ZACH MASTERS was not a violent person by nature. He was not the kind of person you would expect to find driving through a
blizzard at 3 A.M. on a Tuesday night with a gun in his glove box and murder on his mind. He was not the kind of person you would
expect to own a gun in the first place. Zach Masters liked to boast that his one of his proudest accom-plishments―second only to
graduating from law school―was never having thrown a punch in his adult life. Zach Masters was not a member of the N.R.A. and
had no opinions on gun control one way or the other. If Congress were to repeal the Second Amendment tomorrow, Zach Masters
would probably turn in his gun and harbor no grudge against the government. Zach Masters wasn't attached to his gun. He did not
need the gun for protection or anything else. But all his friends were getting guns. It was just something his friends were doing, like
starting a fantasy football league. Gary had a gun. Stan had two guns. Myers and Biscuit went hunting together. Myers had a shed full
of semi-automatic weapons―what's referred to by lawmen who emerge victorious from preemptive raids as a "cache of firearms."
Myers took Zach out to his locked shed one Fourth of July and offered to give him a gun, a small gun, but Zach wouldn't take it. He
could not conceive of a single reason why he would need a gun. He wasn't freaked out by it. He didn't think any less of Myers when
he found out Myers was stockpiling assault rifles as if in preparation for the Apocalypse. It just wasn't his thing.
Even Chris, who worked in Zach's law firm as a paralegal and taught oil-painting lessons in his free time and was, in Zach's opinion, a
bit of a pussy, had several guns. For a time, Zach's best friend Ryan was the only male Zach's age whom Zach knew personally who
didn't have a gun. Then Ryan had been beaten and robbed in a UPenn parking garage and Stan had arranged for Ryan to get a gun.
Now Ryan took the gun with him wherever he went ―to the grocery store, out to the bars, to work. He kept the gun in a locker in
the hospital. Stan liked to joke that if Ryan could figure out a way to conceal the gun underneath his green scrubs Ryan would
probably take the gun with him into the O. R. The gun seemed to bring Ryan and Stan closer. They went to the shooting range every
Zach went shooting with Stan and Ryan a couple of times, but he never warmed to it, he never experienced the flush of power Ryan
and Stan kept referring mistily to; and he would certainly never think to connect, let alone to equate, the feeling of the gun's release to
an orgasm, as Stan had. He found Ryan's whole-hearted embrace of gun culture and gun-nut-speak to be sycophantic and pathetic.
He was, however, impressed with Ryan's near-encyclopedic knowledge of the gun's functions, and with Stan's diligent observance of all
things gun safety. "Always be aware of where the gun is pointing―always." Stan had said. "Even when the gun isn't loaded. With some
guns, the chamber is empty, but there's a bullet in the slide."
"It's a good habit to think of a gun as a small bomb that might explode in your hand at any time. Because, you know. It will."
"Shut up, Ryan."
The shooting range looked nothing like Zach had expected. He'd anticipated a soundproof, blue-tinted, anodyne space where off-duty
federal agents wearing ear muffs could send hollow-point bullets through long, well-lit corridors. He'd expected target signs shaped like
men to slide out on electronic pulleys. But it was just a meadow behind some farm that had fallen out of use―an open space where
one could set up coffee cans and beer bottles and fire away. Wood posts were driven into the earth and held firm by sandbags. Paper
targets were nailed to the posts. A pair of hicks wearing bright orange hats sat on a bench cleaning their rifles.
Neither Stan nor Ryan could hit the target. Between them they went through a whole box of bullets. But Zach got two shots in the
paper. The first shot fell inside the fourth ring of the target. The second shot lay an inch and half from the bullseye. Stan went and
took the paper down from the target-post and gave it to Zach. "You should keep this," he said. "You're a natural."
Later they went back to Stan's place in Squirrel Hill and watched a late game on Stan's Direct-TV cable package. On Stan's front door
was a bullet-hole-ridden metal target with a picture of an Army man on it. A placard underneath the Army man read: "WELCOME,
"You really ought to get one," said Ryan at one point, peeling open a beer.
"What, a gun?"
"Why? So I can get drunk and shoot up my ex-wife's house, like what happened to Dennis?"
"Dennis was always a psycho. The gun didn't change that. It's not like you have kids. Keep it locked up and don't take any L.S.D.
Keep the bullets separate from the gun. You'll be fine." He patted Zach's shoulder. "Stan, what do you think? Should Zach get a gun?"
Stan's eyes remained fixed on his computer screen. He liked having people around when he was coding, but after his fourth or fifth
beer he tended to drift in and out of the general flow of conversation. "It's a good thing to have," Stan said noncommittally.
