EPISODE ONE: RAUL
EXT. ROUTE 10 - NIGHT
With a SCREECH and a ROAR, a cherry-red LAMBORGHINI DIABLO BLAZES across the New Mexico desert at 120 miles per hour, racing the dawn.
The pastries in the employee lounge were greasy and the coffee tasted like shit – the shit of someone who’d eaten the pastries. There were fresh bagels and fresh coffee in the showroom, but Mitch had issued a red-faced, apoplectic dictum that only customers were allowed to graze the complimentary breakfast buffet.
For his part, Raul didn’t care about food; he only wanted sleep, but there were still nine hours of the El Paso Ford Midnite Madness Sale-A-Bration to go before he could haul his weary Mexican ass to bed, so he poured another lukewarm cup of oily sludge from the employee pot and gulped it down, bracing himself for yet another round of glad-handing, stupid questions and tedious paperwork. He’d managed nine sales in the past twenty-four hours: one more and he’d win a free set of whitewalls for his old grey Durango.
Thus far (and despite his own lucky streak), the promotion had been something of a disappointment. To the surprise of no one but Mitch, consumers hadn’t exactly flocked to the overnight sales event, and between one and four a.m., the dealership had been entirely deserted except for a handful of yawning salesmen and, briefly, a passing drunk vaquero attracted by the lights and balloons.
Sales had been fairly brisk in the hours since dawn, however, so Mitch was happy, blasting his damn airhorn every time a deal closed. “LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE LOPEZ FAMILY!” the piggish white man announced over the store’s p.a. system, howling like a coyote as Raul stepped back into the showroom. “THEY JUST BOUGHT A 1992 FORD TAURUS! AND BECAUSE THEY BOUGHT THEIR CAR DURING THE MIDNITE MADNESS SALE-A-BRATION, THAT MEANS THEY GET TO...”
Mitch pointed the p.a. mike towards his captive audience, grinning like a deranged game show host. On cue, Raul and the rest of the El Paso Ford salesforce dutifully shouted back, “...REACH FOR THE STARS!”
“That’s right!” Mitch said, leading the grinning, bewildered Lopez paterfamilias to a cherry-red ’67 Mustang in the middle of the sales floor. Overhead, a depressing firmament of tinfoil stars dangled from the ceiling. “Now, you just reach up there and see if you can pull down the star that wins you a car!”
Mr. Lopez snatched a star down, but not the right one. Feigning tremendous disappointment, Mitch draped a meaty arm around the customer’s shoulders and said, “Awww! Well, you don’t get our prize car, but you DO get to keep your star...and, of course, your great 1992 Ford Taurus! Let’s have another big hand for the Lopez family!”
Mitch triggered the air horn again, to a grim smattering of disinterested applause. Raul turned away, searching for his next commission, and noticed Frank Fields by the breakfast buffet, snagging himself an everything bagel. The gaunt, straw-haired Anglo had skipped the graveyard shift and was currently sporting an incongruous Band-Aid across his nostrils that made him look even more like a hard luck case than usual.
“Jesus, have you been here all night?” Frank laughed, spotting Raul’s bloodshot eyes.
“Rosa needs braces, I need the commissions,” the weary Mexican shrugged, yawning through the words. “Besides, you know Mitch.”
“Yeah, I know Mitch,” Frank scowled, lowering his voice. “It’s not enough I gotta be here sixty hours a week tryin’ to hit my quotas? I gotta stay up all night, too?”
“That’s Midnite Madness.”
“Midnight my ass.”
“Wouldn’t hurt you to stay on Mitch’s good side, man,” Raul warned, lowering his own voice to a confidential rasp.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
But Raul didn’t answer, because at that moment, lightning struck the building.
She called herself Marion.
EPISODE TWO: FRANK
She was racing the dawn in a cherry-red Lamborghini when Frank Fields jolted awake, squeezed into a single bed with a tiny brown lady from Juarez. Her name was Lucia, and she grumbled, “I’m asleep” as Frank kissed her neck, shifting his morning wood into the cleft of her tiny bare ass.
Undeterred, Frank nibbled Lucia’s tiny studded earlobe, gently running his fingers over her soft, boyish curves until she finally sighed, “Oh, Frank...”
Smiling at her spine, Frank kissed his way down her vertebrae, sexy-talking in a low smoker’s hack vibrato, “Shh...don’t open your eyes. I’ll do everything, baby...God, you look beautiful in the morning...”
But Lucia wasn’t having it. Some days she’d let the razor-stubble ex-con whisper his fool lonely nothings, but this morning she was hungover and pre-menstrual and her cooter itched and she just wasn’t having it. Sitting straight up in the sad little bed, she snapped, “You got another seventy dollars?”
“No,” Frank scowled, knowing it probably wouldn’t matter if he did when she woke up all cranky like that.
“No, I didn’t think so,” Lucia replied, flopping back down in the bed and closing her eyes. “So just leave me alone and let me get some goddamn sleep, okay?”
“Great.” Frank sighed and rolled back on his back, staring out the window of his drab, greasy bedroom at the flaming gas jets of the chemical refinery across the tracks from his month-to-month apartment. In some dim, dumb corner of his mind, he’d thought maybe Lucia hadn’t faked all her orgasms, that maybe he’d squirreled enough credit for a friendly Friday morning freebie, enjoyable for its own sake, with maybe a chat and a cuddle and all the girlfriend shit he’d been missing and couldn’t pay for, but no. After all the tequila shots and time they’d spent together since he got back from Huntsville, she was still just a service provider and he was still only a client.
Oh well, Frank thought, closing his eyes. Might as well sleep.
The clock radio went off four seconds later, blaring tinny salsa.
It was six a.m. The station: KMX 95.5, El Tigre! Three hundred miles west, tapered fingers with bright red nails cranked up the volume in a cherry Lamborghini Diablo, streaking towards El Paso like a laser-guided rocket.
Frank hit the snooze alarm once, twice, then dragged his lanky ass to the shower, shaving his ashy whiskers by instinct with no cream and no mirror. He lost himself in the sensation of pounding hot water for a minute or five, then Lucia stepped into the bathroom, fully dressed in floral polyester and tight white camel-toe shorts, clipping cheap silver hoops to her lobes. “I’m gonna fly,” she announced. “Same time next week?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Frank replied, soaping his balls.
Lucia leaned into the shower to plant a businesslike peck on his cheek, then noticed his nostrils and said, “You got hair stickin’ outta your nose.”
“Huh?” Frank said, self-consciously tweezing tufts of nose hair with his fingers. “Oh...thanks.”
“Bye!” Lucia waved, skipping out the back door of the apartment. Frank angled his razor blade into his nose, attempting to shave the offending hairs, and wound up slicing a pimple, drawing his first blood of the day.
Two hundred miles west, blood red bee-stung lips puckered in the Lamborghini’s rear-view mirror to accept a fresh, wet coat of gloss.
Frank arrived at work at El Paso Ford in a cheap grey suit with a skinny black tie and a Band-Aid across the bottom of his nose. He saw bagels laid out and grabbed an everything, only to have it instantly yanked away by his porcine boss, Mitch. “The breakfast buffet is for customers only.”
“Oh, sorry, I just didn’t have time to grab anything on the way in...”
“Customers,” Mitch repeated, replacing the bagel. “Only.”
Behind them, on the other side of the dealership’s plate glass windows, a Lamborghini Diablo screeched to a stop in the parking lot, discharging a pair of stiletto heels and killer legs pinned to a dangerously sexy redhead in hundred dollar shades and a tight leather skirt.
“Wouldn’t hurt you to stay on Mitch’s good side, man,” Raul was saying to Frank inside the showroom as the redhead flicked a Lucky Strike and sauntered toward the building.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Frank replied as something THUMPED in the trunk of the Lamborghini.
“Awright,” Red exclaimed, SLAMMING open the front door of the dealership, “who do I gotta fuck to get some help around here?”
EPISODE THREE: RED
“Me!” Frank called, instantaneous, the word shooting out before he even knew he was moving, shouldering past Raul and bouncing off Mitch as he crossed the dealership like a nose tackle in his haste to get to the vision of hips, lips, tits and gunpowder that had suddenly, miraculously appeared in their midst. “I mean, I’ll help you.”
The redhead looked him up and down with regal bemusement as he jogged to a stop and reached out a hand, attempting a casual, “Hi, Frank Fields.”
“So, Bam-Bam, what’s with the nose?” Red smirked as Frank’s hand reflexively shot up to the Band-Aid that still covered his nostrils. “Angry customer? Sold him a lemon? Fooled around with his wife?”
Her voice was a wised-up calliope and she laughed, giddy, enjoying the pleasure of her own company. “Uh...shaving accident,” Frank mumbled.
Red scanned him with amethyst eyes, like she’d been wise to his game before it even had rules. “You know what they say about guys with hairy noses, don’tcha, Frank?”
“No, me neither, but I’m gonna keep an eye on you anyway.” Then, glancing around the showroom, she continued, “Now are we gonna stand around talking all day or do you wanna show me some cars?”
Frank blinked, fascinated. “Sure. Uh...what did you have in mind?”
Striding over to the vintage cherry Mustang in the center of the sales floor, then spinning back towards Frank, Red smacked the driver’s side door with her palm. “This’ll do.”
“Oh, no, that’s not...”
Mitch, recovering his voice and managerial authority after a brief, lustful paralysis now hurried over to Red, oozing good ol’ boy charm like KFC gravy. “Ain’t she a beaut?” he grinned, thrusting out a ham hock hand. “Hi, Mitch Tucker. I’m the owner of El Paso Ford, and the host of the Midnite Madness Sale-A-Bration.”
“Guess that makes you the big sale-ebrity around here, eh, Mitch?” Red giggled, flirty and girly, drawing a bright pink blush.
“You could say that.”
“I did say that,” Red shot back, snapping cherry-lacquered nails in his face. “Try and keep up, Mitch. Now, listen, I want two things. Number one, I want a cruller. A cruller with cream filling. Not lemon, not raspberry. Cream.”
