Conner drove back to Pensacola.
Jerry had said the thing was insured for a hundred thousand. Conner remembered something else Jerry had said.
Any collectible is really only worth what somebody is willing to pay.
There must be somebody else out there, a serious collector who didn't mind throwing a lot of money around. If Conner could find another buyer, he wouldn't have to deal with Becker. He was so close to doing something right. There was a stack of money right there in front of his face. All he had to do was reach out and grab it. If only he knew how.
Rocky Big. Rocky would know what to do. Rocky had known whom to call about the Dybek paintings.
But he couldn't go to Rocky empty-handed. Conner needed to get his hands on the card. He had to show Rocky he could deliver the goods.
He started the Plymouth, pointed it toward the Electric Jenny. He'd need to search the sailboat one more time. Conner was certain the card was someplace simple, right under his nose.
Conner drove thirty seconds, stopped, turned around. What he really needed was to talk to Rocky first. No sense getting all involved with this scheme if Rocky knew a dozen reasons it was a bad idea. Maybe Conner wouldn't be able to sell the card even if he found it somehow.
Conner changed his mind yet again, headed for the beach. It had been too long since he'd visited his favorite stool at Salty's Saloon. And what he really needed was a drink.
Conner walked into the empty bar and said, "Sid, I want an Absolut martini straight up."
Sid tore his eyes from the television behind the bar. A baseball game. When he saw Conner, he raised an eyebrow. "You know I can't float you with the expensive stuff. How about a beer?"
Conner slapped a twenty-dollar bill on the bar. "My friend Andrew Jackson is buying."
Sid put his hands together, bowed his head, and mumbled a prayer.
"What are you doing, Sid?"
"You've got cash," Sid said. "That's one of the signs of the apocalypse, ain't it? I want to get right with God."
"It's too late for you. Fix the drink."
"Uh-huh." He threw ice and vodka into a shaker, splashed in some token vermouth. He shook it all up, poured it into a delicate glass with a long stem. Two olives. He shoved it in front of Conner, and said, "What's that crazy outfit you're wearing?"
"Kirk," Conner said. "I'm a captain, so show a little respect."
"Whatever. There was a woman in here looking for you."
Conner's hand froze halfway to the martini. "The hell you say."
"I thought you discouraged women from coming in here." Conner's hand found the glass, hoisted it to his lips. His mouth made a third of it disappear. His stomach received the gift, turned up the heat. All of his body parts working together in harmony. Togetherness made the world go round.
"Sure I discourage them," Sid said. "This ain't no hoochie pickup bar. It's a guys' bar. Sports on the tube and cheap beer."
"Uh-huh. What did she look like?" Conner worried it was Becker. She didn't seem like the kind of woman who would tolerate being jerked around. Conner didn't want another kick in the teeth.
Sid described the woman. Tyranny.
Conner's heart and stomach did a strange flop-and-flutter thing, the result of curiosity, worry, excitement, and desperate hope all mixed together. He threw down the rest of the martini, told Sid to build him another. "Not so much vermouth this time."
Sid brought the drink. Conner drank.
"Hey, turn up the TV," Conner said.
Sid glanced at the screen. "It's a commercial."
Conner leaned over the bar, grabbed the remote, and turned up the volume. It was a commercial telling people they could own their own business. Be your own boss. Internet access terminals about the size of ATM machines. Put them in hotel lobbies and malls. Conner liked the simple idea of making the rounds once a week, picking up the money, letting the machines do all the work. But the more he thought about it, the more he saw the problems. People would vandalize the machines. He'd need insurance. Maintenance. They'd turn out to be more work than a regular job.
Conner thought about Tyranny again. "What did she want?"
"She wanted to see you."
"I know that," Conner said. "What about? Did she say?"
"She didn't say. Not exactly. I don't think she's happy with you."
"What makes you say that?"
"You know that wooden cricket bat hanging next to the door?" Sid asked.
"Well, she just took it off the wall, and she's coming at you fast."
Conner spun on the stool, saw Tyranny's blazing eyes a split second before the bat came down hard, cracked Conner on the forehead with a sharp thok. Conner's eyes crossed, his head swam. He fell back in Sam Peckinpah slow motion, scattered three other stools, and landed flat on his back among the cigarette butts. He tried to sit up, but it took a second, bells ringing in his ears.
