A gaunt shadow fluttered against the muslin curtains, the window screen lifted with a shimmering sound.
Something clawed and scraped, the sash jerked upwards, a callused, sunburned hand yanked the curtains aside. The butt end of a grimy red backpack slowly obtruded. A buckle snagged on the windowsill, but after a little pushing and shoving, the pack finally came unstuck and dropped with a solid thud onto the tile floor. A scuffed boot dangled over the towel rod, stretched for the toilet seat and found purchase.
Cool, dry air conditioning greeted Shag even before he was through the window, and he stood in the bathroom for a luxurious moment to drink it in. It was seven steamy miles from Piney Woods Trail to the Partlowe place, and no one these days would give a guy a lift—he’d walked the whole damn way. He hadn’t meant to come until after dark, but a half hour in the smothering humidity changed his mind. Anyway, why wait? The drivers of hundreds of cars and trucks blew by him on the highway with nary a glance—no one would see him turning into the Partlowe private road. But just to be sure, he waited for a lull in traffic before skulking into the pines a few yards shy of the turnoff.
The first order of the day was lunch. He’d resisted buying a hamburger on the highway, counting on the wealthy Partlowes to have a well-stocked larder. They did. The housekeepers had filled the refrigerator with high-dollar foodstuffs in anticipation of their arrival. There were deli items, fruit, vegetables, smoked ham and salmon, fancy pickles, olives. The freezer was tightly packed with more. Shag counted six different breads purchased at a boutique bakery in Houston: four loaves in the freezer, two in an antique breadbox on the counter. Without bothering to clean up or even return leftovers to the fridge, he made a huge sandwich and opened a half-gallon carton of milk. Everything he needed was in gross abundance, and Shag palpitated with greed. Never in his life had he found himself in the belly of such grandeur. For two luxurious days, it would be all his.
He toured the cabin while he ate, starting at the far end of the hall with the master bedroom and bath. As expected, he found plenty of prescription pills in both His and Hers medicine cabinets, but he didn’t recognize the names. The rest was off-the-shelf: cough medicine, Tylenol, even some hemorrhoid suppositories; items with which he could restock his own meager supply, but nothing fun. The bathroom was larger than some motel rooms he’d stayed in, a veritable temple of tile, brass, clay-colored porcelain, and thick throw rugs. The shower resembled a fountain and required neither curtain nor glass door. Smooth boulders were arranged around it for seats. In the center of the room, tropical plants stretched toward a skylight twelve feet above the floor.
Side-by-side queen beds seemed almost diminutive in the master bedroom, and like Goldilocks, Shag tried first one—it was firm, almost hard, and then the other—too squooshy soft. The elegant plainness of design--small fireplace, watered silk boudoir chairs, a pair of antique highboys, quickly bored him, and, dribbling mustard, he resumed his tour down the hall.
Afternoon sunlight poured into the next room, an overly feminine embarrassment of flounce and furbelow. Yards of floral cloth had been poufed, pleated, bunched and gathered. Parking his sandwich on a dresser, hand-painted with wildflowers, Shag opened a top drawer and sank both hands into a lavender-scented trove of panties, teddies and see-through bras. A tiny, shell-pink thong caught his eye, he took it for a souvenir. But there was no jewel case, and the faux antique wardrobe held empty hangars. Depositing a wet pickle on the dresser, he retrieved his sandwich and stepped into the hall.
The next room was more like it. Boy stuff: an elaborate telescope by the window, binoculars, a wall-full of antique fishing lures. Wooden boat models, including a miniature of the Partlowe’s Chris Craft, bearskin rug, Indian blankets, an armchair constructed of cow horns. Valuable doodads covered every available surface: old Zippo lighters, hiking paraphernalia, pocket watches, compasses, even a brass sextant. But, except for a few pairs of outdoor boots and shoes—too small, alas, for Shag’s size eleven feet, the closet was bare. Time to move on.
He had saved the best for last. The den with its fully stocked bar was Shag’s idea of paradise. If he were rich, this would be the model, stuffed heads and all, for his own mansion on a hill. He threw what was left of his sandwich into the cavernous fireplace and rooted around behind the bar until he found a half bottle of Wild Turkey. Flicking on the TV, he settled back into the leather sofa, whiskey bottle in one hand, remote in the other, prepared to experience nirvana. Shag’s personal paradise, however, wouldn’t be complete without pornography and, what do you know, the set was tuned in to an “adult” channel. He took the thong out of his pocket, held it to his nose and inhaled.
