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Bound for Carlotta

by D. J. Herda

ONE

“Goddamn it,” he growled, forcing the gnarled leather knob on the aging Blaupunkt first one way, then the other, in a futile attempt to pull in WKOW late night. “Goddamn it, I just had it!”

He wiped the corner of his mouth on the sleeve of his parka and peered up over the steering wheel at the asphalt road before him. The car’s fog lights cut jagged streaks through the thick April air, pocked with mist. A ribbon of snow clinging tenaciously to the side of the hill on his left sped by, the last lingering signs of a long, gray winter. Now and again the ribbon split open by a splash of brown and black mottled with ochre before surrendering, once again, to the band of crusty gray. “Damn it,” he cursed again, “I just had it. Where the fuck …”

He twisted the knob right, then left, then right, again. Nothing. He looked down, peered more closely at the face of the glowing box, his index finger pressing up against the salmon-colored DX switch. Suddenly, the roar of static leaped out at him—hsssss-phhhttttt!

“Jesus Christ!” he shouted, jumping back against the seat. The static rolled to a stop, replaced by the sound of the dial coursing quickly past a handful of stations, as if on its pre-set search for the Holy Grail. For a second, quiet. Then the speakers crackled again.

One-Eight-Hundred Messiah. One-Eight-Hundred Messiah has helped save thousands, just like you. More static, a split second pause, and then the unmistakably hard twang of a guitar chord.

“I’ll be damned,” he grinned, looking back up and out over the running asphalt. It was the beginning of a song. It was all the beginning of a song. He’d never heard anything like it. The sound of static, the quick roll of the dial past several simulated stations, and then the Twilight Zone voice with the Messiah message. And now, the music.

Jesus, he thought. What a great opening. He made a mental note to catch the name of the band at the end of the cut. He’d try to find the album at Disks and More in the morning. He looked back down at the glowing faceplate, bobbed his head to the beat of the drums, the solid harmony of the husky vocals. He felt his left hand instinctively tap out the jazzy rhythm against the leather-clad steering wheel.

He looked back up at the road. “Shit!” He jerked the wheel hard to the left and hit the accelerator. Too late. He jolted at the thick, sickening thump as the car hit its target, sucking it under, spitting it out the back. He felt the Porsche’s tail break loose. He cranked the wheel wildly to the right, trying to avoid the inevitable. The rear end, the business end, swung free. He stepped on the gas again to try to pull out, but the wheels only whined and skidded more on the thin film of ice and sleet below. The engine overtook him, passed him on the left as the car planed forward, six thousands pounds of monster with a mind all its own. The rear came around once again—don’t hit the brakes! Too late. The wheels locked up as he felt his foot instinctively reach for the floorboard, accelerating the car’s mad spin. A third time around, followed by a fourth, a fifth, before finally the beast’s paws grabbed the ground and the car lurched and bolted to a growling stop atop a dry patch of roadway.

Dean sat motionless. He stared out the windshield, breathed in deeply, shook his head. He glanced down at his hands, still clinging vice-like to the wheel. Slowly he peeled his fingers free.

“Jesus,” he whispered. He looked in the rear-view mirror for anything that might be barreling down on him. Nothing. Only the blackness of the night. He looked forward, into the path cut by the Porsche’s glowing lights.

Suddenly he remembered. He had hit something. Or, God forbid, someone. He reached back over his left shoulder to pull up the lock. It would not budge. “Goddamn it,” he cursed, shoving the heel of his hand up against the door. Finally he depressed the clutch and forced the shifter into reverse. Looking back over his shoulder, he coaxed the car slowly backwards, back to the site of the accident. A quarter mile. Half. Three-quarters. He pushed in the clutch, and the car rolled to a stop. He looked around. There was nothing there. I couldn’t have skidded this far from where I ...

Dean slipped the shifter into first and began creeping slowly forward. Looking left up against the hill, right down into the gully straddling the winding country road, all the way to the next curve in the road and on to the turnoff to his driveway. Nothing. Not a sign. Not anything.

He paused the car at the entrance to the drive for several seconds. Finally, he pressed his foot against the accelerator and goaded the Porsche up the embankment leading to his home. At the top, he made the turn to the house, pausing long enough to activate the garage door opener, then pulled the car inside. He grabbed the door-lock button with both hands. What the hell is wrong now? It popped free.

Dean stepped out of the car, stood silently for several seconds, felt the sweat rolling down his forehead and puddling against the collar of his jacket. He walked around to the front of the car to view the damage. The bumper was clean. No sign of a collision, scraps of flesh, pieces of fur.

He stood up and scratched the back of his right hand, still quivering from its life-and-death battle with the steering wheel. Slowly, he walked around the car, got down on one knee, peered underneath. He checked the rear. Examined the tires. Felt along the skirt. Nothing. Clean. Not a sign of anything anywhere.