He blinked the dancing colors from his eyes, climbed to his knees, reached for the bar, and pulled himself up. He looked side to side, thinking maybe another whack was coming.
"She left," Sid said.
Conner found his legs, stumbled for the door. He ran out to Salty's parking lot, jumped in front of Tyranny's BMW. It was a calculated risk. She wouldn't run over him. Probably not.
She screeched the brakes, bumped Conner's leg, but he held his ground.
She rolled down the window, stuck her head out. "Dan has a black eye, you shit."
"I can explain."
"Explain in hell." She revved the engine.
Conner yelped, leapt on the hood. "Tyranny, please! Let's talk."
She sat there a moment glaring at him. He looked back, projected puppy-dog sadness through the windshield. She stuck her head out again, still mad but not hysterical. "Get in."
He slid off the hood, froze a moment watching her. Maybe it was a trick. Maybe she'd plow over him when his guard was down. No, she was cool. He got in the passenger side, and she peeled out of the lot. Conner death-gripped the door handles, fumbled for the seat belt.
She drove fast, pushing her luck with yellow stoplights. They didn't talk.
Conner didn't know how to start, didn't know how they related to each other anymore. He thought, now suddenly in the speeding BMW, the streetlights and restaurant neon smearing the windshield, that she was a foreign thing to him, that there'd always been more to her, dark complex secrets he couldn't know or wouldn't understand if he did. The simple fantasy that they'd love each other and be together and cue the sunset seemed ridiculous now.
She'd been playing chess the entire time he'd been playing checkers.
"You'd better slow down," he said. "Cops."
She slowed down. Glowered and fumed.
"I've spent a long time trying to get my life to make sense," she said at last. "I can't be how you want me to be. Dan lets me be myself, and that might include something ugly or perverted or something you can't understand, but that's how it is. That's how it's going to stay. It's how I stay sane. I never asked you to do anything or change or be anything but what you are. I need the same from you or we'll never see each other again. And, man, I mean fucking never, because I can't have Dan come home with a black eye every night. You get me? I don't need this bullshit."
"How did I rate such special attention from Dan?" Conner asked. "Or does he chase down all the other guys you fuck and threaten them too?"
Conner hoped that she'd deny it. If she denied it, he'd believe her. He was desperate to believe in her, to reinvest his faith in the portrait of her he'd painted in his head. And he also realized, had to admit, that what he mostly wanted was for her to hurt, to feel guilt, feel the same pinch in her gut that he felt whenever he thought about her with somebody else.
But she wasn't hurt or shocked. She didn't deny anything. "Do you know why I'm always so reluctant to see you? It's because I do love you. I love you more than the rest, maybe more than I love Dan even."
Conner almost said something, but he was learning. Shut up, man. Let her talk. Maybe this is going your way.
"I know you, Conner," she said. "And I know me. You'd never be happy unless you possessed me totally. I just don't have the capacity for what you need. I'd end up making you miserable. I'd make myself miserable. We're doomed as a couple, baby. We don't fit. Dan tried to warn you off because I like you. I've always had deep feelings for you. That's why you're dangerous. The others don't mean anything. They just help me push funny little buttons in my brain. Dan knows you're different."
"This is pointless."
Conner said, "Take this." He snatched a scrap of paper from the car's ashtray, an ATM receipt. He scribbled a phone number on the back. "I have a cell phone now. Call me, please. When you're not so pissed. Let's figure this-"
"I'm not going to call you."
Conner couldn't think of a damn thing to say. He folded the scrap of paper, slipped it into the ashtray where she could see it. She'd come to her senses. She'd call. Wouldn't she? He shrank in the passenger seat, feeling small and lost and that maybe the universe was running him over. All Conner Samson could do was sit there in Tyranny's Beemer and get taken for a ride.
Tyranny dropped Conner back at his Plymouth, then sped away into the night. Conner stood, watched her taillights shrink to nothing. He wasn't a crier. He'd never been outwardly emotional, but he wished he could just curl into a ball in Salty's parking lot and blubber and blubber, great, snotty wracking sobs until he'd cried himself right out of existence.
He went into Salty's and made himself drunk.
Sid warned him not to drive. The bartender would call him a cab. When Sid turned his back, Conner headed for the parking lot, climbed behind the Plymouth 's wheel, and took off. He headed for his secret parking spot along the river, turning onto the dirt access road, the swamp trees a green blur in his headlights, making for the copse of elephant ears where he kept the dinghy hidden.
