by Sylvia Nickels
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
As she rounded the curve herself, she saw traffic ahead of her slowing down, a line of red brake lights. She braked, too sharply, and the RV swayed, but held to the road. On her right the remnant of an old truck emergency cut, bushes and small trees growing through its pea gravel fill, plowed into the bank for a hundred feet. She checked her mirrors to be sure the traffic behind her was stopping.
Since they were at a standstill, on an incline, she moved the gear lever to park and put on the emergency brake. She checked that the corresponding light on her dash display lit up, showing it had engaged.
After forty minutes, no vehicles had moved. She tapped on the steering wheel, then fiddled with the radio. Suddenly Ori leapt spitting and snarling from her shelf to the floor of her cage, hair on end from head to tail. CC’s hand raked the radio buttons. “Ori, what...?”
Something hit the side of the vehicle hard, right beside her. She jerked around, bumping her elbow on the window frame. A man stood on the road between her RV and a maroon van with tinted windows. He had drawn his hand back, apparently intending to slap the side of her vehicle again.
She stared and felt the blood drain from her face. She opened her mouth to demand what he wanted, but no words came. He must have seen her shock, the hand dropped and his lips curved in what seemed like a leer.
The area between her Winnebago and the van was in deep shadow. A tall tree in the median blocked the rays of the western sun. She felt a sense of menace as the man’s dark gaze remained fixed on her. She shook off the foolish feeling and lowered her window a couple of inches. “What is it?”
“Looks like we’ll be here a while, don’t it?”
“I hope not. Do you know what the holdup is?”
“Eighteen-wheeler’s brakes crystallized. Goin’ too fast for the curve. On its side across all three lanes.”
“Was anybody hurt?”
“Airlifted the driver to Erlanger. Don’t know how bad.”
She hoped the driver wasn’t hurt badly, but it was damned irritating to be held up like this. Probably be late night before she got to Nashville now. She realized the man outside was speaking again.
“I... uh... hate to ask this. But... uh... these Winnebagos have bathrooms, don’t they?”
“What?” She’d heard and understood the words, but could not believe this man was asking what she believed he was asking.
“A bathroom. A john. I really need to go bad.”
He was asking it. Without even thinking the words came from her mouth. “My tank is full, it has to be pumped when I reach a rest area.”
She could see he didn’t believe her. His eyes darkened more and his mouth twisted. She didn’t care. She stared him down. Ori shot through the door of her cage to stand on the console, back arched, claws extended, teeth chittering.
“Vicious cat you got there. Better keep it on a leash.” The man snapped and moved away.
“Okay, girl. Okay. How did you get out again? Didn’t like him either, did you?” The cat relaxed a little and CC dared to stroke her gently. She realized her hands were shaking.
“Bart.” She whispered. From the worn plaid sport coat to the muddy brown eyes and slicked-back hair, the man was Iris White’s nemesis come to life on Monteagle Mountain. And we’re stuck in a traffic tie-up.
She straightened in her seat. Don’t be ridiculous. He’s just a jerk. Not Bart. Bart’s a character who connived with a crooked couple to collect insurance on the woman in a novel you wrote yourself, for God’s sake. She ignored the little voice whispering in her head: What about Matt Stabbert back at the RV camp?
Ten minutes later, still mentally berating herself, she realized the car in front of her had moved forward. She disengaged the emergency brake and shifted into gear. The long line of traffic crawled slowly for a half mile before she saw the tractor trailer which had been dragged into the median. Another mile and traffic was almost normal, faster sport cars and SUV’s zipping past in the left lane.
She heaved a sigh of relief when the highway grew level and the countryside flat as they reached the valley. Government regulations some years ago had reduced billboard proliferation on Federal highways. But their numbers increased before she was half way to the city as various Nashville attractions sought to entice travelers. A fifteen-foot high Dolly Parton invited CC to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Music Row. Predictably the familiar Hard Rock Café logo was part of nearly every sign.
The draft of her novel did not have Iris doing any sightseeing, she was in Nashville on business. The female fugitive was apprehended in the city, but her partner escaped. Furious at being left behind, the woman told Iris he was headed for Biloxi, Mississippi, to gamble their ill-gotten gains away in the newly reopened casinos.
Moving with the sparse traffic on the straight highway, CC thought back to Biloxi, her own ultimate destination. Only two years ago she’d been stranded there, an aged rock groupie at twenty-one, supplanted by a fourteen-year-old. Her idol’s bodyguard shoved her off the custom-built bus and they drove away.
Hungry and desperate, she landed a job as cocktail waitress at a casino and met a young roulette croupier. His sober blue eyes belied the dancing lights they held when he was off duty.
Alex was a statistics major at the Jeff Davis campus of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. He’d stumbled on a method to influence the slot machines to pay off big. When he told her about it one night, and demonstrated it, she attached herself to him. He used the method irregularly, for a year, at several different casinos.
News of his father’s death reached them in Tunica and he told her they were going home to Winchester, Virginia to take over the family insurance agency.
She had other plans. “Alex. We can be rich. More than any old insurance agency will make.”
“No, Babe. We can wind up dead. What I do may not be illegal, but the casinos have their own brand of justice.”
She persisted. “How can you just give it up?”
“The casinos are all connected. The computers at the ones we’ve hit have probably already caught the pattern.”
He was adamant. And so was she. They settled in Winchester and sank the money his system had won into the agency, which prospered, but not enough to suit CC. When a calico cat showed up at their house, he let her keep it, though he was allergic. She named the cat Ori and bided her time for a long year. She concocted a number of schemes before settling on a plan.
