Sins & Needles, страница 1часть #1 серии The Artists Trilogy
This will be the last time.
I’ve said that before. I’ve said it a lot. I’ve said it while talking to myself in a mirror like some Tarantino cliché. But I’ve never said it while having a pool cue pressed against my throat by a crazed Ukrainian man who was hell bent on making me his wife.
It’s nice to know there’s still a first time for everything.
Luckily, as the edges of my vision turned a sick shade of grey and my feet dangled from the floor, I had enough fight left in me to get out of this alive. Though it meant a few seconds of agony as the cue pressed into my windpipe, I pried my hands off of it and reached out. Sergei, my future fake husband, wasn’t short, but I had long arms and as I pushed aside his gut, I found his balls.
With one swift movement, I made a tight, nails-first fist around them and tugged.
Sergei screamed, dropping me and the pool cue to the sticky floor. I hopped up to my feet, grabbed the stick, and swung it against the side of his head as he was doubled over. When I was a child, I was never in a town long enough to get enrolled in the softball team, which was a shame because as the cue cracked against the side of his bald head, I realized it could have been a second career.
Hell, it could even be a first career. I was quitting the grifting game anyway.
Sergei made some grumbling, moaning noise like a disgruntled cow giving birth, and though I had done some damage, I only bought myself a few seconds. I grabbed the eight ball from the pool table and chucked it at his head where it bounced off his forehead with a thwack that made my toes curl.
For all the games I played, I’d always been a bit squeamish with violence. That said, I’d never been busted by one of the men I’d conned with my virgin bride scam. I chalked this up to “kill or be killed. ” Self defense. Hopefully it would be the last time for that, too.
Not that I was doing any killing here. After the pool ball made contact with his head and caused him to drop to his knees with a screech, I turned on my heels and booked it into the ladies’ washroom. I knew there were two angry-looking men stationed outside of the door to the pool room, and they definitely wouldn’t let me pass while their friend was on the floor hoping his testicles were still attached.
The ladies room smelled rank, like mold and cold pipes, and I wondered how long it had been since it was cleaned. The Frontier wasn’t the sort of bar that women hung out at, and that should have been my first tip that something was awry. The second was that no one even looked my way when I walked in the place. It’s like they were expecting me, and when a dodgy bar in Cincinnati is expecting you, you know you’re on someone else’s turf. Third thing that should have tipped me off was the pool room was in a basement and there were an awful lot of locks on that door.
But, as I balanced my boots on the rust-stained sink, I found there were no locks on the rectangular window. I slammed it open and stuck my arms out into the warm August air, finding soggy dirt under my hands as the rain came down in heavy sheets. Just perfect. I was going to become Mud Woman in a few seconds.
Mud Woman was still preferable to Dead Woman, however, and I pulled myself through the narrow window and onto the muddy ground, the cold, wet dirt seeping into my shirt and down the front of my jeans. I heard Sergei yelling his head off and pounding on the bathroom door.
This had been a close one. Way too close.
I scrambled to my feet and quickly looked around to see if anyone had noticed. So far the bar looked quiet, the red lights from inside spilling through the falling rain. The street was equally quiet and lined with Audis and Mercedes that stuck out like gaudy jewelry among the decrepit meat-packing buildings. My own car, which I reluctantly called Jose, was parked two blocks away. I may have underestimated the situation but I was glad I still had my wits about me. When an old friend emails you out of the blue and asks you to meet him at a sketchy bar late at night, you do take some precautions. It’s too bad I hadn’t clued in that it wasn’t an old lover of mine but Sergei, out for revenge.
I took advantage of not being seen and ran as fast as I could down the street, my footsteps echoing coldly. By the time I rounded the corner and saw the dark green 1970 GTO sitting on the empty street, the rain had washed the mud clean off of me.
I wiped my wet hair from my eyes and stared at the glistening Ohio license plate. It was time for that to come off, and I mentally flipped through the spare plates I had inside. I knew I’d never set foot in Cincinnati again after this, and now that I knew this had been a setup, I couldn’t be sure they hadn’t noticed my car. I had a wad of Sergei’s money—which I’d been keeping strapped to the bottom of the driver’s seat—and apparently he was the type who’d follow up on that kind of thing. He was the type that would hunt me down. I should have figured that from our email exchanges. This wouldn’t even be about the money anymore, but the fact that I pulled a fast one on him. But what do you expect when you’re trolling for virgin brides on OK Cupid?
