Middle of the movie
It had been an early recording session at Audio Post. Crockett drove home in a light spring rain and schlepped into the living room, thoroughly uninspired by the dampness and chill. He made a peach smoothie, ignored the faint whiff of over-extended kitty litter, and crashed on the couch, a dog-eared McMurtry in hand. Augustus McRae had just whacked a surly bartender when Ruby walked out of his closet. She laid a shifty cartoon grin on him and batted her baby browns.
“We leave in two hours,” she said.
Playing catch-up as always, Crockett peered at her.
“Ivy called. Wants us to spend a few days at her place. She says it’s just for a visit, but I suspect additional motive.”
“So,” Ruby continued, “I am going to take a steamy shower, make myself lovely, and we will leave a little after noon. Scrape off the sludge, throw some things in a bag, and make ready, Crockett.”
Ruby rolled her eyes. “I’m going too fast for you, aren’t I?” she said.
“Ivy phoned while you were out and requested our presence for the weekend. Tomorrow is Friday. I have shifted my appointments. We are going to Chicago. We leave in about two hours. You and me. Together.”
Crockett’s stomach rolled over.
“Nope,” Ruby said. “I’ll drive.”
“A difference that makes no difference, is no difference.”
Grinning, she walked over to the couch, leaned down, and planted a tiny kiss on the end of his nose.
“It’s a road trip, Crockett. Aren’t you excited?”
Chuckling, Ruby sauntered back across the room.
“Two hours,” she said, and disappeared into his closet.
The closet in question was actually a hallway. It started out being a walk-in closet in an apartment that backed up against the rear of another walk-in closet in the adjoining apartment. Ruby and Crockett bought the six-unit, three story building, and converted the top four apartments into side by side, two-story townhouses. Their homes were connected by a door in the rear wall of the walk-in closets. Crockett always knocked. Ruby never did. Also connecting their two living rooms was an oversized kitty door to allow the passage of Nudge, Crockett’s oversized kitty. Crockett hadn’t seen much of Nudge after he and Ruby installed the cat-door. With the exception of eating, using the litter, or when he heard Crockett foaming cream, Nudge spent most of his time on Ruby’s side.
The first floor of the eighty-year-old brownstone had been converted into Ruby’s psychology office and waiting room. The basement, which was only half underground, was slated to be a wood shop-recreation area for Crockett and storage for her. It was full of leftover building materials and cobwebs. They had a tiny front yard bisected by a cement walk, paved and covered parking for a dozen cars in the rear, a plethora of pigeons, an abundance of squirrels, and at least one ‘possum that wandered around the parking lot at night. Home sweet home.
Crockett had known Ruby for nearly two decades. When he was at his very worst, after gunshot disability from the police department, he came to her in her professional capacity and she straightened him out. She still did tune-up work from time to time.
Ruby LaCost was gay.
Theirs was a condition that was often difficult for
Crockett, but he accepted his half-loaf with minimal complaint. Needs are
needs, of course. Ruby had friends over from time to time, and Crockett
infrequently did too, but they both remained well aware of the love that kept
them together. Ivolee Minerva Cabot had realized their interdependence even
before they had, and now, for the first time in over a year, they were going to
Ivolee Minerva Cabot was a true Grande Dame. In her mid 70’s and worth more than Portugal, she was responsible for a yearly income gifted to Crockett that was three times what he earned voicing commercials, and four times what he received from his disability pension. The same amount also went to Ruby.
The last time Crockett had seen Ivy he had just lived for over six months as a guest in her home. Half of that time he was in a coma. The rest was spent in recuperation from losing his left leg. At the end of that time, Crockett engineered the deaths of Ivy’s ex-brother-in-law and his sister, and set in motion events that crushed a child slavery and abuse ring that had tendrils in North, Central and South America.
Once again, Ruby and Crockett had been summoned.
Ruby on the road
Crockett tossed some toiletries and underwear in a satchel, stuck a couple of shirts, jeans, and his only good suit in a hanging bag, cleaned the litter, emptied the dishwasher, sat in the shower, shaved, put on an oversized cotton pullover and some floppy peasant’s pants, and was hanging his cargo in the rear of Ruby’s car when she came out her back door and hustled over through the mist. She shook out her hair and peered at the drizzle dripping off the roof of the carport.
