Open country spread out beneath the night into distant, scribbled lines of pine and scrub brush. Freezing air whistled through invisible cracks in the hard convertible top; the whine of snow tires vibrated through rubber floor mats; and every whir, groan, and gear change poured into the Land Cruiser's interior as if amplified by a static-wracked sound system.
"Turn on the heater."
The two hitchhikers had been riding with Scott Thomas for only ten miles. He twisted a knob on the dash. "High as it'll go."
A male voice in back asked, "How old is this thing?"
"Old. It's a seventy-six."
"Freezing my ass off." The girl reached across from the passenger seat and put her hand on Scott's thigh. "Don't you wanna pull over somewhere?"
With her touch, he felt the weight of his decision to help these people settle over him. He gently lifted her hand and moved it away.
She tried to sound charming. "What's the hurry? Don't you like to have fun? Look at the shoulders on you. What are you, like a hockey player or something?"
Scott shook his head and breathed deeply to calm growing apprehension. He didn't tell the girl that he'd wrestled in college. Wrestlers--the real kind--learn to keep quiet about their sport around strangers. More than a few guys have something to prove, and winning a fight is only marginally less painful and undignified than losing one.
The guy in back said, "Strong-looking sonofabitch, all right. Not that big, though."
The girl giggled and touched Scott's shoulder. "Come on. Pull over. I can do things with my tongue that'll make that pretty curly hair stand on end."
Her boyfriend in the backseat--a tall kid with jelled hair--laughed. "Friendly, isn't she?"
Scott could feel things slipping. A palpable charge of confrontation was growing inside the Land Cruiser's cramped interior. The two kids were taking control--slowly asserting their aggression--without making any obvious move. He glanced at the girl. "What'd you say your name is?"
"Didn't." She giggled again and turned to look at the boy in back. "What's my name? I forget."
Scott sensed movement behind him and felt the boy's breath on the back of his neck. He jerked his foot off the gas, getting ready to slam the brake pedal to throw the guy off balance--to get some distance around him so he could do something to regain control. But the pinch of cold metal against the side of his throat stopped Scott's foot in midair. The old Land Cruiser slowed, and the sound of snow tires on pavement changed from high-pitched whine to a deep rumble.
The kid with the knife said, "Pull over. Now. Pull over, or I'll cut your throat and let my girl grab the wheel." Scott felt the moist, malodorous warmth of nervous breath roll across the skin between his hair and collar. Seconds passed. Scott's neck chilled as the boy inhaled deeply. "Go ahead and grab the steering wheel."
"I'm not talking to you. Go ahead, baby. Take hold of the wheel. He tries to wreck us, I'm gonna cut him back to his neck bone."
Scott's mind raced. "Okay if I say something?"
The hitchhikers were quiet now. The only sound was the rumble of road and engine noise, softened by the rush of heated air blowing from somewhere beneath the dash.
"It took me two years to restore this thing, but it's not worth getting killed over." He tried to keep his voice calm, to sound reasonable. "Let me pull over. The car's yours."
The pinch of the knife edge lessened. "Pull over here."
Scott steered his four-wheel drive onto the shoulder and rolled to a stop. He put on the emergency brake and dropped the gearshift into neutral. He tried to be still inside his skin. "What now?"
The girl spoke. "Get the fuck out. What do you think?"
"He's still got the knife on my throat."
The crisp chill of the blade disappeared, leaving a shallow, stinging cut in its place. Scott popped his seat belt loose and pulled at the door release.
As his foot hit ground, he heard the girl say, "You got any money?" But by then he was already pumping his arms, kicking hard over yards of barren hayfield and angling away from the glare of headlights.
Scott sprinted into the dark, and time blurred. Distant trees remained distant as the field spun beneath his feet. Some time passed before he noticed that he heard no sounds outside the ones he made--only the hoarse rhythm of freezing air rushing into his lungs and the thumping of his boots pounding frozen earth. He stopped and turned. But no one was following. The road--a silver strand of reflected moonlight stretched tight across New England countryside--was far away and empty. They were gone.
The strength flowed out of his legs. Scott lowered his backside onto frozen ground. He cussed. For a long time, he sat there and breathed.
