The Heartbreak Lounge

Harry Rane Novels (Volume 2)

Wallace Stroby

Minotaur Books

Heartbreak Lounge
1
Two days out of prison and twenty miles south of Daytona, Johnny decided he'd walked far enough.
He slipped the duffel bag off his shoulder, dropped it in the parched grass. There wasn't much in it: two pairs of jeans, some spare shirts and socks and the books from his cell--paperbacks of Nietzsche and Sun-Tzu, the Hagakure. He'd given everything else away before being processed out.
He sat on the duffel, elbows on his knees. He knew there was little chance of getting a ride for the next few miles, especially the way he looked, and he was light-headed from the sun and lack of food. He hadn't eaten since the night before, eggs and coffee at an all-night diner in Melbourne. He'd slept in a park, taken his chances with the police, not wanting to spend any more of the little kick-out money he had left on a motel.
There was a single Camel in the bent pack in his shirt pocket. He shook it out, straightened it, lit it with the silver Marine Corps lighter he'd stolen off a bar in Boynton Beach. He sucked in the smoke, held it for a good long time before letting it out, then crumpled the empty pack, tossed it. He sat there smoking, his legs sore, his back stiff, feet blistered in the heavy work boots. He would hurt tonight. Hurt twice as much if he had to sleep outside again.
He heard an engine, turned to look back the way he'd come. A flatbed truck rumbled toward him in the heat haze. Without getting up, he held out his thumb. The truck blew by him, raising dust and grit from the road, leaving it suspended in the air.
Passenger cars were few on this stretch of Route 1, and heknew his best chance was a truck. Yesterday he'd gotten a ride all the way from Fort Pierce to the outskirts of Melbourne in the bed of a pickup driven by two Mexican day laborers. He sat on stacked concrete blocks and when they let him off, the dust was all over his clothes, his skin. He'd walked into town from there.
He took off the Marlins cap he'd bought in a convenience store, rubbed at his stubble. In Glades he'd kept his head shaved, had only let his hair grow out in the month before his release. It was thickening now, itching as it came in, but it offered little protection. The cap helped keep the sun off his scalp and forehead, but he could feel the stiffness and burning on the back of his neck.
He finished the cigarette, watched a hawk glide in the thermal currents above the tree line. There was swamp on both sides of the highway, the air thick with the sulfur smell of it. Spanish moss hung from the cypress trees and it looked cool and dark among them, but the one time he had wandered in to get out of the sun, he had ended up knee-deep in water. So he kept to the road.
Out here, between towns, he knew he was running the biggest risk. He watched for the tan and black Florida State Police cruisers: if a trooper thought he was hitchhiking, he would be stopped, questioned, have to show ID. He was legal, free and clear, but that wouldn't matter. Cops were cops, and here it would be even worse. If he looked down-and-out--if he looked like what he was--they would fuck with him, make him spend a night in their drunk tank, cite, fine and release him. All by way of warning: Don't come back.
He wasn't coming back, he knew that. If he ever got out of this state, he was never coming back.
He brushed ash from his pants, stood up, his knees aching. He picked up the duffel, slung it over his right shoulder.
He heard the car before he saw it. Didn't bother to turn at first, until he heard the pitch of the engine change, slow. It was a dark green Buick Electra, sun flashing off chrome. He put his thumb out, saw a glimpse of blonde hair as the carwent by. It was halfway up the rise when its brake lights glowed.
He watched the car slow, steer onto the shoulder, pause there as if the driver were having second thoughts. Then it began to slowly reverse, veering slightly from side to side. He could see the woman behind the wheel now, right arm thrown over the seat as she backed up, no one else in the car.
It stopped a few yards ahead of him, the woman looking back, sizing him up, her foot probably still on the gas pedal, ready to pull away in an instant. He knew how he must look, covered with dust and grime, his blue work shirt sweat dark. He walked slow, expecting the car to peal away, leave him breathing road dust. It stayed where it was.
As he got closer, there was a click from the trunk and the lid rose. He looked at her through the back window, saw her smile.
The trunk was big, empty except for a blanket and a white metal first-aid kit. He dropped the duffel in, shut the lid, heard the thunk as she unlocked the passenger-side door automatically.
He opened the door, said, "Thanks," and got in.
