Mercury Falling

by Phillip Gardner


Ken Newcomb drove a Mercury and was a drunk who seemed like a loose-limbed good ole Howdy Doody boy, but was something else and burned for money. His former cellmate, Richard Roberts, was more of a Lincoln man.

On New Year’s Eve, Richard wrecked the black Lincoln in Charlotte, but the car still drove all right. He and the insurance man did not see eye-to-eye on the settlement. Richard threw the first punch.

After Ken posted bail, he told Richard he had an idea. Ken was the idea guy. They would drive the mangled Lincoln to New Orleans. Ken said they would chill. “I got an idea,” he said, squalling the tires of the Mercury as he pulled onto East Fourth Street from the Mecklenburg County Jail, that good ole Howdy Doody smile all over his face.

The night before Mardi Gras ended, Ken, who had been drinking mescal and snorting cocaine for three days, woke Richard at four in the morning. Richard heard the metal motel door open. The room was black dark. He could smell Ken, but he couldn’t see him. Ken was just a smell and a spooky mescal cocaine voice that sounded like wind and fire, like a hiss.

“If there’s anything in there you want, you better get the fuck up and come get it,” Ken said in that whisper from another world.

Richard didn’t answer. There was something about that smell. Still he understood what Ken was saying.

The motel room door closed. Then Richard Roberts was asleep again. But not for long because of the sirens outside his window and the smell of burning tires that seeped around the motel windows and under the door, moving sinuously through the stench Ken Newcomb had left in the room.

That afternoon, the two men boarded a plane with first-class tickets Ken had purchased a month before. They ordered a Maker’s Mark bourbon before they buckled their seatbelts. As the plane lifted off, Ken turned to Richard.

“Some people hate that burning smell,” he said with his signature Howdy Doody grin. “I don’t happen to be one of them.”

***


That was in February. Richard’s trial was set for early August. The plastic surgery had helped, but the insurance guy’s face was still a mess. Ken said he had an idea.

For the July 4th holiday, the two men left Charlotte for Myrtle Beach where Ken said they would chill. But when the Mercury reached Darlington, Ken didn’t take the by-pass. Richard asked why. Ken looked at the city limits sign, then over at Richard and smiled.

Now it was midnight and they sat alone at the bar inside The Paradise Lounge, in a small NASCAR town, talking in code.

"Where's the insurance man?" Richard said.

"At the bank, writing a check," Ken said.

"Wrong."

"Banging the wife of the New Orleans Fire Chief?"

"I like it, but wrong again," Richard said.

"At the airport, still scratching his head? Trying to figure out how the hell I got us first class tickets out of New Orleans in the middle of Mardi Gras," Ken said.

"Ding, ding, ding," Richard said, eyeing the breasts of The Paradise Lounge bartender.

Ken signaled to the well-built redhead behind the bar. She reached for two clean glasses and two mini-bottles of cheap bourbon. Ken and Richard watched the way she moved. Their eyes were all over her. The redhead set the drinks in front of them. She knew where their eyes had been. She didn’t look, didn’t speak. When she turned and started back, the two studied her, head to foot, as they had after every drink, and then exchanged smiles.

From the rear storage room where he was sweeping up, the boy, Ryan, who was only sixteen, saw the look the men shared. He knew what it meant, though he had never been with a woman. Ryan’s face was already potted with acne scars and there was no controlling his thick collie-colored hair. But the boy’s pale blue eyes and gentle, disarming smile brought a kind of invisible friendliness to The Paradise Lounge, and its regulars were united by shared custody of the kid. What most of them had never had or what had been irretrievably lost to them, they could still see in Ryan.

The boy watched BB's face as she walked to the cash register and, beyond her, the faces of the two men who were working her over with their eyes. Then he lifted his broom and began again, glancing back as he swept.

"She's married," Richard said. “Wearing a ring.”

"Married is as married does," Ken said. “Built like that? Working here? No way.”

“How would you know?”

Ken closed his eyes and pointed to his temple, like a sage. “I know that smell.” When he opened his eyes, Ken spotted a man with a sandy crewcut and wearing a faded yellow golf shirt nearing a table beside the jukebox. The man sat facing away from Ken.

"I'll be back," Ken said. "Keep an eye on her."

"With pleasure. I'd take out some insurance on that piece if I was her husband," Richard said, smiling, studying the slight sway of her breasts beneath the thin blouse.

Standing at the register, the redhead glanced up into the mirror, following Ken as he snaked between the tables toward the jukebox. More than once she'd seen them walk out on their tabs, shifting about before slithering out the door when her back was turned. She could tell.

Richard looked from BB over to Ken and smiled.

