October a year - has it been only that ... larking granite steeps Fila stumbled onto the cabin. It sat among streaks of early snow above Lake Tahoe. "It's so YOU, Benjamin ..." Mine ...? We could see south shore Casinos, but couldn't smell neon from the front porch. A crumble-stone porch - who says granite won't age, its walls clinging thick and uncertain to the base of Ski Incline. Far as the moon from Isle of Palms. We spent one day, she did and a night wrapped together in fleece on the cabins oak floor. Next morning Fila flew back to her godforsaken Low Country marsh.
Waiting alone's not so bad ... while you're alone. I spent November covering oak memories with
tokens of Carolina swamp: salt-grass sprays, purple sunsets trapped in photo and against the walls
lay varnished oyster-trees, as if pines outside the windows were apparitions. All that ... storing up
memories of love and beside them and me in the cold, thin Sierra nights certain dread of the whore.
Fantasies and dread of the whore Tepy, Fila's house-warming gift, that dread. Time lasted forever.
But the past? Of that Fila left me so little that I felt all all human fear could be locked away.
I practiced deception during those confused months, stalked the casinos where I found Pris ... stalk
and prepare to be stalked, haunting Sierra ridge-lines once the snow-wolves came howling and when
even their sharp edges failed to cut I dove into the cold-stream gullies below ... studying them
for signs as if slow rivers bounding Charleston would never stop coiling west.
Fila, Tepy and Pris ... like a man's hell needs three women. Pris laughed at me - said I could have
taken her weeks before.
We climbed grey steeps from blue Tahoe, Pris and I and the big Ford racing clouds prowling west like iridescent packs of wolves. White dusted grey hardpack winding east into a violet December sun. Splashes of red played from my dichroics whenever light streamed over a crest. I drove blinded then - watching Pris' eyes behind golden winter colors - cold enough to freeze marsh brine.
She had tossed a semester to share my cot. Pris shuffled a pack of Camels, tossed them on the dash. An empty matchbox followed. I had the Zippo buried in a sheepskin pocket. She pretended searching - quick, chubby hands between buttons of my Woolrich - she wasn't looking for a smoke - the Straight flared and fired a thin grey stream of irritation across the seat.
"You left open the data fed."
"If it weren't for my buffer and cubic spline, the stop-loss tensor would overflow. It's my fucking code! You had no business ..."
She jerked the words away - like too many belonged to us and I would molest them - something of ours. The cigarette rolled between her fingers, then stiffened like a flag in a fresh wind. Crisp new words, pointed and pointed at me.
"I checked the South West Air website. DeLeon's plane's got delayed in Detroit. Now he's due in at 3:15." Her fingers irritated a stiff, sealskin collar. "Your pal ... Nick DeLeon ... what does the detective care for?"
"Why is he bringing Eve?"
"He's never confused police business and pleasure."
One lie after another... they never tired me, as they might a believer, yet ... an ex-Catholic ought to worry. Business and pleasure ... Fila Nick's hi-yellow twin and strictly business - his southern old-Charleston wife Eve an ice-cold pleasure. Worry ... yes - Pris feeling deceptive and deceived, feeling the ragged edge ... Her mouth puckered and blew the question over me like an O-ring of smoke, innocent and deceptive, feral. "You could have invited Tony. Fila's with him now, isn't she?"
An image flashed - Nick carrying his white linen suit along a Charleston Marina dock, right hand casually free carrying Fila her skirt whipping the onshore dark ... them laughing at a foot-fall.
I said. "Fila's not one for the cold. Besides, Eve asked for the invitation."
Quick, I swung eyes out the window ... eyes that didn't hide a dime if I had a nickel. Asked? Eve
had begged! Nick had called, two AM on the godless night-before and said 'Fila's gone missing.
Expect me at Tahoe in two days. Got a spare bed?' Eve must have known; I didn't need more.
Pris' eyes appeared dark and round below the metal frames, darker than was deserved by twenty-three lavished years. "Why bother answering me, Hricko ... one lie after another!" Her mouth formed a wet, silent curse. "I know you, scheming weeks ahead, playing me for the dumb-bitch while you talk away slime hours and sneak truth into minutes."
Whatever that moaning meant to her ... she had the time right, and the right sound, of a body taken down in marsh-water dark and warm and coated with river scum. Maybe she saw more, but for the truth ... I stayed away from it.
Pris picked away a tobacco crumb and rolled it between her fingers. "If I wanted honest ... Jimbo's honest ..." Her words drifted into abstraction. "Say what you want, he never laid a hand on me."
Not while she whimpered ... but men vary in their tastes. "I'm wearing on you so soon?"
"What-ever you need. Certainly not what I need! Maybe the bed will remind Nick of Fila ... high as the bitch's ass, I'm sure."
Jealousy. Pris didn't so much feel it as eat it like a vitamin. I had exiled the four-poster to the guest room. Nothing - almost nothing remained of the Island - nothing to hold me.
"She and you ..."
Her eyes flared into tiny gold ringlets. "Say it, bastard. Just say it out loud! I'm Hricko's next piece and Nick's come to make it official. How does anything last on the Island?"