Around the perimeter of the conversation, a Greek chorus of salesmen and bystanders suddenly rushed the breakfast buffet, searching for crullers as Red traced the curves of the Mustang with cool fingers. “Number two, I wanna take this baby for a test drive.”
A practiced expression of pained sympathy pulled Mitch’s features into a pout as he patiently explained, “Oh, well, you see THIS particular car is part of a Ford giveaway promotion, but I’m sure we could find you another model...”
“Last one,” Frank said, back on his game after a first quarter fumble, sauntering over to hand Red a cruller. “Cream-filled.”
“Thanks, cha-cha,” she replied, rewarding him with a full-frontal smile. Then, returning her attention to Mitch, she exclaimed, “As for YOU...I don’t want another model. I want THIS model, right here...
“...and THAT’S my trade-in,” she said, pointing her pastry towards the Lamborghini in the parking lot. “I’ve got cash to spend, and I just wanna take this sweet li’l Mustang for a test drive before I buy it, got me?”
“But you don’t understand,” Mitch stammered. “I can’t...”
“Can’t?” Red countered. “Can’t what? I thought you said you were the big kahuna, the grand poobah...”
“So what’s it gonna be, Mitch? You and me gonna sale-a-brate, or what?”
Mitch felt tightness in his chest and pants as her little pink tongue flicked out to lick cream from her cruller, then Frank shrugged and drawled, “I could take her ‘round the block once or twice.”
“I bet you could,” Red volleyed, zapping him an electric sidelong glance as she drew the shiny Lamborghini keys from her tiny silver purse. “Well? Whaddaya say, Mitch?”
She dangled the keys in the fat man’s face, and five minutes later the Mustang exploded through the showroom window.
EPISODE FOUR: MITCH
Raul was across the showroom, chatting up Lillian Sharp by the breakfast buffet when it happened. Mrs. Sharp was a bosomy old white woman with dyed black hair and a fondness for dreamcatchers who’d landed out west after some vague unpleasantness Back East, and since arriving in Texas, she’d been a seasonal fixture at El Paso Ford, trading in her most recent mud-caked pick-up for the next available model each successive Labor Day.
Mrs. Sharp had stepped through the north door of the dealership moments after Red’s entrance from the south lot, drawing Raul’s attention to what he knew could be the sale that’d cinch him the whitewalls in Mitch’s estúpido contest. Thus, he was facing away from the sales floor when the redhead somehow talked Mitch into giving her the keys to the Mustang, only turning back after the coupe’s big-block V8 snarled to life and Mrs. Sharp widened her twinkly eyes, gasping, “Oh my goodness...”
...then, spinning just in time, the big Mexican saw the taillights of the vintage cherry Mustang disappearing through a waterfall of glass as the vehicle blasted out to the south lot through one of the dealership’s plate glass windows, filling the showroom with the smell of exhaust and the cacophonous shrill of a bell factory riot.
“Holy SHIT!” Raul yelped, dashing towards the parking lot, where the Mustang had screeched to a stop with Frank, bone pale in the passenger seat, and Red behind the wheel, saying, “Whoa...that’s a lotta horsepower.”
Mitch reached the driver’s side window a dozen steps ahead of Raul, apoplectic and crimson with rage, shrieking, “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND?”
“Sorry, goose,” Red winked, pulling a roll of hundreds from her décolletage. “Put it on my tab.”
With that, she
tossed the money out the window and stomped the accelerator, leaving Mitch
in a spray of gravel and hazy dust as the fat man gaped after the retreating
vehicle before spinning back towards Raul and the rest of his thunderstruck
sales force, bellowing, “DON’T JUST STAND THERE, GODDAMMIT!
CLEAN UP THAT GLASS! AND CALL THE GODDAMNED POLICE!”
Then, all at once, he became aware of a loud...
...and another, and another...an urgent, pounding thud from somewhere nearby. For a terrified instant, Mitch thought he was having a heart attack, only to realize the sound was coming from the trunk of the crazy redhead’s Diablo.
moments, Mitch had always known himself as a confirmed coward, ever since
his father’s advice about standing up to bullies had turned out to be,
like so much of his father’s advice, a steaming Chinette plate of horseshit.
The fat man had been teased unmercifully as a child, and confronting his
tormentors had only transformed the teasing to beatings. Likewise,
his utterly reasonable fear of bees had been horrifically confirmed one
summer during his idiot father’s flirtation with beekeeping, when the teenage
Mitch had been sent out to collect honey from a toolshed apiary and wound
up in the hospital with anaphylactic shock. The ill-fated day he’d
attempted to overcome his fear of heights by bungee jumping at the Zero
Gravity Thrill Amusement Park in Dallas to impress his slut of a first
wife, he’d wound up crapping himself and dislocating his clavicle, and
the one and only truly heroic moment in his life, when he’d jumped in the
Rio Bravo fully clothed to save that little wetback kid from drowning...well,
he didn’t even like to think about it.
But for all his fears and failures and the bluster and rage he employed to conceal them, Mitch had a gut-deep, lifelong weakness for critters that trumped both his common sense and his phobias, and so his first thought when he heard the thumping (after ruling out infarction) was that an animal was trapped in the back of the Lamborghini.
Realizing he was still clutching the keys Red had left as collateral, Mitch cautiously approached the Diablo, expecting to find a terrified dog or cat trapped within, or possibly even a snake...
...but instead a steel-tipped alligator boot LASHED out as soon as he unlocked the trunk, catching the fat man square in the jaw, knocking him back on his ass in a flash of pain and shock as a bruised, bloody hombre in a filthy sharkskin suit uncoiled from the back of the car like a pissed-off Jack-in-the-Box, clutching a black tire iron like a samurai sword, snarling, “WHERE IS SHE?” in a shredded throat growl like a demon from hell.
EPISODE FIVE: HOMBRE
“Oh, Christ! Don’t hurt me!” Mitch mewled, curling instinctively into a defensive fetal position on the parking lot macadam.
“You ever see Deliverance, fat boy?” the gnashing hombre snarled, pulling Mitch back to his feet and slamming him against the Diablo.
Mitch flung an arm in the general direction of the interstate. “She’s test-driving a red ’67 Mustang convertible!”
“Test drive?” Speaking the words, Hombre twitched once or twice, seemingly on the verge of some fresh squall of emotion. “TEST DRIVE?”
“It was a factory promotion!” Mitch wailed, slumping heavily in his captor’s grip, visions of career immolation and corporate legal action outweighing concerns for his own personal safety. “It wasn’t even for sale! Oh, God, what have I done?”
Embarrassed and repulsed by the fat man’s tears, Hombre delivered a stinging back-hand slap to Mitch’s moist, puffy cheek, barking, “Calm yourself! Which direction was she traveling?”
Hombre’s coal fire eyes flicked to the Lamborghini keys, forgotten in Mitch’s sausage finger grip. Snatching them away, he released the fat man, who slumped to the ground like a pile of cheese.
In all, less than five minutes had elapsed since the Mustang went through the showroom window, and Raul and the other bystanders on the perimeter of the scene were still in a paralysis of disbelief as the blood-streaked hombre hopped behind the wheel of the Diablo and peeled out, shooting towards the I-10 like a crimson bullet.
“I like the way she handles,” Red purred, snaking the Mustang through traffic a dozen miles away at 100 miles an hour. “Rack and pinion steering?”
“SLOW DOWN!” Frank shrieked, gripping the dashboard in terror as tractor-trailers flashed past on either side like corrugated canyons.
“Why? I’m going the speed limit...almost.”
Boxed in by the big rigs on either side, Frank now saw the ass-end of a Toys-R-Us truck directly in front of them and experienced the sheer, perfect terror of a dragonfly in the instant before impact against the windshield of an oncoming car...
...and then, somehow, they were slaloming alongside the obstacle, still alive, air horns trumpeting angrily around them as Red flipped a sheepish wave and a “Sorry!” to the bushy-haired Toys-R-Us driver she’d narrowly missed, who in turn stretched across his cab to extend an angry finger.
Realizing the wave hadn’t properly conveyed her feelings of apology, Red quickly yanked down her leopard-print scoop neck to flash a friendly tit. Startled, then grinning wide, the Toys-R-Us driver offered an enthusiastic thumbs-up: all was forgiven.
“So,” Red said, turning her attention back to the gaunt, bedazzled salesman in the passenger seat beside her, “aren’t you gonna tell me anything about the car?”
Frank, still processing the breast and the near-death experience could only gape like he’d just been smacked in the face with a two-by-four, babbling, “I...I...”
“Boy, you’re a terrible salesman!” Red scolded, fishing a Lucky Strike from her pack as she eased the Mustang’s speedometer to 120. “We haven’t even haggled over the price yet! C’mon! Let’s haggle!”
“Want one?” Red asked, sparking her butt with a Zippo.
Without waiting for a response, she tossed the lighter and pack to Frank, who fumbled a cigarette into his mouth and, lighting up, took a long slow drag, trying to regain his composure.
“Okay, lady,” he said in his firmest tone, exhaling deliberately, “fun time’s over...now let’s just turn around and...”
“Why? Did you forget something? Do you have to pee? You should have thought of that before we left.” She giggled, adding more speed as the outskirts of El Paso faded to bleak ginger desert.
“No, look,” Frank replied, trying a different approach, “seriously...if we go back right now, maybe Mitch won’t press charges.”
“Back?” Red smiled, arching an amused, overplucked eyebrow. “We’re just getting started, goose.”
EPISODE SIX: VEGAS
Sliding low in the Mustang’s bucket seat, leather on leather, Red settled in for the long haul, propping her left foot on the dashboard, teasing the hem of her skirt up dangerously high on her haunches. “Or should I call you Mr. Lech?” she smirked when she caught Frank peeking.
Turning quickly away, flustered again, uncertain where to look or what to think or do, Frank could only stammer, “Okay, I’m sorry, I don’t...what is it you want from me? Is this a kidnapping or...or what?”
“If those are the choices,” Red volleyed, batting curly lashes, “then...what?”
