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Authors: Lisa Unger

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

Black Out (9 page)

BOOK: Black Out
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14

When I try to visualize Marlowe as he was when we were young, I can’t quite pin him down. The memory writhes and fades away; I can see the white of his skin, the jet of his eyes, the square of his hand, but the whole picture is nebulous and changing, as though I’m watching him underwater.

He is lost to me. Part of that has to do with my blotchy memories. There’s so much that exists in a black box inside me. But part of it has to do with him. Because, like all manipulators, Marlowe was a shape-shifter. He was always exactly what he needed to be to control me—loving or distant, kind or cruel. Maybe I never even saw the real Marlowe. Maybe the doctor was right about love after all, at least this particular brand.

At first Marlowe wouldn’t talk much about his father. If I brought Frank up, he’d change the subject. Or he’d talk about him vaguely in the past tense, the way a person mentions a distant relative he remembers from his childhood. He’d make random comments such as,
My father liked the smell of orange blossoms. My father had a red hat like that.
Or,
My father gave me a baseball bat for my fifth birthday.
His memories seemed to visit him in vivid snapshots, bright and two-dimensional. The first time I pressed for more, he went to that dark place. We were talking on my bed, sharing a cigarette I’d lifted from my mother’s purse.

“Didn’t you know what he was doing?” I asked. I took a shallow drag, tried not to cough, and then handed it to him.

“Of course not,” he said. “I was just a kid.”

“How could you not have known?” I asked, staring at my cuticles, which were gnawed and dry just like my mother’s. “You weren’t
that
young.”

He didn’t answer me, and finally I turned my eyes back to him. It was the strangest thing. He was leaning against the wall, the smoke forgotten in his hand, arms akimbo. He stared at nothing, eyes glazed as though he were daydreaming.

“Marlowe.”

I took the cigarette from him and put it out in the soda can we’d been using as an ashtray, where it extinguished with a sharp hiss. I grabbed him by the shoulders and gave him a gentle shake, thinking he might be horsing around. But he fell softly to his side on the bed, head coming to rest against an old stuffed bear that I’d had since I was a little girl. He stayed like that nearly an hour, as I whispered and yelled, soothed and cajoled, stroked and shook, pleaded and wept. I was about to dial 911 when he returned to himself, drained and dazed.

“What happened?” he asked me, I suppose taking in my tear-streaked cheeks and frightened expression. He was a person waking from a deep sleep, rubbing his eyes and issuing a yawn.

“You, like,
checked out,
” I said, weary with relief to hear him talking again.

“Oh,” he said with a shrug. “It happens sometimes. Like a seizure or something.”

“It was scary,” I said. “Really scary.”

“It’s nothing,” he said sharply. I didn’t press.

Slowly the grim picture of his life with Frank started to emerge. They went to parks, to churches, and to grocery stores, he told me, in a black beater Eldorado that was always breaking down. Frank Geary was the sad and oh-so-handsome widower, lonely and hardworking, with a good job and a nice house. Marlowe was the beautiful teenage boy without a mother. Together, Marlowe told me, they were the perfect lure for a certain type of woman.

“It was more than just how they looked,” he said. “It wasn’t just the color of their hair or eyes; it wasn’t just their physical bearing. They were like dogs aching for a beating. My father sought the ones that wanted to be punished on some level. In a way he was looking for the ones who were looking for
him.
He saw it in them. And after a while I saw it, too. I knew the ones that would wind up coming home with us before he did.”

And the women were all the same: on the wrong side of forty, pretty once but fading fast, too thin, never married, aching for the things their friends and sisters had acquired with relative ease. Somehow it just never worked out: This one beat her, that one ran out with her next-door neighbor, the other went to prison for check forgery. They all had a laundry list of failed relationships, histories of abuse and addiction. They were waitresses and topless dancers, convenience-store clerks and motel maids. Frank Geary listened to their sad histories, let them cry on his shoulder, maybe cried a little himself about how much he missed his wife, how hard it was to raise a boy on his own.

According to Marlowe, the seduction usually took only an afternoon. If they didn’t leave the house before dinnertime, they left in the trunk of the Eldorado the next morning. More than three for certain, Marlowe remembered. He wasn’t sure how many more. At the time, of course, he had no idea what was going on, he claimed. He never saw or heard anything that frightened him, right up until the day the police came and took Frank away. I still wondered how he couldn’t have known. What did he think happened to those women who stayed the night and whom he never saw again? But I knew better than to force the issue.