He thought for several seconds and shook his head once again before finally stepping out of the garage and up into the house. Climbing slowly to the top of the stairs, he felt along the wall for the light switch, the last few embers in the fireplace casting their orange-red streaks across the hardwood floor. He flicked the switch on and walked over to the bar, where he half-filled a snifter with Hennessy. The sensation of the burning liquid forced a small cough up from deep down within his throat. Pausing briefly, he inhaled, then drank deeper and longer, this time the fire going down more smoothly. He switched off the lights and followed the orange glow to his favorite wicker chair.

What was it? What could it have been? He knew he had hit something. He saw it. Or did he?

Maybe he fell asleep at the wheel for a split second, just long enough to lose his train of thought, just long enough to imagine hitting something. Yes, that was it. He had fallen asleep, imagined seeing an object in the middle of the road, and snapped to as he pulled the steering wheel frantically to the left. That had to be it. Otherwise he would have found it when he went back. It would have been there—something, some sign of … something. There would have been damage to his car. The front end pushed in. He had to be going forty. No, forty-five. He remembered checking the speedometer just before …

Jesus, he thought. So he couldn’t have been sleeping. It really did happen. He had checked the speedometer, saw the gauge topping forty-five just before the accident. He even remembered the song. What was it, 1-800-Messiah? The static, the guitar chord, the drums, the vocals. Right up to the second of the collision.

But how? What? Where?

Dean set the snifter down on the bar and walked through the great room to the den. He flicked on the outdoor switch, bathing the hillside in a swatch of light. Sliding the glass door open, he stepped out into the night and peered up into the woods. He took three short steps down to the ground and began picking his way carefully along the driveway back to the road. At the asphalt, he turned right, downhill, retracing the tracks of the car. He had to know. He had to find out.
He counted off the paces, estimating the accident at half a mile from his house. Twenty-six-hundred feet. At three feet per pace, that was eight hundred-some steps. As he walked, he checked the gully and the mounds of snow along the gully’s edge, which remained shaded longer than the rest of the road and was always the last to melt off in the spring.

Nine hundred paces. A thousand. Still no sign. He had long since passed the skid marks where the Porsche’s Pirellis had grabbed the dry patch of asphalt and jerked the car to a stop. So far as a sign of an accident—none. Just a few footprints in the snow bank leading down to the valley. Kids playing earlier in the week, perhaps. Or maybe a hiker looking for an easy way down to the valley’s bottom and the rambling stream below. Or a coon hunter. They sometimes got them this far out in the country. For the life of him, Dean couldn’t understand why.

He paused for a few seconds, taking one last look around, then started the short walk home. Back in the house, he picked up the glass of Cognac and reached for the telephone book. He would call the police. They would …

He closed the book. They would what? Come out, hear his story, smell his breath? Maybe cite him for driving under the influence? The last thing he needed was a DUI. No, thank you. He drained the snifter and filled it halfway up, again. No, this was not a case for the police. If he had found something, anything, maybe. But not this. This was too weird, too bizarre.
He set the glass down and was about to throw another log on the fire when he heard a light tapping sound coming from the back of the house. He nestled the log against the glowing embers and went over to the entryway, sliding back the heavy double-glass door leading to the back deck.

“Excuse me. Mr. Janus?”

A sudden, hollow lump filled his throat. “Yes?”

“Mr. Janus, I’m Inspector Sneed with the Mt. Horeb police department. May I come in?”

Dean nodded, stepping back to let him pass. Outside, two uniformed cops prowled the grounds, searching for something--Dean couldn’t imagine what. Or could he?

A thousand fears suddenly raced through his head. Maybe they had found something ... and were looking for something more. Yes. That was it. They had found something on the road. Or ... someone. Yes. That was it. He had hit someone for sure, and the police had come along and found the body. They picked it up and took it in and, somehow, traced the car back to him.
The car. Oh, my God, I left the garage door open ...

For a second, he panicked. Then he breathed in deeply. No, that was ridiculous. If he had hit something, he would have been the first to find it, not the police. And even if they had found something he had missed, how would they have traced it back to him?

He turned toward the little man, who was wiping the mist from his eyeglasses. The man held them up to the fire and squinted through the lenses. “What seems to be the trouble, inspector?”

Sneed examined the spectacles, then set them snuggly back onto his nose. Holding his hand to his mouth, he coughed, deep and wet. The man wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his jacket, a thin overcoat, mid-thigh length, dirty brown, maybe even tan at one time long ago; it was hard to tell. His pocked face showed too many signs of too many battles with adolescence. His hair, too greasy to sit on top of his balding head, looped down in long, heavy strands along each side of his face. His nose was too big for his skull, his eyes too small. The Hitleresque mustache clinging tenaciously to his upper lip completed the overall illusion of silliness that the man presented.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he replied. He pointed to a chair. “May I?”

