The Last Resort
NATE HAD only been in Florida for three hours and already they were at each other's throats—or rather Katie was at his throat, because, as she said, he was chronically complacent. The two of them were standing in the beverage aisle of the Shop & Save. He had loaded the cart while his sister had run next door to the bank; now she was in the process of unloading it.
"You told me to use my good judgment," said Nate.
Katie held up bag of seedless red grapes. "You call this good judgment?"
"Grapes are healthy."
"Not for the migrant farm workers who harvest them," said Katie. "And these?"
"What's wrong with raisin bran?"
"Post raisin bran," said Katie. "They're owned by Philip Morris."
Nate shoved the cereal box back into the cart. "So is half the world."
"Well we only buy from the other half," Katie snapped. She removed the box again and tucked it onto a shelf of bottled mineral water. She also unloaded a six-pack of Coors Light. "And no beer."
"You've got to be joking," said Nate. It was hard enough to swallow the prohibition on animal products. "Don't tell me you guys are temperance freaks too."
"The Coors family are a pack of neo-Nazis," said Katie. "Miller is a front for Big Tobacco. Anheuser-Busch helped keep the Greens out of the Presidential debates. Corona is the world's leading sponsor of bullfighting. Shall I go on? The only brand you can really drink with a clear conscience is Belgian Royal Brew and they don't stock that on the island." Katie continued to remove items from the shopping wagon—coffee, bananas, oreo cookies—until all that remained was one soggy bag of peeled baby carrots. This last item she examined indecisively, muttering something about the carrots not being organic before tossing them contemptuously back into the cart. "Cheer up about the beer," she said. "We're working on making some at home."
Katie took command of the shopping cart; Nate followed her down the aisle. She'd driven him straight from the airport to the supermarket—his hair and throat still felt dry from the flight—without any thought that he might want to shower or change his clothes after four hours of travel. She'd recently landed a part-time job typing up asylum petitions for Chinese immigrants in Gulf Coast City, so on the ride from the mainland to Cormorant Island, she lectured Nate about the suppression of the falun gong and the one-child policy and the Uighur nationalist movement. It was just like his sister to fret over the state of the world while ignoring the needs of her own brother, and she could not even agree to disagree. Nate thought these matters should be left to the professional agitators. Every day he sat on his hands, she insisted, he acquiesced to the murder of foreign children.
They passed through the produce section and turned down the pasta aisle. Katie shopped slowly and meticulously, reading each label aloud as though searching for some rare allergen. She had acquired the habit of exhaling quickly from her nose to express disapproval and now she sniffed her scorn at a box of mostaccioli.
"Anyway, how are you?" she asked. "Have you gotten over the eviction yet?"
"Do you have to put it that way?" asked Nate.
He hated the implications of the word eviction; it sounded as though the city marshal had changed the locks.
"How should I put it, big brother?"
"I told you. The state came and took over the entire building. They're going to build a new entrance to the expressway. I wouldn't call that getting evicted. I really wouldn't. Maybe displaced."
"It was a crummy apartment anyway," added Nate. "When you left the windows open, the pigeons used to fly in through the air shaft."
"Wait until you see the accommodations at the co-op," said Katie. Her hair was wrapped in a red bandanna and she paused to straighten it in the glass door of a refrigerator that housed packaged frozen fish. Then she rolled their cart toward the checkout counter. "And what happened with Tricia?"
"What were you saying about the falun gong?"
Katie loaded their groceries onto the conveyor belt. Nate scanned the headlines in the tabloids. Noah had dinosaurs on the Ark! Thousands worship rock that fell off a truck! How to tell if your dog's an alcoholic! His own relationship with Tricia had ended on such a surreal note: Man leaves parking brake off at family's July 4th picnic, rental car runs over girlfriend's grandmother. Of course, Tricia and he had been on the outs for months before that. Ever since he'd lost his job at The Statesman. He'd even parked at the top of her parents' driveway specifically because Tricia had been sulking all afternoon and he thought they might need to leave early. But he'd come to Florida to put all of that behind him.
"I didn't get along with her family," said Nate.
Katie eyed him suspiciously. "That it?"
"And we fought a lot about money."
"The root of all evil," said Katie; she paid for the groceries.
Outside, the parking lot was nearly deserted. An elderly couple sat on an Adirondack chair in front of Captain Nemo's Subs & Sandwiches sharing a dish of ice cream. Three black kids were rolling coconuts in an adjacent lot. There were also a handful of shoppers, mostly bronzed and overweight, and an armadillo lumbering along the grassy embankment bordering the plaza. The air was hot and humid and fraught with the lethargy of a winter resort during the summer.
Katie led them to her battered station wagon; a transparent plastic bag served as a passenger-side window. She loaded the groceries into the back.
"Maybe you and Eve will hit it off," she suggested.
Nate tried the car door; it was locked. "I'm not looking."
"Neither was Adam."
The inside of the car was scalding. They pulled out onto Sand Dollar Boulevard, but the plastic-bag window shielded Nate from the breeze. Katie pushed a cassette tape into the console: the music blared loud and instrumental and cacophonous.
"There's one more thing," said Katie.
"Let me guess," said Nate. "You don't have indoor plumbing."
"If you're going to stay the whole summer, you're going to have to help out with our project."
They drove past luxury condominiums shaded by strangler fig trees.
"What project?" asked Nate.
Katie adjusted the rear-view mirror. "Are you sure you don't want to cherish your blissful ignorance for a few more days?"
"What project?" Nate asked again. "It doesn't involve picketing, does it?"
"Better than picketing," answered Katie. "We'll drop off the perishables, and I'll show you."
THE HORSESHOE-SHAPED structure occupied by the Cormorant Island Artists' Cooperative had once housed a twelve-unit country inn. The inn had flourished in the ferry years—before the construction of the causeway had shifted development to the other end of the island. Now the co-op's only neighbors were the maids and handymen from the luxury surfside hotels who lived several hundred yards up the narrow dusty road in a cluster surrounding their whitewashed chapel. All of this development—village, co-op, road—appeared to be losing ground to the mangroves. Nate noted the cracked remnants of a shuffleboard court projecting from under one thicket. Dozens of bicycles lay strewn about the clearing and several of them stood propped against a sign that had once read Paradise Court, though now most of the letters were defined only by discolored outlines. There was also a drained swimming pool at the bottom of which sat a ragged beige sofa and five mismatched chairs. Above the entire ramshackle spectacle loomed a rusting water tower with the word KYSO emblazoned across the tank.
"KYSO?" asked Nate.
Katie slammed shut her car door and welcomed with sloppy hugs each of the three border collies yapping at her legs. "Standard Oil of Kentucky," she explained. "It's an old oil company road. They did some exploration out here in the twenties, but nothing ever came of it." She unloaded the bundles from the back of the station wagon and led Nate across the courtyard. "The bikes are Wingo's," she said. "He does tune-ups and repairs when he isn't too busy getting high."
They stepped through a door frame without a door into a spacious oblong kitchen; the room had clearly served as the inn's office before the appliances and sink had been added. A lanky man with unkempt salt-and-pepper hair was standing at a makeshift countertop, a slab of Formica balanced upon two wooden sawhorses. He was pounding one of the blades of a small iron propeller with a mallet; before him lay assorted screwdrivers and several oddly shaped pieces of metal. The man did not look up from his work when they entered. "Who's too busy getting high?" he asked. "I'll have you know I've been laboring on behalf of the commonweal all morning."
Katie surveyed his handiwork. "Beating swords into plowshares?"
"I'm making us a blender from that toy boat we found in the cellar."
"Awesome," said Katie. "The groceries came to fifty-two and change." She added the number to a series of figures scribbled on the back of a used paper plate and then refastened the plate to a cork bulletin board. The board also contained photographs and phone numbers on scraps. "Oh, I almost forgot," said Katie. "Wingo, this is my brother."
"Nate," said Nate; he put down his suitcase.
Wingo set the mallet on the countertop; he lifted his spectacles and examined Nate with his bare eyes. "My father's name was Nate," he said. "Nathan Bedford Forrest Wingo."
