05 April 2006

Prologue:

The sun broke over ploughed cotton fields and dry irrigation ditches as the old man shambled out of the Crescent’s diner, a metal folding chair and Old Timer pocket knife in one hand, a green apple in the other. He set his chair in front of the soda machine, between the restaurant and the first of the motel’s eight air-conditioned cabins. A metal sign screwed into the brick behind him was stamped with red letters: “Vending & Ice.” He sat and smoothed the wrinkles from his faded chinos, gazing down the concrete breezeway. Red wasps bobbed around fat nests outside cabins four and six. The old man, whose name was Curtis, had meant to sweep these down and spray some Raid, but he hadn’t gotten around to it. He pulled a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped his neck. The day was already hot. In the parking lot heat shimmered above the asphalt, the empty concrete bowl of the swimming pool, the highway beyond. Curtis knew he would have to clean and fill the pool in a week or two, police the pine needles, the toys the boy had left there through the winter—a red tricycle and stick horse, a couple of silver cap-pistols that had rusted in the rain. He’d most likely wait until after the spring pollen had run its course, when the chalky dust from the tractors in the fields had settled and the new crops were sewn. There was no hurry. At the Crescent, there never was. The old man hunched forward, elbows on his knees, and went to work on the apple with the knife.

He had most of it peeled when the pickup arrived for the McElroy kid in six. As usual, it swung into the Crescent’s gravel turnout trailing exhaust, three men in the cab, one in the rear. A blue Chevy with a cracked windshield, the truck drew parallel to the motel and idled roughly. The men inside were dark and weathered. They wore T-shirts and jeans and cradled hardhats and lunchboxes in their laps. They stared straight ahead. Directly, cabin six’s door opened and Billy McElroy emerged, a brown sack in hand. He was fit and tanned from weeks of outdoor work with the DOT. Tattoos crawled from his wrists beneath the sleeves of his white T-shirt. He wore black, steel-toed boots, had a shock of red hair. He lingered in the door until the girl, Ginger, appeared in the frame. She gave him his hardhat and he kissed her lovingly and caressed her swollen belly, whispered in her ear. Curtis watched them. The girl was barefoot and pregnant in a pink cotton shift. She had a small, delicate frame, dark hair, pale skin. The men in the truck were watching, too. The McElroy kid kissed her again and hopped into the back of the waiting pickup. He settled against the cab, beside the other man, who had a gray beard and a blue bandana around his head. They spoke to one another and laughed. Ginger closed the door. As the Chevy rattled past, out of the lot, Curtis lifted a hand. When the truck had pulled onto the highway and disappeared, he began quartering the apple.

Three slices were left when McElroy’s girl emerged from six in her bright green maternity swimsuit and flip-flops. She wore matching heart-shaped shades studded with rhinestones and carried an empty ice bucket under her left arm. A canvas beach bag was slung over her right shoulder, stuffed with a hotel towel, sun-block, tanning lotion, a Diet Coke in a plastic bottle, and a paperback copy of Richard Adams’ Watership Down. The old man popped a wedge of apple into his mouth and chewed, watching her stroll up the walk. She moved with one hand on her belly. Her apparent destination, the ice machine, hummed in the concrete recess behind where Curtis sat.

“Good morning, Mr. Curtis,” she said, flashing him a smile that would have set the world spinning had he been twenty, even ten years younger.

“Morning, Miss Ginger,” the old man said and offered her a slice of apple.

“Ooh,” she said and ate half. “Yummy.”

“Ain’t that something?”

She ate the rest. “You get that from the kitchen?”

“Sure did.”

She wiped some juice from the corner of her mouth, opened the ice machine, and filled her bucket. “Yow,” she said when the bucket, already sweating, touched her bare stomach. “Cold.” She dropped the lid on the machine and stuck a piece of ice in her mouth. “Got any more of those in there?” she said around the ice.

“Sure. Sign in the window says closed, but the door’s unlocked. Miss Angel’s still upstairs. You just go right in and help yourselves.”

At his use of the plural, she smiled, and a lovely blush the shade of ripening strawberries crept into her cheeks.

“New book this week?” He indicated her bag with the tip of his knife. A bit of green peel clung to the blade.

“Yes.” She pulled out the paperback. “Billy picked it up for me down in Clarksville last week.” She turned it over, studied it. “It’s about…bunnies.”

“Bunnies, well. Hear little ones like bunnies.”

She smiled again.

“Good day for sunning,” he said.

Ginger nodded and they passed more words about the sunshine, the heat. Her ice had already begun to melt when she excused herself and crossed the parking lot to the pool, the apples she was welcome to in the kitchen apparently forgotten. She let herself through the chain link gate and set her bucket and bag on the ground beside a tattered patio chair. The ice bucket made a wet ring on the concrete. Curtis watched as she pulled her towel from the bag—she had bought the bag last week at the Dollar General in Big Moon—and spread it on the collapsible lounge. She sat down, kicked off her flip flops, and nestled her Diet Coke snugly in the ice bucket. She began spreading tanning oil over her arms and legs. When she was sufficiently slick, she lay back on the towel and cracked the novel.

