Thornton sloshed awake, his face sliding through the grit of a metal floor. The drool at the corner of his mouth split like a young scab when he lifted his head.
He winced as the floor lurched, creaking, under him. There was a throbbing egg-sized knot just behind his right ear. The thick idiot meat of his tongue probed at the stubby horn of snapped-off tooth in the pulpy socket where his incisor had been.
He could smell diesel and dust. His gut had curdled into an acid slurry. He heard the toneless hum of tires on a road. A truck. He was inside a truck.
He tried to focus. Parcels. Dozens of them. He squinted toward the stripe of daylight at the front. He caught sight of a pair of hazel eyes in the rearview as the truck leaned around a turn.
“THERE he is,” said Hazel Eyes. “How’s the head?”
“Nf. Not good.” He tried to sit up. His wrist was pinned.
“I bet,” said Hazel. “You should have stayed down the first I hit you.”
Thornton groaned, looked down the length of his arm. He was handcuffed to a steel rail low on the wall of the truck. He felt more alert.
“Um. Listen,” he said. “You can take my—“
“Got it,” broke in Hazel, holding up Thornton’s wallet. “And, no. This is not about money.” Hazel grabbed the thick sheaf of bills from inside the wallet – unblinking eyes on Thornton in the shuddering mirror – and hurled them out his window. A twenty got blown back inside and twirled to rest by Thornton’s shackled hand.
“What is it you—“
“What I want, Mr. Thornton, you’ll see soon enough.” The hazel eyes found Thornton in the jostling mirror. “Now shut up.” Hazel was in a brown uniform.
Thornton shut his mouth, mind ricocheting, breathing ragged.
They drove on. For a while. The stripe of daylight at the front turned golden and crawled up the truck wall. Then it turned red. The headlights flickering in through the windshield grew less frequent. City sounds dropped away. It sounded really open outside. It sounded far.
Thornton started awake, snorting a little. The truck wasn’t moving. Hazel was not up front. The engine ticked.
He heard footsteps outside. The latch on the back door was thrown. The double doors swung wide. A dry herb smell rushed in, like the ghost of soup. Sage, Thornton recognized sage.
“Come on out,” said Hazel, tossing something. A single short-bladed key dinged onto the deck of the truck, near Thornton’s free hand. “Let’s go. Chop, chop.”
Thornton unlocked the handcuff. He sat up warily. If felt like his jaw had come unhooked and was hanging to one side.
“Why are you—“
“We’ll get to that. Come on.”
Thornton slid his sore body along the nubbled metal. He set his feet in sand. He was missing a shoe, his left. He looked around. He knew this place, he thought. He had been here. Long time ago. Before it was run down this way. The white paint was abraded off the stucco walls. The paths were sand-blown and buckling. But he had been here. This had been a spa. He had come here to this pampering place with one of his wives. Or a mistress, maybe. He couldn’t recall – which woman it had been, or the name of this place.
“How did…” Thornton trailed off, struck dumb by the riot of stars, paisleyed and arabesquing across a vast sky. He had sat in a long-ago Jacuzzi, marveling at this confounding and luminous carpet above. Any sense of the woman was erased by time and indifference. The residue of these stars persisted.
“You remember this place. I can see it,” said Hazel.
“A little,” said Thornton. “The sky, mostly.”
“Yeah,” said Hazel, taking it in. “It’s something, isn’t it?”
For a weird minute, it felt to Thornton like they were friendly. Which couldn’t be. That’s not what this was. You don’t wake up cuffed in the back of a truck and then get all, what? collegial with the guy who put you there. A sky like this, though. Made you feel so small. Like you wanted to huddle in caves with other humans, eating meat with your fingers and reasserting your existence.
But, no. This guy with hazel eyes had hauled him away. Had beaten and cuffed him.
He caught his first good look at the guy’s face. Craggy, worn. The face of a guy who’d worked outside for a long time. Downturned mouth, pursed by many disappointments. His close-cut hair was like silvered sand. Bit of an underbite – his creased top lip sat on the yellowing chisels of his bottom teeth. Color of his teeth matched the flecks of gold in his hazel eyes.
Thornton got a flash of memory, now. He’d been leaving the office, checking his phone.
Car service was late again. This guy – Hazel – had approached, in his brown uniform with the short pants. He’d extended that tablet thing and said: “Mr. Thornton. May I get your signature, please, sir?” And while Thornton had looked the guy over, taking dim note that he had no parcel, parting his lips to ask the guy to leave the package – wherever it might be, in the truck, still, Thornton guessed – with Angela on Monday, a burst of light had detonated in his head. The guy had struck him. Hard. Thornton had tried to form some mush-mouthed protest, the guy had smashed him on the jaw. With a long-handled silver something. Wrench, maybe.
This had been… when? Earlier today, Thornton guessed.
“Your shoe’s in there,” said Hazel, jerking a thumb toward the truck. “Might want to grab it. You’ve got walking to do.” Thornton looked dumbly in the direction of Hazel’s thumb.
“Dark,” said Thornton. His mouth was swollen and loose-toothed. Hurt to talk. “Can’t see.”