Nate nodded. "After the Confederate general."
"My father was one racist son-of-a-bitch," said Wingo. "A mean drunk, too. He froze to death at a bus stop in Buffalo, New York."
Nate tried to look sober. "It's a fairly common name," he said.
Wingo shrugged his shoulders and returned his focus to the propeller. Katie took a break from unloading the groceries and went about setting down food for the dogs. Nate surveyed his surroundings: women's underwear drying from a clothesline suspended across the room diagonally; jagged keloids and cicatrices bashed into the plaster; in one corner, the colorful carcass of a red, yellow and green rocking horse without a head. Suddenly Nate realized that there were two other people in the room. A woman with long black hair was sitting on the sofa against the back wall; she wore a tie-dyed tee shirt and a floral print skirt. A young girl was sleeping with her head in the older woman's lap. It struck Nate that the girl was either two or three and the woman couldn't have been much older than twenty.
Nate caught his sister's eye and directed her attention toward the sofa.
"That's Eve," she said. "She isn't much for talking." Katie removed a stick of deodorant from one of the brown paper grocery bags and dabbed it under her arms while she spoke. "Eve, dear, why don't you say hello to my brother Nate?"
Eve pointed at the sleeping child and held an index finger to her lips; Nate smiled politely in her direction and she responded with a tepid wave.
Katie sniffed the deodorant and returned it to the bag. "Say, Wingo, where is everybody?"
"Who's everybody? Cleopatra and Stogie took the van into town to see about getting that slate for the roof. And Razor Blade is still at the wildlife refuge. There was some flub with the scheduling and he had to take a pack of German school teachers out birding."
Wingo slid the iron propeller onto a spoke and twirled it with his finger. "We're on our way to Margaritaville," he said.
"Where's Turncoat?" Katie asked again.
"I'd stay clear of Turncoat just now," said Wingo. "He's mighty pissed at you."
Nate looked from Wingo to Katie. "Who's Turncoat?"
"I'm not exactly thrilled with him either," said Katie. "Not after what he said about Nate."
Wingo shook his head. "It wasn't personal."
"Like hell it wasn't!"
"For the love of God," said Nate. "Who is Turncoat?"
A human shadow blocked the sunlight from the doorway.
"I'm Turncoat," said a voice behind Nate.
Nate turned. He found himself facing a short, clean-cut man in his early thirties. Turncoat's forehead and nose stood out prominently and his jaw-line was sharp, but his eyes were set a bit too far apart for him to be good-looking. He would have blended in better at a Young Americans for Freedom rally or a convention of Mormon missionaries than on a commune.
"I'm Katie's brother," said Nate; he extended his hand.
Turncoat walked past him. "We know who the fuck you are," he said.
"Don't be this way," said Katie.
"You told him," said Turncoat. "I can't believe you went through with it. I can't believe you fucking told him. You had no fucking right."
Katie folded the grocery bags and tucked them under the sink. "I haven't told him yet," she said, "but I'm going to."
"Did you hear that, Wingo? She's going to fucking tell him? After we agreed that we wouldn't share this with anyone. Loose lips sink ships. And now she's going to fucking tell him."
Wingo tightened a screw on a pint-sized engine; he said nothing.
"Do you want to get us all thrown in jail?" demanded Turncoat. "Is that what you want?"
"I don't need this," said Katie. "He's my brother."
"He's a rat," shouted Turncoat. "That's what he is. I can tell just by looking at him." He kicked over a sack of potatoes; several rolled across the carpet. Nate stepped behind the decapitated rocking horse. "Who's next?" ranted Turncoat. "That's what I want to know. Your great aunt? Your third cousins twice-fucking-removed? Someone has got to draw a line somewhere. If he's in, I'm out. Got it?"
A hush fell over the room. The child stretched her arms and settled back in for more sleep. Malignant red blotches flared on Turncoat's cheeks and around his neck.
"Look, Katie," said Nate. "If this is going to be a problem—"
"It's not a problem," snapped Katie. She retrieved her car keys from the kitchen table. "We're going for a ride, Nate. I have something I need to tell you about."
Nate stepped through the doorway ahead of her.
"Don't do it!" Turncoat shouted after them. "I won't be here when you get back!"
Katie paused at the threshold and faced Turncoat. The broad doorway framing her slender shoulders and adolescent hips made her look like a kid. "Just for future reference," she said in her normal speaking voice, "you are a total asshole."
NATE'S SISTER took her anger out on the station wagon. She jolted the transmission from reverse into drive and churned up a thick billow of orange dust when she cut the corners of the clearing. Her fingers clenched the steering wheel and her gaze never broke from the windshield as they cruised onto the main coastal road, past the gated shorefront mansions that had once served Henry Flagler and Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Theodore Roosevelt. Nate clung to the door handle; he slammed his foot into an imaginary brake at every sharp turn. He didn't dare speak. Without warning, the silhouette of a box turtle appeared in the roadway and the station wagon lurched to a halt.
Katie stretched her arms over her head. "Okay, I'm all done," she said. "It's out of my system."
Nate caught his breath. He watched the turtle edging its way across the asphalt.
Katie laughed. "I scared you, didn't I?"
"I'm not used to being the passenger."
Katie eased off the brake and they inched their way around the turtle. Nate lowered the window visor and reached for his sunglasses. He realized that he'd left his valise in the co-op kitchen. "I guess I could have predicted this wasn't going to work out," he said. "It seemed too easy."
"What do you mean?"
"Your friends didn't exactly roll out the welcome mats. But it's probably for the best. I'm not sure how long I would have survived on broccoli and tofu."
Katie waved her hand dismissively. "I wouldn't worry too much about Turncoat. That was just a typical Saturday afternoon with the family. At least he didn't break anything."
Nate thought about the welfare of his suitcase. "Just the same," he said. "I think I'm probably better off finding someplace else to stay."
The car veered suddenly onto the embankment. Katie shouted: "Go to hell!"
Nate braced his hand against the glove compartment.
"Jesus, Katie. We'll still see plenty of each other."
"And I'll have to go back there and tell them you're shacking up somewhere else. No way. You had your chance to change your mind, and it's too late."
Nate forced several deep breaths. He hadn't lived with Katie since college, and eight years apart had nearly erased his memories of her quick and mulish temper. "We'll try it," he said. "But no promises."
Katie glared at him and pulled back onto the road. They approached the commercial district and paused at a traffic light across from a clothing boutique named The Fig Leaf. Nate didn't like the tension between himself and his sister. "So what's with the names?" he asked.
"Turncoat and Jackknife and whatever?"
"Razor Blade," Katie corrected him. "He used to deal coke in Miami."
Katie exhaled sharply through her nose. "He's a ranger now at the wildlife refuge. He's sixty-eight and just the sweetest old guy imaginable."
"And the other names? Turncoat and Stogie?"
"Turncoat used to be a stockbroker before he switched sides," said Katie. "And Cleopatra's from Cairo, Tennessee. Her real name's Lurleen."
"Like George Wallace's ex-wife."
Katie displayed a puzzled frown. "Stogie's real name is Stogie," she said. "His granddfather was the president of the cigar rollers' union or something like that."
"And where did you meet all of these lovely characters?" asked Nate.
They passed through the toll plaza and crossed over the causeway to the mainland. Fishing poles stood braced against the concrete guard-rails while their owners lounged in nearby lawn chairs. Some of the fishermen dozed with their hands folded across their naked swollen bellies; others sipped beer and watched portable televisions. Among the flocking terns and skimmers overhead, someone was flying a green dragon-shaped kite. Traffic slowed slightly at the foot of the bridge.
"This is nothing," said Katie. "During the winter you sometimes have to wait two, maybe three hours. And it's getting worse every year."
"You should try living in New York," said Nate.
Katie sniffed. "I moved here to get away from New York."
They pulled onto a divided six-lane avenue.
"Do you see that?" asked Katie, pointing. She might have been referring to a row of billboards aligned like dominos or to an expansive plain of whisked earth grazed by backhoes and bulldozers. "That's exactly what this county needs. Another golf course. And those," she added, indicating a series of virgin duplexes behind a brick and mortar wall. "Flamingo Estates! These people are imbeciles. There hasn't been a flamingo in this area in seventy-five years."
