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Authors: Jonathan Valin

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Hard-Boiled

Fire Lake (5 page)

BOOK: Fire Lake
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"Sure," he said contemptuously. "So
she can see what a fuck-up I am." He stopped pacing and glared
at me angrily.

"Just keep her away from me, man. I'm asking
you. She took my kids, man. She broke my fucking heart."

"All right," I said. "I'll keep her
away."

"Send her back home."

"I'll try," I said.

He sat back down heavily on the easy chair. "That
bitch, Karen. She's the whole reason why I'm here."

I looked him over carefully, wondering if he was
going to lose it again. "Are you going to be all right while I'm
gone?" I asked.

"Yes," he said angrily. "Sure. I'm not
a kid, you know."

"You're not going to do anything stupid, right?"

"For chrissake, Harry," Lonnie said. "I
told you I wouldn't do that to you twice. I'll be all right. I'll
catch some z's. Okay?"

I said okay. But I wasn't sure.
 

7

All the way out to the airport, I worried about
leaving Lonnie alone. I even thought of turning back a couple of
times, but managed to talk myself out of it. After all, I told
mvself, he was a grown man. And there was a limit to what anyone can
do for anyone else. I couldn't play big brother to him for the rest
of his life, like it was 1968 again. Still, I worried.

By the time I made it through the snow and rain to
Cincinnati International, it was well past eleven. I parked in the
short-term lot and bulled my way through the wind to the Delta
terminal, one of three huge hangar-shaped buildings flanking the
runways.

The ground floor of the terminal had the eerie,
untenanted look of a building under construction. The ticket
counters, rent-a-car booths, and luggage carousels were unmanned and
dimly lit. The only signs of life were the ubiquitous TV monitors,
flashing their endless stream of flight information. I checked one of
the screens, hoping that Karen Jackowski's flight had been late. I
was late; her plane had arrived on schedule.

I took the elevator up to the arrival and departure
gates on the second floor. It was deserted too, except for a few
groggy attendants behind the counters. I checked the coffee shop on
my way to the arrival gates--in case Karen had gotten tired of
waiting. Aside from a rent-a-cop hunched over a racing form and one
lorn waitress sitting on a stool, the place was deserted.

I headed down the broad, fluorescent walkway that led
to the gates. About halfway down the hall, I spotted Karen Jackowski,
sitting alone in one of the arrival bays, a canvas duck travel bag at
her feet. She spotted me, too, and waved a hand. It wasn't until that
moment that I asked myself what I was going to do with her. I knew
what I wanted to do--put her and Lonnie together again and see if
they couldn't lend each other some support. But I didn't think Lonnie
would sit for that. And from the way she had sounded on the phone, I
figured that Karen Jackowski wouldn't either.

"Are you Harry Stoner?" she called out.

"I'm Harry," I said, walking up to her.
"Sorry I'm late. The weather slowed me down."

She smiled at me. "I figured."

I smiled back at her. She had the kind of good looks
that would have made me smile at her, even if she'd been a stranger.
Her hair was light brown, almost blond, cut in bangs in front and
piled in a bun on top. A few loose hairs curled at her cheeks, giving
her a casual, earthy look. She had a full, square face, sunburned and
lined attractively around the eyes and mouth. Her eyes were wide and
a pale, cornflower blue. Her top lip flared up, with the suggestion
of a pout, although there was nothing snotty about her smile. She was
wearing jeans and a pale yellow fur jacket that had gone tatty at the
cuffs and the collar.

I must have been staring at her a little too openly,
because she started to look embarrassed.

"I guess I sounded like a monster on the phone,"
she said, as if she thought that was why I'd been ogling her. "Was
that what you were expecting?"

"I didn't know what to expect," I said,
sitting down across the aisle from her.