The man in the yellow golf shirt didn’t speak when Ken slid into the chair across from him. Instead, the man stood, stepped away from the table, and fed a dollar into the jukebox. He punched up a George Jones’ song. Then he walked back to his chair.

The man and Ken huddled as they talked.

Richard’s eyes settled on BB, the special way she was put together. When she moved, he thought her body’s mechanics were like shorthand for fuck me. He signaled for another drink.

"How's about some breakfast," he said as she set down a new coaster, then his drink on top, "after you're done here."

"No thanks," she said. She wiped the bar where his glass had been.

"A little over-easy?" Richard said leaning in confidentially, his eyes wide and greedy. “Or are you the scrambled, covered, and smothered type?” BB didn't answer. She turned.

He had her wrist.

"I hear you're not very married," Richard said.

Ryan dropped his broom.

"You need to get your ears checked," BB said, prying off his fingers, then walking away. She nodded to Ryan, and he stopped in his tracks. She nodded a second time and he slowly turned back to his work. She walked to the storage room.

"Keep an eye on him," she said. "If he starts anything, call the cops."

“Yes, ma’am,” he smiled, and with his free hand rubbed circles against his chest. “Shinin’ armor.” The boy looked back over BB’s shoulder. "The other one's leaving.”

BB turned as the door shut behind Ken and the man in the yellow shirt.

"Shit," she said.

Richard watched her throw down her bar rag and start toward him, watched the mechanics of her body, the way the parts worked in sync. He didn’t take his eyes from her chest as she spoke to him.

"Your friend just walked out on his tab. You picking it up?"

He tilted his head and flashed her a look. "That depends," he said. “On how nice you are to me.”

BB sauntered to the register, pivoted and walked back. She laid the two tabs in front of Richard. “Pay up and get out,” she said.

“If I promise he’ll pay, can I stay?” he said in a little boy’s voice.

Ryan watched her, waiting for the look that said call the cops. Instead, BB marched to the walk-in and brought out a case of beer. She began stocking the cooler.

Richard lifted his drink and drifted over to the jukebox. Slowly turning the pages of selections, he looked back every minute, checking the door. The place was empty. Ken had had plenty of time to score some dope, if that’s what he was doing. The crewcut in the golf shirt didn’t look much like the dealer type. Still, Richard had seen stranger.

Ryan, who was picking up dirty glasses and beer cans, emptying ashtrays and sopping down the tables, looked up from his work, across the length of the bar, over at BB, who was counting from her tip jar. She glanced up at him, then down at the dollars and quarters spread out in front of her. BB smiled a sad smile and pinched her nose. Ryan smiled back, feeling his face flush up.

“You got five minutes to pay,” BB called to the man near the jukebox.

“What time do you close?” Richard looked around for a clock.

“Five minutes. We close in five minutes,” BB said. Richard was crossing the room. “And tell your friend,” BB said, “I don’t forget a face. In my line of work, you learn to remember a face. If I see his again, I’m calling the cops. Unless you’re covering his tab.”

Richard took his seat at the bar and looked at the amount, then pulled money from his jeans. He counted and laid the bills on his tab, looked up at the redhead--then pushed Ken’s check back across the bar. “You should’a been nice to me,” he said.

***


Outside, Ken’s Mercury was nowhere in sight. Richard walked to the end of the town square. He lit a cigarette. He’d just come along for the ride. When he had an idea, Ken liked a riding companion. A Darlington Police car turned onto the square. Ken stepped on the cigarette and moved back into the shadows. Neither of them was supposed to leave North Carolina. When he saw Ken again, he’d say, “Where’s the insurance man?” Then he’d quickly answer, “At the parole hearing.” That was an answer Ken Newcomb wouldn’t guess. That’s what he’d say if something had gone wrong and Ken got that look in his eye. He’d say those words and that look Ken got sometimes would disappear, and Ken would become himself again. But the Mercury was gone.

Richard lit another cigarette, smoked and waited. Ken’s idea was to go to Myrtle Beach, not Darlington. His idea was to chill.

The Mercury. Richard stepped to the curb and raised his hand to catch the door handle. But the car glided past him without a sound, like a ghost ship, then veered right at the corner onto Exchange Street. Richard saw no driver, no passenger. He watched and waited. He had a bad feeling. Then he saw the shadow figure of a man standing rigid as a robot, away from the light at the corner. Richard pulled hard on his cigarette, glancing about to see that the streets were empty, then shuffled toward Exchange Street.

Ken was amped. And now that he was closer, Richard saw that Ken’s every movement was attached like a hotwire to a kink or a hitch. Ken was a man on fire.