"I do have that trip coming up," said Zach. He wasn't being serious; he was only thinking out loud. "Carrie and me are driving cross-
country. We're riding through the South."
"Oh, then you should definitely get a gun," said Ryan. "Who knows what kind of gun nuts they have down there."
"You want to add anything to this, Stan?"
Stan was perhaps not the best person to ask about this. Stan was an arrogant hothead who was the very sort of person you would
expect to own a gun. Zach couldn't remember a time in college when Stan didn't have a bruised lip, an engorged ear, a blood-filled
eye, a broken hand.
To his credit, Stan didn't just up and tell Zach to get a gun. He gave the question its fair day in court. He wasn't belligerent or
overzealous about the idea of Zach getting a gun―not like Ryan. He'd had a gun since he was fifteen, so this whole gun thing was
nothing new to him. Guns were serious business. And he knew Zach in ways that Ryan didn't, and probably never would.
Stan removed his hands from the keyboard and fumbled blindly for his pack of Marlboro Lights. He bit the end of a cigarette. "If I
was responsible for a woman, I'd take a gun," said Stan. So Zach had gotten a gun.
* * * *
Carrie didn't like the gun. She was not amused when Zach started dropping hints that he wanted to bring the gun on their trip. She
was especially unamused when, midway through Nebraska, she opened the console and saw the gun wedged between a box of tissues
and a bag of Pemmican beef jerky. She ordered him to stop the car. She demanded he throw the gun in the corn fields―just throw
the gun in the cornfields, as if that were the most natural thing to do! She'd even gotten out of the car and threatened to hitchhike
back to Pennsylvania. But Zach had been able to talk her off the side of the road, and in the end he got to keep the gun. But the gun
issue followed them all the way to California and back. The gun overshadowed the entire trip and remained a point of contention long
after the vacation was cashiered. She wouldn't stay with him in Pittsburgh as long as "that thing" was lying around, even if it was safely
tucked away on the top shelf of his closet. They'd almost broken up over it.
Then Carrie's ex-boyfriend Andrew came back from Afghanistan and started barking up Carrie's tree. Suddenly Carrie was spending
all her weekends in Pittsburgh. Suddenly Carrie was ambivalent about the gun.
And now Zach was driving through a raging snowstorm on two hours' sleep with a gun in his glove box and murder on his mind.
Going to see a panicked Carrie. Speeding. Crazy.
All Zach saw could see through the windshield was a tiny bit of road where his headlights ate through the fog, and snowflakes dancing
in the spotlights. The rest was a screen of white. His windshield wipers were frozen to the windshield. He wasn't going to do anything
as dramatic as confront Andrew with the gun. He knew he didn't have it in him to shoot Andrew, and being that Andrew was a
Marine, being that Andrew had been trained in hand-to-hand combat by the most efficient fighting force in the history of the world,
brandishing the firearm at Andrew was probably not such a hot idea. He wasn't even going to bring the gun up to Carrie's dorm; he
wasn't even going to take it out of the glove box. It would stay in the glove box. Right there in the glove box. He wouldn't need it.
Unless, of course, he needed it.
* * * *
Then he saw the lights.
They were no more than thirty miles down the road―two of them. Headlights. Had to be. They looked like flashlight beams. He
hadn't seen a car on the road since passing Murrysville. You'd be crazy to drive anywhere in this weather.
Suddenly the stalks on the flashlight-beams disappeared. Now they were smudges of yellow on the horizon, twin dots, the eyes of
some crazed buffalo-beast rambling clumsily toward him in the fog.
Zach leaned forward as if to get a better view. His gloved hands gripped the steering wheel. He tried to think of another explanation
for what he was seeing, but there was no other explanation. Some drunk had veered into the wrong lane. That was what had hap-
pened. Some idiot had fallen asleep at the wheel. It happened all the time. He'd sent guys away for life―plenty of them―for just such
The lights got bigger. The pupils engorged.
The car was coming at him. The car was speeding up.
He had two choices here. He could steer into the opposite lane and probably stay on the road. Or he could coast off to the shoulder
and plant his car in a drift.
