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 3

Weiss shivered in the chill air of the night as she walked back to the rental car. The whiskey bottle, firmly stuck in her outside jacket pocket, swung to and fro as she moved, clinking against the badge at her waist. The heaviness of it made her jacket a little lop-sided, the neckline pulling and chafing at her neck. She turned her collar up against the cold wind, using the opportunity to pull the fabric straight again. It didn't help.

She got about four steps away from the motel's reception before missing its warmth, and only five or six steps before she realized the car was empty.

So Cole had run after all. She was glad she wasn't carrying the bottle, for there was a good chance she would have dropped it in shock. She could feel her heart suddenly start to pump a lot harder and she scolded herself for being so surprised. She should have known, fuck it all.

She was just about to break into a sprint, for all the good it would do, when Cole walked around the corner from the stairwell. She was smiling, evidently pleased with herself about something, but her expression changed when their eyes met. Obviously Weiss wasn't doing that good of a job of hiding her anger, not that she was trying.

"I told you to stay in the car!" Weiss snapped as Cole approached. Strangely, she didn't sound as angry as she thought she would. There was a tiny sense of relief bubbling up from underneath the words and she wasn't sure she liked it. She knew why it was there, why it was coming to the surface only now. She didn't want to face this alone anymore, and Cole was the only other person in the world who not only knew what was going on, but understood what it felt like to be trapped in the middle of it all.

"No," Cole countered, pouting a little, "you told me to stay here, which is what I did."

There was no point in arguing, Weiss realized. Technically, Cole was right anyway, but even if she chose to ignore that, and she easily could, then arguing would only make things worse. No worse than admitting Cole was right, mind you. All the same she didn't want to fight, she just wanted to spend her last few hours in the reasonably pleasant company of a good woman... well, a not-so-good woman, she thought... and trying to crawl inside the whiskey bottle. Quarrelling now, especially over something as trivial as this, could ruin that.

So she swallowed her anger as best she could. She tried counting to ten. For the first time ever, it helped. Cole did come back, after all, and before Weiss had reached the count of six. She noticed that there was a drop of fresh blood on Cole's right shin, so dark against the paleness of her skin. Weiss watched the shiny droplet trickle down over the top of the Doc Martens boot. Somehow it helped her calm down more as she finished counting.

"Where did you feel such an urgent need to go?"

"I wanted to stretch my legs. And I found a vending machine." She had her arms full of packets of chips, candy, and a couple of cans of soda. It reminded Weiss suddenly of the first time she had laid eyes on her in that dirty wing mirror. God, was that only this morning, Weiss wondered? It seemed so long ago. That same white dress, once pristine and freshly laundered, was now frayed, dirty and bloodstained. Cole herself wasn't much better off. Amazing the damage just a single day could do.

"There's no need to look so worried," Cole went on, as she dumped the snacks she was carrying on the roof of the rental car. A Coke Zero can skidded on the metal and began rolling towards the edge. Acting quickly, Cole reached out and caught it before it could fall to the sidewalk. She moved the snacks around briefly, organizing them in some way perhaps, then looked back at Weiss. "Like I said, where exactly did you think I was going to run to?"

"Your type sometimes just run."

Frowning, Cole tilted her head, evidently not believing what Weiss had just said and certainly not pleased about it. "My type?" she said coldly, pursing her lips. She held her arms up, one fist clenched within the other in front of her chest, adopting a posture which almost could have been mistaken for prayer. However, the experienced Weiss easily recognized it as angrily defensive; she had seen the like so many times before, both in her line of work and personal life. "You don't have a clue what my type is, Marshal."

"Deputy Marshal. And for the last time, when I tell you to do something, you do it. That includes staying put."

"Does it really matter? I came back. Besides, I don't think I'm your responsibility any more, am I?"

"That's not for you to say."

Cole sighed, but then made a visible effort to smile, lowering her hands again. When she spoke, her voice took on a reconciliatory tone. "I thought we could do with something to eat. I don't know about you, but I'm starving. We should have ordered something at the diner."

"I did," Weiss couldn't resist pointing out, stressing the first word. She spoke without thinking and regretted it almost as soon as the words left her mouth. It would only keep the argument going.

"Didn't get to eat it though, did you?"

This was really getting them nowhere, Weiss thought. They could spend all night throwing barbs at each other, as much as she didn't want to, but if they were going to they might as well do it in the warmth of their room.

As if in answer, the wind picked up again, a cold gust abruptly blowing hard across the parking lot. A corner of the tarpaulin covering the swimming pool broke loose, the material whipping up and down, cracking against the concrete and the whole thing rippling. Although they were partly sheltered by the car, Cole shivered. Her bare skin, Weiss saw, so pale and smooth, was prickled with goose bumps. She must be freezing, Weiss thought. They really should get inside.

Like always, however, she wasn't quite sure how to get out of an argument when it had started. Escalation always seemed to be the only way she could go. She tried to change the subject, knowing how that usually just infuriated others.

"How did you get all that stuff?" she said, gesturing at the junk food in Cole's arms.

"That depends."

"On what?"

Cole shrugged, looking a little sheepish. "On what you want to believe. You could think I found some spare change lying loose in the car and used that..."

Which wasn't very likely, Weiss thought, with it being a rental car and the motel's generator probably not providing power to the luxuries like vending machines.

"Or," Cole continued, "you could just assume I kicked the glass in and took what I wanted."

"You're supposed to be honest, aren't you?"

"Fair point. But just like going straight, being honest takes some adjustment time. Let me put it this way, I'm both very hungry and very glad I'm wearing my boots."

"You're hungry, and that's supposed to justify theft?"

"No, only to explain it," she said, giving a little smile of victory. "Just like how I'm sure you're going to explain that bottle of booze, right?"

Weiss instinctively turned away slightly, a little embarrassed and trying to hide the bottle from view. Even though she had offered to pay for it, she had kind of coerced the poor clerk into giving it up. But she certainly hadn't stolen it. Let Cole think that if she wanted to; surely she assumed everyone would fall to her level sooner or later. She certainly seemed pleased by the assumption, that was for sure.

"Shut up," was all that Weiss could think of to say. Not her most clever retort, not by a long shot. But she was tired, hungry, and fearing the worst, so she wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders.

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Did you get a room?"

Weiss didn't answer for a long while. It seemed like an easy out, another swift change of subject. It seemed so easy when someone else did it, so troublesome when she tried. But she was wary of letting the argument go just yet, as if it was a tiger she had firmly by the tail. It could still hurt her but as long as she kept a grip, she remained somewhat in control. Letting go meant getting hurt much worse.

She finally spoke, if only because it seemed that Cole was just about to prompt her. She changed the subject herself, knowing she was only doing it to try to gain a fraction more control back.

"Why didn't you run?"

Cole looked surprised by the question, but then her expression quickly changed to one of impatience. "I've told you twice. There's nowhere for me to go."

"That's the only reason?"

"Were you expecting another?"

Weiss frowned, choosing her next words very carefully. "I can usually spot a lie pretty well," she said, "and that one stands out a mile."

Shifting her weight from one leg to another, Cole shivered again from the cold, and glanced across the parking lot back towards the highway. The hem of her dress, barely mid-thigh level, rippled as the breeze caught it. She must have caught Weiss glancing down, as she took hold of the hem and tugged it downwards, but it did no good. It was an odd sign of self-consciousness, Weiss thought, and the first time she'd seen Cole seem uncomfortable all day. Maybe she was getting to Cole just as much as Cole had been getting to her.

Cole ran her hands through her short hair, messing it up further. Strangely, it still looked good somehow; that tousled, uncared-for look she had going for her really worked. She held her head for a second, and in the poor light it looked like her white fingers disappeared into the black of her hair. She was touching the scalp wound, Weiss realized, and she briefly wondered if Cole was in pain.

"Alright, Marshal, you want the truth," Cole eventually said. "I can understand that. But you should know I've never been very good at being honest, no matter how hard I try. And believe me or not, I've been trying real hard lately. I suppose the truth and me have never really gotten along all that well."

She looked down at the ground, tried again to tug at the bottom of her dress and then gave up with a shrug. "But why the hell not? What harm can it do now?" She gave a little depreciative half-chuckle to herself, and then stared Weiss straight in the eye.

