had probably told them all who she was, although they'd most likely already guessed she had something to do with law enforcement, and on top of that they'd all seen her be confronted by the local Sheriff and not back down a step. The mean look on her face might also have done something to deter everyone, but Weiss doubted it.
She followed Cole through into the restroom. The skinny would-be Elvis had stumbled as she hit the swinging door and fallen onto the checkerboard tiles, cracking her head against the underside of a white porcelain basin. She was just pushing herself up into a sitting position, cursing loudly, when Weiss pushed the door firmly shut and dragged the large metal trashcan across as a temporary barricade.
When Weiss turned, she saw Cole was gingerly touching her scalp, feeling beneath her jet black hair on the left side of her head. Her fingertips came away bloody and she swore again. It was only a trace, Weiss thought, hardly life-threatening.
They were lucky there was a small window over in the right wall, the grimy panes letting in a small amount of the dying light, or else the restroom would have been pitch-black. As it was, Weiss had to squint to see anything clearly. She leaned against the door, further adding her weight to the barrier. You could never be too careful, and the last thing she wanted right now was anyone in the diner summoning up the courage to intervene.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Seeing as how she was barely controlling her temper, the words came out as a low hiss, but that was alright. It would keep anyone else from hearing anything that was said. Every cloud, Weiss thought, and all that bullshit.
"She asked me to," Cole grumbled, still feeling the cut on her scalp and wincing from the pain. "They all did."
Weiss sneered in disbelief. She thought it was much more likely that Cole had been unable to resist the limelight. Left to her own devices for just a few minutes, she had probably grown tired of not being the center of attention. "They asked you to sing?"
"Yes! There's no television, no radio..."
"Oh, they were bored so you thought you'd start entertaining the room?"
"Yes, partly," Cole protested. "But not just that. They were getting nervous, anxious, wondering what the hell was going on. I was trying to get their minds off it, to distract them just until you got back. I figured you wouldn't want them asking too many questions."
Well, she was right there, Weiss thought, there was no point starting a panic. Still, her temper hadn't quite subsided yet and she certainly wasn't about to admit she was wrong, even if what Cole had said made a good amount of sense. Assuming she was telling the truth, of course. And there was no such thing as an honest thief, everyone knew that.
"Do you think this is a fucking joke?"
"No," Cole protested, "you know I don't. I've said so, often enough."
"There are people dying out there!"
"You don't know that!"
Weiss drew back as if she'd been slapped across the face. She gaped at the woman on the floor for a moment, not understanding what had just been said.
"What?" she finally said, and only because she really couldn't think of anything smarter to say and Cole seemed willing to let the silence linger on and on.
"You don't know that they're dying."
"You're kidding, aren't you? What the fuck else do you think is happening to them?"
"I don't know," Cole said, although she didn't seem to sure about that. Her voice had taken on a pleading tone. "Why do you keep asking me? I don't know anything more about what's going on than you do, and that seems to be only a fraction more than anyone sitting out there drinking that terrible coffee."
She looked up through her eyelashes, keeping her head bent low. It made her eyes appear darker, smoky even, and her entire appearance took on an ethereal quality, even with the bruises and swelling. It was quite a startling transformation, moving her from the quite cute category all the way to breathtaking. But then she probably knew it did, Weiss thought. It seemed a little too rehearsed to be natural. Another move, another scam. It was all Cole knew, she guessed.
A trickle of blood was slowly running down Cole's temple. She brushed at it with her fingers, spoiling the effect. You're blaming me, aren't you? That makes sense, I suppose."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It's your job. To you, everything is somebody's fault. There's no such thing as accidents, right? Not as far as you're concerned, I'll bet. So in one way, this particular creek we're both firmly wedged up is just like every other, at least to you. It has to be somebody's fault. And as I'm the easiest available target, you blame me."
There was some truth in her words, Weiss thought. She was blaming Cole, after all. And it might - just might - have been only because she needed to find a reason behind all this, or at least just reason itself. And there didn't seem to be any. It was chaotic, random, arbitrary, and she hated that. So holding Cole accountable was easy. And besides, there was no one else to blame. No, Weiss corrected herself, there was one other person, but she wasn't about to go down that route.
"Well," she began hesitantly, and even to her it sounded weak, "you're the only one who hasn't been affected."
Cole didn't say anything for a second, just stared at her. When she spoke, Weiss realized she was angry now too. It was the first time she'd gotten mad. Even when she was being pummeled at the side of the road she had kept up her guard, not letting her emotions show. And if Weiss was any judge of character, and she prided herself that she was, this wasn't another ploy. The anger seemed real enough, but that only meant it might have been the first real emotion Cole had bared the whole day.
"I haven't?" Cole said loudly, making Weiss glance down at the door behind her. "You think I haven't lost family and friends? You think there was no one back in Las Vegas that I didn't care about? And they're all gone, aren't they? Unless they're oh so damn lucky like us and got out, or weren't there to begin with. But even then, who knows how far this thing has spread? It might have started in New York or Washington or even Europe for all we know. I have family on the east coast that could have been dead for hours, days, who knows? But do you give a damn? No, of course not. You're too damn self-absorbed to think anyone else could have lost someone."
"That's not what I meant!" Weiss was backpedalling now. "When I see it, when others see it, it calls to us. I still can feel it, even now. Like it's reaching for me, annoyed that I ran from it. It doesn't call to you."
"Yes it does!" Cole snapped back. She was crying, Weiss saw, slow tears running down over her cheeks, making her bruises glisten in the poor light. "Of course it does. You really think I don't feel it? There's grubby little fingers inside my skull, squeezing and pulling. It's worse when I remember what happened... which is another reason why I'm trying to keep my mind distracted."
Fuck, Weiss thought, she had hid that well. She wondered briefly if Cole was lying again but dismissed the thought quickly. Her description sounded too much like what Weiss was feeling herself to be anything but the truth. How could she know that, if she wasn't feeling it herself?
"You haven't said anything," she said. Not about that, anyway, she almost added.
"Was there any point in me saying anything? When I think about it, my head starts throbbing, like one of the worst migraines I've ever had. So I've tried to sleep and when I haven't been able to sleep I've talked about nonsense, just to keep my mind off it. Just like I was doing out there..." She gestured towards the door of the restroom, out towards the diner, then wiped at her face, drying her tears. "...to keep them from realizing what was coming. When it called to me, I just did my best to ignore it."
"You did a good job."
"Well, maybe I've just got more willpower than you, did you ever think about that? And is that why you're blaming me? Just because I didn't mention that I was creeped out and in pain?"
Weiss laid her last remaining card on the table. "It's following you."
"What?" Cole frowned in surprise and then let out a loud snort of laughter. "Who says? It could be following either of us. Did you think about that? No, of course not. Did it ever cross your hidebound little mind that it could be following you? Fuck, that's quite a leap of logic, Marshal. No, let me take that back. If logic was a cliff, you've just taken a perfect nosedive right off it. Into a sea of insanity, no less. Un-fucking-believable. Aren't you supposed to be a detective?"
"No," the sullen Weiss said. She honestly had never considered the likelihood that the nothingness was following her, although now that she thought about it she had to admit it was possible. Earlier, during a rare moment on the road when Cole had fallen silent, Weiss' thoughts had been allowed to return to the desperate situation they found themselves in and she had hoped the nothingness might not be following anyone. After thinking it over for a short while, she had dismissed the possibility, realizing that it made the events of the day far too random for her liking. There had to be a reason behind all this madness, there just had to be. Devlin had been one of those people who could accept accidents, serendipity, coincidences, and all that kind of nonsense. He often teased her for being the complete opposite. Everything happened for a reason, that's what she always believed, and all that happened was part of a plan. You just had to keep trying the pieces together until they fit.
"You're not?" Cole asked.
"I told you, I'm a Deputy..."
"Yeah, yeah. A Deputy Marshal, although how that's different to any other cop I don't know. I'm just a dumb thief, right? A thief who's never committed a single violent act before, and who you arrested for the murder of a guy I've got no reason to harm, haven't seen in months, and all on the word of that loser Schwarz. And as I've tried telling you several times, that's just because I..."
"Shut up!" Weiss snapped. She was trying to concentrate and the constant chatter didn't make it any easier. Neither did the crack of pain that shot through her head again. What was she thinking about? Something about Devlin, it had to be, hence the pain, and about jigsaws or something... It was getting harder and harder to remember anything concrete about Devlin, she realized. Each time a memory of her partner came to her, it would wriggle away like a fish that was a little too clever for the baited hook. And left in its place was a shooting pain that made her feel like her skull was about to crack open. Weiss wasn't exactly sure why, but the loss of the memories frightened her.
"You do nothing but talk and it's driving me insane," said Weiss through clenched teeth.
"Yeah, I talk too much. Big fucking surprise. At least I'm not afraid to express myself."
"Shut up, for... just shut up. You're one of the few people who know what's going on..."
"I've told you, I fucking don't! I know nothing about this!"
Weiss took another deep breath. She thought about counting to ten but doubted she could even focus enough to count in her current frame of mind. She had to get a grip, had to get her temper under control.
"Even if that were true..."
"If? Oh come on, you really can't believe that! I've dated enough dumb women to know a smart one when I see her, and you're way up on the scale, believe you me."
Was it flattery now, Weiss thought, or did she really mean that? It was getting harder to tell and not just because of the fading light in the restroom made it tricky to read Cole's face. She wondered what other tricks Cole had up her sleeve yet to try.
"Even if that were true," Weiss repeated, "then you are still one of the few people alive who know what's happening, No one else does." Or, she thought, pausing, if they do then there's no way of knowing. For all it mattered, she and Cole were alone, trapped in the knowledge that people were dying, or whatever Cole thought was happening to them, and unable to tell anyone or do anything about it. It pissed Weiss off, although she was beginning to worry that this was more due to her being stuck in this calamity along with Cole, rather than the situation itself. "And you're in here, laughing, having a party, and putting on a fucking show!"
"What do you expect me to do? You want me be all miserable and angry, like you? You want me to just give up? Well, fuck that. If I'm going to die, and there's a damn good chance I will soon, then I'm going to at least pretend to be happy. And besides..."
She left the sentence hanging for a second, long enough for the impatient Weiss to interrupt with a scowl. "What?"
"I don't just talk. I sing as well."
Weiss turned her head away quickly.
"Is that a smile?" Cole said, unable to hide her own grin. Oh, she was so pleased with herself, wasn't she? "Hard to tell in this light. It is, isn't it?"
"Shut up," said Weiss, although with much less force than she had before. It was kind of hard to sound angry when your mouth wouldn't behave and you could hardly stop from smiling, let alone manage a scowl.
Cole stretched suddenly, arching her back and pulling her arms out directly overhead. Weiss heard her joints crack from all the way across the room. The echo was also surprisingly loud in the confines of the restroom, bouncing off the tiled walls. "So are we done here?" Cole said, lowering her arms but then tilted her head from side to side, stretching out her neck now. A droplet of blood fell on the very center of a white tile. The wound hadn't dried up yet then. That was worrying. "Or are you going to waste some time beating me again?"
"About that..." Weiss began, somewhat hesitantly.
"Don't apologize, please. I can't stand women who apologize."
"I wasn't about to. I was just going to say I shouldn't have done it."
Cole gave her that look again, slowly glancing up from beneath heavy lashes. It seemed a lot more genuine this time, Weiss thought, and that worried her. Either she was getting a lot better at reading Cole, which was unlikely, even though she'd love to think so, or Cole was getting a lot better at fooling her.
"I understand, believe me," Cole said softly. "I know you're angry and it's just how you're dealing with this. Just the same as I deal with it by pretending it isn't happening. You get me?"
Weiss held Cole's look for a short while, hoping to get a better read on her, then nodded. Just as she did so, there was a gentle rapping on the restroom door. The lid of the trashcan swung to and fro with each knock and the movement drew her attention away from the woman sitting on the tiled floor.
A male voice called out from beyond the door, with an odd mix of bravery and timidity. "Are you..." A pause followed that was a little too long to be anything but deliberate. "...ladies... okay?"
Weiss glanced back at Cole, who surprisingly was trying to stifle some giggling. The intended insult had apparently amused her and she was holding both hands over her mouth, although that did little to hide her laughter. Her eyes were glistening and her shoulders were shaking uncontrollably. Weiss couldn't help but smile at the sudden outburst of glee, although she turned her head away so as not to show it.
"We're fine," she said, gesturing at Cole to shush her. It didn't work. Cole continued to giggle, hardly bothering to hide it now, and Weiss could hardly hear what was said next.
"Both of you?"
"Everything's good, thanks," Cole managed to get out, stifling another fit of giggles as best she could, after getting a pointed stare from Weiss. "Nothing to worry about. Just a friendly discussion."
Weiss waited until she heard footsteps backing away from the door, then moved the trashcan back to where she had found it. If she concentrated she could just hear the murmur of concerned conversation further back in the diner. If it had taken the diner's occupants this long to summon up the courage to intervene this much, then they would probably waste more time now arguing about what to do next.
Cole spoke suddenly, causing Weiss to turn back to her. "Oh, I needed that," she said, wiping at her eyes again. "Although I suppose there's nothing to laugh about, not really. So what now?"
"Why ask me? What makes you think I have all the answers?"
She held up both hands and shook them, jingling the links in the handcuff chain. "I don't. But I'm not the one in control here, am I? Besides, you've asked me plenty of questions that I couldn't answer. Turnabout is fair play, right?" She winced as she spoke and touched her temple again.
Weiss crossed the floor and knelt beside her. "Let me look at that."
She reached out and pushed aside Cole's hands, then tried to part the short dark hair with her fingers, looking for the wound. There was a cut there, she saw in the brief second that Cole stayed still, which didn't look too deep but was still bleeding.
Cole yelped in pain and pulled away. "It's nothing. Cut it out, won't you?"
"You're a doctor now?"
"I dated a nurse once, if you must know. Well, not exactly a nurse. But she had the uniform." Cole grinned triumphantly. "Another smile? Two smiles in as many minutes. I really think I'm getting to you, Marshal."
She was too. "Deputy Marshal," Weiss replied as coldly as she could, quickly fixing her face back into a stony impasse, "and no, you're not. You're just woozy from the head wound. Only a little, mind you. I doubt it's even a concussion."
"Yeah, and whose fault is that?"
"Keep still. It doesn't look too bad. We should get it cleaned up soon though."
"No, I think we've overstayed our welcome."
"Not to sound like a broken record," said Cole dryly, "but whose fault is that?"
Weiss grunted, which was about as an intelligent comment as she could make in response. After all, what Cole had said was true to an extent, and Weiss only had herself to blame. She was beginning to suspect that she had handled this wrong from the very beginning; not just the diner staff and the patrons, but the Sheriff, and most especially Cole. Perhaps the only thing she'd done right was to get them out of Vegas as quickly as possible.
Oh well, there was no point in kicking herself about it all now. What's done is done. She had to focus on the future, even if it looked limited at best and decidedly bleak at worst. And right now, that meant moving on, doing so fast, and staying ahead of what was coming.
She slipped a hand under Cole's armpit and hauled her to her feet.
"We're leaving," she said, her jaw taking on a determined set.
Cole almost lost her balance as she stood. She reached out to the nearest sink to steady herself. Weiss tightened her grasp to support her, gripping so hard that Cole yelped in pain. She didn't lose her footing, however, just shivered against the cold. The heating must have cut out a while ago too, Weiss thought, although she had only just noticed herself.
"You said we needed gas," she said, "remember? We're not going to get much further on what's left, are we?"
And wasn't she just full of truths lately, Weiss thought? The annoyingly obvious ones too, the ones that really didn't need to be said aloud. The rental car had less than a quarter of a tank left when they'd left Vegas early this morning, so she'd been forced to refill it in a Nevada gas station not long after, paying cash, and that had just about lasted until now. But with the needle of the gas gauge hovering firmly over the 'E' for a couple of miles before they'd pulled into the diner's parking lot, they were in danger of running out. Better to be stranded here, she thought, than somewhere out on the highway. At least here, they had options. Maybe they could rent another car somewhere in town, although she imagined she'd be better served making Cole ask. With her charm she'd probably not only get the answers Weiss wouldn't, she'd most likely get the car for free.
Still, the questions frayed at her already thin patience, making her snap in response. "The power's out, remember?"
"No power means the pumps won't work."
Cole looked crestfallen. "I didn't think of that."
"I'm sure you didn't. Even supposing they've got some in reserve, I'm running low on cash. I probably have just enough to fill the tank but I'd rather not spend it all now, just in case. And I'm assuming..." Weiss paused, biting her lower lip as she looked down at the flimsy white cotton dress, and surprised to find herself admiring the lithe figure beneath the fabric, albeit reluctantly. "...that you don't have any extra bills hidden about your person."
"No such luck. We could siphon some from other cars," Cole said thoughtfully, "so long as we were careful. I wouldn't want to get on the bad side of this town's Sheriff. He struck me as the kind of guy who'd mete out his own particular brand of justice. Besides, I try not to piss off more than one cop a day, just for the sake of my own health."
Weiss ignored the jibe. She hadn't even been aware Cole had seen Sheriff Whitaker, although she guessed Cole had plenty of time to observe their conversation in the parking lot, right before she opted to start entertaining the diner's occupants. Or distracting them, Weiss corrected herself. But she was right at least in her characterization of the Sheriff. That was a man Weiss didn't want to tangle with any further if she could help it. She was fairly certain she could bully him into turning a blind eye to such a small scale crime, especially if she reminded him that it would mean she and Cole would leave his town all the sooner.
"Yeah, I thought of that," she said. She still didn't like the idea but it was a sign of the trouble they were in that Weiss actually considered it. Tried to justify it too. They could take a bunch of napkins from the diner, write an apology and a contact number on each, and slip one under the wipers of each car they stole from.
From that it was but a small step to another criminal idea. Maybe she was on the wrong side of this business, Weiss thought. If they couldn't rent another car, perhaps they could steal one. It was a sign of her misspent youth that she knew how best to do so, and she'd proven as much to Cole once already today.
She shook her head, dismissing the thought. She hadn't sunk that low, not yet. Maybe if they ran out of fuel on the highway, maybe then she'd reconsider. Maybe then she'd have no choice, right?
"No, we're gonna move. We'll get as far as we can."
We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, Weiss thought, but she didn't say anything, instead just shoved Cole towards the restroom door.
* * * * *
Ally studied the roadmap she had laid out on her lap and tried to make some kind of sense of it. She'd never been particularly good at directions, and worse still at reading maps, even those of areas she was familiar with, so she wasn't surprised that she was having a little trouble with this one.
She double-checked the text, making sure she wasn't holding it upside down, with a sly look to her side to make sure Weiss didn't see her do it. She needn't have worried; the Marshal was too busy concentrating on driving in the dark and the map appeared to be the right way up. Ally let out the tiniest of sighs in relief. Thankfully even she couldn't be that useless with a map.
Whenever she travelled out of Las Vegas, which wasn't often, she relied on either a GPS system, dragging along a reluctant friend as a guide, or making constant phone calls that usually served only to annoy her friends and get her lost even faster. Hopefully, the Marshal was a little better at navigating than she was.
Ally screwed up her face in concentration, studying the map once again in the soft glow of the car's interior lights. It looked like Silvertip Valley, assuming she had correctly remembered the name of the town they'd just left, was stuck firmly on a fold, which made finding it a lot harder. When she finally had, the little dot had only been labeled 'Silvertip', so she wasn't certain if this was even the right little dot or not. It didn't help that she had been barely awake when they had driven into the town earlier this evening, so she didn't know what highway this was supposed to be, and she'd pretty much missed every road sign there was, which wasn't many. The last she'd seen was Jericho Road, but she couldn't even find that on the map.
She sighed again, louder this time, still not attracting any attention from the driver, and gave up.
Folding the map neatly, if not exactly how she found it, she threw it haphazardly onto the dashboard. It was odd how the Marshal hadn't objected when she'd reached into the glove compartment and rummaged through the contents. That was probably only because this was a rental car. If it had been her own, or whatever vehicle had been assigned to her, then Ally had no doubts that Weiss would have kicked up a fuss. Still, Ally took the unspoken permission as a potential sign of trust, albeit a very small one.
Not that she'd found much. A few napkins, presumably left behind by the last customer, the rental information - the Marshal and her partner had paid in cash first thing this morning, Ally saw, which was interesting - a bobby pin, and a few vacation brochures advertising places in Las Vegas she'd strongly advise tourists to stay away from.
"You sure this is the right way?" she asked.
"It's the only way."
Ally glanced across at the Marshal. She had thought she was making a little headway there and it had taken long enough. Her smile normally worked wonders and quickly too, but on Weiss it seemed to have had no effect. But although Ally had her faults and many of them - just ask any of her exes, all of whom would be more than happy to provide a long list - one positive trait she had was persistence. She had kept chipping away - another sweet smile here, a little joke there, the tiniest bit of flirtation whenever it seemed right, anything she could really - and slowly and surely at least some of Weiss' defenses had crumbled.
Weiss had a nice smile, not that you'd ever know it. She obviously preferred to scowl, as if she was trying to appear tougher than her small stature suggested. She needn't have bothered. Ally could have told her she was tough enough, even before the beating she'd suffered through. Maybe she had to be like that, just to get by in what Ally suspected was a male-dominated career. That was assuming that US Marshals were anything like regular cops, of course, although she honestly didn't know anything about them. Then again, maybe for Weiss it was just a habit by now.
Making Weiss smile, almost laugh, back in the diner had seemed like such a big deal at the time. It had made Ally smile in return, an honest smile no less, which was something she really wasn't used to. She had felt so foolishly proud of herself.
But since frog-marching her from the diner back to the car, Weiss had changed. It was like just being back on the road had reminded her to put up all the walls again and their interlude in the diner had just been an extremely short diversion. It was a pity, Ally thought. Under different circumstances... well, no, maybe it was best not to go there. No matter how they could have met, she and Weiss probably wouldn't have liked each other. They were just too different.
Her eyes fell on Weiss' hands, gripping the steering wheel in the perfect ten-and-two. She had nice fingers, long and thin, with very well-kept nails that shone when they caught the light. Perhaps mani-pedis were her only vice. No rings, wedding, engagement, or otherwise. And that was probably just as well, Ally thought, reaching up to touch her badly bruised cheek. That still hurt like hell. She tried to forget about the pain, looking back towards Weiss, noting how she didn't wear much jewelry at all, if any; it looked like her ears weren't even pierced.
You could tell a lot from someone's hands, Ally had always thought. Weiss usually kept her hands closed, in fists or clenched around something. Another little indication of how defensive she was, how unwilling she was to open up.
But then she was a cop, of sorts, and if there was one profession that in Ally's experience really had problems opening up, that was it. Never trust a cop, or she'd always thought. The corrupt ones were bad enough, they'd sell you out in a heartbeat, but at least they were honest about being dishonest. The 'good' cops were worse. They'd lie to you whenever they thought it was needed, and explain it away as a necessary evil just so they could go home and sleep at night. And Weiss didn't look like she had any trouble sleeping.
Ally shivered suddenly. The cold night air was whipping into the car through the broken window, and she was freezing. She did her best to ignore it, although she dared a glance behind to see if there was a blanket in the backseat. No such luck.
Weiss was driving fast, probably dangerously so, especially at night. The headlights of the Camry stretched out far in front of them, but all the same they made very little difference. All it took was one blind corner, one careless move, or just an oncoming truck with a driver that wasn't paying attention, and they wouldn't have to worry about getting to Sacramento any more.
But they hadn't seen another car on the road yet, so the chances of the worst happening seemed increasingly unlikely. She tried not to think about it, all the same, but that just let her mind wander to question why the road was so empty. The lack of traffic worried her a little, more than the possibility of being involved in a wreck.
"Not the only way, surely?" Ally said. "I mean, even if this one-horse town is just a two-road town, there's still the road we came in on. We could backtrack until we found the highway again." They'd done that once or twice before earlier in the day already.
Weiss didn't look like she was. Ally looked back at the road. Poorly paved, it was a narrow road with little or no markings. Even the dividing line was missing in some places, the scuffed paint being so old that it had worn away. This didn't look like any highway she'd ever seen. Still, she could empathize with it, at a stretch anyway. Just like her it had seen better days but could still prove useful, and it had a yellow streak right down its back that only disappeared occasionally.
Ally was used to running. She was something of an expert at it, especially after all these years. As a teenager, she'd ran west, trying to put as much distance between herself and her overbearing family as she could. Since then it seemed she'd done nothing more with her life but alternate running from angry cops and even angrier lovers. Running was easy, she knew, and even more so when someone else was pulling you along.
