DISCLAIMER: Limited scenes of violence, a single sex scene that I'd like to think of as torrid but which is probably more accurately described as embarrassing, and lots of cussing. I like women who swear, what can I say? Oh, and in case you couldn't guess, this is kind of my attempt to write a story in the mold of The Twilight Zone. I also wanted to write a story in which the two lead characters don't actually like each other, even if they end up sleeping together, more through need than want. I got fed up writing about soul mates and love at first sight and all that nonsense. :) The following story is © 2012 and is written purely for entertainment purposes. It cannot be reproduced in any shape or form without the author's prior consent. This story would have never seen the light of day without my two beta-readers, to whom I am eternally grateful. Many thanks to both Jess and Lacepriest. And try not to worry; the world was not damaged during the production of this story. Don't believe me? Go look out your window. See? No damage. Not by me, anyway.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To ukfallenangel2[at]yahoo.com

Saturday Night in the Year of the Good Thief
By Ursula Kincaid

 

Part 1

At the very end of the street a Dalmatian was running wildly around a spotlessly-clean fire truck, its tongue lolling from one side of its mouth. Ally watched the dog try and dodge the streams of water that splattered down the sides of the vehicle, clearly enjoying every moment of the game only it was playing.

Jesus, Ally thought, staring hard at the sight through the fogged-up windows, this town even had a firehouse Dalmatian. She couldn't decide if that made it even more picturesque or disturbingly cloying. She saw the firefighters laughing, although she couldn't hear them over the noise of the diner around her. The dog had moved a little too slowly, maybe on purpose, and had been rewarded with a wet sponge smacking it on the hindquarters. It didn't seem to mind. The risk only made the game more fun, apparently.

She didn't know the name of this town but not for the first time she wondered if it was twinned with Stepford. It was, at least at first glance, the kind of place most city folk dreamed of whenever the bad side of urban life reared its ugly head. The kind of town, after all, where hunky firefighters would strip to the waist and spend hours washing their vehicle, even on a surprisingly chilly autumn evening.

All men, unfortunately. Shame there wasn't a hot, redheaded female firefighter amongst the crew, Ally thought wistfully. One with a nice taut body and a temper that matched her job and her hair, at least when she was in the sack. That was the kind of fantasy Ally could lose herself in, one that would make moving to this all-too-perfect little 'burb worthwhile. Any place is paradise from a warm bed.

Small trees lined both sides of the wide street. No doubt earlier in the year they would have formed a rich and beautiful canopy; now they were all starkly bare. Naturally, the sidewalks had been swept clear of fallen leaves already. Civic pride, Ally supposed. She imagined in a month or so there would be Christmas lights wrapped around the trunk of each tree so that at night the street looked magical, while back in the early days of summer, red, white and blue bunting and garland would be festooned everywhere. All in all, it was a little appley slice of all-American heaven. Which made it all the worse that hell was fast approaching.

Her breath fogged a small patch of the window, near a thin crack that ran across her reflection. She smiled sadly when she saw a crude stick figure appear, starkly contrasted against the dull red of their car outside. Some kid must have drawn it earlier in the day; either that or the diner staff cleaned far less often than she hoped. She knew why the image made her feel so oddly sad but tried not to think about it.

"This looks like a nice little town," she said finally, more to break the silence than anything else. She looked over at the woman opposite her and did her best to turn the smile up a notch. That usually worked wonders. This time, just like it had every time over the last twelve hours or so, it prompted only a frosty glare in reply. "I mean it. Very uncommercialized. I didn't see a single drive-thru on the way in, did you? Explains why you dragged me in here, I suppose."

Here, in this case, was a rundown diner named King's, close to the highway exit ramp. Americana in an aging, somewhat neglected nutshell. Discolored red paint barely clung to the walls, the décor was all peeling chrome and the booth seats were faded naugahyde with yellowing foam showing between the many rips and tears. Still, old and shabby it may be but the neglect only added to the diner's appeal.

Ally chuckled quietly to herself. She supposed the same could be said of her. She certainly felt old lately and pretty damned neglected too. Her body ached and her face hurt. But she liked to think her charms could still work wonders. Not so far, apparently. It was like talking to a brick wall, and one that was covered in a thick sheet of ice.

She waited a few seconds for a response. When none was forthcoming she spoke up again. "Yep, this is a really sweet little town. Doesn't that bother you?"

"Shut up."

Well, two words more than she had spoken in a while. That was an improvement, Ally supposed. She decided to push a little. "I'm serious. Pretty soon this town will look like all the others we've left behind us. That doesn't upset you? Not even a tiny bit?"

"I have more important things on my mind."

"Really? I find that hard to believe."

"Well, Alice, you should always try to believe six impossible things before breakfast."

"Oh, very clever," Ally said, rolling her eyes in an exaggerated fashion. That prompted a twitch at the corner of the other woman's mouth, which Ally supposed was about as close to smiling as she would ever come. Well, if that was all she could get, she'd take it. For now, at least. She'd keep working at getting something better.

"Heard that one before, have you?"

"Once or twice. At least it suggests you could be well-read. Aside from that, this is going to be more like supper than breakfast."

She waved away the objection as if she was batting away a bothersome fly, then glanced impatiently around the diner yet again. "You're lucky I decided to stop at all. I'm beginning to think we should have just kept going."

"You said we needed gas."

"We do."

"Well then, not much choice was there?" When her only answer was another scowl, Ally effortlessly changed the subject. "You know, I wish you'd call me Ally. Everyone does."

"Not everyone."

"I suppose I should think myself lucky you've stopped calling me Ms. Cole. I don't suppose you'd like to share your first name?" They'd been stuck together for almost twelve hours and she still didn't know it.

"No."

"Really?"

"Yes."

Back to words of one syllable, Ally thought, and not too many of those. Never mind. Even if she was caught in paradise, no matter how temporarily, she shouldn't be surprised that some of the angels were a little disagreeable. "You'd rather I keep calling you Marshal?"

"Deputy Marshal. And no, I'd rather you shut the fuck up."

There was no real anger behind the words, at least not as far as Ally could tell. A little frustration, perhaps, most likely directed more at the strangely absent diner staff than at her. It's not like any of this was truly her fault, not really. Ally suspected all of the anger had been burned out of Weiss this morning, exhausted on the side of the road outside Las Vegas, like a highway flare spluttering out in the pouring rain. It may have died fast but it had burned so strongly. Ally still had the bruises to prove that.

Not for the first time, Ally chose to bite her tongue.

Quietly, she studied the woman opposite her. She'd had plenty of opportunities to do that recently. Weiss had skin the color of wild hazelnuts, smooth and almost blemish free. She was light-eyed where Ally was dark, as short as Ally was tall, and curvaceous, fit and toned just as Ally was angular, slim and gangly. She kept her hair neatly braided in long cornrows, while Ally's own mop was short and usually beyond control. And beyond the physical, she was aggressive, stubborn, career-minded, focused to the point of being obsessive, and so unrelentingly serious.

In short, she was everything Ally wasn't, and knowing that was driving Ally crazy. Assuming of course that she wasn't a little – just a very little – crazy already. And if Ally thought about what had happened over the last day too much or too often, then a little crazy could definitely be considered an understatement.

Ally couldn't stay quiet forever. She knew it, and strongly suspected the Marshal – sorry, Deputy Marshal – knew it too. She was a talker, always had been. It was one of the few things about her she could not change, try as she might. Not that she ever tried very hard. But at the same time, she was wary of pissing Weiss off any further.

Instead, she moved some of the condiments aside so she could read the black and white placemat. "Man is born alone and dies alone. Hmm..." she said thoughtfully, "not sure if that's true. I mean, when I was born my mother was there. At least, I assume she was. Not to mention my father, and the midwife, and..."

"Kind of missing the point, aren't you?"

"You think so? I was just thinking that the opposite is true. You usually have plenty of company when you're born and when you die..."

"Not everyone," Weiss said again, a joyless look settling across her face.

Ally moved on as quickly as she could, aware that if she hadn't said the wrong thing, she'd come pretty damn close. "Well, people usually come to the wake or the funeral or whatever shindig you throw."

"You're already dead by then."

"You know what I mean. Birth, death, plenty of company. It's the long drawn-out bit in the middle where you tend to be alone."

"Says you."

"Yeah, says me. This is the longest I've spent in the company of another woman that I can remember."

"Love 'em and leave 'em type, are you?"

"I wouldn't say that."

"No, I guess you're not. Seems to me you're much better at leaving than loving."

That hurt. Ally tried not to let it show but she didn't quite catch herself in time. She saw the Deputy Marshal had caught the reaction. She was smirking, the way she always did when she scored a point, and that probably hurt Ally more than the words actually had. After all, deny it out loud as she might, Ally would probably have to admit to herself that what Weiss said had been right. She'd never been very good at relationships. No, that was not entirely true. She was great at starting relationships, she could say that at least; it was the upkeep that always got away from her. She couldn't remember any relationship she'd ever been in that hadn't soured, usually within the first few weeks, as soon as the initial excitement had worn off.

Still, the remark was nothing in the grand scheme of things. A little victory. Maybe those were all Weiss ever achieved in life.