But the life-sized, silicone-breasted image on the giant television screen couldn’t hold his attention. He felt anxious, pulled in a dozen directions. There was so much: to eat, drink, play with, wallow in. Where to start? He told himself to relax, slow down. He had two whole days to experience this Casbah, why gorge himself all at once?
He remembered the amazing fountain in the master bathroom and decided to take a long, hot shower. And wash his clothes! A door off the kitchen opened onto a laundry room with clean, shiny Maytags you didn’t have to feed quarters. He fetched his backpack, carried it into the laundry room and dumped its smelly contents into the washer. He added the clothes he was wearing, poured in detergent and set the dial. When the washtub started filling with water, he headed for the shower, a la natural.
Burt Skimmington was in his element. He’d had his well-done sirloin for lunch and then drunk beer and shot pool for the next four hours. His current challenger was his bud, Alton Ray, and buds Murph, Leon, and Bud lounged about the table in various stages of advanced inebriation. He was so happy, so content. Why couldn’t life be like this all the time? The Rawhide girls made a point of visiting frequently, perched on a knee here, draping a breast there, and Burt had actually become drunk enough to ponder, between shots, life’s deeper meaning. He thought about home, the bad smells, the matching snot-nosed brats, his pimply wife, and wondered why he even tried.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Wuh hell.’ And other times I just don’t know.” Like a mantra, this conundrum repeated in his soggy brain. “Sometimes I think, ‘Wuh hell.’ And other times I just don’t know.” Tiffany liked to waste money on self-help books, and when she wasn’t looking he’d flip through one. The great truth they all seemed to agree on was, Do What Makes You Happy. Wuh, hell! Shooting pool, drinking and horsing around with his buds, flirting with the strippers at the Rawhide—that’s what made him happy. According to the people who wrote those books, and they were the experts, weren’t they? he was a better person for it.
But all good things come to an end, or at least to an intermission. Around five o’clock Burt stumbled outside for air. His head spun, he couldn’t stop belching, his eyes were pink and feverish. He staggered to one truck after another, discovering only after his key didn’t fit that none of them were his. At last, on the verge of panic, he found his pickup, somehow fit the right key into the right hole, and crawled inside. He lowered his window, slumped against the door and passed out.
It was the first time Shag had felt really clean since, well, he couldn’t remember when. He even shampooed his hair. He used Partlowe’s fancy razor to shave (making a mental note to take this item when he left) and rubbed cheeks, chest, and abdomen with expensive cologne. Trailing towels and wet footprints, he went up the hall to the laundry room and switched his clothes from washer to dryer. Some of Rodney Partlowe’s socks were folded and ranked neatly in a wire hamper. Shag borrowed a pair and pulled his boots back on. He took a golf cap off a hook on the door and clomped back to the den otherwise naked. The tiny thong he’d kept with him—admiring it hanging from the faucet as he showered, meditating on it as he shaved. Now he kneaded it in the fingers of one hand, like worry beads.
He turned on the television, lay back on the leather sofa and took a slug of Wild Turkey. On screen, a highway patrolman in mirror shades had just pulled over a yellow Corvette, driven by a suspiciously buxom redhead. She explained to the “officer” that she really didn’t want a bad old ticket—wasn’t there anything she could do to change his mind? Stony-faced, the cop began flipping pages in his citation book until—surprise, surprise—he happened to look down and notice the girl had unzipped his pants.
“Well, hello!” Shag shouted. “Might be able to cut us a deal, after all!” Eyes glued to the screen, he jumped up and grabbed a tumbler from the liquor cabinet and held it under the ice maker. The appliance made a dry grinding sound and spit some rusty water into his glass. “Dang!” He got a clean glass and hurried to the kitchen as the film score launched into the fornication theme.
Rounding a butcher-block table, Shag skidded to a halt, backed up and gawked at something he hadn’t noticed before: the alarm panel. A series of little yellow and green lights winked on and off. On the alphanumeric screen, a code was flashing. No sirens had blared when he climbed in the window, and that had been hours ago. Was it a silent alarm? Nah. If anything were going to happen, it would have happened already. He gave a window over the sink a cursory glance, then went to the kitchen door and quietly opened it. The yard and outbuildings were in deep, peaceful shade. A blue jay shrieked, something went plop in the lake. Humid, pine-scented air leaked in and, with it, a whining pack of mosquitoes. He closed the door and returned his attention to the panel, slapping at his thighs and calves where mosquitos had already struck.
