“Damn it!” Troy swore, kicking at the tire. The long, thin tear in the rubber seemed to grin back at him, and he swore again, the words trailing off as he glanced up and down the dirt road, as empty as it had been during his all-day drive. The only sign of civilization was a tumbledown shack behind him, silhouetted against the Tucson Mountains. The late afternoon sun beat mercilessly down on his bare head, but the earlier clear sky of cobalt blue, usually so comforting in its vastness, was vanishing as high cumulus clouds boiled up around the horizon, and he eyed them warily. Behind him, the car radio finished one song and started another, the strains of Johnny Rivers’s “Secret Agent Man” echoing across the desert.
No way was he going anywhere. Why did the damned tire have to blow now, anyway? He’d used his spare last week to replace another flat and just hadn’t gotten around to replacing it yet. Maybe he should’ve paid more attention to the mechanic when he’d said that the tires were going bald.
He dug out his phone and tapped in a number, then scowled as the no service message came up. Jamming the phone back into his jeans, he sighed, then wiped the back of his hand across his forehead, cool with sweat. He grimaced, then turned back to the car, reaching to pull the Corvette’s door further open, letting it go with a stifled yelp as the summer-hot metal burned his palm.
The door slammed. Grimacing, he leaned closer, wrapping his hand in his T-shirt, and jerked the door open. Even through the cloth, the metal was warm, and the deep black color of the car strengthened the heat absorption, the temperature seemingly heightened by the flame detailing running along the sides of the vehicle. He leaned in to grab his water bottle from the holder, growling under his breath, his ire unassuaged by the lyrics resounding through the car.
"There’s a man who leads a life of danger, To everyone he meets he stays a stranger."
The inside of the classic convertible, so cool only minutes before when he’d stopped, was already warm. It would soon be as hot, or hotter, than the outside. But he didn’t have enough gas left to run the AC.
Teach me to go on drives like this anyway, he thought as he slammed the door shut and glanced around, hoping for some shade somewhere. No car, no service, no one around to ask, and not another car in sight. And me, out in the middle of nowhere, stuck on a road that leads God knows where. He glanced at the clouds again, grimacing. And a monsoon barreling down on me.
And no shade. Even in late afternoon, mesquites and paloverdes just didn’t have much shadow to offer. And saguaros were pretty useless too. He could sit in his car’s shadow, but the metal was too hot to lean against, and it radiated enough heat that what shade it provided was unbearable. Of course, soon the clouds would give him more than enough shade, and he could sit in his car until the storm was over.
Troy pondered that, then nodded to himself, raising his water bottle to his lips and slugging back several hefty swallows before cau- tion halted him. Water was precious out here, and he couldn’t afford to drain his now half-empty bottle, however much he might want to. He’d probably be okay, but still, it paid to be cautious. He lowered the bottle from his mouth, then closed it, turning to look at the ram- shackle dwelling behind him. He probably had enough time to check it out before the storm reached him.
It didn’t look like anyone lived there. One of the supports of the porch had fallen, so the roof leaned a little on that side. The house’s paint was peeling, the one window he could see was broken out, and the whole structure had a deserted, empty feel. And no one had come out to see what had happened.
But it was shelter, and might be a better choice than his car, depending on how it looked inside. The Sonoran Desert was beau- tiful in its own way, but it was also dangerous, and late afternoon in August was not the time to play games with it. People died out here when they did that, and he had no desire to end up plastered across the front page of the Tucson Daily Star. He could try hiking back to civilization after sundown, if no one came by before that.
“Great,” he muttered as he stomped through the sparse, sun- baked yard toward the house, skirting patches of prickly pear and giving a wide berth to a large stand of jumping cholla. “I can see the headlines now: Troy Kirkland, zoologist at the Tucson Wildlife Center, died in desert.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance, punctuating the words, and he glanced around in time to see lightning fork across the sky behind him. “Anyway,” he continued, as he set a foot on the first step, test- ing its sturdiness, “Father would just have a cow, and Mother…” He trailed off, unable to imagine how his always well-dressed mother, with her acutely timed social schedule, would deal with her son’s death. “Well,” he added as he made his way up the next two steps to the porch, avoiding the crumbled pillar on one side, “she’d be embar- rassed, I know that much.”
He grabbed the doorknob and twisted.
“Why’re you doing this?” Troy strained against the ropes, but all he earned was more chafing around his already scraped wrists and ankles, and he finally desisted, panting slightly. A cool breeze, scented with rain and creosote, swept across him from the open door, dust swirling in its wake, and as if to announce the imminent storm, lightning flashed through the back window, followed in a few sec- onds by a brief thunderclap.
The old man seated across the dusty room, leaning against the wall next to a tall, polished mirror, watched him, grinning. Dressed in gray jeans, a loose, dirty shirt, and tennis shoes that were torn and stained, he was a perfect match to the ramshackle building, and Troy couldn’t help but wonder if he’d planned it that way.
