Read Lights Out Online

Authors: Peter Abrahams

Tags: #Thrillers, #General, #Fiction, #Suspense

Lights Out (4 page)

BOOK: Lights Out
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Eddie considered his answer. What had he done? There’d been swimming, of course. And Jack, Galleon Beach, Mandy, the Packers, the whole fuckup. “Not much,” Eddie said. The names, their syllables strange and familiar as returning to the house you were born in, stayed in his mind. “But as a friend of mine says,” he added, “you can’t expect to take up where you left off.”

“Your friend sounds wise.”

“For an ax murderer,” Eddie said, stretching the truth a little.

Dr. Messer, long accustomed to conversation with those less bright than himself, took another deep breath. “The point is it’s expensive outside these walls. In here we give you your three squares per and a place to sleep. Out there you got to earn it. You’re gonna need a job. Unless you’re in line for a fat inheritance or something.” Dr. Messer turned up the corners of his mouth to show he was being funny. Eddie said nothing. Dr. Messer’s lips turned down. He tapped the screen with his glasses. “Says here you’re an ‘inadequate personality.’ Know what that means?”

“Sounds like bullshit to me.”

Dr. Messer’s fat fingers tightened slightly around the frames of his glasses. “That just proves the point, son.” He tapped the screen again, harder now. Maybe it was a symbolic way of knocking sense into Eddie. Or just knocking him. “Five to fifteen, but everybody knows you’re out in three and a half, four. Any half-assed adequate personality would’ve been. Any half-assed adequate personality wouldn’t have fucked up his parole. But you did the whole nickel and dime, like the dumbest con in the joint.”

All at once, Eddie thought: Why do I have to listen to this
anymore? I’m gone. He looked into the untwinkling eyes and said: “In your opinion.”

“In my opinion?” Dr. Messer’s voice rose, but not much, a few decibels. The door opened and the C.O. stuck his head in.

“Everything okay, Dr. Messer?” He wasn’t gone yet.

“Couldn’t be better.”

The door closed. “Tell you something,” Dr. Messer said, starting to smile. “I’ve been in corrections for twenty-three years. It’s the shittiest work in the world. The pay is shitty, the benefits are shitty, the hours are shitty. But the shittiest part is, you got to deal with the likes of you. One look and I know your whole story, past, present, and future. And you know something, son? Summing up, so to speak? I’ll be seeing you again. Soon.” He was smiling broadly now, but resembling Santa less and less. He tossed a brown envelope at Eddie. Eddie caught it and started to rise.

“Count it,” Dr. Messer said. “Just so’s there’s no misunderstandings.”

Eddie opened the envelope and counted his gate money. Three hundred and thirty-eight dollars and twenty-five cents. It wasn’t a gift. That’s what he’d earned, minus what he’d spent in the canteen.

“Sign here.”

Eddie wrote “Edward N. Nye” on a form Messer slid across the desk. Then he stuck the money in the pocket of his new pants and went out. There were no good-byes.

The C.O. led him along a corridor and down a damp stairway. They entered a dark space. The only light came from a dusty ceiling bulb. It shone on a white station wagon with government plates. “Get in,” said the C.O.

Eddie stepped forward, fumbled for a moment with the door—it had a recessed handle he was unfamiliar with—and climbed in the backseat. From the front came a voice: “Hokay?”

“Okay what?” said Eddie.

The driver turned to him and shrugged. He was a dark-skinned man with a thin mustache and a Tampa Bay baseball cap. Did Tampa Bay have a team?
“No hablo ingles,”
said the driver.

He switched on the engine. A big door opened in front of them, exposing a rectangle of dazzling light. They drove out into it.

Out, along a couple hundred feet of pavement that led to the perimeter fence, where guards checked under the hood, under the seats, under the chassis, and waved them through. The guards, their shotguns, the fence, the gate, all blurred in Eddie’s vision. The light was so bright it hurt his eyes, made them water uncontrollably. Was one of the guards staring at him? Don’t think I’m crying, motherfucker, Eddie thought. It’s nothing like that—just this light.

