New Pulp Press

"Bullets, Booze and Bastards"

Sample chapter from The Last of the Smoking Bartenders by C.J. Howell

I-70 West outside of Green River, Utah. Under the overpass it really wasn’t bad, almost cool in the shade. But it was 110 degrees in sun. And sun was everywhere. If Tom sat very still he didn’t sweat. But he would if he had to start moving, and move he must.

Five hours. Five hours crouched against the concrete hull of the overpass and no rides. Tom stood and stretched. A classic white VW bus approached westbound, slowed slightly, and continued past. Tom watched the bus plow onward into the desert. When the engine’s whine finally merged with the cicadas, Tom spat once and sat back down. Even fucking hippies don’t pick people up anymore.

Now it was decision time. Four miles back to Green River. If he started walking now he’d make it fine. But if he stayed out here, low on water, he might get too weak to make it all the way back to town. Best not to take chances in the desert.

Tom reluctantly put on his dark wool overcoat. He simply didn’t have room for it in his pack, and he needed it. It got cold in the desert at night.

He started out into the sun. His backpack, an Eastman day pack, was small but heavy, due mostly to the sack of coins at the bottom.

The overpass may have been a bad call. Four miles back to town, the way he’d come. He shouldn’t have been surprised that the arc of the on-ramp was a good half-mile by itself. He’d been doing this long enough, and the distances that seem inconsequential in a car were always deceptively large on foot. But no one was picking him up in town, and once he’d started toward the interstate there was no choice but to keep going to the overpass. The only shade out here was man-made.

Sweat began to trickle. The heavy lump of change in the backpack bounced off his tailbone as he walked. He followed his feet one step in front of the other over the sand on the shoulder of the interstate. As he reached the on-ramp he noticed a car slowing as it approached. He could tell right away it was a state trooper. Tom simply stopped and waited. There was no place to run or hide.

The trooper rolled up to him and stopped. Tom took off his backpack and coat. He knew the coat made him look like a bum. You are a bum. He could smell his body odor rush out from the confines of the coat.

You trying to get a ride?

Yes sir.

Tom smiled. He liked talking to fellow law enforcement, although he wasn’t stupid enough to tell this or any other lawman that they were on the same side.

The trooper opened the passenger door.

Get in, I got the air on.

Tom got in, placed his pack and coat on his lap, and let the cool blast from the dashboard vent wash over him.

You know you can’t hitchhike on the interstate.

Tom nodded.

I’ll take you to the greyhound station in town. You got money for a bus ticket?

Sure. Tom smiled again.

You don’t look like it.

Tom nodded in agreement.

The trooper put the car in gear and wheeled it back onto the on-ramp with one hand. As the engine revved up, the blast from the air conditioner intensified. Tom enjoyed the sensation of motion, even if it was short lived. He eyed the console computer, the scanner, the radio. If he had that kind of equipment, any equipment, he wouldn’t be so desperate. Those he chased had everything. He supposed that’s why he couldn’t have anything. Traveling this way was the one way he wouldn’t be tracked. But money, Jesus, to travel without paper money was really pushing the point of diminishing returns. He’d devoted years to being under the radar, any radar, but what good was it if he never prevented an attack, if he got everywhere late?

Green River was awash in dust and sand. The wind picked up outside the car. They passed a few houses abandoned decades ago, tumbleweeds bunched up against a low barbed wire fence, a new Shell station and food mart with a fairly brisk traffic of motorists fueling for either the fifty mile stretch to Grand Junction, Colorado, or the ninety mile stretch to Price, Utah, a few more abandoned houses and a few more occupied but in various stages of disrepair, and then Main Street with three blocks of the original 1890’s buildings, most storefronts vacant.

The trooper pulled in front of a small stone building with a Greyhound poster in the window that no one would have seen unless they were looking for it.

Eastbound comes at eight. Westbound comes at eleven.

Thank you, sir, God bless.

