The Ford Escort’s headlights washed over the figure at the side of the road.
A pale white hand and a pale face illuminated in the darkness. Thumb hooked out to the side, in the age-old sign of please give me a lift. Navy blue jacket, black jeans. A black duffel bag slung over one shoulder, stuffed to the brim, the seams on the brink of bursting. A lone silhouette against the backdrop of grey and black hues, not so much as a streetlamp to light him up.
Derick Garza grinned and pressed the brakes. He steered the car over to the side of the empty road, a rumble of tires as the terrain beneath roughened. He flicked on his hazards to let the guy know, but the stranger had already hurried over. Not that much of a cautious individual. Derick waved the hitchhiker on over and turned the radio down. Thom Yorke whispered in the background about being a creep and a weirdo.
The passenger door popped open and the interior light clunked on. The stranger poked his head in from the darkness of the night. Somewhere nearby, crickets chirped and chirped. A plain face, handsome in a boring, regular kind of way. Brown eyes, brown hair — neither too long nor too short. The basic, generic white-guy mould that God used. Not dissimilar to Derick himself. But appearances could deceive.
“Come on in, friend!” said Derick. He offered his hand. “Derick Garza.” His actual name. The truth always offered a believable tinge to his intonations. “Happy to take you anywhere you want to go.” He flashed his well-practised smile. “Unless it’s too far out of the way!” Derick laughed at that, and the hitchhiker laughed in response. Contagious. Like a yawn.
The stranger took his hand and nodded. “Ulric Malone. Pleased to meet you.” He glanced down the barren road, which disappeared at the edge of the Escort’s beams. “I’m having car troubles, so I’m heading into town. Is that too far?” His eyes twitched around the interior of the car. “‘Cause I can walk, if it’s too much trouble.”
“No, not at all, Ulric! Happy to take you there.” The next town sat a little over a 30-minute-drive away. Plenty of time. Derick grabbed his rucksack and threw it to the backseat. A staged action. To give the assurance that he hadn’t cruised back and forth looking for someone to pick up. If anyone looked inside the bag, they’d find only scrunched up newspapers. “Here, take a seat.”
Ulric slid into the car, duffel bag cradled in his hands, and pulled the door shut. The overhead bulb winked out and left them with only the red lights of the radio and the twin headlights of the car. The Radiohead song wound down to its conclusion. Hearts thudded in the silence, sledgehammers against the drywall. Their breaths rushed in and out, a chorus of waterfalls.
Derick offered an awkward little chuckle and flicked on his indicator. He hadn’t seen another car for hours. But appearances mattered. He glanced around his mirrors, nodded to himself, and pulled the Ford back onto the road. The cracked asphalt sped towards the headlights, became a blur. One hand still on the steering wheel, he dropped the other down into the driver’s door pocket. His fingers curled around the weighted, metal object there.
“So, Ulric, what’s wrong with the car?”
Ulric cleared his throat. “It’s, er, the engine.” He rubbed his nose and sniffed. “I think.”
“Ah, what’s the problem? Won’t start? Worn spark plugs? Clogged radiator? Coolant loss? Overheating? Bad noise? Timing chain failure? Faulty sensors?”
Ulric shook his head. “I, uh—”
“What are you driving, Ulric?”
A hiccough in the conversation.
“If you don’t mind me asking?”
Derick continued. “It’s just that it might help to diagnose the particular issue.” He patted the Escort’s steering wheel. “For example. This old girl has been known — in the past — to have had ignition system problems. Quite common with Ford engines. So. What are you driving?”
Ulric licked his lips and jerked his head around, like a startled wild animal.
Derick knew people — he’d interacted with enough of them to tell their tics. He’d not given anything away to warrant nervousness. What are you driving? did not scream serial killer.
“I, uh.” Ulric glanced to the Escort’s steering wheel and squinted. He cleared his throat. “A Ford.” He nodded. “A, um. A Ford…” He clicked his fingers. “Whatsit called? I forget the name, now. Y’know, the one with the…” He gesticulated with his hands in a vague box shape.
Derick began to get a creeping sensation about Ulric. A feeling he didn’t often get with other people. It had only happened once or twice in his life. “What is it? A sedan? A truck? A van? Compact? Hatchback?” He raised his eyebrows and curled his lips to one side. “A sports car?” Ulric didn’t quite meet his eyes. “Minivan? Coupe? Station wagon? Off-road? Muscle?”
A click at the back of the hitchhiker’s throat. “Ah.” The seconds stretched out, as The Police played away underneath every stuttered heartbeat. “The last one. Yeah, the last one.”
Derick allowed his eyebrows to go even higher, even though Ulric wouldn’t see it. He whistled through his teeth. “A muscle car, huh?”