"By flesh! We're primitive, you know, a whole marsh of cretins ... inbred ... trading wives and fornicating brother with sister, father and ... "
"Our dirty secret ... making the mountains like the marsh. Hricko corrupts Nevada, imagine that ... and you."
"More lies, Hricko. More of that tough-guy crap. You're infected - the detective spreads it around like AIDS in an open asshole. Hiss all you want, but truth is you're a fucking St. Bernard."
The four-wheel drive fishtailed on a slick , turning my stomach while I brought it back ... not that
I slowed down. Having run as fast and as long and as well as I knew how, at the end I wasn't
worried about dying fast.
Carolina marshes like slow, blunt, rotting death, and the smell of it but the high Sierra's ... you
couldn't smell the frost-blade as it snickered. Like the crack of an avalanche. Like the storm at
our heels, like the detective ... I stood on the gas pedal making fast time cresting Mount Rose -
but snow-wolves came, packs of them howling from the grey moraine. They came ripping in long
fang white shrieks at my red Ford - to drive it back from the summit ... when they yielded, they
yielded in grit swirls at the big turn of Rt. 134 where a green 4000 foot marker hides among the
last stand of tall pine.
During the white-out, Pris said nothing. "Nick and Eve aren't your east coast people." She wasn't asking. "Are they?"
"Mine? I don't know anyone who calls themselves mine." I said. "You wanted to meet a person from the Island."
"Anyone who's nailed your hide, a piece of it even ... someone who knows Fila."
"Then the right man's coming." Wolves came to mind. "Nick's like a bridge - you'll find him that way. He won't be testing you." I said. "Nick's honest."
"Certainly not a close friend of yours ... not an Island person at all."
"He saved my life."
He had ... he would; Fila told me. I drove with the window cracked to take out the smoke, and a cold blade of air cut through my watchcap. I pulled it down, Pris fussed, removed the dichroics and looped them over the mirror. Her smooth fingers, first on the wheel with mine.
Then her voice hacking ruthless. "I don't need to be saved, Hricko, not by either of you. Protecting me is crap ... don't even start that story. You keep them away, people close to you, anyone knowing your business."
"Nobody like that ..."
"I won't be shut out, will I? All of you clamming up, making me an orphan? I won't be an orphan!" She started a self-conscious laugh and shined it . "I'm asking you, Hricko ..."
"No Pris. You're one of the family."
"Family!" She sucked the word away and consumed it. She could smile ..."Are we driving right back up the hill - once we pick them up?"
I said. "Eve's hot for the Peppermill. She wants hubby to do her next to the floating fire."
"Maybe he'll use the opportunity; you had yours." She smoothed on her skirt. "And I had mine."
"I'm not liking it. Talk sense to her. We barely can ..."
"What can you barely deal with, Hricko? You're an expert finding the worst, then retreating half a step ... to see if it follows."
"I'm just saying, we need to get back to Tahoe before the slides start." I took a quick, sharp breath. "If the wind stays high, we'll have a full moon tonight, a shooter's moon."
She turned away. "If you worry about Jimbo ... about me, why didn't you bring a change?"
"We have tickets for Alpine Meadows."
"Your ever-fucking precious powder ..." Pris daubed at an eyelash the mascara had missed. " ... and you never run the fucking bowl. "Some treat for me, while we haven't been into Reno since Thanksgiving, and when we finally have guests, they ... don't count."
"Some men don't belong in Reno."
Avoiding Reno had been my doing, a matter of health. Pris' ex had an eye for corrupt, young beauty and a cold, steady eye along a gun-sight. I knew that, had known when I slipped the woman away ... Jimbo was a pit-boss now at the Peppermill, but before, a Navy Seal silent killer.
Hide? I had plenty to keep hidden.
"Some men need ..." She looked pleased with that ... with herself, and smoothed her hem. "Most can't stay away!"She cinched on the seatbelt, and then clicked open the buckle letting it fall beside the door. "Why would anyone visit, Hricko, except for your crooked money."
A half-smoked Camel flew out the window - flashes of bitter white returned. "You're dealing drugs, again, aren't you. That's why he's coming!"She waited for the hesitation. "Nick's protecting you because of the black bitch. He feels guilty!"
"Not a drop! He's a homicide detective - Nick's not interested in the oil."Far as I knew, except for the Holy City he had never felt; any guilt inherited from Edisto Island his wife had cured out of him like a winter ham. "Nick and Eve are flying here to ski. They have never been to the Sierras." I lied. "Eve wanted a gambling vacation." Fila had vanished two weeks last Sunday, a month after pieces of the Tepy whore had been found, a week after I had returned to Tahoe.
"Nick thinks he's a natural, really too talented for a pair of GS-skis."
Fila's pilothouse schooner had left Charleston harbor with her at the helm. She was not when the boat reached Hilton Head.
"They can't be any harder to teach than you. Hell! If they never get off the bunnies, we can still share a merry Christmas ..."
I was speaking rapidly, carrying a cadence ... cheerful, talking right through Pris, who believed
nothing from me. Pris would be amused, but the damned-lie was, Tony thought Fila might have
jumped ship for Reno. Nick was sure of it.
