Read Black Out Online

Authors: Lisa Unger

Tags: #Fiction, #Library, #Literary, #Suspense, #Psychological Fiction, #Thrillers, #Florida, #Psychological, #Suspense Fiction, #Family Life

Black Out (24 page)

BOOK: Black Out
6.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


When Marlowe and I finally got to New York City, to my father’s shop near the Village, I was a fly in a web, stuck and drugged, not even trying to escape. I didn’t even ask for help. It was still relatively early in our flight, only about three weeks after the fire at the horse ranch, and the authorities hadn’t put two and two together. At that point we were just runaways. I didn’t realize this, of course. I believed that we were fugitives, wanted as Janet Parker’s accomplices for murder and for the fire. I was still deeply in denial about what had happened at the gas station; in fact, it was gone from my consciousness completely. In my dreams I saw a bloody halo of hair spread out across a linoleum floor.

My father asked no questions. He let us stay in the small spare room I used to sleep in when I’d stayed with him in the past, in the back of his apartment over the tattoo shop. There was a pink bedspread and a patchwork chair. The radiator cover was the same purple I’d painted it when I was twelve. There was an old doll made out of denim, with red yarn for hair and wearing a black Hells Angels T-shirt. One of my father’s old girlfriends had made her for me long ago. Predictably, I’d named her Harley.

“I ran away when I was your age,” my dad told me when he took us upstairs to the bedroom. We’d just wandered into the shop; he hadn’t seemed surprised to see me. I didn’t know when he got back from his trip or if he’d ever been gone at all. I didn’t ask. “Been on my own ever since.”

He said it with a kind of uncertain pride that filled me with disappointment. I wanted him to be angry, to scold me and help me find my way back from the downward spiral I knew I was in. But right away I saw he wasn’t going to do that.

Marlowe and my father seemed to bounce off each other. They didn’t look at each other after the first greeting, a stiff handshake that seemed more like a confrontation ending in stalemate. Marlowe towered over my father by a head; Dad seemed almost frail and shriveled beside him. Another disappointment: In my mind’s eye, my father was always a big man, powerful and strong. But I saw quickly that he was no match for Marlowe, physically or in any other way.

If I recall correctly, we were there three nights. All those days seem to run together in my mind. Marlowe and I did little but eat and sleep in that quiet, dim back room, we were so exhausted and worn down. I remember having trouble differentiating between being awake and being asleep. I have vague recall of conversations with my father that seemed like parts of a dream: He asked about the weather in Florida…. He said he knew I was trying to reach him…. He was sorry that he’d been away. We talked about the tattoo he’d agreed to do for Marlowe. He seemed uncomfortable and tentative around me, as though he wasn’t sure how to handle this recent wrinkle in my life. Something inside me was screaming for help, but he was deaf to it.

On the fourth morning, I heard a light rapping on the bedroom door before it pushed open a crack. I could see my father standing there, motioning for me. It was just after dawn, the sun leaking in through the slats of the drawn blinds.

“O,” he whispered. “Opie.”

I slipped out from beneath Marlowe’s arm and followed my father down the narrow hallway into his living room. The space was dominated by a large pool table surrounded by a couple of old metal folding chairs. It smelled so strongly of cigarette smoke that it made my sinuses ache. There was a small, dirty galley kitchen over by the door, with dishes in the tiny sink and rows of empty beer bottles lined up on the counter.

My father leaned against one of the windowsills. Behind him I could see the rooftop of the low brown building across the street; someone had made a little garden there, put out some lawn chairs and a striped umbrella. I could hear the sound of early-morning traffic moving on the street below. My father looked older than the way I saw him in my memory, the hard miles of his life etched on his face in deep lines. He had a stooped look to him, dark circles under his eyes.

I hopped up onto the pool table and sat there, wanting to run over and have him take me in his arms. But my father wasn’t affectionate like that. The most I ever got was a quick, awkward hug, or he might present his cheek for a kiss. That was all he seemed capable of where I was concerned.