“Oh, don’t bother,” he advised. “I can still tie knots with the best of them. And the rope’s good too—strong and new. Picked it up two days ago when I saw you’d be coming.”
“What are you talking about?” the young man growled, staring at him. “I didn’t plan to be here, and I sure as hell didn’t tell you I was coming. Hell, I didn’t know I was going to be here until I was!” Lightning flashed out the window, and Troy winced even as thunder cracked on its heels, the sound rolling across the sky in one long sustained rumble.
“Yep,” the old man said and nodded after the thunder had petered out, “I know. Bad habit that, going on drives like this without telling anyone where you’re going, especially with such poor cell service out here. And in the monsoon season too. Bit of a risk-taker, aren’t you?” He eyed Troy, who shifted to stare over his head, blanking his expression with all the care he’d learned across the years.
“Not that you really have anyone who cares where you are any- way, right, sonny? Or maybe I should call you Hamilton.”
Troy’s gaze jerked back to him. “Go to hell!”
Thunderclap! Smashing through the desert and the shack, deaf- eningly loud, rolling across the sky in slow motion.
“Been there, done that,” the old man said and smiled, raising his voice to be heard over the sudden drumming rain on the roof, a touch of wistfulness in his tone. “Now, at least you know where you are when you’re in hell. It doesn’t change. And why don’t you like Hamilton, anyway? Hamilton Troy Kirkland, not a bad name. My name’s Olaf Henderson by the way.”
Troy leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, shutting out the question, the mirror, and his own blond, green-eyed image. And the storm. It had been about an hour since he’d pushed open the door to this shack, but it seemed like he stood outside of time somehow, watching the day proceed without him through the one window, and he thought back to the moment where this had all begun, wondering where it had gone so wrong.
He had barely turned the doorknob when the old man jerked the door open, grabbed his wrist and yanked. Already a little off-balance, Troy stumbled, and the next thing he knew, he was sitting on this chair in the back room of the cabin, his hands bound behind him and his feet tied to the chair legs, unable to move, his phone and keys tossed carelessly in a corner. And try as he might, he couldn’t figure out how the old man had managed the feat. He had a black belt in karate, and he hadn’t struck a single blow in his own defense. It wasn’t possible.
But every time he reached that conclusion, all he had to do was open his eyes and look around, try the ropes, glance out the window at the black sky and forked lightning to know it was all too real.
A cackle, and he opened his eyes to find the old man— Henderson?—laughing again. He did that a lot.
Troy straightened, lifting his head. “Hey, old man… Henderson. You know, you can get a lot of money for me. My employer will—” “Oh, yeah,” the man interrupted, grinning again. Thunder boomed, and he waited until it finished grumbling before continu- ing. “Like the Tucson Wildlife Center could pay anything for a part- time assistant. Your father would. But hell, that would be the worst thing in the world, wouldn’t it? Your father, having to save you from a crazy old codger his son couldn’t fight off. And then you’d have to listen to him talk about how your life isn’t worth shit, just like he told you. Way too embarrassing. And your father would never let you forget it, would he? Not a nice man, your pop,” he added.
The surprise of agreeing with him stole the words from Troy’s throat. “How do you know all this?” he finally managed to ask. “Have you been following me?” Although he couldn’t for the life of him imagine why or how he or anyone else could have missed him if he had. A cool, wet breeze wrapped around Troy, almost making him shiver with the sudden shock of humidity, and he could hear the Colorado River toads beginning their rain-initiated chorus.
“Now why would I do that?” the old man asked, shaking his head. “Don’t need to. I know.” He straightened, and for a moment,
Troy could swear he saw a pine-swept slope in the mirror behind the man, snow glimmering on the peaks backing it. He shook his head, and when he looked again, the image was gone, and Henderson was watching him soberly.
“Saw it, did you?” he asked, but Troy stubbornly shook his head. Olaf nodded. “Saw it. Thought you would. That’s why I’m here, see. That mountain you saw, that’s your place.”
Thunder grumbled again, a long, slow roll that seemed to take forever to cross the sky and tumble back again.
Troy blinked and shook his head, frustration boiling up in him. “What’re you talking about, my place? What the hell is going on?”
The old man grinned at him, then glanced out the window and nodded. “Close. Better get ready.” He rose to his feet more lithely than Troy would have expected, and padded over to a rickety table set in the corner, picking up a box of matches and striking one.
“What time?” Troy asked nervously, stories of satanic rites and human sacrifices running through his mind. “Time for what? What’re you doing with me?”
Thunder growled in the distance. The rain was already slack- ening, and Troy could hear a muted roar that he knew signaled the washes running with flood. He twisted to watch Henderson, chew- ing his lip.
