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As she is about to receive cosmetic surgery for a new identity, Nicole learns that her ex-lover, Charlie “Bones” Hostletter went on a killing spree and was gunned down by police in New York City. A mystery man named Mason delivers Charlie’s diary to her at his request. She begins to read about Charlie and his double life, suddenly realizing that what she has in her hands can destroy her…
SynergEbooks; February 2005
450 pages; ISBN 9780744301250
, or download in
450 pages; ISBN 9780744301250
, or download in
Nicole Red lit a cigarette, its tip crackled in the half-dark. She inhaled the smoke before shooting the eight ball into the upper-right corner pocket. The cue ball sped back; flickering light from the ceiling lamp bounced off it into oblivion. She let out a breath as the ball stopped in front of her. Palming it, she said in a maternal voice, "Good boy, come here." Then she picked up the letter and read it again. Damn, she thought.
Miss, I must bring you terrible news, I'm afraid, terrible news. Apparently, your young man went berserk and gunned down nine people or so in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was shot down by police and pronounced DOA. Whether his madness resulted from the loss of you or because of another reason I cannot tell. I don't think anyone can. RM.
Who was RM? Nicole Red wondered. She crumbled the letter and ate it before leaving the small poolroom. It was early evening as she sat on the porch of the brown-colored cottage and watched the purple, cloud-speckled sky and the dry land with its patchy vegetation. The cottage was a few miles south of Rapid City; the landscape just as dry as the one back home, she thought. Nicole had sat on a dozen porches before and after meeting Charlie Hostletter. She remembered his brown wavy hair, his strong, handsome nose, his thin lips, the pale pallor of his face, and his wide brown eyes.
Damn, Charlie’s dead, she thought as grief distracted her from the view. The cottage belonged to her plastic surgeon—Nicole’s latest. It was as out of place in the barren landscape as a skyscraper.
"Ms. Stanford?" The deep voice of the plastic surgeon came from behind Nicole. "Your new ID and papers are ready, and I've prepped my equipment. It’s all in the living room, everything sterilized. The money and our additional arrangement will pay for some good work. You’ll finally be finished in your gradual transformation. You look fine in those jeans and that pink blouse, fetching."
Nicole stood and turned toward the short stocky balding man. He wore blue overalls and a flannel shirt, and smiled at her before going inside.
She wished she were back in warm sunny Rio. She had enjoyed staying with friends—lying low to shake off the nervousness caused by a job gone wrong. A job whereher partners and Charlie had screwed her with a one-two punch.
The plastic surgeon made love to her well. Considering that the sex was strictly transactional, it wasn't bad. Afterwards, he did the procedure, transforming her face into one neither Charlie nor the police back home would recognize.
A few hours later, Nicole walked out into the night and drove north with her new appearance and name. Her lips were still thick, but her nose was a bit shorter, her eyes rounded, and her chin sharpened. Looking in the rearview mirror, the changes made her somewhat unrecognizable even to herself.
By the early morning, she was in a small white cabin seventy miles northwest of the doctor's cottage. Sitting at the kitchen table, she tried to write a letter to her mother; she could picture the older woman’s grizzled face perfectly in her mind. Nicole tapped the paper thoughtfully but couldn’t think of anything to say. So she wrote about the Manhattan robbery and how it had gone wrong. After a long time, she crumbled the paper and ate it just as she had the letter from RM—getting caught terrified her. She had found RM’s letter yesterday in a South Dakota hotel room.
No one in her family wanted to hear from her anyhow, and she couldn't blame them. The truth was she felt only a faint nostalgia for them; a distant throbbing that she thought must not be real. She had never taken much interest in them. They were nothing to her, and after all the pain she'd caused them, they must feel the same.
Nicole Red was twenty-four, and in the last few years, her life had rolled by in many strange places as far from home as when she attended college. She often thought about it while gazing into the shadows cast by the lights of too many motel rooms, but she had hardly given her family and friends much thought.
They were safe. That’s what her contacts back home in Rocksdale had told her over the phone. And that pleased her. Mom, Kendra and the rest would go about their lives passively until the pain she'd caused them vanished. They were home, not displaced by what compelled Nicole to seek a different life’s path.
Nicole wished she could have sensed that Charlie needed something he didn't have. She wished she could have sensed how things would turn out for him as articulately as she thought she might have, now that she looked back. To her, he'd always seemed well put together. Too late for regrets. This cabin and the plastic surgeon her boss had arranged for her were a start to a new life, and she could only hope to succeed better than Charlie did. God help her, she thought.
Now she was in a cabin ten miles outside the small town of Molasses, North Dakota. At first, it seemed no better than a shantytown as she drove into it later that morning after a brief nap. Like fools, the people on the streets—old men mostly, some women and young men—gave her condescending smiles as if she were a heretofore-unseen human species. When death calls on you, you go, no matter how much you like it, Nicole thought, irritated. Death had long ago eaten up and spit out this collection of plain buildings on streets all arranged in a web, the center of which was a dirt road main street cluttered with little commerce, a few cars, and people staring at her.
