JUST HEARD THE NEWS BULLETIN ON MY CAR RADIO.
Tiel McCoy didn’t begin this telephone conversation with any superfluous chitchat. That was her opening statement the instant Gully said hello. No preamble was necessary.
Truth be known, he had probably been expecting her call.
But he played dumb anyway. “That you, Tiel? Enjoying your vacation so far?”
Her vacation had officially begun that morning when she left Dallas and headed west on Interstate 20. She had driven as far as Abilene, where she stopped to visit her uncle, who’d lived in a nursing home there for the past five years. She remembered Uncle Pete as a tall, robust man with an irreverent sense of humor, who could barbecue a mean brisket and knock a softball out of the park.
Today they had shared a lunch of soggy fish sticks and canned English peas and watched an episode of Guiding Light. She’d asked if there was anything she could do for him while she was there, like write a letter or buy a maga zine. He had smiled at her sadly and thanked her for coming, then gave himself over to an attendant who’d tucked him in for his nap like a child.
Outside the nursing home, Tiel had gratefully inhaled the scorching, gritty West Texas air in the hope of eradicating the smell of age and resignation which had permeated the facility. She had been relieved the family obligation was behind her, but felt guilty for the relief. By an act of will she shook off her despair and reminded herself that she was on vacation.
It wasn’t even officially summer yet, but it was unseasonably warm for May. There’d been no shade in which to park at the nursing home; consequently her car’s interior had been so hot she could have baked cookies on the dashboard. She flipped on the AC full-blast and found a radio station that played something other than Garth, George, and Willie.
“I’m going to have a wonderful time. The time away will be good for me. I’ll feel a lot better for having done it.”
She repeated this internal dialogue like a catechism, trying to convince herself of the truth of it. She had approached the vacation as though it were equivalent to taking a bad-tasting laxative.
Heat waves made the highway appear to ripple, and the undulating movement was hypnotic. The driving became mindless. Her mind drifted. The radio provided background noise of which Tiel was barely aware.
But hearing the news bulletin was like getting goosed by the driver’s seat. With a lurch, everything accelerated -the car, Tiel’s heart rate, her mind.
Immediately she fished her cell phone from her large leather satchel and placed the call to Gully’s direct line.
Again declining any unnecessary conversation, she said to him now, “Give me the skinny.”
“What’s the radio putting out?”
“That earlier today a high school student in Fort Worth kidnaped Russell Dendy’s daughter.”
“That’s about the gist of it,” Gully confirmed.
“The gist, but I want details.”
“You’re on vacation, Tiel.”
“I’m coming back. Next exit, I’ll make a U-turn.” She consulted her dashboard clock. “I’ll be at the station by-“
“Hold on, hold on. Where’re you at, exactly?”
“About fifty miles west of Abilene.”
“What, Gully?” Her palms had become damp. She experienced the familiar tickle in her belly that only happened when she was following a hot lead to a super story.
That unique adrenaline rush couldn’t be mistaken.
“You’re on your way to Angel Fire, right?”
“Northeastern part of New Mexico… Yeah, there it is.”
He must have been reading a highway map as he spoke.
“Naw, never mind. You don’t want this assignment, Tiel. It would take you out of your way.”
He was baiting her, and she knew he was baiting her, but in this instance she didn’t mind being baited. She wanted a piece of this story. The kidnaping of Russell Dendy’s daughter was big news, and it promised to become even bigger news before it was over. “I don’t mind taking a detour. Tell me where to go.”
“Well,” he hedged, “only if you’re sure.”
“Okay then. Not too far in front of you is a turnoff onto state highway Two-oh-eight. Take it south to San Angelo.
On the south side of San Angelo you’re gonna intersect with-“
“Gully, about how far out of my way is this detour going to take me?”
“I thought you didn’t care.”
“I don’t. I’d just like to know. Rough estimate.”
“Well, let’s see. Give or take… about three hundred miles.”
“From Angel Fire?” she asked faintly.
