Even in the dead of night, August in the Mojave Desert can be wilting. The air conditioner in the Dodge van didn't work. Opening the windows only let in furnace breaths of sweat-sapping wind, worse than no moving air at all. The two fugitives drove down the featureless freeway with the windows rolled up, surviving the heat by pouring cupfulls of water from one of the jerrycans all over their shirts. The shirts had to be resoaked every twenty minutes. The heat did lessen toward dawn, and when the van pulled into a 24-hour truck stop, the temperature was almost comfortable.
Hutch combed his fingers through the limp strands of his blond hair, stretched wearily, and turned off the motor. He twisted around and peered into the gloomy compartment behind the driver's seat. Starsky was lying down in the camper's bunk.
Starsky was dead to the world. Whatever the poisonous gas was that had come so close to killing them, Starsky had taken the worse dose of it. Hutch was still headachy and shaky himself, and hesitated to wake his partner, but this would be the last stop they'd make for another four hours or so. He climbed into the back of the van.
"Hey, wake up," he said, putting a hand lightly on Starsky's arm. "Wake up, we're at a truck stop."
"We're at a truck stop."
"Truck stop? Where?"
"Somewhere in the desert. It's morning."
"We in Nevada?"
"Not yet. How do you feel?"
Gathering himself to sit up, Starsky gave up in mid-try. "I feel rotten. Rather be shot than sick like this."
"Everything's upset. How're you holdin' up?"
"Peachy," Hutch lied, then saw the skeptical look in Starsky's eyes. "Well, better than you, anyway."
"That's not saying much."
Hutch's gaze had been shifting constantly between his partner and the entrance lane to the truck stop, but no one else had pulled in since they had parked.
"I don't think anyone's tailing us," he said. "We'll rest here awhile. You want to go into the cafe and try to eat? You might feel better if you did."
"Forget it." Starsky made a thumbs-down gesture. "But I'd better hit the john. Think we can leave the van?"
"I think so. Here, I'll give you a hand."
Hutch saw Starsky to the men's room, then walked back to the van and got him settled again. Starsky was too tightlipped about his discomfort, convincing Hutch that he was much sicker than he was letting on. The best thing to do, it seemed, was to let him rest.
"Here, keep this handy," Hutch said, putting Starsky's Baretta in his reach. "I'm going in to call Huggy, and try to get some food down. Want me to bring you something? No? Okay, be back soon."
The cafe was surprisingly busy for that hour, filled with hungry truckers stoking away huge portions of flapjacks, fried eggs, home fries, and coffee. The smell of it made Hutch cringe. To give his stomach a chance to get used to the idea of food, he decided to make his phone call first. Huggy complained loudly at being gotten out of bed, but he was their sole contact with L.A., and Dobey and Buehler had refused to let them out of sight unless they swore to keep at least Huggy Bear informed of their general whereabouts.
With that duty disposed of for a while, Hutch found an empty booth and pored over the sticky menu. The sun, meanwhile, was rising over the low eastern mountains, its sudden glare like a slap in the face. Hunching back in his seat, Hutch hid in the shade of the faded curtains. The menu was abysmal. How anyone could face bacon, sausage, greasy fried eggs, or any other of the great American breakfast fixtures was beyond him. Maybe there would be some kind of soup he could order. He probably ought to force some coffee down to try to wake up. A waitress approached the booth, and he looked up, then sat with his mouth hanging open.
"Hello, Ken," the brunette said, smiling. "What brings you to the desert?"
"Maggie! What are you doing here?"
"I work here."
"Where on earth have you been?" he said. "Starsky and I have been worried sick since you left town. Sit down, tell me what you've been up to."
"I can't, right now, but I'll be off at six, that's half an hour. Meanwhile, let me find you something to eat, you look like you could use it. Wait -- don't tell me. You don't want anything on the menu. How about some fresh fruit -- the cantaloupe's good -- a tall glass of milk, and some toast? I might even be able to dig up some whole wheat bread."
"Add coffee to that, and it's manna from heaven."
"Done," she winked, and disappeared into the kitchen.
Leaning back in the seat, Hutch stared out into the desert. Maggie looked worn. She'd lost more weight than her frame could afford, seeming more haggard than the last time he and Starsky had seen her. That had been four or five months ago, at Wade's funeral.
Wade. Just thinking about him made a place in Hutch's chest groan. Wade Landis had been one of the best cops Hutch had ever known, and a close friend. Starsky's, too. Whenever the "gang" from the Station had gone out together, Wade and Maggie had been one of the perennial couples. When Wade died in a drug bust, something bright had died in his friends. A lot had died in Wade's wife, Maggie. At least they'd gotten the bastard who had shot him down.
No one would ever call Maggie gorgeous, but she was young, sweet, smart, talented. Her features and coloring were rather ordinary, her build too athletic -- almost androgynous -- for any labels like "beauty," but she was beautiful. She had an inner beauty that glowed right through her skin, making her special to most everyone who knew her. Hutch had first met her in the same political science class where he'd met Wade; had, in fact, been on the verge of falling in love with her himself, on the rebound from his divorce. A solid friendship had grown between all of them over the years, but Maggie had never had eyes for anyone but Wade.
At Wade's funeral, Maggie had said that she was going away, somewhere away from people, to find a reason for living again. In all those months, seeming like years now, there had been no word from her, not a phone call or a postcard. It wasn't like her.
