Mar 16 2012 9:30am
An excerpt from Sailor by Tom Epperson (available March 27, 2012).
Gina fell for the wrong guy. Joe came into her life promising her everything, and he gave it to her, along with a world of hell. But Gina was stronger than Joe realized. After years of suffering the terror of being married to a criminal, she took the one thing he ever gave her that she wanted—her son, Luke. Then she turned the bastard in.
With her husband behind bars, her father-in-law will stop at nothing for revenge. He wants his grandson back, the heir to his criminal empire. With a vast network that stretches across the country, every favor is called in to kill Gina and return Luke to his grandfather.
Gina can trust no one. Even the U.S. Marshall assigned to keep Gina and Luke safe is on the payroll. So with a gun and stolen diamonds in her purse, and derelicts, the law, and hit men on her tail, Gina takes Luke and runs.
Los Angeles was only supposed to be a quick stop—sleep, eat, and continue running—but then they meet Gray. He says he’s a sailor, but he seems to be hiding a lot. And when the time comes, he’s the only thing standing between her and the grave.
The First Week
“You’re gonna be rich someday,” she said to the sailor.
“You see that in the cards?”
“Yes. I see a glittering treasure.”
“What else do you see?”
She stared at the cards. Said nothing.
“Ma’am? What else do you see?”
She was young. Maybe twenty-five. A big nose but otherwise pretty. But then it was like she was turning into an old hag in front of his eyes. And then she became dust and blew away.
He wasn’t in the tent anymore. Was outside somewhere in the dark. A storm was coming up. Lightning flashes, thuds of thunder. He felt lonely and scared like a little kid. He was afraid he was about to cry, then he actually did cry. More than just cry. He wept.
He woke. Eyes dry despite the dream. He heard the rhythmic swish of the waves like the boundless breathing of the dreamless sea and then sat up. Gazed out from Point Mugu. Fog shrouded the ocean. Seeming to meld with the gray water. It was dawn. It was chilly. He breathed with the waves slowly and deliberately, in through the nose and out through the mouth. His breath condensing. Adding his breaths to the greater gray.
He got out of his Ultralite sleeping bag and walked off a bit and peed. His pee steaming. He was facing the gigantic mound of Mugu Rock. On the other side was the Pacific Coast Highway and on the other side of the highway another gigantic mound of rock that made the first mound look little. He had passed this way many years ago and been so struck by its sublime and ancient beauty he had vowed to come back some day and spend the night. To sleep in the rocky embrace of Point Mugu and see what dreams it brought him.
He took a bottle of water out of his rucksack and drank and then a box of raisins. On it the pretty Italian gal in the sunbonnet. He remembered her from when he was a kid and now he was grown yet here she still was. An ageless pagan raisin goddess. He walked over to the edge of the cliff and sat down. The beach was about thirty feet below. Configurations of rock rose up to nearly eye level. There was a bridge of rock that looked like it would be fun to walk across.
He opened the box of raisins. A sea bird cried and gyred.
Gray sat there chewing and watched the water.
Deiter the Cheater, under the flapping pennants, amid the blazing windshields, looked across the highway. Buster’s was a yellow-brick building with neon beer signs in the window. He could see her moving around inside.
“Thinking about pussy?”
Portly Wesley Beason was walking up.
“How’d you know?”
“You just had that thinking-about-pussy look on your face.”
“I’m gonna go get some lunch. Want anything?”
“A whole pie or just a piece?”
“Do I look like I could eat a whole pie? Don’t answer that. Just a piece.”
“Any kind. As long as it’s banana cream.”
Deiter waited for a break in the traffic then walked across the highway. In his Zegna cream and gray-striped suit. He had high cheekbones and dark eyes that harked back to the Indian in him.
He took his usual table next to the window. She brought him over a glass of iced tea and a menu.
“What’s good today?”
“The turkey loaf’s been popular.”
“I’ll have that then.”
“I wish all my customers were as easy as you.”
“I’m just an easygoing guy.”
He drank his iced tea and looked out the window at the Deiter “The Cheater” Cheats For Less sign and the big trucks passing on the highway. He sighed at the thought he’d be forty in a month and wondered what life was all about. He perked up when she came back with the turkey loaf.
“I been sitting here trying to figure it out.”
“Figure what out?”
“The mystery of you.”
She laughed a little. “What mystery?”
“I think there’s a damn big mystery. Just showing up here like you been dropped outa the sky.”
“I’ve told you. I came here to make a fresh start. People do it every day. There’s nothing mysterious about it.”
“But why here?”
“Why not here?”
“So what did you do? Throw a dart at a map of the United States and it landed on Brady, Oklahoma?”
“Maybe. You want some more iced tea?”
“Please.” He watched her tightly blue-jeaned hips sway away across the room. Her black hair falling on her shoulders. She came back with a pitcher and sluiced tea into his glass.
“Bet you get asked out about a dozen times a day.”
“Yeah. By you.”
“I figure we’re in the same fix. You left your husband and my wife left me. And both of us are lonely.”
“I hear you’ve had a lot of wives.”
“Four. Is that a lot? Listen. Why don’t we drive up to Tulsa tonight? Have dinner in a real restaurant.”
He was used to getting a quick and definite no but instead she said nothing. He sat up a little straighter in his chair. Getting the feeling he got when he was about to sell a car. What can I do to make you my customer? is what he always asked.
“You like seafood?”
“White River Fish Market! Best seafood in the state!”
“It’s too late to get a babysitter.”
“Bring your boy along. I love kids. I got five or six of ’em myself.”
“Nah. I don’t think so.”