It was white wicker with light mauve cushions. Dean had just had the fabric cleaned. He hesitated.

The inspector plopped down into the chair and pulled a small notebook from his inside coat pocket. He squinted at it through thick lenses held prisoner by black plastic frames, cracked in the middle and cobbled back together with duct tape.

“We got a report a little earlier.”

“Oh?” Dean replied, trying to remain cool.

Sneed stared up at him. “Something wrong, Mr. Janus?”

“No, no. You just ... surprised me. I … I … didn’t hear you pull up.”

“Oh, that.” Sneed waved him off. “I didn’t want to alarm you, not at this hour of night. I had the boys park down below--on the highway.”

“But, I was just down below.”

Sneed paused. “I know that. I saw you. No, I don’t mean there. I had them park up the road a bit, toward town. We were halfway to where your driveway turns in, when I caught site of you hoofing it down the highway. Looking for something, were you?”

Dean shook his head. “No, just out for a little … night air.”

Sneed nodded. “In the rain?”

“I … didn’t know it was raining.”

“Well, not really rain, is it? More like an uncomfortable, clammy mist, I’d say. Wouldn’t you?”

Dean shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so. What is this all about, inspector?”

“Well,” he said, shifting forward in the chair, “like I said, I didn’t want to alarm you. But we got a call.”

“A call?”

“You know, a telephone call. Someone reported an accident.”

“An accident?”

Sneed nodded. “You didn’t happen to see anything while you were out … walking … did you?”

Dean shook his head.

“No. Figured as much. We didn’t, either. That’s what’s so puzzling.”

“Who reported an accident?”

“Well, it was just a call, you know? Anonymous. Some woman’s voice, said, uhh …” he looked at his notes, “that a black Porsche 911 had just hit someone on Highway JG. That’s the highway that runs right past your house, isn’t it, Mr. Janus? Just hit someone and drove off, you know, like it was nothing at all.” He peered down into his note pad. “You don’t happen to know anyone who drives a black 911 Porsche, do you, Mr. Janus?”

“I drive a black 911, yes.”

He looked up. “You do. Now, isn’t that a coincidence. Were you out in it tonight?”

Dean’s mind raced. If he knew something, if he’d found something, why didn’t he just come out and say so. Or maybe he wasn’t saying anything because he didn’t know anything. At least not anything more than he had gotten from the anonymous tip. Who could have called? Dean hadn’t seen anyone out there. Who would be out at this time of night? Unless, maybe, a jogger. But in the rain? And why wouldn’t a jogger have stopped to lend assistance?

Maybe Sneed was lying. Maybe there was no anonymous phone call. Maybe the cops had been out on the highway and had seen him hit something. Maybe they stopped to watch Dean backtrack to try to find it. It’s possible something was there and he just hadn’t spotted it. Maybe after he left the scene, the cops found it and picked it up. Yes, that was it. He really had hit someone, maybe killed him, and the cops had the body all along, and now they were trying to get him to admit it. Yes, that had to be it. Except, why were there no marks on the car, no blood stains on the snowy road? No, that couldn’t be it.

“Yes, I was out tonight. I was skiing.”

“Skiing? Oh, you mean over at Tyrol Basin, down the valley?”

“Yes.”

“This late at night?”

“Well, no. I mean, they close the lifts at ten. I stopped off with a couple friends and had a beer before coming home.”

“A beer? Or two?”

Dean was getting tired of the sparring. If Sneed knew something, why didn’t he just say so? And if not …

“What is this all about, officer?”

Sneed shook his head. “No, no. Not officer. Those are officers out there, checking the grounds. Me? I’m an inspector. Lieutenant. First grade. I told you. We’re just following up on an anonymous call. It may be a hoax. You know, we get some crank calls this time of year. Spring break. College kids on the loose. You know kids and their pranks.”

“Have you found anything?” The words had slipped past unwilling lips. Dean wished he could take them back.

Sneed sighed. “Well, just a lot of footprints all over the place. But then, I suppose most of them are yours, what with you going out for your walk and everything. Say, you wouldn’t mind if one of the boys checked out that Porsche of yours, would you? I mean, just a quick look. Just for fun.”

Dean hesitated before throwing another log on the fire, then poked at the wood until the flame arched high up the firebox. “No,” he lied. “No, of course I wouldn’t mind.”

“Good, because I already sent forensics to the garage. The door was open. I didn’t think you’d mind. If there was a black Porsche 911 involved in a hit-and-run accident tonight, we’ll know it.”