“It brings May’s flowers,” Crockett said.
“It’s still March. Put that stuff in the trunk, will ya? Just lay it in flat.”
Crockett opened the trunk. Four suitcases lay in the bottom. Across them were spread three clothing bags.
“Going somewhere?” he asked.
“Yeah, but I’m traveling light.”
“I don’t think there’s room. I’ll leave my clothes in the backseat.”
“Just ease ‘em in with mine and try not to wrinkle anything. I will not allow you to trash this fine automobile by draping its rear windows with your substandard wardrobe. I like my lines clean and uncluttered.”
Ruby slowly advanced on him, her five-inch heels clicking on the damp cement, her grin manifesting itself with languid purpose. She placed a forearm on each of his shoulders.
“Isn’t that how you like my lines, Crockett?” Clean and uncluttered?”
Light thunder rumbled in the distance. Crockett kept to the high road.
“If you’ll excuse me,” he said, “I’ll just put my stuff in the trunk and we can get on with the attempted suicide that you laughingly refer to as driving.”
Ruby’s sultry grin detuned to a lopsided smile and she kissed him on the cheek.
“I love you, Crockett,” she murmured.
“Smart girl,” he said.
They left Kansas City on I-70, heading for St. Louis. When traveling with Ruby, Crockett tried never to look at the speedometer. The resulting adrenalin shock made him nauseous. Still, like viewing an impending train wreck, it was almost impossible not to peek. Ruby’s Jaguar was deceptive. Extreme rapidity didn’t necessarily feel fast. After Independence whizzed by in a damp blur, Crockett couldn’t resist checking their speed.
“Slow the hell down, will ya? This is one of the worst stretches of road on the planet, it’s raining, and we’re in triple digits. Well into triple digits.”
“Relax. You’re in a Jag. It’s built for this.”
“It’s a Ford. And I ain’t built for this!”
“You could suggest an alternative velocity, I suppose?”
“How ‘bout eighty?”
“Right. Like that’ll happen.”
“At least meet me halfway, for chrissakes!”
With an exaggerated sigh Ruby backed off the gas, allowed the car to slow to a little over a hundred miles an hour, and sneered at him.
“That unbunch your panties, Mary?” she said.
“Leave my underwear out of this. I just don’t wanna be a smudge on the highway.”
Ruby snorted. “C’mon, let’s talk about your panties.”
“Nothing but a common floosie,” Crockett said. “Are you gonna be like this all the way to Chicago?”
“I love you, too,” he said.
“Smart boy,” she replied.
They stopped in Columbia so Ruby could get some lunch and Crockett could get some Dramamine. He took two. Consequently, he didn’t wake up until Ruby visited a rest area about twenty miles south of Chicago. She grabbed a bag from the trunk while he leaned against the car and tried to regain consciousness.
“I’m gonna freshen up,” she said. “Wake up, munch something, and drain the duck.”
“The duck” was a term of contempt and endearment that Ruby
once applied to a certain portion of Crockett’s nether regions as he spoke on
the phone with her while soaking in his bathtub. The nickname stuck.
He used the john, ate a stale Almond Joy, drank some diluted orange juice, and stomped around trying to shake off his drug induced nap and get the kinks out of his leg and back. The kinks weren’t nearly as bad as they used to be. When Crockett was about ready to organize a search party, Ruby breezed out of the ladies room freshly changed and made-up. Strolling in his direction, she delivered her patented slow grin and arched a perfectly penciled eyebrow.
“Well?” she said. “Worth the wait?”
At five-ten and around a hundred and forty pounds, Ruby was blessed with velvety clear olive skin, thick, nearly black hair, a magnificent Italian nose, a mouth like Sophia Loren, a deliciously ample figure, and an attitude that would have made her irresistible if she looked like Harpo Marx. She was wearing a chocolate brown double-breasted pantsuit in a silk and wool blend over a beige camisole and five-inch brown suede heels with an ankle strap. Her lipstick and nails were a muted deep red, her immense brown eyes lightly made up to compliment her suit, and her hair was loose and tousled to her shoulders.