"That's the power of air conditioning," said Nate.
"It's a holocaust, that's what it is," said Katie. She proceeded to drive down back roads and through coastal sub-developments, pointing out marinas that had recently been swampland and shopping plazas that had supplanted cypress slough. At first, Nate thought this tour was incidental to a specific destination; slowly, he sensed that these developments might actually be the endpoints of their excursion. He'd perspired through his shirt and a dull pain was rising in his temple. "I feel like we've been driving in circles," he said. "I'm ready to go home and shave."
"We'll be there in five minutes," said Katie.
It was as though she'd been waiting for him to complain; now she drove due north like a missile honing in upon a target. Soon they were on the outskirts of Gulf Coast City. They drove over a rise and the substantial forms of the Palace Arms Hotel and the offices of the Cormorant County Democrat materialized on the horizon. Katie wound her way through a stand of newly-minted suburban homes and pulled into the parking lot of the Coconut Mountain Nature Preserve. Nate started toward one of the trails marked by wood-chips, but Katie steered him along an overgrown grass path that paralleled a chainlink fence. "The view is better this way," she said.
On their side of the fence rose a lush tangle of gumbo limbo and slash pine; the other side yielded a view into the backyards of the suburban estates. Katie hiked ahead. Nate grew winded easily; he lingered and inspected the swimming pools and elevated patios of Gulf Coast City's elite. Then the path diverged from the fence at a clump of palmettos and soon opened on an exposed knoll. Several hundred feet below them sat an empty parking lot and the rear facade of a mammoth structure without a roof. The roofless building reminded Nate of a dollhouse Katie had played with as a girl.
"The Junonia Mall," announced Katie. "Pretty impressive, no?"
Her eyes were glowing in triumph; she sounded as though she'd built it herself.
Behind her, Nate caught sight of a nude body. A female body. The woman was sleeping on a deck chair in one of the backyards beyond where the path broke away from the fence. Nate ignored his sister and inched his way through the shiny green and red foliage toward a better view.
Katie spotted the woman. "Don't be a jerk," she said.
Nate raised his eyebrows and offered his sister a helpless look.
"You're going to regret this," warned Katie. "Trust me."
Nate continued forward. He beat his way through dense vines and paused several times to pick burrs from his sleeves. When he reached the fence, the woman had just risen from her nap. She was younger than he'd expected—maybe college age—with long auburn hair. Her soft features were nearly flawless, but her legs were stubby. All at once, her eyes caught Nate's. She stared at him for a moment. His mind raced for some plausible explanation; he felt himself waving to her like a buffoon. Then she picked up her towel and quickly retreated into the house.
Nate found his sister waiting for him on a stump.
"Are you done playing peeping tom?"
He turned toward the vista. "I wasn't exactly prowling with binoculars," he said.
"A rose by any other name," said Katie.
Nate kicked a pebble over the embankment; it disappeared hundreds of feet below. He noticed that there were workmen tucked into the walls and crossbeams of the mall. He watched two of them lowering a bucket on a pulley. "So what's this all about?" he asked. "You're not planning to picket the mall, are you?"
"It's about time you asked."
Nate eyed his sister impatiently.
"We're not going to picket the mall," she said.
"Thank goodness for small favors."
"We're going to burn it down."
Nate nearly stepped backward over the precipice. He sized up the diminutive sprite-like woman who was now standing up on the tree stump: she wasn't joking.
"It's not like anybody gets hurt," she said quickly. "Just a bunch of big-time developers, and they're even covered by insurance. It's been like a war down here. You have to understand that. Everybody talks about their rights to do what they want with their property, but nobody ever talks about our rights to enjoy pelicans and mangroves and a walk in the woods on a summer afternoon." Katie held her fists locked tightly at her sides. "They've been sprawling for years. Now we're fighting back."
There weren't enough words in the English language for Nate's answer. He stared at his sister as though she'd walked off the moon.
"We've already taken out a couple of new houses down by Pelican Bay. And we tried to wipe out the billboards on the coastal highway—straight out of Edward Abbey—but it turns out the public works department coats them with flame retardant . . . Say something, already. Tell me you think what we're doing is okay."
Nate wanted to tell her that he didn't think what they were doing was at all okay. He thought it was criminal, that people did get hurt. What about the firemen who had to put out the blaze? And the small businesspeople, probably immigrants, who'd been planning to open stores in the mall? And the other local businesses that would have to shell out additional security? In seconds, he'd prepared an entire policy analysis against the project. But hearing his sister use the words took out to mean arson, seeing the ferocity in her onyx eyes, all he said was, "This is absolutely nuts."
Katie smiled. "Maybe. But doable. And we were hoping you would help us with some of the publicity. Claiming responsibility and all that. If you could write one or two letters, it might make all the difference."
Nate ignored the suggestion. "And after the mall?" he asked. "What's next? Where does this end?"
"It doesn't end. Not until we've taken out every last resort on the Gulf."
Nate's throat went dry; a breeze ruffled the palmettos.
"Don't look so puritanical," said Katie. "What we're doing is a hell of a lot more productive than spying on people's backyards. Besides, I thought you said you weren't looking for a woman."
"Looking?" asked Nate. He'd forgotten all about the sunbather. "Oh, I'm not."
"You could have fooled me," said Katie. "Anyway, we'd better get you home and into a shower pretty quick. And don't say I didn't warn you."
Nate rubbed his eyes; he looked at his sister suspiciously.
"You see all those vines along the fence," said Katie. "That's poison oak."
NATE SPENT the greater part of the next two weeks in bed. His eye'd swelled shut. Blisters rose on his neck and face, then on his shins and the backs of his wrists. Breathing made him itch. Thinking made him itch. The rash crept over his body like a billion predatory insects. He popped Benadryl like vitamins, practically bathed in calamine lotion. The second night Katie drove him in the hospital in Gulf Coast City, to an emergency room where all of the other patients were black. She waited with him for nearly two hours until a house-officer with a broken arm wrote him a prescription for Prednisone. And then more rest. Nate hadn't been bed-sick since he'd been laid low by scarlet fever in the fourth grade. He tried to drift into delirium, but mostly he remained alert. He grew irritable and abusive.
Eve attended to him. He became aware of her body in pieces: a soft hand dabbing his torso with a cold washcloth, wisps of long hair tickling his face when she fluffed the pillows, clothed breasts pushing against his bare chest as she draped a compress over his forehead. She smelled pungently of toddler: a blend of formula and baby wipes and fresh diapers. Eve changed the bandages on his arms, on his ankles, around his groin. Sometimes she sang to herself while she worked. Sweet, sad songs. "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." "Scarborough Fair". When the itching flared up, he called her all sorts of obscene names—words he didn't even realize were in his vocabulary—but she continued her ministrations in silence. She even allowed the child to stay in the rooms during his bursts of profanity. Yet once when the girl started chanting ("Ee-vie has a boyfriend! Ee-vie has a boyfriend!"), he made the mistake of directing a vile remark toward the kid. Eve slapped him hard across the bandaged face. She didn't return for what felt like days, though rationally Nate knew it was only a couple of hours.
Katie checked in on him periodically. In her roundabout way, she apologized for not warning him about the poison oak. The man called Razor Blade also poked his head into the room at least twice to pitch his home-grown remedies: a paste made from baking soda, a dilute solution of Clorox bleach. But it was Eve who fed Nate his meals and emptied his bedpan and adjusted the oscillating fan to meet his whims. Although they seldom spoke (she was a quiet woman by nature, during his lucid moments he felt sheepish about his vulgar outbursts), at some point she started to read aloud at his bedside. The story didn't appear to have a beginning or an ending, just a vaguely familiar middle that kept wrapping itself in circles between Nate's ears. Something about a doctor, a honeymoon in Italy. It caught him completely off-guard when he realized the novel was Middlemarch. He had pegged her for the soft-brained, good-natured type.
