One late april. Ten o’clock at night. Hustling south on Florida 112 through the eastern section of Cypress County, about twenty miles from the intersection of 112 and the Tamiami Trail.
So maybe I was pushing old Miss Agnes along a little too fast. Narrow macadam. Stars above, and some wisps of ground mist below. But not much of it, and not often.
The big tires of the old blue Rolls pickup rumbled along the roughened surface. Big black drainage canal paralleling the road on the left side. Now and then an old wooden bridge arching across the canal to serve one of the shacky little frame houses tucked back in the swamp and skeeter country. No traffic. And it had been a long long day, and I was anxious to get back to Lauderdale, to Bahia Mar, to The Busted Flush, to a long hot shower and a long cold drink and a long deep sleep.
I had the special one-mile spots turned on. They are bracketed low on the massive front bumper. Essential for fast running through the balmy Florida nights on the straight narrow back roads, because her own headlights are feeble and set too high.
Meyer, beside me, was in a semidoze. We’d been to the wedding of the daughter of an old friend, at the ﬁsh camp he owns on Lake Passkokee. It is a very seldom thing to be able to drink champagne, catch a nine-pound bass, and kiss a bride all within the same hour. Meyer had been giving me one of his lectures on the marital condition.
So I was whipping along, but alert for the wildlife. I hate to kill a raccoon. Urban Florida is using the rabies myth to justify wiping them out, with guns, traps, and poison. The average raccoon is more affable, intelligent, and tidy than the average meathead who wants them eliminated, and is usually a lot better looking.
It is both sad and ironic that the areas where the raccoon are obliterated are soon overrun with snakes.
I was alert for any reﬂection of my headlights in animal eyes in the darkness of the shoulders of the road, for any dark shape moving out into the long reach of the beams.
But I wasn’t prepared for the creature of the night that suddenly appeared out of the blackness, heading from left to right, at a headlong run. At eighty, you are covering about a hundred and twenty feet per second. She was perhaps sixty feet in front of the car when I ﬁrst saw her. So half of one second later, when I last saw her, she was maybe ten inches from the ﬂare of my front right fender, and that ten inches was the product of the ﬁrst effect of my reaction time. Ten inches of living space instead of that bone-
crunching, ﬂesh-smashing thud which, once heard, lingers forever in the part of the mind where echoes live.
And I became very busy with Miss Agnes. She put her back end onto the left shoulder, and then onto the right shoulder. The swinging headlights showed me the road once in a while. I could not risk touching the brake. This was the desperate game of steering with the skid each time, and feeding her a morsel of gas for traction whenever she was coming back into alignment with the highway. I knew I had it whipped, and knew that each swing was less extreme.
Then a rear tire went and I lost her for good. The back end came around and there was a shriek of rubber, crashing of brush, a bright cracking explosion inside my skull, and I was vaguely aware of being underwater, disoriented, tangled in strange objects, and aware of the fact that it was not a very good place to be. I did not feel any alarm. Just a mild distaste, an irritation with my situation.
Something started grabbing at me and I tried to make it let go. Then I was up in the world of air again, and being dragged up a slope, coughing and gagging, thinking that it was a lot more comfortable back under the water.
“You all right, Trav? Are you all right?”
I couldn’t answer until I could stop retching and coughing. “I don’t know yet.”
Meyer helped me up. I stood, sopping wet, on the gravelly shoulder and ﬂexed all the more useful parts and muscles. There was a strange glow in the black water. I realized Miss Agnes’s lights were still on, and she had to be ten feet under. The light went off abruptly as the water shorted her out.
I found a couple of tender places where I had hit the wheel and the door, and a throbbing lump on my head, dead center, just above the hairline.
“And how are you?” I asked Meyer.
“I’m susceptible to infections of the upper respiratory tract, and I’d like to lose some weight. Otherwise, pretty good.”
“In a little while I think I’m going to start being glad you came along for the ride.”
“Maybe you’d have gotten out by yourself.” “I don’t think so.”
“I’d rather think so. Excuse me. Otherwise I have to share the responsibility for all your future acts.”