“Come on, Gina. He who hesitates is lost.”
Gina smiled. “Okay.”
He grinned. “Yeah?”
“But it’s a school night. We don’t have time to go to Tulsa. Why don’t you just come to my place? I’ll cook you dinner.”
“And I’ll eat it.”
“Seven all right?”
“You better believe it’s all right.”
Wesley was sitting behind his desk doing paperwork. He cocked his head and gave Deiter a critical look as he walked in.
“Where’s my pie?”
“Damn it, Rusty. I was looking forward to that pie.”
“I’ll go right back over there and get you a piece.” “No. Forget it. I don’t want it now.”
“Well don’t sulk.”
“I’ll sulk if I want to.”
“I got a date.”
“Angelina Jolie. Who do you think? Gina.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“Tonight. Dinner. Her place. Candlelight. Wine. Soft romantic music.”
“How come you’re the lucky one?”
“She musta heard about my twelve-inch pecker.”
She washed her hair with Bumble and Bumble shampoo. Put on some L’Oréal HiP lip gloss and Dior mascara. Plunged into her closet and came out with clothes unworn for years. But Luke was hanging around not looking like he liked it.
“Do you have to do this?”
“Do what? I’m just having a friend over for dinner.”
“It’s a date. I can tell.”
“What do you know about dates? You’re ten years old for chrissake.”
“He’s called Deiter the Cheater.”
“He sells used cars, it’s a joke. Do you think if he really was a cheater he’d call himself the Cheater?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well he wouldn’t.” She sat down on the side of her bed and pulled him over. He stood there uncomfortably in her arms. “Look. You and me, we’ve gone through a lot together. I swear to God it’s gonna get better but right now we just have to make the best of it. I want you to be a normal kid as much as you can and for one night I’d just kinda like to feel normal too. Okay, so maybe this is kinda like a date. But he doesn’t represent any kind of threat to you and me. Nothing’ll ever be as important to me as you. You know that, right?”
Luke nodded. She brushed some hair away from his forehead then gave it a kiss. He turned away. Went to his room to play Halo. His favorite video game.
An autumnal cold front was moving through and the temperature dropped and it began to rain. Gina sipped red wine as she worked in the kitchen and she heard the rain and it made her sad.
Fleetingly she had a sense of being outside herself and looking at her whole life. Seeing simultaneously Gina as a sad young woman and a sad little girl and a sad old lady. All three listening to the eternal rain. The doorbell rang right at seven.
Deiter came in smelling of cologne and bearing wine and flowers and with rain glittering in his hair. Maybe he was a little old for her but he really was nice-looking. Hard to tell what was under a suit but he seemed to have a lean fit body. To go along with a ton of cornball charm.
He was appropriately effusive over her appearance. Luke was summoned and introduced. Deiter gave him a gift: a Harry Potter flashlight.
“You like Harry Potter?”
“I like the movies. I haven’t ever read any of the books.”
“Yeah, I’m not much of a reader either. Probably hadn’t read a book cover to cover since Bootlegger’s Boy. And that was twenty years ago.”
“What’s Bootlegger’s Boy?” said Gina.
“Barry Switzer wrote it about his life. He was the Oklahoma football coach.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t like to read,” said Luke then he turned to his mother. “Could I go back to my room?”
“Okay. But we’ll be eating dinner soon.”
They watched him leave.
“Well that went over like a lead balloon.”
“He liked it. I could tell. He’s just shy.”
“I can relate.”
“Sure. All this blinding self-confidence and charisma you see when you look at me? It’s just an act.”
“Nope. Inside I’m just a bashful country boy.”
She got him wine and sat him down in front of some smoked mozzarella and toasted bread and went back in the kitchen. The sauce was simmering and the water for the pasta was beginning to boil. The door opened and he came in.
“That sauce smells amazing.”
“Secret family recipe?”
“No, it’s just the usual. Garlic, onions, basil, parsley.” She started cutting up a tomato for the salad. “Sorry, I’m running late. I meant to have everything ready before you got here.”
“Hey I’m not in the least bit of a hurry. So how you liking life at the Osage Creek Apartments?”
“I lived here once for a brief while. When I was between marriages.”
“How come you’ve been married so many times?”
“Guess I just like getting married.”
He set his glass of wine down on the counter and leaned back on it and folded his arms on his chest and crossed his ankles.
“I been thinking. Maybe you oughta cross the highway and sell cars for me.”
“I think you’d be good at it. You’re a good talker, you’re likeable, you got a good sense of humor. And it’s like my mother says—if you want the right man for a job hire a woman.”
“Thanks. But I think I’ll stick to waitressing.”
“That’s what you’ve always done? Waitress?”
“What line of work was your husband in?”
“He was a businessman.”
“What kind of business?”
“He had his finger in a lot of different pies.”
“Kind of an entrepreneur type?”
“You could say that.”
“Peterson’s your married name I’ll bet.”
“Why would you bet that?”
“’Cause you don’t seem like a Peterson.”
“What do I seem like?”
“Oh I don’t know. Something more—exotic.”
She laughed. “Oh yeah, I’m real exotic all right.”
“You’re exotic to me.”
“So how’d you get in the used-car business?”
“Inherited it from my daddy. He was Deiter the Cheater the First.”
“You like it?”
“It’s okay. Sometimes it gets kinda old.”
He walked over to her and put his hands on her waist. She looked over her shoulder and he kissed her.
“You’re about the prettiest thing to hit this town in fifty years.”
“Who came here fifty years ago?”
“I don’t know. Maybe some movie star had a flat tire. On her way back to Hollywood.”
