Authors: Sean Costello
Cupping the flame with his free hand, Sanj bent to ignite his brother’s gas soaked overcoat—then he heard something that stopped him cold.
With a last glance at Sumit’s body, motionless on the cold tile floor, Sanj made his way back to the living area, the chop of rotors much louder now, their hurricane force pelting him with ice crystals as he squinted through the demolished picture window to watch the aircraft ease into a hover not fifty feet away. As it began it’s descent to the frozen surface of the lake, floodlights blazed into life on its underbelly, bathing the spirals of snow it raised in a harsh noon glare.
In bold red letters on the chopper’s flank was all the information Sanj needed: RESCUE.
He had his ride out of here.
Ronnie got back to the bar in time to see the younger of the welder cousins leading a hunched platinum blond twice his age into the men’s room, the two of them grinning like they shared some delicious secret. She found the other cousin, the one with the truck keys, pouting over his beer at the bar, the man lighting up like a carnival ride when he saw her approach.
“Hey, sweetlips,” he said, already slurring. “Thought you run out on me.”
“Now why would I do a thing like that?” Ronnie said, cozying up next to him on the stool, thinking,
Scrawny redneck, smells like mouse shit.
She turned her gaze on the men’s room door. “Looks like cuz’s gonna get his wick wet,” she said and almost gagged when the asshole laughed, wafting the reek of digesting beer and tooth decay into her face. She said, “Cunt looks like a long stretch of rough road, though, don’t she?” and the dummy nodded. “Play your cards right, you’re gonna do one hell of a lot better.”
“Well, call me a cowgirl—sorry, Cuz, your name again?”
“Ricky, but everybody calls me ‘Grinch’.”
“Well, Ricky, call me a cowgirl, but I just love ridin’ bronco in a big shiny pickup truck. What are your thoughts?”
The shitkicker almost knocked her over getting off the stool. “Couldn’t agree more,” he said, digging in his jeans for the keys. “Love the feel of genuine Chevy leather on my bare ass.” He slapped a twenty on the bar and jingled the keys at her, saying, “Follow me.”
* * *
Ricky wanted to get right into it in the parking lot, but Ronnie told him she had a better idea. “Why don’t we take a ride up that country road over there? What’s it called?”
“That’s the one. I’ve always wanted to do it on the hood of a rig like this, and for that we’re gonna need some privacy.”
Ricky grinned, showing those dank, snaggle teeth of his. “You crazy, girl? It’s colder’n a witch’s tit out there. Man’d freeze his balls off inside a minute, not to mention the shrinkage.”
Ronnie curled her fingers around the door handle, saying, “Well, if you’re not up for it...”
“Hey, now, sweetheart,” Ricky said, grabbing her arm, “let’s not be hasty,” and Ronnie released the door handle. He reached past her to open the glove box and brought out an unopened pint of Wild Turkey. “Couple drags on this’ll warm us right up.”
He drained off more than half the contents in a pull, offered the dregs to Ronnie, who refused, then started the engine, resting the bottle in the V of his crotch. The truck’s big mill rumbled as the redneck guided it onto the highway. A minute later they were rolling smoothly along the abandoned Kukagami Road.
“Remote as fuck back here,” Ricky said, squinting through the windscreen into the glare of incoming snowflakes. Ronnie told him to turn off his brights and Ricky said, “Oh, yeah,” and obeyed, saying, “Yeah, that’s better.” He got into the Wild Turkey again, not bothering to offer it to Ronnie this time, then cracked his window to toss out the empty. “How far up here you wanna go? This fucker goes on for miles. We get in here too deep and run into trouble...”
“Few more minutes,” Ronnie said, watching for a sideroad or a plowed entryway to pull into. Signs of year-round habitation were scarce along here, just the occasional farmhouse nestled well back from the road, the surrounding fields blanketed in snow.
They drove in silence for another five minutes or so, Ronnie thinking about how she was going to play this. She didn’t want to kill this happy asshole if she didn’t have to, but it was an option. She’d get him out of the vehicle, then decide.
There were no sign of life at all now, just sparse bush and scrubby fields, and Ronnie said, “Is this road the only way in or out from all the summer places?”