“Nah,” he reassured himself (Slap!). “These here yellers and (Slap!) greens don’t mean nothin.” The red lights were off, and any fool knew red was all you had to worry about. He filled his glass with ice from the refrigerator and headed back to the den where serious negotiations had commenced on the TV screen.
A nudge on the shoulder wasn’t enough to arouse Burt from a drooling stupor. He’d been drifting in and out of a dream in which he came home to find Tiffany, suddenly as fresh, young and pretty as the day he married her, sodomizing the beggar on the kitchen dinette. “Nuh! Nuh! Shtopit! Shtop!” Something nudged him again, and giggled. Burt came to with a spasm. He had dozed with his cheek against the open window and awakened with a terrible crick.
“Hi, there, handsome. Looks like you could use some company. Early to be going to sleep already.”
Burt frowned, rubbed his face. “Who, what are, you want me?” The woman gave him a sloppy smile, and he noticed lipstick on her front teeth. She had dry brassy hair, a chrome stud in her lower lip, and her breasts had already invited themselves in. Five inches of cleavage yawned like a chasm beneath his nose.
“My name’s Londa, what’s yours?”
Londa smirked and stroked his cheek with a plastic nail. “Aren’t you going to invite me in, Bufort?”
It took a while for the words to float to the surface in some kind of order. Finally, he leaned sideways and unlocked the passenger door as Londa minced around the front of the truck.
The Wild Turkey bottle lay on the floor, empty. Shag fumbled with the remote until the TV went blank and then peeled himself off the leather sofa and stood precariously on a floor rising and dipping like the deck of a ship. Somehow he made it across the den and tottered into the hall. The boy’s bedroom was already dark. When Shag closed the door behind him he couldn’t see anything. He cracked it open again, enough for a bar of hallway light to mark a path to the bed. Stepping high, as if walking through tall grass or shallow water, he veered almost immediately into the wall and a dozen antique fishing lures. He lurched away with two of them clinging to his flesh and knocked over the telescope. In righting himself, his arm swept a table full of Partlowe collectibles onto the floor. Something rigid barked his knee, and he went headlong onto the bed. Breathing hard through his nose, he plucked the lures out of his arm and flung them away. “Lucky I’m goddamn drunk,” he muttered, sucking at the wounds.
Burt skidded onto the highway, eliciting screeches and honks from oncoming traffic. Swerving back into his lane, he floor-boarded the pickup and shot through a red light, eliciting more of the same.
“Hey, watchit!,” cried Londa, bracing her feet against the dash. She preferred her johns drunk, but not quite this drunk.
“They can watch out, sonsabitches. Too goddamn many of ’em, anyway.” He suddenly chortled and reached over to squeeze Londa’s knee. “You’re gonna like the house,” he said. Londa’s eyes went to his wedding band.
“Shouldn’t we just go to a nice motel or something?”
Burt’s hand worked its way up her thigh and gave her another painful squeeze, closer to home. “Just wait’l we get there, honey.”
They raced along the interstate, Burt alternately screaming at traffic and gazing long and lecherously at his passenger. Whenever he did the latter, the pickup would wander into oncoming traffic. Londa scrunched into her corner and held on.
“You’re gonna shit when you see the house,” Burt gloated, ignoring a truck which had careened onto the shoulder to avoid him.
“If you say so, Bufort,” whimpered Londa.
He started to correct her, but then decided a whore didn’t need to know his real name. Everything was coming up roses. Gus gone, Tiffany out of the way, the Partlowe cabin all his for the weekend. He felt like a very clever fellow. A clever fellow who needed to pee like a racehorse. For the moment, he forgot about Londa and concentrated on getting his bladder to the cabin.
When Bufort turned off the highway and onto a lonely, unmarked road, Londa grew apprehensive. It was so gloomy beneath the pines, he’d had to switch on the headlights. She had seen TV shows about weirdos taking girls into the woods and leaving them there—dead.
“Wow! Look at that big bird, wouldja?” she exclaimed, pointing at the windshield. When Burt’s eyes followed, she released the buckle on her seatbelt. If the guy started acting fishy, she would be ready to jump out and run for it.
“Probably just a buzzard,” said Burt, who hadn’t seen a thing.
