Camera Obscura

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Chapter Twenty Eight

The car raced headlong toward the dark shadow of the arroyo. Larry’s face was frozen in concentration while Marissa stared in terror at the edge of the dry riverbed. Larry put his full weight on the brake and twisted the steering wheel to the right with all his might, throwing the car into a sharp skid. The car slid toward the lip of the embankment, ripping up cacti and little shinnery that stood in its path, sliding on loose rocks.

Marissa screamed and Larry yelled from the depths of his soul. It looked as if they would slip over the edge, but at the last moment, the rotating tires were finally able to stop the sideway slide and lurch forward once again.

In their own panic, they did not see the other car try the same maneuver but fail. With the men’s cries deadened by the chuffing of the helicopter that hung over head, Larry and Marissa missed the car’s roll into the arroyo. The man who had been hanging out of the front window was crushed when the car rolled down the embankment. There was a moment of quiet before the stunned men began prying doors open to get out.

Larry didn’t wait to see how the other car fared but headed in the direction that Marissa pointed, trusting that it was toward the American border.

The helicopter remained over the wrecked car for only a moment before turning to chase Larry’s car again. One more time Larry found himself dodging juniper trees and boulders, skirting small dry creek bed, trying to keep ahead of the helicopter that was rapidly gaining on them. Bullets were again pinging on the hood and the trunk. The weaving of the car made them a tough target to hit, but enough shells were launched toward them that a few managed to find their mark.

Marissa cursed violently and fluidly in Spanish. Her fear was giving over to anger and the desire to get her revenge against Carlos Madragón. The men in the helicopter were his, and Marissa was determined to stop them. Using her rifle to sweep away shards of glass from the rear window, she half-climbed onto the trunk, aimed as carefully as possible as their speed and weaving movement allowed, and fired at dark form of the helicopter. She ducked back into the car as the men in the airship returned fire. She did this again and again until the helicopter seemed ready to make its kill.

Suddenly, it veered off and headed in the direction of Madragón’s ranch. The night was suddenly still except for the retreating chuff of the helicopter and the whine of the car engine.

Larry peered out the windows. “What happened?” he asked bewildered. “Are we alone?”

“I think so,” Marissa answered cautiously.

He pulled the car to a stop, opened the door, and got out on legs, shaky from the tension and terror of the last half hour. Marissa got out and stood looking in the direction of the ranch. The sound of the helicopter was now more of a memory than a noise.

“Perhaps I hit one of the gas tanks. They must not have had enough fuel to finish us.”

“And they need the helicopter for the trip to the Grand Canyon.”

“Will we make it in time?”

“If we’re lucky,” Larry said, getting back into the car.

“Promise me one thing.” Her eyes were black with hate.

“What’s that?”

“When Carlos dies, I want to see it. I want to laugh in his face as he chokes on his own blood.”

They had driven steadily north, crossing the border east of Mexicali, near Algodones. Wheeler was not afraid to cross at an official border stop, but Marissa had no papers with her. Around two in the morning Larry pulled the car off the road at a rest stop. He parked away from the general parking area, between two big rigs. He hoped they would give them a little relief from the relentless feeling that they must be alert for anyone who might be looking for them.

“Have to rest for a while,” he told Marissa as he climbed stiffly from the car and stretched his tired and aching muscles. Bumping over the desert had left him feel bruised and drained.

“You want me to drive?” Her eyes were red and puffy from lack of sleep and without freshening her makeup, she looked every one of her hard-lived forty-odd years.

He shook his head, flexing his neck muscles as he gave a huge yawn. “I think we both could stand a little shut eye. We’ll probably be all right here for a while. These trucks make a pretty good screen. You should stretch out in the back. I’ll be okay up here.”

