"You know, I think I could get used to this," Steele said.
"I find that hard to believe."
The handsome detective adjusted his grip on the RV's steering wheel and stole a quick glance at his companion. Laura sat in the seat beside him, arms folded across her chest as she watched the bleakly beautiful desert scenery flash by. She looked tired and pensive, but his remark had at least prompted a half-smile.
"I'm serious, Laura. True, it doesn't have the Auburn's style, maneuverability or cachet, but at least I'd never have to fight anyone for a parking space."
He was rewarded with her light laughter. "Well, try not to get too attached. We have to have this thing back at the rental agency by noon tomorrow." She sighed. "I hate to think what they're going to soak the agency for the damage." She lapsed into the silence that had characterized the first two hours of their journey.
It unsettled Steele, this lingering strangeness between them. It somehow felt worse even than all their sniping on the way out to Phoenix – and he always hated fighting with Laura. He thought they'd smoothed over those tensions at the RV park last night, but still the atmosphere remained slightly ... off. They'd delivered the Gallen children safely to their father and helped bring down a corrupt corporation with dirty fingers in the highest levels of government – mission well and truly accomplished, Steele thought. However, the successful close of this case had not brought the usual buoyant satisfaction. There had been no champagne toast, no celebratory kiss. Instead, after saying goodbye to the children and their client, the detectives had simply climbed back aboard the RV and set off for home.
The thought gave him a bit of a start. "Going home" was a phrase that had never held any meaning for him before. Oh, he felt some tenuous tie to London, where he'd come of age and embarked on his colorful career. And there were fainter, vaguer associations with green Ireland, site of his earliest memories. But neither of those places were really home to him. All his life he'd been puzzled and slightly envious of associates and even strangers who waxed lyrical about their yearning for home. It didn't matter if they were thousands of miles or decades away from that special place – it remained a powerful touchstone, an integral piece of who they were.
It occurred to Steele that the only other person he'd known who seemed as rootless as himself was Daniel Chalmers. Perhaps that's why he felt so close to his mentor, a kindred spirit who was a "citizen of the world" but an inhabitant of nowhere at all.
Yet here he was, in a slightly battered Winnebago … going home. He turned the thought over in his mind. So Los Angeles was now his "home?" No. Nor was it the luxury apartment he lived in or the well-appointed office suite with "his" name on the door. Even as dusk began to settle over the desert landscape around him, it began to dawn on Steele what "home" really meant. Home was this identity, this life, the sense of purpose it had given him. It was the genuine satisfaction he felt when they cracked a case, and the gratification of understanding that he had something useful now to give, after a lifetime of taking. And all of this was inextricably bound up with the woman sitting beside him, her features bathed in the golden light of the setting sun.
Home, Steele realized, was where Laura was.
This understanding stirred something powerful in him, but he couldn't honestly say if it was joy or panic. Because that's what this was about, after all, this uncomfortable sensation. It had begun as soon as they – well, she – accepted this case, and it was why he'd felt so uneasy when she'd spoken wistfully of her friends with their homes and families. It was the reason he had reacted with such uncharacteristic anger to her criticism of how he handled the children. They both understood, even if they were unwilling to fully express it, that this case was a "what if" audition … a tacit acknowledgement that Steele and Laura were indeed in a real relationship, one with potential to become a long-term commitment.
And that was another concept for which he had no frame of reference. Being responsible for or to anyone else … how far out of his way had he gone, all these years, to avoid just such a scenario? Almost the first thing Daniel taught him was not to become entangled. "Rely only on yourself, my boy," he'd counseled, "and you'll never be let down."
He didn't want to be let down. More importantly, he didn't want to let her down. And he would, of course. Last night's conversation about the Johansons had reinforced Steele's growing awareness that beneath Laura's determined and resolutely upbeat exterior lay a deep well of sadness. Her description of the neighbors, picture-perfect models of domestic bliss that contrasted so painfully with Laura's own broken home, revealed a still-open wound that Steele felt unequipped to heal.
Not that it mattered, after the past 24 hours. If Laura had been toying with the idea of having a future with him, he was sure she must have discarded it like an empty soda can on the side of I-10 somewhere between L.A. and Phoenix. It was only too obvious that he wasn't husband or father material. And he didn't want to be …
… did he?
It was almost entirely dark now. Steele figured they were still about three hours from L.A., the terrain becoming more rugged as they began the climb into the San Jacinto range. Traffic was sparse along this stretch, especially after dark, and habitations were few and far between. That was a problem, Steele realized, as the RV abruptly coughed and sputtered.
"What's going on?" Laura's voice said a little sleepily.
