Suffer the Fool

Suffer the Fool

by Robert A. Gallinger

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780595183784
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 06/28/2001
Pages: 260
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.59(d)

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CHAPTER ONE

Like a Nero captivated by the horrific flames that ravished the ancient city of Rome, he stood calmly with his arms crossed and his feet spread as he watched the West Virginia farmhouse disintegrate, awed at the destructive power of fire.

In the early morning shadows, the new inferno razed the main building, and then raced for the barn and outhouses. Screaming, the farm animals sprang for the open fields, terrified at the smoke and fire. He was glad that he had at least spared them, but why not? He had no grudge for any of them like he had for some people, especially one named Special Agent Jay Hackett. When the time was right, he definitely would not spare him.

The air was suffocating now, and he saw an early morning gloom hide the land as speckled clusters of blazing light hissed and crackled over the skeletal remains of the once friendly farmhouse. Its antique timbers, pitted and dry, had surrendered noisily to the raging flames, and then had vanished hastily into the whirling clouds of smoke.

Inside, two disfigured seniors lay dead, gutted like the house. They were buried beneath smoldering ashes and mangled debris, their innocent lives forfeited forever by a total stranger whose pent-up anger had erupted unexpectedly in the middle of the night.

He coughed to clear his throat, and then pulled a large bandana from his back pocket to blow his nose. Although his dark eyes were red now and glazed, he stared intently like an artist surveying a bizarre masterpiece that was boldly speckled in black and red and gold.

The smoke and flames reminded him of a tidal wave in slow motion, engulfing everything in its wake with ugly soot and smelly ash thatclung sticky and wet, something like newly applied glue to wallpaper. As its creator, it gave him a sense of infinite power like he was for the moment a god, a king or more.

With a new job in progress, he felt elated and proud, sometimes sexually excited; but not so much as before when he'd been several years younger. Back then, his mind had been filled with somewhat different targets and goals, but the thrill of fire remained the same regardless.

His neck suddenly felt hot and clammy, something like it had on those hot summer days when he'd worked the dusty fields in his youth. Whenever the new thunderstorms approached, he always tried to get the wagon filled with hay as quickly as possible to get it and the team of anxious horses to the barn where it and they would be safe and dry.

He dreaded the storms, but his father's boot even more, until he learned after his mother had died from overwork in the fields that a three-pronged pitchfork could be used for things other than pitching hay. His father learned the same thing when he'd found one brutally rammed into the center of his chest one evening after an unusually violent argument with an angry son.

Coughing again, he yanked open the front of his denim jacket to let in a breath of polluted air. The jacket was frayed at the cuffs and collar, and his blue jeans fitted much too tightly to his stomach and knees. He looked like an ex-carnival wrestler: big, muscular and baldheaded beneath a wide-rimmed cowboy hat that was pulled too closely to his oversized ears.

Reluctantly, he turned from the flames and smoke and wandered toward a spot where he'd parked a stolen pickup earlier. Almost there, he hesitated to listen to the wails of emergency vehicles on the way. From their powerful loudness, he knew they would be there soon, coming for a desperate, but useless, rescue.

To him it was all a waste of gas and time and money. He seldom left anything behind to rescue: person, place or thing. He was, after all, a professional, although in this case he'd done it for free. Pro bono, his most favorite FBI agent over in Clarksburg might say.

He liked to tease him occasionally with an out-of-control fire. It usually goaded him into an open-air chase, where they frequently tried to kill each other, but not today. He'd received a job offer for some special business down in Alabama. He would see to Special Agent Jay Hackett later; but he'd left something behind to remember him by anyway. He'd fired-up the home of Hackett's parents today, "just for the hell of it," he would brag to a few of his drinking buddies one day soon when he found the time.

At the pickup, he jumped in and roughly twisted a key. The engine coughed loudly and then sputtered out. He swore as he pressed the accelerator several times, hoping the piece of junk wasn't out of gas yet. You couldn't tell by the rusted gauges.

He jerked his head around when he heard the wobbling sounds racing closer to the fire and his position. Looking through the filthy back window of the pickup, he could see the lights from the lead fire truck hugging the skyline now as it climbed the highest of the hills. It sounded like it was less than a click or so away.

