Bob Bullard awoke in the darkness and checked the glowing face of his watch. It was still Sunday, almost midnight. He was lying on his back, on the king-sized bed in the master stateroom. Eldorado was gently rolling alongside the dock, probably from the wake of a tugboat churning out of the bay. One of Wendy's long sleek legs was crossed over his. He made no effort to keep from awakening her, while he pulled off their covering sheet and extricated himself.
It was time for Wendy to go. She'd been a great lay, and a hell of a lot of laughs, but when you let chicks sleep over all night, they began to get ideas. Next thing you know, they're in the galley making breakfast, and after that, they're setting aside closet space. No thanks. Been there, done that, paid the alimony. He switched on the brass desk lamp, and pulled on his khaki trousers.
"Wha...what time is it...?" she asked, arching and stretching.
"It's almost Monday, that's what time. Look, something's come up--duty calls," he lied. "I've got to go. Cesar will drop you off. Come on doll face, get dressed."
"But ba...by, I'm slee...py..." she yawned.
"Yeah, me too, but I gotta get up, and so do you. You can sleep when you get home. Cesar will take you. Come on, get up." As a rule, he never let broads spend the entire night in any of his beds. And above all, he never let them stay in this bed, especially while he was off of the boat.
Not with what he had concealed beneath it. No way in hell.
Ranya lay on her stomach among the weeds, on the gravelly slope where the two-lane State Road 60 bridge rejoined the earth. Behind her was a hundred yards of dry wash, the final pinched remnant of the barren salt flat. Almost an hour earlier the insertion plane had landed and braked to a rapid stop four miles north. The pilot yelled go, she threw her pack well clear of the open door, and jumped down. The plane immediately accelerated away with a roar and a rush of prop blast, pelting her with salty grit. She had been prepared for this, so her hood was up and she had faced away as the unlit Maule 7 took off. When she turned around and looked, the single engine plane had already disappeared from view. She found the North Star to get her initial bearings and began her walk to the south, crunching across the saltpan.
All around her was nothing but salt, faintly glowing bone white in the starlight. At 11:07 PM the half moon edged above the low eastern horizon, above Caylen Barlow's ranch, above D-Camp, above her old life in Virginia. The emergence of the half moon brought a weird sort of dawn. The cool horizontal light left crazy shadows across the flats, pointing to where dead trees and tough plants had tried to survive at the margins of the harsh alkaline environment. The walking was easier in the moonlight, with less chance of stumbling into a gully or hole. In the distance, she could see the occasional flickering headlights of a vehicle driving across State Road 60.
In the sky ahead of her, she noticed an extra bright star, which was both blinking and moving from right to left across the firmament. After a while, she decided it was a passenger jet, perhaps heading from Los Angeles to Dallas. She wondered what other aircraft might be above her, which she could not see.
She remembered a story told by another female prisoner in D-Camp, a woman who had been arrested in the wilderness in Oregon. She had been doing some shooting practice with her husband and a few close friends. Nobody outside of this circle knew about their clandestine weapons training. Just the same, they had been ambushed in thick forest, on the remote Jeep trail leading back to the state road. On a tight switchback, a platoon of screaming camouflage-clad federal ninjas leaped out from cover and surrounded their SUV at submachine gun point. They were forced out and down to the ground, and zip-tied with their wrists behind their backs. The federals' boots had literally been on their necks, as their faces were ground into the dirt.
After being frog-marched and dragged to a nearby clearing, before being loaded onto a Blackhawk helicopter, these unlucky Oregonians had seen a UAV drone making low "victory passes" over them. The federal agents looked up and waved skyward for the remotely operated video camera. Later in D-Camp, Ranya and the woman from Oregon surmised that the UAV had been on a routine patrol, and had possibly homed in on the acoustic signature of their firing, the location of which did not correspond to an "authorized" public shooting range. The distant operator of the UAV could have then zoomed in with powerful video cameras, and seen their semi-auto "assault rifles," which had been banned since the Stadium Massacre. Next, it would have been a simple matter to vector in the platoon of ATF agents, who were themselves carrying everything from MP-5 submachine guns to 50 caliber sniper rifles.
So tonight, Ranya wondered what airborne platforms might be slowly circling above, studying the anomalous heat signature moving southward across the saltpan, after a small airplane had briefly paused on an unauthorized flight?
Well, the feds couldn't be everywhere, she reasoned. They couldn't watch every inch of America, every minute of every day. As long as Caylen Barlow's private air force maintained security, there would be no reason for any governmental agency to be focused in on this saltpan, on this particular night...she hoped. If they were, well, she could easily be surrounded by helicopter-borne troops, or she could simply be blown to smithereens by a missile released from above.
Such things were beyond her ability to affect, so she trudged on.
She passed the carcasses and skeletons of numerous cattle and sheep that had wandered onto the unforgiving salt. She had a sudden fright when an immense black-winged bird dived at her unsuspected from behind. She felt and heard the whoosh from its wings as it glided down and brushed past her, touching her hood, and then skimmed low above the ground until it was out of her sight.
By 11:15, the vast saltpan was narrowing to within clearly visible borders on either side, and by 11:30 it had squeezed into a dry creek bed. She could see ahead where a wide bridge carried the state road safely above the infrequent flash flood torrents. According to her New Mexico highway map, the railroad tracks ran parallel to State Road 60, on the other side. Her plan was to walk under the two-lane road bridge on the dry wash, and climb up the bank at the steel trestle railroad bridge a hundred yards beyond. She would hike the remaining five miles to Mountainview on the tracks.