It must have been less than a mile since they'd left town and already they had climbed higher into the mountains. The last building she'd seen had been an old rundown movie theater with plywood boards nailed over the glass doors. Hardly surprising. She assumed that the owners had only opened the place during the tourist season, which meant they lost money for a good two-thirds of the year. And even then, who would come to a town like this and spend each night at the movies? If you chose to come here, it would be for the skiing, snowboarding, and restful or romantic retreats to a little secluded cabin in the woods. Films would be the last thing on your mind.
The theater must have been shut down for some years. Or maybe they just showed old movies. The marquee high above, still done with black plastic letters each hand-mounted on the white background, had been advertising Pleasantville
and Schindler's List
, which was probably the oddest combo she could think of. The neon red tubing around the hoarding was splintered and broken in places.
It had just been one disillusionment after another, Ally thought. From her vantage point inside the warmth of the diner, this town had seemed idyllic. But as Weiss drove through it, Ally had noticed the cracks appearing, little signs of dilapidation she hadn't noticed before, like peeling paint and broken windows. The longer you knew it, the closer you looked, the more the wear and tear showed. Not for the first time this evening, Ally felt the same way.
As if reading her mind, Weiss glanced at her and said, "And there's no way back, either."
"When I was talking to the Sheriff, his dispatcher called him. One of his deputies had gone missing up on the highway, on the eastern side of the town."
"Oh, fuck," Ally said, turning pale suddenly. "That's the road we came in on?"
"Yes. And before you even think it, it's probably not a coincidence." Too late, Ally thought. It may have been stupid of her but she had to hope. "I'm sure I didn't hear all of it, but from what I did I know the deputy was babbling about some strange snow falling. Or not, as the case may be. Falling, that is."
Ally's heart sank a little further and she really hadn't thought that was possible. "This way or nothing, then?" She tried to make herself sound cheerful. It didn't sound very convincing, even to her.
"This way or walking out."
She saw Weiss glancing down at the gas gauge again as they turned a sharp corner. Was she joking? Or did she really intend on walking all the way to Sacramento? Ally wouldn't put it past the stubborn Marshal to do just that. And drag her along with her, of course, every step of the way. Through the mountains, at night, in the bitter cold weather of an early fall, with her dressed for a warm Las Vegas day. That's assuming they could even find a route to walk.
Weiss slammed on the brakes suddenly. Ally, who had unfolded the map again, hoping to find another escape route and not accepting what Weiss had told her, felt herself lunge forward, then snapped back when the seat belt caught.
The car skidded only slightly, with Weiss turning into the arc and keeping the car firmly under her control. She'd probably gone through dangerous driving courses as part of her training. Another little sign of how much she liked to be in charge of everything. A little control freak was her Marshal, Ally thought.
She opened her mouth to ask what was going on, but as she looked up she saw the headlights playing across an expanse of white. Almost immediately her head began to pound again, like the worst hangover she'd ever had. She felt nauseous again too, her stomach heaving, although whether that was another side-effect of the nothingness or just related to that dredged-up memory of that hangover, she didn't know.
For just a second, she tried to tell herself it was snow, but she knew better. It had caught up with them somehow. Worse, it had cut them off. She glanced down at the map again, hoping for inspiration, her vision blurred by sudden tears that she quickly blinked away, but the pain in her head meant she couldn't make any sense of the images. She looked up again, turning to face Weiss rather than look at the nothingness that swallowed up the world ahead and the way it reached out for them both again.
The car came to a shuddering halt, with the headlights stretching out across the few yards between them and the nothingness, their light all but swallowed up. Weiss was putting together an impressive string of curses, which seemed to be all she could do right now. Ally couldn't blame her.
Ally felt her heart pound, so hard it hurt her chest, and she was suddenly finding it difficult to breathe. She was close to panicking, she recognized the signs, and she closed her eyes, trying to focus on anything but what lay ahead. She needed some normality, something like the diner or her own home or a stage she knew, and she needed it quick. Fat chance, she thought. She looked over at Weiss again, wanting to ask for guidance but not knowing exactly how. What the hell were they supposed to do now?
Weiss, thank God, seemed to know, having shaken off her momentary indecision. She looked over her shoulder, threw the car into reverse, and slung her right arm around Ally's headrest. Once more the car sped down the highway, although now it was moving backwards and heading back the way they came, although what good that would do was beyond Ally.
As much as Weiss seemed to be firmly in control of the car, Ally was once again grateful that there was no other traffic on the road. Travelling at high speeds in reverse, on a difficult mountain road, and with no lights to guide the way - that would end in disaster sooner or later. She felt the car lurch a little as Weiss pressed down on the accelerator. Perhaps Ally wasn't the only one close to panicking, although that was a lot less comforting thought than it might have been, given the circumstances.
At least reversing was a good idea in one regard. The nothingness had swelled as their car had sat there, reaching out for them physically just as much as it was mentally. She could already feel those disgusting tendrils of nothingness slithering through her head somehow, creating empty spaces in her mind, forcing memories out to feed on, leaving a trail as they pulled, like a disobedient child leaving greasy fingertrails across a clean wall. She shuddered. Even if they lived through this, she doubted she'd ever get the stain of its touch out of her head. It couldn't take that memory, could it? Not until last, just to keep up the torment.
"I think it's moving faster," she said, hoping by speaking that it would stop her imagination from running away. She heard a tremor in her voice. It was a little touch of fear again, which she didn't like. She certainly didn't like showing it in front of the Marshal. "Much faster than it was in Las Vegas." Why the hell was that? Could Weiss have been correct in her belief that is was following her? Or perhaps Weiss, or both of them, or something else?
Weiss spoke through gritted teeth. "I know."
The nothingness surged forward again, as if it was a wild beast pawing at captured prey. The whiteness enveloped all of Ally's view just for a moment, swamping her peripheral vision, then the car pulled away from it again and she could see the darkness of the thick trees to each side. She blinked, her eyes burning like mad, and she felt warm tears on her cheeks. The more the nothingness took up of your view, Ally thought, or the longer you stared at it, the more it hurt. Worse, the harder it was to look away.
Another surge. It was toying with them, Ally thought, and this time she didn't think it was her imagination that made her think so. "You have to drive faster! It's getting closer!"
The car wobbled a little, threatening to escape control. Weiss braked suddenly, and as Ally felt the seat belt cinch into her again, she opened her mouth to ask what the Marshal thought she was doing. The question didn't have a chance to get out, as at that moment Weiss slung the car into a lower gear and spun the steering wheel hard to the left.
Ally finally grasped what was going on. They weren't stopping; instead, Weiss was spinning the car around in a tight bootleg turn. The beams of the headlights flickered through the trees that lined the highway, and then swooped across the black tarmac. Ally felt herself thrown against her side of the car by the sheer force of the turn. It was almost enough to make her throw up. For the first time she was grateful she hadn't eaten all day.
"I know!" Weiss yelled with a vicious snarl as she stepped heavily on the accelerator again. "Now shut up and let me drive!"
As she stared into the wing mirror, Ally realized her guess had been proven correct after all. Weiss was starting to panic now too. It worried her, that her life, such as it was, lay in the hands of someone who seemed to be losing control, but while she hated that, she couldn't really blame Weiss. If this wasn't a time for panicking, she didn't know a better one.
* * * * *
Weiss drove the car slowly past a kidney-shaped swimming pool, which was protected from the cold weather by a black-and-white striped cover. The plastic of the cover was cracked in places, the colors faded and worn, and litter was strewn all around it. It didn't exactly instill any confidence in Weiss as to what the inside of the motel would be like.
The parking lot beyond the pool was almost deserted. She swung the car into the nearest empty space, pulled the handbrake on, and breathed out a deep sigh of relief. The engine spluttered and died before she could turn the key. Perfect timing. She may not have been surprised, but she was sure grateful. They'd most likely been running on fumes for the last ten minutes.
Thankfully, they hadn't seen the nothingness in almost as long. It had abruptly slowed after she'd turned the car around, no longer keeping up with them as they raced back into the town of Silvertip Valley. Truth be told, Weiss had no earthly idea of where she had intended ending up, instead concentrating solely on getting away. Only when the whiteness flooding the rearview mirror had finally disappeared, and her eyes had stopped stinging, and she had no longer felt that sickening influence creeping around the corners of her mind, only then did she start thinking about what to do next. Sadly, nothing much had come to mind.
So she drove. At the time, it was all she could do. At least they didn't pass any police cruisers on their way back. It wouldn't have been easy to explain to that hard-assed Sheriff why they were ignoring his 'advice'. Still, it wasn't very likely he'd be bothering them, Weiss thought. If he had indeed headed up to investigate his deputy's not-so-mysterious disappearance, he was probably long gone by now. Come to think of it, they didn't pass any vehicles at all. Even this far on the outskirts, the town seemed to be deserted. A few hours ago that would have seemed strange, even frightening, to her. But now, the exhausted and frantic Weiss no longer had the strength to do anything but just accept it and move on.
"A motel?" Cole said. She sounded offended. Weiss doubted it was because she was used to the finer things in life. "This is your big idea?"
Weiss sighed impatiently. "No, it's my only
It was when they passed the derelict movie theatre on the Jericho road that she had thought of it. She really didn't know what to do, although she was trying to appear calm and self-assured. While she could only hope she succeeded, she soon realized that her worries were misplaced. It seemed that Cole had been more concerned with getting to safety than to notice Weiss' behavior. She had kept checking over her shoulder, even when the road had fallen into darkness again and they were approaching outskirts of the town.
With all the roads now firmly cut off, the town was their best bet. Although for what, Weiss hadn't been exactly sure. Then they had driven past the theatre and her eye caught the tattered posters outside, the half torn down advertising marquee, and the plywood sheets nailed over the glass of the doors.
She was reminded of her short stay in Florida a few years back, when she reluctantly wasted time in a shitty hotel room rather than working with a FBI taskforce that hadn't wanted her help in the first place. And when the two blonde fools in charge of the taskforce -and who, in Weiss' not so humble opinion, didn't stand a chance of catching the international jewel thief they had been after for years - had finally summoned up the nerve to ask her to leave, she found she couldn't. A hurricane had swept up the coastline from Cuba while she'd been busy doing nothing and had trapped her in Miami for a little longer.
It was the plywood over the glass that dredged up the memory and at the same time showed her what to do. She remembered the staff of the flea-ridden Florida hotel she'd stayed in doing the same, in preparation for the gale-force winds that were on the way. People there were hunkering down, at least those who weren't smart enough to get out of the city early enough, finding places to wait it out and hope for the best.
That's what they had to do, Weiss had decided. They needed to be holed up somewhere. Only, there was no real point in trying to wait this out, was there? All the same, Weiss thought, it was better than running. She was exhausted; tired of continually dealing with Cole, tired of being expected to have all the answers, and most of all, tired of running.
When she saw the billboard advertising the Checkerboard Heaven motel, her decision was cemented. It wasn't very likely they'd find anywhere better, or anything else at all for that matter, so she pulled the car into the parking lot as soon as possible.
It was something Cole should have been used to, Weiss thought. Perhaps she'd gone into hiding once or twice before in her career. Her criminal career, that was, although you never know, all it takes is one angry audience full of over-zealous Elvis admirers and the same need might apply. Cole's impersonation might be good, and for all Weiss knew her stage show might be superb, but you couldn't please everyone all the time.
Cole spoke, getting Weiss' attention again. "So you're giving up?"
"What do you want me to do?"
"You know we're not going to be safe here, don't you?" Even as Cole said it, Weiss could tell from her falling expression that she had realized how foolish it sounded. They weren't going to be safe anywhere, not anymore, and perhaps it was foolish to assume they ever had been.
"You're a smart woman..." Weiss began, but Cole quickly interrupted with a mischievous, if weary, grin.
"Compliments now? First you punch, then you praise. First dates with you must be a blast."
It wasn't her best effort, but all the same, and without thinking, Weiss gave a small smile of her own in reply. Almost immediately she wished she hadn't. "I was going to say that you're smart enough to know we're not going to be safe anywhere. And I don't know about you, but I don't want to die running."
"I don't particularly want to die at all."
"Yeah? I'm guessing this is your day to be shit out of luck then. You, me and everyone else. And if I'm going to die, then I'm not going to do it running. I'm not going to be sitting in a beat-up rental car. I want some comfort at least."
Cole leaned over to look up at the motel through her window. There were some lights on, although Weiss only realized it now. She assumed they had a generator running. The central office was lit up and most of the exterior hallways had lights on, including the emergency signs. All the rooms were without lights, although whether that was because they didn't have power, the inhabitants preferred the darkness, or simply because no one was stupid enough to stay here at the tail-end of the off-season, she didn't know.
The neon sign that towered above the courtyard wasn't lit up. From this distance, however, you could still make it out even through the gloom. It was kind of hard to miss, it was so tall. Checkerboard Heaven. Someone had obviously put a lot of thought into that and come up short. A series of over-sized chess pieces sat over the neon lettering. Even unlit, Weiss could see how some of the tubing had burned out, leaving only a few letters still working.
"Heck or heaven?" Cole read. "Sure, even the signs in this town are incapable of swearing. And you call this comfort?"
"Quit complaining. At least they have power. You have any better ideas?"
"I guess not. And it's not like we have any choice, is it?"
Weiss noted the use of the term 'we' but said nothing. Maybe before Cole had thought she was the only one being left without options and maybe now she was finally realizing that Weiss was in exactly the same boat. That was something, she thought, although it was small consolation when you considered the boat to be holed, sinking fast, and miles from safety. At least before she had been able to cling on to the tiny hope that they might keep outrunning the nothingness. She assumed Cole had done the same. Now it was all around them, encircling them, squeezing closer like a noose being tightened around their collective necks. Up until fifteen minutes ago, their fate had been shared only at Weiss' insistence; now the same fate was being forced on them solely by circumstance.
"I'm going to see about getting a room," Weiss said, pushing open her door. "Stay here. I mean it."
Hardly having moved from her seat, she hesitated, holding the door only an inch or two open. She glanced back at Cole's hands, resting on her lap. She must have let the indecision prey on her mind a little too long, because Cole finally spoke.
The idea of lying to her flickered across Weiss' thoughts, if only for a second, but there seemed little point in starting now. It was odd, she thought, that while all day she may have lied to Lonan, to the town's Sheriff, to the cops back in Vegas, and more besides, she couldn't recall lying to Cole before.
"I was considering locking you to the steering wheel," she said finally.
"You're kidding!" Cole gaped at her. She seemed affronted. "You still think I'm going to run?"
"You ran before," Weiss reminded her.
"That was different. I can't believe you still think I'm going to try to get away. I'm not expecting you to hand over your life savings to me or anything, and I don't blame you for not trusting me in most things, but have I once, just once, tried to run since this morning?
"And anyway," Cole went on, not waiting for an answer, "there's not really anywhere left to run, is there?"
Weiss said nothing, if only because that was all she could think of to say. If she was ever honest with herself, and it was a rare day on which she was, then she would have to admit that often a few of the social graces would slip by her. If she wasn't careful, then the nuances of a conversation she was heavily invested in would fly right over her head, and she would find herself out of her depth and drowning fast. Or else she'd say the wrong thing without thinking and then an argument would break out, as much as she tried to back up and fix things as best she could.
She'd found that happening to her often enough over the years, more so in her personal life than her professional. She'd lost count of the number of women who'd walked out on her, blaming that disappointingly common combination of her inattentiveness to them and her dedication to her job.
In her job, it wasn't such a big deal. Funny how she could read most criminals well, sensing motives with each nervous twitch of the fingers, or easily spotting a half-truth with each flicker of the eyes. She could filter through all the shit, the lies they spun, the excuses they came up with, the weak alibis they dredged up, stabbing cleanly through to the heart of the matter.
It was something her bosses respected and admired in her. And like them, she'd always been more interested in the end result than how anyone got there. That's why Lonan always said she couldn't follow sports, not without sucking all the fun out of it for everyone else anyway. Even when she tried to feign interest for his sake, she was only ever really interested in the final scores of games. What did one game matter in itself, when it could have so little impact on the final standings of the season?
A stabbing pain flashed right down either temple, radiating through her forehead. She could feel the pain throbbing right behind her eyes, making her entire skull ache. Maybe she should consider a lobotomy. It would solve more than her headache, that was for sure.
Sure, she could do her job well, but dealing with people, that was a whole different matter. While her career was gradually working out, relationships were beyond her. It was just two distinct parts of her life which she just couldn't get to balance. Cole didn't seem to have that problem. All that charm of hers, that sly little smile she could use at just the perfect time, that peculiar tilt of her head, and even the tone of her voice - all of it worked wonders on practically everyone. No wonder she fell into running confidence tricks. Weiss was willing to lay even money that Cole could talk a nun out of one habit and into another.
But then, thinking about it a little more, maybe Cole did have a similar problem. For all Weiss knew, Cole's theatrical career might have stalled. She had been living in a low class trailer park in a rough neighborhood, after all, buying cheap groceries and dressing... Weiss glanced down at Cole's legs, barely covered by the thin cotton dress, taking in the scrapes and grazes, the scabbing cut over one knee. Dressing like she dressed, Weiss thought, and no one would put up with any deprivation like that if they were raking in cash from big audience shows.
More to the point, her criminal career was probably in a downward spiral too. After all, she had just been arrested for murder and, despite protesting her innocence throughout the day, she was more than likely to serve some serious prison time for it. And even if Weiss chose to ignore that little stumbling block, then Cole's illicit activities could not have been going so well either. Again, her lifestyle sure as fuck suggested she wasn't raking in much cash.
Perhaps she and Cole were just opposites. One knew best how to get what she wanted from her career, the other how best to get what she wanted from other people, and both had little or no luck the other way around.
"Alright, alright," she said, holding up her hands to try to stem the flood of reproaches. She tried to sound conciliatory but still the words came out sounding a little more abrasive than she meant them to. Maybe she'd forgotten how to be sensitive. "Just stay put. And not like last time, you understand?"
Cole sank back into her seat, her shoulders sagging in a clear sign of defeat. She tilted her head back against the headrest and closed her eyes. "Don't worry, Marshal," she said, her voice sounding so weary, "I ran out of places to run a long time before today. I'm not going anywhere."
Again, Weiss felt strongly she should say something, but for all the world she couldn't think of anything else to say. Not that it would have been much of a bargain, she thought, as the world had shrunk considerably in the last twenty-four hours. So instead of speaking, Weiss got out of the car and shut the door behind her.
She shivered. Even with the broken window the interior of the car had offered some protection against the elements. Now a cruel wind picked up, blowing dust and dirt across the parking lot, and biting pitilessly into her skin. She felt the cold immediately, the chill seeping in through her clothes.
She left the car unlocked, which again made her hesitate ever so briefly, but at least this time she realized the futility of doing so before making herself look foolish. Weiss smiled bitterly to herself. Who said she couldn't learn from her mistakes? It was ironic, of course, that she would finally start learning now that the world was actually ending. Anyway, she thought, locking the doors would probably madden Cole further, even if they both knew she could still get out easily. It would be another little reminder of the distrust that still existed between them.
Weiss looked up at the bright half-moon that hung low in the sky, its stark glow such a contrast against the pitch blackness of the night sky. She shivered, realizing that she might be one of the last people alive to see the moon.
* * * * *
The bored looking clerk didn't even bother looking up as Weiss entered the motel's reception. He must have heard her come in, as it was deathly quiet inside, and the bell over the door rang loudly. All the same, he ignored her as she approached. He was focused on a half-finished crossword puzzle in a folded up newspaper, and he only moved to write a quick word down as he obviously solved another clue.
Weiss was grateful for the warmth of a double-bar electric heater that hummed down on the floor, beside a dying yucca plant. The hot air felt so good as it blew around her calves. She wondered how much gas they had for their generator and how long the power would last. There was a large wall mirror behind the counter, which looked like it hadn't been clean in a month. But in that regard, it matched the clerk, who right now was scratching his armpit and chewing on his pen, seemingly oblivious of Weiss.
Faint music was coming from speakers overhead. Weiss recognized the band, if not the song. The White Stripes. Not to her particular taste, not by a long shot, but she'd sure had enough of Elvis for one day.
She stood in front of the counter, waiting for the clerk to look up, growing more impatient with each second that passed. She felt her temper building. This was not how she wanted to be spending a single minute of her remaining time. She placed her hand flat over the crossword, blocking his view.
Finally he looked up at her. When he spoke, the drawl in his voice did little to hide his disinterest. "Can I help you?"
"Monochrome," Weiss said softly.
"What?" He blinked at her in confusion. He had bad skin, oily and spotty, and couldn't have been barely out of his teens. He seemed offended by her very presence, as if her showing up was an intrusion on his usually quiet night watch.
Weiss tapped a long finger on the newspaper. "Eight down, ten letters. Single color in decisive terms. Monochrome."
"Oh," he said, looking back down at the black and white squares. The red ink stood out starkly on the newspaper. He studied the puzzle for a moment, studying it now with a deep frown, looking much like an illiterate trying to read hieroglyphics, then looked back at Weiss. With a sharp click, he put the pen down on the countertop next to an open package of Oreo cookies. One lay half-eaten amidst crumbs, looking like a crescent moon. He hadn't written down her answer, she noticed. "Did you need something?"
She could smell strong alcohol on his breath. She tried to ignore it. "I'd like a room," she said, turning her head away slightly. "The cheapest you have."
He sighed, like this was somehow an even bigger imposition than before. He gestured with his head towards an ancient laptop that sat on one corner of the counter. "The computer's down."
That was obviously expected to explain everything, Weiss thought. Still, she had known this would happen. The computer was most likely fine. Instead it was the phone lines that were down, which obviously meant no internet connection. Not that there was an internet to connect to, not any more. But he hadn't mentioned the phones not working, so even if he was the motel's brightest employee, and all the evidence pointed to the contrary, he probably wouldn't have been able to put two and two together. Like everyone but her and Cole, he was oblivious to what was coming.
"So I can't book you in. I won't be able to run your credit card through the machine."
"I have cash." Weiss said. She just hoped it would be enough.
He thought about this for a long while, his mouth hanging open. Now Weiss couldn't help but compare him to a cow who had suddenly forgotten how to chew the cud hanging out of its mouth." I'd need to use a paper receipt," he finally said with some reluctance. Writing out anything by hand was obviously not something he relished, except when it came to crossword puzzles.
Another heavy sigh. "I don't have any here. There might be some in back." He gestured with a thumb over his shoulder, to a door marked 'Employees Only'.
"Well," Weiss said, trying her best to keep her calm and giving him what she thought of as a genial smile, "do you think you could get one?"
He looked at her for a moment, then turned his head towards the door, then back to her. Momentous decisions like this could not be hurried, evidently. If, as Weiss suspected, he was weighing up the benefits of accepting one cash-paying customer against kicking her out and going back to his half-finished puzzle, of working and keeping his job against timewasting and losing it, then it was probably a lot easier than any of his crossword clues. He gave her a brief nod and then disappeared into the backroom.
While she waited for him to return, Weiss moved closer to the heater. It was going to be hard going back out into the cold night after this, she thought. She looked around at the small reception area. There was a metal trashcan beside one of the several chairs, empty save for a discarded paperback. A dog-eared and battered copy of Dan Brown's Angels and Demons
, and having tried to read that mess a few summers ago, she could easily understand why another guest had given up on it too.
She glanced at her watch, and then studied the crossword puzzle again. He'd got several clues wrong, she realized. In the mirror she saw a pair of headlights move down the highway far past the parking lot. She had to reverse the direction in her mind to understand they were heading out of town. She felt a brief touch of regret, knowing that whoever was in the car didn't have long to live, and then a tiny bit of self-pity, knowing that she could do nothing about it.
There was a bottle of whiskey hidden beneath the counter; she caught sight of it in the reflection. That explained the smell of alcohol, she thought. She guessed working here, during the drudgery of the off-season, would be enough to drive anyone to drink. She'd only been standing here for five minutes and she felt like having one.
The clerk came back after another minute or so and slapped a book of receipts heavily down on the counter. Picking up his red pen again, oddly he licked the end, repositioned the carbon paper, and then asked her name, address, and for her credit card details. She gave them, tersely, growing impatient again.
"Thirty bucks," he finally said, tearing the top copy of the receipt off and pushing it across the countertop towards her.
Weiss sighed in relief. It was close to all the cash she had left. "How much for the whiskey?"