“Uh huh. We’re not gonna see another soul back here now. Look, why don’t we just—”
“Right up here’s good,” Ronnie said, pointing at a narrow, unplowed sideroad. “This bad boy handle the terrain?”
Ricky grinned. “I could drive this puppy cross-country through three feet of snow if I wanted. You seen the rubber on her?”
“That’s great, Ricky. Now tuck in your truck and whip out your dick.”
That earned her a drunken
that filled the cab with the stink of him and Ronnie thought,
Maybe I should kill him so he can never have kids.
Ricky stopped the truck twenty feet into the sideroad, put it in PARK but left the engine idling. “You sure we gotta do this outside?” he said. “Nice and cozy in here. We got music...” He turned on the radio, already tuned to a Country & Western station, Johnny Cash doing “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” the bass set so heavy on the thing it made her teeth rattle.
Ronnie turned the radio off and got out of the truck, drawing one of the guns from her purse as she bumped the door shut with her hip. Grumbling, Ricky got out, too, leaving the truck running, which meant she wouldn’t have to worry about getting the keys off him.
As he came around the hood she pointed the gun at him. At first he kept right on coming, too drunk to see the threat, maybe, or thinking it was just another weird kink in the game. Then Ronnie fired a shot past his ear and Ricky sobered right up.
He stood stock still and put his hands in the air. “But you said...”
“Don’t worry about what I said. Now get those clothes off, Ricky boy. All of ’em. I wanna see nothing but flesh.”
He gave her a tentative grin. “Are we still gonna...?”
Ronnie said, “What’s your best guess?” and Ricky undressed with renewed dexterity. Amusing her a little, he folded everything neatly onto the hood of the truck.
Butt naked now, cupping his little turtle head with both hands, he said, “You’re not gonna shoot me. Are you?”
“Haven’t decided yet,” Ronnie said. “Why don’t you show me how fast you can run.” She pointed into a stand of bush on the far side of Kukagami Lake Road, a thirty-foot sprint to the trees. “Make it into those trees before I count to five and I won’t shoot you.”
Ricky had a quick look at the treeline, still not convinced she was serious. He said, “You mean—?”
Ricky took off running, bare feet skidding like claws on linoleum, arms madly pinwheeling...but somehow he managed to stay on his feet. When Ronnie said “Five,” he was three feet from the trees and Ronnie took aim across the hood and shot him in the ass, laughing out loud as the poor dummy yelped, grabbed his skinny shank and kept right on running, the dark bush swallowing him whole.
She waited a moment, listening, watching to see if he’d double back, then scooped his clothes off the hood and climbed into the truck on the driver’s side.
Ricky was right; the vehicle handled beautifully in the snow, and ten minutes later she was back at the highway with a full tank of gas and a sweet ride home.
But the more she thought about those two raghead jackoffs grabbing her score, the more pissed off she got. Sick fuckers would’ve killed her, too, given the chance...
She parked the Chevy in the unlit access lane behind the store, switched the headlights off and let the engine idle. She tuned the radio to Sudbury’s Best Rock, Q92, and eased her seat all the way back, getting comfy. From here she had an unobstructed view of the intersection of Kukagami Lake Road and the highway.
All she had to do now was wait.
Navigating the unplowed Cottage Road had been slow going, but out here on Kukagami Lake Road Tom was able to lean a little harder on the Mercedes. It was a brilliant piece of engineering, and under different circumstances he might have enjoyed the way it hugged the curves and switchbacks in spite of the ice-scabbed blacktop, the comfy heated seats and almost soundproof interior.
enjoying, however, in a sweetly perverse way, was Dale’s obvious discomfort with his driving; the guy was clutching the armrests like a kid on his first roller coaster ride.
“Something bothering you?” Tom said, unable to suppress a grin. “You haven’t blinked in eight miles.”
“I thought I wasn’t supposed to talk,” Dale said through clenched teeth, uttering a startled
when the rear end slewed and Tom jockeyed the wheel to correct it.
“That was back when I wanted to kill you,” Tom said. “Since then I’ve calmed down a fair bit.” This was not untrue. With each mile he put between himself and that cottage, the easier he was finding it to replace the extreme tension of the experience with the simple excitement of seeing his family again. He couldn’t remember yearning for them more. And that last patch of black ice had sobered him; he’d come uncomfortably close to taking the ditch.
