By Nick Manzolillo
They will see me. The cruiser’s tucked alongside a ridge of blasted granite that borders the inland side of the road. I wear a bug-eyed gunslinger’s mask of thick sunglasses complimented by my hat, dipped forwards ever so slightly. I sit not tense but hunkered down, ready, facing the direction of the Indiana border a little ways ahead.
The granite slope forms a cape that conceals me, Dracula-like, but from the rear, I’m wide open for all of Kentucky to see my ass. There’s no hiding my intentions, but that’s okay. The air conditionings pure and crisp, fresh off of what I like to imagine is a massive ice cube sitting on my dash. The nicotine lozenge that rests on my tongue is a new addition that’s been as easy to get used to as walking with cuffs around your ankles but it holds me above the plunge. Sharply tuned, comfortable, and awaiting my prey, I’m hunting rednecks.
The whole of Kentucky shouldn’t be blamed for the poisoned offspring of one backwoods town, hanging off it like a wart below the belt. I blame them all. The run off from Arton’s been filling my town with everything from half-heartedly crumpled beer cans to crystal meth, and the blood it squeezes from humble folk like grinding teeth.
I’m not even from Starlet, I technically live twenty away in Shannon, but this place is more than just a small crop of buildings and people in the hills, it’s one of the major blood vessels of the whole country. The kind you don’t know you have till it stops working and you fall to the ground. It may be living ten or so years in the past at times, but it’s honest. The people have ambition, and the kids leave, but they aren’t in as much of a rush as they are from other towns. They all look behind them when they leave.
All manner of folks that have left end up finding their way back, which keeps the circle spinning. The best damn pub I’ve ever been too, Fagin’s, is here as well and the only time they have trouble when anybody has trouble, is when those Arton clowns come creeping and dripping on through. A little boy got hit and some fucker, those fuckers of course, kept on running. Not enough evidence to get them cops in Arton to do more than perk their ears to the wind. It’s not entirely their fault, though there have, of course, been cases of corruption in they’re department the honest ones have done all they could to handle. Water trying to dilute bleach they are, if you ask me.
It’s three in the afternoon; the tweakers are starting to wake up. I’m almost sure I’ll catch the ones who never went to sleep, who are twitching, biting their lips and looking to make some cash. Positioned here, in this most prime of spots that hasn’t been over-exploited, it’s like being a big white bellied shark, waiting at the end of a slide with my mouth open.
There’s a familiar whoop I only recognize because of the silence and the hissing air brushing against my jaw. I swivel my gaze past the guardrail and the barren fields, the rock quarries, and farms that lie beyond on the far side of the asphalt. There’s a squad car behind me, its lights dancing back and forth, shuffling its mostly soothing blue hues. Fucking Danny.
“What’s the reason for the encroachment car four?” I squawk into the radio, breaking out into a grin as I look into my mirror. Fucking Danny, an outlaw do-gooder if I’ve ever known one. He’d be my partner if the town were bigger, though as it may, I still have the privilege of calling him my drinking partner. Of course, with his loose morality, I’m always hesitant to show him to the wife, though my two boys like him just fine. Though it matters fuck all, when it’s just us at the range, that outdoor one at the club, not the barracks, I’ve seen him shoot from the hip and not miss a damn punch in the target.
Static chitters like an electronic insect over the radio. If he keeps it up, he’s going to ruin this. “Car four, you’re blowing my position. What, you spill coffee on yourself or something?” By “that something”, I mean the occasional nip I’ve seen Danny splash into his afternoon cup on the rarest, most spontaneous god given circumstances. If there were a good kind of bi-polar disorder, Danny’s got it in kegs.
There’s no response on the radio and the car’s still parked behind me, its lights giving their little shuffle. I give a good hard pull on the nicotine lozenge that’s melting to a practical gumdrop under my tongue and then, placing the radio transponder to my lips; the static gives a sudden shout. I’m dropping the transponder and the noise is blaring, almost shaking the car as I flip the radio off to find instant relief. There are no more flashing lights in my rearview.
The sun that’s falling away from me is striking the squad cars windows to the point that I can’t quiet out the driver. I bump pass the license identification on the computer that I’ve positioned, jutting out over my usually vacant passenger seat and there is a GPS in every car. There’s a section on the monitor, a map that shows and highlights every car in my precinct alongside their approximate location. It says there isn’t a car behind me and car 4, Danny’s car, isn’t on the map at all.