"The truth is, Marshal, that while you said you wanted to die in comfort," she gestured around her at the motel, "such as it is, I just don't want to die alone."

The answer surprised Weiss. She could only think of one thing to say in reply to it.

"You won't," she said. "We'll be together." And she meant it.


As soon as she flicked on the light switch, Ally was disappointed that the motel room was almost exactly as she had expected. She would have been pleased if it had been a little better, at least amused for a short while if it had been any worse, but she would have been nothing short of amazed if it had been anything other than what it turned out to be.

If you've seen one moderately cheap motel room, Ally thought, then you've seen them all. The same beige paint on the thin walls, the same dull white ceilings, doors, and woodwork, the same fawn-colored carpet, the same cheap but functional furniture. Everything was designed to be as inoffensive as possible, with the end result being it was hard to think of any legal ways the room could be any more unappealing.

The only indication of color was the bedspread, a riot of reds and yellows that really didn't belong with the rest of the décor. When seen against the dullness of the walls it jarred the eyes, and the effect was made all the worse by twin zebra-striped pillows. Classy.

Still, if there was one thing Ally had learned from life, it was how to live with disappointment. She dropped the snacks on to the large dresser that ran along one wall. A checkerboard sat on the dresser beside the small television set. While Weiss moved past her to check the bathroom, Ally idly moved a red piece from a black square, jumping it over a stranded white. Maybe all the rooms had a board like this one, a little gimmick the motel's owners probably thought both clever and welcoming.

"Nice," she muttered, looking around the room one more time, hoping that upon second inspection it wouldn't look so bad. Again, she was disappointed.

"You get what you pay for," Weiss said, coming back into the room.

"Not if you steal it." Ally regretted saying it as soon as the words left her mouth. The angry glare it elicited from the other woman made her wince. She smiled weakly in reply, trying her best to show it was only a joke. "Relax, I'm just kidding."

Ally crossed the room to sit on the edge of the bed. She bounced up and down a couple of times. "Well, the mattress is comfortable enough. A few thousand bed bugs can't be wrong, right? So what's the plan?"

"What makes you think I have a plan?"

"You strike me as the kind of woman who likes making rules, regardless of what's going on. I know I've said this already but first dates with you must be a lot of fun. Heavily regimented, I'll bet, probably with a detailed minute-by-minute itinerary, but a whole lot of fun nonetheless."

"You're probably right."

"About the rules-making or the dates?" Ally couldn't resist teasing a little. The worst it could do was provoke Weiss into beating her again, and she strongly believed that threat was long past. At best, it might chip away at another of the barriers Weiss kept around her. She'd do a lot more than that for another smile, given the opportunity.

Weiss scowled. "Both. Not that you need to know but I'm stunning on first dates."

Well, that was a shock, Ally thought, and maybe a little success too. Another little fracture in those barriers, perhaps. It was certainly the first hint that Weiss had any kind of personal life. She smiled and pushed a little harder. "You're not impressing me so far."

"That's because this isn't a date."

"No? Playful banter, strong alcohol, a little physicality, and then ending up in a cheap hotel room in handcuffs? Sure seems like a date to me."

"Your typical date, maybe. In any case, I guess I plan on waiting for..." She hesitated, having obviously noticed that the sudden reminder of what was coming had made Ally cringe. "On waiting this out."

The Deputy Marshal pulled the whiskey bottle from her jacket pocket and placed it on top of the television. Then she crouched to search through the dresser's drawers, eventually finding two glass tumblers. Standing, she held one up to the light and examined it. She didn't inspect the other. Presumably that was intended to be Ally's.

"Not to mention getting as drunk as I can in the meantime," Weiss continued, turning back to face Ally. "Care to join me?"

Ally held up her hands and waggled the handcuffs again. "Am I allowed?"

"No," Weiss admitted. She had already poured a liberal amount of the whiskey into two glasses. "Not at all. But you strike me as the sort of woman who likes not following rules."

Ally smiled, took the offered glass – noting as she did that she had been wrong, this was the one Weiss had scrutinized – and raised it in salute. "Touché."

She took a long drink, draining the glass, which turned out to be a mistake. The strong alcohol caught her by surprise, burning her throat and making her eyes tear up. Worse, her broken tooth started throbbing again. And she couldn't prevent herself from coughing heavily, embarrassing though that was.

"Wow," she spluttered, her voice croaking, "that burns."

Even through her watering eyes, she could tell Weiss was having trouble keeping from laughing. The Marshal raised her own glass and took a small drink, if only, it seemed, to hide her smile as best she could.

"Try to sip it," Weiss instructed, "not gulp it. It's a drink you savor, not one you guzzle down."

Ally coughed once more. "Good to know. Would have been better a minute ago though. I thought we were trying to get drunk."

"We are. But even doing that has rules, whether you believe them or not."

Ally turned the near-empty glass around in her hands, staring at the last few drops of the amber liquid, her eyes chasing them around. "Or if you choose to follow them or not?"

"Indeed. You weren't a very successful thief, were you?"

Ally wiped at her eyes, which gave her some time to think about how best to answer that. The change in subject surprised her, even if the question didn't. Weiss evidently believed in getting straight to the point. Subtle wasn't her middle name. Although it would do for now, seeing as how Ally still didn't know even her first name. Marshal Unidentified Subtle Weiss. The mental image of some old pastor dunking Weiss' head underwater and then naming her that particularly mouthful almost made Ally giggle. Maybe it was more the thought of the uptight Weiss being in such an undignified position that amused her so.

She tried to stop thinking about it, guessing that Weiss wouldn't be pleased if she learned what Ally thought was so funny. In Ally's experience, most religious people were seriously lacking in the sense of humor department, and even fewer of them recognized the failing. She was pretty sure Weiss was a Christian of some sort, but she was only guessing at Baptist. It seemed to fit her. Maybe she'd dare ask her about it later. Maybe, if it came up.

After some thought, Ally finally admitted what Weiss had said was true. "Not really, no. Another reason to give it up, I suppose. But why would you say that?"

"Aside from the murder?" Weiss said, looking incredulous. She instantly held up a hand to stem any angry denial. "I know, you're innocent. But I actually meant because you're not used to the finer things. Like this whiskey, for instance."

"I guess not. What about you?"

"What about me?"

"You seem to know what you're talking about. At least where alcohol's concerned. So are you a successful Marshal, Marshal?"

"Weiss. Just call me Weiss."

"No first name?"

"Does it really matter?"

"I'd like to know."

"All the more reason not to tell you."

Ally smiled, shaking her head in disbelief. "Stubborn. Why am I always attracted to stubborn women?"

That got a reaction, she was pleased to see. Another little shove, another little skirt around the defenses. Weiss glanced sharply at her, frowning, and opened her mouth to say something. No doubt it would be a reprimand. That being so, Ally didn't give her the chance.

"So, Weiss..." She played with the name a little, letting it bounce around her mouth. It was the first time she'd dared to use it. "Are you loosening up a little, letting me call you by your name?"

"No, I'm just sick of reminding you I'm a Deputy Marshal."

"Well, Weiss, you haven't answered the question."

"No, I haven't." Weiss had been leaning casually against the dresser, but now she pushed herself off and turned away, reaching for the bottle again. "You want another?"

Ally nodded. As strong as the whiskey might be, one glass wasn't about to get her drunk. "Sure. But can we drink outside, do you think? I don't like confined spaces."

"You can say that after living in that trailer?" Weiss said, taking Ally's glass and then pouring out two more large drinks.

"I did an eighteen-month stretch in Florence McClure in 2008 and I was lucky to get out so early." Ally was pretty sure the Marshal knew that. She would bet anything that Weiss had at least perused her criminal record, read up on her as much as possible before heading out from Sacramento in the very early hours of this morning. After all, there had been plenty of hints throughout the day that she knew much more about her than Ally would like.

Still, nothing she could do about that now, she supposed. And it made a refreshing change. She normally kept people in the dark about her history and personal life, even when she trusted them. Maybe having someone know practically all her dirty little secrets would help keep her honest, especially with herself.

