Desperationby Stephen King
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A gripping novel by the master of science fiction & horror. Nevada is mostly a stretch of desert you cross on the way to somewhere else. And with someone else, if youre lucky . . . because its a scary place. Headed down Rt. 50 in the brutal summer heat are people who are never going to reach their destinations. A dead cat nailed to a road sign heralds the little mining town of Desperation. The secrets embedded in Desperations landscape, & the evil that infects the town are both awesome & terrifying. But as David Carver seems to know so are the forces summoned to combat them. An apocalyptic drama of God & evil, madness, & revelation.
From the vault of horror master King comes a terrifying tale of Desperation, Nev., a place ruled by a maniacal man in uniform and haunted by deadly secrets. In true King fashion, the story features a small cast of likable yet deeply flawed protagonists that may or may not make it to the final page in one piece. Narrator Kathy Bates, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in the film adaptation of King's Misery, takes the reins and holds listeners rapt from start to finish. Bates has the inherent ability to make anything, no matter how over the top, sound realistic and immediate. A Signet paperback. (Feb.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The twin rulers of the dual novels are God the Cruel (Desperation), who speaks only to David Carver, a very well-spoken 11-year-old, and the Great God Television (The Regulators), a rotten god made visible through the mind of an autistic six-year-old, Seth Garon. The two books share characters but offer distinctly different spins on their personalities: The heroine of The Regulators is a big threat in Desperation. Also on hand in both are the evil entity Tak and the heroic but burnt-out novelist John Marinville, a recovering alcoholic. While speeding through empty Nevada spaces, Peter and Mary Jackson are stopped and arrested by a gigantic cop from nearby Desperation, a small mining town. At the jailhouse, the nutty robotic giant shoots Peter dead. Then the giant arrests Marinville, who is trying to recover his reputation by crossing the country on his motorcycle and writing a Steinbeckian Travels with Harley. The cop's body, we find, houses Tak, who constantly needs new bodies to live in because his superhuman heart batters them to pieces. He has already murdered the whole town and is now planning to house himself in the still-alive Audrey Wyler, a mining specialist who has been investigating the nearby China Shaft where "the unformed heart" of Tak bubbles evilly. Then into town rides Steve, whose heart is pure, in a Ryder truck . . . .
Knockout classic horror: King's most carefully crafted, well-groomed pages ever.
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Read an Excerpt
“Oh! Oh, Jesus! Gross!”
“What, Mary, what?”
“Didn’t you see it?”
She looked at him, and in the harsh desert sunlight he saw that a lot of the color had gone out of her face, leaving just the marks of sunburn on her cheeks and across her brow, where not even a strong sunblock cream would entirely protect her. She was very fair and burned easily.
“On that sign. That speed-limit sign.”
“What about it?”
“There was a dead cat on it, Peter! Nailed there or glued there or some damned thing.” He hit the brake pedal. She grabbed his shoulder at once. “Don’t you even think about going back.”
“But what? Did you want to take a picture of it? No way, José. If I have to look at that again, I’ll throw up.”
“Was it a white cat?” He could see the back of a sign in the rearview mirror—the speed-limit sign she was talking about, presumably—but that was all. And when they’d passed it, he had been looking off in the other direction, at some birds flying toward the nearest wedge of mountains. Strictly attending to the highway was not something one had to do every second out here; Nevada called its stretch of U.S. 50 “The Loneliest Highway in America,” and in Peter Jackson’s opinion, it lived up to its billing. Of course he was a New York boy, and he supposed he might be suffering a cumulative case of the creeps. Desert agoraphobia, Ballroom Syndrome, something like that.
“No, it was a tiger-stripe,” she said. “What difference does it make?”
“I thought maybe Satanists in the desert,” he said. “This place is supposed to be filled with weirdos, isn’t that what Marielle said?”
“ ‘Intense’ was the word she used,” Mary said. “ ‘Central Nevada’s full of intense people.’ Quote-unquote. Gary said pretty much the same. But since we haven’t seen anybody since we crossed the California state line—”
“Well, in Fallon—”
“Pit-stops don’t count,” she said. “Although even there, the people . . .” She gave him a funny, helpless look that he didn’t see often in her face these days, although it had been common enough in the months following her miscarriage. “Why are they here, Pete? I mean, I can understand Vegas and Reno . . . even Winnemucca and Wendover . . .”
“The people who come from Utah to gamble there call Wendover Bend Over,” Peter said, grinning. “Gary told me that.”
She ignored him. “But the rest of the state . . . the people who are here, why do they come and why do they stay? I know I was born and raised in New York, so probably I can’t understand, but—”
“You’re sure that wasn’t a white cat? Or a black one?” He glanced back into the rearview, but at just under seventy miles an hour, the speed-limit sign had already faded into a mottled background of sand, mesquite, and dull brown foothills. There was finally another vehicle behind them, though; he could see a hot sunstar reflection pricking off its windshield. Maybe a mile back. Maybe two.
“No, tiger-stripe, I told you. Answer my question. Who are the central Nevada taxpayers, and what’s in it for them?”
He shrugged. “There aren’t many taxpayers out here. Fallon’s the biggest town on Highway 50, and that’s mostly farming. It says in the guidebook that they dammed their lake and made irrigation possible. Cantaloupes is what they grow, mostly. And I think there’s a military base nearby. Fallon was a Pony Express stop, did you know that?”
“I’d leave,” she said. “Just pick up my cantaloupes and go.”
He touched her left breast briefly with his right hand. “That’s a nice set of cantaloupes, ma’am.”
“Thanks. Not just Fallon, either. Any state where you can’t see a house or even a tree, in any direction, and they nail cats to speed-limit signs, I’d leave.”
“Well, it’s a zone-of-perception thing,” he said, speaking carefully. Sometimes he couldn’t tell when Mary was serious and when she was just gassing, and this was one of those times. “As someone who was raised in an urban environment, a place like the Great Basin is just outside your zone, that’s all. Mine too, for that matter. The sky alone is enough to freak me out. Ever since we left this morning, I’ve felt it up there, pressing down on me.”
“Me, too. There’s too goddam much of it.”
“Are you sorry we came this way?” He glanced up into the rearview and saw the vehicle behind them was closer now. Not a truck, which was just about all they’d seen since leaving Fallon (and all headed the other way, west), but a car. Really burning up the road, too.
She thought about it, then shook her head. “No. It was good to see Gary and Marielle, and Lake Tahoe—”
“Beautiful, wasn’t it?”
“Incredible. Even this . . .” Mary looked out the window. “It’s not without beauty, I’m not saying that. And I suppose I’ll remember it the rest of my life. But it’s . . .”
“. . . creepy,” he finished for her. “If you’re from New York, at least.”
“Damned right,” she said. “Urban Zone of Perception. And even if we’d taken I-80, it’s all desert.”
“Yep. Tumbling tumbleweeds.” He looked into the mirror again, the lenses of the glasses he wore for driving glinting in the sun. The oncomer was a police-car, doing at least ninety. He squeezed over toward the shoulder until the righthand wheels began to rumble on the hardpan and spume up dust.