“Your mom called, Opie.”

I looked down at my feet, noticed that the red nail polish was worn away to little dots on each toe.

“You told her I was here.”

He shook his head. “No.”

“What did she tell you?”

He released a sigh. “About the fire. About her husband being killed. She’s in a bad way, Opie. And you two are in big trouble. Why didn’t you tell me about these things?”

I shrugged, examining my knees. They were bruised and dirty, unattractively knobby. “Doesn’t have anything to do with you, does it?”

He nodded toward the bedroom. “I don’t like that guy, Opie. He’s not right.”

But his voice sounded muffled and wobbly, as though I were hearing him through cotton in my ears. I didn’t answer him. I couldn’t. I knew that Marlowe was listening; I don’t know how, but I knew. My whole body was stiff with hope and fear—this was the moment I’d been waiting for, the moment my father would finally rescue me.

“You need to tell me one thing.” He walked over to me and put a finger gently beneath my chin, lifting my face so that he could look into my eyes.

“Okay,” I said. “What?” I wondered how he’d do it, how he’d get me away from Marlowe. I wondered if he’d already called the police, if they were waiting outside. I couldn’t believe how desperately I hoped this was the case. As much as I loved Marlowe, I was so deeply afraid of him, of the things he’d done, of how much worse it was going to get. These parts existed side by side within me, paralyzing me. I was a girl very much in need of help.

“You need to tell me everything is all right,” he said quietly. “Really all right.”

I look back on that moment now and try not to hate my father. It’s not just his weakness that I find so despicable, it’s that he wanted me to let him off the hook. He wanted me to ease his conscience.

I gave him what he asked for because that’s what I knew how to do. “I’m all right,” I said with a fake smile and a quick nod of my head. “We’ll find a place out west. I’ll get my GED and find a job. I’ll be eighteen soon, an adult. Older than you when you went out on your own.”

His relief was palpable. He let his hand drop to his side, and he released a sigh, gave me a weak smile. He wouldn’t have to be a father, to take the hard line, to step in and make difficult calls that I couldn’t make for myself. And anyway, he wouldn’t have known how.

He sat beside me on the pool table and held out a wad of cash, a thick, tight roll secured with a rubber band.

“There’s nearly a thousand dollars here,” he said quietly. He nodded toward the bedroom. “It’s for you. Not for him. This is your ‘screw you’ money. Things don’t go right, you find your way home with this.”

I wasn’t sure what home he was talking about. In that moment I knew that my only home now was with Marlowe. I took the cash from him. It was heavy in my hand. My heart sank with the weight of it.

“It’s only a matter of time before the police come here,” he said, keeping his voice low. His eyes were on the floor. “It probably won’t be today, but soon enough.”

I gave a quick nod. “You want us to leave.”

“If you don’t want them to take you back to Florida.”

I didn’t trust my voice as I battled the swell of despair in my chest.

“You swear you’re okay?” he said after a few minutes of silence.

I managed to look him in the eye and say, “I swear.”

He patted me gently on the back, placed a kiss on my forehead, and left the room as if he couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I heard his heavy boots descend the stairs outside the door. I sat a moment, allowing myself to dwell in a place of hope, waiting for him to burst back through the door or for the police to sweep in, but there was nothing except the sound of his footfalls getting more and more distant until I heard the street door slam closed downstairs.

“I told you he’d never come for you.” I turned to see Marlowe standing behind me. In his expression there was some mixture of triumph and pity. He walked over to me and put a hand on my arm. My flesh went cold beneath his touch.

The tattoo that started on his left pectoral swept over his shoulder. It was covered in antibiotic ointment, the lines swollen and raised, the visible skin red. It must have been painful, but it didn’t seem to bother him.

I gave him the money and he put it in his pocket; there wasn’t even a question that I would give it to him. I nuzzled my face against his good arm so he couldn’t look into my eyes. He stroked the back of my head and neck. I rested my hands on the tight, narrow expanse of his waist.