A rooftop and stone chimney came into view, and Londa felt a little better. Then the truck crested the rise and the lake spread out before them in riotous sunset hues. Burt circled the grounds at a stately crawl so she could fully appreciate the grandeur of “his” cabin. It looked, in the golden, waning light, like a dream house in a retirement-fund brochure.
“No way!” Londa uttered breathlessly. The truck slid beneath the big pine and Burt cut the lights and engine.
Entranced, Londa flung open her door and jumped down. “This isn’t your place, Bufort. Come on, tell the truth.” When she turned around to challenge him, he’d disappeared. Then she heard, issuing from behind the pine tree, the unmistakable patter of urine on dry needles.
“Sure it is,” he replied, craning over his shoulder. “Why you think it isn’t?”
Several reasons, thought Londa, the foremost being DOOFUSS written all over you in neon. And how many rich guys went around in tee shirts three sizes too small and K-mart work boots?
“I don’t know… It’s just so incredible!”
“Yeah,” Burt replied, zipping up, “we like it.”
Londa spied the boathouse. “You got boats, too?”
“Fifty-four vintage Chris-Craft and a Cigarette Top Gun.”
“Gollee—” Before she could suggest a boat ride, maybe later when the moon came out, Burt was all over her, forcing his snuff-soaked tongue down her throat.
“God, I want you, I want you now!” he groaned, sand-papering her face with stubble. Londa squirmed out of his grip, but as she did so allowed her fingers to brush the inside leg of his jeans.
“I want you, too,” she said, with professional courtesy. “But, gee, Bufort, we kinda have to discuss, you know, I don’t, well—”
Burt looked confused. Then it dawned on him. “Ohhhh… You mean money.” Londa lowered her eyes demurely.
“I’m sorry, Bufort. If I didn’t need it, you know it wouldn’t make any difference.” She sighed. “It’s just, well, I’ve got a kid to feed.”
“Oh. Well sure, hon. Sure…”
Promising to settle up in the house, he led her to the side door, slipped his fingers behind the shutter, and felt a thrill of panic when he didn’t find the key. Quickly, he patted himself down, then sucked in his gut and dug both hands into his pockets. Londa noticed, after he produced it and unlocked the door, the key wasn’t on his key ring. Your house, huh? Yeah, right, Bufort. He gave her an “after you,” and she wriggled past him.
From habit, he went directly to the alarm panel but then remembered he hadn’t set it when he left. But had he also forgotten to turn off the kitchen light? Londa had already tripped down the hall to the den. The lamps went on.
“No waaaay,” she cried. “This place is so cooool.”
She was posing with her back to him, and Burt took the opportunity to get another look at what he was buying. The hair was a mess. And behind, where she probably never saw it, there were leftover streaks of yellow and even some punk red. Her blouse was like a man’s shirt, only made from something slippery, so that it kept falling off one or the other shoulder. She wore a little fanny-pack instead of carrying a purse, and her stretch tights bagged below her ass. For the first time, he noticed they were leopard print and not very clean. He could hardly wait to tear them off.
“You kill all these?” she asked, indicating the mounted heads and knowing very well he hadn’t.
“A few,” said Burt with humility. “Friend of mine gimme that buffalo.” He went past her to the bar. “How ’bout a drinkee?” He knew he needed a drinkee. After his nap and the excitement of meeting Londa, his Rawhide drunk was starting to wear off.
“Sure,” said Londa. “Banana daiquiri.” She could tell by the look he gave her Bufort didn’t know how to make one. “Velvet hammer?” Same response. “Oh, alright, something with a cherry in it.” She flounced over to the bar and twiddled his ear with her finger. “Got to have the cherry.”
They began a tour of the house with the kitchen, where Burt had returned for ice; he with a lesser brand of bourbon (the Wild Turkey had somehow hidden itself) and for Londa, rum and coke with a cherry.
“What a kitchen!” said Londa, laughing. “Wish I knew how to cook.” Burt started up the hall.
“Guest bath on the right.”
“And on your left is the girl’s—” Burt coughed. “My, uh, daughter’s room.” He hadn’t meant to adopt grown offspring, but he hadn’t planned that far ahead.
“You have a daughter? How old is she?” Londa set her drink on the chest of drawers and ventured from flowery bed to flowery armchair to flowery drapes, touching everything. Burt quickly took up the glass and wiped the ring with his fingers. He spotted the pickle.
“Twenty-uh, twenty-one,” he replied, distractedly. What was a damn pickle doing—?
“This her in the picture? Gosh, she doesn’t take after you, does she?