“Pete? What are you doing?”
Another look into the mirror. Big chrome grille, coming up fast and reflecting such a savage oblong of sun that he had to squint . . . but he thought the car was white, which meant it wasn’t the State Police.
“Making myself small,” Peter said. “Wee sleekit cowrin beastie. There’s a cop behind us and he’s in a hurry. Maybe he’s got a line on—”
The police-car blasted by, making the Acura which belonged to Peter’s sister rock in its backwash. It was indeed white, and dusty from the doorhandles down. There was a decal on the side, but the car was gone before Pete caught more than a glimpse of it. DES-something. Destry, maybe. That was a good name for a Nevada town out here in the big lonely.
“—on the guy who nailed the cat to the speed-limit sign,” Peter finished.
“Why’s he going so fast with his flashers off?”
“Who’s there to run them for out here?”
“Well,” she said, giving him that odd-funny look again, “there’s us.”
He opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again. She was right. The cop must have been seeing them for at least as long as they’d been seeing him, maybe longer, so why hadn’t he flipped on his lights and flashers, just to be safe? Of course Peter had known enough to get over on his own, give the cop as much of the road as he possibly could, but still—
The police car’s taillights suddenly came on. Peter hit his own brake without even thinking of it, although he had already slowed to sixty and the cruiser was far enough ahead so there was no chance of a collision. Then the cruiser swerved over into the westbound lane.
“What’s he doing?” Mary asked.
“I don’t know, exactly.”
But of course he knew: he was slowing down. From his cut-em-off-at-the-pass eighty-five or ninety he had dropped to fifty. Frowning, not wanting to catch up and not knowing why, Peter slowed even more himself. The speedometer of Deirdre’s car dropped down toward forty.
“Peter?” Mary sounded alarmed. “Peter, I don’t like this.”
“It’s all right,” he said, but was it? He stared at the cop-car, now tooling slowly up the westbound lane to his left, and wondered. He tried to get a look at the person behind the wheel and couldn’t. The cruiser’s rear window was caked with desert dust.
Its taillights, also caked with dust, flickered briefly as the car slowed even more. Now it was doing barely thirty. A tumbleweed bounced into the road, and the cruiser’s radial tires crushed it under. It came out the back looking to Peter Jackson like a nestle of broken fingers. All at once he was frightened, very close to terror, in fact, and he hadn’t the slightest idea why.
Because Nevada’s full of intense people, Marielle said so and Gary agreed, and this is how intense people act. In a word, weird.
Of course that was bullshit, this really wasn’t weird, not very weird, anyhow, although—
The cop-car taillights flickered some more. Peter pressed his own brake in response, not even thinking about what he was doing for a second, then looking at the speedometer and seeing he was down to twenty-five.
“What does he want, Pete?”
By now, that was pretty obvious.
“To be behind us again.”
“I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t he just pull over on the shoulder and let us go past, if that’s what he wants?”
“I don’t know that, either.”
“What are you going to—”
“Go by, of course.” And then, for no reason at all, he added: “After all, we didn’t nail the goddam cat to the speed-limit sign.”
He pushed down on the accelerator and immediately began to catch up with the dusty cruiser, which was now floating along at no more than twenty.
Mary grabbed the shoulder of his blue workshirt hard enough for him to feel the pressure of her short fingernails. “No, don’t.”
“Mare, there’s not a lot else I can do.”
And the conversation was already obsolete, because he was going by even as he spoke. Deirdre’s Acura drew alongside the dusty white Caprice, then passed it. Peter looked through two pieces of glass and saw very little. A big shape, a man-shape, that was about all. Plus the sense that the driver of the police-car was looking back at him. Peter glanced down at the decal on the passenger door. Now he had time to read it: DESPERATION POLICE DEPARTMENT in gold letters below the town seal, which appeared to be a miner and a horseman shaking hands.
Desperation, he thought. Even better than Destry. Much better.
As soon as he was past, the white car swung back into the eastbound lane, speeding up to stay on the Acura’s bumper. They travelled that way for thirty or forty seconds (to Peter it felt considerably longer). Then the blue flashers on the Caprice’s roof came on. Peter felt a sinking in his stomach, but it wasn’t surprise. Not at all.
Mary still had hold of him, and now, as Peter swung onto the shoulder, she began digging in again.
“What are you doing? Peter, what are you doing?”
“Stopping. He’s got his flashers on and he’s pulling me over.”
“I don’t like it,” she said, looking nervously around. There was nothing to look at but desert, foothills, and leagues of blue sky. “What were we doing?”
“Speeding seems logical.” He was looking in the outside mirror. Above the words CAUTION OBJECTS MAY BE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR, he saw the dusty white driver’s door of the cop-car swing open. A khaki leg swung out. It was prodigious. As the man it belonged to followed it out, swung the door of his cruiser closed, and settled his Smokey Bear hat on his head (he wouldn’t have been wearing it in the car, Peter supposed; not enough clearance), Mary turned around to look. Her mouth dropped ajar.
“Holy God, he’s the size of a football player!”
“At least,” Peter said. Doing a rough mental calculation that used the roof of the car as a steering-point—about five feet—he guessed that the cop approaching Deirdre’s Acura had to be at least six-five. And over two hundred and fifty pounds. Probably over three hundred.
Mary let go of him and scooted over against her door as far as she could, away from the approaching giant. On one hip the cop wore a gun as big as the rest of him, but his hands were empty—no clipboard, no citation-book. Peter didn’t like that. He didn’t know what it meant, but he didn’t like it. In his entire career as a driver, which had included four speeding tickets as a teenager and one OUI (after the faculty Christmas party three years ago), he had never been approached by an empty-handed cop, and he most definitely didn’t like it. His heartbeat, already faster than normal, sped up a little more. His heart wasn’t pounding, at least not yet, but he sensed it could pound. That it could pound very easily.
You’re being stupid, you know that, don’t you? he asked himself. It’s speeding, that’s all, simple speeding. The posted limit is a joke and everyone knows it’s a joke, but this guy’s undoubtedly got a certain quota to meet. And when it comes to speeding tickets, out-of-staters are always best. You know that. So . . . what’s that old Van Halen album title? Eat Em and Smile?
The cop stopped beside Peter’s window, the buckle of his Sam Browne belt on a level with Peter’s eyes. He did not bend but raised one fist (to Peter it looked the size of a Daisy canned ham) and made cranking gestures.
Peter took off his round rimless glasses, tucked them into his pocket, and rolled his window down. He was very aware of Mary’s quick breathing from the passenger bucket. She sounded as if she had been jumping rope, or perhaps making love.
The cop did a slow, smooth, deep kneebend, bringing his huge and noncommittal face into the Jacksons’ field of vision. A band of shadow, cast by the stiff brim of his trooper-style hat, lay across his brow. His skin was an uncomfortable-looking pink, and Peter guessed that, for all his size, this man got along with the sun no better than Mary did. His eyes were bright gray, direct but with no emotion in them. None that Peter could read, anyway. He could smell something, though. He thought maybe Old Spice.
