Copyright © 1998 Ken Follett. All rights reserved.
A man called Priest pulled his cowboy hat down at the front andpeered across the flat, dusty desert of South Texas.
The low dull green bushes of thorny mesquite and sagebrushstretched in every direction as far as he could see. In front of him, aridged and rutted track ten feet wide had been driven through the vegetation.These tracks were called senderos by the Hispanic bulldozerdrivers who cut them in brutally straight lines. On one side, at precisefifty-yard intervals, bright pink plastic marker flags fluttered on shortwire poles. A truck moved slowly along the sendero.
Priest had to steal the truck.
He had stolen his first vehicle at the age of eleven, a brand-new snowwhite 1961 Lincoln Continental parked, with the keys in the dash,outside the Roxy Theatre on South Broadway in Los Angeles. Priest,who was called Ricky in those days, could hardly see over the steeringwheel. He had been so scared he almost wet himself, but he drove itten blocks and handed the keys proudly to Jimmy "Pigface" Riley, whogave him five bucks, then took his girl for a drive and crashed the caron the Pacific Coast Highway. That was how Ricky became a member ofthe Pigface Gang.
But this truck was not just a vehicle.
As he watched, the powerful machinery behind the driver's cabinslowly lowered a massive steel plate, six feet square, to the ground.There was a pause, then he heard a low-pitched rumble. A cloud ofdust rose around the truck as the plate began to pound the earthrhythmically. He felt the ground shake beneath his feet.
This was a seismic vibrator, a machine for sending shock wavesthrough the earth's crust. Priest had never had much education,except in stealing cars, but he was the smartest person he had ever met,and he understood how the vibrator worked. It was similar to radar andsonar. The shock waves were reflected off features in the earth--suchas rock or liquid--and they bounced back to the surface, where theywere picked up by listening devices called geophones, or jugs.
Priest worked on the jug team. They had planted more than athousand geophones at precisely measured intervals in a grid a milesquare. Every time the vibrator shook, the reflections were picked upby the jugs and recorded by a supervisor working in a trailer known asthe doghouse. All this data would later be fed into a supercomputer inHouston to produce a three-dimensional map of what was under theearth's surface. The map would be sold to an oil company.
The vibrations rose in pitch, making a noise like the mighty enginesof an ocean liner gathering speed; then the sound stopped abruptly. Priestran along the sendero to the truck, screwing up his eyes againstthe billowing dust. He opened the door and clambered up into thecabin. A stocky black-haired man of about thirty was at the wheel. "Hey,Mario," Priest said as he slid into the seat alongside the driver.
Richard Granger was the name on Priest's commercial drivinglicense (class B). The license was forged, but the name was real.
He was carrying a carton of Marlboro cigarettes, the brand Mariosmoked. He tossed the carton onto the dash. "Here, I brought yousomething."
"Hey, man, you don't need to buy me no cigarettes."
"I'm always bummin' your smokes." He picked up the open pack onthe dash, shook one out, and put it in his mouth.
Mario smiled. "Why don't you just buy your own cigarettes?"
"Hell, no, I can't afford to smoke."
"You're crazy, man." Mario laughed.
Priest lit his cigarette. He had always had an easy ability to get onwith people, make them like him. On the streets where he grew up,people beat you up if they didn't like you, and he had been a runty kid.So he had developed an intuitive feel for what people wanted fromhim--deference, affection, humor, whatever--and the habit of givingit to them quickly. In the oilfield, what held the men together washumor: usually mocking, sometimes clever, often obscene.
Although he had been here only two weeks, Priest had won the trustof his co-workers. But he had not figured out how to steal the seismicvibrator. And he had to do it in the next few hours, for tomorrow thetruck was scheduled to be driven to a new site, seven hundred milesaway, near Clovis, New Mexico.
His vague plan was to hitch a ride with Mario. The trip would taketwo or three days--the truck, which weighed forty thousand pounds,had a highway speed of around forty miles per hour. At some point hewould get Mario drunk or something, then make off with the truck. Hehad been hoping a better plan would come to him, but inspiration hadfailed so far.
"My car's dying," he said. "You want to give me a ride as far as SanAntonio tomorrow?"