For three days now she had come, every morning after her husband left for work, to lie by the empty pool inside the rusted chain link fence, where weeds grew through the cracked concrete and ants made hills in the grout of the tile. The old man could hear her voice as she read aloud, soft and measured and lovely, a Hattiesburg lilt, deep Mississippi. It filled him with something that was not quite regret. He ate the last slice of apple and listened.

She had finished only a few pages when the bell over the office door, just down from the diner, jingled softly from inside.

An old woman, a good ten years on Curtis’s seventy, pushed through the glass door and onto the walk. She stood for a moment in the rosy light, let the door swing shut behind her. Her hair was long and silver. It hung straight and unwashed. She had a lined, stony face. There were thick purple veins on her arms and calves, whiskers on her chin. She wore a cotton bra and panties and nothing else.

Curtis folded his knife and slipped it in his pants pocket. He got to his feet.

Taking no notice of him, the old woman set out across the parking lot. She stepped on rocks and cracked pieces of asphalt, stepped around a jagged sliver of glass that had once been the neck of a Coke bottle. Despite the bra that held them, her breasts jounced with every bare footfall.

“Gram Smith?” Curtis called.

The old woman seemed not to hear. She was headed for the pool.

Ginger stopped reading and glanced over her shoulder. She saw the old woman fumbling with the metal latch at the gate and her mouth dropped open. She lowered her heart-shaped sunglasses and placed her book facedown on the concrete beside the ice bucket. Its sweat soaked the novel’s pages.

“Miss Smith?” Ginger managed.

Again, the old woman seemed not to hear. Her dark nipples showed through her thin cotton bra.

Ginger struggled up and into her flip-flops, started toward the gate. “Miss Smith.”

The old woman was bent now, inspecting the latch. “I can’t seem to…” she said.

“MOMMA!” someone yelled from the office.

Ginger looked up to see the Crescent’s owner, Angel O’Zan, striding across the parking lot in a maroon bathrobe, her long legs flashing in the folds. Her dark hair was wet and clung to her neck and freckled shoulders where the robe fell loose in back. She moved to the old woman’s side, took her by the elbow, and gently steered her away from the gate, back toward the motel. “Momma,” she whispered. “Momma, come on. Come with me.” The old woman muttered something in feeble protest—Ginger didn’t catch it—and let herself be led away. Angel gave Ginger a furtive glance, an apologetic smile, and suddenly Ginger felt like a little girl who’s seen too much of the adult world and been caught looking. She blushed for the second time that morning and returned the smile as best she could, then saw her book facedown in the ring of water and bent to pick it up.

As Angel and the old woman made their slow way across the parking lot, Angel being careful of every rock and shard, the office door opened and a little boy stepped out in green Yoda pajamas. With one hand he held the door for the women. In the other was a blue plastic helicopter. He seemed about to follow them inside when he saw Curtis standing nearby under the breezeway. Curtis lifted a hand, and the little boy let the door close and walked over in socked feet, his hair a straw-colored rat’s nest.

Curtis sat back down in his chair and gathered up the apple peel from between his feet and tucked it in his shirt pocket next to his reading glasses. “Morning, Mr. Andy,” he said.

Out by the pool, Ginger resumed reading.

“It’s broken,” Andy said, and held up the helicopter.

“Yeah? How’s that?” Curtis took the toy and turned it in his hands, looked at the boy.

“The blades won’t spin.”

The old man reached for his glasses, then his knife. He flicked the knife open and began fiddling with the screws holding the plastic blades in place.

Andy said, “She told me she was going swimming.”

Curtis glanced up. The boy was staring at the empty pool, Ginger beside it. “Did she now,” he said, and turned his attention back to the toy.

“I tried to tell her there wasn’t no water, but she wouldn’t listen. So I told her it was too early for swimming. We’d just had waffles. But Gram said, ‘Early’s best for swimmin’.’” The boy bit his thumbnail. “Momma was in the shower. I had to yell.”

“You did right,” Curtis said.

“She scares me sometimes.”

Curtis pressed the dull edge of his knife on his thigh, closing the blade. He slipped it into his pocket, removed his glasses, and held up the helicopter. With a flick of his finger he set the plastic rotors spinning.

Andy smiled, took the toy.

“Truth is,” Curtis said, tucking his glasses into their black case in his shirt pocket, “she sometimes scares me, too.” He winked. “Specially when she ain’t wearin’ no clothes.”

They laughed and, after turning the blades for himself, the boy spun on his heels and disappeared into the office. The bell jingled above him as the door swung shut. Curtis watched dust motes swirl in his wake.

In a little while, the old man got up and closed his folding chair. He called out to Ginger, “Watch out for them wasps till I get ’em sprayed, now.” She waved without looking around, and a second later he was shuffling toward the diner, chair tucked under his arm.

