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Authors: Greg F. Gifune

Midnight Solitaire (3 page)

BOOK: Midnight Solitaire
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“That girl out there,” he says evenly.

“Yeah? What about her?”

“She’s fifteen years old.”

“What are you, a cop?” He clears his throat, puffs up his chest and shuffles about, nervously rubbing at his nose. “Relax, all right? I’m her soccer coach, I know her parents. She’s got a tough home life and I’m just trying to help her out.” He manages to find some of his swagger back, straightens his posture and squares his stance. “And frankly, I’m offended by what you’re inferring, bud. I’m a married man with kids of my own. I’m just trying to mentor and befriend a kid in need here.”

“By feeling her up?”

Jackie’s face flushes. “What? I didn’t—I didn’t do that, I just hugged—you mean just now out there? How dare you! I gave her a hug, for Christ’s sake, nothing—who the fuck are you to hassle me anyway? Get the hell out of my way, man. This is bullshit. I don’t have to stand here and listen to this. I don’t know you and you don’t know me, right? So fuck off before you get hurt, pops.”

Five minutes later Doc is back on the highway, headed out of state and back to business. He has a long drive, and The Dealer is already ahead of him, already on the move. There’s no time to waste.

Miles back, in a restroom near the Cape Cod Canal, a soccer coach with a penchant for teenage girls named Jackie Hunt lies on the cold tile floor in a pool of his own blood, urine, shit and teeth. Blubbering, he holds what remains of his nose in place in the hopes that once he gets to the emergency room they might be able to save it.

Stone-faced, Doc drives on like the old road dog he’s become, lets the memory slip and blow away along the highway like the rest in his wake and slides The Best of Robert Johnson into the CD player. Quickly lost in the scratchy old blues recordings of haunting guitar riffs, Johnson’s ethereal voice sings to him from the past about devils on his heels, luring him to another place and time, even if just for a short while, where none of this matters.

 

 

FOUR

Rain pours across the windshield in a steady thick stream, and despite the rapid sweep of wipers, the continuous watery veil makes visibility all but impossible. Though only late afternoon, the dark skies and heavy rains make it feel more like the middle of the night, especially out on the open road. Strangest damn weather this time of year, she thinks. Sunny and still one minute, pouring rain the next, snowing the next. The radio station with the ’80s retro format she’s been listening to fades in and out, losing strength the farther Greer drives, and she’s not seen oncoming headlights or even any behind her in more than twenty minutes. She hits the SCAN button on the FM tuner in the hopes of locking on a signal strong enough to tune in, but the digital numbers tumble one into the next, spanning the dial again and again. Looming in the distance is a row of huge high-tension towers, metal giants standing in the dark rain like otherworldly shrines left behind by an ancient alien culture. That explains it, she thinks, switching off the tuner. She knows she’s somewhere near the western part of the state, but Greer isn’t familiar with these back roads. She’s been damn near everywhere in her thirty-seven years—all over the United States and into select areas of Canada and Mexico—but she’s a flyer. For years she’s jetted into a locale, conducted business in hotels, restaurants or boardrooms, at conventions or the occasional tradeshow, then hopped another flight to wherever else the company has her going. I’ve been everywhere, she often jokes, but only to their hotels, restaurants and airports. Now, like everything else, it doesn’t seem as fun as it once did. No, that’s the wrong word. It was never fun. She moved through her life like a spectator, conducting it in ways she’d become accustomed to, but in recent months what was once automatic-pilot-doable has become unbearable. A life where numbers and sales and clients and schedules and product took the place of friends, family, love and a real life had never been her dream, was never part of the plan. Yet here she is. The occasional one-night stands on the road, the loneliness, a life of impersonal and surface interactions with people she barely knows and will probably never see again, the fear of waking up one day and realizing who she’s really become, what she’s really done with her so-called life and how she’s wasted much of it as a salesperson, bopping from state to state, client to client, city to city, making money, kicking ass and taking names. That’s Greer Fields, a machine. That’s what her colleagues have called her for years, a machine in a skirt-suit and heels that can close a client before they even know she’s worked them. And now she’s little more than a ghost in her own haunted life. She has no family, no relationship and few friends. Decades before there was a husband—the one true love of her life—but her career on the road killed that within a year. She’s never looked back. At least that’s what she tells herself when she’s alone in the dark, drunk and full of regret. A few boyfriends—even a girlfriend briefly once—but nothing of any real import or value. Like everything else in her life, relationships are transitory, and her constant motion leaves little time to worry about it, think about it or change it. There is her apartment in Boston, a beautiful and elegant space with a great view others can only dream about. There is her car, the Audi—a new one every three years—a closet full of clothes, jewelry, nice things, and with no husband, no kids and no mortgage, a great portfolio with a huge retirement fund. Not too shabby for an orphan raised in foster homes who had to scratch and claw her way to anything even remotely resembling happiness. And yet, possessions, six-figure salary and all, she’s miserable. Alone, lost, drifting closer and closer to forty with each passing day and still with no clue as to how she might escape this life before she becomes that grizzled old alcoholic seller she’s seen on the road for years, hanging out in airport bars, her best days reduced to vague memories, struggling to hang on and get by while trying to compete with younger, sexier, smarter, quicker, better salespeople who every year take just a little bit more of her life, her livelihood, her turf, her soul. A pathetic used-to-be powerbroker reduced to telling stories at diners to other drunks and losers at one in the morning in the middle of fucking nowhere.