Mario was surprised. "You ain't coming all the way to Clovis?"
"Nope." He waved a hand at the bleak desert landscape. "Just lookaround," he said. "Texas is so beautiful, man, I never want to leave."
Mario shrugged. There was nothing unusual about a restlesstransient in this line of work. "Sure, I'll give you a ride." It was againstcompany rules to take passengers, but the drivers did it all the time."Meet me at the dump."
Priest nodded. The garbage dump was a desolate hollow, full ofrusting pickups and smashed TV sets and verminous mattresses, on theoutskirts of Shiloh, the nearest town. No one would be there to seeMario pick him up, unless it was a couple of kids shooting snakes witha .22 rifle. "What time?"
"Let's say six."
"I'll bring coffee."
Priest needed this truck. He felt his life depended on it. His palmsitched to grab Mario right now and throw him out and just drive away.But that was no good. For one thing, Mario was almost twenty yearsyounger than Priest and might not let himself be thrown out so easily.For another, the theft had to go undiscovered for a few days. Priestneeded to drive the truck to California and hide it before the nation'scops were alerted to watch out for a stolen seismic vibrator.
There was a beep from the radio, indicating that the supervisor inthe doghouse had checked the data from the last vibration and foundno problems. Mario raised the plate, put the truck in gear, and movedforward fifty yards, pulling up exactly alongside the next pink markerflag. Then he lowered the plate again and sent a ready signal. Priestwatched closely, as he had done several times before, making sure heremembered the order in which Mario moved the levers and threwthe switches. If he forgot something later, there would be no one hecould ask.
They waited for the radio signal from the doghouse that would startthe next vibration. This could be done by the driver in the truck, butgenerally supervisors preferred to retain command themselves andstart the process by remote control. Priest finished his cigarette andthrew the butt out the window. Mario nodded toward Priest's car,parked a quarter of a mile away on the two-lane blacktop. "That yourwoman?"
Priest looked. Star had got out of the dirty light blue Honda Civicand was leaning on the hood, fanning her face with her straw hat."Yeah," he said.
"Lemme show you a picture." Mario pulled an old leather billfoldout of the pocket of his jeans. He extracted a photograph and handedit to Priest. "This is Isabella," he said proudly.
Priest saw a pretty Mexican girl in her twenties wearing a yellowdress and a yellow Alice band in her hair. She held a baby on her hip,and a dark-haired boy was standing shyly by her side. "Your children?"
He nodded. "Ross and Betty."
Priest resisted the impulse to smile at the Anglo names. "Good-lookingkids." He thought of his own children and almost told Marioabout them; but he stopped himself just in time. "Where do they live?"
The germ of an idea sprouted in Priest's mind. "You get to see themmuch?"
Mario shook his head. "I'm workin' and workin', man. Savin' mymoney to buy them a place. A nice house, with a big kitchen and a poolin the yard. They deserve that."
The idea blossomed. Priest suppressed his excitement and kept hisvoice casual, making idle conversation. "Yeah, a beautiful house for abeautiful family, right?"
"That's what I'm thinking."
The radio beeped again, and the truck began to shake. The noisewas like rolling thunder, but more regular. It began on a profound bassnote and slowly rose in pitch. After exactly fourteen seconds it stopped.
In the quiet that followed, Priest snapped his fingers. "Say, I got anidea. ... No, maybe not."
"I don't know if it would work."
"What, man, what?"
"I just thought, you know, your wife is so pretty and your kids are socute, it's wrong that you don't see them more often."
"That's your idea?"
"No. My idea is, I could drive the truck to New Mexico while you govisit them, that's all." It was important not to seem too keen, Priest toldhimself. "But I guess it wouldn't work out," he added in a who-gives-a-damnvoice.
"No, man, it ain't possible."
"Probably not. Let's see, if we set out early tomorrow and drove toSan Antonio together, I could drop you off at the airport there, youcould be in El Paso by noon, probably. You'd play with the kids, havedinner with your wife, spend the night, get a plane the next day, Icould pick you up at Lubbock airport. ... How far is Lubbock fromClovis?"
