If someone could tell your future, would you let them? Would you believe them if you did?
They say that the word trivia stems from the Latin tri via, or "three roads," because wherever a road would fork, causing three roads to meet, an inn would invariably spring up where the locals would then meet to exchange gossip. I don't really know how the Romans did things, but I can attest to the rest of it.
It must be six, no, seven years since I was driving away from the wife who had inexplicably turned hostile and vindictive, and demanded a nasty divorce that left me with an old car and a small fraction of our bank account. Tiring of the freeway, and with no particular destination in mind, I took an isolated turnoff, got lost, and wandered into the great southwestern desert. I was afraid I was going to run out of gas and die out there when I saw a little group of buildings through the heat shimmer up ahead. I pulled into the gas station, topped off my tank, and went across the street to the little diner to refresh myself with a bacon club and an extra-large cola. As I ate, I got to talking with the counter man, as will happen in these little places. Hell, me stopping there was probably the most excitement he'd had in a week. I was in no hurry to get back to melting my tires on that hellish strip of asphalt, so I bought us both another cola and invited him to have a seat.
Jack Henthorn, his name was, and he talked with the lazy but elegant accent of the Tidewater South. He allowed as how he'd give anything to be out of there, and back to civilization. I asked him what he meant by "anything."
"Just what it sounds like," he replied emphatically, "anything!"
Seems he'd been hoodwinked into buying the place, a motor lodge and diner consisting of a semicircle of little bungalows around the central building which housed the diner. It had been misrepresented to him by a fast-talking hustler who spun it as a booming business on the main road to Vegas, and from the moment he signed the check, Jack Henthorn had been trapped...
Until I came along. The more we talked, the more I considered the possibilities. I hadn't seen a cell tower in the last hundred miles, and hadn't been able to pick up a radio station for fifty. He told me there were two phones in what he laughingly called the town, one here and one in the gas-and-grocery across the street, and that got me to thinking. If Sandra's ambulance-chasing lawyer could track me down in a hole like this, then I deserved to be caught. Never thinking he was serious, I told him I could maybe help him out.
"What did you have in mind?" he asked.
I took out my wallet and counted out my cash.
"Keeping back a hundred to buy food for a week, I have four hundred and ninety-seven dollars." I laid it on the table between us. "Sign the deed, pick it up, and go wherever you want."
He looked into my eyes, then away, then back at me, and I have to admit that I couldn't guess what he was thinking. He picked up the money, counted it, and put it down again.
"You don't know what you're getting into," he said, deadly serious now.
"And you don't know what I'm getting out of," I replied, a bit less seriously.
"Are you for real? You're not toying with me, are you?"
"Go get the deed."
"Throw in your car, and you've got a deal."
"My car? How will I get around?"
"There's a quad ATV with a trailer out back to haul the heavy stuff. If you're going to run this place on a full time basis, you won't be going too far."
"What if I need a doctor?"
"There's a radio. We have a deputy sheriff assigned to the area, he'll help you out."
"What about doing business?"
He snorted a laugh.
"It's the modern age. People do business over the phone nowadays. Anyway, if you really need to get somewhere, the Greyhound stops twice a week. You can get all the way to L.A. if you need to."
The negotiations went on for another hour, and then he showed me the ropes of what went into running the place. It was late afternoon when he loaded two suitcases in the trunk of my ten-year old Sebring and drove off to the southeast, presumably headed back to Georgia or the Carolinas, wherever it was he called home.
And that's how I became the proprietor of the Lucky 13 Motor Lodge. I cook when Kelly's not around, and take orders when Letty's off the clock. I also sweep the place out and put the rolls in the rest rooms. I don't mind, because it's mine. I own this little piece of paradise, and I haven't seen a banker, a lawyer, a magazine salesman, or a bill collector for almost seven years. The only cop I talk to is Deputy Fernandez, and then only when he comes in to mooch coffee. A lot of men couldn't have left the world of high-finance I'd inhabited to come live in a place like this, but I didn't see it that way. For the first time in thirty years, I was free.
It was February, I recall, because you could step outside without the heat pressing you into the ground, and I was sitting on the porch reading the week-old newspaper a traveler had left. We'd seemingly just had a change of administration, but the old president wasn't buying it, and there'd been an armed insurrection at the capitol with people being killed and the whole nine yards. It was a great time to live far, far away.