It wasn't as if the comments she kept making were particularly snide or cutting, just brutally honest. Maybe Weiss lacked a few of the social graces, but she wasn't inept, just uncaring. Hardened to the world, perhaps. No, Ally thought, that wasn't quite it. Perhaps it was more that Weiss had a way of cutting through all the crap and getting right to the unvarnished truth, the truths that always hurt the most. It probably worked wonders during interrogations. Maybe that was why she'd fallen into this line of work. Or maybe it was a skill she had picked up wherever she had been trained.

Ally forced another smile and did her best to change the subject. "King's Diner. I suppose that's appropriate. What's this town called anyway?"

"Silvertip Valley."

"Great. Never heard of it," Ally said. She'd fallen asleep when they were still well inside Nevada, somewhere near Coaldale, and only woken when she had felt the car slow to exit the highway. Even when she'd been awake she hadn't recognized many of the names on the road signs they'd passed. That wasn't so surprising considering they had been mostly confined to back roads. At first Weiss had stubbornly kept trying to get on the highway but she'd eventually given up. Ally glanced at the clock on the wall. A little past six. That meant a journey that should have taken less than nine hours had so far taken nearly eleven, and they most likely still had a ways to go. "Still," she went on, "I guess that won't matter soon."

"Not unless we get to Sacramento."

"Still sticking to that theory, are you?"

Weiss glared at her viciously. She opened her mouth as if to say something. Fortunately, Ally was saved by the long overdue arrival of the waitress, a blue-haired woman who looked as if she might have helped Noah herd the animals onto the Ark. When she spoke, her voice sounded even older.

"Sorry for the wait, honey, we're a little short-staffed right now," the waitress said, each word creaking out in shower of dust, cheap perfume, and nicotine. "Everyone seems to have the darn flu."

Ally glanced at Weiss and raised an eyebrow mockingly, as if the word 'darn' proved her point about the parochial nature of small towns. "Well, there are worse things out there," she said non-committedly.

"You said it, hon." The waitress frowned down at Ally. She took in the swelling, the bruises, and the cuts and scrapes on Ally's face, and clucked her tongue disapprovingly. "You look like you been in a few wars yourself. Everything okay here?"

"Everything's fine," Weiss said sharply, jumping in before Ally could even open her mouth to speak.

The waitress nodded slowly, disbelief still evident on her face. Then, as she studied Ally once again, her demeanor brightened suddenly. "Hey, you know who you look like?"

Without thinking, Ally gave her what she always thought of as her most professional smile. Way too sweet, plenty of teeth showing, and not an ounce of sincerity. It usually worked wonders, although its effect was probably diluted a little by the swollen lip and one cracked tooth. She doubted even her crappy agent would ever stoop so low as to book her to perform in such an out-of-the-way spot as Silvertip Valley but it never hurt to impress a potential audience member. Remember the little people, her agent was always saying, as if her one and only client was such a big shot.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw that the recognition had pissed Weiss off even further. She felt bad, just for a second, but all the same she felt her smile shift to something a little more genuine. "Yeah, I get that a lot."

"I mean, you really do. You could pass for his daughter."

Ally tilted her head down, ever so slightly, as if she was shy, and looked up through her lashes. Her voice lowered a little and her upper lip curled as she spoke. It was an extraordinary transformation, one that never failed to win people over. "Why, thank you, ma'am, thank you very much."

The waitress laughed out loud and held a hand up to her mouth. "That's really good!"

"It's how I make my living."

"Really?"

"One of the ways," Weiss said acidly. "Now, can we order?"

"Sure thing, honey," said the waitress, tugging a notepad and pencil from her apron. "Now, what can we get you?"

"Give me a mug of decaf and some toast."

"You want anything else? Eggs? Bacon?"

"Just toast."


"Just toast. You want anything on it aside from butter? Jelly?"

"Just the toast will be fine."

"And you?"

Weiss didn't give Ally a chance to speak. "She'll have coffee."

"I'm hungry," Ally protested.

"Tough. Just coffee. Regular."

The waitress finished scribbling in her notepad and glanced between the two seated women. When she finally spoke, she directed her question towards Ally, giving her a look that was half-quizzical and half-disapproving. "She control the purse strings, does she?"

"I suppose you could say that. She likes to think she controls everything."

"Oh, one of those. Well, that and the coffee and the toast will probably give you an ulcer."

Weiss scowled, turning her head away. She reached into her inner jacket pocket and fished out a pack of Camel Blues. "If the ulcer comes as quickly as the food, I should worry," she muttered under her breath.

She needn't have bothered lowering her voice, the waitress hadn't heard. She was distracted by an elderly black man who, over in the far corner of the diner by the restroom doors, was reaching up to pound loudly on the side of an ancient television set that hung above the counter. The screen showed nothing but static, although thankfully the volume was muted.

"Joe! Will you leave the darn thing alone? Get back to your chess game!"

The old man glared at her resentfully for a second, then gave the set one more hefty thump before sitting down on his stool once again, muttering something about wanting to watch a Twilight Zone marathon.

"Darn thing's been on the blink all day. Nothing but static since we switched it on." The waitress turned back to their table and frowned. "Oh, sorry, honey, we're non-smoking in here."

Weiss froze with a cigarette half-raised to her mouth. "You're kidding, right?"

"You're welcome to smoke on the steps and the grass won't pay no mind."

"In this weather?"

"You city folk always feel the cold more. Mind you, the weatherman on Channel 28 said we'd get snow tonight."

Ally exchanged a furtive glance with the Deputy Marshal. "You'd better hope not," she said quietly.

"It's not so bad, honey," the waitress said, glancing up at the darkening evening sky through the dirty window. "An early snowfall really helps the town out. It's good for business. More snow means more tourists, all eager to ski."

"Not this snow. And we're not tourists."

"So you won't be hitting the slopes then?"

Shaking her head, Ally lifted her hands from her lap. She held them both up close together, almost as if she was deep in prayer, but only because the handcuffs inhibited her. "Sorry," she said with a sad smile, "but I doubt she'd let me."


There was a stuffed toy panda in the footwell on the right side of the car. It squeaked in protest when Deputy Delaney stood on it as she clambered across the seat. The driver's side wasn't locked but it had been the passenger's door that had been left wide open and Delaney wasn't stupid enough to risk smudging any fingerprints. Silly, really, but she couldn't help hoping this could be more than it seemed.

It was obvious the car had spun off the road, plunging down the embankment and coming to an abrupt halt against a tree. Not with enough force to do any great damage, but enough to probably put the engine out of commission, smash the front grill and one headlight, and to require an expensive amount of bodywork. Still, they'd probably been luckier than they had any right to be, Delaney thought, as the impact had prevented the car from rolling. As it was, it had probably been quite a jolt.

What wasn't obvious was what had happened to the occupants. The car had been empty when she'd found it. It couldn't have been here that long. The engine was still ticking over and she'd bet five to one that if she touched the slightly crumpled hood she'd find it still warm. There was an easy answer to that though, wasn't there? They had walked into town to get help.

But this was the only road into town so she was damn sure she would have seen anyone walking along the berm as she drove up. Was it possible they had walked off into the woods, up into the mountains? She dismissed the thought. Even tourists wouldn't be that stupid, surely?

Something about the accident bugged her. It might have been nothing, but all the same she could feel the hope building. This could be it.

Delaney had only been with the Sheriff's Department a little longer than six months, having moved up to Silvertip Valley in the spring from Lake Tahoe, where she'd been a security guard at the North Pine Mall since leaving high school. They'd been asking for volunteers and she'd jumped at the chance. They hadn't wanted her, of course, just like the city police back in Tahoe hadn't wanted her, just like the high school cheerleading squad hadn't wanted her, and just like her parents hadn't really wanted her. Of course, none of them had actually ever said as much.

But it turned out she was the best Silvertip was going to get. The number of volunteers had been abysmally low. Apparently, not many cops wanted to spend the summer months watching over a veritable ghost town and the winter months dealing with a bunch of spoiled rich kids and drunken frat boys.

So they had accepted her, if somewhat grudgingly and very ungraciously. 'The best of a bad bunch' was one insult she had heard more than once over the summer, whispered in furtive conversations around the water cooler and laughed about over a few drinks at Blanco's. 'The meanest girl in town', that was another. And she was pretty certain even Sheriff Whitaker hated her, although at least he was professional enough not to let it show too much.

Delaney had always wanted to be a cop. She wasn't entirely sure why. Her father had said she was trying to make her mark on life in the only way she could, but Delaney wasn't sure that was quite right. Whatever the reason, she had dreamed about it for as long as she could remember. And just as her ambition of being a cop had finally come true, if only in a small-town way, she knew that one day her dream of being involved in a major investigation would also be realized. A crime so big it would get some serious attention. Which meant, of course, that she would be the center of attention, even if it was just for a short while. First on the scene and all that.

Her breath fogged in front of her as she swung her flashlight around the interior of the car. As the sun had begun to set, it was getting noticeably darker. Colder, too. So much for global warming, Delaney thought. She thought she had seen snow further on up the road as she pulled her cruiser over. The sky to the east was a stark white. That struck Delaney as a little odd, but then maybe that was what the onset of winter looked like in the mountains. How would she know? If a snowstorm was on its way, Delaney thought, they'd need to get more people up here soon. Provided, of course, she could convince the Sheriff that this was something serious. No easy task that, seeing as how she hadn't entirely convinced herself yet.