“You don’t need anyone else, Ophelia,” he said. “You belong to me.”


In spite of the fact that Simon Briggs had checked in to the dilapidated Sunshine Motel less than forty-eight hours prior to his death, his space was already as filthy a mess as his car. Less than twenty-four hours after my disappearance and presumed death, Detective Harrison stood in the middle of Room 206 and surveyed the area. Fast-food wrappers were strewn across the carpet like flowers on a meadow, two pizza boxes gaped greasy and empty on the bed, beer cans lined up like soldiers in crooked rows on the windowsills. There was a litter of candy wrappers by the toilet, atop the latest issue of the

Detective Harrison hated a mess; just the thought of Briggs made him want to take a shower. But for someone so sloppy, Briggs was surprisingly professional with his collection of articles, his copious notes about me in my various incarnations, his lack of phone usage at the motel or any information that might identify his employer. Amid the detritus of the motel room, Harrison found the empty packaging of a disposable cell phone. The phone itself was nowhere to be found in the room, in the car, or on Briggs’s person.
He trashed it,
thought Harrison,
or someone took it.
Briggs probably didn’t realize that with the packaging the police might be able to subpoena the call records under new federal regulations. This would, however, be a major pain in the ass and could take weeks. Detective Harrison knew on an instinctive level that he didn’t have weeks, that he might not even have days, if he cared what happened to me.

He put on a pair of gloves and sifted through the wastepaper basket near the front door. He could feel the watchful eyes of the woman who headed the CSI team. She probably was wondering how badly he was going to screw up their scene.

“Relax, Claire,” he said without looking at her. “I’m being careful.”

“It’s your case, Detective,” she said. “You botch it, it’s your problem.”

He ignored her as he inspected the contents of the basket. Toward the bottom he found a piece of paper that had been crumbled into a tight ball. He noticed it because of the quality of the paper, a heavy, expensive piece of stock. He unfurled it carefully, smoothed it out on the carpet. There was a doodle, a stick figure holding what appeared to be a gun, some scribbling that looked like someone trying to get a pen to work, and a telephone number that Briggs had tried to black out with a marker but was still legible. Embossed in blue at the top of the page was a company name, Grief Intervention Services, and a website address,

“Find something?” Claire asked.

“Just more garbage,” he said, crumpling the paper back up.

“That’s what you usually find in a trash can,” she said. She laughed at her own joke, and he gave her a smile he didn’t feel.

When she turned away from him, he stuck the paper in his pocket, pretended to pick through the waste can for a few more minutes.


After he’d finished with the room and left the technicians to do their trace-evidence collection, Detective Harrison turned his attention to the helpful young Indian couple who owned and operated the motel. The husband was a reed of a man with thick glasses, an unfortunately large nose, and a diminutive chin. The wife was a vision in a kind of abbreviated hot pink–and-gold sari, which she wore over jeans, more of a fashion statement, he thought, than any compulsion to dress in traditional garb. With huge, almond-shaped eyes framed by long, dark lashes and a pleasing hourglass shape to her body, she caused the detective to look at her more than a few times out of the corner of his eye—in the most respectful possible way, of course. He noticed beauty, even though he’d never been unfaithful to his wife. He allowed himself the appreciation of lovely women.

The husband smiled a wide, goofy smile at Harrison. The wife frowned. She was nervous, upset by the presence of the police. The husband acted like it was the most exciting thing that had happened to him in months. They were totally wired in the technical sense, all their records computerized and a system of surveillance cameras that backed up to a hard drive. Briggs checked in to the motel as Buddy Starr about forty-eight hours before his body was found; he’d paid in cash and provided a New York State driver’s license that the hotel owners had diligently scanned into their system. He had not made any calls or used the Internet connection in his room.