Nate took a new interest this woman who regularly swabbed alcohol on his penis, this woman whose physical appearance he hardly remembered. He also wondered about the child. The girl must have a father. Turncoat? Wingo? The voice called Razor Blade? He wanted to ask, but he didn't. Knowing that his nurse had been loved by another man upset Nate; it was like buying a car and discovering a candy wrapper or a cigarette butt that belonged to the previous owner. One evening, after she'd finished Middlemarch and started Madame Bovary, Nate attempted to break through her reserve. "Why are you doing this?" he asked.
"I have a thing for stories about doctors," she said.
Nate liked this answer. "Why?" he asked.
"I wanted to be a one once," said Eve. "A doctor."
She spoke as though the best years of her life had already been squandered.
"But?" prodded Nate.
"I never graduated from high school," said Eve. Like almost everything else she said, it both was and wasn't an answer.
The next evening Nate's blisters started to ooze. He tried again.
"Why are you taking care of me like this?"
She didn't answer at once. "Katie says you're responsible," she said.
Nate chuckled. "Compared to Katie, maybe."
"Are you really responsible?" Her voice was earnest. "I'm asking seriously."
"I guess so," said Nate.
Eve undressed the gauze around his wrist
"Emerald needs someone responsible," she said.
Nate knew he needed to say something here, that not saying something was tantamount to taking on a strange man's child. He couldn't think of the right response. When he finally figured out what he wanted to say—some nonsense about how he didn't plan to stay in Florida—he heard her footsteps leaving the room.
The misunderstanding kept Nate awake most of the night; he returned to the subject before breakfast the following morning. "About what you said last night," he said.
"I can't tell you how exciting it is to have a journalist around the house," said Eve. "Someone who has actually read more than Playboy and the Cormorant County Democrat. I was thinking last night that this is turning out just like the D. H. Lawrence story."
"You know the one," she said. "About the doctor who falls in love with his patient."
Nate didn't know the one. He had worked on the city desk at The Statesman.
"The Horse Dealer's Daughter," said Eve. "That's the one."
"About us . . ." said Nate. "That is, about you and me . . ."
"Of course we'll wait until those bandages come off your eyes," said Eve. "You'll have a chance to get a better look at me before you decide."
Eve's candor temporarily disarmed Nate. He didn't understand how such a straight-shooting woman could get involved with his sister and her pack of arsonists. Nor had he figured out what he was going to do about Katie's plot. He knew he couldn't turn her in: burning down unoccupied malls might be wrong, but it wasn't like blowing-up strangers. And at the same time, he couldn't go along with her madness. He remembered how once, as a kid, he'd spray-painted the flowers in his neighbors' garden—and how he kept hoping that some cataclysmic event, an earthquake or civil defense evacuation, might prevent his parents from finding out. Now he found himself imagining all sorts of impossible scenarios that would keep Katie from torching the mall.
One night it poured. First Nate heard the torrents beating across the slate roof like cavalry, then he felt the water seeping into the bedding around his feet. The men named Razor Blade and Stogie picked up his bed and placed it against the far wall. The next day, through this wall, he overheard Katie suggest that he drive the get-a-way car. Turncoat had followed through on his threat. The others, now one conspirator short, rapidly promoted Nate from after-the-fact accomplice to principal felon. At first this outraged Nate. But as he overheard them all scheming, day after day, hour after hour, Eve an active participant in their conclave, the mission acquired a measure of normality in the way that anything discussed ad nauseam becomes mundane. After a while, Katie's vision no longer struck Nate as viscerally repugnant, but merely quixotic.
And then the bandages came off his eyes. Eve soaked the skin around the adhesive in warm water, gently inching the tape off his eyebrows. "Wait a second," she said. "I'll turn out the lights."
Nate blinked. The dim room slowly came into focus: shabby bureau, floor lamp, end tables on either side of the bed. There was a socket of wires that had once held a chandelier and there were also several strips of defiled fly-paper. When his eyes were eclipsed, Nate had imagined the room to be eclectic and cozy like a den in a hunting lodge. Now he discovered that his quarters were drab and derelict: they reminded him of the motel rooms that prostitutes in movies rent by the hour.
"Well?" asked Eve. "What do you think?"
He turned toward her. The woman's chin was small and angular. An ugly birthmark marred the cheek beneath her left ear. Otherwise, she wasn't unattractive. The truth was that she could pass as pretty because of her age, but at thirty or thirty-five she would just be okay-looking.
The smile faded from Eve's face. "You're disappointed, aren't you?"
"Stunning," answered Nate. "Absolutely stunning."
KATIE LAID her plan before Nate on his first day out of bed. It proved to be far more sophisticated than he'd expected. The man named Stogie worked part-time for the county's department of public works, painting baseball diamonds with diesel fuel to keep grass from growing on the infields, and he'd managed to carry off five casks of surplus fuel. Cleopatra had been scouting the mall each night for two months: she knew which security guard snuck off to have sex with her boyfriend in the back of a restored Pontiac convertible, and exactly what evenings the woman was on duty. They planned to call in false alarms across town to distract the police and fire authorities; Wingo had compiled a list of the best sites from a complex algorithm involving precinct size and location. Nate appeared to be the only independent variable.
"And we're going through with it either way," said Katie, sitting in her ringleader's perch on the edge of the diving board, the others lounging on the furniture at the bottom of the swimming pool. "Of course, with another body, we're that much less likely to get caught."
She pushed all the right buttons. Nate thought about what their parents might have said, his mother learning ceramics at a home for the precociously senile, his father living who-knows-where on the Spanish coast with his second wife, his younger wife, but the knowledge that his parents would have had nothing to say made Nate feel that much more responsible. Katie was his baby sister, after all. The conspirators stared up at him from the swimming pool. Wingo chewed a tooth pick; a wad of tobacco shuffled behind Stogie's sloe-colored cheeks. For two straight weeks, Nate had puzzled over the complexities of a world that offered miracle drugs for his blisters and converted swampland into shopping plazas, but the only clear thought he had now was that the Junonia Mall without its roof resembled a garden maze viewed from above. Wielding power always left Nate in a muddle.
The diving board bounced under Katie's weight; Eve braided Emerald's hair.
"I'll think it over," said Nate. "Why don't you assume I'm not coming for planning purposes and then I'll let you know when you're ready?"
"We are ready," said Katie. "Tonight's our night."
"Tonight?" echoed Nate.
"Fat Wanda's on-duty," said Cleopatra. "It's a new moon."
Nate didn't care for Cleopatra; she had a shrill voice and a double-chin.
"All you have to do is drive the car," said Katie. "It will be perfectly safe. Besides, you kind of owe it to us after driving off Turncoat."
Nate skimmed a pebble along the concrete beside the pool. "I can't believe I'm even discussing this," he said. "I should have turned you all in ages ago. For your own good." He rested his scabrous face in his palms. "Okay, sure," he said. "Why the hell not?"
EVE HADN'T pressured Nate at all about his decision. He'd actually solicited her opinion, but all she'd said was that she wouldn't try to influence a man she wasn't sleeping with—and she wouldn't sleep with him until after they'd burned down the mall. Arson made her nervous, she explained; if she tried to have sex while she was nervous, she threw up. While this wasn't the most romantic of thoughts—Nate doubted that Bonnie and Clyde had been so squeamish—it added to the thrill of the adventure; if they didn't get thrown into jail or set themselves on fire by mistake, Nate could anticipate a long erotic morning. His arousal intensified on the way out to Gulf Coast City.
Katie drove the white van. Nate and Eve followed in the station wagon. Emerald sat strapped into a car seat in back, tucked under a baby pink blanket; except for the coil of rope and the box of industrial matches and the crowbar, there was nothing to distinguish them from any other happy young family.
"I'm really glad you're coming," said Eve. "For Emerald's sake."
Nate glanced at the child in the rearview mirror; he wondered if they shouldn't have hired a babysitter. "Were you surprised?" he asked.
"Not at all," answered Eve. "Katie promised you'd come."
"She said you always follow the path of least resistance."
Nate felt bare and defensive. "Did she say anything else?"
"Nope. Just that you're responsible and complacent."