Yeah. You get on that bus you hear?

Tom opened the squad car door and felt a blast of heat.

Listen, I can take you to the shelter in Grand Junction. No shelter out here.

Mighty kind of you, sir. But I’m moving on.

All the same, I’m letting you know up front I’m gonna tell the Emery County Sheriff you’re here. If he finds you hanging around long enough he’ll put you in.

I understand.

Tom tipped the brim of his frayed Red Sox cap, almost a salute. He sat his pack under the Greyhound sign and watched the trooper wheel the cruiser back around and head back down Main Street toward the interstate.

Tom had almost forty dollars in change, but he wasn’t about to waste it on a bus ticket. He removed a pack of GPCs from his inside coat pocket. Inside were three full cigarettes and half a dozen butts. He gently pulled one of the full cigarettes out, lit it, and took a big drag. He decided to wait until night. He sat on the sidewalk, legs stretched out, and watched the sky orange and then fade to purple.

His sweat had cooled and dried, and he contemplated putting the coat back on. But he’d combed his hair and brushed off and he felt, at night at least, he was passable.

There was more traffic than Tom would have thought. More than in most little towns he’d been in. A car passed every so often, driving slow, with music seeping from the interior.

The sound of glass smashing, probably a bottle breaking, caught him by surprise. He was jumpy from habit, not because he thought there was much to fear in this town, other than the elements and the police, of course. A figure emerged from one of the few side streets and ambled toward him on the other side of the street. The figure weaved a bit, not quite a stumble, swinging something big in one hand. When the man, it was obviously a man, drew parallel to Tom, he stopped and stared straight at him.

Hey, the man called out and started crossing the street. Tom could see now the man wasn’t stumbling but limping due to a large cast over his right foot with a peg to keep the cast off the ground.

Tom, alarmed now, pressed his back against the stone building and drew in his knees. He reached for his pack.

Hey buddy don’t worry you wanna drink?

The man extended what had looked like a club but now Tom recognized as a two litter plastic bottle of Coke.

Tom didn’t move.

Nice night huh? Slept out here many a night.

The man was young, mid-twenties, soft eyes and full beard blending into his long hair. He had a toothy smile, although one front tooth was bent back toward his throat. The bottle still extended straight out at ninety-degrees.

Tom took the bottle, two-thirds full, awkward, almost heavy in his hand. There was no cap on it. He took a swig of warm cola, sharp with what was probably Old Crow. He coughed, tasting fire in his breath. The man was clearly a vagrant. It was a wonder he hadn’t been picked up. Maybe it wasn’t so bad here, the Sheriff had better things to do.

Thanks. I’m not sleeping outside.

Oh, me neither if that’s what you’re thinking. Got a room above the tavern. Work there too.

The man, Lorne was his name, sat right down on the sidewalk. He took back the bottle and drained a good third of it in heavy gulps.

Good to sit down.

They passed the bottle back and forth. Tom was feeling good in spite of himself. It wasn’t that he disapproved of drinking, but he needed to be focused now. He knew he was in dangerous land, and the least of his worries was that he had no transportation and it was ninety miles to the next town. He knew it was going to be a tough stretch, but the desert was proving a problem. Yet two conversations in one day had Tom feeling pretty good. There were weeks when that wouldn’t happen. And now the drink.