The couple also ran an Indian restaurant attached to the hotel. The aroma of tandoori chicken and curry permeated the air, making Harrison’s stomach grumble as he sat in the office behind the reception area and scrolled through days of surveillance from the camera that monitored the landing outside Briggs’s door. It didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for, but when he found it—the dark, powerful figure of a man moving across the landing toward Room 206—it raised more questions than it answered. The man moved like a soldier, cautious but confident, was mindful of the security camera, keeping his face carefully averted from the lens. He didn’t need to jimmy the lock; he had a key card and let himself in easily. He was in the room for less than ten minutes and left as he entered, quietly and carrying nothing.

Though it would never hold up in court, Harrison recognized Gray right away by his bearing and his stride, by the intimidating musculature of his shoulders. Men noticed the size and build of other men more than they’d admit; it was how they identified their place in the pack. Harrison remembered those shoulders, remembered thinking how bad it would feel to be on the beating end of those fists.

According to the time imprint on the image, Gray had arrived at the hotel less than an hour after Briggs’s estimated time of death, with the key card to his room.

“Find anything?” the young hotel owner asked, coming up behind the detective.

“Leave him
” said his wife from her perch at the front desk. “Let him do his job so they can all get out of here.”

The man ignored her, still had that wide smile on his face. He seemed to find the whole thing very exciting, even though it couldn’t be good for business to have a room cordoned off by crime-scene tape and a CSI truck in your parking lot. These days, though, everyone thought they were living in a reality television show. People seemed to have trouble differentiating between what was really happening and what was happening on television. Harrison had noticed in the last few years that suddenly all crime, even the most violent, and its solving had become “cool.” For the hotel owner, the fact that a man staying in his hotel had been gunned down was not tragic or frightening, it was a subject of interest, something he’d e-mail his friends and family about, stay up late speculating on.

“Possibly,” said Harrison. “Is there some way I can get a copy of this surveillance footage, between the hours of nine-ten and nine-thirty

The young man nodded vigorously.

“I’ll make an MPEG, copy it onto a thumb drive for you. You just plug the drive into the USB port on your computer, and you can access the file that way. You can return the drive when you’ve downloaded it onto your computer, okay?”

“Great,” said the detective, having no idea what an MPEG was, or a thumb drive for that matter. “That’s great. Thanks.”

“So what’d you see?” the owner asked, still smiling, tapping a staccato on the keyboard in front of him. “You probably can’t tell me. That’s okay, you don’t have to tell me. I just think it’s so cool to be a detective. I really wanted to be a cop, you know, but my parents had other ideas. I still think about it—all the time. But Miranda, my wife, doesn’t like the idea any more than my parents—”

He went on, but Harrison wasn’t listening. He was thinking about the footage of Gray entering Briggs’s room right after Briggs’s murder.
What is this worth?
That’s the question he found himself asking a lot.
Where does this have the most value? Does it help my case, my career? How much would Gray Powers pay to make this go away?
Then he came back to himself and flushed with shame; that was an old way of thinking. This now was about me, about helping Annie Powers—or whatever my name was. But if he could do that and still help himself, wasn’t that even better?


I don’t know how long it was after we’d left my father’s place that I met Simon Briggs; it might have been six months or more. All the days and months during that period run together, and I have no markers for the passage of time. I know now that I’d had a total psychotic break and that even though much of my memory has returned, many of the day-to-day events are never coming back. I can’t say I’m sorry. But there must have been moments of lucidity, because when some of these memories return, they are painfully vivid.

The night I first saw Briggs, I was sitting in a diner with Marlowe. We’d both altered our appearances. I’d dyed my hair an awful black. With my pale skin, I looked like a ghoul. Marlowe had shaved his hair and had grown a goatee and mustache. He looked like a vampire skinhead. You’d think at this point we wouldn’t have been able to eat in public. In the movies a killer eats at a truck stop and his picture is posted behind the counter or randomly pops up on the television screen. Someone notices him, and the chase is on. But in the real world, people are oblivious, living in their own little heads. They barely see what’s going on around them, and when they do, they rarely believe their own eyes.