"Even minimum security's no fun," she went on, "believe me. Ever since then, I kinda get a little freaked out when I'm cooped up for too long."

Weiss grabbed both tumblers with one hand, sticking her fingers inside the glasses to hold them together. With a clink, some of the whiskey spilt over on to the dresser. With alcohol that strong, Ally was half-expecting the veneer to start bubbling. Still, it would probably kill any of the germs Weiss had on her fingers.

Weiss picked up the bottle by its neck with her free hand, and then gestured towards the doorway. "Then let's go sit outside for as long as we can," she said, and there was a kindness in her voice Ally was certain she hadn't heard before.


Their room was on the second floor. From the breezeway outside their door, they could see down into the parking lot, the courtyard with the swimming pool, even across the highway and to the forested embankment beyond. If the power had still been on anywhere but here, Ally guessed they might have seen the lights of the town in the distance. Now there was nothing but darkness all around.

However, there was light coming. You could see it off in the distance, just behind the mountains, an unearthly white glow that pulsed unnaturally, like some twisted version of the coming dawn. There was no way of telling how close the nothingness was or how fast it was moving towards them. It defied any attempt to pin it down; doing so was futile, like trying to hold onto time itself by pressing a finger against the hour hand of a clock, and only served to give her a headache. Instead, Ally tried to keep her eyes focused on the darkness of their nearest surroundings. It wasn't easy, but it helped.

Behind her, Weiss left the door to their room wide open. Ally thought about asking her to pull it closed, in the hope of saving some of the room's warmth, but quickly decided it wasn't worth bothering. It might all come to an end out here anyway.

Ally leaned against a brick pillar and glanced both ways down the breezeway. She caught Weiss studying her and grinned self-consciously, then shrugged a half-hearted apology. "You could lock the handcuffs to the railing, if you like."

The railing ran between each of the pillars that were dotted about ten yards apart along the walkway. Thick white paint did a bad job of covering the rusting metal. Another little sign of how rundown the motel was.

Weiss shook her head. "I think we're a little beyond that now, aren't we?"

There was a lot more emphasis on the word 'we' now, Ally thought, that was for sure. "You tell me. I'm still wearing these," she held up both hands again to show off the handcuffs, "and I can't tell you how much I detest large jewelry."

Weiss ignored the unspoken request to remove the cuffs and instead handed her one of the full glasses. Ally took it, spilling some of the alcohol over the rim as she did so, the warm liquid dripping slowly down her fingers. She balanced the glass precariously on the thin railing edge and then wiped her hands on the bottom of her dress. The once pristine white fabric was grubby, blood-stained and torn. Like her, it had been through a lot since the early hours of this morning, and they both were near to falling apart.

She took another drink, sipping it this time just as Weiss had told her to. It still burned her throat and stung her lips, but not as bad as before. She ached all over; her bruised cheekbone still throbbed painfully, the cuts on her legs and arms smarted, and her broken tooth hurt like hell. But the alcohol was at least slowly beginning to dull all the pain and for that she was grateful.

"It's reached the mountains," Weiss said. "At least I think it has. It might be a lot closer. Hard to tell."

The comment instinctively made Ally want to look up at the approaching whiteness but she bit back the temptation. It seemed Weiss could get a slightly better grasp on where it was than she could.

"I wonder if people in the town know what's happening yet."

"It's not like they could miss it," Ally said. "We should tell them."

Weiss shrugged in answer. "We could. But what good would it do? Even if they believed us, and I very much doubt they would, they're trapped here now just as much as we are."

"I guess so. Although that doesn't mean I have to like it. It's a shame."

"It is," Weiss said. She nodded towards Cole's still nearly-full glass. "Drinking will help."

"No, it won't." But she took another little drink all the same. It burned less each time. Either she was getting used to the taste or she was already getting drunk enough not to notice. The whiskey had an odd smoky taste to it, a little sweetness too, she didn't know how else to describe it. She didn't particularly care for the taste but that really wasn't why she was drinking.

"No, it won't," Weiss repeated, "but it will make the lie a little easier to believe. That's the best thing about alcohol, the way it smoothes out all the edges in life. Makes it so easy to turn to."

Ally frowned. There was an opening there, for sure, it certainly wasn't hard to spot. All the same, she hesitated. If she pushed, it might be another breakthrough, maybe one a little larger than all the others she'd made so far today, but at the same time, she was scared of pushing too hard. One misstep here and Ally could find all her hard work come to nothing.

After a deep breath, she took a risk. The words came out in a rush. "Are you speaking from past experience there, Weiss?"

"I suppose."

Weiss seemed abruptly guarded, and Ally wondered if she had overstepped. She plunged on recklessly, figuring that even if she made things worse then at least she shouldn't have too long to endure the resulting fallout.

"You can't give a straight answer to anything, can you? Maybe we're both in the wrong line of work."

"I..." Weiss began, then hesitated again. She took a drink, not a sip, Ally noticed, but a very long drink. Maybe she needed it, maybe she was buying time. She ended up draining the glass. Ally saw that the Marshal's hands were trembling. That could have been the cold, Ally thought, but she suddenly regretted asking. She felt a pang of sympathy strike at her heart.

Weiss refilled her own glass, then spoke again. "There are some questions I don't like answering."

Ally nodded, understanding. "You don't have to. I shouldn't have pressured you. Talking takes my mind off what's coming, that's all."

Weiss nodded. She took another drink, sipping again, then came forward to lean on the railing. When she spoke, she didn't look at Ally, instead just stared unseeing down at the swimming pool.

"When I was young, we lived only a few blocks from our school. Me and a bunch of my friends used to walk together to school every morning and back every afternoon. Parents probably wouldn't let a few kids walk on their own to school these days, but it was a different time, you know? No one thought of the dangers back then, least of all my mom. Getting the kids out from underfoot was all she cared about most mornings."

She sighed. "I think I was about eleven when I first saw Harry. The last time I saw him I was fourteen. I remember because it was the day after my birthday that everyone was suddenly talking about him. Nobody wanted to talk about him before, of course. It was much easier to ignore homelessness. Some things never change, right?

"I'm getting ahead of myself, aren't I? He was a vagrant who just turned up out of nowhere one day. Always hanging around the same corner talking to anyone who would listen and more often than not no one would, so he'd just jabber on to himself. Muttering under his breath all the time, like he couldn't stop. Maybe he couldn't. Some people thought he was crazy. No one knew his real name, not then. Turns out it was Harry, but if anyone had known that for sure, no one had ever told us. Everyone just called him Harry because they thought he was a junkie. He wasn't. An alcoholic sure, but never a junkie.

"We used to tease him all the time. Throwing rocks at him, that kind of thing, and then, later, as teenagers, we all 'matured' and just started the name calling. We'd follow him as he would shuffle away, muttering to himself. Every day, for three years we'd do that."

She caught Ally looking at her and shrugged. "Yeah, not my proudest moment. I suppose I could say I was just a kid, but still…"

"I can remember him now, clear as anything." She shut her eyes as if it would prove her point, as if it would allow Ally to see the mental image she was dredging up from years long past. "It's the smell I remember most. He stunk to high heaven. Body odor, rot, filth, and over it all was the stench of alcohol. He must have spilt more on himself than he ever could have drunk. I don't think I ever saw him without a bottle in his hand, usually this stuff, funnily enough. Heaven only knows where he got the money from. People used to give him hand-outs now and then, I remember, although even then I used to think he'd get more bang for his buck buying cheap beer."

"What happened to him?" Ally asked.

"The day after I turned fourteen, I went to school as usual, only Harry was nowhere to be seen. I don't think I really noticed. We'd grown tired of him by then. At school though, we learned why he wasn't around. Turns out the night before, while I was eating cake and opening presents, a local gang had started abusing Harry too. Although they didn't stop. They ended up kicking him to death in the local park."

Ally opened her mouth to say something, as she felt she had to, but then realized there was nothing she could say. Weiss didn't give her the chance, anyway.

"No one cared. What was one more dead hobo, right? The police only did a cursory investigation, asked a few questions of everyone in the neighborhood, took some bits of evidence, that kind of thing. Maybe it would have been different in a rich white neighborhood but in a poor black one, well, I guess there was never really a chance at justice. That was a lesson I had to learn sooner or later, I suppose. So anyway, the police spent a few days patrolling, just trying to get themselves noticed, and then it was over. No more Harry. And no one cared.