Out, past a woman in black holding a sign that read “Free Willie Boggs,” and onto a highway with other cars, a highway lined with other signs, signs Eddie tried to read through the dazzlement: Motel 6, Mufflers 4U, Lanny’s Used Tires, Bud Lite, Pink Lady Lounge, All the Shrimp You Cn Eat $6.95, XXX Video, Happy Hour. The driver turned on the radio. “… skies overcast, temperature in the mid sixties,” it said; then the driver switched to a Spanish station where an announcer was saying the same thing. Overcast? Eddie looked out. He saw no clouds, but the sky wasn’t blue. It was gold—thick, dense, rich; all the way down to the ground.

And then his gaze fell on the side mirror. He saw a medieval vision in it: a fortress of stone, shimmering in the glare. Eddie had never seen his prison before, not from the outside. They had brought him in at night. Now he watched in the mirror as the gray walls shrank, their lines lost distinction, wavering in the golden light. It might have been a mirage.

Louie. Louie hadn’t been so easy. Louie knew what had happened to the Ozark brothers, even if no one else did. Had the boy made plans or simply seized an opportunity? Louie didn’t know, and what difference did it make? He could never be alone, that was all.

It took two years. The boy—although there wasn’t much boy left by that time—found a half-inch-wide elastic band one day, wrapped around a discarded envelope in the yard. If he’d had a coat hanger or a cleft stick the rest would have been easy, but coat hangers were forbidden and there were no
trees in the yard. He tried to stretch the band between his thumb and index finger, but it was too thick. The only way was to take one end of the band in his teeth and pull with his left hand. That left the right hand free.

He stole a four-inch nail from the shop, carried it through the strip search glued to his palate, hanging down his throat. Back in his cell he took it out, along with part of the lining of the roof of his mouth. Late at night he would practice, holding the band taut between his teeth and his left hand, setting the head of the nail in the band, pulling it back, firing into his pillow for silence. A technique that took a long time to perfect, but that was the one thing he had.

Louie liked to play bridge at a table in a corner of the rec room. The boy took to playing Ping-Pong. The first time he came in, Louie didn’t take his eyes off him. The boy didn’t even glance at Louie. He just played Ping-Pong. He was good at it. He came every afternoon. Louie got used to his presence. He got used to the fact that sometimes the ball got away and a player had to come over to the bridge table and pick it up. He got used to the boy coming to pick it up.

Money was bet at those bridge games, although it changed hands later. And Louie took most of it—he knew how to bid, how to count cards, how to cheat if he had to. It was a lot to think about. One afternoon, Louie was wondering whether to go to six spades when the Ping-Pong ball came bouncing across the floor. Louie heard it but didn’t look up, not until he felt a stillness in the room. Then he saw the boy kneeling on the floor, at the far side of the table, in a funny sideways position, yanking at a rubber band held between his teeth and squinting right at the middle of Louie’s forehead. It was so weird, he never saw the nail at all.

“Hokay,” said the driver, pulling into a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot.

Eddie got out. The white station wagon backed up, wheeled around, was gone. Eddie stood in the middle of the lot. From the sky came a tremendous chirping din. Eddie looked around, not aware at first of its source. He located it, finally, in the branches of a sick-looking scrub pine at the edge of the
lot—a single brown bird he couldn’t identify. A bird. Its song stunned him. He remembered:

Sometimes a-dropping from the sky
I heard the sky-lark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are,
How they seemed to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning!

Eddie never had figured out “jargoning,” but now he understood the exclamation mark and, wiping his eyes, thought of getting down and kissing the pavement of the Dunkin’ Donuts lot. A funny idea; it made him laugh out loud. He heard his own laughter, didn’t like the sound, stopped.

No one likes a card sharp, so no one liked Louie, and no one talked. That was enough to keep the boy from getting life. It wasn’t enough to stop them from withdrawing parole. The normal laissez-faire toward popular killings doesn’t apply when you’re inside. Nails. At first black humor, later just his name.

Cars whizzed by on the highway. Eddie watched them for a while, then gazed through the window of Dunkin’ Dunuts where people sat at a counter, sipping, chewing, talking, doing the crossword. Then he noticed the bus station next door. A Greyhound Americruiser was scrolling through its destinations: Jax, Atlanta, Baltimore, Philly, NY. Eddie walked toward it. Ordinary walking. Didn’t mean a thing. He just felt like going that way and he did. A long stretch, he thought. Comparatively, as Dr. Messer had said. Especially comparatively for an innocent man.