"Ninety, maybe a hundred miles."
"We could be in Clovis that night, or next morning at the latest, andno way for anyone to know you didn't drive the whole way."
"But you want to go to San Antonio."
Shit. Priest had not thought this through; he was making it up as hewent along. "Hey, I've never been to Lubbock," he said airily. "That'swhere Buddy Holly was born."
"Who the hell is Buddy Holly?"
Priest sang: "`I love you, Peggy Sue. ...' Buddy Holly died before youwere born, Mario. I liked him better than Elvis. And don't ask me whoElvis was."
"You'd drive all that way just for me?"
Priest wondered anxiously whether Mario was suspicious or justgrateful. "Sure I would," Priest told him. "As long as you let me smokeyour Marlboros."
Mario shook his head in amazement. "You're a hell of a guy, Ricky.But I don't know."
He was not suspicious, then. But he was apprehensive, and heprobably could not be pushed into a decision. Priest masked hisfrustration with a show of nonchalance. "Well, think about it," he said.
"If something goes wrong, I don't want to lose my job."
"You're right." Priest fought down his impatience. "I tell you what,let's talk later. You going to the bar tonight?"
"Why don't you let me know then?"
"Okay, that's a deal."
The radio beeped the all-clear signal, and Mario threw the lever thatraised the plate off the ground.
"I got to get back to the jug team," Priest said. "We've got a few milesof cable to roll up before nightfall." He handed back the family photoand opened the door. "I'm telling you, man, if I had a girl that pretty, Iwouldn't leave the goddamn house." He grinned, then jumped to theground and slammed the door.
The truck moved off toward the next marker flag as Priest walkedaway, his cowboy boots kicking up dust.
As he followed the sendero to where his car was parked, he saw Starbegin to pace up and down, impatient and anxious.
She had been famous, once, briefly. At the peak of the hippie erashe lived in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Priesthad not known her then--he had spent the late sixties making his firstmillion dollars--but he had heard the stories. She had been a strikingbeauty, tall and black haired with a generous hourglass figure. She hadmade a record, reciting poetry against a background of psychedelicmusic with a band called Raining Fresh Daisies. The album had been aminor hit, and Star was a celebrity for a few days.
But what turned her into a legend was her insatiable sexualpromiscuity. She had had sex with anyone who briefly took her fancy:eager twelve-year-olds and surprised men in their sixties, boys whothought they were gay and girls who did not know they were lesbians,friends she had known for years and strangers off the street.
That was a long time ago. Now she was a few weeks from her fiftiethbirthday, and there were streaks of gray in her hair. Her figure was stillgenerous, though no longer like an hourglass: she weighed a hundredand eighty pounds. But she still exercised an extraordinary sexualmagnetism. When she walked into a bar, men stared.
Even now, when she was worried and hot, there was a sexy flounce tothe way she paced and turned beside the cheap old car, an invitation inthe movement of her flesh beneath the thin cotton dress, and Priestfelt the urge to grab her right there.
"What happened?" she said as soon as he was within earshot.
Priest was always upbeat. "Looking good," he said.
"That sounds bad," she said skeptically. She knew better than to takewhat he said at face value.
He told her the offer he had made to Mario. "The beauty of it is,Mario will be blamed," he added.
"Think about it. He gets to Lubbock, he looks for me, I ain't there,nor his truck, either. He figures he's been suckered. What does he do?Is he going to make his way to Clovis and tell the company he lost theirtruck? I don't think so. At best, he'd be fired. At worst, he could beaccused of stealing the truck and thrown in jail. I'm betting he won'teven go to Clovis. He'll get right back on the plane, fly to El Paso, puthis wife and kids in the car, and disappear. Then the police will be surehe stole the truck. And Ricky Granger won't even be a suspect."
She frowned. "It's a great plan, but will he take the bait?"
"I think he will."
Her anxiety deepened. She slapped the dirty roof of the car with theflat of her hand. "Shit, we have to have that goddamn truck!"
He was as worried as she, but he covered it with a cocksure air. "Wewill," he said. "If not this way, another way."
She put the straw hat on her head and leaned back against the car,closing her eyes. "I wish I felt sure."
