Bad things happen in threes, Val recalled the adage, when her Taurus suddenly stalled on the way to the store. As dusk deepened, she fingered her now dead cell phone, and reckoned the quote was true, too. Pausing before one last try at the ignition key, she recalled again the look on Davidʹs face as heʹd turned to see her. . . Betrayer surprised by betrayed. Classic. Just moments before the look, sheʹd witnessed him kissing the blond woman, overlooking those opportunistic otters with the same playful antics and questing snouts. Then, just like that, sheʹd turned away from them both. On her way out, as sheʹd walked past chattering monkeys, it had felt as if the world had turned feral somehow. Colors paled. The air inexplicably filled with allergens, and she found it hard to breathe. Led down the garden path. That was one way she might have put it. As though a lightning bolt had exposed the chasm between reality and what she believed, sheʹd seen things in stark clarity, then. With her lunchtime iced coffee spilling onto the sidewalk beneath her, she also saw the anteater, its long snout rooting everywhere, and was reminded of her boss, KTATʹs station manager. Saw, too, the lazy lion, the bored elephant, and the trapped yet restlessly pacing polar bear‐‐creatures that reminded her of still others at work. For herself sheʹd identified with one lone parrot, a solitary caged bird near the exit that did not sing, but instead was forced to witness several strutting peacocks nearby, whose freedom she imagined it envied.
Back to the moment at hand, Val gripped the ignition key once more, and turned it. Only a few clicks emitted, this time.
Nothing ever turns out the way you expect, Trish.
She got out, locked up, and looked around her. Grim rows of warehouses flanked the other side of the street. Abandoned warehouses, since this was late Saturday, with the towers of downtown Tucson office buildings only a distant backdrop. What she needed now was to get out of the area, and find something that actually worked for a change.
She began to walk, wary of movement around her. When a vehicle slowed from behind, she glanced back to see a lone man with a beard driving a pickup. Her heart beat faster at that. Yet she purposefully ignored the man, willing him to drive on. When the man finally beeped, startling her again, she kept walking determinedly until he roared by, accelerating at the dismissal.
Now she considered how sheʹd looked, in her gray business suit and black shoes. Resembling Maria Shriver in facial features and hair style, she wondered if the man might have recognized her from her occasional appearances on the show. Yet Tucson This Week aired on Sunday morning, so probably not, she decided. She was just a skirt. Somebody to pick up. Didnʹt matter to him if sheʹd not been deemed sexy enough for a news anchor job, or that viewers preferred blond over brunette, and early thirties over late. Those things only mattered to the station owner, and apparently also to David. If she wasnʹt in the habit of dressing impeccably to overcome her supposed flaws, maybe even a trucker wouldnʹt notice her. Without a sense of style, maybe she would have been shuffled off camera and conveniently replaced long ago, just as anchor Cheryl Atkinson had been upon getting pregnant.
There was an unexpected chill to the desert air now, with the sun gone. Val shivered, and quickened her pace. Glancing over her shoulder compulsively, she saw street lights flicker to life against a mounting invasion of darkness. High palm treetops swayed in a breeze that didnʹt quite reach the ground. When she heard another clicking sound, she imagined that someone was following her, back from around the curved wall where her car had stalled. But then she told herself it was just that‐-‐imagination. Shadows of the mind. If she could make it under the bridge, there was a taco franchise with a pay phone on the other side. Not far at all.
Going under the bridge, though, would be like entering a tunnel. She saw that. The tunnel was lit and wide, but it was a tunnel nonetheless. One that arched downward and turned slightly to the right, with two overhead roads and a trainʹs tracks spaced out in three massively reinforced spans above, a hundred feet apart. The nearer she got, the higher the wall beside her became, too. Soon it was over twenty‐five feet high, its long straight lines of rough concrete making a washboard pattern designed to deaden and defuse the echoes of traffic. When the first overpass blotted out the sky above her, she realized that the clicking sheʹd heard was actually from tires somewhere above, crossing sections of elevated roadway.
This subterranean world was one of harsh stone. Acres of it amassed in pillars and walls and road and sidewalk. The vast slabs didnʹt seem to absorb all of the thunder made by a van that roared by in a sudden swooping assault, but perhaps the effect was heightened in her mind by the industrial grade lighting‐‐stark and unearthly yellow in hue‐‐cast by the recessed silver fixtures glowing beneath each bridge. When she began to feel uneasy, the mercifully distracting thought came to her that such a project was probably a boondoggle. Something she might even pitch to Greg as a story, given how few cars traveled here. But perhaps Tucson city planners had the future in mind, when a larger link into downtown made it more cost effective. She imagined that future, next, when these elevated bypasses might whisk late carloads of city workers, their destination the untainted subdivisions of suburbia. Rushing headlong, car windshields would mimic what higher windows saw, and then from a dozen ramps and multi‐tiered downtown parking lots a conjured python of traffic, reflecting the dying sun, would be shunted north.