Out near the road, the motel’s sign stood tall and incongruous to the flat, sun-washed landscape. It was shaped like a rocket. Written in red, looping script along the fuselage was the motel’s name, and at the tip of the rocket was a crescent moon, tilted on its back, the yellow paint long since worn from its rusted rivets. A gray hawk perched atop the moon, its head swiveling against the cloudless sky. Its eyes flashed and suddenly the bird unfurled its wings and dropped upon some small, unsuspecting creature in the grass. Its talons left the metal with a sharp snick.

By the pool, Ginger paused at the sound, then, a second later, continued reading.



Check-In

1. Memphis

Early Dodd walked out of Memphis International and dropped his leather carry-on at his boots. He stood at the curb near the Northwest kiosk and lit a cigarette. It was only five past eight but already the air above the idling Red Cabs was full of the sun. Early smoked, eying a young girl in a purple tube top and jeans wheeling a black nylon suitcase. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She wore flip-flops and a silver ring in the pale flesh of her navel, a stud in her nose. She cut her eyes at Early as she passed—and quickly looked away. He watched her disappear into the tinted terminal glass, caught a glimpse of his reflection there. He was not a handsome man. His face was clean-shaven but craggy, his eyes deep-set. He was tall and wore a pair of faded Lee jeans and a blue button-up shirt beneath a denim coat. He kept a battered Montana pulled low on his head. He stood, people flowing around him like water around a rock. He dropped his cigarette and ground it beneath the toe of his boot.

Across the street, a black Mustang convertible was parked between a stretch limo and a mini-van. The driver sat behind the wheel, one arm thrown across the beige leather seats. He had a big build, tattoos on his biceps, black spiked hair. He wore a black, short-sleeve button-up embroidered with palm trees, jeans. He was young, maybe twenty. He saw Early and raised his hand. He cocked an index-finger pistol and shot a lopsided grin.

Early picked up his bag and crossed the street.

“Like Uncle Jack said,” the kid said, “You’ll know the man by his hat. Name’s Luke.” He stuck out his hand. There was gold on his fingers and wrists. He wore Birkenstock sandals.

Early tossed his bag in the backseat. He ignored the hand. “Let’s go,” he said.

They left the airport. FedEx jets and a white wisp of cloud moved in an otherwise empty sky. To the south, the horizon was dark.

The kid said, “Better hold that beauty or she’ll blow right off.”

Early took his hat by the brim.

They blasted along the freeway and shot off at the 78 exit. They passed a garage, a pawn shop, Jack Pyrtle’s Chicken. Four cracked lanes, big rigs, fumes. Whores trolled the streets in skirts and tops bright as lures, angling for truckers at red lights. Some waved at traffic.

The Americana Club stood on the corner of 78 and Winchester, huge, red white and blue with a garish marquee and smoky glass. The kid parked in back, next to a battered red ’77 Cadillac De Ville. He led Early through the rear into a dim, cool corridor. Early carried his bag at his side. The air smelled close: sweat, dust, perfume. The walls were wood paneling, the floor blue shag. Somewhere up ahead, country music drifted, “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away,” the Kendalls.

At the end of the hall a woman shoved through a beaded curtain. She wore a purple thong, an orange wig, and silver glitter.

“Evie,” the kid said, spreading his arms as she approached. “How’s that new routine coming? Be ready for tonight? Can’t wait to see it.”

“Fuck off, Luke-ass,” Evie said, tugging free of the wig as she brushed past.

The kid laughed and said to Early, “Given name’s Lucas.”

They came to a door marked Manager. The kid knocked twice, waited for the gruff “Come” that followed from inside, and entered. Early went after him, and the kid closed the door behind him.

The room was lit harshly with fluorescents. A box fan hammered away from a window and a fat man in a brown blazer was bent over a scarred, walnut-finished desk, scribbling into a ledger. A cup of coffee steamed at his hand. Receipts were scattered across the desk, along with ink pens, pencil nubs, a Howard’s Donuts box. The fat man stopped writing. He put his pen in a ceramic cup shaped like a boot and leaned back in his chair. It creaked with his weight. He had small, black eyes and a receding hairline. A black boar’s head hung on the wall above him, cobwebs in its snout. “You’re Dodd,” he said, and gestured at the imitation-leather chair opposite his desk.

Early nodded but did not sit.

The kid sat on a bar stool in the corner by the door, arms crossed at his chest to show off his muscles. He watched the left side of Early’s face.

“You’re Kitchens,” Early said.

“I am.”

“Where’s the girl?”

The fat man pointed at a sideboard to the kid’s left. “Drink?”

“No. Is she here?”

The fat man chuckled. “Bossman said you weren’t one for pleasantries. Said don’t be put off by it though. I ain’t yet.” The fat man pointed at the kid. “Luke here can take you to her. Today’s her day off. On Lucy’s day off, she stays home and watches TV.”

“Fine,” Early said, and unzipped his bag. “I’ll need some things later, when we get back. Here’s a list. I’ll phone from her place if there’s anything else.”