She was in her late forties, early fifties: frosted blonde hair, blue flowered blouse, designer jeans. She was toned and fit, her skin tan and slightly leathery. He saw all this in the moment it took him to slide onto the seat, pull the door closed.
The car was chill with air-conditioning and smelled of perfume, powder. The leather seats were cold through his jeans. She looked at him for a moment, put her blinker on and pulled back onto the road.
"Not many rides along here, I wouldn't think," she said. "And that sun ..."
"You're right about that."
He shifted in the seat, shivered slightly as his sweat began to cool. "I appreciate your stopping."
"Is this too much AC for you? I can open the windows."
"No, it feels good."
He pulled at his shirt, tugged loose the wet patches where it clung to his skin.
"I don't usually do this," she said. "I haven't in years."
He took off his cap, ran a hand through his stubble.
"Well, I'm glad you did."
"Your neck is burned. It must be painful."
"I'll be fine. When I get where I'm going, I'll buy something, put on it."
"And where are you going?"
"St. Augustine. I'm meeting some friends there."
"That's not too far. An hour and a half at most."
"Then that's fine with me."
He looked out the window at the cypress trees rushing by. It was good to be in a car again, riding.
After a while, she said, "You're being rude."
He looked at her, saw she was smiling.
"Sorry," he said. "I think the heat's got me zoning a little."
"I can understand that."
"My name's John. John Harrow."
"Mine's Teresa. You from Florida, John? You don't sound like it."
"New Jersey."
"That's what I thought. New Jersey or New York. You get down into South Florida and everybody you meet is from one or the other. It's like the South just stops and the North starts up again. Where are you coming from?"
"West Palm," he said. "Had some work down there, but it ran out. And I wanted to get home for the holidays anyway."
"You planning on hitchhiking all the way to New Jersey?"
He shook his head. There was a silver cigarette case on the seat between them.
"Mind if I take one of those?" he said.
"Go ahead."
He opened the case. They were women's cigarettes, long, with a good inch of filter.
"One for you?" he said.
"No, I'm trying to cut back. Add a few years to my life."
He took a cigarette out and she punched in the dashboard lighter. He put the case back on the seat, broke the filter off.
"Sorry," he said. "Not used to them."
"That's all right."
He powered the window down, hot air rushing in, threw the filter out. When the lighter popped, she handed it to him. He got the cigarette going, dragged the smoke deep into his lungs, replaced the lighter himself. For the first time, he noticed the key chain hanging from the ignition. Along with the keypad for the alarm and locks, there was a rabbit's foot. It was the first one he'd seen in years.
He slid the window back up until it was open just a crack, blew smoke through.
"My friends in St. Augustine," he said, "they owe me some money. I'll take that, buy a ticket, get a plane out of Jacksonville, maybe a train."
"Plane's cheaper, and easier. You have family in New Jersey?"
"A little boy. I haven't seen him for a while."
"I'm sorry about that. Will you see him when you get there?"
"I hope so."
"How old is he?"
"About seven now. His mother and I ... we're not together anymore."
"I guessed. Still, he'll be happy to see his father, I'm sure. With Christmas coming up."
"I hope. Ashtray?"
"Right there."
It was neatly hidden in the dash. He slid it out, tapped ash into it.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't pry like that, asking about your family situation."
"It's all right."
"I can imagine how you feel. My children are all grown now."
"They down here?"
She shook her head.
"Connecticut. That's where we're from. But I live in Boca now."
He looked at her hands on the wheel.
"No ring."
"I'm divorced. Just last year."
"Sorry."
"My ex-husband built houses. We moved down here because he had so many projects going. Too many. He never had time for anything else."
They passed a state police cruiser parked on the shoulder. He watched it as they went past.
"It's better this way, though," she said. "It's like a new life, you know?"
"I know exactly."
They drove in silence for a few minutes.
"John, I changed my mind. Can you light me one of those?"
He did. When he handed it to her, her fingers touched his for an instant, then drew away. Smoke drifted across the inside of the windshield.
"When you get up there," she said, "will you stay?"
"I don't know. I don't think so. It depends what happens."
"You have work up there?"
"I will."
"And what is it exactly you do?"
He looked out the window, thought of the miles falling away behind him. The miles left to go.
"I can do all kinds of things," he said.
She smiled, kept her eyes on the road.
"I imagine you can," she said.
 