Pris shook a tangle, from an eye. "Now had Fila come alone ... We could have kept her warm."
We were racing now, in the big Ford, along the quadratic that leads from high meadow into the
Carson Valley plain. I felt the cold breath - Pris was slow rolling up the pane, and her hair became
a fire of white flashes to the curving around her bare throat where the sheepskin did not cover
and flakes bit on pearl flesh. She wore a grey woolen skirt - is affected to them - pleats to her
ankles. Even when escaping, coming into heat she hides from me ... she sucked the cold from her
fingers, lips a rich red ... her face full and bright surrounded by cascading black; the curled tips
beneath her breasts, when she hides them. I believe she sees herself coming out from the black,
reveling belly and breasts and lips ... She stretched, turned in the bucket seat to smooth the knee-length silk stockings, baby-pink above.
She bared her ass and curled away ... her flesh took an insane rose blush, like a vial filling from a slow distillation of hash oil.
Fields of sagebrush dashed west, dusted white, crystalline, while the thick valley air rushed up, intoxicating. In spots the road ground through to bare asphalt. Colors dimmed - pure grey snow mixing with the brown stubble. Colors brightened beyond the fields, hinting neon splashes of Reno to the north.
Pris' face had the neon ... I never expected afterglow, but sometimes I got a weakness from her allowing me to imagine ... she returned the pleats, turned against me and drained the silver flask of Wild Turkey that had escaped the Island.
"I know you won't leave me an orphan, like the man-in-the-moon."
"Did you finish the trade?"
"Twelve-thousand shares of Motorola - short - cover at 78; stoploss at 851/8."
"What happened! The stochastic increase?"
"I adjusted ... like I manage you, Hricko ..."
It softened her, the stochastic did like heat softens metal before it's worked ... My steel grip
turned to lead. Some women will suck the last drop like a gallon. Most simply punch a hole and
gape while whatever's inside drains away. And a very few wait in anger, like an orphan waiting to
be brought home. God in heaven, protect me from the orphan I thought I knew. Four inches of
snow had fallen on the outskirts of Reno, and we followed a belching, yellow plow into McCarren
Airport. We were just late.
"What did the keno girl say?" I have to shout. The terminal is a bedlam. Pris nuzzles my ear.
"She said you look like a farmer."
She was a blond Santa Claus, poorly used with long legs - they had been. We wait in a carousel of video-poker machines, watching the concourse. It is lined ruby and green with gaudy Christmas bouquets and the floor gushes a tide of holiday fools. At the far wall, bodies pack under the arrival screens.
I see him first. For a man who isn't big, and doesn't have the detective's flat-faced meanness, Nick DeLeon separates a crowd ... his Panama, then the knee-length trench of a worn, oiled patina. Eve chose that trench of Spanish leather. She swings in the grove behind him, not by a step - high, arrogant cheekbones ... a riveting southern beauty wearing tight yellow silk over a leather skirt. A couple attending business, comfortable and new, quick - three ways out of place in blue-collar Reno. Crush from the Denver flight closes behind. Loudspeakers blare a delay:
Courtesy drinks will be served.
I wave. Nick carries a sailor's tan, and two packages wrapped in cellophane blue, and Eve a malicious smile that makes her diamond choker gleam. Breasts pearl where the yellow silk lays over ... nipples malignant black, Fila has said. Pris' breath comes in short, uneven gasps and Nick has removed his Panama. Eve smooths at his shock of sandy hair. I have never known them to admit a problem. I'm betting Nick knows he has one.
Pris steps out, starting a smile and Eve's eyes swallow it ... a woman's eyes that would slit the child from throat to anus were they really alone. Pris stumbles, nursing my arm like a small stunned animal.
Eve's has removed the slicker and folded it beneath her breasts. She steps between us - close enough to bite."Damn you, Benjamin, and your mountains ... " while her eyes swing lightly over Pris ... "and your women. She's young as well as healthy."
Nick cops a low, long steady peruse ... like shotgun barrels. "Eve! Be nice to Ben's friends," and he turns on me. "Damnation Hricko, imagine us coming to Tahoe. For what? The ice? In Charleston we're having a winter cold enough to kill marsh shrimp."
I dodge careful... as the detective has taught well... "Didn't kill enough, as I see it, but what's a nice day, Nick, without a stiff?"
Nick's eyes are a click ... "See what I can do ... Tony sends his best ... Which half, Eve, did he promise?"
She brushes against him, with yellow silk. "Nicky, you boys will settle that." She slides the top package under Pris' arm, smiling, hiding most of her tongue. "You do play poker ... Pris? Bet you lose everything north of the silk stockings before this."
"I have ... I mean Ben's shown me ..."
Eve smiling wickedly. "You're such a sweetheart ... now that's about time, a man showing us something!" Her eyes lick the gold Rolex. "We waited one damned hour in Detroit ... for permission! Something about a storm ... and these ... people! Shouldn't we put on a giddy-up, or something?"
"Mighty western of you, Eve."
"Nicky made me practice. Get a grip, Benjamin!"