The cop gave him only a brief glance, then his gaze was moving around the Acura’s cabin, checking Mary first (American Wife, Caucasian, pretty face, good figure, low mileage, no visible scars), then looking at the cameras and bags and road-litter in the back seat. Not much road-litter yet; they’d only left Oregon three days before, and that included the day and a half they’d spent with Gary and Marielle Soderson, listening to old records and talking about old times.
The cop’s eyes lingered on the pulled-out ashtray. Peter guessed he was looking for roaches, sniffing for the lingering aroma of pot or hash, and felt relieved. He hadn’t smoked a joint in nearly fifteen years, had never tried coke, and had pretty much quit drinking after the Christmas party OUI. Smelling a little cannabis at the occasional rock show was as close to a drug experience as he ever came these days, and Mary had never bothered with the stuff at all—she sometimes referred to herself as a “drug virgin.” There was nothing in the pulled-out ashtray but a couple of balled-up Juicy Fruit wrappers, and no discarded beer-cans or wine bottles in the back seat.
“Officer, I know I was going a little fast—”
“Had the hammer down, did you?” the cop asked pleasantly. “Gosh, now! Sir, could I see your driver’s license and your registration?”
“Sure.” Peter took his wallet out of his back pocket. “The car’s not mine, though. It’s my sister’s. We’re driving it back to New York for her. From Oregon. She was at Reed. Reed College, in Portland?”
He was babbling, he knew it, but wasn’t sure he could stop it. It was weird how cops could get you running off at the mouth like this, as if you had a dismembered body or a kidnapped child in the trunk. He remembered doing the same thing when the cop had pulled him over on the Long Island Expressway after the Christmas party, just talking and talking, yattata-yattata-yattata, while all the time the cop said nothing, only went methodically on with his own business, checking first his paperwork and then the contents of his little blue plastic Breathalyzer kit.
“Mare? Would you get the registration out of the glove compartment? It’s in a little plastic envelope, along with Dee’s insurance papers.”
At first she didn’t move. He could see her out of the corner of his eye, just sitting still, as he opened his wallet and began hunting for his driver’s license. It should have been right there, in one of the windowed compartments in the front of the billfold, big as life, but it wasn’t.
“Mare?” he asked again, a little impatient now, and a little frightened all over again. What if he’d lost his goddam driver’s license somewhere? Dropped it on the floor at Gary’s, maybe, while he’d been transferring his crap (you always seemed to carry so much more crap in your pockets while you were travelling) from one pair of jeans to the next? He hadn’t, of course, but wouldn’t it just be typical if—
“Little help, Mare? Get the damned registration? Please?”
“Oh. Sure, okay.”
She bent forward like some old, rusty piece of machinery goosed into life by a sudden jolt of electricity, and opened the glove compartment. She began to root through it, lifting some stuff out (a half-finished bag of Smartfood, a Bonnie Raitt tape that had suffered a miscarriage in Deirdre’s dashboard player, a map of California) so she could get at the stuff behind it. Peter could see small beads of perspiration at her left temple. Feathers of her short black hair were damp with it, although the air-conditioning vent on that side was blowing cool air directly into her face.
“I don’t—” she started, and then, with unmistakable relief: “Oh, here it is.”
At the same moment Peter looked in the compartment where he kept business cards and saw his license. He couldn’t remember putting it in there—why in the name of God would he have?—but there it was. In the photograph he looked not like an assistant professor of English at NYU but an unemployed petty laborer (and possible serial killer). Yet it was him, recognizably him, and he felt his spirits lift. They had their papers, God was in his heaven, all was right with the world.
Besides, he thought, handing the cop his license, this isn’t Albania, you know. It may not be in our zone of perception, but it’s definitely not Albania.
He turned, took the envelope she was holding out, and gave her a wink. She tried to smile an acknowledgment, but it didn’t work very well. Outside, a gust of wind threw sand against the side of the car. Tiny grains of it stung Peter’s face and he slitted his eyes against it. Suddenly he wanted to be at least two thousand miles from Nevada, in any direction.
He took Deirdre’s registration and held it out to the cop, but the cop was still looking at his license.
“I see you’re an organ donor,” the cop said, without looking up. “Do you really think that’s wise?”
Peter was nonplussed. “Well, I . . .”
“Is that the vehicle registration, sir?” the cop asked crisply. He was now looking at the canary-yellow sheet of paper.
“Hand it to me, please.”
Peter handed it out the window. Now the cop, still squatting Indian-fashion in the sunlight, had Peter’s driver’s license in one hand and Deirdre’s registration in the other. He looked back and forth between them for what seemed a very long time. Peter felt light pressure on his thigh and jumped a little before realizing it was Mary’s hand. He took it and felt her fingers wrap around his at once.
“Your sister?” the cop said finally. He looked up at them with his bright gray eyes.
“Her name is Finney. Yours is Jackson.”
“Deirdre was married for a year, between high school and college,” Mary said. Her voice was firm, pleasant, unafraid. Peter would have believed it completely if not for the clutch of her fingers. “She kept her husband’s name. That’s all it is.”
“A year, hmmm? Between high school and college. Married. Tak!”
His head remained down over the documents. Peter could see the peak of his Smokey Bear hat ticking back and forth as he fell to examining them again.
Peter’s sense of relief was slipping away.
“Between high school and college,” the cop repeated, head down, big face hidden, and in his head Peter heard him say: I see you’re an organ donor. Do you really think that’s wise? Tak!
The cop looked up. “Would you step out of the car, please, Mr. Jackson?”
Mary’s fingers bore down, her nails biting into the back of Peter’s hand, but the burning sensation was far away. Suddenly his balls and the pit of his stomach were crawling with dismay, and he felt like a child again, a confused child who only knows for sure that he has done something bad.
“What—” he began.
The cop from the Desperation cruiser stood. It was like watching a freight elevator go up. The head disappeared, then the open-collared shirt with its gleaming badge, then the diagonal strap of the Sam Browne belt. Then Peter was looking at the heavy beltbuckle again, the gun, and the khaki fold of cloth over the man’s fly.
This time what came from above the top of the window wasn’t a question. “Get out of the car, Mr. Jackson.”
Peter pulled the handle and the cop stood back so he could swing the door open. The cop’s head was cut off by the roof of the Acura. Mary squeezed Peter’s hand more violently than ever and Peter turned back to look at her. The sunburned places on her cheeks and brow were even clearer now, because her face had gone almost ashy. Her eyes were very wide.
Don’t get out of the car, she mouthed.
I have to, he mouthed back, and swung a leg out onto the asphalt of U.S. 50. For a moment Mary clung to him, her hand entwined in his, and then Peter pulled loose and got the rest of the way out, standing on legs that felt queerly distant. The cop was looking down at him. Six-seven, Peter thought. Got to be. And he suddenly saw a quick sequence of events, like a filmclip run at super speed: the huge cop drawing his gun and pulling the trigger, spraying Peter Jackson’s educated brains across the roof of the Acura in a slimy fan, then yanking Mary out of the car, driving her face-first into the lid of the closed trunk, bending her over, then raping her right out here beside the highway in the searing desert sunshine, his Smokey Bear hat still planted squarely on his head, screaming You want a donated organ, lady? Here you go! Here you go! as he rocked and thrust.
