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By Brian Garfield
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1984 Brian Garfield
All rights reserved.
It is the sixth day after the theft. She pulls off the Interstate in Tucson, a city she has never seen before. According to the atlas it is a county seat and the second largest city in Arizona—population half a million people.
It seems as good a place as any for a beginning.
The coppery taste on her tongue is a symptom of fear: a familiar companion but unwelcome all the same.
While a fat man with a bandit's mustache fills the tank she puts a quarter into a newspaper vending machine and leafs through the Arizona Daily Star until she finds the address of its editorial offices.
She pays cash for the gasoline and asks directions and tries to ignore the lechery that leers from the fat man's eyes when he thinks she's not watching.
He has been neither articulate nor accurate; she has to stop twice to ask directions. These guide her along wide boulevards debased by plastic and neon, then into scrub desert beaten raw by the sun. Mountains loom all around in a moderate brown smog. The six-lane traffic is incongruously heavy: it seems out of kilter, out of time on this primitive ground.
She has turned the air conditioner all the way up but still the steering wheel is nearly too hot to hold. The car is four years old, 67,000 miles on the clock, not in the best of working order—she bought it for cash in a dying town near Scranton from an unemployed miner who'd taken an ad in one of the supermarket throwaways. In terms of probabilities she doubtless is lucky it's still running at all.
The miner hated to part with the car but he needed the $1,500—he has mouths to feed—and she doubts he'll get around to recording the transfer of title until he receives next year's reregistration bill from the motor vehicle people. Long before then she'll be rid of the car and in the meantime it is as anonymous a pale blue midsize as can be found and there's a good chance no one will ever trace it to her.
The wig makes her scalp itch. She feels clammy, uncomfortable with sweat: partly fear, partly the end-of-June heat. Even behind the reflecting lenses of her sunglasses she has to keep her eyes squeezed into a painful squint.
This climate can make one listless—or careless. It won't do to drop one's guard; it won't do to disregard even for a moment the fact that they're after her.
Pennants hang listlessly above a lot that offers enormous mobile homes for sale. Little stucco houses have weeds, cactus, old cars and broken-down pickup trucks for yard ornaments. And there's not a pedestrian in sight. Not even a dog.
Arizona Daily Star. The modern structure is as wide and low as a trucking warehouse. She finds a space in the parking lot and walks inside and the cool is as sudden and free as what you feel when you emerge from a sauna.
"I wonder if I could see the obituaries for the first three months of 1953."
She is steeled to answer questions with inventions but the girl behind the Information counter is incurious. "That's in the microfilm section." The girl directs her back into the maze.
She carries the bulky shoulder bag tight against her side as she explores the corridors. Really it's too big for a handbag but she hasn't let it out of reach in the three days since she bought it.
Half the money is inside it; the other half, with the diamonds, is in the suitcase locked in the trunk of the car.
An old man with sad bassett eyes brings out his film containers and shows her how to use the viewing machine. "Pretty soon they'll have all this stuff in the computers and it'll be real easy to find. But the computer don't go back that far just yet, thank God, so they still need me."
She thanks him and sits before the screen of the microfilm reader, turning the crank, searching each day's issue for the obituary page.
She finds a possibility—January 13,1953: she rereads it several times but decides against it, partly because the date unnerves her (ludicrous superstition!) and partly because she doesn't like the name of the deceased, Agnes Leonora Dapp. Surely there'll be something more mellifluous than that ...
The town was much smaller thirty-one years ago. A tenth of its present population. An overgrown cowtown, really; she rolls past February headline stories about rodeo parades and an El Conquistador Horse Show. Not many babies were born, let alone died, that season. She prowls on.
March 27, 1953. She leans toward the screen.
DIED: Hartman, Jennifer Corfu, aged 17 days, of cardiac deficiency. Infant daughter of Samuel P. G. Hartman and Jennifer Corfu Williams Hartman, 2675 No. Eastbourne Dr., Tucson. Private services will be conducted March 29th at Gower Funeral Home. Parents request that donations in lieu of flowers be sent to the Tucson chapter of the Nat'l Heart Ass'n.
She writes it all down and, on her way out, consults a current local telephone directory. No Samuel or Jennifer Hartman.
That's good: they've moved away or died.
She stops again at the Information counter. A pulse lurches at the back of her throat; she endeavors to smile. "How do I get to the county courthouse?"CHAPTER 2
"Jennifer Corfu Hartman." She prints the words clearly, then fills out the rest of the form. Date of birth March 10, 1953. In the block under Purpose of Request she writes, "Lost the original. Am applying for passport."