“I’M going to New Orleans,” Red said, turning her attention back to the road, as if her passenger was just another hitchhiker making small talk, as if they weren’t bombing down the interstate at 120 miles per hour. “I don’t know about you.”
Then, she dared him, double-dared, claret lips curling back in a taunting smirk: “Of course, you could always try brute force and MAKE me turn around.”
For a long moment, the speed and strange danger of the situation paled as Frank regarded the challenge in her sidelong glance, the threat and promise of unknowable vengeance. It terrified him and, in ways he didn’t want to think about, it turned him on like crazy. “That really ain’t my style,” he finally drawled.
“No? Well...” Red mused, her eyes lasering slowly up and down his body. “...maybe later.”
With that, she lit a fresh Lucky Strike and didn’t offer him one, high heel still up on the dashboard. “So, how long ya been in the car biz, Frank?”
“Eight months,” Frank replied, snapping from the reverie of her amethyst eyes. “And, to be honest, I really can’t afford to lose this job, so...”
“You’re not gonna lose your job, silly,” Red giggled. Then, all at once, she noticed something in the Mustang’s rear-view mirror, jolting alert like an impala on the veldt. “Oh...SHIT!”
“What?” Frank tensed, startled and frightened by her fear.
“Get my purse,” she said, no games in her tone now. “I tossed it in back.”
Frank did as he was told without thinking why, an unfortunate habit he’d acquired during his stretch at Big Spring. Before prison, he knew, he’d been far too untamed for polite society, but since his release he’d been too docile, a gelding. He’d been trying to find his way back to himself lately, to feel a flash of the old fire: it’s why he’d skipped the Midnite Madness promotion, a tiny act of rebellion. It was, he dimly recognized, why he’d gotten in the car with the crazy redhead in the first place.
Then, Red pulled a shiny silver 9mm from her shiny silver purse and quickly checked the chamber. “Hold this,” she said, pressing the weapon into his palm. All at once, Frank’s superego surged back as he dropped the gun with a yelp of panic that startled his leggy captor. “What? What?”
“I’m not touching that!” Frank cried. “I’m not getting my fingerprints on that!”
“Look in the mirror, boots!” Red replied, exasperated. “We’re being followed!”
Frank glanced warily into the passenger side mirror, then spun completely around in his seat to better view what Red had spied: the Lamborghini Diablo from Mitch’s lot, ten miles back and closing fast, rocketing towards them like an ICBM. “What the...? Who IS that?”
“My husband,” Red explained, topping out the Mustang’s speedometer at 140.
“Ex-husband, really...you know those quickie wedding chapels in Vegas? Turns out they got drive-thru annulment joints...right next to the Taco Bell, for when you sober up.”
“So...so, what does he want?” Frank asked, watching the Diablo bearing down like a monster in a dream, relentless.
“WANT?” Red gaped, meeting his wild eyes with her own. “HE WANTS TO KILL ME, FRANK!”
EPISODE SEVEN: TOYS-R-US
When the blood-caked hombre in the cherry Lamborghini finally caught sight of the streaking crimson Mustang in the distance, a low growl rattled up from his larynx, forming a phrase like a venomous mantra: “I got you now, bitch. Bitch! BIIIIIIIIIIIIIITTTCCHHHHH!!!”
While, twenty... then ten... then five miles ahead, Frank instinctively turned his eyes from Red’s gaze back to the highway and, just as instinctively, screamed, “HORSE!”
Because, remarkably, there WAS a horse, a spotted brown Appaloosa, standing motionless and blasé in the fast lane of the desert highway, less than 400 yards in front of the hurtling Mustang. Frank shrieked in frank terror as Red yanked the wheel like a skipper in a squall, launching the car towards the cement pillars of an upcoming overpass.
Screaming in unison with her passenger, Red twisted the steering wheel hard to the left and right, squeaking past the pillar as the Mustang cornered up and around the sloped embankment under the overpass before rocketing back onto the highway, safe.
“Yeah-yeah-yeah-YEAH-YEAH!” Pumped with an Ecstasy speedball rush of adrenalin, Red grabbed Frank by the hair and slam-kissed his lips in celebration of not being dead, but the car salesman was already focused on the next peril, fast approaching in the rearview mirror, shouting, “CAR! RAMMING!” into her mouth as the Lamborghini BANGED them from behind.
Red changed lanes and the Lamborghini stayed with her, drilling its aerodynamic snout into the Mustang’s back bumper again and again, trying to force the car off the road.
“BIIIIIIIITCHHH!!!!” Hombre screamed with each thrust, punctuating his rage with streaming blasts from the Diablo’s trumpeting horn.
Red slalomed back and forth across the highway, trying to shake the Lamborghini from her tail, then spotted the Toys-R-Us truck she’d flashed coming up fast on the right. “Roll down your window! Roll down your window!” she barked, suddenly cutting speed as she swerved across three lanes of traffic.
Hombre shot past the Mustang, then hit the brakes to drop back fast behind his target. “Grab the wheel!” Red commanded, stretching across Frank to wave out the passenger window at the Toys-R-Us driver, “HEY! HEY! RUBBER DUCK! GOT YOUR EARS ON GOOD BUDDY?”
Toys-R-Us hadn’t forgotten the Mustang and now, glancing straight down Red’s scoop-neck leopard-print blouse from his elevated cab, he blasted his air horn with a smile of recognition.
Frank struggled with the wheel, peering over Red’s ass, arms wrapped around her legs as the Diablo broadsided them with a hard SHOT that nearly mashed them up against four of the big rig’s eighteen wheels.
Red squealed as the truck’s vertical chrome exhaust stack licked her nose, and as the Mustang pulled away and parallel with the cab again, she cried, “HELLLLLP!”
“PULL IN FRONT OF ME!” the bushy-haired Toys-R-Us driver called back, stomping his brakes.
“THANKS, GOOSE!” Red blew the trucker a kiss, then snatched her gun from the floor at Frank’s feet, tucking the silver 9mm into her garter belt for safe-keeping as she dropped back into the driver’s seat, racking the transmission and mashing the accelerator for a sudden burst of speed as the Toys-R-Us driver changed lanes in her wake, crowding the Diablo off the highway.
“Hey!” Hombre screamed as he realized what was happening. “What the fuck are you doing...AAAAHHH!!!”
Lurching left to avoid the Toys-R-Us trailer, the Diablo hurtled off the highway, disappearing in a cyclone of dust as it torqued into a 200 mile-per-hour spin-out on the median strip.
Watching in the Mustang’s rear-view mirror, Red howled along with the big rig’s triumphant air horn while Frank, slack-jawed and stoned on adrenalin could only gasp, “Jesus fuck-monkey...”
Flicking her deadly sexy eyes back his way, Red curled her lips and winked, “So am I a fun date or what?”
EPISODE EIGHT: CHARLIE BUZZSAW
They’d burned through a full tank of gas in less than half an hour, and the next exit was 100 miles east when the Mustang careened off the highway towards a hand-painted sign that read:
TIGER TRUCK STOP
GAS - FOOD – SHOWERS
OPEN 24 HOURS
Frank pitched forward against his seat belt as Red stomped the brakes and the car finally screeched to a stop by one of four Texaco gas pumps in front of a low-slung stucco building surrounded on all sides by desolation and mesquite. The engine rattled to sleep, exhausted, leaving no sound but their quickened breath slowing back to normal and the pulse of blood still rushing in their ears. Their lives and the world outside the windshield had ceased flashing past in a terrifying blur. They had survived.
They sat for a moment, savoring the stillness and the silence, then Red placed soft fingertips on Frank’s knee, studying him, searching for something just out of sight behind the surface of his gaze, lips curling back in that double-dare grin. “Still want to go back?”
“Yes,” Frank said before she’d even finished the question, head bobbing like a bobblehead. “Yes. A thousand times yes.”
Red drew her fingers back from his knee and her smile faded, revealing a sober weariness Frank hadn’t expected or noticed before in her kewpie doll features. He saw now she was older than he’d first imagined, closer to his own age, and the realization was strangely comforting.
“How much do you make at that car place, Frank?” she asked, all business all of a sudden. “Thirty, forty a year? Less?”
“I don’t...” he started...then stopped, thinking now what?
“What would you say to fifty thousand dollars?”
“What?” Frank said, wishing he could just lie down in the back seat for a minute to gather his thoughts before the redhead made with a fresh round of crazy.
“Fiddy Gs...fiddy large....fiddy thousand samolians.”
“What the hell are you TALKING about?”
“I’m talkin’ about
you an’ me, here to N’awlins,” Red explained, as if she hadn’t kidnapped
him, as if they weren’t in a stolen car, as if the idea was absolutely
reasonable. “I got family there, see...my brother’s loaded, he can
help me outta this mess with Charlie...”
“Charlie...that’s the guy who was chasing us?”
“My ex,” Red nodded, happy that Frank was paying attention. “Charlie Bambino, a.k.a. Charlie Buzzsaw, a.k.a. Crazy Charlie, a.k.a. Charlie the Sack. It’s a long story, goose...but the punchline is I gotta am-scray my skinny white butt outta the country, but fast, or I am D-E-A-DEAD...we’re talkin’ meathook city...get me?”
Frank really, really didn’t, but figured it was simpler to simply say, “Sure.”
“So here’s the scoop, poop,” Red continued, “I’m all wired on Jolt and Luckys now, but I gotta crash sometime...and that’s where you come in. Now it’s 15 hours to Easytown, and 16 hours back to El Paso. That’s two days outta your life, or a day and a half if you don’t sleep, and fiddy-K in real cash money if you just ride shotgun ‘til I hook up with my brother...”
“...and then I get the car back?”
“If,” Red said with a Cheshire grin, “you still want it.”
Frank did not especially want the car back, he realized all at once. He didn’t want to go back to his terrible job and his shabby El Paso apartment, and he certainly didn’t look forward to Mitch’s petulant rage or the inevitable, condescending questions from police and parole officers...but he also knew there was no fifty thousand, and that every second he spent with the redhead would only make his situation worse, so he said the only thing he could think of:
“It’s a deal.”