The fat man took the twice-folded paper and read it. He grunted. “You don’t want much, do you.”

“You’ll be reimbursed.”

“How much later we talking?”

Early shook his head. “When I get back.”

The fat man re-folded the paper and passed it to the kid. “Take this out to Mackie. Tell him get on it, have it all here by three o’clock. Everything.”

“Noon, at the latest,” Early said to Luke. “I’ve got a schedule.”

The fan in the window rattled.

Luke looked to Kitchens.

The fat man shrugged. “Okay. Noon.”

“Lotta stuff here,” the kid said.

“Just tell that barfly get to it or I’ll pitch his lazy ass in the goddamn river.”

The kid laughed, left the office.

“Mind if I smoke?” Early said, already reaching.

Kitchens shook his head. There were beads of sweat on his scalp.

Early tapped one out. “That your pig?”

The fat man turned in his chair and looked up at the head on the wall. “I killed that big bastard ten, must be twelve years ago. Ain’t touched a gun since.”

“You don’t clean it?”

Kitchens pushed a black plastic ashtray across the desk. “Pride takes too much work to maintain. Just a lucky shot. What about you? You a hunter, Dodd?” The fat man laughed. “Animals, I mean.”

“I fish.”

“Now there’s a sport I never got the hang of. Man goes out to the middle of a lake, sits in the burning sun all day, watches a little Styrofoam cork bob in the water. May catch something, may not. Don’t make a lick of sense.”

Early blew smoke. “That’s a point of view.”

The door opened. From the hallway the kid said, “All set, boss.”

“He give you any shit?”

“The usual.”

“Right.” Kitchens stood. “Then take the man to see a lady. Have him back by noon.” Kitchens winked at Early. “He’s got a schedule.”

Early stubbed his cigarette in the ashtray.

The kid, grin firmly in place, followed him out.

From the Americana the kid drove Early to an apartment complex in Whitehaven called Rainbow’s End. The “o” was missing from the sign. They parked near a dumpster in the shade of a stunted elm and took the stairs to the second-floor landing. Early let the kid lead. An old black man in a wife-beater stood in the frame of an open door, scratching his chest with one hand, in the other a dog-eared copy of The Wanderer and His Shadow. The old man watched Early and the kid with hooded eyes as they passed. When they came to unit twelve, the kid stopped. Early removed his hat and pressed his ear to the door. Over the roar of the window-unit AC he heard the faint drone of a television. Early tried the door. Locked. A deadbolt, pin and tumbler. He reached into the bowl of his hat and pulled two metal objects from the band, a lock pick and tension wrench, neither bigger than a matchstick. He put his hat back on, checked his watch, and said to the kid, “Ten minutes.”

“You sure you don’t need—”

“You wait.”

The kid held up both hands, palms out. “You the boss, boss.”

Early let his eyes linger on the kid—he didn’t like that grin, not one bit—then turned and inserted the wrench into the lock. He turned it as he might a key, slid the pick in above it, and carefully worked the pins. He closed his eyes, listening. Moved the pick. Listened. Moved. Seconds later, the door clicked open.

The old black man down the way set a bookmark between the pages of his Nietzsche and leaned out of his door, staring.

The kid put one finger to his temple in salute.

The old man re-opened his book to the page marked.

Traffic whirred past on the highway.

Early pocketed his tools in his jacket and slipped inside the apartment, closing the door softly behind him. The living room was dim, the only light stealing between the cracks in the blinds. The walls were some un-color paint, the floor a dingy, threadbare gray. No pictures on the walls, no trinkets on shelves. No books. A kitchenette in the back, dishes overflowing from the sink onto the counter. In the living room a couch and coffee table, the table covered with cigarette butts, an open Doritos bag, empty beer bottles, roach clips. A telephone on one corner, the cord snaking to a plug beneath the couch.

He could hear the TV from a door to his left, could see its blue glow. He took a few careful steps toward the light, pausing when the floor creaked beneath his boots. He edged to the doorway and saw, reflected in a full-length mirror mounted on a closet door, a queen-size bed. A black male and white female were both naked and sprawled atop the covers. The male was only a boy, couldn’t have been more than sixteen, seventeen. He was asleep, his mouth open, one arm thrown over his face. A few years older, the girl was awake and sitting up, her back against the wall. She was hunched over a lighter, snapping it at the bowl of a hash pipe. Early heard canned laughter from the TV, which stood on a wire cart adjacent to the mirror. The girl had a plump, full body, pale skin and dark hair, large breasts, razor wire tattooed around her right wrist and ankle. She might have been twenty. Her stash was spread on a piece of butcher’s paper atop her lover’s stomach. She couldn’t get the pipe to light.

Early stepped casually into the room.

The girl, pipe to her mouth, lighter to her pipe, froze. She stared.

Early put one finger to his lips.

More canned laughter from the TV.

The girl glanced at her lover, his chest rising and falling.

Early shook his head.