She peered around the car, doing her best not to disturb anything. The keys were still in the ignition. The gas gauge read empty or damn near it. Well, Delaney thought, wasn't that strange? Still, it explained why the car hadn't crashed into the tree so hard. They must have been coasting on empty and then lost control somehow. Ice, maybe? Sure, it was chilly but it wasn't that cold yet, right? Again, maybe it was a mountain thing. What was that saying they had round here? 'When the snow is on the roses…' She couldn't remember how the end went, but it was something like that. She had no idea what it meant, of course, only guessing that it had something to do with the fast-changing weather, and no one in the town was likely to be nice enough to explain it to her.

Not for the first time, Delaney found herself feeling a bit out of her depth. If she could ask someone, if there was someone she could talk to who wouldn't laugh at her, then maybe she'd know a little more.

Her mother, God rot her, had tried to talk Delaney out of moving up to the mountains. For her own selfish reasons only, of course. As much as her parents despised her, they still needed her. Her father was housebound and required a good amount of care, a burden all the family had shared except for her brother. He wasn't expected to, oh no, not him. Not the golden child. Not the perfect son. No, he was allowed to leave and go join the Navy, wasn't he? He didn't get the nightly lectures about shirking family responsibilities or have all his wages sucked up just to pay the rent and buy groceries and supplement the pittance her mother earned. No, Blake could do no wrong, while she could do nothing but.

Sometimes, when she was on duty in the station at nights, when there was no one else around and when the only sounds you could hear were the drip, drip, drip of the coffee percolator and the constant buzz of the fluorescent lighting, she felt guilty. But each time, she convinced herself that she couldn't have stayed with her folks. If she had, she would have gone insane sooner or later. Probably sooner. The job offer from the Silvertip Valley Sheriff's Department had been the light at the end of her own gloomy and despondent tunnel.

Besides, she was tired of being a small fish in a big pond. Sometimes you had to choose to jump into a smaller pond, even if it meant you were still a guppy surrounded by piranhas that didn't particularly appreciate you invading their territory.

Delaney leaned back, twisting at a painful angle to fit between the front seats so she could examine the back. The beam of her flashlight played over the black seats until she saw an even darker spot. She reached out and ran her fingers across the stain. The tips of her gloves came back red. A trace of blood. Her heart raced.

More than a trace, she realized as the shaft of light ran down the stained fabric. If someone had damn near bled out back here, she wouldn't be surprised. A large portion of the back seat, almost the entirety of the part behind the driver, was stained in so much blood, more blood than she had ever seen. It looked like none of it had dried yet. The darkest parts were near the top. At a guess, assuming whoever had sat here was taller than her, which was more than likely, the injury must have been around the shoulder or upper chest area. Not good. And she was sure the injury couldn't have come from the wreck, as there had been no blood in either of the front seats. Even if she assumed the passenger wasn't wearing a seatbelt, the driver would have been hurt just as bad, surely? Besides, the accident hadn't looked that bad. Even the windshield was still intact.

She tried to suppress a growing sense of excitement. The beam of her flashlight waggled erratically as she began to move backwards, scrambling to get out of the abandoned car. There was a sudden reflection from a small triangle of something white from under the passenger seat. She reached down and tugged the item free. Money. A neatly stacked inch-thick bundle of twenty-dollar bills, held together by a paper band. Only banks kept money like that, didn't they?

Jesus, Delaney thought, what the hell had she stumbled on to here? She dropped the money and climbed back out of the white sedan as quickly as she could. Better to leave this alone, at least for now. As much as she wanted to claim this little crime scene as her own, to grab all the glory for herself, she knew better. This was too big for her to handle. A good cop knew when she was out of her depth, and when to call in her superiors. And if there was one thing Delaney truly longed to be more than a cop, it was a good cop. She honestly hadn't realized that until she saw the blood.

Hurrying, Delaney clambered back up to the blacktop. From the car, she had been able to see another path made in the grassy incline, chunks of loosened sod and gouges in mud that clearly showed where several people had climbed, none too easily. But then they wouldn't have, the deputy reasoned, not if they had been carrying or supporting a badly wounded friend. So then what? Where did they go after they reached the road?

After a momentary pause at the top to get her breath back, she swung her flashlight further on up the road, the beam falling on the curve of the barely visible skid marks where the car had careened off. Was that snow? It sure as hell looked like it. Even in the gloom of the approaching night, Delaney could see how the end of the road was nothing but a solid white wall.

There was something not quite right about the approaching storm, Delaney thought. The snow was so thick, impossible to see through or past, and it was gradually moving towards her. That couldn't be right, could it? There was only a little wind, blowing down off the mountains, so how in the name of all that was holy could the storm be coming her way so fast? And the few snowflakes she could see against the dark woods nearest to her seemed to be falling so slowly. It was almost as if they weren't falling at all but instead just appearing in mid-air. No, Delaney thought, that would be impossible.

She turned away from the snowfall, walking back towards where her cruiser was parked, the red flashing lightbar casting bloody shadows across the road. Her free hand moved up to her shoulder radio. "Dispatch?"

She heard the sigh before Blanche, the department's matronly caretaker and switchboard operator, even spoke. She chose to ignore it. "You don't have to say 'dispatch', Whitney. This isn't the big city."

No, not even close, Delaney thought. If she had been smart enough to think of a biting reply, she still wouldn't have said anything. She'd had more than enough run-ins with the department's support staff in her first few weeks to learn it simply wasn't worth it.

"Blanche, I've got an abandoned car off the highway, just past exit twelve. California tags. Can you patch me through to the Sheriff?"

"The Sheriff has more important things on his mind lately. He's dealing with a situation at the diner now. He's not going to be happy if you drag his butt all the way out there for nothing." She couldn't have sounded less interested if she had tried. And from past experience, Delaney knew Blanche wasn't keen on trying, at least not where she was concerned.

"This is kind of important, Blanche."

"Aren't they all, Whitney?

Again, she ignored the slight. Two slights, really, seeing as how she had made it very clear to everyone that she hated her first name. Only Blanche could manage to be so insulting with so little effort. She took a quick breath, taking the moment to stare back down the slope at the vehicle. "The car's off the road, there's nobody in it. But there's a good amount of blood inside and some money."

"Money? Have you been going through the change trays, Whitney? Found some pennies?"

"Probably about two or three thousand dollars, actually," Delaney countered, trying not to let the satisfaction in her voice show. "Looks like it came from a bank or check-cashing place or something."

There was silence for a few seconds, then a harsh hiss of static. It didn't look like Blanche was going to reply. Sulking, probably. Delaney looked up the road again, away from the town. The beam of her flashlight reflected right back at her, a perfect circle in the gradually approaching wall of snow.

Delaney touched her radio again. "Dis..." She caught herself just in time. "Blanche?"

"What is it, Whitney? I'm talking to Sheriff Whitaker right now, alright?"

"There's a snowstorm coming."

"What are you, the weather report?"

Yeah, and forget you, Delaney thought, but she didn't say it. There was no point in making waves.

"It's strange..." And it was too. Again, Delaney was bothered by something odd about the falling snow, something she wasn't quite sure her mind could pin down. Maybe it was the adrenalin, the trembling she could feel in her legs, caused by the excitement at finding the car and the blood and the money. Maybe that was why she was having trouble thinking straight. Maybe it was something else. The sheer fact that the snowstorm had blocked out so much that she was used to seeing; no sky, grey, black or otherwise, no mountains, no trees, no highway.

It was strangely hypnotic, trapping her like a frantic writer staring at a blank piece of paper, or a projection screen after the film has long since run out. There was the strongest feeling that there should have been something there, and worse still, that it was her fault that there wasn't. That meant it was difficult for Delaney to tear her eyes away, to stop searching for something... anything...

A burst of static over the radio and Blanche's sharp voice snapped Delaney out of her reverie. "For God's sake, Whitney, there's nothing strange about snow. It's a little early, sure, but it's not unheard of."

"It's like a wall of white," Delaney said quietly as she began to walk up the road towards the falling snow. She had to get closer. It could be a hazard to traffic, she thought as justification. Not that there was any traffic, which was odd in itself. This wasn't a busy road by any stretch of the imagination, not at this time of year, but she hadn't seen a moving car since she got here. Maybe she should get some flares from her cruiser.

Another burst of static reminded her of her radio. She pressed down with her thumb on the send button again. "I mean I've seen it with rain before but not with snow."

"Whitney, I... what are you talking about?"

"You know when you're driving and there's that moment when you pass through it?"

"Through what, Whitney?"

"Through the wall of rain," Delaney said impatiently. Wasn't Blanche even listening to her? "When it rains, it really pours, usually. But here, one minute it's pouring and the next it's not. And when you look back you can see the line on the road, one side soaking wet, the other bone dry. You know what I mean?"

"Nobody knows what you mean, Whitney."

Delaney wasn't listening any more. "Well, it's like that. But I've never seen it with snow before. Honestly, Blanche, the snow is so thick I can't see through it. And I'm standing so close..."

She was too. The wall of snow was only a few feet away, so close she could almost reach out and touch it... and she wanted to. She could feel its presence on her skin. The deputy had expected that, to feel the sheer freezing cold pouring out of this much snow, but this wasn't quite right. It made her skin tingle, like each pore was stinging and every cell aching to be free and apart, like her body wanted to be in a million different places at once.