Marlowe went to the bathroom, and while I waited, staring into the depths of my coffee cup, a man walked past me too close and dropped a napkin onto the table. I turned to see his wide, heavy frame and the back of his bald head as he walked out the door.

I unfolded the napkin. There was a note:
Bad things are about to happen to Marlowe Geary. Save yourself, if you still can.

I crushed the note in my hand and dropped it on the floor, adrenaline flooding my body.

“What’s wrong?” asked Marlowe when he returned and sat across from me.

I shook my head. “Nothing. I’m tired.”

“You’re always tired,” he said.

“Maybe it’s the company I keep,” I said, the words escaping before I could catch them. He looked at me, surprised. Then he leaned his face close to mine over the table. “Watch yourself.” His voice was tight with menace. There was a trail of brutally murdered women behind us, his tone said to me, and I could easily be next.

I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. The bathroom was filthy, dirt gritty on the tile floor, graffiti scratched on the stalls, and it smelled of urine. I was unrecognizable to myself with my jet-black hair and pallid complexion; my reflection was frightening.

How can I explain myself? How can I explain my relationship to Marlowe Geary, who I loved and hated, feared and clung to? I can’t, not then, not now.
Save yourself, if you still can.

When I walked back out, Marlowe had already left the restaurant. I knew he was outside waiting for me in the car. That’s how sure he was of me. There were two uniformed officers sitting at the counter. They hadn’t been there when I entered the bathroom, but now they sat, both drinking coffee from white ceramic mugs. Their radios chattered; large revolvers hung at their hips. Their shirts were bulky with the Kevlar they wore beneath. I think we were in Pennsylvania at the time. I remember that the uniforms were brown, light shirts with dark jackets and pants. One of them laughed at something the other said.

Everything around me slowed and warped as I approached the counter where they sat.
Save yourself, if you still can.
I imagined walking right up to them and turning myself in. Marlowe would have been able to get away. I would tell them he’d left me here, that he’d let me go, and they’d arrest me. They’d take me into the station in the back of their car. Maybe they’d call my father. He’d come get me. I’d finally tell him I
all right and that he needed to take care of me. And he would, this time he would.

But I didn’t stop. I walked right by the two men. Neither of them noticed me as I walked out the door into the cold night. Marlowe was waiting for me outside the door. I slipped into the car, a stolen Cadillac. The heat was cranking.

“Cops are so unbelievably stupid, man,” he said with a laugh, as he peeled out of the lot.

Save yourself, if you still can.
I couldn’t.


I have abandoned and betrayed myself so many times, given so much over for any poor facsimile of love. I have never been true to Ophelia; I have locked her in a cage deep within myself, depriving her of light and air, and kept her from growing up. I have denied her. I have killed her. I have done all this because I judged her and found her unworthy. Of all the people who have wronged Ophelia, I am the worst offender. But now I have had to reclaim her and do right by her to save my daughter.

The irony of this is not lost on me as I walk quickly on wet concrete. I pass the glaring windows of a music store. The glowing album covers, lit from behind, feature the faces of too-thin, carefully grungy pop stars and cast a yellow light at my feet. People who buy and sell music albums are living in a different world from me; their lives seem frivolous and foreign. I wait on the corner in the rain as cars and taxis race past me. I can see my father’s shop across the street, and it’s all I can do not to race into traffic to get there. The shop is closed, but I can see the blue flickering light of a television screen in the windows above.

New York City. How did I get here? The truth is, I don’t quite know. Already I doubt my memories of the sinkhole, the ship and the man named Dax, the metal room and the Angry Man. But the picture of Victory in my pocket and the necklace I’m wearing make me think some of it might be close to the truth.

I woke up on a commuter train pulling into Grand Central Station. I was wearing fresh clothes I’ve never seen before and a long black raincoat. Leather boots. People around me chatted on cell phones, stared blankly at small handheld screens, headphones plugged into their ears. I gazed at my reflection in the window beside me, saw that my hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail at the base of my neck. I had dark circles under my eyes.

BOOK: Black Out
6.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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