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By Edward Lee
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Somerset County, Mary land, The Present
Seth Kohn felt in a trance as he flipped through the wallet-sized snapshots. The Tahoe idled as he waited, the purr of its engine adding to the hypnotic effect. The first picture bid a smile; it showed a pretty yet overweight woman with long sable-dark hair. She was standing on the St. Petersburg pier, smiling insecurely back into the camera. Seth hadn't taken the picture himself; it was old, presumably taken by one of Judy's old boyfriends. She'd given it to him recently, though, instructing him, "Keep this in your wallet. It's one of my 'fattie' pictures. I think I weighed one eighty then."
"Why do you want me to have it?" he'd asked.
"So you can gauge me."
She'd laughed, tossing her hair the way she always did. "Yeah. If I ever get that big again, lock me in a room for a year and don't give me anything but bread and water. Whole wheat bread."
She's a riot, he thought now. The next picture was taken only six months ago, of them together after one of their rehab meetings. On cocaine, Judy Parker had gone from 180 to ninety-five in only a year. But in snapshot she couldn't have looked better: 120, bulge free, smiling in a clingy maroon twinset sundress, her hair a foot shorter than the "fattie" picture, but her eyes brighter than he'd ever seen them. How did a nerd like me ever land a woman like this? he wondered, and then he raised a brow when he looked at himself in the same picture. Tall, thin, and a bit stoop-shouldered, but just as bright eyed. He knew why they each looked so radiant. We got our lives back ... and didn't think we would. Seth scrutinized his hair in the snapshot: dark, longish, and wavy. A year before it had been gray, from over a year of chronic alcoholism. He figured that the vanity of hair dye was a legitimate reward for getting through rehab without a drop of booze. One last glance at the photo and he muttered with some satisfaction, "For a geeky, stoop-shouldered, big-nosed, almost fifty-year-old computer nerd, I guess I'm not a half-bad-looking guy ..."
The next photo paralyzed him. Were his hands suddenly shaking? The pic was a portrait shot of a peaches-and-cream blonde with a luscious smile.
Aw, Jesus. He knew he shouldn't keep it in his wallet, not after all this time.
He quickly put the photos back in his wallet when he heard the thrashing footsteps.
Just as Judy opened the passenger door, Seth was caught by surprise: an old black step van with some kind of markings on it blew by, breaking up the green of the fields. Something or other Fruits & Vegetables, the markings had read. A half-second glimpse showed him two ungainly men with grizzly chins and missing teeth in their grins. Did one of them wink?
Mary land rednecks, I guess. County boys. Seth snorted a chuckle. I sure hope Mary land rednecks aren't as pathetic as Florida rednecks ...
"Oh my God!" Judy exclaimed, sliding her rump into the seat and slamming the door. "Did those guys in the truck see?"
"See what?" Seth asked.
"See me peeing in the field!"
"Oh, I don't think so," Seth tried to comfort her. "The grass is too high."
Judy sighed and leaned back, refastening her seat belt. "I don't know if this is just new for me, or a new low."
Seth pulled off the gravelly shoulder and accelerated back down the road. "You mean to tell me you've never peed in the great outdoors before?"
Judy smirked, primping her dark hair. "No. I'm a woman. I don't have ... one of those things. Guys got it easy as far as that goes. I'm an elegant, sophisticated woman, Seth."
"So when you were pissing like a race horse back there in the grass, I guess you had your pinkies extended, right?"
"Of course!" But then she looked paranoically behind her. "I hope those two rednecks don't call the cops." She touched her chin. "What would the charge be? Unlawful public bladder-voiding? Tinkling on county property?"
"I wouldn't worry about it, honey, and come to think of it ..." He pointed to the upcoming sign which announced, LOWENSPORT-6 MILES. "It may actually be that we own the land you just ... voided your bladder on."
"Good. That means we're almost there, right? Didn't you say the house was five miles before Lowensport?"
"Yep." Seth flipped down the dorky sunglass clip-ons over his glasses. He squeezed Judy's hand. "And thanks for being such a sport about all this."
Judy seemed distracted by the endless green fields sweeping past. "How am I a sport?"
"I know how you hate long drives. Tampa to Mary land can be done in a day and a half. I didn't mean for this to take three."
"Well, let's see, let's count them," Judy replied. "Sex once in Florence, South Carolina, twice at rest stops on the interstate, then once in Ashland, and twice today on the ferries from Virginia to Mary land." Judy brushed a shock of shining dark hair out of her face to grin. "That's six times in three days. You definitely know how to keep a woman pacified on a long drive."
"I'm flattered," Seth chuckled. "But you better make that seven times, because there were three rest stops. You forgot Tappahannock."
Judy paused, thinking. "That's right! The picnic table! How could I forget?"
"And since we're almost there, we should be christening the new house real soon ..."
Seth exaggerated a groan. "Honey, I'm forty-nine. Give an old man a break."