Ulric chuckled. A fake sound to Derick’s ears. “Yep.”
No response. Ulric shifted his seat, and the material of the duffel bag ruffled in the silence. Whatever it contained, he’d packed it to the point of overflowing. But Derick had a suspicion about what it contained.
“A Blaster? An Eagleheart? American Bull?”
A glint of metal in the darkness.
“I think a Bull.” He nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. A Bull. Definitely a Bull.”
“Huh. Nice. I heard they’re expensive.”
The hitchhiker barked a laugh. Zero humour in that sound. “Yeah.”
The Police faded away and The Eagles came on. Something about checking out and never leaving. The classic rock riffs and old school guitar tones murmured away beneath the hum of the Escort’s engine. Always present, like fingernails against a coffin lid. “You must have a pretty high paying job to afford a Bull.” Derick’s grip tightened around the metal object in the door’s pocket. The surface had grown warm from his white-knuckle clutch.
“Yeah, I’m in, uh, business.”
“What kinda business?”
“Oh, you know.” That flash again on Ulric’s side of the car. A tiny metallic glint. “Business. Stocks and… stuff.”
The car continued to speed down the miles of empty road. The asphalt rushed at them, the broken white line blurred into one. “You know, you’re really bad at this. Ulric.”
Rancid sweat stung Derick’s nostrils. A hitched breath stuck in Ulric’s throat. “Bad at—” He started again. “Bad at what?”
“There is no such car as an American Bull.”
Their heartbeats thudded in unison.
“Or an Eagleheart. Or a Blaster, for that matter.”
Another flash from Ulric’s hands.
“I made them up. To see if you were as full of it as you seemed.” Derick’s smile widened to an impossible size. His lips parted to expose his teeth on full display. No longer the warm grin he practised so often in front of the mirror. His real smile. “And I wouldn’t try that,” he nodded to the thing in Ulric’s hands, “if I were you.” He then added the final nails in the coffin. “Not if you don’t want me to cave your skull in.”
The two men froze in the darkness of the car, with only the hot-coal glow from the radio for illumination. The Escort rolled to a stop, as Derick eased off the accelerator pedal. Billy Ocean’s Suddenly whispered, far away. Words about sudden love and how life had new meaning.
“Whatcha got there?”
Ulric gave a sheepish smile. “Switchblade.” He held up his hand. The knife extended several inches out of the plastic casing. The end crusted with something dubious. Behind the rust-coloured tip, the rest of the metal glinted, clean and sharp.
“Ooh, slicing and stabbing. Very cool. I like a knife man.” Derick raised his hand from the pocket of the door, to reveal his weapon. An embarrassed motion to the movement. “Wrench.”
Ulric offered a laugh. This one contained real humour. “Nice. Bludgeoning. I’ve often thought about using that style. Not sure if I’m brave enough to venture from my established craft, at the moment, though.”
How right he’d been about how looks could deceive. But Derick had thought that only applied to him. The universe, it seemed, wanted to humble him. “Oh, you should just go for it. Mix it up a bit, y’know? Never let things get too stale.”
“I know, I know. It’s just so easy to get into a routine, you know what I mean? Easy to dig yourself into a rut.”
Derick gestured to the duffel bag. “Friend or foe?”
Ulric unzipped the bag, and the stench of raw meat and blood rose into the car interior. “Neither, actually. Just a neighbour. Think her name was Celine, or Cecilia, or something like that.” Ulric wrinkled his nose. “She parked in my space. When I asked her to move, she came back and slashed my tires. So, I slashed her.” He glanced around the car. “What about you? I don’t see any—” he did air quotations “—friends about.”
Derick hooked a thumb over his shoulder, to the boot of the car. “In the back. A kid who was bullying another kid. Poor innocent little nerd. Saw him take the kid’s backpack and emptied it across the pavement. So,” he waggled his wrench at Ulric, “I emptied his head.”
Ulric looked taken aback. “A child?”
“Nah, he was 16 or so.”
Ulric relaxed. “Oh, well that’s okay, then.”
“Yeah.” Derick dropped the wrench back down into the door pocket. “So, Ulric — real name?”
Ulric nodded. “Real name. You?”
“Yep, Derick’s my actual handle. So, you actually headed into town, or just seeing where the wild wind blows?”
“Oh, you know.” They locked gazes. “I like to take it as it comes.”
Derick’s grin became something more genuine and less monstrous. “Me too.” He flicked his indicator on again. “Fancy seeing where this ride leads, Ulric?”
He zipped the duffel bag back up and pointed ahead. “Lead the way.”
The Ford Escort’s headlights washed over the road, the first few buildings of the asleep town not too far ahead.