One Door Away from Heaven

Page 29

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, this was one finger of an inland sea. As the water evaporated over centuries, the dead ocean left behind this faintly luminous ghost spread shore to shore.

The self-lit land lies smooth and barren, for the salt-rich soil is inhospitable even to hardy desert scrub. Crossing it, they will be easily spotted, whether or not their many pursuers employ electronic surveillance gear.

This valley lies on a southwest-northeast axis; and but for one detail, boy and dog would follow the ridge line northeast, avoiding the risk of exposure on the open flats. The detail is a town. A town or a cluster of buildings.

Approximately forty structures of various sizes, most one or two stories high, are divided into roughly equal groups that flank a single street on the gentle slope near the base of the valley wall. They stand this side of the salt deposits, where more-accommodating soil and an underground water source support a few big shade trees.

On a blistering summer day, when shimmering snakes of heat swarm the air, writhing like flute-teased cobras, this settlement, whatever its nature, must from a distance appear to be an illusion. Even now, crisply silhouetted against the fluorescent flats beyond, these buildings rise like the unconvincing architecture in a mirage.

Darkness paves the lonely street, and not a single light gleams in any window.

On the brink of the valley, gazing down, dog and boy stand at full alert. They hold their breath. Her nose quivers. His doesn't. She pricks her ears. He can't. Simultaneously, they c**k their heads, both to the right. They listen.

No crump, snap, thud, clunk, crack, bang, or whisper rises to them. The scene is at first as silent as the surface of a moon that lacks an atmosphere.

Then comes a sound, not from below, but out of the south, that might at first be mistaken for the thundering iron-shod hooves of a large posse displaced in time.

Dog and boy look to the black lowering clouds. Dog puzzled. Boy searching for ghost riders in the sky.

Of course, when the sound swiftly grows louder, it resolves into the stutter of the dreaded helicopter. The chopper is still tacking east and west across the field of search, not headed directly toward them, but it will arrive sooner than Curtis would prefer.

Side by side, neither of them any longer in the lead, boy and dog quickly descend from the valley crest toward the dark settlement. Stealth matters now as much as speed, and they no longer plunge into the night with wild abandon.

An excellent argument could be made for avoiding this place and for continuing northeast along the valley wall. In the case of both federal agents and the military, standard procedure probably requires that upon discovery these buildings must be scouted, searched, and cleared. They offer only brief concealment.

If people reside here, however, they'll distract the searchers and provide screening that will make electronic detection of Curtis a little more difficult. As always, for a fugitive, there's value in commotion.

More important, he needs to find water. With willpower, he could deny his thirst and eliminate his desire for a drink, but he wouldn't be able to prevent dehydration strictly by an act of will. Besides, Old Yeller, too thickly furred for long-distance running in this climate, is at risk of heatstroke.

On closer inspection, these houses-or whatever they are-prove to be crudely constructed. Roughly planed planks form the walls, and although they have been slopped with paint, they're splintery under Curtis's hands. No ornamentation. Even in better light, they wouldn't likely reveal the finessed details of high-quality carpentry.

Except for the six or eight immense old trees rising among and high above the structures, no landscaping is evident, no softening grass or flowers, or shrubs. These dreary shelters hulk and huddle without grace on hard bare earth.

By now slowed to a cautious pace, Curtis and Old Yeller follow a narrow passageway between two buildings. A faint scent of wood rot. The musky odor of mice nesting among chinks in the rough foundations.

The wall on their left is blank. On the right, two windows offer Curtis views into a blackness deep enough to be eternal.

Each time that he pauses to put nose to glass, he expects a pale and moldering face to materialize suddenly on the other side of the pane, eyes crimson with blood, teeth like pointed yellow staves. His brain is such a young sponge, yet it has soaked up a library of books and films, many featuring frights of one kind or another. He's been highly entertained, but perhaps he's also been too sensitized to the possibility of violent death at the hands of ghouls, poltergeists, vampires, serial killers, Mafia hit men, murderous transvestites with mother fixations, murderous kidnappers with wood chippers in their backyards, stranglers, ax maniacs, and cannibals.

As he and the dog near the end of the passageway, night birds or bats flutter overhead, darting from one eave to the other. Yeah, right. Bats or birds. Or a thousand possibilities more terrifying than rabid bats or Hitchcockian birds, every one of them feverishly eager to snatch a gob of tasty boy guts or to snack on canine brains.