"No one but my mom. She cried for a long while and I didn't know why. I asked her, even though my brothers told me not to. That was the only time my mom ever hit me. Just that once, she slapped me. Hard. Real hard." Weiss turned her head, almost as if she could still feel the sting of that long ago blow. "I think she was more shocked by that than I was. You see, I'd never asked about my dad before, or why he was missing. I didn't even know I was asking about him then, not really."

"Harry was…" Ally began. Her voice trailed off.

Weiss nodded. "Yeah, Harry was my father. I got the whole story from an aunt a few years later, right before I went to college. Funny, really, how a family can keep such secrets. I think my mom told my brothers, but no one told me, not until I asked. Not answering difficult questions apparently runs in the family just as much as alcoholism does."

She gave Ally a little rueful smile. "Bad joke, sorry. Apparently, my father had mental issues and difficulty coping with life. Alcohol seemed to be the answer. But it only made things worse. He started talking to himself, a little too often and a little too loudly. And then he walked out. He just up and left one day, and disappeared without a word. I was only two, my brothers four and five, so we forgot all about him over time.

"When he turned up again, my mom recognized him, of course, but wanted nothing to do with him. She never really forgave him for running out on us, not even after he was killed. I don't think anybody else knew who he was. The neighborhood had changed a lot in ten years and not many people who knew him back then were still living there.

"And he didn't want to be with us anyway. As best as I can figure it, he was just returning to somewhere familiar to him. And he ended up dying all alone. And no one cared.

"That's why I went into law enforcement, I guess. Maybe I was seeking forgiveness back then, maybe I still am, I don't know. I like to think it's just so I can tell people that at least one person cares, even when it seems like no one does. Everyone deserves justice, no matter how poor or crazy or forgotten or... well, you get the idea."

Weiss grimaced and as she pushed herself off the railing and straightened up, she reached up to rub her forehead. "I haven't told anyone that before, not even Devlin. I don't know why I told you that. I suppose because there's no one else to tell."

"Yeah, I suppose," Ally said. And maybe it was because deep-down Weiss simply couldn't be a hard-ass twenty-four seven. After all, just because the world was ending didn't mean she had to tell someone. She still could have kept quiet about it all, couldn't she?

"I need a cigarette." Weiss looked down at her near-empty glass and reached into her jacket pocket to pull out a packet of Camels. "And another drink too. Fuck."

"What's wrong?"

Weiss shook the cigarette pack to show it was empty.

Ally smiled. "Well, consider yourself lucky. I may not be a successful thief but I am a considerate and generous one. There was a cigarette vending machine next to the snack machine downstairs, fortunately with glass that was just as broken."

"They still have those?"

"Apparently," Ally said. She had been amazed too, thinking they'd done away with such machines decades ago. It was another quaint little reminder of how charmingly backward this town was. She nodded towards the motel room. "There are two packs on the dresser. I didn't know if you smoked Menthol or not, so I got one of each. You want me to get them?"

"No, don't bother," Weiss said, "I'll go. Stay put though, okay?"

That was meant to make her smile, Ally guessed, and it worked. She nodded. She had been taken aback by how much the Marshal had opened up to her. All the same, when Weiss reappeared with a fresh cigarette pack in hand, Ally decided to make a concerted effort to change the subject. She didn't want Weiss dwelling on bad memories from her past, no more than she wanted to think about any of the many mistakes she'd made in her life. As she remembered her own father saying every time bad news beckoned, there was enough of a bad storm coming without stepping outside without an umbrella and raincoat.

Weiss clumsily lowered herself to sit underneath the window to their room, her back resting against the brickwork and her legs stretching out across the breezeway. She tore off the cellophane wrapper and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it with a black plastic Zippo. She inhaled hard, taking a deep lungful, and let the smoke out slowly.

"Oh, that's good," she said softly.

Ally could see the tip of the cigarette glowing bright orange as Weiss inhaled. The evening was getting darker, despite the oncoming nothingness. Somehow, and for the life of her Ally couldn't figure out how, the night was still falling, even though the world was coming to an end. One last show of defiance on nature's part, perhaps. Not so much raging against the dying of the light, Ally thought, but rather against the light itself. Wise men at their end know dark is right.

She put her empty glass down on the walkway and while Weiss reached out to refill it and her own, sank down to sit opposite the Marshal. She chose to sit cross-legged, unlike Weiss, and rested her back in between the brick pillar and the railing. It wasn't very comfortable but at least she was turned away from the mountains and what was heading towards them. One less way it would be on her mind.

The bottle was now only a third full, Ally noticed when Weiss screwed the cap back on. They were making slow headway.

She awkwardly groped for something to say and came up short. "So what kind of name is Weiss, anyway?" She winced even as she said it. Yeah, she thought, this won't go anywhere good.

Caught raising her tumbler almost to her mouth, Weiss paused, frowning. She put the glass down beside her and took another long drag on her cigarette before answering.

"You don't like it?"

"It's just odd, that's all."

"What's odd about it?"

"Well..." Ally said slowly, conscious that she was treading on thin ice with the way this conversation had gone, "you're black."

"So?"

Weiss was still grinning, so Ally was pretty sure she hadn't upset her. Instead, she seemed to find Ally's discomfort amusing. Ally shrugged and took a hasty drink. She was glad she was sitting down. This might only be her third glass but the whiskey was certainly strong as all get out.

"I don't know. Black and German names don't really go together, do they?"

"You don't think there are any black people in Germany?"

"Well, no, not really. But I suppose I hadn't really given it much thought."

"It's Austrian, anyway," Weiss said, "not German."

"Same difference."

"Subtle difference. My family's originally from Mozambique, although that's going back a long time. My great-grandparents emigrated shortly after the end of the First World War. They couldn't speak much English, so at Ellis Island they were forced to take the name of their Austrian employer from back in Africa. The name stuck, although I have a great-uncle who insists it's a slave name and makes us all call him Waaswa."

She emptied her own glass, licked her lips, and then smiled, seeming embarrassed. "Sorry."

Ally was a little startled by the apology. She felt an immediate impulse to make fun of it or of Weiss, but she had barely enough presence of mind to rein herself in. Instead, she asked, "For what?"

Weiss looked around, evidently searching for a trashcan, then shrugged, gave up, and just tapped ash from the end of her cigarette on to the concrete floor. "I'm talking too much. I tend to get that way when I've had a bit to drink."

Well, it was a lot better than earlier, Ally thought. During the excruciatingly long road trip getting a single word from Weiss had been like squeezing blood from an anemic stone. "Hardly," she said. "I'm sure if we average it out over the day, I'm still way ahead."

Weiss laughed at that, which pleased Ally considerably. She ran a hand quickly through her hair and then fanned her face. It was probably the alcohol, she knew, but she was feeling unpleasantly warm. Her skin seemed to be burning. Fortunately, the night air felt lovingly cool when a breeze passed by, but it was more often still than not. Even the wind was slowly dying, it seemed.

"You know what?" Ally said. "I think I prefer me when you're drunk."

Weiss continued to grin, turning her head away to look down the highway, back towards the town. "Me too. There was a church down in the town. We passed it on the way in. An old wooden building, white with a tall spire, big black window frames. Must be beautiful in the summer."

"So?"

The grin faded slowly. "I was wondering if we should have gone there."

For what purpose, Ally wondered? She doubted it was to save money. The motel room was cheap, sure, she imagined they didn't come much cheaper, although spending the night in a church would have been a lot cheaper. But it would have raised questions, them not leaving when they had promised to do so, and the idea of that hard-nosed Sheriff confronting them didn't bear thinking about. To Ally, then, it seemed that the church was a decidedly bad idea with a lot more cons than pros.

Perhaps Weiss was seeking a good old-fashioned sanctuary then? Maybe she was hoping to find something more than just a shelter for the night.

Weiss looked back at Ally. "Are you religious at all, Cole?"