Delaney couldn't turn away, couldn't stop staring into the whiteness. Her left hand, which normally rested easily on her holster, rose up and stretched out, almost as if it had a will of its own. A solitary snowflake had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, resting directly in front of her field of vision. It didn't fall. It taunted her, tugging at her flesh so hard it ached.

The deputy's radio squawked again. "Whitney? Are you there, Whitney?"

She didn't answer. Her fingertip brushed the very edge of the snowflake.

And then she screamed.


Weiss watched the elderly waitress hang up the payphone. Like the rest of the diner, the phone was old and tired-looking. Horrible tan plastic, chipped in places, with a clunky large handset and a rotary dial, hanging beneath a badly painted sign that read '619-239-KING'. Weiss hadn't seen a dial like that in more than a decade. Whether the phone was a deliberate kitsch throwback or just a sign of the diner's steady decline over the years, Weiss wasn't sure. She strongly suspected the latter. She doubted anything in the diner had changed since the late seventies and that included the staff and clientele. She guessed as soon as she and Cole had walked in the door, the average age of everyone in the restaurant immediately dropped by thirty years or thereabouts. The place stank of stale coffee, grease and too many tired years.

If the food in the freezers back in the kitchen was anywhere near as old as everything else in the diner, Weiss was glad she had just ordered toast. Although, that was more to do with the amount of cash she had, which wasn't much. She figured there was no point in trying to pay with her credit or debit cards; if her cellphone no longer worked then her bank cards wouldn't either, for the same reason. And there was little or no point asking to use the diner's payphone. They could evidently still make local calls here, which was something, but the lines outside the valley were probably already gone.

She hadn't wanted to pull over at the diner but she was so tired. Around twelve hours and five hundred miles or more of solid driving had taken its toll. As much as she wanted – no, needed – to keep going, and more importantly as much as she hated the idea of appearing weak in front of her prisoner (that was never a good idea regardless of the circumstances), she'd had no choice but to pull off the highway. She was bone-weary and really needed to stretch her legs and take a five minute break. But that five minutes had now dragged into twenty and she was beginning to worry they'd been here too long. And the longer they stayed here, the harder it would inevitably be to get moving again.

Cole had slept in the passenger seat for the last few hours, only stirring when she had felt the rental car pull off the main highway. The sleep seemed to have done her some good, Weiss thought, more's the pity. If nothing else, Cole had proved much more talkative than she had before. You'd almost believe what they'd both been through over the last half-a-day hadn't affected her at all. And the swelling on Cole's face had gone down a little, although the skin around her left eye and cheekbone was just beginning to discolor, a staggering of dull blue coming to the fore. The scrape across her long nose was scabbing too.

During the drive Weiss had been tempted several times to wake her, just to ensure her prisoner suffered as much as she was. But she hadn't, although she wasn't entirely sure why. She had told herself at the time that she just wanted to relish the peace and quiet. But now she wasn't so sure. The quiet had given her time to think, which had been a very bad idea.

She had soon learned that thinking too much about what happened earlier in the day would, in the long run, probably drive her completely mad. If she wasn't mad already... and wasn't that a sobering thought? The memory was fuzzy, difficult to focus on, and quickly gave her a headache if she tried too hard. It was like trying to hold on to a greased balloon full of Jell-O. You may logically know what it was but it still made no sense somehow, and then every time you tried to get a grip on it, something revolting pushed back at you and the whole thing slipped away. Was that what insanity felt like? Disassociation, wasn't that a sign of schizophrenia?

No, she wasn't mad. She just wasn't. She couldn't be. Madness might have been reaching for her, but so far she was keeping out of its clutches.

Devlin was dead, she was sure of that much. She wasn't quite sure how he had died though. And she had watched it happen. Yeah, Weiss thought, there was the Jell-O again. One moment Devlin was there, standing in front of her with that goofy smile of his, and then in another moment he wasn't. It was the moment in between that Weiss couldn't focus on. She remembered a flash of white... no, lots of flashes, blinding her, as if she was a celebrity suddenly ambushed by the paparazzi. Her retinas burning hotly with dark spots, which was funny, because she thought it would have been cold... why was that again? Snow, that's right... she remembered snow approaching... was that the whiteness? And no, the spots weren't dark. Everything else was.

She shook her head frantically, like a dog trying to dry itself. It seemed to do the trick. The thoughts were thrown free like dirty water. A droplet landed on her hand. She was crying, she realized suddenly, and wiped hurriedly at her face. Stupid. It was just exhaustion. That's why they'd pulled over, after all.

Well, not the only reason. The empty gas tank warning light on the dashboard had been lit up for the last dozen miles or so. They'd need to find a gas station next, assuming this one-horse town even had a gas station. If not, well, there were still options. Weiss firmly believed there were always options, no matter how bad the situation; you just had to keep looking until you found them. Maybe they could siphon some gas from a few parked cars when no one was looking. She hadn't done that since she was a teenager. Technically illegal, of course, but if they got caught then flashing the badge would probably solve everything. Besides, it wasn't as if anyone in the town would be driving anywhere soon. The townspeople appeared oblivious to what was coming. Maybe that was a good thing, Weiss thought.

Everything would be alright once they got to Sacramento. Then Cole would no longer be her problem and someone, anyone, would have to know what the hell was going on. Maybe that asshole Moran would know. He always thought he had all the answers. They'd make a move soon, Weiss decided. Where the hell was the waitress with their order? Thank God she hadn't ordered anything more complicated than toast. How hard was freaking toast? If they had to wait much longer, Weiss decided, then they'd just walk out. They couldn't waste any more time.

As if summoned by her thoughts, the waitress hovered into view carrying two half-full coffee pots. Weiss speedily brushed at her face again, just to be on the safe side. She caught Cole staring at her with a look of... was that concern? What the hell was that about? She glared at the prisoner, hopefully making her point. Don't you dare say anything, she thought, just don't you dare.

"Here's your coffee, hon," the waitress said, pouring from the red-trimmed pot into one of the mugs she had placed on their table earlier. She was talking only to Cole, of course. If she hadn't shown a preference between the two women before, then Weiss could easily spot one now. Probably everyone in the diner could.

"And the toast?"

The waitress wouldn't meet her eye, Weiss noticed. She briefly wondered why – shame perhaps or a simple dislike – then dismissed the thought as idle curiosity. What did it matter? She and Cole would be out of this town before long. Still, at least the waitress was all smiles again, although now it was fairly easy to tell the smiles were fake and forced. Huh, Weiss thought, she and Cole had something in common then.

"It's coming."

As the waitress spoke, the fluorescent lights overhead flickered once and went out, plunging the diner into near-darkness. At the same time, the television set went dark and the radio on the counter, which up until now had been stuck on the oldies channel and was midway through That's All by Genesis, fell silent. An inventive string of curses came from the kitchen and a chorus of moans ran around the diner.

"Oh, darn it!" The waitress looked up at the ceiling. She didn't move for a few seconds, perhaps hoping that somehow just by staring at the lights it would change things. "The power's out too now? Well, if that don't just beat all. Still, it will probably come back on soon."

"I wouldn't bet on it," Weiss said. Cole caught her eye again, so she shrugged.

"Looks like your toast might take a little longer, hon," the waitress said, pouring some coffee from the other pot. She did her best to hide a small smirk, and then turned a worried look upon Cole. "Aren't you cold in just that frock?"

Cole shook her head. All the same, she tugged at the thin white cotton dress she was wearing. Not too smart, Weiss thought. There was a blood stain on the right side of the dress. With the way they were sitting, chances were good that the waitress couldn't see it, but trying to pull it out of sight only drew attention.

"You might be soon. If the power's out, the heat won't last long. I can get you a blanket, if you like."

It was funny, Weiss thought. She'd assumed the locals would support her, would be wary and suspicious of a criminal in their midst. The badge usually inspired support, even if reluctantly. Respect the badge, fear the gun, as the saying went. She'd expected a little anger at her for bringing a handcuffed prisoner in here, but not hostility. And she certainly hadn't expected them to be sympathetic to Cole. Stupid of her, really. Small town minds, always seeing things in such polarizing terms. Everything was always so simple. There were no levels of complexity in a hegemony after all. No room for dissent in a community like this.

Or maybe she was being unfair and maybe it wasn't that at all. Maybe it was just Cole's innate charisma. She certainly could be charming. It had cut away any wariness of the diner staff so easily and so quickly. Well, it wouldn't work on her, Weiss vowed. No way in hell.

The waitress left, promising to check on the toast. Weiss didn't hold out any hope. She watched Cole wince as she took a cautious sip from her mug. Either the coffee wasn't to her taste or her face was hurting her. Weiss didn't really care either way.

She didn't touch her own mug, choosing to let the beverage cool a little. Instead she took a moment to look around the gloomy diner once more. Most of the other booths in the diner were empty. A nervous looking man in a cheap and badly-fitting black suit sat in the booth behind Cole, dabbing at some ketchup he'd spilt on his otherwise pristine white shirt. A traveling salesman, perhaps? Or an office grunt? Did a town this small and so reliant on the winter sports trade have offices? A young couple occupied the booth in the far corner. Neither of them seemed to have even noticed the power was out. They had only a table between them but it might as well have been an ocean. Leaning against the sill with one arm lazily stretched out, the man hadn't stopped staring out of the window for the last ten minutes. The woman was squinting at a book and half-heartedly stabbing at a plate of wilting salad with the fork she held in her other hand.

