DUEL 1 2 3


We made our call the next morning, from a pay phone at a cheap motel in Calistota, South Dakota. Rolling down Interstate 90 the night before, we had seen the signs telling us about the six! motels! just off the freeway. Just off the freeway in central South Dakota means five miles that feels like ten down a black two-lane road, into a tiny burg with nothing but a closed gas station, drunken teenagers necking in the parking lot of the bar (the parking lot actually being main street, and the enterprising football player had his hand all the way up her sweater), and the promised six motels. We checked into the cheapest and passed an uneasy night. Michelle didn't want to have sex because her wrists hurt from the cuffs the Russians had kept her in for an hour and a half, from the time they picked her up to the meet, and because she was having intestinal problems. I woke up about four with stomach cramps myself, and didn't quite make it into position in the tiny bathroom in time. I took a shower and sat smoking and reading until daylight, then called home. A brief cryptic conversation from one pay phone to another, a couple simple code phrases to let them know we had our cargo and were headed the right way, on schedule, and didn't need any cash.

They had given us enough to get there and back, and Michelle and I had scrounged up a couple hundred bucks to buy some cheap tourist crap, maintain our cover. Rather than try to drive straight through and risk getting pulled over for some exhausted mistake, the arrangement was to roll along in the daytime, making good time but not seeming to be in a hurry, staying in campgrounds and no-tell motels. Our identities were our own, nothing cute. It was the best way. Just a couple people on vacation in the family car. So what if we were hauling enough contraband to put us in jail for the rest of our lives? If we didn't bring back the cargo in five days those lives would be forfeit anyway. It was a small price to get out from under. Our ID's were solid, and clean. Neither of us had ever been in serious trouble with the law. In trouble, sure.

I had started making runs as a way to avoid a straight job, and to keep out of the dangerous situation of being a dealer. I've seen too many people get into big trouble doing that, and, frankly, the only way to really make money that way is moving quantity. As a reliable freelance mule, I made enough to pay the rent and keep the car maintained, and krep me in paint. I sell a few paintings here and there, enough to satisfy the IRS as to my income. I pay my taxes, and it's not like this is a really lucrative gig, so there was no danger of being nailed for living an extravagant lifestyle. This was the highest paying run I'd ever had.

Michelle was sitting in front of the mirror, brushing her hair. She flashed me a disgusted look. "Sorry."

"You could have warned me."

I let that one go by. What was I supposed to do, wake her up to tell her that there was shit all over the bathroom? Either way I lost. We headed out fast, back to the Interstate. Calistota looked better in my rear-view mirror than I would have guessed.

We didn't talk much as we drove. After the five day drive to Minnesota, there wasn't a lot to say other than bringing out The Fight again. South Dakota isn't the most conversation-inspiring state in any case. We read the billboards telling us that we were approaching Wall Drug, at Wall Drug, and not too late to turn around and go to Wall Drug. "You have any urge to go to Wall Drug?"

"Well, they do have ice water. People in hell seem to want that all the time."

"This is hell."

"No, that was Calistoga, land of six motels." Michelle grinned at me and snapped a picture of my profile silhouetted against the first hills of the Badlands. "Do we have time to take the Badlands Loop?"

"I doubt it. But we might be able to catch a glimpse of Crazy Horse." I reached into the back seat for a fresh bottle of tea.

In the afternoon, we reached the Black Hills. It was easy to tell why they were sacred ground. After the tan flatness of South Dakota, only relieved by the miniature Monument Valley of the Badlands, to suddenly come upon the small mountains and their pine trees was sweet relief. Michelle studied the atlas intently. After a minor incident in New Mexico, I had started calling her "Wrong Way Crowden", and she took her navigating duties seriously. Michelle knew how to drive, but the tractor-trailer rigs made her nervous enough when passenging. Driving, they drove her into near panic. We nearly cracked up the first day when three of them boxed her in near Bakersfield. After that I took over driving full time. I was more used to it -- I generally took these runs alone. It was a few trips ago that the trouble started. She was between jobs, and had started playing cards in a local club. She was good at it, but not quite good enough, and she had gotten into a hole.

Some local types had offered to help her out of the hole, and, thinking they were giving her a good deal, she took them up on it. She recovered her losses, paid off her benefactors before I got home, and thought nothing of it. So little that she didn't tell me the whole story, out of embarrassment. She kept playing the cards, though.

We decided to go around the north side, then cut down and take a minor highway into Wyoming. By the time we stopped for dinner, we had decided to spend the night in Lusk, if we could find a motel a little better than the last one. If not, we would drive through until we found a campground.