Alone. That’s how she lives and how she believes she’ll die unless she changes things now. Which is precisely why she’s finally listened to that nagging voice in her head, done what’s she’s done, and literally walked away from her life, her job, responsibilities and commitments.

Where am I supposed to go?

Pack a bag, get in the car and do it.

How will I know where to go?

You don’t have to know. I know.

But—

I know.

The first day she got all of twenty minutes from her apartment in Boston and took a room at a hotel to think things through and make sure this was really the move she wanted to make. Earlier that day she’d been sitting nude on the edge of a bed, staring at the walls and thinking, one more goddamn hotel. She’d glanced at her reflection in the mirrored closet door on the far side of the room and figured if nothing else she was still in good shape physically. Years of working out in hotel gyms, never having had children and a blessed metabolism had all worked in her favor on that count. At five-six and one hundred and twenty-five pounds she essentially still has the body she’d possessed in her twenties. And so what? By morning—this morning—she decides to continue on. She has no choice. Whatever’s out there waiting for her has to be better than what she’s leaving behind. And if not, then so be it.

Destiny makes no promises. Bitch.

Memories of the hotel room blur as the rain sluicing along the windshield swallows them whole, sweeps them away with the wipers until all that remains is a dark and empty highway. On the passenger seat Greer’s iPhone vibrates and hums, indicating someone has left yet another voicemail for her. Without looking she reaches over, silences it and drives on. Last check she already had over twenty messages. Certainly understandable, as this is so unlike her. A lot of people at work have surely already begun to panic and assume the worst; that something awful has happened to her. The Machine is always on time, always at work, always ready for the next trip, always leading the pack in sales and balls and attitude. That’s all she has. It’s become her entire life. But now it’s the same as the road rolling away in the rearview. Gone.

Now, she thinks, I really am a ghost.

She blows a renegade strand of brown hair up out of her eyes, runs a hand through her relatively short hair and sighs. Are these suicidal thoughts she’s feeling or just the fear and anxiety of uncertainty and loss of control?

She doesn’t want to die. Does she?

Before she can think anymore about it, Greer sees the flames.

Surreal and impossible in the pouring rain, yet there they are on the side of the road, great flickering tongues of fire rumbling and bursting, rising up and reaching for the gray sky. She slows the car a bit as she gets closer, and realizes the flames have engulfed and originate from a car in the breakdown lane.

She reaches for her phone, eyes squinting through the rain. Christ, where’s the driver, the passengers? Are they still inside?

Greer pulls over into the breakdown lane perhaps fifty yards from the burning car, careful not to get too close in case the gas tank ignites, if it hasn’t already. Without taking her eyes from the wreckage, she grips her phone and presses 911.