When the second stilted ribbon of concrete thrummed above her, Val walked quickly under it, glancing apprehensively into the shadows of the concrete pillars. And that was when she passed the girl.
A teenager, dressed in black, was leaning against the inside of one of the hard, gray stanchions. Except for a startling flash of bust line, she might have been mistaken for a troll instead of a child.
A child. . .
The impression registered with Val too late, since sheʹd paused in surprise only long enough for one step to be out of rhythm. Her mouth had opened to ask the obvious question, but then she hadnʹt asked it. Or stopped. Perhaps it was the glimpse of the skull tattoo on the back of the girlʹs neck, she reasoned, along with the realization that her business suit probably represented authority, something that such a girl was likely to be disaffected toward. Perhaps it was the unexpected distraction, too, at seeing someone‐‐anyone‐‐willingly lingering in such an austere and cheerless environment.
Yet as she walked up the other side, Val regretted her impulse not to speak. Maybe the girl wouldnʹt have listened to advice, but a conversation may have been initiated, leading to it. A conversation that tactfully avoided whether there were other adults exploiting her, besides the one whoʹd branded a child with the symbol of death.
Goth girls, they were called. Girls obsessed with gothic symbols, dark clothes, vampires. Sheʹd seen them before, hanging around seedy bars downtown. Had even asked about them, once. Perhaps a segment of Tucson This Week could profile them, maybe even interview some of them. Find out if their parents were neglectful or abusive. Discover their motivations, their fascinations. An idea, at least. One that might reassert her flagging influence over the showʹs direction and ratings.
When she emerged into view of Broadway, Val saw to her dismay that the Taco Bell franchise was closed for renovation, and its outside pay phone missing. With little traffic to impede her crossing the road to the convenience store on the other side, however, she targeted the store just as the last gradations of dusk fell to night above the eerily illuminated roadway.
Halfway across, she saw that a middle aged woman waited near the corner. Closer still, she noted that the woman had Native American features, her long black hair pulled to one side in a braid. Tight blue jeans were tucked into tall calfskin boots, and her pockmarked face seemed stitched together of patchwork fragments of flesh, as though sheʹd been cut and reassembled by a plastic surgeon who made house calls.
ʺSlowʹn down there, honey,ʺ the woman said, smiling slyly as Val approached. Again, Val opened her mouth to say something, but didnʹt.
ʺWhas the hurry?ʺ the woman wondered next, grinning soullessly as Val passed. Her teeth glowed chicken fat yellow in the sodium light. ʺYa late for a date?ʺ
ʺIʹm sorry, I. . .ʺ Val managed, trailing off. Not looking back, she walked determinedly toward the bright box of light, where inside she knew were aisles stacked with the most popular basic staples. Bread and milk, along with things like cigarettes and beer and tabloid newspapers and aspirin. Fumbling through the half shredded phonebook attached to the battered cubical outside, she searched for the number to a towing service, before remembering the auto club card in her purse. At this, she let the phone book drop, and heard it swing down on its levered holder to bang hard against the plastic backing of the cubical. A piece of paper fluttered out, which she saw only peripherally, not looking down at it while she dialed. Only after she hung up did she look.
To her surprise, it was a $5 bill. She stared at the Lincoln Memorial on the reverse in disbelief. The Memorial was more green than white. Green with envy, the phrase came to her. And then, like a piece of advice from her mother, another saying popped into her mind.
Luck favors the prepared.
ʺIʹm lucky,ʺ she whispered aloud, as though saying it might make it true.
She reached down, picked up the bill in fascination. While she waited for help she folded it into a triangle shape, like a flag is folded. A little paper flag. She thought of giving the flag to the unlucky woman on the corner, but then saw that the woman was gone. Picked up, too.
Too late, too late. . .for a very important date.
ʺIʹm lucky,ʺ she repeated louder, against the darkness, half expecting a reply. When none came, she felt a sense of relief, and pushed the folded bill carefully into her purse. Then she looked back toward the tunnel across the street, now dark and open like the mouth of a snake.
Except from The Miraculous Plot of Leiter & Lott.