Nate scooped a handful of sunflower seeds out of a bag. "Did she also tell you that she's thoughtless and manipulative and that she'd poison her own grandmother in the name of the revolution?"
Eve didn't answer; Nate realized that she admired his sister.
"I didn't mean that," he said. "I love Katie. I'm just nervous."
"Me too," said Eve.
Nate spit his sunflower shells into a styrofoam cup. "If you don't mind my asking," he said, "why in the world is a sweet girl like you with such a beautiful kid driving halfway across the county at two in the morning to burn down a shopping mall?"
"I'm not one hundred percent sure," said Eve. "We thought about hitting the new boardwalk in Pelican Bay instead, but the security was too tight."
They crossed over the causeway and pulled onto Nautilus Boulevard. The traffic lights cast an eerie green glow over the deserted asphalt. Once they passed a teenage couple necking at a bus stop, but otherwise the road was free of automobiles and pedestrians.
"I worry about Emerald," said Eve spontaneously. "I keep telling myself that I'm doing all this for her, that I want her to know the same Florida I grew up with, but sometimes I wonder if she wouldn't be better off living in a trailer, or in one of those new apartments in Gulf Coast Beach, and going to church on Sundays. I wish I knew what I was supposed to do."
"You think too much."
Eve smiled. "That's why I didn't graduate from high school."
Nate caressed her shoulder; he thought momentarily about abandoning the whole expedition, about speeding home and going at it like rabbits.
"Maybe I should just sell the place," said Eve thoughtfully.
"Sell what place?" he asked.
Nate stole a glance at this strange woman. "You own the co-op?"
"Katie didn't tell you, did she?" asked Eve. "Yeah. I own it. And I charge rent too. That's how I can afford to take care of Emerald. Katie was supposed to tell you that you owe me fifty dollars per week."
"Even if I sleep with you."
"Especially," she said, "if you sleep with me."
Something small and feral darted across the road; Nate swerved.
"My daddy owned the inn," said Eve. "His daddy was lieutenant governor."
"My father was an actuary," said Nate. "His father was an egg candler."
The Gulf Coast City skyline appeared over the rise. Katie waved through her window and the van pulled off in the direction of the Coconut Mountain preserve. Razor Blade and Stogie had already stashed the diesel canisters at the overlook and Wingo had rigged a system of pulleys that would enable them to lower the casks down the embankment in a matter of minutes. But getting back up the cliff wasn't possible. That was where the station wagon came in. When Nate reached the entrance to the mall, he killed his headlights and pulled into the parking lot.
The mall rose dark and angular against the orange glow of the city. A red, white, and blue sign announced a GRAND OPENING at the main entrance. From the level of the street it was impossible to tell whether the structure had a roof.
Eve unstrapped Emerald. She slid the car seat into the back of the vehicle.
"We'll all fit, Emerald, won't we?" she said. "If I hold you on my lap."
Earlier, Razor Blade had argued that there wasn't room for seven adults and a kid.
It was Eve's job to sneak around the side of the mall to spy on Fat Wanda and her boyfriend going at it in the Pontiac. She wore a lifeguard's whistle around her neck with which to sound an alarm. "Give me a kiss, my little darling," she said, pecking the drowsy child on the nose.
"And me?" asked Nate.
"Later," Eve said.
She handed him the child and darted toward the side of the building.
Nate waited. That was his assignment. It was like standing blindfolded while a firing squad decided whether to shoot. From where he'd been positioned, Nate had no way to measure the progress of the team inside the mall. If the building were already ablaze, he might not even know it. The glass and adobe facade didn't yield any clues.
He tried to imagine the progress of the operation: the climb along the chainlink fence, the turning of winches, the careful lowering of kegs. This might take a while. He peered across the street into the darkened windows of the Yogurt Igloo and Manny's Kosher Pizza. All was quiet. The image drifted across his mind of the naked woman with the long auburn hair. Had she called the police after she'd caught him spying? Was there any chance she'd be watching tonight from an upstairs window? Nate thought both possibilities unlikely. He ambled slowly toward the entrance to the mall.
The heavy wooden doors were unlocked. Nate ducked under the GRAND OPENING sign and stepped cautiously onto the concourse. Inside the mall, it wasn't as frightening. Just dusty and hot and silent; there was no breeze. Nate couldn't see much through the darkness. Some plywood. A stack of metal pipes. The distant gray contours of the skylight. It pleased him to know that the building now had a roof, although the success of his mission entailed its demolition. He wondered if they gave one more credit in environmental circles for burning down a completed mall than an unfinished one—and he grinned. Then he caught sight of a soft orange glow. A sharp whistle followed.
Nate ran. He reached the station wagon as the first conspirators came charging through the front entrance to the mall, shredding the GRAND OPENING banner in their wake. He turned the ignition and counted bodies as they entered the vehicle. Razor Blade. Stogie. Cleopatra. He heard shouting, sirens rising. Flames lapped from the roof of the mall. Wingo dove through the passenger door; Katie tumbled onto his lap. "Where's Eve?" murmured Nate. A mantra. "Where's Eve? Where's Eve?" Nobody spoke. "Where's Eve? Oh, Jesus! Where's Eve?" Someone muttered an obscenity. The thick gray smoke billowed toward them across the parking lot. And then a human form turned the corner of the burning building, sprinting, and she was in the car.
"Thank God!" cried Nate.
"Drive!" shouted Stogie.
"My baby!" screamed Eve. "Where's my baby?!"
Nate looked around the car. He said, without thinking, "I don't know."
Eve's first blow took him by surprise and she nearly tore off his ear.
"Drive, goddammit!" ordered Stogie.
Nate couldn't drive while warding off Eve's nails; he went after the child.
It took him several seconds to gain his bearings. The sirens were growing louder. The fire sounded like shattering glassware. He shielded his eyes from the heat. It turned out that the child was precisely where he'd left her, sitting on the top of the station wagon with her thumb in her mouth. He clutched her as gently as he could and shoved her into the car.
"Now drive you mother-fucking son-of-a-bitch!" shouted Stogie. "Drive!"
And he DROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE!
MORE THAN seventy-five firefighters responded to the conflagration at the mall; they came from as far away as Ft. Coleman and Okaleechee. The conspirators stayed awake until daybreak, watching the live news coverage on a vintage Setchell Carlson television that Wingo had salvaged from the curbside outside an RV park. The atmosphere was tense, yet festive—like watching baseball playoffs or election returns. Razor Blade passed around a pitcher of home-brewed beer that had the consistency of cooking oil and the flavor of copper coins. Even Nate found himself yielding to the mood. The yellow-suited firemen wrestling with their hoses in the smoky darkness reminded him of the writhing human dragons at the Chinese New Year celebration that Katie had dragged him to in New York. He couldn't deny that when the television cameras panned across the flaming masonry, the scene imbued him with a sense of accomplishment, a feeling that he had but to lift a finger and the world would come running.
Stogie spit a wad of tobacco into the dust. "I wonder what Turncoat's up to now."
"He dropped by the preserve the other day," said Razor Blade. "He tried to hit me up for cash. Get this. He's trying to raise enough money to renew his broker's license."
Katie laughed. "I guess we can't all be true radicals like Nate here, can we?" She slid onto the couch beside her brother and slid her arm around his shoulder. "What do you say, Nate? Onward to Disneyworld?"
"I'll have to think that one over," said Nate, grinning. "Wait. You are joking, aren't you?"
Razor Blade raised his cup of beer. "Onward to Disneyworld!"
The others joined his toast. "Onward to Disneyworld!"
"That's my curtain call," said Nate. He stood up. "Say, what happened to Eve?"
She'd gone to put the child to sleep, but that must have been hours before.
Nate tried the door of her bedroom; it was locked. She'd actually hooked around the knob one of the plastic do-not-disturb signs left over from the inn. Nate found this irksome, disappointing, but he knew to hold his temper. Nothing romantic came from screaming or banging. He tried to put the situation in the best possible light: maybe she was nervous; maybe she was covered in her own vomit. Yet deep down Nate suspected—wavering between feelings of guilt and indignation—that Eve was still upset about his misplacing the child. Since he had already transferred his clothes into her bedroom, he was forced to sleep naked in what had recently been his sickbed.
