G is for Gumshoe - Page 27/98

As soon as it seemed civilized, I called the convalescent hospital and talked to Mrs. Haynes about Agnes Grey. Apparently, she'd been as docile as a lamb for the remainder of the night. Arrangements for her transport to Santa Teresa by air ambulance had been finalized and she was taking it in stride. She claimed she couldn't even remember what had so upset her the day before.

After I hung up, I put a call through to Irene and passed the information on to her. Agnes's outburst still felt unsettling to me, but I didn't see what purpose my apprehension might serve.

"Oh, Mother's just like that," Irene said when I voiced my concern. "If she's not raising hell, she feels she's somehow remiss."

"Well, I thought you should know how fearful she was. She sure raised the hair on the back of my neck."

"She'll be fine now. Don't be concerned. You've done a wonderful job."

"Thanks," I said. As there didn't seem to be any reason to remain in the area, I told her I'd be taking off shortly and would give her a call as soon as I got back to town.

I packed my duffel, gathered up my briefcase, the portable typewriter, and miscellaneous belongings, and locked everything in the car while I went up to the front office to settle my bill.

When I returned, the lovers were just emerging from the room next door. They were both in their fifties, a hundred pounds overweight, dressed in matching western-cut shirts and oversize blue jeans. They were discussing interest rates on short-term Treasury securities. The slogan painted on the Cadillac's rear window read: just merged. I watched them cross the parking lot, arms around each other's waists, or at least as far as they would go. While the car warmed up, I pulled my little.32 out of the briefcase where I'd tucked it the night before and transferred it to my handbag on the passenger seat.

I cut over to Westmorland, taking 86 north. I drove the first ten miles with a constant check on the rearview mirror. The day was sunny and the number of cars on the road was reassuring, though traffic began to thin some by the time I reached Salton City. I fiddled with the car radio, trying to find a station with more to offer than static or the price of soybeans, alfalfa, and sugar beets. I caught a flash of the Beatles and focused briefly on the radio while I did some fine-tuning.

It was when I glanced up again, with an automatic reference to the traffic behind me, that I spotted the red Dodge pickup bearing down on me. He couldn't have been more than fifty yards back, probably driving eighty miles an hour to my fifty-five. I uttered a bark of surprise, jamming my foot down on the accelerator in a futile attempt to get out of his jam. The engine nearly stalled out with the unexpected surge, shuddering a hop, skip, and a jump before it leaped ahead. The front grill of the pickup appeared at my rear window, completely filling the glass. It was clear the guy meant to crawl right up my tailpipe, crushing me in the process. I jerked the steering wheel to the right, but not fast enough. The Dodge caught my rear fender with a smashing blow, spinning me in a half circle that left me facing south instead of north. I slammed on the brakes and the VW skittered along the shoulder, throwing up a spray of gravel. My handbag seemed to leap into my lap of its own accord. The engine died. I turned the key in the ignition and willed the car to start. Dimly, I registered the now empty highway. No help in sight. Where had everybody gone? Just up ahead on my left, a soft-packed dirt road followed the curve of an irrigation canal that bordered a fallow field, but there was no ranch house visible and no signs of life.

Behind me, the Dodge had made a U-turn and was now accelerating as it headed straight at me again. I ground at the starter, nearly singing with fear, a terrified eye glued to my rearview mirror where I could see the pickup accumulating speed. The Dodge plowed into me, this time with an impact that propelled the VW forward ten yards with an ear-splitting BAM. My forehead hit the windshield with a force that nearly knocked me out. The safety glass was splintered into a pattern of fine cracks like a coating of frost. The seat snapped in two and the sudden liberation from my seat belt slung me forward into the steering wheel. The only thing that saved me from a half-rack of cracked ribs was the purse in my lap, which acted like an air bag, cushioning the blow.

The other driver threw the pickup into reverse, then punched on the gas. The truck lurched back, then forward, ramming into me like a bumper car. I felt the VW leave the ground in a short flight that ended in the irrigation ditch, plumes of runoff water splatting out in all directions. I narrowly avoided biting my tongue in half as I bounced against the headliner and then off the dashboard. I put a hand on my mouth and checked my teeth automatically, making sure I hadn't lost any. The car seemed to float briefly before it settled against the muddy bottom. The runoff water in the ditch was only three feet deep, but both doors had popped open and silty water flooded in.