Impatient, he twisted the key again as he tried to squash the accelerator through the floorboards. The engine choked, then suddenly caught, clearing its noisy head through a rusted muffler. He flipped on the headlights and threw the vehicle into gear. Grunting, he twisted the steering wheel hard over and pushed on the accelerator, spinning smooth tires as the engine roared. With mangled grass and dirt flying, the oncoming lights and noises faded fast behind, much like the glow of the fires he so much enjoyed.

Not far up the road, he wondered if the new customer down in Spanish Fort, Alabama was out of bed yet. He glanced at his wristwatch: 5 A.M., 4 down there. Maybe the fool was still snoring, if he wasn't dead yet. He wasn't exactly thrilled about working for someone who sounded a trifle out of whack with reality on the telephone, but the money was supposed to be good, and the job was supposed to be a quick one if nothing serious went wrong too soon. But why would it? It seldom had before.

Suddenly, a migraine ripped at the back of his eyes, popping his ears. Vigorously, he rubbed the back of his neck and cursed as he drove through a messy road kill, loudly fouling the underside of the vehicle. Too bad, he thought, but everybody's got to die sooner or later. Doesn't much matter how or why, or when or where; not even whom. Death was an impartial son of a bitch, if nothing more.

He started to smile, but the rays of a new day's sun smashed against his eyes, tormenting his brain with fiery spears. He squinted as he hurried through the pain, his moist hands slippery on the steering wheel.

Remembering the half empty whiskey bottle on the passenger seat, he grabbed for it and almost ran off the road. After taking several big swigs, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and then began to sing despite the persistent pain that crushed his brain. To him things would be better tomorrow. By then, he'd be on the south side of Alabama where he could set a new fire, and that always made things a little better, at least for those not being fried in its flames.

* * *

In Spanish Fort, a pale mist clung to the ground, covering an early morning rain. Inside an aged Victorian, David Maloney leaned over the bathroom sink, getting ready for work. Fully naked, he wiped steam from the mirror, and then raised his head slightly, so he could look into his weary eyes. They stared back, taunting him to do "it," to get "it" over with, finish "it" once and for all. He wet his lips as the memories flashed. He saw a death mask of his son, Seth, who had been killed during the Gulf War buildup five years ago, almost to the day.

Shaking Seth's image, he suddenly had one of Doctor Francis, his ex-shrink, the one who always thought he needed a long rest somewhere to get away from things. She'd tried to guide him through the worst of it years ago when he'd gotten word that Seth had been killed in training, months before he'd even had the opportunity to fight any of Saddam's elite palace guards on Iraqi soil. Seth had died, and he'd gone a little crazy, but he would never go back into therapy, if he could help it.

He'd been through enough already, trying to rid himself of an irksome "savage self" that had tormented him endlessly, vying for his very soul. But there was no way around it. Seth was dead and he should be, too. That was the up and down of it. He'd screwed up badly during their fragile father-son relationship during the early years, and now he had to pay for what he'd done, or was it for something he had not done properly along the way? Only Seth knew for sure, and he would never tell him even when he'd been alive.

But no matter what he'd done or not, Gail still loved him, although she had a strange way of showing it sometimes. She could be difficult, too, a real pain much like many other spouses who had to deal with their own kind of anguish when an only son had been lost to a military accident in Saudi Arabia while preparing for another war.

At times she actually thought he might be on the verge of jumping the tracks again, like some runaway train speeding down a steep slope for a span of wrecked bridge, its twisted beams covered with muddy water. She just didn't understand his pain. No one did.

Holding to the edge of the counter, he raised an unsteady hand and reached into the medicine cabinet. Cautiously, he withdrew the straight razor he'd purchased recently at the Delchamps mall off Route 225.

Testing the blade's sharpness on his thumb, he glanced at the door that led into the bedroom. He wondered if Gail was busy plotting a new strategy to get him back into therapy with Doctor Francis. Thinking of that potential catastrophe, his eyes glazed for a moment. He wasn't insane. Not really. When would they learn? Before he'd killed someone, or after someone had gotten around to him to end things? God, wouldn't that be something?

Steered in the right direction, it was possible that someone could finally come knocking at his door to end things, hopefully with some dignity left intact, and with not too much shame. That was the key. How could he do "it" with undue shame, not so much for himself, but for Gail, who would be left behind to face the humiliating consequences?

There might be one way, he reasoned. Someone else could do it for him, so it could never be classified as a suicide, especially by the overly rigid courts or snoopy insurance companies. Their involvement could complicate matters, especially the payments due his wife.