“What’s this about, Officer?” Peter asked, his mouth and throat suddenly dry. “I think I have a right to know.”
“Step around to the rear of the car, Mr. Jackson.”
The cop turned and walked toward the back of the Acura without bothering to see if Peter was going to obey. Peter did obey, walking on legs that still felt as if they were relaying their sensory input by some form of telecommunications.
The cop stopped beside the trunk. When Peter joined him, he pointed with one big finger. Peter followed it and saw there was no license plate on the back of Deirdre’s car—just a marginally cleaner rectangle where it had been.
“Ah, shit!” Peter said, and his irritation and dismay were real enough, but so was the relief beneath them. All this had had a point after all. Thank God. He turned toward the front of the car and wasn’t exactly surprised to see the driver’s door was now closed. Mary had closed it. He had been so far into this . . . event . . . occurrence . . . this whatever it was . . . that he hadn’t even heard the thump.
“Mare! Hey, Mare!”
She poked her sunburned, strained face out of his window and looked back at him.
“Our damned license plate fell off!” he called, almost laughing.
“No, it didn’t,” the Desperation cop said. He squatted again—that calm, slow, lithe movement—and reached beneath the bumper. He fumbled there, on the other side of the place where the plate went, for a moment or two, his gray eyes gazing off toward the horizon. Pete was invaded by an eerie sense of familiarity: he and his wife had been pulled over by the Marlboro Man.
“Ah!” the cop said. He stood up again. The hand he had been investigating with was clenched into a loose fist. He held it out to Peter and opened it. Lying on his palm (and looking very small in that vast pinkness) was a road-dirty piece of screw. It was bright in only one place, where it had been sheared off.
Peter looked at it, then up at the cop. “I don’t get it.”
“Did you stop in Fallon?”
There was a creak as Mary’s door opened, a clunk as she shut it behind her, then the scuff of her sneakers on the sandy shoulder as she walked toward the back of the car.
“Sure we did,” she said. She looked at the fragment of metal in the big hand (Deirdre’s registration and Peter’s driver’s license were still in the cop’s other one), then up at the cop’s face. She didn’t seem scared now—not as scared, anyway—and Peter was glad. He was already calling himself nine kinds of paranoid idiot, but you had to admit that this particular close encounter of the cop kind had had its
(do you really think that’s wise)
“Pit-stop, Peter, don’t you remember? We didn’t need gas, you said we could do that in Ely, but we got sodas so we wouldn’t feel guilty about asking to use the restrooms.” She looked at the cop and tried on a smile. She had to crane back to see his face. To Peter she looked like a little girl trying to coax a smile out of Daddy after Daddy had gotten home from a bad day at the office. “The restrooms were very clean.”
He nodded. “Was that Fill More Fast or Berk’s Conoco you stopped at?”
She glanced uncertainly at Peter. He turned his hands up at shoulder level. “I don’t remember,” he said. “Hell, I barely remember stopping.”
The cop tossed the useless chunk of screw back over his shoulder and into the desert, where it would lie undisturbed for a million years, unless it caught some inquisitive bird’s eye. “But I bet you remember the kids hanging around outside. Older kids, mostly. One or two maybe too old to actually be kids at all. The younger ones with skateboards or on Rollerblades.”
Peter nodded. He thought of Mary asking him why the people were here—why they came and why they stayed.
“That was the Fill More Fast.” Peter looked to see if the cop was wearing a nametag on one of his shirt pockets, but he wasn’t. So for now, at least, he’d have to stay just the cop. The one who looked like the Marlboro Man in the magazine ads. “Alfie Berk won’t have em around anymore. Kicked em the hell out. They’re a dastardly bunch.”
Mary cocked her head at that, and for a moment Peter could see the ghost of a smile at the corners of her mouth.
“Are they a gang?” Peter asked. He still didn’t see where this was going.
“Close as you’d get in a place as small as Fallon,” the cop said. He raised Peter’s license to his face, looked at it, looked at Peter, lowered it again. But he did not offer to give it back. “Dropouts, for the most part. And one of their hobbies is kifing out-of-state license plates. It’s like a dare thing. I imagine they got yours while you were in buying your cold drinks or using the facilities.”
“You know this and they still do it?” Mary asked.
“Fallon’s not my town. I rarely go there. Their ways are not my ways.”
“What should we do about the missing plate?” Peter asked. “I mean, this is a mess. The car’s registered in Oregon, but my sister has gone back to New York to live. She hated Reed—”
“Did she?” the cop asked. “Gosh, now!”
Peter could feel Mary’s eyes shift to him, probably wanting him to share her moment of amusement, but that didn’t seem like a good idea to him. Not at all.
“She said going to school there was like trying to go to school in the middle of a Grateful Dead concert,” he said. “Anyway, she flew back to New York. My wife and I thought it would be fun to go out and get the car for her, bring it back to New York. Deirdre packed a bunch of her stuff in the trunk . . . clothes, mostly . . .”
He was babbling again, and he made himself stop.
“So what do I do? We can’t very well drive all the way across the country with no license plate on the back of the car, can we?”
The cop walked toward the front of the Acura, moving very deliberately. He still had Peter’s license and Deirdre’s canary-yellow registration slip in one hand. His Sam Browne belt creaked. When he reached the front of the car he put his hands behind his back and stood frowning down at something. To Peter he looked like an interested patron in an art gallery. Dastardly, he’d said. A dastardly bunch. Peter didn’t think he had ever actually heard that word used in conversation.
The cop walked back toward them. Mary moved next to Peter, but her fright seemed gone. She was looking at the big man with interest, that was all.
“The front plate’s okay,” the cop said. “Put that one on the back. You won’t have any problem getting to New York on that basis.”
“Oh,” Peter said. “Okay. Good idea.”
“Do you have a wrench and screwdriver? I think all my tools’re back sitting on a bench in the town garage.” The cop grinned. It lit his whole face, informed his eyes, turned him into a different man. “Oh. These’re yours.” He held out the license and registration.
“There’s a little toolkit in the trunk, I think,” Mary said. She sounded giddy, and that was how Peter felt. Pure relief, he supposed. “I saw it while I was putting in my makeup case. Between the spare tire and the side.”
“Officer, I want to thank you,” Peter said.
The big cop nodded. He wasn’t looking at Peter, though; his gray eyes were apparently fixed on the mountains off to his left. “Just doing my job.”
Peter walked to the driver’s door of the car, wondering why he and Mary had been so afraid in the first place.
That’s nonsense, he told himself as he pulled the keys out of the ignition switch. They were on a smile-face keychain, which was pretty much par for the course—Deirdre’s course, anyway. Mr. Smiley-Smile (her name for him) was his sister’s trademark. She put happy yellow ones on the flaps of most of her letters, the occasional green one with a downturned mouth and a blah tongue stuck out if she happened to be having a bad day. I wasn’t afraid, not really. Neither was Mary.
