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I swung left into Mulberry Drive and headed back toward town, hoping Mayor Everson Fowler's phone call to the local law had taken Sergeant Samuels and Officer Jonah off my tail for good. I was also hoping, with slight unease, that we'd been talking about the same people.
Those two guys -- or at least the one I'd gotten an unappetizingly close look at -- were sure funny-looking fuzz. And I have been very closely associated, though usually to my profit and pleasure, with one hell of a lot of fuzz.
I was pretty far from my home base, Sheldon Scott, Investigations in downtown L.A., and maybe that fact plus the unaccustomed chill in the Northern California air was responsible for the small knot of tension between my shoulder blades, and the coolness that once in a while spider-stepped along my spine.
There was nothing except that brisk breezy nip to give anyone goose bumps or even mild anxieties. This was the tail end of winter, one of those afternoons when spring steals a March day and shows off a week or two ahead of schedule, the air clean and clear, sun bright in a preposterously blue sky.
I had the front windows of my rented Cadillac rolled down, and the chill breeze, strong enough to bend even my bristle of white-blond hair, felt good on my chops. I'm thirty years old, six-foot-two and two hundred and six solid pounds, healthy, whole, and generally full of vigorous beans. I should have been feeling great despite the several hours of sleep I'd lost during the past week, particularly considering how uncommonly toothsome and friendly were the tomatoes who had helped me lose them.
But I couldn't push that mild, constant uneasinessout of my mind, couldn't shake the occasional prickliness that cobwebbed the nape of my neck. It had started when I first spotted that dark sedan, the odd blue-black color of a beetle's wing, behind me early this morning. And the queer "something" had been bugging me, increasingly, ever since.
I knew what the trouble probably was.
In thirty years of living, and especially during my several years as a private investigator, I had been similarly bugged often enough before to recognize the symptoms. I was missing something. Most likely something very obvious, plain as a wart on a fan-dancer's fanny, something I'd looked smack-dab at but failed to see clearly. Perhaps because, as in the case of the fan-waving dancer, I had not been looking for warts.
I hadn't really been looking for much else, either, not yet. I'd been hired and pleasantly but firmly fired by one client, then swiftly reemployed by one of the wealthiest and -- in view of what my fee might now add up to -- most generous citizens of Newton. Newton, California, toward which I was now tooling my rented Cad. A slightly offbeat beginning, perhaps, and mildly perplexing, but nothing that struck me as unusually ominous or disturbing. Not, at least, on the surface....
The hell with it, I told myself. There had been other occasions when the "something" giving rise to symptoms of mild unease was no more than an overdose of L.A.'s smothering smog or the fact that my shorts were too tight. So I leaned forward, stretching against the too-tight seat belt, and snapped on the radio, found some music that sounded less like elephants tap-dancing to a Watusi wedding chant than do most pop arias, and made myself relax.
Soon I felt that tight knot atop my spine loosen a little, and warm a little, like a chunk of soft ice commencing to thaw. But not for long.
I was rolling down Mulberry a hair over the 50 m.p.h. speed limit, not more than a couple of miles from the Newton city limits, when the truck careened around a curve maybe two blocks ahead of me. It wasn't one of those little pickup trucks, or even a bigger cab and piggy-back-trailer job for carrying furniture to warehouses or an acre of manure from the farm. No, it was a monster cab-over-engine diesel rig with attached trailer, fenders like Volkswagens, and front bumper big enough to anchor a battleship, with the driver -- if it had one, which considering the erratic nature of its progress was a debatable question -- perched eight or ten feet up in the air. It looked like a flying locomotive, a dozen mobile homes stacked together, like a beat-up 747 jet preparing to land on me.
It roared around the curve coming fast from my left to right, swerved, skidded, and swung back into the left lane. His left. My lane. The one I was in.
If we hit head on, closing at well over a hundred miles an hour, the driver of that monstrosity might be considerably annoyed but I knew there'd be nothing left of my Cad, or me, except a colorful tangle of metallic strips and chunks like the remains of a giant time-bomb clock.
But then the truck gradually pulled over into the right lane, away from dead-ahead, and I sucked my lungs full of the nippy pre-spring air, and had time to start letting it out in a sigh of happy thanksgiving and sweet relief.
So at least I was relieved, and almost happy, when the sonofabitch hit me.
Copyright © 1972 by Richard S.Prather