EPISODE NINE: 911
Red released an enthusiastic squeal of seemingly unfeigned delight and leaned over to plant a big, red pucker mark on Frank’s cheek, then plucked a C-note from her décolletage and said, “You pump...I gotta tinkle.”
Red grabbed the keys from the Mustang’s ignition and slid out of the car, her valentine ass tick-tocking past the Texaco pumps before disappearing into the sad little truck stop. Frank watched until she was out of sight then, finally alone, exhaled as if for the first time in hours, “Holy fucking shit...”
She had the keys and she had a gun, but he didn’t think she’d use it. At least he hoped she wouldn’t. Yes, she was clearly unbalanced and potentially dangerous...but not, he suspected, in the carnivorous way of most of the lifers and crime geeks he’d known at Big Spring.
Not unless she was cornered.
“Shit,” Frank mumbled again, slouching out of the car, scanning his surroundings for a payphone. Red waved through one of the windows of the truck stop, partly friendly, mostly watchful, as he fumbled the gas nozzle into the Mustang’s fuel tank and waved back, pumping and smiling.
Finally he spotted a payphone hanging off the southwest corner of the building. As soon as Red was out of sight again, he ran for it.
“Ow...OW!” Mitch screamed as Raul ran a styptic pencil over his boss’ cut, swollen lip in the cramped manager’s office off the shattered El Paso Ford showroom, where police and reporters were still interviewing salesmen and customers beneath the sad tinfoil stars of the abandoned Sale-A-Bration. “Just leave it alone, goddammit!”
Mitch swatted the pencil away, then grabbed for the chirping phone on his desk, praying to God it wasn’t Corporate. “El Paso Ford...this is Mitch. Have you driven a Ford lately?”
“Mitch! It’s Frank!”
yelped, jumping to his feet in relief, anger and surprise, frantically
signaling Raul out to the showroom to fetch one of the state troopers milling
by the ransacked breakfast buffet. “Where the Christ are you?”
“Some truck stop near Van Horn...”
“VAN HORN?” Mitch exploded, utterly and completely unable to believe his fucking ears. “Jesus Mary, that’s halfway to San Antonio, boy! What the hell are you doing in Van Horn? And where the HELL is the goddamn CAR?”
“The car’s fine,” Frank whispered, craning around the corner of the Tiger Truck Stop, keeping a wary eye on the door, stiffening as someone emerged, relaxing when it wasn’t Red. “But...”
“What about the woman?” Mitch harangued through the plastic payphone receiver. “Are the police there?” Have they got her in custody?”
“No, but listen...” Frank replied, suddenly realizing the call was a bad idea, that he still wasn’t entirely sure what he could or should or wanted to do next.
“No what?” Mitch barked, impatient, crowding Frank’s personal space unpleasantly as always, even from a telephonic distance. “She’s not in custody or the police aren’t there?”
“Neither,” Frank stammered, wishing he were smarter. “I...uh...I haven’t actually called them yet, but...”
“You haven’t...WHAT?” Mitch screeched, veins bulging like bloody blue caterpillars beneath the skin of his sweaty bald head. “So why the fuck are you calling ME? Hang up the phone and dial the police, you dumb nut sack...I wanna see that redhead bitch in state orange, weedin’ the median, hear me?”
“Okay...but I thought you’d wanna...”
“Don’t think, dipshit...just fucking HANDLE it!” Then, dropping his voice to a more sinister octave, Mitch hissed, “Remember, Fields, I got your parole officer on speed dial. If that Mustang ain’t back on my lot by sundown, it’s your ass, compadre...comprende? NOW CALL THE FUCKIN’ COPS!!”
The line went dead with a click like a slap, and Frank calmly replaced the receiver in the cradle before spinning and kicking it clear in a flashflood fury of impotent rage. Twenty yards away, a plump little Navajo girl sat in the back of a mud-caked Bronco, sucking a ring-pop and watching his tantrum with silent brown eyes.
Frank took a deep breath, uncertain why he felt so angry. Of course he was going to call the police...what choice was there?
“Hi, listen,” he said a few moments later, after retrieving the dangling receiver and dialing 911. “Have you got a cruiser in the vicinity of the Tiger Truck Stop? Near Van Horn? I got kind of what you might call a situation here...”
EPISODE TEN: TIGER
The 911 dispatcher said to sit tight, a trooper was on the way. Frank thanked her, then noticed his reflection in the mirrored payphone panel, staring back reproachfully.
He’d never called the
cops on anyone before, never reported a fellow inmate to the guards in
all his time at Big Spring, not even that asshole Aryan Nation wannabe,
the one who stabbed him with a fork. He’d eventually dealt with the
little Nazi in his own way, on his own terms...but this time, he didn’t
have a choice. He was doing the only sane thing he could, given the
And, yes, now that he’d survived it, the car chase HAD been exciting...thrilling, even...and, yes, with his blood pumping and his adrenalin racing, the raw carnality of the redhead, so close and intense, had tested his libido to the point of dizziness, reminding him of all the free, wild nights that had landed him in prison in the first place...flying down the highway in a hot-wired Camaro with a rockabilly girl from Round Rock, mescaline singing in their blood, certain they were never gonna die.
But now that rockabilly girl was an alcoholic in Altoona, and he was 35, an ex-con with bad knees and lousy credit in a cramped adult life of dull responsibility and diminishing returns, all too mortal, the years accelerating past faster and faster, even as the days slowed to a crawl...
...so, no, there was no choice. He barely had the energy to go through the motions of his current routine, let alone the willpower to start all over, yet again, if he lost the sales job with Mitch or, worse, got his ass shipped back to Big Spring.
The cops would be there soon. He just had to keep Red...and the Mustang...parked at the truck stop a few minutes longer, and then he could drive home to El Paso and maybe even take a nap.
Frank looked at himself in the phone’s reflective surface again. The Band-Aid across the bottom of his nose looked ridiculous. He ripped it clear with a swift, decisive tug, then swaggered into the truck stop to pay for the gas.
“How much did she take?” Frank asked, nodding towards the Mustang through the establishment’s dirty glass door.
“Twenty-nine-oh-eight,” muttered the snaggletooth old man behind the register, barely glancing up from a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogue laid out on the counter.
“And two o’ these,”
Frank said, impulsively grabbing a pair of red plastic cowboy hats from
a stack by the door.
“Brings it to thirty-five even.”
Frank paid with
Red’s C-note, then strolled to the back corner of the truck stop and rapped
on the women’s room door: “Hello?”
There was no response, so Frank knocked again, this time causing the cheaply-hung door to swing in off the latch.
The bathroom was empty.
“Oh...SHIT,” Frank gasped, with the swift, stomach-dropping realization that he should have stayed by the car.
Rushing back to the front of the store in a panic, Frank banged against a popcorn machine and nearly toppled a circular rack of cheap sunglasses before slamming out the front door, expecting nothing but a cloud of dust and a spray of gravel where the Mustang used to be.
But the car was still there, sitting empty and still in the pale desert sun. Relief hit Frank like a heroin shot, followed quickly by a chaser of confusion. Where the hell was she?
Stepping back inside, he scanned the small truck stop for Red, then noticed a large arrow beyond and beside the front counter labeled, “SEE THE TIGER!” Keeping one cautious eye on the Mustang, he stepped through a door beneath the sign into a fenced-off enclosure behind the truck stop, pungent with the reek of sawdust and urine, where, as promised, an emaciated Bengal tiger paced back and forth in a rusty steel cage, bright green eyes locked to Red’s as she mirrored the big cat’s slow movements, pacing and purring, “You’re so beautiful...yes, you are...”
Then she reached a hand through the bars.
Frank tensed instinctively, ready to pull her clear as the sad, proud tiger released a low growl, padding over to sniff Red’s palm for a long, uncertain moment.
“It’s okay, goose...it’s okay...” she murmured as the tiger finally closed his eyes, allowing Red to scratch the scruff of his neck. “Poor little guy...poor little thing...all alone out here...”
Inching closer, Frank saw diamonds of moisture on Red’s dark lashes, and realized she was crying.
Then suddenly, she stiffened, pulling her hand back through the bars. Sensing trouble, the tiger opened his green eyes and snarled, flashing yellow fangs.
“So,” Red said, without turning around, reaching slowly into her tiny silver purse. “Who did you call, Frank?”
EPISODE ELEVEN: MARION
Frank’s bowels clenched as Red pulled something from the silver clutch where she kept her tiny gun [rewrite: in her garter belt – make it clear Frank’s not sure if it’s there again] and spun rapidly towards him, repeating the question, “Who...did...you...CALL?”
“Call?” Frank sputtered with a half-laugh of relief as he realized she’d only withdrawn her rhinestone-studded Fendi shades, that she hadn’t shot him yet. “No one...”
Red hid her glistening eyes behind the Fendi’s dark lenses and stared back until he swallowed, uncomfortable. Poker had never been his game. “Don’t lie, Frank...I can always tell.”
“Okay, okay,” Frank improvised, half-truthing the con, hoping it would stick. “I called my boss.”
“I told him you were armed...and possibly deranged...” Frank continued, gathering steam, encouraged by the smirk on the redhead’s kisser. “...but he’d get his car back in a day or three if I cooperated.”
“...and then he fired me.”
“Thinks we’re on some kinda joyride or something.”
“Sorry, goose,” Red said, offering a sheepish wince for her part in his troubles.
“Fuck it, I hated that job anyway,” Frank shrugged, conspicuously blasé, planting one of the plastic cowboy hats on her head, the other on his own, hoping to play to her playful side. “Guess we’re outlaws now.”
Red’s face lit up like a fireworks display as she tackled Frank in a gleeful bear hug, body pressed close, whispering hot in his ear, “Oh, we’re gonna have some fun, you and me.”