The fuel light went on just outside St. Augustine. He steered the Buick off the elevated highway and down a sloping exit ramp to a combination Waffle House and Chevron station, its two-story sign rising above the roadway. He touched the scratch on the left side of his neck, looked at his fingertips, saw the redness there.
At the pumps, he felt around beside the driver's seat for the fuel door lever. The first one he tugged unlocked the trunk, the lid rising. He was out of the car quickly, put a hand on the lid, thumped it shut.
He put five dollars' worth of super in the Buick, went insideand paid the attendant--a teenage girl--in cash, saw her looking at the scratch. He got change for the pay phone, felt her eyes on him as he went back out.
He made the call, traffic humming on the highway above. After he hung up, he went back to the Buick, got behind the wheel again, started the engine, pulled out.
Back on the highway, heading north, he smoked another of her cigarettes. He felt good. He'd seized the opportunity offered him, the car allowing him to cover more distance in an hour than he could in two days on foot. The moment the Buick had pulled onto the shoulder, he knew it was a sign. It was the universe aligning itself, paving his way. He could not be stopped.
 
When he hit St. Augustine, he found the courthouse, drove slow down side streets until he spotted the bail bonds office. He parked a block away, went in, the opening door setting off a buzzer somewhere inside.
There was a single desk out front, plastic chairs. Vertical blinds on the big window, late-afternoon sun flashing through; magazines and a fat dead fly on the sill. The door to the inner office was closed. The woman at the desk, red hair piled high, was talking on the phone in a Southern accent. She looked up at him and a moment later the inner door opened. A balding, middle-aged man in a short-sleeved shirt waved him in.
He went into the inner office and the man closed the door behind him, sat down at a paper-cluttered desk. A noisy air conditioner worked in one window, a strip of yellow ribbon fluttering from it.
"Good thing you called ahead," the man said. "Getting ready to shut down for the day, go hit some golf balls. You would've been out of luck."
Johnny waited, standing.
"You look like your picture," the man said. "I have to give you that. No sense asking for ID, I suppose."
He opened a desk drawer, came out with a legal-size manila envelope. He put it on the desktop, left the draweropen. Johnny knew there would be a gun inside, in easy reach. He came closer, picked up the envelope.
"Don't know who I'm doing this for," the man said. "Or why. But I know how to follow instructions. It's all there."
The flap was sealed. The man slid a silver letter opener across the desk. Johnny used it on the envelope, looked inside, counted. There were twenty fifty-dollar bills.
"Supposed to be more," he said.
"You'll have to take that up with someone else. A grand, that's what I was told."
Johnny looked at him, the letter opener still in his hand. The man scratched his elbow. His eyes flicked toward the open desk drawer.
"You'd never make it," Johnny said.
The man looked at him, said nothing.
Johnny set the opener down on the blotter, left the office. The woman was still on the phone, but she watched him as he went out the door.
He drove five blocks, found a coffee shop. He sat where he could watch the car and ate a steak with french fries and green beans. It was his first real meal since leaving Glades. He ate slow, washing it all down with swallows of sweet tea from a red plastic glass. When he was done he put one of the fifties beside the plate, went to a phone booth in the back.
From his shirt pocket, he took out the piece of paper with the ten-digit number on it. He fed in coins, dialed the number, waited while it rang. When the pager on the other end beeped, he punched in the number of the pay phone, hung up.
He waited there until it rang back.
"Yeah?" a voice said.
"It's me."
"Where are you?"
"St. Augustine."
"You get it?"
"I got it. It's shy."
"I had some second thoughts. We can discuss it when you get up here."
"This is a bad way to start."
"We'll talk about it later. I can't stay on. This isn't a secure line. Let me call you back from someplace else."
"No need. I just wanted to let you know."
"Let me know what?"
"That I'm on my way." He hung up.
Forty minutes later, he was at the airport in Jacksonville. He watched for signs, steered the Buick into the long-term parking lot. He got a ticket from the machine, waited for the automated gate to open. It took him five minutes to find an empty spot. He pulled the Buick into it, killed the engine, got the duffel from the backseat.
He took a white T-shirt out, used it to wipe down the inside of the car, the cigarette case. When he was done, he got out, hipped the door shut, wiped the outside latches, then the trunk lid. He put the T-shirt back in the bag, the envelope already in there.
He locked the doors with the remote, tore the ticket up, let the breeze take the pieces. Slinging the duffel over his shoulder, he started walking toward the terminal, heat shimmer rising off the blacktop around him.
There were buses waiting at the far end of the terminal. He would get one into town, catch a train north. Two, three days at the most and he'd be there.
Near the bus stand, he stopped, got the key chain out. He stripped half the keys off the ring, dropped them through the grate of a storm drain. He found another grate twenty feet away, dropped in the rest of the keys, stepped on the remote and kicked the broken pieces of it in after them. He kept the rabbit's foot.
Copyright © 2005 by Wallace Stroby.