DUEL 1 2 3 4

3

“Pass me the salami."

"Knife?"

"Got one. Crackers?"

I took out a row of butter crackers and passed them across to the other bed. "Here." Michelle was pale, paler than usual. A lock of black hair trailed across her face. She had taken to dying it in the last couple years, after white strands started to appear too frequently to pluck. I tried to tell her that I thought it made her look sexier, more mature, but she would just smile and within a day or two her hair would be pure raven again. I was getting a little bit of gray here and there in my own dirty blond crop, but I left it to grow in peace.

The motel in the middle of what passed for downtown Lusk was, to give it the benefit of the doubt, a hole. It was clean, but that was about all I could say for it. The walls were whitewashed cinderblock, the beds swaybacked and stale from beer-bellied truckers and the busy rutting of local talent. The motel offered daily and weekly rates, and it was pretty obvious that at least a few of the rooms were being used as semi-permanent apartments.

There was a bad smell around the place, an almost subliminal odor, like a monkey house that had been shut down from plague a decade ago. A ghost of a smell, something that passed through your nose unnoticed and lodged on the back of your tongue.

We finished our snack and collapsed across separate beds. Sometime in the night I moved into Michelle's bed for a slow sleepy round. When we woke up the next morning, she had moved out of her bed and into the one I started in. We loaded our gear and drove half a block to a cafe for breakfast. I read the local paper (16 Heifers Killed In Rollover Accident) while she looked out the window at the local architecture. She had a thing about a particular style of early twentieth century building. Outside the cafe, she started taking pictures of the houses across the street.

After the first few, she shivered, then looked around. "Jay?" I followed her gaze.

A man stood in the door of the motel room directly above the one we had stayed in. He was stocky, wearing faded jeans and a matching jacket. He had short blond hair, but a camera with a telephoto lens obscured his face. I could not tell if he was simply watching us or taking our picture. He did not move. I got into the car without running, at least, trying to be cool.

Driving away, I caught a glimpse of him in the mirror. He was still watching us.

"OK, this is not good,” Michelle stated flatly.

"Any suggestions?"

"Get back on the interstate and go like hell. Which, we have to turn around and drive past there again."

I swore. In my discomposure I had simply driven away, not paying attention to which way I was driving. "Any other way back to the freeway?"

"Not as far as I can tell." As we drove past the motel, I saw the man was gone, his door closed. For some reason I felt no better.

"Did you see that?"

"Nope."

"It looked like our curtains moved. Who the hell was that guy?"

I thought for a while before answering. The small state highway we were driving on would last another forty two-lane miles before we hit I-25. "Best case scenario, your associates are keeping an eye on us." Michelle shot me the glance that meant I would pay for that comment before the day was over. "Or else the comrades they were buying from are shadowing us. But there's no reason to do that. They've got their money."

"Unless someone is setting us up for a ripoff."

"Or maybe it's just a coincidence. Some old coot who gets his jollies scaring tourists."

"Maybe. But figure the odds."

"I don't know. Maybe it's the cops."

"Why wouldn't they just take us in and turn us?"

"That's why it doesn't make sense. None of it makes sense." For the first time, I wondered just exactly what we were carrying. Michelle had told me, driving out of Minnesota, that the bricks she opened looked like blond hash, but with no scent, and were so hard the only way to take samples was by scraping the edge with a fingernail file. "What I can't figure out -- I can't figure any of it. It was like he wanted us to see him."

At Orin, we pulled into a rest stop. There were a few cars there, and in the truck section, a Wyoming commercial trooper was inspecting a tanker truck. I got out of the car and walked around it, checking the tire pressure, keeping one eye on the cop and the other on the road. I don't know exactly what I was looking for. Anything that felt wrong.

When Michelle came out of the bathroom I was already sitting in the car, keys in the ignition. We rolled out the exit, passing twenty feet from the trooper, who was checking off items on his clipboard. He didn't even glance our way. Three minutes later we were on the interstate, headed south toward Cheyenne.

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