Boink, a lie. He had been afraid, and Mary . . . well, Mary had been damned close to terrified.
Okay, maybe we were a little freaked, he thought, picking out the trunk key as he walked to the back of the car again. So sue us. The sight of Mary standing next to the big cop was like some sort of optical illusion; the top of her head barely came up to the bottom of his ribcage.
Peter opened the trunk. On the left, neatly packed (and covered with Hefty bags to keep the road dust off them), were Deirdre’s clothes. In the center, Mary’s makeup case and their two suitcases—his n hers—were wedged in between the green bundles and the spare tire. Although “tire” was much too grand a word for it, Peter thought. It was one of those blow-up doughnuts, good for a run to the nearest service station. If you were lucky.
He looked between the doughnut and the trunk’s sidewall. There was nothing there.
“Mare, I don’t see—”
“There.” She pointed. “That gray thing? That’s it. It’s worked its way in back of the spare, that’s all.”
He could have snaked his arm into the gap, but it seemed easier just to lift the uninflated rubber doughnut out of the way. He was leaning it against the back bumper when he heard Mary’s sudden intake of breath. It sounded as if she had been pinched or poked.
“Oh hey,” the big cop said mildly. “What’s this?”
Mary and the cop were looking into the trunk. The cop looked interested and slightly bemused. Mary’s eyes were bulging, horrified. Her lips were trembling. Peter turned, looking into the trunk again, following their gaze. There was something in the spare-tire well. It had been under the doughnut. For a moment he either didn’t know what it was or didn’t want to know what it was, and then that crawling sensation started in his lower belly again. This time there was also a sense of his sphincter’s not loosening but dropping, as if the muscles which ordinarily held it up where it belonged had dozed off. He became aware that he was squeezing his buttocks together, but even that was far away, in another time zone. He felt an all-too-brief certainty that this was a dream, had to be.
The big cop gave him a look, those bright gray eyes still peculiarly empty, then reached into the spare-tire well and brought out a Baggie, a big one, a gallon-size, and stuffed full of greenish-brown herbal matter. The flap had been sealed with strapping tape. Plastered on the front was a round yellow sticker. Mr. Smiley-Smile. The perfect emblem for potheads like his sister, whose adventures in life could have been titled Through Darkest America with Bong and Roach-Clip. She had gotten pregnant while stoned, had undoubtedly decided to marry Roger Finney while stoned, and Peter knew for a fact that she had left Reed (carrying a one-point-forget-it grade average) because there was too much dope floating around and she just couldn’t say no to it. She’d been up front about that part, at least, and he had actually looked through the Acura for stashes—it would be stuff she’d forgotten about rather than stuff she’d actually hidden, most likely—before they left Portland. He’d looked under the Hefty bags her clothes were stored in, and Mary had thumbed through the clothes themselves (neither admitting out loud what they were looking for, both knowing), but neither of them had thought to look under the doughnut.
The goddam doughnut.
The cop squeezed the Baggie with one oversized thumb as if it were a tomato. He reached into his pocket and produced a Swiss Army knife. He plucked out the smallest blade.
“Officer,” Peter said in a weak voice. “Officer, I don’t know how that—”
“Shhh,” the big cop said, and cut a tiny slit in the Baggie.
Peter felt Mary’s hand tugging at his sleeve. He took her hand, this time folding his fingers over hers. All at once he could see Deirdre’s pale, pretty face floating just behind his eyes. Her blond hair, which still fell to her shoulders in natural Stevie Nicks ringlets. Her eyes, which were always a bit confused.
You stupid little bitch, he thought. You ought to be very grateful that you’re not where I can get my hands on you right now.
“Officer—” Mary tried.
The cop raised his hand to her, palm out, then put the tiny slit in the Baggie against his nose and sniffed. His eyes drifted closed. After a moment he opened them again and lowered the Baggie. He held out his other hand, palm up. “Give me your keys, sir,” he said.
“Officer, I can explain this—”
“Give me your keys.”
“If you just—”
“Are you deaf? Give me your keys.”
He only raised his voice a little, but it was enough to start Mary crying. Feeling like someone who is having an out-of-body experience, Peter dropped Deirdre’s car-keys into the cop’s waiting hand and then put his arm around his wife’s shaking shoulders.
“ ’Fraid you folks are going to have to come with me,” the cop said. His eyes went from Peter to Mary and then back to Peter again. When they did, Peter realized what it was about them that bothered him. They were bright, like the minutes before sunrise on a foggy morning, but they were also dead, somehow.
“Please,” Mary said, her voice wet. “It’s a mistake. His sister—”
“Get in the car,” the cop said, indicating his cruiser. The flashers were still pulsing on the roof, bright even in the bright desert daylight. “Right now, please, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson.”
The rear seat was extremely cramped (of course it would be, Peter thought distractedly, a man that big would have the front seat back as far as it would go). There were stacks of paper in the footwell behind the driver’s seat (the back of that seat was actually warped from the cop’s weight) and more on the back deck. Peter picked one up—it had a dried, puckered coffee-ring on it—and saw it was a DARE flyer. At the top was a picture of a kid sitting in a doorway. There was a dazed, vacant expression on his face (he looked the way Peter felt right now, in fact), and the coffee-ring circled his head like a halo. USERS ARE LOSERS, the folder said.
There was mesh between the front of the car and the back, and no handles or window-cranks on the doors. Peter had begun to feel like a character in a movie (the one which came most persistently to mind was Midnight Express), and these details only added to that sensation. His best judgement was that he had talked too much about too many things already, and it would be well for him and Mary to stay quiet, at least until they got to wherever Officer Friendly meant to take them. It was probably good advice, but it was hard advice to follow. Peter found himself with a powerful urge to tell Officer Friendly that a terrible mistake had been made here—he was an assistant professor of English, his specialty was postwar American fiction, he had recently published a scholarly article called “James Dickey and the New Southern Reality” (a piece which had generated a great deal of controversy in certain ivied academic bowers), and, furthermore, that he hadn’t smoked dope in years. He wanted to tell the cop that he might be a little bit overeducated by central Nevada standards, but was still, basically, one of the good guys.
He looked at Mary. Her eyes were full of tears, and he was suddenly ashamed of the way he had been thinking—all me, me, me and I, I, I. His wife was in this with him; he’d do well to remember that. “Pete, I’m so scared,” she said in a whisper that was almost a moan.
He leaned forward and kissed her cheek. The skin was as cool as clay beneath his lips. “It’ll be all right. We’ll straighten this out.”
“Word of honor?”
“Word of honor.”
After putting them into the back seat of the cruiser, the cop had returned to the Acura. He had been looking into the trunk for at least two minutes now. Not searching it, not even moving anything around, just staring in with his hands clasped behind his back, as if mesmerized. Now he jerked like a man waking suddenly from a nap, slammed the Acura’s trunk shut and walked back to the Caprice. It canted to the left when he got in, and from the springs beneath there came a tired but somehow resigned groan. The back seat bulged a little further, and Peter grimaced at the sudden pressure on his knees.