Cars were crossing the bridge only every fifteen or twenty minutes. She turned away and froze when they passed, a black stump to anyone who might chance to look north across the moonlit salt flats. The closer she walked to the highway the more vigilant she became. The moonlight didn't penetrate to the floor of the dry wash under the bridge. She wondered if any dangerous wildlife lurked troll-like beneath the overpass. The yard-thick concrete pillars that supported the roadway could have hidden a platoon of zombie ghouls, she imagined in her rising fearfulness.
She pulled the big folding knife from her sweatshirt's front pouch, thumbed open the blade, and held it at the ready as she entered the shadows. The Strider knife was worth more than many pistols, and she silently thanked Mark Fowler for the extravagant personal gift. It was no pistol--the Glock was useless, in pieces hidden inside her pack--but it was the next best thing. She began to edge her way into the moon-shadow under the bridge between a pair of concrete supports, the space jammed with a helter-skelter tumble of flood-driven rocks and timbers. She was finding a pathway, watching intently for wild animals or other lurking monsters, when she heard a sudden male voice, loud and clear across the still night air.
"Is that you? Finally! You know, we've only been waiting here for three frikkin' hours!"
Ranya spun around and dropped to a crouch behind a boulder, as a vise of fear clamped around her chest and throat. Who was above, waiting for her? This was not in the plan!
Then a shrill female voice demanded, "God Derek, what took you so long? You've been gone forever! My cell phone doesn't work out here, and we were really, really scared! You got the gas?"
"Yes, I got the gas, any other stupid questions?"
"Was the gas station open in Mountainview? Do they have any food?" asked the female.
"No Destiny, the gas station was not open! First, I had to find a hose, and then I had to steal this gas. I had to! Then a dog heard me and almost woke up the whole fucking town. I thought any minute some redneck was going run out and blast me full of buckshot, while I was stealing the gas right out of his pickup truck. So don't even tell me about how scary it was, waiting in the van for good old Derek to go get the fucking gas!"
Twenty feet below the unseen quarrelers, Ranya's heart gradually dropped back below a hundred beats a minute, and the garrote of sudden terror slowly eased its pressure around her neck. She continued listening, putting the pieces together, and crept in the moon shadow beneath the side of the bridge to the slope at its end, and up the sandy bank to the highway.
"B-b-but Derek, if the gas station is closed, how will we be able to get to Albuquerque tonight?" asked the young female.
"We won't, obviously."
Ranya could hear the sounds of a vehicle's gas cap being unscrewed and removed.
"But I'm hungry, and I want to sleep in a real bed..."
"And your rich Daddy isn't here to make it all better, is he? What kind of a comrade volunteer are you? They want fighters for the revolution, not crybabies!"
"We're not crybabies Derek," said another female voice, lower. "We just need to take showers and wash our hair. That's not too much to ask, not after four straight days in the van! We thought for sure we'd be in the dorms by now."
The other male voice said, "We would have been, if we hadn't gotten off the interstate back at Santa Rosa. That's why we ran out of gas."
"Don't you start that shit again, Kalil! You've got NO room to talk! If you hadn't of talked us into going all the way to Kansas City just to score some weed, we would've been in Albuquerque yesterday. And then you got ripped off and lost almost all of our money, and for what? Two friggin' quarter ounces of shitty ditch weed! So don't you even talk to me about--"
"But if we had stayed on the I-40, we--"
"Kalil, you don't know shit about cars! The front end is shot on this piece of crap! Above 50, it's shaking so bad it's going to--"
"Then let me drive it, if you can't handle it! A little shaking isn't the end of the world. It can take it--"
"You don't know shit! If we--"
"Look guys, it doesn't matter!" said the first female, the one who had been called Destiny. "Stop fighting, okay? The blame game, it's so over, like, it's so yesterday! Let's look at tomorrow, okay? We can handle another night in the van, what's one more night, right Lisa? We'll get more gas in the morning, and we'll be at the university by lunchtime. Like, it's okay! Really!"
"If they even have gas in Mountainview," said Kalil. "And if they'll sell it."
"Let's just get the hell out of here," said Derek.
Ranya snaked up the slope between prickly weeds and cactus until she could peer under the steel guardrail at the western end of the bridge. A dark full-sized van was parked on the dirt shoulder, partly obscured by tall spiked shrubs along the side of the road. How had she missed seeing it? She must have been too fixated on getting under the bridge--not a good sign. Literally tunnel vision, she reflected.
A man was tilting a gas jug above the fuel inlet on the left side of the van. Another man stood on the other side, looking out to the north, across the dry salt lake. A smaller person, a female, stepped out of the van and hugged this man from behind, and then pulled him back inside. The one with the fuel can finished, closed the gas cap, and tossed the empty jug into the back. Then he went around to the driver's side, climbed in, and began turning over the engine.
After a few tries the engine caught, the lights went on, and the dark van drove off with a backfire, amidst a cloud of smoke. Ranya watched its tail lights disappear down State Road 60 toward the west, toward Mountainview. 'Comrade volunteers,' heading toward a 'revolution.' Were they for real? She guessed their accents to be from the upper Midwest. Well, whatever they were, wherever they were from, they were apparently heading for the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque.
Score one for Caylen Barlow. Evidently, he knew what he was talking about.