One man in particular perturbed her. She spotted him several times about the streets. He wore a black bowler hat, a thin beige mackintosh, and black pants and shoes. She couldn't tell the color of his eyes, but they seemed to see into her with their unwavering gaze. Otherwise, his oval, soft face and small nose and lips made him look quite ordinary. Back home when times—and Charlie—were better, Nicole might have passed the man without a second glance.
Judging from their lifeless faces, death had already finished with these people, Nicole thought. It had rubbed the once bright paint from the building’s walls and replaced it with dirt and dullness. The air was so hot and stagnant that Nicole couldn't feel herself breathe, not even as she went from store to air-conditioned store gathering groceries and supplies. The weight of the man's gaze followed her all the way home.
He's a spokesman for the boss, she thought. I'm being spied on. Her mind dragged on with these thoughts as the desert endeavored to cast a spell of sleepiness on her. Too late, she thought to the passing landscape. I'm already too awake for you to do that to me, I guess. She sighed with a heavy heart.
She knew something was coming for sure and was not surprised when the man from town showed up at the door of her cabin a week later. This is how it always begins.
When she heard the knock, she jumped from the shower, put on her robe, and grabbed her gun. She kept it in her hand as she saw the man through the screen of the door.
He took off his bowler hat respectfully and said, "Ma'am, I'm Robert Mason, and I live about seven miles that way.” He pointed toward the green and brown hills west of the town, and looked as if he expected her to invite him in.
Damn, why not, Nicole thought. Just let whatever will happen, happen, and get it over with. She opened the door and, to put him at ease in case he meant no harm, slid her forefinger out of the trigger guard. He kept glancing at it, obviously a bit unsettled.
"You're RM?" she said, leading the way to the kitchen. "You were staring at me in town last Saturday.”
"How'd Charlie know I would end up at the hotel where I got your note?” If Robert Mason was really a cop, neither of them was getting past the back door alive.
"The boss frequently uses that hotel to hide his employees who are in some trouble," Mason said. “After the job went wrong, Charlie figured you'd be set up there. Charlie was a good friend of mine, sort of. I'm sorry to see things go the way they did.”
"I see," said Nicole.
"I have some stuff for you in the car.”
Nicole motioned and Mason sat in a chair at the kitchen table. She put the gun down and offered him a drink. If he was lying, or if she was in trouble with the boss for the botched robbery and the risk of exposure it brought to him, now she'd find out. Now it would come. All the way out here, miles from upstate New York, no one would miss her if she disappeared. She might still be off her guard after nothing happened to her in Rio and the other places she’d stopped before North Dakota.
It did not come, at least not yet. She poured two glasses of Southern Comfort and set one in front of Mason. He took a sip.
"We'll get the things from your car later," Nicole said. “If you were looking to get your hands on some moonshine out here, I might have heard of a person or two...”
Mason laughed; a raspy sound that reminded Nicole of fingernails on a blackboard. Jesus, she thought, disgusted.
He spoke in a mock Southern accent. “Ma'am, you must think this here's the south. I can tell you now, ma'am...”
Nicole tuned him out, only half-listening in case he said anything useful. He did not.
"I like a girl with a sense of humor," he said explaining his bad southern impression.
"So would you drop the cracker accent?”
The man laughed again. "Okay. Charlie told me nothing could get past you. He said you were sharp.”
They talked for a while. He seemed to like her, she thought, but he was a bit imposing.
Finally, he stood and tightened his beige mackintosh around his person. “Come see me anytime, Nikki. We'll have a drink, maybe a picnic."
"I'd like that," said Nicole. Mason seemed okay. He had called her Nikki—the name Charlie had sometimes called her. She followed him out to the porch and watched him walk to his black Toyota Corolla. She had parked her recently purchased Maxima SE behind the cabin.
Mason opened the driver's door and fetched a stack of papers from the front seat. He turned to her. “Here’s Charlie’s diary. He told me that if anything happed to him, he wanted you to have it.” His raspy voice came like a distant whisper in a fever dream.
Some feeling of gratitude for Charlie—or was it pity—rose in her as she took the papers. But her feelings were confusing—she tried to express them aloud but could not. It was as if she was in a dream perceiving the world through someone else—someone speaking in an unknowable tongue.
The papers made a six-inch stack. Charlie was so empty, how could he have this much to say? She imagined him, whose face she could not now recall for some reason, shrugging his shoulders and laughing in his dry manner.
Too many words, Nicole thought, looking at the diary. She got out her gun cleaning kit from the bedroom desk drawer and broke down her .357 pistols, being careful not to get any dirt on the diary as she cleaned the guns on the kitchen table. She read the first page slowly like a druid lovingly perusing runes and chanting ancient spells.