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Last to Die
The rainstorm was blinding, and Sally was way behind schedule. She hadn't intended to be late, fashionably or otherwise. She just wasn't good with directions, and this wasn't exactly her neck of the woods.
Sheets of water pelted the windshield, sounding like marbles bouncing off glass. She adjusted the wipers, but they were already working at full speed. She couldn't remember rain like this in years, not since she and her first husband lost their restaurant to that no-name tropical storm.
Orange taillights flashed ahead. A stream of cars was inching down the highway at the speed of cooling lava. She slowed to somewhere below the school-zone limit, then checked her watch. Eleven twenty-five.
Damn. He'd just have to wait. She'd get there, eventually.
Their meeting had been arranged by telephone. They'd spoken only once, and his instructions were simple enough. Thursday, 11 P.M. Don't be late. She didn't dare reschedule, not even in this weather. This was her man. She was sure of it.
Just ahead, a neon sign blinked erratically, as if shaken by the storm. It was like trying to read an eye chart at the bottom of a lake, and she could only make out part of it: S-P-something-something-K-Y-apostrophe-S.
"Sparky's," she read aloud. This was the place. She steered off the highway and pulled into the flooded parking lot. Under all this water, she could only guess as to the exact location of the parking spot. She killed the engine and checked her face in the rearview mirror. Lightning flashed -- a close one. It lit up the inside of her car and unleashed a crack of thunder that sent shivers down her spine. It frightened her, then triggered a bemused smile. How ironic would that have been? After all this planning, to get hit by lightning.
She took a deep breath and exhaled. No turning back now. Just go for it.
She jumped down from the car and started her mad dash across the parking lot in the pouring rain. Almost immediately a blast of wind snatched her umbrella from her hand and pitched it somewhere into the next county. Wearing no coat, she covered her head with her hands and just kept running, splashing with each footfall. In a matter of seconds she reached the door, soaked to her undergarments, her wet jeans and white blouse pasted to her body.
A muscle-bound guy wearing a Gold's Gym T-shirt was standing at the entrance, and he opened the door for her. "Wet T-shirt contest's not till tomorrow, lady."
"You wish," she said, then headed straight to the restroom to see if she could dry off. She looked in the mirror and gasped. Her nipples were staring back at her, right through her bra and wet blouse.
She punched the hand dryer, hoping for hot air. Nothing. She tried again, and again, but to no avail. She reached for a paper towel, but the dispenser was empty. Toilet paper would have to do. She went to the stall, found a loose roll atop the tank, and proceeded to dab furiously from head to foot. It was single-ply paper, not terribly absorbent. She went through the entire roll. She exited the stall, took another look at her reflection in the mirror, and gasped even louder this time. Her entire body was covered with shredded remnants of cheap toilet paper.
You look like a milkweed.
She started laughing, not sure why. She laughed so hard it almost hurt. Then, with her hands braced on the edge of the sink, she leaned forward and hung her head. She could feel her emotional energy drifting up to that ever-present knot of tension at the base of her skull. Her shoulders started to heave, and the laughter turned to tears. She fought it off and quickly regained her composure.
"You are a total wreck," she said to her reflection.
She brushed off as much of the toilet paper as she could, fixed her makeup, and said the hell with it. Nothing was going to stop this meeting from happening. She took a deep breath for courage and exited into the bar.
The crowd surprised her, not so much its makeup, which was about what she'd expected, but more the simple fact that there was such a big crowd on a nasty night like this. A group of truckers was playing black-jack by the jukebox. Leather-clad bikers and their bleached-blond girlfriends had a monopoly on the pool table, as if waiting out the storm. T-shirts, jeans, and flannel shirts seemed to be the dress code for a seat at the bar. These folks were hard-core, and this was clearly a place that depended on its regulars.
"Can I help you, miss?" the bartender asked.
"Not just yet, thanks. I'm looking for someone."
Sally hesitated, not exactly sure how to answer that. "Just, uh, sort of a blind date."
"That must be Jimmy," said one of the men at the bar.
The others laughed. Sally smiled awkwardly, the inside joke completely lost on her. The bartender explained, "Jimmy's the umpire in our softball league. They don't come any blinder."
"Ah, I get it," she said. They laughed again at this Jimmy's expense. Sally broke away and continued across the bar before their interest could return to the lost girl in the wet clothes. Her gaze fixed on the third booth from the back, near the broken air-hockey table. A black guy with penetrating eyes and no smile was staring back at her. He was wearing a dark blue shirt with black pants, which made Sally smile to herself. Never before had she laid eyes on him, but his look and those clothes were exactly what he'd described over the telephone. It was him ... Last to Die
. Copyright © by James Grippando. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.