Artesia, New Mexico. Pop. 3012. There’s nothing 14-year-old Doc Candy likes better on a hot summer afternoon than snapping pictures of dead armadillos off Route 82.
Until a no-good grifter of a father he hasn’t seen in eight years comes blowing up to his window at two in the morning in a hot El Camino talking about a family vacation in Miami.
Their Florida reunion turns into a 2000-mile getaway when Doc finds out the money used to pay for the trip was stolen from his lowlife uncle, the manager of an illegal Apache casino.
But it isn’t until they’re hiding out in the Louisiana bayou that Doc learns the whole truth: it isn’t Doc’s uncle they’re running from. It’s a coal black Dodge Ram driven by a pair of bald, psychopathic teenage collectors looking to complete their gallery of human head hair toupees with the old man’s scalp.
Those heavy-duty brights gave out a trainload of yellow light that drew me up out of my sleep liked a hooked fish. Out in Taos they’re always telling you about dead Indians come back to reclaim their ancestral land from the white man that the white man had stolen. I figured we’d done the same and now they’d come for us.
But soon the headlights were blinking out some half-assed SOS. I could make out a two-toned silhouette in the afterburn. It looked to be a Chevrolet El Camino with a flatbed. This was not a rare fish out here. I placed the vintage squarely in the early eighties, a bad run of years for your flatbed El Caminos. I figured it was Bobby Littleflower in some vehicle he’d rustled off his old man’s junk heap. Bobby could have done better.
It was a dry summer night. The moon was up there somewhere. On the other side of the house probably. But there was a crown of stars growing thick wherever you looked, and now cigarette smoke was trickling up toward it like a roof on fire. This got me thinking. Bobby Littleflower didn’t smoke and never had.
Honey didn’t keep a firearm around, though Doctor Steve had urged her in that direction many times. Honey was a potter by training and a woman who molds cool clay with her bare hands will rarely be prodded towards the trigger. Tonight, all alone in the house in this dark, I wished Honey’d been born into this world with a proper chip on her shoulder.
The driver’s door creaked open. Cool sand beneath slow boot heels told me this was some smooth operator coming my way, and we didn’t know any. I waited in vain for the front porch to creak, for the sound of that boot leather on wood. But no, the sand just kept sweeping. Some lazy motion. Like an old corn brush tickling a pan.
I got my ass out of bed.
The wide open living room was blue dark and ticking, and beyond that the vestibule. I took inventory. An umbrella we almost never used in a copper umbrella can. An old pair of Doctor Steve’s size-twelve moccasins. A squashed pork pie hat, a badminton birdie, Sunday’s news. Nothing there worth hitting a man with. I went back into the living room and into Honey’s studio.
The studio was moon-colored and I could see enough to grab Honey’s maple wood clay hammer off the drying board. A hefty tool, it rode low against my hip.
The noise was clear enough from there. A cigarette knuckle rapping against my bedroom window. It was a steady drip of a knock that wouldn’t go away. Cool and lazy, just like the boots. Whoever this was, whatever mistake he’d made to wander down this road in his fancy car in the dark, his face was going to remember this night well.
I gave the knocking another minute to disappear. Then I was out the front door on my bare feet creeping toward it with the hammer raised.