“Want to show you something else,” he said, handing Londa her glass and hustling her out. He led her to the master bedroom.
“In here,” he said, reaching inside and switching on the lights.
“Wow, it’s gorgeous!” said Londa. “Ooh, I want to see that bathroom!” Burt stared dumbly at a damp towel on the carpet. Following her into the bathroom, he saw puddles and another towel thrown into a corner. He knew the housekeepers had come this week, it was incredible they’d missed this. Shaving stuff cluttered the counter, there was a scum ring in the sink. He started straightening things like a fussy maid.
“Ummm,” Londa said, admiring the shower/fountain. “Maybe I’ll let you wash my back.” Burt looked pathetically hopeful. “But we passed another door in the hall. What was that, a secret room? The one no one’s allowed in?” She scooted past him.
“It’s the boy’s,” he said, catching up at Rodney’s door. It was getting dark. He turned on the hall light.
Londa made big eyes. “You have a boy, too? What’s his name?” She was enjoying herself, trying to catch Bufort in a lie.
“Ray,” Burt said quickly.
Shag heard voices and bolted up in bed. Voices in the hall, right outside his door!
“Ray, that’s a nice name. Let’s have a look at Ray’s room.”
The door swung open, a shaft of light fell across the foot of the bed. Shag’s heart clanged. Only a fraction less drunk than when he collapsed an hour ago, he couldn’t focus his eyes. There were silhouettes—two? four?—milling in the doorway. One (or two) of them reached in and felt for the light switch. It clicked. Shag ducked as if anticipating a gunshot.
“Light’s not working,” said Burt, reminded of the item on Gus’s list and Mrs. Partlowe’s telephone message. “Come on, let’s go to the den and freshen our drinks.”
“And settle my fee?” Londa gave him a cutie pie grin.
The smaller silhouette gave the large one a peck on the cheek, and their voices trailed down the hall. Shag fell back on the pillows, saved, if only for the moment, by a broken switch.
Londa slipped off her shoes and tucked her legs beneath her on the sofa. “I usually get a hundred dollars, but since you’re so rich, I think I ought to double that,” she said, snuggling up to her john.
“A hundred,” Burt looked stunned, “dollars?”
“Two.” Her hand slid between his thighs, exploring, caressing. “You get anything you want, all night long,” she purred.
Burt began to stutter. “Tu-tu-tu— Honey, I ain’t got two hundred dollars in the damn bank!” Londa pulled back.
“That’s a teeny bit hard to believe, Bufort.” She cast her eyes around the sumptuous den. “This ashtray’s probably worth more than that,” she said, referring to a chunky obsidian bowl on the coffee table. “But I don’t want an ashtray.” She oozed into him again, filling every hollow, rubbing his belly. Burt’s breathing accelerated. “I guess,” said Londa, slipping a hand beneath his tee shirt and circling his navel with an artificial fingernail, “we could trade or something. You know, maybe some jewelry? Something I could sell?”
Burt groaned. This was awful. What could he do? What could he say? He reached for his glass, tilted his head and swallowed a big mouthful of warm, whiskey-tainted water. He almost spat it out. The glass he thought he was picking up, with ice and an inch of bourbon in it, was still on the coffee table. Had he forgotten to put away the one he’d used this morning? But he could have sworn he’d wiped it clean and—
Hunkered down behind the bed, Shag twisted the thong in his fingers and tried to think. He was still half drunk, but the shock of people in the house had brought him around like a cold slap. Before he could do anything (like get the fuck out of there) he needed clothes, but the laundry room was next to the kitchen at the end of the hall. How would he get past the den without being seen? By the sound of their voices, that’s where they had planted themselves.
The boy’s room had only one window, above a bookcase littered with knickknacks. Shag reached over them to pull back the curtains and release the lock on the sash. It was now almost as dark outside as in, but light from a timed fixture on the barn illuminated the yard and picked out the clutter on the shelves. He’d have to quietly remove each knickknack, then crawl onto the bookcase to escape. But the window was painted shut and wouldn’t budge.
“You think about it, hon,” said Londa, giving Bufort a friendly pat on the stomach, “while I go potty.” She got up and headed barefoot to the guest bathroom.
Burt watched the object of his desire sashay out of the den, and, unless he could think of something fast, out of the evening’s activities. His eyes inventoried the room for something flashy enough to look like two hundred dollars, yet inconspicuous enough that the Partlowes wouldn’t miss it.