"You look like I expected," she said with
genuine warmth. "You know, Lonnie used to talk about you a lot.
His famous roommate who became a private eye." She said the
private eye part with a touch of irony. But it was good-natured
irony. After the way she'd sounded on the phone, the lightness of her
manner came as a surprise. "He kept saying he'd put us in touch
some day. But . . ." She looked down at the floor, as if talking
about Lonnie embarrassed her.

"How is he?" she said, without looking at
me.

"We're going to have to talk about that," I
said.

"How so?"

"He has a problem about seeing you right now."

Karen Jackowski smiled knowingly. "It isn't
something I haven't already seen."

"He's tried this sort of thing before?"

"All his life," she said, and for a moment
her voice filled with the same bitterness with which she'd spoken
over the phone. Then she made a face, as if she'd heard that
bitterness herself and didn't like what it did to her. "He's
never intentionally taken an overdose of pills before, but God knows
he's overdosed enough."

"On what?"

"Ludes, soapers, smack. You name it."

"Lonnie is a junkie, then?" I said, without
much surprise.

Karen nodded. "He's been in a federal drug
rehabilitation program for the last two years, Harry."

"When did he get out?"

"As far as I know,"
she said, "the week before last."

***

We walked back up the long hall to the check-in
counters. Karen was taller than I'd expected--taller than Lonnie. And
she moved quickly, with long deliberate strides--the way runners
walk. As we approached the X-ray machines, Karen glanced at one of
the TV monitors flashing flight information and began to laugh.

"The last time I was at this airport in '72,"
she said, "Lonnie and I got stoned on acid before we boarded the
plane back to St. Louis. I remember standing in front of one of those
monitors and staring at it as if it were a soap opera. A flight
attendant came over and asked me if he could help. He was coming on
to me, but I was so stoned, I didn't realize it. I thought he really
wanted to give me a hand, so I asked him if he could change the
channel on the TV." She laughed again. "You should have
seen the look on his face. Lonnie got hysterical and said he couldn't
take me anywhere. We were goofing so openly, it was a miracle we
didn't get busted."

"I did acid once," I said.

"Once?"

I nodded.

"Under a doctor's supervision?"

I grunted and she laughed.

"You're kind of square, aren't you, Harry?"
Karen Jackowski said, in her husky, amused voice.

"My whole life," I admitted.

"Well, I did acid more than once. And everything
else that Lonnie did." She gave me a frank smile and said, "I
was a junkie too."

Whether she'd intended to or not, she'd surprised the
hell out of me. I tried to cover my shock by acting as casually about
it as she had. "When did you quit using?" I asked.

"When Lonnie got busted in '76," Karen
said, as if she'd answered the question many times before. "Lonnie
was so sick in those days that he needed that first one or two bags
just to get well. One morning, he shot himself up in both arms and
OD'd on the bathroom floor. I had to call the life squad to our
apartment, and they brought the cops with them. The paramedics
brought Lonnie back to life and the cops busted him on the spot. Do
you know what he said when he regained consciousness?"

I shook my head.

"He said it was the best high he'd ever had,"
she said. "He wanted to do it all over again."

"And that's when you quit?" I said.

She nodded. "That was it for me."

"What happened to Lonnie?"

"They sent him to a halfway house for six
months. Then put him back in a methadone clinic. We were both going
to stav clean, after that." She laughed bitterly. "Yep,
that was the plan, all right. Get married. Have kids. Go back to
school. A new life."

"It didn't work?"

She eyed me balefully. "No, it didn't work. He
stayed in the clinic for a while--six months, maybe. And then he
started getting stoned again. He'd lip the methadone pills and sell
them on the street for junk. He lied about it, at first. But towards
the end he didn't even bother to lie. We were living apart when he
got busted the last time. I filed the divorce papers the day he went
off to Lexington."

We'd come to the end of the hallway. I stopped for a
moment and stared at Karen. She'd spoken so freely about her
sensational past that she'd almost taken my breath away. And then it
was always sobering to hear about the lives other people have led. It
gave you a healthy sense of your own inconsequence, like having your
picture taken in front of the Grand Canyon.