Mary should have taken this side, he thought, but it was too late now. Too late for a lot of things, actually.
The cruiser’s engine was running. The cop dropped the transmission into gear and pulled back onto the road. Mary turned to watch the Acura drop behind them. When she faced front again, Peter saw that the tears which had been standing in her eyes had spilled down her cheeks.
“Please listen to me,” she said, speaking to the cropped blond hair on the back of that enormous skull. The cop had laid his Smokey Bear hat aside again, and to Peter the top of his head looked to be no more than a quarter of an inch from the Caprice’s roof. “Please, okay? Try to understand. That isn’t our car. You have to understand that much at least, I know you do, because you saw the registration. It’s my sister-in-law’s. She’s a pothead. Half her brain-cells—”
“Mare—” Peter laid a hand on her arm. She shook it off.
“No! I’m not going to spend the rest of the day answering questions in some dipshit police station, maybe in a jail cell, because your sister’s selfish and forgetful and . . . and . . . all fucked up!”
Peter sat back—his knees were still being pinched pretty severely but he thought he could live with it—and looked out the dust-coated side window. They were a mile or two east of the Acura now, and he could see something up ahead, pulled over on the shoulder of the westbound lane. Some sort of vehicle. Big. A truck, maybe.
Mary had switched her gaze from the back of the cop’s head to the rearview mirror, trying to make eye contact with him. “Half of Deirdre’s brain-cells are fried and the other half are on permanent vacation in the Emerald City. The technical term is ‘burnout,’ and I’m sure you’ve seen people like her, Officer, even out here. What you found under the spare tire probably is dope, you’re probably right about that, but not our dope! Can’t you see that?”
The thing up ahead, off the road with its tinted windshield pointed in the direction of Fallon and Carson City and Lake Tahoe, wasn’t a truck after all; it was an RV. Not one of the real dinosaurs, but still pretty big. Cream-colored, with a dark green stripe running along the side. The words FOUR HAPPY WANDERERS were printed in the same dark green on the RV’s blunt nose. The vehicle was road-dusty and canted over in an awkward, unnatural way.
As they neared it, Peter saw an odd thing: all the tires in his view appeared to be flat. He thought maybe the double set of back tires on the passenger side was flat, too, although he only caught the briefest glimpse of them. That many flat shoes would account for the land-cruiser’s funny, canted look, but how did you get that many flat shoes all at once? Nails in the road? A strew of glass?
He looked at Mary, but Mary was still looking passionately up into the rearview mirror. “If we’d put that bag of dope under the tire,” she was saying, “if it was ours, then why in God’s name would Peter have taken the spare out so you could see it? I mean, he could have reached around the spare and gotten the toolkit, it would have been a little awkward but there was room.”
They went past the RV. The side door was closed but unlatched. The steps were down. There was a doll lying in the dirt at the foot of them. The dress it was wearing fluttered in the wind.
Peter’s eyes closed. He didn’t know for sure if he had closed them or if they had closed on their own. Didn’t much care. All he knew was that Officer Friendly had blown by the disabled RV as if he hadn’t even seen it . . . or as if he already knew all about it.
Words from an old song, floating in his head: Somethin happenin here . . . what it is ain’t exactly clear . . .
“Do we impress you as stupid people?” Mary was asking as the disabled RV began to dwindle behind them—to dwindle as Deirdre’s Acura had done. “Or stoned? Do you think we’re—”
“Shut up,” the cop said. He spoke softly, but there was no way to miss the venom in his voice.
Mary had been sitting forward with her fingers curled into the mesh between the front and back seats. Now her hands dropped away from it, and she turned her shocked face toward Peter. She was a faculty wife, she was a poet who had published in over twenty magazines since her first tentative submissions eight years ago, she went to a women’s discussion group twice a week, she had been seriously considering piercing her nose. Peter wondered when the last time was she had been told to shut up. He wondered if anyone had ever told her to shut up.
“What?” she asked, perhaps trying to sound aggressive, even threatening, and only sounding bewildered. “What did you tell me?”
“I’m arresting you and your husband on a charge of possession of marijuana with intent to sell,” the cop said. His voice was uninflected, robotic. Now staring forward, Peter saw there was a little plastic bear stuck to the dashboard, beside the compass and next to what was probably an LED readout for the radar speed-gun. The bear was small, the size of a gumball machine prize. His neck was on a spring, and his empty painted eyes stared back at Peter.
This is a nightmare, he thought, knowing it wasn’t. It’s got to be a nightmare. I know it feels real, but it’s got to be.
“You can’t be serious,” Mary said, but her voice was tiny and shocked. The voice of someone who knew better. Her eyes were filling up with tears again. “Surely you can’t be.”
“You have the right to remain silent,” the big cop said in his robot’s voice. “If you do not choose to remain silent, anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. I’m going to kill you. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand your rights as I have explained them to you?”
She was looking at Peter, her eyes huge and horrified, asking him without speaking if he had heard what the cop had mixed in with the rest of it, that robotic voice never varying. Peter nodded. He had heard, all right. He put a hand into his crotch, sure he would feel dampness there, but he hadn’t wet himself. Not yet, anyway. He put an arm around Mary and could feel her trembling. He kept thinking of the RV back there. Door ajar, dollbaby lying face-down in the dirt, too many flat tires. And then there was the dead cat Mary had seen nailed to the speed-limit sign.
“Do you understand your rights?”
Act normally. I don’t think he has the slightest idea what he said, so act normally.
But what was normal when you were in the back seat of a police-cruiser driven by a man who was clearly as mad as a hatter, a man who had just said he was going to kill you?
“Do you understand your rights?” the robot voice asked him.
Peter opened his mouth. Nothing came out but a croak.
The cop turned his head then. His face, pinkish with sun when he had stopped them, had gone pale. His eyes were very large, seeming to bulge out of his face like marbles. He had bitten his lip, like a man trying to suppress some monstrous rage, and blood ran down his chin in a thin stream.
“Do you understand your rights?” the cop screamed at them, head turned, bulleting blind down the deserted two-lane at better than seventy miles an hour. “Do you understand your fucking rights or not? Do you or not? Do you or not? Do you or not? Answer me, you smart New York Jew!”
“I do!” Peter cried. “We both do, just watch the road, for Christ’s sake watch where you’re going!”
The cop continued staring back at them through the mesh, face pale, blood dripping down from his lower lip. The Caprice, which had begun to veer to the left, almost all the way across the westbound lane, now slid back the other way.
“Don’t worry about me,” the cop said. His voice was mild again. “Gosh, no. I’ve got eyes in the back of my head. In fact, I’ve got eyes just about everywhere. You’d do well to remember that.”
He turned back suddenly, facing front again, and dropped the cruiser’s speed to an easygoing fifty-five. The seat settled back against Peter’s knees with painful weight, pinning him.
He took Mary’s hands in both of his own. She pressed her face against his chest, and he could feel the sobs she was trying to suppress. They shook through her like wind. He looked over her shoulder, through the mesh. On the dashboard, the bear’s head nodded and bobbed on its spring.