Somehow I have frozen, as a skier does in an avalanche. They have me in a grip ... Nick moves ... his grip is a crusher and we are flying past shops. They have taken Pris, Eve has, a hand high and caressing on her shoulder, Nick has the other arm controlling her, pushing us in a rush toward baggage and squeezing Pris' hand, telling stories on Tony and on me. I can't remember saying hello.
"He cut a man in half with a loader ... another's wife ..." Pris shudders. "Both of them belly-crawling the alley. Firing at shadows, what I think ... If he could have gotten Tepy to sell ... too late now for that, eh Hricko?" Nick's fire-grate chuckle hides nothing. "But the family will - that's why he's out here, you think so Pris? Close to Silicon Valley. He may need another hundred grand."
Pris swallows the name Tepy in one gulp."Ben said something about ..."Her mouth locks open, a soundless, emotionless orgasm, makes the buckle loose on her sheepskin to the flush of her breasts. " ... isn't she a slut?"
"Ruttish? ... with time on her hands. But a cop shouldn't always look for the worst, eh Hricko? Not in a woman. We'll give a gal second chances when she's still alive."
Nick throws me a heavy-weather look."Rudely so, even for the Island."
"Tepy is dead? Murdered? Ben, you didn't say shit!"
"I could have said that."
"Hricko says either too much or not enough about Tepy. That's my experience, Pris. Be thankful he ..."
We are going down the escalators single file. I leading and Pris takes the rear and Nick talks non-stop.
"Tepy, huh? Hricko said nothing about the old whore?" Nick strokes a clean-shave chin. "Tepy was the Mills House queen for years. Patrons never complained until she turned damn-Republican. Bought the truck-stop out on Rivers Avenue. Drivers ate fast after that, eh Hricko? Eve! Didn't she show up month-before last - poker with city council?" Eve deflects his casual look. "No matter. The Island sleeps better with her gone - we all know that, eh Hricko?"
"He remembers easily."
"Now pardon me, Pris. No reason to dwell on a dead whore - not in Reno."
I don't miss Nick's fire-grate smile passing to his wife.
"Pris." Eve rolls it around her tongue. "What a pretty name, old-fashion." She is fondling the nappy white ... looking. "Did you get the entire sheep? Well, I'm sure the lapel lays over ..."
Pris squeals, a small trapped animal ... Eve's arm circling her shoulder, pulling her close.
"Oh well. Casual's the thing out here - the Great Basin, Benjamin, whatever you call it, or the endless sky? What's to see here, Benjamin - what were you thinking?" She stares without modesty. "No matter, Pris; we'd stick a pin in Charleston, tie it down ... nothing's for free in the low-country, but a Battery wife ..."
Nick's glowering - sticky sweat under Pris' dark wool and my work-shop jeans - Eve measuring both of us.
"Love always first makes a mismatch. But I think you'll wear on him, Prissy, wear him down to his skinny bones."
"My investment ..."
"In a man? Oh! Nick mentioned something ... you want to be a merchant ..."
"A trader, like Ben ... with Ben."
Eve toys with Pris - I hate Eve for doing that ... toys with her like a swamp panther toys with a trapped fawn. Eve's lips purse ... "A carpet-bagging gambler, just like our Benjamin. Oh my." Eve's fingers catch at her diamond throat. "And of course, you'll want to move SOB, when the time comes ... Nevada not enough for a modern couple?"
"Really, I'm a California girl - Santa Cruz."
"Well. At least you wouldn't tolerate the hippies. Poverty and God knows ..."Her fingers reach over, stroking the sheepskin nap. "Ask me about his money, Pris, and all he could have made. Benjamin takes such flings."
"I manage risk, Eve."
"A proper woman would have drained him ... before doing the favor."
At the bottom they are still together. Eve has dropped her smile. "Ask him ... better still, follow
me to the loo and I'll spill his guts. Oh Benjamin, you did bring a change, didn't you?"
They go away together, swallowed by the crush, but Pris' face trails back to Nick and his cajoling sailor's eye. I'm not inviting it, but Nick's not looking for advice. He travels light, has left the presents and all but his carry with Eve.
"Another one!" He doesn't wait for an answer. "Is she part of it?"
I have none. "Part of what?" Whatever I fear - for almost whatever I fear I would chose the poisonous part of raked hell before Nick DeLeon.
"Not much of an accomplice, some unseasoned girl."
"She's a wiz with the calculations. Vector correlation, quasi-linear ..."
"Stop, Hricko! Anytime."
"Where do I start."
"With the whore, or Fila. Whatever seems natural."
"The Island stripped me, Nick. Like a homeless traveler. Finding her was finding an ice-cave after a long, steep climb."
"Still looking behind, eh ? Would have done better to think beyond Tepy. We all would have done better, you not leaving the Island."
I don't say the smart thing, but I say it fast. "She wouldn't go for her, would she?"
He slips the Partega from a breast pocket and clips the end, tastes the bite."Who and whom?
After Pris? Fila? Not hardly, Hricko, but after you ... ?"
