Joey Pringle had a plan, and the plan was valid. The conditions were all correct. He could drive all night, he had his yellowjackets. He had his trucker hat, no logo, on tight over short hair. He had the heat on and the heat was on full. No music. It was warm and cozy and Saint Christopher on the dash. This was something that people liked. There was a hollow place in the driver side door. There was a starfield of snow flying through the air and around his truck, enough for visibility to be low, but not enough to make the driving dicey. The plan was valid and Joey Pringle knew it, because the plan had been tested before.
Joey Pringle had a wide clear face with a small nose and he found it easy to smile. He’d learned to make his eyes move when he smiled, which is what people liked. He wasn’t large or small, but he was fast. He had a gun that he had never needed to discharge, and a knife, and the knife was valid, too. The knife was very valid.
He didn’t listen to the radio; he whistled and drove into the starfield, and watched.
As he drove, he passed the time by thinking of the other ones. Sometimes he knew their names, sometimes not. He gave them his own names in that case, and in a way, those were his favorite. There were twenty-nine of them now, and sometimes if he missed one it would only come out to twenty-eight, and then he’d have to start over. He didn’t know if any of them had ever been found. He didn’t check the newspapers.
First the car in the ditch, then two minutes later the hitcher himself materialized out of the snow. There’d been another one right at the beginning, nearly 3 hours ago, but then there had been headlights in his rearview mirror, so he’d kept driving. He’d known there would be another in a snowstorm. It was just playing the odds. Everybody these days warned against hitch-hiking, because of the danger, but when it’s cold and dark and you’re broken down or spun out, you realize that almost anybody who will pick you up is just being helpful. Joey Pringle knew that the hitcher was also playing the odds.
He slowed and pulled to a stop and waited for the hitcher to run up beside him. He was wearing a heavy blue parka and a knit cap pulled over the forehead and nearly down to the eyes. His hair was completely obscured, color impossible to guess. Features rather close together, twinkling black eyes behind little glasses with golden frames. An 18th century shopkeeper’s glasses. Heavyset, but not overly so. He was bigger than Joey Pringle, but the disparity would make no difference in the end.
If I don’t discover his name, Joey Pringle thought, I’ll call him Pinch.
The man got in and buckled his seat belt. “Thanks, bud. How far you headed?” Pinch had a higher voice than usual for a larger man. The door closed and Joey started driving immediately. It was done, now.
Joey smiled, remembering to make his eyes smile too. “A ways. I can take you as far as you need. You wrecked?” He took the truck up to just under the speed limit. Too fast to jump. Not fast enough to draw police.
Pinch nodded. “Not wrecked, but I’m going nowhere until I get a truck. You have a phone on you?”
Joey shook his head, and Pinch laughed. “We must be the last two people on earth without one, then. Just the nearest gas station ought to do it and I’ll be OK. About ten miles down.”
“You’re from around here.”
“Yep, all my life.”
“I’m just passing through.” Joey stuck out his gloved hand, and Pinch shook it. “Mike,” Joey said. The plan always included a false name. It never mattered, but better to be sure. Better to be safe.
Pinch laughed again. “Nice name, Mike. I’m Mike, too.”
“Odds are good,” Joey said, but he was disappointed. He decided that when he remembered him, number thirty, he would remember him as Pinch. The gun would be out soon. Later, the knife.
“This is a nice truck, Mike,” Pinch said. “Ninety-seven?”
“Gotcha, gotcha. Ninety seven was the first year this model had passenger-side airbags installed. I noticed you had those.”
“You’re quite safety conscious.”
“I am at that,” Pinch said, and then there was a sharp pain in Joey’s leg. He looked down and Pinch was pushing the dregs of the syringe’s contents in. Joey kept looking at the syringe and wondering why he wasn’t looking back up and why he couldn’t move his arms or even blink, and from a very high place he could hear Pinch’s friendly voice saying:
“Good alignment on this make, too. You’re still bearing very straight, but there’s a curve right up ahead, buddy. About a thousand yards to go and then we’ll be into the trees. I have a place back there. And then we’ll see.”
They always warn you about picking up hitchers, too, Joey Pringle thought. What are the odds?