The stars came out shimmering like tinsel, dancing and spinning small circles inside the dead black sky. The bottle turned mostly to backwash, but they drained it anyway. Lorne was gregarious, talking constantly, swinging his large chipmunk arms for emphasis. Lorne had driven out west from Florida—swamp Florida, not beach Florida—with a buddy four or five years ago. He lost the buddy along the way, some town in Oklahoma, or was it in the Texas panhandle? No, if it was Texas he was sure he wouldn’t have made it out either. Who could know? It was an endless string of towns all the same, a silo next to the rail yard on one side of highway, a bar on the other, a few rows of white painted houses and then another stretch of dirt to the next town. He’d run out of money in a little town in Colorado and was literally on his last bourbon and Coke in the corner bar when he met a chick. She was a raft guide, hundreds of them were in town for the summer season, camping by the Arkansas River, making forty dollars a day. They camped and she lent him the money for the one-week guide certification course, and he took a boat down once or twice a week. Something happened with the girl, or maybe the town, and now he was in Green River, Utah, the last place to pull the boats out of the river for the companies that float the Green River. Green River is the end of the road for the Green River! Lorne interjected into the conversation at least a half a dozen times.

He tapped the cast over his right foot. It looked like it had gotten wet and was unraveling.

Can’t guide with this thing, but I got lucky with the tavern, clean the floors and the bathrooms at four every morning, whatever else needs to be done. Got a room there too.

Tom nodded, he had been thinking about the room. Lorne had mentioned that a half a dozen times too. Lorne wasn’t the type to deny a stranger a little spot of floor.

Let’s go to the tavern, Lorne said, crushing the empty two-liter Coke bottle.

The tavern was on the corner two blocks up. A neon sign hung over the door that read, Tavern. Stenciled in gold paint on the door was ‘welcome to the Tavern—live music since 1902.’

Lorne grabbed the door. It jingled when it opened. Tom felt his pulse rise. It wasn’t often he went into public places full of civilians. Inside it was more crowded than he would have thought. A barrel-chested doorman nearly blocked the entire entrance. Tom was sure this was a mistake. He wouldn’t have been surprised if the Emery County Sheriff was drinking here, this being the only bar in town.

Hey brother! Lorne screamed to the bouncer.

Lorne was effervescent, hands everywhere. The bouncer reluctantly high-fived him. He eyeballed Tom closely, but let him pass, shaking his head and glancing toward the bar, a silent nod to someone to keep an eye on them. Inside it was warm, as if the bar was lit by candle light. Rows of bottles behind a long oak bar reflected the green and red neon beer signs along the walls. Tom was relieved to be let in, but self-conscious. Around him were red sun burnt faces, tourists fresh from their rafting trips down the Green River, unshowered and happy to be back in civilization replete with chicken wings and beer. With any luck, he would just be considered local color.

Why’s it so crowded?

Friday night, Lorne grinned.

This was new information to Tom. Lorne pulled his long hair back beneath a dingy white baseball cap and headed to the bar. Tom was grateful there was an empty table against a wall with two folding chairs. The bartender, a big breasted woman probably younger than she looked, greeted Lorne with a hug. She poured him a shot and one for herself. They clinked glasses and tapped them to the bar in unison before downing their shots. She poured a pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon and pulled out two icy mugs from the dented beer cooler. Lorne grabbed them and spun to see where he’d left Tom.

Lorne, stay away from the customers now, she yelled with no effort to keep her voice low.

Lorne returned with the pitcher and two frosty mugs. Tom reached for his bag of change to make his contribution, but Lorne put up his hand and shook his head no. Tom was mesmerized by the heavy bar mugs, so cold that an icy film formed over the top of the beer. The beer was delicious. They clinked glasses.

Here’s to beer.

Lorne drained his beer, foam streamed from the corners of his mouth and clung to his beard. A band began playing from a low stage at the back of the bar. The sound was deafening.

These guys rock, come through every summer.

The three piece jam band started into a cover of Tombstone Blues.

The sun’s not yellow—it’s chicken! Lorne yelled giving the thumbs up, and he was up off his chair and pushing toward the front of the stage. The foot with the cast on it wobbled under his weight.