We come out the terminal into bitter cold and head toward my Ford. At the terminal, Pris and Eve would be waiting for us ... they will be famous when we return. Two-hundred yards of parking lot lay ahead and eight inches of new snow ... A wind-spout careens among SUVs like a grey hand slapping ... we seem to have arrived together, the blunt glow of Nick's Partega and my red-eye Camel Straight. We share the dark - it has fallen early, deep and thick; snow-flakes reflect the orange lights, isolating them, shadows looping beneath the gusts and when they appear, disappear softly into melting islands. I turn at a footfall, see nothing, but slip the catch on my Browning auto. Nick also has loosened a flap. His right hand plays over the leather, casually free, pretending as I have seen him during a threat.
"He's never come after you?"
"One year ago, on a street corner, bare handed. I wasn't going to be brave. I showed him the Browning and he thought better than taking the last step."
"If he had?"
"I might have stopped him ... "
"Oh, she was there ..."
"Sucking on the Christmas ornaments; know what I mean, Hricko? Looking for the spark, or the short circuit. You guys don't much get out of the cabin, seems to me."
I try laughing at survival. "To Sherwood Bowl ..."
His Havana is smouldering sweet and warm, invisible, but for the bright ashless tip. He never smokes them properly, sees to that with care.
"Fila does know about her - 'course she does - I mean details of, what is it called, the relationship?" He stares across the leather flap at me, a thing positioned out of place. "And you told her about the ex - foolish not to. What don't I know?"
"Pris visited, but she never met Fila. I imagine something has been mentioned, or I wrote a letter. When Fila want's to talk, detective, she comes looking for you!"
"Visit? Imagine? Mention? And about you moving to Tahoe?"
"You know as well as I, Fila could not imagine leaving Charleston! She has a woman's ideas."
"Ideas about what! She was loving Pris and loving you for leaving?"
Under my sheepskin a cold sweat has grown, as I pick through dead emotions. Pick through the words for the believable damn lie. "All right, detective! She had ideas about us staying us - where-ever I was. We spent nights sweating it into the marsh; screw first, then rip out a gut - bury it. But I was a fool. By then, she had taken up with Tony."
"A blessing for you, no doubt." The detective flicks an ash and catches me with a wet, bourbon eye. "It's not connected, I'm sure ... Fila is sleeping around. Started weeks before her seaman's holiday from the AKAD, just after you left."
"I didn't satisfy her. She's better off ... "
DeLeon stomps away, to kick at a suspicious lump of snow. It's nothing - a frozen crow. He loops around a lamp-post in front of me ... stops and turns. "Sez you, Hricko, but I'm not that kind of fool, Hricko. Men are Fila's way of distracting, long as I've known her. Distracting one from t'uther. She thinks you're coming to a bad end. Here."
"She moved that right along. She was a bad end for me."
Uncertain gusts and yellowed shadow - again, the feeling of unseen company, my Ford only steps away.
Against the wind, Nick pulls down the brim on his felt Panama. "She thinks you're hearing echoes." He's working the Havana nub, hitting it hard, blowing a thick stream of smoke toward the Ford. "Not the frail, way I see it!" Nick popping women off the stack ... has reached the bottom. "Know what I think makes an echo? The deal you had with Tepy. The part of it you couldn't but Fila could handle."
"Nothing like that."
"You do the numbers, she has the smooth."
"Old tune, Nick. You played it, grilling me, after the hash oil was found in Tepy's basement."
"Yes we did, couple of bars ... only you and Fila wouldn't join the band."
"What Fila does to amuse I couldn't imagine. But doing business with the whore? For me that's unimaginable"
She was a friend of yours, or was it partner? Natural blonde?"
Tepy ... natural ... damn the detective ... nothing like that at all. "I never noticed ... an acquaintance, really. Another Island woman with short skirt and long lust. As for what was real about the whore I have no idea but ... but half the Island knew for sure."
"And Hricko's not sure of anything!" Nick shakes snow from the Panama and returns it, brim high above detective's eyes. "Tepy's murder must have been a shock ... confusion first I'd say, then anger, and after you work that through, figure on revenge. You're the tough guy." Nick is punching air with the glowing nub. "After the murder, you and Tony came back to her dock; twice. Scouting lost product, were you, or just communing with marsh spirits?"
"Like you said, I'm considering buying the property - half the Island wants her deep-water channel."
We're hardly moving now, trading punches, looking away into the yellow night each time we need
a rest. A green pickup rolls by with its driver's side pane frosted shut. Nick follows it, watching the
hay bales disappear in a cloud of snow-flakes thick as magnolia.
"Half the Island didn't screw her night before ... half the Island didn't run to Tahoe."
DeLeon doesn't give many speeches. You get the warning click of the big-10, then the night. He decides that fast, certainly if he were sure of a danger to Fila, if he knows I'm feeling the squeeze. My Ford is the island. Nick squashes the Partega, tricks his carry onto the rack and I strap it down. The leather is old and brown and well oiled, and a white skim forms while I walk the Ford into the terminal drive. Nick isn't going anywhere.
"I'm still listening, Hricko, and I'm still waiting for the straight. Said it yourself. Run up here, hooked a frail with a past. As I make it, manufacturing cover ... distractions ... some fool is supposed to get sloppy."
"Pris ... a frail?"
The words trickle out, like I need to be convinced. The detective doesn't slow down."If you're tracking, or waiting for someone to come after you ... tell me, whose the danger? What's the woman to think?"