After satisfying a genuine need to pee, Londa began opening and closing cabinet doors, searching for drugs. Towels, washcloths, soap, tooth-fucking-brushes— At the same time, she unzipped her fanny pack and took out a cell phone. She tapped on the screen and dialed a number.
“Pancho, Londa. Listen, you won’t believe this. Shut up. No, shut up, just listen.” She lowered the toilet lid and perched, eyes wide, knees together, hands cupped over the mouthpiece.
Taking silence for a sign they had stopped talking and moved on to something more involved, and distracting, Shag slipped out of the bedroom and crawled as far as the entrance to the den. Holding his breath, cheek flattened against the wall, he edged closer until he could see the sofa. A guy was sitting there, staring into space—his boss! The asshole who was supposed to have rushed off to another job and wouldn’t be back for “a few days!” But where was the girl? He’d begun frantically inching back down the hall when the toilet flushed and the bathroom doorknob rattled.
“Know what, Bufort? I was just thinking.” Londa reappeared with what seemed to be a fresh attitude, as if her toilet break had brought her to new insights. “Let’s party first and worry about the bill later.”
Burt couldn’t believe his ears. “You mean—”
“I like you, Bufort. You’re cute. And, like I said, if I wasn’t so darned strapped for cash, I wouldn’t dream of asking you to pay.”
A grin spread on Bufort’s simple face. “Londa, sugar, I think I’m starting to like you as well.” Londa poked him in the belly. “And-and-and this makes good business sense, too,” he added earnestly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s like going to the brake shop or getting a haircut. You get the haircut. Then you pay.”
God, what a dork, thought Londa. What a dipstick loser. She’d made up her mind in the bathroom there would be no sex.
“Let’s watch TV,” she chirped, reclining against the arm of the sofa. She wedged her bare feet against Bufort’s thigh. He could fiddle with her toes, but that was as far as he’d get.
Rock music crashed into the room, the large screen flashed with strobe lights and dueling lasers. Something called Boob Toob Productions was presenting a taped “strip-off” competition from a Reno nightclub. Londa picked up the remote control and changed channels.
“Hey, that looked good,” Burt protested. Naked women might be just the thing to inspire Londa to action.
“I want to watch something old timey. Something romantic.” She kept surfing until a grainy Ronald Colman film appeared: a Thirties nightclub, waltz music, two men in tuxedos conversing wittily about horseracing. Burt’s heart sank. In desperation, he grabbed one of the bare feet pressed against him and tugged.
“Ow, stop it,” Londa said irritably. Burt let go.
He fidgeted, devising another tack. “Hey, I’m kinda sweaty. How about us taking a shower?”
Maybe later. Stung by her sudden indifference, Burt folded his arms and sulked. What the hell was going on? You are, he wanted to remind her, a whore, aren’t you? Resisting the urge to get testy, he picked up her foot again and poured all his lust and yearning into massaging toes.
“Mmmmm, that feels better,” said Londa, squirming into a more comfortable position. The light of hope shined anew—Burt rubbed, twiddled, tickled, stroked. Londa snuck a peek at her watch.
“How ’bout another drinkee?” he said, encouraged.
It was Burt’s turn to consult his watch. Realistically, he could allow himself another hour and still be home in time to avoid a knock-down drag-out with Tiffany. Doing what made him happy always carried a price: no dinner, washing his own clothes, the silent treatment—constant bitching after that. He decided he better get the show on the road.
“If you expect to be paid, bitch,” he said almost casually, “take your clothes off, now.”
“Screw you,” said Londa, yawning at the TV. “You’re a pig.” On screen, Ronald Coleman was pomading his hair and whistling.
Burt lay back and chuckled at the ceiling. “Well, darlin’, I hope you like screwin’ pigs.”
He lunged, but Londa was ready for him. She braced herself against the arm of the sofa and thrashed her legs. Burt fended off the blows as best he could, but a well-placed kick to the chin toppled him onto the floor. He sprang up and charged head-down like an enraged bull, fully intending to slap the shit out of her. But his foot stubbed against something that went CLANK! and rolled out from under the coffee table—the Wild Turkey bottle. He had barely exclaimed, “What the—” before Londa struck again, right where it hurts most.
Watching all this from the hallway, Shag wondered if now was the time to make a dash for the laundry room. He vacillated. Just because they were busy kicking and scratching each other didn’t mean they wouldn’t notice a naked man strolling past the wide entrance of the den. Suddenly, the girl leapt off the sofa and Shag scrambled back to the bedroom.
