Today's Reading

Beth squatted in front of the gun safe, took out her Glock, holstered it, and then searched for her phone.

Chet held her phone out to her from the bed, where he was still lying, naked and disheveled. He was thirty-two, a couple of years younger than her, and in perfect shape, though she'd noticed some gray hairs on his chest. He was easygoing and good-humored, two qualities that were hard to find in men living or working in Barstow. It wasn't a place that attracted the best and the brightest, which she knew didn't say much about her, either.

'We drank a lot tonight,' he said.
 
She'd got off work at five. The drinking started at six, and she'd had her last beer and a chaser around ten. She figured she'd be fine now, as long as she didn't have to shoot anyone.

'How's my breath?' Beth blew in his face.

'Redolent of Listerine.'

'Redolent? Wow.'

'I'm not just hot, I'm educated.'

'You went to Barstow Community College.'

'That counts.'

She gave him a quick kiss and stood up.

'Stay as long as you want. There's breakfast in the freezer.' And lunch and dinner. The only appliance in her kitchen that got a workout was her microwave. 'Just lock up when you leave.'

'You don't want me to keep the bed warm for you?'

'I won't be back before my shift starts.' Her shift started at 7 a.m. It was a good thing she kept a spare blouse and slacks in her locker. Going two shifts in the same clothes didn't send a great message to the command staff.

'This was good,' he said. 'Let's do it again sometime.'

'We'll see.' She smiled at him and dashed out.

There was a saying about Barstow that Beth heard when she'd arrived from LA three years ago.

The interstate here only goes in one direction: away. Nobody wants to be in Barstow and those who do, you don't want to know.
 
She thought of that, and how true it was, every time she got on the freeway.

Barstow was built on the banks of the Mojave River in the 1800s as a railroad hub for the booming silver and borax mining operations in the desert. In the mid-1900s, the city's Main Street was a stretch of the legendary Route 66 and was lined with eye-catching motels, hotels, and restaurants that were always packed with travelers. But when the new, much bigger, much faster, eight-lane interstate was built on the outskirts in 1957, Main Street took a bullet in the head and Barstow began its long, rotting decline. Beth felt that living there was like visiting a vast hospice. Or being a patient in one.

The interstate was an asphalt dividing line between the Barstow city center to the north and College Heights suburbs to the south, up in the rocky hills, close to the Community College. Beth lived in a rented tract home in the Heights, just like every other deputy who didn't commute from Victorville or Apple Valley. It was the only place to live in Barstow without having a meth lab or a gang member as a neighbor, though some wealthier, original gangsters, the ones who shopped at the Ralph Lauren at the Barstow Outlet Stores, and who had kids in school and speedboats in their driveways, liked it up there, too.

She drove her unmarked Ford Explorer, a police interceptor model outfitted for off-road driving, at seventy-five miles per hour, eastbound on the interstate, without lights or sirens. There were only a few vehicles on the road at that hour.

The interstate spilled down onto the Mojave Desert valley, the Calico mountain range to the north, and the Marine Corps Logistics Base to the south. Beyond that, a wide expanse of parched earth, occasionally dotted with homes, inhabited by military families, alfalfa farmers, retirees, turkey ranchers, off-the-grid survivalists, and, in Beth's mind, way too many in-bred families of meth-tweakers. The three gas stations, one dreary hotel, and four fast-food joints in Yermo were the last real outpost of commerce until Baker, fifty miles east.
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