The line crackles. Reception is horrid, but she can make out ringing on the other end of the line.

“9-1-1,” a faint female voice answers, “what is your emergency?”

Greer explains. The operator asks for her name and location, tells her to stay clear of the burning car, asks if there is anyone trapped in the vehicle, the make and model of the vehicle, and if there is anyone else on the scene.

“Just me,” Greer says, glancing at the rearview before returning her eyes to the car. “And there doesn’t appear to be anyone inside, but I can’t be certain.”

“I’m dispatching fire and rescue to your location now,” the operator tells her. “We’d like you to stay on-scene please, as the police may need to take a witness statement.”

“I didn’t witness anything. I simply happened upon this and reported it.”

“I understand, ma’am, however—”

“I’m sorry, but I’m late for an appointment and this rain is slowing me down as it is. I have nothing to do with this and nothing more to add. You have my name and information, should the authorities need to speak with me I’ll be happy to talk with them via phone or at some later, more convenient date.” Greer hangs up without waiting for a response and tosses the phone back onto the passenger seat. Craning her neck for a better view, she slowly pulls out onto the highway, slinking by the fiery vehicle, a relatively new black Dodge Charger.

The rain has extinguished some of the flames but the fire continues to rage. Although the vehicle appears to be empty, Greer notices an overturned can of gasoline that’s been tossed on the side of the road not far from the car.

Damn. Somebody torched it.

She accelerates, leaves the inferno in her rearview.

A mile or so later she sees something trudging through the rain along the side of the road. When she gets closer she realizes it’s a man walking in the breakdown lane. Dressed in a long dark duster, boots and a flat-brimmed western hat, a large leather knapsack slung over his shoulder, he looks oddly out of place on the side of a highway in western Massachusetts.

Greer slows the car.

The man turns, looks back over his shoulder.

Unsure why, Greer immediately feels mesmerized and is unable to take her eyes from him.

Ruggedly handsome, he appears to be about her age—somewhere in his middle to late thirties—a big man, six-three or four and well over two hundred pounds. But he’s not heavy, he’s in shape and looks like the sort of individual that can handle himself, and probably does on a regular basis.

As her headlights catch his eyes they glow yellow like an animal’s, and very slowly, the man sticks his hand out, extends a thumb and smiles at her.

Greer has already started to pull over when she blinks rapidly and breaks the spell. Realizing what she’s doing, she turns back onto the highway and hits the gas, surging off into the storm until the man is little more than a dark smudge in the distance.

Miles later, for reasons she cannot yet understand, she is still trembling.

 

 

FIVE

In the pouring rain, a man sits alone on a deserted playground. Slumped on a canvas swing that dangles from a chain on an old iron swing set, his feet are stretched out before him and he clutches a Styrofoam cup of coffee in both hands. He remains stationary, his head bowed, as if something on the ground before him has captured his attention. Occasionally, he raises the cup to his mouth and sips the coffee, but otherwise he is still, seemingly oblivious to the weather, huddled in a long dark raincoat, a black knit hat pulled down over his ears.

Sometimes Luke Thompson goes to parks or playgrounds to think. Sometimes he goes for the sole purpose of watching children play. There is nothing profound about the former, nothing nefarious about the latter. He simply likes children. He has no children of his own but sometimes thinks if he did he could at least point to one positive accomplishment in what has otherwise been a useless life. He is a failure as a man and a husband—he knows that—and although he fantasizes about being a good father, he understands he’d more than likely fail at that as well. Rachel has every right to suggest this, to fear it. She has tried so hard, believed in him when no one else did and when he didn’t deserve it. And he’s let her down every time. Though he knows it will never happen, Luke still clings now and then to the fantasy that perhaps one day he and Rachel will be able to sort things out and get it all back to the way it once was. The way it was early on. Those days were so short-lived he sometimes wonders if they ever really happened at all. Either way, if he could just get it back he knows they’d be happy and have a family…be a family. It’s all he’s ever really wanted. Yet it remains just beyond his reach. Always has. Always will.

BOOK: Midnight Solitaire
6.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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