Old Yeller whimpers nervously, possibly at something she smells in the night, but probably because Curtis transferred his fearfulness to her by psychic osmosis. There's a downside for the dog in boy-dog bonding if the boy is a hysteric whose mother would be embarrassed to see how easily he spooks.

"Sorry, pup."

When they step out from between the buildings, into the street, Curtis discovers they are in a Western movie. He turns slowly in a full circle, astonished.

On both sides, the buildings front against a communal boardwalk with hitching posts elevated to keep it out of the mud on those infrequent occasions when the street floods during a hard-pouring toad-drowner. Many structures towards the center of the town feature second-story balconies that overhang the boardwalk, providing shade on days when even the Gila monsters either hide or fry.

A general store advertising dry goods, groceries, and hardware. A combination jail and sheriff's office. A small white church with a modest steeple. Here is a combination doctor's-assayer's office, and there is a boardinghouse, and over there stands a saloon and gambling parlor where more than a few guns must have been drawn when too many bad poker hands were dealt in a row.

Ghost town.

Curtis's first thought is that he's standing in a genuine, for-sure, bona fide, dead-right, all-wool-and-a-yard-wide, for-a-fact-amen ghost town in which no one has set foot since twice the century has turned, where all the citizens were long ago planted in the local boot hill, and where the ornery spirits of gunslingers walk the night itching for a shootout.

Rough as they may be, however, the buildings are in considerably better condition than they would be after a century of abandonment. Even in this gloom, the paint looks fresh. The signs over the stores have not been bleached unreadable by decades of desert sun.

Then he notices what might be docent stations positioned at regular intervals along the street, in front of the hitching posts. The nearest of these is at the saloon. A pair of four-feet-high rustic posts support a tilted board to which is fixed a black acrylic plaque with text in white block letters.

In this starless and moonless dismality, he can't read much of the history of the building, even though the text is a generous size, but he can make out enough to confirm his new suspicion. Once this had been an authentic ghost town, abandoned, decaying. Now it's been restored: a historic site where visitors take self-guided tours.

At night, it remains a ghost town, when tourists aren't strolling the street and poking through the rehabilitated buildings . With no utility poles leading from the distant highway, the comforts are only those of the nineteenth century, and no one lives here.

Nostalgic for the Old West, Curtis would enjoy exploring these buildings with just an oil lamp, to preserve the frontier mood. He lacks a lamp, however, and the buildings must be locked at night.

A gruff remark from Old Yeller and a pawing at the boy's leg remind him that they aren't on vacation. The clatter-whump of the helicopter is gone; but the search will lack in this direction again

Water. They've sweated out more moisture than the orange juice had contained. Dying here of dehydration, in order to be buried in boot hill with gunslingers and plugged sheriffs and dance-hall girls, is carrying nostalgia too far.

Movies reliably place public stables and a blacksmith's shop at the end of the main street of every town in the Old West. Curtis searches south and finds SMITHY'S LIVERY. Once again motion pictures prove to be a source of dependably accurate information.

Stables mean horses. Horses need shoes. Blacksmiths make shoes. Horses must have water to drink, and blacksmiths must have it both to drink and to conduct their work. Curtis recalls a scene in which a smithy, while in conversation with a town sheriff, keeps dunking red-hot horseshoes in a barrel of water; a cloud of steam roils into the air with the quenching of each shoe.

Sometimes the smithy's pump is also the public water source for residents who have no wells, but if the common font is elsewhere, the blacksmith will have his own supply. And here he does. Right out front. God bless Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal Pictures, RKO, Republic Studios, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and 20th Century Fox.

If the town has been restored with historical accuracy, the pump will be functional. Curtis climbs onto the foot-high wooden platform surrounding the wellhead, grips the pump handle with both hands, and works it as if it were a jack. The mechanism creaks and rasps. The piston moves easily at first, loose enough to make Curtis wonder if it's broken or if the pump isn't self-priming, but then it stiffens as fluid rises in the pipe, ascending from the same aquifer that sustains the trees, which were no doubt here before the town.

A vigorous gout abruptly gushes from the spout and splashes across the wooden deck, pouring down through the drainage slots.

The dog springs exuberantly onto the platform. She laps at the arc of spilling water, standing to the side of it, scooping liquid refreshment out of the air with her long pink tongue.