"Damn it!" He suddenly shouted when the razor gashed his thumb. He'd been inattentive to its dangers; something like the ones he'd ignored years ago with a teenage son.

Shoving the thumb into his mouth, he immediately felt his stomach revolt at the sickening taste that pinched his tongue. He spit into the sink, and then ripped open a Band-Aid with his teeth. Covering the wound with it, he applied finger pressure to control the flow of blood. "Son of a bitch," he whispered when he had everything back to normal, "why didn't you slash the wrist instead?" Coward!

Finally finished in the bathroom, and dressed in a dark suit and conservative tie, he wandered into the kitchen. Gail was sitting at the counter, a fresh cup of coffee in her hand.

"Good Morning," she said, smiling up at him. "Everything okay?"

Nodding, he slipped onto a high stool next to her.

"Don't look so glum, Dave, be happy. There's supposed to be plenty of sunshine today."

"It'll take more than that to make me happy, Gail. It's Monday."

"Mondays are no different than Fridays, if you don't let them be." She gently touched his thigh, but almost immediately felt the muscle tighten. She withdrew her hand, saddened at his latest indifference to her touches. "Maybe we need to go away for a while," she managed to say. "There's usually not so many people on vacation this time of the year. What do you think?"

"I have too much going on. You know, work, the new book I'm trying to write in my spare time, a lot of things. Maybe in several months, near Christmas. I might have more time then. We'll see."

Watching him stretch for a napkin, she noticed the Band-Aid on his thumb and reached for it. He pulled away. "What happened?" she asked, trying not to sound too concerned.

"I cut myself with a new razor, that's all."

"Are you sure it's not serious? Let me see."

"It's only a scratch. Damn it, how the hell many times must I tell you to stop bugging me about little things, things that don't amount to anything? There are worse things that could happen to a person than a stupid cut on a thumb."

He slipped from the stool and walked toward the end of the counter, where he picked up his car keys. At the backdoor, he turned back, a little ashamed at his aggressive tone toward her. It was getting worse lately, harder to control. "Please, Gail, don't worry so much about me. You'll make yourself sick, and I really don't want that, nor would Seth."

As the door closed behind him, a new thought crashed into her brain. She had to get him back into counseling with Doctor Francis; that was all there was to it. They could not go on like this forever. Things had to change, then, once things were straight like before, she'd have more time to worry about the other thing with Pat, Harvey's wife, her next door neighbor, her best friend.

She was certain that Pat was having a new affair. She was always so obvious about it, almost cocky, thankful that someone besides her own husband wanted to take her to bed. She was a pretty woman, in her mid-forties, young looking, and active at the gym. She just used a bit too much makeup was all, trying to hide behind it like a mask, concealing the truth behind paste and powders.

The question lingered, though, who was she having the affair with this time? It could be anybody, someone close, maybe. Someone familiar, someone she knew, someone at odds with life, perhaps with himself, always looking for a new way to kill himself like a man who'd lost his son to the Army, and still blamed himself for it.

She lowered her face into her hands and began to sob as a new thought flashed, tormenting her brain. Please, not him and her.

* * *

When Saturday came, Harvey Masterson was at David Maloney's backdoor at 7 A.M. sharp. He walked right in, waving, said, "Morning, Dave." He flopped onto a counter stool and nudged Dave's arm. "Any left?" he asked, glancing at the coffee pot on the counter.

"Help yourself," Dave said indifferently, scanning the back pages of the Mobile Register.

Pouring a cup, Harvey said, "Where's Gail? Sleeping in?"

"No, getting dressed. She's going shopping with Pat this morning. Did you forget already?" He tried to smile, but joviality did not come easily anymore, not even with friends.

"I was just testing your memory, buddy. It's Saturday and we do the lawns and my pool, and they always go shopping."

"Sure, Harv."

Harvey grabbed up the part of the newspaper still on the counter and scanned the bold print. "I see the headlines haven't let up about the alleged land swindle descending on Baldwin County. All rumor at this stage, except for the so-called accidental fires and deaths lately. Too many to be coincidences in my book."

"You could be right, Harv."