“Oh, my,” Crockett replied.
Ruby stopped when their noses touched and kissed him lightly on the lips. Her breath teased his face.
“Ah,” she said. “You approve.”
“Quack,” he said.
Ivy’s home appeared out of the darkness like something from a Victorian novel. With three-and-a-half stories of weathered fieldstone under the green patina of a copper roof, it loomed above them as Ruby pulled into the cobbled courtyard, peering down at the Jaguar through heavy leaded-glass eyes, its carefully spotlighted façade towering above the car and the immaculately manicured grounds. Ruby studied it through her open door.
“God. I always expect to see Dracula pacing a parapet.”
“Only slightly less square footage than Valparaiso, Indiana,” Crockett said.
She popped the trunk release and he walked to the rear of the car.
Ruby closed the driver’s door. “What are you doing?” she said.
“Getting the bags.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, Darling,” she drawled, affecting a
broad English accent.
“You are such a snob.”
“And you, my Dear, are such a bore,” Ruby replied.
They climbed a short series of steps to the covered flagstone walkway and strolled between heavy columns to the entrance. The iron-banded oak door was at least six by ten feet and flanked by massive weathered sconces, their gas-fired flames flickering through beveled glass conjured up images of liveried footmen and polished carriages. As they approached it, the ponderous door eased open on silent hinges and there, wearing blue jeans, boots, a chambray shirt and a Smith and Wesson .40, with a shock of light brown hair dangling over his left eye and a grin that threatened to displace his ears, stood Cletus Marshal.
“Hot damn,” he said. “The best lookin’ woman on the planet and a one-legged nasty bastard. I was scared the hogs had got ya’ll.”
Ruby released Crockett and took Clete’s hands in hers.
“Where’s your spurs, Cowboy?” she said.
“There a chance I might need ‘em?”
Ruby pulled Clete into a solid hug and purred in his ear.
“More of a chance with you than any other man on the planet,” she said.
Cletus kissed Ruby on the cheek and offered his hand to Crockett.
“Good to see ya,” he said. “C’mon in, you two. We’ll knock back some twenty-year-old single malt while they get your stuff stowed away, catch up a little, and ya’ll can go to your rooms for the night.”
“What’s going on, Clete?” Crockett said. “Why the summons?”
“Ivy’ll tell ya’ll about it in the mornin’, I guess,” Clete said.
“Gimme a hint.”
Cletus looked at Crockett for a moment, then nodded.
“All right, Crockett,” he said. “Bad dreams. Really bad dreams.”
Cletus Marshal was Ivy Cabot’s support system. Ex Secret Service, he’d left his post with The federal government some years before and entered her employ. Fiercely loyal, Clete was entrusted with the daunting task of keeping Ivy’s life running as smoothly as possible. He loved her, admired her, and put her welfare above all else. In his mid-forties, Clete was slightly taller than Crockett and rawhide thin, with sun-slitted blue eyes, a slim nose, and the quick attention of a hawk. Clete was predator turned protector and Crockett trusted him with his life.
At around eleven Cletus finished his whisky and stood up.
“Ya’ll have a good night,” he drawled. “I’m goin’ to the bunkhouse. See ya in the mornin’.”
Ruby rose for a hug.
“Are Crocket and I in the same rooms as usual?” she said.
“Less you wanna walk me home, Darlin’,” Clete grinned.
Ruby smiled. “Almost,” she said.
“My loss,” he said. “Yeah. Ya’ll are in the same rooms.”
“The Men’s Club and the Whorehouse,” Ruby quipped.
Walking toward the door, Cletus fired a parting shot.
“The question is, which one of ya sleeps where?”
Ruby and Crockett went upstairs and said goodnight. Crockett walked into his bedroom and stepped back in time. Nothing had changed. The same lofty, wood-paneled ceiling, the same head-high wainscoting, the same heavy paintings of serious faces peering at him, the same dense carpet, the same sense of ponderous security, the same feeling that the walls extended downward to the center of the earth.