"Old man, my ass." She laughed and let her gaze return to the window. The river couldn't be seen now, for all the grasslands. "So that's what switchgrass looks like," she remarked. The seemingly limitless expense of man-tall grass shined so deliriously green it made her eyes hurt. "That's pretty cool about all the tax breaks you'll get from that stuff."
"Oh, is that it? I didn't even know," Seth said and slowed on the road to look. "It looks just like ... well, grass."
"It's a high-bulk biomass crop," Judy said. "By October, it'll be ten feet tall. Then they cut it down and start all over again."
"It's for ethanol or something, right?"
"Chiefly, yeah, but other things, too, like hydrogen, methane, ammonia, and a form of synthesis gas that'll run an electric plant just as efficiently but much cleaner than coal-burning plants. Even better is that switchgrass grows on land where farm crops don't grow so detractors can't bitch about cutting into the food and feedstock supplies. Switchgrass is essentially junk that-thanks to the marvels of modern science-can get the U.S. off fossil fuels. It's carbon-neutral, and renews every year."
"It still must cost money to farm."
"Almost nothing compared to corn, soybeans, or any other food crop you can name. Switchgrass doesn't need fertilizer or pesticides, and it's the most drought-resistant plant that can be used to make money. Very recently it's become a wondercrop, especially for people concerned about pollution and green house gases."
Seth found the subject mildly interesting but-"Look, I know you used to teach philosophy but how do you know so much about switchgrass, of all things?"
She snorted a chuckle. "I used to date a professor of agricultural science. The guy was obsessed with renewable energy sources."
Seth was instantly curious. "Yeah, but was he also obsessed with you?"
Judy hooted. "Are you kidding? First of all, it was back in my 'fattie' days, and secondly-I'm serious-this guy would read Environment Times like a regular man reads Playboy."
"That is if regular men even read it at all." Seth did have a subscription, and sometimes they even looked through it together. "So ... how long did you date him?"
"Seth, please, I don't want to talk about him. He was a dolt."
"Ah, now I don't feel so bad."
"And anyway, we were talking about the switchgrass and the tax breaks you'll get from it."
Seth got back to the speed limit. "This year I need all the tax breaks I can get. But ... I guess I'm being greedy, huh?"
"That's what I don't understand about you," she said, but in a jovial way. "You have almost a Christian-style guilt over success-and you're Jewish!"
Seth winked at her. "Yeah, but I'm damn glad air is free. My nose is huge."
She sluffed him off with a shake of the head. "When you work your butt off for twenty-five years and finally strike it big, you shouldn't feel guilty, you should feel proud."
He couldn't let it die just yet. "But pride's a sin, honey-for all you Christians, that is."
"So is sex out of wedlock, lover, for heebs and goys alike, and after doing it seven times during a three-day road trip, I think we're probably both on God's shit list."
Seth searched for a witticism but stalled. Why did she have to mention wedlock? he thought. He didn't even know why he'd be bothered by the prospect. Helene had been dead now for two years.
Judy gave him an astonished look, then nudged him hard on the arm. "It was a joke, Mr. Jokester! If I even joke about marriage, you clam up."
"No, no, that's not it-"
"Uh-hmm. Besides, I told you on our first date that I never want to get married." She rolled her window down, perhaps as a distraction, and let her hair fly in the breeze. "Let's not kid ourselves. As paranoid as you are, and as impulsive as I am, marriage would probably wreck our relationship."
"Come here!" he said quickly, and startled her by slipping his arm around her and pulling. "Here, right over here next to me-"
"I can't!" she squealed. "My seat belt's on!"
"Take it off, take it off," he urged. "Right now!"
Bewildered, she did so, and then Seth dragged her right over till she was half in his lap. He kissed her immediately, and hard, and even playfully slipped his hand down her blouse and into her bra. She just as playfully feigned resistance until the kiss grew more serious. The Tahoe began to weave on the old country road. When he broke the kiss off, he held her even tighter and whispered, "Listen to me, Judy. Are you listening?"
"Nothing, and I mean nothing is going to wreck our relationship. No booze, no dope, no bullshit from our pasts. Nothing. Do you believe me?"
Suddenly a tear welled in her eye. "Yes, I do."
"Good." And then he kissed her again.
Eventually she laughed and pushed him back. "Maybe nothing will wreck our relationship but you're sure as hell going to wreck the car if you don't keep your eyes on the road!"
"I guess you're right."
"Let's just get to the house," she whispered. Judy's face was flushed now. "Then we can go for number eight ..."
"Not bad," D-Man muttered just after they'd passed the forest green Chevy Tahoe. "See the knockers on her?"
"Did I?" Nutjob questioned. "And I also saw the pencil-neck she was with. Shit, man. We could go back there and take care of business. Who'd know? Wouldn't be the first time we left some bodies in the switchgrass."
The sun glared off D-Man's nearly bald head. "See, Nutjob, that's why you been in the joint three times and I never been." D-Man's muscles tensed when he jabbed a hard finger in his colleague's shoulder.
"Lookin's one thing. But the only business we got's with Rosh. You wantin' to fuck with people just to get your whistle wet could blow the whole game for all of us. I ain't gonna lose this big-money gig 'cos of your redneckin' around. Ya hear me?"