"No," Ally said, draining her glass and waving it at Weiss for a refill. "There are too many things on which God and I don't see eye to eye. My family's pretty devout though. Just another way in which I'm the black sheep. So you, you're in law enforcement, a Christian... no chance you vote Republican then?"

"Fuck, no," Weiss said vehemently, topping up Ally's glass as she spoke.

"Thank your God for that. I can deal with the first two but that last one's a deal breaker."

"Excuse me?"

"In the women I date, I mean."

Weiss stared at her for a long while, her mouth hanging open. When she finally shut it, her jaw had taken on a determined set. It was only now that Ally realized the conversation had gotten away from her, slipped out of her control as easily as all those little memories had slipped away when the nothingness had reached for her. She beat a hasty retreat behind her glass.

"What makes you think I'm gay?" Weiss eventually said. Her voice sounded stern all of sudden, all trace of the humor Ally had seen over the last half-hour or so gone.

"Lucky guess," said Ally with an indifferent shrug. Two glasses of whiskey ago, even one maybe, she would have been more careful with her choice of words. Now, she didn't see the point. What was the worst that could happen, after all? "Sorry, it's not that hard to tell. Well, you are, aren't you?"

Another hesitation. "It's not so..."

Ally finished her sentence for her. "Black and white?"

"I was going to say simple. Not that it matters, anyway, seeing as how you're not my type."

"Shame, because you're really mine."

Weiss gave out a snort of laughter. Ally wasn't sure how to take that, but she was relieved that the grim side of the Marshal hadn't lasted very long. She ran a finger around the neckline of her dress, tugging at the material where it had stuck to her skin and wishing for another cool breeze. She was feeling warm again.

"Is that the best you've got, Cole?"

"Probably. Works on the women I usually date. I could try a cheesy pick-up line, if you like."

"Like that wasn't? Oh, I have to hear this. Please, be my guest."

"Well, how about if I told you I like my women just how I like my coffee?"

"Going for the black angle again, are we?"

"Actually I was going to say hot and bitter, but easy to make."

Another short burst of laughter. Each time, Ally enjoyed hearing that a little more. Odd, that.

"Is that right?" Weiss said, stubbing out the dog-end on the concrete. "Fuck, you think a lot of yourself."

"Yeah, I do," Ally admitted, "but that doesn't mean I'm wrong. You really are hot."

Weiss waved away the compliment. She lit another cigarette, throwing the pack down beside her, and inhaled deeply. She was savoring the flavor of the tobacco, as if it was going to be her last ever chance to taste it. Which, Ally thought, it might very well be.

"I think the alcohol is getting to you," Weiss said, motioning to Ally's glass with her own. "On any other night, I think I'd cut you off, just to be safe."

Interesting choice of words, Ally thought. Just whose safety was she so concerned about? Ally's, for drinking too much? Or her own, for fear of what a drunken Ally might do? She suspected it was a bit of both but more of the latter, especially considering the turn the conversation had taken in the last few minutes.

Ally looked down at the half-empty tumbler in her hand. Still, Weiss was probably right when all was said and done. She was feeling a little lightheaded already. She took another drink, downing the whiskey in one, and the taste of it made her grimace and shake her head in revulsion. No point doing things by halves, after all.

"I'm serious," Ally said, holding out the glass for yet another refill. When Weiss hesitated, Ally waggled her hand with a 'come on' motion. It was enough to win over Weiss' reluctance. "Especially when you drop the f-bomb. You have a cute little way of digging your teeth into your bottom lip when you say the word 'fuck'. Swearing doesn't really suit you, but damn it's cute when you do. Which is just as well, 'cos you do it a lot."

Weiss looked away, staring down the breezeway. She'd embarrassed her, Ally realized.

"Sorry, I can get carried away sometimes. But that's life, right? It's all a matter of balance. Too much fun and you end up in these." She held up both hands, showing the handcuffs to drive home her point. "Too little and you end up babysitting someone like me."

Weiss looked back at her and gave a half-smile. "Don't worry about it. There are worse things to tell someone." She drained her own glass. "Come on, we need to make a bigger dent in this bottle."

"I'm afraid I'm making hard work of it," Ally said. "I'm still not sure I like the taste."

"You get used to it. And I strongly suspect you've no idea what good, hard work is."

"No, what good is it?"

Weiss laughed again.

"You should do that more often," Ally blurted out, causing Weiss to immediately look away. Again, she'd embarrassed her. Not one for taking compliments was this girl, Ally thought. Maybe she never got them, at least not personal ones. She stayed silent for a second or two, as much she hated to do so, as unpleasant thoughts kept creeping back into her head the longer she wasn't distracted, but she did it so Weiss would be prompted to speak.

She didn't take the hint and kept on the same subject, slipping from funny to serious, which annoyed Ally, but she tried her best not to let it show. "So, is your stage career going as well as your criminal one?"

Ally shrugged. "I'm doing okay, I guess. You can never go wrong in Las Vegas with something Elvis-related and people say I'm pretty good. You should see me when I'm in full costume and make-up. Of all the sights, I'm the one to see. Besides, as I've told you before, I'm going straight."

"Is that right?" Weiss said. Her tone left no doubt in Ally's mind that she didn't believe it.

"Well, they don't call Las Vegas the city of second chances for nothing. And I always liked to defy expectations. I was born on a Wednesday, and they say Wednesday's child is full of woe."

"You're full of something."

That was the first time Weiss had made Ally laugh so far today. And, Ally thought, wasn't Weiss full of surprises? Turning the tables on her so quickly and all. Good to know that she could make her laugh. Even better to know she had a sense of humor in complete working order. In Ally's experience, cops tended to hand that trait in as soon as they started training.

"Maybe," Ally said, taking another small drink. "I'm not full of this whiskey yet, unfortunately."

"So you want to tell me about DeWitte?"

The question sobered Ally up immediately. She put the tumbler down beside her, the glass clinking softly against the concrete. Maybe Weiss was right and she should quit drinking, at least for a while; maybe try to eat something first, give herself a chance to sober up a little more.

She hadn't really thought too much about DeWitte since she had been paroled, had gone out of her way not to, but it was startling how often his name would keep cropping up, especially seeing as how she'd only seen him once since her release. Now he was dead and somehow he was still causing her grief. Murdered, so Weiss had said, and everyone, her included, seemed to think Ally was the most likely suspect. Her smile faded slowly as she thought about that.

"You still think I murdered him?"

"That's not for me to say."

"Oh, of course it isn't," Ally said sarcastically. "Even now, right? We could be the only two people left alive in the world and you're still judging by pretending not to judge."

She sighed and looked up at the ceiling of the breezeway. She couldn't bring herself to look Weiss in the eye and she wouldn't look behind her. Either way she would be bluntly reminded of what was coming. So instead she stared upward as she talked, studying the spreading cracks in the white stucco and the long dead flies trapped in the fluorescent light fixture, the latter buzzing perhaps because the former no longer could.

"I started robbing places about a year after I got to Las Vegas. I was desperate, although I know that's no excuse. I got myself in a bit of bad luck and I thought I could see it through. I started with hotel rooms. It was easy enough. I've got quick hands and it was simple to flirt with a maid or a desk clerk or someone and steal a passkey. Then I'd keep a watch on some dumb tourists until they'd left their room, slip in, take what I wanted, and get out. Afterwards, I'd drop the passkey somewhere obvious, just so the person I stole it from thought they'd misplaced it. It hardly ever went wrong. And when it did I usually just bluffed myself out of trouble.

"I robbed places because I didn't want to hurt anyone. And I chose tourists because, well, you know, they were tourists. Less likely to stick around and kick up a fuss. More likely to get drunk and think they'd just lost whatever it was I took. And I only took cash and credit cards to begin with, and I didn't use the cards too often. Once or twice each, then threw them away. And I only bought small stuff with them too. Much less likely to attract unwanted attention that way."

She risked a glance over at Weiss and immediately regretted it. The Marshal's expression was pretty easy to read.

"Yeah, I know, real small scale, right? Pathetically so, in fact.

"Anyway, I met DeWitte by accident. An act of serendipity, I thought at the time, but looking back it was probably when everything started going wrong. No, that's not true. I'd be blaming someone else if I said that. But it was another step on the way down, if you know what I mean.