"Uh, I've just discovered one more area in which this vehicle falls short of the Auburn," Steele muttered.
"And that is …?"
"Gas mileage." Steele pounded on the steering wheel as the vehicle stalled and began to lose momentum. "No, no, NO!" He steered the RV onto the shoulder, where it rolled to a stop.
"You've got to be kidding me," Laura exclaimed. "We're out of gas?"
"Almost a cliché, isn't it?" Steele laughed nervously.
"If this is some tactic to get me alone in the back of this thing overnight …"
"I only wish it were, Laura. Sadly, I believe the current situation has less to do with attention to my libido than a woeful inattention to detail – specifically, monitoring the fuel gauge." He peered into the darkness in her general direction, glad he couldn't see the expression on her face. "I'm sorry," he added, feebly.
"Aargh! I'm beginning to think this case is cursed!" Laura responded. "Or maybe just this damned RV!"
"The Long, Long Trailer," Steele said.
"Where?" Laura answered eagerly, peering out the windshield. "Maybe we can flag him down!"
"Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, MGM, 1953," Steele answered.
"Another movie reference. I should have known."
Steele ignored the jibe. "Newlyweds Desi and Lucy travel cross-country in a trailer home. Naturally, madcap adventures ensue."
"This is a madcap adventure, is it?" She didn't sound at all convinced.
"They endure many trials, of course, but in the end the experience only brings them closer together."
"Life imitates art, then, Mr. Steele. I suddenly feel a powerful urge to be closer to you."
"Just close enough to strangle you!"
"Now, now, Laura," Steele said, struggling out of the driver's seat. "I'm sure someone will come along shortly to give us a lift into the next town. And look on the bright side: If we have to be stranded, at least we have all the comforts of home." He fumbled for the cabin light switch and flipped it with a flourish. "Ta-da!"
"Yes, Mr. Steele?"
"It's still very dark."
"So I've noticed."
"Why is it still dark?"
"You remember last night at the RV park? That handy little post with the electrical outlets on it? The ones we plugged into?"
"Ah," Steele said, understanding. "Electrical power inside requires a power source outside. How inconvenient." He stumbled back to the driver's seat. "So what do you suggest we do now, Miss Holt?"
He could almost hear her shrug in the darkness. "Eat the ice cream."
Moments later the partners sat on the floor of the camper, spoons in hand and a carton of rapidly melting fudge ripple between them.
"I never knew the desert was so quiet at night," Laura said.
"If you're referring to the distinct lack of automobile traffic, I have to agree with you," Steele said. He peered out the windshield. "Though to be honest, I'm not sure I'd trade a pair of distant headlights for the sight of all those stars."
"It is beautiful," Laura agreed between creamy bites. "I'm beginning to think we'll be here all night."
"I suppose I could start walking. There must be a town, or a ranch, even a cheesy tourist trap around here somewhere," Steele offered. "And you can stay here in case someone does come along."
"Uh-uh. You're not leaving me here alone, and the way our luck is running, you'd end up like Boris Karloff."
"The Lost Patrol. Karloff is one of a patrol of British soldiers lost in the Mesopotamian desert. One by one the patrol are picked off by Arab snipers."
"Well done, Laura!" He was genuinely impressed. "Boris, Victor McClaglen, Wallace Ford .. eh .. 1934, RKO, I think." He dropped his spoon into the empty ice cream carton. "But somehow I doubt there are many Arab snipers lurking in the California desert."
"Ah, but if you recall, in the movie Karloff actually goes mad. And we're in the Colorado Desert."
"Spoken like a true native … and a budding film expert as well, it seems. You never cease to surprise me, Miss Holt."
"Thank you," she answered, almost a little shyly. "To be honest, I've been reading Leonard Maltin's TV Movies every night before I go to bed."
Steele grinned, even if his partner couldn't see it. "Laura, I'm truly touched." He got to his feet. "Ah, I'll only be gone a moment. And when I get back, perhaps we can discuss how we might occupy our time until we're rescued."
He disappeared into the recesses of the RV. A moment later he was back. "Laura," he said in a worried tone. "This is becoming a crisis."
"What is it?" she gasped, scrambling to her feet beside him.
"It seems along with the electricity, certain other … amenities … aren't operational at the moment."
Laura laughed. "Fortunately, full functionality is not strictly necessary for such utilities, Mr. Steele."
"Oh, Laura. I don't think … after all, this is a rather small space and we may be stuck here for some time."
"Well, there is always the open range," Laura said.
"You mean …"
"Just close your eyes and think of Randolph Scott," Laura giggled, pushing him toward the door. "Don't wander too far … you know what happened to Karloff."