A half hour passed before he ventured back onto the road. Low stone walls bracketed the right-of-way, bringing order to the landscape and quieting the pounding inside the chest of the young man who now walked there alone.
Scott Thomas was trying to work through his anger. The air was cold and sharp, the metallic scent of ozone overlaid with earthy aromas of decaying leaves and rich soil. Scott tried to imagine that he could smell the Atlantic, that he almost could feel its undulating movement against a shore that was still miles away. He was feeling his way along, using his feet to double-check the guesses his eyes were making about the ground ahead.
And, all the while, he watched for headlights and listened for the whir of snow tires on pavement.
The two kids had looked innocent enough when he'd picked them up. The girl had been a little skanky, but skank seemed to be in style. The boy had been friendly. They'd even paid for dinner at the truck stop--payment, they said, for the promised ride. Now Scott had been left to hike the edge of a lonely highway.
Snippets of music floated on the night air, and he paused to listen. Up ahead, he saw the glint of moonlight on a galvanized mailbox. Walking faster, he closed the distance and stopped at the mouth of a dirt road. Along with the music, he could now hear the soft din of people talking. He began to move toward the sounds, then hesitated. The sounds were wrong. Scott couldn't decide how--he could barely hear them.
Seconds passed. Cold winds from the Atlantic swept through barren treetops; something small clawed at the hard winter ground just out of sight; and Scott wondered why he could not move toward the sound of voices.
At the opposite end of the tire ruts where Scott Thomas waited--a quarter mile away, on the other side of a stand of wind-tortured pines and rambling brush--sat a classic New England vacation home. A house with weathered cedar shakes for siding; a house with long, wide porches and wooden framed windows painted pure white.
Parked to one side of the house sat a stolen Land Cruiser. Beside it, someone had parked a red Mercedes-Benz. Ancient monastic chants poured from a CD player in the Mercedes' dash. The boy and girl who had stolen Scott's ride lounged on wide wooden steps leading up to the porch. A pale man stood in front of them. He was in his late twenties, but dressed like a teenager. A gold ring pierced his left eyebrow.
The knife boy laughed--a feminine, high-pitched sound. "Hell no. Boy almost shit himself."
The man with the pierced eyebrow was named Darryl Simmons, but the teenagers knew him only as Click. He held out his hand. "Give me the keys."
The girl put a hand on her boyfriend's arm. "Uh-uh, Click. That's five hundred you owe us."
Simmons stepped back and rolled his shoulders. "I've got a better idea. Give me the keys, and you're welcome to that little red Mercedes I picked up at the airport. Sell it. Whatever you want. Up to you." He smiled now. "Or"--he looked at the girl--"keep running your bitch mouth and maybe you won't be leaving here at all."
The boy handed over the keys. Click pulled five folded and gym-clipped twenties from his pocket and flipped them at the girl. The money fell. She went to a knee to grab it, then looked up. "What was this about, Click? Why'd you want that old four-wheeler from that guy?"
The girl needed a lesson. Click's right hand shot out and grabbed a handful of hair. She screamed. "Let go, you asshole!"
The pale skin on Click's knuckles turned white as he twisted the girl's face toward the ground. He held the boyfriend's eyes as he yanked the girl's head down and popped her hard in the face with his knee, then shoved her backward onto the steps.
Click nodded at the boyfriend. "You got a problem with this?"
The boy watched his sobbing girlfriend. "No. No problem."
"Too many questions. Right?"
The boy didn't answer.
"I said, too many questions, right?"
"Yeah, right, Click. Too many questions."
Click nodded at the boy. All he said was "Leave."
"We're gone, Click." The boy stood, yanked his girl up by one hand, and draped her arm over his shoulder to help her to the car. "Gone like we was never here."
Scott heard only bits of muted words and incongruous music--soft sounds that arrived sparse and indistinct and shaped by the wind. He stood very still at the mouth of the road and wondered why he could not move forward.
His heart popped hard in his chest. A car had stopped, and the passenger window of an ancient black Caddy was open. A man with elderly features and young eyes stared out.
The old man shook his head. "Wouldn't go up in there, I was you."
Scott hesitated for just a beat, then stepped toward the car. "Why? What's up there?"
"Just wouldn't, that's all." The old man paused to look Scott over. "You need a ride, son?"
