By Larry Tyler
Larry Tyler lives in Maine. He has contributed articles to counseling and psychology journals and short mystery fiction to several publications, including Nefarious, 3rd Degree, Mysterical-e, and MysteryNet.
"You ever see a car that was struck by a moose?"
Garber smiled, a coarse ugly smile, stretching the corners of his mouth into a mirthless grin.
The passenger didn't smile back.
"When a moose is hit by a car, its legs fold up like a card table," Garber said. He let go of the steering wheel for a moment, made an X with his arms, then collapsed the X flat. "It topples onto the hood and smashes through the windshield-the windshield or the roof-doesn't matter which as far as the driver is concerned. Either way, if you hit a moose head-on you're a dead man. Saw it happen once. Whole thing didn't take two seconds."
Rowe nodded his head slowly, hoping the driver wouldn't let go of the steering wheel again to punctuate his stories. He wanted to get to the junction of Route 9 as fast as humanly possible so he could get out of the car and find another ride for himself, heading east.
"At night, when it's dark like it is now, that's when a moose in the road is the deadliest thing in the world, a pitch black shadow on the black pavement. You never see him until you're nose-to-nose with him, then, bam! You hit him square-on and he ends up on your lap." He turned the high beams on briefly, but they just reflected on the early morning fog and cut down his vision by half so he switched them back down. "And your lap ends up in the back seat, under nine hundred pounds of moose."
Rowe smiled politely.
"Yeh, I'll tell you, these back roads can be deadly." Garber took a long slow yawn with his eyes closed. "Especially when you're not used to them."
Rowe grunted an agreement.
"Not just because of the moose, either. No, you have to be careful of black ice on this road too, especially this time of year, toward the end of fall. Black ice and sharp sudden curves. This road has lots of them. Tombstone every mile, as they say."
Garber sat awkwardly behind the wheel, angled deliberately with his left shoulder against the door so he could watch both the passenger and the road ahead.
This was better than no ride at all-Rowe told himself-but not a whole lot better. He’d been stranded for hours before this ride came along; he was tired, desperate for a ride, and fifty miles from anywhere with a name. Rowe got in the car, told Garber he was hitchhiking to Canada, and after that, Garber pretty much carried the conversation the rest of the way. He never kept quiet for more than ten seconds at a time, darting his glances back and forth from Rowe to the road, and fixated on his favorite topic: death. Garber loved death. He loved to think about it, talk about it, and go into morbid detail about things he’d read and heard and invented in his head; ugly ways that people have died, or could die, strange death postures or bizarre last wishes, tortured thoughts and cryptic final words of people on the brink of death. And worst of all, he spoke in a soft lulling voice that mingled hypnotically with the sound of the engine and the rush of the wind, a put-you-to-sleep voice.
It was four in the morning, and Rowe had trouble enough keeping awake even before Garber started in. He'd been up nearly twenty-four hours, and would probably be up at least another twelve. The only thing that kept him from drifting off was the realization that Garber was, at best, not quite right in the head, and at worst, a psychopath.
Either way, Rowe figured the guy was a person worth keeping your eye on.
Garber checked the rearview mirror. The road was dark and empty behind the car, and just as dark ahead, with the fog thickening up around them. He drove silently for a half-mile or so and then checked the rearview mirror again. His face glistened pale green from the dashboard light. Rowe liked the silence less than he liked the conversation, so he tried his hand at an innocuous topic. "Sounds like you're from around here," he said.
"What makes you say that?" Garber asked, eyeing Rowe for a long moment.
"Well, the way you talk about this road and all. I figure you must be from around here."
"No," Garber answered, and mulled his next sentence over. "Lived here a few years, but I've been away. Away for a while. You're from out of state though. I can tell."
"The Midwest," Rowe lied. His instinct told him to give Garber as little accurate information about himself as possible. He chose a good lie. Garber didn't have any interest in pursuing the topic any further. It didn't matter to him whether Rowe was from Chicago or Grand Rapids or the moon. His hand slipped inside his coat, very slowly. It stayed there and moved around subtly. Rowe wondered what he was fishing around for. Garber's hand slipped out of his pocket and came out empty.
"You don't have a smoke on you by any chance?"
"I could use one. You don't smoke?"
Rowe didn't answer.
"Boy, I could sure use a smoke."
Rowe closed his eyes and felt a stream of air rushing through his head, the feeling that people get when fatigue lulls them to sleep. The sound of the engine faded. Thoughts and sounds blended into a dull euphoria. The world paused for Rowe.
"Sure you don't have a smoke?" Garber asked again. His voice cut into the reverie.
Rowe’s eyes sprung opened and he took a sharp breath. He needed to stay awake. He rolled the window down a couple inches and let the cold air torment his face. "No," he said wearily. "No, I don't smoke."
