DUEL 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (and 8) 9


Bette treated us to lunch. It was the last free ride she offered. After burgers, fries (with fry sauce, a vile-looking concoction that was to ketchup what hollandaise sauce is to undercooked egg yolks), and lime rickeys, she had us drive her a few blocks over, to what was clearly a safe house for low-level visitors.

“Tell me everything.” Sitting down, she was tall, with short dark hair and eyes the color of clover honey. They seemed warm at first, but when you looked closer they were flat and expressionless, with no highlights. She listened without comment until we wound down. “You think these guys are still on your trail?”

“I don’t see how they could be, but I would have said the same thing when we got pulled over.”

“Your ID burned?”

“I don’t think so. The car, possibly, but I’d feel safer if I didn’t have to learn a new name.”

“Your new ride’s outside. You’re getting a tail. Don’t worry about losing them. You can’t. They’ll stay with you to Reno.”

“How are we packed?”

“You don’t need to know. Is there anything you do need?”

I pretended to think about it. “I need something for my shoulder, and some heat.”

“You think you’re in a gangster movie? Heat. My ass. If you want another gun just say so.” She was not laughing. She left the room, even taller standing up. Michelle mouthed ‘amateur’ at me.

When Bette came back, she had two guns. One was a tiny silver automatic. The other was a .45 Desert Eagle. I handed it to Michelle and pocketed the small gun. We rose to leave.

“That’s 25.”

“For the guns? Sure.”

Bette gave her first smile, a one-sided mirthless twitch. “We’re going to finish transporting your load for you, kids. You’re getting a new car, an escort so you don’t do anything else stupid, and two firearms for twenty-five thousand dollars. Do you really think the organization would trust you to finish the job after a stunt like this?”

We left. What else was there to do? They were going to own us for the rest of our lives. The new car was a no-frills sedan with our gear divided between the trunk and the back seat. The only modification was a false bottom in the glovebox, giving just enough room to stow our guns.


After nine days on the road, every mile becomes the same as the last. Michelle and I are both from the lowlands, and between getting there and coming back we’d spent most of a week at high altitudes. We were dizzy, dehydrated, and, now, thanks to two freaks, devoid of any real hope. I looked down the center line of the highway at my future. I was going end up hauling dope across the Mexican border, until I got caught or killed. If I got caught, there would be no way to get out of it, because turning informant would not only be a death warrant, but the little I knew wouldn’t be worth anything from the Feds.

The ride was over. All that was left was the drudgery. I could forget any chance of breaking through in art. I could never afford any activity that might put my name or face in the public view.

Cresting a Nevada mountain, a dark brown cargo van passed us. I recognized the passenger. “Son of a bitch!”

Michelle poked me. “What?”

“I don’t believe it. It’s them.” I wondered if our tail, if there really was a tail, had any idea. I sped up, a little, trying to keep the van in view without being obvious.

We drove in tandem for miles, until they turned off at a truck stop. I followed, swearing under my breath, hoping they wouldn’t notice us.

After they filled their tank, they didn’t get back on the freeway. Instead, they drove out the back, onto a nearly invisible dirt road. The sun was going down in the abrupt way it does in the western mountains. I waited until all I could see was their dust plume and went down the same road. Far ahead I could see their lights. I kept mine off and concentrated on seeing the road by starlight and clairvoyance.

It was the most excruciating hour I’ve ever had behind the wheel of a car. The road was obviously rarely traveled. This worked in my favor, because if it had seen any more use the ruts would have been car eaters instead of just spine crushers. The road didn’t wind unnecessarily, but it did go in great loops, trying to stay flat.

“I don’t see them anymore.” Michelle said.

Neither did I. We crept along for ten minutes before finding out why.

At one time, there had been a rail spur here. All that remained was a small trestle crossing a gully that would have looked more natural in Arizona than northern Nevada. The van was parked off to one side of it. If they were anywhere nearby, we were burnt.

Michelle had the guns ready. In the stash spot, Michelle had found a box of ammunition for each of them. Standard issue wadcutters, varmint bullets.

I looked at her. “This is it. Either we go after these guys or we go home, right now. It’s too late to change our minds after this.”

“I think it was too late before we left Lusk.”

I’ve never been in the military. I’ve never had any kind of commando training or experience. The closest I’ve ever come to personal heroism is rescuing a bat that I found struggling to swim in the toilet one morning.

I got out of the car and scuttled to the van, trying to stay low. The moon had finally risen, and it gave enough light for my dark adapted eyes to see there was no one in the cab. Michelle got out and pointed her gun in a professional two-handed grip at the back doors of the van while I opened them.

The only thing inside were a few metal bars welded in with straps hanging from them, and a dirt track that couldn’t be from anything but a motorcycle tire.

“What do you want to do?” Michelle asked.

“We could hide somewhere around here and wait for them to come back.”

“Or we could go after them.”

“Who the hell knows where they are?”

Michelle pointed. Across the gully, visible in the moonlight, was a small cluster of buildings growing out the side of the mountain.

And a dim spark of orange light came from an upper window of the largest one.

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