“From where you are now. Doesn’t count the rest of the way to Angel Fire.”
“Three hundred round trip?”
She expelled a long sigh, but was careful not to let him hear it. “You said highway Two-oh-eight south to San Angelo, then what?”
She steered with her knee, held the phone with her left hand, and took notes with her right. The car was on cruise control, but her brain was in overdrive. Journalistic juices were pumping faster than the pistons in her engine.
Thoughts of long pleasant evenings spent in a porch rocker were swapped for those of sound bites and interviews.
But she was getting ahead of herself. She lacked pertinent facts. When she asked for them, Gully, damn him, turned mulish on her. “Not now, Tiel. I’m as busy as a one-armed paperhanger, and you’ve got miles to cover. By the time you get where you’re going, I’ll have a lot more info.”
Frustrated and supremely irked with him for being so stingy with the details, she asked, “What’s the name of the town again?”
The highways were arrow-straight, flanked on both sides by endless prairie with only an occasional herd of cattle grazing in irrigated pastures. Oil wells were silhouetted against a cloudless horizon. Frequently a tumble weed rolled across the roadway in front of her. Once she got beyond San Angelo, she rarely saw another vehicle.
Funny, she thought, the way things turn out.
Ordinarily she would have elected to fly to New Mexico.
But days ago she had decided to drive to Angel Fire, not only so she could visit Uncle Pete along the way, but also to get herself into a holiday frame of mind. The long drive would give her time to decompress, work the kinks out, begin the period of rest and relaxation before she ever reached the mountain resort, so that when she did arrive, she would already be in vacation mode.
At home in Dallas, she moved with the speed of light, always in a rush, always working under a deadline. This morning, once she had reached the western fringe of Fort Worth and put the metropolitan sprawl behind her, when the vacation became a reality, she had begun to anticipate the idyllic days awaiting her. She had daydreamed of clear, gurgling streams, hikes along trails lined with aspens, cool, crisp air, and lazy mornings spent with a cup of coffee and a fiction bestseller.
There would be no schedule to keep, nothing but hours in which to be lazy, which was a virtue unto itself.
Tiel McCoy was way past due to engage in some unabashed ennui. She’d already postponed this vacation three times.
“Use ’em or lose ’em,” Gully had told her of the vacation days she had accumulated.
He had lectured her on how her performance, as well as her disposition, would greatly improve if she gave herself a breather. This from the man who hadn’t taken more than a few vacation days in the past forty-something years-counting the week required to have his gallbladder removed.
When she reminded him of this, he had scowled at her.
“Precisely. You want to wind up an ugly, shriveled, pathetic relic like me?” Then he’d really hit the nail on the head.
“Taking a vacation isn’t going to jeopardize your chances.
That job’ll still be up for grabs when you get back.”
She easily inferred the meaning behind that sly remark.
Miffed at him for homing in on the real reason behind her reluctance to leave work for any period of time, she had grudgingly consented to going away for a week. The reservations had been made, the trip scheduled. But every schedule should have a little bit of flexibility built in.
And if flexibility was ever called for, it was when Russell Dendy’s daughter was allegedly kidnaped.
Tiel held the pay phone’s sticky receiver pinched between the pads of her thumb and index finger, loathe to touch any more of the surface than necessary. “Okay, Gully, I’m here. Well, near, at least. Actually, I’m lost.”
He cackled. “Too excited to concentrate on where you’re going?”
“Well, it’s not like I’ve missed a thriving metropolis. You said yourself, the place isn’t even on most maps.”
Her sense of humor had worn off about the time she’d lost all feeling in her butt. Hours ago, her posterior had gone numb from sitting. Since talking to him, she had stopped only once, and then only out of extreme necessity.
She was hungry, thirsty, tired, cranky, achy, and none too fresh because she’d been facing into the setting sun for a long portion of the trip. The car’s AC had gone humid from overuse. A shower would be bliss.
Gully didn’t improve her mood any by asking, “How’d you manage to get lost?”