The doorbell rang. Gina frowned. “Who could that be?”
“Probably somebody selling something. I’ll go run ’em off.”
He walked across the living room with the taste of her on his lips and an extra bit of bounce in his step. The doorbell rang again. He opened the door.
The apartment was on the second floor at the top of a flight of stairs. A little winded from the walk up, a massively fat man stood outside under the glare of a yellow light. Twice as fat as Wesley. Dark curly hair wet with rain. Heavy black wool coat with rain on the shoulders. Red sweater and black pants. Hands stuck in the pockets of his coat. Looking about as much like a Buddhist monk as like a salesman.
“What can I do for you?”
“Is Gina here?”
“Who wants to know?”
“I’m Toddo. Her cousin. From back east.”
“Oh her cousin!” he said as he opened the screen door and ushered him in. “She didn’t tell me you were coming.”
The man looked around the room. Deiter grinning at him.
“From back east are you?”
The man pointed past Deiter looking mildly puzzled. “What’s that?”
Deiter looked around. Saw nothing notable. Just a wall with a picture of a fox hunt on it. Horses and hounds and riders in red jackets and white pants. The first bullet didn’t kill him or even make him unconscious. He went down like a puppet whose strings had been cut then found himself looking at a bug’s-eye view of the carpet. Then the man shot twice more into Deiter’s brain.
He looked over and saw the boy standing at the threshold of a hallway.
“Hey Luke. Where’s your mom?”
Luke didn’t move his head but without even meaning to he cut his eyes toward the kitchen. The man walked toward it. It had a swinging door and he pushed it open with his left hand. His right hand holding the silenced Ruger Mark II .22. A cascading mass of boiling water smacked him in the face. He screamed and fired blindly but not without purpose, his shots spaced regularly across the room. Gina heard the rounds ripping the air, one just to her left and then with a loud clang one hitting the pot and nearly knocking it out of her hands and one about an inch from her right ear. She swung the pot and hit him in the side of the head. He stopped screaming and dropped to his knees, his scalded head steaming. He started to raise the gun and she hit him again harder even than the first time. He dropped the gun and pitched forward and fell on it and didn’t move.
She dropped the pot and yelled for Luke and then he was there. A little wisp of a boy. Terror seeming to diminish him even more.
“Are you all right?”
He nodded staring at the man. “Who is that?”
“I got no idea. What happened to Rusty?”
“I think he’s dead, Mom.”
The man was breathing heavily as though slumbering deeply. Blood leaked out on the floor through his curly hair. She grabbed the knife off the counter. Prepared to start stabbing him if he stirred.
She wanted to get the gun that was buried under the three or four hundred pounds of Toddo. But moving him was like trying to turn over a water bed. They strained and gasped.
“Mom, what should we do? Should we call 911?”
She saw the white top of a piece of paper sticking out of his coat pocket. She pulled it out and unfolded it. It was a MapQuest printout giving directions from the Tulsa airport to her apartment. A phone number had been written on it. A number that she recognized.
“Mom, what’s wrong? What is it?’
“We gotta get outa here. Now!”
She looked once at Deiter on the living room floor and didn’t look at him again. They had practiced this like a fire drill. Grabbing prepacked suitcases and their laptops. The goal to get out the door in under a minute. They clattered down the flight of stairs and fled into rain and night.
Gray, his rucksack on his back, walked down Alejo Avenue. It was the main drag of the town. There wasn’t much to it. Some small businesses like a shoe repair store, a pet supplies store, a Pilates place, a liquor store and bait shop, a grocery store. A Mexican restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a coffee shop, bars named the Prince o’ Whales and the Harbor Room. Some two- and three-story apartment buildings. To the south, hills covered with big houses rose up steeply. To the north was a flat expanse of grassy wetlands that had somehow escaped the bulldozers of the developers. Straight ahead the street ended at sand dunes and the sea.
It was only about eight in the evening but already King Beach seemed to be getting ready to pack it in. Just a few other people on the sidewalks and an occasional car passing by. It seemed oddly untouristy and untrendy for a Southern California beach town. He heard a rumbling then suddenly a jetliner roared above the hills angling toward the sky. Taking off from LAX. Seeming nearly close enough for him to hit it with a rock.
A young guy was walking rapidly toward him talking on a cell phone. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt that had Kalashnikov across the front. On his forehead was a tattoo of a swastika with wings. A dog on a leash was walking beside him. Half malamute and half god knew what. It was just about the most pitiful dog Gray had ever seen. Only the ragged remnants of chewed-off-looking ears. His right eye scarred and sightless. Patchy brown and white fur stretched too tight over his sturdy frame. Wearing a punishment collar lined with inverted spikes. The guy never looked at Gray as they passed each other but the dog did. Gray looked over his shoulder and saw the dog looking back over his shoulder.
A big wooden seahorse painted yellow was poised above the entrance of a blue stucco building. He lingered and looked in. Life was going on in there. The bar was crowded. A blond waitress carried a towering platter of orange king crab legs to a table. Gray went in as behind him another jetliner blasted into the sky.
The decor was nets, tridents, seashells, and mounted fish. He sat down at the bar and ordered a draft beer. An old man next to him who didn’t seem to be able to move his neck turned his whole body to take a look at him.
“Isn’t it amazing?”
“Isn’t what amazing?”
“How Sam Snead could never win the Open.”
Gray had no idea who Sam Snead was but nodded anyway. He’d dropped his rucksack on the floor by his stool. The old man looked down at it.
“I guess so.”
“To or from?”
“Well that’s a good question.”
The old man laughed as if Gray had given the only correct answer to some ancient mystic riddle. He stuck his hand out and Gray shook it.