A red convertible stopped nearby. A woman got out. She had thick black hair, red lips, smooth double-cream-coffee skin, long legs, and a short black leather skirt. Eddie couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was coming his way. Eddie forced himself to stop staring, turned toward the bus station.

“Hey you!”

Eddie kept going.

“Hey, you!”

Was she calling him? He turned back.


She laughed. She was close now, still coming toward him, her breasts jiggling under a little halter top, nipples protruding, hips swelling under the leather skirt: all these details spun through Eddie’s mind in confusion. “Yeah, you,” she said. “Wanna have some fun?”

Outside: Day 1


un. Eddie stood in the glare under the madly chirping bird, his eyes on a vision of everything Prof’s porno shot strove for (so unsuccessfully, he now realized): a vision of irresistible and available female sexuality. It wasn’t just a function of those physical images still careening through his brain—hair, lips, skin, breasts, hips, thighs—but of the voice too. The voice especially. There was something arousing about the female voice, all by itself. Or was it just long deprivation of the sound that made him react like that?

She was looking at him funny. “What’s the matter? You don’t speak English?”

Christ, Eddie thought, I’m slow. Inside, fast, but out here, very slow. “Yeah. I speak English.”

“Whoop-dee-do,” said the woman. “We’ve got something in common already.” She swung open the passenger door of the red convertible, her ass, solid and round, bunching slightly with the effort. “Let’s roll.”

Eddie’s mouth was dry. He licked his lips. “Roll?”

She looked at him funny again. “You got a learning disability or something?”

“I’m a high-school graduate,” Eddie said, inwardly cursing himself at once for the stupidity of the remark.

She laughed, not loudly, but the sound had magic—it drowned out everything: the traffic, the bird, the inarticulate warnings in Eddie’s mind. “Me, too,” she said. “So let’s go someplace and hit the books.”

The words and the woman-voice fit together like the lyric and melody of a song no one can forget. Eddie took a step forward. His internal warnings grew louder and more articulate:
What kind of someplace? The backseat of the car? The side of the road? Was she a hooker? Maybe not—he knew there’d been big changes with women, wasn’t it possible this was some kind of casual pickup that went on all the time now? But if so, why him? And if a hooker, that meant money, but how much? He took another step. One more and he’d get a sniff of her—he was already getting the urge to inhale deeply, extravagantly, through his nose—and then the decision would be made.

Something flashed in Eddie’s peripheral vision. The door of Dunkin’ Donuts opened, catching the light. A cop came out, with coffee in one hand and a sugar donut in the other. He stuck the donut in his mouth, bit into it, saw Eddie. Red jelly spurted into the air. The cop looked hard at Eddie, lowered the donut, took in the car, the woman. Eddie thought: Is it a trap? What kind? Why? He didn’t know. But he’d learned to sense them. He backed away.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

“You what?”

Eddie didn’t answer. He had already turned and started walking toward the bus station. Slow down, he told himself, slow down. He got ready for a cry of “Halt!” or running steps or a bullet in the back. But there was none of that, just the woman saying: “What’s the matter with you? You gay? Jesus H. Christ. A dyslexic fag. I can’t take much more of this. Am I s’posed to kidnap the prick or what?”

Eddie stepped over a low wall that divided the Dunkin’ Donuts lot from the bus-station lot and risked a glance back. The cop was moving toward a squad car now, still watching Eddie, but he was chewing on the donut again. The woman was in the red convertible. She slammed the door and sped away. Eddie walked into the bus station.

Inside was an ill-lit waiting room with rows of orange plastic seats, a ticket counter at the far end, a shop in an alcove on one side. Passing the shop, Eddie saw sunglasses in a rotating display case. He went in, spun the case. There were so many lens colors—blue, green, yellow, rose, gray. He found a mirror-lensed pair, and there he was, reflected in miniature. He saw what everyone else must see: the shaven skull, the
pale skin, and eyes they probably didn’t like the look of; superficially nice, maybe, the whites clear, the irises light brown and speckled with coppery flecks, so the overall effect was close to bronze; but their expression, no matter how deep Eddie looked, was cold, wary, hostile. The woman must have been a hooker, and a foolhardy one at that.

“Looking for something?” said a voice behind him.

Eddie turned. A fat man in a sleeveless T-shirt had come out from behind the cash register. Now he took a step back.

“Sunglasses,” Eddie said.

BOOK: Lights Out
11.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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