“C’mere,” Ken said in a whisper, his wide snake eyes flaming. “This shit’ll knock your socks off.”

Richard followed him across the street to an alley, and then up into the recessed entrance of The Ridgle Law Office. Ken held up the key to the Mercury and dug inside the front of his jeans. He unrolled a plastic bag as thick as his thumb, opened it carefully and shoveled up some of the white powder with the key.

Richard felt the icy kick, even up into his eye, then a numbness raced across his cheek and along the side of his tongue. He swallowed hard, and the coke glazed the back of his throat with the taste of tin.

“Damn,” he said, pressing his hand to his burning nose. Ken was digging him a second bump. When Richard pulled up from it, he felt the hot blood coiling through his chest, arms, and fingers. As Ken served himself, Richard looked out at the new world. Everything, even the darkness, was bathed in lacquer.

Ken was smiling at him like a little boy. But Richard could see his jaw muscles clench, then soften, then knot up again, like a cottonmouth’s.

“This shit makes me thirsty,” Ken said.

There was music from the jukebox inside. The boy had already locked the front door, but Ken could see the kid mopping, his shoulders swaying in time. He didn’t see the redhead. Ken tapped on the window, but the kid didn’t hear.

Richard’s body was electric. He felt a hot breath, almost a whisper at his ear. He whirled to see. The surrounding buildings leaned down over him. There were eyes up there; he could feel them. For an instant, he saw himself through the sniper’s eyes, through the crosshairs of a high-powered scope. He heard the wind and a paper cup blowing half a block away. “Let’s get on to the beach,” he said. “The bars there are still open.”

Ken knocked again, harder. He brought out two bills, hundreds. “Yeah, but they don’t serve what I’m wanting,” Ken said, smiling into the glass. The kid, who was punching numbers at the jukebox, saw him now. He looked back, then moved cautiously toward the door.

“Where’d you get that money,” Richard said, feeling at once that he either wanted to climb out of his skin or do another bump of that kick-ass cocaine. “You didn’t waste that guy, did you? Cause if you did--.” Richard turned again. He felt those eyes, imagined a finger on the trigger. Suddenly a smell he couldn’t name. The kid was closer now.

“Down payment,” Ken whispered, waving the two hundred-dollar bills, nodding and smiling through the glass.

Ryan stood at arm’s length from the door, then reached to make sure it was locked. Ken leaned in close to the glass. “Wanna settle up,” he said, holding up the money, nodding, giving the kid that happy good ole boy grin. Ryan looked back into the small office where BB filled out the inventory sheets and balanced the money at the end of every night. She sat with her head in her hands.

***


Coach had waited up an extra hour for the phone to ring. His wife had instructed him not to call her at work. They had agreed that she would phone him just before locking up. He was not to call. His calls did more harm than good, she said. His calling forced her to lie about how soon she would be home because she could no longer endure the silence on his end of the line when she told him the truth. They had also agreed that he wouldn’t come to The Paradise Lounge night after night and drink, waiting for her to get off work, watching her every move. His job at the Lawn and Garden was at stake. It didn’t pay much, but without it they’d lose the house. They had agreed that these things were bad for their marriage.

They had agreed that their decisions had nothing to do with another man, or at least BB had agreed with herself about that.

Still she had not called, and Coach lay awake for an hour waiting. It was a Tuesday night, the week of July 4th, one of the slowest bar nights of the year. Coach knew this. He lay in their bed, in the blackness, listening to the air conditioner in the widow shut off, then kick in.

Coach reached for the radio. The pictures had started up again. Flashing snapshots from that crowded night at The Paradise Lounge when he’d seen the man BB denied sleeping with, images from his last day as high school football coach when the kid wagged his finger and blew spit, footage of his fists pounding the kid’s face into a bloody sponge.

***

Even before BB saw Richard’s knife at Ryan’s throat, she saw the tears streaming down the boy’s pale face.

Ken Newcomb was happy. “I got an idea!” he announced to the room. He snapped his fingers and tapped his toe and sang: “Party time is any time and any time is party time, so let’s parrrrrr-dy!” Then he was not smiling. He looked at BB. “Get your damn purse.”

While Richard stood behind the bar with the blade against Ryan’s throat, Ken rested a hand like a blind man on BB’s shoulder as she shut the place down and switched off the overheads. The red and blue neon beer signs cast a purple light over everything. From the jukebox, Vince Gill sang the song BB requested every night at closing time. Ken led her back to the bar. “Get the phone,” he said. Richard unplugged it.