Tom clutched his beer in both hands, watching the ice melt. He took a short drink, and then a long one. It felt good to be in civilization. A makeshift dance floor had formed, a ring of onlookers with four or five couples dancing in the center, and Lorne of course. Tom tapped his finger on his glass to the beat. The wind picked up outside, and a tumbleweed pressed up against the window and then rolled passed. Tom filled his mug, less frosty now, from the pitcher and sipped it down. When his mug was empty again he waited for Lorne, not wanting to take more than his share of the pitcher. But Lorne appeared to be talking to an actual girl, one apparently too inebriated to notice Lorne’s funk. She was in her early twenties, blonde hair pulled back, solid Midwestern arms and thick legs. Tom figured she was one of the rafting guides, probably didn’t shower much herself. Tom poured the rest of the pitcher into his mug. He sipped the last beer as slowly as he could, but eventually it was empty and he felt immediately vulnerable for no longer being a paying customer. He thought he saw the bartender glance his way and shake her head. Lorne was dancing with the girl, or at least dancing next to her.

Lorne, I told you to stay away from the customers! the bartender yelled over the wailing guitar. Lorne spun around on his cast and shot the bartender a look, almost knocking the girl down in the process. She punched his round chest playfully but signaled with her hand that she was sitting down. Lorne kept dancing.

The empty pitcher stared at Tom. Eventually the doorman took the empty pitcher back to the bar to be washed. The table was as empty as the desert outside. Tom began to sweat. He had no idea what to do with his hands with nothing to hold onto. They felt awkward on top of the table, but he felt too shifty if they were under the table. Lorne was right in front of the stage, eyes closed, playing air guitar. He almost looked like he was in the band.

Eyes were on Tom, he was sure. The pressure proved too much. Tom stealthily dug into his backpack, and without exposing his bag of change removed sixteen quarters. He made his way to the bar, no one particularly getting out of his way. The bartender crossed her arms and waited.

Excuse me, Tom whispered, raising a finger.

Can I get you something? she said, shaking her head.

Pitcher? Tom tried to smile.

Of? The crossing and recrossing of arms.

Whatever’s cheapest. Tom shrugged, smile gone.

She poured a pitcher of Pabst.


Tom counted out fourteen quarters. He took the pitcher and placed two quarters on the bar for a tip. She made no move to pick them up.

Tom drank the pitcher slowly, but not so slowly he couldn’t enjoy it. The band moved into an acoustic set, a soulful string of bluegrass and old coal miner folk songs. Couples took a seat to get a breather, with mugs of beer and rounds of shots. The room was dark and warm. Lorne returned but wasn’t saying much. He leaned way back in his chair, his beer resting on his belly. He sang along with the band he’d seen many times, turning to Tom when he knew a lyric. ‘Eat, when I’m hungry…Let me drink, when I’m dry…Two dollars, when I’m hard up…Religion, when I die.’

A large group of red-faced tourists headed for the door. The doorman told them to drive safe.

So what are you doing anyway? Lorne said, as if noticing Tom for the first time.

Tom took a second.

Heading west.

Lorne held his glass out for a toast, ‘living the dream,’ Lorne grinned the bent tooth at him. Tom knew he should measure his words, but he was drunk now, feeling the music deep inside like he hadn’t in years.

I’m on a mission. Trying to stop…something.

Your ex take your kids or something?

Tom caught himself.

Something like that.

I know, I got a son out there somewhere, damn woman will never let me see…not like I should…like I am now…you know. Lorne held out his arms, as if he was inviting examination.

Tom nodded. Yeah, you know, sometimes you just… Tom ran out of words. Yeah, I’m heading west.

The band finished their last set. Lorne banged his hands together and then put two fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle. Tom politely clapped.

The bartender called last call.

Last call, the doorman bellowed. People perked up their heads, and the few remaining couples got up to leave. A table of locals slammed their beers.

Lorne suddenly sprung into action.

Last call! he yelled with his hands cupped at the sides of his beard. He walked up and down the bar yelling in peoples’ faces ‘Last call, get the fuck out!’ Tom cringed, but remarkably, the bar staff didn’t kick Lorne out; this appeared to be part of his job. In fact, when the Budweiser clock above the bar was nearly at two, the doorman joined Lorne in screaming, ‘get the fuck out!’ The locals filtered out the door. A few sunburnt rafters looked annoyed but complied with the order.