It seemed the regulars all sat on stools at the bar. A couple of trucker types, the elderly man still complaining about the TV (although with perhaps more reason to now), and a stout matronly woman with a face like a bulldog that was used to being smacked on the nose, chewing on a half-moon cookie.

Weiss glanced at her watch. They really needed to be hitting the road soon.

"I would have thought they'd use a riddle or a joke," Cole said out of the blue. "Like what's black and white and red all over?"

Weiss added some sugar to her coffee and then took a gulp. Stale, as she expected, and not too warm. She put her mug back down on the table. The black coffee rippled against the edges of the stark white ceramic. She looked back at her prisoner, confused by the sudden comment. "What?"

"A newspaper, usually. Although I suppose I could also say me. What's black and blue and white and red all over, that would fit better."

"What?"

"Are you listening to me?"

"No, not really."

"I meant on the placemat. Most places like this have a joke. Not famous quotations."

"Can't be that famous," Weiss said disinterestedly. She'd been blinded for a second by a pair of bright headlights that ran across the window as a car moved off the road and into the parking lot. "I've never heard it before."

Cole sipped at her coffee slowly, watching Weiss through lowered eyes. She probably thought she was being coy. "That doesn't necessarily follow," she said after a while. Then, she hurriedly lowered her mug and leaned forward conspiratorially. "Where do you think they get their power?"

"The town?"

"Yes."

"How should I know?"

"If they've lost power here, that could mean the power station's been... well, you know. And if we knew where that was, we could work out how close..."

Weiss held up a hand and interrupted her. "Don't read too much into this. It's probably just a coincidence."

"You don't believe that."

She was right, Weiss didn't. But she wasn't about to admit as much and so chose not to reply. Instead, she turned away to look out of the window again. A black-and-white police cruiser was pulling up outside.

Well, that didn't take long, Weiss thought bitterly. If Cole had noticed, she gave no sign. Weiss suspected she probably had but was deliberately playing it cool, most likely keeping an eye out for possible escape routes. She was shit out of luck there.

Whoever the driver was, he was smart. The cruiser had not moved into a parking space but instead had pulled up behind Weiss' sedan, blocking them in entirely. Must have spotted the rental tags maybe, Weiss mused, or perhaps just taking an interest in the only vehicle that wasn't a battered pick-up or more than ten years old.

The headlights went out. As the driver's door swung open, Weiss caught a glimpse of the large gold and black star painted there and half of the motto. Alpine County - To serve... Just the local Sheriff's Department then, as she had guessed. Shouldn't be too much of a problem. She'd bluff through this if she could, and threaten and bluster if all else failed.

Another patrol car was pulling into the parking lot from the opposite end. So they were arriving mob-handed. Sensible, if a little like overkill. Damn it, why had the woman shown off her handcuffs?

Weiss considered waiting for them to come to her but quickly decided against it. Devlin had been fond of saying that the best defense is a good offense and, although he was more often wrong than right, she felt it was advice she should be following now. Her hand went up to her left temple, rubbing away the short shock of pain.

She expected the local cops to be curious as to what she was doing here, escorting a prisoner through their town without a partner, without any kind of back-up, and most importantly, without alerting them first. Not that she could have warned them in advance even if she had wanted to. So taking the offensive, she thought, would at least keep them on the back foot and give her and Cole a slim chance to get out of here.

You'd think the cops' curiosity would be sated with an open and honest conversation. It often wouldn't be, mostly due to the small town cop mentality. Petty officialdom could often throw up barriers when none were needed. Knowing the way her luck was going today, she'd get nothing but barriers. And besides, this time even an open and honest conversation would raise more questions than it would answers. If she didn't want to be stuck here for hours on end, she would have to watch what she said. She had to play this very, very carefully.

She got to her feet and fumbled in her jacket pocket for a few bills.

"Are we leaving?" Ally frowned as Weiss put her money on the table. "You could leave her a bigger tip. Come on, it's not like money's going to matter soon."

"That's all the money I have, save thirty or forty bucks I was keeping back for gas. Besides, she didn't really earn a good tip. Now, stay here."

"What?"

She hadn't noticed then, Weiss thought. That was surprising. She motioned to the window.

"Ah," said Cole as understanding dawned on her and she stared out at the two police cars. "An authority dick-measuring contest. You're going to be at something of a disadvantage, aren't you?"

"I'm going to have to go and smooth things over, if that's what you mean," Weiss said. Her voice lowered and took on a determined 'don't-test-me' tone. "So stay here."

"Where else am I going to go?"

"You want I should cuff you to something? I don't want you leaving that seat, you understand me?"

"Alright already, you've made your point. I won't go anywhere." Cole took another sip from her coffee. Not that she had much choice but she was cradling the mug with both hands as if for warmth. The cut on her lip had opened up again, leaving a spot of red on the white rim.

As Weiss turned to go, Cole spoke again. "It's about taking responsibility for your actions."

"What?" Weiss looked back at her, frowning. "What the fuck are you talking about now? Are you confessing?"

Cole shook her head and gestured at the table. "The quotation on the placemat. It's something Vishnugupta was supposed to have said, although they haven't got the whole thing down here. But it's about karma; good deeds being rewarded, bad ones being punished, that kind of thing. I'm still not sure I agree. It's all very cut and dried. I don't like the idea that there are only ever two sides to a story. Not everyone is simply good or bad."

"You would say so. And how do you know all that?" Weiss said with a sneer. "No, don't tell me. You dated an Indian princess back in Vegas."

Cole nodded, smiling. "Something like that. Indian, yes. Princess, no. She was a stripper, actually. Be careful."

"I'm surprised you're concerned for my safety."

"I'm not. But I trust you a little more than I trust those guys," Cole said, gesturing at the deputies waiting outside.

"Thanks for nothing."

Weiss pushed the door of the diner open and stepped down into the parking lot. There were two deputies by the second cruiser; both immediately reached for their sidearms. They didn't draw the weapons but they made a show of unclipping their holsters and leaving their hands real close. Great, Weiss thought, this was turning into a scene from a bad spaghetti Western. If any tumbleweeds rolled by she was calling it quits.

She instinctively wanted to check her own firearm, a small Glock 22 automatic pistol she kept in a holster at the small of her back. But she knew doing so would only escalate matters so she reined in the impulse. Best to keep things calm and friendly. Smile, she reminded herself. Show them you're harmless.

She wanted to tug up the collar of her black jacket against the cold. The temperature had dropped a little since she and Cole had driven into town and there was a chilly breeze blowing down from the mountaintop, made all the worse by her stay in the comfortable warmth of the diner. She shivered, feeling the cold through the thin fabric of her tee.

The Sheriff himself, distinguishable not only by his badge of rank but also his much more relaxed attitude, was waiting for her to come to him. A little display of power, one that she'd encountered often enough. Still, she was thankful he did not touch his gun. Instead, he had his arms crossed and was leaning against the fender of his patrol car. She could hear the engine still ticking over beneath the hood.

He was a tall man, easily more than six feet, although how much so was hard to tell with the way he was slouching. But he was not a large man, no muscle-bound gym-obsessed jock. In fact, he was probably a little too thin for his height. She noticed that his belt was fastened at a freshly-cut notch. Had he lost a lot of weight recently, she wondered?

A quick glance at his face told Weiss that her guess was right. Lines creased a grey face partly shadowed by the dark brown Stetson. The eyes were bloodshot. He looked haggard and worn-out. With his salt-and-pepper beard, he looked all of sixty, but she guessed he could have been as young as forty or so. All the same, his uniform was immaculate. Not a trace of dirt, a razor sharp crease in the pants, a crisply laundered shirt with gleaming brass buttons, and shoes polished to a startling shine.

She tugged at the collar of the cheap white tee she wore underneath her jacket. She knew she didn't look too presentable. Her suit was rumpled after so long sitting in the car, dirty here and there, although she'd done her best to clean it up where she could, and even torn in one place. She hoped that in the darkness she'd pass muster.

He actually touched the brim of his Stetson as she approached. It was a gesture that seemed a little too affected to be natural. "Sheriff Whitaker, ma'am," he said. There was a drawl to his voice, not an accent so much, just a laidback tone to each word as if speaking was too much of an effort.

Weiss went on the offensive right from the get-go. "I'm a Deputy with the Marshals Service, escorting a prisoner from Las Vegas back to Sacramento. We're just passing through; we stopped to get gas and something to eat. We'll be out of here and on our way shortly." She had to crane her neck to look up at him, even though he was slouching.

"Are you now?" he said, responding only to her first statement as he looked her up and down. He didn't seem to approve of what he saw. "And I suppose you have some ID to back that up?"

She reached inside her jacket, making sure that he saw the badge at her waist as she did so. To his credit he didn't resort to cliché and ask her to do so slowly. In fact, he hardly reacted at all. She passed over the wallet that contained her ID card. He flipped it open, studied it for a long while, and then passed it back to her.

"You seem surprised," Weiss said.

"I do? What about?"

"That I'm a Deputy Marshal. Is that because I'm black or because I'm a woman?"

"Actually it's because you're so short. You're a little off the beaten track, aren't you?"

"Meaning?"

"I would have thought you would have flown. Quicker, safer, after all."

Weiss shrugged. "Budget cuts, you know how it is."

"Who's 'we'?'

"The prisoner and me."

"No one else?"

