On the lam from New York, where he fears he's killed an abusive uncle by finally hitting back (he hasn't), Jimmy Hunter decides on the spot to hitchhike to California. On the way he exchanges life stories with drivers and becomes quite taken with Liz, the driver's daughter on his last and longest ride. Then, in Arizona, the car crashes into a barrier. The driver and his wife are killed; Jimmy, unconscious, is rescued by a doctor-turned-desert-recluse (that's another life story); and Liz, Jimmy learns from the doctor, has been taken prisoner in a nearby, isolated village populated by hideously disfigured members of a lunatic, 100-year-old religious cult. So far Bethancourt's talent for loose, easy talespinning has kept things rolling as the wheels turn round. Now the action and the interest tighten up with David's attempts to rescue Liz from the villagers, who will crush him to death if he's caught, and with the doctor's slow decision to help, thus signaling a return to humanity after years of bitter withdrawal. It's the doctor who discovers that the townspeople's religion--and their deformities--are linked to an extraterrestrial spaceship that has been in the mines for 100 years, emitting radiation and projecting a laser-image ""deity."" You can trust Bethancourt to end this with a bang. Without the staccato pace of his recent sci-fi thrillers or the spontaneous energy of New York City Too Far From Tampa Blues (1975), it is as always effortlessly readable and brashly inventive.