“I lost my sense of direction after the sun went down.
The landscape looks the same from every angle out here.
Even more so after dark. I’m calling from a convenience store in a town with a population of eight hundred twenty-three, according to the city-limit sign, and I think the chamber of commerce fudged that number in their favor.
This is the only lighted building for miles around. The town is called Rojo something.”
“Flats. Rojo Flats.”
Naturally Gully knew the full name of this obscure hamlet.
He probably knew the mayor’s name. Gully knew everything. He was a walking encyclopedia. He collected information the way frat rats collected coeds’ phone numbers.
The TV station where Tiel worked had a news director, but the man with the title conducted business from inside a carpeted office and was more a bean counter and administrator than a hands-on boss.
The man in the trenches, the one who dealt directly with the reporters, writers, photographers, and editors, the one who coordinated schedules and listened to sob stories and chewed ass when ass-chewing was called for, the one who actually ran the news operation, was the assignments editor, Gully.
He’d been at the station when it signed on in the early fifties, and had mandated that they would have to carry him out of the place feet first He would die before he retired.
He worked a sixteen-hour day and begrudged the time he wasn’t working. He had a colorful vocabulary and countless similes, an extensive repertoire of yarns about bygone days in broadcast news, and seemingly no life beyond the newsroom. His first name was Yarborough, but only a few living persons knew that. Everyone else knew him strictly as Gully.
“Are you going to give me this mysterious assignment or not?”
He wouldn’t be rushed. “What happened to your vacation plans?”
“Nothing. I’m still on vacation.”
“I am! I’m not canceling my week off. I’m just postponing the start of it, that’s all.”
“What’s the new boyfriend gonna say?”
“I’ve told you a thousand times, there is no new boyfriend.” He laughed his phlegmy, chain-smoker’s laugh that said he knew she was lying, and that she knew he knew.
“Got your notepad?” he asked suddenly.
Whatever germs had been teeming on the telephone were probably living with her now. Reconciled to that, she propped the receiver on her shoulder and held it there with her cheek while she removed a notepad and pen from her satchel and placed them on the narrow metal ledge beneath the wall-mounted telephone.
“The boy’s name is Ronald Davison,” Gully began.
“I heard that much on the radio.”
“Goes by Ronnie. Senior year, same as the Dendy girl.
Won’t graduate with any honors, but he’s a solid B student.
Never in trouble until today. After homeroom this morning, he boogied out of the student parking lot in his Toyota pickup with Sabra Dendy riding shotgun.”
“Russ Dendy’s child.”
“His one and only.”
“Is the FBI on it?”
“FBI. Texas Rangers. You name it. If it wears a badge, it’s working this one. Waco all over again. Everybody’s claiming jurisdiction and wants in on the action.”
Tiel took a moment to absorb the broad scope of this story. The short hallway in which the pay phone was located led to the public rest rooms. One had a cowgirl in a fringed skirt stenciled in blue paint on the door. The other, predictably, had a similar silhouette of a cowpoke in chaps and ten-gallon hat, twirling a lasso above his head.
Glancing down the hall, Tiel spotted the real thing coming into the store. Tall, slender, Stetson pulled down low on his forehead. He nodded toward the store’s cashier, whose frizzy, over permed hair had been dyed an unflattering shade of ocher.
Nearer to Tiel was an elderly couple browsing for souvenirs, apparently in no hurry to return to their Winnebago.
At least Tiel assumed the Winnebago at the gas pumps outside belonged to them. Through bifocal eyeglasses the lady was reading the ingredients of ajar on the shelf. Tiel heard her exclaim, “Jalapeno pepper jelly? Good lord.”
The couple then joined Tiel in the hallway, moving toward their respective rest rooms. “Don’t dally, Gladys,” the man said. His white legs were virtually hairless and looked ridiculously thin in his baggy khaki shorts and thick-soled athletic shoes.