He woke with the sun in his face. It was well past noon. Eve was scrubbing dishes over the kitchen sink, crooning "The Highwayman" while she labored. Heavy-duty scouring gloves shielded her arms to the elbows. She appeared to have been awake for hours. Nate watched her working from the doorway; her voice reminded him of blackstrap molasses. She sensed his presence, and said, "Aren't you a ten o'clock scholar?"
"Yeah," said Nate. "It was a long night."
"I've been up since eight," said Eve. "There's some porridge on the stove."
Nate had anticipated anger. Or possibly cold civility. Tricia had always adopted a chilling and formal tone when they fought. The last thing he'd expected was friendliness, not sugary sweet sarcasm, but the genuine friendliness of interest and compassion that Eve offered him over lunch. Once or twice he thought he heard a mournful twinge in her voice—it left the impression of a wounded animal—but it wasn't until he tried to wrap his arm around her waist that he noticed the faint red puffiness around her eyes. She dislodged his arm, firmly, but continued speaking as though nothing were amiss. He tried again. Eve's hard look carried the force of an avalanche.
"I can't do that," she said. "Not now."
Katie sailed into the room on rollerblades. "Am I interrupting you two lovebirds?" she asked.
Neither Nate nor Eve answered. He tried to tuck his hands in his pockets, but the shorts he was wearing didn't have any.
"I guess I am interrupting," said Katie. She skated to the refrigerator; she ducked her head in quickly and returned with a jar of marmalade and a loaf of bread. "I'm afraid you'll have to hold off, though. I need Nate's help."
"Now's not a good time," said Nate.
"Oh, no," said Eve. "Go right ahead."
Katie spread marmalade on her bread with her finger. "It's time to put your journalism skills to the test, big brother. Some group in Oregon is already claiming responsibility."
Eve had returned to scrubbing dishes; her rump swayed while she washed.
"Okay, I'll try," said Nate. "But I'm not promising anything."
He worked on the letter for nearly three days, plugging away at the mechanical typewriter that Wingo had bought from the Western Union office in Pelican Bay. Nate had never taken responsibility for a fire before, and the task proved daunting. You didn't want to sound apologetic. Yet you also didn't exactly want to gloat. Even deciding on the letter's form was challenging: did you address the letter "To the Editor" or did that demean it to the level of a run-of-the-mill op-ed piece? Twice he thought he'd written a satisfactory justification for their actions. Katie vetoed both. She didn't want anything reductive or colloquial, anything that might suggest that the deed wasn't grounded in a complex liberation ideology. But Nate possessed the sort of mind that can only focus on one large question at a time—and he couldn't fully absorb Katie's political discourse while facing romantic exile.
Eve didn't appear to be upset at him. Yet every time he attempted to infuse intimacy into their relationship, she pulled away. He tried to follow her into her bedroom to discuss the matter in private, but now she locked the door whenever she was alone. On the third night, after many frustrating hours before the typewriter, he resorted to banging.
She answered the door in a bathrobe and slippers shaped like whales.
Nate felt incredibly foolish. "I was hoping we could talk about things," he said.
Eve nodded. She opened the door halfway, and he slid past her. He noticed the child's delicate head and wild curly mane projecting from under the covers of the double bed. He considered sitting on the foot of the bed, but decided on a hard-backed chair by the window.
"So?" said Eve. "What's up?"
Nate tried to clear his head. "That's what I want to know," he said. "I thought things were going somewhere between us. You're not still nervous, are you?"
"I just can't," said Eve. "I'm sorry."
"You mean you won't."
"No, I can't," said Eve. "Not after what happened the other night. You only have to think about yourself, but I have Emerald to think about."
"Jesus, I'm sorry. You don't know how sorry I am."
Nate leaned her back against the door; she closed her eyes momentarily. "I'm sorry, too. Don't you think I wished things had gone differently? I do like you, really I do."
"But I'm not responsible."
Eve didn't say anything.
"I'm not normally like that," said Nate. "It was the situation. It's not every day I have to drive a get-away car."
"Please," said Eve. "Don't make this difficult. If I were looking for a great guy, you'd be first on my list. But I'm looking for a great father."
Nate felt his anger rising. "Maybe you should go find the real father," he said venomously. "Who the hell is it, anyway? Turncoat? It's Turncoat, isn't it?"
Eve sunk onto the bed. She stared to sob. "Emerald's all I have left."
Nate didn't relent. "Why don't you go cry to Turncoat?"
"She's not Turncoat's," said Eve. "She's my brother's."
Nate winced. "You don't mean—?"
"Oh, no!" said Eve, horrified. "Not like that." She wiped her face on her sleeve. "Sometimes my brother used to get hammered and slap around his wife. She got beat up pretty bad a couple of times, but she kept going back. Even after I told her she could stay with me. And then one day Ozzie came home drunk and she shot him in the groin."
Eve sniffled. Nate walked over and handed her his handkerchief.
"Thank you," she said, wiping her face. "Sheila stood over him with the gun until he bled to death. She wouldn't even let him call an ambulance. Now she's serving life at Broward."
"And you ended up with their kid."
"Sheila's parents are dead. No one else wanted her."
Nate was looking down at Eve; he could see the part in her hair.
"Why don't we move somewhere else?" he said impulsively. "I'll get a job on the mainland and then we can move into one of those new apartments in Gulf Coast Beach. All three of us, I mean. Like an ordinary family."
Eve scrutinized him. "You don't mean that," she said.
Nate didn't know what he meant, so he kept on speaking. "I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it," he insisted. "I'll go tell Katie to write her own goddamn letters, and then no more burning down malls."
"No more burning down malls," she echoed thoughtfully.
The blinds had been left open and a moonbeam caught the curve of her hair.
"You'd better kiss me," she said, "while I still believe you."
Nate leaned in to kiss Eve. Just then the child stirred.
"Don't kiss him, Evie," said the girl. "Kiss me."
THE NEXT day Nate talked his way into a job at the Cormorant County Democrat. They had an opening, and the city desk editor, a full-blood Seminole Indian pushing sixty, wanted to put someone full-time on the eco-terrorism beat. At first this assignment made Nate nervous: it seemed like a conflict of interest, a breach of his journalistic integrity. But gradually he grew to appreciate the perks of the job, the opportunity to keep abreast of the arson investigation and to get to know the detectives working the case. Most of the cops were decent guys, family men. Nate took to meeting a handful of them for lunch at the Grouper Grill. He wondered, if they hadn't been cops and if he'd confessed to them his role in the fire, whether they'd understand. But the tone of Katie's letter to the paper, which warned of more attacks, and of the mayor's press conference, at which he offered a $25,000 reward for the perpetrators, raised the stakes so high that mutual regard didn't appear possible.
Nate found himself increasingly attuned to sprawl. Like a man who learns an obscure language and then discovers many speakers among his own acquaintances, he came to recognize many familiar landmarks as blights on the countryside. Where he'd once prided himself on his ability to see both sides of any question, to live and let live, the fire at the mall had knocked him head-first off the moral fence, and now even an advertisement for a new shopping center or the sight of an elderly couple in golfing attire was enough to irk him. He hid these feelings from his colleagues at the Democrat. They were a ragtag pack of would-have-beens and still-might-bes for whom small-time journalism offered a last-ditch chance at respectability. The Seminole was a virtuoso on the harmonica and had once, as a nineteen-year-old-kid living out of his car, opened a concert for the Kingston Trio in Indianapolis. Sabo, the photography editor, spent his spare time breeding bichon frises for show; he'd won best of breed at the Florida Kennel Club three years running. One of the sportswriters, Denby, was perennially planning to start an auto body shop for luxury European imports. To all of these men, the mall fire was just another hassle that meant more work and less time for their outside interests.