Slowly, the girl put her pipe and lighter down on the bed as Early moved across the room. She was trembling, staring straight ahead, when he leaned into her ear and whispered. She listened. Nodded. Early took her by the hands and helped her off the bed. Then, standing behind her, he tucked her right arm into the small of her back and slid his left arm around her throat. His fingers constricted lightly around her windpipe, and this way he led her from the bedroom to the living room, pausing only to close the bedroom door behind him.

The couch was the color of used limes. The girl sank into the middle. Early removed two blue handkerchiefs from his right coat pocket and tied her hands and feet together. Then he took a third handkerchief from his left pocket, and when she saw what he intended with it, she shook her head, squirmed backward on the couch. He seized her left ear, twisted it, and when she opened her mouth to cry out he stuffed the wadded handkerchief in. He removed his belt and knotted it around her head to hold the handkerchief in place. She whimpered, held her arms over her naked breasts.

Next Early went to the kitchen, rummaged in a drawer. When he returned he moved three of the empty beer bottles and the full ashtray to the floor and sat down on the coffee table, directly across from the girl. He carried a Phillips’ head screwdriver with a yellow plastic grip in his right hand. The girl’s eyes fastened on it. Early leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. The screwdriver dangled between his legs. He said, softly: “Lucy.”

The girl stared at the six-inch length of steel.

“Lucy.”

She looked up. Her eyes were wet, the remnants of her Mascara running. She tried to speak behind the gag, a series of broken, desperate murmurs.

Early put one finger to his lips, shook his head.

She quieted.

“I’m going to ask you some questions, Lucy. And in order for you to answer them, I’m going to have to remove your gag. If you answer my questions quietly and honestly, I won’t hurt you anymore than I already have. If you cry out, scream for help, or lie to me, I’m going to take this screwdriver and show you that up until now, I really haven’t hurt you at all.”

She closed her eyes, opened them.

“Now, are you ready to answer?”

She nodded.

“Good.” He stood, unfastened his belt from around her head, and yanked the handkerchief from her mouth. She stifled gags as Early stuffed the cloth back into his pocket. The belt he ran through his jeans and tightened. After he had sat back down, he said, “So. Where in Mississippi is Elmo Carter?”

“Elmo?”

Early said nothing.

“Why you want Elmo?”

Early pressed the cold length of the screwdriver against her inner thigh.

She drew in a sharp, sudden breath.

“He’s, he’s in Big Moon. Little town down south, in the Delta. He grew up there. He got a cousin down there. Hector. I don’t know his last name. We stayed with him but I don’t know.”

“Where exactly did you stay?”

She opened her mouth to answer, hesitated.

Early slid the screwdriver up, toward the dark thatch between her legs.

She grabbed at his wrist and he backhanded her across the face. She gave out a single sob. Early rose up from the table, planted one knee hard between her legs on the couch, his weight pressing down, smothering her. Then he inserted the tip of the screwdriver into her right ear canal, applying pressure.

“Oh Jesus oh God,” she gasped, “he, he lived out in the country somewhere, some old farm, there was a barn, but, but they didn’t tell me nothing, mister, I swear, they never told me shit. I swear, I swear. Swear.”

Early watched a bubble of snot form in her left nostril and pop. Her lipstick had smeared where he slapped her. He backed off, resumed his seat on the coffee table. “What was the cousin into?”

She was shaking all over now, unable to meet his eyes. Her arms were like planks at her sides, her legs clutched together. Her head drooped and her hair hung down on either side of her face. “Bad stuff. Drugs, dogfights. Other stuff he wouldn’t tell. He and Elmo, they, they don’t get along.”

Early thought, said, “They have the fights there, at the barn?”

“Ever other S-Saturday night.”

“Did Elmo have plans to go anywhere, leave?”

“I d-don’t know,” she said, shaking. “I don’t know.”

“What was the cousin’s last name, Lucy? Hector what?”

Suddenly her eyes shifted focus, to something behind Early, and he forced the screwdriver between her legs even as he heard the click of a gun cocking.

Lucy squealed in pain.

A voice roared behind him: “WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?”

Early didn’t move. He didn’t look around. He only said, “You hang on a second and listen to me, Romeo. I got a screwdriver an inch into this gal’s cunt. You shoot me it might just—”

That was as far as he got before the first shot rang out.

Early threw himself to the floor, knowing full well he couldn’t dodge a bullet.

Two more shots rang out. A third.

The girl was screaming.

He wasn’t hit. He rolled from where he lay on the floor and saw the lover—who had emerged from the bedroom naked—reeling against the wall, his gun dangling from his index finger by the trigger guard. Blood spurted from a hole in his neck. Romeo sat down in the floor, against the baseboard. He reached up and touched his neck lightly, then dropped his hand.

The girl was still screaming on the couch.

Another shot rang out.

Early jerked, arms over his head.

And suddenly the girl wasn’t screaming anymore.

Early looked up.

The kid stood in the doorway, a 9mm Beretta in hand.

