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Time isn’t everything it appears to be.
State trooper Daniel Reilly never thought he’d wind up in his
stepmother’s favorite movie. Chasing a suspected drunk driver through Washington’s desolate Okanogan Highlands is part of his job, but crashing his cruiser and waking up in a ghost town
definitely isn’t. And when that ghost town starts to come to life?
His version of Brigadoon is not a carefree musical.
The bizarre old truck literally came flying out of nowhere. I’d been on my way back from a car fire out near Chesaw when I caught a glimpse of what I first mistook for another fire engine. It was red, all right, but that pickup was older than me, and all I could see of the driver was a glint of silver as the heap screamed past me at suicide-by-car-wreck speeds.
My vehicle, a standard-issue Washington State Highway Patrol Crown Victoria, rocked in its wake. I couldn’t turn around. The road wasn’t wide enough with a ditch on either side, and I wasted the
better part of half a mile trying to find a spot to swing the cruiser around. I slapped the lights and siren on then, and gave chase.
Not that the driver was going to get far at the rate she was going. I braced myself for carnage around every bend in the narrow two-lane mountain road, but each time I came around a curve the road was empty. The Okanogan Highlands in early November are desolate enough as it is, and I didn’t have time to think about it as I
practically skidded around the curves as fast as the Crown Vic would let me, but when I thought back on it later, it seemed odd how I
didn’t wonder why I saw no one else out there just before sundown that afternoon.
At the time all I could think was, what the hell and why and who is that stupid idiot and please God don’t let me find a pile of twisted metal upside down in a ditch.
I must have gone at least five miles, and was about to give up
completely when I caught another glimpse of red through the trees. It was as if she’d been waiting for me to catch up, because no sooner than I saw the truck than she took off again. A metallic “nyah, nyah, can’t catch me” all but bounced through my brain, and I slammed my foot on the gas.
Damned drysiders. Nobody’d told me when the Washington State Patrol assigned me to the biggest, least populated county in the state that the few people who lived here had gone completely psycho from too much wide open space. An oversight, I’m sure.
I lost and found that truck at least three more times before she slammed on its brakes and careened off the road about a quarter mile ahead of me. I could see the fishtailed tread marks as I reached the spot a few seconds later, but damned if I saw anything that
resembled a road for her to have turned off onto.
You’re probably wondering why I keep referring to the driver as her, when statistically that kind of daredevil is male and the only thing I could have said for sure just then was that whoever it was had gray hair. Let’s just say I had my reasons. I’m not sure what they were, but I remember having them. And whatever my half-cocked
reasoning was at the time, it turned out to be right.
I pulled over and turned off the siren, but left the lights on, since the shoulder really wasn’t wide enough to park the car on, the forest was thick enough to block the view from more than a few feet in either direction, and I didn’t relish the idea of having to explain getting my cruiser rear-ended while it was parked out in the middle of nowhere.
I got out and inspected the skidmarks, impressive, perfect half-moon curves. When I followed them to the edge of the road, I could see the dry, golden grass was flattened, and smell the dusty juices. Something of a track went further on past the edge of the road. I gazed up and around at the gray sky and dull gold hills. I had no idea where I was – well, I was somewhere south of Chesaw and if I stayed on the paved road I’d probably end up back in Tonasket on Highway 97. Eventually. But this part of the Okanogan Highlands is laced with dirt roads leading to nowhere. Or to holes in the ground, with a few decaying shacks standing guard around them. This was gold mining country a hundred years ago.
A glint of red caught my eye again, disappearing behind a clump of orange larches further on up the hill. There’s nothing weirder than a conifer that turns color and loses its, well, not leaves, obviously, but goes naked in the winter like a damned maple.
It was the principle of the thing by now. Sighing, hoping I didn’t live to regret my decision, I climbed back in the cruiser and edged it carefully off the pavement. I didn’t want to think how I was going to explain this to Sergeant MacKade if I had to call in and get a tow truck out here. If I could get any kind of cell phone reception out here in the first place.