When the pain subsided enough for Burt to follow her into the kitchen, Londa was waiting for him with a meat cleaver.
“Stay back, asshole.”
“You think that’s going to stop me?” Burt groaned and slumped against a counter, cradling his belly.
“You big dumb creep. I wouldn’t sleep with you for five hundred dollars.”
“Get out,” said Burt. Londa didn’t move. She rested a hip against the sink and toyed with the cleaver. She was humming softly and smirking. As if she’d heard a noise outside, her eyes darted to the window. Taillights streaked past.
Burt gasped. “We got to leave!”
“So, I’m supposed to walk all the way back to town?”
“No-no-no-no! But we have to get outa here, now!”
Londa chortled, having fun. “Maybe I’m not ready yet.”
“Like who? The owner? I thought this was your place.” Londa laughed out loud.
The kitchen door imploded. Through a storm of dust and splinters, two men in ski masks fell on Burt and slammed his head against the refrigerator. A large fruit bowl toppled—wup-wup-wup up-up-up-up—and shattered when it hit the counter. A rifle butt smashed into Burt’s jaw. He righted himself only to get another, more vicious, blow from the other direction. Stunned, wobbling, he grabbed onto a cabinet door and swung there until the hinges snapped and he dropped to the floor.
“Lemme have the tape,” said an out-of-breath assailant. The other produced a roll of duct tape, and in seconds Burt was gagged and hog-tied.
Shag pounded at the window, sending knick knacks flying, bouncing onto the carpet, skittering beneath the bed. He had no idea what had happened, but whatever it was sounded like a truck had crashed into the house. And there were more voices, scary voices. The window refused to budge. He slid down the wall to the floor and pressed his bleeding hands between his knees.
“Help! Help!” cried Londa, giggling through her fingers. She preceded Pancho and his sidekick, Threads, into the den where they removed their ski masks. Each chose a bottle from the liquor cabinet, clinked them together in a toast and drank. Threads didn’t appreciate his choice of libation and smashed the bottle against the fireplace.
“Man, get a load,” said Pancho, admiring the expensive weapons in the gun cabinet. He tried the door, then kicked out the glass. He finished the job with the butt of his assault rifle. “Christ—” he exclaimed, reaching inside to snatch up a heavily-engraved Italian shotgun. “This ’un’s mine! This ’un’s mine!”
Not to be outdone, Threads grabbed a Browning and claimed it for himself.
“All you guys think about is guns,” said Londa. “Come on, I bet there’s a lot better stuff than that.”
“Yeah,” said Threads, “like that freakin Buffalo head!”
Londa dragged Pancho into the hall. “These places always have a safe. Let’s check the bedrooms.”
The first one they tried was Rodney’s. Shag had managed to cram himself under the bed.
“Light’s burned out,” said Threads, clicking the switch up and down rapidly. Pancho lumbered in anyway, stepping on the model Chris Craft and crushing it beneath his jungle boot. He knocked over a CD rack on his way out.
“We can do this one later,” said Londa. “Master bedroom’s down here.”
Shag slithered out from under the bed and peered into the hall. He heard the girl barking orders, drawers sliding in and out. Shadows crisscrossed the wall opposite the master-bedroom door. Clutching the thong like a protective amulet, he struck out for the laundry room.
Something crashed in the kitchen. Shag dove into the guest bath, six feet short of his goal.
“I think I heard somethin,” said Pancho.
“I did,” said Londa.
All three pounded up the hall. Burt had succeeded in freeing a leg and had used it to topple the butcher table. A knife rack and half a dozen knives were strewn onto the floor. For his trouble, Pancho kicked him in the head. Threads gathered up the cutlery while Pancho applied more duct tape.
“Stay put, now, asshole,” he warned, leaning over his dazed captive.
“Fuck!” said Threads. “You didn’t put your mask back on. He’s seen you.” Pancho’s lower lip went slack.
“What about you? Where’s yours?”
Threads quickly put his hand over his face and backed out of the room. Londa, who had meant to play the part of fellow captive, realized she too had given herself away. They all repaired to the bar to discuss what to do.
Alcoholics to a man, and woman, they found the extensive stock of liquor irresistible. Pancho settled down with a bottle of rare tequila, a shot glass and saltshaker. Threads’ tastes ran more to flavored vodka but, finding none, he settled for sloe gin. Londa returned to the kitchen, stepped blithely over Burt, and filled a bucket from the refrigerator’s icemaker. Without meaning to, her foot mashed one of his fingers. “Scuse me, Bufort,” she said politely.
