Virginia Swift's
Quirky and intelligent-- featuring the colorful Mustang Sally Alder and set in the Southwest
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Chapter One
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Twenty Thousand Roads

Three days from LA. Almost there.

Over the high country, late afternoon sun glinting off the rocks and shining grasslands where Colorado rose into Wyoming. Sally fiddled around trying to pick up a radio station (Broncos 17, Patriots driving, stupid exhibition season football) and put up with static until she could see the Monolith Cement Plant. Then she could indulge herself and slip the tape in the slot. She caught sight of some antelope loping dark shadows across the golden meadows, with day waning into night, lights flickering on in the Laramie valley and the tiniest August chill in the air.

She'd had the hammer down since Longmont, where the traffic thinned out, and found the cutoff that put Fort Collins behind her. She could never resist the urge to see what kind of time she could make between the Denver Mousetrap, where 1-25 and 1-70 snarled, and the first sight of the lights of Laramie coming on in the dusk. Two hours and twenty minutes, for what some people called a threehour drive. She sang, loudly, along with the tape, along with Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris and her whole life. Sang her way down twenty thousand roads. Maybe, finally, heading straight back home.

The sun painted the hills pink. The air got just a taste chillier. Sally could really get nostalgic now, if she weren't obliged to history, so adept at remembering the bad with the good. How they'd all headed west, to grow up with the country ...


Where the flaming hell did that cop car come from?

So much for the peaceful fading glow of day in the high country. Now it was bubblegum lights in the rearview, and Sally's perfect certainty that she'd had the Mustang doing better than seventy passing the Holiday Inn, and despite her most earnest efforts, over fifty as Route 287 turned into Third Street. What was the statute of limitations in Wyoming? She looked again in the mirror, knew she was cooked, slowed and pulled over to the right, heart pounding.

California plates. A '64 Mustang, restored to sleek perfection by the Mustang King of LA, doing maybe fifty-seven miles per hour in a thirty zone entering Laramie, Wyoming: She was dead meat, looking at a ticket for a hundred bucks easy. She turned off the tape, composed her face. She wondered again about ancient outstanding warrants, looking at the police cruiser in the rearview. She leaned over slowly and opened the glovebox.

The Laramie cop did things with his brake, his radio, his clipboard, his hat, got out of his cop car, walked up to her window, peered down at her through predictably mirrored sunglasses, and drawled genially, "Well, Sally, guess you'd better slow that Mustang down."

She stopped in the middle of getting out the registration slip. Freakin' Dickie Langham. Guess this was Road Number 20,000 after all.

He didn't give her a ticket. Instead, he gave her the biggest hug she'd had since the last time, sixteen years ago. He hadn't gotten any shorter than the six foot four inches he'd been back when he'd been tending bar at Dr. Mudflaps, and he hadn't gotten any lighter. Back then, Mudflaps had the gall to pretend to be an upscale restaurant and lounge but was really a place with orange plastic booths (red leatherette? Sure.) and a brisk trade in bad white stuff. Dickie had been carrying maybe thirty pounds less than now, had been a completely different color (greenish gray-white to his current reasonably tan) and extensively more jittery. That's what living on Dr. Langham's Miracle Diet (booze and blow) would do for you. He'd been unerringly decent then, in his own way, and funny as hell, but not so much so that four big guys from Boulder had seen either the humanity or the humor of his coming up a little short of cash one time when they were in town.

"The Boulder guys were drinking black coffee," Dickie explained to Sally, "and they weren't enjoying being squeezed into one of those orange booths. I had experienced their form of persuasion the year before," he recalled as they looked at the plastic-covered menus in the Wrangler Bar and Grill. "My shoulder still aches sometimes from where they simulated ripping my arm off. Extremely frightening guys. So, lacking the money to pay them, I told them I was going into the back room to get something and, well, I came back eleven years later."

By the time he returned to Laramie, Dickie said, as he requested a double cheeseburger, an order of rings, an order of fries, a side salad with blue cheese dressing, and an iced tea, the Boulder guys were who knows where, and the sensible people who ran the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy had use for somebody who'd personally seen law enforcement from a variety of different points of view, but upon whom nobody could seem to make a particular rap stick. He had picked up some valuable skills along the way, including familiarity with a range of firearms, fluency in Spanish, and intimacy with the rigors, rewards, and limitations of twelve-step programs. Now he was an Albany County deputy sheriff with four years in, likeliest candidate for sheriff when the incumbent moved on to the state legislature this November. Dickie was a lucky man on his way up in the sometimes forgiving (or at least forgetting) state of Wyoming.

"You know, I don't know how Mary did it, or why she took back a lowlife like you," Sally said, thinking of Dickie's wife. Sally told the waitress she wanted an order of rings, a dinner salad with Italian dressing on the side, and a Budweiser. You did not order chardonnay, even if this was the Equality State.

Mary Langham, it turned out, was most forgiving of all. Fifteen years ago, when Dickie took a powder, their daughter Brittany was six, Ashley was four, and Mary was pregnant again. On the day their son was getting ready to be born in the Ivinson Memorial Hospital, Dickie, on the lam but knowing the time was near, called Mary collect from a pay phone at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. He was crying. Mary started to cry, too, and said, "Tell me what you want me to name him, you bastard, and if you don't get your shit together and come back, I'll hunt you down and take your balls off with the nail scissors."

There are so many ways to say, "I love you."

Fortunately for Dickie, Mary was an unaccountably loyal wife. Her kids had inherited something of her quality of mercy. Josh first met his father when he was eleven, but he looked up to him anyway. Brittany and Ashley seemed to be perfecting ways of making Dickie...

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Accessory to Murder, from HarperCollins, at The Online Mystery Network,
is produced and published by Newfront Productions, Inc.

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