$200 and a Cadillac - By Fingers Murphy


He spoke into the rearview mirror.

“Hank Norton. I’m a surveyor.”

Eighty miles an hour down the freeway. Keeping his speed steady. Don’t get pulled over.

“Hello. Hank Norton. Nice to meet you.” He stopped himself. Not right. Good to meet you. No. Good to know you—that’s what Hank Norton would say. He glanced out the window, eyeing the sagebrush suspiciously.

He’d been sent to the desert to kill a man. It wasn’t the killing that bothered him, but the desert itself. The sand and dust made him uncomfortable. The vastness made him nervous—all that sky and open space. The feeling wasn’t unfamiliar. He knew this place. He’d crossed the wasteland between LA and Vegas before. The man he would kill, however, remained unknown.

He started again. Slow, casual. “I’m a surveyor, from Knoxville”—he was careful to say Knoxvull, the way a Tennessean would. “From Knoxville. Yeah, I work for the University of Tennessee. The geology department.”

He imagined saying it to a waitress. He pictured her. A small town girl, teetering out here on the edge of the world, aching to get away but trapped by circumstance—a bad marriage, weak constitution, fear—someone to whom even Knoxvull would sound interesting. He could see her standing at the end of his table, nodding her head, buying it all. And he knew he could sell it to her too, and to the guy at the gas station, the grocery store, and to anyone else who asked, as each of them, one by one, led him to his target. Whoever it was.

He stopped at the top of an off-ramp forty miles west of the Nevada border. To the north and south, the desert stretched out to a ring of craggy mountains, circling like a bowl fifty miles across. The sun was setting, throwing halos of orange and red up from the tips of the western peaks. He’d always marveled at these occasional overpasses in the middle of nowhere, connecting the freeway to roads that led into oblivion. He’d always wondered who used them, and now he was going to find out.

He adjusted the mirror and looked straight into it, giving it a friendly nod. “Hey there. Hank Norton. Glad to know you.” Big smile. “Me? Oh, I’m a surveyor, from Knoxville, Tennessee. Yeah, I work for the geology department at the university there. They sent me out here to measure these rock formations out at the Egg Rock National Monument.”

That would do just fine.

He turned the Subaru north, down a thin strip of faded gray that parted the barren landscape, running curveless to the horizon. At the end of it lay a speck of a town called Nickelback, barely warranting the smallest dot on most maps. That’s where he would do the killing, assuming the man he’d been sent for was really there.

He gave the car all it had and it topped out at eighty-five. The landscape blurred by, but not fast enough. The low, twisted brush, the exposed patches of rock, the Joshua trees, all of it dusky brown and purple in the fading light. Hank pressed the pedal harder, mashing it to the floor, but nothing happened. The survey equipment rattled in the bin on top of the car, but it didn’t weigh enough to slow it down. With the rpms still far from the red line, there was only one explanation: a governor.

Hank appreciated private regulation between contracting parties—it was his own line of work, after all—but the governor irritated him. Hertz failed to tell him about it before he rented the car, which was fundamentally dishonest. As he thought about it more, it wasn’t the governor itself that annoyed him so much as its concealment. He would have rented the car regardless, but the deal would have been more fair if they had told him about it up front. At least in his line of work everything was on the table. Nothing was held back. Everyone knew where they stood. For Hank, dishonesty like Hertz’s signaled a breakdown in the moral fabric of society. It heralded a collapse of order, a world in which a reasoned approach to living would no longer be possible. Hank hoped he wouldn’t live to see it play all the way out.

Then, at the edge of the road, there was movement. Slight, but sudden.

The sagebrush wiggled and parted. A coyote darted out into the road, dragging something, and stood broadside, head turned, frozen in surprise at the oncoming car. Hank stood on the brake and the car began to slide, drifting