Then she took a step back, cocking her fingers like six-guns, and drawled, “Now let’s am-scray, pardner...before the posse shows up here lookin’ for us.” Plunging her fingers into her belt like pistols into holsters, she winked goodbye to the mournful tiger and moseyed back into the truck stop bowlegged, jangling imaginary spurs as she tipped her hat to the proprietor. Frank followed her through the building and out the front door, hoping to find a dozen Texas rangers waiting for them, guns drawn, ready to seize control of the situation; but instead there was only a speckled grey roadrunner, skittering past the gas pumps into the surrounding brush.
“So, uh, what’s your name, anyway?” Frank asked, vamping for time, wishing now that he hadn’t filled the Mustang’s tank.
“Davies,” the redhead drawled, spinning on stiletto heels in the dirt to blast him with her six-gun fingers, 007-style. “Marion Davies.”
“Well, listen, Mar...” Frank said, trying to keep his tone and posture casual, “I’m not really big on shotgun. Mind if I drive the next stretch? I mean, y’know, since you said you were tired an’ all...”
The redhead straightened
up and stared through her shades for a long, cool moment, until Frank was
certain she knew he was bluffing...
...but then instead she called, “Think fast” and pitched the silver Mustang keychain high and tight, right into his hands.
Well, that was easy, Frank thought to himself with a smug little smile as Red opened the passenger side door and dropped into the car, calling, “C’mon, Jesse James! What’s the hold up?”
At which point, they both heard the siren simultaneously, whistling towards the truck stop like an incoming missile. Red’s eyes snapped to the western horizon, searching for the source of the sound, then she noticed Frank in her peripheral vision, backing quickly towards the truck stop with a sheepish, shame-faced, “Sorry...” that told her everything she needed to know.
Reaching blindly behind him for the front door of the building, ready to dive for cover, Frank saw Red’s long white fingers reaching into her purse, and this time he was certain she’d go for the gun. [Rewrite: see above] But instead, for reasons he wasn’t quick enough to grasp, the redhead merely produced a key from the truck stop ladies room.
“I’m very disappointed in you, boots,” she called reproachfully, then slid behind the wheel and jammed her key into the Mustang’s ignition.
As the muscle car thundered awake, Frank glanced down at the worthless bathroom key dangling from the promotional pony-and-bars Ford keychain in his palm. “No...WAIT!” he cried helplessly, running towards the Mustang as Red blew a kiss and accelerated over an iron cattle guard embedded at the lip of the on-ramp sloping back down to the I-10 East.
Frank jogged to a stop, watching the car streak away like a smear of red lipstick, then impulsively reached for his wallet. Gone. She got it when she hugged him.
“SHIT!” Cursing fate and his own stupidity, Frank was so focused on the retreating Mustang that he barely noticed the arrival of the police car until it screeched up beside him.
Startled by the sudden appearance of the supercharged Crown Vic, Frank jumped back, stammering, “You just missed her! She...huh?” as the unit’s two-tone passenger door flew open to reveal a blood-spattered Hombre in a tattered sharkskin suit, gnashing his teeth and howling black murder like a feral dog from hell.
“C’MON!” Hombre snarled, stomping the gas as he leaned out to pull Frank into the already quickening car.
EPISODE TWELVE: CHARLIE BLACKFLOE
As she motored east
at a respectable speed, Red pulled Frank’s wallet from her garter and flipped
it open to find the ex-con’s big dark eyes staring back at her. Another
mark, sure, but a sweet one beneath the dopey rough exterior, and he probably
cleaned up real nice.
“You big stinker,” Red sighed, scavenging what cash she could from his billfold before tossing the rest out the window.
She was getting sloppy. She needed fresh wheels. She hadn’t even reached San Antonio and the Mustang was already made. The A.P.B. had surely gone out when she’d pulled that dumb stunt in El Paso...nor did she imagine she’d seen the last of “Good-Time” Charlie...
...and, in fact, the relentless cockroach of a man was even closer than she would have suspected in her most pessimistic assessment, having survived the spin-out that reduced a quarter million dollars of Italian engineering to scrap metal on the median strip of the Interstate 10. A rookie trooper named Alvarez had been first on the scene, kneeling gingerly to examine the driver, then reeling back in shock as the bruised, bloody hombre in the filthy sharkskin suit unexpectedly sprang to life to clock him on the side of the head with a rock.
Hombre gave thought to leaving the unconscious cop with the mangled Lamborghini, but quickly thought better of it: once the trooper’s body was discovered, they’d immediately start looking for his patrol car. So instead, he’d loaded the bound and gagged Alvarez into the back of the two-tone T.H.P. Crown Vic, covered with a blanket, then followed the dispatcher’s All Points Bulletin to the Tiger Truck Stop. He’d just missed the redhead, but her latest victim was there, a wiry guy in a cheap suit and a dumb plastic hat standing by the gas pumps with a slack-jawed expression, staring east. “You just missed her!” the hayseed stammered. “She...huh?”
“C’MON,” Hombre snarled, barely touching the brakes as he pulled the poor sap into the passenger seat beside him, stomping the accelerator and extending a hand as they shot back onto the highway. “Charlie Blackfloe, Las Vegas Dodge,” he said by way of greeting.
“Frank Fields,” Frank replied reflexively, shaking Hombre’s grimy hand in astonishment. “El Paso Ford.”
“Nice to meet you, pal.”
“You’re...you’re a car salesman?”
“Used to be, ‘til that BITCH RUINED MY FUCKING LIFE!” Hombre suddenly volanoed in rage, swerving all over the road before regaining his composure with a deep, deliberate breath. “Sorry.”
“But...but I saw you crash,” Frank stammered, riding a fresh surge of panic. “I mean, that was you, right? Charlie Bambino, Buzzsaw Charlie...”
“Charlie the Sack...the ex-husband in the Lamborghini!”
“Is that what she told you?” Hombre released an ugly cackle, head shaking in bitter amusement. “She told ME she was bein’ chased by her crazy grandfather.”
“On our test drive!” Hombre snarled, annoyed the new guy wasn’t getting it yet. “She pulled onto my lot in a Mercedes Benz, and we drove off in a Dodge Viper. That was a beautiful machine, Frank. White leather seats, ultra-quad stereo, moon-roof, the works. Next thing I know, this crazy old guy is chasing us...turns out to be some Mercedes dealer from Oregon.”
“Wait, you mean...”
“Oh, she’s a demon an’ a devil, pal, make no mistake,” Hombre nodded, eyeing Frank with a bloodshot sidelong glance of deranged camaraderie. “Looks like you got off easy...you’ll probably just lose your job. Me, I lost my job, my house, my wife and EVERY OTHER DECENT THING IN MY LIFE TO THAT BIIIIIITTTCCCCHHH!!!!!”
molten rage geysered forth again as Hombre pounded a fist against the ceiling
of the police car, nearly losing control of the vehicle before taking another
deep, ragged breath and repeating, “Sorry, sorry...”
They drove in silence for a moment before Frank asked the next obvious question, eyeing his new companion warily: “So...uh...what exactly are you doing in a police cruiser, Charlie?”
“Necessity is the mother of invention, Frank. My last car...well, you know,” Hombre shrugged, sparking a Kool despite the noticeable stench of gasoline wafting from his clothes. “See, I’ve been chasin’ this harpy for six weeks now...almost had her in Las Cruces, ‘til she got the jump on me, but next time she won’t be so...BALLOONS!”
Frank lurched forward against his seatbelt as the Crown Vic suddenly cut across three lanes of traffic, careening off the Van Horn exit like a billiard bank shot while close overhead, a disjointed rainbow of hot air balloons weaved and bobbed in the desert blue sky above.
“Balloons,” Hombre repeated with an ugly reptilian grin. “Stella’s got a thing for balloons. I’ll betcha anything she pulled off here.”
“That’s her name,” Hombre hissed, rolling slowly along the frontage road, quivering senses alert to any sign of his quarry. “...her real name, I mean. The bitch has more aliases than a whorehouse Christmas list.”
“Seems like you know her pretty well,” Frank said, ever more uneasy.
“That’s because I love her, Frank, I really fucking love her....but I’m the one who’s gonna kill her.”
EPISODE THIRTEEN: GOLD
The Crown Vic was motoring along the frontage road towards a dusty little Diamond Shamrock, slowly enough that Frank figured at worst he’d sprain an ankle if he jumped from the car. He didn’t think the Hombre would stop or come after him, and he could always try calling the police again at the gas station. Yes, he’d lost track of the Mustang, and if Mitch felt the need to fire him because of that, well, riding around in a stolen police cruiser with some lunatic car salesman wasn’t all that likely to improve the situation.
But Frank didn’t jump, partly out of morbid curiosity, an inherent gambler’s compulsion to stick around too long, just to see what the next card would be. And then, of course, there was the whole murder thing...
“...so when you say you’re gonna kill her,” he said, doing his best to determine the likelihood of his somehow accidentally winding up an accessory to whatever crime his companion was currently contemplating, “you don’t actually mean...”
“Hold on a second,” Hombre interrupted as a pimply-faced gas jockey approached the driver’s side window, clutching a squeegee, stoned red eyes fixed on the plethora of dirigibles drifting by overhead. “Hey, kid...what’s up with all those balloons?”
“What’s up,” the gas jockey giggled moronically. “That’s pretty funny.”
“Yeah. It’s a scream.” Then, to Frank’s consternation, Hombre grabbed the scrawny doofus by the neck and yanked him through the open window, shrieking, “NOW WHAT THE FUCK IS UP WITH ALL THE FUCKING BALLOONS?”
“It’s an air show!” the gas jockey croaked, eyes bulging wide in panicky freak-out.
“WHERE?” Hombre demanded, ignoring Frank’s agitated entreaties on behalf of the doofus.
“Next town over!”
the pencil-neck wheezed, struggling in Hombre’s bear trap grip. “Four
miles thataway...you can’t miss it!”
“LET GO OF HIM!” Frank barked now, pounding Hombre’s arms and wrists to no avail.
“Did a slutty-looking redhead come through here asking about those balloons?”
The gas jockey couldn’t squeeze enough air through his constricted throat to reply verbally, so instead he just nodded and pointed again down the road in the direction of the air show.