The tall oak connecting door opened and Ruby stepped in. He could see the peach colored walls of the whorehouse behind her.
“Jesus,” she said. “Did we ever really leave here?”
“I’m not sure,” Crockett said, a little unsteady on his feet and resting his butt on the edge of a chair.
Ruby furrowed her brow. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m alright.”
“Weird, huh?” she yawned.
“Witness if you will,” Crockett said in his best Rod Serling. “Two people, lost in time.”
“That’s not exactly untrue,” Ruby said. “I think that when you become involved in a highly emotional and formative situation such as we went through here at Ivy’s, it can create an emotional aneurysm, an unnatural area of expansion just off the normal flow of time that waits for the correct stimulus and then pulls us in. Like a fistula. A short cut between now and then that allows emotional bleed-through.”
“Here we go,” Crockett muttered.
Ruby grinned. “I’m serious, Asshole,” she said.
“So am I.”
“Shut up and pay attention, Crockett. Hypothetical situation. You’re five years old. Your mother and father load you and your dog Fido in the car–”
“Okay, not Fido. Rover. You, Rover, and your parents all drive nine hours to go see your great Aunt Bessie way the hell out in Bumfuck, Kansas someplace. When you finally arrive, and keep in mind how long a nine-hour road trip is for a five year old, you feel like shit. You’ve been cooped up forever. Aunt Mary–”
“Sorry. Aunt Bessie grabs you and gives you a big hug. She’s old, she smells funny, her fingernails hurt your ribs, but you put up with it. She’s one of the big people. For the next three days, a very long time in the life of a five-year-old, you deal with a house that makes strange noises, food cooked differently than what you’re used to, no air-conditioning, nobody to play with, a musty odor that surrounds you every time you go inside, a feather bed that engulfs you and makes you feel trapped, and a clock on the mantle that ticks so loudly it keeps you awake at night and that you can hear all around you anytime you step inside the house. You are a stranger in a strange land and all you can do about it is wait.”
“Dead as a hammer. Your Dad buries him out by Bessie’s garden and all of you set out on another nine hour drive, leaving your best friend behind at a place you hate. You parents both try to comfort you, but there is no comfort for the child. It has been an endless little kid hell. But kids bounce back, right? Kids are tough, time heals wounds. By your seventh birthday, the incident is so far in your distant past, you know it happened, but you barely remember it. When you turn ten, you have no clear recollection of the dog, the Aunt, or the place in Bumfuck, Kansas. At fifteen the slate is clean. You are two full five-year-old lifetimes away from the event. You don’t even recall that there is something you don’t recall.”
Ruby began to walk slowly as she spoke, warming to her subject.
“Now, you’re sixteen. Testosterone drips from the musk glands behind your ears. Nothing on the planet is more important to you than an undone bra strap. You’ve been sniffing around a young lovely, Miss Cheerleader Hotbody, for weeks. She consents to accompany you on an evening out next Friday night. All week long visions of sugarplums dance in your head. Your reptile brain is in full mode. Tits and ass scroll on the inside of your eyelids for days. The big night comes. You drive to her house. Her mother answers the door and smiles. She’s friendly! Graciously, she invites you into the living room to wait for Hotbody to finishing dressing and waft trippingly down the stairs. Mom tells you to have a good time and bring daughter home by midnight, then walks out and leaves you to your own devices. Pretty good setup, huh?”
“Almost,” Ruby said. “You’re by yourself in a strange house. In the living room is a fireplace. On top of that fireplace is an old-fashioned mantle clock. It ticks. It ticks so loudly that the noise surrounds you as you sit, a stranger in a strange land, with nothing to do but wait.”
She faced Crockett and rested her hands on the back of a gray damask chair.
“Ten minutes later, when the object of your lust-ridden fantasies actually does come down, you’re angry, nervous, claustrophobic, sad, and thoroughly upset. She looks at you and asks what’s the matter. You tell her ‘nothing’, and hustle her out of the house as quickly as possible, but it’s not nothing. It’s something, and you have no idea what. Your mood has completely reversed itself in the space of ten minutes and you don’t have the faintest idea why. You just feel miserable.”
