For LOST IN LOS ALAMOS Beta Readers Only - Please Do Not Share.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
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There is something quite marvelous, as the word is defined in the Oxford Dictionary, about the quality of light of a late afternoon sun, descended from its earlier stark, sharp-edged and shadow-producing position high up in the sky. Our mind’s image of Daytime is of a noonday sun overhead as we go about our lives; as we shop and enter and leave businesses and homes and our cars. But how often do we think of the warm light of the late afternoon when we’re not experiencing it?
The sun had down-shifted from the unnoticeable, but still bluish, 5600 Degrees Kelvin of midday as measured by a cinematographer to a yellow-tinged pre-dusk 4300K. The light that warms and sustains life on our planet, instead of being omnispherically overhead with a person having to crane their head upward to view it, here in the late afternoon we find it barreling straight at us, head-on.
It surprises us, this descent of the sun. It turns ordinary scenes of angular buildings and kitchen sinks underneath kitchen windows into scenes from movies where the director of photography has skillfully captured the magic and warm stillness of anticipated revelation and then passage into dusk and the inevitable falling into night. It makes us uneasy sometimes, panicking at the idea of losing the light and the day’s plans and any last chance to live out our dreams and desires before they’re relegated to the visual confines of evening, night, and the shutdown of bedtime sleep.
Many people immediately associate the state of New Mexico and its landscape with the terms ‘magical’ and “enchantment” and the photographic qualities of its light. What the dying sun does to the mesas, mountains, and adobe buildings of New Mexico is nothing short of phenomenal. So that when we are caught out in the open, on a highway or trail or even on the sidewalks of the tourist traps of Santa Fe, this fervid light washing across the face of a red and cream-striped sandstone mesa actually catches one up short; often takes our breath away. If we’re paying attention.
It wasn’t on a movie set or photo shoot, but the image of a tan, mid-eighties Cadillac that hurtled down a two-lane highway was exactly as it is in the many depictions we’ve seen of the Southwest as it headed into the lowering sun down a blacktop toward the dead end of silhouetted miniature mountains in the distance.
The caddy bottomed out on blown-out bad shocks with every dip in the road as sparks flew out behind, tumbled and skipped like fireflies at a rave before they died out, disappointing. This was for real. Seriously. The rusted and patched rear muffler separated from its hangers, creased inward once, somersaulted out onto the road, and bounced into the air a few times before coming to rest, rocking back and forth half on the shoulder for just a moment. Immediately, the caddy’s unmuffled engine took on a Daytona roar, echoing off the road below, betraying the out of date and ruined luxury the automobile once possessed.
A bland, eighties-style DeVille, it was dinged all over and there was a scrape along the front driver’s side fender over the wheel well that carried the maroon color of another car or human being. It sat too low with the driver’s bulk that weighed it down; caused it to list to the driver’s side. But just ahead of the manifold the engine purred, lovingly tuned to ninety-five hertz - a baritone Druid’s droning chant, revved up to forty-five hundred RPM’s and climbing.
Out the passenger window to the right was a Mesa, bleeding, colors stabbed through by the charging sun. Like an uninterrupted set of molars set upon flesh-red gums, it stretched on, keeping up with the rocketing car until the teeth broke apart and opened into a pass below the viewpoint, then picked up again across the gap. Geological striations of sediment built upon the base of sloped sage and brush and gravel gave its horizon a forever linear trajectory.
The sun was big and orange and it was only one finger from top of the mountain range ahead - how a cinematographer determines fifteen minutes of daylight left. That’s about all the driver needed to make it to the unmarked turnoff and far enough into the wash to escape his pursuers.
Struggling to keep up with the well-tuned Cadillac, two Española police cruisers swung right and left in the road to avoid hitting each other. Their lights and sirens turned up to eleven and headlights flashing, shotguns were unlocked from the center posts. The lead cruiser’s AC was then switched off, giving it a minimal burst of power as the compressor disengaged and it shot ahead perceptibly. It gained on the Caddy.
Heading westward out of the small, heroin-riddled town of Española, 31 Mile Road was seldom used as roads more current and populated took over from it. It eventually turned up into the finger ridges north of the Caldera and into the forested mountains and along a crest and through hairpin turns and most travelers would rather take the faster, safer routes below and above the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Before the ascent though, the desert highway was stretched out before the Caddy. The smell of hot coolant and asphalt rolled out from underneath in its wake. At the dogleg, the rear end of the caddy slid to the right, following the highway that continued on as the front wheels headed southwest. Instead of slowing down for the undefined turnoff, the caddy flew forward into the wash, dust flying and the caddy crunching its shocks as it landed, plowed through a berm of sand, fishtailed right and left before it straightened out.
The cruisers braked for the turn before following. One of the cruisers dove into the wash on the trail of the caddy and the other stayed right, above and along the wash. The Cadillac slowed involuntarily through the sand and dirt in the wash, swerving side to side. The police car behind was forced to do the same, the view ahead almost completely obscured by the caddy’s dust, which was, of course, the origin of the old saying.
The second cruiser on harder soil above the wash was able to pick up speed and pulled even with the caddy down below. A beefy arm popped out of the driver’s window of the caddy and above the roofline, middle finger of the hand raised, before the caddy hit a dip and bottomed out again, causing it to swerve out of control. The driver pulled the arm in quickly before the caddy spun a half revolution and came to rest facing the cruiser that pulled up short behind at a safe distance. The second cruiser skidded down into the wash ahead of the caddy and slid to a stop, more dust pluming into the desert air. There were only the sounds of a few squawks of the police radios as the caddy’s engine knocked, coughed a few times and died. Officers in both cruisers piled out, shotguns and pistols raised and resting on open doors, choking on the cloud that surrounded them. The sound of the caddy’s ignition key being turned off was heard.
The flashing blue and red lights of the cop cars and the red-orange sun hitting the horizon blended with the voluminous dust cloud rising and falling in the wash and it gave the visual effect of being inside a monstrous furnace. An officer called out on his PA before he could even see the Cadillac through the dust.
“Get out of the car, Wolfe! This one’s over!”, he said, punctuated by a cough.
Other than this command, the desert was now still, cactus and shrubs silhouetted in the mushrooming red-orange cloud, deep purple mountains in the distance. But anticipation charged the scene and coursed through the officers who were both tensed and yet calmly programmed for the outcome. Another officer subdued a cough as all listened for the next sound of activity or response from the heat-ticking time bomb in front of them. Coarse beige fallout soundlessly rested upon the matching vehicle, clouding the windshield.
“Get out with those mitts raised! Let’s see ‘em!”, yelled the first officer on the PA.
Surprised to suddenly see compliance, all of the policemen shifted and stiffened when they heard the mechanical sound of a door latch being pulled, a few seconds later followed by the metallic creak of the heavy driver’s door beginning to open. A menacing and low guttural growl emanated from within the densely window-tinted interior as the door swung fully open like the stone of a tomb being rolled away after centuries of containment of the dead and spirits and mystery and ancient evil.
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