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About the Author: Bruce Arthurs has been writing occasional stories since 1975, with scattered publications in scattered venues over the years. In the 1990s he also edited two anthologies and wrote an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation ("Clues", 4th Season, 1991). After a long hiatus he began writing fiction again in late 2012 while recovering from a badly broken arm. Five new stories have been published since then, with several others accepted. One of those new stories, "Beks and the Second Note" (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, December 2016), was a Best Short Story finalist for the 2017 Derringer Short Mystery Fiction awards.

The Highway Patrol car raised a trail of dust from the worn asphalt road. No siren, no lights; no reason for them with no other vehicles visible. The Plymouth black-&-white sped on towards what had once been a town.

This road gets worse every time I come out here, Decker thought. He could feel each bump and crack the patrol vehicle drove over. He considered asking Anderson to slow the ’69 Fury’s speed, but this trip out to Hank’s place was personal and needed doing as quickly as possible. Decker and the rookie needed to get back and rejoin the search for Brill.

The dead town was as brown as the surrounding desert. The barren mountains to the southeast made a darker backdrop to the remains. The town had never been large, a few hundred residents at its peak, kept alive by the stream of traffic that had once passed along the highway. Bare concrete slabs showed where many of the buildings and homes had once stood. Except for one, the few buildings left standing barely merited the name. They were tinder-dry, bleached beige and gray by years of sun, spikes of bright sunlight showing through gaps in shrunken and twisted boards, only a few panes of glass still unbroken. The dust thrown up by the patrol car as it followed the neglected road towards the town added one more layer to the patina of years.

The sole exception to the town’s long, slow decay was time-worn but still complete, after a fashion. The service station had once been a brilliant stuccoed white, but was now gray and stained, the plaster cracked and chipped. Plywood and cardboard had replaced several of the windows. The ancient Coke machine in front had faded to a rust-spotted pink, its front dented from innumerable kicks. A half-dozen cars sat on one side of the station; a crumpled Buick, a wheel-less Volkswagen, a battered Jeep among them. On the other side of the station was an old aluminum travel trailer, mounted on blocks and with a rusty swamp cooler jury-rigged into one window.

The patrol car skidded in the loose dirt as it braked to a stop before the old-fashioned gas pump. “Honk the horn,” Decker told Anderson as he opened the passenger side door.

He stood and stretched, pulling his sweaty shirt loose from a gut that showed, he knew, his forty-two years too well. He looked around, nostalgia and disappointment showing on his face. A small look of puzzlement began to grow over his features.

The door of the trailer banged open, and an ogre-like figure stepped down into the dirt, lurching as it recovered its balance. Hank’s old gray work pants and sleeveless t-shirt held stains of oil and grease and sweat. He hitched at the beltless pants as he limped towards the sheriff, squinting with one good eye.

“Hello, Uncle Hank,” Decker called to the approaching figure. “Where’s Luger?”

Hank scratched at the stubble on his deeply lined, toothless face. “Damn dog finally up and died on me.” His voice was like gravel shaken in a tin can. He hooked a thumb towards the back of the station. “Buried him out there this morning. Didn’t want him to stink.”

“Oh. Tough break, Hank.” Really tough, Decker thought. The German Shepherd had been the old man’s only companion out here for years, since before a new stretch of Eisenhower’s interstate system was routed miles to the north and left the town stuck on a stagnant backwater road. Only Hank’s monthly Social Security checks let him scrape by, barely, after the gas station’s business dried up to almost nothing.

“Yeah,” Hank replied, his voice even rougher than usual. He spat on the dry ground; the spittle vanished quickly into the dust. “What did you come out for, Danny?”

“There’s an escaped prisoner from the state pen. Mean son of a bitch, name of Brill. He was up for triple-life, killed three people in a holdup that went bad. Should have fried, and his attorney too.”

“No sign of him.”

“Keep an eye out, though he’s probably heading north or west. Brill’s about six two, two twenty, dark hair, brown eyes, tattoos on both arms. If you see him, don’t play hero. But blow his head off if you get a sure shot.”

Hank nodded. “I’ll keep an eye out.”

Decker scanned the area again from behind his mirrored sunglasses. “Thanks, Hank. I’ll be on my way.”

He paused at the patrol car’s door and turned back towards the crooked old man still standing in the yard’s dirt. “Hank?” he asked. “Anything you need from town?”

This story appears in our APR 2021 Issue
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Dark tale but wonderful!
By Susan Rickard

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