The girl sprawled on the couch, a quarter-size hole above her left eye. The back of the lime-green couch dripped red.

For a handful of seconds, neither Early nor Luke said anything. Early put one finger in his ear and jiggled it. Luke lowered his gun and stared at Lucy’s corpse. Against the wall, the lover continued to gurgle and twitch. The room was close and hazy with the acrid discharge of the gun.

“Shell casings,” Early finally said.

Luke slowly turned his head from the girl to Early. “Huh?”

“Pick up your shell casings, put them in your pocket, and walk calmly out the door and to the car. I’ll be right behind you.”

Luke looked down and around like a man suddenly aware of a lost dime or quarter. He bent, picked up one brass casing. It had rolled near the edge of the couch. “I don’t see the others,” he said.

“By the door,” Early said, snatching loose his handkerchiefs from Lucy’s corpse and tucking them, along with the screwdriver, into his pockets.

Luke went out the door and down the stairs, and Early followed. The landing was empty, and all the complex doors were shut.

Early drove.

Across town to Union, far from the Rainbow’s End, where he chose a pay phone at an Exxon. The phone was near a hedgerow, a good fifty yards from the nearest parked car. On the way, as they’d passed the gates of Graceland, three black-and-whites and an ambulance had screamed by, headed for Whitehaven. Early leaned into the phone, pressing the receiver against his ear to drown out the midday rush of traffic. Behind him, Luke sat in the passenger’s seat of the convertible, staring straight ahead, hands clasped in his lap.

The fat man picked up on the third ring: “Yeah?”

“It’s Dodd. Is there any reason I can’t speak on this line?”

“What—?”

“Are your phones tapped, wired, is anyone listening?”

“No. I’m clean with the locals. I pay my taxes. Even got a friend or two in vice.”

“We’ve got a problem.” Early looked over his shoulder at the kid, but the kid was no longer in the convertible.

“What kind of problem?”

Early scanned the parking lot, the Exxon. He saw the kid inside the store, walking up and down the aisles.

“Hello? Dodd?”

“Your nephew. He got a little trigger happy, killed two ducks. One of them watches TV on her day off.”

For a long moment, the only sound on the line was the steady hiss of pay-phone static. Then: “Ah, Jesus. Ah, fuck. Who was the other?”

“Some mallard had his feathers up….”

Early stopped. A black and white Memphis PD cruiser waited at a nearby intersection, its blinker signaling a turn into the Exxon parking lot. The light changed and the car pulled in, parked next to a red Volkswagen beetle. The driver and his partner got out. The driver, broad-shouldered with bristly short hair and sunglasses, hitched up his belt. He spoke to his partner, a woman, her hat pulled low on her brow. The woman nodded, leaned against the fender of the cruiser. The man went into the store.

“Listen,” Early said, “The kid may have also saved my skin, but that doesn’t change the fact you and me are in a pickle.”

“What exactly are you—”

“You and I work for the Man, and we both know he won’t be happy if fires start burning he wasn’t already planning to have put out.”

Silence. “No. No he won’t. Hell, nobody needs that kind of trouble.”

Inside, the kid was at the counter, paying for something Early couldn’t see. The cops were in line behind him.

“Then let me ask you this: do you love your nephew?”

“What?”
“Do you love your nephew?” Early glanced back at the store. The cashier was making change for the kid. She must have offered him a bag for his purchases because he shook his head and turned for the door. He forgot his change. The cashier called out, the kid whirled. He laughed, took the money, but in his haste dropped several coins. They scattered across the tile. He kept walking.

The cop held out an arm, bending for the change.

“Shit,” Early said.

Kitchens said, “I don’t understand—”

“Wait, damn it. Just wait.”

Early glanced over at the cruiser. The woman, too, was watching her partner in the store.

The kid took the change and nearly tripped over a plastic “Piso Mojado” sign on his way out.

The woman cop’s eyes followed the kid, moved to Early, then to something else.

Early let out a long sigh and realized, as he did, he’d been holding his breath.

“All right, Kitchens. You listen and listen good. I’m on my way to pick up what I asked for, and I’m adding your nephew to the list. So you better think of everything you ever wanted to say to him and didn’t because you won’t see him again after today.”

“You mean you’re going to—”

“We’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Have everything ready.”

Early hung up. He tried to slow his breathing, which had become rapid and shallow. His pulse was racing.

The kid hurried across the parking lot, a cup of coffee and a cheese Danish in hand. The Danish was open. The kid was taking big bites as he got into the car.

Early cranked the engine and pulled into traffic, careful to signal before he turned.