“Now show the boy how to pour a drink,” Ken said, speaking to Richard, looking at BB. “I think I’m gonna have myself some top shelf tonight,” he said in that singsong voice. His hand glided down BB’s hair. “Yes, sir-ree. I want the good stuff. Maker’s Mark.” Richard lowered the switchblade to his side and led Ryan to the liquor. Ken opened BB’s purse and dumped its contents onto the bar. Her cell phone and a small can of hairspray tumbled out. Ryan set a glass down in front of Ken. Richard drank from another.

“Lookie here,” Ken said. He switched off the phone, then took the cap from the hair spray. BB kept her eyes fixed on Ryan, whose pocked face was red and wet with tears. The tears wouldn’t stop. She tried to look at him the way she did when the cops had been called.

“Watch this,” Ken said. He squeezed his fist into the back of BB’s thick, red hair. She shut her eyes. He pulled. She resisted. The skin tightened across her face.

Ryan felt the cool blade at his throat, saw Ken’s hand slowly close around BB’s throat. Felt the hot urine soak the front of his jeans. The tears wouldn’t stop.

Ken snaked his fingers through the back of her hair, then pulled slowly, holding BB’s head arched back. He lifted the spray can. “Look at me,” he whispered. She closed her eyes. He knotted her hair in his fist, pulled hard, then coated it with the hairspray until the air was so thick she couldn’t breathe. Then he turned her loose. Her soggy, red, matted hair came down thickly, in slow motion. Still, she refused to look at him, not even in the mirror. Ken felt inside his pocket and brought out the cocaine and a cigarette lighter and laid them on the bar. “Looks like we got us a little fireball here,” he said. He tossed back the bourbon. Then he held up the can of hair spray and the lighter.

“Hey, Richard,” he said. “Independence Day. Calls for fireworks.” Ken pressed the spray. Struck the lighter under it. A single burst of flame like a comet shot across the bar. BB’s eyes filled with tears, but she did not look at him.

He lifted his finger from the can and lowered the lighter. He looked at BB, waited for her to speak or move. For her to look at him. Ken Newcomb waited for her to beg.

Holding the can inches from the back of BB’s soaked head, Ken again pressed the nozzle, forming a thick gray cloud. His fingers made a fist around the lighter. “Some people hate the smell of burning hair.” He winked at Richard. “I don’t happen to be one of them.” Ken held the lighter against her cheek and leaned over so that his lips touched BB’s ear. “Swoooosh,” he whispered. Then to Richard, “Damn, I’m getting hot,” he called, giving Richard that hard smile. Ken set down the can of hairspray. “I wanna a drink. I wanna make-hers-mark,” he said. “Get it?”

“Lick-her,” Richard said. “Good lick-her.”

***


Coach had waited another thirty minutes before he dialed The Paradise Lounge. When he’d not gotten an answer, he walked outside to the garage where he’d hidden a bottle in his toolbox and then sat at the kitchen table in his underwear drinking. He called her cell. Now the bottle was empty and Coach found himself in the land of irreconcilables. He could not sit there and he could not go. Trapped inside his head, too drunk to leave the room. He had to find her, but the odds of his getting out of his own driveway were bad ones. Just the sight of his car at this time of night would guarantee blue lights—and jail time. A certain end to his dissolving marriage.

***


She sat on the barstool between the two men, upright, motionless, silent, arms at her side. Ken ordered Ryan to line up the top shelf liquor on the bar in front of him and Richard. And now he ordered the kid to drink the liquor in the glass before him. The boy lifted the glass, but the smell of the bourbon made his stomach turn before he could get the glass to his lips, and his first swallow sent up a convulsion. The two men laughed. Richard took the boy’s glass and slid it in front of BB.

“Show him how it’s done, darlin’,” he said in that baby talk voice again. BB looked down at the glass. Richard lifted it, brought it to her lips. Ken was digging his key into the bag of white power.

“Yeah,” Ken said, holding the small pyramid of coke before him. “Part those lips.” He looked over at Richard. “Show us that mouth.” Richard tilted the glass slowly, his eyes moving over her like searchlights.

When the coke reached his brain, Ken closed his eyes.

“Oops,” Richard said. When Ken looked over, he saw the brown liquor dripping from BB’s mouth and soaking the front of her thin blouse. “It’s a shame to waste good whiskey,” Richard said.

“Have to make the best of it,” Ken said. “Pour us another round,” he said to the boy. The two men watched BB’s face as Ken brought his fingers up to the side of her wet throat, then slowly pressed hard down her neck and over her right breast.

“I wouldn’t call that a waste of whiskey,” Richard said, cupping his fingers around her other breast. Their eyes were filled with the hunger of fire.

Ryan looked away as he poured, over to the small wooden door under the cash register, where he knew there was a revolver.

