Around eight that night, snow started drifting on the narrow Minnesota highway Dave Custer was traveling. Already he could feel the rear end of the new Dodge begin sliding around on the freezing surface of the asphalt, and could see that he would soon have to pull over and scrape the windshield. Snow was forming into gnarly bumps on the safety glass.
The small-town radio station he was listening to confirmed his worst suspicions; the weather bureau was predicting a genuine February blizzard, with eight to ten inches of snow and drifts up to several feet.
Dave sighed. A thirty-seven year old bachelor who made his living as a traveling computer salesman–he worked especially hard at getting farmers to buy his wares–he spent most of the year on the road, putting up in shabby motels that from the distance always reminded him of doghouses. A brother on the other side of the country was all the family he had left, everybody else was dead. There had been women, of course, but somehow it never turned out–this one wasn’t his type, that one laughed too loud, this one didn’t have the same interests as he. And while his associates and acquaintances blossomed with mates and children, there was for Dave just the road, beers in bars with other salesmen and nights alone in motel rooms with paper strips across the toilet seats.
The Dodge pitched suddenly toward the ditch. An experienced driver and a calm man, Dave avoided the common mistake of slamming on the brakes. Instead, he took the steering wheel in both hands and guided the hurtling car along the edge of the depression. While he had only a foot of earth keeping him from plunging into the gully on the right, he let the car find its own traction. Soon enough, the car was gently heading back onto the roadway.
It was there, just when the headlights focused on the highway again, that he saw the woman.
At first, he tried sensibly enough to deny that she was even there. His first impression was that she was an illusion, a mirage of some sort created by the whirling, whipping snow and the vast black night.
But no, there really was a beautiful, red-haired woman standing in the center of the highway. She wore a trench coat and black high-heeled shoes. She might have been one of the women on the cover of the private eye paperbacks he’d read back in the sixties.
This time, he did slam on the brakes, otherwise, he would have run over her. He came to a skidding stop less than three feet from her.
His first reaction was gratitude. He dropped his head to the wheel and let out a long sigh. His whole body trembled. She could easily have been dead by now.
He was just raising his head when harsh wind and snow and cold blew into the car. The door on the passenger side had opened.
She got inside, saying nothing, closing the door when she was seated comfortably.
Dave looked over at her. Close up, she was even more beautiful. In the yellow glow of the dashboard, her features were so exquisite they had the refined loveliness of sculpture. Her tumbling, radiant hair only enhanced her face.
She turned to him finally and said, in a somewhat breathy voice, “You’d better not sit here in the middle of the highway long. It won’t be safe.”
He drove again. On either side of the highway he could make out little squares of light–the yellow windows of farmhouses lost in the gloom of the blizzard. The car heater warmed them nicely. The radio played some sexy jazz that somehow made the open fields and the snow and the weather alert go away.
All he could think of was those private eye novels he’d read as a teenager. This is what always happened to Mike Hammer himself, ending up with a woman like this.
“Your car get ditched somewhere,” he asked finally, realizing that these were his first words to her.
“Yes,” she said, “somewhere.”
“So you were walking to the nearest town?”
“Something like that.”
“You were walking in the wrong direction.” He paused. “And you were traveling alone?” She glanced over at him again with her dark, lovely gaze. “Yes. Alone.”
He drove some more, careful to keep both hands on the wheel, slowing down whenever the rear of the car started to slide.
He wasn’t paying much attention to the music at this point–they were going up a particularly sleek and dangerous hill–but then the announcer’s voice came on and said, “Looks like the police have really got their hands full tonight. Not only with the blizzard, but now with a murder. Local banker John T. Sloan was found murdered in his downtown apartment twenty minutes ago. Police report an eyewitness said he heard two gunshots and then saw a beautiful woman leaving Sloan’s apartment. The witness reportedly said that the woman strongly resembled Sloan’s wife, Kathryn. But the police note that’s impossible, given the fact that Kathryn died mysteriously last year in a boating accident. The eyewitness insists that the resemblance between the redheaded woman leaving Sloan’s apartment tonight and the late Mrs. Sloan is uncanny. Now back to our musical program for the evening.”
Beautiful. Redheaded. Stranded alone. Looking furtive. He started glancing at her, and she said, “I’ll spare you the trouble. It’s me. Kathryn Sloan.”
“You? But the announcer said . . .”
She turned to him and smiled. “That I’m dead? Well, so I am.”
Not until then did Custer realize how far out in the boonies he was. Or how lacerating the storm had become. Or how helpless he felt inside a car with a woman who claimed to be dead.
“Why don’t you just relax?”