Motion down the road caught my eye, and I picked out Deputy Fernandez's tan Ford Bronco a few miles off, and as it got closer, I could see that it was towing another car, a battered Volkswagen beetle that at some point during its time on earth had been painted a bright, shiny red. I watched with minor interest as the deputy towed the beetle into the service station across the street.
Eric and his daughter Anke had driven off in the tow truck about an hour ago, probably to service a cranky pump, but they'd be back. There was really nowhere else for them to go. I watched as the deputy helped his passenger, a not unattractive woman who looked old enough to know better, pen a note and stick it in the frame of the locked door before leading her across the street and onto my porch. Because, where else?
"Deputy," I nodded a greeting.
"Douglas. This is Christine Haney. Her car took a dump about ten miles up the road. We left a note for the Schmitts, so they'll take a look when they get back. Meanwhile, Miss Haney, this is Douglas Owens. He owns the diner, and he can also rent you one of these bungalows, should you need to stay over."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that, gentlemen."
Her voice was rich and smoky, like bourbon with honey, and her scent was that of the big city that wasn't far behind her.
"Do you serve iced tea, Mr. Owens?"
"Don't have much call for that. I can put some on for you."
"Don't go to any trouble. Do you have Pepsi?"
"By the keg."
"I'd better get back on patrol," Fernandez said as I held the door for her.
"Be safe out there, Adam," I told him, and followed Miss Haney inside. Directing her to a booth by the window where she could watch Schmitt's service station, I went behind the counter to pull her a large Pepsi.
"So, what brings you to Dutchman's Flat, if you don't mind my asking?" I got the straw in her drink and brought it to her booth.
"I'm taking the scenic route," she said with an enigmatic smile playing at the corner of her mouth.
"In that car?"
"It was a spur-of-the-moment thing," she replied. "Long story. But I'm just driving. The interesting question is, what are you doing here?"
"I was taking the scenic route, too. I found the scenery too compelling to leave. Would you like something to eat with that?"
"The kitchen looks closed."
"Yeah, the cook comes in for the dinner trade, but I can grill you something or make a sandwich."
She shrugged with her eyebrows, and said, "Turkey on rye, lettuce, tomato, and mayo?"
"Your wish is my command." As I retreated to the kitchen to break out the ingredients, I noticed that she switched her seat to watch the road back the way she came from, this despite the fact that she would have to crane her neck to see the gas station.
"What do they call this place?" she asked as I began assembling her sandwich.
"That's an odd name for a town."
"Oh, the town, if you can call it that, doesn't have a name. That's the name of this whole valley. The town just uses the name for convenience. Your sandwich comes with a side of fruit. Scoop of cottage cheese, cup of peaches, strawberries?"
"Strawberries sound wonderful."
I put some berries in a cup, set it on the plate, and brought it out to place in front of her. Because it wasn't busy, and this was someone sure to have a new story to tell, I slid into the booth across from her.
"Who's the Dutchman?" she asked, lifting a corner of the bread and nodding with approval.
I looked out the window, past the gas station, and across a thousand miles of empty sand.
"He's a legend in three states. Or a myth, more likely."
"Yeah? Tell me."
"He was a prospector, the story goes, who wandered the area in the middle of the 1800s. His name was supposed to be van Rooijan, or Velt, or maybe Schmitt. The guy who'll be looking at your car claims to be a descendant. He's a character, if nothing else! Anyway, the guy supposedly wandered those hills off to the north looking for gold, or silver, or turquoise, or rubies, depending on the story you like. He's supposed to have found the mother lode of one of those pricy items, and headed back to file a claim, but on the way back, he died of exposure. A wagon train found him, or another prospector, or an Indian hunting party... Again, pick your story. On the body, they found a map he'd drawn of where the treasure was, but he wasn't very good at drawing maps and nothing around here had names back then, so nobody could figure out which landmarks they were supposed to be. You can buy a copy of that map at any gift shop from Yuma to Amarillo, and people have spent their lives wandering around out here looking for his strike, but nobody's ever found it."
"That's some story." She took a bite and chewed slowly, watching the road behind.
