16.

If it weren’t for Rosita, none of this shit would’ve happened.

Don’t get me wrong —I’m sure that she’s a lovely person. And if she isn’t, how the hell would I know? I’ve never even met the woman. But if she hadn’t gone and plopped her diner smack in our fucking way, we wouldn’t have wound up in such a goddamn mess.

I guess I should’ve known better, but at the time, all I was thinking of was getting rid of Roscoe without a hitch, and the hand-painted “Rosita’s Diner —Nothing Finer!” billboard made the place look divey enough you just knew they could fry up a mean egg. Plus, the stretch of I-10 just south of Las Cruces was nothing but farmland and trailer parks, which at the time made Rosita’s seem like a godsend. I figured we’d stop long enough to pour some coffee into Roscoe, get him a bite to eat, and call the guy a cab, and that would be the end of that. Hell, I was even going to pay. OK, fine, Ethan was —but still, a gesture’s a gesture. The way I saw it, it was the least that I could do. But unfortunately, that’s not how things shook out.

Just the sight of the place as we pulled up was enough to put a smile on my face. Rosita’s was built around an old Valentine Industries lunch counter —those squat little red-and-white diners so common to the Southwest in the decades following the Second World War. Sure, the paint had faded a bit, now more rust-and-sand than red-and-white, and the original railroad car design had been expanded over the years with a series of squat cinderblock additions, painted white and wodged on here and there at random. But still, the sight of the old diner, and the salty-sweet scent of its well-tended griddle, brought me back —back to a time when Danny was a trusted friend, and every meeting with Ana crackled with the spark of possibility. Back when Quinn was a smiling, happy child who dreamed he’d one day be an engineer, building cities out of blocks in his mother’s tidy Belfast garden.

I should’ve known right then Rosita’s would be trouble. Those times are long gone now. Ain’t nothing going to bring them back, and I’m a sentimental fool for wishing otherwise.

Our problems started in the parking lot. Two black-and-whites, parked nose to tail —their engines running, their drivers chatting amiably over paper cups of coffee. Another cruiser sitting vacant in the lot. We hadn’t seen them before we pulled in because the bulk of the parking lot was tucked out of view around back of the rambling hodge-podge structure. In retrospect, I should’ve realized they’d be here —there wasn’t anyplace else nearby for folks to go, and it’s not like the cops along this stretch were all that busy. A little all-night place like Rosita’s probably topped up their thermoses for free —a small price to pay for a guaranteed police presence in the wee hours of the morning. Helps to keep out the riff-raff —riff-raff who might otherwise be inclined to rob the place. Problem is, it also works on riff-raff like Gio and me, who are just looking for a bite to eat.

Gio was the first to spot them. He’d been regaling Roscoe with stories of car-thefts gone awry, repurposed —for the sake of conning Roscoe —as repossessions one and all. They’d been getting on like fast friends, laughing and cursing and bragging loudly to one another in the way that both cowboys and gangsters do. Then we rounded the corner of the building and Gio clammed up mid-sentence —his posture jerking ramrod straight, his hands suddenly at ten and two on the wheel. The Caddy rocked on its suspension as he slowed it to a crawl. The way he was acting, he may as well have lit a fucking flare.

“Uh, Sam?”

“I see them,” I replied through gritted teeth. “Keep driving.”

Gio had us rolling at about a half a mile an hour. Ants were zipping past us on the ground below. “A little faster than that,” I snapped.

Roscoe glared at me through narrowed eyes. “You boys want to tell me what the hell is going on?”

“Nothing,” I replied, perhaps a bit too quickly.

“Nothing —right. That why you’re trying your damndest not to catch the cops’ attention?”

“Roscoe,” I said, my voice as calm and even as I could manage, “this is really not the time.”

“But–”

“I said not now. I like you, Roscoe —I do. Which is why I’m going to ask you nicely to please shut your fucking mouth before I’m forced to do something we’ll both regret. Sit tight and I promise you that everything will be just fine. Or don’t, and see what happens.”

At that, the color drained from Roscoe’s face. He looked from the cops to me and back again as though wondering whether he should try to make a play, but my words must’ve had their intended effect, because a moment later his shoulders sagged, and suddenly he looked old and frail and deflated. Satisfied, I nodded at him and turned in my seat, facing once more forward. We’re just three friends out for a drive, I thought as loudly as I could, hoping against hope the cops would pick up on the vibe.

“Gio,” I said, “get us out of here —quietly.”

Gio obliged, piloting the gigantic Caddy on an excruciating lap through the lot and heading out the way we came. I prayed they hadn’t noticed us. I knew that in this parade float of a car, they couldn’t not.

What I didn’t know was whether they had traced the Fiesta back to Ethan yet, and if they had, whether the Feds had managed to distribute our descriptions. I told myself they couldn’t possibly have worked that fast —that as far as these dudes knew, we were just a carload of guys who, on second thought, didn’t want to brave the twenty minutes’ wait it’d take for a table to open up.

Yeah, I didn’t really believe it, either. And even if I did, it didn’t matter. Eventually, the BOLO would go out on us, and when it did, there wasn’t a question in my mind these boys would remember having seen us. Which meant soon enough, every copper in Las Cruces would have eyes out for us —and that would damn sure put a damper on my plan to track down Dumas.