Nate's predecessor at the Democrat, O'Rourke, had been something of a local character. He'd stood six-foot-eleven and had left the paper after nine years to join a Trappist monastery in Georgia. All that he'd left behind was a faded note taped to his computer monitor that read: "A man whose only tool is a hammer will view all problems as nails." But this O'Rourke had been a regular, along with Sabo and Denby and the Seminole, at the Wednesday happy hour at the Bell and Falcon, the bar on the ground floor of the Palace Arms Hotel, and during Nate's second week on the job, shortly after he and Eve had settled into their efficiency apartment in Gulf Coast Gardens, he was invited to join their motley circle. "They only have American beer on tap," warned the Seminole. "Otherwise it's not that bad."
The bar itself was a bit too sterile for Nate's tastes. The plastic ashtrays were a bit too clean, the potted palms more suited for the lobby of a hospital. The lounge's few occupants, mostly middle-aged women lathered in excessive make-up, looked like air passengers on layover. But it was good to get out, to be surrounded by people who liked you. Watching Eve take care of the kid was immensely stressful for Nate—he couldn't even enjoy a meal without her cutting the child's food into bit-sized portions—and this was the first night in two weeks that he wasn't actively conscious of keeping his temper in check. When the waitress came for their order, he asked for a fried catfish burger and two pints of Coors Light.
"Double-fisting, are you?" asked Sabo.
"Stockpiling for winter," answered Nate.
The Seminole lit a cigar. "You really are a New Yorker," he said, letting the smoke curl adulterously into the sanitized air. "We don't get winter down here."
"You're not married to Glenda," said Denby. "Believe me, I get winter."
Everybody laughed. Nate recognized the bartender. The woman was prettier with her clothes on and her stubby legs hidden behind the bar. Her smooth auburn hair stopped at a guillotine edge above her shoulders and a perfect dimple sat in the middle of her chin. Nate tried to appear inconspicuous, but he fought a losing battle not to glance in her direction.
"Go talk to her," said Sabo.
Nate turned to the photography editor. "What?"
"You're practically staring," said Sabo. "You've got nothing to lose."
"I thought I knew her," said Nate.
"Bullshit," said Denby, slapping him on the back. "You're single, right? You might as well step up to the plate and strike out for the rest of us."
Nate didn't say he wasn't single. In the past he'd never been much of a ladies' man, certainly not the kind of guy who could walk up to a beautiful woman in a bar, but that was before he'd burnt down the Junonia. Between the pressure from his new friends and the genuine desire to apologize for the episode in her backyard, to clear his name, Nate felt cornered. He polished off his second pint and clenched his fists. "Wish me luck," he said.
The only customer at the bar was an ovine, washed-out lady in her fifties who looked as though she was waiting for someone. The auburn-haired bartender was watching television: a quiz show without the volume. Nate sat down on a barstool.
The bartender looked at him expectantly.
"A Coors Light," said Nate.
The woman frowned. "You have to order at the table."
Nate glanced down the bar at the ovine woman, nursing a drink with two olives.
The bartender followed his gaze. "Only waitress service at the tables," she explained.
"What I actually wanted to do," said Nate, "was to apologize for the other day."
She looked at him blankly. It struck Nate that she didn't recognize him.
"Oh, it's you. I knew you weren't the type to stiff me on a tab. Say, you look thinner. What did you walk out for?"
Better a drink cheat than a peeping tom, thought Nate. He played along. "I had a gallstone," he lied. "Emergency surgery. What was my total?"
"Sixty-one thirty-five," said the bartender. "That's including the Coors Light."
Nate counted out the money. He felt the moment slipping past him. "Would it be hopeless to ask if I could buy you dinner or something to make it up to you?"
The bartender stood over the register with her back to him. A commercial for detergent appeared on the television screen, a cavalcade of dancing clothing.
"I have a guy I see weekends," said the bartender. "And another guy I see Mondays and Tuesdays. But I'm free Wednesdays and Thursdays after nine."
"You're kidding, right?"
She looked at him sharply. "About what?"
"Nothing," said Nate. "I'll wait until nine."
It turned out that the bartender's name was Angela. She was twenty-eight, lived in the sub-development with her retired parents, and designed jewelry from painted scallops for several of the local boutiques. Tending bar helped make ends meet. Angela knew an exorbitant amount about women's fashion and seashells, but hadn't a clue when it came to current events. Nate told her that he worked for the County Democrat. She answered that she didn't register to vote. If she did, she explained, she might get called for jury duty. The truth of the matter was that Angela had never heard of the Junonia Mall and that she had absolutely no sense of humor, no understanding of irony, and that about the only thing she had going for her was a flawless face. And not having any kids. If Nate had brought her home to Eve, he suspected his girlfriend might compare the bartender to Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage. But instead he took her out again on Thursday, then twice the following week. On their fifth night they ran out of things to say to each other and so they ended up screwing in a white room at the Value Inn, the indulgent sex that stems from proximity and exposed, available organs.
Eve sat waiting for him in at the counter in their kitchenette. She was holding a copy of Doctor Zhivago, but she wasn't reading. Her eyes hung bloodshot in crater-like sockets.
"Hey," said Nate. He kicked off his loafers. "Sorry I'm so late."
"So am I," said Eve. ""I thought you were responsible."
"There was this press conference down in Okaleechee."
Nate tried to kiss her hair; she wrenched her body away.
"Do you think that I'm stupid?" she demanded.
Nate went to the cabinet and poured himself a scotch.
"You've been down at the co-op," Eve continued. "I can see it in your eyes. They're hatching another one of their cock-eyed schemes and you're going to get yourself arrested along with them."
Nate paused to take stock. "So I've been down to the co-op," he said. "I was just visiting my sister. What's the problem with that?"
"You weren't just visiting. You only slouch like that when you're feeling guilty."
Nate squared his shoulders and rose to the balls of his feet. "Well it wasn't so long ago that you were singing a different tune," he said. "May I remind you that I'm not the only one who was involved in the last cock-eyed scheme down at the co-op."
Eve put her arm on his shoulder. "I know," she said. "But it was stupid of me. And it was unfair to Emerald. So let's just put it all behind us." Again he heard the wounded animal sound in her voice. "You shouldn't take pleasure in destroying things. That's wrong."
"It's not about pleasure," said Nate. "I'll think about it, okay."
But the next day after work he broke his date with Angela and drove out to Cormorant Island. Katie greeted him with a scowl. She sniffed like a bull ready to charge.
"Let's not fight," he said. "I want back in."
THE CORMORANT Island Artists' Cooperative voted four to zero to readmit Nate as a non-resident member in good standing. Katie, after pointing out that they'd lost two members on his account, abstained. Nate's sister had aged rapidly in the weeks since the attack. When she climbed the ladder of the diving board to preside over the co-op conclave, he noticed a tuft of grey hairs behind her left ear. This made him want to hug her, to apologize for the times he'd mistreated her as a kid. But the middle-aged Katie was all business.
"So here's the deal, big brother" she said. "We decided that if we keep at this small potato stuff, eventually we're going to get caught."
Nate let his feet dangle over the side of the empty pool. The Junonia fire had been the most tangible accomplishment of his adulthood; her resented her calling it small.
"If we get caught," said Razor Blade, "we get caught."
"We may get caught anyway," said Katie, "but there's no need to push our luck. So we're going to go for a big hit and then we're going to back off for a while."
The sun caught the corner of the KYSO tower. Cleopatra slid onto Stogie's lap, and he spit a wad of phlegm onto the floor of the pool. "We're going for broke," said Stogie. "Fucking bankrupt."
Nate looked from face to face to face. "Well?" he asked.
Katie rocked the diving board. "The new sports complex in Ft. Coleman," said Katie.
"You mean the hockey arena?" Nate asked.
"And the domed lake," said Katie. "And the indoor golf course."
Florida Power & Light was building the rink in an effort to lure an NHL team to Cormorant County; admission fees at the air-conditioned golf course and the climatized lake were to defray the costs of the project. Razor Blade climbed the diving board and settled on his knees behind Katie, where he began to massage her shoulders; it struck Nate for the first time that the two of them were romantically involved.
"Are you crazy?" asked Nate. "Do you know how much diesel fuel it's going to take for you to burn down a sports arena?"
"Too much," said Katie. "That's why we're not going to burn it down at all." She paused and her eyes gleamed like black pearls. "We're going to blow it up instead."