"Here you go," Maggie said, setting down half of a cantaloupe and a cup of coffee. "I'll see to that toast and milk in a minute. Where's Davey, by the way? It's strange to see you without him. I always thought you two grew from the same pod."
"Starsk is out in our van, lying down. He's not feeling well."
"He must not be. Wild Apaches couldn't keep that man from pancakes."
Hutch was just finishing his meal when Maggie came back to the table, having changed into jeans, long-sleeved t-shirt, and well-weathered cowboy hat.
"The bill's taken care of," she said. "I got your partner's favorite junk food for him. Let's go see how he's feeling."
The sun was already broiling, and the smell of hot oil rose off the tarmac. Hutch made an automatic scan of the lot, but all seemed normal.
"It's going to be a scorcher," he muttered as they walked toward the van.
"You're the one who's going to be scorched if you plan to drive during daylight. What are you doing so far from familiar turf, anyway?"
"I was wondering the same thing about you."
"Hey," she said, coming up behind the van, "are you both nuts? He's in there with no windows open!"
Kicking himself mentally, Hutch scrambled to unlock the side door. It opened, and he climbed into the oven-hot enclosure. Starsky was sprawled across the bunk, his gun still gripped in one hand.
"He's out like a light," Maggie groaned.
"Here," said Hutch. yanking off his shirt and upending one of the water cans over it. Maggie took it and sponged Starsky's face and neck.
"Hey -- " Starsky said, opening his eyes and looking around wildly.
"Here we go," Maggie said, digging into the paper sack she'd brought, producing a chilled bottle of root beer. She wrapped Starsky's free hand around it. "Sit up and take a sip."
"Easy there," Hutch said, moving so he could help Starsky up. "Not too fast."
"Stop fussin'," Starsky rasped, and blinked at Maggie in disbelief. "I must be dreaming!"
"No such luck," she said.
"Mag? That really you?"
"You're lucky I'm not St. Peter, after sleeping in here with all the windows shut."
"It's jus' like takin' a sauna," Starsky protested, guzzling the soda.
"Any way -- " he looked at Hutch. " -- I knew you'd be back."
"Starsk, I'm sorry. I didn't even think about the windows."
"Aw, it's nothin'. Guess I could have gotten up and opened one myself. Too lazy." He grinned crookedly. "I'm okay."
"'Okay' for an idiot," Maggie sighed. "I suppose you plan to start driving, right away, to wherever you're headed."
"We were thinking of it." Hutch said.
"Don't you know anything about living in Southern California, yet, Ken? Rule number three of the desert, tenderfoot, is 'don't travel far during daylight in the summer.' Both of you are breaking rule two."
"What's that?" Starsky muttered.
"'Dress right.' That means a hat and decent shoes. Yours aren't too bad, Ken, but -- " she shook her head regretfully at Starsky's sneakers, "the first ground cactus would do you right in."
"Aw, Mag, we weren't plannin' on hikin' anywhere."
"What if your van breaks down, genius?"
"Okay, okay. I'll bite," Hutch said. "What's rule number one?"
"Even you know that one, Ken: 'Always carry plenty of water.' Listen, do you have to drive now? Are you in a hurry to get somewhere?"
"Nowhere in particular," Starsky said, pressing the chilled bottle against his forehead. "Where in hell are we, anyway?"
"'In hell' is close. I've got a camp near here, at Devil's Playground. I'm studying some Anasazi ruins there, trying to finish my dissertation."
"Yeah, that's right, you're a archie-something or other."
"Archeologist," she said, letting her first real smile break through. "How would you like to come back to camp with me and wait out the heat there? You and Ken look awful; a nap by the spring would do you both a world of good."
"Maggie, honey, we're on the lam," Starsky said. "We've got to keep moving."
She looked to Hutch, but he shrugged in agreement.
"We're bad news; very bad news," he said. "But thanks for the offer. Maybe when we get our current problem straightened out."
"Is someone after you?"
Hutch's eyes swept the parking lot again. One trucker was leaving in his 18-wheeler; no one new had come in. "Maybe not. It's better safe than sorry, though."
"You can't go back on the road! It'll get into the hundred-and-twenties today. Look at you -- you're running on nervous energy. Dave can't even sit up straight."
That was too true. Starsky's cheeks were grey, his eyes lackluster, his curly hair glued to his face with sweat. But he roused to back Hutch's assertion. "He's right, Mag. We can't risk your gettin' hurt."
Maggie was silent for a time, visibly trying to wipe the disappointment off her face. She looked like she needed a friend -- or two.
"Well," she said finally, "I guess you know what's best. My camp is secluded, though. There's probably not another human being within thirty miles in any direction. And the spring keeps it relatively cool. You'd be welcome to stay as long as you liked. I wouldn't mind the company, to tell the truth. I work the cafe here more to be with people than to earn the spare cash."
Starsky exchanged a strained look with Hutch.
"Starsk, how do you feel?" he asked. "Tell me straight."
Starsky set his root beer down, the last color draining from him. "I feel like maybe you better help me to the john. I'm gonna be sick."
Hutch got him up and hauled him across the parking lot. They just made it into the men's room.
"That does it," Hutch said. "We'll go with Maggie."