“Do I ever do anything you wouldn’t do, Meyer?” “I could make a list?”
That was when the reaction hit. A nice little case of the yips and shudders. And a pair of macaroni knees. I sat down gently on the shoulder of the road, wrapped my arms around my legs, and rested my forehead on my wet knees.
“Are you all right, Trav?”
“You keep asking me that. I think I will be very ﬁne and very dandy. Maybe ﬁve or ten minutes from now.”
It seemed very very quiet. The bugs were beginning to
ﬁnd us. A night bird yawped way back in the marshland. Vision had adjusted to the very pale wash of starlight on the road and on the black glass surface of the drainage canal.
Miss Agnes was down there, resting on her side, facing in the direction from which we had come, driver’s side down. Sorry, old lady. We gave it a good try, and damned near made it. Except for the tire going, you did your usual best. Staunch, solid, and, in a very digniﬁed way, obedient. Even in extremis, you managed to keep from killing me.
I got up and gagged and tossed up half a cup of swamp water. Before he could ask me again, I told Meyer I felt much improved. But irritable.
“What I would dearly like to do,” I said, “is go back and
ﬁnd that moronic female, raise some angry welts on her rear end, and try to teach her to breathe underwater.”
“You didn’t see her?” I asked him.
“I was dreaming that I, personally, Meyer, had solved the gold drain dilemma, and I was addressing all the gnomes of Zurich. Then I woke up and we were going sideways. I found the sensation unpleasant.”
“She ran across in front of us. Very close. If I hadn’t had time to begin to react, I’d have boosted her with the right front fender, and she would be a piece of dead meat in a treetop back there on the right side of the road.”
“Please don’t tell me something.” “Don’t tell you what?”
“Tell me she was a shrunken old crone. Or tell me she looked exactly like Arnold Palmer. Or even tell me you didn’t get a good look at her. Please?”
I closed my eyes and reran the episode on my little home screen inside my head. Replay is always pretty good. It has to be. Lead the kind of life where things happen very quickly and very unexpectedly, and sometimes lethally, and you learn to keep the input wide open. It improves the odds.
“I’d peg her at early to middle twenties. Black or dark brown hair, that would maybe have been shoulder length if she wasn’t running like hell. She had some kind of ribbon or one of those plastic bands on her hair. Not chunky, but
solid. Impression of good health. Not very tall. Hmm. Barefoot? I don’t really know. Maybe not, unless she’s got feet like rhino hide. Wearing a short thing, patterned. Flower pattern? Some kind of pattern. Lightweight material. Maybe one of those mini-nightgowns. Open down the front and at the throat, so that it was streaming out behind her, like her dark hair. Naked, I think. Maybe a pair of sheer little briefs, but it could have been just white hide in contrast to the suntanned rest of her. Caught a glint of something on one wrist. Bracelet or watch strap. She was running well, running hard, getting her knees up, getting a good swing of her arms into it. A ﬂavor of being scared, but not in panic. And not winded. Mouth closed. I think she had her jaw clamped. Determination. She was running like hell, but away from something, not after it. If she started a tenth of a second earlier, we’d be rolling east on the Trail by now. A tenth of a second later, and she’d be one dead young lady, and I could have racked Miss Agnes up a little more solidly, and maybe you or I or both of us would be historical ﬁgures. Sorry, Meyer. Young and interestingly put together, and perhaps even pretty.”
He sighed. “McGee, have you ever wondered if you don’t emit some sort of subliminal aroma, a veritable dog whistle among scents? I have read about the role that some scent we cannot even detect plays in the reproductive cycle of the moth. The scientists spread some of it on a tree limb miles from nowhere, and within the hour there were hundreds upon hundreds of. . . .”
He stopped as we both saw the faraway, oncoming lights. It seemed a long time before they were close enough for us to hear the drone of the engine. We stepped into the road-
way and began waving our arms. The sedan faltered, and then the driver ﬂoored it and it slammed on by, accelerating. Ohio license. We did not look like people anybody would want to pick up on a dark night on a very lonely road.
“I was wearing my best smile,” Meyer said sadly.