“You mind your business, and I’ll mind mine,” she retorted smartly. As she moved past Tiel she gave her a men-think they’re so smart but we know-better wink. Another time, Tiel would have thought the senior couple cute and endearing. But she was thoughtfully reading what she’d taken down almost verbatim from Gully.
“You said ‘riding shotgun.’ Strange choice of words, Gully.”
“Can you keep a secret?” He lowered his voice significantly.
“Because my ass will be grass if this gets out before our next newscast. We’ve scooped every other station and newspaper in the state.”
Tiel’s scalp began to tingle, as it did when she knew she was hearing something that no other reporter had heard, when she had uncovered the element that would set her story apart from all the others, when her exclusive had the potential of winning her a journalism prize or praise from her peers. Or of guaranteeing her the coveted spot on Nine Live.
“Who would I tell, Gully? I’m sharing space with a fresh-off the-range cowboy buying a six-pack of Bud, a sassy granny lady and her husband from out of state-I’m guessing by their accents. And two non-English-speaking Mexicans.” The pair had since come into the store. She’d overheard them speaking Spanish while heating packaged burritos in a microwave oven.
Gully said, “Linda-“
“Linda? She got the story?”
“You’re on vacation, remember?”
“A vacation you urged me to take!” Tiel exclaimed.
Linda Harper was another reporter, a darned good reporter, and Tiel’s unspoken rival. It stung that Gully had assigned Linda to cover such a plum of a story, which rightfully should have belonged to her. At least that’s the way she saw it.
“You want to hear this or not?” he asked cantankerously.
The elderly man emerged from the men’s room. He moved to the end of the hall, where he paused to wait for his wife. To kill time, he took a camcorder from a nylon airline bag and began tinkering with it.
Gully said, “Linda interviewed Sabra Dendy’s best friend this afternoon. Hold on to your hat. The Dendy girl is pregnant with Ronnie Davison’s kid. Eight months gone. They’ve been hiding it.”
“You’re kidding! And the Dendys didn’t know?”
“According to the friend, nobody did. That is, not until last night. The kids broke the news to their parents, and Russ Dendy went apeshit.”
Tiel’s mind was already racing ahead, filling in the blanks. “So this isn’t a kidnaping. It’s a contemporary Romeo and Juliet.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But that’d be my first guess. A view shared by Sabra Dendy’s best friend and confidante. She claims Ronnie Davison is crazy about Sabra and wouldn’t harm a hair on her head. Said Russell Dendy has been fighting this romance for more than a year. Nobody’s good enough for his daughter, they’re too young to know their own minds, college is a must, and so forth. You get the picture.”
And what was wrong with the picture was that Tiel McCoy wasn’t in it and Linda Harper was. Damn! Of all times to go on vacation.
“I’m coming back tonight, Gully.”
“I think you sent me on this wild goose chase so it would be impossible for me to return.”
“How far am I from El Paso?”
“El Paso? Who said anything about El Paso?”
“Or San Antonio. Whichever is closer. I could drive there tonight and hop a Southwest flight in the morning.
Do you have their schedule handy? What time does the first flight depart for Dallas?”
“Listen to me, Tiel. We’ve got it covered. Bob’s working the manhunt-law enforcement angle. Linda’s on the kids’ friends, teachers, and families. Steve’s practically moved into the Dendys’ mansion, so he’ll be there if a ransom call comes in, which I don’t expect. And, bottom line, those kids’ll probably turn up before you could get back to Dallas anyway.”
“So what am I doing out here in the middle of freaking nowhere?”
The old man shot her a curious glance over his shoulder.
“Listen,” Gully hissed. “The friend? Sabra mentioned to her a few weeks back that she and Ronnie might just hightail it to Mexico.”
Mollified because she was closer to the Mexican border than she was to Dallas, Tiel asked, “Where in Mexico?”
