Sneak Peek: The Big Empty — Prologue, Part II

My debut novel, The Big Empty, is at the printer and now available for pre-order. In the meantime, here’s the second except. If you missed the first one, you can find it here.

The two men walked over to the van’s front fender, the big engine rumbling impatiently on the other side of the grille as if annoyed by the inconvenience of the situation. There was a small dent and a couple of scratches, etched white with the paint from the pickup. Malloy had swerved just enough, his instincts asserting themselves over his mental distractions. The pickup, it seemed, had borne the brunt of the impact.

“Oh, man, they’re going to charge me for that,” the man moaned, looking at the fender. “I knew I shouldn’t have tried to do this myself.”

“Can’t imagine they’ll even notice that. They probably get more dents backing them into the lot. Where’d you rent it from?”

“San Jose.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, I guess we need to exchange license and insurance information.”

“Yeah, well, there’s a problem there.”

“What?” The man looked startled.       

“I don’t have mine.”

“Don’t have what?”

“My license. Don’t have it with me. Guess there’d be an insurance card in the truck.” Malloy walked back down to the ditch.

As he rooted through the glove box, the other man walked around to the front of the pickup and looked at the shattered headlight.

“Looks pretty bad. You’ve got a flat. And you’re going to need a new windshield.”

Malloy looked up from under the dash. A crack stretched across the bottom half of the windshield. He chuckled, although the other man couldn’t see his smile from under the thick mustache.

“That was there before. Get a lot of rocks thrown up out here. Can’t keep windshields. We don’t replace ’em until they can’t pass inspection anymore.”

Malloy slammed the glove box shut.

“Looks like I don’t have an insurance card in here either. Have to go back and get it, I guess.”

Malloy stepped back out of the truck and closed the driver’s side door with the blue-stylized “F” logo of Frye Agricultural Industries Inc. The other man was standing the road, hands on his hips, his posture taking on an impertinence that Malloy instantly found annoying.  

“Wait one second,” he said. “I’m not about to let you drive off. This was your fault.” The man pointed an index finger at him, his brow furrowed in anger and disbelief.

Malloy sighed, looking at the fender biting into the airless tire. Drive off? He glanced at the toes of his boots. The seam that held the uppers to the sole near the toe was fraying. He’d need another pair before midsummer. 

“I think we’d better call the police,” the man went on.

“Well,” Malloy said slowly. “that’d be fine with me but I don’t have a way to do that.”

“I’ve got a cell phone –-”

“That probably won’t work out here,” Malloy interrupted. “And there’s only one county sheriff and three part-time deputies to patrol nine hundred square miles, so we may be waiting awhile for one to pass by.”

The man pressed his lips together so that they almost disappeared from his face. He threw his head back and looked upward as if he were drinking in the vast expanse of the sky, then exhaled. The wind picked up, blowing hard from the west and working against the mousse that tried to keep the hair against his head.

“Where are you turning the truck in? In town? At Garrison’s?” Malloy asked finally.

“I, uh, yes. I’m supposed to have it at a place called —” he fumbled in his pockets until he found a wadded-up receipt in his shirt — “Terry’s Auto Repair.”

Malloy nodded. “That’s Terry Garrison. Tell you what. You tell Terry if there’s any problem with the truck, he should settle up with me.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. I don’t even know your name.”

“Trace Malloy. I’ve known Terry since we were in diapers. He won’t give you any trouble.” Malloy extended a hand, and the man stared at the outstretched palm for a few seconds before taking it limply. 

“Well, I guess the least I could do is offer you a ride,” the man said without telling Malloy his name. 

 “Appreciate it, but I don’t need it,” Malloy said. “I’ll change the flat, bend the fender out, it’ll be fine.” 

“Uh, okay, but I still don’t know that I should be leaving without exchanging information.”

Malloy had already started to walk back toward the truck. He stopped and turned, and he could feel the impatience welling up from the soles of his feet. He sucked a deep breath through the cover of his mustache and exhaled before he spoke, hoping to dispel any tone of annoyance. The wind pressed hard against his face.

“Look, I know it’s probably not how they do things in San Ho-say, but there ain’t that many of us out here. Fact is, even if I tried to hide from you, I couldn’t. If I owe anything on the truck, just ask anyone in town, and they can tell you how to find me. I work for the ranch, and they’ll back up any damages. You have my word.”

“Well,” the other man said slowly, “It just doesn’t seem proper. What ranch?”

The ranch,” Malloy said more sharply than he’d intended. “The Conquistador. You know, the one that the whole town’s named after.” He stopped short of asking if the man knew where he was. No point in getting off on the wrong foot. 

“Oh,” the man said. He hesitated. “Of course. Well, uh, I guess it’ll be okay, then. But still —-”

“I gave you my word,” Malloy said bluntly.

“Right. Okay. Well, I guess I’d better get moving.”

Malloy watched the man climb back into the big truck, his long legs fumbling to find the proper footholds. Malloy waited, and the man ground the transmission as if he were determined to remove all the teeth from the gears. The clutch finally engaged, and the van lurched forward, stopped, then shuttered down the road, slowly gaining speed as it made for town.

Malloy watched the yellow square of its back door shrink slowly, heading into the burgeoning heat of the late morning sun. He turned back toward the ditch and looked again at the crumpled mess that had been a left front fender. He’d hoped fixing the pickup would be as easy as he made it sound. The truth was, he didn’t want some stranger giving him a lift into town. It’d take months before he’d live that down. As it was, he was likely to be the butt of local jokes for weeks.

The bar ditch was flat and wide, designed to handle sudden runoff from downpours that had become disturbingly rare. It was just broad enough for him to change the tire. The ground wasn’t terribly level, but it was sufficient for him to jack the truck up and shimmy the wheel off the studs. As he dislodged the spare and rolled it around to the front of the truck, he thought about what would happen at Garrison’s as the man rattled through his explanation. He could see Terry standing there, listening to the story like an old sheep dog, handing the man a receipt without saying a word. Then, Terry would calmly walk down to Sam’s barber shop. The ranch office would know the whole painful, embarrassing saga by noon and Darla would be waiting for him at their front door by suppertime.

Whoever the man was, he’d be getting a full dose of Conquistador. At the same time, Malloy knew, Conquistador was going to be getting more than its share of soft-handed men in black-and-yellow rental trucks.

To preorder The Big Empty or check out my other books, go to stoneycreekpublishing.com.

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