As good as she was at reading guilt, Weiss guessed a blind man looking the other way would still have spotted the sudden change in behavior in the clerk. He glanced down at the whiskey bottle, immediately giving himself away, and licked his lips. Younger than twenty-one then, as she suspected. Or maybe just not supposed to be drinking on the job. Either way, it was always good to have a hold over someone, some little way you could twist their arm to get what you wanted.
Still, to his credit, he tried to bluff it out, his mood shifting to defensive and a little angry. Again, this was nothing she couldn't handle.
"There's a liquor store two blocks down," he said. "You can't miss it."
"It's late, I'm tired, and I don't feel like driving."
Weiss pulled her wallet out of her pocket, being sure to pull the jacket open wide enough so he got a glimpse of the metal star that hung on her belt. She did it subtly but slowly enough to get the point across.
It had the desired effect. He reached down and retrieved the bottle, pushing it across the countertop towards her, smiling nervously. "No charge."
"Really?" She already had a hand on it, just to show the question was only a show of politeness and she wasn't really giving him a choice. She glanced at the bottle's label, seeing the sketch of two terriers printed on it, one black, one white, and immediately recognized the brand. Good stuff, she thought in surprise, better than she had expected. She strongly doubted the clerk had bought this down at the nearby liquor store. Her father had drunk himself to first poverty and then death, all on imported Black & White Whiskey. She wondered briefly if that was a portent of something to come. She guessed, given the circumstances she found herself in, that it had to be. It seemed it didn't matter how much you tried, how hard you fought, how keenly you struggled, you couldn't escape family tradition.
But on the other hand, not only was it good quality whiskey, the bottle was also still three-quarters full. More than enough to get her stinking drunk. Cole too, if she wanted. Weiss couldn't think of a better way to see out the end than drinking herself senseless enough to forget what was happening. Even if that wasn't possible, and even if it meant she felt like she was following in her father's footsteps, the one thing she swore she would never do, now she was determined to try.
"Sure," the clerk was saying. "The room service here is terrible, so it's the least I can do to make up for it, officer."
"Deputy Marshal," she corrected him. Obviously he'd been too nervous to get that good a look at the badge. She took out two twenty-dollar bills from her wallet and handed them to him, smiling when she saw how much his hands were trembling. He pocketed the money himself, which made her wonder if he was going to lose the receipt once he was sure she and Cole had left.
"You have to see..." the clerk said.
Weiss stared at him blankly, thrown by the sudden change in topic. "What?"
"2C," he repeated, sliding a key across to her. "That's the room you have."
Weiss looked down and saw the plastic fob attached to the key had '2C' stamped on it in a large plain typeface. She reached out to take it, her hand hovering over it for just a little too long, as if she was about to pat the head of a dog with sharp teeth and a particularly nasty disposition.
Yeah, she thought, there was some things left in life, even in such a short time as she and Cole had, that she had to see. Like the bottom of an empty whiskey bottle to begin with.
* * * * *
Weiss shivered in the chill air of the night as she walked back to the rental car. The whiskey bottle, firmly stuck in her outside jacket pocket, swung to and fro as she moved, clinking against the badge at her waist. The heaviness of it made her jacket a little lop-sided, the neckline pulling and chafing at her neck. She turned her collar up against the cold wind, using the opportunity to pull the fabric straight again. It didn't help.
She got about four steps away from the motel's reception before missing its warmth, and only five or six steps before she realized the car was empty.
So Cole had run after all. She was glad she wasn't carrying the bottle, for there was a good chance she would have dropped it in shock. She could feel her heart suddenly start to pump a lot harder and she scolded herself for being so surprised. She should have known, fuck it all.
She was just about to break into a sprint, for all the good it would do, when Cole walked around the corner from the stairwell. She was smiling, evidently pleased with herself about something, but her expression changed when their eyes met. Obviously Weiss wasn't doing that good of a job of hiding her anger, not that she was trying.
"I told you to stay in the car!" Weiss snapped as Cole approached. Strangely, she didn't sound as angry as she thought she would. There was a tiny sense of relief bubbling up from underneath the words and she wasn't sure she liked it. She knew why it was there, why it was coming to the surface only now. She didn't want to face this alone anymore, and Cole was the only other person in the world who not only knew what was going on, but understood what it felt like to be trapped in the middle of it all.
"No," Cole countered, pouting a little, "you told me to stay here, which is what I did."
There was no point in arguing, Weiss realized. Technically, Cole was right anyway, but even if she chose to ignore that, and she easily could, then arguing would only make things worse. No worse than admitting Cole was right, mind you. All the same she didn't want to fight, she just wanted to spend her last few hours in the reasonably pleasant company of a good woman... well, a not-so-good woman, she thought... and trying to crawl inside the whiskey bottle. Quarrelling now, especially over something as trivial as this, could ruin that.
So she swallowed her anger as best she could. She tried counting to ten. For the first time ever, it helped. Cole did come back, after all, and before Weiss had reached the count of six. She noticed that there was a drop of fresh blood on Cole's right shin, so dark against the paleness of her skin. Weiss watched the shiny droplet trickle down over the top of the Doc Martens boot. Somehow it helped her calm down more as she finished counting.
"Where did you feel such an urgent need to go?"
"I wanted to stretch my legs. And I found a vending machine." She had her arms full of packets of chips, candy, and a couple of cans of soda. It reminded Weiss suddenly of the first time she had laid eyes on her in that dirty wing mirror. God, was that only this morning, Weiss wondered? It seemed so long ago. That same white dress, once pristine and freshly laundered, was now frayed, dirty and bloodstained. Cole herself wasn't much better off. Amazing the damage just a single day could do.
"There's no need to look so worried," Cole went on, as she dumped the snacks she was carrying on the roof of the rental car. A Coke Zero can skidded on the metal and began rolling towards the edge. Acting quickly, Cole reached out and caught it before it could fall to the sidewalk. She moved the snacks around briefly, organizing them in some way perhaps, then looked back at Weiss. "Like I said, where exactly did you think I was going to run to?"
"Your type sometimes just run."
Frowning, Cole tilted her head, evidently not believing what Weiss had just said and certainly not pleased about it. "My type?" she said coldly, pursing her lips. She held her arms up, one fist clenched within the other in front of her chest, adopting a posture which almost could have been mistaken for prayer. However, the experienced Weiss easily recognized it as angrily defensive; she had seen the like so many times before, both in her line of work and personal life. "You don't have a clue what my type is, Marshal."
"Deputy Marshal. And for the last time, when I tell you to do something, you do it. That includes staying put."
"Does it really matter? I came back. Besides, I don't think I'm your responsibility any more, am I?"
"That's not for you to say."
Cole sighed, but then made a visible effort to smile, lowering her hands again. When she spoke, her voice took on a reconciliatory tone. "I thought we could do with something to eat. I don't know about you, but I'm starving. We should have ordered something at the diner."
did," Weiss couldn't resist pointing out, stressing the first word. She spoke without thinking and regretted it almost as soon as the words left her mouth. It would only keep the argument going.
"Didn't get to eat it though, did you?"
This was really getting them nowhere, Weiss thought. They could spend all night throwing barbs at each other, as much as she didn't want to, but if they were going to they might as well do it in the warmth of their room.
As if in answer, the wind picked up again, a cold gust abruptly blowing hard across the parking lot. A corner of the tarpaulin covering the swimming pool broke loose, the material whipping up and down, cracking against the concrete and the whole thing rippling. Although they were partly sheltered by the car, Cole shivered. Her bare skin, Weiss saw, so pale and smooth, was prickled with goose bumps. She must be freezing, Weiss thought. They really should get inside.
Like always, however, she wasn't quite sure how to get out of an argument when it had started. Escalation always seemed to be the only way she could go. She tried to change the subject, knowing how that usually just infuriated others.
"How did you get all that stuff?" she said, gesturing at the junk food in Cole's arms.
Cole shrugged, looking a little sheepish. "On what you want to believe. You could think I found some spare change lying loose in the car and used that..."
Which wasn't very likely, Weiss thought, with it being a rental car and the motel's generator probably not providing power to the luxuries like vending machines.
"Or," Cole continued, "you could just assume I kicked the glass in and took what I wanted."
"You're supposed to be honest, aren't you?"
"Fair point. But just like going straight, being honest takes some adjustment time. Let me put it this way, I'm both very hungry and very glad I'm wearing my boots."
"You're hungry, and that's supposed to justify theft?"
"No, only to explain it," she said, giving a little smile of victory. "Just like how I'm sure you're going to explain that bottle of booze, right?"
Weiss instinctively turned away slightly, a little embarrassed and trying to hide the bottle from view. Even though she had offered to pay for it, she had kind of coerced the poor clerk into giving it up. But she certainly hadn't stolen it. Let Cole think that if she wanted to; surely she assumed everyone would fall to her level sooner or later. She certainly seemed pleased by the assumption, that was for sure.
"Shut up," was all that Weiss could think of to say. Not her most clever retort, not by a long shot. But she was tired, hungry, and fearing the worst, so she wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders.
"Yeah, that's what I thought. Did you get a room?"
Weiss didn't answer for a long while. It seemed like an easy out, another swift change of subject. It seemed so easy when someone else did it, so troublesome when she tried. But she was wary of letting the argument go just yet, as if it was a tiger she had firmly by the tail. It could still hurt her but as long as she kept a grip, she remained somewhat in control. Letting go meant getting hurt much worse.
She finally spoke, if only because it seemed that Cole was just about to prompt her. She changed the subject herself, knowing she was only doing it to try to gain a fraction more control back.
"Why didn't you run?"
Cole looked surprised by the question, but then her expression quickly changed to one of impatience. "I've told you twice. There's nowhere for me to go."
"That's the only reason?"
"Were you expecting another?"
Weiss frowned, choosing her next words very carefully. "I can usually spot a lie pretty well," she said, "and that one stands out a mile."
Shifting her weight from one leg to another, Cole shivered again from the cold, and glanced across the parking lot back towards the highway. The hem of her dress, barely mid-thigh level, rippled as the breeze caught it. She must have caught Weiss glancing down, as she took hold of the hem and tugged it downwards, but it did no good. It was an odd sign of self-consciousness, Weiss thought, and the first time she'd seen Cole seem uncomfortable all day. Maybe she was getting to Cole just as much as Cole had been getting to her.
Cole ran her hands through her short hair, messing it up further. Strangely, it still looked good somehow; that tousled, uncared-for look she had going for her really worked. She held her head for a second, and in the poor light it looked like her white fingers disappeared into the black of her hair. She was touching the scalp wound, Weiss realized, and she briefly wondered if Cole was in pain.
"Alright, Marshal, you want the truth," Cole eventually said. "I can understand that. But you should know I've never been very good at being honest, no matter how hard I try. And believe me or not, I've been trying real hard lately. I suppose the truth and me have never really gotten along all that well."
She looked down at the ground, tried again to tug at the bottom of her dress and then gave up with a shrug. "But why the hell not? What harm can it do now?" She gave a little depreciative half-chuckle to herself, and then stared Weiss straight in the eye.
"The truth is, Marshal, that while you said you wanted to die in comfort," she gestured around her at the motel, "such as it is, I just don't want to die alone."
The answer surprised Weiss. She could only think of one thing to say in reply to it.
"You won't," she said. "We'll be together." And she meant it.
* * * * *
As soon as she flicked on the light switch, Ally was disappointed that the motel room was almost exactly as she had expected. She would have been pleased if it had been a little better, at least amused for a short while if it had been any worse, but she would have been nothing short of amazed if it had been anything other than what it turned out to be.
If you've seen one moderately cheap motel room, Ally thought, then you've seen them all. The same beige paint on the thin walls, the same dull white ceilings, doors, and woodwork, the same fawn-colored carpet, the same cheap but functional furniture. Everything was designed to be as inoffensive as possible, with the end result being it was hard to think of any legal ways the room could be any more unappealing.
The only indication of color was the bedspread, a riot of reds and yellows that really didn't belong with the rest of the décor. When seen against the dullness of the walls it jarred the eyes, and the effect was made all the worse by twin zebra-striped pillows. Classy.
Still, if there was one thing Ally had learned from life, it was how to live with disappointment. She dropped the snacks on to the large dresser that ran along one wall. A checkerboard sat on the dresser beside the small television set. While Weiss moved past her to check the bathroom, Ally idly moved a red piece from a black square, jumping it over a stranded white. Maybe all the rooms had a board like this one, a little gimmick the motel's owners probably thought both clever and welcoming.
"Nice," she muttered, looking around the room one more time, hoping that upon second inspection it wouldn't look so bad. Again, she was disappointed.
"You get what you pay for," Weiss said, coming back into the room.
"Not if you steal it." Ally regretted saying it as soon as the words left her mouth. The angry glare it elicited from the other woman made her wince. She smiled weakly in reply, trying her best to show it was only a joke. "Relax, I'm just kidding."
Ally crossed the room to sit on the edge of the bed. She bounced up and down a couple of times. "Well, the mattress is comfortable enough. A few thousand bed bugs can't be wrong, right? So what's the plan?"
"What makes you think I have a plan?"
"You strike me as the kind of woman who likes making rules, regardless of what's going on. I know I've said this already but first dates with you must be a lot of fun. Heavily regimented, I'll bet, probably with a detailed minute-by-minute itinerary, but a whole lot of fun nonetheless."
"You're probably right."
"About the rules-making or the dates?" Ally couldn't resist teasing a little. The worst it could do was provoke Weiss into beating her again, and she strongly believed that threat was long past. At best, it might chip away at another of the barriers Weiss kept around her. She'd do a lot more than that for another smile, given the opportunity.
Weiss scowled. "Both. Not that you need to know but I'm stunning on first dates."
Well, that was a shock, Ally thought, and maybe a little success too. Another little fracture in those barriers, perhaps. It was certainly the first hint that Weiss had any kind of personal life. She smiled and pushed a little harder. "You're not impressing me so far."
"That's because this isn't a date."
"No? Playful banter, strong alcohol, a little physicality, and then ending up in a cheap hotel room in handcuffs? Sure seems like a date to me."
"Your typical date, maybe. In any case, I guess I plan on waiting for..." She hesitated, having obviously noticed that the sudden reminder of what was coming had made Ally cringe. "On waiting this out."
The Deputy Marshal pulled the whiskey bottle from her jacket pocket and placed it on top of the television. Then she crouched to search through the dresser's drawers, eventually finding two glass tumblers. Standing, she held one up to the light and examined it. She didn't inspect the other. Presumably that was intended to be Ally's.
"Not to mention getting as drunk as I can in the meantime," Weiss continued, turning back to face Ally. "Care to join me?"
Ally held up her hands and waggled the handcuffs again. "Am I allowed?"
"No," Weiss admitted. She had already poured a liberal amount of the whiskey into two glasses. "Not at all. But you strike me as the sort of woman who likes not following rules."
Ally smiled, took the offered glass - noting as she did that she had been wrong, this was the one Weiss had scrutinized - and raised it in salute. "Touché."
She took a long drink, draining the glass, which turned out to be a mistake. The strong alcohol caught her by surprise, burning her throat and making her eyes tear up. Worse, her broken tooth started throbbing again. And she couldn't prevent herself from coughing heavily, embarrassing though that was.
"Wow," she spluttered, her voice croaking, "that burns."
Even through her watering eyes, she could tell Weiss was having trouble keeping from laughing. The Marshal raised her own glass and took a small drink, if only, it seemed, to hide her smile as best she could.
"Try to sip it," Weiss instructed, "not gulp it. It's a drink you savor, not one you guzzle down."
Ally coughed once more. "Good to know. Would have been better a minute ago though. I thought we were trying to get drunk."
"We are. But even doing that has rules, whether you believe them or not."
Ally turned the near-empty glass around in her hands, staring at the last few drops of the amber liquid, her eyes chasing them around. "Or if you choose to follow them or not?"
"Indeed. You weren't a very successful thief, were you?"
Ally wiped at her eyes, which gave her some time to think about how best to answer that. The change in subject surprised her, even if the question didn't. Weiss evidently believed in getting straight to the point. Subtle wasn't her middle name. Although it would do for now, seeing as how Ally still didn't know even her first name. Marshal Unidentified Subtle Weiss. The mental image of some old pastor dunking Weiss' head underwater and then naming her that particularly mouthful almost made Ally giggle. Maybe it was more the thought of the uptight Weiss being in such an undignified position that amused her so.
She tried to stop thinking about it, guessing that Weiss wouldn't be pleased if she learned what Ally thought was so funny. In Ally's experience, most religious people were seriously lacking in the sense of humor department, and even fewer of them recognized the failing. She was pretty sure Weiss was a Christian of some sort, but she was only guessing at Baptist. It seemed to fit her. Maybe she'd dare ask her about it later. Maybe, if it came up.
After some thought, Ally finally admitted what Weiss had said was true. "Not really, no. Another reason to give it up, I suppose. But why would you say that?"
"Aside from the murder?" Weiss said, looking incredulous. She instantly held up a hand to stem any angry denial. "I know, you're innocent. But I actually meant because you're not used to the finer things. Like this whiskey, for instance."
"I guess not. What about you?"
"What about me?"
"You seem to know what you're talking about. At least where alcohol's concerned. So are you a successful Marshal, Marshal?"
"Weiss. Just call me Weiss."
"No first name?"
"Does it really matter?"
"I'd like to know."
"All the more reason not to tell you."
Ally smiled, shaking her head in disbelief. "Stubborn. Why am I always attracted to stubborn women?"
That got a reaction, she was pleased to see. Another little shove, another little skirt around the defenses. Weiss glanced sharply at her, frowning, and opened her mouth to say something. No doubt it would be a reprimand. That being so, Ally didn't give her the chance.
"So, Weiss..." She played with the name a little, letting it bounce around her mouth. It was the first time she'd dared to use it. "Are you loosening up a little, letting me call you by your name?"
"No, I'm just sick of reminding you I'm a Deputy
"Well, Weiss, you haven't answered the question."
"No, I haven't." Weiss had been leaning casually against the dresser, but now she pushed herself off and turned away, reaching for the bottle again. "You want another?"
Ally nodded. As strong as the whiskey might be, one glass wasn't about to get her drunk. "Sure. But can we drink outside, do you think? I don't like confined spaces."
"You can say that after living in that trailer?" Weiss said, taking Ally's glass and then pouring out two more large drinks.
"I did an eighteen-month stretch in Florence McClure in 2008 and I was lucky to get out so early." Ally was pretty sure the Marshal knew that. She would bet anything that Weiss had at least perused her criminal record, read up on her as much as possible before heading out from Sacramento in the very early hours of this morning. After all, there had been plenty of hints throughout the day that she knew much more about her than Ally would like.
Still, nothing she could do about that now, she supposed. And it made a refreshing change. She normally kept people in the dark about her history and personal life, even when she trusted them. Maybe having someone know practically all her dirty little secrets would help keep her honest, especially with herself.
"Even minimum security's no fun," she went on, "believe me. Ever since then, I kinda get a little freaked out when I'm cooped up for too long."
Weiss grabbed both tumblers with one hand, sticking her fingers inside the glasses to hold them together. With a clink, some of the whiskey spilt over on to the dresser. With alcohol that strong, Ally was half-expecting the veneer to start bubbling. Still, it would probably kill any of the germs Weiss had on her fingers.
Weiss picked up the bottle by its neck with her free hand, and then gestured towards the doorway. "Then let's go sit outside for as long as we can," she said, and there was a kindness in her voice Ally was certain she hadn't heard before.
* * * * *
Their room was on the second floor. From the breezeway outside their door, they could see down into the parking lot, the courtyard with the swimming pool, even across the highway and to the forested embankment beyond. If the power had still been on anywhere but here, Ally guessed they might have seen the lights of the town in the distance. Now there was nothing but darkness all around.
However, there was light coming. You could see it off in the distance, just behind the mountains, an unearthly white glow that pulsed unnaturally, like some twisted version of the coming dawn. There was no way of telling how close the nothingness was or how fast it was moving towards them. It defied any attempt to pin it down; doing so was futile, like trying to hold onto time itself by pressing a finger against the hour hand of a clock, and only served to give her a headache. Instead, Ally tried to keep her eyes focused on the darkness of their nearest surroundings. It wasn't easy, but it helped.
Behind her, Weiss left the door to their room wide open. Ally thought about asking her to pull it closed, in the hope of saving some of the room's warmth, but quickly decided it wasn't worth bothering. It might all come to an end out here anyway.
Ally leaned against a brick pillar and glanced both ways down the breezeway. She caught Weiss studying her and grinned self-consciously, then shrugged a half-hearted apology. "You could lock the handcuffs to the railing, if you like."
The railing ran between each of the pillars that were dotted about ten yards apart along the walkway. Thick white paint did a bad job of covering the rusting metal. Another little sign of how rundown the motel was.
Weiss shook her head. "I think we're a little beyond that now, aren't we?"
There was a lot more emphasis on the word 'we' now, Ally thought, that was for sure. "You tell me. I'm still wearing these," she held up both hands again to show off the handcuffs, "and I can't tell you how much I detest large jewelry."
Weiss ignored the unspoken request to remove the cuffs and instead handed her one of the full glasses. Ally took it, spilling some of the alcohol over the rim as she did so, the warm liquid dripping slowly down her fingers. She balanced the glass precariously on the thin railing edge and then wiped her hands on the bottom of her dress. The once pristine white fabric was grubby, blood-stained and torn. Like her, it had been through a lot since the early hours of this morning, and they both were near to falling apart.
She took another drink, sipping it this time just as Weiss had told her to. It still burned her throat and stung her lips, but not as bad as before. She ached all over; her bruised cheekbone still throbbed painfully, the cuts on her legs and arms smarted, and her broken tooth hurt like hell. But the alcohol was at least slowly beginning to dull all the pain and for that she was grateful.
"It's reached the mountains," Weiss said. "At least I think it has. It might be a lot closer. Hard to tell."
The comment instinctively made Ally want to look up at the approaching whiteness but she bit back the temptation. It seemed Weiss could get a slightly better grasp on where it was than she could.
"I wonder if people in the town know what's happening yet."
"It's not like they could miss it," Ally said. "We should tell them."
Weiss shrugged in answer. "We could. But what good would it do? Even if they believed us, and I very much doubt they would, they're trapped here now just as much as we are."
"I guess so. Although that doesn't mean I have to like it. It's a shame."
"It is," Weiss said. She nodded towards Cole's still nearly-full glass. "Drinking will help."
"No, it won't." But she took another little drink all the same. It burned less each time. Either she was getting used to the taste or she was already getting drunk enough not to notice. The whiskey had an odd smoky taste to it, a little sweetness too, she didn't know how else to describe it. She didn't particularly care for the taste but that really wasn't why she was drinking.
"No, it won't," Weiss repeated, "but it will make the lie a little easier to believe. That's the best thing about alcohol, the way it smoothes out all the edges in life. Makes it so easy to turn to."
Ally frowned. There was an opening there, for sure, it certainly wasn't hard to spot. All the same, she hesitated. If she pushed, it might be another breakthrough, maybe one a little larger than all the others she'd made so far today, but at the same time, she was scared of pushing too hard. One misstep here and Ally could find all her hard work come to nothing.
After a deep breath, she took a risk. The words came out in a rush. "Are you speaking from past experience there, Weiss?"
Weiss seemed abruptly guarded, and Ally wondered if she had overstepped. She plunged on recklessly, figuring that even if she made things worse then at least she shouldn't have too long to endure the resulting fallout.
"You can't give a straight answer to anything, can you? Maybe we're both in the wrong line of work."
"I..." Weiss began, then hesitated again. She took a drink, not a sip, Ally noticed, but a very long drink. Maybe she needed it, maybe she was buying time. She ended up draining the glass. Ally saw that the Marshal's hands were trembling. That could have been the cold, Ally thought, but she suddenly regretted asking. She felt a pang of sympathy strike at her heart.
Weiss refilled her own glass, then spoke again. "There are some questions I don't like answering."
Ally nodded, understanding. "You don't have to. I shouldn't have pressured you. Talking takes my mind off what's coming, that's all."
Weiss nodded. She took another drink, sipping again, then came forward to lean on the railing. When she spoke, she didn't look at Ally, instead just stared unseeing down at the swimming pool.
"When I was young, we lived only a few blocks from our school. Me and a bunch of my friends used to walk together to school every morning and back every afternoon. Parents probably wouldn't let a few kids walk on their own to school these days, but it was a different time, you know? No one thought of the dangers back then, least of all my mom. Getting the kids out from underfoot was all she cared about most mornings."
