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Joshua Tree

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With Dylan coaching us, Rachel and I settled in. We began showing lantern light through the cabin windows so anyone around could see someone was living there. We ventured to the hardscrabble market that popped up a few days each week just off the highway. Semi-trains thundered by and sometimes a drone flew a tight circle above us but the truth was no one with a badge thought Joshua Tree was worth much effort. When Interior tried to strike it off the park rolls, the Uppers around Palm Springs sued them over "sprawl" and everyone seemed to think the longer things played out in court, the better. The park police pulled out and the sheriff said she wouldn't waste resources and Joshua Tree became a place where most anyone could disappear as long as they stayed quiet. People or machines who attracted attention figured out quick that they'd be run off or dead and that suited everyone who mattered just fine. Cops only went in when they had a score to settle and if they did, they were on their own. Even Bryant wouldn't send teams to Joshua Tree. It would be too risky, too bloody and embarrassing if things went wrong. A lot of nasty cases were put to bed because the perps decided to put themselves in Joshua Tree.

And you knew as soon as you set foot in the market not to screw around. The peddlers were ready for business before dawn so they could operate for hours before the wind kicked up in winter and the heat grew fierce in summer. Kerosene and battery lanterns bled their light into a shadowy, flat glow that reminded me ironically of LA. To inspect a table's wares or count your change you had to bend down and squint, but keeping out of each other's way was a simple dance of stepping around shadows. People openly looked each other over until the sun cleared the mountains, but then they became more discreet. You'd glance up at someone and quickly look away again. I flicked my eyes over every body I could, looking for the bulge of a gun, the hilt of a knife, the claw of someone ready to strike. But that was everybody's habit. I was blending in without even trying.

"There," Rachel whispered as the morning's light sharpened. "And there." I glanced toward a woman leaning tiredly against a drooping table and a withered old man leaning against a rock closer to the highway than he should have been. The woman had a scattering of rags and handkerchiefs spread out before her, dyed in flat tones of mud and rust. They were loosely folded and just waiting for the wind to pick up and blow them away. The old man hadn't shaved in days and sagged in on himself. He had an ancient blaster tucked into his belt. If he'd been one of Tyrell's creations, the weapon would have been worth more than he was.

Then I realized he was one of Tyrell's creations. I don't know how, but suddenly the way he tilted his body seemed familiar, steady at first glance but ready to collapse at the slightest pressure. Rachel looked coolly into my eyes, then flicked hers between the two figures. "She's a 4," she whispered. "I can't imagine how she's lasted this long. He must be an early 5, older than your friend."

"How do you know that?"

She shrugged. She's beginning to suspect, I think. Another of Eldon Tyrell's experiments. Program Rachel to recognize other replicants, then watch to see if she recognized herself.

That was the moment I saw Sally Farmington. She was as wide as ever but listing to port, her weight born by a surplus camp stool behind a table of home-made axes and knives. She spotted me while I was whispering to Rachel, absorbed the way I stood, the way I walked, the way I took in the shadows of the market. Even in the half-light, she didn't squint. She looked briefly at Rachel and began pondering what kind of trouble I was in. At a glance, she knew Rachel wasn't cop.

I didn't need more than a glance to know there was no sense in hiding. With Rachel behind me I approached Sally slowly, hands visible, my eyes on hers. Rachel's breath quickened and her jaw betrayed the slightest tremble. She knew from the old lady's smirk that Sally wasn't afraid of me. She planted her elbow on the table, dropped her chin on her fist and finally allowed her lips to stretch when I got close enough. "Well, Ricky Deckard," she said. "You finally shoot someone real by mistake?"

"Maybe I'm hunting."

"Not with that princess, you're not." She gave Rachel a wide grin. The teeth on the left side of her jaw were gone.

"Clean air finally get to you, Sally?" I picked up a hatchet. She'd balanced it perfectly.

"Around here's a good place to take a break sometimes. Don't have to do too much looking over your shoulder, right?"

"You're not on a break." I set down the hatchet and took up a knife. "You wouldn't spend so much time on these if you were taking a break."

"I'm a craftsman, Deckard. Always have been." She cocked her head to get a look at Rachel. "Nice piece of equipment you got there."

I didn't take the bait. "What are you doing out here, Sally? Last I heard, you were running boys and girls in Shadow Hills."

"Got to be too much work."

"You always loved the work."

"Let's talk about you, Deckard. I heard you'd quit and there's no skin job out here worth sending you after, anyway."

"Bryant pulled me back in. It was easier to get out of town than keep fighting him off." I liked the words as soon as they were out of my mouth. They were just vague enough for Sally to assume I was lying when I'd given her something an inch close to the truth. Meanwhile, Sally kept her eyes on Rachel, absorbing how Eleanor Blakely's clothes hung off her, the way Rachel tried to stand comfortably in boots that were four sizes too big. "I got any other old friends out here?" I asked.

"No one I'd worry about," Sally said amiably. "No one you couldn't handle with the right tools."

I picked up a knife with a seven-inch blade, gripped it, ran my thumbnail along the edge. "Could be sharper."

"Boys who know what they're about like to sharpen their own."

"Give you ten for it."

"You think I turned stupid?'

"I'd give you fifteen if I didn't have to take it home and make it useful myself."

"You'll give me eighteen because you know it's worth twenty and you want to stay on my good side about now." She smirked again.

"I'll give you seventeen because I know it's worth twenty and I'm not in the mood for your shit."

Sally laughed coarsely. "Fine," she said. "But only if it's coin money."