I'm not too drunk. I'm driving fine.
Then the rapid-fire slap of foliage on his windshield. The bump. His axles slammed the ground as he bottomed out, bounced in his seat, and bashed his head against the roof. The Plymouth dove forward, angled down sharply. The mud-brown splash against the windshield.
Conner sat, took his keys out of the ignition. He looked around. The front of the Plymouth was in the river, the trunk and back wheels still on the bank. He opened the door, and the river spilled in around his ankles. He climbed out, shut the door again. He hiked up the bank, back down the short trail carved by his rogue Plymouth.
He saw what had happened. The road curved, but he hadn't.
He hiked back down to the Plymouth, judged he could open the back door without too much more water getting in. He retrieved the backpack of meager belongings he'd salvaged from his apartment. At the top of the bank, Conner found a clear spot, took inventory. He pulled out the Webley revolver.
Anger surged drunkenly in his veins. He stood abruptly, jerked the trigger at the Plymouth. "Piece of shit!"
Click. Click. Click.
Unloaded. He sighed, sat down again, and loaded the revolver with the metal rings that held the bullets in tight. The next time he was angry he'd want to hear some noise.
He swung the backpack over his shoulder, held the pistol loosely as he walked five minutes to the dinghy. He shoved off, jerked the cord on the putt-putt motor. He headed upriver toward the Electric Jenny.
Bad luck still had a few surprises for him. A half mile from the Jenny's hiding place, the putt-putt motor shuddered and conked out. Conner jerked the cord twenty times before realizing he was out of gas. He was almost mad enough to blast the engine to smithereens with the Webley but restrained himself.
He reluctantly took up the oar and paddled, cursed, and kept paddling. He was sweaty and nauseous from the exertion. His bruised ribs still ached in a vague way. All he wanted was to slip into the master cabin and fall long and hard into dreamless sleep.
The narrow inlet came into view, the boat's white stern barely visible in the nearly complete black of night. Conner dipped the oar into the water, stroked long and smooth, drifted toward the Jenny, gliding in quietly. And then, just above the stern, he saw it. The floating, bright cherry pinpoint of a glowing cigarette.
Adrenaline pumped, and Conner stood up in the dinghy, not thinking what he was doing. The little boat rocked, threatened to dump him out. Beyond all luck, Conner didn't tip over. He aimed the Webley at the Jenny, blazed away without really aiming.
Blam blam blam blam.
Ricochets. The tambourine tinkle of shattered glass, the sound of a porthole dying. The shots were deafening. They still echoed along the river as Conner settled back into the dinghy, paddled furiously for the Jenny. He pulled alongside the boat, grabbed the rope ladder, and hoisted himself up, the Webley stuck in his pants. He drew it when his feet hit the deck, swung it full circle looking for the intruder.
He went belowdecks, rushing around, the revolver leading the way. Only after he confirmed nobody was hiding anywhere did he really look around and see what had happened. The interior was trashed. Whoever had been here had been merciless in their search for... what?
The DiMaggio card.
Conner wondered if they'd found it. Did they really have to trash his boat? He realized he now thought of it as his boat.
He went back out on deck, held his breath, listened. What if it hadn't been a cigarette? Maybe it had only been a firefly. Conner was pretty drunk. Even now, with the rush of danger subsiding, his vision was a bit blurry, the revolver heavy in his hand. Maybe it was just-
A big splash off to the right.
He swung the Webley, squeezed off the last two shots into the black swamp. "Cocksucker!"
He tossed the gun into the cockpit, circled the deck, casting off lines. How many were out there? Did they have a boat? Would they come after him? He leapt into the cockpit, cranked the Jenny's inboard. It chugged to life on the first try. He threw it into reverse, tree limbs screeching on fiberglass as he backed out.
When Conner had the boat in the middle of the channel, he gave it full throttle, headed downriver. He piloted the boat into implacable blackness. He reached for the running lights, but suddenly had the startling thought he was dragging the anchor. Had he pulled it up? His brain was addled. He started forward to check.
The boat shuddered violently. The sound of the world breaking. Conner flew forward. In midair, he realized the boat had collided with something in the dark. He landed, skidded headfirst across the deck. His skull smacked against something. The white noise. The long tunnel into cottony silence.