"I'll bet yours is better. Ah, the Schmitts are back. He'll read your note and be looking at your car shortly. If you don't mind my saying, you look like a woman who's too smart to head off into the desert in a junker like that."
Her blue eyes suddenly rivetted themselves onto my face.
"I'll tell you, Mr. Owens, but you have to swear on your mother's life that if anybody asks, you've never seen me."
"Sounds serious. Are you a criminal?"
"Only in the most minor sense. I was in a bad marriage."
"Well, that's not a crime. What happened?"
"I married a nasty little Frenchman named Maurice Crepeau."
"Why'd you marry a nasty Frenchman?"
"Well, they aren't nasty until you say I do, are they? Then they decide that marriage license is a deed of ownership. He became abusive, first mentally and emotionally, and then physically. He'd slap me around whenever I had an opinion about anything. He called it being uppity. When I finally told him I wanted a divorce, he gave me a proper beating. I could barely crawl to bed. About a week later he started getting drunk, and I encouraged him to keep it up until he passed out. When he did, I pulled some sensible clothes out of the closet and threw them in that old VW. He's talked about restoring it for a couple of years, but he's never touched it, so I took off in it. I withdrew my half of our bank account, and got off the main road because technically, I am driving a stolen car, and I knew he'd have the police out after me. He swore if he couldn't have me, no one would."
"Sounds like a piece of work. So, where are you headed?"
"Somewhere else. It doesn't matter, really. Anywhere he isn't. What's your story? Why did you stay here? You can't be getting rich at this."
"I've been rich. Now my ex is rich, and I'm happy. That's a trade I'll make any day. Back in the day, I was a—"
"Wait. Want to have some fun? Let me tell you where you came from."
"Okay," I said, sitting back on the padded bench, "tell me."
She opened her purse and took out a thick deck of cards whose black backs were adorned with mystic symbols, and handed it to me.
"Shuffle them a few times. It's how they get to know you."
"What, you're a card reader?"
"As a sideline. I'm actually a card dealer. I even worked in Vegas for a couple of years in the over-21 game rooms. Blue eyes, black hair, and perky boobs tend to keep the players' minds off their strategy. Those casinos in Vegas know every angle."
"No kidding. So this fortune-telling mumbo-jumbo is supposed to work, is it?"
"You tell me. Go on, shuffle the cards."
I did, giving them quite a workout. I handed them back.
"Prepare to be amazed," she said, then winked and added, "one way or the other."
She laid the first card to her extreme left, a man with a severed head and two sticks laid across his body.
"Eleven of Wands," she said. "These cards will lay bare your life, past, present, and future, beginning with your childhood. Each phase will be modified by two more cards laid over the edge. Eleven of Wands suggests an unhappy youth."
She laid the next card so that it partially overlapped the upper corner.
"King of Swords. Perhaps you were abused somewhat?" Another card went down, covering the lower corner. "Four of Swords. Not by your parents, then."
The next card covered the edges of the two previous.
"Temperance. A teacher, perhaps? Someone who was disappointed in you."
Eighth grade, Mr. O'Neill. Phys Ed. The meanest man alive. I shook it off; coincidence.
"Not bad, but what child doesn't have a hard time. Everyone has power over him, do this, do that, and all he wants is to be left alone. I've seen these card readings. They're like prophecies, like Nostradamus. They could mean anything until something happens, then it's, 'See? That's what it meant right there!'"
"I understand your skepticism," she said, voice calm and soothing. "Let's see if I can do better."
The next card turned, a man with a snail shell on his back.
"The Hermit. You'd become a loner by college, hadn't you. By choice? Let's see."
"Ace of Pentacles. This is where you became a mathematics wizard. But not pure mathematics."
The next card turned, a rabbit juggling celestial bodies.
"The Wizard. Statistics. Analysis. Speculation. This is where you made your money, isn't it?"
"I already told you I've been wealthy."
"You didn't tell me how you got that way. Let's see here." Another card. "The Page of Wands. Your wealth was not your own. You helped others get wealthy, and charged them for the service."
"Okay, this is getting creepy now. I was an investment advisor. I analyzed the markets, advised clients, and earned a commission."
"The cards don't lie. But what are you doing here? Most men make their dramatic life changes because of a woman." Another card. "The Hierophant. You and your woman were happy. But something happened to change that."