I had to give the idiot in the red truck credit. The track widened a couple hundred yards off the highway into a real, live dirt road. It was almost as if whoever lived back off up here didn’t want the world to know there was a road. After a while, as the Vic crept up the track, dust dampened out of existence from the front that had dropped a stingy few drops the night before, I began to relax, almost against my will.
It wasn’t as if I could go any faster, not without risking damage to the cruiser. I knew my quarry couldn’t go any faster, either. She couldn’t be going that far. Probably to one of those big lone houses on the hilltops overlooking the valley and the apple orchards below. The sergeant had warned me about some of the people who lived in them when I’d first arrived back in August, fresh from the academy. Fresh from getting dumped by Linda, too, because I’d been assigned to the back of beyond, even though it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t like I’d had a choice. It was either come here or waste two years of
I stopped that train of thought before it could get away from me again. It had too many times before, and I needed to figure out how I was going to handle this situation when I got there.
The kind of rich people who live out here are here because they don’t want a lot of government interfering in their lives. Well, I was going to interfere this time, if only because the rest of the county didn’t deserve some maniac driving under the influence and putting one of them into the hospital. Or worse.
The road, such as it was, reached the top of the hill, but the big fancy house, lording it over a view that probably was pretty darned
spectacular in clear weather, wasn’t there. No buildings in sight, as a matter of fact. Just two ruts, separated by a line of grass,
meandering down the other side of the hill back into the green and orange woods.
This was getting ridiculous. I debated turning around and heading back to town. Daylight was all but gone, the clouds were sinking like someone was pushing down on them from above, and it was going to take me the better part of two hours to get back to Omak, sign out for the day, and go home.
To my empty apartment, to do what on a Saturday night? Nobody wants to party with the new state trooper in town. If there was one thing I’d learned about small towns, it was that if you weren’t living in the house your grandparents were born in, you might as well have the word “outsider” printed across your forehead with a magic marker. The cop thing just made it worse.
What the hell. It wasn’t like I had anything else to do. I kept going.
Over the river and through the damned woods. Well, except that there wasn’t a river. There was a creek, excuse me, that’s a crick on the dry side of the Cascades, with a grove of white-trunked and
leafless aspens between it and the road. Lots of forest, though, pines so green they were almost black and the larches standing out against them like torches in the dark. I turned the flashers off, leaving the steady, solid headlights on. The last thing I needed was some sort of strobe illusion making me think I was seeing something that wasn’t there.
The rain started back up again, making silver lines in the high beams and blurring the windshield. I cursed and turned the wipers on, and would have turned around then, DUI or no DUI, if there’d been a space wide enough to maneuver the car. But there wasn’t. Even if there had been, the hillside I’d been creeping along for the last fifteen minutes or so seemed to drop into some sort of black hole of a canyon to my right, and I didn’t want to take the chance of sliding off into it, never to be found again. Even if no one would miss me if I did. Not Linda, that was for damned sure. Not Dad and Carol, either. Dad hadn’t missed me for years, and I’d long since
finished being Carol’s responsibility, thank God. Not anyone.
Why was I doing this again?
Right. I was trying to catch a probable crazy person who’d most
likely already slid off into the canyon herself by now. The dirt under my tires was turning into something resembling a slip ‘n slide, and the track was getting narrower and narrower, and more and more overgrown, although I wasn’t sure that wasn’t just my paranoia making me think so.
I could have reached out and touched the barren rocky hillside through the driver’s side window, and on my right the land dropped away into darkness. Someone’d had a heck of a time blasting this road out of the hill. I edged around yet another curve, hoping for a spot wide enough to turn around and go, well, if not home, then at least back to Omak.
Less than twenty feet ahead of me, a cluster of weirdly flickering lights wavered across the road like giant fireflies in the woods,
except we don’t have fireflies here. Not flashlights, the light was too yellow. And were those people? Vague shadows, and I couldn’t tell if they were moving or not. My gut made me slam on the brakes even though I knew better. Not that it did any good. The Vic slid across the mud as if I’d hit the gas instead. I heard someone scream, even through the rolled-up windows. I steered into the skid trying to
regain control, but I might as well have yanked the steering wheel loose for all the good it did me.
The very last thing I remember was seeing one of those damned
orange larches careening through the windshield straight at me.