“She didn’t know. Or wouldn’t say. Linda had to twist her arm to get that much from her. She didn’t want to betray Sabra’s confidence. But the one thing she did say is that Ronnie’s dad-his real dad; his mom’s remarried-is sympathetic to their predicament. Awhile back he offered his help if they ever needed it. Now, you’re gonna feel really bad about yelling at me when I tell you where he hangs his hat.”
She should have apologized, but she didn’t. Gully understood.
“Who else knows about this?”
“Nobody. But they will. It works to our advantage that Hera is a one-horse town, not on any beaten path.”
“Tell me about it,” she muttered.
“When word gets out, it’ll take everybody a while to get there, even by helicopter. You’ve got a definite head start.”
“Gully, I love you!” she said excitedly. “Direct me out of here.”
The elderly lady emerged from the ladies’ room and rejoined her husband. She admonished him for fiddling with the camcorder and ordered him to put it back in the tote bag before he broke it.
“Like you’re an expert with video cameras,” the old man retorted.
“I took the time to read the instruction book. You didn’t.”
Tiel poked her finger in her ear so she could hear Gully better. “What’s the dad’s name? Davison, I presume.”
“I’ve got an address and phone number.”
Tiel wrote down the information as fast as he reeled it off. “Do I have an appointment with him?”
“Working on it. He might not agree to go on camera.”
“I’ll get him to agree,” she said confidently.
“I’m dispatching a chopper with a photographer.”
“Kip if he’s available.”
“Yall can meet in Hera. You’ll do the interview tomorrow as soon as it’s arranged with Davison. Then you can continue on your merry way.”
“Unless there’s more story there.”
“Uh-uh. That’s the condition, Tiel.” She envisioned him stubbornly shaking his head. “You do this bit, then you’re off to Angel Fire. Period. End of discussion.”
“Whatever you say.” She could easily agree now, then argue about it later if events warranted.
“Okay, let’s see. Outta Rojo Flats…” The map must have been right there on his desk, because within seconds he was giving her further directions. “Shouldn’t take you long to get there. You’re not sleepy, are you?”
She was never more wide awake than when pursuing a story. Her problem was shutting her mind off and going to sleep. “I’ll buy something caffeinated to take along.”
“Check in with me as soon as you get there. I’ve got you a room reserved at the only motel. You can’t miss it. I’m told it’s at the blinking traffic light-the one and only.
They’ll wait up for you to give you a room key.” Changing subjects, he asked, “Is the new boyfriend going to be pissed?”
“For the last time, Gully, there is no new boyfriend.”
She hung up and placed another call-to her new boyfriend.
Joseph Marcus was as much a workaholic as she was. He was scheduled to fly out early the next day, so she predicted he would be working late at his desk, putting things in order prior to his being away for several days. She was right. He answered his office phone on the second ring.
“Do you get paid overtime?” she teased.
“Tiel? Hi. I’m glad you called.”
“It’s after hours. I was afraid you wouldn’t answer.”
“Reflex. Where are you?”
“The end of nowhere.”
“Everything okay? You haven’t had car trouble or anything?”
“No, everything’s great. I called for a couple of reasons.
First, because I miss you.”
This was the tack to take. Establish that the trip was still on. Establish that it was being delayed, not derailed. Assure him that everything was cool, then inform him of the slight wrinkle in their plans for a romantic getaway.
“You saw me just last night.”
“But only briefly, and it’s been a long day. Secondly, I called to remind you to throw a swimsuit into your suitcase.
The hot tub at the condo complex is public.”
After a pause, he said, “Actually, Tiel, it’s good that you called. I needed to talk to you.”
Something in the tone of his voice prevented her from prattling on. She stopped talking and waited for him to fill the silence that yawned between them.
“I could have called you on your cell phone today, but this isn’t the sort of thing… The fact is… And I’m sorry as hell about this. You can’t begin to know how sorry I am.”
Tiel stared at the countless perforations in the metal surrounding the telephone. She stared so long without blinking that the tiny holes ran together. Absently she wondered what purpose they served.
“I’m afraid I can’t get away tomorrow.”
She’d been holding her breath. Now she released it, relieved.