Nick's in Tahoe to Ski.
Nick's in Tahoe to cuff bloody hands.
Nick's in Tahoe to make sure I do not butcher Fila.
All fantasy. I consider that possibility - Fila plotting ... a plotter, that woman even wrapped around me in black lust so many nights I don't care to remember how she plotted, or what she knew about the orphan who never, ever stopped following ... now for Nicky, plotting, Fila sending him away from harm - but if so, why didn't she call me back? Insane! Why didn't she ... I have a hundred of those. Every one ends right here! Nick's saying nothing but quiet.
I say."By eight tomorrow morning, we'll be at Sherwood bowl."
"I'd take a great deal of pleasure in skiing tomorrow, and you'd be one lucky white man."
"You're reading tarot."
"At Avis. Nine-thirty this morning - the counter gal is from Pauley's Island, remembered the Geeche slur. A South Carolina woman rents one of the 4-bys. Gives the name Portia Gaud."
I swear. "Damned Fila!"
Insanely, the women insist on the Peppermill. Nick takes an hour, but he can take a week, I've taken longer and Fila ... I think she is willing to take anyone's life. I'm in a grip, the casino bursting around us like an over-ripe fig.
Pris rides a second big-dollar on black Ace-5; dealer shows too many faces. She cashes out, watching me, straddles a barstool clutching the roll, feeding me hundreds while I also double soft hands. I don't want to think about it. Eve wins the house - loses a yellow silk button. I suggest we take rooms, but nobody's hearing.
"Benjamin did leave you something, Prissy!"
"My fourth bourbon!"She is squealing into the lounge band, Eve on her shoulder.
"Dear sweet. You must take the flower."
"No, really, I'm sitting on it, what's left; my ass is worth nine-hundred dollars!"
A carhop brings round the Ford. We race south toward Carson City dodging limos hurrying north. The women cuddle - Pris nursing the bourbon and from the fire Eve's orchid.
"... and if you really hound him, Prissy, he's taken a subscription to Sunday chamber music."
"On a gazebo! Oh Ben."
"At the museum."
"Hricko's mausoleum, where everybody gets old."She loses a high, thin giggle. "He will take me, I know. Will you be there?"
"Our detective never misses a note. Neither do I. Nicky? Don't you think those east-of-Broad woman will love her?"
"She'll be a darling, Eve."
"You see, Prissy? Soon as Benjamin tires of God-forsaken snow, Charleston's waiting and a steady date. Nicky won't let that take long, will you sweet?"
"What about it, Hricko. Friend have a watch?"
Nick rides shotgun. He cradles the big-10, strokes its silver-blue barrels like a cheer-leader's
experienced thigh. Only the trigger-finger changes its curl as snow-wolves dance over the
windshield, dance to pink radio static. But his eyes are everywhere, through the brights and in the
rearview mirrors and on Pris. I think he watches so much like the orphan, ahead of me and behind,
they might be brothers.
Twenty minutes out we reel into the Carson slough. Wooden horses block Rt. 134 - no one guards the red, spitting flares - I slam to a stop. Nick has cracked the big-10. I'm out the door, away from the women, tasting the heavy wet edge of the blizzard. I swing the spotlight across, Nick after me to the marsh edge, where a frozen army of reeds sway stiffly under a high, white tide.
"Full of hope, eh detective?" Despair returns from the cattails - sullen, motionless despair chattering like the brown tufts. "Luck says we go nowhere."
"Now it luck you believe in - no belly for a sweet deal gone sour? We could have ... let the rivers take their fill. Know what I mean, Hricko?"
"You don't know a god-damned thing!"
"First to admit it, not knowing who or what carved Tepy. Who got their hooks into Fila, but its up that hill Hricko and I mean to get next to it." He glances into Ford. "Question's not a question anyway, what with the party starting ... plenty of guests."
"Only one's invited."I swill from the silver flask. "I expect Fila's ahead of us - swear to Christ, she was not invited."
"Certainly not." Nick has the flask, drains it. "Not by you."
I think the bastard's daring me to stop, daring me to trade bodies - one cold, one dead. I wonder if the whore had that offer, just before ...
"Well ... get in, Benjamin!"
"... only yooou, baby ..."
"Chris-sake, Nicky, leave the girl in peace."
The stochastic ... it's swinging wild, I know, and just possible we get through to the cabin. I swing off the freeway, right and west into the Mount Rose quadratic, driving fast and light, rumbling the broken crust, tires spitting chunks of ice and sand-spray. I'm tracking a plow-lane, not slowing down as the snow deepens, burying sage, then the guard-rails, pushing the big Ford, a casual disregard on Nick's time. We move up, trading cactus for sage, then pine ridges.
The plow-lane ends on a blind turn. Ledges of ice blown crystalline and smooth edged frizz at the hubs. Chunks beneath throw the frame into a viscous shudder that shrinks to a steady, high vibration ... silent except for the buzz of snow on metal, silent except for the rasp of brass shell-casing on steel, and a metal click. Yellow beams make past the front grill. They barely scout the next twenty feet of road, but that's plenty; two freshly laced tire treads glow like neon.