“I see holes like eyes,” the cop said. “My mind is full of them.” He said nothing else until they got to town.
The next ten minutes were very slow ones for Peter Jackson. The cop’s weight against his pinned knees seemed to increase with each circuit of his wristwatch’s second hand, and his lower legs were soon numb. His feet were dead asleep, and he wasn’t sure that he would be able to walk on them if this ride ever ended. His bladder throbbed. His head ached. He understood that he and Mary were in the worst trouble of their lives, but he was unable to comprehend this in any real and meaningful way. Every time he neared comprehension, there was a short circuit in his head. They were on their way back to New York. They were expected. Someone was watering their plants. This couldn’t be happening, absolutely could not.
Mary nudged him and pointed out her window. Here was a sign, reading simply DESPERATION. Under the word was an arrow pointing to the right.
The cop slowed, but not much, before making the right. The car started to tip and Peter saw Mary drawing in breath. She was going to scream. He put a hand over her mouth to stop her and whispered in her ear, “He’s got it, I’m pretty sure he does, we’re not going to roll.” But he wasn’t sure until he felt the cruiser’s rear end first slide, then catch hold. A moment later they were racing south along narrow patched blacktop with no centerline.
A mile or so farther on, they passed a sign which read DESPERATION’S CHURCH & CIVIC ORGANIZATIONS WELCOME YOU! The words CHURCH & CIVIC ORGANIZATIONS were readable, although they had been coated with yellow spray-paint. Above them, in the same paint, the words DEAD DOGS had been added in ragged caps. The churches and civic organizations were listed beneath, but Peter didn’t bother to read them. A German Shepherd had been hanged from the sign. Its rear paws tick-tocked back and forth an inch or two above a patch of ground that was dark and muddy with its blood.
Mary’s hands were clamped on his like a vise. He welcomed their pressure. He leaned toward her again, into the sweet smell of her perfume and the sour smell of her terrified sweat, leaned toward her until his lips were pressed against the cup of her ear. “Don’t say a word, don’t make a sound,” he murmured. “Nod your head if you understand me.”
She nodded against his lips, and Peter straightened up again.
They passed a trailer park behind a stake fence. Most of the trailers were small and looked as if they had seen better days—around the time Cheers first went on the air, perhaps. Dispirited-looking laundry flapped between a few of them in the hot desert wind. In front of one was a sign which read:
I’M A GUN-TOTTIN’ SNAPPLE-DRINKIN’
BIBLE-READIN’ CLINTON-BASHIN’ SON OF A BITCH!
NEVER MIND THE DOG, BEWARE OF THE OWNER!
Mounted on an old Airstream which stood near the road was a large black satellite dish. On the side of it was another sign, white-painted metal down which streaks of rust had run like ancient bloody tears:
PROPERTY RATTLESNAKE TRAILER PARK
NO TRESSPASSING! POLICE PATROLED!
Beyond the Rattlesnake Trailer Park was a long Quonset hut with rusty, corrugated sides and roof. The sign out front read DESPERATION MINING CORP. To one side was a cracked asphalt parking lot with a dozen cars and pickups in it. A moment later they passed the Desert Rose Cafe.
Then they were in the town proper. Desperation, Nevada, consisted of two streets that crossed at right angles (a blinker-light, currently flashing yellow on all four sides, hung over the intersection) and two blocks of business buildings. Most seemed to have false fronts. There was an Owl’s Club casino and cafe, a grocery, a laundrymat, a bar with a sign in the window reading ENJOY OUR SLOTSPITALITY, hardware and feed stores, a movie theater called The American West, a few others. None of the businesses looked as if they were booming, and the theater had the air of a place that has been closed a long time. A single crooked R hung from its dirty, bashed-in marquee.
Going the other way, east and west, were some frame houses and more trailers. Nothing seemed to be in motion except for the cruiser and one tumbleweed, which moved down Main in large, lazy lopes.
I’d get off the streets, too, if I saw this guy coming, Peter thought. You’re goddamned tooting I would.
Beyond the town was an enormous curving bulwark with an improved dirt road at least four lanes wide running up to the top in a pair of wide switchbacks. The rest of this curved rampart, which had to be at least three hundred feet high, was crisscrossed by deep runoff trenches. To Peter they looked like wrinkles in old skin. At the foot of the crater (he assumed it was a crater, the result of some sort of mining operation), trucks that looked like toys compared to the soaring, wrinkled wall behind them were clustered together by a long, corrugated building with a conveyor belt running out of each end.
Their host spoke up for the first time since telling them his mind was full of holes, or whatever it was he’d said.
“Rattlesnake Number Two. Sometimes known as the China Pit.” He sounded like a tourguide who still enjoys his job. “Old Number Two was opened in 1951, and from ’62 or so right through the seventies, it was the biggest open-pit copper mine in the United States, maybe in the world. Then it played out. They opened it up again year before last. They got some new technology that makes even the tailings valuable. Science, huh? Gosh!”
But there was nothing moving up there now, not that Peter could see, although it was a weekday. Just the huddle of trucks by what was probably some kind of sorting-mill, and another truck—this one a pickup—parked off to the side of the gravel highway leading to the summit. The conveyors at the ends of the long metal building were stopped.
The cop drove through the center of town, and as they passed beneath the blinker, Mary squeezed Peter’s hands twice in rapid succession. He followed her gaze and saw three bikes in the middle of the street which crossed Main. They were about a block and a half down and had been set on their seats in a row, with their wheels sticking up. The wheels were turning like windmill blades in the gusty air.
She turned to look at him, her wet eyes wider than ever. Peter squeezed her hands again and made a “Shhh” sound.
The cop signalled a left turn—pretty funny, under the circumstances—and swung into a small, recently paved parking lot bordered on three sides by brick walls. Bright white lines were spray-painted on the smooth and crackless asphalt. On the wall at the rear of the lot was a sign which read: MUNICIPAL EMPLOYEES AND MUNICIPAL BUSINESS ONLY PLEASE RESPECT THIS PARKING LOT.
Only in Nevada would someone ask you to respect a parking lot, Peter thought. In New York the sign would probably read UNAUTHORIZED VEHICLES WILL BE STOLEN AND THEIR OWNERS EATEN.
There were four or five cars in the lot. One, a rusty old Ford Estate Wagon, was marked FIRE CHIEF. There was another police-car, in better shape than the Fire Chief’s car but not as new as the one their captor was driving. There was a single handicapped space in the lot. Officer Friendly parked in it. He turned off the engine and then just sat there for a moment or two, head lowered, fingers tapping restlessly at the steering wheel, humming under his breath. To Peter it sounded like “Last Train to Clarksville.”
“Don’t kill us,” Mary said suddenly in a trembling, teary voice. “We’ll do whatever you want, just please don’t kill us.”
“Shut your quacking Jew mouth,” the cop replied. He didn’t raise his head, and he went on tapping at the wheel with the tips of his sausage-sized fingers.