As it happened, Zach didn't have time to make the decision. All at once the ghost-car pulled through the fog and Zach saw that it
wasn't a car it was a truck it was a Dodge Durango he could see the giant chrome grill split into four vented sections and the ram
He pumped his brakes. It was instinct. His car spun out, fishtailing helplessly toward the oncoming vehicle. Zach took his hands off
the wheel just before the impact. He went loose. It was to a person's advantage to be drunk during a car accident―this was according
to Ryan. This was how a drunk driver could take out a van full of children and walk away from the accident without so much as a
scraped knee. People read too much into that sort of thing, according to Ryan, who was, not for nothing, a trauma-unit surgeon. They
wondered why God would tip the scales like that. It seemed so cosmically wrong to most people, but there was a reason for it, an
actual reason, a medical reason. A rational explanation. Everything had a reason. Everything happened―
The vehicles collided. They didn't hit head-on, but it would be inaccurate to say they only grazed each other. In the end the seatbelt
probably saved Zach's life. He was jerked forward and whipped back; his head bounced against the leather padding of the seat and
smacked against the driver's-side window. It didn't hurt. Too much adrenaline. No reason for Zach to think he'd suffered contusions
in his chest.
His car limped over to the shoulder. It was still in the northbound lane, but it was facing the wrong way―facing Pittsburgh. Snow
buried the front hood as he crashed into a drift. Again he was yanked forward. This time it did hurt.
He grabbed the steering wheel and shook it. "FUCK!" The steering column rattled. He checked his rear-view mirror. The black
Durango was stopped in the middle of the road. Its blinkers were on.
Zach got out of his car and looked at the panel above the rear wheel. In one glimpse he saw about 1,200 dollars worth of bodywork
repair and suppressed the urge to vomit. The back bumper was hanging by a skein of plastic. He walked around to the front of his
vehicle―cleared the snow off the hood. The front end of the driver's side was completely fucked up, but the engine was still running.
The engine had never stopped running.
He looked at the grinning blotch of light ahead of him on the highway and noticed that the SUV's engine wasn't running. The lights
were running on battery. He was out there without a coat. He felt like he was being fucked in the ears with icicles. He smelled
mechanical oil. Tasted carbon monoxide. Drunk fucking asshole.
He was not a violent person by nature but he believed he could murder this drunk who'd run him off the road and nearly killed him;
he was convinced he had this in him. And this belief galvanized Zach Masters to confront the drunk using simple body language that
even a maniac―and especially a homicidal maniac―is equipped to interpret correctly. He approached the truck, his arms out in "What
the fuck?" formation.
But Zach never got to say, "What the fuck?" He was too dumbstruck with fear and confusion to say anything at all.
The man was sitting cross-legged on the hood of his sport utility vehicle. He was wearing a plaid, duck-billed cap―one of those
newsboy caps. Both ears were pierced. His jeans were cuffed and he wore black boots―in the olden days these were called
"engineering boots" but now they're generally known as Doc Martens. He was smoking a cigarette. He was smiling. The son-of-a-bitch
Zach edged closer to the SUV. Thirteen inches of snow had fallen on Western Pennsylvania. There wasn't another commuter for
probably a hundred miles. Every step was a battle against the elements, man-vs.-nature, and the closer he got, the harder it would be
to get back to his car. To the gun.
Zach got half the distance, then stopped. He was bathed in white light. The man star-ted laughing. Maybe he was laughing all along
and Zach simply hadn't heard him; maybe the sound of his laughter had been sucked into the forest in little maelstroms of snow. It
was a full-belly laugh, a crazed, vindicated laugh. Zach backed away slowly.
The man abruptly stopped laughing. He flicked his cigarette Zach's way. It was a good, powerful flick, helped along by the knifing
wind. It was a clove cigarette of some sort. Wrapped in black paper. It landed cherry-down in the snow, by Zach's feet.
Ryan had a saying, and it was a trite and vacuous saying that many other people used and which Zach took personal offense to. Ryan
had busted this saying out a few months after Mary died. That was a mistake. He and Zach had almost come to fisticuffs. Almost.
But Ryan didn't mean it as everyone else means it. His understanding of this saying's true spirit was far less nuanced, less spiritual.
Ryan only meant that everything has a cause. A person doesn't just "get a headache." The headache happens for a reason. A light does
not just "go on." Lights go off; that shit happens all the time. Bulbs burn out; kids unplug cords; circuits fry. But for a light to go on, a
switch must be flipped, a circuit must be closed. It requires an active force. When household appliances start lighting up of their own
volition, that's when people start talking about ghosts. And with good cause. Because there's no reason in the physical universe for a
light to just ... go on.
Mary got uterine cancer for a reason. Whether the problem was biological or subconscious or part of some grand cosmic revenge
scheme was not for him to decide. He treated the problem; it was up to the body to get better. In some ways, Ryan liked to claim, the
body makes its decision long before the symptoms of the illness rear up and start to kick ass. And sometimes before the illness even
Zach had wanted to kill Ryan for talking about Mary's uterus like that, but now he was able to see what Ryan was saying. It was no
accident that Ryan had gotten beaten up coming out of the ICU. It happened because this was going to happen. It was no coincidence
that Stan had ultimately been the one to convince Zach to get a gun. Everything happened for a reason. And maybe this was Stan's
voice in Zach's head talking, but if there was ever a good reason to wave a gun around in someone's face, this was it.
