Constable Cody Parker’s phone jangled him from a sound sleep at one in the morning. Without turning on the light, he stumbled out of bed and into the cold hall where their phone rested in an alcove cut into the wall. He answered, and two minutes later hung up without saying anything other than “okay.” Carl Gibbs and his wife, Tamara, were fighting again and, as usual, it had reached a climax well into the night. Being a referee for the combatants had become so commonplace that the young constable automatically dressed in the darkness to keep from waking Norma Faye any more than he already had. Irritated, and in no big hurry to drive into Slate Shoals at that time of the morning, he propped himself against the icebox, took a long gulp from the neck of a milk bottle, and flipped on the porch light to blink in surprise.
It was snowing.
Cody, the young half-Choctaw constable, was born across the river in Grant, Oklahoma. He was raised in the tiny rural community of Center Springs, Texas, ten miles away on the other side of the Red River, where it snowed only half a dozen times in his entire twenty-four years of life.
He recalled the old stories of deep snowfalls and harsh winters thirty years ago during the Great Depression, but accumulating snow had become rare in northeast Texas. Ice storms were a more common occurrence, sometimes piling up to more than a half inch on trees, power lines, and paved roads, knocking out power and causing problems for weeks.
The weatherman said it’d be cold and drizzly. Missed again.
Collar already up against the chill, Cody set his Stetson, took a deep breath of fresh arctic air, and hurried across the yard to his two-tone red-and-white El Camino.
Most folks in Center Springs called it a half-breed truck.
Snow squeaked underfoot with an unfamiliar sound. A small avalanche fell from the vehicle’s roof when he opened the door. He dropped heavily into the seat and twisted the key.
The battery was deader’n a doornail.
He grunted in frustration. Jumping it off from Norma Faye’s red, Plymouth Belvedere wasn’t an option in the darkness and freezing weather. Instead, he tromped through ten inches of soft powder to take Norma’s car.
The Plymouth started right away with a low grumble. He impatiently punched the high heat control button, knowing he’d be colder than a well-digger’s butt for several minutes before the thermostat opened enough to send warmth flowing from the vents. Cody wasn’t comfortable with the unfamiliar new car and the awkward push-button gearshifts on the dash. He preferred a traditional shift lever on the steering column where it belonged, but his new wife’s car was his only choice unless he cranked the John Deere and drove the tractor across half the county.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to check the tractor’s battery when he got back, either. All this snow guaranteed stuck cars before the day was over.
The snow-covered road was unmarked when he pulled onto the highway. Already frustrated to be out in the worst winter storm in thirty years, Cody unconsciously pressed the accelerator as his anger escalated. He followed his headlights through the storm. Most of the big snowflakes blew over the windshield, but enough began to accumulate that he turned on the wipers. Minutes later the thermostat opened, the car warmed, and the defroster cleared the glass. The radio’s tubes finally warmed enough to blare Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs from the speaker. He cranked “Sugar Shack” up to a wide-awake level and squinted through the foggy windshield. A quick swipe cleared a circle to see through.
The snow-covered farm road wound past dark houses illuminated by pole lights, dark barns, and bare hardwoods. Finding the cutoff was difficult. The world slept in a thick coat of white, but he finally recognized the fork divided by a cluster of out-of-place pine trees.
Someone else had been out. An earlier oncoming car had left a U-turn at the fork and cut barely distinct, half-filled tracks, which led the way and gave him something to follow.
Who the hell is out driving in this so early?
The two-lane farm road straightened. He sped up again. The Plymouth’s wipers fought a losing battle with the heavy, wet flakes.
Over a small rise, his headlights lit a dark car parked in the oncoming lane, engine idling, blowing white exhaust into the cold air. Behind it, the still noticeable ruts showed an awkward three-point turn, twenty yards from a narrow bridge spanning a spring-fed stream. Obviously he’d been following that car’s tracks. Something was wrong with the entire black-and-white scenario. The sedan was parked in a deadly position. Nearly blinded by the heavy snowfall, a driver coming from behind would only have a second to see the road blocked by a dark car. The only warning would be the taillight reflectors, if they hadn’t already been covered by the heavy snow.
I need to check on this.
Taking his eyes off the road to find the shift button, Cody punched it with his thumb and dropped into a lower gear. Quick as a wink, the sudden downshift caused the rear end to break free. He glanced back up to see heavy, black trees pressing in on both sides.
His tires completely lost their grip as he passed the idling car.
The other car’s windows were fogged all around. The driver had wiped his own circle to see through the windshield. A shadow moved in the back seat behind the driver.
The window slipped down into the door.
Cody gripped the wheel tight as a vise. He steered into the skid taking him toward the ditch, knowing there was no chance to stop the inevitable.
In the other car, a shotgun barrel with a bore big as a stove pipe poked out of the cave-like open window. The primordial fear of the unknown took Cody’s breath.
The muzzle belched yellow fire.
Millions of falling snowflakes halted in the brief light.
The image was burned into Cody’s memory when the flash momentarily lit the driver’s face. Large nose, flat top haircut, and oddly enough, a pair of sun shades resting on top of his head.
…sliding, out of control…
The glass in the Plymouth’s door exploded as a full load of 12-gauge pellets barely had time to spread.
Cody instinctively ducked and lost his battle with the skid. The base coat of ice extended onto the Lower Pine Creek Bridge, but Cody didn’t make it that far. The Plymouth shot off the road and punched through the deep snow covering a thick tangle of blackberry vines in an eruption of white. It plunged downward toward the creek with a sickening metallic crack. The drop was steep, but not straight down. The creek bottoms sloped enough for Cody to try steering the car toward a brief opening in the leafless trees that flashed in his headlights.
A mature pecan tree crumpled the right front fender. He rocketed between it and an even larger red oak, which would have folded the car like a tin can had he struck it head on.
Cody pushed one foot hard against the floorboard for stability and the other pumped the useless brake. He fought the wheel to guide the car, but it was nothing more than fruitless determination.
What started out like a maneuver in slow motion quickly became a brutal thrashing when Cody realized he was going much too fast. The terrain proved tougher than it looked under the coating of pristine snow. The car jackhammered over hidden logs, hummocks and tangled patches of blackberry vines. The tail swerved and broadsided a thick grapevine that disappeared into the limbs high overhead. Big as Cody’s forearm, when the thick vine snapped, the leafless trees overhead thrashed as if a giant’s hand had given them a shake. He squirted between more tree trunks, hit a log buried in white, and lifted off into a sudden three-foot drop.
He stiffened his elbows, knowing what was coming. For a brief moment, something soft and unseen wrapped itself around him, feathery.
The front bumper nose-dived into the frozen ground in an explosion of snow and black dirt. The hood crumpled as it was supposed to, instead of slicing backward and taking off Cody’s head. The windshield dissolved into an opaque web of tiny cracks. Momentum sent the rear end into the air and the car flipped once, slamming end over end, stopping with a gut-wrenching bang on the wheels, mere feet from the half-frozen creek.