During the years between Frank’s arrest and Marlowe’s appearance on our doorstep, he was shuttled from relative to relative and then finally into foster care. It never occurred to me to wonder why he’d never found a home, why he’d never been in one place more than a few months. I just figured that’s how it was when your father was in prison and your mother was dead. In the housing projects where we’d lived in New York, I’d known enough foster kids to understand that it was difficult to find a place where you were safe and wanted, nearly impossible to find a real home where you could stay, where you were loved.

“Nobody wants the son of a convicted rapist and murderer around their children,” he told me one night. “Not even if he’s part of your own family.”

But I imagine it was more than just that. There was an unsettling quiet to Marlowe, an eerie watchfulness, even back then. At the time this strangeness, as much as it frightened me, also intrigued me.

 

In the early weeks after Frank’s arrest, Marlowe claimed he didn’t believe the things they said about his father. But over time, away from Frank’s influence, he started to remember things from years back. Once he found a collection of women’s purses in his father’s closet, once a woman’s shoe—a cheap black sandal with a broken heel—under the porch. One morning before dawn, he saw his father put a bundle wrapped in a white sheet into the truck of his car. Old clothes for Goodwill, he told his son.

“These things would come back on me like nightmares,” he told me. “I’d be lying in some strange bed, scared and alone, and I’d remember things I’d seen when I was young. Maybe I was too young to understand them at the time; maybe I needed to be away from him to understand what he was. I don’t know.”

Marlowe started to wonder about the mother that supposedly ran off on them, left them all alone. Though Frank called himself a widower, he’d told Marlowe that his mother had rejected both of them, ran off in the night with some mechanic. Still, Marlowe kept a photo of her in his wallet; it was creased and soft with age. She was a delicate-featured blonde in a flowered sundress, standing under a tree as leaves wafted down around her. She looked at something off frame, her pinkie in the corner of her mouth. He carried this picture with him all the time, even though his father had beaten him once for doing so.

It only occurred to me later that he spoke about these things with very little emotion, that he seemed to have a center forged from ice. I found his tragedy romantic. He was a wounded bird I’d found. I nursed an adolescent fantasy that I could heal him and comfort him.

Meanwhile, of course, my mother nursed her own fantasy. Every six weeks she took a bus to the Florida State Prison, where she got to spend time with her fiancé separated by a sheet of bulletproof glass. She had never held, kissed, or even touched the hand of the man she planned to marry—and possibly never would. She wore this fact like a badge of courage. “But bars and armed guards can’t keep people from loving each other. They can’t stop the Lord’s will,” she’d say.

She spent her free time lobbying for a new trial for Frank. She wrote letters, contacted law firms that specialized in pro bono death-row appeals. The private investigator she hired had told her that Frank Geary’s arresting officer had a career fraught with allegations of excessive force and coerced confessions, that one of his recent arrests and convictions had been overturned. This seemed to give her hope, even though Frank had never confessed to any of the murders; he maintained his innocence all along—even in the face of damning eyewitness testimony.

Apparently when the Eldorado died on him for the last time, Frank was forced to take the contents of his trunk and carry them down the length of a deserted Florida back road. It was dark, and he wouldn’t have seen the woman watching from the window of her house, set back from the road. He might not even have seen the old house at all as he passed by with the load over his shoulders, heading to a sinkhole known to local cave divers as “Little Blue.”

“She was an old woman,” my mother said. “It was dark. She didn’t know
what
she saw. Frank wasn’t the only man driving an Eldorado in Florida that night.”

The witness had died of a stroke since Frank’s trial. My mother took this as proof that she’d wronged Frank.

“The Lord struck her down for ruining a man’s life,” she said with quiet conviction.

Even the hard physical evidence didn’t discourage my mother: the blood and the blond hair in his trunk, the dead woman’s wallet containing her driver’s license, partially burned in a rusted metal drum in his backyard, fingerprints in his house matching two of the women he was suspected of murdering.

“Cops plant evidence all the time,” she’d say. “And that cop who arrested him? He was dirty. The pressure was on. They needed an arrest, and Frank was the perfect scapegoat.”

I’d stopped arguing with her, but when she sent me to the post office with letters going to the governor, death-row lawyers, and death-penalty activist groups, I threw them in the trash. Even though I didn’t really believe in God, I prayed every night that Frank Geary would die in the electric chair before he had a chance to slip a ring on my mother’s finger beneath the gaze of armed corrections officers in a prison chapel, or see me in the hideous pink dress my mother had bought me to wear as her bridesmaid.

