Conner awoke on cool, clean sheets. His shirt and shoes off, gauze and surgical tape on his slashed forearm. He lifted his head, looked around the room. The Kevlar vest and Batman utility belt sat on the chair in the corner, the metal attach¨¦ case leaned against a leg of the chair. His entire body ached.
He remembered. Tyranny's house. It must be a guest room. Conner took in his surroundings, dark wood paneling, plaid bedcovers. A wooden duck on the nightstand. Some kind of L.L. Bean nightmare.
The hazy early-morning light seeped in through the open drapes. Barely after dawn. Clouds on the horizon, thunderstorms later in the afternoon, Conner predicted. Good. Maybe they'd cool things off.
Tyranny entered the room, sat on the side of the bed, put a hand on Conner's good arm. "Thank you."
"For not dying in my lap, you asshole. I really didn't need a funeral with me all sobbing and snotty and red-eyed. Anyway, you were mostly just shocked and exhausted. The cut on your arm isn't very deep. Dan wanted to call an ambulance. Or the police."
"You stopped him?"
"Thanks." Conner looked at her fingernails, her lips. "It wasn't a dream then."
"I dreamed you were a zombie," Conner said. "Like in Dawn of the Dead."
"Fuck you." But there wasn't much venom in it. She lightly stroked his bandage. "Conner, what happened? I saw something about terrorists on TV."
He shook his head. "I don't have anything to do with terrorists. I... well, I was in on this deal. The details aren't important." He sat up in bed, winced at his protesting muscles. "I'm going to have some money." Without Rocky or Becker, Conner wasn't sure how he'd go about selling the card. "I need to work out the particulars, but I thought... I know you were mad at me before, but-"
"Would you stop acting like money is such a big deal. Just shut up about it."
"Why don't you love me?"
"Idiot!" Tyranny balled her little fists, beat the mattress. "It took you ten seconds to open your mouth and ruin it."
A long silence.
"So I'm just... I'm just..." Conner's voice shook. He was having trouble keeping it together. "I'm just another one of your..."
She shook her head, closed her eyes so tight. "It wasn't supposed to be like that. In the pool house, I thought..." She exhaled, shoulders and arms going limp, all the coiled anger in her leaking out in a sad puff of defeat. "Did I tell you about when I went to the Louvre in Paris?"
"No," she snapped. "I mean yes, we went together, but that's not the point. Will you listen and shut the fuck up?"
Conner shut the fuck up.
"I went to see The Mona Lisa. Have you seen it? I mean on television or in a book, how they have it displayed?" She knew he hadn't traveled.
"I know the picture. Not anything else."
"It's behind glass," Tyranny said. "And you have to stand way back behind a velvet rope to see it. I mean, here I am, this artist, right? And there's a giant museum full of a million different paintings, no velvet rope, no glass. I could get right up close and check out the brushstrokes. But all I want to do is stand twenty feet away and look at The Mona Lisa. I stood there for over an hour, just thinking, Wow that's the famous painting.
"That's how you were to me, Conner," Tyranny said. "Special. Behind the protective glass. If I just kept our relationship at a certain level, then it wouldn't be ruined. That's what I thought. Funny, isn't it? You were my longest-running act of restraint, and I blew it. I didn't want to fuck you and make you part of my sickness. I wanted you separate from that. I messed it up."
"You didn't mess it up," Conner said. "It's okay."
"It's not okay. In my mind, it's all messed up and ruined, and my mind is where the problem is. No, Conner, we're broken. I broke us. And the only thing that can fix us-if we can be fixed-is time and distance. I have to put you back behind the glass and the velvet rope. And that's the best I can explain it. If you still can't understand or won't understand, then I can only say please please please trust that I know what's best for myself."
"Tell me what Dan does. I'll do the same thing. I won't ask questions. I'll stay out of your business."
"No. You'll end up hating me. Or you'll drive me crazy, and I'll kill you."
Conner shook his head, eyes fogging. "Then that's it. I'm just supposed to understand. I'm just supposed to go away."
Tyranny nodded once slowly, watching with big, deep eyes. "You're just supposed to go away."
Conner stood, reached for his clothes. "I have to get out of here."
"Are you okay? Your arm."
"I don't even feel it," Conner said. He put on his shirt, grabbed the vest and the belt, looked around the room for anything else. He didn't want to leave anything behind. He resolved in that instant to sail away on the Jenny, become a wandering boat bum, port to port, hugging the coast around the Gulf and down to the Keys, tie up at some island and become a hermit.
Or Mexico. Isn't that where rogues went to start over? Maybe Conner would grow a moustache, take up with a sixteen-year-old Mexican girl. Drink tequila and brood, and the locals would know him as the crazy gringo with secrets. There was a whole world of tragic possibilities to choose from, and Conner wanted to get started.