He stroked her cheek. "You need a ride, lady?"
"Yes, please. Take me to my air-conditioned hotel room."
"There'll be a price to pay."
She opened her eyes wide in pretended innocence. "Will I have todo something nasty, mister?"
He slid his hand into her cleavage. "Yeah."
"Oh, darn," she said, and she lifted the skirt of her dress up aroundher waist.
She had no underwear on.
Priest grinned and unbuttoned his Levi's.
She said: "What will Mario think if he sees us?"
"He'll be jealous," Priest said as he entered her. They were almostthe same height, and they fit together with the ease of long practice.
She kissed his mouth.
A few moments later he heard a vehicle approaching on the road.They both looked up without stopping what they were doing. It was apickup truck with three roustabouts in the front seat. The men couldsee what was going on, and they whooped and hollered through theopen window as they went by.
Star waved at them, calling: "Hi, guys!"
Priest laughed so hard, he came.
* * *
The crisis had entered its final, decisive phase exactly three weeksearlier.
They were sitting at the long table in the cookhouse, eating theirmidday meal, a spicy stew of lentils and vegetables with fresh breadwarm from the oven, when Paul Beale walked in with an envelope inhis hand.
Paul bottled the wine that Priest's commune made--but he didmore than that. He was their link with the outside, enabling them todeal with the world yet keep it at a distance. A bald, bearded man in aleather jacket, he had been Priest's friend since the two of them werefourteen-year-old hoodlums, rolling drunks in L.A.'s skid row in theearly sixties.
Priest guessed that Paul had received the letter that morning andhad immediately got in his car and driven here from Napa. He alsoguessed what was in the letter, but he waited for Paul to explain.
"It's from the Bureau of Land Management," Paul said. "Addressedto Stella Higgins." He handed it to Star, sitting at the foot of the tableopposite Priest. Stella Higgins was her real name, the name underwhich she had first rented this piece of land from the Department ofthe Interior in the autumn of 1969.
Around the table, everyone went quiet. Even the kids shut up,sensing the atmosphere of fear and dismay.
Star ripped open the envelope and took out a single sheet. She readit with one glance. "June the seventh," she said.
Priest said reflexively: "Five weeks and two days from now." Thatkind of calculation came automatically to him.
Several people groaned in despair. A woman called Song began tocry quietly. One of Priest's children, ten-year-old Ringo, said: "Why,Star, why?"
Priest caught the eye of Melanie, the newest arrival. She was a tall,thin woman, twenty-eight years old, with striking good looks: pale skin,long hair the color of paprika, and the body of a model. Her five-year-oldson, Dusty, sat beside her. "What?" Melanie said in a shocked voice."What is this?"
Everyone else had known this was coming, but it was too depressingto talk about, and they had not told Melanie.
Priest said: "We have to leave the valley. I'm sorry, Melanie."
Star read from the letter. "'The above-named parcel of land willbecome dangerous for human habitation after June seventh, thereforeyour tenancy is hereby terminated on that date in accordance withclause nine, part B, paragraph two, of your lease.'"
Melanie stood up. Her white skin flushed red, and her pretty facetwisted in sudden rage. "No!" she yelled. "No! They can't do this tome--I've only just found you! I don't believe it, it's a lie." She turnedher fury on Paul. "Liar!" she screamed. "Motherfucking liar!"
Her child began to cry.
"Hey, knock it off!" Paul said indignantly. "I'm just the goddamnmailman here!"
Everyone started shouting at the same time.
Priest was beside Melanie in a couple of strides. He put his armaround her and spoke quietly into her ear. "You're frightening Dusty,"he said. "Sit down, now. You're right to be mad, we're all mad as hell."
"Tell me it isn't true," she said.
Priest gently pushed her into her chair. "It's true, Melanie," he said."It's true."
When they had quieted down, Priest said: "Come on, everyone, let'swash the dishes and get back to work."
"Why?" said Dale. He was the winemaker. Not one of the founders,he had come here in the eighties, disillusioned with the commercialworld. After Priest and Star, he was the most important person in thegroup. "We won't be here for the harvest," he went on. "We have toleave in five weeks. Why work?"