Once the pump is primed, Curtis doesn't have to work the handle as continuously as before. He steps around to the spout to fill his cupped hands, from which the dog drinks gratefully. He pumps again, once more offers the bowl of his hands to her, then drinks his fill.

As the stream from the spout diminishes, Old Yeller chases her tail through it, so Curtis jacks more water out of the ground, and the dog capers in delight.

Cool. Cool, wet, good. Goodgoodgood. Clean smell, cool smell, water smell, faint stony odor, slight taste of lime, taste of a deep place. Fur soaked, paws cool, toes cool. Paws so hot, now so cool. Shake off the water. Shakeshakeshake. Like the swimming hole near the farmhouse, splashing with Curtis all afternoon, diving and splashing, swimming after a ball, Curtis and the ball and nothing but fun all day. That was like this but even more fun then. Fur soaked again, fur soaked. Oh, look at Curtis now. Look, look. Curtis dry. Remember this game? Get Curtis. Make him wet. Get him, get him! Shakeshakeshake. Get Curtis, getgetget! Curtis laughing. Fun. Hey, get his shoe! Shoe, fun, shoe, shoe! Curtis laughing. What could be better than this, except a cat chase, except good things to eat? Shoe, shoe, SHOE!

A light suddenly flares across boy and dog, dog and boy.

Startled, Curtis looks up. The beam is bright.

Oh, Lord, he's in trouble now.

Chapter 29

SEVENTEEN YEARS AFTER they had healed, the bullet wound in Noah's left shoulder and the wound in his right thigh began to ache, as though he were afflicted with psychosomatic rheumatism.

Called out of bed, summoned from a bad dream into a waking nightmare, he drove south first on freeways and then on surface streets, pushing the rustbucket Chevy to its limits. Traffic was light at this hour, some streets deserted. For the most part, he ignored stop signs and speed limits, as if he were back in uniform, behind the wheel of a black-and-white.

Pain popped in the old gunshot wounds as if surgical stitches had just burst, when in fact they had been removed by a doctor half a lifetime ago. Noah glanced down at his shoulder, at his thigh, convinced that he would see blood seeping through his clothes, that his scars had become strange stigmata, reminders not of the love of God, but of his own guilt.

Aunt Lilly, his old man's sister, had shot the old man first, because he was the danger, pumped one round in his face at point-blank range, and then she had shot Noah twice, just because he was there, a witness. She'd said, "I'm sorry about this, Nono," because Nono was a pet name that some in the family had called him since he was a child, and then Lilly had opened fire.

If your entire family is engaged in a highly profitable criminal enterprise, a disagreement among relatives can occasionally involve a subject much more serious than how best to divide up grandmamma's porcelain collection when she dies without a will. Manufacturing methamphetamine in convenient tablet, capsule, liquid, and powder forms for distribution without prescription was as illegal back then as it is seventeen years later. If you're able to identify interested consumers, establish distribution, and protect your territory from competitors, meth can be as profitable as cocaine, and because there's no import risk involved, because you can cook it yourself from easily obtainable ingredients, the business is comparatively hassle-free. The family that cooks together, however, does not in this case necessarily stay together, because meth churns off floods of dirty money that can corrupt even blood relationships.

At sixteen, Noah hadn't been in the business, but he had been around it for as long as he could remember. He never actually pushed the crap, didn't distribute it or collect the cash, never did the street work. But he knew the fine points of cooking; he became a full-fledged meth chemist. And he capped up a lot of bulk flashpowder over the years, filled countless little plastic bags with capsules in street units, and topped off a lot of ozer bottles with injectable liquid, earning spending money like other kids might earn it from mowing lawns and raking leaves.

His father had plans for him, intended to groom him to run the shop one day, but not until he was finished with school, because the old man believed in the value of an education. Noah always knew that his dad was a sleazebag, and however you might describe the nature of their relationship, you would never use the word love with a straight face. Obligation, shared history, family duty-and in Noah's case, fear-bound them together. Yet his dad took genuine pride in Noah's skill as a cooker and in his willingness to do scut work like bagging and bottling. Funny, but even though you knew that your old man was walking slime, a cancer on humanity, you nonetheless felt a strange satisfaction when he said he was proud of you. After all, whatever else he might be, he was still your dad; the President of the United States was never going to say he was proud of you, and you weren't likely ever to be taken under the wing of a committed high-school coach or teacher like Denzel Washington might play in the movies, so you took your attaboys where you could get them.

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