"At the time, he struck me as just another one of the dumb tourists, although I didn't rob him. Instead, he spotted me lifting a passkey. I may have quick hands, it's just that he had quicker eyes. He let me rob a room or two, and then confronted me. When he found out I was only stealing cash and cards, he started laughing. Can you believe that? I couldn't feel any damn lower at that point, let me tell you.

"So DeWitte suggested that I work for him, although he couched it a lot more evasively than that. I'd carry on the same way, stealing cash and keeping that for myself. But he also suggested I should start taking any jewelry I found. That, and any credit cards, I'd pass on for him to fence. He could get a lot more money out of the cards than I ever could and more safely too, and while I didn't have a clue how to get rid of jewelry, he did. It just meant travelling to his pawn shop in Sacramento a couple of times each month, which was no big hardship. I could still steal the same way I had been but I was making a ton more money. It was perfect."

Weiss interrupted. "Until you got caught."

"Yeah, until I got caught. But I've done my time for that, thanks very much, and unlike thieving that wasn't easy at all."

"Prison's not meant to be easy."

"I guess not. Which is why, when I got out I decided to go straight. I told the parole board that. And I only saw DeWitte once more, about a year ago, and that was to tell him I quit. And yes, Marshal, I know I violated my conditions by visiting him. But if I hadn't, he would have come and found me, and that probably would have been a lot worse in the long run."

"He was murdered eleven months ago or so," Weiss reminded her.

Ally looked back at her, frustrated that the truth wasn't being believed. She tried not to let it show. "And I didn't even know that until you told me this morning. I mean, I was a little surprised I didn't hear from him again, but I thought I was only a minor cog in his grand schemes and he'd accepted me going straight. I guess I was wrong to be so hopeful."

Weiss thought about that for a moment. "Easy to see how they could build a case against you, even with that. You go see him to tell him you're not going to steal anymore, he gets angry and violent and you grab the knife to defend yourself."

"No, I've told you already, I didn't kill him!"

"Schwarz says you did."

Ally rolled her eyes at that. "That bastard would say anything to save his own sorry hide."

"You're not wrong there," Weiss said with a nod. "According to the file, Sacramento PD pulled him in on a robbery charge and he gave you up as fast as you like. The arresting detectives had never seen anything like it."

"And that doesn't strike anyone as suspicious? Like Schwarz was holding this in reserve, maybe, for whenever he landed in hot water? No one even thought he might be framing me?"

"Are you saying Schwarz killed DeWitte?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Schwarz is scum. I'm not saying he'd sell his own grandmother but he'd sure find two other grandmothers, cut them in half, sew the best halves together and sell the end result as a younger model. And he was always jealous of how much DeWitte preferred to work with me, if only because I made him more money. Believe me, DeWitte only dealt with Schwarz when he absolutely had to." She paused. It was possible Schwarz had killed DeWitte, she supposed, but she doubted it. As much as she hated to admit it, while Schwarz might have been an asshole, she really couldn't imagine him killing anyone. "All the same, I can't see him murdering anyone."

"People change. You've gone straight, for instance, or so you say."

"Yeah, and you've started talking."

It wasn't one of her best retorts, that's for sure, but Ally was pleased to see it earned at least a grudging smile from Weiss, if not a laugh.

"And started defending me too," she added.

"Don't get ideas. I'm just playing devil's advocate, that's all."

"Sure you are. I'm telling you though, even if he didn't kill DeWitte himself, Schwarz is lying through his teeth."

"You would say that," Weiss said. When the shocked Ally opened her mouth to say something, Weiss held a hand up to quiet her. The glowing cigarette tip traced patterns in the gloom as she moved. "Sorry, but you would say that if you were guilty."

"I would if I were innocent too."

Weiss nodded and then quickly moved on. "Fair enough. Your fingerprints were on the murder weapon."

"My fingerprints were probably all over the store. Have you seen how much crap was in there? I'd often have to wait until legit customers had left before I could speak to DeWitte and I have sticky fingers, in case you didn't guess already. I probably picked up everything in that store at least once. I don't remember a dagger but I could have held it a dozen times."

"Yeah, maybe, but the fingerprints, your past record, your dealings with DeWitte… all of that is bad enough. But Schwarz led the investigating team to a storage unit in Sacramento where they found that dagger and a bunch of other stolen goods. And the manager of said facility swore blind that you had rented that lock-up. Identified you from a photo, apparently."

"And I suppose it would make no difference if I swore I'd never done any such thing?"

"No, I'm afraid not. It's all pretty damning."

Ally tilted her head back against the brick wall, closing her eyes for a moment. "I guess so. Great. Even if all this," she gestured wildly behind her to the encroaching white expanse, but pointedly refusing to look, "hadn't happened, I'd still be screwed, wouldn't I?"

"Pretty much, yeah."

Ally felt like crying and then realized she already was. She'd made such a mess of things and she'd been trying so hard not to, not any more. She'd fucked up her life enough, had done her best to turn it around, and things had just gotten worse on her. She wiped at her eyes, with her hands, conscious of Weiss watching her.

Damn it, she had to stop crying. She reached down for the half-empty tumbler by her side, turning to alcohol only because there was nothing else to turn to right now. She almost choked on the whiskey.

"Well," she said, trying not to cough, "not that it matters, but if it would change anything, I'd live with that. I mean, if me accepting what was coming to me would change any of this, would put it all back to the way it was, then I'd do it."

Weiss studied her for a moment, then gave her a faint smile, one that Ally figured was meant to be encouraging. It didn't help much more than the alcohol had. "I know," Weiss said quietly.

"Fat lot of good that does me," Ally said with more than a trace of bitterness in her voice. She held her head in her hands. "Fuck, I've really screwed everything up."

"Maybe, but you're trying to turn things around. That says something."

"It says I'm an idiot, that's what it says. Sure, I'm trying to change my ways. Too little, too late, though right?"

"Yeah," Weiss said, "I'm too little and you're too late."

Ally was caught off guard and couldn't help but laugh. She wiped at her eyes again. "A joke from the hard-ass Marshal, really? I must be getting to you."

"No, more likely it's the whiskey. Speaking of which, have another drink, why don't you?"

As Weiss reached over to refill her glass, Ally gave her a weak grin in return. "I don't mind your height. Sure you're small, but as they say, it is better to have loved a short girl than not a tall."

Weiss groaned at that, rolling her eyes. "Okay, I don't think there's enough whiskey left in the bottle to make that funny."

"They can't all be good. Even Elvis had his off days."

"Yeah, and one really big one at the end. But I guess we all have that one coming."

"I guess."

Ally craned her head back again, pressing against the railing so she could see past the overhang of the breezeway's ceiling. She stared up into the night sky for a long while.

"I can't see the stars anymore," she finally said. "There's nothing but white above us now. God, it hurts."

"Don't look at it."

"It's hard not to." And it was getting harder every second, Ally thought. The whiteness spread out above was entrancing. She could feel the nothingness reaching out for her, secreting its way into her mind and exhorting her to give up. Each little pull sent a shock of pain through her skull, like a fishhook was firmly embedded somewhere in her brain and as the line kept tugging, the barbs viciously tore at her sanity.

"I know," Weiss said, reaching out to take a hard grip on Ally's calf, her fingers digging painfully into the bruised and scabbed flesh. It hurt, but it was meant only to grab back her attention, and it worked. "But you have to try."

Ally turned back to face Weiss and gave her a half-hearted smile. "Sorry,"

"No need to be. I can feel it too."

Weiss took another long drag on her cigarette, then stubbed it out. She reached for the packet again.

"You should quit."

"Smoking?" When Ally nodded, Weiss shrugged. "Maybe. I keep promising myself I will, sooner or later. Doesn't seem worth worrying about it right now, does it?"

"I guess not."

"You want to hear a story?"

Ally gaped at her, startled. "What?"

"You said earlier that talking helps take your mind off..." Weiss caught herself just in time. "It helps keep you distracted. A story from my childhood suddenly sprang to mind and I thought I'd share it, if you want."

"Sure, why not?"