Fucking computer, fucking radio. Fucking Danny. Not my gas to pay for, at least. I hold my index down as my window melts away and I raise a hand out to the road, angling my elbow through my door as I flash Danny a good and prime middle finger he can take to heart.
There’s a moment while my hand is out the window that something doesn’t quiet sit. I retreat my arm, turn around in my seat and stare at the car that’s come still in the dust behind me. Its engine isn’t running. Dust, in a faint wisp, swirls past the back tires. It is Starlet police all right; he’s parked about fifteen feet away, standard alignment for a pullover. I flick the radio on, without turning my head to the dash, and there’s just silence. A car, a pickup truck, goes rumbling by from the Kentucky side of the border going just five over as I focus on the dash and try to resuscitate the damn radio. I fumble around past my wallet and take out my cell phone. Four bars.
I immediately scroll to the D’s and give Danny a call. No ringing. I hold the gadget in front of my face and notice that it’s Tuesday. Danny’s got night shift on Tuesdays and sometimes Sundays. I’m glancing up at my rearview mirror, staring at the squad car and driver that remain still. Fact is, the only way I’m in danger is if he has put together a convincing, fake cruiser. What are the odds of that? No way, I know these cars even without reading the town’s name off its side. That is no fake behind me.
It’s silly. My brain is letting one rip. I can get out right now or, along the front fender of the other car. Just below one of the lights is a black scuff mark. Sometimes on the side of the road in our little nests, white on a vehicle is hard to keep pure. Only reason it stands out on the car behind me is because that scuff mark is in the same exact place on my car. I’m peering back and the nicotine lozenge has melted to almost nothing as the scuff marks, those three exact marks just below the light across the fender are in the same place as the four-wheeled whoop machine I’m in right now. Staring at the phone in my hands, I give my wife a call. There is no ringing. The call is being made but, nothing. I’m dropping my phone across the passenger seat as I toggle the radio one last time before muttering, “fucker.” I pull myself out of park. Twisting the wheel, I’m turning, facing the other squad car near head on. I flash my lights and try to get a good look at the figure beyond the dashboard. It’s a cop all right. Same glasses, same hat. Staring right at me. Not Danny, he’s too thin, Clyde? Eric? I inch forwards along the crunching bits of rock beneath my tires.
My gun is in my hand, on my lap, and despite wagging around my hip for over twenty years it suddenly feels foreign. Wild. The car ahead of me is off, the driver is grilling me beneath those plates of glass across his face. The sun is behind me. I peel my glasses away and again, feel foolish. There’s fear, too and the gun is as useless as my cellphone, I want to believe that. But it’s here. In case the world truly is as mad as it’s become in the last five or so minutes. I’m gentle on the pedal as I ease closer and I’m not one for brainteasers. I hate optical illusions and I’d always take the colored stickers off a rubrics cube with hot water and place them so they’d line up evenly when I was a kid.
I’m rolling down my window, pulling up alongside the squad car and he just turns his head slowly to match mine. Without my glasses, the mirror is broken, but the face in the car alongside me is my own, something unreal, something controlled. I’m staring into another man that is identical to myself, except there’s a blue aura to him. Something cold along that skin, along the car itself. The air is warm and choking, beating back my air conditioning that escapes through the open window. I bet if I were to reach out and touch that other car my fingers would burn from the frost. The other me stares back, expressionless, almost like he’s waiting for something. His lips are still and solid but they’re salivating lizard like, I’m not sure what to do. I roll my window up. The other me smiles and reaches for his glasses, to look me in the eyes.
I turn away, instinctively, as if deep down I know I can’t meet the doppelgangers gaze. I’m facing the direction that’ll bring me back to Scarlet and I open up the cruisers engine in a falling rush of force. The memory is already fading in the dust cloud behind me. I catch the squad car still in the mirror before dipping around a corner. If I saw those eyes, if I stayed just one more moment those eyes would have had me, there would have only been him. I would’ve seen what he really is, what’s really lurking inside of that husk. That thing was a trap.
Scarlet lies ahead. I’m going eighty and shaking as my radio blares to earsplitting life. I’m taking my hat off to rub sweat from my brow and I’m making an almighty promise never to stray again from the heart of my town, to never go preying in territory that’s not mine.
Nick Manzolillo's writing has appeared in over twenty publications, including the anthologies Mother's Revenge, Lovecraftiana, The New England Horror Writer's publication: Wicked Witches and the Tales To Terrify Podcast. He lives in Manhattan, has recently completed an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from Western Connecticut State University and works as a content operations specialist for a news app called TopBuzz.