I killed the last drops of whiskey in my flask and reached over to the passenger seat for my little red beacon. I put it on the dash and flipped the switch. I didn’t need it, though. Around these parts people know me well enough to know that if I’m following them close enough for long enough I mean to pull them over. I hid the flask away in the darkness of the glove box, pulled out the .38 and hid that in my back pocket.
The rusted white pickup in front of me slowed to a crawl and then stopped on the shoulder of Highway Six, a one-lane asphalt road and the only road in and out of our little desert town. I turned off the cruiser and took the keys out of the ignition and eased my way up to the young man in the pickup, my hand at my holstered Desert Eagle.
Sweat had soaked completely through my Stetson and dripped from the lid. My khaki shirt was heavy with moisture, my badge leaning on my heart and glistening in the dry sun. The young man sat idly in the pickup.
“Hiya, Randy” I said. “We got us a scorcher here, yes indeed.” Randy didn’t say anything. He looked straight ahead through his windshield and the heat vapors dancing on the hood of his truck. His knuckles were white from clutching the steering wheel. He was a good kid.
“What’re ya doin out here, Randy?” I asked. “I mean, where you headed?”
“Just drivin’, sheriff,” he said, and swallowed hard. “Nowhere in particulars.”
“You mind steppin’ out of the vehicle for me, son?” I asked. It was a bold move, but I figured Randy wouldn’t question it. No one around these parts ever questions what I tell them to do. They trust me. I guess that’s the best part about being a sheriff out here. The only thing I ever have to worry about is getting re-elected, and I hardly even have to worry about that.
Randy stepped out of the truck with his hands at his sides. I could tell he wanted more than anything to hide them in his pockets.
“Now I’m gonna search you, Randy,” I said. “Don’t make any quick movements, or anything.” I patted his waist and pant legs and searched his ankles and then his back. He wasn’t carrying anything. His shirt was soaked through with sweat.
“So,” I said, “What did you say you was doin’ out here, Randy?” He put his hands in his pockets and took them out just as quickly. He was jittery, almost like he was hiding something.
“Just drivin’, sir,” he repeated, and dropped his head.
“You wouldn’t be tryin’ to get out of town, would you, son?” I asked. A hot breeze ruffled his blond hair. “You wouldn’t be runnin’ from somethin’, would ya?”
“No sir,” he said, looking me in the face. He could probably see his reflection in my sunshades. He shook his head in small sideways shudders. Somewhere off in the distance, a vulture dropped to the ground in a spiral.
“Have a seat over there,” I said, pointing to the dirt shoulder behind his pickup, “I’m gonna search your truck.”
“What’s this about, sheriff?”
“Just have a seat, son,” I said kindly, and Randy did exactly as I told him.
I walked around the front of the truck looking through the windshield as though something interested me. Randy watched my every move. I went around to the driver’s side and leaned in, not letting Randy see me pull the .38 from my pocket and place it under the seat. I let it sit there a minute and glanced back at Randy sitting on the hot asphalt. I reached over and opened the glove box and closed it, then dallied a little bit underneath the seat again.
“Well, I’ll be doggoned,” I said, raising the .38 with the very tips of my fingers. Randy looked at it like he had seen it before. “What’s all this?”
“It looks like a pistol, sheriff,” he said, and swallowed.
“I believe it is a pistol, Randy,” I said, the sun burning the skin of my hands. “A .38. What’re you doing with a .38, son?”
“I’m not doin’ anything with a .38, sheriff,” he said. “It ain’t mine.”
“Well, it was in your pickup,” I said, dropping the pistol into my front pocket and looking back into the cab of the truck. Randy just sat on the road squinting in the sun, his hands clasped in front of him. He cleared his throat.
“That’s because you just put it there, sheriff,” he said. A lone cloud drifted over the sun, blanketing the desert in pale shadow.
“Pardon me, son?” I said, tilting my head. I took a step toward him.
“I said the pistol was in my pickup because you just put it there, sheriff,” he said. “You know I never carry a gun.” He shifted his weight uncomfortably on the burning ground.
The cloud passed and the sun shot back into the sky. I hadn’t expected him to say what he had, but I pressed him anyway.
“If I were you I’d watch my tone,” I said. “You’re speaking to a citizen of the law.”
“I know who I’m speaking to,” he said, his eyes narrowing.
I kept silent for a moment, thinking of my next move. I wanted to scare the kid, and he was obviously scared. But I hadn’t expected him to handle everything so well. Suddenly the weight of my clothes, my belt, my hat, all of it was too much to bear in the heat. I was tired. My mouth was dry, my lungs were melting. I knew what I had to do, but I just didn’t know if I’d have the strength.