Priest fixed him with the Look, the hypnotic stare that intimidatedall but the most strong-willed people. He let the room fall silent, so thatthey would all hear. At last he said: "Because miracles happen."
* * *
A local ordinance prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages in thetown of Shiloh, Texas, but just the other side of the town line there wasa bar called the Doodlebug, with cheap draft beer and a country-westernband and waitresses in tight blue jeans and cowboy boots.
Priest went on his own. He did not want Star to show her face andrisk being remembered later. He wished she had not had to come toTexas. But he needed someone to help him take the seismic vibratorhome. They would drive day and night, taking turns at the wheel, usingdrugs to stay awake. They wanted to be home before the machine wasmissed.
He was regretting that afternoon's indiscretion. Mario had seen Starfrom a full quarter of a mile away, and the three roustabouts in thepickup had glimpsed her only in passing, but she was distinctivelooking, and they could probably give a rough description of her: a tallwhite woman, heavyset, with long dark hair. ...
Priest had changed his appearance before arriving in Shiloh. Hehad grown a bushy beard and mustache and tied his long hair in a tightplait that he kept tucked up inside his hat.
However, if everything went according to his plan, no one would beasking for descriptions of him or Star.
When he arrived at the Doodlebug, Mario was already there, sittingat a table with five or six of the jug team and the party boss, LennyPetersen, who controlled the entire seismic exploration crew.
Not to seem too eager, Priest got a Lone Star longneck and stood atthe bar for a while, sipping his beer from the bottle and talking to thebarmaid, before joining Mario's table.
Lenny was a balding man with a red nose. He had given Priest thejob two weekends ago. Priest had spent an evening at the bar, drinkingmoderately, being friendly to the crew, picking up a smattering ofseismic exploration slang, and laughing loudly at Lenny's jokes. Nextmorning he had found Lenny at the field office and asked him for ajob. "I'll take you on trial," Lenny had said.
That was all Priest needed.
He was hardworking, quick to catch on, and easy to get along with,and in a few days he was accepted as a regular member of the crew.
Now, as he sat down, Lenny said in his slow Texas accent: "So, Ricky,you're not coming with us to Clovis."
"That's right," Priest said. "I like the weather here too much toleave."
"Well, I'd just like to say, very sincerely, that it's been a real privilegeand pleasure knowing you, even for such a short time."
The others grinned. This kind of joshing was commonplace. Theylooked to Priest for a riposte.
He put on a solemn face and said: "Lenny, you're so sweet and kindto me that I'm going to ask you one more time. Will you marry me?"
They all laughed. Mario clapped Priest on the back.
Lenny looked troubled and said: "You know I can't marry you, Ricky.I already told you the reason why." He paused for dramatic effect, andthey all leaned forward to catch the punch line. "I'm a lesbian."
They roared with laughter. Priest gave a rueful smile, acknowledgingdefeat, and ordered a pitcher of beer for the table.
The conversation turned to baseball. Most of them liked theHouston Astros, but Lenny was from Arlington and he followed theTexas Rangers. Priest had no interest in sports, so he waitedimpatiently, joining in now and again with a neutral comment. Theywere in an expansive mood. The job had been finished on time, theyhad all been well paid, and it was Friday night. Priest sipped his beerslowly. He never drank much: he hated to lose control. He watchedMario sinking the suds. When Tummy, their waitress, brought anotherpitcher, Mario stared longingly at her breasts beneath the checkeredshirt. Keep wishing, Mario--you could be in bed with your wife tomorrownight.
After an hour, Mario went to the men's room.
Priest followed. The hell with this waiting, it's decision time.
He stood beside Mario and said: "I believe Tammy's wearing blackunderwear tonight."
"How do you know?"
"I got a little peek when she leaned over the table. I love to see a lacybrassiere."
Priest went on: "You like a woman in black underwear?"
"Red," said Mario decisively.
"Yeah, red's beautiful, too. They say that's a sign a woman reallywants you, when she puts on red underwear."
"Is that a fact?" Mario's beery breath came a little faster.