We discussed probabilities and possibilities. Twenty miles of empty road from there to the Tamiami Trail. And, in the other direction, about ten miles back to a crossroads with darkened store, darkened gas station. We walked back and I tried to pinpoint the place where the girl had come busting out into the lights, but it was impossible to read black skid marks on black macadam. No lights from any house on either side. No little wooden bridge. No driveway. Wait for a ride and get chewed bloody. So start the long twenty miles and hit the ﬁrst place that shows a light. Or maybe get a ride. A remote maybe.
Before we left we marked Miss Agnes’s watery resting place by wedging a long heavy broken limb down into the mud and jamming an aluminum beer can onto it. Miracle metal. Indestructible. Some day the rows of glittering cans will be piled so high beside the roads that they will hide the billboards which advertise the drinkables which come in the aluminum cans.
Just before we left I had the ﬁnal wrench of nausea and tossed up the ﬁnal cup of ditchwater. We kept to the middle of the road and found a fair pace. By the time our shoes stopped making sloppy noises, we were swinging along in good style.
“Four miles an hour,” Meyer said. “If we could do it without taking a break, ﬁve hours to the Tamiami Trail. By
now it must be quarter to eleven. Quarter to four in the morning. But we’ll have to take a few breaks. Add an hour and a half, let’s say. Hmm. Five-ﬁfteen.”
Scuff and clump of shoes on the blacktop. Keening orchestras of tree toads and peepers. Gu-roomp of a bullfrog. Whine song of the hungry mosquito keeping pace, then a whish of the ﬂy whisk improvised from a leafy roadside weed. Jet going over, too high to pick out the lights. Startled caw and panic-ﬂapping of a night bird working the canal for his dinner. And once, the eerie, faraway scream of a Florida panther.
The second car barreled by at very high speed, ignoring us completely, as did an old truck heading north a few minutes later.
But a good old Ford pickup truck came clattering and banging along; making the anguished sounds of ﬁfteen years of bad roads, heavy duty, neglect, and a brave start on its second or third trip around the speedometer. One headlight was winking on and off. It slowed down as if to stop a little beyond us. We were over on the left shoulder. I could see a burly ﬁgure at the wheel.
When it was even with us, there was a ﬂame-wink at the driver’s window, a great ﬂat unechoing bang, and a pluck of wind an inch or less from my right ear. When you’ve been shot at before, even only once, that distinctive sound which you can hear only when you are right in front of the muzzle, is unmistakable. And if you have heard that sound several times, and you are still alive, it means that your reﬂexes are in good order. I had hooked Meyer around the waist with my left arm and I was charging like a lineman when I heard the second bang. We tumbled down the weedy slope
into the muddy shallows of the canal. The truck went creaking and thumping along, picking up laborious speed, leaving a smell of cordite and hot half-burned oil in the night air.
“Glory be!” said Meyer.
We were half in the water. We pulled ourselves up the slope like clumsy alligators.
“They carry guns and they get smashed and they shoot holes in the road signs,” I said.
“And they scare hitchhikers and laugh like anything?” “The slug was within an inch of my ear, old friend.” “How could you know that?”
“They make a little kind of thupping sound, which would come at the same time as the bang, so if it was farther away from my ear, I wouldn’t have heard it. If he’d ﬁred from a hundred yards away, you’d have heard it, too. And if it had been a sniper with a riﬂe from ﬁve hundred yards, we’d have heard a whirr and a thup and then the shot.”
“Thank you, Travis, for the information I hope never to need.”
He started to clamber the rest of the way up and I grabbed him and pulled him back. “Rest awhile, Meyer.”
“If we assume it is sort of a hobby, like jacking deer, he is rattling on out of our lives, singing old drinking songs. If it was a real and serious intent, for reasons unknown, he will be coming back. We couldn’t ﬁnd where the young lady busted out of the brush, but we didn’t have headlights. He does, and he may be able to see where we busted the weeds. So now we move along the slope here about thirty feet to the south and wait some more.”