The old man lit two candles sitting on the table, then touched the flame to two incense sticks. The flames wavered in the room, refusing to settle. “Sunset. Dusk and dawn are best for the crossings. Time for you to go, Troy.”
Somehow the use of his preferred name was more nerve-wrack- ing than his hated first name, and he swallowed with a suddenly dry throat. “Go where?” he managed to croak.
Henderson glanced at him. “Why, to your place. You’ll never find it else.”
“You’re crazy, you know that?” Troy found himself saying. “Fucking crazy.”
The old man smiled a little, his eyes sad. “Sure I am. And you’d be crazy too, sonny, if you could see what I see.”
“What can you see?” Troy asked numbly as he watched the man kneel before an ice cooler set against the wall and lift its lid, revealing several small glass bottles filled with liquid. He lifted them out of the ice, then stepped over to the small table and set the items down. “What can I see?” Henderson repeated, glancing over at Troy. “I see lines in the dust, parallels that might be, have been, maybe will be, probably are.” He saw Troy’s blank expression and sighed, moving over to close the front door, shutting out the whispers of the running wash and the rain-scented breeze. “I see realities. Futures. Yours among them.”
“What?” was all the younger man could manage, although a shiver rippled through him at the words, and their changed cadence. Henderson was suddenly coherent, almost sane. “You can see the future?” Incense swirled around him, and Troy coughed.
“Many futures,” Olaf corrected almost absently as he walked back to the table. He studied his preparations and frowned, stepping over to rummage through a sagging cupboard. Digging out a dusty glass, he poured measured doses of each small glass bottle into the larger container.
Troy eyed the preparations with foreboding, a feeling height- ened as thunder muttered low in the distance. The rain was now a soft patter of drops on the roof, and he wished the old man had left the door open. The shack was quickly becoming stuffy, making it hard to breathe. He twisted in his bonds again, then subsided when they still refused to give.
“What are you going to do with me?” he asked again, his unease growing as the old man stirred the contents of the glass with a stick he scrounged from the dusty floor. On the table, the candles burned straight and still.
“Yeah, many futures,” Henderson continued, ignoring the question. “Now yours is pretty bad, Troy.”
“What do you mean?”
Olaf glanced at him, pausing his stirring for a long moment while he studied Troy with eyes that were abruptly too sober and too measuring for the twenty-six-year-old’s taste. “Here’s how it is,” the old man said at last. “You stay here, you become the man you hate, and your life stays just like it is.”
“I like my life!”
“Really?” Henderson asked softly, holding his gaze. “Yes!” Troy barked, his rising fear forcing the lie.
“Then why do you run from it?” Olaf asked, his voice suddenly harsh.
“You drive for as many miles as you have gas, twice a week, and sometimes more, as far as you can get. You hike and camp and ride, and tell no one. You compete in tennis, silently, fiercely, and no one knows it except your competitors. You spent years learning karate, and still don’t connect—not to your sensei, not to your companions in that learning, not to anyone. You find private places to watch the sunset and sunrise, places you share with no one.”
Troy swallowed, unable to force his way through the dry pas- sion of words, trapped by the precise knowledge of his life, a life he had carefully, thoroughly, protected. He felt naked.
The pungent scent of incense was stronger now, a double trail of smoke rising from the two burning sticks.
“You have no real friends, no friends at all that you let inside that shell you’ve so carefully built,” Henderson continued, relentless as he lifted the stick from the glass of reddish-tinged liquid and tossed it away. He didn’t look away from Troy as he did, though, holding the younger man’s gaze with a fierceness that the blond couldn’t free himself from. “You do your job, and you do it well, but the people you work with might as well be fixtures on the wall for all you relate with them. And as for your father, or your mother…” He laughed, a short bark.
“You leave my mother out of this!” Troy retorted, twisting in the chair. Incense was thick in the room now, and he blinked through it at the man, his eyes stinging.
“I think it’s rather the other way around,” Olaf snapped, advancing on him, glass in hand. “She left you out of her life with such thoroughness that you managed to convince yourself that that was how it was supposed to work.”
“What’re you going to do with me?” Troy asked again, fighting back an urge to cough as the old man stood in front of him.
The sun chose that moment to emerge from behind the breaking clouds, casting a sunbeam through the window that lit Henderson’s hair with gold.
“And what business is my life to you anyway?” Troy demanded when the man didn’t answer, shrinking as Olaf reached toward him, one large hand gripping his hair and pulling his head back while the other pressed the glass to his lips. Liquid surged into his mouth, and he choked, trying to close his lips against it. The spicy scent was strong in his nostrils, though, making him feel faintly disconnected from the effort, and Henderson’s eyes were black and deep, a pit he was falling into. Mountains framed him from behind, the tallest of them snow-crowned. Impossible…