"I sure could. And if you can believe the stories, it's a big scam. Some guys from Atlanta may be involved, they say. Somebody's buying up lots of land round here, that's for sure. And according to the gossip, some are from here, too, all with sticky fingers in the pot of gold. But as you know, nobody's been able to prove anything yet about anything. Everything on the surface is nice and legal, including the phony company names supposedly used at the closings. From the sound of it, though, it could end up being real cops and robbers stuff before it's through."

"Could be, Harv."

"Write any new books lately?" Harvey asked, seeing Dave wasn't exactly interested in the land swindle, alleged or otherwise.

"Of course. I'm always working on a new one, or revising an old one. You know a writer never reaches a so-called final draft stage. Whenever he picks up a new or old manuscript, he has to change it somehow, even after it's published if he had the chance."

"Keep at it, buddy. Maybe somebody will buy some of your books someday, before you turn too old and gray and feeble in the head. I'd give you a quarter for one right now." He laughed good-naturedly. "But I'd expect a damn good rebate."

"Thanks a bunch."

"When you gonna get a haircut?" Harvey asked, changing the subject. "It's almost to your ears. Are you trying to become a hippie or something at a ripe old age?"

"Forty-something men are not in their old age, Harv, and hippies are history, believe me. But remember, some ladies like a guy with long hair."

"Yeah, I know, but Pat hates the way I keep mine military short." Smiling, he rubbed his hands over the top of his head. "But what the hell, she can't have everything. She's already got the bestest looking guy in town, and the fastest swimmer. I beat you enough times at my pool, for sure."

"And the fastest lover, I heard."

"But the best all the same." They sat quietly a moment, sipping coffee, and then Harvey said, "Not to change the subject, Dave, but is everything okay; I mean really okay? Are you sure there's not anything I could do for you?"

Dave twisted on the stool to face his best friend. "Well, there is one thing."

"Tell me. I'd do anything for you, buddy."

"Would you, could you."

Harvey slammed the counter with an elbow, putting all of his weight into it. "Spit it out, man."

"Could you die for me, Harv?" Dave finally whispered, lowering his head to avoid Harvey's bewildered stare.

"Die?" His voice was barely audible like someone had squeezed his throat.

"I have a plan," Dave said. "If it works both of us could become wealthy almost overnight, and famous, too."

"I don't need famous, buddy. Tell me more about the wealthy part. But first off, talk a little more about the dying part." He thought it was a joke of some kind. Dave was surely pulling his leg, wasn't he? He hoped that he hadn't gone completely insane; but you never knew lately, especially since it was the anniversary of Seth's untimely death. He'd died five years ago far away from home. Dave still blamed himself for it.

"I've been thinking, Harv. To sell a book these days, it helps if a person is a celebrity with a dark secret to tell, like being abused as a child by a close friend, or maybe a relative or something. Or be like somebody whose committed a crime so violent, so despicable, so horrendously cruel that it makes the whole damn world blink. Something like in the gruesome stories associated with the alleged land swindle that appears to be brewing around here.

"According to that gossip, all a person would have to do to become famous is to set a few fires, kill a few people, then go to jail, awaiting the fury of Yellow Mama, the chair up at Atmore. But I have a simpler plan for fame."

"I'll bet you have."

"Don't be so cynical; it'll work. I intend to become famous, Harv, somebody the publishers would want to sign a big contract with to tell a story about the crime of the century. I'd need your help to do it, though. Your complete cooperation and silence until the right time."

"Quick, tell me before I dump in my pants. What do you want me to do?" It had to be a joke. It had to be. It better be.

"It's simple. All you'd have to do is disappear for a little while, like you were dead. You'd have to stay away long enough for me to spend a little time in jail, that's all."

"How?"

"Like I said, I have a plan, one that should make us both rich as hell."

"I say again, how?"

"You have to die, that's all. Simulated, of course. Only for a short while until I'd been placed on trial for your death, and spent some time in jail. Jail time's extremely important. That would enhance the story we sell later. The big bucks are waiting for us, Harv."

"What the devil are you talking about? Simulated death? A guy's either dead or he's not. You can't have it both ways. Tell me how you're going to fool the cops with something like that. It would be impossible." He was angry now, frustrated talking such nonsense as this. He suddenly felt a little on edge, too, but not exactly afraid, at least not for himself.

"Look, I'm going to do something big, something that'll make even the most hardened district attorney vomit in his Scotch. I plan to hack you to pieces, simulated of course, and then hide your parts. I'd leave a trail of bloody evidence behind, so the police would catch me straightaway for the terribly violent crime."