She sighed. "I think I was about eleven when I first saw Harry. The last time I saw him I was fourteen. I remember because it was the day after my birthday that everyone was suddenly talking about him. Nobody wanted to talk about him before, of course. It was much easier to ignore homelessness. Some things never change, right?
"I'm getting ahead of myself, aren't I? He was a vagrant who just turned up out of nowhere one day. Always hanging around the same corner talking to anyone who would listen and more often than not no one would, so he'd just jabber on to himself. Muttering under his breath all the time, like he couldn't stop. Maybe he couldn't. Some people thought he was crazy. No one knew his real name, not then. Turns out it was Harry, but if anyone had known that for sure, no one had ever told us. Everyone just called him Harry because they thought he was a junkie. He wasn't. An alcoholic sure, but never a junkie.
"We used to tease him all the time. Throwing rocks at him, that kind of thing, and then, later, as teenagers, we all 'matured' and just started the name calling. We'd follow him as he would shuffle away, muttering to himself. Every day, for three years we'd do that."
She caught Ally looking at her and shrugged. "Yeah, not my proudest moment. I suppose I could say I was just a kid, but still?"
"I can remember him now, clear as anything." She shut her eyes as if it would prove her point, as if it would allow Ally to see the mental image she was dredging up from years long past. "It's the smell I remember most. He stunk to high heaven. Body odor, rot, filth, and over it all was the stench of alcohol. He must have spilt more on himself than he ever could have drunk. I don't think I ever saw him without a bottle in his hand, usually this stuff, funnily enough. Heaven only knows where he got the money from. People used to give him hand-outs now and then, I remember, although even then I used to think he'd get more bang for his buck buying cheap beer."
"What happened to him?" Ally asked.
"The day after I turned fourteen, I went to school as usual, only Harry was nowhere to be seen. I don't think I really noticed. We'd grown tired of him by then. At school though, we learned why he wasn't around. Turns out the night before, while I was eating cake and opening presents, a local gang had started abusing Harry too. Although they didn't stop. They ended up kicking him to death in the local park."
Ally opened her mouth to say something, as she felt she had to, but then realized there was nothing she could say. Weiss didn't give her the chance, anyway.
"No one cared. What was one more dead hobo, right? The police only did a cursory investigation, asked a few questions of everyone in the neighborhood, took some bits of evidence, that kind of thing. Maybe it would have been different in a rich white neighborhood but in a poor black one, well, I guess there was never really a chance at justice. That was a lesson I had to learn sooner or later, I suppose. So anyway, the police spent a few days patrolling, just trying to get themselves noticed, and then it was over. No more Harry. And no one cared.
"No one but my mom. She cried for a long while and I didn't know why. I asked her, even though my brothers told me not to. That was the only time my mom ever hit me. Just that once, she slapped me. Hard. Real hard." Weiss turned her head, almost as if she could still feel the sting of that long ago blow. "I think she was more shocked by that than I was. You see, I'd never asked about my dad before, or why he was missing. I didn't even know I was asking about him then, not really."
"Harry was?" Ally began. Her voice trailed off.
Weiss nodded. "Yeah, Harry was my father. I got the whole story from an aunt a few years later, right before I went to college. Funny, really, how a family can keep such secrets. I think my mom told my brothers, but no one told me, not until I asked. Not answering difficult questions apparently runs in the family just as much as alcoholism does."
She gave Ally a little rueful smile. "Bad joke, sorry. Apparently, my father had mental issues and difficulty coping with life. Alcohol seemed to be the answer. But it only made things worse. He started talking to himself, a little too often and a little too loudly. And then he walked out. He just up and left one day, and disappeared without a word. I was only two, my brothers four and five, so we forgot all about him over time.
"When he turned up again, my mom recognized him, of course, but wanted nothing to do with him. She never really forgave him for running out on us, not even after he was killed. I don't think anybody else knew who he was. The neighborhood had changed a lot in ten years and not many people who knew him back then were still living there.
"And he didn't want to be with us anyway. As best as I can figure it, he was just returning to somewhere familiar to him. And he ended up dying all alone. And no one cared.
"That's why I went into law enforcement, I guess. Maybe I was seeking forgiveness back then, maybe I still am, I don't know. I like to think it's just so I can tell people that at least one person cares, even when it seems like no one does. Everyone deserves justice, no matter how poor or crazy or forgotten or... well, you get the idea."
Weiss grimaced and as she pushed herself off the railing and straightened up, she reached up to rub her forehead. "I haven't told anyone that before, not even Devlin. I don't know why I told you that. I suppose because there's no one else to tell."
"Yeah, I suppose," Ally said. And maybe it was because deep-down Weiss simply couldn't be a hard-ass twenty-four seven. After all, just because the world was ending didn't mean she had
to tell someone. She still could have kept quiet about it all, couldn't she?
"I need a cigarette." Weiss looked down at her near-empty glass and reached into her jacket pocket to pull out a packet of Camels. "And another drink too. Fuck."
Weiss shook the cigarette pack to show it was empty.
Ally smiled. "Well, consider yourself lucky. I may not be a successful thief but I am a considerate and generous one. There was a cigarette vending machine next to the snack machine downstairs, fortunately with glass that was just as broken."
"They still have those?"
"Apparently," Ally said. She had been amazed too, thinking they'd done away with such machines decades ago. It was another quaint little reminder of how charmingly backward this town was. She nodded towards the motel room. "There are two packs on the dresser. I didn't know if you smoked Menthol or not, so I got one of each. You want me to get them?"
"No, don't bother," Weiss said, "I'll go. Stay put though, okay?"
That was meant to make her smile, Ally guessed, and it worked. She nodded. She had been taken aback by how much the Marshal had opened up to her. All the same, when Weiss reappeared with a fresh cigarette pack in hand, Ally decided to make a concerted effort to change the subject. She didn't want Weiss dwelling on bad memories from her past, no more than she wanted to think about any of the many mistakes she'd made in her life. As she remembered her own father saying every time bad news beckoned, there was enough of a bad storm coming without stepping outside without an umbrella and raincoat.
Weiss clumsily lowered herself to sit underneath the window to their room, her back resting against the brickwork and her legs stretching out across the breezeway. She tore off the cellophane wrapper and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it with a black plastic Zippo. She inhaled hard, taking a deep lungful, and let the smoke out slowly.
"Oh, that's good," she said softly.
Ally could see the tip of the cigarette glowing bright orange as Weiss inhaled. The evening was getting darker, despite the oncoming nothingness. Somehow, and for the life of her Ally couldn't figure out how, the night was still falling, even though the world was coming to an end. One last show of defiance on nature's part, perhaps. Not so much raging against the dying of the light, Ally thought, but rather against the light itself. Wise men at their end know dark is right.
She put her empty glass down on the walkway and while Weiss reached out to refill it and her own, sank down to sit opposite the Marshal. She chose to sit cross-legged, unlike Weiss, and rested her back in between the brick pillar and the railing. It wasn't very comfortable but at least she was turned away from the mountains and what was heading towards them. One less way it would be on her mind.
The bottle was now only a third full, Ally noticed when Weiss screwed the cap back on. They were making slow headway.
She awkwardly groped for something to say and came up short. "So what kind of name is Weiss, anyway?" She winced even as she said it. Yeah, she thought, this won't go anywhere good.
Caught raising her tumbler almost to her mouth, Weiss paused, frowning. She put the glass down beside her and took another long drag on her cigarette before answering.
"You don't like it?"
"It's just odd, that's all."
"What's odd about it?"
"Well..." Ally said slowly, conscious that she was treading on thin ice with the way this conversation had gone, "you're black."
Weiss was still grinning, so Ally was pretty sure she hadn't upset her. Instead, she seemed to find Ally's discomfort amusing. Ally shrugged and took a hasty drink. She was glad she was sitting down. This might only be her third glass but the whiskey was certainly strong as all get out.
"I don't know. Black and German names don't really go together, do they?"
"You don't think there are any black people in Germany?"
"Well, no, not really. But I suppose I hadn't really given it much thought."
"It's Austrian, anyway," Weiss said, "not German."
"Subtle difference. My family's originally from Mozambique, although that's going back a long time. My great-grandparents emigrated shortly after the end of the First World War. They couldn't speak much English, so at Ellis Island they were forced to take the name of their Austrian employer from back in Africa. The name stuck, although I have a great-uncle who insists it's a slave name and makes us all call him Waaswa."
She emptied her own glass, licked her lips, and then smiled, seeming embarrassed. "Sorry."
Ally was a little startled by the apology. She felt an immediate impulse to make fun of it or of Weiss, but she had barely enough presence of mind to rein herself in. Instead, she asked, "For what?"
Weiss looked around, evidently searching for a trashcan, then shrugged, gave up, and just tapped ash from the end of her cigarette on to the concrete floor. "I'm talking too much. I tend to get that way when I've had a bit to drink."
Well, it was a lot better than earlier, Ally thought. During the excruciatingly long road trip getting a single word from Weiss had been like squeezing blood from an anemic stone. "Hardly," she said. "I'm sure if we average it out over the day, I'm still way ahead."
Weiss laughed at that, which pleased Ally considerably. She ran a hand quickly through her hair and then fanned her face. It was probably the alcohol, she knew, but she was feeling unpleasantly warm. Her skin seemed to be burning. Fortunately, the night air felt lovingly cool when a breeze passed by, but it was more often still than not. Even the wind was slowly dying, it seemed.
"You know what?" Ally said. "I think I prefer me when you're drunk."
Weiss continued to grin, turning her head away to look down the highway, back towards the town. "Me too. There was a church down in the town. We passed it on the way in. An old wooden building, white with a tall spire, big black window frames. Must be beautiful in the summer."
The grin faded slowly. "I was wondering if we should have gone there."
For what purpose, Ally wondered? She doubted it was to save money. The motel room was cheap, sure, she imagined they didn't come much cheaper, although spending the night in a church would have been a lot cheaper. But it would have raised questions, them not leaving when they had promised to do so, and the idea of that hard-nosed Sheriff confronting them didn't bear thinking about. To Ally, then, it seemed that the church was a decidedly bad idea with a lot more cons than pros.
Perhaps Weiss was seeking a good old-fashioned sanctuary then? Maybe she was hoping to find something more than just a shelter for the night.
Weiss looked back at Ally. "Are you religious at all, Cole?"
"No," Ally said, draining her glass and waving it at Weiss for a refill. "There are too many things on which God and I don't see eye to eye. My family's pretty devout though. Just another way in which I'm the black sheep. So you, you're in law enforcement, a Christian... no chance you vote Republican then?"
"Fuck, no," Weiss said vehemently, topping up Ally's glass as she spoke.
"Thank your God for that. I can deal with the first two but that last one's a deal breaker."
"In the women I date, I mean."
Weiss stared at her for a long while, her mouth hanging open. When she finally shut it, her jaw had taken on a determined set. It was only now that Ally realized the conversation had gotten away from her, slipped out of her control as easily as all those little memories had slipped away when the nothingness had reached for her. She beat a hasty retreat behind her glass.
"What makes you think I'm gay?" Weiss eventually said. Her voice sounded stern all of sudden, all trace of the humor Ally had seen over the last half-hour or so gone.
"Lucky guess," said Ally with an indifferent shrug. Two glasses of whiskey ago, even one maybe, she would have been more careful with her choice of words. Now, she didn't see the point. What was the worst that could happen, after all? "Sorry, it's not that hard to tell. Well, you are, aren't you?"
Another hesitation. "It's not so..."
Ally finished her sentence for her. "Black and white?"
"I was going to say simple. Not that it matters, anyway, seeing as how you're not my type."
"Shame, because you're really mine."
Weiss gave out a snort of laughter. Ally wasn't sure how to take that, but she was relieved that the grim side of the Marshal hadn't lasted very long. She ran a finger around the neckline of her dress, tugging at the material where it had stuck to her skin and wishing for another cool breeze. She was feeling warm again.
"Is that the best you've got, Cole?"
"Probably. Works on the women I usually date. I could try a cheesy pick-up line, if you like."
"Like that wasn't? Oh, I have to hear this. Please, be my guest."
"Well, how about if I told you I like my women just how I like my coffee?"
"Going for the black angle again, are we?"
"Actually I was going to say hot and bitter, but easy to make."
Another short burst of laughter. Each time, Ally enjoyed hearing that a little more. Odd, that.
"Is that right?" Weiss said, stubbing out the dog-end on the concrete. "Fuck, you think a lot of yourself."
"Yeah, I do," Ally admitted, "but that doesn't mean I'm wrong. You really are hot."
Weiss waved away the compliment. She lit another cigarette, throwing the pack down beside her, and inhaled deeply. She was savoring the flavor of the tobacco, as if it was going to be her last ever chance to taste it. Which, Ally thought, it might very well be.
"I think the alcohol is getting to you," Weiss said, motioning to Ally's glass with her own. "On any other night, I think I'd cut you off, just to be safe."
Interesting choice of words, Ally thought. Just whose safety was she so concerned about? Ally's, for drinking too much? Or her own, for fear of what a drunken Ally might do? She suspected it was a bit of both but more of the latter, especially considering the turn the conversation had taken in the last few minutes.
Ally looked down at the half-empty tumbler in her hand. Still, Weiss was probably right when all was said and done. She was feeling a little lightheaded already. She took another drink, downing the whiskey in one, and the taste of it made her grimace and shake her head in revulsion. No point doing things by halves, after all.
"I'm serious," Ally said, holding out the glass for yet another refill. When Weiss hesitated, Ally waggled her hand with a 'come on' motion. It was enough to win over Weiss' reluctance. "Especially when you drop the f-bomb. You have a cute little way of digging your teeth into your bottom lip when you say the word 'fuck'. Swearing doesn't really suit you, but damn it's cute when you do. Which is just as well, 'cos you do it a lot."
Weiss looked away, staring down the breezeway. She'd embarrassed her, Ally realized.
"Sorry, I can get carried away sometimes. But that's life, right? It's all a matter of balance. Too much fun and you end up in these." She held up both hands, showing the handcuffs to drive home her point. "Too little and you end up babysitting someone like me."
Weiss looked back at her and gave a half-smile. "Don't worry about it. There are worse things to tell someone." She drained her own glass. "Come on, we need to make a bigger dent in this bottle."
"I'm afraid I'm making hard work of it," Ally said. "I'm still not sure I like the taste."
"You get used to it. And I strongly suspect you've no idea what good, hard work is."
"No, what good is it?"
Weiss laughed again.
"You should do that more often," Ally blurted out, causing Weiss to immediately look away. Again, she'd embarrassed her. Not one for taking compliments was this girl, Ally thought. Maybe she never got them, at least not personal ones. She stayed silent for a second or two, as much she hated to do so, as unpleasant thoughts kept creeping back into her head the longer she wasn't distracted, but she did it so Weiss would be prompted to speak.
She didn't take the hint and kept on the same subject, slipping from funny to serious, which annoyed Ally, but she tried her best not to let it show. "So, is your stage career going as well as your criminal one?"
Ally shrugged. "I'm doing okay, I guess. You can never go wrong in Las Vegas with something Elvis-related and people say I'm pretty good. You should see me when I'm in full costume and make-up. Of all the sights, I'm the one to see. Besides, as I've told you before, I'm going straight."
"Is that right?" Weiss said. Her tone left no doubt in Ally's mind that she didn't believe it.
"Well, they don't call Las Vegas the city of second chances for nothing. And I always liked to defy expectations. I was born on a Wednesday, and they say Wednesday's child is full of woe."
"You're full of something."
That was the first time Weiss had made Ally laugh so far today. And, Ally thought, wasn't Weiss full of surprises? Turning the tables on her so quickly and all. Good to know that she could make her laugh. Even better to know she had a sense of humor in complete working order. In Ally's experience, cops tended to hand that trait in as soon as they started training.
"Maybe," Ally said, taking another small drink. "I'm not full of this whiskey yet, unfortunately."
"So you want to tell me about DeWitte?"
The question sobered Ally up immediately. She put the tumbler down beside her, the glass clinking softly against the concrete. Maybe Weiss was right and she should quit drinking, at least for a while; maybe try to eat something first, give herself a chance to sober up a little more.
She hadn't really thought too much about DeWitte since she had been paroled, had gone out of her way not to, but it was startling how often his name would keep cropping up, especially seeing as how she'd only seen him once since her release. Now he was dead and somehow he was still causing her grief. Murdered, so Weiss had said, and everyone, her included, seemed to think Ally was the most likely suspect. Her smile faded slowly as she thought about that.
"You still think I murdered him?"
"That's not for me to say."
"Oh, of course it isn't," Ally said sarcastically. "Even now, right? We could be the only two people left alive in the world and you're still judging by pretending not to judge."
She sighed and looked up at the ceiling of the breezeway. She couldn't bring herself to look Weiss in the eye and she wouldn't
look behind her. Either way she would be bluntly reminded of what was coming. So instead she stared upward as she talked, studying the spreading cracks in the white stucco and the long dead flies trapped in the fluorescent light fixture, the latter buzzing perhaps because the former no longer could.
"I started robbing places about a year after I got to Las Vegas. I was desperate, although I know that's no excuse. I got myself in a bit of bad luck and I thought I could see it through. I started with hotel rooms. It was easy enough. I've got quick hands and it was simple to flirt with a maid or a desk clerk or someone and steal a passkey. Then I'd keep a watch on some dumb tourists until they'd left their room, slip in, take what I wanted, and get out. Afterwards, I'd drop the passkey somewhere obvious, just so the person I stole it from thought they'd misplaced it. It hardly ever went wrong. And when it did I usually just bluffed myself out of trouble.
"I robbed places because I didn't want to hurt anyone. And I chose tourists because, well, you know, they were tourists. Less likely to stick around and kick up a fuss. More likely to get drunk and think they'd just lost whatever it was I took. And I only took cash and credit cards to begin with, and I didn't use the cards too often. Once or twice each, then threw them away. And I only bought small stuff with them too. Much less likely to attract unwanted attention that way."
She risked a glance over at Weiss and immediately regretted it. The Marshal's expression was pretty easy to read.
"Yeah, I know, real small scale, right? Pathetically so, in fact.
"Anyway, I met DeWitte by accident. An act of serendipity, I thought at the time, but looking back it was probably when everything started going wrong. No, that's not true. I'd be blaming someone else if I said that. But it was another step on the way down, if you know what I mean.
"At the time, he struck me as just another one of the dumb tourists, although I didn't rob him. Instead, he spotted me lifting a passkey. I may have quick hands, it's just that he had quicker eyes. He let me rob a room or two, and then confronted me. When he found out I was only stealing cash and cards, he started laughing. Can you believe that? I couldn't feel any damn lower at that point, let me tell you.
"So DeWitte suggested that I work for him, although he couched it a lot more evasively than that. I'd carry on the same way, stealing cash and keeping that for myself. But he also suggested I should start taking any jewelry I found. That, and any credit cards, I'd pass on for him to fence. He could get a lot more money out of the cards than I ever could and more safely too, and while I didn't have a clue how to get rid of jewelry, he did. It just meant travelling to his pawn shop in Sacramento a couple of times each month, which was no big hardship. I could still steal the same way I had been but I was making a ton more money. It was perfect."
Weiss interrupted. "Until you got caught."
"Yeah, until I got caught. But I've done my time for that, thanks very much, and unlike thieving that wasn't easy at all."
"Prison's not meant to be easy."
"I guess not. Which is why, when I got out I decided to go straight. I told the parole board that. And I only saw DeWitte once more, about a year ago, and that was to tell him I quit. And yes, Marshal, I know I violated my conditions by visiting him. But if I hadn't, he would have come and found me, and that probably would have been a lot worse in the long run."
"He was murdered eleven months ago or so," Weiss reminded her.
Ally looked back at her, frustrated that the truth wasn't being believed. She tried not to let it show. "And I didn't even know that until you told me this morning. I mean, I was a little surprised I didn't hear from him again, but I thought I was only a minor cog in his grand schemes and he'd accepted me going straight. I guess I was wrong to be so hopeful."
Weiss thought about that for a moment. "Easy to see how they could build a case against you, even with that. You go see him to tell him you're not going to steal anymore, he gets angry and violent and you grab the knife to defend yourself."
"No, I've told you already, I didn't kill him!"
"Schwarz says you did."
Ally rolled her eyes at that. "That bastard would say anything to save his own sorry hide."
"You're not wrong there," Weiss said with a nod. "According to the file, Sacramento PD pulled him in on a robbery charge and he gave you up as fast as you like. The arresting detectives had never seen anything like it."
"And that doesn't strike anyone as suspicious? Like Schwarz was holding this in reserve, maybe, for whenever he landed in hot water? No one even thought he might be framing me?"
"Are you saying Schwarz killed DeWitte?"
"I don't know. Maybe. Schwarz is scum. I'm not saying he'd sell his own grandmother but he'd sure find two other grandmothers, cut them in half, sew the best halves together and sell the end result as a younger model. And he was always jealous of how much DeWitte preferred to work with me, if only because I made him more money. Believe me, DeWitte only dealt with Schwarz when he absolutely had to." She paused. It was possible Schwarz had killed DeWitte, she supposed, but she doubted it. As much as she hated to admit it, while Schwarz might have been an asshole, she really couldn't imagine him killing anyone. "All the same, I can't see him murdering anyone."
"People change. You've gone straight, for instance, or so you say."
"Yeah, and you've started talking."
It wasn't one of her best retorts, that's for sure, but Ally was pleased to see it earned at least a grudging smile from Weiss, if not a laugh.
"And started defending me too," she added.
"Don't get ideas. I'm just playing devil's advocate, that's all."
"Sure you are. I'm telling you though, even if he didn't kill DeWitte himself, Schwarz is lying through his teeth."
"You would say that," Weiss said. When the shocked Ally opened her mouth to say something, Weiss held a hand up to quiet her. The glowing cigarette tip traced patterns in the gloom as she moved. "Sorry, but you would say that if you were guilty."
"I would if I were innocent too."
Weiss nodded and then quickly moved on. "Fair enough. Your fingerprints were on the murder weapon."
"My fingerprints were probably all over the store. Have you seen how much crap was in there? I'd often have to wait until legit customers had left before I could speak to DeWitte and I have sticky fingers, in case you didn't guess already. I probably picked up everything in that store at least once. I don't remember a dagger but I could have held it a dozen times."
"Yeah, maybe, but the fingerprints, your past record, your dealings with DeWitte? all of that is bad enough. But Schwarz led the investigating team to a storage unit in Sacramento where they found that dagger and a bunch of other stolen goods. And the manager of said facility swore blind that you had rented that lock-up. Identified you from a photo, apparently."
"And I suppose it would make no difference if I swore I'd never done any such thing?"
"No, I'm afraid not. It's all pretty damning."
Ally tilted her head back against the brick wall, closing her eyes for a moment. "I guess so. Great. Even if all this," she gestured wildly behind her to the encroaching white expanse, but pointedly refusing to look, "hadn't happened, I'd still be screwed, wouldn't I?"
"Pretty much, yeah."
Ally felt like crying and then realized she already was. She'd made such a mess of things and she'd been trying so hard not to, not any more. She'd fucked up her life enough, had done her best to turn it around, and things had just gotten worse on her. She wiped at her eyes, with her hands, conscious of Weiss watching her.
Damn it, she had to stop crying. She reached down for the half-empty tumbler by her side, turning to alcohol only because there was nothing else to turn to right now. She almost choked on the whiskey.
"Well," she said, trying not to cough, "not that it matters, but if it would change anything, I'd live with that. I mean, if me accepting what was coming to me would change any of this, would put it all back to the way it was, then I'd do it."
Weiss studied her for a moment, then gave her a faint smile, one that Ally figured was meant to be encouraging. It didn't help much more than the alcohol had. "I know," Weiss said quietly.
"Fat lot of good that does me," Ally said with more than a trace of bitterness in her voice. She held her head in her hands. "Fuck, I've really screwed everything up."
"Maybe, but you're trying to turn things around. That says something."
"It says I'm an idiot, that's what it says. Sure, I'm trying to change my ways. Too little, too late, though right?"
"Yeah," Weiss said, "I'm too little and you're too late."
Ally was caught off guard and couldn't help but laugh. She wiped at her eyes again. "A joke from the hard-ass Marshal, really? I must be getting to you."
"No, more likely it's the whiskey. Speaking of which, have another drink, why don't you?"
As Weiss reached over to refill her glass, Ally gave her a weak grin in return. "I don't mind your height. Sure you're small, but as they say, it is better to have loved a short girl than not a tall."