“It’s a sad night, Gray. A very sad night.”
“Mr. Jones is dead.”
“Sorry to hear that.” He slurped up some beery foam. “Who was he?”
“How did he die?”
“Natural causes. Kidney failure. But it was basically old age. He was even older than me in cat years. I’ve found twenty-seven rubber bands over the last week.”
“Where did you find them?”
“Here and there. Mostly just lying on the ground. It’s amazing how many rubber bands you see if you’re looking for them. So maybe you’re wondering why I bother to pick them up?”
“Yes sir. I was wondering that.”
“Don’t call me sir. Do you know what entropy is?”
“Something to do with physics?”
“That’s right. Entropy is the movement of all the matter and energy in the universe from a state of order to a state of disorder. It’s like a popsicle dropped on a sidewalk by a careless child on a hot summer day. Pretty soon it’s gonna be a sticky little puddle of nothing. The universe is like that popsicle. It’s melting and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. It’s a process that can’t be stopped. However. It can be slowed down.”
“Is that where picking up rubber bands comes in?”
“My god, Gray. You’re way ahead of me. I’ll keep picking up rubber bands until I have maybe a couple of thousand. Then I’ll donate them to a school or something. The rubber bands will again be performing rubber band functions instead of just being trash on the street. In a small way, for a short while, entropy will be reversed.”
“Tell you what, Norman. I’ll start keeping my eye out for rubber bands.”
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll buy you a drink if you drink to Mr. Jones.”
“You got a deal.”
The Honda Accord sped west on Interstate 40. Through the empty endless Texas night. Amarillo up ahead. Not that they were going to Amarillo. They were headed west merely because it was the opposite of east. Away from that malignant place out of which had issued the fat man in the red sweater.
Luke had always cried a lot for a boy and had been crying tonight but now was quiet. She glanced over at him. His face was turned away. She couldn’t tell if his eyes were open. Maybe he had slipped into the exhausted sleep of the desperate and lost.
The radio station she had been listening to was fading out and she looked for another. But she couldn’t seem to find anything but twangy country music and crazy preachers shouting about damnation. So she turned the radio off.
It was quiet except for the monotonous sounds of the car. She felt as isolated as if she and Luke were in some sealed capsule hurtling through the icy darkness of the farthest reaches of the Milky Way.
She looked at the digital clock on the dashboard. It said it was midnight.
Toddo Palmentola thought he was having a bizarre nightmare about cows then realized he wasn’t asleep. Six or seven of them were standing around his car. He had never been this close to cows in his life. One was only a couple of feet away. She made a belching noise and swung her head abruptly toward him like she was about to put it right into the window and bite him and in a panic he grabbed his pistol off the passenger seat and jabbed the long silencer at her.
“Get the fuck outa here!”
She plodded off, tail swinging. Green-brown shit tumbling out of her butt. The Ford Taurus was near a tree about twenty feet from a dirt road. As far as he could see in any direction were rolling grassy hills and scattered trees. The sun had just come up and the cows cast stretched-out shadows as they chewed on the glittering grass.
The water bottle was empty but he unscrewed the cap anyway. Lifted it to his lips. A drop or two came out. Then he flung the bottle at another cow that was getting too close. It bounced off her flank but she didn’t seem to notice.
He saw a red pickup truck off in the distance. It disappeared in a dip in the road then topped a hill and came down slowly. Splashing through a puddle left by last night’s rain. Then it stopped. The cows began walking toward it, their nostrils puffing steam. He saw a man in a baseball cap in the cab. He was looking Toddo’s way.
Then he got out. The truck door chunked shut. He was burly, flannel-shirted, work-booted. He came toward Toddo. When he got a better look at him he seemed taken aback by his swollen terrible head. The splashes of drying blood.
“Jesus Christ, mister. What happened to you?”
Toddo croaked through blistered lips: “Accident. Water heater. It blew up.”
“Good lord. What are you doing out here?”
“I got lost. I was looking for a hospital. You got any water? I’m dying of fucking thirst.”
“I got water in the truck. I’ll go get it.” He peered past Toddo and saw the gun lying on the seat. Then he looked back at Toddo. “I’ll get that water. Be right back.”
He walked toward his truck. Glanced back over his shoulder. Toddo didn’t like the glance or the way he was walking. He picked the gun up and shot the man twice in the back. He went down near his truck. He didn’t move for a moment then lurched up and half crawled half stumbled as Toddo shot repeatedly at him. His cap fell off revealing a bristling flattop and a bullet struck the sole of his boot then he disappeared behind the truck.
“Fuck!” Toddo said.
He hastily ejected the old clip and popped in a new one. He saw the driver’s-side door of the truck opening but didn’t see the man. He opened the Taurus’s door and grunted and wheezed as he pulled and pushed himself up and out. He lumbered over the grass. Stepping right in a ploppy pile of manure. The cows had moved off and were watching from a distance. He kept his eyes on the truck and his gun pointed at it but there was still no sign of the man. He saw reflected in the curving glass of the passenger window a crimson-faced monster approaching with a gun. He looked down through the window and saw the man sprawled on his stomach across the seat pulling a gun out of the glove compartment. A big long-barreled cowboy kind of a gun. Toddo shot through the window just as there was a tremendous BLAM and the window disintegrated. A lump of lead broke his clavicle then issued in a spray of blood from the fat and muscle between his neck and shoulder. He staggered backwards and sat down heavily. He cursed and wheezed and pointed his gun at the window waiting for the man to appear. He waited for a full minute then struggled to his feet. He made a wide circle around the truck. The driver’s door was open. The work boots hanging out. One leaking blood.