“Bartender!” Ken shouted. “We’ve made a dis-covery.” He slid the bag over to Richard, bowed grandly, then ceremoniously stepped behind BB. He cupped her breasts in his hands and danced from side to side. Her arms remained loosely at her side; she didn’t move. Although her eyes were closed, Ryan could see the beaded tears. “I’ve beeeeen to the MOUN--tains!” he said in a loud evangelical voice. “This calls for a drink-ah!

Ryan handed over the two glasses. He couldn’t watch. “One more,” Ken instructed, motioning toward BB. He curled his arm around her shoulder. She didn’t open her eyes. The two men were working her breasts. Ken slid the glass over until it touched her fingers, then he pressed her hand around the glass.

Eyes closed, she lifted it, held her breath and took half of it down.

“Your slip’s showing,” Ken said, looking at the white rim of coke on Richard’s nose. “You fag.”

Richard wiped away the powder with the back of his hand, then passed the bag and the key to the Mercury back to Ken. “Free at last, free at last!” Richard shouted. “God almighty I’m free at last!” Then he laughed so hard he had to stand up and dance a little dance.

***

Nick Granger taught algebra at the high school where he had played blocking back the year Coach won the state championship. Coach had phoned him before, sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes incoherent, other times when he just couldn’t sleep. But never like this, crying.

Nick found his trousers and a shirt in the dark and walked barefoot out to his car.

***

Ryan was two steps from the small wooden door under the register. On a Saturday night, a busy night, the wooden door would be unlocked. Not tonight, though. He’d have to get it open, and he’d have to get his hand inside, and he’d have to point it and he’d have to pull the trigger until the pistol wouldn’t fire any more. But first there was the lock, like the one on his locker at school that he’d have to somehow get past.

“Bartender!” Richard shouted.

“No. No more. That’s enough,” Ken said.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Ken was all business.

Richard gave Ryan a look that said pour the damn drink. Ryan thought of the blade at his neck. He poured, but Ken intercepted the glass. The eyes of the two men met. Theirs weren’t human eyes.

“Later,” Ken said. He set the drink in front of BB. The two men exchanged ghoulish smiles.

BB reached for the glass and brought it to her mouth. Her hand was unsteady, and some of it spilled over her lips, but this time she didn't stop until she'd taken it all down.

“Hey,” Ken said. “She’s my kind of girl.”

“Mine too,” Richard said.

Then Richard bent his face close to her and pressed the tip of his tongue into her ear. Ken smiled. Then the tongues of both men flickered inside her.

Ryan turned his back and covered his eyes.

“Another,” BB said.

***

Hers was the only car in the lot. Nick Granger pulled in beside it and parked.

“I’ll go inside with you,” Nick said. Coach hadn’t spoken after thanking him for the ride.

“Not necessary,” Coach said.

“Just to see that everything is okay.”

Coach looked at him, his blue eyes so sad Nick had to look away. “I can promise you, son, that everything is not okay. Chances are, she’s someplace else, not here, which is a discovery I’d prefer to make by myself. Thanks for the ride.” Coach lumbered over to BB’s Honda and looked inside. Nick opened his door, then walked over to Coach. He tucked a folded slip of paper into Coach’s shirt pocket. “My cell number,” he said. “You call me.” He looked up into Coach’s eyes and put his hand on his shoulder. “You call me, you hear?”

Coach lit a cigarette and steadied himself against the trunk of his wife’s car. He watched the taillights of Nick’s car disappear. If the cops drove by they’d have him for public drunk. He’d sit in the car and wait. She’d have to come back for the car and he’d be waiting. He didn’t know what he’d do. But he’d be waiting.

He smoked. The light from the red and blue neon beer signs inside The Paradise Lounge bled together into a purple glow, like a fire just beyond the morning horizon.

Coach crossed the parking lot. Seeing it with his own eyes would take away any doubt, narrow their conversation, establish the soft spots in the defense, his and hers.

***

Ryan lay on the storage room floor, his hands and feet tied with lamp cord, his mouth stuffed with yellow notebook paper, his eyes Scotch taped shut. Behind his dark lids he couldn’t stop seeing what they’d done to BB, first holding back her head and pouring bourbon over her mouth and down her blouse, then unbuttoning it, pulling her bra straps off her shoulders, and peeling down the cups until her nipples showed, pouring more liquor, but holding up her head now, then their hands lathering her breasts, the hands of the two men. When they realized she had passed out, one stood behind her, holding her head as the other tilted the plastic bag and dumped cocaine down both her nostrils.

Instinct moved Coach’s hand to the door. It was unlocked. He thought for a second about just going back to the car. But he didn’t.