“We’re not Jews,” Peter heard himself saying. His voice sounded not afraid but querulous, angry. “We’re . . . well, Presbyterians, I guess. What’s this Jew thing?”
Mary looked at her husband, horrified, then back through the mesh to see how the cop was taking it. At first he did nothing, only sat with his head down and his fingers tapping. Then he grabbed his hat and got out of the car. Peter bent down a little so he could watch the cop settle the hat on his head. The cop’s shadow was still squat, but it was no longer puddled around his feet. Peter glanced at his watch and saw it was a few minutes shy of two-thirty. Less than an hour ago, the biggest question he and his wife had had was what their accommodations for the night would be like. His only worry had been his strong suspicion that he was out of Rolaids.
The cop bent and opened the left rear door. “Please get out of the vehicle, folks,” he said.
They slid out, Peter first. They stood in the hot light, looking uncertainly up at the man in the khaki uniform and the Sam Browne belt and the peaked trooper-style hat.
“We’re going to walk around to the front of the Municipal Building,” the cop said. “That’ll be a left as you reach the sidewalk. And you look like Jews to me. The both of you. You have those big noses which connote the Jewish aspect.”
“Officer—” Mary began.
“No,” he said. “Walk. Make your left. Don’t try my patience.”
They walked. Their footfalls on the fresh black tar seemed very loud. Peter kept thinking of the little plastic bear on the dashboard of the cruiser. Its jiggling head and painted eyes. Who had given it to the cop? A favorite niece? A daughter? Officer Friendly wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, Peter had noticed that while watching the man’s fingers tap against the steering wheel, but that didn’t mean he had never been married. And the idea that a woman married to this man might at some point seek a divorce did not strike Peter as in the least bit odd.
From somewhere above him came a monotonous reek-reek-reek sound. He looked down the street and saw a weathervane turning rapidly on the roof of the bar, Bud’s Suds. It was a leprechaun with a pot of gold under one arm and a knowing grin on his spinning face. It was the weathervane making the sound.
“To your left, Dumbo,” the cop said, sounding not impatient but resigned. “Do you know which way is your left? Don’t they teach hayfoot and strawfoot to you New York Homo Presbyterians?”
Peter turned left. He and Mary were still walking hip to hip, still holding hands. They came to a set of three stone steps leading up to modern tinted-glass double doors. The building itself was much less modern. A white-painted sign hung on faded brick proclaimed it to be the DESPERATION MUNICIPAL BUILDING. Below, on the doors, were listed the offices and services to be found within: Mayor, School Committee, Fire, Police, Sanitation, Welfare Services, Department of Mines and Assay. At the bottom of the righthand door was printed: MSHA FRIDAYS AT 1 PM AND BY APPOINTMENT.
The cop stopped at the foot of the steps and looked at the Jacksons curiously. Although it was brutally hot out here, probably somewhere in the upper nineties, he did not appear to be sweating at all. From behind them, monotonous in the silence, came the reek-reek-reek of the weathervane.
“You’re Peter,” he said.
“Yes, Peter Jackson.” He wet his lips.
The cop shifted his eyes. “And you’re Mary.”
“So where’s Paul?” the cop asked, looking at them pleasantly while the rusty leprechaun squeaked and spun on the roof of the bar behind them.
“What?” Peter asked. “I don’t understand.”
“How can you sing ‘Five Hundred Miles’ or ‘Leavin’ on a Jet Plane’ without Paul?” the cop asked, and opened the righthand door. Machine-cooled air puffed out. Peter felt it on his face and had time to register how nice it was, nice and cool; then Mary screamed. Her eyes had adjusted to the gloom inside the building faster than his own, but he saw it a moment later. There was a girl of about six sprawled at the foot of the stairs, half-propped against the last four risers. One hand was thrown back over her head. It lay palm-up on the stairs. Her straw-colored hair had been tied in a couple of tails. Her eyes were wide open and her head was unnaturally cocked to one side. There was no question in Peter’s mind about whom the dolly lying at the foot of the RV’s steps had belonged to. FOUR HAPPY WANDERERS, it had said on the front of the RV, but that was clearly out of date in these modern times. There was no question in his mind about that, either.
“Gosh!” the cop said genially. “Forgot all about her! But you can never remember everything, can you? No matter how hard you try!”
Mary screamed again, her fingers folded down against her palms and her hands against her mouth, and tried to bolt back down the steps.
“No you don’t, what a bad idea,” the cop said. He caught her by the shoulder and shoved her through the door, which he was holding open. She reeled across the small lobby, revolving her arms in a frantic effort to keep her balance, not wanting to fall on top of the dead child in the jeans and the MotoKops 2200 shirt.
Peter started in toward his wife and the cop caught him with both hands, now using his butt to keep the righthand door open. He slung an arm around Peter’s shoulders. His face looked open and friendly. Most of all, best of all, it looked sane—as if his good angels had won out, at least for now. Peter felt an instant’s hope, and at first did not associate the thing pressing into his stomach with the cop’s monster handgun. He thought of his father, who would sometimes poke him with the tip of his finger while giving him advice—using the finger to sort of tamp his aphorisms home—things like No one ever gets pregnant if one of you keeps your pants on, Petie.
He didn’t realize it was the gun, not the cop’s oversized sausage of a finger, until Mary shrieked: “No! Oh, no!”
“Don’t—” Peter began.
“I don’t care if you’re a Jew or a Hindu,” the cop said, hugging Peter against him. He squeezed Peter’s shoulder chummily with his left hand as he cocked the .45 with his right. “In Desperation we don’t care about those things much.”
He pulled the trigger at least three times. There might have been more, but three reports were all Peter Jackson heard. They were muffled by his stomach, but still very loud. An incredible heat shot up through his chest and down through his legs at the same time, and he heard something wet drop on his shoes. He heard Mary, still screaming, but the sound seemed to come from far, far away.
Now I’ll wake up in my bed, Peter thought as his knees buckled and the world began to draw away, as bright as afternoon sunlight on the chrome side of a receding railroad car. Now I’ll—
That was all. His last thought as the darkness swallowed him forever really wasn’t a thought at all, but an image: the bear on the dashboard next to the cop’s compass. Head jiggling. Painted eyes staring. The eyes turned into holes, the dark rushed out of them, and then he was gone.
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Meet the Author
Stephen King is the author of more than fifty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. His recent work includes the short story collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Finders Keepers, Mr. Mercedes (an Edgar Award winner for Best Novel), Doctor Sleep, and Under the Dome. His novel 11/22/63—now a Hulu original television series event—was named a top ten book of 2011 by The New York Times Book Review and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller as well as the Best Hardcover Book Award from the International Thriller Writers. He is the recipient of the 2014 National Medal of Arts and the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.
- Also Known As:
- Stephen A. KingStephen Edwin KingRichard BachmanMúsica Movimento MagiaImre ZamboD'NashCraig JenkinsMark Odom HatfieldRobert William Arthur CookDerek RaymondAlex AlarconDJ KniggeHope & RyanMarquisa GardnerFernando LoboAntônio Lopes de Amorim DinizOrrel Alexander Carter
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