"Are you sure about this? Something bad could go wrong."

"That's the idea, the getting caught part. I'd set it up real good, using circumstantial evidence by the truckload. I'd plant it at the appropriate times and places to establish motive, opportunity, intent, and the rest of it. Soon enough, I'd be indicted, and then tried for your bloody murder. I'd become famous overnight with a sensational trial, my name repeatedly in print and yours as well to highlight things. All of it would be laced with fame and fortune. And I'd share the fortune part with you, Harv, every last dime split right down the middle."

"And all I'd have to do is die; simulated, you said, and then disappear for a while?"

"That's it. It would be great fun, planting the evidence, getting caught, tried, and then put in the prison up at Atmore. Then you could pop up at the right time, after I'd been scheduled for the chair. I can see the newspaper headlines already: DEAD MAN RETURNS FROM THE GRAVE. SAVES BEST FRIEND FROM ATMORE'S CHAIR. Almost poetic in a way, wouldn't you say?"

"If you say so; but wouldn't we lose our good jobs? I mean with my disappearance and all, who'd cover for me at the office? And what about Pat? Wouldn't she be upset about my death? This is crazy, Dave."

"Harvey, Harvey, Harvey, listen to me. Once it was finished, you wouldn't need the job, nor would I. We would be rich, don't you see? And don't worry so much about Pat. I'd see that she was taken care of while you were away."

"I don't know. You've been working for Baldwin County for over ten years, and me about the same. I kind of like it in Security Services, keeping our courts secure and all. Heck, you've just recently been promoted to branch chief in the personnel department. You want us to give up everything, just like that?" He snapped his fingers. "And what about night school? You wanna give up a chance for an advanced degree?"

"Yep, give it all up to become rich as a king."

"Harvey thought a minute, and then shrugged his wide shoulders. He grinned. "Okay, buddy, tell me the plan. I can't wait to hear about how you intend to kill me, and make us both rich as kings."

"Just remember this, we mustn't tell anyone, not even Pat or Gail. You have to hold your tongue this time."

Harvey rubbed his chin. "I can keep a secret as well as the next guy. You should know that, Dave." He sounded hurt at the insinuation that he couldn't.

"Right, Harv," Dave said seriously. "Like that time before, but you're going to have to stay quiet this time no matter what happens. Absolutely no one must know or it might not work. It could even get us into trouble if any of it got out too soon, before we were ready to explain things."

"Don't worry, buddy, I won't squeal to anybody." He turned abruptly on the stool when he heard the friendly voice at his back.

"What's up fellas?" Gail asked, moving to the counter. She was already dressed in slacks and blouse, and her soft blond hair was tied into one long pigtail, hanging down her back.

She was an energetic woman, in her forties, a little tired looking these days, unable to sleep as well as before, especially with Dave starting to act up again. "You look like two kids who've just been caught trying to steal a melon from Delchamps."

She clung to Dave's shoulder as she bent to sit on the stool, and like always lately, felt his muscles go tense like he'd rather she didn't touch him. Or was it just his nerves or maybe something else? She remained as calm as she could as she glanced at Harvey. "I know you're up to something, Harvey, and it's not about building a birdhouse either; is it?" She turned to Dave. He looked down, avoiding her inquisitive eyes.

"Sure it is, Gail," Harvey said. "We're gonna build us a birdie house so good that it'll make us rich and famous." With that, he began to laugh, almost hysterically. After giving him a shut-up look, Dave finally joined in with a weak smile. For a second, Gail appeared to be confused.

Shrugging her shoulders, she tapped a finger to her forehead as she got to her feet. She walked toward the backdoor. There, she turned to watch them a moment longer. It was good to see Dave happy for a change, if that's what that rare smile meant. Could it be he was starting to come around, after all?

"You two stay out of trouble," she shouted across the room. "Pat and I should be back," she glanced at her wristwatch and saw that it was already eight, "by noon. Don't bother to cook anything, either one of you. We'll handle that when we get home."

Waving over her shoulder, she opened the screen and slipped easily through it. She let it slam loudly behind as she headed for Pat's house next door. A wide grin began to form on her unrouged lips as a new thought crept into her brain. She wondered what mischief Dave and Harvey might be up to so early in the morning, and when they might get around to telling her about it.