Weiss groaned at that, rolling her eyes. "Okay, I don't think there's enough whiskey left in the bottle to make that funny."
"They can't all be good. Even Elvis had his off days."
"Yeah, and one really big one at the end. But I guess we all have that one coming."
Ally craned her head back again, pressing against the railing so she could see past the overhang of the breezeway's ceiling. She stared up into the night sky for a long while.
"I can't see the stars anymore," she finally said. "There's nothing but white above us now. God, it hurts."
"Don't look at it."
"It's hard not to." And it was getting harder every second, Ally thought. The whiteness spread out above was entrancing. She could feel the nothingness reaching out for her, secreting its way into her mind and exhorting her to give up. Each little pull sent a shock of pain through her skull, like a fishhook was firmly embedded somewhere in her brain and as the line kept tugging, the barbs viciously tore at her sanity.
"I know," Weiss said, reaching out to take a hard grip on Ally's calf, her fingers digging painfully into the bruised and scabbed flesh. It hurt, but it was meant only to grab back her attention, and it worked. "But you have to try."
Ally turned back to face Weiss and gave her a half-hearted smile. "Sorry,"
"No need to be. I can feel it too."
Weiss took another long drag on her cigarette, then stubbed it out. She reached for the packet again.
"You should quit."
"Smoking?" When Ally nodded, Weiss shrugged. "Maybe. I keep promising myself I will, sooner or later. Doesn't seem worth worrying about it right now, does it?"
"I guess not."
"You want to hear a story?"
Ally gaped at her, startled. "What?"
"You said earlier that talking helps take your mind off..." Weiss caught herself just in time. "It helps keep you distracted. A story from my childhood suddenly sprang to mind and I thought I'd share it, if you want."
"Sure, why not?"
Pausing only to screw the cap back on the bottle of whiskey after refilling her own glass, Weiss went on, "Whenever she babysat us, usually when our mother was working nights at her second job, our grandmother used to tell us traditional family stories to get us to sleep. Didn't often work. My brothers were little hellions and I usually didn't get to hear everything she said. One story has always stuck with me though, and you mentioning the stars reminded me of it.
"You see, if you look up at the sky on a perfectly clear night, you can see countless stars, each twinkling in their own little dark kingdom. And each of those stars is a bright white, the brightest white you could ever imagine, but even so the darkness seems overwhelming, as if any minute a patch will just swallow up the light and another star will disappear.
"And it's been that way forever. It's a fight, you see, a battle between the darkness and the light. A battle that's been going on for so long that no one, not a single person who's ever drawn breath, can remember when it started. All we know is it will drag on forever until one side or the other wins out.
"One time, I dared to interrupt my grandmother when she was telling me all this, and got a slap upside the head for my trouble. But I wanted to know why the darkness was winning. After all, the stars are so few and the night is so dark. And you know what she told me?"
Ally shook her head.
"She said that I had it all wrong. In the beginning, she said, there had been nothing but darkness. And now, after so long, the light had finally begun to shine through."
Ally didn't say anything for a moment, thinking hard about what she'd been told. Finally, she frowned and spoke, "Huh. Did your grandmother ever say what would happen when the light won?"
"No, not that I remember."
"Great. I guess we've solved that little problem, haven't we?" Ally took another sip of her whiskey. Her hands were trembling again, she saw as she put the glass back down beside her. She told herself it was the frigid night air. She wasn't frightened. She wasn't.
She looked over at Weiss sheepishly, regretting her harsh tone, and sighed. "I used to have nightmares. When I was young, I mean. My parents put up with it as long as they could but eventually they had enough. There was nothing in the dark that wasn't there in the light, that's what they told me. I knew that wasn't true." She shot Weiss a weak half-smile. "All these years later, and who'd have thought the light would turn out to be the side I shouldn't have trusted?"
Slowly, Weiss got to her feet. She had to put one hand out to the windowsill to steady herself; the other still firmly clutched the tumbler full of alcohol. She smiled guiltily at Ally.
"I think I've drunk a little too much," she said, although her tone made the words sound more proud than confessional. She stepped over to the metal railing, transferred her hold to that for a second, then turned her back on the motel parking lot and sank down to sit beside Ally. Not just next to her, but right up alongside her. The closeness was surprising. So was the warmth. Up until now, Ally hadn't realized how cold she really was.
It was probably just accidental, Ally thought. Weiss didn't seem too steady on her feet and was using her as support as much as she had the sill and the railing.
"Still," Weiss continued, "I'm not going to stop until I've drunk a lot too much."
She poured herself another glassful, the amber liquid slopping over the sides. She didn't seem to notice, or mind if she did. There wasn't much left in the bottle, Ally noted. She thought Weiss had drunk considerably more of it than she had, but she couldn't swear to it. Aside from being a little unsteady, Weiss seemed remarkably unaffected by the alcohol.
Ally looked down at her own half-empty glass. Her fourth, maybe? She couldn't clearly remember. She took another small sip. "Well, I don't think I've drunk this much in months. I'm really going to hate myself in the morning."
"Just as well then that it doesn't look like there will be a morning."
"Yeah, well, that's okay. I think I've started hating myself already."
"That's a bad habit to get into, trust me, and a harder one to get out of."
"Speaking from experience, Weiss?"
"Oh yes, I think I am. I've lost too many people I care about to count."
"Lovers?" Ally asked, taking a chance.
"Not so much. Never had much luck there. More family, I think."
"You have a big family?"
Weiss nodded, lighting up another cigarette. She caught Ally's disapproving look and pointedly ignored it. "Lots of cousins, uncles, aunts, some nephews and nieces. Both my brothers are married, with kids."
"And you said your brothers are both older than you, right?"
"It's interesting, that's all. It says a lot about you. I'm a good judge of people, after all."
"Not that good."
Not all traces of the hard-nosed Marshal had been washed away with alcohol then, Ally thought. All the same, she let that little jibe slide. "You're trying to prove yourself. Your career, your attitude, everything about you screams a desperate need for approval from your older brothers." She was about to add something about how to Weiss, her brothers probably represented the approval her dead father could no longer give her, but decided that probably wasn't a wise move, even now. "I don't imagine you've seen them recently, have you?"
"Shows what you know. I saw Colby at the end of last year."
"So ten months or so? And you call that recent? What about your other brother?"
"I haven't seen Doyle in a while, I'll admit."
"How long's a while?"
"It's got to be three years, maybe more. He doesn't really approve of the way I live my life. Colby's more... tolerant, I guess. Accepting's not really the word." She gave a little scornful snort. "Not by a long shot."
Ally raised an eyebrow, as if this proved the point she had made earlier. "And your mother? When was the last time you saw her?"
"I went home for a visit last Christmas and saw everyone but Doyle. Actually, the only reason I agreed to show up was because he wasn't going to be there for once. What's your point? That I can't care for and love people who I don't see very often?"
"No," Ally said hurriedly, "not at all. I really don't have a point. Just trying to learn more about you, what makes you tick."
"Yeah? Well, I think you know enough about me for now." Weiss exhaled a cloud of smoke that Ally half-heartedly tried to wave away. She seemed suddenly uncomfortable. Perhaps the conversation had veered a little too close to home, Ally thought. "And I don't tick."
"No. It's more of an annoying clunking sound. So what about you?" She made an obvious and clumsy attempt to change the subject, but Ally went along with it anyway. It was better to keep talking about this, or anything, than fall silent for too long and let her mind wander back to what was fast approaching.
"What about me?"
"Do you have a family?"
Ally cast a suspicious sideways glance at Weiss. "You know I do. I'm assuming you read my file before coming to arrest me, right?" Then when the Deputy Marshal nodded, she added, "Why ask?"
"I was just trying to keep the conversation going, I suppose."
"You suppose a lot of things. You should be more certain. What am I saying? I don't think I've ever met anyone more certain."
"Of what?" Weiss said with a frown.
"Of everything. It doesn't matter. I'm just thinking aloud. Drinking too. Drinking and thinking, never a good combination."
"I have trouble understanding what you're talking about sometimes."
"Only sometimes?" Ally agreed, managing a weak smile. "I can't be drunk enough yet."
"Yeah? And just how drunk is enough?"
After draining her glass, Ally raised an eyebrow. "Depends what you had in mind, Weiss."
Without needing to be asked, Weiss refilled her glass immediately. She pursed her lips in disappointment, studying the empty bottle. "Well, that's the last of it, so whatever I was thinking I guess I'll be out of luck. Better make that glass last."
"Yeah, maybe. And yes, I have a family and before you ask, we're not that close. I guess that's another thing we have in common."
"Another? What was the first?"
Ally ignored the question. "Anyway, I have an older sister, who's a PA for a legal firm back in Jersey, and Babe, well, he went into the family business with my father and my uncle."
"You have a brother called Babe?"
Ally shrugged. "Don't ask. It's just a tradition amongst some Italian-American families, the youngest boy is always nicknamed Babe. Sometimes it sticks, sometimes it doesn't. With Samuel it stuck. He hates it but he shouldn't complain. Not only is he the youngest but he's the only boy, and he was a long time coming. He's eight years younger than me. My parents spoil him rotten."
"You seem bitter."
"I guess I am a little."
"Your parents run a deli, don't they?"
"In Little Ferry," Ally said with a nod.
"And you didn't want to go into that line of work?"
"No, not really. And my whole family never really approved of me, of anything I did, really. And pretty early on I decided that if I couldn't get their approval I might as well go the whole hog and really piss them off. Moving out west was just another way to prove my point. Fat lot of good it did me."
"What do you mean?"
Ally sighed, and she guiltily realized only after the fact that it was perhaps a little too theatrical. She blamed the whiskey, which was easy enough. "You know, Weiss, to some people running is a sport. To others, it's a means of getting from A to B. Me, I just ran because staying still would have made my family happy. And now I think they're glad to see my heels. No pleasing them."
"I'm sure that's not true."
"You don't know my family," Ally said indignantly. "Maybe I was a little unfair in criticizing you for not seeing your family often enough. I haven't seen my sister for more than a year and I haven't even talked to my parents since I got parole."
"You like your sister?"
"Luce? She's okay," said Ally with a small shrug of her shoulders. "The worst of a good lot, which is probably why we got on most of the time. She was the only person to visit me when I was in McClure. No one else bothered and she had to come all the way from Ferry."
"No Indian stripper? No would-be nurse?"
"No. I told you, Weiss, running has become a habit for me, even if it gets me nowhere. It's easier to run out on women than it is to make an effort to stick with them. The only reason I've stuck round you for so long is 'cos you damn well won't let me go. And there you are, my life story in a nutshell. Frightened of being alone, but I work so hard at pushing everyone away."
Ally paused, catching an off look in Weiss' eyes. "What's wrong?"
"How do I know this isn't all a con? It's what you do, after all."
"It's what I used
to do. And who am I conning? You're the one plying me with drink, after all. That wasn't my idea, remember?"
"You're not answering my question."
"Oh, I am, it's just you don't like the answer. Alright, what good would it do me? Have you thought of that?" She gestured over her shoulder, back behind her, past the balcony, out towards the encroaching nothingness. "I told you, there's nowhere for me to run, not anymore. I'm beginning to think there wasn't, even before all this happened."
"So you're being honest with me? You've just decided to confess all your sins to a perfect stranger?"
"You started it. Anyway, I don't really think we can consider each other strangers anymore, Weiss, and I don't know about you but I'm far from perfect. Besides, confessing isn't my idea of how I want to spend my final hours. Oh sure, I could find that church you spotted and start praying to a God I've never believed in. Sorry, but it's true. I could die with hypocritical words on my tongue, I suppose, if that's what you think is best, but to me it doesn't seem any better than any other way of dying. Anyway, it's worse than that." Ally caught Weiss' eye again. "I mean about the world. I don't think it is really ending."
"Then what would you call it?"
"Ceasing to exist."
"No, not really. Maybe I'm not explaining this very well."
Weiss groaned, rubbing her temples. "You're not explaining it at all. First time I've ever got the hangover when I'm not done with the drinking yet."
"You ever watch any of the old Looney Tunes cartoons?"
"Yeah, sometimes. One of my nephews loves them. But then he's only four."
"You ever seen the one where Daffy keeps finding the scenery changing behind him, then he realizes the guy who's drawing the cartoon is Bugs messing with him?"
"I guess..." Weiss said, in a tone that made it clear she didn't know exactly what Ally was talking about.
All the same, Ally continued. She'd been thinking about this for a while, mostly between dozing in the car during the afternoon, and it felt good to put her thoughts into words. She'd almost mentioned the idea when Weiss had thrown her across the diner restroom but the cut in her head had hurt her and each throbbing burst of pain was a not-so-gentle reminder to keep her mouth shut. Now, she felt either brave enough, or foolish enough, but most likely just drunk enough, to give the idea voice.
"Screwball," she said, smiling ruefully to herself, "that still makes me laugh. Well, anyway it's kind of like that. People sometimes talk about the human race potentially being wiped out but they never mean it literally, not like this. It's not just that pretty soon everything will be gone, it's much worse than that. It's as if everything will never have existed. You worry that the slate's being wiped clean. I'm scared that there won't even be a slate anymore."
She paused for a second and then went on. "Somewhere up there, there's a pissed off artist with a huge 2B pencil and he's slowly erasing all his rough sketches."
"And you said you didn't believe in God," said Weiss dryly.
That made Ally laugh, covering her mouth with her hands, and in turn, that made Weiss smile.
"You could be right though," Weiss said when Ally's shoulders had finally stopped shaking and she was wiping at her eyes. "Whenever I think of Devlin my head starts aching. Mostly it's just a little pain, but the more I think of him the more it hurts. And the more detail I try to remember, the worse the pain gets." Then, as if to prove her point, she reached up and held the flat of her palm to her forehead, screwing her eyes up tight and letting out the barest of moans. "Crap, my head's really hurting now."
She stayed that way for a little longer than Ally liked. "You okay?"
"Yeah, just give me a second. I think of him and I get the pain, and the pain reminds me that I'm thinking of him, so..."
"I get it," Ally said, "really I do. It's Luce, for me. If I think of her, just the barest passing thought, it feels like someone's hammering tacks into my skull."
Another low moan escaped Weiss' lips. She was wincing now.
"What for?" Weiss asked through gritted teeth.
"Reminding you of Devlin. I didn't mean to."
"Don't apologize for that. I won't give this?" She searched for the right words and came up empty. "I won't be forced to forget him, not by anyone or anything, even it kills me. Still, you could be right. Maybe Devlin's not dead at all. Maybe he was never alive and all I have are the memories no one else ever wanted. But I suppose it doesn't matter in the end, does it? Gone is gone."
Ally shook her head. "No, it matters. I don't mind telling you, if I'm right, then it terrifies me. I know, I know," she went on, catching the look in the Marshal's eye, "I said I wasn't scared of dying so much and I really think that's true. No, what scares the shit out of me is not existing. Of never having existed. I want my life to have meant something. I want to mean something
"I guess so. Back to not being alone, right?" She gave a weak half-smile. It was the best she could manage right now. She was trembling, she realized. Maybe it was just the cold. Maybe not. "I know it's stupid. I know I'm
stupid. And I know it ain't going to happen, I'm not going be safe, not anytime soon. But I still want to feel
"Guess I've said that before."
Weiss nodded. "No, but you didn't need to. And anyway, I might have said this before too. You're not alone."
Then the Marshal shifted position unexpectedly, placing her own empty glass on the floor beside her and reaching an arm around the surprised Ally's shoulders. Her grip was tight, perhaps a little too tight, the fingers digging into Ally's pale skin, but all the same Ally didn't object. She thought she knew why she was being held so strongly, suspecting Weiss needed to literally feel that she was still there, and she guessed that while the hug was meant to comfort her it offered just as much solace to Weiss, even if she most likely would never admit so.
She felt herself being pulled into the hug and welcomed it, shuffling down a little, leaning in, and resting her head on Weiss' shoulder.
They stayed that way for a long time, trapped in the embrace by a desperate need, if only because there might not be anyone else left to touch, not any more.
After a while, the lights by the pool flickered and went out. A second later the overhead lighting followed suit. The dim reflections in the motel room's window disappeared, leaving it a solid pane of black. Either the motel's generator had finally run out of gas or the nothingness had already reached that far.
There was still some light, enough at least to see by, but from where, Ally didn't know. And she was too achy, too drunk, and too sad to care. She refused to move, keeping her head on Weiss' shoulder, feeling the gentle movement of each breath.
The sudden silence was unsettling. Ally could no longer hear the soft, steady chugging of the genny, the humming of the emergency lights, or the irregular slapping of the striped tarp on the poolside whenever the cool mountain wind caught it. When Weiss shifted uncomfortably, the unexpected clinking of glass on cement when she knocked over the empty bottle was startling.
"You see it?" Weiss asked quietly, glancing over her shoulder.
"I'm pretending not to."
"A lot of good that will do." Weiss tugged her arm free, to Ally's disappointment, and struggled to her feet. "We should go inside."
"Sure. Why not? Might as well keep fighting for as long as we can, right? Kicking and screaming?"
"I hope not."
Ally looked up, squinting into the dusk at the woman standing over her, and shot her a half-hearted grin. It wasn't easy, seeing as how she felt like crying again. "You're no fun, Weiss."
Reluctantly, Ally took the offered hand and let herself be hauled up, perhaps a little too fast. Her head spun and she staggered against the railing, clutching it with both hands. The vast expanse of whiteness rolled before her and she had to turn quickly back towards the motel so as to avoid looking at it, which was a mistake as it only made things worse. Her stomach lurched up just as fast as she had and made unwelcome advances on her throat.
"I think I might be sick," she said weakly, clasping a hand over her mouth. All that alcohol and no food had not been a good idea, after all.
* * * * *
Ally stared in the mirror that was screwed into the wall above the basin. There was a large crack in it that ran across one bottom corner. From where she stood, her hands firmly clutching the cool porcelain rim of the sink, it looked as if someone had drawn a diagonal jagged line across her heart with a thick black marker. Cut here.
It was much darker inside the bathroom, with only a tiny window built into the shower stall allowing the barest of light in. A bare bulb jutted out of a socket over the mirror but there was no point even trying it.
She glared at her reflection and didn't particularly like what she saw.
Her hair was a mess, but that was okay, it usually was. She ran her hands through it a few times anyway. There were dark circles under her eyes, making her look more tired than she felt, which she wouldn't have thought was possible. Her left cheek was badly bruised, a crazy mix of blue and brown discoloration. It was swollen too, tender to the touch, and she winced in pain when she pressed it gingerly with her fingertips. Her jaw ached. She didn't dare open her mouth to check on her broken tooth.
God, she was filthy too. She tugged at the neckline of her dress, the fabric more a grubby grey now than the pristine white it had been this morning. The stain on her side, where she'd coughed up a mouthful of blood, was now a dark splash of carmine. Sure, she had probably looked worse sometime, she figured, but she couldn't remember when. Maybe that year or more she spent in prison orange.
She closed her eyes for a second, fighting another wave of nausea. Her fingers gripped the basin's edge just a little tighter, her knuckles whitening. It passed just as quickly as it had come. She glanced up at her own mirror image again and saw the fear in her own eyes.
It had been stupid of her to get so drunk. Weiss had even had to help her into the bathroom, where Ally had immediately dropped down beside the sink, splaying her legs out on the cool black-and-white tiles, and then had asked to be left alone for just a little while.
Instead, Weiss had stayed for a second, pulling back the shower curtain, trying to allow as much light in as possible, and threw a cursory glance towards the small window. She didn't have to be so concerned, as Ally seriously doubted she could fit through the frame even if she tried. And it would have taken a while just to get the pane unstuck, as it looked like it had been painted over several times, never very carefully.
Besides, she had thought as Weiss had knelt down beside her, even if she did get the window open without alerting the Marshal, where could she go? Why run anymore?
Weiss had taken the time to unlace her boots, slowly, delicately, as if she was fearful of hurting her anymore, or more likely perhaps just wary of being vomited on. When she'd tugged the second boot off her hands had lingered on Ally's calf perhaps just a little too long.
Their eyes caught, just for a second, and then Weiss had looked away. "You should clean these wounds," she had said, before clambering to her feet and leaving, pulling the door shut behind her with a soft click. There was no lock.
Ally had let her leave without saying anything. If she had opened her mouth, some foolish words would have been the least of her worries. She was already feeling better by then, so long as she stayed still, but she wasn't about to take the chance.
So she sat there for a long while, trying to calm her nervous stomach. She just about managed to keep the whiskey down and the room had finally stopped spinning. When, at long last, she struggled to her feet, it lurched around her one last time, then settled down again.
And now she stood before the sink, staring at her reflection, unable to look away from her bruised and swollen face, like an anti-Narcissus. The dull light creeping in through the window framed her. It wasn't really light, she knew that, just as she knew she'd never see sunshine again. It was the nothingness, ever edging closer, intruding even on this limited refuge.
She briefly wondered why the nothingness was centered on this town, this motel, this room even. It couldn't truly be a coincidence. What was it Weiss had said? 'It's following you.' Not for the first time Ally considered Weiss could have been right? Really? Was this all her fault?
Ally snorted in self-contempt, the sudden twitch of her cheek painful. Some questions are never answered, she thought, and some aren't even worth asking.
She turned on the cold faucet, not expecting for there to be any water. There was some however, perhaps the last few gallons from the motel's tanks, so she let it run.
There was a gentle knocking from behind her.
"You okay?" Weiss called through the door.
She lied. It was so easy to fall back into bad habits, after all. "Sure. Be out in a minute."
Suddenly, and she didn't know why, she remembered the promise she'd made to Luce on one of those rare prison visits. I swear, she had been coerced into saying, I swear that I won't give up.
It was her reflection, she realized. She'd seen that look before, mirrored in the thick plexiglass that divided cons from their visitors, the crosshatching embedded deep in the glass cutting her likeness to shreds. It was those shameful, sorry eyes that jogged her memory. That and another lie. And still Luce had seen her through it all.
Her head ached. The sink was near full. She twisted the faucet off and then splashed some cold water on her face. It didn't make a difference. No matter how hard you tried, some sins couldn't be washed away.
* * * * *
Weiss hurriedly drew the curtains. The fabric was too thin to completely stem the weak light coming through but it helped, plunging the room into a twilight-like gloom. Even that was bothersome, like an itch just out of reach. How it could be so light when it was late at night and when the world outside no longer existed, she didn't know. Still, she could ignore the itch if she tried hard, and if she did that long enough, she'd forget about it.
Besides, keeping out the light wasn't why she pulled the curtains closed. Privacy wasn't really a concern either. There was no one out there left, after all.
No, she was doing this for Cole's sake. Too much alcohol was just a small part of her problem right now. Weiss guessed Cole was close to cracking. She'd seen it before, plenty of times. You can only push someone so far before they snapped, and all the nothingness outside did nothing but push. She figured Cole didn't need to be seeing the encroaching whiteness reaching for the window.
The thing about pushing was that it was predictable, up to a point. You pushed, they resisted, so you pushed a little more, and they yielded. But if you kept pushing, there would come a time when they broke, and that's when it got unpredictable. Like most cops, whatever department, service, or agency they belonged to, Weiss hated unpredictability.
Maybe that's why she was dealing with all this a little better than Cole seemed to be. Sure, the nothingness, and all that went with it, scared her in a way she'd never been scared before. It was the powerlessness of it all, she thought. At least the nothingness was predictable. It kept coming, relentlessly surging towards them, unavoidable.
She could have left.
The thought came to Weiss without warning, but as unwelcome as it was, it wouldn't go away. Sure, she could have left at any time. She could have unlocked Cole's handcuffs, have told her to fuck off out of her sight, and could even have turned a blind eye to the oncoming storm. She could have just walked away. She hadn't had to stay, did she?
So then, the question remained: why was she still here?
This morning, justice had been all that mattered to her. Now it didn't seem all that important. Stranger still, she wasn't sure what had taken its place. Integrity, maybe? No, probably not. She'd given up enough today. Her integrity had definitely gone out of the window. She glanced over at the curtains. Well, it was as good a place as any for it, she supposed.
So what then? What was left? Service, that's all. When was the last time someone had asked her for help? She couldn't remember, any more than she could remember when was the last she time she spent half an hour talking to someone that wasn't either Devlin or a suspect. She held her head for a second, until the pain subsided.
Maybe that was why she was staying. Not because it was her job and not because it was the right thing to do but simply because Cole had asked her to. And perhaps that was enough.