Pausing only to screw the cap back on the bottle of whiskey after refilling her own glass, Weiss went on, "Whenever she babysat us, usually when our mother was working nights at her second job, our grandmother used to tell us traditional family stories to get us to sleep. Didn't often work. My brothers were little hellions and I usually didn't get to hear everything she said. One story has always stuck with me though, and you mentioning the stars reminded me of it.

"You see, if you look up at the sky on a perfectly clear night, you can see countless stars, each twinkling in their own little dark kingdom. And each of those stars is a bright white, the brightest white you could ever imagine, but even so the darkness seems overwhelming, as if any minute a patch will just swallow up the light and another star will disappear.

"And it's been that way forever. It's a fight, you see, a battle between the darkness and the light. A battle that's been going on for so long that no one, not a single person who's ever drawn breath, can remember when it started. All we know is it will drag on forever until one side or the other wins out.

"One time, I dared to interrupt my grandmother when she was telling me all this, and got a slap upside the head for my trouble. But I wanted to know why the darkness was winning. After all, the stars are so few and the night is so dark. And you know what she told me?"

Ally shook her head.

"She said that I had it all wrong. In the beginning, she said, there had been nothing but darkness. And now, after so long, the light had finally begun to shine through."

Ally didn't say anything for a moment, thinking hard about what she'd been told. Finally, she frowned and spoke, "Huh. Did your grandmother ever say what would happen when the light won?"

"No, not that I remember."

"Great. I guess we've solved that little problem, haven't we?" Ally took another sip of her whiskey. Her hands were trembling again, she saw as she put the glass back down beside her. She told herself it was the frigid night air. She wasn't frightened. She wasn't.

She looked over at Weiss sheepishly, regretting her harsh tone, and sighed. "I used to have nightmares. When I was young, I mean. My parents put up with it as long as they could but eventually they had enough. There was nothing in the dark that wasn't there in the light, that's what they told me. I knew that wasn't true." She shot Weiss a weak half-smile. "All these years later, and who'd have thought the light would turn out to be the side I shouldn't have trusted?"

Slowly, Weiss got to her feet. She had to put one hand out to the windowsill to steady herself; the other still firmly clutched the tumbler full of alcohol. She smiled guiltily at Ally.

"I think I've drunk a little too much," she said, although her tone made the words sound more proud than confessional. She stepped over to the metal railing, transferred her hold to that for a second, then turned her back on the motel parking lot and sank down to sit beside Ally. Not just next to her, but right up alongside her. The closeness was surprising. So was the warmth. Up until now, Ally hadn't realized how cold she really was.

It was probably just accidental, Ally thought. Weiss didn't seem too steady on her feet and was using her as support as much as she had the sill and the railing.

"Still," Weiss continued, "I'm not going to stop until I've drunk a lot too much."

She poured herself another glassful, the amber liquid slopping over the sides. She didn't seem to notice, or mind if she did. There wasn't much left in the bottle, Ally noted. She thought Weiss had drunk considerably more of it than she had, but she couldn't swear to it. Aside from being a little unsteady, Weiss seemed remarkably unaffected by the alcohol.

Ally looked down at her own half-empty glass. Her fourth, maybe? She couldn't clearly remember. She took another small sip. "Well, I don't think I've drunk this much in months. I'm really going to hate myself in the morning."

"Just as well then that it doesn't look like there will be a morning."

"Yeah, well, that's okay. I think I've started hating myself already."

"That's a bad habit to get into, trust me, and a harder one to get out of."

"Speaking from experience, Weiss?"

"Oh yes, I think I am. I've lost too many people I care about to count."

"Lovers?" Ally asked, taking a chance.

"Not so much. Never had much luck there. More family, I think."

"You have a big family?"

Weiss nodded, lighting up another cigarette. She caught Ally's disapproving look and pointedly ignored it. "Lots of cousins, uncles, aunts, some nephews and nieces. Both my brothers are married, with kids."

"And you said your brothers are both older than you, right?"

"Yes, why?"

"It's interesting, that's all. It says a lot about you. I'm a good judge of people, after all."

"Not that good."

Not all traces of the hard-nosed Marshal had been washed away with alcohol then, Ally thought. All the same, she let that little jibe slide. "You're trying to prove yourself. Your career, your attitude, everything about you screams a desperate need for approval from your older brothers." She was about to add something about how to Weiss, her brothers probably represented the approval her dead father could no longer give her, but decided that probably wasn't a wise move, even now. "I don't imagine you've seen them recently, have you?"

"Shows what you know. I saw Colby at the end of last year."

"So ten months or so? And you call that recent? What about your other brother?"

"I haven't seen Doyle in a while, I'll admit."

"How long's a while?"

"It's got to be three years, maybe more. He doesn't really approve of the way I live my life. Colby's more... tolerant, I guess. Accepting's not really the word." She gave a little scornful snort. "Not by a long shot."

Ally raised an eyebrow, as if this proved the point she had made earlier. "And your mother? When was the last time you saw her?"

"I went home for a visit last Christmas and saw everyone but Doyle. Actually, the only reason I agreed to show up was because he wasn't going to be there for once. What's your point? That I can't care for and love people who I don't see very often?"

"No," Ally said hurriedly, "not at all. I really don't have a point. Just trying to learn more about you, what makes you tick."

"Yeah? Well, I think you know enough about me for now." Weiss exhaled a cloud of smoke that Ally half-heartedly tried to wave away. She seemed suddenly uncomfortable. Perhaps the conversation had veered a little too close to home, Ally thought. "And I don't tick."

"No?"

"No. It's more of an annoying clunking sound. So what about you?" She made an obvious and clumsy attempt to change the subject, but Ally went along with it anyway. It was better to keep talking about this, or anything, than fall silent for too long and let her mind wander back to what was fast approaching.

"What about me?"

"Do you have a family?"

Ally cast a suspicious sideways glance at Weiss. "You know I do. I'm assuming you read my file before coming to arrest me, right?" Then when the Deputy Marshal nodded, she added, "Why ask?"

"I was just trying to keep the conversation going, I suppose."

"You suppose a lot of things. You should be more certain. What am I saying? I don't think I've ever met anyone more certain."

"Of what?" Weiss said with a frown.

"Of everything. It doesn't matter. I'm just thinking aloud. Drinking too. Drinking and thinking, never a good combination."

"I have trouble understanding what you're talking about sometimes."

"Only sometimes?" Ally agreed, managing a weak smile. "I can't be drunk enough yet."

"Yeah? And just how drunk is enough?"

After draining her glass, Ally raised an eyebrow. "Depends what you had in mind, Weiss."

Without needing to be asked, Weiss refilled her glass immediately. She pursed her lips in disappointment, studying the empty bottle. "Well, that's the last of it, so whatever I was thinking I guess I'll be out of luck. Better make that glass last."

"Yeah, maybe. And yes, I have a family and before you ask, we're not that close. I guess that's another thing we have in common."

"Another? What was the first?"

Ally ignored the question. "Anyway, I have an older sister, who's a PA for a legal firm back in Jersey, and Babe, well, he went into the family business with my father and my uncle."

"You have a brother called Babe?"

Ally shrugged. "Don't ask. It's just a tradition amongst some Italian-American families, the youngest boy is always nicknamed Babe. Sometimes it sticks, sometimes it doesn't. With Samuel it stuck. He hates it but he shouldn't complain. Not only is he the youngest but he's the only boy, and he was a long time coming. He's eight years younger than me. My parents spoil him rotten."

"You seem bitter."

"I guess I am a little."

"Your parents run a deli, don't they?"

"In Little Ferry," Ally said with a nod.

"And you didn't want to go into that line of work?"

"No, not really. And my whole family never really approved of me, of anything I did, really. And pretty early on I decided that if I couldn't get their approval I might as well go the whole hog and really piss them off. Moving out west was just another way to prove my point. Fat lot of good it did me."

"What do you mean?"

Ally sighed, and she guiltily realized only after the fact that it was perhaps a little too theatrical. She blamed the whiskey, which was easy enough. "You know, Weiss, to some people running is a sport. To others, it's a means of getting from A to B. Me, I just ran because staying still would have made my family happy. And now I think they're glad to see my heels. No pleasing them."

"I'm sure that's not true."