She nodded, too tired to argue. Being on constant alert when she was at the ranch was always exhausting, but when the adrenaline rush from their race to safety had subsided, it left her with few remaining energy resources. She climbed into the back seat, brushed the glass from the seat, curled her arm under her head and immediately fell to sleep. Neither Larry nor Marissa heard the trucks when they left nor their replacements, which pulled into place some twenty minutes later.

They woke to early morning sunlight streaming in the windows and a rough Texas-laced voice filtering through their sleep sodden brains.

“Y’all okay in there?” the voice asked. When he got no immediate reply, he continued, “Looks like y’all had a mite o’ trouble.”

Larry squinted his tired eyes against the bright light and muttered, ”You could say that.”

He struggled to pull himself upright, rubbed his knuckles into his eyes to clear away the cobwebs of sleep and looked at what appeared to be a mountain of a man with a smallish woman standing beside him.

“You awright back there, hon?” the woman said, peering in at Marissa, who was now straightening her clothing and trying to look as presentable as possible.

Sí. Gracias,” she smiled tentatively at the rawboned woman, who looked like a modern version of the woman in the painting, American Gothic, except that her face was wreathed in smiles now that Marissa appeared to be all right.

“What happened to y’all?” the woman asked. “Looks like it was a big ’un, what ever caused all this damage.”

“We were attacked by bandits just this side of the border. We were almost killed.”

“Good golly!” the bearded giant spat. “Nobody’s safe anymore. You gonna be able to make it t’ where you’re goin’ in this thing?”

Larry surveyed the damage, which in daylight looked even worst than he had expected. They were undoubtedly lucky to have made it out alive.

“I think so,” he said. “It ran okay last night. We’re headed up to Flagstaff. Have family there,” he lied with a straight face. “My uncle has an auto repair shop. If anyone can make this thing better, he can.”

“I think you’d be well off the give this thing a descent burial,” the woman smiled. “I bet you two could use somethin’ to eat. I got us some grub up in the cab,” she nodded at the truck, “and you’re welcome to join us. My name’s Cecile and this here is my husband Michael, after the Archangel. His friends call him Suds ’cause he worked in the laundry in the navy, but he’s my angel so I call him by his right name.”

She smiled up at the big man, who grinned, not at all embarrassed by his wife’s obvious affection.

As she talked the woman helped Marissa out of the car and led her to the rig where she climbed up the steep side just like a monkey while Marissa watched from below. She disappeared into the back of the cab and reappeared a moment later with a package of cheese Danish rolls, a Thermos of coffee and two Styrofoam cups.

“A cup o’ warm coffee’ll set you up again, I bet,” Cecile smiled. Take all you want. There’s creamer too, if you want it. I have the fixin’s for more in the cab and there’s more rolls too, if you don’t like this kind.”

Larry realized he hadn’t eaten since noon the day before when he had asked for directions in San Diego. Famished, he took the nearest Danish and bit into it as Cecile poured a cup of coffee for him. The coffee was still steaming and rich and the roll was like heaven to his roiling stomach.

Marissa smiled her thanks as she helped herself to the rolls and coffee. “You are very kind to do this for total strangers,” she said between bites and after a long swig from the cup.

“Hon,” Cecile said, “folks that live on the road have to hep each other. We never know when it might be us that needs it. You’re welcome to anything we have, except Ol’ Betsy here.” She smiled and nodded at the big rig.

“I’ve kind of lost track of where we are. We were running for our lives and weren’t paying a lot of attention to the road. Got any idea how far we are to Flagstaff?” Larry asked, trying to be as casual as possible.

“Five or six hours, I guess,” Suds answered. “But you really ought to stop and check your ride before you go too much farther. Might take you a mite longer if you’ve got some mechanical problems.”

“We’ll do that,” Larry nodded, not meaning a word of it. They had to get to the Canyon before sundown. He wasn’t sure what they’d find when they got there, but it was essential that they be there before the delivery time sometime around dusk.

Refreshed after their unexpected breakfast and the few hours of rest, Larry and Marissa said goodbye to their benefactors and headed north.

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