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Pick and Shovel
Ev opened his eyes to the return of his perfect girlfriend for the 90's, the Not-So-Virgin Mary Fae Without Mercy. She stood in the dark next to the waterbed with the shovel raised high over her head. He'd seen in combat how such a tool gets the job done effectively but not neatly and efficiently, which is why he was surprised to find Mary Fae had taken it from the garage to kill him. Subtle weapons like piano wire (she loved music) or a Wusthof blade or her favorite, slow-acting poison--corporate gossip--those were more her style. The spade, therefore, was not good news. It could only mean one thing.
She was really pissed this time.
Lightning streaked the ceiling and struck close. A gusty wind shoved a burning insulation smell through the open window, and Ev knew that either the bolt had struck a telephone pole or heaven's wiring was as faulty as his own. Outside, thunder rolled continuously in a Wagnerian chorus of foreboding at the coming permanent diminution of his mental faculties which had already been considerably slowed by a long and lingering conversation with Johnny Walker--red or black--he couldn't remember which color.
Mary Fae has always been a woman of great taste and great timing, Ev thought with sluggish, alcoholic admiration. Just the opposite of Juliet, whose name he was sure was bound to come up sooner or later.
As far as he was concerned, his girlfriend couldn't have picked a better night or looked better in the part. In the stroboscopic effect of the storm's electrical energy, she was a vengeful blonde goddess, wearing a sports bra and baggy, loose nylon workout pants--the right clothes for thejob.
Maximum freedom of movement, always important when crushing your lover's melon, he thought.
Ev was sure that she'd sat down at a table or on an airplane--she was always on a flight to or from a client's training session somewhere--and done a task analysis of his murder, analyzing step by step what needed to be done to carry out the deed, weighing the pros and cons (not of his death--he was positive that had been decided in a split second) before finally deciding upon the perfect course of action. Then, she'd closed her leather appointment book as he'd seen her do a hundred times before, put the whole thing out of her mind, and sat back to enjoy one Dubonnet--no more, no less. As she'd told him repeatedly, unlike him when it came to alcohol, she knew her limits.
Death by task analysis--Everett wasn't sure he liked the sound of that. It was efficient--one of Mary Fae's favorite words--but it lacked a certain romance and ceremony as far as he was concerned. What was murder about, if not passion? But he knew that was just wishful thinking, maybe a perverse last wish. Women do not kill over-50, forcefully retired schoolteachers out of passion--at least Mary Fae wouldn't. Somehow, she'd found out he was going back to Juliet, and she was furious at him because he wasn't being sensible. As far as Mary Fae was concerned, Juliet and sense were not only not on speaking terms, they weren't even within hailing distance. He had upset her sense of order and that order was not to be violated.
Ev watched the spade start its downward arc. Bent on turning his head into a tiddly-wink of flesh and crushed bone and brain, Mary Fae was determined to use all the strength she'd gained through years of weight training, boxing, and aerobics. He knew he should get out of the way, but he couldn't really think of anywhere else he wanted to be.
His body betrayed him.
It rolled off the bed and took his head along with it as Mary Fae grunted and slammed the sharp edge of the spade down onto the vinyl mattress. Ev gasped as his elbow contacted the hard glass of one of the bottles littering the carpet. As water gushed from the mattress onto his head and down his body, he gasped again. His underwear--the only thing he was wearing--now smelled of rank preservative, powdered plastic and mildew, furious at being long-contained under the unwashed mattress pad.
"You bastard!" Mary Fae said in a deadly low tone that was more ominous than the thunder rumbling outside the window. She jerked at the spade, trying to free it from the tangle of ripped vinyl. "Is it true?"
"Yes," he said, beginning to wheeze as the mildew entered his lungs.
"How can you go back to that woman?"
"I'm not going back to Juliet," Ev said. "I'm going back to a job she has for me. I don't have one here, remember?"
"You could have stayed and fought!"
"This is a small town, Mary Fae, and I'm a big target. They'll never forget or forgive. Isn't that obvious?"
His girlfriend tugged at the handle of the spade again. "The obvious is that I left 25 GM participants without a clue in the middle of my sales training seminar and flew through a goddamned thunderstorm to get here!"
"I planned to tell you when you got back. How'd you find out?"
"How do you think I found out, you idiot?
"Yes, oh! The bitch called me to gloat!"
In spite of himself, Everett admired the sleek, Nautilus-sculpted muscles of Mary Fae's arms as she struggled with the spade. He kept talking, hoping to cool her rage.
"She wasn't gloating over me, and you know it."
"Then what was she gloating over?"
"Over beating you," Ev said.
Mary Fae continued pulling on the handle, panting at her exertions. Lightning flared, and Ev could see her face in harsh profile. In the dark, she was a woman of angles and edges like a Picasso painting. Anger had pressed her lips into a line so thin it looked as if her mouth had disappeared. It was an unnerving image that she dispelled quickly by saying, "You flatter yourself, Ev. Knowing Juliet, it's more likely she wants money from you."
"She hasn't asked for any," he said.
"So far," Mary Fae retorted. "I suppose you didn't have a damned thing to do with this whole mess?"
"I don't think I did," he answered, trying to remember the location of his pants in case he needed to make it out the door. He had no idea where they were, but a sudden flash of lightning showed his car keys on the dining room table.
"That's such predictable crap from you," Mary Fae said. "Nothing's ever your fault."
Everett decided to go on the offensive. "You're the one who decided to live with me after Juliet and I divorced. I didn't ask you in."
"No, you didn't," she said. "But you didn't refuse me either. It was just like you, I can see that now. You didn't say anything and let me read what I wanted into it. You're like a damned cipher, aren't you? You let me write whatever I wanted on the page and, like a fool, I believed it was you talking! You're a low-life bastard."