He was still holding the six-shooter. One eye half open in the sly squint of death. Toddo leaned in just in case and put a bullet in his head. The corpse gave a long leisurely burbling fart.
He sat down under the tree, his back against the trunk. It was an oak tree and was half full of leaves. The sun slanted in and bathed him in a beautiful crystalline light. Like he was some holy person who’d been sitting there for quite some time and was about to attain enlightenment.
His cell phone rang. In his car. On the passenger seat. TerHorst probably. But it seemed as likely that the tree would uproot itself and walk over to the car and pick the phone up as that he himself would do that. The phone fell silent.
The cows were drifting back. Gathering around the truck. One looking in through the shattered window.
A leaf spun down out of the tree and landed near one of his shit-covered Gucci loafers. He had never thought much about death but wondered if he was about to die. In this place. In Oklahoma, under a tree. The world began to tilt and Toddo felt a vertiginous swirling. He thought he was a kid and his father had taken him to the Copacabana. Bobby Darin was singing “Mack the Knife.” His wife was in the audience. Sandra Dee. Nobody had ever been cuter than Sandra Dee. What a gargantuan crush little Toddo had on her. Gidget. Right there in the flesh. Drinking a martini.
He heard a car and looked up the road and saw a navy-blue SUV. It pulled up behind the truck. It sat there awhile engine idling. Then the engine was switched off and TerHorst got out. Holding a nine-millimeter. He took a look in the truck then came toward Toddo. Sunglasses, shaved head, and thick dark moustache. Tan suit and gold ostrich-skin cowboy boots. He put his gun away as he looked down at Toddo. He seemed amused at the situation.
“Man, Toddo, you’re a mess.”
“Where the fuck you been? Gimme some fucking water.”
“That little old gal kicked your ass.”
“I’m fucking bleeding to death. You gotta get me to a doctor.”
“Okay.” He took a Hav-A-Tampa cigar out of his pocket, removed its cellophane wrapper, lit it with a purple plastic lighter.
“Did you know that Jesus Christ is coming back to earth again?”
“Well he is. Who’s the fella in the truck?”
“I don’t know. The farmer in the fucking dell.”
TerHorst laughed. He took a look around. “This is probably his property. Nice spread. So that’s not your real name is it?”
“Toddo. That’s not your real name.”
He shook his head. The world was tilting this way and that.
TerHorst was tilting. Amid luminous billowing clouds of smoke. “What’s your real name?”
“You know something? You’re the first Salvatore I’ve ever met.”
“Who gives a fuck? Gimme some water. Get me to a doctor.”
“The first Toddo too for that matter.” He took the nine-millimeter back out and shot Toddo in the head. Then he went through his pockets. He found twenty-two hundred-dollar bills in his wallet. He tossed the wallet down on his stomach and put the money in his pocket. Then he found the MapQuest printout that had his cell phone number on it.
“Shit.” If he was looking at his number then maybe Gina had looked at it too.
He went to the truck and poked around in the back and found a two-and-a-half-gallon can of gasoline. He doused Toddo with it then held the lighter to his pants cuff. He went up in a satisfying whump of blue flame. Thin white smoke rose up through the tree. Dried-out leaves fluttered in the updraft.
He went to his Land Cruiser and got a screwdriver out of the glove compartment. Then he went to the car and took off the license plates. Humming “Help Me, Rhonda” by the Beach Boys as he did so. The cigar clamped between his teeth. Then he stood there staring at the car as he took off his tie. He had seen this done in a movie once and had wanted to do it ever since but didn’t know if it would work. He unscrewed the gas cap and stuffed in the tie leaving some of the skinny end hanging out. He lit the tie with his lighter and walked off a ways and smoked his cigar and waited. It worked. A boom and a burning as the cows went galloping off in terror. As the extra ammo in Toddo’s pocket began to go off like firecrackers.
He got in the Land Cruiser and tossed the license plates in the back. He turned around and headed back toward the highway. Behind him black smoke boiling up out of the apocalyptic pasture. He’d gone a mile or so when he saw a strange sight: a huge teenage boy pulling a green and yellow John Deere tractor. He was wearing a harness and was hooked up to the tractor with a chain and leaning forward nearly to the point of falling and swinging his thick arms as he dragged the tractor up a slight rising in the road. Now he stood up and took a towel off the tractor. Wiped his face with it as he watched the Land Cruiser come.
TerHorst stopped and lowered his window.
“Howdy,” the boy said breathing heavily. He was wearing red sweatpants and a gray T-shirt that said Brady Bobcats in red letters and he had a brace on his right knee. The shirt was soaked with sweat and steam streamed up off his head.
“I don’t mean to ask a stupid question. But how come you’re pulling a tractor?”
He gave a bashful smile. “Aw I do this every morning before school. I’m rehabbing my knee.”
“What happened to it?”
“Blew out my ACL. Playing basketball last summer. I went up for a rebound and came down wrong.”
“You play football?”
“Yes sir. But I’m gonna be out the whole season. My senior year.”
“Man, that’s tough.”
“When it happened I was so disappointed I thought I couldn’t hardly stand it. But Daddy told me winners don’t give up, they get up. So now I’m getting myself ready to play in college.”
“So what do you go? About six four? Two eighty?”
The boy smiled again. “That’s about exactly right.”
“I’m good at that. Guessing heights and weights.”
“I’m gonna get up to about three hundred. And I need to get faster too. Before I got hurt I was running a five-three forty. I wanna get that down to five-two, maybe even five-one-five.”