"No." She had hesitated before answering and he noticed, raising his eyebrows. He might have been a small town hick but he wasn't dumb, she realized. Not at reading people, anyway. Again, she reminded herself to be careful of what she said and how she said it.

"This prisoner, is he dangerous?"

"She," Weiss corrected, "and no, she's not." Where did that come from, she wondered? She hadn't meant to say anything, and if she had then she should have been truthful. Cole was dangerous, at least according to the arrest warrant out on her. You don't get much more dangerous than a wanted murderer, after all.

But she didn't seem it, Weiss realized. Sure, some killers didn't, she knew that, or at least the smart ones were more than capable of hiding their true nature. All the same, Cole appeared so unthreatening, so innocuous, that it was hard to believe she was able to murder anyone. Fuck, Cole hadn't even fought back this morning, just laid there and taken what was being dished out. Without complaint either; Weiss remembered Cole just sitting in a sullen silence in the passenger seat, gingerly cleaning her cuts and scrapes with a wet napkin.

And before that, Cole had kept protesting her innocence. She'd eventually realized she wasn't getting anywhere and given up. But had some of it sunk in, Weiss wondered? Cole had a record, sure, but her file stated that she had no discernible history of violence, aside from one drunken brawl four years ago due to a love triangle that had gone sour and had sweetened again just as fast. Plenty of confidence tricks and a few minor thefts, but no jobs ever ending in violence. In fact, looking through some of the old case reports it seemed a lot of the victims actually liked Cole, really liked her, and seemed disappointed that she had turned out to be nothing more than a petty thief intent on ripping them off. It was that annoyingly innocent charm she had, Weiss thought. Was it working on her, despite what she kept asserting to herself? Weiss couldn't help but wonder. Was that why she'd risked leaving her alone in the diner? No, that couldn't be it. Fuck, no.

"I ask because if you're on your own," Whitaker said, getting Weiss' attention again, "then your prisoner is presumably in our local diner without supervision. That's an awfully dumb thing to do."

It certainly was. Weiss glanced furtively back at the diner window. She could just about make out Cole, still seated at their booth, chatting amiably with the waitress who was refilling her coffee mug. "She's not going anywhere," she said, with a little more conviction than she felt, "and she won't try anything."

He gave that a moment's thought. It was clear he didn't like what he was hearing. "Something special about you, is there?"

She was startled by the question. "Me? No, I'm just a run of the mill eighty-two."

"So how come you're alone? Or is that a budgetary thing too?"

Weiss sighed. That was the third time he'd referenced her lack of a partner. He wasn't going to let this go then. "I wasn't. I started the day working with another Marshal, Lonan Devlin. It should have been an easy task. Easy, routine, and tedious. But things went south real fast."

"Yeah, they have a way of doing that in this line of work," the Sheriff said sympathetically. But there was an edge beneath the words, which came to the fore in his next question. "So where is he? And what exactly happened?"

Wiping at her face wearily, Weiss realized she was going to have to explain something of what happened. If she didn't, he'd probably hold her and Cole here for as long as he could, using any excuse he could find. On any other day that wouldn't have mattered, although it still would have seriously pissed Weiss off. But today she just couldn't afford too great of a delay.

Shivering again, she pulled a packet of Camel cigarettes from her jacket pocket. If she was going to be stuck out here in the cold for a while, she might as well take the opportunity to smoke a little. The Sheriff lit her cigarette with a cheap Zippo lighter; she reluctantly offered him the pack but he declined. He carries a lighter but doesn't smoke, she wondered? Cancer, maybe? It would explain the weight loss.

The sweet tobacco tasted so good as she sucked it down into her lungs, warming her deep inside. It felt comforting. She yawned suddenly, covering her mouth with her free hand. Fuck, she was tired. Exhausted, really. It had been one long day. She could lie down on the cold tarmac beneath her feet and she would bet she'd still fall right asleep.

"I wasn't even supposed to be on this assignment," she said with a bitter smile. "Duffy is our liaison with JPATS. He's normally responsible for transporting prisoners and such. But he called in sick, so Devlin and I got the short stick. As usual.

"Cole, in there," she gestured over her shoulder with a thumb, towards the diner, "had a warrant out for her on a murder charge. She's a petty thief and con artist, as well as a part-time Elvis impersonator, if you can believe that, so murder is a big step up for her. Small scale for us, though. Normally we wouldn't bother."

"So why did you?" Whitaker asked.

She shrugged. "We help out state law enforcement when we can. It's sometimes easier asking us to help across state lines then getting any assistance from another state. Anyway, she's supposed to have murdered a fence in Elmhurst. Sacramento P.D. had no suspects until a witness came forward. Not a particularly reliable witness, though. Another thief, a sleazebag called Schwarz."

"Any chance she's innocent?"

Weiss shook her head and then took another drag on her cigarette. The tip glowed bright orange against the darkening sky. "She says so, but they always do, don't they? Schwarz brought a fair bit of evidence with him, which apparently the local cops had somehow overlooked. They seem to think they have a good case. Anyway, not my problem, is it? I'm just delivering her back to the capital."

"The whole assignment got off to a bad start," Weiss went on. "We had to drive through the night and then our car broke down about half-an-hour outside Vegas. Devlin arranged to get a rental but that was a piece of shit. And then when we finally get to the detention center in the early hours of the morning, we're informed Cole's not in custody like they had said she was. That leaves us up the creek.

"Devlin wanted to go home but I was all for staying. He gave in eventually. Anyway, we kick up enough of a fuss that the LVMPD starts getting embarrassed and finally agrees to go out and get her. Yeah, they knew where she was, they just hadn't bothered to arrest her yet. So we drive out there with a couple of dozen of Las Vegas' finest, using the word very loosely, and a SWAT team."

Weiss paused, giving herself time to think. She stared off into the distance for a long while, almost tempting the Sheriff to prod her into continuing. She was surprised he didn't. She would have thought a man like him would have been a lot less patient.

"Cole lived in a trailer park, in a crappy neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. She may be a thief, but she's not a successful one. Or at least, she hides it well. The place was about as low-rent as they come..."


There were two plastic pink flamingos stuck in the yard they were watching. If there was one thing more fake-looking than the women in this city, Weiss thought, then those birds were it. The pink was almost neon in color, as if the manufacturer had taken a look at the prototype, quickly decided that it looked too natural and declared something had to be done about it.

It wasn't much of a yard, Weiss would have to admit. She doubted it even qualified for the word as any yard she'd ever seen had grass, or at least plenty of mud and some patches of crabgrass. A strip of green AstroTurf, no less bright than the flamingos, and bordered by whitewashed tires cut in half, hardly seemed worth the effort of even pretending to be a yard.

The mail box was hanging off its post by a thin shred of steel and a single remaining screw. The old trailer it served didn't seem to be in much better shape. The white paint was peeling, the metalwork rusting, one window was cracked, and the screen door was more tear than screen. And this was one of the nicer trailers in the whole park.

She and Devlin sat in their rental car, a considerable distance away from the target location, at the none-too-subtle request of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. So far away, in fact, that they were actually nearer the park's entrance. The local cops had made a point of forcing the two Deputy Marshals out of the way, probably in revenge for all the aggravation they'd been put through due to Weiss and Devlin's complaints. And by that, Weiss meant mostly her. Devlin seemed more interested in getting back to Sacramento. When pushed, he had admitted he had Kings tickets and didn't want to miss the game this evening.

The car radio was on, at a volume a little too high for Weiss' tastes. A weather forecaster was expressing surprise at such a sudden cold front sweeping in. Enough of that shit. She leaned forward to switch the radio off, then tried playing with the air conditioning. It was hot, even so early in the morning.

"You couldn't get a better car than this?"

Devlin yawned noisily, then gave her a sharp look. "What do you want? I had to wait for the damn rental place to open and then they were having computer trouble and wouldn't take any of our cards. I had to pay with my own damn cash. You can bet I won't be reimbursed. I can just kiss that money goodbye, I suppose. Jesus, what a complete fuck-up this has turned out to be."

"You said it." Weiss gave up on the air conditioning after another second or two of fiddling. It must have been designed with only two settings; off and puffs of warmer smoke. Not much use in this temperature, either way. She found herself half-hoping that the cold spell would really materialize. "And don't…"

"I know, I know. Don't blaspheme. What time is it, anyway?"

Glancing at her watch, Weiss couldn't keep herself from yawning too. "About six."

"I'm telling you, if I miss this game..." Devlin half-heartedly pounded the steering wheel with a fist, letting his frustration show. "The Kings could be playing in Anaheim next season, I swear."

"Yeah, could be," Weiss said, nodding absent-mindedly. She'd heard this complaint before. It wasn't like Devlin ever talked about much else. "This wouldn't have happened if Duffy had been here."

"Instead of me?"

"Instead of both of us."

"Not his fault he was sick."

"Sick, my ass," Weiss said with a snarl. "The bastard's no sicker than I am."

"Well..." Devlin began. The smile that was playing around his lips quickly vanished as he caught her eye. "I mean, it doesn't matter, does it?"

"I guess not." Weiss turned away from him and started staring out of the passenger window. "Viva La fucking Vegas."

They sat in silence for a while, then Devlin smacked her in the arm to get her attention. When she turned to look at him, obviously about to say something cutting and rude, if not particularly witty, he nodded towards the trailer. "They're going in."