***


When Ken parked the Mercury behind the dark convenience store off South Main Street, he told Richard he had to take a piss. But Richard didn’t think taking a piss required opening the trunk. Richard craned his head out the window. Ken held three one-gallon cans. “What are you doing?” Richard whispered.

“Shut the fuck up,” Ken said. “This will take about as long as a good piss. Don’t you fucking move,” he said. Then he stepped behind the air conditioning unit, through a small door and out of sight.

Richard inched down into the passenger seat of the Mercury and studied the rooftops. Somebody was up there waiting for a clear line of fire. He felt for the bag of coke on the seat.

Earlier, Ken and the owner of the convenience store had been careful when they laid out the lines of toilet paper, making sure the trailers were thick enough to absorb the acetone and that the place would go up quickly. That was the whole idea, that it go up quickly.

“This shit is gonna show,” Ken had said before they’d laid out the first line of toilet paper. “This is some amateur shit here.”

“No problem,” the man in the yellow shirt had said.

“Maybe not for you,” Ken said.

Then the man handed over the bag of cocaine to Ken. “I don’t have any use for this,” he said. “But I know what it’s worth. Consider it incentive. It’s yours. I stole it. Or, had it stole. From this black guy who comes in here all the time. I’ve called the cops on him a couple of times, for dealing outside.”

“You just keep making more and more sense,” Ken had said. He was handing the bag back to the yellow shirt. “You brought me here for this shit?”

“Word is out that I stole that dope. My place gets torched. Who do you ‘spose torched it? I don’t have any dope, never been known to use it. Don’t make sense, do it? I got an alibi, maybe the dealer’s got an alibi. What do I care? Let the insurance man work it out.”

Now Ken felt the coke drip from his nose when he bent over to check the trailers, trying through the liquor and dope to calculate how to pour the acetone evenly.

Inside the Mercury, Richard cradled the plastic bag in his hand and looked out at the night. How to get the coke from down there up and into his nose was no longer the issue; he brought the sandwich bag up to his face and hit it hard. Then he slid deeper into his seat, feeling his stabbing heart, hearing his own breathing, smelling the metallic coke bubbling from his pores. He thought now about the woman, how he’d drawn back his fist after the coke hit her, after her vomit covered the bar. Fuck her. He thought, fuck that bitch. He’d wanted to get out of there. He’d wanted to drive on to Myrtle Beach, but Ken had left with the man in the yellow shirt, and for all he knew, Ken would have left him stranded, left him on that street outside the bar if he hadn’t been watching, if he hadn’t seen him drive by in the Mercury, if he hadn’t spotted him. And now Ken had left him here, alone inside the Mercury, while he was who knows where. Ken had left him here with enough coke to send him away for a long time, maybe even longer if the woman I.D.’d them, or worse yet if she overdosed and the kid talked. Even worse if Ken had got that look in his eye and wasted the man in the yellow shirt, which he probably had since there was no way Ken had gotten his hands on the kind of money it would take to buy that much coke. Maybe Ken had run off with the man in the yellow shirt, leaving him with the Mercury and the cocaine and the woman’s vomit on his shirt.

Then Richard thought of his Lincoln in New Orleans and how the thing had gone up. Now Ken was saying to stay put. A man in the cross hairs. The burning in his nose made Richard remember the smell of the Lincoln’s flaming tires.

Something electric flashed through him. He couldn’t stay inside the car another second. No question. The Mercury was about to blow.

***

The Darlington police were at The Paradise Lounge when Nick got there, but Coach and the kid were gone. BB still lay on a stretcher, her red hair matted with hairspray and vomit. Coach, who had called Nick as soon as the EMS guys said BB would make it, had missed a button when he did up her blouse. Nick could see the white shadow of coke around her nostrils. Now that her stomach was empty, she was sobering up. Nick spoke to her and she seemed to know him. He stepped back, barefoot, and watched a cop scoop up small samples of powder from the bar. Nobody seemed to notice that the lock that held the small wooden door below the register was missing.

***


Ken had stepped off the lines of toilet paper, divided his steps into thirds, and set the gallon cans on those spots so that he would know how to pour. He checked the lamp cord he’d skinned and felt to make sure it was plugged in tightly and that the raw wire rested in the plastic ashtray he would fill with acetone. All he had to do was pour and then hit the switch beside the front door on his way out.

In twenty minutes he and Richard would be on I-95. Twenty minutes more and they would be off I-95, and an hour later they would be in Myrtle Beach for breakfast. He walked quickly, sloshed as he poured. He filled the ashtray, submerging the naked wire, finishing off the first can. Carrying the empty in his left hand, he quickly followed the path of toilet paper, pouring from the second can.