As we started down the escalators to the ground
floor, I asked her, "Why did you come after him today?"

She thought about it for a second, then said, "I
didn't think I had a choice."

"You still love him?"

She shook her head decisively. "No. But I still
want to, if you can understand that. I still have the need. Lonnie's
a lot like junk--you never really kick him. All it takes is a taste
and you're hooked again." She turned to me with a resolute look.
"I don't want to get hooked, Harry. I can't afford to anymore.
I've made my own life now, and I don't want to go backward."

"How do you expect to help him?" I said.

"I can't help him. I don't have the strength or
the desire. All I can do is fly him back to St. Louis and take him to
someone who can get him straight. After that, it's up to him."

We stepped off the escalator into the dim, deserted
ground-floor waiting room. There was a phone booth beside the
escalator. I thought about calling Lonnie--to check up on him. Then
decided against it. I also decided to take Karen back with me to the
apartment, whether Lonnie approved of her or not. It was clear, now,
that I was way out of my depth when it came to dealing with him.

I guided Karen to the exit. She took one look out the
plate-glass doors--at the blowing snow and rain--and shivered.

"Welcome to Cincinnati," she said
lugubriously.
 

8

As we were walking through the lot to the car, Karen
slipped on the icy tarmac. I caught her before she fell and lifted
her to her feet. In lifting her up, I inadvertently cupped my hand
around one of her breasts. I pulled my hand away immediately and gave
her a quick, embarrassed look. She looked amused.

"That was a cheap way to cop a feel," she
said.

"Hey!" I protested. "It was an
accident."

"There are no accidents, Harry," she said
with a laugh. "But we should know each other a little better, I
think, before you go any further. Especially in an airport parking
lot."

As she got into the car, I thought that I'd very much
like to know her better.

"You have somebody back in St. Louis?" I
said curiously as I got into the car beside her.

"Somebody you . . . know a little better?"

"I've known a lot of men better," she said
in her husky, ironic voice. "Better and worse."

"Seriously," I said. "Have you hooked
up with someone else, after Lonnie?"

"Seriously?" she said in a vaguely mocking
voice. "Seriously, no. At least, no one for very long. I guess
Lonnie spoiled me for other men."

"He's that good?" I said, feeling a twinge
of ancient jealousy in spite of myself'.

"Oh, he's very good in bed," Karen said
indifferently. "But that's not what I meant. What I meant, I
think, is that I haven't wanted to get involved with another man
since I separated from Lonnie. There were a few one-night stands,
especially right after we broke up. But nothing lately. I've got my
kids and my job at U-City Elementary. I don't need anything else."
She laughed dryly. "I sound pretty arrogant, don't I?"

"No."

"Well, I do to myself. You'd just have to have
lived with Lonnie for close to fifteen years to understand it."

"You want to tell me about it?"

"About the woes of my marriage, you mean?"

"Sure," I said.

She shrugged. "Why not?" She turned toward
me on the car seat. "Lonnie and I met at a concert at Washington
University in 1969. His band was the opening act for Quicksilver
Messenger Service. And I was a sophomore coed, majoring in protest.
From that first night until he went off to prison two years ago, I
didn't have a life outside of his life. I didn't have a thing of my
own. It was like I'd caught a fast train back there in St. Louis, and
I couldn't get off. We just kept rolling--all over the country. From
one gig to the next. Up and down. Two years in Hollywood, when Lonnie
was hot. Two years in the Big Apple, when he cooled down. Then four
years in an East St. Louis tenement, when nobody would touch him. And
all the time, there was the dope and the games. Kinkiness, ugliness.
Servicing Lonnie's supplier for a dime bag. Copping fifteen bags with
the rent money. Pushing seven on the street to keep the other eight.
Every day worrying about how to get well--how to get the bread to
cop. It was, as they used to say, a trip."

BOOK: Fire Lake
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