“You know,” I said, standing in front of Randy, looking down at him, my hands on my hips, “Tracy Cavanaugh was shot to death last night with a .38.” Randy didn’t say anything. “And I’d be willing to bet that a ballistics test would prove that this here pistol,” I said, patting the .38 in my chest pocket, “is the guilty little party.”
Randy looked up at my face, the sun beating him down, and then he dropped his gaze to the pavement between his legs. He was looking for something, maybe strength, maybe some sort of cowboy courage that only exists in movies or books, or in real cowboys.
“And I’d also be willing to wager you was leaving town, Randy. But see, you can’t run from the law, son. And I happen to be the law in these parts and guilty men can’t outrun me. I been chasin’ ‘em down longer than you been alive.”
“That’s not so, sheriff,” he said. “And you know it.”
“I know that you was the last one seen with her last night, before she got killed.”
“I walked her home from Dora’s tavern, that’s true,” he said. “But I wouldn’t ever kill her. She was my friend. We talked the whole way home about how she wanted to leave town on account of her bein’ afraid for her life.”
“What was she so afraid of in our little town, Randy?”
“She said she was afraid of you, sheriff.”
I dropped my gaze as another cloud shrouded the sun. I hadn’t thought this encounter would be so difficult. But I was willing to take it as far as I had to.
“She said you been touchin’ her and things for a long time, sheriff. Since she was just a baby. She said the last time you did it would be your last because she was gonna kill you dead herself.”
I took a deep breath and drew it out long, listening to the hiss of air escaping my lungs. I noticed my teeth were gritting hard. The sun lit up the blighted earth again, burned holes on my body.
“That just shows how stupid you are, son,” I said, staring him down, trying to break him. “You let a dumb girl like Tracy Cavanaugh warp your simple little mind with lies just so she could get what she wanted from you? Now look where you are. You’re alone, son. Like you always will be.”
I turned my back on Randy and spat on the highway, listening to the warm breeze shift in the canyon. I turned back around.
“You didn’t even fuck her, did you, Randy? You never even tasted that sweet little bitch, I bet you didn’t. I bet you whimpered like a coward when that little slut made her move on you. You didn’t know what to do. You’re just a stupid boy, son. You ain’t no man at all.”
“Don’t say that, sheriff.”
“You probably couldn’t even get your little pecker up, could you, son? You probably ran and cried like a baby when you saw her sweet little bits.”
“Shut up,” he said, infuriated, and started to stand, hands clenched at his sides.
“She wasn’t even that good, boy,” I said. “She wasn’t nothin’ like your mama, all ass and juicy as all hell. Your mama was a real trophy, son. Your mama was the rose garden on the other side of the world.”
Randy stood up and stepped toward me. His face was the color of blood.
“Easy, son,” I said, and put my hand out. My other hand was at the holstered Desert Eagle at my belt. “There’s a lot of holes in this here desert. Many of ‘em I dug myself. Don’t make me dig another one today. Not in this heat.”
He took a step back but he was still angry. A few veins pronounced themselves in his neck. His chest heaved with quick, angry breaths.
“Here’s what we’re gonna do,” I told him. “Just turn around and put your hands up in the air. I’m going to put the handcuffs on you so’s we can talk like adults. That’s all it is, two grown men talking on the side of the highway. There’s a way we can both get out of this with our clothes on and our hands clean.”
He looked at me severely, with something like hatred, and didn’t move at all. I gritted my teeth and stepped toward him.
“God dammit, son, do what I say!”
Randy turned slowly around and put his hands above his head. The poor, stupid boy. I walked up to him like I was going to cuff him, but instead I pulled the .38 from my pocket, put it to his temple, and blasted his memories into the hot desert air. I wiped my prints from the gun and applied his to it, and then I looked over the scene to make sure it was clean enough. I walked back to my patrol car to call Ned, the deputy back at the station.
“Ned, you copy?” After about thirty seconds Ned answered. He sounded like he’d been sleeping at the desk again.
“I got bad news, Ned. Randy Parker just done shot himself.”
“Where at, sheriff?”
“Just off the Six, past mile marker one-twelve,” I said. “I pulled him over for speedin’ and he was actin’ jittery. I had him step out the car, you know, to see if he’d been drinkin’, and he walked behind his pickup while I searched it for booze. Pretty soon I heard a shot. Scared the bejeezus outta me, Ned. He did it with a little snub-nosed .38. I don’t know why, the poor bastard.”
“You say a .38, sheriff?”
“Yeah, Ned. Suicided himself with a .38 right on the side of the road. Damned saddest thing.”
“Tracy Cavanaugh was killed with a .38, right?”
“Well, I’ll be go to hell,” I said. “That’s right.”
“That might explain it,” he said. “I’ll send the cavalry.”
I switched off the radio and took off my Stetson in the shade of the car. I almost smiled because having to dig another hole in this God awful heat probably would have killed me.