Weiss flicked the lightswitch more out of habit than for any other reason. No harm in trying. No luck either. Maybe the nothingness was like an overcharged light bulb, she thought, glowing brighter and brighter, buzzing louder and louder, until it would finally blow. Maybe the darkness that followed, if such a thing was possible, would be even more terrible.
Without thinking, her fingers went to the small silver crucifix that hung around her neck. Dear God, she prayed silently, here's a question you've never heard before. Why me?
She sighed. She was stuck in a motel room, in the middle of nowhere, with a woman she'd beaten and mistreated and with whom she had absolutely nothing in common, a woman who couldn't be much more different to her if she tried, and Weiss firmly believed that Cole was trying.
Weiss crossed back to the dresser and ripped open a small packet of Oreo cookies which Cole had 'liberated' from the vending machine down in the hotel's foyer. She raised one cookie to her lips but then threw it back onto the dresser. She wasn't really that hungry, which surprised her. Considering she'd eaten next to nothing all day, you'd think she would be.
There were candles among the vending machine debris, Weiss noticed. She briefly wondered where Cole had found those, then remembered there had been some back in the diner. Maybe Cole had been clever enough to ask for some. Most likely she'd thought herself cleverer still and had stolen a few when no one was looking.
Weiss dug a half-empty box of matches out from her pocket, from beneath her cigarettes and a piece of card, and lit all three. Then, placing two in front of the television in the hopes the screen would reflect some of the light, she put the third on one of the bedside cabinets. The twilight subsided a fraction. The flickering candlelight cast the oddest of dark shadows across the white ceiling.
She shrugged off her jacket, and with pursed lips studied the rip in the arm of the fabric for a second, then threw it over the back of the room's only chair. The card slipped out of the jacket pocket and fell to the floor. She stooped to pick it up, then unfolded it.
A sharp stab of pain shot through her head. Devlin had given her the card early this morning, which seemed so long ago. She remembered him laughing at it, making some stupid comment about what passed for entertainment in Vegas. At the time, she hadn't given it a second glance, just folded it neatly in half and stuffed it into her pocket.
But she looked at it now. It was a cheaply produced glossy advertising leaflet, showing a picture of Cole in full Elvis get-up, dark hair slicked up into a pompadour, big mirrored sunglasses, the white jumpsuit, sweat beading her face. It wasn't the greatest of photos, Weiss thought, but she guessed it had been taken in mid-concert. Brightly colored lettering proclaimed Cole to be 'the Drag King of Rock 'n' Roll!' and 'the next best thing since Elvis Herselvis!'.
Weiss smiled sadly, then folded the card up again and hid it beneath her jacket. There was no point mentioning it to Cole. It would just be another reminder of what could no longer be.
She walked across the room to the bathroom door, thought about opening it for just a second, then instead rapped lightly with her knuckles.
There was a moment's pause, just long enough to worry Weiss, not quite long enough to make her kick the door open.
"Sure," Cole called out, her muffled voice sounding anything but. "Be out in a minute."
Weiss frowned but said nothing more. Impatiently, she crossed back to the window without really knowing why. She couldn't help but part the curtains ever so slightly, just enough for her to look out. She hadn't meant to, had tried hard not to, but she still looked outside all the same.
The nothingness was creeping past the railing, the pitted white metal already hard to make out. She couldn't help wonder what drove it, why it grew so slowly at times and then so quickly at others. But in her heart of hearts she knew there were no answers. Life was like that sometimes. On a bad day, and today was as bad as they came, the best you could hope for was to find the truth most people agreed upon.
She stared blankly as the nothingness inched past the brick pillars, reaching for the empty whiskey bottle and the discarded glasses. Her hand twitched, just once, as if it was trying to tug the curtain closed again. It seemed to have more sense than she did.
She could feel the nothingness inside her head, settling in all the little gaps in her memory it had made earlier. One second it called to her, a soft and persuasive cry that urged her to just step outside and to reach out towards the expanse of white just as it reached for her. The next, it clawed at her thoughts, desperately hooking itself into her mind, twisting and wrenching, scattering memories like chalk dust.
With considerable effort, Weiss tore her gaze away. She let the curtains fall back into place and turned back to look instead at the closed bathroom. She needed to keep Cole distracted, keep her mind off what was coming as much as she could. It would be so easy to give in, she knew. So she'd get Cole to talk a little more, she thought, do her best to let her lead the conversation.
And if Cole didn't want to talk, well? out of the blue an idea occurred to Weiss, one she couldn't shake off no matter how hard she tried. Worse still, the more she tried the more it coalesced into a fully formed thought. And as she bit her knuckles, uncertain of why this was popping into her head right now, the thought became a certainty.
The door to the bathroom opened and Cole stepped out. She looked pale, weak, her skin almost colorless, a stark contrast to her unruly black hair. She'd tried washing the blood out of her white dress but had only succeeded in spreading the stain out further.
"You feeling any better?" Weiss asked.
Cole nodded. "Sure. Sorry about that." She glanced at the candles, then began to pace up and down, walking from one door to the other, from the restroom to the motel room's door.
"It's been a long time since I've got this drunk. I'll be okay so long as I don't think about it."
"Yeah," Weiss said with a small sigh, "that's becoming second nature. You sure that's helping?"
Weiss made a motion of pacing with her fingers.
"Oh," said Cole, shrugging. All the same she didn't stop, just kept walking back and forth. "It takes my mind off things."
"Would you rather talk instead?"
"Whatever you want."
Weiss reached behind her back and pulled her still-holstered gun free from her belt, placing it on the bedside cabinet. Her useless cellphone followed, then her wallet. She hesitated, then undid the clasp of her necklace too, tugging the small silver crucifix out from her tee. She held the cross in her hand for just a second, gently running her thumb over the calvary. There is no god but God, she thought.
Cole had stopped pacing. She stood over by the room's door, staring intently at the necklace that Weiss held.
"Something wrong?" Weiss said, carefully placing the crucifix beside her wallet, curling the chain links into a neat circular pile.
"Do you think they have a Bible here?"
Well, wasn't that a surprising turnaround, Weiss thought? Had Cole decided, now that desperation had finally set in, to pray to that God she didn't believe in. She sat down on the end of the bed, feeling the old, weak springs give alarmingly beneath her.
"Most places like this do," she said. "Gideons, at a guess. Why do you ask?"
Cole shrugged and leaned back against the door. "I don't know. I was just thinking it must be comforting to be religious. It would probably help me feel safer. Does it help you?"
"Until you started talking about people never having existed," Weiss said, then sighed. "I would hope God couldn't be that cruel."
Cole considered that for a moment. "I contemplated being a nun when I left school. You look surprised. You don't think I could cut it as a nun?"
"No," said Weiss honestly, "but I was more shocked at you using the word contemplate in a sentence."
Cole burst out laughing at that. It was good to hear, Weiss thought, maybe it would help her keep it together for just a little while longer. She really was close to breaking, Weiss could see that now. She'd suspected as much but it was no comfort to be proven right. She guessed that would be how most atheists felt if they ever managed to finally prove God didn't exist.
"Funny," Cole said sarcastically, "real funny. And here was I thinking your training sucked out any semblance of a sense of humor."
Weiss was tempted to make another remark about semblance but decided against it. "So why didn't you take it up?"
"Get thee to a nunnery, woman."
"Oh, that. I've told you, religion was never for me, and that's kind of the first thing they expect. Not believing is a major disadvantage at the acceptance interview, you know? Besides, I really don't think they'd appreciate Elvis songs at vespers, not even his gospel tunes. Although I've moved an audience to tears before, singing 'Mansion on the Hilltop'."
Weiss smiled dutifully at that. "I may have said this before, but I think it bears repeating. You really do think something of yourself, don't you?"
"Big family, remember?" said Cole dismissively. "It was always easy to get lost in the crowd. I learned very early on that I should think highly of myself, as chances are no one else will. At least this is one way in which we're alike."
Weiss couldn't help but bristle at that. "We are not alike," she said emphatically.
"No?" Cole was still smiling. "You're telling me you don't think a lot of yourself?"
"I..." Weiss almost denied it but caught herself. If she couldn't be honest now, when could she? "I suppose I do. I have to."
"Yeah, we both do."
Right then, something changed. It was only a subtle change, hardly noticeable and just as hard to define. A dimming of the light, perhaps, or the air pressure falling, or something else entirely. If asked, assuming there had been anyone else left alive in the world to ask them, neither woman would have been able to explain what it was. But both of them were immediately aware of it. Weiss instinctively glanced towards the door, then the curtained window.
"It's at the balcony, isn't it?" Cole asked. There might have been tears in her eyes; it was hard to tell in the wavering candlelight.
Weiss could feel the nothingness grasping at her thoughts, scratching at the inside of her skull, trying to get out as desperately as the Abbé Faria. She forced herself to ignore it and at the same time tried her best to sound reassuring. "Try not to think about it."
"What do you think I'm doing?"
"Tell me something."
It didn't matter, Weiss thought. She just had to distract Cole for a little longer. "Anything. Come on, you haven't had a problem talking before."
Cole flashed her a weak smile, then wiped at her eyes. "I wanted to travel. There is so much world to see. I've never been to Spain. I don't suppose I'll get the chance now."
"Don't be so sure. At my guess in another ten minutes or so you'll be able to see the whole world just by looking around this room." Weiss kicked herself as soon as she said it. "Sorry."
"Forget it. Talking doesn't seem to be taking my mind off it anyway."
A long pause followed. Cole seemed to be thinking about what to say next. When she finally spoke, in hushed tones, she didn't look at Weiss, just kept her gaze fixed on a particular spot on the floor.
"I tried killing myself in prison, did you know that?"
"It's in the file, I suppose."
"Yes." When Cole looked up sharply, obviously caught between being humiliated by the sins of her past and angry at having her privacy invaded, Weiss hastily added, "Prisons tend to keep note of? things like that."
"So you know why?"
"I know what the file says. Severe depression."
Another laugh, although this was nothing like earlier. It was a bitter, resentful bark of a laugh that made Weiss regret saying anything. "I guess that's as good a reason as any, right?" Cole said.
"I guess. Is it right?"
She shrugged as if it was unimportant, then shook her head. "No," she said, "no, I don't think it is. It was the predictability that really got to me. The knowing what every day would bring without fail. The same routine over and over again, day after day, stretching out in front of me for two long years. Knowing what was coming and that I couldn't do anything about it. Like I said before, I was lucky they let me out so early. If they hadn't, I would have tried again."
Weiss didn't know what to say. She did glance over her shoulder, quickly, back towards the bedside cabinet, but not so that Cole didn't catch the anxious look.
"Don't worry, Weiss, I'm not going to try to take the easy way out or anything. I don't like guns, never have."
"The thought never..." she began, then let the lie die on her lips. There was no point.
"Yeah, sure. However little you might think of me, Weiss, I'm in this 'til the end. However soon it comes."
Cole pushed herself away from the door and began walking back towards the restroom. Her bare feet made soft little thuds on the thin carpet.
"Please don't start pacing again, it's driving me crazy."
"I'm not like you! I can't just stand here and do nothing. I told you, I don't like being cooped up."
"You don't really have a choice."
"I know!" Cole snapped, then turned her back on Weiss, leaning against the dresser, gripping the edge tightly. Her shoulders heaved suddenly.
"So talk to me," Weiss said softly, getting to her feet. "C'mon, turn around, look at me."
Cole did so, however reluctantly. "Sorry, I just can't think straight and I don't know what to talk about."
"Then don't talk."
"What else am I supposed to do?"
Weiss reached out and took hold of the short chain that coupled both cuffs together. She could feel Cole's cool skin against the edges of her palm as her fingers wrapped around the links. She yanked hard, twisting the links a little, using the compliance techniques she'd learned years ago.
Cole was caught off-balance and stumbled forward, almost losing her footing. Her breath was knocked from her as she collided with the shorter woman but at the same time she was steadied by Weiss wrapping her free hand around her waist. She found her shackled hands pressing against Weiss' stomach, and now they were pinned firmly between them, Weiss was able to slip her other hand up to grip the nape of Cole's neck too.
She opened her mouth to speak but Weiss didn't give her the chance, gently but firmly applying pressure to lower Cole's head, and then their lips met.
Weiss knew she should have realized it would come to this, sooner or later. The possibility had bugged her for a long while, even if it had only coalesced into a certainty a little while ago. She had let her hands linger a little too long on Cole's calves when removing her boots, not realizing at the time how much she'd wanted to run her hands up those long legs, but knowing it now. And she had wrapped an arm tightly around the younger woman's shoulders when they were out on the balcony, holding her closer than she really should have, hoping to console her, but now she wondered who had been comforted the most.
There was the verbal sparring too, that annoying easy charm of Cole's that caught at her worse than any physical contact had. The lop-sided smile that made her pulse race, the blatant flirting that made her heart pound. She had cursed her own body for betraying her, had fought back by throwing up walls, refocusing on what seemed more important, and keeping a professional distance.
In the end it hadn't made a single jot of difference, had it?
She kept a tight grip on Cole's neck, feeling the slight resistance fade away as the kiss was returned. Cole's eyes gradually closed as she surrendered, her lips parting ever so slightly to accept Weiss' gently thrusting tongue.
The kiss finally broke. Weiss felt the cool air catch on her wet lips. The air was heavy with sticky unease.
"You have to back off," Cole whispered.
Weiss released her grip, letting her hands fall to her sides, and took a hesitant step backwards. She tried to say something, anything, but no words would come to her. She swallowed thickly, feeling the heat of embarrassment rush into her cheeks, and almost turned away. Almost.
Then she saw that Cole was smiling.
"I need some freedom here, Weiss. No point in being uncomfortable," Cole said. She raised her shackled hands, slipping them over Weiss' head, and now she used the cuffs to pull Weiss back towards her.
Weiss felt the cool steel links touch the back of her neck and she shivered uncontrollably. She smiled as she allowed herself to be drawn near again, relinquishing just that little tiny bit of control. Her hands found Cole's hips and for a moment they stayed that way, like two dancers who didn't know what to do now the music had stopped.
* * * * *
Ally lowered her head, allowing herself to be kissed again, enjoying the heady sensation of Weiss' soft lips gently touching hers. The Marshal tasted of cheap tobacco and expensive alcohol, and Ally was surprised at how much she enjoyed the combination. And beneath a day's worth of sweat and smoke Ally could smell the faintest scent of an expensive fragrance, Aliage perhaps. She wasn't so sure that suited Weiss but she liked it all the same.
She brushed the back of Weiss' head with her thumbs, absently twisting the beaded short braids of hair, enjoying the little subconscious twitches each light touch elicited from the shorter woman. It nearly made her forget all about the nothingness that now scratched at the inside of her skull almost as frantically as it scratched at the door, but not quite.
The second kiss was hesitant, lighter, slower, cautious even, almost as if Weiss was having doubts. Ally found herself strangely disappointed. She recognized her body's reaction, that undeniable yearning, that slow burn. She could already feel a heat rising deep within her even as their lips drew apart, a single strand of saliva caught between them for an instant only. Weiss turned her head and wiped at her mouth, smiling in embarrassment, strangely shy over such a small thing.
Her fears were fleeting, allayed by Weiss raising one hand to grip the nape of Ally's neck tightly. The subsequent kisses were none of those things. Weiss kissed with a passion she probably showed for nothing else in life, a bunch of short aggressive kisses, one following quickly after another. Her large, soft lips pressed hard against Ally's own, her tongue darting and probing, but never lingering. It was an onslaught to be endured rather than a seduction to be savored.
It made sense that Weiss would kiss that way, Ally thought. It wasn't subtle, not particularly kind, and it certainly wasn't gentle. Instead, it was honest, up-front, and full of sound and fury that just needed an outlet.
Behind her, one of the candles on the dresser guttered briefly and then went out with a soft hiss. A swirl of smoke spiraled upwards. A dying shadow walked across the far wall as Ally lost herself momentarily in Weiss' fervent kisses.
She had been a little surprised by Weiss' approach. She knew Weiss was attracted to her, she'd have to be blind or a fool not to see that, but she figured the Marshal's self-control was too strong, that she would be able to resist her desire. Ally's casual flirting may have started out as just another needling way she could get under Weiss' skin, a way to stop herself from fretting too much, but towards the end there she had meant every word. She had desperately needed Weiss to return her attention; there was nothing else she could feel good about stealing.
Perhaps she'd gotten through those hardened defenses once or twice, and she strongly believed Weiss had even flirted back, maybe, just a little. It was hard to tell. All the same, Ally suspected her struggle had done nothing but amuse herself. She had been near giving up. Being hauled into that first kiss had come as something of a shock.
Still, despite being caught off-guard she wasn't all that surprised at how Weiss kissed her, how inelegantly, how clumsily, and how fervently. She guessed that Weiss' blunt way of charging forward was how Weiss approached any sexual encounter. Why would she approach sex any differently than she did everything else in life? She was used to being in control and to her, this would be no different.
Well, let her think she was in charge now as before, Ally thought. It was easier that way.
Not just easier, she admitted to herself. Ally needed this; she hadn't realized how much until Weiss had taken a firm hold of her neck. She could feel her heart beat hard against her lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Her legs grew suddenly weak and she felt a white-hot burning building deep within her, at her very core.
Weiss seemed not to pick up on the urgent need. Her kisses had moved down, tracing Ally's jawline, moving under her chin and forcing her to tilt her head back ever so slightly, then down to her neck. But then she looked up and pulled away very slightly despite Ally's heartfelt - and completely unintended - moan of regret.
"Are you sure about this?" Weiss asked, her breathing heavy.
She was evidently still worried that this wasn't such a good idea, Ally realized, perhaps unable to get past her own innate professionalism. It was strange, even with the world ending, how there were still some things you could give up and others you couldn't, and what rules you would still break and those you'd stand by. Or at least make a show of trying.
Well, Ally was with her on that one. She wasn't so sure it was a good idea either. But it didn't matter. She needed this. And she'd help Weiss past her reticence too, if need be.
"No," Ally said truthfully after the smallest of hesitations. "Well, mostly no. With a little bit of yes thrown in."
"I can stop..."
"Don't you dare!" Damn it! For a cop, the woman could be obtuse. "You do and I will
be guilty of a murder!"
Not funny but then it wasn't meant to be. She goddamn needed
this. It still almost earned her a reproach from Weiss but Ally cut her off, covering her mouth with her own.
The kiss that followed was even more awkward and passionate, more desperate, than before, only stopping when their teeth clashed together painfully. It was as if her response had finally allowed Weiss to be free, so much more so than Ally could be, and she had reveled in that newly found freedom.
Weiss reached down with both hands to clutch at the hem of Ally's bloodstained white dress, pulling it up over her hips, revealing her white hipster panties. Obediently, Ally raised her hands over her head, allowing the Marshal to pull it all the way over her shoulders, up over her head and along her arms. Weiss had to rip the fragile shoulder straps just to get the dress past the handcuffs and the frustration, brief as it was, showed. She impatiently hurled the ruined dress into the far corner of the room before sitting back on the edge of the bed, pulling Ally along to stand in front of her.
If Ally minded the damage done to her dress, and she wasn't sure she did, she didn't say so. In one way she was damn glad to be rid of it. Besides, at that moment she had other things on her mind.
She wore no bra, she rarely did, and the cold air felt so good on her bare skin. Pelle d'oca, she thought, closing her eyes, and then gasped as she felt Weiss' tongue touch her stomach, drifting from just above her hips, skimming up to just above her belly-button. She couldn't help but shiver. She gently rested her bound hands on the top of the Marshal's head, her fingers grasping at the tightly woven cornrows.
The pointed tip of Weiss' tongue first moved in a circular, then in a slow, sensual S-pattern, then back to the same circle. It took Ally a second to gather that she was delicately tracing the small yin-yang symbol on the left side of her stomach, a foolish tattoo that she'd never really wanted, and had regretted from the very moment she'd been talked into getting it.
"Oh God," Ally said throatily, tilting her head back as Weiss kissed the very center of the tattoo.
The kisses moved up, gentler now. She still winced when those lips barely touched the large bruise that discolored the pale skin at her ribs, then gasped again as they found the softness of her small breasts. Weiss reached up with her left hand, her right still keeping a firm grip on Ally's thigh, and fumbled at her, long fingers encircling one small breast and the thumb brushing over the erect nub. Ally savored the soft wet touch of Weiss' mouth upon her other breast, finding it suddenly hard to breathe when she felt the woman's tongue quickly flick across her nipple.
A low moan escaped Ally's lips as Weiss straightened up again and her lips left her tense body. The Marshal twisted out from under Ally's shackled hands and got to her feet, hastily pulling off her own tee. At the same time, Ally was reaching for Weiss' belt, her fingers struggling with the buckle. She couldn't quite manage it. She blamed her clumsiness on the handcuffs limiting her movement, but she knew it wasn't true. She swore under her breath as she struggled.
"Let me," Weiss said, her tone gentle but commanding, placing her strong hands on the taller woman's shoulders. Ally found herself being turned around and pushed down on to the bed. She lay back and watched impatiently as Weiss undressed, first hastily kicking off her Converse. The impatience almost got to her, almost made her want to touch herself, but she fought the temptation, knowing better was to come.
The room suddenly brightened. The nothingness had now reached the motel room and the wall, the door, and the window were slowly being swallowed up. Ally hadn't taken her eyes off Weiss, being caught up in the impromptu and inelegant striptease, and so she saw her give the window a brief worried look.
A wan smile touched Ally's lips. Who would have thought this was the same hard-assed Marshal from this morning, the tightly-wound woman who placed her duty above all? No doubt Weiss justified this little ethical lapse to herself in some way, perhaps seeing it as a way of distracting Ally, of keeping her mind off what was coming.
And there was some truth in that. It had worked, hadn't it? Up until now Ally hadn't given the approaching end a second thought.
Ally was sure there was more to it than that though. Weiss wanted her. She'd suspected as much for a long time even if she had thought it was a need that would never have been acted on. The anger, the aggression, the constant verbal sparring, all of that was just how Weiss dealt with how she felt, repressing desire under a wafer-thin veneer of professionalism. It was almost flirting, although it hurt a little too much for Ally's tastes.
And as she looked back at Weiss, she admitted to herself that it was rather satisfying to be proven right. Weiss did want her... no, she needed
Ally, just as much as Ally needed her.
As she stepped out of her slacks, Weiss looked up and caught Ally watching her. Any other woman might have been ashamed at being caught staring, but Ally had never seen the point in hiding what you longed for. So she didn't look away, although her smile grew a lot wider. Weiss must have seen that as a challenge. Although she was obviously uncomfortable, she refused to back down, and didn't look away either.
Now clad only in her underwear, Weiss clambered on to the bed, pushing Ally down flat on her back, brooking no argument. Climbing up her body, Weiss straddled the handcuffed woman, keeping Ally's legs pinned together with her knees. Then she ducked her head to kiss her again, softly and tenderly at first, just brushing her lips oh so lightly against Ally's mouth. Her tongue just barely licked at the pale woman's lips.
It wasn't enough of a distraction, not this time. Weiss must have seen Ally glance towards the window as she took hold of her chin and held it firm, preventing Ally from turning her head.
"Don't," she said quietly but sternly. "This isn't about anything but you and me, remember that. Make this a memory it can't take from you."
"I?" Ally began, but she didn't know what she meant to say, so fell silent, giving Weiss a feeble smile instead.
Weiss made the smile vanish by kissing her again, roughly this time, and still kept a hand on her, letting it rest lightly on Ally's collarbone. Another quick kiss followed, just as hard as the first, then another, as if each was meant to rid herself of some of the burning eagerness she was obviously feeling but instead each only served to fan the flames even higher.
Ally winced again, grunting in pain.
"Did I hurt you?" Weiss said in sudden concern. She shifted position again, rolling over so that she now lay on her side. Ally could feel the warmth of her skin as Weiss moved closer, pressing herself against Ally's body.
"My cheek is sore, that's all. I hope you fuck as hard as you punch."
"Sure, just only when you're in handcuffs."
That raised another smile from Ally, a stronger, more natural one this time. "You going to take these things off?"
"No," Weiss said, "I've kinda got used to you being in them. Now, get your arms above your head."
The smile turned into a wide grin. "A control freak even in-between the sheets. I should have known." All the same she complied, raising her arms onto the pillows above her. Her fingers pressed down into the mattress, sneaking into the gap and curling up to grip the underside of the wooden headboard.
"Shut up," Weiss ordered, "and unless you're watching me, close your eyes."
"Sure, whatever you..."