Ken thought he heard something as he neared the front door, as he emptied the last can. He looked up at the front window. A sign said “fresh fish” and for a second that struck him as something funny, and he almost laughed aloud. He stood in the dark convenience store, holding the three empty acetone cans. The fumes filled the place.

Where’s the insurance man? Richard would ask over scrambled eggs. Eating fried fish, he would answer. Ken opened the front door, set the cans outside, then reached back for the light switch.

He heard a voice at the back of the store.

The explosion lifted Ken’s body. He plowed face-first across the asphalt. The back of his shirt felt like crepe paper. He smelled the odor of burnt hair. A high-pitched squeal, like a painful hiss, whirled inside his ears.

Ken stumbled back to the Mercury, then stopped suddenly. The flames from the building sucked the hot night air past him. The passenger door was open, and when he pushed it shut he felt the blisters swelling on his fingertips. He fell inside the car and dug for his keys. The burning created its own wind, a deafening anger that grew upon itself.

Still, even over the rising sound of the fire’s rolling thunder and the squalling, smoking tires when he stomped the accelerator, Ken could hear them--the last of Richard’s screams from inside.

***

Coach sat in the passenger seat of the Honda with the revolver in his lap, looking out the window. Ryan drove. They had taken Highway 52 the seven miles to I-95 looking for two men, any two white men walking or riding, and now, having seen no one, they were on their way back into Darlington. Ryan cried when he told Coach about the hairspray and the lighter. He hadn’t told him about the other, about the two men pawing at B B’s breasts, about their mouths on her. He was ashamed that she had seen him cry, that he couldn’t hold back the tears when Coach asked him to explain, but even his shame wouldn’t keep him from crying again when he told it all to the cops.

Coach couldn’t look at the kid. He’d found her half-naked, nearly unconscious. “Who are you?!” she’d said to him, her eyes wild and frightened, her small hand fluttering like a wing above her face.

And his first thought had been to reach for a drink.

He and the boy saw the flames and the fire trucks’ flashing lights.

“Cashua Ferry Road,” Coach said.

***

The last thing Ken remembered was that floating feeling of the Mercury at 120 miles an hour on the straight stretch not three miles from the interstate. He’d glanced down to look for the bag of coke, and when he didn’t see it, he’d glanced down a second longer. And now he was lying in a ditch as wide and deep as a canal somewhere in Darlington County with the worst sunburn he’d ever known on his back and neck, a bloody face, and a foot that pointed in the wrong direction.

***

The road was narrow and dark, the curves manageable if you knew where they were, then long and straight for three miles to the Pee Dee River. Ryan took the curves cautiously, looking for a car in the deep ravine or two men on the shoulder of the road, but he pressed hard on the accelerator coming out of each turn. They were nearing the long straightaway. He looked over at Coach. There was something he had to say.

“When we find them, are you going to shoot them?”

“You’ll stop the car and get out when we see them.”

“No,” Ryan said.

“You’ll do as I say.”

“No, and if they are walking, I’m running over both the sons of bitches. You try to stop me and we’ll die, too. Swear to God, Coach. Swear to God.”

Coach looked over at the kid. He’d seen a thousand faces like this one. They shared a look, and then they looked ahead, up the long stretch, where together they spotted the rear end of the Mercury, its back tires up in the air, its body pointed down into the deep ditch that emptied into the swamp.

***

Ken Newcomb lay only forty yards from the Mercury, curled up in the overgrowth of the stinking water. He heard the car stop and the faint voices, two of them. Wiping the blood and sweat that wouldn’t stop flowing down his face, he listened hard to make out what the two were saying, but the sound of his own heart muffled their voices. He’d lie still, then push on when the voices stopped.

A car door shut. He lay coiled in the shallow water. As the car moved slowly toward him, he heard a man’s voice, the sound of his footsteps, and the sound of metal upon metal when the driver touched the brakes.

***

Coach studied the spaces between the long rows of cotton and the rows of thick soybeans, watched the tree line for any movement. “We missed them,” Ryan said. They were nearing the end of Cashua Ferry Road. “We’ll turn around and look again,” he said. Coach didn’t answer. The two men had left her half-naked, face down in liquor and vomit. He gripped the pistol in his lap. Then he saw the blue lights up ahead.

“Speed up. He’s seen us now.” Coach said.

The trooper had his flashlight on them by the time they got to the stop sign. Ryan reached for his license.

“Where you headed?” the trooper said. He held the light on the side of Coach’s face.

“Fishing,” Ryan said. “Garden City Pier.” The trooper aimed the light in Ryan’s eyes, studied them. “The spots are running,” Ryan said.