Finally, Weiss thought. Maybe they could get this all over and done with in under an hour or two and then be back in Sacramento by late afternoon. Devlin might make his Kings game after all.

She watched through the dim early morning light as the small SWAT team approached the trailer. They moved well, keeping low and in cover, jogging forward in a disciplined manner, which was surprising seeing how unprofessionally this whole situation had been handled. Considering how long their truck had been parked around the corner they might as well have walked up to the door and knocked. If the suspect... Alice Cole, Weiss reminded herself, and what a ridiculous-sounding name that was... didn't know they were coming before today, she probably did by now. Sure, she wouldn't have seen anything if she looked out of a window, but there were plenty of other people in the trailer park who would, and Weiss imagined that the inhabitants looked out for each other. How many outstanding warrants could be resolved with a good sweep through this shithole, she wondered?

Still, once they got going the SWAT team looked like they knew what they were doing. They certainly weren't taking any chances. When everything was in place, they hammered in the door and quickly burst in, hoping to overwhelm anyone inside. Pretty soon all eight heavily armed and armored team members were inside.

It must have been cramped in there, Weiss thought, as the trailer was on the small side. Still, that meant the search didn't take long. Within a few minutes the SWAT team had filed out – without any prisoner in tow. One of the LVMPD detectives, the one with the weedy looking moustache who had already tried hitting on Weiss several times despite the early hour, talked briefly to the sergeant in charge of the SWAT team, and then turned towards the Deputy Marshals' car and gave them an over-exaggerated shrug. The goofy smile showed how clearly upset he was by the bad news. Shit, Weiss thought angrily, wasn't anyone taking this seriously?

"She's not in there?" Devlin said incredulously. "Well, this keeps getting better and better. So what now? Weiss?"

Weiss didn't answer. She was too busy looking in her wing mirror, focusing on something else. Not that she really believed what she saw. He might have meant it sarcastically, but Devlin was right; this was getting better and better.

She saw Cole reflected in the wing mirror, having obviously just turned the corner and walked into the trailer park. Weiss recognized her from both the photos on file and the description she'd memorized. Short black hair, deliberately kept unruly, a nose that was perhaps a little too long for the rest of the face, and a wide mouth. She couldn't see her eyes, as Cole was wearing a large pair of gold-rimmed sunglasses, but she knew they were a dark hazel.

Cole had a thin, stick-like figure, not much of which was hidden by a thin white dress that most of the women Weiss knew would consider too flimsy and diaphanous for sleepwear, let alone a trip to the local market. Maybe in Vegas the women wandered around in their underwear at all hours. Modesty was a commodity in short supply here, it seemed. She had good legs though, even if she showed a little too much of them, and wore a clunky pair of Doc Marten boots that were probably two sizes too big for her and which she probably thought made her look quirky and cute. It was a look that did her no favors, not in Weiss' eyes. Her arms were full, clutching two packed paper bags of groceries to her chest.

Devlin must have noticed Weiss staring, as he glanced upwards at the rearview mirror and then swore loudly. "Is that her?"

Weiss didn't say anything, just blindly reached for the door handle. She saw Cole's mouth fall agape. The paper bags fell from her arms as she took in the heavily armed cops swarming all over her home. Oranges rolled across the hot tarmac and a carton of Oreo's split open, scattering the dark cookies everywhere.

It was hard to say who moved faster. Weiss was already moving before the groceries hit the ground, popping her door open and twisting out, dropping into a sprint almost immediately. Not fast enough. Cole turned as quick as a snake and took off running. And she moved quickly Weiss noticed, like the devil himself was after her. Well, Weiss didn't think of herself as being that bad, but if she was made to run for too long Cole would find out just how bad she was.

There was a sizeable gap between the Marshals' rented car and the fleeing suspect right from the start, and even more of a distance between them and the rest of the trailer park. Not that it made much of a difference, as none of the Vegas cops had noticed anything amiss yet.

Weiss' feet kicked aside some of the rolling fruit as she dashed after the suspect. Thank God she had dressed for comfort today, choosing to wear her Converse instead of a pair of heels. She could hear Devlin moving after her, the old man moving much more slowly out of the gate, and he was yelling back to the other cops as he ran. Cole could really move, Weiss realized, even in those dumb boots. Try as she might to keep up, Weiss found herself being easily outdistanced. After exiting the trailer park, the dark-haired suspect turned sharply to her right and ran pell-mell down the street, past rundown stores.

By the time Weiss followed around the bend, Cole was already at least a couple of hundred yards up the street and turning another corner into an alleyway, disappearing from sight. That was bad news. In a foot chase you never wanted to lose sight of your suspect. As Weiss reached the corner, she slowed. Contrary to what you saw on cheap television shows and bad action movies, it wasn't that sensible to charge around blind corners when pursuing fleeing suspects, regardless of how dangerous, or not, they were supposed to be. That was a surefire way to get your head blown off sooner or later.

She pulled her pistol free of the holster at the small of her back, flicked the safety off, and then steadied her two-handed grip. A deep breath, then she stepped around the corner...

...and went flying backwards, knocked off her feet. Cole had collided with her. Weiss fell to the concrete, the impact jarring her spine painfully. She lost hold of her gun, which scattered across the sidewalk until it hit the base of a still-glowing streetlight nearby. She swore under her breath and flailed out wildly. Cole was already falling, having not expected to have run right smack into her pursuer, but managed to keep to her feet until she stumbled over Weiss. She fell to one side of the Deputy Marshal, scrambled to her hands and knees, but then Weiss grabbed an ankle, tripping her up again. The suspect lashed out with her foot, not too hard, but still connecting painfully with Weiss' shoulder.

"Get off me!" Cole yelled as she kicked backwards, more in an effort to break free than to do any damage. "Please, let me go!"

Weiss swore again, loudly, mostly at shock rather than from anger, then ducked her head out of the way of another strike from the boot. She rolled over, trying to get to her feet. Her back hurt badly as she moved and the pain caused her to lose her grip on the suspect.

But Devlin had caught up with them by now and he piled on top of Cole, grabbing her arms and pushing her to the ground. Without a shred of dignity, Cole continued to struggle as hard as she could. Weiss stiffly got to her feet and retrieved her gun from where it lay. Her lower back flared in agony as she bent over and her left shoulder was stinging.

"Stop struggling, goddamn it!" Devlin cursed at the writhing woman, but as he was two hundred and fifty pounds at least and she was a waif-like stick insect, her efforts were mostly in vain. She'd lost her sunglasses somewhere, maybe in the alley.

"I haven't done anything! Honestly! You have to let me go! You don't understand..."

"Yeah, that's what they all say." Kneeling on her, Devlin forced Cole's arms behind her back. Swiftly, with a free hand, he reached behind his back to get his handcuffs, slipping them on the still resisting woman, not without considerable difficulty. "Funny how the people who use the word 'honestly' usually don't have a clue what it means."

"Please! There's..."

"US Marshals," Weiss interrupted coldly, moving her shoulder in a circular motion to shake off the tingling. She bent over again, ignoring the flicker of pain she felt in her spine, placing her hands on her thighs and trying to get her breath back. "Alice Cole, there's a warrant out for your arrest in the state of California for..." The words came out between heavy pants as she fought to regain her composure. She needed to quit smoking.

"We're in trouble, don't you get it? You have to..."

Devlin got to his feet, pulling Cole up roughly with him by holding on to the cuffs. It wasn't protocol and it hurt like hell, but it had the advantage of usually shutting suspects up. Not in this case. She kept yelling but Weiss wasn't listening. The sooner she said her piece, the sooner the pair of them could get Cole in the car and they could be on the road again. She continued. "...for the murder of Lucius DeWitte. We're here to transport you back to Sacramento to stand trial."

Her words finally sank in and Cole immediately fell silent, as if she'd been slapped across the face. "Lucius is dead?" she said quietly. She blinked slowly, taking her time to think over what was said, and then glanced between the two Marshals. If she wasn't truly surprised by the news, Weiss thought, then she was one hell of a good actress.

Weiss gripped Cole hard by the elbow and tried to turn her around, intending on walking her back to the trailer park, but her captive twisted free again. Swearing, Weiss grabbed hold of her again and shook her, hard. She really did look like Elvis, at least when he was younger, Weiss thought, studying her for a second now that she finally had the chance to look at her close-up. The same long, thin face, the full lips, strong jaw and dark eyes. Cole was attractive in a way, Weiss thought, if you liked that sort of butch look; not pretty, not cute, but oddly handsome. Yes, that was the word, handsome. A fucking female Elvis impersonator, Weiss thought derisively. It could only happen in Vegas. The thief part could happen anywhere.

"I didn't..." Cole began, staring directly at Weiss. She seemed to suddenly sense arguing was futile. She shook her head and her voice became louder and more urgent. "It doesn't matter. We have to get out of here! Now!"

"That's the general idea," Weiss told her, "now shut up."

"You're not listening! I mean it, we have to..."

"What did she just say?" Devlin said. "Are you deaf or something?"

"Fine, then fucking arrest me, why don't you?! Just let's get out of here! Please!"

