THE CRUISER MOVED FROM THE DARK ONTO THE highway in a fluid rush, but inside, Russell Boyd felt the acceleration as a hard and yet pleasurable bump. The engine whined as he went through the gears, and at a hundred and ten miles an hour the lines on the road began to blur. In the turns, Boyd accelerated, and this pushed the rear end of the cruiser down so that it hugged the highway. In the certainty of speed, which was at once reassuring and still exciting, he had a thrill that was like seeing the purple approach of a storm. And where pursuit was concerned, Russell liked the flowing attraction toward those lights up ahead, just as he was aware, in the moment, of how he and the driver of the other car were bound together by speed. It pulled them together with a constant attraction, like gravity. And as the speedometer swept upward, Russell tried to relax, to take it easy, and to make sure he didn't miss much.
He went after was Audi with just two seats, and when he came up behind it, he keyed the mike and asked the dispatcher for a check of the license plate. Who owned the car, priors, outstanding warrants, unpaid fines. The dispatcher couldn't say who was in the car. Boyd turned on the blue lights, and the Audi pulled over, the driver making a signal when he did so.
Boyd angled the cruiser's nose turned toward the passing traffic, and he turned the wheels, too, so that if the cruiser got rear-ended, it wouldn't hit him as he stood next to the Audi. Then he opened the door and swung into the shudder of air that was left by a passing car. The anxious trembling of wind was enhanced by the throbbing of blue light, and Boyd hesitated, taking a moment to look around. Some nights when it was cold he saw the indifferent stars, which were the color of the blue haze beneath the lights from a Sunoco gas station. When he was scared, which was the next step up from being alert, the haze appeared to him like ground mist spilling into an open grave. This didn't last long, and he was glad when dread receded into the part of the mind where shadows blended with only half-formed apprehensions.
There were other times, though, when everything was going as it should, when the speed had its effect on him, like music, and then the haze beneath the lights of a gas station appeared to him like the steam when Zofia was in the shower and the liquid sheen of water ran down her hips and legs. Boyd couldn't quite recall her as well as he wanted, not photographically, but he was reassured by something else, which was the seep and itch of desire. But even so, he still wanted to be precise about what happened the instant she came into a room in the evening when he had been waiting for her. It was as though the room was suddenly filled with . . . he wasn't sure what to call it. He knew she changed the room, but he couldn't say more than that. And even though he wasn't sure what the precise word was, he knew that when Zofia came into the room, her hair moving into the light of a lamp, he instantly existed in a state of pleasurable alertness. Then she'd drop her papers, her teacher's roll book, kick off her shoes, drop her skirt, and stand there looking at him. "I'm going to take a shower," she would say. "Want to come with me?"
Now he looked for a detail about the Audi that would tell him something, a smell, a broken light, the way the car sat on its springs. Was it carrying something heavy? Was the license plate clean while the rest of the car was dirty? Were the people in the car passing anything between them? Were they red-eyed and slurring on alcohol or something else? Were their pupils like pinholes? He stood there in the blue light and put his hand on his pistol, which was made out of stainless steel to protect it from the corrosiveness of road salt. Then he took his hand away, not wanting the cheap reassurance of the thing. Reassurance came, as it always did, from the way he spoke, and in trying to make sure he gave people a way out.
"Hi, how are you tonight?" he said to the driver. His voice was one cut above neutral, more friendly than not. "Do you know why I stopped you?"
The woman in the passenger seat put one hand to her head, as though the man she was with had made her so angry it had given her a headache. Boyd saw her dark hair and black coat and felt again that sense of entering someone's private place. People built up history in a car, one word or act at a time, just as they consumed liquor in it or flirted and had sex or where, from time to time, a long-hidden betrayal was discovered, just as the implications of it were made clear, too. ("Do you really want to know? Do you? Are you sure? Well, I didn't do it with him, but I wanted to . . .") The driver passed over his license and the registration.
Boyd went back to the cruiser and wrote out the ticket, which was for eighty-five in a sixty-five. It could have been eighty-nine or even ninety, but Boyd gave him a break. Then he got out and started back toward the Audi, and though his business was done, he still thought that the most dangerous time was when you thought everything you saw was one thing, but really it was another, and that the people in the car weren't quiet because of an old disagreement but because there was a bag of something in the back they shouldn't have, or maybe some other ugly thing Boyd couldn't think of but would recognize when he saw it.
Boyd passed the ticket over, and as the driver took it the woman said, "Take me home."
"Home?" the driver said.
"Yeah," she said, "My house. You know, where my husband lives."
"I thought we had been through all that," he said.
"Be careful when you pull back on here," Boyd said. "People get going fast in this section."
"You hear me?" she said.
"Yeah," the driver said.
"I want to get back before he finds the note," she said. "Before my husband finds it."
"He's probably read it," said the driver.
"Look," she said. "There's nothing more to say."
"All right," the driver said.
"I just want to go home. I've been thinking."
"It isn't because I got a speeding ticket, is it?" he said.
"O, shut up," she said. "He's listening."