Guided by starlight, Steele made his cautious way toward the silhouette of what appeared to be a large clump of sagebrush. "I wonder if rattlesnakes are nocturnal …" he muttered, fingering the snap on his jeans. Suddenly he became aware of a sound. It was a steady whirring, coupled with a kind of low, beating hum and, more faintly, a high-pitched keening.
"Oh, my God!" Steele shouted, the purpose of his journey forgotten. He ran, scrambling and stumbling, back to the RV and flung open the door. "Them!"
"What is it? What did you see?" Laura shouted as he slammed the door behind him. "Who are they?"
"Not they, Laura. Them. James Whitmore, James Arness, Edmund Gwenn, 1954" Steele panted. "Nuclear testing in the New Mexico desert creates enormous, mutant ants."
"You're telling me you saw giant ants out there?"
"Not saw. Heard. In the film, the appearance of the ants is preceded by a weird, high-pitched sound."
"So you heard giant ants out there."
"I suppose that's not entirely plausible." Steele leaned against the closed door, waiting for his heart to stop trying to escape his chest.
"Um, do you want me to go with you?" Laura said, her amusement apparent in her voice.
"No. Never mind. The, uh, urge has passed."
"Whatever you say."
Laura sat down again. Steele sat next to her. They gazed out the windshield at the black outline of the mountain range and the limitless starfield above it.
"I am sorry about the gas," Steele said finally.
In the darkness, she found his arm and placed a gentle hand on it. "And I'm sorry I accepted this case in the first place. And for other things."
"I don't follow."
She sighed. "I know I made you feel … pressured."
"It's all right."
"Thanks. Well, at least this experience has provided a definitive answer to my question," she said softly.
Steele tensed, anticipating what she was about to say.
"It's obvious that I'm not cut out to be a mother."
Steele was stunned. After all this, she wasn't writing him off as a potential parent. She was condemning herself. "Oh, Laura. That's not true," he said sincerely. "If there's one thing I know without a doubt, it's that you would make - will make – an amazing mother some day."
"How can you be so sure?" He heard the faintest trace of a sniffle.
"Empirical evidence," he said, putting an arm around her shoulder and pulling her close. "After all, you've been raising me for two years, and look how well I've turned out."
She laughed against his neck. "True enough," she said. "You certainly are becoming a fine young man."
"Not too young." He placed a hand on her cheek and gently stroked her jawline with his thumb as he kissed her deeply.
"Not too young. Not too old," she breathed. "Just right."
She slid her arms around his neck as he folded his around her waist. He gently leaned her backward until she lay on the carpeted floor of the RV, his body covering hers, his lips straying from hers to her neck, her earlobe, the hollow at the base of her throat. "Laura …"
A sharp rap on the passenger side window jarred them upright. A man in a motor patrolman's hat was holding a flashlight to the window, peering in on them. "You folks all right?" he called through the glass.
The detectives scrambled into their respective bucket seats. Laura rolled down her window. "Officer!" she said a bit breathlessly. "Thank you for stopping. We seem to have run out of gas. Perhaps if you could radio for a tow?"
"You should keep a full tank out here," the officer answered. "It's a long way between stations." He walked around the RV to where Steele had opened his own window. His flashlight played over the dashboard. "Huh," he said, reaching in and flipping a small switch. "I think you're good to go."
"Pardon?" Steele said.
The officer smirked. "Dual tanks. One goes empty, you just need to switch to the other one. Not much of a camper, are you?"
"First time," Steele admitted sheepishly.
"And last," Laura chimed in.
"Well, Palm Springs is just over that ridge," the patrolman informed them, waving his flashlight in the general direction. "You can fill the other tank there." He stepped back from the RV as Steele turned the key in the ignition. The vehicle roared to life.
"Thank you, officer," Steele said. "It's nice to know California's finest are there when you need them."
"No problem. Drive carefully, and you folks have a good evening." He watched as Steele pulled the RV back onto the road and accelerated up to cruising speed.
"Well. That was embarrassing," Steele said.
And then they were laughing – so hard that Steele thought he might have to pull over again. They regained their composure just as the RV crested a small ridge. The brilliant lights of Palm Springs were spread out before them, and between them and the city, a small forest of tall pylons, each topped with a spinning propeller. They began to hear the sound of whirring from the structures, becoming louder as they approached. Both recognized them as wind turbines of the type that were beginning to spring up all over this part of the country.
"Giant ants, Mr. Steele?" Laura suggested.
"They seemed a lot more menacing in the movie."
They laughed together again, a delicious release of all the tension and anxiety of the past 24 hours.
"Next time we decide to road trip, Miss Holt," Steele chuckled. "Let's go Greyhound."