They sat in a roomy, red vinyl booth with Kitchens at the Americana Club, Luke nursing a tumbler of whiskey. The kid was quiet, pensive, had been ever since leaving the Exxon. His only comment had come at a red light on Poplar. He’d looked over at Early after finishing his pastry and said: “That was the best goddamn Danish I will ever eat.” In contrast to Luke’s cool, it was apparent by the half-empty bottle of Jim Beam set squarely in the middle of the table that the fat man had been boozing it since he’d hung up the phone half an hour ago. He sat with his head in his hands, his tie loosened, staring at the last slug of liquor in his glass. His eyes were shot with red. Early had nothing to drink, only a cigarette. He lit it and tucked the complimentary matchbook—featuring the silhouette of a naked woman draped in an American flag—into his coat pocket, with the handkerchiefs and screwdriver. The club was mostly empty, a few regulars hunkered at the bar. The room was dark, gloomy. The stage wouldn’t come alive until after five, or so the sign in the front window said. There was music on the juke, Kenny and Dolly, “Islands in the Stream.”

“You’ll come with me,” Early said to the kid.

Luke did not look at him.

“As for the car,” Early said to Kitchens, “long-term storage or salvage. Keep it off the streets and out of sight, whatever you do.” Back to Luke: “You got a record?”

The kid took a gulp of whiskey. “Once. Juvie stuff, nothing since. Five, no, six years ago.”

“You didn’t touch anything in the place, did you?”

“In juvie?”

Early snapped his fingers three times in front of the kid’s face. “In the apartment.”

Luke shook his head.

“Tell me about the gun.”

“I bought it a year ago, across the river in West Memphis. Some pimp selling out the trunk of his Caprice. No serial numbers.”

“Then it’s not likely they’ll be able to trace it, sure enough not back to you.”

“Thank Christ for small favors,” Kitchens grumbled.

“You handle the cops?”

“I been there before.”

“For what?”

Kitchens shrugged. “I ran some girls outta the back once or twice. Word got around. Nothing major.”

“No drugs?”

Kitchens downed the last of his drink. “Nothin’ ain’t legal.”

“They’ll ask questions, and I don’t know how hard they’ll ask. Not too hard, less you give them reason. It’s a safe bet Romeo’s gun was just as hot as the kid’s. Add to that a fair amount of dope in the apartment and what a cop eye sees is two lowlifes who met their inevitable ends at the hands of worse men than they. Case pretty much closed.”

“She always had problems,” Kitchens said. “Lucy. I can say that. If they ask about her, I mean. That ain’t a lie.”

Early blew smoke. “The neighbors got a good look at us, but I don’t figure that’ll matter. After this afternoon we won’t be around for anyone to spot.” He stubbed his cigarette in a black Bakelite ashtray.

Kitchens reached for the bottle of Jim Beam, and suddenly Early’s hand shot out and seized the fat man’s wrist. He squeezed and said in a low, calculated voice: “I don’t need to remind you that this is all your nephew’s fault, do I?”

Luke stared at his glass. He had not taken more than three drinks from it since they arrived.

Kitchens shook his head, the waddle of fat beneath his chin jiggling.

Early let go and said, “Then let’s have a look at my list.”

The black Jeep Cherokee and Ranger Comanche were parked in the rear of the building, alongside Kitchens’ Cadillac. Early walked around the Jeep and boat once, inspecting tags and tires. The boat was a twenty-two-footer, complete with trolling motor, Lowrance fish-finder, livewell, and a 300-horsepower Evinrude. The boat and trailer were brand new, while the Jeep, a four-wheel drive, was used, just as Early had requested. The keys were in the ignition. His leather carry-on had been removed from the Mustang by whoever had driven the car away and placed in the driver’s seat, along with a laminated road map of Mississippi. The rear cargo space was packed with the other items on his list: a blue Igloo ice chest, a cane fishing pole and Zebco rod, two tubes of crickets, three cartons of red wiggler worms, several yards of blue plastic tarpaulin rolled and tied, and two five-gallon, red metal gas cans.

“We’re going fishing?” the kid said.

“That’s a point of view,” Early said.

Kitchens leaned against his Cadillac.

“You get the license?” Early asked.

“Oh. Yeah.” The fat man reached into his slacks and drew out his wallet, produced a set of Mississippi fishing license. “Under the name and address you wrote down. There’s only the one. I wasn’t figuring….” He trailed off, shrugged.

Early inspected the license and tucked them into his wallet. “Say your goodbyes, kid,” he said, and opened the driver’s door. He threw his bag in the backseat and climbed in, fastened his seatbelt, started the engine. He watched in the side mirror as Luke passed words with his uncle—the fat man actually hugged him—and when the kid got in, Early threw the Jeep in drive and swung out onto 78, eager to be shut of Memphis and the Americana Club and the fat man named Kitchens. He never knew what the kid and his uncle had said to one another. It never occurred to him to ask.

They rode in silence until Tennessee was behind them. In half an hour they were clear of Memphis traffic and over the Mississippi state line. Early set the cruise control at seventy and tossed the map from the dash to Luke.

“Find Big Moon,” he said, lighting a cigarette.

“I hate Mississippi,” the kid grumbled, unfolding the map.

“That’s upside down.”

“What?”

“You’ve got it backward.”

“Yeah, well, suits this fucking state, don’t it.”