"Quite a deal in Smyrna Mills yesterday afternoon, wasn't it?" Garber asked.
"I don't know," Rowe said faintly.
Garber checked Rowe out again before he spoke. "You didn't hear about it? Bank robbery, four people got killed. Two robbers got caught, and they say one got away. A real blood bath. Can you imagine, a quiet town like that? Nothing ever happens there, then all of a sudden, wham!"
"Mm," Rowe said. "Wham."
"You didn't hear about it?"
"No, I didn't."
"Blood bath," Garber said again. He shook his head sympathetically, then laughed. "Nothing at all and then wham. Wham, wham, wham."
Rowe wondered why a ghoulish blabbermouth like Garber would wait so long to bring up that topic. It should have been the first thing out of his mouth when Rowe got in the car. Rowe looked over at Garber, but only for an instant. Garber's eyes were riveted on Rowe. Rowe turned his head away, closed his eyes and tried to think.
A pair of headlights began to appear on the horizon behind Garber's car. He didn't notice them at first. They were a hazy blur in the fog. But, as the car inched forward, the headlights began to take a recognizable form as two distinct lights. Garber began checking his rearview mirror at regular intervals, noting the steady advance of the car behind him. He pushed his foot down gradually and the car accelerated three, five, eight miles faster. The headlights continued to approach. Ten, twelve miles faster. The headlights sunk back further for a moment, then began to move closer again. Fifteen miles an hour faster. Same thing happened; the headlights faded, then moved closer. The car was nearly a mile back, but closing in. Garber drove up a hill and around a curve. When he reached the next straightaway, the car was a half-mile back. He took the next curve awkwardly. The wheels squealed briefly and the car edged toward the shoulder.
"Take it easy," Rowe said.
"You're going to tell me how to drive now?" Garber said.
Rowe didn't answer.
Garber wasn't going to let it drop. "You want to tell me how to drive my own car?"
"No," Rowe relented.
"I hate it when someone sneaks up behind me like that and thinks he's going to pass me. Hate it, man."
"What are you talking about?"
Garber nodded toward the rearview mirror. Rowe swung his head around and studied the car behind him. He sucked in a sharp breath. "Slow down," Rowe said. "Let him go around us."
Garber shook his head no. He pushed his foot to the floor and the car accelerated. Garber checked the rearview mirror and saw the car slip back a few yards, then pull forward again.
"Let him go around," Rowe said. "You'll pass him soon enough when he drives off the road and plows into a tree. Just wait, it'll happen. Maybe you'll get lucky and be able to watch it."
That got a laugh out of Garber. He nodded his head obligingly, and eased his foot off the pedal, but when Rowe turned around to look he saw that the car behind them wasn't trying to pass. It eased off the gas too.
"It's a cop," Garber said flatly. "I know it is. I can pick out a cop car's suspension twenty miles away. Their headlights float down the road like a pair of ghosts." Right on cue the blue lights came on. "See? What did I tell you?" Garber said. "I knew it was a cop."
Rowe saw the reflection of the blue lights on the dashboard. He spun his head around again and studied the police car.
"Don't turn around," Garber advised him. "Makes him think you've got something to hide." It sounded like the voice of experience.
Rowe turned his head back reluctantly, and stared ahead wide-eyed.
Garber pressed down on the accelerator and the car lurched forward. He turned toward Rowe after the car squealed around a curve. "How about it? Stop or try to outrun him?"
Rowe looked forward. "Go," he said.
"You heard me. If you think you know these roads, prove it."
Garber shifted position and squared himself to face the road. His eyes searched for a landmark. The road swung to the right then straightened out. "If we come to a hill after the next curve, I'll know exactly where we are," he said. The straightaway ended with a long left curve. Rowe saw a yellow sign along the roadside, but the fog was too thick for him to read it. "Yessir!" Garber said as the road began to climb up a hillside. "Yessir, yessir, yessir! This is it!" He put his foot down on the accelerator and took two sharp right turns, sliding into the oncoming lane and nearly scraping a cliff wall. The next curve was a left, and this time he pulled into the oncoming lane as he entered the turn, cutting hard to keep from going down a sharp embankment. The police car slowed up briefly for the curve, but then pulled up again.
"Okay," Garber said. "Here we go. The next turn is left. It's coming right up. Watch this."
Rowe clutched the straps of his seatbelt, drew a quick breath, and waited.