His change of plans alleviated her guilt over having to change them herself.
However, before she could speak, he continued. “I know how much you’d looked forward to this trip. And so had I,” he rushed to add.
“Let me make this easier on you, Joseph.” Meekly she confessed. “The truth is, I was calling to say that I need another couple days before I can get to Angel Fire. So I’m fine with a short postponement. Would your schedule allow us to meet on, say, Tuesday instead of tomorrow?”
“You don’t understand what I’m saying, Tiel. I can’t meet you at all.”
The perforations ran together again. “Oh. I see. That is disappointing. Well-“
“It’s been very tense around here. My wife found my airline ticket and-“
“I said my wife found-“
“Well… yeah. I thought you knew.”
“No.” Her facial muscles felt stiff and inflexible. “You have failed to mention a Mrs. Marcus.”
“Because my marriage has nothing to do with you, with us. It hasn’t been a real marriage for a long time. Once
I’ve explained my situation at home to you, you’ll understand.”
“You’re married.” This time it was a statement, not a question.
“No, no, I’m not going to listen, Joseph. What I’m going to do is hang up on you, you son of a bitch.”
The telephone receiver she had been so reluctant even to touch ten minutes earlier she now clung to long after replacing it on the hook. She leaned against the pay phone, her forehead pressing hard against the perforated metal while her hands maintained their grip on the greasy receiver.
Married. He had seemed too good to be true, and he was. Good-looking, charming, friendly, witty, athletic, successful, and financially secure Joseph Marcus was married.
If not for an airline ticket she would have had an affair with a married man.
She swallowed a surge of nausea and took another moment to compose herself. Later she would lick her wounded ego, berate herself for being such a Pollyanna, and curse him to hell and back. But right now she had work to do.
Joseph’s revelation had left her reeling with disbelief.
She was furious beyond measure. She was terribly hurt, but more than anything she was embarrassed by her gullibility.
All the more reason she was not about to let the bastard affect her work performance.
Work was her panacea, her life support. When she was happy, she worked. Sad, she worked. Sick, she worked.
Work was the cure for all her ills. Work was the remedy for everything… even heartbreak so profound you thought you’d die.
She knew that firsthand.
She gathered up her pride, along with her notes on the Dendy story and Gully’s directions to Hera, Texas, and ordered herself to mobilize.
Compared to the dimness of the hallway, the fluorescent lighting in the store seemed inordinately bright. The cowboy had left. The elderly couple were browsing through the array of magazines. The two Spanish-speaking men were eating their burritos and talking quietly together.
Tiel sensed their smoldering gazes as she went past them on her way to the refrigerated cabinets. One said something to the other that caused him to snicker. It was easy to guess the nature of the comment. Thankfully, her Spanish was rusty.
She slid open the door to the refrigerator and selected a six-pack of high-voltage cola for the road. From a rack of snack food she chose a package of sunflower seeds. During college she had discovered that cracking open the salty seeds in order to get to the kernel inside was a good manual exercise to keep one awake while studying. Hopefully it would translate to night driving as well.
She debated whether or not to buy a bag of chocolate-covered caramels. Just because a man she had been dating for weeks had turned out to be a married shit-heel didn’t mean she should use that as an excuse to binge. On the other hand, if ever she deserved a treat- The security camera in the corner of the ceiling virtually exploded, sending pieces of glass and metal flying.
Instinctively Tiel recoiled from the deafening noise.
But the camera hadn’t exploded on its own. A young man had entered the store and fired a pistol at it. The gunman then aimed his weapon at the cashier, who screeched a high note before the sound seemed to freeze inside her throat.
“This is a holdup,” he said melodramatically, and somewhat needlessly, since it was apparent what it was.
To the young woman who had accompanied him into the store, he said, “Sabra, watch the others. If anyone moves, warn me.”
Well, I might die, Tiel thought. But at least I’ll get my story.
And she wouldn’t be going to Hera to get it. It had come to her.