"Yeah, I heard it somewhere." Priest buttoned up. "Listen, I got togo. My woman's waiting back at the motel."
Mario grinned and wiped sweat from his brow. "I saw you and herthis afternoon, man."
Priest shook his head in mock regret. "It's my weakness. I just can'tsay no to a pretty face."
"You were doing it, right there in the goddamn road!"
"Yeah. Well, when you haven't seen your woman for a while, she getskind of frantic for it, know what I mean?" Come on, Mario, take the friggin'hint!
"Yeah, I know. Listen, about tomorrow ..."
Priest held his breath.
"Uh, if you're still willing to do like you said ..."
"Let's go for it."
Priest resisted the temptation to hug him.
Mario said anxiously: "You still want to, right?"
"Sure I do." Priest put an arm around Mario's shoulders as they leftthe men's room. "Hey, what are buddies for, know what I mean?"
"Thanks, man." There were tears in Mario's eyes. "You're some guy,Ricky."
* * *
They washed their pottery bowls and wooden spoons in a big tub ofwarm water and dried them on a towel made from an old workshirt.Melanie said to Priest: "Well, we'll just start again somewhere else! Geta piece of land, build wood cabins, plant vines, make wine. Why not?That's what you did all those years ago."
"It is," Priest said. He put his bowl on a shelf and tossed his spooninto the box. For a moment he was young again, strong as a pony andboundlessly energetic, certain that he could solve whatever problemlife threw up next. He remembered the unique smells of those days:newly sawn timber; Star's young body, perspiring as she dug the soil;the distinctive smoke of their own marijuana, grown in a clearing inthe woods; the dizzy sweetness of grapes as they were crushed. Then hereturned to the present, and he sat down at the table.
"All those years ago," he repeated. "We rented this land from thegovernment for next to nothing, then they forgot about us."
Star put in: "Never a rent increase, in twenty-nine years."
Priest went on: "We cleared the forest with the labor of thirty or fortyyoung people who were willing to work for free, twelve and fourteenhours a day, for the sake of an ideal."
Paul Beale grinned. "My back still hurts when I think of it."
"We got our vines for nothing from a kindly Napa Valley grower whowanted to encourage young people to do something constructiveinstead of just sitting around taking drugs all day."
"Old Raymond Dellavalle," Paul said. "He's dead now, God blesshim."
"And, most important, we were willing and able to live on thepoverty line, half-starved, sleeping on the floor, holes in our shoes, forfive long years until we got our first salable vintage."
Star picked up a crawling baby from the floor, wiped its nose, andsaid: "And we didn't have any kids to worry about."
"Right," Priest said. "If we could reproduce all those conditions, wecould start again."
Melanie was not satisfied. "There has to be a way!"
"Well, there is," Priest said. "Paul figured it out."
Paul nodded. "You could set up a corporation, borrow a quarter of amillion dollars from a bank, hire a workforce, and become like anyother bunch of greedy capitalists watching the profit margins."
"And that," Priest said, "would be the same as giving in."
* * *
It was still dark when Priest and Star got up on Saturday morning inShiloh. Priest got coffee from the diner next door to their motel.When he came back, Star was poring over a road atlas by the light ofthe reading lamp. "You should be dropping Mario off at San AntonioInternational Airport around nine-thirty, ten o'clock this morning,"she said. "Then you'll want to leave town on Interstate 10."
Priest did not look at the atlas. Maps baffled him. He could followsigns for 1-10. "Where shall we meet?"
Star calculated. "I should be about an hour ahead of you." She puther finger on a point on the page. "There's a place called Leon Springson 1-10 about fifteen miles from the airport. I'll park where you're sureto see the car."
They were tense and excited. Stealing Mario's truck was only the firststep in the plan, but it was crucial: everything else depended on it.
Star was worrying about practicalities. "What will we do with theHonda?"
Priest had bought the car three weeks ago for a thousand dollarscash. "It's going to be hard to sell. If we see a used-car lot, we may getfive hundred for it. Otherwise we'll find a wooded spot off theinterstate and dump it."
"Can we afford to?"
"Money makes you poor." Priest was quoting one of the FiveParadoxes of Baghram, the guru they lived by.