Then she could say nothing, as Weiss' hand found her breasts again and it was all she could do to stop herself from groaning aloud. She felt her breast being cupped, the softness yielding to Weiss' strong touch, and then felt the hardened nipple being pinched between forefinger and thumb, enough to elicit a sudden gasp but not quite enough to hurt.
At the same time she could feel Weiss' breath on her shoulder, and a second later felt those soft, wide lips touching the side of her neck, moving downwards, agonizingly slow.
With Weiss shuffling a little lower on the bed, Ally obediently closed her eyes. Weiss had been right, after all. It was easier for her to lose herself in the moment that way and, much more importantly, she had to try to block out what remained of the motel room. Don't think about it, she thought, don't give it headroom, don't even think about it. Focus on Weiss, she told herself over and over again, focus, concentrate on what she's doing...
Again, she felt Weiss' mouth upon her breasts, the tongue circling one firm nipple, then the lips closing around it and Weiss sucking softly. Ally almost dared to move her hands down, as she wanted to touch her and she wanted to keep her there.
No such luck.
Weiss rose up a little again. One hand now lay on the left side of Ally's stomach, resting gently on the discolored flesh. The other pushed Ally's own hands back down, keeping them firmly embedded in the pillows above her head. Weiss had to stay in control even now, while all the time she was pushing Ally closer and closer to losing it. She was so close already, trying to fight the need that was filling her.
The hand on her stomach moved down a little further, the slender, perfectly manicured fingers easing beneath the white cotton of Ally's panties. Ally couldn't help but tremble in anticipation.
The fingertips slid down over smooth skin, brushed through her soft patch of hair, down just a little further, barely touching the slick wetness she found there. Weiss ran a fingernail along the folds of Ally's womanhood, gently scratching the tender flesh there, smiling as the caress sent another shudder through her lover's body.
Ally's breath caught in her throat as she felt a single finger slip easily inside her. Weiss began to move her hand back and forth, her finger effortlessly sliding in and out. After just a few moments another finger joined the first, and Ally felt herself tighten around them.
Ally wanted to say something, anything, to encourage Weiss' actions but she hardly dared speak. Her back arched as Weiss' thumb found her engorged clit, gently tweaking it along with each insistent thrust of her fingers. She was panting for air as her body moved with a will of its own, her pelvis thrusting against the palm of Weiss' hand. She could feel the pressure surging between her legs and she could only grunt wordlessly as Weiss kept up the rapid motion.
Weiss shifted suddenly, positioning herself over Ally's right thigh, pinning her own hand and rubbing her own crotch against the bruised flesh. Ally gasped as a jolt of pain shot up her leg, gritting her teeth just to get through it. As the pain ebbed away she could feel the hotness of Weiss almost burning her thigh. The woman needed release almost as much as Ally did.
And she was greedy, letting her eagerness run away with her. Ally wasn't about to let that happen.
"Too fast," she said. The words came out almost as a growl. "Slow down, please... Weiss, please..."
She was ignored. Weiss continued to frantically drive her fingers deep inside her, running her thumb over her clitoris, unevenly stroking it with each thrust. At the same time, she pushed herself against Ally's responsive body, wrapping one leg over and around both of Ally's so she could get as close as possible.
Ally's fingers caught the underside of the headboard again, gripping it so tightly that her knuckles turned white. She choked back a cry. She felt that familiar ache inside, that mounting sensation as her pleasure grew. No point in slowing now.
Her head rolled to one side, away from Weiss, and she almost bit her own bicep just to keep from yelling. Her breath came in fast gasps. "Going? to come?"
She had wanted this to last but now she was so near she couldn't hold it back. Weiss thrust even faster, her fingers pounding into Ally as she bucked uncontrollably against the dark-skinned woman's hand, and then she climaxed, her muscles tensing tightly as she felt her body plummet blissfully down into release.
After a moment, Weiss slipped her hand out from Ally's panties and moved her arm up to snake around her waist. Weiss then kissed her neck, calming the woman as her tall, paper-thin body quivered. Ally felt the absence greatly, her breathing heavy, her chest rising and falling as she groaned in a mix of gratification and disappointment.
"Good?" Weiss said, her tongue touching an earlobe, flicking over the silver earring stud. When she caught Ally's eye, she had a wide self-satisfied smile on her face, so cat-like that Ally almost expected to see yellow feathers at the corner of her mouth.
"Mmm?" Ally murmured. "Too fast, but good."
Slowly, ever so slowly, Ally's breathing steadied, made all the easier by the tight embrace Weiss held her in. She lay perfectly still for a long while, reveling in the satisfied feeling, letting the fulfilled ache ebb away, and the tremors subside. She felt so weak, like she could hardly move, her limbs were so heavy. Weiss seemed content to let her rest, holding her tightly, nuzzling at her neck and shoulder, her own passion seeming to be under control for the moment,
Another candle flickered and went out, leaving only the one beside the bed still alight. The room seemed oddly brighter without it. The nothingness was so close now, reaching across the threadbare carpet, swallowing up the dresser, almost entirely encircling the bed.
Ally sighed. So much for just losing herself in the moment. "We don't have long, do we?"
Weiss rose up, propping herself up on one elbow. She gently traced the pattern of the tattoo on Ally's stomach with her fingernail. The gentle touch made Ally tremble.
Ally dared to lower her arms, feeling the stiffness in her shoulders, then cupped Weiss' face in her hands, the steel links of her cuffs glinting, and drew the Marshal in close to kiss her intensely. Her cheek throbbed in pain and she could smell the strong odor of mingled sweat and her own arousal in the cold air, but that was okay. It gave her something else to focus on, assuming Weiss didn't have anything else in mind.
Weiss broke the kiss, lightly sucking at Ally's bottom lip for one last second, and running her tongue very gently along the cut she had inflicted earlier in the day. The slight stab of pain was quickly forgotten when Ally saw that Weiss, half-sitting up, was reaching behind her own back to unclasp her bra, then slowly, ever so slowly, sliding the black garment down her arms.
She was beautiful, Ally thought, so desperately beautiful. Weiss had an athlete's physique; small breasts, a perfect curve to her ribs, limbs evenly muscled and toned, stomach flat. Her coffee-dark skin gleamed with sweat in the candlelight.
Ally could smell Weiss now. That sweat mixed with the now familiar hint of tobacco, the expensive fragrance, and most of all that underlying current of excitement. She eagerly reached out to touch the dark-skinned woman's breasts but Weiss quickly caught her hands and held them firmly, barely inches away from her body.
Weiss caught Ally's eyes just as steadily as she held the bound wrists.
"I want you to taste me," she said, speaking quietly but in a tone that made it clear she wouldn't take no for an answer.
Ally nodded. "Anything."
As Weiss lay back, Ally shuffled down the bed, keeping her eyes on Weiss as much as she could, trying not to think about the nothingness that edged ever closer. She moved over so that she knelt between Weiss' legs, nudging them apart a little more. With her bound hands she eased Weiss' panties down as far as she could over her muscular thighs.
Like the bra, the panties struck her as much more feminine than she might have expected. Black cotton, high-cut, and trimmed in lace. Ally would have put money on Weiss being the boxer shorts type.
"Could you raise yourself up a little?" she said, her face coloring at having to ask such an awkward question.
Weiss complied, steadying herself on the bed with her elbows and scooting down a little, allowing Ally to get her hands underneath the Marshal's firm buttocks. Her legs, still constrained by her underwear, could part no further.
She lowered her head, her tongue immediately finding the delicate folds and trailing along the very edges of those swollen lips. She could taste the intoxicating desire, reveled in the welcoming heat, smelled the sheer need.
Slowly and deliberately, she moved upwards, her tongue finding and circling Weiss' clit. The merest touch made Weiss shudder, so she stayed there for a long moment, lapping at the swelling clitoris hungrily. Then her tongue unhurriedly returned to those slick folds, gliding through them, thrusting between them, each and every movement eliciting a soft cry from Weiss.
Her hands gripped Weiss' ass tightly, pulling the other woman's body up towards her. Back to the clit again, not with her tongue this time but with her lips, sucking fiercely on the throbbing clit, even daring to nip gently at it with her teeth. She heard Weiss call out in ecstasy. Another quick caress of the swollen bud with just the very tip of her tongue, barely even touching it, and then Ally returned her attention to those soft, fleshy lips.
Weiss reached down with one hand to grip the back of Ally's head, her fingers grasping a tight hold on her hair, keeping Ally locked firmly in place. Not that Ally needed any such encouragement. She yearned to share this moment with Weiss, with a woman who up until a day ago had been a complete stranger, who had since beaten her, mistreated her, doubted her, but who now, more than anything, was all that remained of her life.
She sensed Weiss' orgasm begin to build and increased her tempo. The dark-skinned woman's breath became labored and she convulsed beneath Ally's caresses. Ally glanced up, seeing Weiss' head rolling back, her eyes scrunched closed, her white teeth biting hard into her lower lip as she swore, dragging out the f-word for an impossibly long time as her climax rocked her body.
Ally pulled free and as carefully as she could, for the nothingness had now reached the narrow edge of the bed, moved up to lay beside Weiss. The quilt didn't move much under her weight, which nagged at the back of her mind as she settled down beside the still panting Weiss. It was like the white emptiness was somehow bearing down on the quilt, as if some unseen force had placed heavy stones at all four corners.
Feeling incredibly tired all of a sudden, Ally yawned. She kept her eyes on Weiss, not daring to look anywhere else, but the nothingness shifted into her view no matter what, almost as easily as it crept back into her thoughts.
Weiss lay unmoving for the longest time, her eyes firmly closed, the sound of her breathing loud in the stillness of what little space remained.
Ally lazily ran her fingers up Weiss' thigh, over her hip, and almost up to the flat stomach, only then wearily letting her hands fall between them. She lay back, resting her head on Weiss's shoulder, relishing the heat, the dampness of Weiss' sweat-laden skin, the heaving of her chest as she breathed so deeply. Ally could feel Weiss' heartbeat pounding through her still trembling body.
After a while Weiss reached down, scrabbling to pull up her underwear, as if she was suddenly embarrassed by her nakedness. Ally groaned in displeasure at having her comfortable position disturbed, even for just a moment, but then was silenced when Weiss sank back into the pillows and wrapped an arm around her.
Just then, the nothingness took the last candle from them.
* * * * *
If Weiss could, she'd get away from Cole, just for a minute or two. She could feel that strange combination of panic and guilt welling up inside her, that little touch of shame that always nagged at her at these moments. This was different, of course, but only by being worse.
She needed space, room to breathe, and felt an overwhelming need to hide, even if only from herself. It was a routine she knew by heart. Normally, burning with shame, she would crawl under her blankets, just for a minute or two, just until she got her head back together. She was unable to help herself, not until the walls were cemented back in place.
Although the feeling had never been this strong before, never enough to make her want to run so bad. But then there had never been someone to run from, had there?
She supposed Cole would find that amusing if she dared mention it. For once, Weiss would be the one on the run. But as Cole had pointed out often enough there was nowhere left to go.
Her mind quickly turned to God and then away again just as fast. That upset her, the fact she couldn't find solace in the usual way. Not so much a lapse of faith, no, that still burned as brightly inside her as it ever had, instead just an oddly unanswered prayer. It was like finding the doors to your church locked on a Sunday morning. You went home and prayed alone, that's all. A church might close its doors on you but God never would.
Without thinking, she glanced at her watch. Cole didn't move. Her breathing was so steady, her long body so still, Weiss would almost swear she was asleep.
Two minutes past midnight. It was
Sunday, she realized. How funny was that?
She felt Cole's warm breath on her neck. The other woman was snuggling into her as closely as she could, her hands trapped between them, and her slender legs wrapped tightly around her own. Another uncomfortable reason Weiss couldn't leave. Cole was clinging to her as if she was hanging on for dear life. It was an appropriate enough thought, Weiss supposed, if somewhat disturbing. Cloying too; it wouldn't leave her alone.
It disturbed her because Cole was asking too much. Weiss was powerless, knowing she couldn't protect her any longer, it was way past that, and the knowledge hurt. Cole was her responsibility and she'd let her down. Worse, she hadn't even been able to keep her hands off her. That was dereliction of duty, plain and simple. And it wasn't just Cole she'd let down, but also Lonan, the Service, her family, everybody.
She stared upwards, blinking as she tried to keep the ceiling in focus. Her eyes burned a little. It took her a second to realize that there was no ceiling anymore. The nothingness had begun to descend towards them, engulfing the low hanging light fixture. If she could have seen the floor, Weiss would have bet that was gone now too. To her sides there was hardly any room left. A good quarter of the bed had been swallowed up already.
If nothing else, and she supposed now there was nothing else, there was no longer any point in arguing that the nothingness wasn't following them, either seeking out Cole or her or? Weiss gulped nervously. Or both of them. Now wasn't that an interesting thought? Weiss guessed she should consider that ironic but instead she just found it frustrating. After all, there were easier ways for God to get his point across, and all of them a lot less final too.
Did it matter, she wondered? After all, whoever the nothingness was reaching out for more, the end result would still be the same.
No, it mattered. It always mattered. She could? she caught the mistake, smiled a desperately weary smile? she would meet her end in this dingy little motel room, on the outskirts of a rundown tourist trap that had seen better days, in the arms of a woman who? well, who admittedly could be charming, approachable and downright sexy as anyone Weiss had ever known, but who was also nothing more than a low-rent thief, a petty con artist, and most likely a murderer too.
But she could still face it with some dignity.
Still trembling, Weiss struggled to regain her composure, to steady her breathing a little. She wanted to be calm at the very end. At least that would be something, a show of resistance worth making no matter how small and futile it might seem, no matter that no one would ever know of it.
Cole murmured something into her neck, so quietly Weiss didn't catch it. She almost said something and then thought better of it. It hadn't been a question, no response seemed necessary. She felt self-conscious still, had so immediately after Cole had had crawled up to lay beside her.
She thought of the climax that had been wrung from her body, teased out of her with consummate ease. It had been a while since she'd felt anything like that and that had been at her own hands, never with another woman. She had wanted to, had always wanted to, for as far back as she could remember, but she'd made promises, hadn't she?
And even her own best efforts had been nothing like that. Cole's every touch had sent shivers through her body, little flashes of pleasure, each fizzling out only after sparking off another. She had tried to hide her body's reaction though, just to keep control. No doubt some women would have found Weiss' ingenuousness appealing, perhaps even attractive, even if they only yearned to be the one to take all that innocence away. But she had doubted Cole would be like that. Most likely, she guessed, Cole would have found it amusing.
She stifled a yawn. She was exhausted.
Cole shifted slightly, obviously trying to get more comfortable. She was evidently still awake, for as she moved she planted a soft kiss on Weiss' shoulder. Unbidden, the remorse rose within Weiss once again. It was that familiar pang of guilt, something that weighed so heavily on her whenever she lay in her bed back in Sacramento, thinking of women she'd most likely never know, of what they could do, of how they would touch her.
But this was much, much worse. Weiss knew she had willingly, eagerly even, made love to Cole and in doing so had broken all those promises. She wondered if she'd thrown it all away. She had been saving herself. She'd promised that to both her mother and pastor, and she guessed even God, in a way. Of course, they had all thought she was promising something else, the pastor out of ignorance, her mother out of the strongest possible denial. But all the same she'd stuck to it. She had drove many an interested woman away because of those promises. She had always needed a commitment before she went too far with any woman, which had meant she had never gone that far.
But circumstances always change, she thought, don't they? And they don't change much more than this. Surely no one would hold her to her promises now, not that there was anyone left who could.
Besides, she guessed God would forgive her. And if he didn't she would probably find out soon enough.
Speaking of which, she should move. The nothingness was inching over the quilt, ever closer, enclosing them in a tiny little bubble that was all that remained of reality. She should do something.
In a minute, Weiss told herself. I just need a minute to myself. Please.
She didn't get it. She could see tiny dots of white against the multi-colored bedspread, each growing larger, and then more and more appearing. They were so close now, the spots almost reaching her.
Weiss kissed the top of Cole's head, smelling the faintest scent of strawberries, too sweet and artificial to be anything but her shampoo.
"Mmm?" Cole murmured. "Ally, please."
Weiss ignored that. "I need to move."
Cole raised her head and gave her a confused look. "Am I hurting you?"
"Then did you want me to??" Cole let the question hang with a mischievous smile.
"No!" Weiss realized she had spoken too sharply when Cole suddenly looked dejected. She made an effort to soften her tone. "I'd? I'd like that? no, it's just there's not much space left?"
Cole looked past Weiss towards the nothingness. The smile slowly faded from her face, only to be replaced by a look of abject terror.
"Oh no?" she said, in a voice so low that could hardly be heard. "Please, no?"
Weiss pushed her back down on to the bed. The mattress should have given more under her as she moved. She tried not to think about that. She had spent too much time trying to figure this all out, pointlessly. She twisted over, scrambling so she was on top of the other woman, ducking her head so Cole could loop her handcuffed arms around her.
Cole grunted in discomfort when Weiss settled. Weiss was trying to keep as much of her weight off Cole as possible but it wasn't easy. Still, to her credit Cole didn't complain. Instead, she looked to the other side of the bed, hoping that the nothingness had not spread so far as she feared. Weiss didn't have to look to know she would be disappointed.
"It's okay," Weiss whispered.
"No, it isn't!" Cole said. She was crying. This wasn't the sobbing of sorrow, there was no distressing wailing, her chest wasn't heaving as she wept, her face wasn't scrunched up in grief. Instead the tears just flowed easily down her face. It was the weeping of someone who was so close to giving up. "Please don't let me go!"
It was closer, Weiss realized. The nothingness had consumed the space she'd only just vacated so quickly, like it was suddenly tired of waiting.
"Don't move," she said urgently. "We can make the morning, just don't move."
Weiss pushed herself up with one hand, slowly, carefully, just in case there was nothing above her, then used the other hand to touch Cole's chin, ever so lightly. It got her attention.
They stared into each other's eyes, hazel into the darkest green. For them now, there was nothing else to see. The white expanse edged even nearer. After just a second, although it seemed so much longer, Weiss had to lower herself again. She didn't dare keep her distance any longer.
They embraced, holding each other so tightly. Weiss could feel Cole's fingers clutching at her, gripping at her back painfully hard. They clung to each other out of desperation, one praying, one hoping, but each wanting the same small miracle; if they just held on, just for a little bit longer, then there might be a chance.
"Weiss, please?" Cole now had her eyes closed tight, the tears slowly seeping out of the corners.
"I'm here," Weiss said, trying her best to sound calm. It didn't work. "Look at me. Look at me!"
And then she saw it. A single impossibly tiny pinprick of white had appeared out of nowhere, right above Cole's left eye.
"Cole, don't?" was all Weiss managed to say before she realized her mistake.
Cole opened her eyes. Her eyelashes, those long, mascara free lashes, caught on the little spot of nothingness. Cole didn't see it, maybe she couldn't focus that close, that well, or that fast, but she somehow knew what had happened. Her mouth fell open in a scream of absolute agony.
Once again Weiss saw that blinding flash of light that burned her retinas so badly. Then she was falling, less than a foot, onto the bed, for Ally was no longer there, and Weiss fell down onto that tiny dot of white herself.
The pain was unbearable but at least it didn't last long.
* * * * *
White. Nothing but white.
When Weiss woke, that was all she could see at first. Her vision cleared gradually and after a long moment she could just about make out countless little grey lines, which soon became uneven ridges, undulating waves in the whiteness. She wasn't sure they were moving, but they sure seemed to be. Staring at them soon made her feel sick to her stomach.
At the same time, her head was engulfed in pain. There was an erratic pounding that wouldn't leave her alone, each thump driving a deep reverberation of agony through her skull, and below that was a more regular and slow drumbeat of an ache, pulsing at the back of her head. If this wasn't a full-blown migraine, Weiss didn't know what was.
Strangely, it was just that blinking, something so simple, so natural, and so automatic, that made her realize she was still alive. When she closed her eyes the whiteness went away. Not completely, perhaps, the bright light still burned reddishly through her eyelids, but at least she could filter it out a little.
Unfortunately, she could not say the same for the pain. The pounding stopped for a while, it was hard to say how long, but that only made the throbbing at the very top of her spine feel so much worse. But at least now, that too was a blessing in disguise. The pain, terrible as it might be, was another small indication that she was alive.
She was still in the motel room, Weiss finally realized. The rippling whiteness had been nothing more than the crude stucco plastered over the ceiling.
Weiss twisted her head to look around. That proved to be a mistake. More pain, like a white hot flame, shot up her neck and exploded like fireworks inside her head.
She lay still for a long moment, allowing the pain to gradually subside into just the dullest of aches. Her mouth felt incredibly dry, her tongue like a lead weight. She couldn't feel her left arm at all; it was stretched across the pillows and Cole's head was heavily pressing down on it. Cole was evidently a sound sleeper, not even stirring as Weiss moved.
As the throbbing pain eased, allowing Weiss to gather her thoughts again, she realized that this was just a hangover, nothing a few ibuprofen and some strong coffee wouldn't cure. The pounding was something else though. It was the door.
Someone was knocking, she thought, and that simple idea made her so happy. No, they weren't knocking; they were hammering on the door impatiently. On any day long past, that would at best have made her count to ten and at worst cause her temper to flare up uncontrollably. Along with everything else - the poorly plastered ceiling, the weight of Cole's sleeping form, the hangover pain, the blinking, all of it - that sound now filled her with such relief she suddenly felt like crying. It meant she was alive.
Tears did come after a while. As she blinked them away, the droplets slowly rolled down her cheeks to settle into cold pools in her ears. She was alive. Cole shifted slightly, murmuring something in her sleep. They were both alive. Silently she sent a quick but heartfelt prayer of thanks to God.
She knew she would have cried for a long time if she let herself. Instead, she wiped at her face with her free hand and tried to pull herself together. Looking past Cole, she managed to raise part of her trapped arm to check her watch. It was a little past nine. More than eight hours had passed since the nothingness had taken Cole from her. Had she been sleeping all that time?
The hammering on the door continued. Someone called out and she recognized the voice. Her heart leapt. It wasn't possible.
With a pang of regret, Weiss quickly left the warmth of the bed and the warmer still embrace of Cole. She shivered almost immediately against the chilly morning air. The power was back on, she could tell by the blinking of the alarm clock, but the heating hadn't kicked in yet.
Weiss shook her numb arm, trying to get some feeling back into it, and then looked back at the still sleeping Cole. The pale woman seemed oblivious to the world, not disturbed in the slightest by Weiss' absence or the loud and persistent knocking. If it wasn't for the gentle rise and fall of the bedspread Weiss would almost think she wasn't breathing.
From what she had learned of Cole, Weiss imagined her as the sort of woman who would stay awake for as long as she could, desperate to eke every little bit of pleasure out of a day, and then when she finally crawled into her bed she would sleep forever. All those late nights, bright lights, and adoring fans would exhaust her, no doubt about that. And she'd probably never see the irony there.
Weiss thought about waking her, just so she too would know of the miracle. But she quickly decided against it. Let her sleep, Weiss thought. That way any awkward questions could be avoided, for a short while at least.
Cole moaned softly. At some time during the night the pale woman had rolled on to her side, so she could snuggle even closer to Weiss. For such a tall woman, she could certainly ball herself up into a small space. She looked so incredibly peaceful.
For just a second, Weiss thought about stealing back into bed with her, easing her way under the quilt and letting herself be pulled between those long legs once again. The warmth beckoned her, the closeness called to her, and the desire burned at her. She bit her bottom lip, her teeth almost drawing blood.
But then another round of knocking broke the spell, so she sighed and reached for her clothes instead.
Weiss hastily pulled on her tee-shirt, the fabric cold against her skin. She felt briefly uncomfortable in the day-old dirt and sweat that caked the top, but tried not to think about it. That was second nature after yesterday. It was like she'd been caught in the rain, gotten soaked to the bone, and had stripped off and gotten dry, only to now have to put on those wet clothes once again. She shuddered, fought against the feeling, then yanked open the door.
Looking angry, Devlin stood in the doorway, one hand still raised as if to continue banging on the door. She'd been right. She had recognized the voice, after all.
Almost near tears again, Weiss threw her arms around Devlin, catching him completely off-guard and propelling him backwards, to jar painfully against the nearest brick pillar. Somewhat surprised, he still hugged her back and as he held her, she took his face in her hands, simply overjoyed at seeing him again, and kissed him. She actually kissed him.
He colored, his cheeks reddening brightly as he reached up to grab her hands. "What the fuck is wrong with you? You act like you thought you'd never see me again!"