Zach cupped his hands around his mouth. "You think that's FUNNY, motherfucker? All right, motherfucker. I'll show you what's
He trundled quickly back to his car through the snow. The driver's side door was still open. He leaned across the console and flipped
open the glove box. Maybe he'd even take a swing at the guy. He was angry. But he'd probably just shoot out his front tires and get
back into his vehicle and drive away. And maybe place an anonymous call to the cops later, explaining what had happened. Tell them
there was a stranded motorist on Mile 9 of Route 220 North. But probably not.
"Motherfucker thinks this shit is funny?" Zach said as he checked the magazine clip and toggled the safety. He crawled out of his car
and stepped up on the macadam, making no attempt to hide the gun. But the man had already climbed back into his vehicle. Zach
could see him sitting behind the wheel of his SUV. The engine caught and gunned. For a moment Zach thought he would be run
down right there on the side of the highway. But the deranged motorist was done taunting Zach. He pulled a U-ee across the median
and righted his course ... to where? Why was he turning around? Had he come all this way just to fuck with ... Zach?
The SUV slowed down as it passed. The man was looking at Zach through the passenger-side window; he looked Zach right in the
eyes. And then, with his arm fully extended, the man reached across the console and ... gave Zach the finger. Flipped him the fucking
bird! It was almost comical, almost priceless ....
The Durango's tires threw up snow as the truck peeled out. The snow was gray, pitted with gravel. It stung Zach's face. Zach stepped
into the road behind the fleeing SUV. He was not aware that his knees were slightly bent, that he was standing in a boxer's crouch. He
tried to read the license plate. It was covered in snow.
He shot only twice. The first shot took out the left taillight. The second shot shattered the back window. The truck rolled off the left
side of the highway and fell in a ditch. The engine cut off abruptly.
Zach stood there. The icy rush of wind was the only sound in Zach's world now. He thought about going over to check on the driver.
But the snow was too deep; he was wearing canvas sneakers; he could already feel his feet going numb. And fuck that guy. Fuck him
in his dirty A-hole.
He'd do a fly-by.
He got back in his car. Miraculously, the treads on his tires caught asphalt underneath the slick plate of fresh-fallen snow, and the car
pulled out easily. His back bumper fell off as it dislodged from the six-foot-tall snow bank. He continued north on US-220, briefly
sweeping into the oncoming lane to check out how much damage the Durango had sustained.
He only saw it for a couple of seconds. The passenger-side window, through which the man had made the obscene gesture, was still
open. The man was slumped over the steering wheel. His whole head was doused in blood. His eyes were open. Blood streamed down
his forehead and pooled in his eye sockets and dribbled off his chin. An odd mechanical noise was being produced by the SUV's
control panel, a persistent beeping, the kind that reminds you a door is open. Keys dangled from the ignition.
Zach looked away. Returned his eyes to the road. "Fuck that guy," thought Zach Masters, a normally mild-mannered person, and
sped up and drove on.
* * * *
"Oh my God."
Zach stepped into Carrie's dorm room. His long black wool coat was dusted in snow. The room was criminally hot. The incident on
the highway was almost entirely forgotten; it had happened somewhere else, in another time; it was irrelevant to this dorm room and
to the electricity that coursed through its walls.
Carrie was no trust fund brat. She'd lived in three different cities in the past two years and had worked a variety of bizarre, creatively
dehumanizing jobs that saw her twisting balloons and folding hats in an honest-to-God hat factory. She was nothing like the girls down
the hall who tacked posters of girlhood idols like Jesus and Tori Amos to their particle-board walls in order to personalize and
Catholicize their factory-issue shitholes. She was not looking to experience the "freedom" of university life. She wanted to get her
degree and get the hell out of there. She was a "returning adult." That was what her academic adviser had told her to tell her
professors before the start of each semester―that she was a "returning adult." Carrie was only in the dorms until she could find
something affordable off-campus―something more in-step with her status as a "returning adult."
Carrie kept a framed picture on her desk. It was the only decoration in the room. It was a picture of Zach and her embracing under a
waterfall in Joshua Tree. The picture in its gold frame was a gift from Zach. He always suspected she kept it in the top drawer of her
desk and propped it up only when he came to visit. He was drunk all the time in college, and he remembered very little of the
experience, but every now and then he received a friendly reminder from his brain―a whiff of beer-soaked carpet while arguing a
case―a recurring nightmare that he'd forgotten some exam. Plus he wasn't stupid.