Cole was terrified, Weiss realized, but if not of being arrested for murder, then what? And why would she be so anxious to get away, only to end up being escorted to jail? She had originally believed the suspect had ambushed her, had deliberately turned around and leapt past her in an effort to flee, maybe after seeing that the alleyway was a dead-end or something. But it was now slowly beginning to dawn on Weiss that Cole might have been running from something else, and it was only her bad luck that she immediately ran slap-bang dead into the Marshal chasing after her, and maybe only a little good luck that she didn't get her head blown clean off.

But all that luck aside, Weiss couldn't help wondering what on earth could panic someone like Cole so much that she'd turn and run back towards her pursuers in the hopes of getting arrested? What could she possibly think would be worse than facing a murder charge?

The same thought must have occurred to Devlin. Weiss saw that while she was keeping a close eye on their suspect, her partner was staring past them both, frowning in puzzlement at something back down the alley from which Cole had run from.

"What the hell is that?" he said, quietly.

Weiss turned and followed the direction of Devlin's staring. Oddly, she couldn't see very far, no more than a hundred yards. There was a wall of white running across the alley that seemed to swallow up everything, as if a high-rise laundry had dropped a pristine clean sheet from the top of the buildings to block the alley entirely. For a moment, Weiss' brain locked on to that thought, praying that it was true even as logic started convincing her it couldn't be. An advertising stunt this stupid was out of the question, surely?

It couldn't be linen, as much as she hoped it was. A single sheet wouldn't be as large as all that, couldn't be that clean, that blindingly pristine, and would ripple or shake, even just a little. And there was no top... shouldn't there be a top to it somewhere? There was a stabbing pain at the back of Weiss' skull suddenly and she didn't know why.

You couldn't see past it, or through it, to the streets beyond. Weiss kept looking up, her eyes flicking back and forth as she desperately searched for the edge, any edge, but the whiteness just seemed to continue higher and higher, the crystal blue of the Nevada sky bleeding into it, until it hurt her eyes and she had to look away, not able to bear to look at it any longer.

She had to blink to get her vision back. Each time she closed her eyes they burned. It felt like she'd been staring at the sun for just a moment too long.

Devlin brushed past her, moving towards the nothingness. He stumbled as his toe caught on a piece of uneven concrete in the sidewalk, but barely noticed and didn't even look down. Weiss made sure to keep a tight grip on Cole's arm, as she felt the woman try to twist free as her partner stepped away.

"Is that snow?" Weiss asked of no one in particular.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Cole said, keeping her head turned away. "Does it look like snow to you?"

Weiss ignored her. She had to think this through. But if the sheer whiteness of what she was looking at hurt her eyes, thinking about it too much seemed to hurt her head. It could be snow, surely? Even here in Las Vegas that might be possible. But she knew it couldn't be. It simply wasn't cold enough for snow, even at this time of the year. At six o'clock this morning she had found it warm enough still to be comfortable in just a light summer suit. But the weather forecast had reported a coming cold snap. The throbbing in Weiss' temples was getting worse. Snow, not snow, snow.

"It's moving..." Devlin said softly, continuing to move forward.

It was too. Sometimes it seemed to be creeping along, inch by inch, but then when Weiss blinked it had suddenly moved forward a foot or more. Like it was somehow aware of exactly when she wasn't looking. Like it was moving towards her... or for her. She couldn't stop staring at it... no, that wasn't quite true. If she tried, if she focused really hard and thought about something else like the pain in her back or the grip she had on her perp's elbow or the paperwork she was going to have to fill out later today, then she could tear her gaze away, but it wasn't easy at all. It hurt more to not look then it did to look. It hurt her heart. She wanted to keep staring.

"Don't look at it!" said Cole urgently, noticing Weiss' dazed state. At least she wasn't yelling any more. Cole gestured forward. "See that bike?"

Reluctantly looking away from the nothingness for a second, Weiss saw a high-quality bicycle lying on its side a little way down the alley, half-hidden by the snow... or whatever it was. The back wheel, the only visible wheel, was still slowly spinning.

"What? What about it?"

"It was a courier," Cole said. "He... vanished..."

A rush of anger welled up within Weiss. She'd really had enough of this shit for one day. Somehow, the emotion helped her to resist staring at the bleached-out nothingness. "What the fuck are you talking about?" she snapped.

Cole looked distraught, near tears, as if her own anger and desperation had leeched out of her, leaving in its place only sadness and regret. "He rode right into it... it was horrible... I couldn't see for a second and then his bike just toppled over, like he'd run into a brick wall or something. That's when I started running. I mean..."

Weiss knew what she meant. "Well, where is he? Where is the courier?"

"I told you, he vanished. One second he was ahead of me, riding down the alleyway as slow as you like, and then the next he was gone. You're not listening, are you? When it fell, his bike was hardly touching that... it... and that was only a minute ago."

"So?"

"Don't you see? It's moving and it's getting faster!" Urgency had returned to Cole's voice. So there was some fight left in her, Weiss thought. "We have to get out of here!"

"There are snowflakes," Devlin called out over his shoulder, looking down and to the left.

Weiss mentally kicked herself. She had forgotten about her partner for a moment, which was not only stupid but decidedly dangerous. Cole had distracted her, but Weiss imagined she often distracted women, although not quite in this unusual manner. She looked over at Devlin, raising her free hand, trying to shield her eyes from the glare of the whiteness. Shit, it was like snow-blindness only a hundred times worse.

Devlin was right again though, at least to a point. It wasn't truly a solid wall of white, Weiss saw now, at any rate not at the very edges. At the forefront there were particles floating in the air, of all different sizes, some no bigger than a pinhead, others as large as quarters. The whole thing now looked like the worst example of static on an old TV set.

They were impossible to see when looked at against the whiteness, but at an angle they were just about visible against the dark red bricks of the alley's walls. And no, she noticed, they weren't floating and they certainly weren't snowflakes. They were just white spots, like little holes in reality, or absences of... well, just about anything, she thought... and they just hung in the air wherever they appeared. More and more emerged out of nowhere, until the tiny spots became small spots, small spots grew into large spots, and large spots became huge expanses of white, and that was what gave the whole thing the appearance of moving. But it wasn't, Weiss realized, it was growing.

She watched as Devlin reached out to touch one of the dots of nothingness.

Weiss felt her heart lurch abruptly and wasn't exactly sure why. She stepped forward quickly, letting her grip on Cole go without thinking. "Lonan, don't!" she said. She heard a tremor of dread in her voice and it sickened her. Nothing in life had ever frightened her before – well, almost nothing – so why now?

Devlin turned his head to look at her but didn't lower his arm. He smiled at her, that fucking infuriating smile of his that he only ever flashed when he thought he knew better than her. "It's fine," he told her, "there's nothing there."

The tip of his forefinger brushed the very edge of a white spot. And he was right, suddenly there was nothing there.

Just like that, Devlin had vanished. One moment he had been there, moving, talking, breathing... existing. And the next there was a sickening bellow of pain that couldn't have possibly come from him, followed almost instantly by a flash of white light that blinded Weiss for a second or two. She blinked, and as she did so, the recollection of a college history lesson came back to her.

It was odd how the mind worked. The oddest things could summon up a memory, like the scent of a flower, the taste of an enjoyable but long-forgotten meal, or a few bars from a familiar tune. And they didn't get much more odd than this, Weiss guessed. She had been nineteen, a freshman in name only, with a jaded cynicism that belied her age. Nagasaki and Hiroshima meant nothing to her and she couldn't care less. But then she had been jolted out of her protective shell, horrified when the professor had shown the class photographs of the aftermath of both bombings. It hadn't been the rubble, the destruction, the death toll, or the pain and suffering that had shocked the young Weiss so much. It had been the photos of the shadows. She still could clearly remember the professor's evocative description, explaining how the blast of each atomic bomb was so powerful and so intense it seared the very image of its victims onto walls, like a permanent burnt shadow of something that no longer existed.

She knew why the memory had surfaced. Terrifyingly, right now she was witnessing the reverse. The image of Devlin was seared painfully into her retinas, not in shadow but in light, his form an agonizing and blinding white. Everything else was darkened, blurred and less clear, either because the white somehow leeched the light from around it, or the surroundings perhaps just looked dark in comparison.

Weiss stared in silence at the now empty alleyway, her eyes watering as she blinked them, her vision slowly returning to normal. She was finding it hard to breathe, feeling like she'd been punched incredibly hard in the chest. Two years ago she'd been shot just below her collarbone, the bullet only stopped by the ballistic vest she always wore while working. The impact had broken two ribs, stopped her heart for a brief moment, and left a huge lasting bruise. And that pain failed to compare to what she was now feeling.

"Fuck..." Weiss said finally. The word slipped out her mouth like air from a slashed tire, slow and distressing.

The nothingness inched closer. It seemed to be moving a little faster. She stared at it and in return it sang to her. She could feel the whiteness inside her head, like tendrils wrapping around parts of her mind and tugging, tugging, tugging, ever so gently, desperately wanting her to accept the nothingness, to be at one with it, to be truly nothing. Her arms dropped to her side and she took one hesitant step forward.

Suddenly, Weiss felt a sharp, bony elbow dig into her ribs.

"Don't look at it!" Cole hissed urgently. "It's coming towards us! I don't know what the hell is going on but if you don't want that to happen to you, Marshal whatever your damn name is, we have to run!" She turned away and began running, almost tripping and falling as she tried to keep her balance with her arms cuffed behind her back.

Not thinking, acting purely on survival instinct, Weiss tore her gaze away from the alleyway and followed.

Part 2

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