Tom went into invisible mode, and it worked, nobody saw him. When all the customers were out, the bartender, the doorman, and Lorne worked feverishly for about half an hour, locking the doors, wiping down the tables, pulling the mats, picking up the glasses and ashtrays and washing them and putting them away, putting up the barstools. And then the three each opened a bottle of Bass and took a shot of Jamison while the bartender counted the money and changed out the tips.

Lorne motioned Tom over to the bar.

Lucia, give him a beer will you?

She rolled her eyes.

He can have a draft. What do you want? She stared at Tom.

Whatever’s chea—

Yeah, yeah whatever’s cheapest. Have a real beer. She poured a pint of Newcastle Brown from the tap and slid it across the bar to Tom. The doorman put music on the jukebox. The bartender used the remote to put the volume down.

The beer had bite and Tom savored the taste. The bartender, doorman, and Lorne were laughing about the girl Lorne was dancing with earlier. They all lit cigarettes. Tom lit one of the butts from his nearly empty pack of GPCs.

So Lorne, is the homeless guy crashing with you?

Lorne looked at Lucia. She turned to Tom. Well, you are a bum aren’t you? Tom froze, and then shrugged, speechless.

Lorne laid big hand on Tom’s shoulder, almost knocking over the doorman’s beer. Hey, he’s going to see his kids.

The bartender laughed. Tom, still speechless, did not correct Lorne.

He’s on a mission, head’n west. Isn’t that right, Tom? Lorne held up his bottle. Tom, a beat slow, raised his glass and tapped Lorne’s bottle in salute.

Tom’s on a mission, the bartender said to the doorman. To Tom’s mission, she said in a hushed tone, emphasizing the ‘Tom’ a little too sharply. The doorman joined in the clinking of glasses.

Let’s go west, Lorne spat. Get on the highway, drive through the desert, it’ll be epic!

Sounds like a great plan, Lorne, the bartender deadpanned.

Lorne demanded a round of shots. The bartender told them this was the last one. Lorne was reaching a crescendo, dancing to the jukebox with unwanted energy.

No, no it’s early! Let’s hit the road, keep the night going.

Lorne slammed down his empty beer bottle.

Lucia, let me get a six pack, here’s five for the till.

Are you serious Lorne? If you’re leaving you’re taking the homeless guy with you.

Lorne grabbed Tom by the elbow and they stumbled out the door of the Tavern. Outside, the night was very different. Tom squinted into total darkness punctuated by two overhead streetlights. When his eyes adjusted he saw an empty dust swept street.

Come on, let’s blow this dump, Lorne shouted.

Lorne used Tom as a crutch, trying to keep his weight off his cast foot. They bumbled forward and immediately tumbled off the curb and fell onto the street. Tom put his hand out to brace the fall. He scraped his palm but couldn’t feel it. Lorne bust out laughing, said, Didn’t see that coming! Tom didn’t find it funny at all. The street was quiet, but that didn’t mean an Emery County Sheriff’s Deputy couldn’t roll past at any moment, or worse. Rule Number One—remain undetected. How would they look face first on the street in front of a bar at 3 a.m.? Tom pulled up Lorne. Getting off the street was imperative. But there was no place to hide in this town. He held onto Lorne’s arm and, like a divining rod, or fingers on a ouija board, Lorne weaved his way into an alley behind the Tavern where an old Chevy Malibu was parked under a gnarled and bare crabapple tree.