“Sounds like you’re a determined young man.”
“Daddy says I need to just concentrate on getting a little better every day. He says you chop down a tree by taking one swing at a time.”
“Where do you wanna go to college?”
“Well Oklahoma State was real interested before I got hurt. Now they kinda seem to be backing off. But there’s a coach at Arkansas that calls me every week.”
“My daughter went to Arkansas.”
“Did she like it?”
“Loved it. It’s a big-time party school. And she loves to party.”
“I’m not much into that.”
“But they got a great football program. Woo pig sooie, right?”
The boy laughed. Then he looked down the road in the direction TerHorst had come from. “Looks like something’s on fire.”
TerHorst looked in his outside mirror. Saw the dark smeary cloud of smoke. He took out his gun and as he raised it the boy must have seen it out of the corner of his eye, turning his head and ducking a little. The bullet skipped off his skull. Blood spurting as it took some hair and scalp with it. The boy lunged at TerHorst and maybe he would have been able to wrest the gun away and get his big hands around his neck and kill TerHorst and save himself and go on to Arkansas and become an All American had not the harness jerked him back. TerHorst shot him in the forehead.
He leaned out the window and took a look. The boy lay there in his harness like some old draft horse that had finally given out. TerHorst shot him several more times. And then drove on.
They had driven till about one a.m. then her head had snapped up and she had found the car half off the road heading into the grassy median. She had taken the next exit and they had checked into a motel. They’d left at seven and now were moving at a steady seventy on the interstate as the sun climbed behind them. As behind them the man was murdered and the boy was shot down.
“Where are we going?”
“Quit asking me that.”
“But where, Mom?”
“I’m hungry,” he said a little later. So was she. Dinner last night never having happened. They stopped at a McDonald’s. She had an Egg McMuffin, he a Southern Style Chicken Biscuit. She was still wearing the black blouse and black pants she had picked out so carefully for her date. She felt overdressed. For McDonald’s. For running away. She poured nondairy creamer in her coffee. She noticed Luke looking out the window at a girl in the parking lot. She was reaching back into her car to get something and her shirt hiked up revealing above her low-slung jeans pink thong underwear and a blue tattoo. Gina wondered if he was getting interested in girls. Hopefully not in that kind of girl.
Her cell phone rang. She took it out of her purse and looked at the caller ID. It was TerHorst. She put the phone away. It continuing to ring rather plaintively in her purse.
“Who is it?”
“Nobody. Wrong number.”
“How do you know it’s the wrong number without answering it?”
She gave him a look. “Eat your biscuit.”
In the restroom she sat on the toilet peeing and weeping with her stupid Dolce & Gabbana pants around her knees. The world seemed a wide dangerous wasteland in which she and her son were doomed to wander. She remembered seeing something on TV about a woman who’d been kidnapped by a psychopath and the police had been able to track her down and save her because of signals her cell phone was giving off. She washed her face at the sink. She thought about leaving her phone there. Someone—say the girl in the pink thong underwear—would find it and take it with her and they would be tracking her and not Gina, they might follow her to Mexico or Canada while Gina and Luke made their escape clean as a whistle. But then she thought about what they would probably do to the girl in the pink thong underwear if they ever caught up with her. She took the battery out of her phone and dropped both in the trash.
Half an hour later they left Texas and crossed into New Mexico. Their Honda Accord was green but it was represented on the map on TerHorst’s computer screen by a blue car with a red circle around it. “Land of Enchantment!” TerHorst said. The computer showed the Accord’s speed and its latitude and longitude with its position being updated every five seconds. As he watched the little blue car twitching along the interstate he felt a surge of power and let loose with a joyous gust of laughter. It made him think of the scene in The Shining where Jack Nicholson looked down on the model of the hedge maze and saw the tee-tiny figures of his wife and son moving in it. Gina and Luke were like little ants and he felt as big as a mountain. They were frantic and futile and he was calm and purposeful. He could just cruise down the highway smoking Hav-A-Tampas and listening to The Eagles’ Greatest Hits and would catch up with them before too long. No more than twenty-four hours. They would be stopping to sleep at some point and he certainly wouldn’t.
His cell rang. It was McGrath. In Oklahoma City. His best friend and boss.
“You heard about what’s going on in Brady?” said McGrath.
“I sure have.”
“You think they got her? And the kid?”
“Nope. They would’ve just killed her, not kidnapped her. I think she’s flown the coop.”
“But she hasn’t called you?”
“She’s probably just scared. Doesn’t know who to trust anymore. Can you blame her?”
“Jesus Christ, Frank. This has never happened before. We’ve never lost anybody.”
“And we still haven’t. I’ll find her.”
“I can’t figure out what the hell happened. There’s a dead used-car dealer in the living room and signs of a struggle in the kitchen and now I just heard three more bodies have turned up outside of town.”
“Who are they?”
“A farmer and his son and another body they haven’t ID’d yet. Somebody set it on fire. And set fire to a car. It’s nuts.”
“How do you know they’re connected to the one in town?”
“I don’t. But Brady ain’t Detroit. People aren’t ordinarily being killed there left and right.”
“You talk to anybody down there yet? The chief of police? The sheriff?”
“No, I wanted to talk to you first.”
“You know, nobody knows about her except us.”
“Well sure. Exactly. That’s why they need to know who and what they’re dealing with.”
“What for? I’m on top of it. I’ll deal with it.”
“Frank, it wouldn’t be right not to tell ’em—”
“You think it’d be right if we got fucking fired over this? It was our job to protect her and we didn’t.”
A silence on the other end and then: “Where are you?”