Early cracked his window and blew smoke into the sudden rush of air. Ahead he saw a state trooper parked beneath an overpass. His hands tightened on the wheel. They passed and Early checked his rearview. Loosened his grip.

“Here it is.” Luke tapped his finger on the map.

“Where?”

“Here.”

“What’s it near?”

“It’s near the ass-end of nowhere is what it’s near. What the fuck do I know, man, it ain’t my state.” He tossed the map in the backseat.

“Look at the map again and tell me.”

“Kiss my ass.”

“Look at the map, kid.”

Luke stared hard at Early. He reached around and snatched the map, studied it. “West of Yazoo,” he finally said.

“Lakes nearby?”

“Lakes, lakes, Let’s see…lakes. Lake…George. Panther Creek. Deep Bayou. Old Peckerwood Stream runs straight into Big Nigger Bottom.” He made an angry, awkward attempt to re-fold the map, cussed it, and threw it in the floor.

Early let this pass.

Luke hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “What exactly are we doing with all this shit anyway? You didn’t fly all the way out here to go fishing on the big man’s ticket.”

“Not with you I didn’t.”

“Fuck you, man.”

“Didn’t your daddy ever take you fishing?”

“Fuck you,” Luke said. “Yeah, my daddy took me fishing. And when I couldn’t sit still in the boat he picked up a paddle and hit me in the face. Split my bottom lip in two fucking halves.” He propped his elbow on the window sill, cradled his head in his hand. “Fishing. Shit.”

Early took one last drag and said, “You ain’t been able to fold a map right since, that it?”

Slowly, the kid turned away from the whipping pines and hills and stared at Early. He opened his mouth, shut it. He laughed.

Early flicked his butt out the window, rolled it up.

“What do you do back west?” the kid asked. “You’re what, some kind of bounty hunter?”

“I do what people pay me to do,” Early said.

“Yeah? What are they paying you to do this time?”

Early didn’t answer.

When the roar of the silence had almost drowned even the hum of the tires, he switched on the radio. He trolled and found a station playing old country, Hank Williams, “Cold, Cold Heart.”

Eventually, the kid turned his head and planted his chin on his hand, gazing out the window as he had before.

2 Comments:

Blogger The Damned said...

First of all, I like the changes. I like how you’ve added to the Early section, giving us the exposition about Elmo Carter and Hector, etc. Here is an edit and a few questions:

Edit:

Rearrange “They sat in a red vinyl booth with Kitchens at the Americana club” to
“They sat with Kitchens” [or “across from Kitchens”] in a red vinyl…”

Questions:

Would Early or the Kid fire shots from Romeo’s gun so that it looks like he killed Lucy and then shot himself?

I have a question about the pacing of the scene at the Exxon when the cops show up and Early’s talking to the fat man. On my first read-through, this scene seemed to be taking too long, maybe there’s too much description here, or it can be condensed? You’ve heightened the tension by bringing in the cops, but somehow—to me anyway—it seemed to take too long. Maybe it’s that we linger on the kid (from Early’s POV) too long before cutting away and coming back. Early’s got four things occupying his awareness here: the cop in the store, the kid, the cop outside, and the fat man on the phone, so it seems like a moment when you could really tighten the screws, increase the pressure by cutting back and forth between them—turn this into a chaotic moment maybe. I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t feel like they’re narrowly escaping yet, but it seems like that’s what you’re going for. This seems like a Hitchcockian moment—how would he handle this?

Adam

8:51 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

First, some minor minor minor edits:
This sentence is strange at the name of the band: “Somewhere up ahead, country music drifted, “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away,” the Kendalls.” Could it read instead “Somewhere up ahead the Kendalls drifted in with “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away.”?

Do we need this explination: “The kid laughed and said to Early, “Given name’s Lucas.””?

Instead of “From the Americana the kid drove” why not, “From the Americana they drove”?

“The old man re-opened his book to the page marked.” Shouldn’t this read “marked page”?

Okay, this is a general comment about the beginning of the Lucy/Early scene—would he gag her just to ungag her? It seems fast. Perhaps the questions he should ask at first are yes/no ones so she can nod? Then remove the gag before the boy in the next room wakes.

I’d cut this line because it’s understood: “Early looked up.”

Although Early does seem educated, I’m not sure he’d end a sentence with “men than they” during the Kitchens scene.

For some reason, these lines are doing nothing for me: “He never knew what the kid and his uncle had said to one another. It never occurred to him to ask.”

Adam’s comment about Romeo’s gun seems like something to seriously consider, especially since the scenario that Early sets up for Kitchens is exactly that. But then, would we want to hear more shots and give them less time to get away?

I’m really into this, Andy. I’ve got a bad bad feeling about this boat and what’s going to end up in “Old Perckerwood Stream” (fantastic names, btw). And I’m enthralled—can’t wait for the next installment.

Things I really loved:
The tanning pregnant girl
There was music on the juke, Kenny and Dolly, “Islands in the Stream.”
Use of the word “pickle”
--joy

6:24 AM  

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