“Are you accusing me of being involved in a hit-and-run accident?”

Sneed scratched the back of his greasy head. He pulled down his hand, glistening in the dancing light, and stared up at the cathedral ceiling. “This is a nice place. You live here long?”

“A couple of years,” Dean said.

“Nice. Must have cost a bundle to build. You build it?”

Dean nodded. “I was the general contractor, yes.”

“Nice.” Sneed rubbed his greasy paw against his mouth. “You must make good money to be able to afford to build a fancy place like this. I know what a place like this costs. I built a house for me and the ex a few years ago. Nothing near this big, of course. Nothing fancy. Still, it cost me a small fortune. What is it you say you do for a living?”

Dean paused. “I’m a writer.”

Sneed raised his eyes. “ A writer? Now, isn’t that interesting. What kind of things do you write?”

“Books, mostly. Articles. Columns. Whatever I can sell.”

“Books? You mean … real books? Like something I might have read?”

Dean bit his tongue. “Kids books, mostly. Junior high. Non-fiction. A few adult novels, nothing you would have read, I imagine.”

Sneed rubbed his hands together, as if trying to get warm. “Nah. You’re right. I don’t read much, anyway. No time, you know? This job keeps me pretty busy. The job and a couple of kids by the ex. They’re in high school, now. Well, one is. The other is in junior high. Just thirteen. God, they grow up fast, don’t they?” Sneed paused, his eyes sweeping again across the beamed ceiling before falling finally to meet Dean’s. One eye, the left, broke into a tight squint. “Why do you ask?”

“What?” Dean said.

“What?” Sneed replied.

“You said, ‘Why do you ask?’ Why do I ask what?”

“You asked if I’m accusing you of a hit-and-run accident, isn’t that right, Mr. Janus? I was just wondering why it is that someone like yourself would ask someone like myself such a question. Do you have anything you want to tell me? Sometimes people tell me things just to ... ease a guilty conscience. It’s a good thing, easing a guilty conscience. Is that what you want to do with me, Mr. Janus? Ease a guilty conscience?”

For a brief second, Dean wanted to tell him he wasn’t going to talk to him or to anyone anymore until he spoke with an attorney. Instead he shook his head. “No. I have nothing to say.”

“That’s what I figured.” The cop got up from the chair and took two steps toward the door. A uniform came up the steps to the deck. Sneed slid the heavy glass plate to one side, a cold rush of dampness sweeping across the room. He looked out at the man. “Well?”

The cop, water trickling from his hat and down his shoulder, shook his head. “Nothing. Clean as a whistle.”

Sneed paused, cocking his head like a parrot. “Even the car?”

“Even the car.”

Sneed’s eyes darted past the cop, sped quickly up and down the hillside, then returned to the man. His brows furrowed so deeply, you could have planted radishes above his eyelids. “You sure?”

The cop threw him a disgusted look—for Sneed’s doubting him or for having called him out on a wild goose chase in the middle of the night, it was hard to tell. The man disappeared down the steps. Sneed paused before turning back toward Dean.

“Well, looks like it was just one of those, what do you call it, coincidences. The black Porsche, the telephone call, your little walk along the highway in the middle of the night.”

“I guess,” Dean said.

“Well, like I say, I didn’t want to alarm you. Me and the boys will walk on down to the car and, I guess, take off. If there’s nothing else to see here.”

Dean shrugged.

“Sorry to have disturbed you, Mr. Janus. So late at night, and all. But we’ll be in touch, I’m sure.”

Sneed stepped out onto the deck, paused just long enough to pull a cigarette from a crumpled soft-pack before continuing down the steps and out of sight. Dean peered out the glass door after him, his own image staring back, the short dark beard and dark brown hair nearly lost among the shadows of the night, only the rectangle of his forehead, the rimless designer glasses, the two ruddy cheeks, still aglow from his evening on the slopes, peering in. He thought for a moment about calling Lynne. But she was only now getting over the incident and didn’t need to be running around in her weakened condition.

No, that wouldn’t work. That wouldn’t work at all. So, he settled into a chair and stared hollowly out the glass door at the footprints in the snow, his mind racing. He wondered what had really happened that night, wondered if Sneed had been telling him the truth about someone placing an anonymous call and all. Then, again, he hadn’t done anything wrong. He thought he hit something, but maybe not. Maybe it was just one of those crazy things. After all, not even the cops’ forensics experts could find any sign of anything.

Someday he might learn the truth. Things like this, country things, had a way of laying dormant for days or even years. He knew that. And then, one day, when you least expect it, you wake up and go to town and run into one of your neighbors who says, Wow, wasn’t that something? What happened to you that night? And the next thing you know, it’s all as clear as a bell.
Someday that might happen, but not tonight.
 

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