"That's right," said Razor Blade. "Kaboom."
The co-op's plan focused on three vans full of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. They'd already picked up the fertilizer at gardening centers across the region, bag by bag, until they'd stockpiled nearly two hundred fifty-pound sacks. These packed the punch of four tons of dynamite. Meanwhile Cleopatra found temp work as a receptionist for the company that ran security for the developer. The wife of the regular night watchman was eight months pregnant; on the evening of the planned attack, they intended to phone him and tell him that she'd gone into premature labor. Luring him off was Katie's idea. She insisted that if they didn't do their utmost to prevent casualties, they would lose the moral high ground. Both Stogie and Razor Blade were all for letting the night watchman take his chances.
Nate volunteered to drive one of the vans. It was an aquamarine Plymouth that Wingo had salvaged from an abandoned car lot. Both side mirrors were missing. The stench of mildew pervaded the interior. Since Nate rented only one parking space at Gulf Coast Gardens, he had to sell off his used Chevy after owning it for less than a month. But he derived a strange pleasure from driving a vehicle loaded with explosives. Each time some poor sap cut him off in traffic, he thought about how easily he could set off one of the blasting caps and blow them both to smithereens. Yet he resisted. And the strength of his arsenal increased. He drove out to the commune every day after work, where he and Wingo mixed more fertilizer with diesel fuel and loaded vats of the mayonnaise-like product into the back on the van.
Getting through the workday was torture. The Seminole had reconsidered the need for a full-time reporter on the eco-terrorism beat as interest in the Junonia fire dwindled. Instead, Nate found himself covering municipal government. Zoning board meetings. Bond issues. Proposals for a sewage treatment facility. The only interesting story Nate managed to hack out was a profile of the one-armed village clerk in Pelican Beach who wrestled alligators on weekends, but at the last minute the subject demanded they kill the story; his wife didn't want the publicity. Life on the homefront, of course, wasn't any better. Although Eve's tender affection didn't diminish, he dreaded coming back to the apartment. His visits to the commune posed an unspoken barrier between them. While Eve talked to him about Sinclair Lewis and Arrowsmith, or about her grandfather's avocado farm, or about the need to buy new shoes for the kid, he thought of the sports complex with the state flag rising from its retractable dome. He made two trial runs up to Ft. Coleman. Once with Wingo. Once with Katie. When the day finally arrived to put their preparations to the test, he left the office with the heart of freed convict.
Nate found the apartment deserted. He quickly changed into jeans and a T-shirt. He was searching for a pen with which to leave Eve a note, when she pushed an empty stroller through the open front door. The kid followed on foot.
"Hey, darling," said Nate. "I'm on my way out."
Eve walked past him and sat down by the window. The apartment afforded a view of the landscaped boardwalk along the waterfront.
"You okay?" asked Nate. "You look flushed."
Eve lifted the girl onto her lap; she combed the child's hair.
"We walked down to the beach," she said softly. "I ran into John Francis."
Nate racked his brain. "John Francis?"
"Turncoat," explained Eve.
"Okay," said Nate. He glanced at his watch.
"He wanted to borrow five hundred dollars," said Eve. "He sounded drunk."
"I take it you didn't give it to him."
"I told him we couldn't afford it," said Eve. Her voice grew louder. "He said that if we could afford to spend two thousand dollars on fertilizer, surely we were doing well enough to help out an old friend."
Nate's cheeks felt hot. "He must have been pretty drunk."
"You're going to blow something up," said Eve. "Aren't you?"
"I have to go," said Nate. "We'll talk later."
"Don't shut me out like this," said Eve.
"Later," said Nate. "Please." He tossed his jacket over his elbow and added: "I promise we'll talk as soon as I get back. But I have to go out for a bit."
He stepped out into the corridor without looking back. She followed him down the passage and through the fire door into the stairwell without speaking. They stopped in the parking lot, on either side of the van's hood. Gulls were circling overhead. The child squirmed restlessly in her arms.
"I'm going with you," she said.
"At least leave the kid."
Eve's eyed widened in panic. "Don't make me choose," she said.
"Jesus Christ," muttered Nate. He unlocked the van.
They hit Friday night traffic on the way out to Cormorant Island. The line of cars waiting at the causeway toll extended up Nautilus Boulevard to the turnoff for the Yachting Hall of Fame. Nate peeked into the vehicles in the adjacent lane: they passed a vigorous couple in their sixties, a fat man in a fishing cap, four teenage girls jiggling to music. Nate didn't realized the drawbridge was open until he saw a schooner passing out the other side.
"What are we blowing up?" asked Eve.
Nate rolled up his window. "The sports complex in Ft. Coleman."
Eve pressed her hand over his. They crossed the bridge. Nate flicked on his headlights.
"Please don't do this," she said suddenly. "What's going to happen if we get caught? Who's going to take care of my baby?"
"We're not going to get caught," said Nate. He tried to retrieve a bag of sunflower seeds that had wedged its way between the seats, but his hand was too large. He added, "Please let me drop you and the kid off somewhere. Just in case."
"On the way home from the beach, I was all set to walk out," said Eve. She sounded as though she were speaking to herself, not to him. "But then I got home and I couldn't do it. I didn't want to be alone again."
"I love you," said Nate. "Really I do."
"I'm begging you to stop," pleaded Eve. "I'll do anything."
They pulled onto the dusty road that lead past the black village. The whitewashed chapel stood pale-gray and lonely in the waning dusk. Up the road Nate saw flashing lights. Then another squad car pulled in behind him, blocking his retreat. He stopped at the edge of the clearing, just close enough to see the officers milling about the commune.
"Oh my God," said Eve. "My baby, my baby."
Two burly cops were leading Wingo and Cleopatra toward a police car. They were handcuffed. Then Katie followed, cold and resolute. But when she passed a bearded man standing beside the deputy sheriff, she started to struggle and curse.
"You fucker," she shouted. "I'll kill you."
The man stepped back toward the mangroves. Turncoat.
An officer approached and shined a flashlight into the van. Nate scanned the undergrowth for a place to run; the swamp was thick and dark and uninviting. The officer lowered the light.
"Oh, Nate," said the cop. "How'd you find out about this?"
It was one of the detectives from Gulf Coast City.
"I was just driving through," answered Nate. "With the family."
The cop—Nate couldn't remember whether his name was Teddy or Tommy—raised the flashlight again and poked the beam around inside the vehicle. "You're for real," said the cop. "How do you like that? And Mabel's been saying I should fix you up with her sister." He snapped off the light. "Well, today's your lucky scoop. We just caught the nuts who burned down the Junonia."
Nate's hands were trembling. "You don't say," he said.
"Not on the record," said the cop.
Nate forced a smile. "Would it be all right if I dropped my wife and kid off somewhere and came back in a couple of minutes?"
"Sure thing," said the cop. "There's a cafe a half mile back."
The cop moved his car, and Nate made a U-turn. He hugged the right shoulder to pass a line of police cruisers and accelerated as soon as he hit the main road. His heart picked up speed with the vehicle. The image of his sister in handcuffs, his baby sister being led away like a common criminal, smoldered inside him like hot coals.
"What are we going to do?" asked Eve. "Where are we going to hide?"
Nate peeled onto Sand Dollar Boulevard; the out-bound traffic was light.
"I'm going to vomit," said Eve. "Where are we going?"
The child must have sensed the tension. "I want to stop," the girl said. Within seconds, she was sobbing and waving her tiny arms.
They crossed back over the causeway. "Please stop the car," begged Eve. "Oh my God," she cried suddenly. "You're not still thinking of Ft. Coleman? Be responsible. Nate? Are you okay, Nate? Speak to me!"
Nate breathed deep. "Listen up," he said. "Both of you. Especially you, kid. You want responsible, I'll show you responsible." He reached out to the girl's shoulder and steered her body with his arm; his grip was tender but firm. "You see that golf course," he said. "That used to be a cypress slough."
He offered the child the same tour Katie had offered him. Everything ugly reminded him of his sister. So did everything beautiful. By the time they reached the outskirts of Ft. Coleman, he was fighting back tears.