He decided his life had been in peril enough for one day and backed off on the accelerator. In truth, there was no rush. He’d call home the first chance he got.
Dale blinked, blew air through his nose and loosened his grip on the armrests. After a beat of silence he said, “Tom, listen, I’m sorry I got you into this mess. Really. You’re a good shit.”
“Well, I did drop in kind of unexpectedly.”
“You got that right,” Dale said with a nervous laugh. “Still, I feel like I owe you an explanation.”
Now it was Tom’s turn to laugh. “You think?”
“How much time have we got?”
“More than I’d like. Another half hour to the highway, then two hours home.”
“My older brother Ed brought me in,” Dale said, heaving a sigh. “I met Ronnie through him...”
And over the next twenty minutes he told it all, starting with some background on his brother and Randall Copeland, then rushing through the massacre at the take-out joint to Ronnie almost shooting a cop on the drive up here before stranding him at the cottage, wrapping it all up with Tom’s plane coming through the wall and almost drowning him. He paused only to field the occasional question from Tom, who listened intently and, in spite of himself, felt a twinge of sympathy for this lost, immature but clearly intelligent young man whom sheer, conscienceless chance had thrust into his life.
Wrapping it up, Dale said, “But you know what? I’m glad you showed up. Because you saved my life. Twice.”
“What do you mean, ‘twice’?”
“Before you crashed...I was trying to work up the sack to kill myself.”
“Because of the situation with this Copeland guy?”
“That...and Ronnie leaving me. You know.”
Tom watched wet snowflakes angle in at the windscreen for a few moments, measuring his reply. Then he said, “To be honest, Dale, she doesn’t sound like your type. Frankly, neither does the lifestyle.”
Dale said, “Correct on both counts, I guess. But at the time I felt like I had no other option. The last thing Ronnie said to me was I should use the gun on myself, save Ed the trouble. It felt like the only honest thing she’d ever said to me. It felt like the truth. I actually had the gun in my hand before you came through the wall. But I couldn’t do it.” What he said next was almost a whisper: “Fear. The fucking fear.”
Dale got his wallet out of his jacket pocket, fished out a small snapshot and handed it Tom. Tom switched on the overhead to have a look.
It was a faded black-and-white of a gorgeous woman in her mid-twenties, her pageboy doo and flower-print dress dating the shot to the late sixties, her smile and demeanor hinting at a girlish, playful sensuality.
Handing it back, Tom said, “She’s beautiful. Who is she?”
Tom waited until Dale had replaced the photo in his wallet, then switched off the overhead.
“She split from my dad when I was twelve. He was a criminal and so was she. It’s a family thing, like if your dad was a pilot.”
“Instead of getting a job to pay the bills, Mom ran cons. She was good at it, too. Used Ed in some of them, till I got old enough. But I never really acquired the knack. I screwed up a lot. The last time, when I was nine, I screwed up and got her arrested. She got cancer in jail and six months later she weighed eighty pounds. A month after that she was dead. Ed’s never said as much, but I know he blames me.”
“So this lifestyle, it’s...”
In that moment it occurred to Tom that Dale might be conning him right now...but he didn’t think so. Which was the hallmark of a great con, was it not? The whole object of a con,
con, was to convince its intended victim to
, no matter how outrageous the premise and no matter what the cost. Christ, it was like pondering time travel. It was a line of thinking that could just go round and round. In the end, what convinced him to believe Dale’s story—for the time being, at least—was a simple question: What did the man have to gain by lying? No matter which way Tom looked at it, he couldn’t come up with an answer that made any sense.
“Watching her wither away like that,” Dale said, almost to himself now, “in a prison hospital bed, that’s when the fear really took root. And it’s just never gone away. What happened today made me realize it. It’s why I’ve always wanted to be more like my brother...fuck that: it’s why I’ve always wanted to
my brother. Because Ed’s not afraid of anything. Never has been. And if he wants something, he just takes it. He’s looked after me ever since.” Straightening in his seat, Dale said, “But here’s the thing. All of that bullshit vanished when I was trapped underwater. All I wanted then was to live.”