Ruby began to pace.
“After an hour or so you’re your old self again, Miss Hotbody has decided that you’re not just a brooding shithead and has actually become friendly. By eleven-thirty she’s got her hand on your leg as you drive, she’s laughing at all your witticisms, and dreams are beginning to show some promise of coming true. At her door, you kiss her goodnight. In the embrace that follows, she actually nibbles your earlobe and asks if you want to come in. Come in? My God! There’s a couch in there! The lights are off. Mom has gone to bed. Bliss beckons. But unless they have a TV room in the basement where you can get away from the ticking of that clock, Great Aunt Bessie will never let you stay. The portal, the aneurysm, the fistula between now and then waits on the other side of that front door. It is just as real and sweaty as it was all those lifetimes ago when the smell covered you, the bed smothered you, and Rover gasped his life away on that cruel road out in lonely Kansas, while five-year-old you screamed with the most devastating pain you would ever know.”
“Christ, Ruby. You’re about as cheerful as an impacted wisdom tooth!”
“Just making a point, Crockett,” she said. “Emotions are not bound by time. Emotionally, everything that has happened to us in our lives, just happened. That includes Rachael’s murder, your attempted murder, coma, and recovery. Hell, all the things surrounding Ivy and this house of hers. When events like that line up to create a bleed through, time is affected. That’s why it seems like we never really left here. It’s not a negative thing. It’s not necessarily even a sad thing. Like hearing a casual remark from an older person about how the smell of the cotton candy booth at the mall takes them back. Another person might smell that same booth and just feel happier for a while, never understanding why. Emotional memory knows no time.”
“Yeah, well I do,” Crockett said. “It’s almost midnight. You gotta be beat.”
“I am. To bed I go.”
She slipped her arms around his neck and kissed him tenderly on the lips.
“Very,” Ruby murmured, nuzzling his cheek. “Sleep well, my Crockett. Sweet happy dreams.”
He watched her walk back to the whorehouse. She left one of the massive connecting doors ajar.
Dealing with demons
After Ruby left, Crockett knocked around the room for a while, not very sleepy because of his long nap in the car. Finally he fired up the small steam room off of his bath and sat on the edge of the ancient claw-footed tub while it warmed. Thirty minutes in the steam pretty much turned him to jelly. Crockett took a quick shower and caned his way to the bed. He was asleep in minutes. The sound of his name pulled him back.
The voice was female and distant, clawing feebly at the sleep that surrounded him.
“Crockett, please! Don’t let him do it!”
Waking up was like crawling through a long velvet tunnel. Crockett struggled, dizzy with effort. The voice. He knew the voice.
“He’s killing me, Crockett! Help! Stop him, please! I love you, Crockett. Please! Please make him stop!”
Rachael! Crockett forced his eyes open and looked around the dark room, trying to sit up, but the bedclothes were too heavy. He fought with them, but they bound him to the mattress with implacable weight, allowing him to lift only his head. A scream drew his eyes to the bathroom door. It was open and the light was on. He could see a portion of the tub. An arm hung over the side, the hand dangling in a pool of blood.
He shouted for Rachael, but had no voice. Surging, Crockett raged against the covers, but could not rise. A shadow darkened the bathroom doorway and Martin Morrison, Ivy’s ex-brother-in-law, Rachael’s father and murderer, a man whose death Crockett had caused, walked out of the bath toward where he lay.
“You!” he hissed. “You took away my lovely children, you killed my wonderful sister, you fed me to the dogs! Me! You did this to me! You ruined my life, Crockett. You and that meddling daughter of mine! I should have killed her years ago, bled her out like a pig, but I waited too long. I waited too long and that interfering bitch Ivy got involved and you came and you killed us, Crockett. You killed us! Well, the bitch that was my daughter is dead, the bitch that was her mother is dead, and now I’ve come for you!”
He leaned over the bed and put his hands on Crockett’s shoulders, shaking him against the mattress.
“Now, Crockett. It’s time, Crockett! Crockett! Crockett, wake up! Crockett, Wake up! Crockett! WAKE UP!”