Lorne didn’t want to drive with the cast on his foot so he tossed Tom the keys. Tom hesitated, he couldn’t remember the last time he drove, but he didn’t hesitate for long, he had to make ground. The Malibu rumbled to life filling the alley with noise and smoke. Headlights illuminated the century old brick wall of the Tavern. Fortunately, the Malibu was simple to drive, automatic transmission, basically a big go-cart. Tom put it in drive, tapped the gas, and the Malibu lurched forward. The tires spun, and dust billowed around the wheel-wells and funneled through the windows. The Malibu screeched onto Main Street. Lorne howled into the night. Tom’s heart beat fast. He was drunk, noticeably, and of course, he carried no identification. He had long ago sanded off his fingerprints so a police stop of any kind would not only mean jail, but probably a psych eval.

Tom gained control of the V8 under the hood and slowed to 25 mph. The Malibu was the only car on the road. To Tom’s disbelief no one followed them out of town. They cleared Main Street. The four miles to the interstate crept by. Still no headlights behind them. The narrow on-ramp opened onto the wide interstate. Tom nudged the car up to cruising speed. Lorne turned on the radio and caught a classic rock station out of Grand Junction. He slammed his beer and stuck his head out the window, the night air blasting back his long hair and beard.

What made the interstate fast also made it dangerous; there were no exits, no traffic, nowhere to hide. But the sensation of movement and control, after so many days of walking and waiting, was exhilarating.

Ten miles outside of town they were in total darkness, desert in every direction. It was then that Tom noticed the stars, even through the clouded windshield. Millions of stars. For an instant Tom smiled. He felt free. But in the next instant the stars transformed into a memory. A map taped up on a wall in a room in S.E. Washington, D.C. full of different colored pins, too many to count. Water stains on the ceiling, coffee stains on the floor, the pins doing a poor job of visually describing the Network.

They had begun with reconnaissance, then infiltration, then the chase. Re-con had been fruitless. The Network was impenetrable. In fact, they were quickly the ones being re-conned. The Network had every gadget that they had, and the Network had the advantage, they knew who was in the Network, and Tom did not. And the Feds stood out in southeast D.C. They were going in the wrong direction, losing ground.

So they went from high-tech to low-tech. Infiltration. They had slightly more success. Tom went off the grid. Everything erased. Records purged, photographs burnt, deleted, and scrubbed from every server. Tom didn’t exist. It was with Tom that they had their first penetration of the Network. He became roommates with an operative. Before he came home from his six dollar an hour job washing dishes to find that his roommate had cleared out, along with all traces of the Network, he learned that the next big attack was out west, the Hoover Dam, Tom was sure.

Then the chase. Tom traveling the only way he could, any way he could, off the grid. It was the only way. That was two years ago. Any time he passed a news stand he was sure he was going to see some grisly headline. He couldn’t believe it hadn’t happened yet, but it would be any day now, of that he was sure. Millions would die.

He gunned the Malibu up to 90 mph.

That’s it brother! Lorne yelled and tossed his beer can out the window. It bounced on the road behind them.

The sky lavendered. A band of red on the horizon appeared in the rear view mirror. They pulled over to take a leak. Anxious moments for Tom. Lorne was oblivious, relaxed. But not a single vehicle passed them.

Eighty miles passed. Eighty more under his belt. More than he had covered in a single day in a while. He had traveled in fits and starts ever since D.C. Good ground some days, and then bogged down for weeks. The last layover had been a three week stint in county jail in Grand Junction. But now he was moving, and with no time to waste, he would have to do things he had never done before.

They lost all the radio stations on the dial except for a crackly AM preacher. Lorne talked non-stop to fill the void. He finished the six pack, the words flying out of him, some stories, some parts of stories, mostly stream of consciousness commentary on everything, nothing, life held together by strains of thought, or maybe just coincidence. He kept talking because he chose not to stop and he knew Tom was listening. He didn’t know if Tom cared, but he was listening. And the desert morning was beautiful. The air was fresh before the heat of the day. He breathed it in. Bald mountains of sand and rock cast yellow and orange in the sunrise blurred together out the passenger side window. Lorne was on an adventure. They were heading to Vegas. He hadn’t informed Tom, but Las Vegas was the logical destination for a road trip. He’d forgotten all about finding Tom’s kids and rescuing them from his old lady. He was road tripping to Vegas with a buddy. The new friend’s name slipped Lorne’s mind at the moment, but it didn’t matter. He felt good. That was all that mattered.