"Wasn't me," I protested, half-fearing what the next card would expose. "I never stopped bringing home the bacon."
She was ignoring me now, almost in a trance.
"Six of Wands. An outsider. Someone didn't approve of you, or maybe didn't approve of your happiness together."
She had me, hook, line, and sinker.
"Nine of Wands. So many Wands in your deck, Mr. Owens. A relative. The predominance of Wands suggest someone consumed with jealousy." Another card. I was spellbound. "Seven of Cups. A sibling. An older sibling. The Cups suggest a brother."
"John," I said, and the way I pronounced the name exposed the full depth of my feelings for him. "He hated the idea of honest work, and when I married Sandra, he saw it as his meal ticket. He tried to browbeat her into letting him move in with us, and when I wouldn't stand for it, he vowed his revenge. He must have put her up to it, convinced her, somehow, that she wanted the divorce."
"Perhaps. The next card should show you now." She turned it. "Strength. You're happy, centered. You've found where you belong. But that isn't the end of the story. Ten of Cups. As stable as you are here, the winds of change still blow."
She raised the next card, looked at it, and the door swung open.
"You the lady with the Volkswagen?" Eric Schmitt asked, walking over, wiping his hands on a greasy rag.
"Yes. Christine Haney."
"Pleased to mee'cha. I'm afraid there ain't no way to sugar coat this," he said, putting his foot up on the bench. "That thing's shot. First thing I saw when I opened the hood was a cracked cylinder head. The distributer wires are all old and cracked, too, and probably leaking current from wire to wire. If you're getting a lot of backfiring, that's probably why. Given the state of those components, there's probably a lot more issues to be dealt with, too."
"What's the prognosis, Doctor?" she asked with a worried smile.
"Well, here's your options. I can get you back on the road for twenty-five hundred, give or take five, but that's just a fix-to-run situation. You're probably looking at a complete rebuild when you get where you're going. It's almost sure to cost more than the car's worth."
"What's the other option?"
"I'll give you a hundred bucks for it, and I can use it for parts. The Greyhound stops here tomorrow, and the hundred bucks will buy you a ticket to anywhere from L.A. to Houston. Your call."
"Can I think about it?"
"Sure, take your time. But I can't order those parts until you give me a decision."
"I won't take long, Mr. Schmitt, I promise."
"That's fine. Doug knows where to find me." He tipped his ball cap and headed back across the street.
Christine looked wistfully down the road she had arrived on.
"This is bad," she said after a moment, then shrugged it off. Picking up the next card on the deck, she held it up, the face toward her. "Want to see it?"
I thought about how she had laid out my life from childhood to now in a row of cards, and studied the back of the one that would tell my fate. Would it be forewarning? Reprieve? Or unavoidable catastrophe?
"No," I said with great finality. "Maybe this would be a good time to do a reading on yourself."
"I've tried," she said. "It doesn't work on me. It's just a bunch of random cards. Looks like I'll be staying the night. Why don't you show me one of these bungalows?"
Tuesday dawned clear and bright, hardly a surprise, given that every day on Dutchman's Flat dawned clear and bright. But this was Greyhound day, and I normally rose a bit early to get the diner ready for the passengers who would be making the rest stop. I didn't need to set an alarm clock. Hell, I don't even own one. All I had to do was leave the curtains open in #13, and the rising sun brought me up easy.
I shaved, brushed, and used an especially nasty mouthwash to get ready for the biweekly trade. Ablutions complete, I dressed in some of my nicer clothes and made my way across the lot to open the diner. To my mild surprise, Christine sat on the front porch bench studying the weathered, decaying road that had brought her here.
"Good morning," I greeted her. "Care to come inside?"
"Love to," she said, standing up as I unlocked the door. "I trust you'll be putting on coffee?"
"In a fifty-five gallon drum! You're up early."
"Not really. This is my usual time. Had to have breakfast ready for the Little Dictator, you know."
She eased onto a counter stool as I went back to start the coffee.
"Huh. No dictators here. This place doesn't come to life until the sun goes to bed. You need to get into the flow."
"Do you think so?"
"Sorry. Most everybody I talk to is a resident here. The only time we get up early is on Greyhound day, Tuesdays and Fridays."
"And I have a decision to make. Tell me about this Greyhound service."
