Greta needed a break. Two hundred miles of desert road on her Harley, and her throat felt like the inside of a vacuum cleaner bag, so when she spotted the weathered sign saying, “Fallen Angels Bar,” she hoped to hell it was open. Not much left on this stretch of California road, somewhere between Bakersfield and God knows where. She flipped on her signal, geared down, and swung the bike off the road onto what had once been a paved parking lot.
Strange, only one battered pick-up in the lot, but she could hear some C & W drifting out the door. She parked the Harley, took off her helmet, and shook her hair loose. God, that felt good. Tucking the helmet under her arm, she dismounted and walked to the door.
Inside it was your typical dive. Worn everything, plenty of neon beer signs behind the, bar, an old wooden floor, the scent of stale beer. Greta noticed about twenty patrons scattered around the tables, all of whom turned to stare at her.
“What’ll ya have, lady?” asked the bartender, a fifty-something bald guy with too much belly.
“Coors light.” She slid onto a bar stool, avoiding the curious looks from the men at the other end.
“You got it.” He pulled a tap, filled a glass, and slid her drink across.
That first sip was heaven. Greta closed her eyes and sighed with pleasure. It took half a glass to cool down, and the rest to relax enough that she could think. What in hell was she doing here? Why had she decided on this solo trip just because Wade had quit his job, broken up with her, and hightailed it to Tennessee?
“I’ll have another,” she announced. The bartender produced a glass of water in seconds. He leaned on the bar, looking conversational. “I’m guessin’ you’re riding’ on shortly. Can’t have you half lit, now, can we?” He smiled. “If ya don’t mind my askin’, what you doin’ on this lonely stretch of road by yourself?”
Normally, she’d be pissed at the bartender for giving her water when she asked for beer, but tonight she appreciated it. She allowed a half smile, then shrugged. “Oh, you know, boyfriend problems and an itch to travel. No idea where I’m going.”
She felt rather than saw the ears of the men prick up and turn in her direction. Well, shit, maybe she’d give them something to gossip about after she left. Crossing her legs and tossing her hair over her shoulder, she gazed around at the patrons, then back at the barkeep.
“What’s up the road? Any accommodations in the next few hours?”
The man to her left got off his stool and sauntered towards her. “Couldn’t help overhearin’, honey. You need a place to stay?”
“Maybe, but not with you if that’s what you’re thinking.” She returned to her water, took a long draught.
“Lady, you got it wrong. This bar’s a special place, special patrons. Not for everyone.”
“Yeah, how’s that? Biggest losers in the desert?” Behind her, the bartender snorted. The other patrons guffawed.
“Naw, just the biggest losers in heaven.”
She frowned and looked him in the eye. “What?”
“You a church-goin’ woman, miss?”
Oh no, not a religious nut-job. “Not for a long time. Not my thing.”
“Ever think about what happens to angels who don’t make the grade?”
Greta screwed up her face. This was getting weirder by the minute. “Are you kiddin’ me?”
“It’s true. There are angels who tow the company line, doing only good, following orders, and they get the shiny white robes and the wings. Those of us who are a bit more rebellious get sent here, ‘til we reform.” He gestured around the bar. “All of us here, we’re fallen angels.”
Her eyes darted around the room. Every patron was nodding, holding up a drink to her. Weird was turning to creepy. She looked back at the bartender. “You too? You into this angel shit?”
His cheeks turned pink, and he shrugged. “I’m not the fallen one. I’m the supervisor.”
“Ok, this is totally ridiculous. I’m outta here. How much do I owe you?”
“Three bucks will do it. No need to leave a tip.”
She slid the money across the bar, grabbed her helmet, and strode outside without looking back.
“Angels,” she muttered to herself in disgust. “What kind of idiot do they take me for?”
Once her helmet was buckled on, the Harley roared to life and she spun out of the lot onto the road. But instead of continuing north, for no reason she could name, she turned around and headed back south.
A ten-minute drive down the road, the place was lit up with red and blue lights and every type of emergency vehicle known in the state. First responders were moving around, some tending to the injured, others to the myriad tasks of cleaning up after an accident. The remains of at least two (it was hard to tell) vehicles were ready for the wrecking yard.
A police officer waved Greta onto the shoulder. Eight cars, two big rigs, and three pick-up trucks including one towing a horse trailer, were stopped by the side of the road. Greta eased her bike onto its stand and strolled towards a cluster of people gawking at the disaster and complaining about the time it was taking to clear everything off the road.
“Anyone know what happened?” She said to no-one in particular.
A couple wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots, probably the ones with the horse trailer, glanced at her. The woman took a few steps closer to Greta.
“We heard it was a head-on.” She had the gravelly voice of a chronic smoker. “A couple dead at least, I figure. Where you headed?”
“Back home.” The answer surprised Greta even as it came out of her mouth. “Manhattan Beach.”
“Nice place, if you like the city. We’re heading to a ranch out near Vegas. Long trip. Horses need watering, need exercise. We’ll have to take them out if this goes on much longer.” She pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket and lit up. “Want one?”
Greta shook her head. “No thanks.” She looked at her cell phone. No bars. Damn! What if Wade was trying to reach her? It occurred to her that she still cared. “Say, you know anything about the bar back there? Fallen Angels?”
The other woman rolled her eyes and pursed her lips. “Weird bunch. Harmless. In fact, they’d give you the shirts off their backs if you needed anything. They tell you the angel story?”
“Uh-huh. Maybe they figured the story would improve their crappy lives somehow.”
“Maybe. But I gotta tell ya, since they arrived, ain’t nobody along this road died in an accident. Three years. Used ta happen all the time, specially when the skiers were drivin’ home from Mammoth, drunker ‘n’ skunks.”
Greta stared at the wreckage again. It was hard to imagine anyone surviving that. “I bet the record was broken tonight.”
A couple of officers approached the stranded travelers. “Ambulances will be heading out shortly, then we’ll get you on your way. Thanks for your patience.”
Stetson woman leaned forward and touched the cop on the arm. “Officer, how many people died?”
“None. I can’t say more than that, though.” He walked away.
She looked at Greta, her eyebrows raised in amazement. “None? Some kind of miracle, don’t you think?”
As she listened, Greta noticed the bartender and the guy who had spoken to her at Fallen Angels. They were across the road, behind all the emergency vehicles, heading north, on foot.