“Please don’t patronize me, Mr. Custer.”
“I’m not patroniz . . . Say, how did you know my name?”
“I know a lot of things.”
“But I didn’t tell you my name and there’s no way you could see my registration from there and–”
She paused briefly and said, “As I said, Mr. Custer, I know a lot of things.” She shook her head. “I don’t know how I got like this, though.”
“You still don’t believe me, do you?”
He sighed. “We’ve got about eight miles to go. Then we’ll be in Zumbrota. I’ll let you out at the Greyhound stop there. Then you can go about your business and I can go about mine.”
She touched his temple with long lovely fingers. “That’s why you’re such a lonely man, Mr. Custer. You never take any chances. You never let yourself get involved with anybody.”
He smiled thinly. “Especially with dead people.”
“Maybe you’re the one that’s dead, Mr. Custer. Night after night alone in cheap little hotel rooms, listening to the country music through the walls, and occasionally hearing people make love. No woman. No children. No real friends. It’s not a very good life, is it, Mr. Custer?”
He said nothing. Drove.
“We’re both dead, Mr. Custer. You know that?”
He still said nothing. Drove.
After a time, she said, “Do you want to know how tonight happened, Mr. Custer?”
“I made you mad, didn’t I, Mr. Custer, when I reminded you of how lonely you are?”
“I don’t see where it’s any of your business.”
Now it was her turn to be quiet. She stared out at the lashing snow. Then she said, “The last thing I could remember before tonight was John T. holding me underwater till I drowned off the side of our boat. By the way, that’s what all his friends called him, John T.” She looked out the side window and then back. “Then earlier tonight I felt myself rise through darkness and suddenly I realized I was taking form. I was rising from the grave and taking form. And there was just one place I wanted to go. The apartment he kept in town for his so-called business meetings. So I went there tonight and killed him.”
“You won’t do much time.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“They won’t give you life for doing it. You just tell them the same story you told me, and you’ll get off with second degree. Maybe even not guilty by reason of insanity.”
She laughed. “Maybe if you weren’t so damn busy watching the road, you’d notice what’s happening to me, Mr. Custer.”
She was disappearing. Right there in his car. Where her left arm had been was now just five fingernails that seemed to be held up on invisible wires. A part of her face was starting to disappear, too.
“About a quarter mile down the highway, let me out if you would.”
He laughed. “What’s there? A graveyard?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
By now her legs had started disappearing.
“You don’t seem to believe it, Mr. Custer, but I’m only trying to help you. Trying to tell you to go out and live while you’re still alive. I wasted my life on my husband, sitting around at home while he ran around with other women, hoping against hope that someday he’d be faithful and we’d have a good life together. It never happened, Mr. Custer. I wasted my whole life.”
“Sounds like you paid him back tonight. Two gunshots, the radio said.”
Her remaining hand raised to what was left of her mouth. “I was hoping there would be some satisfaction in it. There isn’t. I’m as lonely as I ever was.”
He wondered if that was a small, dry sob he heard in her voice.
“Right here,” she said.
He had been cautiously braking the last minute and a half. He put on his emergency flashers in case anybody was behind him.
Up on the hill to his right, he saw it. A graveyard. The tombstones looked like small children huddled against the whipping snow.
“After I killed him, I just started walking,” she said. “Walking. Not even knowing where I was going. Then you came along.” She turned to him. “Do something about your life, Mr. Custer. Don’t waste it the way I have.”
She got out of the car and leaned back in. “Goodbye, Mr. Custer.”
He sat there, watching her disappear deep into the gully, then reappear on the other side and start walking up the slope of the hill.
By the time she was halfway there, she had nearly vanished altogether.
Then, moments later, she was gone utterly.
At the police station, he knew better than to tell the cops about the ghost business. He simply told them he’d seen a woman fitting the description out on the highway about twenty minutes ago.
Grateful for his stopping in, four cops piled into two different cars and they set out under blood-red flashers into the furious white night.
Dave Custer found a motel–his usual one in this particular town–and took his usual room. He stripped as always, to his boxer shorts and got snug in bed beneath the covers and watched a rerun of an old sitcom.
He should have been laughing–at least all the people on the soundtrack seemed to be having a good time–but instead he did something he rarely did. He began crying. Oh, not big wailing tears, but hard, tiny, cold silver ones. Then he shut off both the TV and the lights and lay in the solitary darkness thinking of what she’d said to him.
No woman. No children. No love.
Only much later, when the wind near dawn died and the snow near light subsided, only then did Custer sleep, his tears dried out but feeling colder then he ever had.
Lonely cold. Dead cold.