The Malibu rumbled along, bouncing comfortably on a loose suspension down the blacktop. The morning chill burned off as the sun cleared the eastern mountains. By mid-morning it was nearing one hundred degrees.

We passed Price yet?

About an hour ago.

Still on the interstate?


We’re out of beer.

Tom was starving. He was mostly sober, but he hadn’t eaten in almost 24 hours, and a combination of stomach acid and hunger burned in his gut. They pulled off the interstate at a truck stop. When the car came to a complete stop at a gas pump, Tom kept his hands on the wheel and stayed silent. He didn’t want to broach the subject of money. Lorne pulled at his beard. His face was numb.

With the car finally stopped the heat poured in. Lorne had the spins, but he was optimistic that he could stave off getting sick and hungover if he kept going.

Put twenty in the tank. I’ll be back. You need anything?

Tom mulled it over.

Can of beans?

Lorne laughed.

Can o’ beans it is.

Lorne opened the door and fell out of the car. Tom watched him stagger to the truck stop Food Mart. Tom wheeled the Malibu to a pump and carefully filled the tank with regular until the meter hit twenty dollars. A little over six gallons. Tom knew it wouldn’t get them far, but all he could do was worry about it later. The service station was busy. It made Tom uncomfortable. Crowds of people always made Tom uncomfortable. But what made Tom really uneasy was a State Trooper parked around the side of the Food Mart. It was parked behind a row of cars, most folks probably wouldn’t have even noticed it, but Tom had honed a sense for these things, for spotting danger. It was all around him.

As inconspicuously as he could he returned to the driver’s seat. The Food Mart was a wall of windows facing the pumps. He could see the trooper buying coffee inside. He could also see Lorne studying the beer cooler, oblivious. For a split second Tom thought of taking off with the Malibu. Then he saw Lorne at the counter, pointing toward the Malibu, paying for gas and buying a bottle from a shelf behind the counter. It seemed to be taking too long, some kind of commotion inside. The trooper was four or five customers behind Lorne in line. Yes, if Lorne got into it with the trooper he would take his chances in the Malibu. But then Lorne fumbled with the glass door, nearly knocked over a trash can, and lugged a weighted down plastic bag to the car.

Got beer! he said too loudly. Natural Ice, six percent alcohol instead of the usual four, and cheaper! Couple pints of Old Crow too. He had forgotten the beans.

Nice, Tom said as cheerfully as he could. He saw the trooper glance their way when he exited the Food Mart.

Tom eased the Malibu back onto the interstate. He kept it exactly at the speed limit, an even seventy-five. Lorne took a sip from one of the pints of Old Crow. He started a story. Tom wasn’t listening. Traffic was brisk on the interstate, mostly SUVs and tractor-trailers, but he worried that the trooper was there, lurking four of five cars behind. Soon Lorne was quiet; he appeared to be dozing.

Tom glanced in the rear view mirror, and his blood ran cold. The trooper was right behind them. The intimidating black and white pattern, tinted windows, and unmistakable grill, equipped with a cattle guard bumper that looked more like a black painted steel battering ram. Tom didn’t dare wake up Lorne. Lorne was unpredictable. The less movement the better.

Tom kept at seventy-five. Five minutes past. Ten minutes. The trooper was equidistant behind. He didn’t even bother rehearsing his lines. Booze all over the car, no license, no insurance, no fingerprints, there was no talking his way out, not like that had ever worked. And time was short.