Men and their stupid pride.
I supposed he could try and hunt me down. He could try and follow me from state to state. But I knew as soon as I got in Jose, he wouldn’t be able to find me. I’d been hunted before and for a lot more than money.
And they still hadn’t found me.
Hearing distant but irate voices filling the air, I quickly opened the door and hopped in. My instincts told me to just drive and never look back, and unfortunately I knew I had to listen. I had to leave my pretty apartment, my safe coffee shop job, and my yoga-infused roommate Carlee behind. It was a shame, too. After living with Carlee for six months, the flexible little thing had actually grown on me.
I’ll mail her something nice, I told myself and gunned the engine. Jose purred to life and we shot down the street, away from the bar and from Sergei and his buddies who were now probably scouring the streets looking for me.
It didn’t matter. I was used to running and always kept a spare life in the trunk. Spare clothes, spare driver’s licenses, spare Social Security Numbers, and a spare tire. As soon as I felt like I was a comfortable distance away, I’d pull into a motel under a new name. I’d change the plates on my car. Yes, Jose wasn’t the most inconspicuous of vehicles, but I was sentimental about the car. After all, it wasn’t even mine.
Then tomorrow, I’d figure out my budget. Figure out how long I could go before I’d need a legitimate job. Figure out that moment when I’d have to stay true to my word and make sure that this truly was the last time.
I careened around a corner then slowed as the car disappeared into traffic heading across the Ohio River. With my free hand I opened my wallet and went through my spare IDs. Now that I was going to go legit, I didn’t have much of a choice.
I took out the California license that said Ellie Watt. I’d need to change the expiration date and photo since the last time I set foot in the state was seven years ago, just after I turned nineteen. But it would do. I was Ellie Watt again.
I was finally me.
The girl was lying down in the backseat of her parents’ rusting station wagon, counting down the minutes as she stared up at the green water spots on the roof. If she had a cell phone, keeping track of time would have been a lot easier, especially since the girl still struggled with math. Of course, you could blame her mother for that—you could blame her for a lot of things—since the girl had been home-schooled her whole life. Division and multiplication were about as advanced as things got for the eleven-year-old. But, according to her mother, you only needed to be able to count in order to succeed in grifting, and at the moment, the girl was counting away.
The girl was shocked at first. It wasn’t just that she was getting older and developing her own sense of morals that didn’t seem to gel with the world her parents had created, it was that no one in their family had pulled a scam in years. Her father had steady work at a casino and their tiny apartment in Gulfport had become as much of a home as a home could get. Her parents had promised her that they were finished with grifting for good and that they’d try and lead as normal a life as they could, all for their young daughter. Or so they said.
But her mother had her reasons, reasons that the girl didn’t understand. If they were friends with this Travis man, why were they robbing him? If he lived in an outlandish house with marble pillars and a driveway full of fountains, why didn’t they just ask him for the money? This was another reason why the girl doubted her mother’s story. This man wasn’t a friend at all.
And the girl was being sent right into his clutches.
When the time was up, the girl slowly got out of the car, careful not to make a sound, and hugged the shadows of the house, moving toward the back. She listened for the telltale buzz of security cameras or the click of motion sensor lights and felt relief when she couldn’t detect them. She kept low, quick and quiet until she was in the sprawling backyard, the manicured grounds lit by the moon. She paused behind a fragrant bush and counted the windows down the side of the house. The plan was for her to go in the second window, the master bathroom, then walk out of the bedroom and take the first door on the left. That’s where she’d find the safe, the code written in permanent ink on the top of her sweating hand.
How her mother knew the code to this man’s safe, she had no idea. She stopped asking her mother these things a long time ago.
She scampered over to the narrow, frosted pane window, and just like her mother said it would be, it was open a crack.
The girl would always look back at that moment, the hesitation as she stood below it, the moon behind her. She remembered having a choice—she didn’t have to go through with it. She could run back to the car and tell her parents she changed her mind. But fear and pride kept the foolish little girl from acting on her instincts.
Instead, she silently opened the window and went into the house.
When she eventually left the house, her life would be changed forever.
Bright blue skies, rough desert, open blacktop spreading before me.
Cue the music.
I fumbled with my iPod and selected the Desert Playlist I concocted a few days ago in a hotel room in Colorado. The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” came blaring from Jose’s speakers and I let myself smile as the hot breeze blew my hair back.