“Not this time of year,” the trooper said.

He turned the light away. “Me and my Dad, we’re going fishing,” Ryan said. “He’s my dad.” The patrolman pointed the flashlight at their feet and then into the backseat. “There’s a car in the ditch, maybe three miles back, a Mercury with North Carolina tags,” the boy said. The cop looked back in that direction.

The cruiser lifted a cloud of dirt and gravel and skidded off in the direction of the Mercury, blue lights flashing.

***

Ken thought he heard something. He felt the soft clay ooze between his fingers and the stagnant, algae-covered slime creep up his thighs. He wanted to stop his heart from pounding so that he could hear. The blood and sweat wormed down his face. Then the sound was closer, like a rush of wind or fire, and he looked up to see the flashing blue lights streak by, and he smiled to himself because now he was a safe distance from the Mercury, in this deep muddy ditch where even the dogs couldn’t smell. He thought, Where’s the insurance man?

***

“I’m sorry I told,” Ryan said.

“Take the interstate back,” Coach said. He didn’t reach for the pistol under the seat.

***

The blood and sweat kept flowing into Ken’s right eye, but he stopped thinking about that every time he tried to make his way up the thick brush of the steep bank. He‘d lift his leg, but his foot came down in the wrong place. Still, two cars had stopped at the Mercury, and soon others would too.

He didn’t know how much ground he had covered, crawling in the deep tangle of brush and muck, how much space he’d put between himself and the Mercury, and he didn’t know where the ditch ended. But he was headed in the right direction. This water emptied into deeper water. When the sun got up, he’d be near the river.

He pushed on until he could hardly move, his arms and belly raw and bleeding from briars and jagged stobs, his face still bleeding, his injured leg a flipper. His neck and back were covered in scales of thick blisters. For the first time, his thoughts turned to Richard. He heard a hiss like a distant voice in the wind. He stopped. There was a smell he couldn’t name. Ken Newcomb whispered, “Where in hell does this come out?”

And in that moment, the answer came to him in another sound, this one more like fire than wind, only it was the sound of his own voice screaming as the white, hot fangs, sharp and fast as lightning bolts, entered his burnt and bleeding flesh; and the nest of cottonmouths, some of them almost babes, converged upon him, churning like flames or eddies, and the July summer night paused and listened, then took all of it in, like the slow in-suck of air.

***

“What now?” Ryan said, meaning the two men. Coach, who was looking away, didn’t answer. The boy drove on in silence.

They could see the lights of Darlington. Ryan felt it coming up, that retching fear, and he looked around thinking that he might will the sight of the two men and summon the courage to kill them. The killing thing that lived in men was a part of him now, for their killing was the only thing that could make him whole again. The boy drew a deep breath, pushed himself up hard and straight against the car seat, and looked ahead, searching for the two faces branded into his memory. Nothing outside his window looked familiar, not the street signs or the haze of the dim lights, not the old black man on the bicycle or the headstone carver’s shack. He let the air out slowly.

His young body began to collapse in exhaustion. He smelled urine on his jeans. He was only sixteen. This morning he had been a boy.

Coach sat with his face to the window saying nothing, seeing nothing. Lifting his eyes, he saw his reflection. He brought up his hand. Everything was darkness.

“Because of me.” Ryan tried to take a breath. “Oh. God knows, Coach,” he whispered, choking out the words like a stutter. “I feel all tore up.” Ryan couldn’t look at him. Coach didn’t turn from the window, didn’t answer. The boy felt the tears start but he fought them back. “I saw it coming,” the boy said without crying. “I saw it coming and--I didn’t do nothing. Me. That was me.” Coach couldn’t look at the kid. “I should have done something. If--.“ Ryan fought it back, hugged up to the steering wheel, and took another deep breath to steady himself. “When you see her.” His voice was clear, even. “Please ask her to forgive me. Could you do that? I can’t tell her…. Enough.”

The fire trucks were still parked outside the smoking red cinders of the Main Street Convenience Store, but there were no flashing lights, no firemen in sight. Just the smell. Ryan slowed and looked over.

“Down to the ground,” Ryan said in a whisper. “Like that. Everything. Down to the ground.”

Coach had turned his face so the kid wouldn’t see that he was crying like an old, old man. All he had for holding back wasn’t enough and he was crying in that way that makes it nearly impossible to speak. “Yes,” Coach whispered. The smoldering red ashes reflected in his eyes. “Gone.”

Ryan lifted his hand, rested it on Coach’s shoulder. He felt the crying deep inside the other man’s body.

“B.B.?” the kid said.

“Yes,” Coach said in a hushed breath.

Then they didn’t say anything.