"You don't know my family," Ally said indignantly. "Maybe I was a little unfair in criticizing you for not seeing your family often enough. I haven't seen my sister for more than a year and I haven't even talked to my parents since I got parole."

"You like your sister?"

"Luce? She's okay," said Ally with a small shrug of her shoulders. "The worst of a good lot, which is probably why we got on most of the time. She was the only person to visit me when I was in McClure. No one else bothered and she had to come all the way from Ferry."

"No Indian stripper? No would-be nurse?"

"No. I told you, Weiss, running has become a habit for me, even if it gets me nowhere. It's easier to run out on women than it is to make an effort to stick with them. The only reason I've stuck round you for so long is 'cos you damn well won't let me go. And there you are, my life story in a nutshell. Frightened of being alone, but I work so hard at pushing everyone away."

Ally paused, catching an off look in Weiss' eyes. "What's wrong?"

"How do I know this isn't all a con? It's what you do, after all."

"It's what I used to do. And who am I conning? You're the one plying me with drink, after all. That wasn't my idea, remember?"

"You're not answering my question."

"Oh, I am, it's just you don't like the answer. Alright, what good would it do me? Have you thought of that?" She gestured over her shoulder, back behind her, past the balcony, out towards the encroaching nothingness. "I told you, there's nowhere for me to run, not anymore. I'm beginning to think there wasn't, even before all this happened."

"So you're being honest with me? You've just decided to confess all your sins to a perfect stranger?"

"You started it. Anyway, I don't really think we can consider each other strangers anymore, Weiss, and I don't know about you but I'm far from perfect. Besides, confessing isn't my idea of how I want to spend my final hours. Oh sure, I could find that church you spotted and start praying to a God I've never believed in. Sorry, but it's true. I could die with hypocritical words on my tongue, I suppose, if that's what you think is best, but to me it doesn't seem any better than any other way of dying. Anyway, it's worse than that." Ally caught Weiss' eye again. "I mean about the world. I don't think it is really ending."

"Then what would you call it?"

"Ceasing to exist."

"Same thing."

"No, not really. Maybe I'm not explaining this very well."

Weiss groaned, rubbing her temples. "You're not explaining it at all. First time I've ever got the hangover when I'm not done with the drinking yet."

"You ever watch any of the old Looney Tunes cartoons?"

"Yeah, sometimes. One of my nephews loves them. But then he's only four."

"You ever seen the one where Daffy keeps finding the scenery changing behind him, then he realizes the guy who's drawing the cartoon is Bugs messing with him?"

"I guess..." Weiss said, in a tone that made it clear she didn't know exactly what Ally was talking about.

All the same, Ally continued. She'd been thinking about this for a while, mostly between dozing in the car during the afternoon, and it felt good to put her thoughts into words. She'd almost mentioned the idea when Weiss had thrown her across the diner restroom but the cut in her head had hurt her and each throbbing burst of pain was a not-so-gentle reminder to keep her mouth shut. Now, she felt either brave enough, or foolish enough, but most likely just drunk enough, to give the idea voice.

"Screwball," she said, smiling ruefully to herself, "that still makes me laugh. Well, anyway it's kind of like that. People sometimes talk about the human race potentially being wiped out but they never mean it literally, not like this. It's not just that pretty soon everything will be gone, it's much worse than that. It's as if everything will never have existed. You worry that the slate's being wiped clean. I'm scared that there won't even be a slate anymore."

She paused for a second and then went on. "Somewhere up there, there's a pissed off artist with a huge 2B pencil and he's slowly erasing all his rough sketches."

"And you said you didn't believe in God," said Weiss dryly.

That made Ally laugh, covering her mouth with her hands, and in turn, that made Weiss smile.

"You could be right though," Weiss said when Ally's shoulders had finally stopped shaking and she was wiping at her eyes. "Whenever I think of Devlin my head starts aching. Mostly it's just a little pain, but the more I think of him the more it hurts. And the more detail I try to remember, the worse the pain gets." Then, as if to prove her point, she reached up and held the flat of her palm to her forehead, screwing her eyes up tight and letting out the barest of moans. "Crap, my head's really hurting now."

She stayed that way for a little longer than Ally liked. "You okay?"

"Yeah, just give me a second. I think of him and I get the pain, and the pain reminds me that I'm thinking of him, so..."

"I get it," Ally said, "really I do. It's Luce, for me. If I think of her, just the barest passing thought, it feels like someone's hammering tacks into my skull."

Another low moan escaped Weiss' lips. She was wincing now.

"Sorry."

"What for?" Weiss asked through gritted teeth.

"Reminding you of Devlin. I didn't mean to."

"Don't apologize for that. I won't give this…" She searched for the right words and came up empty. "I won't be forced to forget him, not by anyone or anything, even it kills me. Still, you could be right. Maybe Devlin's not dead at all. Maybe he was never alive and all I have are the memories no one else ever wanted. But I suppose it doesn't matter in the end, does it? Gone is gone."

Ally shook her head. "No, it matters. I don't mind telling you, if I'm right, then it terrifies me. I know, I know," she went on, catching the look in the Marshal's eye, "I said I wasn't scared of dying so much and I really think that's true. No, what scares the shit out of me is not existing. Of never having existed. I want my life to have meant something. I want to mean something."

"To someone?"

"I guess so. Back to not being alone, right?" She gave a weak half-smile. It was the best she could manage right now. She was trembling, she realized. Maybe it was just the cold. Maybe not. "I know it's stupid. I know I'm stupid. And I know it ain't going to happen, I'm not going be safe, not anytime soon. But I still want to feel safe."

"Right."

"Guess I've said that before."

Weiss nodded. "No, but you didn't need to. And anyway, I might have said this before too. You're not alone."

Then the Marshal shifted position unexpectedly, placing her own empty glass on the floor beside her and reaching an arm around the surprised Ally's shoulders. Her grip was tight, perhaps a little too tight, the fingers digging into Ally's pale skin, but all the same Ally didn't object. She thought she knew why she was being held so strongly, suspecting Weiss needed to literally feel that she was still there, and she guessed that while the hug was meant to comfort her it offered just as much solace to Weiss, even if she most likely would never admit so.

She felt herself being pulled into the hug and welcomed it, shuffling down a little, leaning in, and resting her head on Weiss' shoulder.

They stayed that way for a long time, trapped in the embrace by a desperate need, if only because there might not be anyone else left to touch, not any more.

After a while, the lights by the pool flickered and went out. A second later the overhead lighting followed suit. The dim reflections in the motel room's window disappeared, leaving it a solid pane of black. Either the motel's generator had finally run out of gas or the nothingness had already reached that far.

There was still some light, enough at least to see by, but from where, Ally didn't know. And she was too achy, too drunk, and too sad to care. She refused to move, keeping her head on Weiss' shoulder, feeling the gentle movement of each breath.

The sudden silence was unsettling. Ally could no longer hear the soft, steady chugging of the genny, the humming of the emergency lights, or the irregular slapping of the striped tarp on the poolside whenever the cool mountain wind caught it. When Weiss shifted uncomfortably, the unexpected clinking of glass on cement when she knocked over the empty bottle was startling.

"You see it?" Weiss asked quietly, glancing over her shoulder.

"I'm pretending not to."

"A lot of good that will do." Weiss tugged her arm free, to Ally's disappointment, and struggled to her feet. "We should go inside."

"Sure. Why not? Might as well keep fighting for as long as we can, right? Kicking and screaming?"

"I hope not."

Ally looked up, squinting into the dusk at the woman standing over her, and shot her a half-hearted grin. It wasn't easy, seeing as how she felt like crying again. "You're no fun, Weiss."

"Says you."

Reluctantly, Ally took the offered hand and let herself be hauled up, perhaps a little too fast. Her head spun and she staggered against the railing, clutching it with both hands. The vast expanse of whiteness rolled before her and she had to turn quickly back towards the motel so as to avoid looking at it, which was a mistake as it only made things worse. Her stomach lurched up just as fast as she had and made unwelcome advances on her throat.

"I think I might be sick," she said weakly, clasping a hand over her mouth. All that alcohol and no food had not been a good idea, after all.

Part 4

Return to Original Fiction

Return to Main Page