“On the 44. Headed west. Her and I have gotten pretty close. I know how she thinks. I think I know where she might be going.”
“I don’t know how long I can keep a lid on it.”
“Just give me a few days. I’ll find her and we’ll relocate her and the boy. Everything’ll be hunky-dory again in no time.”
“How do you think they found her?”
“Who knows? Maybe Luke called his granddad to wish him happy birthday.”
More silence from McGrath. TerHorst watched the little blue car give a twitch forward. They’d be passing soon through Tucumcari. Tucumcari. That was in some song. By the Eagles?
“What about all those dead people in Brady?” McGrath finally said.
“Let the dead bury the dead.”
He drifted up out of some abyssal depth. Opening his eyes to a pastel-y room filled with sunlight. For a moment he didn’t know where he was then it came to him: the Sea Breeze Motel.
He got up and shaved and showered and toweled himself dry and the bathroom shook a little as a plane took off. He came out and, still naked, faced the window and began a standing meditation. He imagined a golden ball in his lower abdomen filling up each time he took a breath. He was seeking that place inside himself where there was no Gray but Gray was ubiquitous. Gray was around every corner and was following him when he looked around and another plane departed and Gray was dancing on its wings and he gave up and got dressed and went out.
A housekeeping cart was standing near the open door of the next room. A small nut-brown woman appeared. She smiled at him.
Her face plain but the smile lovely. Even with a tooth or two missing.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Es un lindo dia, no es cierto?”
“Si, muy lindo. Quiere que le limpie el cuarto?”
“No se preocupe. Todavia esta limpio.”
“Si, como lo supo?”
“Reconoci su acento.”
The motel was at the west end of town just short of the dunes. It was light blue and light pink and pleasantly shabby. The dunes blocked off any view of the sea. It didn’t seem like very many people were staying there. A black crow and a white gull faced off over a cellophane bag that still had a few potato chips in it. In search of breakfast he walked toward the ascending sun.
They drove through the piney mountains around Flagstaff but didn’t see them: she because she was looking only at her past and future, he because he was engrossed in a handheld video game. But after a while he said: “It’s not fair.”
“We keep moving. I can’t make friends.”
“I know, it sucks. You think I like it?”
“But it’s different for you. You get to decide what to do and I just get dragged along.”
“It’s called being a kid. Get used to it.”
“But none of this is my fault.”
“You saying it’s my fault?”
“Well if you hadn’t married him then none of this would be happening.”
“Okay. But if I hadn’t married him then you wouldn’t even be here.”
“What’s so great about being here if things are gonna be horrible all the time?”
“Things aren’t always horrible. Today’s horrible. But tomorrow might be great.”
Not bothering to respond to that he went back to his video game.
TerHorst had gotten laid once in Flagstaff. By the bartender at the bar in the motel he was staying at. Mexican gal. Couldn’t remember her name. Skinny but with big tits and a bushy bush. Exactly like he liked them. That had been over twenty years ago. She was probably some fat Mexican mama now. Depressing what life did to people.
His cell rang. It was Pat the Cat from Staten Island.
“Where is she?”
“A little west of Flagstaff.”
“And you’re . . . ?”
“A little east of Albuquerque.”
A dog began to bark in Staten Island. “Shut up, Smitty!” TerHorst heard.
“So when you sending a replacement out for Toddo?”
“I’m working on it.”
“Poor Toddo. He was quite a guy. And such a sense of humor. He’ll be missed.”
“That schmuck. He couldn’t’ve fucked up things any worse if he’d tried.”
“There’s something we need to talk about.”
“What about it?”
“We need to renegotiate. I’m having to do a lot more work than I thought I would.”
“You’re getting too much already.”
“Let me put it this way. I’m your only link to Gina and Luke. I’ve got you over a barrel. It’s my way or adios.”
“Fuck you. You cocksucker.”
“Okay. So long.”
He hit the off button. Puffed on his Hav-A-Tampa. The cell rang again.
“You’re forgetting who you’re dealing with.”
“Now that couldn’t be further from the truth. I have the greatest respect for you, Mr. Cicala. You’re a legend in your own time. A role model for young scumbags everywhere.”
“What do you want?”
“The mortgage payment. The whole thing.”
“I’ll give you half.”
“Okeydoke. Talk to you soon.”
Half an hour later he saw there was a problem. The blue car had ceased to move but the computer showed it to still be traveling sixty-nine miles an hour. It stayed stuck for several minutes then abruptly the car vanished along with the whole map. This text came up: Application mobiletracker is not responding. Process terminated.
He had found out about the SpyTown MobileTracker on the Internet. Now after cussing for a good twenty seconds he called up tech support. A cheerful fellow with a thick foreign accent answered. He claimed his name was Ted. Ted told him it was possible that solar flares were to blame but ninety percent of performance problems and operational outages were caused by faulty installation. Usually an improper placement of the GPS antennas.
“Okay, Ted. So what do we do?”
“Why don’t you simply check the antennas to see if you installed them properly?”
“Tell me something.”
“How am I supposed to check the antennas to see if they’re installed properly if I can’t find the fucking car because the antennas probably weren’t installed properly?”
“Hm. I see what you’re saying. But there’s another possibility.”
“I’m all ears.”
“The power supply could have been detached by another party.”
“So somebody figures out it’s there and pulls the plug.”
“Well thanks a lot. You’ve been a big help. And I’m saying that in all insincerity.”
Ted sounded pleased.
“You’re quite welcome, sir.”