"Keep a steady hand, Hricko."
"Ben! What's happening?"
Nick doesn't mumble, but roll the words cross to me in white Geechee slur near rolling away from Pris. "She's tracking him. He's careless, slides wide on the turns, accelerates .... She works across his path, closer to the bank."
He keeps that truth away, slurring."Close enough to smell his exhaust ... we're ten minutes behind ... he isn't noticing."
"Noticing what, Ben? You're driving craaazy. Pris' head lolls forward spilling a wave of black hair. She is sobbing."Show them the cave ..."
Eve eases her away, across her lap - mother tending a lost child. "You are leading us back, aren't you Benjamin? You won't lose us like marsh tourists."
"A road is like a dock."
"Tell me, Hricko, what's at the end of it?" Nick cracks the window and a hail of leaden flakes pour in. "Make hell's difference, will it, if we don't get there."
I mutter something about snow-wolves. "For the drifts, I figure another two miles."
"You found us the bottom, Benjamin, crawling bottom under a white ocean."
"Tell them, Ben. I'm your ice-cave."
God help the orphan. The women pattering steady, Nick gone mute and bent as a spar while I listen for a warning and the blizzard returns only rising screams. This next ridge will take us pillowing away to silver ribbons far, far below. I lose the road, wait for the mistake and the slide that never ends, but over its steep the Sierra night and dry wind come whistling. They rip at car-steel and tear to shreds every mountainous white wave. Scour driving snow. The road has been scoured icy hardpan, sky aged sin-black, pin-pricked silver.
Nick coming alive lightening quick, pointing just above, to the flash of headlights racing together and then gone from the crest. We finishing a switch-back, approaching the slalom of sharp bends marking the tip of Mount Rose, pointing into a moon so silver that the wooded first ridge glows from the ski runs bracketing in graceful loops from the top still plumed white. No plump-faced man-in-the-moon, this moon, for the eyes spread narrow, willful and the mouth bright angled ridges, teeth below the lips now invisible ... We have enough light for God's creation, over the crest, diving into the moraine.
The crash is coming and I can't stop it! I snap away from the face. Adrenaline rockets explode in my brain, even as it slows ... Brights explode through frosted windshields. Brakes feathering, then sickly fail. Coming fast, both vehicles pitched over the snow-track beyond a windshield-high drift. An instant decides ... I snatch at the wheel swinging right, tires skip- skip-skip and release, rear bumper coming around, a slow-motion spin riding up, catching the guard-rail, thrown back, diving into a frozen, white void. Impact, the grill pillows beneath chewing, slack-jawed chewing into the snow, deeper, deep as the groan of rippling metal from front to back. A passing wave squeezing us together, then stretching. At the end we hitch forward caught by the belts, whipped into silence. Radiator steam hiss joining the wind's muffled high meadow whine. Then Pris's low sobbing.
A sharp slap. "Stop that, Prissy!"
My elbow bangs the window. Press of gunstock into my side. Sudden movement - a window smashes. Nick has driven steel barrels through his and the snowbank collapses over them, spraying the inside with white frozen powder. He grunts and works at the door. I'm brushing it away, struggling with the Browning, struggling to turn down my window. Eyes frozen on the cars.
They are silent and they are screaming. The green pickup straddles the road, brights shooting flat across the moraine, windshield cracked and glowing from an orange instrument-light haze. The passenger-side door hangs open and the rear bumper has been stripped away. A Chevy Blazer lay paces beyond, pointed away. The driver's door closed. I stare at the crumpled front fender and imagine it smashing into the pickup, sliding ahead ... a plan so obvious ... Nick is over my shoulder.
"Nobody made a deal, eh Hricko? Nobodies collecting!"Nick bracing against the steering-wheel, kicking. "If whatever didn't happen, or it didn't happen here, there's a bloody end to it now."
Shuffling together, in the back seat. Whispers. I pull away from the window listening for cries of pain.
"The women ..."
Shadow-edges flicker across the road, and words dissolve in the explosion, a flash leaping out, the wild shriek of hot lead through frozen air ... then dull, pounding sound, shattering the oval of light, roaring through the pillar between front and back seats, blowing through the roof.
Following the bullet a wild scream, metal claws raking me from cheek to jaw, then shock - the shock of it seeing a figure standing so close where the road falls into white crust, throwing the bolt, crouching the long-gun and its hungry steel-jack message ... I scatter three shots, where the figure was, before a taste of warm salt overwhelms - my left hand ripped from the wheel - Nick's grip and fear of something terribly wayward pinning me to the seat. I count twenty seconds to the tolling of Nick's Rolex.
He counts less, moves lunging out the door and the powder swallows him. He swims through, then is around the Ford in a running crouch between cars - I'm steps behind - stumbling beyond the Blazer following the trail of red that only hesitates at the cab, tricks around the hood to the crust almost covering the rail. A rough hollow has been dug - I all but pitch into the pool of blood.
The Browning revolver seems like a toy. Nick pulls me up. He goes kneeling, breath steaming into a knife-edged wind. It echoes the snap of crust. Nick coldly fingering the thumb-catch. "A 7.62 millimetre, if I've heard a thousand. If nobody distracted, we're dead!" As much as chill shakes the tanned face, he surveys with casual disregard and disbelief. "What do you think, Hricko? We have a friend in the moon ... he didn't."