“Much obliged,” Hombre nodded, releasing the geek and stomping the gas, triggering the automatic locks as Frank tried to jump out the door.
“DICK!” the gas jockey screamed, hurling a rock at the retreating Crown Vic while, inside the vehicle, Frank had finally had more than enough. “Okay, PULL OVER!” he bellowed, completely fed up with the day he’d been having.
“What’s wrong?” Hombre said, looking genuinely startled.
“You’re as crazy as she is! PULL OVER!”
“Okay, so maybe I was a little brusque with the guy,” Hombre apologized, flicking his eyes to the rear-view mirror, defensive. “But you gotta understand, Frank, I just spent the past 24 hours IN THE TRUNK OF A FUCKING LAMBORGHINI! You know how big a Lamborghini’s trunk is, Tex? NOT VERY FUCKING BIG, that’s how big!”
Frank paused to consider the statement, not entirely unsympathetic.
“I thought I was dead, man,” Hombre muttered, suddenly quiet. A tremor of memory shuddered through his tightly coiled frame, and Frank could only reply, “...I’m sorry. That...that must have been terrible.”
“Yeah, well, you know what they say,” Hombre shrugged, sparking another Kool. “Payback’s a bitch...and in this particular case, the bitch is worth millions.”
For a moment, the words didn’t register...and then, when they did, Frank wasn’t sure that he’d heard them correctly. “Excuse me?”
“Oh, have I got your attention now, Frank?” Hombre chuckled, cocking an eyebrow as an ugly crocodile grin seeped over his cracked, bloody lips. “Yeah, that’s right...I said millions. See, I hired me a private detective and tracked Stella’s trail back to Sulphur Springs, West Vir-ginny. Turns out the bitch comes from some lunatic hillbilly clan...Travelers, grifters, you know the type. Made a fortune on moonshine during Prohibition, these yokels, then buried it in the ground, ‘cuz they didn’t trust the banks. We’re talkin’ millions in pure gold bullion...just waitin’ for a couple enterprisin’ fellahs like ourselves to come dig it up. I mean, hey, what the hell...if we’re in this together, we might as well be in it together, right? So what do you say...partner?”
EPISODE FOURTEEN: ERIC
Eric liked rice. White, brown, long-grain, saffron, basmati, whole grain and especially wild rice, which technically wasn’t actual rice but was nevertheless a delicious source of fiber.
He’d been a vegetarian ever since a terrifying elementary school expedition to a meatpacking plant in the Panhandle, and he’d been lactose intolerant for as long as he could remember, yet he never felt like he was missing out on life’s gastronomical possibilities, because rice was so uniquely versatile and satisfying.
A few Christmases back, he’d received a small, portable Zojirushi rice cooker, a treasured item which he kept next to the coffeemaker in the small, cramped office he shared with the only two other full-time employees of Van Horn Imports: Roz, the receptionist, and Max, a sulky young German mechanic who managed the dealership whenever his father, the owner, was away on business (which, in fact, was pretty much most of the time).
Max and Roz had traveled over to Wild Horse to check out the air show and Eric was manning the fort alone, preparing an elaborate vegetarian jambalaya when the vintage Mustang pulled onto the lot. The driver, a curvaceous redhead in leopard-print and leather, climbed from the vehicle and stood stock still, eyes wide in wonder, staring straight up at the balloon-speckled sky.
At first glance, she
looked...well, cheap, but Eric knew from experience that cash and
trash could sometimes go together, especially in Texas, so he turned the
rice cooker to “simmer” and sauntered out to the lot, flashing a well-practiced
“Hello!” he said. “Can I help you?”
Red turned and blew a big pink bubblegum bubble. It popped, and she smiled, eyeing a sleek crimson Jaguar.
They were getting closer to the air show. Grounded balloons were tethered in the distance, surrounded by a chrome and glass crop of parked cars and concession trailers. An old coot with a handlebar moustache buzzed low over the Crown Vic in a pedal-powered gyrocopter as Hombre turned to Frank and repeated the question: “I said, whaddaya say?”
Frank wasn’t particularly inclined to believe the maniac’s tale of hidden gold bullion any more than he had trusted Red’s offer to accompany her to New Orleans, but before he could respond, a low groan from a previously unnoticed, suspiciously man-sized lump beneath a blanket on the back seat of the cruiser arrested his attention.
“Who is THAT?” Frank demanded queasily, already knowing the answer.
“Who do you think?” Hombre replied, unconcerned, eyes snapping to any flash of red in the festival fields around them.
Unbuckling his safety belt, Frank rotated up onto his knees and leaned over the seat to pull back the blanket, revealing a semi-conscious, bound and gagged young Hispanic man in the uniform of a Texas highway patrolman.
“Oh, God!” Frank cried, acid reflux scorching the back of his throat in a sudden nausea of anxiety. “Jesus, his fucking head is bleeding! This is a felony!”
“He’ll be fine,” Hombre growled, barely audible, straining to sense his quarry in the surrounding psychic ether, searching for a sign. “Where is she...” he whispered, “...where are you?”
She was 200 yards away, bouncing and bumping along the hard, rutted soil of the airfield perimeter, test driving the Jaguar while Eric fought to disguise his growing agitation behind a skillful salesman’s smile.
“Look, Snoopy!” Red giggled as a biplane swooped in low for a landing on the horizon. “It’s the Red Baron!”
“Yes,” Eric said with a conspicuous glance at his sterling silver Baume & Mercier watch, “the air show is a lot of fun, but this car isn’t equipped for off-road travel, so maybe we should head back to the...”
“‘Off-road travel?’” Red parroted back in amusement. “Is that what we’re doing?”
“Yes,” Eric replied evenly. “We’re traveling through a field. A field is not a road. Hence, off-road travel.”
“I see what you mean,” Red nodded as the Jaguar hit a healthy rut, forcefully enough to bounce the salesman from his seat. “The suspension kinda sucks, huh?”
“Return to the road!” Eric demanded. “Now!”
“Hey, look!” Red squealed, hitting the brakes unexpectedly. “Helicopter rides!”
“Wait! Where are you going?” Eric cried, giving chase as the redhead unexpectedly exited the Jaguar, snatching the keys from the ignition.
“Listen to me,” Frank said, dropping back into the passenger seat of the Crown Vic, unaware that Red was running straight towards them, “we’re in Texas. People get shot to death for this kind of behavior...”
And then Hombre saw her.
EPISODE FIFTEEN: BEEFSTEAK
Red stopped running near a small cluster of tourists and a free-standing, hand-painted sign that read “HELICOPTER RIDES – FIFTEEN DOLLARS – THIRTY MINUTES,” while overhead, a decommissioned UH-60 Blackhawk thrummed and hovered like a prehistoric dragonfly. Eric appeared beside her seconds later, consciously straining to maintain his composure as he snapped, “Ma’am, we have to return to the dealership right now, or I’ll be forced to call the police.”
“One ride?” Red said as the Blackhawk descended to a marked-off landing spot a few yards beyond the sign. “Please? I’ve never been in a helicopter before...it’ll only take a few minutes...”
Her wet, slippery lips
puckered into a fellatio pout as she moved closer, conspicuously grazing
his chest with her nipples and teasing his surprisingly muscular bicep
with light fingers while leaning close to whisper, “Please, boots?
I’ll be your best friend...”
“No,” Eric said without the slightest stutter of temptation, gripping her shoulders firmly then pushing back gently to remove the intruder from his personal space. “You’ll just have to come back later.”
Red blinked in surprise, unaccustomed to such unequivocal rejection. She’d always been a well-adapted predator, like a cheetah on the veldt, certain of the effect she had on the male of the species despite their age or better judgment. The reaction from the men she encountered was usually visceral and reflexive, even when they tried to resist, and Red worried for a moment that she was finally losing her touch when a carved-from-granite cowboy with rock hard pecs and a prominent bulge emerged from the Blackhawk and Eric’s gaze flicked, ever so briefly, to his sweet, chiseled ass.
“So tell me, goose,” Red purred in immediate, teasing comprehension, “you think they serve fries with that beefsteak?”
Eric blushed, busted, and flustered, “What? No...I mean...I don’t...okay, look...I don’t know what you’re talking about, just...please give me the car keys, okay? I’ll drive us back...”
Red smiled and sighed. She loved the Jaguar, but knew she had to fold the hand she’d been playing. It wasn’t that she couldn’t work a gay mark, but it was trickier and it was too late to make nice with the salesman and start over...so instead she reached into her little silver purse and was just about to hand over the keys when the Blackhawk lifted off the ground again with a fresh load of passengers, revealing a previously unseen Texas Highway Patrol car in the field behind it, barreling straight towards her.
Somehow, impossibly, Charlie was driving. And Frank was right beside him.
Red took off running.
“Ma’am...MA’AM!” Eric cried, hot on her heels, barely making it back to the Jaguar as Red slid behind the wheel and gunned the engine, pulling himself into the passenger side as she peeled out in a spray of turf and dirt.
A ripple of panic spread across the fairground as the Crown Vic scattered the crowd near the helicopter ride, nearly flattening the beefsteak cowboy and a dozen Shriners from Shreveport gathered by a grounded Sikorsky.
“STOP IT!” Frank cried, grabbing the police cruiser’s wheel as he attempted to stomp on the vehicle’s brake pedal. “YOU’LL HIT SOMEBODY!”
“Knock it off, Frank!” Hombre replied, twisting in his seat to grab the service revolver from the waist of the semi-conscious trooper in the back before snapping front again to crack Frank in the face with the hard steel shooting iron.
The force of the blow
knocked Frank against the passenger door as Hombre switched the blood-slick
pistol to his other hand and fired a series of shots at the swerving Jaguar,
eventually blowing out the vehicle’s back window in a supremely satisfying
safety glass explosion.
Red yelped at the sound, more startled than scared until she caught sight of the gun in her rear-view mirror, then...
“THE PLANE! THE PLANE!” Eric shrieked, drawing her attention forward to the much scarier sight of a World War I bi-plane coming in for a landing directly on top of them.
