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Lone headlights appeared in the blackness five miles away.
They were high-beams, illuminating the sea mist through the slashed mangroves and crushed coral down the long, straight causeway toward Miami. The rumble of rubber on tar grew louder and the headlights became brighter until they blinded. The Buick blew by at ninety and kept going, red taillights fading down U.S. 1 toward Key West.
It was quiet and dark again. An island in the middle of the Florida Keys. No streetlights, no light at all. The low pink building on the south side of the street was unremarkable concrete except for the hastily stuccoed bullet holes and the eight-foot cement conch shell on the shoulder of the road, chipped and peeling, holding up a sign: "Rooms $29.95 and up."
No cars in front of the motel; the night manager nodding in the office. The beach was sandy, some broken plastic kiddie toys, an unsafe pier and a scuttled dinghy. The air was still by the road, but around back a steady breeze came off the ocean. Coconut palms rustled and waves rolled in quietly from the Gulf Stream. Parked behind the motel, by the only room with a light on, was a black Mercedes limousine.
Voices and an electrical hum came from the room, number seven. Inside, personal effects covered one of the beds toiletries, carefully rolled socks, newspaper clippings, sunscreen, postcards,snacks, ammunition-meticulously arranged in rows and columns. The hum was from the Magic Fingers bed jiggler that had been hot-wired to run continuously. The voices came from the TV that had been unbolted from its wall mount and now sat on a chair facing into the bathroom, tuned toSportscenter.
In the flickering blue-gray TV light, a figure sat in the bathtub behind an open Miami Herald. Two sets of fingers held the sides of the paper a front-page splash about a drug shoot-out in Key West and a missing five million in cash and smoke rose from behind the paper. An old electric fan sat on the closed toilet lid, blowing into the tub. Something about the Miami Dolphins came on ESPN. The man in the tub folded the paper and put it on the toilet tank. He grabbed the remote control sitting in the soap dish on the shower wall. The slot in the top of the soap dish held a .38 revolver by the snub nose. "Nobody messes with Johnny Rocco," said the man in the tub, and he pressed the volume button.
The bather was tan, tall and lean with violating ice-blue eyes, and his hair was military-short with flecks of gray. He was in his late thirties and wore a new Tampa Bay Buccaneers baseball cap. In his mouth was a huge cigar, and he took it out with one hand and picked up an Egg McMuffin with the other. He checked his watch. Top of the hour. He clicked the remote control with the McMuffin hand and surfed over to CNN for two minutes, to make sure nothing had broken out in the world that would demand his response, and then over to A&E and the biography of Burt Reynolds for background noise while he read the Herald editorials. He put the McMuffin down on the rim of the tub and picked up the cup of orange juice. On TV, Burt made a long football run for Florida State in a vintage film of a forgotten Auburn game. The tub's edge also held jelly doughnuts, breakfast fajitas and a scrambled egg/sausage breakfast in a preformed plastic tray. On the toilet lid, next to the fan, was a hardcover book from 1939, the WPA guide to Florida. Inside the cover, the man had written his name. Serge A. Storms.
Like now, Serge was usually naked when he was in a motel, but it wasn't sexual. Serge thought clothes were inefficient and uncomfortable; they restricted his movements, and his skin wanted to breathe. Nudity also cut down on changing time, since he was constantly in and out of the shower, subjecting himself to rapid temperature changes, alternating hot and cold water rushes that reminded him he was alive and cleaned out the pores to keep that skin breathing, feeling new.
Serge hesitated a second in the tub, mid-bite in the McMuffin. He couldn't think of what to do next, not even something as simple as chewing. Too many ideas raged at once in his head, and his brain gridlocked. He was paralyzed. Then the congestion slowly unclogged and he resumed chewing. When he realized he could move his arms again, he reached on top of the toilet tank for a prescription bottle. He shook it, but it made no sound, and he tossed the empty in the waste can beside the sink, a bank shot off the ceramic seashell tiles. Hell with it, he thought, I'll go natural. If it gets too strange, I'll run to a drug hole and score some Elavil that crackheads use to come down after four days on the ledge. Serge had started feeling the effects of not keeping up with his psychiatric medication.
And he liked it.
He got out of the tub and opened the back door of the motel room and walked out under a coconut palm. The breeze dried the sweat cold on his skin. He looked up into the nexus of palm fronds and coconuts set against the Big Dipper and a sky of brilliant stars over the water, away from the light pollution of the mainland. Serge said: "There's a big blow a-comin'."
Serge went back inside and slept all day in the motel tub, and his skin shriveled. Two hours before sunset, there was a loud beeping sound in room seven. Serge awoke in alarm and splashed around as if he'd discovered a cottonmouth in the water.He jumped from the tub and into his pants without toweling off.The beeping sound came from a metal box on the dresser, an antitheft car-tracking device.Serge threw on a shirt and packed a travel bag in seconds.He didn't close the door as he ran out with shirt open and shoes in his hands.He threw the bag and shoes in the front of the limo and sped away from the motel...