Her hand trembles when she turns it in but the grey-haired Chicano clerk has a friendly smile. "Likely take a couple hours. You might want to get lunch."
"Thank you."CHAPTER 3
She puts the certified copy of Jennifer's birth certificate in her bag in the same compartment with the birth certificate she obtained two days ago in Albuquerque for Dorothy (NMI) Holder, who died in 1955 at the age of 22 months. The traffic accident killed the little girl's parents as well. The Albuquerque newspaper gave up a grisly photo of the wreck and the information that the father was studying agricultural science on the GI Bill: poor bastard survived two years in the Korean war only to be wiped out by an oil-slippery road surface.
She parks in a shopping mall, zips up the compartment in her handbag and goes from one big department store to another, buying clothes off the rack. Jeans, blouses, two skirts, shoes, toiletries and cosmetics—even underwear: she wants nothing on her person that can be traced back more than five days.
In a cheap cluttered surplus store she buys an inexpensive suitcase. She carries it out in her left hand, the shoulder bag snug in her right.
She won't be remembered. She's paid cash for everything and she stays hidden behind the big sunglasses and the dark wig she bought three days ago in Denver.
The plan seemed to take shape overnight and the details have dropped into place with a speed that still bewilders her because she wasn't aware she was capable of such cunning.
Now an instinct for thoroughness keeps nagging her to remember every item of the scheme.
In a dusty hot alley behind a restaurant she finds a garbage bin higher than her eye-line. She transfers the cash and the diamonds to the new bag and then searches through her old suitcase, trying to force herself to be dispassionate but when she comes to the photograph of Ellen it is not possible to disregard the lump that fixes itself high in her chest. It won't go up and it won't go down.
With dread reluctance she puts the snapshot back where she found it, closes the suitcase and boosts it onto the lip of the garbage bin until it tips over and drops out of sight inside. She hears it dislodge glass bottles as it falls.
Probably it will be crushed in the mechanism of a garbage truck—buried under half a ton of waste in a county dump where nobody will ever find it.
Even if someone does, most likely this will be as far as they'll be able to trace her.
She drives away, seeking the Interstate. Her tears, she thinks at first, are for Ellen—for the photograph. But eventually she realizes it is more than that.
The suitcase contained the last of her belongings from home. Everything personal: everything but a ring of keys and a driver's license and a valise full of diamonds and cash.
On your own now, Jennifer Corfu Hartman A/K/A Dorothy Holder. Starting newborn. Might as well be stark naked.CHAPTER 4
She breaks the 500-mile trip to Los Angeles with what promises to be a sleeplessly hot night in a nondescript motel on the California border.
She eats in a diner and fends off the awkward advance of a middle-aged drunk who seems not so much offensive as simply lonely; he drives away in a car with Indiana plates, after which she goes for a short walk while there is still a dusky light on the desert.
Rather to her surprise the Colorado River turns out to be a muddy trickle at the bottom of a wide dry weedy riverbed spanned by bridges that seem ludicrously too huge for the tiny flow underneath. For a moment she suspects her own elaborate scheme must be equally disproportionate—but then she thinks: there's no such thing as too careful.
She's reasoning with herself:
"If you don't do this right they will find you and kill you."
Startled by the sound of her own voice she looks all around to see if anyone has overheard her. This is just terrific. Turning into one of those crazy bag ladies who crawl the city streets like slugs, incessantly talking to themselves in loud voices.
Try to relax. Gentle down.
Oh God. Oh dear God.
On the way back to the motel she catches her reflection in a shop's glass door. The dark wig still has the capacity to startle her. It's the third wig she has employed. First there was the long straight brown one—it gave her the appearance of the sort of graduate student who's deep into health foods and Zen—and then in Pennsylvania just before buying the blue car she changed to a frizzy Afro-style dark red wig and wore it as far as Denver. She remembers leaving it in a trash bin in a roadside rest area.
In the room she considers switching the television on but she doesn't really want that sort of company; she sits in the plastic armchair listening to the walls shudder when the big trucks rumble past. They set up a rhythm in her mind: a music to which she fixes images of a dancing couple in tights and ballet slippers gliding across a long diagonal of light. For a moment she is caught up in her visualization of the formal pas de deux—the sensuous nobility of its gesturings—and then she remembers that she must no longer admit to an interest in dance.
The trucks rattle on.
She thinks of Ellen and weeps again.
Later in a half-waking dream she pictures big faceless men coming in the door, hauling her to her feet, manhandling her outside into a car—all this without ever speaking, for she visualizes them as sinister menacing hulks who prefer wordlessly to rend her nerves and provoke her broken babblings, the sort of damaging confidences that she might blurt out merely to fill the dreadful silence....