EPISODE SIXTEEN: RAY-RAY
Through the windshield of the cruiser, Frank saw the biplane descending, saw the Jaguar avoid it by inches, careening in a panicky swerve into the fuselage of a vintage British Spitfire, saw the vehicle’s passengers lurch forward in a burst of airbags...
...while Hombre only saw that Red had stopped moving. He drew a bead and fired, again and again, blowing out her tires, closer every second to the final, orgasmic shot that would finish her forever...
...until Frank grabbed the barrel, trying yet again to wrestle the weapon away. Hombre stomped the brakes and they both lurched forward. A bullet discharged like a thunderclap, deafening in the claustrophobic Crown Vic interior, scorching Frank’s temple with a bright hot lightning bolt of pain. He cried and recoiled, reaching for the heat as Hombre scrambled from the car...
...then, opening eyes he’d clamped shut instinctively, Frank glanced in the passenger side mirror and spotted a nasty black powder burn above his right eye and realized he was still alive.
Launching over the seat, Frank yanked a baton from the state trooper’s belt, muttering, “I’m really sorry about this.”
It was Ray-Ray Alvarez’s third day on the job. The first day had been kinda cool, the second kinda boring and since that morning, of course, everything had pretty much gone to shit. If there had been something in his training about the possibility of a seemingly dead crash victim suddenly lurching to life to attack his rescuer for no reason, he was pretty sure he’d missed it, but even so it was still pretty goddamn embarrassing to be in his current predicament, kidnapped and cuffed with his own goddamn cuffs in the back of his very own goddamn patrol car, and he certainly had no intention of letting some other peace officer find him trussed up like a goddamn hog in such a humiliating, fucked-up scenario -- he knew for a goddamn fact he would never hear the fucking end of it -- and so the second the perps were out of the vehicle, he quit playing dead and swung into action as fast as he could in his compromised, immobilized condition.
taken the off-the-record advice of his DEA buddy, Marko, and purchased
a back-up piece, currently strapped to his ankle, which, at the time, had
seemed like a superfluous macho accessory but now seemed like the smartest
purchase of his life.
Fortunately, the maniac from the Diablo wreckage hadn’t cuffed his wrists behind his back, so it was relatively easy to reach the gun. The tricky part was positioning the barrel so it blew apart the chain connecting the cuffs, and Ray-Ray put several bullets into the floorboard of the Crown Vic before he finally managed to free himself.
And then he was out the door, pumped with the adrenaline of success and righteous fury, dashing across the air show field towards the spot where the Jaguar had rammed the Spitfire. The greasy perp in the sharkskin suit was there now, yanking a voluptuous redhead from the wreckage onto the ground by her long, curly hair, screaming, “Come here, bitch! I wanna talk to you!”
The redhead fought like a rabid coyote, thrashing and snapping her jaws until the perp smacked her across the jaw with Ray-Ray’s 9mm, pinning the woman with his knees on her arms while he forced the barrel of the weapon into her mouth. The rage on the redhead’s face was practically demonic as the greasy perp cocked the hammer of the pistol and snarled, “Remember me, you fucking harpy? Huh? Who am I? Say it...“the love of your fucking life!” Remember? SAY IT!”
Ray-Ray dropped into a firing stance and raised his backup piece, but then before he could draw a bead on his target or shout a warning, the lanky perp who’d stolen his security baton suddenly lunged at the sharkskin hombre from his blind side, cracking the club against the maniac’s skull with enough force to drop him to his knees.
Hombre bellowed like a stuck pig, losing his grip on the 9mm as Frank lunged for the piece and Red shot to her feet, yanking her own silver gun from her garter.
“HOLD IT!” Frank demanded, swinging the 9mm back and forth to cover both Hombre and Red. “Now everybody just calm the fuck down!”
“Frank!” Hombre wailed up from the dirt, “We got her, man! What are you doing?”
“Turning her over to the cops...and you too...”
“Goose, please...” Red began.
“Shut up!” Frank said, noticing the barrel of her little silver pistol now pointed at his chest. “Where’s my car?”
And then the Texas state trooper they’d all been too busy to notice cocked his own gun and screamed, “EVERYBODY DROP YOUR WEAPONS! NOW!”
EPISODE SEVENTEEN: BURNER
Frank had seen plenty of Mexican stand-offs in movies, of course...but the reality of two people aiming actual guns at him was more than his nervous system could handle just then, especially considering that one of the two people was a Texas cop who’d somehow managed to pop up directly behind him despite having been cuffed in the back of the Crown Vic literally moments before.
“No, no, no...wait!” Frank stammered, desperate to explain himself to the angry young Latino, momentarily forgetting the stolen 9mm he was now inadvertently pointing at the man.
“DROP IT, MOTHERFUCKER!”
Frank dropped the gun...
Hombre watched the
saw it bounce towards him,
the handle inches from his fingers...
“ON YOUR KNEES! HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!”
But, before Frank could even think about complying, Red was swiftly and suddenly behind him, pressing the barrel of her own gun into the hollow of his ear, shielding herself with his body as she snarled a challenge at Ray-Ray: “BACK OFF, COWBOY!”
“...oh God...” Frank groaned, simultaneously terrified and exasperated.
“DROP THE WEAPON!” Ray-Ray cried, aiming over Frank’s shoulder at Red, yet perfectly willing to drill a bullet through either or both of them. “There’s nowhere to go!”
And he was right. They were in the middle of a treeless fairground, at least a mile from Wild Horse and two miles from the interstate. The majority of the air show tourists had run for cover when the first shots were fired, so there was no question of escaping into the crowd. The nearest getaway car was currently crumpled up against the aluminum skin of a vintage British fighter jet and probably wouldn’t start even if Red somehow managed to reach it without getting shot...not to mention the fact that sirens were shrieking all around them now like banshees on the wind. Any minute...any second...the whole place would be a police convention, and that would pretty much be that.
Ray-Ray took a step forward and Red took a step back, keeping Frank pressed to her chest like a bullet-proof vest.
Red took another step backwards, knowing she was only maybe a move or two from checkmate, and yet......
...somewhere behind her, something was hissing, even louder than her own roaring blood. Pivoting slowly, careful to keep the cop in front of her, she angled around towards the sound until she spottede the source: a flaming liquid propane burner, suspended over the basket of an abandoned hot air balloon, not twenty yards from where she was standing.
Red smiled. Ray-Ray saw her eyes dart, realized what she was thinking and surprised himself with a startled laugh, mumbling, “You gotta be kiddin’ me...”
...Frank heard a pop and a scream...
...then Red was pushing him towards the balloon, shouting, “MOVE!”
Behind them, Ray-Ray felt a hot spike of pain in his thigh and squeezed off a reflexive return shot, toppling sideways into the sod.
Hombre ignored the near miss whistle of the lawman’s bullet, propelling himself up and forward in a drunken stumble towards Red, firing wildly as his quarry disappeared into the balloon’s basket with Frank and punched the blast valve on the burner, sending a plume of blue fire into the nylon rainbow gas bag billowing over their heads like a giant bloated jellyfish.
“NO!” Frank cried abruptly...
...and then the balloon shot seven stories straight up, before jerking to a lurching, stomach-dropping stop at the end of its tether line.
Clutching desperately for the edge of the wicker basket to regain his balance, Frank whirled and saw Red raising her little silver pistol.
“Don’t...” was all he managed before she pulled the trigger...
...severing the tether with a single silver bullet, setting the balloon adrift in the wind...
...while, far below, Hombre fired helplessly into the sky, shrieking at the top of his lungs: “WHAT’D I TELL YOU, FRANK? FUCKING BALLOONS!”
EPISODE EIGHTEEN: PHYSICS
Hombre fired another bullet in frustration, hardly expecting to hit the hot air balloon drifting quickly away to the south...
...but, two hundred yards up, the bullet nevertheless managed to catch its target, slicing up through the wicker between Red’s scarlet fuck-me pumps, just missing the tips of her toes and the mouth of the balloon’s multicolored nylon envelope before reaching the top of its trajectory and arcing back earthward.
Hearing the near miss zing of the shot, Red whirled around to return fire...Frank lunged forward, grabbing the silver Beretta, trying to wrestle it from her grip...
...while, far below, Hombre heard the crack and whistle of another bullet and ducked for cover ‘round the corner of the grounded Spitfire, rushing for the crumpled Jaguar.
“STOP!” Ray-Ray hollered from somewhere behind him, squeezing off another shot. “THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING!”
A trim, thin-haired man was slumped unconscious in the passenger seat of the Jaguar and the keys were, thankfully, dangling in the ignition when Hombre slid behind the wheel and cranked the uncooperative ignition, snarling, “Come on...come on, you limey piece o’ shit...”
Then, with a shudder and a groan like a Welshman having sex, the Jaguar stirred to life, shrieking and scraping as it disentangled itself from the fuselage of the Spitfire. Pulling clear, Hombre jammed the gearbox into drive, ducking low when Ray-Ray blew out the back and side windows before while he stomped the accelerator, thundering across the airfield in pursuit of Red’s balloon.
Ray-Ray emptied the clip of his back-up pistol, hobbling after the car until the pain in his wounded leg forced him to retreat back, defeated, to the front seat of his cruiser. Grabbing the handset of the Crown Vic’s mounted VHF radio, the young patrolman watched the Jaguar and the hot air balloon as they disappeared into the desert, vaguely aware of the growing din of police sirens shrieking towards him along the distant I-10 frontage road. “291 to Dispatch!”
“Go, 291,” the radio gargled.
“Dispatch,” Ray-Ray began, weary and light-headed from the accumulated toll of his injuries, “you ain’t gonna believe this shit...” He paused as a momentary glint of light drew his gaze to the distant balloon...
...where Frank had just that second managed to curl his fingers around the trigger guard of the shiny Beretta, prying it slowly from Red’s grip...
...when the feral redhead
suddenly drove the top of her skull against the underside of the ex-con’s
jaw, forcing his teeth into his tongue.