"Well, it runs Tuesdays and Fridays as you've heard. Greyhound runs one of their smaller coaches on the line. There isn't much demand, you know. It's comfortable, though, soft seats, air conditioned. It's probably leaving Six Points down south right about now. It'll get here around 10:30 and stop to let the passengers catch a meal. Then it goes on up to Coyote Wells. It heads back in the afternoon and gets back here around 5:30. You can make connections to anywhere else in the country from either end."
"How do I get a ticket?"
"Buy it from me. I fill out a voucher, you give it to the driver, and he turns it in at the end of the line."
Coffee started, I'd come out behind the counter to lean back on the ledge in front of her. Now she fixed me with those ice-blue eyes.
"I don't want to give up my car. That's my freedom. But I don't want to spend most of my money to fix it if it's just going to fall apart again. What should I do? Is that mechanic honest?"
"To a fault. He takes care of everything around here, especially the well pumps. He's the nine-one-one when those break down. Cars, appliances, he's a mechanical wizard. His daughter mans the store and drives the tow truck when they get a call. We don't take advantage of people around here. We're all too dependent on each other to go down that road."
She blew a puff of air through her nose, a sad facsimile of a laugh.
"I was hoping you were going to tell me he was a crook, and there probably wasn't that much wrong with the car."
"Sorry to disappoint."
"Not your fault. I guess I'll have to sell him the car and buy that ticket."
The door opened and Kelly walked in. A heavy-set dishwater blonde in her late twenties with a scar on her cheek where hot grease had once spattered on her, no big hotels or restaurants were seeking her out, but she could grill anything to gourmet standards. She had lived here from early childhood, and when her father had died, she took over his job at the diner. I was lucky to have her.
"Morning, boss," she greeted me. "Starting early today, huh?"
"Kelly Bridges, Christine Haney. Christine belongs to that old VW over at the station."
Kelly crouched to look out the front windows.
"I see. Got a ticket yet?"
"Never mind," I told her. "Go ahead and set up. We'll have an extra setting for breakfast today."
"Sure thing." She headed back to the kitchen.
"So, what should I do?" Christine asked. "I'm at loose ends here."
"I can't tell you what to do," I told her, "but if fixing that old car is going to take most of your money, I wouldn't do it. Get to a city and make a fresh start."
"That's easy to say."
"Most women never leave an abusive relationship. You've made a good start. It's time to complete your escape."
"Maybe so. Right now, the only decision I want to make is what to have for breakfast. Could I see a menu, please, sir?"
It was eight o' clock. The afternoon Greyhound had come and gone, and Christine was still here, sitting at a table with Anke Schmitt, chatting and laughing like she hadn't a care in the world. She had decided to sell her car to Eric, and took a bungalow for three days to "decompress;" I think that's a word city folk need a lot. I've kind of forgotten. I didn't mind, though. She was a fun person to be around, and three days to be around her was a welcome change of scenery.
Most of the regulars were in. Eric and Leo, the prospector, were ensconced in the back booth, Leo leaning forward in animated conversation, Eric leaning back, his posture screaming disinterest. No doubt Leo was describing some new Rube Goldberg mining device he wanted Eric to build. Deputy Fernandez had stopped in for coffee, and was standing by the side windows chatting with Avalos, the anthropologist. The bus passengers had eaten and departed. Kelly and Letty, the waitress, had knocked off early, and all I had to do was keep the coffee and Coors coming. It was another pleasant night in paradise.
I leaned back against the ledge behind the counter and considered joining Christine and Anke, but decided against it. They were enjoying whatever they were discussing, and it was easy for me to butt out. As I lounged behind the counter, basking in the warmth of my little slice of this oasis in the wasteland, I saw headlights coming up the road from the southeast. It was a bit unusual, but not unheard of. There were little hardscrabble ranches in the surrounding countryside whose owners would occasionally come in for supplies. That usually happened during the day, though. Still, a fresh face, a new story. Whoever it was would be welcome.
The lights pulled into the lot and up to the front of the diner, and stopped. Then they went out. The door of the vehicle opened and a lone driver got out. I could see the shadow as the figure looked across the street toward the gas station. After a moment it turned toward the door and was lost behind the wall.
The door opened to admit a heavy, swarthy gentleman in rumpled khakis and a polo. He'd been on the road for a while, and it hadn't treated him kindly.