Scott looked down the expanse of the empty road, then looked back at the driver. "I guess I do."
Long black fingers plucked at the passenger-door lock. Thick veins rolled beneath paper-thin skin on the backs of the old man's hands, and Scott noticed that the driver had fingernails like a woman or a guitar player. Pale half moons a quarter-inch long capped each bony digit.
Scott opened the door and swung his butt onto the seat. The driver dropped the transmission into drive and pulled away. Scott asked, "This highway one thirty-eight?"
The old man nodded. "Old one thirty-eight. They's a new one thirty-eight, too"--he pointed across Scott's nose--"over to the east, there. Not many folks use this one anymore."
"I was going to Boston when I lost my car. Picked up a couple of kids. One of them pulled a knife."
The old man didn't speak. He gripped the old-fashioned, oversized circle of steering wheel with both hands. Ten o'clock and two o'clock. The driver was precise. His spine was erect, almost arthritic, his black suit pressed and smooth as stovepipe.
Scott tried again. "Where are you heading tonight?"
"One thirty-eight go to Boston."
The driver didn't ask about the carjacking or how long Scott had been stranded on a lonely road in the middle of the night. He didn't even explain what it was about the dirt road that made it somewhere to avoid. But at least the old man had stopped. That was friendly enough.
Scott settled back against cloth upholstery--what he had heard called a sofa on wheels--and watched winter fields spin past in the moonlight. Behind them, the faint drone of monastic chants dissipated into the night air.
As the Cadillac crested a hill and disappeared from sight, a woman who had watched Scott from the shadows turned and walked up the dirt road to join Click for the ride into Boston.
Massachusetts is a wilderness. Tiny, million-dollar homes huddle along graveled beaches and saltwater marshes. Thoreau's woods rub up against the diesel stench of pockmarked interstates. Dangerous, hard-edged fishermen work and drink, fish and fight a short drive from Harvard professors and Back Bay bluebloods.
Scott Thomas loved it.
With his advisor's help, Scott had landed a one-bedroom garage apartment in Cambridge when he'd first arrived to begin doctoral studies at Harvard. It was the best neighborhood he'd ever lived in, unless you consider boarding school dormitories to be better. Scott did not. He'd spent too many Christmas vacations with the families of his teachers; he'd watched too many times as other students left for long weekends after he had refused mercy invitations to join them.
Scott had no family, not since he was ten years old. He had only himself, and he believed deeply that he had built himself--his beliefs, his character, his view of the world--from scratch. A trust fund scraped together from his father's investments had bought his education. Everything else, he had fought for all on his own.
Now his life was beginning. His life away from school, away from paid nurturing, had started with his move to Cambridge.
The old man stopped in front of the big house on Welder Avenue and turned to Scott. "I guess you're rich."
Scott smiled. "I live over the garage."
Scott nodded, and so did the old man. It occurred to Scott that maybe his driver wanted money. "I appreciate the ride. I don't have much on me, but I could give you ten for gas money."
Creases formed around the driver's lips, and he may have been smiling. "You're a student. You need your money."
Scott nodded and popped open the door. When he did, the overhead light came on and Scott noticed the old man's fingernails again. "Are you a musician?"
"I'm down to the Blue Note on Bleeker next two weeks. Come by and you can buy me a whisky. Name's Walker." He nodded at the house. "Go on in. Call the po-lice 'bout your car."
Scott said, "I will. Thanks." The door shut with a satisfying sheet-metal thud, and the ancient black Caddy rolled into the night.
For the second time that evening, Scott stood alone on a cold strip of blacktop. He turned toward the house, and the crisp slush of his footsteps floated on wet winter air. Traces of snow hugged the curb, circled the trunk of a sugar maple, and lay in dirt-blackened chunks across the yard.
The main house was dark. The Ashtons had gone West to ski. But, as Scott walked across herringbone brick to the garage, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was being watched.
When Kate Billings stepped through the door of her apartment after midnight, she flicked on the television. Letterman had on some howling folk singer with kinky hair and an acoustic guitar. A musician or a band you've never heard of always means the end of the show. She kept walking into the bedroom, where she stripped off her clothes and stood in front of a full-length mirror.
Excerpted from A Perfect Life by Mike Stewart. Copyright © 2004 by Mike Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.