An exit approached. State highway 616 to wherever. Tom angled the Malibu onto the off-ramp. Long moments passed. The trooper stayed on the interstate, missing the exit. Stateys don’t like to leave the interstate. Or maybe the Statey had some place to go. Tom exhaled. Momentary relief, but he couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t some ploy, or that he hadn’t radioed some other cop to track him.

The exit circled to an overpass where on the other side of the interstate heading south there was an abandoned filling station and an Indian curio shop. He drove another ten miles, constantly checking the rear view mirror, before his breathing returned to normal. It was a simple thing, not getting pulled over, but he let out a mighty sigh of relief.

He was spent. Exhausted, he pulled the car over onto the shoulder next to a filled in fire pit full of rusted beer cans and trash. Dust billowed when the wheels finally came to a stop. He didn’t like stopping on the side of the road, where any cop that rolled by would find them suspicious, or at least question them to see if they were broken down or needed help. But he needed to rest.

With the car stopped he could hear a fierce wind blow unimpeded over the desert. Dust blew across the highway. He hadn’t slept in days. He was hungry but had no food. He took the open pint of Old Crow out of Lorne’s sleeping hand and got out of the Malibu. His joints groaned. He stretched his legs and looked around. One end of the flat valley stopped at a mesa, stratified red, orange, and yellow, not far off. In another direction, pillars of rock rose out of the sand in the distance. Tom guessed he was looking at Capitol Reef fifty miles away, although it easily could have been a hundred. The eerie formation shown purple against a light blue sky. He looked both ways and took a slug of the whiskey. Jesus, what the fuck had brought him here.

He walked up a small embankment and looked down on a valley of cactus. He looked back and saw the Malibu, obscured in waves of heat from the white orb burning above. A dot weakly anchored to a desiccated land. A low buzzing settled between his ears. His own thoughts echoed back at him as if he were being spoken to. How strange to see so much vast expanse stretch away from him as if he could see the very curvature of the Earth. And yet, still within sight, the interstate in the distance with eighteen wheelers keeping schedule, the flow of commerce. He looked at his hand, leathered and rutted, sunburn upon sunburn. He bent down and touched the sand. It was hot.

And then for the second time today a chill went up his spine and he broke out in a cold sweat in the hundred and ten degree heat. His gaze focused on an unnatural object. An antenna, hidden among the cactus. He capped the Old Crow, shook his head, squinted and looked hard, but it was still there. The Network. He scrambled down the embankment, drawn toward it. He ran reckless, frantic, dodging cactus and yucca. There was no road or trail leading toward the antenna. They were covering their tracks. This wasn’t meant to be found. Thorns lodged in his boots and thistles stuck to his old corduroys as he raced toward the object. As he approached he saw a low square chain link fence around an antenna and a transformer sunken into the earth. There were no signs or markings of any kind. It had to be one of their uplinks. They had their own grid. No high-tension lines or utility poles. Everything underground or linked to satellite. This was how they kept one step ahead. He ripped off a piece of cloth from his undershirt and stuffed it in the bottle of Old Crow. Then he took the lighter he kept in his pack of GPC’s, lit the cloth, and tossed the bottle at the transformer.

When Lorne woke up, the first thing he noticed was that his head pounded and his neck was stiff from sleeping upright in the passenger seat. The second thing he noticed was that the car stank. A film coated the upholstery, humid and fecund. The third thing he noticed was a scraggly, unkempt man running toward the car. The last thing he noticed, before everything else became unimportant, was a loud pop pop pop BANG, and the sight of a transformer exploding into flame not more than a hundred feet away.

Tom skidded around the grill of the Malibu, flung open the door, and threw himself into the driver’s seat.

Jesus…the fuck you do?

Tom turned the key, still in the ignition, and floored it. The Malibu fishtailed violently and screeched onto the road, leaving a chunk of tire tread and a plume of burning rubber.

You really are fucking crazy!

No, Tom said matter of factly, regaining control of the Malibu and then accelerating as fast as it would go. You are fucking crazy.