JUST HEARD THE NEWS BULLETIN ON MY CAR RADIO.
Tiel McCoy didn't begin this telephone conversation with any superfluous chitchat. That was her opening statement the instant Gully said hello. No preamble was necessary.
Truth be known, he had probably been expecting her call.
But he played dumb anyway. "That you, Tiel? Enjoying your vacation so far?"
Her vacation had officially begun that morning when she left Dallas and headed west on Interstate 20. She had driven as far as Abilene, where she stopped to visit her uncle, who'd lived in a nursing home there for the past five years. She remembered Uncle Pete as a tall, robust man with an irreverent sense of humor, who could barbecue a mean brisket and knock a softball out of the park.
Today they had shared a lunch of soggy fish sticks and canned English peas and watched an episode of Guiding Light. She'd asked if there was anything she could do for him while she was there, like write a letter or buy a maga zine. He had smiled at her sadly and thanked her for coming, then gave himself over to an attendant who'd tucked him in for his nap like a child.
Outside the nursing home, Tiel had gratefully inhaled the scorching, gritty West Texas air in the hope of eradicating the smell of age and resignation which had permeated the facility. She had been relieved the family obligation was behind her, but felt guilty for the relief. By an act of will she shook off her despair and reminded herself that she was on vacation.
It wasn't even officially summer yet, but it was unseasonably warm for May. There'd been no shade in which to park at the nursing home; consequently her car's interior had been so hot she could have baked cookies on the dashboard. She flipped on the AC full-blast and found a radio station that played something other than Garth, George, and Willie.
"I'm going to have a wonderful time. The time away will be good for me. I'll feel a lot better for having done it."
She repeated this internal dialogue like a catechism, trying to convince herself of the truth of it. She had approached the vacation as though it were equivalent to taking a bad-tasting laxative.
Heat waves made the highway appear to ripple, and the undulating movement was hypnotic. The driving became mindless. Her mind drifted. The radio provided background noise of which Tiel was barely aware.
But hearing the news bulletin was like getting goosed by the driver's seat. With a lurch, everything accelerated -the car, Tiel's heart rate, her mind.
Immediately she fished her cell phone from her large leather satchel and placed the call to Gully's direct line.
Again declining any unnecessary conversation, she said to him now, "Give me the skinny."
"What's the radio putting out?"
"That earlier today a high school student in Fort Worth kidnaped Russell Dendy's daughter."
"That's about the gist of it," Gully confirmed.
"The gist, but I want details."
"You're on vacation, Tiel."
"I'm coming back. Next exit, I'll make a U-turn." She consulted her dashboard clock. "I'll be at the station by-"
"Hold on, hold on. Where're you at, exactly?"
"About fifty miles west of Abilene."
"What, Gully?" Her palms had become damp. She experienced the familiar tickle in her belly that only happened when she was following a hot lead to a super story.
That unique adrenaline rush couldn't be mistaken.
"You're on your way to Angel Fire, right?"
"Northeastern part of New Mexico… Yeah, there it is."
He must have been reading a highway map as he spoke.
"Naw, never mind. You don't want this assignment, Tiel. It would take you out of your way."
He was baiting her, and she knew he was baiting her, but in this instance she didn't mind being baited. She wanted a piece of this story. The kidnaping of Russell Dendy's daughter was big news, and it promised to become even bigger news before it was over. "I don't mind taking a detour. Tell me where to go."
"Well," he hedged, "only if you're sure."
"Okay then. Not too far in front of you is a turnoff onto state highway Two-oh-eight. Take it south to San Angelo.
On the south side of San Angelo you're gonna intersect with-"
"Gully, about how far out of my way is this detour going to take me?"
"I thought you didn't care."
"I don't. I'd just like to know. Rough estimate."
"Well, let's see. Give or take… about three hundred miles."
"From Angel Fire?" she asked faintly.
"From where you are now. Doesn't count the rest of the way to Angel Fire."
"Three hundred round trip?"
She expelled a long sigh, but was careful not to let him hear it. "You said highway Two-oh-eight south to San Angelo, then what?"
She steered with her knee, held the phone with her left hand, and took notes with her right. The car was on cruise control, but her brain was in overdrive. Journalistic juices were pumping faster than the pistons in her engine.
Thoughts of long pleasant evenings spent in a porch rocker were swapped for those of sound bites and interviews.
But she was getting ahead of herself. She lacked pertinent facts. When she asked for them, Gully, damn him, turned mulish on her. "Not now, Tiel. I'm as busy as a one-armed paperhanger, and you've got miles to cover. By the time you get where you're going, I'll have a lot more info."
Frustrated and supremely irked with him for being so stingy with the details, she asked, "What's the name of the town again?"
The highways were arrow-straight, flanked on both sides by endless prairie with only an occasional herd of cattle grazing in irrigated pastures. Oil wells were silhouetted against a cloudless horizon. Frequently a tumble weed rolled across the roadway in front of her. Once she got beyond San Angelo, she rarely saw another vehicle.
Funny, she thought, the way things turn out.
Ordinarily she would have elected to fly to New Mexico.
But days ago she had decided to drive to Angel Fire, not only so she could visit Uncle Pete along the way, but also to get herself into a holiday frame of mind. The long drive would give her time to decompress, work the kinks out, begin the period of rest and relaxation before she ever reached the mountain resort, so that when she did arrive, she would already be in vacation mode.
At home in Dallas, she moved with the speed of light, always in a rush, always working under a deadline. This morning, once she had reached the western fringe of Fort Worth and put the metropolitan sprawl behind her, when the vacation became a reality, she had begun to anticipate the idyllic days awaiting her. She had daydreamed of clear, gurgling streams, hikes along trails lined with aspens, cool, crisp air, and lazy mornings spent with a cup of coffee and a fiction bestseller.
There would be no schedule to keep, nothing but hours in which to be lazy, which was a virtue unto itself.
Tiel McCoy was way past due to engage in some unabashed ennui. She'd already postponed this vacation three times.
"Use 'em or lose 'em," Gully had told her of the vacation days she had accumulated.
He had lectured her on how her performance, as well as her disposition, would greatly improve if she gave herself a breather. This from the man who hadn't taken more than a few vacation days in the past forty-something years-counting the week required to have his gallbladder removed.
When she reminded him of this, he had scowled at her.
"Precisely. You want to wind up an ugly, shriveled, pathetic relic like me?" Then he'd really hit the nail on the head.
"Taking a vacation isn't going to jeopardize your chances.