After what felt like a freakin’ hour, we cleared the diner’s parking lot, the Caddy’s whitewalls crunching as they gripped the gritty desert road. I set my jaw and forced myself not to hazard a glance back, so loath was I to meet the gaze of the officers who were almost surely staring after.

“Either of y’all feel like telling me what that was all about?”

We were weaving through the patchwork farmland on the outskirts of town, Gio turning left or right as I instructed. Fields of onions and green chilis raced by on either side, rustling gently in the morning breeze and filling the air with their vegetal scent. Gio hadn’t said a word since we’d left the diner parking lot, and apart from the occasional directional command, neither had I. That was OK, though —Roscoe had been talking enough for the three of us, peppering Gio and me with question after fruitless question.

“You boys in some kind of trouble?”

“There,” I said to Gio. “On the left.”

Gio nodded. Coming up on our left was a massive, leaning barn, the wood bleached gray by sun and age. A pair of rutted tracks, overgrown with fragrant desert sage, led from the shoulder of the road to the place where the barn door once hung, though it didn’t hang there any more. Now the entrance was a gaping maw that led into the darkness beyond —a darkness dappled here and there with narrow beams of sunlight, which streamed in where the roof had rotted through.

The Cadillac rocked along the dirt track and disappeared into the gloom. Inside, the air was close and thick and sickly sweet; a thin sheen of sweat sprung up across my borrowed skin, plastering my clothes to my frame. Gio cut the ignition, and I hopped out of the car, watching from the doorway of the barn to ensure we hadn’t been followed. For a time, I heard nothing but the beating of my meat-suit’s heart. Then Roscoe broke the silence —his voice low and quiet and full of fear.

“You boys ain’t repo men, are you?”

“No,” I said, “we’re not.”

“So you’re what, then? Car thieves? Common criminals?”

“Something like that.”

“Ah, come on, Sam —tell him!” This from Gio.

“No.”

“Why the hell not?”

“For one, telling him won’t go well. Believe me, it never does. And for another, it’s not safe.”

“Seems to me, he’s involved now whether we fill him in or not —so what’s the harm?”

“You’re not getting me,” I said. “I mean telling him isn’t safe for us.”

Gio blinked in disbelief. “After all you been through today, you’re afraid of Roscoe here?”

“I’m afraid of a lot of things,” I said. “Unnecessary complications, for example —which is exactly what Roscoe here would be if we told him. Simply put, he doesn’t need to know.”

Roscoe looked from me to Gio and back again, squinting against the darkness. “What? What aren’t you telling me? What don’t I need to know?”

“We’re Grim Reapers,” Gio blurted. “We’re on a mission from God!”

“Excuse me?”

I sighed. “Ignore him, OK? Gio —shut the fuck up.” But Roscoe wasn’t about to take my advice. “Grim Reapers,” he said. “Great. I fall asleep for a couple hours, and I’m abducted by a couple of goddamn loonies!”

“I’m being serious!” Gio insisted.

“Oh. Good. You’re being serious. In that case, I believe you. Does that mean I can go?”

Gio bristled at Roscoe’s sarcasm, but I just frowned and shook my head. “I’m sorry,” I said, not unkindly. “But you’ve seen us. You know where we are. What we’re driving. I can’t let you walk out of here —there’s too much at stake.”

It was then that Roscoe noticed what I’d been doing. While we three had been talking, I’d popped the trunk, and riffled through it until I found what I was looking for —a length of yellow nylon rope of the kind used to tether the trunk closed when transporting oversized loads. Given the loft-like spaciousness of the Caddy’s trunk, I’m guessing its use would be limited to packing up other, smaller cars.

“Sam, no,” Gio said, his voice strained by sudden alarm.

“Gio, shut up and mind the door. The last thing we need now’s another witness.”

Gio’s face twisted into a silent plea, visible even in the murky half-light. I held his gaze a moment, and with obvious reluctance, he did as I said, shuffling over to the doorway and standing guard.

I coiled the rope around both hands, and pulled taut a two-foot length of it between them. Roscoe’s eyes widened in fear, and he tried to back away, but the Caddy blocked his path.

“Don’t,” he said. “Please.”

“I wish I didn’t have to, but there isn’t any other way.”

“I’m begging you, don’t do this. Just take the car and go —I won’t tell a soul, I swear!”

“I’d like to believe you, but right now, I can’t take that risk.”

“But I got grandkids.”

“I’m sorry,” I replied. “It’s nothing personal.”

I was on him in a flash. The whole time, Gio never turned around —unwilling or unable to, I’ll never know. For a little while, old Roscoe put up quite a fight. But eventually, Roscoe wasn’t fighting anymore.

When the deed was done, I slammed the trunk, and climbed into the driver’s seat. The keys I’d found in Roscoe’s pocket, so this time, no hotwiring was necessary. I slid them in and thumbed the ignition, and the old girl sprang to life.

“C’mon,” I said. “We’re going.”

Gio shrugged then, looking tired and drawn, and plopped heavily into the passenger seat. I backed the Caddy out of the barn, leaving nothing but gloom and silence behind.

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