"Yeah," Nutjob grumbled.
Nutjob drove and D-Man rode shotgun. The big black step van rattled down the road, bearings shrieking. It was Nutjob who had more missing teeth. His mud brown hair stuck to the sides of his possibly malformed head, and whenever he scratched his goatee, dandruff fell out. Hokey cobra tattoos wound up his forearms. The missing left earlobe, he claimed, could be attributed to a gang fight in Jessup Penitentiary. "I lost an earlobe," he claimed. "He lost an eyeball." In truth, though, the loss was due to some initial noncompliance on his part when a number of fellow cons had wanted to play the well-known prison game known as "Choo-Choo Train" and had decided Nutjob would be the caboose. "You bend over right now, bitch," a con named Barbell said after he spat the earlobe out in the shower, "else next thang get bit off'll be mo' than yo' earlobe." Nutbjob had taken the advice.
D-Man, however, had a different redneck look: brawny, serious, and, though not exactly clean, his unkemptness didn't come close to Nutjob's. They called him D-Man because he'd once driven a doughnut delivery truck until he'd gotten fired for falling asleep at the wheel and barreling off a bridge, consigning hundreds of honey-dipped, jelly-filled, and french crullers to the Brewer River. Since then he'd managed to ascend in the world of commerce, or descend, depending on one's viewpoint. His brawn and the almost-shaved head made him look like a trailer park version of Bruce Willis.
"Here we is," Nutjob announced after they'd hit downtown Somner's Cove and pulled into Crazy Alan's Crabhouse. They slowed around back, both quiet now, and kept their eyes peeled. Every other day they'd be hearing about new antidrug initiatives, and though D-Man wasn't exactly think tank material, he was smart enough to know that all it took was one rat to turn a sure thing into a twenty-five-year jolt with no parole. "Careful," he urged. "Get'cher speed down."
Nutjob sputtered. "Like what we got to worry about, man? You a 'fraidy-cat?"
"Just do what I tell ya or I punch your face inside-out," D-Man asserted.
The drab black van idled along the docks behind the crab house. Nutjob parked and shut the motor off. Stacks of crab traps sat in piles on some of the docks, but the boats had already come and gone. Good sign, D-Man thought. But where's-
"Hey, D-Man? Where the hell is-"
"He'll be here." D-Man smirked. Rosh was always here on time. D-Man wrung his hands a few times. "You get the stuff, I'll go look for him."
Nutjob climbed into the back as D-Man disembarked and cautiously walked down several of the sorting aisles where undocumented workers would separate the crabs into the various size categories before taking them into the restaurant. It was the crab boats themselves that made the pickups, from more maritime suppliers who passed off the shipments from one to another along the crabbing routes. Rosh never made the switch with D-Man in his own vehicle; he always had it here at the crab house, because the crab house was where the boats dropped off the base product. He tried the back door but it was locked.
This don't feel right, he thought, and quickened his pace back to the van. Why do I got this funny feelin' today's the day I get busted?
"Nutjob?" He could see the van's back doors hanging open, yet could hear no familiar voices. D-Man looked in the back, saw that the corn bushels remained untouched, and then looked on the other side of the van-and froze.
Nutjob lay facedown on the bare dockwood, his hands lashed behind his back with yellow Flex Cuffs.
"Don't move, redneck, or it's lights out."
D-Man's jaw jittered as he raised his meaty hands and felt the tip of a pistol barrel against his temple.
"Yeah." A hard hand shoved him toward where Nutjob lay, then spun him around. A Somner's Cove cop he'd never seen before sneered back: slim, mustached, weasel-eyed. The nameplate over his badge read STEIN. "So you're the big bad D-Man, huh, punk? Drive any doughnuts in the river lately?"
"Our intel's had the line on you and your scumbag buddy for a while." Stein kicked Nutjob over on his back. D-Man's partner looked teary-eyed.
"He come from out of nowhere, D-Man! He knows all about-"
"Be quiet," ordered the cop. "You sound like a woman, and-look at that. Nerves of steel." He pointed to Nutjob's crotch. He'd wet his pants.
A chuckle. "I'd say you guys ain't making it as bad- ass crack dealers. You should've stuck to delivering doughnuts."
Finally D-Man found some semblance of a tongue. "We're just deliverin' corn to the crab house, Officer."
Stein shoved him back to the rear of the van. "Let's check out your produce, huh? Haul out the last bushel in the corner."
How the hell does this guy know ... D-Man's mind spun in a frenzy. Someone dropped a dime on us, but ... who? Rosh? Ain't no way! After another hard shove in the middle of the back, D-Man kneed into the van and started moving the bushels aside. And what the fuck am I gonna do now? His hands shook when he grabbed the corner bushel.
"Oww!" D-Man wailed when Stein kicked him hard in the thigh.
"The other corner, tough guy."
D-Man was blubbering as bad as Nutjob when he hauled the bushel back.
Excerpted from The Golem by Edward Lee Copyright © 2009 by Edward Lee. Excerpted by permission.
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