He didn’t want to contemplate the consequences if it didn’t start to work again. He resisted the impulse to give his computer a good whack. He started to drive faster as though that would do any good. Indigestion began to burn in his chest and he pulled off at the next gas station and filled up and bought some Tums. Paying for it all with one of Toddo’s hundred-dollar bills. He crunched up several tablets as he cruised west and then it was back! The little blue car ticking along I-40. Nearing Ash Fork, Arizona. He sighed and said: “Hallelujah.”
They crossed the Colorado River into California. The sun was close to setting and she had to lower her visor against it. Needlelike peaks shined to the north.
They plunged into the Mojave Desert and the night. He fell asleep. His mouth was open and he was breathing heavily. Like there was a shortage of oxygen in the car. She looked at the pairs of red lights she was following and the approaching pairs of white lights on the other side of the interstate and felt a part of some giant system of coming and going she didn’t understand. It was hard to believe there were actual people in any of those cars. Even in this car. The Honda Accord. More like two weary phantoms at the point of fading from life altogether.
Luke raised up and looked around in a panicked way.
“Why can’t we stop? Why are we still going? Where are we going?”
He had sat on the dunes and watched the sun go down and night envelop the world. He was used to being alone for long stretches but tonight for some reason he felt the need to be in the company of people.
He went to the Sea Horse. He was hungry and took a table and looked at the menu. There wasn’t much on it he could eat. He finally settled on a Mediterranean salad.
It wasn’t as crowded as it had been last night. He ate and ordered a second beer but drank only about half of it. The waitress tried to flirt. Her name was January and she was a pretty blonde but he didn’t flirt back. He was feeling oddly out of sorts. He hardly ever got sick but wondered if he was getting sick now. He kept an eye on the bar. Looking for the old man. Norman. But he never showed up.
He paid and left. Walked back toward the motel.
He saw a rubber band on the sidewalk. Bent down and picked it up and put it in his pocket.
They checked into a motel on the outskirts of Barstow. A Burger King was in walking distance and they ate silently and went back to the motel and Luke went straight to bed but Gina showered. Luxuriating in the spray of hot water against her flesh. Imagining it dissolving her. Turning her into steam. When she came out of the bathroom all she could see of him was his dark hair against the pillow. She took a semi-auto pistol out of her purse. A Glock. Got into her bed and slipped it under her pillow and turned on the TV and turned off the light. She flipped through the channels. She settled on a reality show about a bunch of pretty young city girls vying for the affection of a hunky young farmer in Missouri. They wore tight little shorts and had spirited competitions where they shucked corn and shoveled manure and chased chickens and put them in cages so they could be taken to market as the handsome young farmer looked on. Trying to judge which of the city girls would make the best wife.
TerHorst was still worried about the MobileTracker. It had gone on the blink a couple of more times. But it was working now. The little blue car had remained motionless for an hour and a half. They must have stopped for the night. Which meant he would catch them in about four hours.
He turned on the radio and listened to a preacher named the Reverend Billy. Reverend Billy said he was broadcasting from a trailer in the middle of the desert and the End of Days was nigh and there were only sixty-six people in the whole world that weren’t going to hell and he was one of them. He said certain animals would also be raptured into heaven including his dog Mike. He said hundreds of angels were swarming around his trailer tonight and he could hear the muffled beating of their wrathful wings and then a dog began to howl and he said that was Mike howling because he was terrified of the angels.
TerHorst was disappointed when the Reverend Billy’s signal evaporated into the ether. He believed in hell and heaven and wondered if he might be one of the sixty-six. He thought about Gina. Pictured her lying in bed in whatever motel she was at. Her boobs loose under a camisole. Her tiny panties. He had always wanted to nail her and now was his last chance.
His cell rang. It was Cicala again. He let his voice mail pick it up.
He’d had a lot of time to think as he’d driven hour after hour and a plan had begun to open up like some beautiful blossom. He wouldn’t wait for Cicala to send someone else. He’d take care of Gina himself. Luke too. Cicala wanted Luke back but that was just tough. Gina hadn’t called him or answered any of his calls which must mean she’d figured out it was he that had led Toddo to her and Luke. And he had to assume Luke knew what she knew, therefore he couldn’t let either live. And why take half the diamonds when he could take them all? Cicala would be pissed and might authorize a hit but they’d have to find him first.
He winced a little and rubbed his chest. The Tums didn’t seem to have helped his heartburn much.
The sailor wandered along the shore of a vast lake. It was night and a big moon was out. There were stands of reeds in the shallows and they were all dry and dead and rattled like bones as a breeze blew through them. And the shore was covered with fish bones that gave off a ghostly phosphorescent glow. That crunched under his feet. He understood the lake was utterly dead. Not a minnow or a tadpole or a dab of algae existed in it. He also understood he had to cross the lake because behind him in the desert someone was looking for him. Someone he was helpless against.
He walked out through the rattling reeds. The bottom was mucky and sucked at his feet and the water was as warm as blood. A sheet of moonlight lay on the lake and he sloshed through it. The water up to his knees and then his thighs. Then the light began to dim. The moon was disappearing. An eclipse was eating it up. Then the water was up to his shoulders and the last curved sliver of the moon was gone and his feet weren’t touching the bottom anymore. He was treading water and looked around and couldn’t see a thing. Lake, sky, and desert having merged into a single overwhelming darkness.
In the shabby motel at the edge of the sea, his eyeballs jerking furiously under the lids, Gray dreamed.
Copyright © 2012 Tom Epperson
Tom Epperson is the cowriter, with Billy Bob Thornton, of films A Family Thing, One False Move, and The Gift. Epperson’s first crime novel, The Kind One, was nominated for an Edgar and a Barry Award in 2009. He lives in Los Angeles.