A SOURCE YOU CAN TRUST
Under the circumstances, he told himself, speeding made sense. He’d driven down through the San Joaquin Valley at eighty and eighty-five, crossed the Mojave with the Volvo’s air conditioner blasting and the needle on the dash nudging ninety. Through Kingman, Flagstaff and Winslow, Gallup and Albuquerque, Amarillo, the vast nothingness of western Oklahoma, clean across Arkansas and over the Greenville bridge, and he’d seen more state police officers, deputy sheriffs and plain old small-town cops than he could have calculated, even if calculation came naturally to him, which recent events had proven it did not. None of them stopped him. It was as if they understood that while anybody who lived in California had good reason for wanting to distance himself from its borders, his reasons were better than most.
They hadn’t been in Mississippi for more than three or four minutes before a gray patrol car pulled out of the lot at a bait shop and attached itself to their rear bumper. He glanced at Angela: stoic and silent, the picture of stillness, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. Had she taken them off a single time since they left Fresno? If so, he didn’t recall it. He’d noticed her wearing them in the motel room last night.
In the backseat, Toni said, “I think you’d better pull over.”
“I think you’re right, hon,” he said, and stopped on the shoulder next to a cotton field where a young black guy was spraying herbi- cide from a Hi-Boy. Leaving the engine running and the air on, he climbed out and shut the door. Wet heat enveloped him in its familiar embrace.
The state trooper, a woman, was somewhere between thirty-five and forty. Trim and tan, with sandy brown hair and delicate hands that looked too small to wield the weapon riding her right hip. She tipped her own sunglasses up, and he saw a smooth lump below her left eye, the skin perceptibly discolored.
Her voice was husky but not abrupt or unpleasant. “You’re a long way from home.”
“Yes ma’am. I guess you could say that.”
“Could I see your license?”
He pulled his wallet out, withdrew the license and handed it to her.
“Fresno. That’s cotton country too, isn’t it?”
She glanced inside the station wagon, nodded at Angela and Toni, then looked through the back glass into the cargo compartment, which in addition to luggage contained two computers, a couple printers, a bunch of medical books and the records from his former practice. “Moving?” she said.
“Actually, we are.”
“Mind if I ask where?”
“Yes ma’am. The fact is, I grew up there.”
She examined the license again. “Barrington,” she said. “There are some folks by that name in Greenville.”
“They’re not kin to me, but I played football against one of them in high school.”
“That’d probably be Carl, I’m guessing.”
“He’s tending bar now at the Holiday Inn. I used to stop in there from time to time with my husband. Carl likes to pour big ones.”
“He was a pretty big guy, if I recall right. Not a bad ballplayer, either.”
Something had disturbed her. Frowning, she looked through the window again—first at Angela, then at Toni, then at the stuff piled up in the back. She fingered the license once more. “Mr. Barrington,” she said, “you were driving way too fast.”
“Yes ma’am, I know that.”
“Tell me this was an isolated incident.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t do that. The truth is, I probably slowed down some when I crossed the bridge. Just out of relief at finally getting where I was going. I’ve been driving like a bat out of hell for three days.”
Her nose wrinkled as if she’d just inhaled an unwholesome odor. “Is something wrong?” she asked. “Why would anybody in this situation say anything like that?”
He’d ask himself the same question later. The best answer he could come up with was that a bunch of factors had converged to render him incapable of deceit. It also had something to do with her open, pleasant manner, the feel of that damp air on his skin, the sight of the black guy on the Hi-Boy, engaged with a fate that could have been his own. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve said and done a lot I can’t explain.”
Moving decisively, she led him some distance away—he was following her before he knew it. Halfway between the Volvo and the cruiser, she turned to face him, lifted the sunglasses off altogether and stuck them in her pocket. “You’re driving a nice car,” she said. “You’ve got what looks like your family in there. Is that who they are?”
“How old’s the girl?”
“You mind if I ask what your profession is?”
“I’m a doctor.”
The words were easy to pronounce but hard to say. “Family practice.”
She’d begun to sweat. Rivulets ran down the bridge of her nose and trickled over the unsightly lump beneath her eye. Her blouse was damp too. “Dr. Barrington,” she said, “I’m going to ask you something. Do I need to run this license? Or should I just wish you all a pleasant journey?”
“Running that license won’t tell you anything I haven’t. My last ticket was about sixteen years ago, the car’s registered in my name and there’s no warrant out for my arrest.”
She looked at the license one last time and then at him, as if to confirm that his face and the one on the card belonged to the same man. If only it were as simple as that.
“I’ll just give you a warning,” she said, holding out his license.
Before accepting it he touched her wrist. “That spot beneath your eye?” he said. “You need to have it looked at.”
She gazes at the rearview mirror and sees the officer standing there. A nice-looking woman, just an inch short of pretty, probably friendly and smart too, and certain of her authority. Her heart misfires—not once but twice—robbing her of breath. She reaches for her purse, her hand closing around the plastic bottle of Toprol, in case she needs it.
As if the patrolwoman understands she’s being observed, she reapplies her sunglasses, strides back to the cruiser and slides inside, slams the door, glances over her shoulder and wheels onto the highway, a plume of dust rising as she swings into a U-turn and heads back toward the bait shop.
After sticking his wallet into his pocket, Pete opens the door and climbs in beside her. The car shifts ever so slightly. On the trip he’s added weight, the result of fast food and sodas, and she can see faint evidence of a belly. Soon enough that will be gone, once he finds a gym and starts working out.
“Well,” he says, “times sure have changed. Used to be that anybody driving through here with out-of-state plates was already guilty. She didn’t even write me a ticket.”
“Did you really think she would?”
He takes every question seriously now, never sidestepping them or providing a facile answer. Tapping his finger against the steering wheel, he thinks for a moment and says, “I never assumed she wouldn’t.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The End of California by Steve Yarbrough. Copyright © 2006 by Steve Yarbrough. 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.