The words stung Everett hard because he suspected they might be true, but he said, "If I'm all that, Mary Fae, then I don't understand one thing."
"There's not much you do understand," she said acidly.
"Why do you still want me?"
"Because," Mary Fae said, "I'm under the delusion I can make something of you, that's why."
"This is the Nineties, for Christ's sake," Ev said. "Women don't make anything of men."
"No wonder. It's a delusion that a man can be made into anything, especially you! Do you know why I can't make you into anything, Everett Pick?"
Ev opened his mouth, but Mary Fae supplied the answer in a crisp tone he suspected she used when articulating one of the indisputable points of her seminars. "Because you won't take a stand on anything. You're a pleaser, that's what you are; doing whatever it takes to float along with the tide. You're spineless, that's why I can't do anything with you."
"I took a stand at the school board meeting, didn't I?" he said. "Look what it got me."
"If Principal Ellwood hadn't a stroke in the middle of the meeting, you wouldn't take a stand at all. And you were lucky that it was Lamar who shot you," Mary Fae said. "If it had been Alvin Hardemann instead of his son, the bullet wouldn't have gone into your knee--it would have gone between your eyes and saved everybody a lot of trouble. Lamarr is so hyper he couldn't hold a gun steady enough to hit an elephant. Why the hell didn't you press charges?"
"What was the point in doing that?" Ev asked. "The boy had no idea of what he was doing. He thought he'd please that idiot of a father by shooting me."
There was no way he could explain to Mary Fae that in the second between the impact of the bullet and his going down, he'd seen the split-faced boy's rapturously murderous expression. Lamarr had finally found a way to get the attention he craved.
"Charges wouldn't have taught the boy a thing, you moron," Mary Fae said. "But it damned well would have taught Alvin something."
"But you agree with him about Heller's book! You told me that before."
"It doesn't belong in the school library but what's that got to do with anything?" she asked. "You don't let people run over you like that. If you'd pressed charges, you'd have your job now."
"Don't be ridiculous, Mary Fae," Everett said. "Alvin has half a thumb on everything and everybody in this town. He as good as killed me with his newspaper, anyway. I was front-page stuff. "Everett Pick is what's wrong with America--moral decay. He provoked Lamarr. Lamarr was just defending himself against a pornographer, a suspected child molester."
"Nobody believes that stuff," Mary Fae said. "You couldn't even molest yourself."
"You told me yourself once that perception is everything," Ev said. "I went down to the post office today and picked up the gossip along with my mail. Several people were happy to inform me charges are pending."
"See what I mean?" Mary Fae said. "You're a damned cipher. Now somebody else is writing on the page."
"Thanks," Ev said, stung by her lack of sympathy. "Your support is much appreciated."
"You don't deserve any damned support," she said. "You bring it all on yourself."
"It doesn't matter whose fault it is," Ev said. "It's all over now."
"Not quite," Mary Fae said in a tone that caught his attention immediately. He saw the spade was free again and raised high. "You want to be a cipher, Everett Pick, I'm going to write you a message you'll never forget!"
Scrambling to his feet as the shovel slammed into the floor next to his bad leg, Ev grabbed the keys off the table and limped out the door into a rain as vengeful as Mary Fae. He could barely see the Honda in the driveway but was not surprised to find he'd left the windows open. The driver's door was stuck shut from a collision with Wendell Tidball's cornpicker--they'd both been very drunk that night--so Ev ran to the opposite side and slid over the wet seats to the steering wheel. The old Civic started as it always did--with sniggering reluctance. He turned the key again as a brilliant bolt of lightning put Mary Fae into her starring role. She smashed the spade down into the hood just to get the range, then set to work with a vengeance. As dents spread across the Honda like acne, Ev pumped furiously at the accelerator. The windshield opened up violently to the night air and the spade whistled past his ear. He cringed, waiting for Mary Fae's next blow, then the Civic's engine caught. Letting out the clutch, he screeched down the driveway. Mary Fae matched the screech with one of her own and planted the spade into one of his headlights so hard it snapped the handle.
That light didn't work anyway, Ev thought in hysterical relief. I still have one left.
He checked his fuel gauge. The needle was on full. It would get him out of Minnesota and then on to the Black Hills. With Mary Fae charging down the driveway, Ev braked and threw the Honda into first gear, accelerating hard as she threw the broken spade. He pulled his head as far into his body as it would go, then heard the crash of a window and a thump on the rear seat.
As he sped away, Mary Fae's scream sounded clearly above the thunder.
"I know where you're going, Everett Pick! Just remember that! I know where you're going!"
Ev whooped his relief into the night, surprised he was enjoying the simple privilege of having a head that occupied its usual amount of space atop his shoulders. The storm felt his body up with fingers of cold air like an unwanted lover, but he fought the shivering by pounding on the dash and bouncing up and down in his seat to generate heat. His one headlight flickered in sympathy with the lightning as rain beat against the remaining windshield like Mary Rae's spade.
The engine coughed like an asthmatic horse, and Ev knew he would have to nurse the Honda for over 500 miles. He had no better relationships with his cars than he did with the women in his life. Hunching over the steering wheel to squint through the rain sheeting in on his face, he held onto the fact that the forecast had said the cold front was racing quickly through the state and would be gone in a matter of hours. The morning sun would warm his aching joints, and, although he didn't have his wallet, he could probably scrounge up enough change from the floor to get coffee from a drive-through. Ev let a smile cross his face for the first time that evening. He was free of Mary Fae and free of Eden Valley.
There was hope.