One day Alex left the agency to meet a client and never returned. He was struck down by a car and the driver sped away. Affecting grief, the widow vowed to find the person who took her husband’s life. She didn’t, but she wrote a fictionalized book about it, inventing Iris White.
Waiting months or years for the possibility of traditional publishing did not fit CC’s plan, so she self-published. To her own surprise, several hundred copies were bought locally, which emboldened her to continue the plan. She left Winchester after selling the house Alex had grown up in and the insurance agency. She and Ori took to the road in the Winnebago.
She did a six-month book signing tour along the Eastern seaboard, making sure she stopped in Atlantic City first and last. She persuaded enough chain and independent bookstores to host a signing to make her travels appear legitimate.
Now here she was, on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. There seemed to be an energy pulsing through the city. The location was convenient. Maybe Iris would like to relocate here. Bet there were plenty of creative scam artists fleecing insurance companies in this town billed as the Country Music Capital of the World.
She cruised past the Opryland Hotel, briefly considered checking on the possibility of a room. Decided against it. At this hour any available room would probably not include pets. Ori did not suffer pet accommodations with grace.
“See what I give up for you? A night in Opryland Hotel.” She wagged a finger at the cat. Ori lay on her shelf, industriously grooming, not deigning a glance for the sprawling beautifully landscaped ante-bellum style building and its white fences.
“When we do stay there, I’ll make sure you don’t get even a glimpse of the Conservatory. How about that?” The cat gave CC a haughty look and returned to her grooming.
“Oh, yes. You’d find a way, wouldn’t you? Then I’d be looking all over the place for you, while you would have climbed back up to the room to wait for me and gloat.” The white building, aglow with light, fell behind her as she pulled back onto the highway.
Half an hour later on the south side she set up at the RV park she’d called from Chattanooga. She wanted to get an early start next morning down the Natchez Trace. She’d be on the historic Trace only until she reached Tupelo though. Since she had around four hundred miles to cover, she’d forego visiting any casino or the birthplace of Elvis. Iris would catch her man in Biloxi, perhaps with the help of a buff casino security guard. After Biloxi, CC had plans for Las Vegas. Who knows, maybe even Monte Carlo.
There was little traffic along the Trace, and she kept up a steady clip, crossed the corner of Alabama and the Tennessee River, reaching Tupelo four hours out of Nashville. She picked up Alternate U.S. Hwy. 45 a few miles out of Tupelo, and for a few miles skirted the Tombigbee National Forest.
The tops of the tall pines on each side of the highway swayed in a breeze, creating a mournful sighing sound. About thirty miles out of Meridian she crossed Mississippi Hwy. 16 with its steady stream of gamblers out of Georgia and Alabama headed for the Philadelphia casinos.
Another ninety or so miles on Interstate 59 from Meridian brought her to Hattiesburg. With some reluctance, she abandoned I-59 for U.S. 49 and the last leg of her journey, foot lighter on the accelerator. She crossed I-10 and continued to Beach Boulevard. When the Rainbow Casino and Hotel loomed on her right, she almost turned back.
Get a grip. This has been your plan from the start. So do it.
CC pulled into the RV parking area across from the huge brilliantly lighted casino. She gave Ori fresh water and food. Her own stomach was cramped so tight she dared not eat, though it had been hours since her last stop at a Burger King near Starkville.
She wandered around amid the bedlam of the carnival-like atmosphere of this monument to human greed. Avoiding the roulette pit, she stopped at a bank of one-dollar machines. She reached in her pocket and pulled out a handful of coins. The vending machines at the last rest area had given her Susan B. Anthony dollar coins in change.
She pushed them in the slots in the pattern Alex had showed her, watching as the cylinders whirled. When they stopped, with three gold crowns lined up, the machine seemed to go berserk. Bells, whistles, and party horns crashed and jangled, nearly drowning all the other noise in the room. She stared at it, trying to look shocked.
A casino employee in a dark suit materialized beside her, champagne glass in hand, and handed it to her. “Young lady, you just won the Super Jackpot. Could you use five hundred thousand dollars today?”
When the PR hubbub was finished and she was escorted to a penthouse suite, she remembered Ori. She whirled, nearly crashing into the executive behind her. She grabbed his arm. “My cat. I have to go and get her.”
“I’ll send someone. Where is she?”
She handed him her keys and fifteen minutes later, carrying Ori, she wandered around the palatial rooms.
A well-remembered voice spoke from near the french doors leading to the balcony. “Well, here you are, CC.”
When she turned, there he stood, the sheer lace curtains billowing behind him. “Alex! But you’re dead!”
“You made sure of that, Babe.”
She fell back. Claws dug through her sweater as she nearly dropped the cat. “No. It was an accident.”
There was no anger in the blue eyes. “You shouldn’t have come back to Biloxi.”
“I tried to scare you out of it. Ori saw me, though she didn’t know what was going on.”
“You? In Chattanooga? And on Monteagle Mountain?”
“You’re good at creating unique characters, CC. It wasn’t easy, finding people like them. I was right there, coaching them.”
“How could you do that? You said you loved me.”
“You, Ori, and Iris could have had a good life.” His image grew dimmer. “I’m sorry. I hoped to save you.”
“Wait, Alex, what do you mean? What’s going to happen?”
He was no more substantial than the lace curtains. Two words floated on the air. “Casino justice.” The curtains billowed and he was gone. The double doors to the suite burst open and three large men entered.
She backed through the French doors. A long way down she saw faint starlight on the Gulf of Mexico. The men walked inexorably toward her.
Copyright © 2006 by Sylvia Nickels