Pancho shouted, “Hey, babe, see if they got limes!” The TV came on in thundering stereo.
The bathroom window, and freedom, was at hand, and the gang in the den were making enough racket to cover his escape. But except for boots and a gimme cap, Shag was still naked. He just couldn’t make himself go outside, even in the dark, even in the woods, bare-assed. Shouts and laughter spilled in from the den and a new worry entered his head. They were drinking. Sooner or later one of them would have to pee.
“Hey, let’s do some huntin,” said Threads, his lips dyed pink with sloe gin. He shouldered his semi-automatic and aimed it at the bison.
“Cut it out Threads,” said Londa.
“Yeah, cut it out, Threads.” Pancho raised his assault rifle and took aim. There was a deafening BAM! and the bison’s glass eye disintegrated.
“Guys, dammit!” shouted Londa.
“Look out, Panch, that there anty-lope’s comin for you!” Threads fired rapidly—BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM! The pronghorn sheep’s head distorted, then leapt off the wall and clattered onto the floor.
Shag went out the window.
A silver Jaguar turned off the highway and glided up the private road. The intimate bellow of Engelbert Humperdinck issued from a dozen expertly placed speakers, ice cubes rattled in a tumbler of scotch. Herb Partlowe took a noisy slurp and held it out for his passenger, who declined. Annoyed, he fitted the tumbler back into the cup holder. He was often annoyed: with his hair implants, his stock’s performance, his custom-made, grossly uncomfortable girdle.
“I don’t approve of your experimenting with that stuff,” he grumbled, shifting gears. “It’s dangerous. You have no way of knowing what’s in it.” Herb reached for his bourbon and took another impatient swig. “I feel like a stranger when you’re high.”
“So, you should try some,” said the young woman. She was nestled against the door, her cheek pressed against the cool glass of the window. She seemed fascinated by the pine trees rushing forward into the headlights and just as rapidly disappearing. “The forest is so beautiful at night,” she sighed, sniffing audibly and returning a tiny vial to her purse.
Herb gave her a disapproving look, but as always his heart melted. Gorgeous Kelly, younger than his own daughter. Britney Partlowe, a graduate student at the University of Texas, didn’t, and would never he assured himself, dabble in drugs—they might get in the way of her making a fortune by age thirty-five, a goal she’d set in the fourth grade.
“I know you don’t believe me, but it makes sex better,” said Kelly, turning towards him to fondle the grizzle at the base of his neck. Herb felt slightly ridiculous in a two-hundred dollar sport shirt his wife had picked out for him in Honolulu. Kelly, in linen shorts and simple olive halter, her glossy brown hair pulled back in a pony tail was always exquisite.
“Why do you need something to make sex better? I don’t.”
I do, answered Kelly, but to herself.
He was captivated by the sporty easygoing girl, so refined for her age, with the taste and sophistication to appreciate success and maturity; his “protégé.” But she was not quite what he imagined.
“Why do we always come here?” she asked. “It makes me uncomfortable. I mean, your wife and kids…”
“I don’t know why that should bother your little head,” said Herb. “I like it, that’s why, and you should too. It costs enough,” he added gruffly. “Anyway, as far as Helen and the kids are concerned, I’m in Denver til Tuesday. In the meantime, there’s the boats, swimming…” He meant swimming naked. Partlowe loved frolicking in the tepid, tea-stained water with Kelly. She was his little mermaid.
“And then I get hustled out at the last minute. Like a criminal.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”
Kelly shifted her body away from him to look out the window again. On other trips she’d seen deer, their eyes flashing gold-green in the headlights.
Out of nowhere, a pale running figure emerged and dove again into the trees. It had been visible only a second, if that. It was very pale, ghostlike; naked but for a gimme cap, a towel—until it fell off, and, incredibly, a pink thong.
“Kelly? You okay?” He had heard her sudden intake of breath, turned in time to see her hands on the window, looking back.
“Did you see that?” she asked, the slightest quaver in her voice.
“See what? What, Kelly? A deer?”
She only covered her mouth and shook her head. Then she laughed out loud as if disbelieving the very thing she was laughing at.
“What?” Herb demanded, unsure whether to be angry or join in the fun. The Jaguar shot up a rise and began the descent into the yard.