I'm so goddamned dramatic.
Conner opened the attach¨¦ case, took out the DiMaggio card, and put it in his pocket. It fit snugly, the plastic case making an awkward bulge. He dropped the attach¨¦ case. "I'll leave that here, if you don't mind. I'm tired of lugging it around."
Tyranny didn't say anything, looked at her toes.
Conner left the bedroom without another word. She followed him down the stairs, out the front door to the yellow Lincoln.
He ignored her, opened the car door, threw the vest and belt into the backseat.
"Conner, don't be angry." She put her hand on his back.
He flinched from her. "Don't touch me. I hate you. You suck, and you're ugly."
"Okay," Tyranny said. "You can say that if you need to."
"Go to hell." He got behind the wheel, cranked the engine.
It was sinking in now, everything she'd said. Conner could not do anything, say anything, be anything that would make any difference. That he could have so little control over something so important to him hit him harder than anything else that had happened. Even Otis's death. Conner felt feeble and stupid and small. Nothing he'd done had changed anything about him.
He looked at Tyranny, then over her shoulder at the house. The blinds pried apart in an upstairs window, Professor Dan watching the big breakup scene.
"I love you," Tyranny said. "I just want you to know that. You have to go away, but I love you."
Conner pulled the door closed, drove away. Just like Joe DiMaggio, Conner thought, the ballplayer in love with the mysterious woman. He tried to convince himself that somewhere inside Tyranny was a persona it was okay for him to love. Or maybe he only loved the woman he thought she was. But he couldn't convince himself, knew it simply wasn't true. He was in love with all of her, the warped and wretched parts too, the funny little buttons in her brain that needed pressing over and over again so she could feel whatever it was she needed to feel. And anyway, Conner made for a pretty cheap DiMaggio.
The long curves of Scenic Highway unfolded before him, the morning sun muted by the rolling gray, the sky promising a trademark Florida thunderstorm. It would build and build until the sky opened and drowned everything, not out of malice, not spite, but only because the sky would be too full to hold it all.
But Conner didn't see the sky. His eyes felt so hot. He sniffed, wiped his nose on the bottom of his shirt. What in God's ugly world would make the pain in his chest go away?
It took three hours for Conner to flag down a boat willing to tie onto one of the Jenny's stern cleats and pull her off the sandbar. With the sky growing blacker by the hour, there weren't many boats on the river.
The Boston Whaler, which had pulled Conner off the sandbar, was captained by an ex-navy chief with a Papa Hemingway beard and fading tattoos. "Better find some cover," he told Conner. "Weather service says a bad one is coming."
"I hear you." Conner thanked him, made sure the Jenny was secure, and cranked the inboards.
It had taken a few hours to find an appropriate marina and get organized. He figured another three hours for the trip. Downstream, under the swing-out bridge to the mouth of the river where it emptied into the Gulf. Then west along the coast to Paradise Marina almost in Alabama, the closest place to take on fuel and outfit the Jenny for Conner's escape. After leaving Tyranny, he'd parked Otis's Lincoln at the marina, the trunk full of expensive goods Conner planned to pawn. He thought about selling the Lincoln too but didn't want to invest the time and money in finding the right people to forge a registration and fence the vehicle.
Then Conner found the leather doctor's bag in the backseat.
He'd opened the bag slowly, afraid the money would vanish in a poof of bad karma. Conner couldn't really feel like the money was his, but who else could claim it? He counted it. Enough. More than enough to get him and the Jenny to a faraway place where he could forget who he was, decide who he wanted to be.
Conner had then taken an expensive cab ride from the marina back to the sailboat. He kept checking his pocket for the DiMaggio card. He didn't plan to let it out of his sight anytime soon. Somewhere there had to be a buyer for the damn thing.
At the wheel, he eased the throttle forward, eyed the sky. He might just be able to reach the marina before nightfall. If he were lucky.
The weather restrained itself as Conner made it past the swing-out bridge. The guy in the bridge keeper's house leaned out the little window and gave him a wave. At the mouth of the river, the rain started coming heavier, the water a rough, foamy chop, the prow of the Jenny slamming into big waves as it motored forward. Conner was in the Gulf now, and the spray stinging his face was salty and cold. Between the rain and the waves the cockpit filled shin deep with water. He hit the switch for the pumps. They chugged to life below the deck, just keeping ahead of the water coming in.