Boyd wasn't really listening so much as looking at the other cars as they went by, all of them trailing something, which he apprehended as the small essence that every fast-moving thing leaves behind. Then he turned and walked back to the cruiser, where he waited for the Audi to move into the slow lane, its tail light blinking with a sad urgency. He saw the woman in the front seat put her hand to her head one more time. Then Boyd got back onto the highway and smoked it up to a hundred, a hundred and ten. At the next turnaround he crossed over to the southbound lane and went back to the place where he had waited before, which was screened by a grove of poplar, even though at night, at this hour, he didn't need cover. The engine ticked with heat, and in the hush of the radio, the dim lights from the dash, he thought about Zofia. The darkness around him wasn't so grim, or when it was, he was helped by the memory of sheets of moisture as they ran down her legs.
One evening she stood in the bedroom, toweling her hair. She said, "You know, a friend of mine was pregnant, and when she was big, she couldn't shave her legs. Her husband had to do it for her. She said it was the most exciting thing. You know, lying there, feeling the tug of the razor as it went down her calf, seeing his head bent over her as he went about it. Careful about cutting her."
Russell had met her a month before in the parking lot of the post office in the mill town along the Connecticut River in southern Vermont where he lived. The town was built against a hillside, and while it still had businesses like Crystal Oil and Ice, there was also a Thai restaurant and a Korean one, not to mention two vegetarian outfits, a French bakery, and dress stores that sold skirts for more than a lot of people in town made in a week. It had a food co-op, too, which sold organic spinach and granola. The town had the usual problems, drugs and suicide, an ugly murder every two years, shoplifting, drunken fights, the odd stabbing, an occasional bank robbery by someone under the age of twenty-five.
Zofia had been changing a tire on her car, and when he had come up to her, she had been straining to loosen a lug nut. Her arms trembled with the effort, and when he said, "Would you like a hand?"she said, "No. It's all right. Thanks."
While she was still straining, he put his hand next to hers on the lug wrench. When he pulled up, the nut gave with a squeak and with something that both of them felt in their hands, which was a soft release. Most of the work had been done, and all it took was a little more pressure. She looked up, still feeling that soft, giving release. Then she went on to the next one, which she strained against, too.
"Well?" she said. "Aren't you going to help with this one?"
He helped her get the tire over the bolts and to tighten the nuts down, and then she stood there, looking at him.
"What do you do, you know, when you're not helping people change tires?"
"I'm a cop," he said.
"O," she said. "Like with a gun?"
"Yeah," he said.
"Have you shot anyone?" she said.
He didn't want to talk about this, since it was a matter, as far as he was concerned, of infinite bad luck.
"No," he said. "What about you?"
"No," she said, laughing. "I haven't shot anyone. At least not yet. I'm a teacher."
Now at two in the morning, in the turnout between the northbound and southbound traffic, he listened to the subdued crackling of the radio, the dispatcher's voice at once dispassionate and concerned, and he saw the green and orange of the gas gauge, the promise of the tach, its needle lying there like some sleeping thing, the red digital readout of the radar. The cars approached from the south, their lights appearing yellow, although here and there he saw the new silver-blue varieties.
The luminescence from the headlights moved through the car in sheets, and with them, welded by an invisible seam, were the shadows. They swept through the front seat, the light and darkness combined like the surface of the moon. These moments in the car often led him to brood about other things, too, such as the sudden, unexpected sound of gunfire, the flashes all mixed up with the surprise of them.
Boyd knew that in going up to cars in the dark, and in other things he had to do, such as approaching houses where there was trouble, or answering calls when things went wrong, he would come across someone who was a perfect expression of malice, and every now and then it occurred to him that his entire life was dedicated to finding the person he was most afraid of. That was the trouble with those hours when he was alone: the night was filled with so many possibilities, not only those on the highway, but his own brooding conclusions about how things really were.
So he sat there waiting for the noise of the radar, the little squeak, squeak, which went off from time to time. Ninety-one, maybe eighty-nine, somewhere in there. Then he started the engine and felt the hard bump of acceleration. Mostly, though, he had time to think of Zofia as she came into a room, her hips moving in that languid sway. She lived in a small house at the end of a drive that wound through some scrubby poplar mixed with a couple of birch trees.
In the midst of the shift, the blue throb from the top of the cruiser, the spotlight, the gauges on the dashboard, the needles as orange as the tip of a soldering iron, the toaster-filament color of the radar, all seemed unnaturally bright. Every object was covered with a haunting glitter, which was a matter of fear melding with light. But as the night ended, as he turned off the highway and went toward Zofia's house, the bright light, the reds, blues, and yellows as garish as neon, began to fade. By dawn, everything was washed out. The trees, the road, the houses, even the most brightly painted cars, looked as though seen through fog. As the fatigue came on like a drug, he wondered what he would do if he had to live without those intense lights, so perfectly enhanced by his own excitement. He suspected that during the day he was only a ghost of himself and that the time he really lived for was when the sun went down, as though he was a creature of the dark, kept alive on adrenaline and speed.
He used his key to open the door. The shadows of the house were silent and reassuring, not black so much as like dark gray silk. When he went through them, they left him with the sense of being caressed by the place where she lived. Upstairs, he heard the creak of the floor as she got out of bed and went into the bathroom. He came up the stairs and saw her as she put her full lips under the faucet to get a drink. When she was done, she touched her lips with the back of her hand, and came out to see him, looking him over and then pulling the Velcro straps of his body armor, which made a lingering ripping sound.
"I always like that sound. It means you're home," she said.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Cruisers by Craig Nova. Copyright © 2004 by Craig Nova. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.