Frank howled in shock and pain, spitting blood, but tightened his grip on the gun, eyes so fierce Red found herself fearfully stammering, “Hey...you wouldn’t hit a girl, right?”
His answer came fast in a return head-butt that loosened Red’s grip, knocking her sideways and turning her forehead scarlet. “Okay,” Frank scowled, breathing hard, clutching the weapon, victorious, “okay, now...”
“Shut up!” Frank snapped, adrenalin turbo-charging his anger. “Now how do we land this fucking thing?”
“How the heck should I know?”
The answer was extremely displeasing to Frank, who in turn could only counter, “I thought you were the balloon expert!”
“Why would you think that?” Red smiled, infuriating.
“Never mind,” Frank snapped, moving to examine the valves on the burner, gun trained on Red. “This here...this controls the altitude, right?”
Before Red could answer, Frank grabbed the larger of the two valves and cranked it counter-clockwise, reducing the flame to a flicker then, when that seemed to produce no immediate result, he grabbed a lever connected to the vent valve at the top of the nylon envelope, giving it a hard tug that caused the balloon to drop forty feet in the four seconds it took Red to leap forward to crank the burner to full, halting their descent with a bone-rattling lurch. Frank, stomach in throat, instinctively grabbed for the edge of the basket...
...instantly regretting it as the Beretta tumbled from his grip over the side, shrinking to a silver speck as it fell before hitting the distant ground with a discharge that blew a buzzard from its perch on a Saguaro cactus a dozen yards away.
Red took a deep breath,
then caught Frank’s wild eye, giggling, “Guess you skipped physics, huh?”
EPISODE NINETEEN: BIG SPRING
Red giggled, seemingly unfazed by the storm of violence they’d only just survived, as if all the recent danger was nothing more than a half-remembered dream. But Frank, bruised and powder-burned, trembling with adrenalin and fear and rage and who knew what else, could only mumble, “Great,” as he stared down at the silver handgun far below, glittering in the desert sun.
Then, gazing up towards the riot of police lights far behind them now on the receding horizon, Frank suddenly noticed the dark red Jaguar XK, still bouncing towards them across the arid dirt in hopeless, wild pursuit.
Hombre stared back at Frank through the cracked windshield of the British roadster, while slouched in the passenger seat beside him, a particularly violent jolt caused Eric’s eyes to flutter open as he roused back to muzzy consciousness, dabbing his sliced, bloody forehead in confusion. “Wha...what’s going on?”
“Don’t worry, pal. We’re on our way to the hospital...everything’s gonna be fine,” Hombre said with a less than reassuring grimace, gamely offering his best salesman’s handshake. “Charlie Blackfloe, Las Vegas Dodge.”
“Eric Gunderson, Van Horn Imports.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Hombre withdrew his grimy paw from Eric’s dazed grip and turned his attention back to the rainbow balloon, easing up on the gas as his fevered brain downshifted to a new plan of action. His airborne quarry was picking up speed on a hot gust of wind and he figured he’d bust an axle if he kept barrel-assing across the high desert terrain, so instead he turned north, towards the distant grey ribbon of interstate leading east to New Orleans.
After all, he thought darkly, it wasn’t like he didn’t know where she was going.
A mile away and a half mile up, Frank had taken several deep breaths and was attempting once again to impose logic on the chaos of the past two hours of his life. “All right, I’m gonna try this damn thing again,” he cautioned, gingerly examining the balloon’s burner unit, “so you might wanna...”
“Are you crazy?” Red giggled, amused and alarmed, gesturing towards the uninhabited wasteland around and below them. “We’re in the middle of nowhere! What, you’re gonna walk outta here?”
“I don’t care if I have to walk a thousand miles,” Frank snarled in response, “as long as it’s away from you!”
Red thrust out her lower lip and scowled the exaggerated, bratty pout of the teenage girl she clearly hadn’t been in decades, folding her arms and huffing in faux indignation. Irritated, Frank opened his mouth to reply...then remembered she was insane and promptly thought better of it.
“Nothing, just....” Frank closed his eyes and took another breath, forcing himself to focus on salvaging whatever he could from the fiasco of their time together. “...tell me where you ditched the Mustang so I can go pick it up, okay?”
“You mean you’re really going back?” Red laughed with a start of unfeigned disbelief at the salesman’s bull-headed tenacity.
“Yes, crazy person! And don’t try to follow me!”
“Gee,” Red said, pouting again, “and here I thought we were kinda hitting it off.”
“Lady, you stuck a FUCKING GUN IN MY EAR!” Frank exploded, knowing it was pointless to continue the conversation, but somehow unable to stop himself.
“Ah, that was just for show!” Red shrugged, dismissive. “You and me, we got bigger fish to fry. I’m sure Charlie told you all about the big score, the moonshine millions...”
Then, pushing closer, Red defaulted to seduction, breasts against his arm, hot breath in his ear: “There’s plenty to go around...and you seem like the kinda guy who knows what to do in a...tight spot...”
But Frank wasn’t having it. “Listen, Stella...or Marion...or whoever you are,” he said, tired of the game, pushing the voluptuous redhead angrily away. “I know your kind o’ trouble, and I just don’t want no part of it, okay?”
“Oh really?” Red purred, arching a mischievous eyebrow.
“I wasted too many years runnin’ around like an idiot, boostin’ cars and shootin’ guns with trailer trash like you...”
“...then I lost another five in Big Spring, hopin’ to Christ my ass didn’t look cute in prison pants...”
Red’s lips curled back in a helpless grin, eyes darting instinctively to the gangly ex-con’s skinny little butt. “Guess you were outta luck there, huh?”
She giggled and Frank rolled his eyes: it was hopeless.
But Red wasn’t through
with him yet.
EPISODE TWENTY: CAITLIN
Frank focused his attention on the burner, hoping to simply ignore Red until they were back on the ground, but as he reached for the valve to lower the balloon’s flame and begin their descent, Red covered his large hand with her own tiny one and said, “Look...I did eighteen months at the Farm and another year at Shutter Creek, up in Oregon. I know what it’s like, Frank...the shitty job, the halfway house, the asshole parole officer...”
It was the tone of her voice as much as the cool, soft touch of flesh on flesh that caused Frank to hesitate. Turning, he saw again the weariness he’d glimpsed only fleetingly before, as if the aging grifter were finally breaking character, dropping the charade of girlish manipulation and carefree abandon in favor of a truer, though still undoubtedly calculated version of her actual persona. “...that can’t be all you want outta life,” she continued quietly, “just growin’ old and playin’ it safe the rest of your days...”
“Stop it, okay?” Frank snapped, annoyed, uncertain why she was still playing him, what more she could possibly want. “I’m not listenin’ to any more o’ your horseshit.”
But Red continued as if he hadn’t spoken, and Frank couldn’t help but see himself clear in her words, the tiny, cramped shell of his life. “Settlin’ down, settlin’ for table scraps when you could be howlin’ at the moon...”
She was playing him and they both knew he knew it...but, then again, he realized, so were Mitch and Lucia and the parole officers...the whole goddamn shell game, the biggest hustle of all, the one about keeping his nose clean and playing along and sucking it up in hopes of some happily ever after where he’d eventually be a successful, respectable citizen instead of a marginal ex-con, scraping along for the next thirty years until he finally became the government’s problem again, fading away in some cut-rate, piss-stained nursing home, alone.
“C’mon, Frank, admit it,” Red smiled, tracing her fingers along the taut forearm and bicep under the sleeve of the starchy white salesman’s dress shirt. “Out there on the I-10, you an’ me, racing Charlie...when’s the last time you felt your blood just singin’ like that...like you just got laid so good it made you cross-eyed?”
Frank couldn’t answer, couldn’t remember, couldn’t really argue that either hustle was any better or worse, except one stretched on longer before the other shoe finally dropped, and the other might at least be fun while it lasted.
“So how ‘bout it, goose, whaddaya say?” Red said, pressing closer. “You watch my back, I scratch yours?”
“Lady, I don’t trust
you as far as I can throw you,” Frank replied, just being honest.
“I’d say that’s plenty,” Red smirked, glancing over the side of the basket to the surrounding desert, still a pretty good throw beneath them. “Besides, if you think about it, I've never once lied to you, Frank.”
The statement was so blatantly ridiculous that Frank could only laugh, prompting Red to clarify, “Okay, so I wasn’t really planning to buy that Mustang, and I gave you a fake name and tricked you at the gas station...which you totally deserved, by the way...but aside from all that, I’ve been completely honest!”
“You’re lying right now!”
“Nuh-uh!” Red insisted, stubborn.
“You lie so much you can’t even remember what you lied about!”
“Name one thing!”
“You said Charlie was your husband...”
“Ex-husband!” Red explained, digging in her purse for a crumpled snapshot which, to Frank’s genuine surprise, actually did appear to depict Hombre and Red arm-in-arm, side-by-side in a quickie Las Vegas wedding chapel. “It’s not my fault he was already married! I mean, if anybody ruined Charlie’s life, it was Charlie!”
“Well...” Frank stammered, a little less sure of himself as he continued to gape at the unexpected snapshot, “what about the other guy, that Mercedes dealer from Oregon?”
“I’m not saying I’m a model citizen,” Red shrugged.
“You’re a menace!”
“Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah...hey, if you don’t want the money...”
“Yeah, right,” Frank scoffed, “listen, I may be stupid, but I ain’t dumb enough to think I’m actually ever gonna see one goddamn red...”
The word cent transformed into another gasp of astonishment as Red produced a tight roll of hundreds from her purse, pressing the money into his palm. “I’ll pay you the rest when I get to my brother’s place...he’s been watchin’ my daughter for me...”
“Oh my God...you actually
As soon as the words left Frank’s mouth, he saw in Red’s narrowed eyes that she wasn’t lying about the daughter.
“That’s Caitlin,” she
said, reaching into her purse for a photo booth snapshot of a somber young
girl with fiery hair and a glittering gaze unmistakably her mother’s. “And
nothin’ in the world is gonna keep me away from her.”