Priest knew how much money they had to the last cent, but he kepteveryone else in ignorance. Most of the communards did not evenknow there was a bank account. And no one in the world knew aboutPriest's emergency cash, ten thousand dollars in twenties, taped to theinside of a battered old acoustic guitar that hung from a nail on thewall of his cabin.
Star shrugged. "I haven't worried about it for twenty-five years, so Iguess I won't start now." She took off her reading glasses.
Priest smiled at her. "You're cute in your glasses."
She gave him a sideways glance and asked a surprise question. "Areyou looking forward to seeing Melanie?"
Priest and Melanie were lovers.
He took Star's hand. "Sure," he said.
"I like to see you with her. She makes you happy."
A sudden memory of Melanie flashed into Priest's brain. She waslying facedown across his bed, asleep, with the morning sun slantinginto the cabin. He sat sipping coffee, watching her, enjoying thetexture of her white skin, the curve of her perfect rear end, the way herlong red hair spread out in a tangled skein. In a moment she wouldsmell the coffee, and roll over, and open her eyes, and then he wouldget back into bed and make love to her. But for now he was luxuriatingin anticipation, planning how he would touch her and turn her on,savoring this delicious moment like a glass of fine wine.
The vision faded and he saw Star's forty-nine-year-old face in a cheapTexas motel. "You're not unhappy about Melanie, are you?" he asked.
"Marriage is the greatest infidelity," she said, quoting another of theParadoxes.
He nodded. They had never asked each other to be faithful. In theearly days it had been Star who scorned the idea of committing herselfto one lover. Then, after she hit thirty and started to calm down, Priesthad tested her permissiveness by flaunting a string of girls in front ofher. But for the last few years, though they still believed in the principleof free love, neither of them had actually taken advantage of it.
So Melanie had come as kind of a shock to Star. But that was okay.Their relationship was too settled anyway. Priest did not like anyone tofeel they could predict what he was going to do. He loved Star, but theill-concealed anxiety in her eyes gave him a pleasant feeling of control.
She toyed with her Styrofoam coffee container. "I just wonder howFlower feels about it all." Flower was their thirteen-year-old daughter,the oldest child in the commune.
"She hasn't grown up in a nuclear family," he said. "We haven't madeher a slave to bourgeois convention. That's the point of a commune."
"Yeah," Star agreed, but it was not enough. "I just don't want her tolose you, that's all."
He stroked her hand. "It won't happen."
She squeezed his fingers. "Thanks."
"We got to go," he said, standing up.
Their few possessions were packed into three plastic grocery bags.Priest picked up the bags and took them outside to the Honda. Starfollowed.
They had paid their bill the previous night. The office was closed,and no one watched as Star took the wheel and they drove away in thegray early light.
Shiloh was a two-street town with one stoplight where the streetscrossed. There were not many vehicles around at this hour on aSaturday morning. Star ran the stoplight and headed out of town. Theyreached the dump a few minutes before six o'clock.
There was no sign beside the road, no fence or gate, just a trackwhere the sagebrush had been beaten down by the tires of pickuptrucks. Star followed the track over a slight rise. The dump was in a dip,hidden from the road. She pulled up beside a pile of smolderinggarbage. There was no sign of Mario or the seismic vibrator.
Priest could tell that Star was still troubled. He had to reassure her,he thought worriedly. She could not afford to be distracted today of alldays. If something should go wrong, she would need to be alert,focused.
"Flower isn't going to lose me," he said.
"That's good," she replied cautiously.
"We're going to stay together, the three of us. You know why?"
"Because we love each other."
He saw relief drain the tension out of her face. She fought backtears. "Thank you," she said.
He felt reassured. He had given her what she needed. She would beokay now.
He kissed her. "Mario will be here any second. You get movin', now.Put some miles behind you."
"You don't want me to wait until he gets here?"
"He mustn't get a close look at you. We can't tell what the futureholds, and I don't want him to be able to identify you."
Priest got out of the car.
"Hey," she said, "don't forget Mario's coffee." She handed him thepaper sack.
"Thanks." He took the bag and slammed the car door.
[CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES ...]