Weiss blinked away tears, trying not to let him see how close to the truth he'd got. She put on a brave face and tried her best to smile as he pushed her away, gently, so as not to upset her.
Obviously uncomfortable with what must have struck him as her weird behavior, Devlin took a step to one side and let her go.
"Jesus, get a grip!" When she didn't say anything at that, too lost in the joy of the moment, he stared at her with a worried expression. "No reprimand for blaspheming? Something really must be wrong."
"No," she said through a watery smile, "I don't think so, not any more. It's good to see you, Lonan. Where did you get to?"
"Funny, I was going to ask you the same thing."
Weiss opened her mouth to say something but nothing came to mind. Was there any point in trying to explain what had happened? Had any of it really happened? Devlin had vanished in a flash of blinding light, swallowed up by the nothingness, she knew that, she had seen it. And yet here he was, standing right in front of her, flesh and blood. But then, Weiss guessed, the same could be said of her. And of Cole too. Of everyone.
"It's a long story," she finally managed to say. It wasn't enough but she imagined nothing would be. She swallowed a couple of times, her mouth still feeling dry.
She shivered, suddenly feeling the cold. It was freezing out here on the balcony. She remembered that the grey-haired waitress in the diner yesterday had said the forecast was calling for an early snowfall. It looked like the weathermen had been right. Snow was falling, very lightly, covering the tarmac of the courtyard below with a thin sheen of blueish-grey. Her hangover seemed to kick up a notch, just for a second, then the pain faded away as quickly as it had flared. She wondered if that was the holes in her memory slowly filling up again; the more she remembered, the less it hurt. Maybe, she thought, maybe not. She tried to think of a memory it had taken from her but it was impossible. She guessed it was pointless to try to remember what exactly she had forgotten.
When she moved, her bare feet touched the glass whiskey bottle. It rolled a few inches from where she had left it late last night, across the cold cement of the breezeway, coming to rest against the rusting railing with a soft clink. She wished there was something in it. She needed a drink.
Her breath fogged heavily in front of her face. She crossed her arms, trying to keep the warmth from escaping by holding on to it.
"It had better be," Devlin said grouchily. "The last I saw of you was in Vegas, running back to the trailer park with the suspect in tow. I didn't know what you were playing at. One minute I'm helping that cycle-courier back up on to his feet and the next I turn around and you've both vanished. Luckily I caught a glimpse of you halfway down the street."
Weiss nodded vaguely. She remembered that bicycle now, lying on the ground with the spokes of the still spinning rear wheel catching the early morning light. But there had been no courier, had there? And then, seconds later, Devlin had vanished. Or had he? If Devlin remembered things differently, then it couldn't have happened, could it? But it did happen. To her, anyway. Maybe to Cole too.
"No snow?" she asked warily, wondering, not for the first time, if she'd gone mad.
No, she wasn't mad. Maybe she had been, for a day or so. Maybe she'd been running from sanity and it was only now catching up with her. The shock of it all was like having your head forced under a cold shower.
"What?" He gave her a quizzical look. "Snow? In Vegas? Are you crazy?"
She smiled weakly. At least she wasn't alone in wondering. "There was a cold snap?"
"Sure, for Vegas. Nothing like here. Are you sure you're feeling alright?"
"Yeah, I think so. Maybe." Weiss sighed. She had to tell him. God alone knew how she would, but he'd also give her the courage to do it. She hoped the words would come on their own, once she got started. "Alright, Devlin, you want to know what happened?"
He immediately shook his head, holding up a hand to keep her from saying anything more. "Stow it," he said, still grumpy. "You must have had a good reason for wandering off."
"We?" Weiss began, then caught herself as Devlin looked sharply at her. "I did. But you don't want to know what it is? Are you sure?"
"Not as much as you don't want to tell it, that much is obvious. I'm your partner. I trust you, you should know that by now."
She believed him. Anyone else and she might not. Devlin trusted her, always had, right from the moment they'd been paired together. He welcomed her into his life, his family, never questioned her or doubted her, even kept her in line on the rare occasions she needed him to. He was that kind of guy. It probably came back to burn him more often than not.
Weiss had never before been so thankful for someone's trust in her. She felt like crying again and so bit her tongue. And she wanted to hug him again too but knew that wouldn't be appreciated, so she kept herself in check. It wasn't easy.
"So how much trouble are we in?"
"We?" He flashed her that annoying smile of his that always suggested he thought he knew better than she did. She let it go. "None, actually."
"What?" She stared at him, unbelieving. Amidst the jumble of thoughts that had been racing through her brain since she woke, and particularly since she found him at her door, there had been the nagging worry that if things really were back to normal, then she had an awful lot of explaining to do.
"Relax, will you? I covered your ass." His smiled widened a little more as he glanced downwards. "Which is more than that tee-shirt's doing."
Weiss swore, pulling down at the hem of the shirt self-consciously. He was right. Tug as she might, it barely hid her underwear. She could feel her face burning up from embarrassment.
"What, no comeback?" he said. "None of your usual witty retorts, like a solid punch in the gut?"
He laughed. "No, never. Not you."
"You'd be surprised. I had a rough night yesterday. Take advantage of it, why don't you?"
"I'd never dare." He glanced down at her bare legs again. "You must be freezing. You need your jacket or something?"
Weiss glanced at the open door of her motel room. She didn't really want to go back in there, not right now.
"Sure about that, are you?" His smile faded as he eyed her skeptically. He let the question go unanswered. "So where's Cole?"
She was definitely blushing now. He must have seen that, although she made another attempt to tug her tee downwards, in the hopes it would throw of his suspicions as to why. Not much of a chance of that; he was even better at reading people than she was and they'd worked together a long time. Hastily, she nodded back towards the room.
"In there. Don't worry, she's not going anywhere."
"Do I look worried?"
Again, Devlin let the question hang in the air. He turned away before she could answer, leaning against the railing and staring out towards the mountains in the distance. "I can't see why you'd want to end up here."
Weiss stepped forward to stand next to him. There was a small layer of undisturbed snow on the top of the railing. Her breath caught in her throat as she reached out to touch the whiteness. Her fingertip stopped an inch away, stayed there for a second, then she pulled her hand away. You never know, she thought.
The motel courtyard below was no longer empty, she noted. There were several more cars parked in the lot below, including two Sheriff's Department cruisers. Strangely, over on the far side, there were also a number of news media vans parked around the far side of the lot, although she didn't recognize any of the logos or station identifiers. She guessed they were all for local network affiliates. Small town news. The briefest of concerns that they might be here after her and Cole flitted through her mind, but she dismissed the worry. The reporters and camera crews seemed to be idly milling around, chatting with each other, waiting for something to happen. If they were after her and Cole, they would have been up here already, Weiss supposed.
Stranger still, over by the pool there was a podium decorated with the seal of the Sheriff's Department. Behind that, she could make out the desk clerk she'd talked to last night. He was busy sweeping up broken glass from in front of two vending machines.
"As soon as you'd done your vanishing act," Devlin said, "I called in. I told Grayson that the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department had screwed up yet again and got the wrong address, and that by the time we got to the right one, Cole had bolted."
When he caught her looking at him disapprovingly, he shrugged. "Ah, stop worrying, it's almost true. Grayson told me that we should do our best to work with Metro to find her. Well, as I figured you still had her in custody I told him that Metro were trying to pick up the slack and we'd hang around until they did."
"And Grayson bought that?" asked Weiss doubtfully. Their direct superior was not known for being gullible and usually kept a really close eye on any kind of foul-ups.
Devlin laughed. "Sure, why not? That's why Duffy was out sick apparently. He wanted nothing to do with Metro, they'd screwed him over royally before. Grayson didn't like it, sure, but he knows what they're like, and them not having Cole in custody before we got there helped."
"Thanks, Lonan," she said, although it didn't seem enough. She reached out and touched his arm. He really had covered their asses. For all he knew, she and Cole could have been working together, running for the border. She wanted him to know how grateful she was but what more was there to say?
He smiled at her again. "I told you, I don't want to know anything about it. I'm sure you had your reasons. Just remember this next time I'm having a drink or two and Melanie calls wanting to know why I'm working late."
A thought occurred to Weiss. She frowned. "How did you find us, anyway?"
"Us?" he said teasingly and then gestured over the railing down towards the red Camry. "As soon as I realized you weren't coming back, which was later than I would have liked, I contacted the rental company again. These places track all their cars, just another way they try to save a little money, I guess. You should know that. It wasn't as easy as I hoped though. They were still having computer troubles all day yesterday, I don't know if you remember."
She did, vaguely, even though it hurt her head to do so.
"I had to flash the badge and apply a good deal of pressure just to get them to go along with me. And I had no way of getting myself another rental, thanks for that by the way, as I was completely out of cash. Luckily, the garage fixed our car by mid-afternoon. So I had to drive all night to get here and now I'm goddamn beat. You owe me."
Yeah, Weiss thought, in more ways than one. She'd get him some tickets for another Kings' game maybe, if she could. It wasn't much but at least it would show him she was thankful.
"We still need to get Cole back to Sacramento," she said.
He shook his head again. "No, we don't actually. Grayson called me about half-an-hour ago. He tried calling you but had no more luck than I did. I told him your phone was on the fritz. You're welcome, by the way."
She ignored that. "And?"
"And the warrant's been rescinded. Schwarz confessed to the whole thing."
"What?" Weiss stared at Devlin in shock. She couldn't believe it. Cole had protested her innocence all day long yesterday, taking every opportunity to remind the Deputy Marshal that she was not capable of murder, but Weiss had never really believed her. Even if at times, when she was at her weakest, her common sense dulled by alcohol and blunted by Cole's incessant flirting, she had wanted to.
She glanced over her shoulder, back towards the motel room. Cole still showed no signs of surfacing. That was probably for the best for now.
"Yeah, I know," Devlin was saying. "This whole thing's been a huge waste of time. Apparently, he woke everyone in county jail early this morning screaming his head off. When they finally calmed him down, he asked for the arresting officers. And when those lazy bastards finally turned up, he spilled everything."
"Such as admitting to killing DeWitte. Schwarz said he met him on the pretense of having some goods fenced, then stabbed him. That simple."
Weiss still wasn't convinced. "But her fingerprints were on the knife?"
Devlin interrupted her. "Which has a hilt that unscrews, apparently. Schwarz took the blade off and left the handle around DeWitte's store, knowing Cole would pick it up sooner or later. She's that type apparently. Complete klepto. And before you ask, he got his girlfriend to open the rental storage unit in Cole's name. Wore dark glasses, dyed and cut her hair, and I wouldn't be surprised if she dropped a few casual references to Elvis too. Once Schwarz confessed, she wasted no time following suit. Blamed everything on him, as you'd expect."
"I don't get it. Why'd he confess? He was more than smart enough to put Cole in the frame, so why? And why now?"
"Said he had a bad dream," Devlin said with a laugh, "can you believe that?"
Oh yes, Weiss could, all too easily. She felt a growing unease but still she had to ask. "What was the dream about, did he say?"
"The end of the world or some such nonsense. Said he couldn't face his maker without a clear conscience. If only they all gave up so easy."
Weiss guessed then that she and Cole weren't the only ones who had been tormented by the nothingness, even if for him it had been nothing more than a nightmare. Perhaps he had dreamed of her and Cole, perhaps that was what resurrected his conscience. She had the sensation of icy fingers running up her spine, only to grab her around the neck and squeeze. She shivered, then coughed, suddenly finding it hard to breathe.
There was that little reminder of madness again, so familiar, so unwelcome.
If Devlin noticed her reaction, he said nothing about it. Maybe he just attributed it to the cold weather. Instead, he grinned at her. "So long story short, Cole's a free woman again. I'm sure she'll have to answer more than a few follow-up questions but that's nothing for us to worry about."
Weiss looked back down at the courtyard. It seemed that the hotel staff had spent the early hours of the morning cleaning up, sweeping up litter and fallen leaves. The tarpaulin that covered the pool had been secured again and its stripes were hardly visible now, a light dusting of snow transforming them into greyish blurs. There seemed to be more people down there now, Weiss thought, and they were still all waiting for something. She spotted Sheriff Whitaker by the motel entrance, chatting with a couple of deputies.
"So what's going on down there?" she asked.
Devlin shrugged. "The local Sheriff's Department is holding a press conference, I think. I only caught some of it from the news crews. Apparently, three guys robbed a bank upstate yesterday afternoon. Didn't get away clean though. One of them took a bullet in the shoulder and to make matters worse they ran their car off the road just outside town."
"See her?" Devlin leaned over the railing a little to point out the female deputy. "Well, late yesterday she stumbled across their car and got ambushed. After an exchange of fire, she killed one and apprehended the other two, single-handedly. Brave woman."
"Someone has to be," Weiss said, her voice heavy with sadness. Devlin frowned at her but she waved his concern away. "Sorry. Just tired of being afraid."
"Of not taking chances."
"Huh," Devlin said, obviously not sure what to make of that. He plowed on regardless. "They're certainly making a big deal of her. Still, you've got to admire her. I mean, can you believe it? All alone, outnumbered, out of her depth, not able to call for help, and staring death in the face. She's got to be a strong woman just to get through all that with her sanity intact."
"So you want to tell her the good news, or shall I?"
Weiss tore her attention away from the scene unfolding in the courtyard below. Some of the hotel staff were checking the microphones attached to the podium and the reporters were beginning to gather together. It seemed like the press conference was about to start. She turned to look at Devlin, puzzled.
"What?" The pain scraping against the inside of her skull was finally ebbing away. Maybe this hangover wouldn't last, Weiss thought. Maybe she hadn't drunk all that much after all. Maybe she hadn't made a fool of herself with Cole last night. Yeah, right. And maybe there were a hundred other lies waiting to be told.
"Cole," Devlin said, and for one terrifying second Weiss worried that he might have somehow sensed she was thinking about her, but then she dismissed the thought as crazy. "Did you want me to tell her?"
"Oh." She thought about that for a second, but then shook her head. It wouldn't have been fair on Cole to have Devlin suddenly show up, explain everything, and then just set her free. She deserved more than that, although maybe not much more. "No, I'll take care of it."
"Are you sure? It means being diplomatic."
"I'll manage, wise-ass. Can you give me five minutes?"
"Sure." Devlin hesitated for a moment, as if he was giving her one last chance to change her mind, and then turned to walk along the breezeway back towards the stairwell. "I'll make it ten," he called out, "or even longer, just to be on the safe side."
When Devlin was gone, Weiss let out a long, deep sigh. She was shaking. She tried convincing herself that it was the cold finally getting to her but she knew that was only part of it. She was still finding it hard to believe; all they'd been through, all she'd done, all she'd lost. She had thought she was going to die, only to wake and find some of it she could claw back, while some remained firmly lost.
She looked back over the courtyard, watching the press conference unfold. She couldn't hear what was being said but even at this distance she could see how forced Sheriff Whitaker's smile was. He obviously didn't think too much of his young deputy, but was keeping up a pretense for the cameras. A man like him wouldn't want to show any cracks appearing, not in his precious department.
As the female deputy stepped up to the podium, there was a scattered round of polite applause and a sudden burst of irregular camera flashes, so bright that Weiss could still see the black dots for a second or two afterwards. She blinked a couple of times, trying to clear her vision. Why they needed to use their flashes on a bright morning like this she didn't know.
The deputy seemed uncomfortable answering so many questions. She didn't seem to be sure whether she should be looking at the news cameras or straight ahead or at the three or four regular cameras each time a flash went off. Still, Weiss thought, good luck to her. Let her enjoy her little moment in the sun.
Weiss heard a noisy yawn from behind her and spun around to see Cole staggering out of the motel room. She was wearing her dress again, having tied little knots in the busted shoulder straps, along with those ridiculous oversized boots. Cole had that hollow-eyed kind of look that suggested the worst kind of hangover. No, not the worst, Weiss corrected, the second worst perhaps.
She held Weiss' jacket in her hands, offering it to her. Weiss took it, slipped it on, and immediately dug her hands into the pockets. Her fingers closed around the near-empty cigarette pack and the box of matches. She was still shivering a little. The thin material of the jacket wasn't much protection against the cold but it was better than nothing.
"So, listen?" Weiss began weakly, not knowing quite what to say. What do you say, she thought, to someone who was taken from your very arms last night, pulled out of reality somehow, only to return the next morning? Weiss admitted it wasn't exactly a resurrection but it was the closest to one she'd ever be likely to get.
After all, Cole must be in the same boat as her, mustn't she? Unless, like Devlin, her memory had been recreated as soon as she had vanished. Maybe the only reason Weiss could remember everything was because she was the last to go. Maybe, given time, she'd remember everything differently too.
No, Weiss thought, that couldn't be true. Cole was still here, her dress still torn where Weiss' impatience had won out, her face still bruised where Weiss had hit her, and that smile, still knowing.
"Don't worry," Cole said, leaning casually against the door jamb. "I was awake before you. I was never very good at leaving a warm bed on a cold morning."
"So you heard?"
A small nod of the head. "I heard."
"All of it. Which I suppose is about right, as I understand none of it. How your partner could still be here and not be here, it's beyond me."
Weiss gave a small sigh of relief. So Cole did remember everything then. Good. At least she wasn't alone in that. Weiss didn't think she could bear that particular torment.
"Me neither, not really," Weiss said. "If I had to make a guess?"
"And you don't."
"If I had to, then I would guess that what happened to us last night?" Cole grinned wickedly at that, which gave Weiss pause. She thought about rephrasing what she was saying but the words tumbled out before she could stop them. "?happened only to us. And don't ask me to explain that either, because I can't."
"Not just us. Schwarz too."
"Yeah, I guess. Although to him it was only a bad dream, that's what Devlin said."
"Heck or Heaven," Cole said quietly, her smile fading.
"What?" Weiss was confused by the sudden change of subject. She tried to think about what Cole had said but her hangover, the noise from the courtyard, and the cold, made it difficult for her to concentrate.
Cole gestured at the now lit up sign at the entrance to the Checkerboard Heaven motel. No one had made any effort to replace the burned out bulbs.
"Heck or Heaven," Cole repeated, "remember? You can keep them both, as far as I'm concerned."
"Well, I hope that's something we no longer have to worry about," Weiss said, voicing a worry that had nagged at her since she woke. "Not for a while, anyway. Not unless it happens again. It could."
"Sure, I guess. But it won't."
"And what makes you so sure?"
Cole flashed her another broad smile. Weiss recognized that one. She shouldn't feel flattered. Everyone got it, free of charge.
"Faith, I guess. Besides if it does happen again I know where to find you, don't I?" Cole twisted her hands together, quickly, and it took Weiss a second to figure out what she was doing. There was a soft ratcheting sound of metal teeth and then the handcuffs were off.
To her credit, Weiss thought she hid her surprise reasonably well. Her anger, not so much.
Weiss closed her eyes and tried to block out everything. One, two... She had forgotten just how maddening this woman could be. The constant little jibes, that annoying way she had of making the simplest thing sound like an insult, and now this.
She got to ten. Barely.
Cole at least had said nothing in the meantime. Maybe she'd caught wise by now, maybe she knew Weiss was counting under her breath. Weiss realized that Cole hadn't picked the locks there and then, she couldn't have, not so fast. That meant she'd somehow managed to unlock the cuffs in the motel room, possibly while listening to Weiss talking to Devlin, and had since kept them on loosely, just in case.
Now she held them out for Weiss to take. "Here you go."
"Let me guess," Weiss said wearily, taking the cuffs and dropping them in a pocket, "this is when I ask you if you were a magician's assistant and you say no, but you dated one."
There was a self-satisfied smirk on Cole's lips now. "Yeah, well, what can I say. She taught me a few things before she did a disappearing act on me."
"You could have done that at any time."
"Yeah, I could have."
"So why didn't you?"
"I told you already." Cole stretched, spreading her arms out wide, then moved around to stare at her reflection in the window. She ran a hand through her hair, then leaned forward for a closer look, turning her head. Her fingers touched her bruised cheek. "God, I look a mess. So everything's back to normal then?"
"If you like."
"Not much, no. I'm going to need therapy for years." She saw Weiss' reflection looking irritated and grinned. "That's a joke, Weiss."
Weiss' expression didn't change. "If you say so."
"Ah," Cole said, nodding, "really back to normal then. I get it. Suit yourself. It's a pity though. I liked the Weiss I got to know, a hell of a lot better than the one everyone else knows. She was much more approachable. Cute too, when she tried, and she didn't have to try all that hard."
"It's just..." Weiss began, still frowning. She knew what she wanted to say but the words wouldn't come to her.
"It's okay, you don't have to explain," Cole said, giving her a sad smile. "I get it. Or I think I do. Anyway, it's not like I was expecting an apology or anything."
"An apology? For what?" Weiss was momentarily taken aback. Then, Cole turned back to face her, leaned against the door jamb again and then gestured up at her bruised and swollen cheek. "Oh. I... that is... you could..."
Cole grinned. "Forget it. I've endured worse."
"I was going to say," Weiss said tentatively, taking a deep breath before continuing, "that you could think of last night as an apology. If you liked."
The slender woman thought about that for a moment. "Yeah," she finally said, "I suppose I could, but I won't. There was nothing sorry about that."
Weiss felt herself blushing almost immediately. She opened her mouth to say something but Cole beat her to it.
"Don't get like that, please."
"Don't be embarrassed. You've got nothing to feel ashamed of, Weiss, believe me. And I should know. Try living in the moment for once."
"Like you do?"
"Sure," Cole said, still grinning. "Why not? It's nice to know I set a good example in one thing at least. Right now, I feel like crying I'm so happy. I'm alive, it's over, and I'm free. And that's all that matters. To me, anyway."
"To me too," Weiss said, "I mean... we made it, didn't we?"
"We did. I don't know how but I think it's all thanks to you. And you don't have to worry, Weiss, I'm not about to tell anyone about this." Cole caught Weiss' eye and spoke slowly, stressing what she said next. "Any of it."
Weiss nodding, understanding.
"Well, I guess I should go figure some way of getting back home. Listen Weiss, if you're ever in Las Vegas..."
"I think I can safely promise you I won't be."
"We'll see. And that other Weiss, the one I got to know, the one I think I'm talking to now..."
Weiss frowned. "What about her?"
"Try to let her out once in a while, will you?" Cole said. "Let her have her day in the sun. She deserves it."
With that, she pulled up one of the straps that had fallen off her shoulder, gave Weiss the smallest of sad smiles, then turned away and began to walk down the length of the breezeway.
Again, Weiss began to count under her breath. Not to control her temper, not this time, but instead to count footsteps leading away. She wanted to get to ten. She knew she should get to ten. At ten, she thought, she could let go. At ten, Cole would be turning the corner into the stairwell and almost out of sight.
At four, she pushed herself away from the railing.
"Cole, wait!" she called out. When she was ignored, she called out again. "Ally!"
That did the trick. Cole stopped in her tracks, half-turning to look back over her shoulder. She didn't say anything, just stood stock still and waited for Weiss to say something.
That was the problem. Weiss knew what she wanted to say. She just didn't know how to say it.
But as she couldn't let the moment drag on forever, she took a deep breath and said the first thing that came to mind.
"It may not be much but for what's it worth... I'm glad you were innocent."
Cole gave her another smile. And this one wasn't sad, wasn't for an audience, and wasn't free. This one had been earned.
"You're right," Cole said, "it's not much. But I'll take it. See you around, Weiss."
She gave a little wave, almost shyly, barely raising her hand above her waist, and then she spun around and was gone.
After listening to the loud clumping of Cole's boots on the stairs quickly fade away, Weiss turned back around. She brushed a little snow off the top of the railing, then leaned against it to look down on the motel courtyard. It looked like the press conference was wrapping up. Just in time too, as the snowfall was getting heavier by the minute. She watched the flakes drift down from the grey morning sky and shivered once again.
She'd go back inside in just a second. She'd turn on the heat, close the door, get dressed, and then sit on the bed until Devlin came back. Maybe she'd call her mother while she waited. It would be good to hear her voice.
But right now she wanted to stay where she was, to live in the moment. In the grand scheme of things, a minute or two wouldn't matter.
She put her hands back in her pockets, felt the cigarette pack there. It was almost empty. Just one left. She was a little surprised by that, thinking there should have been more. She couldn't remember smoking so many the night before. But then she'd been drunk, so maybe she had. And anyway, she had promised to quit so long as she lived to see today. It was just another of God's gentle nudges.
She shook her last cigarette out, lit it with a trembling hand, and then inhaled the thick, warm smoke deeply. She sighed in contentment.
There was some fun to be had in breaking promises, after all.