We made our move, found a more gradual slope where we didn’t have to keep our feet in the water. Settled down, and heard the truck coming back. Evidently he had to go some distance to ﬁnd a turnaround place. Heard him slow down. Saw lights against the grasses a couple of feet above our heads. Lights moved on beyond us, the truck slowing down to a walk. Stopped. The engine idled raggedly. I wormed up to where I could part the grasses and look at the rear end of the truck. Feeble light shone on a mud-smeared Florida plate. Couldn’t read any of it. Engine and lights were turned off. Right-hand wheels were on the shoulder. Silence.
I eased back down, mouth close to Meyer’s ear. “He better not have a ﬂashlight.”
Silence. The bugs and frogs gradually resumed their night singing. I held my breath, straining to hear any sound. Jumped at the sudden rusty bang of the truck door.
I reached cautiously down, ﬁngered up a daub of mud, smeared my face, wormed up the slope again. Could make out the truck, an angular shadow in the starlight, twenty feet away.
“Orville! You hear me, Orville?” A husky shout, yet secretive. A man shouting in a whisper. “You all alone now, boy. I kilt me that big Hutch, right? Dead or close to it, boy. Answer me, Orville, damn you to hell!”
I did not like the idea of announcing that there was nobody here named Orville. Or Hutch.
Long silence. “Orville? We can make a deal. I got to ﬁgure you can hear me. You wedge that body down good, hear? Stake it into the mud. Tomorrow you call me on the telephone, hear? We can set up a place we can meet and talk it all out, someplace with enough people nearby neither of us has to feel edgy.”
I heard a distant, oncoming motor sound. The truck door slammed again. Sick slow whine of the starter under the urging of the fading battery. Sudden rough roar, back-
ﬁre, lights on, and away he went. Could be two of them, one staying behind and waiting, crouched down on the slope, aching to put a hole in old Orville.
I told Meyer to stay put. Just as the northbound sedan went by, soon to overtake the truck, I used the noise and wind of passage to cover my sounds as I bounded up and ran north along the shoulder. I had kept my eyes squeezed tightly shut to protect my night vision. If anyone were in wait, I hoped they had not done the same. I dived over the slope just where the truck had been parked, caught myself short of the water. Nobody.
Climbed back up onto the road. Got Meyer up onto the road. Made good time southward, made about three hundred yards, stopping three or four times to listen to see if the truck was easing back with the lights out.
Found a reasonably open place on the west side of the road, across from the canal. Worked into the shadows, pushed through a thicket. Found open space under a big Australian pine. Both of us sat on the springy bed of brown needles, backs against the bole of the big tree. Overhead a mockingbird was sweetly, ﬂuently warning all other mockingbirds to stay the hell away from his turf, his nest, his lady, and his kids.
Meyer stopped breathing as audibly as before and said, “It is very unusual to be shot at on a lonely road. It is very unusual to have a girl run across a lonely road late at night.
I would say we’d covered close to four miles from the point where Agnes sleeps. The truck came from that direction. Perfectly reasonable to assume some connection.”
“Don’t upset me with logic.”
“A deal has a commercial implication. The marksman was cruising along looking for Orville and Hutch. He did not want to make a deal with both of them. He knew they were on foot, knew they were heading south. Our sizes must be a rough match. And it is not a pedestrian area.”
“And Hutch,” I added, “was the taller, and the biggest threat, and I moved so fast he thought he’d shot me in the face. And, if he had a good, plausible, logical reason for killing Hutch, he wouldn’t have asked Orville to stuff the body into the canal and stake it down.”
“And,” said Meyer, “were I Orville, I would be a little queasy about making a date with that fellow.”
“Ready to go?”
“We should, I guess, before the mosquitoes remove the rest of the blood.”
“And when anything comes from any direction, we ﬂatten out in the brush on this side of the road.”
“I think I will try to enjoy the walk, McGee.” “But your schedule is way the hell off.”
So we walked. And were euphoric and silly in the jungly night. Being alive is like ﬁne wine, when you have damned near drowned and nearly been shot in the face. Perhaps a change of angle of one degree at the muzzle would have put that slug through the bridge of my nose. So we swung along and told fatuous jokes and old lies and sometimes sang awhile.