The sky was completely black with storm clouds now, the Gulf a steel blue. Lightning crisscrossed the sky. Conner kept the coastline within a half mile. He flipped on the running lights. He was getting worried. The storm had slowed his progress, the sailboat's engine struggling against the severe chop. Conner was a decent sailor, but all of his experience had been pleasure boating on calm seas.
And then the engines sputtered and died.
Conner thumbed the ignition. It wouldn't turn over. He checked the fuel gauge. The tanks were bone dry.
Oh, no. No, no, no... He hadn't calculated the rough seas, the extra fuel consumption.
Without forward momentum, the boat would flounder. He left the cockpit, pulled himself forward so he could get the sails up. A wave almost washed him over. He threw himself at the mast, hung on as the Jenny listed badly, pitched the deck almost ninety degrees. The rain pounded him now in driving sheets. He could no longer see the prow. Water coming over the transom.
Conner fought his way back to the cockpit, threw open one of the bench seats, and grabbed a life jacket. The wind howled, and the Jenny threatened to roll. Conner turned his head side to side. He'd lost track of the land. It was totally black now. He was going to drown. He was going to die in the ocean.
In a flash of lightning, Conner glimpsed a twelve-foot wave coming hard. It collided in the darkness. Conner was thrown, blind. Then he was underwater. He struggled, kicked, hit the surface, and gulped air.
The sea churned around him. Fifty yards distant, he thought he saw the Jenny's white fiberglass bottom. The boat had rolled.
Another wave drove him under, and when he came back up again he no longer saw the boat. He didn't know where the coast lay. The heaving black ocean gaped in all directions, immense swells briefly visible in the lightning.
To come all this way. To die like this. Nobody even knew where he was. Nobody would ever know. Typical, thought Conner. Just fucking typical.
The side of Conner's face burned. Bright and hot, the morning sun beat down on Conner as he lay in the sand. He rolled over, groaned.
He'd fought the sea for an eternity, stroking in what he'd prayed was the direction toward shore. And just when he'd been about to give up, exhausted, ready to surrender to watery doom, his feet had hit the sandy bottom. Ahead of him, through rain, lights. He'd found the beach and collapsed.
Now he sat up, found himself in front of a row of condominiums. An old couple sat on their veranda, the old woman bringing her old man a glass of orange juice. The old man waved at Conner. Conner waved back.
He stood, brushed the sand off his pants and shirt, and scanned the Gulf for any sign of the Jenny. Nothing. Not even debris. The Electric Jenny wasn't Folger's anymore, nor Conner's either. It belonged to Davy Jones. And somewhere on the sandy bottom was Rocky Big's doctor bag full of money. God's final joke on Conner Samson, cut off his escape route. It's biblical, the old Job gag. Torment the little guy. What's next? Boils?
In a sudden panic, Conner checked his pockets. The DiMaggio card was still there, safe and secure in its plastic case. He also still had the cell phone Rocky had given him. Who was there to call?
He grasped the phone tightly, reared back, arm way behind him, gathering the strength to hurl it into the Gulf of Mexico. He'd throw it over the horizon if he could.
Conner froze, unsure if he'd heard what he thought he'd heard. It rang again. He unfolded it slowly, pressed the TALK button. "Hello?"
"Conner, thank God you're there." Tyranny. He'd forgotten he'd given her the cell number, had desperately hoped she'd call.
"If you called to apologize, it's too late. I've moved on. I'm actually having a lovely time at the beach right now. Getting a suntan."
"Conner, this is very important." Something in her voice. Strangely calm, unnerving.
"What's wrong?" Conner asked.
"There are some men here," Tyranny said. "They say you have something that belongs to them. They told me to call you."
Conner's chest tightened. "Asians?"
"Yes, that's right. They're very serious. They said it could be bad for me if you don't cooperate."
"What am I supposed to do?"
"They want you to come here immediately. I'm at home. Bring what they want and nobody gets hurt. Dan's not here right now. I'd like, if possible, to resolve this situation before he gets home." She said it like she was ordering a pizza, no tears, no panic, but Conner detected a hint of strain in her voice. She was trying to maintain, not show how terrified she was for herself and for Dan should he come home and walk into the middle of things.
Conner looked up and down the beach, tried to estimate where he was. The marina might be within walking distance. The Lincoln was there. "I need some time. I'm sort of stuck. But I'll be there."
"Tell them to wait," Conner said. "I'm coming. I have to get to the car, but tell them I'm coming."
"I'll tell them."
Conner hung up, jogged up the beach, through the condo complex, and found the main road. He recognized where he was now. The marina was only three or four miles away.
God wasn't punishing him, Conner thought. He's just letting me know I have unfinished business. Responsibilities.
Conner ran, every sore muscle screaming for him to stop. He ran and ran and told his muscles to shut the hell up.