"He was here."
Zach unbuttoned his coat. He flung his scarf across the bed. He felt it would make him appear somehow tougher, to have his trench
coat on but unbuttoned. As opposed to being all bundled up like Paddington Bear. He opened the closet door, for some reason.
"Where is he?"
"How long ago?"
"I don't know. Half-hour, forty-five minutes. You didn't answer your cell."
"Carrie, it's a goddamn snowstorm out there. I got in an accident."
"Are you all right?"
"My car's fucked up. I'm here. Now what happened?"
"He came to my room all liquored up. I thought he was drunk but now I'm not so sure. He was acting crazy. He wanted to kick your
ass. He would have, you know. If it weren't for the storm, you would be murdered. I tried calling your cell. You wouldn't answer. You
Zach sat on the bed next to her. "Did he hit you?"
Carrie shook her head. She was crying. "He never threatened me."
"I didn't fucking ask you if he threatened you, Carrie. I asked if he hit you."
"And I said he never threatened me. Don't put me on the stand, Zach."
"The picture's broken."
"He broke it."
"And I'm supposed to believe he didn't raise his fucking hands to you?"
"He threatened you. You dumb shit. Listen to what I'm telling you. I'm not crying because I'm scared for me. He wanted to know
where you live. He said he'd drive to Pittsburgh and start knocking on doors. Whatever it took. He said he was going to go out and
beat the shit out of someone, he didn't care who. Just start driving around State College looking for people to beat up at random. He
"He said he was going to kill someone with his car. If he couldn't find anyone to beat up, on account of all the snow. He was going to
just get on the highway and drive into traffic. He was crazy, Zach. Really crazy. I really think he's going to kill someone."
Zach could have found out all he needed to know right here. But what would be the point? Hadn't he seen the man slumped over the
steering wheel, his forehead leaning on the horn? Didn't he already know, hadn't he known all along, that the man was dead? It was as
if the likelihood that he'd killed Andrew Cortez the person verified the fact that he'd killed a man.
All it would have taken was for Zach to ask Carrie what kind of car Andrew drove. But Zach thought, the less he knew at this point,
the wiser he would be. Lie detector tests can tell you whether a person did something, but those results are predicated on the person
knowing he did something. What the polygraph results tend to flub are the more human aspects of the crime, the always-tricky issue
of motive. Juries tend to get hung up on motive. Zach knew this from experience. And allowing a prosecutor to even hint at the word
"premeditation" could get your client killed.
Zach Masters looked out through the window of 345 McKean Hall and was encouraged by the fact that it was still snowing. By
morning his tire tracks would be buried in two feet of snow. But it was a false hope, and he knew it. His life and career were over and
he knew it. They would scrape paint from the side of Andrew Cortez's truck and match it with the make and model of Zach's car.
They would almost certainly talk to Carrie and find out that on the night of Andrew Cortez's roadside execution he'd been involved in
a physical confrontation that had left certain parties rattled. This would lead them to Zach. It would take one phone call to the D.M.
V. and they would have their guy. They would drag their asses the next few days, getting their ducks in a row. If the cops did their job
right, Zach wouldn't see it coming. When investigating a violent crime, it was preferable not to interview the suspect at all.
Phone records would confirm what the cops already knew―that Carrie had spoken to Zach on the night of the slaying. It would look
as if Zach had tried to run Cortez's SUV off the road. Disposing of the gun would be pointless; it was registered legally; there was a
paper trail. Matching Zach's gun with the bullet taken from Andrew Cortez's skull would constitute the final piece of detective work;
and then the case would be floated on down to the District Attorney's office―gift-wrapped and placed on the Scales of Justice. If
Zach, in his days as a county prosecutor, were to draw this case, he would probably shuffle it to the rear of his caseload and consider
it money in the bank―and that would be Zach's only advantage in this mess―a cocksure D.A. who with any luck was a bit
overextended. There were a lot of maniacs to be put away. You had to prioritize.
* * * *
"You don't actually think ...
"No," Zach said.
"You don't actually think he's going to ...."
"No. But if he does kill someone, chances are, that person will have deserved it."
Carrie looked at him sideways. She was sitting up in bed. The ashtray was resting on her belly. The orange coal of her cigarette
hovered by her face. "What the hell is that supposed to mean, Zach?"
Zach put his cigarette out in the ashtray. "It doesn't mean anything," he said, and rolled over and went to sleep.