15

While my eyes are closed and I’m paralyzed with fear, I feel the gun snatched from my hand. My lids spring open and I’m face-to-face with Dax.


What
about my instructions eluded you?” he asks in a harsh whisper. He grabs me by the arm and moves me toward the stern.

“Where are we going?” I ask him.

“We have to get off this ship,” he says.

It’s then I notice that his clothes are covered with blood. When he turns around to look at me, I see that his face is smeared with it.

“Off the ship? And go where?” I look out into the angry waters. There’s nothing but black.

“There are islands. There,” he says, and points off into the darkness. I don’t see what he sees. I look around for the other boat I saw in the distance, but now it’s gone, or at least its lights are off and it’s disappeared in the black. I don’t understand what’s happening, but I am emptied out by fear, as if that’s all there is to me. I stop moving, force him to stop with me.

“Where are the other men?”

He doesn’t answer me. He climbs down a ladder at the stern to a platform where a Boston Whaler sits waiting, tied off on one of the cleats. It bucks and pitches like a mechanical bull. It’s so tiny I feel sick just looking at it.

“You must be joking,” I say from the top of the ladder. “Are you trying to get us both killed?”

He looks up at me, reaches up his hand. “Everyone else on this boat is dead,” he says. “We have vastly underestimated our opponent. Leave with me or die here tonight.”

“I don’t understand,” I say stubbornly. A fog seems to have settled in my brain; the whole situation has taken on the cast of dream, of nonreality.

“Dead,” he says loudly, startling me into the moment. “As in not breathing. Ever. Again.”

His words are a punch in the jaw; I’m reeling from the impact. Four other men, all trained paramilitary professionals like Gray, dead. I look back at the boat, where everything is still dark, where there is no movement or sound. It’s a ghost ship. Panic starts to undermine my sanity.

“Who did this?” I ask.

Dax starts moving back up the ladder. “I don’t know,” he answers, not looking at me. “There was a team. Well trained. They thought I was dead, so they left me where I lay.” The wind is kicking up, and he has raised his voice so I can hear him. The water is slapping angrily against the boat, the Whaler knocking against the stern. “I figured they’d come after you next; I thought I’d find you missing or dead. The boat they arrived on? It’s gone.”

“Then let’s get this one moving again.” These waters must be full of sharks. That little boat looks like an hors d’oeuvre tray. Suddenly dying out there seems less attractive than it did before.

He climbs back onto the deck, runs his hands through his hair in a gesture of frustration. “The engine’s
dead,
” he says flatly. “Whoever has done this disabled the boat. They left you on it. Leads me to believe they’ll be back or that they’ve rigged the boat to explode when they’re far enough away. We need to
go. Now.

“No,” I say.

Dax is looking at me hard. He might have been a handsome guy once, but his eyes tell me something about the things he’s done and seen. His skin is creased and weather-worn; his mouth is a thin, tight line, a mouth that looks as though it has never smiled. He puts his hand on my arm again. I wonder if he’s going to try to muscle me onto the Whaler.

“I want my gun back,” I say, bracing myself.

He squints at me. Then after a second’s hesitation, he takes the gun from his waist and hands it over. “Let’s go,” he says, pulling me back toward the ladder.

“You go,” I say. “I can’t. I need this to end tonight. One way or another. I can’t just keep going and going. I get in this Whaler and then what? We hang out on some island until the sun comes up? Or we drive until the boat runs out of gas? We’re sitting ducks then, too.”

“We’ve been out of contact for over an hour. Another team will come for us before either of those things happens,” he says. He’s yelling now out of frustration, not just so I can hear him. His eyes are scanning the horizon as if he’s already looking for the lights of another ship.

“When they do, bring them back,” I say. I sound calm and sure, not at all how I feel.

“Don’t be an idiot,” he says, tightening his grip. He looks at me with some combination of concern and disdain. “You’re so far out of your league you don’t even know what you’re playing at.”

“You work for me, right?” I ask. He nods. “Then you’re fired.”

He shakes his head in disbelief but releases my arm and doesn’t move to stop me as I run back toward the stairway that leads to the helm. Before I step inside, I hear the engine of the Whaler and turn to see the white of the boat get swallowed by the night. My heart sinks as it disappears. I wonder how big a mistake I’ve just made and what it’s going to cost me.

BOOK: Black Out
4.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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