Her mood suddenly changed when she recalled the new fear, and the recurring image of Pat in the arms of her husband. It simply could not be true; but even good friends had been known to conceal things from one another when it happened to be to their advantage, especially things like clandestine love affairs, hiding behind smiles and hugs and kisses, everything sweet. Until, of course, they'd been found out, then things normally changed for everyone, all the sweetness and hugs and kisses gone forever, lost in a maze of accusations, tears, and hate.

She was finally at Pat's door, knocking a little too hard, venting her fears, the hissing suspicions: unfounded, impossible, utterly untrue, unclear; but there all the same, tying her stomach into swirls of angry doubt that she could barely cope with anymore.

Pat stood in the doorway of the one-and-a-half-story Creole she and Harvey had purchased several years ago to be closer to their friends, despite the heavy mortgage load. She smoothed a tight leather skirt over her narrow hips, and said, "Ready to hit the road, my girl?" She bent to give Gail a light hug, an almost kiss on the cheek and a sweet smile.

Pat's voice was light, friendly, exciting; the face masked with paste and powders, intrigue like always after she'd gotten herself into another illicit affair that might last a week, a month, a year; but never forever. Forever in anything simply did not interest her unless, of course, it touched upon eternal youth or breathless beauty, or it happened to be on sale today.

"We better hurry if we want to beat the weekend crowd," Gail said.

"No problem. I'm in a hurrying mood most of the time, except, of course, when I'm snuggled in bed with the right guy. And I already have the Taurus all gassed up for a long day of shopping. What more could a woman want? A gassed-up car and the right guy. Wow!"

* * *

Early morning fishermen were spread out along the causeway by the time Pat slowed for the cutoff onto busy Interstate-10, heading for the George C. Wallace Tunnel. Gail twisted on the seat, and said, "Okay, Pat, enough is enough. Tell me who it is this time. You know you can't keep it from me. I'm psychic when it comes to an affaire d'amour, although in your case it's usually more like an affaire d'alust."

Pat smiled as she shoved on the accelerator of the Taurus, pushing both of them back into the cushions. Raising one hand theatrically, she held tightly to the steering wheel with the other. She glanced at Gail, and then to the windshield like a naughty child, trying to put one over on the teacher while she impressed the class with her casual boldness.

"Wouldn't you like to know, my dear?" she said, her voice low. She began to laugh; but stopped quickly so the tears wouldn't form, dripping onto her newly done face.

Squirming in her seat, Gail lowered her head to hide her anger. She had a sudden urge to kill, wondered if she could murder someone, if it ever came to that. Then she thought about poor Harvey, wondered if he could. Overall, he was an all-right guy, but Pat still cheated on him. How could he not know? Everybody else did. So why didn't she tell him? She didn't even know herself.

When she felt the vehicle speed up, she pressed her feet into the floorboards, suddenly frightened. She caught her breath as she grabbed the front of the seat with both hands and closed her eyes, braced for a horrible crash. Pat had changed lanes, leaving the other traffic behind. The abrupt lane changes always scared her, but Pat seemed to enjoy them despite the risks involved, much like she seemed to enjoy the dangers associated with her affairs. In either case, she could one day get herself killed. She didn't seem to care; she was having too much fun.

Still holding tightly to the front of the seat, Gail opened her eyes to see the tunnel suddenly appear like from nowhere. Its gapping mouth came at her face unexpectedly, growing larger in depth and width in the windshield, almost like it was a monster that wanted to swallow her whole and eat her alive. Her legs stiffened and she pushed harder into the floorboards as she covered her eyes, shouting, "Oh, my God."

"What is it?" Pat said, seeing the new look on Gail's terrified face. "You look sick, baby."

"I'm sorry. I forgot we were so close to the tunnel. It scared me when I looked up and saw it coming so fast at my face. You should slow down in all this traffic, Pat. We don't need an accident this morning, especially with the tunnel so full."

"Are you afraid of living a little too fast?" Pat asked, tailgating a pickup that had just cut in front of her.

"Dying too slow is more like it," Gail said, her ears quickly adjusting to the new sounds inside the tunnel. "But I don't think you understand what slow means."