Hazel clicked on a long-barreled flashlight, like cops carry. Thornton stepped unsteadily inside the truck.
“Grab that jug of water. And the pouch of jerky. I’m not interested in killing you.” This came as no small relief to Thornton. But he grew wary. Long walk. Gallon jug of water. Thing of jerky. Provisions. Hazel was going to cut him loose out here. Wherever the hell here was. Thornton grabbed the stuff. Pulled on his shoe, laced it up. He should be ready, he figured.
“Now,” began Hazel. “I could cat-and-mouse you all goddamn night, but I’ve got to get back. So. Here it is. You know this place. Because you were here. Eight years ago. Getting mud baths and hot stone massages and whatever the hell else people like you fill your days with when you come to places like this. You recognize her?”
Hazel extended a photo of a determined-looking green-eyed blonde. Mid-thirties, maybe. Thick hair in an unruly knot on top of her head. Collar of a denim shirt and chunky turquoise necklace visible at the bottom of the frame. Thornton regarded her for a moment. She meant nothing to him. Which made him afraid. Right now, this face mattered, a lot. A crucial face. Most important goddamn face in this whole desert, and Thornton couldn’t place it.
“No,” said Hazel, after a moment of letting Thornton scour his memory. “I don’t expect you would.” He gazed at her briefly before returning the photo to the cargo pocket of his uniform shorts.
“Her name was Daphne. Daphne Benson.”
Thornton waited for more, mind revving. “Was… name was.” This woman was dead. And Hazel thought Thornton had something to do with it.
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Thornton’s eyes darted at the arched entryway to the drained pool, the busted terra cotta on the Spanish-tiled cabana visible over the crumbling stucco wall. He tried like hell to shuffle together that anonymous face with this desiccated place, but came up with nothing.
“OK,” replied Thornton at last. “Sorry to say I don’t know any Daphne Benson.”
“No, I know,” said Hazel. “I did, though. I loved her. Still do, I guess.” He looked up at the shocking excess of stars. “Daphne’s been dead four years, almost,” he told the sky sadly.
“Sorry to hear it,” offered Thornton at last. “But. Like I say. I didn’t know her.”
“Right,” said Hazel. “You didn’t. You just wrecked her. Pulled her life down. Like it was a dead tree. And you moved on.”
“I don’t… I’m not…”
“Eight years ago. Like I told you. You were here. Daphne worked here. She was a maid. You complained about her. Complained enough over a long weekend to get her fired. Fired cause you were throwing your weight around.”
Thornton remembered a little, now. Not this maid. But this tactic. He’d have been here with a mistress, then. Made sense. Even looking past the decay, this had never been a top-notch place. It was the kind of place with faux Navajo rugs that catered to strivers. Exactly the kind of place he’d bring somebody young who didn’t know better. Somebody who responded to displays of power, however empty. So he’d bitch about his turn-down service, or the chatter of his caddy, and the Rebecca or Chloe he’d bring to these places would be suitably impressed. And would make known how impressed she was between the sheets. Or in the shower. Or at a rest stop on the drive home.
It felt less clever to him, now.
“It wasn’t the only thing that befell her,” continued Hazel. “But it was what her counselors at the rehab place called a ‘precipitating event.’” He kicked at the sand. “She’d been off the Oxy for maybe four months when they fired her from here. She could never seem to kick it after that. Didn’t want it enough, I guess. Brutal stuff, Oxy.”
“Took me some while to find you. I’d given up, actually. After Daphne’s funeral, I tried maybe a year to hunt you down. Couldn’t do it. All I had was a last name and a city. ‘Thornton, Phoenix A-Z.’”
A coyote yipped off in the brush.
“Figured it would never happen. Then they gave me a new route at work. And I was in the reception area at your office. And I heard you on the phone. How you were. On the phone. Mean. Arrogant and mean. And I saw your name in metal on the wall behind the reception desk. And knew that a man that puts his name on things in gold-toned metal – he likes to feel important.”
Well, shit, thought Thornton.
“So I observed you for a while. Few months, actually. Had to be sure. Then. When I was. It was just a question of picking a holiday weekend. When I could take you back here. Let you walk it off.” He looked at Thornton for a minute. “So,” he said at last. “Get going.”
“Wait,” said Thornton. “Who are—“
Hazel gave a barking laugh. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ve accepted a transfer. To far away. I leave tomorrow. It would surprise me greatly if you ever found me.”
Hazel pointed East. Or easterly, Thornton guessed, since it was the opposite direction of where the last coppery light painted the final sliver of horizon.
“Plenty of starlight. And you’ve got a half moon. You can see OK.” As he spoke, he set Thornton’s phone on a rock and shattered it with the butt of the flashlight. “Your wallet’s out that way,” he said, hurling it far, toward the East. It landed with a barely audible Fuff! as it hit the sand off that way.
“Get going,” said Hazel.
Thornton thought for a second about trying to overpower the guy, knew he couldn’t. Thought about pleading, could tell it wouldn’t work. Thought about apologizing, knew it was a lie.
So he started walking, resolving to follow the road.
“Get some good thinking done,” Hazel called after him. “You think about Daphne.”
And there was the sound of a gunshot. It sounded small in the desert.