Can the scheme work? Is there any chance at all? How many things can go wrong? How many things has she failed to take into account?
And what of Ellen?
Ellen, poor thing. So betrayed ...
It is past midnight before she gets into bed; another hour and a half, drifting between innocence and evil, before she finds sleep.
In the morning it is easier: daylight pushes the panic back. She is relieved to get on the road.CHAPTER 5
At an exit just past Blythe marked Gas—Food—Fuel she aims the car into the first filling station she sees. Under the alluring sign sixty feet high it turns out to be an unappetizing dump but she's too numbed by road weariness to seek another.
A punk-haired teen-age hoodlum slams the nozzle into the filler pipe and leaves the pump ticking while he checks the oil and smears bugs across the windshield with inadequate swipes of a long-handled squeegee. She stands in the shade waiting; the kid darts his furtive eyes toward her and she wishes she were wearing something that had more practical armor than this thin cotton print.
She pays in cash and drives around the side to park in the shade while she visits the Ladies'; it's not until the tires crunch that she notices where the filthy pavement is strewn with the glittering remains of broken beer bottles.
It's a choice between broken glass and the hot sun: she chooses the shade, steps out with care, and picks a path away from the car, tiptoeing through shards.
The stifling bathroom is repulsive visually and olfactorily. She departs in record time. Nevertheless the upholstery is so hot she can't relax her spine against it. She sits bolt upright when she backs the car out.
Watching her, the young hoodlum stands beside a gas pump with a bottle of beer in his hand. His very lack of expression seems malevolent.
The desert has been carved into farms here, kept alive by the trickle of water at the bottom of tapered concrete canals; past the irrigated area there's nothing but scrub and sand and the heat against which the air conditioner struggles.
She has gone only a few miles and she's doing about seventy when the wheel begins to pull to the left and she hears the rapid flubbing tattoo of the collapsing tire. With more stoical resignation than anger she takes her foot off the gas and fights the wheel, hauling it to the right. Thank God for power steering. Prompted by a fragment of memory from her teen-age years she forces herself not to touch the brake pedal.
The car chitters all over the road. It feels as if it's ploughing through thick mud but in fact the speed is still high—fifty miles an hour now and only dropping slowly. She thinks: emergency brake? Does that operate on the back wheels or the front ones? But she's not sure; she knows only that if she does the wrong thing it may flip over, as her mother and father found out.
She lets it coast, weaving from lane to lane. She's very lucky there's no traffic.
Finally the momentum comes off the charging automobile and she is able to horse it onto the shoulder.
She steps out into the blast of heat and examines the damage.
The car droops over its flat tire.
She's no mechanic but she knows this much: drive any farther on it and the wheel rim will be destroyed.
All right then. What are the choices?
You're supposed to wait for help. She knows the procedure. Open the trunk and the hood; tie a scarf on the door handle and lock yourself inside the car.
In this sun with the engine idling and the air conditioner blasting—how long will it be before the old car overheats and dies?
And who wants to sit here for six hours expiring of dehydration before the next highway patrol cop drives by?
And do you really want to take the chance that a cop won't ask to see some identification?
Change the damn tire, then.
There must be tools in the trunk. She opens it and sees the spare and realizes she's never paid any attention to it before. Suppose it's flat?
Leaning in under the useless shade of the upraised trunk lid she unscrews the butterfly nut that secures the spare. Just this little effort drenches her in sweat. Now to lift the thing out and see if there are tools under it.
She hoists it over the bumper and lets it bounce when it hits the ground. What do they make these things out of—solid lead?
At least it bounces. Maybe it actually has air in it.
She sees a cluster of cars approaching as if afloat on watery mirages that hover above the highway. She pretends to busy herself in the trunk and does not look at the cars as they whoosh past. The last one seems to slow down and she glances that way as it goes by—an open convertible, young driver in a cowboy hat. He seems to be looking at her in his mirror but she doesn't try to flag him down and finally he guns it and the old Cadillac fishtails away with a loud pneumatic hiss of noise.
I wonder what he thinks he's proving?
She recognizes the jack and the tire iron with its socket-wrench end and its pry-bar end. These two—are they all the tools you need?
You changed a tire once, remember? Four o'clock in the morning after the homecoming game and the fraternity beer bust. Can't remember that boy's name. He was so stoned on grass he just lay back and laughed: "Far out!" And you changed the tire while he waved the flashlight around so that your work was illuminated as fitfully as a battlefield under artillery attack.
Excerpted from Necessity by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1984 Brian Garfield. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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