Garber accelerated through the next hundred yards. The police car accelerated behind him. Garber squinted at the fog, but there was no way to see more than a few yards ahead. He was steering by memory-Rowe could tell-and Rowe could only hope that Garber's memory wasn't as flawed as the rest of his mind was. Garber's muscles tensed, he grimaced, leaned forward, and abruptly slammed his left hand against the dashboard, shoving the light switch in and cutting off the headlights. Rowe moaned. Garber swung the car left and it squealed wildly around the left turn that he had predicted. The car wobbled and seemed to be searching for pavement to cling to. Garber eased off the accelerator and jerked the wheel left-right-left until the car steadied itself on the road. The police car, a split second behind him, reacted slower. Garber's car had disappeared when the headlights went off, and by the time the cop realized Garber was making a sharp turn, the police car was nearly off the road. It slid onto the gravel shoulder, and the gravel was unforgiving. It caught the right-side tires, flipped the car onto its back, and shoved it toward a ravine. The nose of the car went over the ravine first, but the twisting momentum assured that every corner of the car impacted the hillside before it smashed down to a dry creek bed fifty feet below.
Garber eased his car to a stop, and paused a moment to catch his breath. He stared at his hands, trying to get control over his arms that were trembling with adrenaline. It took him a while. He put the car in reverse and crept back to where the police car went off the road. He got out to look. Rowe stayed in the car.
Garber leaned over the embankment and began laughing. "You wanna see this?" he asked. Rowe didn't answer. Garber kept laughing, brushing his hands through his hair furiously. "You should see this. It's pretty foggy down there, but the fire…you should see this."
Rowe opened the car door and swung his legs around but didn't get out. Eventually, Garber walked over to him. "You don't want to see this?" he asked.
"No," Rowe said. "No, I don't. In fact, I think we should get ourselves out of here."
Garber took one more look back toward where the police car went off the road. The glow of the fire was fading. He turned back toward Rowe. "You're kind of in a hurry, aren't you? Kind of anxious to get out of here, anxious to get away from Smyrna Mills too, I'll bet."
Rowe swung his legs back into the car. "Let's go," he said.
"I think we'll go when I say we go. It's my car. I'll decide when we go. You just relax, okay? I mean, it's been a pretty busy day for you, hasn't it? Let’s see, you held up a bank, had two friends get gunned down, got in a high-speed chase with a certified loony who almost drove you off a cliff. I'd say you had a full day."
"Come on, let's go."
"Not yet," Garber said. "Not until I hear the story."
"There's no story to tell," Rowe said.
"Then, I guess we're not going anywhere. Funny, you were the one in such a hurry to get out of here, the one who wanted me to outrun the cop in the first place. Now, you're not in any hurry at all. Come on, let's hear your story so we can get out of here before another cop comes along."
Rowe looked back at the road where the car spun out. "He called in a description of your car, you know. You waste any more time here and you'll just make it easier for them to catch you."
"They don't have a description of my car," Garber said confidently. "That cop couldn't tell for sure what I was driving, not in this fog." He leaned against the side of the car, folded his arms, and smiled confidently at Rowe. "So, tell me a story, why don't you?"
Rowe stared straight ahead and gathered his thoughts. After a long moment, he shrugged. "You're right," he said. "I'm on the run. I hit that bank you were talking about. My two buddies went in and I waited for them in the car. They made it out of the bank okay, but not without shooting one of the customers. He was going to be a hero, that guy, the idiot. So, they got outside the bank just as the cops showed up. My buddies started shooting and the cops shot back. The cops were stupid though. They got out of their car to take a look after they shot them."
"And you shot the cops?"
"I shot them. Then I drove off, but not far. I knew I had to ditch the car, so I found a place where I could drive it far enough into the woods so no one could find it right away. I hid there while the cops drove by. Then after a while, after a long while, there was no traffic. And finally, you showed up."
"Which one of them shot the customer in the bank?"
"What difference does that make?"
"Did you see him get it?"
"Not really. I was in the car. I couldn't see much through the window."
Garber was disappointed.
"You're a morbid little bastard, aren't you," Rowe said.
"Let's get the hell out of here."
"What happened to the money?"
"I'll tell you about it after we get out of here."
"What happened to the money?"
"I got away with the money, but I hid it before you picked me up. I was planning to head to Canada and stay there a couple weeks. If no one found the money, I'd come back and pick it up. That was my plan."
"I see," Garber said. He started to walk around to the other side of the car. He stopped and turned toward Rowe. "I can't figure out why you haven't shot me yet."
Rowe shrugged. He thought over his answer before he gave it to Garber. "I would have, if I had my gun. I emptied it into the cops before I drove off."
"And then you threw the gun out the window?"
Rowe nodded his head.
"Well, here it is," Garber said. He pulled the gun out of his pocket ceremoniously and held it in the air.
Rowe stood up slowly. He stared at the gun. It looked familiar.
"I put some more bullets in it before I picked you up," Garber said. He studied the gun in his hand. "Your buddy was a lousy shot."
Rowe did some quick math in his head. Garber said four people were killed during the robbery. That would add up to his two buddies and the two cops. That would not be the customer. Garber smiled and leveled the gun at Rowe's head. "This is so exciting," he said.
Larry Tyler ©2005
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