"Nobody like that ...not a fool for love - just a fool!"
I'm looking, now, at a broad fresh trail dropping from the road into a swale of shadowy willows and marsh grass - iced broken reeds sifted white and pulverized - then across to a frozen creek. Nick's arm is following the dark edge, marking out the bends until a second trace appears.
"A couple of fools!"
One broad pitch through the snow, like an army of logs had drug through. A single path exits one hundred yards above - on a snow-field so perfectly smooth that it glows like neon - then moving away. Ice sweat cracks in my eyes - I brush away the flakes ... mountain air crisp. clear as a vacuum, magnifying ... Where tracks lead, disappearing into a grove of hunched evergreen and bare birch trunks. Above them, a sharp angle of rock leans forward. Twisted pine branches draw onto paper-white. Nothing moves.
As I wait. Nick's stainless Rolex tolls like a death watch. "Mighty unlucky of the man - a moon with patience." He snatches a clip from his holster and stuffs into the trench. "You think Tepy dealt with that - the waiting? 'Course she was on your side, wasn't she!"
He's hammering on me ... waiting for the break. I dig my thumb into the revolver sight, til blood flows ... "I'm no lucky man, Nick. Tepy? Now ... she was lucky!" I'm thinking we all pick sides and die accordingly, slow or bad or alone. And we try to chose the killer, just or evil. But most of us end with the random, bloody slip. I'm seeing that end now - we stretch time, waiting as men wait - each for their own life-taker until a shadow figure breaks from the strip of willows bordering the stream. A windmill of black on silver. He follows the first path, but thrashes wildly, almost swimming, fighting up against a white tide. I jump up, but Nick takes a grip.
"He's found a dock, and I'm about to find the end of it. You have my back."
"Fila ... "
Nick's breath arches out in a frozen sheet. "Don't be a fool, Hricko! What do you think is up
there? Just keep the sniper off my ass! She could have taken him any time - or you."
Nick sees everything ... and nothing - we so far behind and Fila alone. I'm just behind him, catching the whip of the words, close enough to sap him with the Browning ... but for the unimaginable distance between us. Nothing happens but words screamed into the wind-rake and above us to the west a sky baron of new stars.
Me screaming at him, now. "It's not the marsh, Nicky, not tonight, but the keeper of the marsh."
"Not for this copper, not on the city's nickel " DeLeon grunts. "Enough juju. From you, Hricko, more than enough." A steel barrel jams into my sheepskin. "Soon as use it now, where it might do good. Keep you away from Fila. One way or another you'll stay here."
He's right enough to get a belly full of steel. I'm seeing it, almost to the end. Nick is gone, that fast struggling down through a drift and onto the moraine, turning the fine powder sift into a silver cloud. The creek lies ahead. Ice scoured clean of shadows, he's on it, moving up, the Panama bobbing reckless between the willows. I watch him slip along the ice until he also crosses to the opposite side, while above him the thrashing shadow gone dim in the moonlight. A second trail has entered the grove, its owner invisible, another birch silhouette, Nick out of the swale, on clear crust making for the grove, leading with silver-blue barrels leaving luck behind him and the moon falling low.
The creek at his back. I've had my fill ... plowing off the road, following, then Nick among grove shadows but I don't get far, as far as the frozen stream. On this perfect mirror I can see the end of it, breakers rolling forever from the east chasing a purple marsh sun that may never set. Ledges now erased by dark. I don't expect that, the dark, and turn toward the moon, and the turn is so bitter and so certain that I wrench about and start running. Snow sifting like sand. Turning back on my own helpless track, scrambling my own trail up the embankment, running toward the women.
They had fled the Ford, past the pickup to stand in pure insanity on the Blazer's hood. They sparkle like Christmas ornaments.
"Get down! Inside! Get ... Christ no! Pris ..."
The moon-face had paled from silver, creamed light, a soft, soft sweet-creme disk floating beyond the wisp of cloud, a funny now smiling face in a gentle moon-beam. No silver beacon, no pumpkin-pie face in the moon, fat and yellow like Halloween with knowing lips ... a male Pris, but a fused palate of corrupted tones.
I am shouting at them, but their faces gone blank, lifted high, captured, they are praying, I think,
they are seduced. I turn to follow their eyes.
Two flashes leap from the ridge, rifle shots shrieking clear as the pin-prick sky. I count them one,
In that vacuum-clear air the shots hang together - timeless. The first comes from among birch
silhouettes, sounding a long, high-pitched whine catching the snow-crust and throwing out to the
moraine's bright edges. A hurried, bolt-click rasp follows and never ends. The second shot buries
the rasp. I have heard that sound once before - the maroon gut-rumble of Nick's big-10 which
cannot miss. While the air shakes from the retort of the shotgun the third shot flies screaming like
the word of god at creation ... a razor crack dealing surprise and ending in a cry. That third shot
has come from high up, from the rocky ridge above the grove and sharpened as an ice-cave's
single tone ... it speaks of last days saying ... this one was easy.