"Sure I do, baby, especially when it comes to my favorite subject that begins with a capital S, like in Sex. In that mode, slow and easy is a fine way to go; but sometimes it's better to go fast and hard. In the fast mode, you might experience the fullness of an ecstasy that you've never felt before. You have felt ecstasy before; haven't you, baby? I mean real ecstasy; no holds barred, up and down, under the bed, on the floor, bouncing off the walls kind. You know, the kind where your lungs can't find air, and your body stiffens while you scream in high tone, hanging tightly to your man, pushing hard as the final thrill burns the polish right off your toenails. I mean that kind of ecstasy."

She giggled. God, Pat, of course I've had experiences."

"Sure you have."

"I have, really." Her face suddenly felt hot. "You'd think you were the only one who knew everything about men and their needs."

"Special needs, baby. I'm the big mama of their special needs."

Smiling, Pat glanced at the side-door mirror, and then to the rear of the pickup in front of her. Edging closer, she almost touched its bumper. She could see inside, and saw the man raise a middle finger over his shoulder, clearly trying to provoke her.

In response, she rammed a finger against the windshield, and then blew the horn several times, waiting to see if the idiot would step on his brakes to scare her, or edge out into the other lane to get away. He stayed where he was, boringly indifferent to her challenge, obviously not interested in aggravating someone else's road rage so early in the morning, or he was waiting for the opportunity to express his own more fully.

Impatient, Pat blew the horn again, and then swerved into the other lane, almost hit another car. "He'll follow," she said confidently, stepping on the gas to cut back into the right lane, two cars ahead of the pickup she'd tailgated earlier. "Watch him closely, Gail. Up on the straightaway, he'll try to do something stupid behind me. That's the way men are. They're always trying to sneak up on you to try to do something stupid from behind." She laughed. "Sometimes, it's a load of fun, sometimes not. But you wouldn't know about that, would you?"

"I suppose not," Gail said dejectedly, turning up the radio to catch a news bulletin. "But then again, I don't know much about a lot of things lately."

"The investigation continues," the news commentator said, "here and in Atlanta."

"What investigation is that?" Pat asked.

"The recent fires and horrible deaths," Gail said. "Where have you been for God's sake? Baldwin County's alleged land swindle is all that has been in the news lately. How could you not have heard?"

"Oh, you mean that crap."

"Crap or not," Gail said defensively, "I think something bad is going on out there, even though most of the fires and deaths have been classified as accidental so far."

"Who cares?"

"Maybe you would if whatever is going on were to hit closer to home." She sounded really upset now, and her voice crackled like she wanted to cry. She felt like that a lot lately.

"Easy, girl. Let it go. Fires happen all the time and people die. There's no mystery about that. And as far as the other stuff is concerned, it's all gossip, blown up by the newspapers and exaggerated all to hell by some others, that's all. Don't let such talk blow your brain." She smiled. "Remember, we still have a lot of shopping to get to. You've got to think positive. Think today, think pleasant things, think new things. Hell, think about new love. That should make you feel better."

"Do you mean new love or new lover?" Gail whispered.

"It doesn't matter all that much, does it? But what is it you really have on your mind these days, baby? I've seen a cloud of gloom over your head too much lately. Something's bothering you, sure. What is it? Are you sick or just bored with your life? Maybe I could help you change it. I know I could if you'd let me. I know some places."

"I'm okay, Pat. I'm just a little tired. I didn't mean to wreck your day. Let's get on with this shopping spree of ours and enjoy the rest of the trip, okay?"

"That's the spirit," Pat said, touching Gail's shoulder. "Now is what makes the world go around, not yesterday or tomorrow. And, of course, a little sex helps, too, whatever the hell day it is, or hour." She grinned impishly and stepped on the accelerator when a car tried to zoom by her, doing ninety in a sixty-five-mile zone, actually a little slow for I-10, and Pat's aggressive personality.

Gail couldn't help it; she laughed even though she pressed her feet into the floorboards again, and held tightly to the front of the seat. "You and your sex life are something else again," she managed to say. "Maybe someday you'll clue me in on the new lover in your life before he fades away like all the others."

"Certainly. Someday, we'll have a long chat about new love and its joys and consequences. I am, after all, an expert in such matters."

"I can agree with you on that much, but I hope your so-called expertise doesn't fail you someday when you need it the most. I hope your brakes don't either at the speeds you drive."

"Don't you worry about me, I'm a survivor; didn't you know that? I never fail in anything I do if I can help it, especially where sex is concerned. And as for the brakes; I like the gas pedal better." She smiled as she twisted the steering wheel hard over and sped around another car.

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