"Welcome, friend," I greeted him. "Come in and take a load off."
He barely glanced at me before he looked away to survey the room. Then he stormed to the table where the two women sat and grabbed a terrified Christine by the hair, yanking her head back.
"You feckless bitch!" he screamed in her face with a strange accent. "Did you sink you could steal my car and run away from home, and I wouldn't find you?"
He pulled his arm back and slapped her, hard, in the face. She fell off the chair, but he held her up by her hair and drew back to hit her again. Behind the counter, I could never reach them in time, and everyone else I could see was frozen in surprise.
Everyone but Anke.
With the reflexes of youth, Anke snatched the glass vase centerpiece from the table and swung it with the strength of one accustomed to physical labor, striking Christine's attacker squarely over his right eye. The heavy glass didn't break, and she knocked him to the floor with a bloody contusion over his eye. Before he could begin to recover, Fernandez was on him, rolling him face down and snapping a set of cuffs on him.
"What are you, a cop?" the man sputtered. "Good! I want zis bitch arrested for stealing my car!"
"Calm down," Alvarez told him, turning him over and sitting him up. "Who are you, and what's the meaning of this?"
"Who am I? I am zis bitch's husband, zat's who. She stole my car. It's zat Volkswagen across ze street. I want to press charges. And I want zis bitch arrested for assault," he added, nodding toward Anke.
"I'm not arresting anybody until I sort out what's happening here," Fernandez replied. "First, this is a community property state."
"So, your wife can't steal your car because it belongs to both of you. Also, I won't be arresting this young lady for her heroic action in defending your helpless victim from an unprovoked attack." He turned to Christine. "But perhaps you'd care to press an assault charge against this man who attacked you without provocation in front of multiple witnesses?"
"What are you talking about?" Maurice shouted. "She can press no charges. I am her husband!"
"You seem to think that makes you her owner. How about it, Miss Haney, do you—"
"Miss Haney? She is Mrs. Crepeau! What ozzer lies has she been telling you?"
"What she calls herself is unimportant. I don't know where you're from, but women have rights in this country. How about it, Miss Haney? Do you want to press charges?"
"If I press charges, will I have to appear in court?"
"That is how it works."
"I'd much prefer to never see this animal again. Could you convince him to just leave me alone?"
"That's up to him," Fernandez said. "How about it, Mr. Crepeau? You wife is willing to let you avoid going to prison and getting a felony charge on your record, and all she wants is to be left alone. Can you live with that, or do we do it the hard way?"
"Yeah, I'll leave," the guy said, "but you'll be hearing from my lawyer."
"You'll be hearing from mine, too, Maurice. My divorce lawyer. I'm not asking for anything, and you'd better not contest it."
"There's your answer, Mr. Crepeau," Fernandez said. "I'm going to take these cuffs off, and you're going to get in your car and leave. The road south leads to I-10 and Texas, the road north leads to I-40 and California. Take your pick."
Crepeau picked up a pair of shades that had flown from his pocket when Anke hit him. He took a napkin from their table, and glared at Christine before pressing it against his forehead. He thought about some parting shot, but took in seven pairs of eyes glaring back at him, and thought better of it. With a final glare at Fernandez, he turned and pushed the door open.
"Would you like treatment for that wound?" Fernandez asked.
"Not from you hicks. I'll find a real doctor when I get to a town."
"Fine, then," Fernandez said. "I'll follow you to the county line just to make sure you don't change your mind. File any legal action you want, but I don't expect to see you around here again."
Crepeau gave him a sneer, like he had a hole card that no one knew about, and tried to slam the door, but of course the damper prevented that. He got in his car, started it up, and headed off southeast, screeching his tires as he went.
"Be too bad if I had to cite him for speeding," Fernandez said, and went out to his truck.
I walked over to the women's table where Anke had Christine by the shoulders and was guiding her into her chair.
"That was epic, Anke," I told her, then turned to Christine. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah," she said. She reached up with a shaking hand to brush back her hair.
"Are you sure?"
"Not really." She gave a nervous smile. "I need some peace and quiet, and this is the most peaceful place I've seen in years, plus the fact that you people are wonderful. What would it cost me to keep the bungalow for two weeks?"