The room tilted and he was looking up into Ruby’s face reflecting light from the open door of the whorehouse, as she leaned over him and held his shoulders to the bed.
“Stay with me, Crockett. You were dreaming. You’re awake now. Stay with me. It wasn’t real, Sweetie. It wasn’t real and now it’s all over. You were shouting. You’re safe, everything’s okay.”
Crockett started to speak, but the lump in his throat made it impossible. When the tears began, Ruby kissed his cheek and murmured assurances. When the sobs and shakes took over, she slid into bed behind where he’d curled into the fetal position and spooned him. She was still there at dawn.
Keeping his demons at bay.
It was just getting light when Crockett opened his eyes. He slowly rolled onto his back in the circle of Ruby’s arms and turned his head to look at her. Their faces were about six inches apart. She opened her eyes and smiled.
“Hey,” she said, shifting an arm under his neck and caressing Crockett’s cheek with her free hand. She was warm and fine, exuding the sweet pungency of female sleep.
“Hey,” he said, and kissed the tip of her nose. “I love you.”
Ruby returned the nose kiss. “What’s not to love? I’m a damn site closer to perfect than you deserve,” she said. “How ya doin’?”
“Better than last night,” he replied. “What happened?”
Ruby removed her arm from under Crockett’s neck and propped herself up.
“I heard you shouting in your sleep,” she said. “I came in and you were lying on your back, rigid and shaking, eyes wide open and staring at something I couldn’t see. It was such an emotional trauma that you were very nearly in a trance state. I finally had to scream at you to get you to come out of it. I was getting ready to slug you when you woke up.”
It came flooding back.
“Martin Morrison was here,” Crockett said, and told her about the dream. When he finished, Ruby raised an eyebrow.
“Interesting,” she said.
“Oh, shit,” Crockett groaned.
“Actually,” Ruby continued, “what you went through, or events like it, are not that uncommon. Someplace in that twisted organ you laughingly refer to as your brain, you actually believe that you could have saved Rachael from her father, or should have saved Rachael from her father, or something similarly male and stupid. It’s nonsense, but emotional responses are not based on logic. Ask any Vulcan. The useless misplaced guilt you carry from not having saved her, augmented by the useless misplaced guilt you carry from killing her father and his twisted sister, combined with the return to Ivy’s home where you and I spent so much time and you were so terribly injured, all stacked up for you to have the perfect opportunity to punish yourself. You did.”
“That’s your official diagnosis.”
“Either that, or it was just another feeble attempt to get me in your bed.”
“Hey, it worked didn’t it?”
Lifting her head, Ruby peered around the room.
“Eek,” she said.
Crockett reached over and patted her tummy under the covers. It was bare.
Ruby stifled a smile. “You ever gonna let go of that?” she said.
“As I remember,” he went on, continuing to touch her tummy, “you seemed to participate in that heterosexual encounter with considerable enthusiasm, ability, and abandonment.”
“One lousy mercy fuck and I’m branded for life.”
“Do you mean to say that sex with me did not cause you to forsake your lesbian ways and forever cease your sinful lifestyle?”
“Fat chance,” she said. “And quit groping my stomach.”
“Well, I know that our single encounter certainly altered my proclivities. I’ll never go back to sheep.”
Giggling, Ruby rolled completely on top of Crockett and kissed his face about a dozen times.
“Baaa!” she blurted, bounced out of his bed, and headed back to the whorehouse. In the doorway she stopped and looked back at him over her nude shoulder.
“Take a cold shower and get your shit together, Crockett. I’m not ready to deal with your twisted libido right now. Although I shouldn’t be surprised. You’re Scotch aren’t you?”
“You drink Scotch,” he said. “I’m a Scot.”
“Then you should wear a kilt.”
“Why a kilt?” he asked.
“Because,” Ruby said, “a sheep can hear a zipper a mile away.”
She closed the door behind her.
Crockett was still smiling when she stuck her head back in the room.
“Besides, Crockett, you got it all wrong anyway.”
“Oh, yeah?” he chuckled, grinning at her.
“Yeah. It was Mary that had a little lamb.”
She blew him a kiss and closed the door.
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