Afterwards, Nicholas wondered how he could have ever thought the little blonde with the tattoo on her tit could have been worth the risk she posed to his marriage, his self-respect, and – as it turned out – so much more. Yet still, there was that moment of insanity when he actually debated the point, before admitting that nothing could have been worth what the encounter cost him. It was that second’s hesitation, though, that gave an indication of how much Nicholas Berringer valued sex – or at least what sex represented to him. Fucking, to him, had always meant freedom and conquest and masculine power. Even when consensual, the act was at heart, forced entry and violent gratification, the plundering of empty space by protuberant member. It was also safety and solace and the warm dark heart of his mother’s womb, the sacred place where there was no Nicholas, where nothing was named and there was only One.
Although he would not have put it quite that way. Had he been asked, he would have simply said that fucking made him feel alive, gave him the willingness to make the effort of drawing the next breath. He would have said that, as exclamation points marked memorable sentences, so erections punctuated the climactic points of a man’s life.
Now, as he drove well above the speed limit on I–75 in the pouring rain, headed toward the Ambassador Bridge and the US/Canadian border at Detroit-Windsor, he wondered if trying to track down Sonny Valdez wasn’t the journey of a masochistic fool, a pathetic attempt to feel like he was taking charge, doing something, for God’s sake, to try to save his own life.
I’m going to ask Sonny Valdez for help, he thought, grimacing at the irony of it, for he could scarcely stand to inhabit the same planet as the man. The three best years of his life, of his marriage, had been when he believed that Sonny Valdez was dead, having expired wretchedly in some flophouse in Toronto’s commercial sex district. But Valdez, as it turned out, was still very much alive, and now Nicholas needed his help. Jesus, I am fucked, he thought bitterly, I am truly royally fucked.
“Do you like to fuck?” the cute blonde in the blue satin blouse had asked him.
Her exact words. He’d almost dumped his beer in his lap. She had to be a hooker, of course, but still – talk about coming on strong.
She read his expression and giggled, showing slightly crooked front teeth. “Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a working girl. Well, I mean I work, all right. I work on a road construction crew. I’m what they call a flagger, which basically means I’m one of those chicks stands out in the broiling sun on the highway all day holding a sign says Slow Down and the good ol’ boys goin’ by in pick-up trucks holler at us and try to grope our tits out the window.”
“I never knew that,” he said, quietly bemused.
“I don’t usually talk to guys in bars, either, but my boyfriend – ex-boyfriend, that is – he’s off with some trailer trash whore he met in a honkytonk. I figure what’s sauce for the gander’s goose is – I mean, sauce for the goose –” She giggled raucously. “Aww, you know what I mean.”
She was drunk, of course, and he reminded himself that he didn’t care much for sex with drunken women. They had nasty habits like throwing up on your cock or passing out in the middle of sex. They tended to walk off with your Rolex or look through your wallet when you went to the John.
“So do you?” she said.
“Do I what?”
“What you said?”
“What’sa matter, you scared to say the F-word?”
“I think you’ve had too much to drink.” He turned to the bartender, signaling for his check. He was only in Cincinnati for the one day to look at some lots zoned for residential development. The lots had proved disappointing – people in the market for half-million dollar homes didn’t usually want a view, however distant, of an industrial park – and he was scheduled to fly home to Detroit the next morning. Beth was going in late to work so she could meet him at the airport.
Beth – God, what about Beth? If she had been homely or overweight or uninterested in sex, that might have been one thing, but she was lush and lithe and seductive and fucked the way he did – like her life depended on it. Every time he cheated on her, he swore to himself it would be the last time. Afterwards, he would go to church like the good Catholic boy he once was and confess to the priest and vow to be different: yet, sooner or later, it would happen again.
“C’mon, honey, you look like you need to relax.” The girl leaned forward, allowing him to look down her blouse and see the tattoo of a bumblebee on the inner swell of one breast. It was done in vivid black and yellow, its stinger pointing downward at her nipple. “I can help you relax real good.”
“I’ll bet you can.” He debated, but only a moment, for his dick had already decided that she was his type. Her slender, sinewy little body was thinner than he would have preferred, but she exuded that slutty decadence that always made him feel like a conqueror on the verge of sacking some foreign city notorious for its depravity. Eau de wench, essence of whore.
Having made the decision, he felt emboldened, eyeing her up and down with overt and calculating lust, before he said, “But regarding your question, the answer is, ‘Yes. Yes, I do.’ ”
Was it his imagination, or did she flinch slightly? Maybe she’d just been trying to shock him. Maybe this was some kind of game – somebody had dared her to come on to a man in a bar, and secretly she’d been hoping he wouldn’t take her up on her offer. For a second, her lower lip quivered, and her boldness seemed on the verge of disassembling into little-girl sobs. Then she rallied, took a deep breath, and seemed to pull herself together from sheer force of will. From the looks of the effort she exerted, it didn’t seem like she had it in her to do that too many more times.
“My name’s Elise.” She slid her fingers through his. Her skin, he noticed, was surprisingly cold, but she managed a grin as she said, “You got a room?”
“You got a wife?”
Now it was his turn to grin. “Not tonight.”
The rain hammered the windshield of the Volvo with such force that the wipers couldn’t work fast enough to sweep it away. A semi, lumbering past like a maddened triceratops, sent up an arc of grey water that inundated the car and forced Nicholas for a few moments to drive blind. When he saw the lights of immigration at the Detroit-Windsor border crossing up ahead, he braked cautiously and pulled up next to a booth, where an immigration agent, after glancing perfunctorily at his license plates, waved him on.
Accelerating back into the rain, Nicholas let out his breath which, until that moment, he didn’t realize he’d been holding.
Although his business trips took him to Toronto three or four times a year, he was always absurdly relieved when it was done, when no need was seen to run his name through the computer to check for misdeeds in his past. Even if the immigration agents pulled his record and realized it was a convicted felon passing through their country’s symbolic portals, there was nothing they could hold him on, of course. In the years since he got out of prison, he hadn’t committed any crime more serious than minor traffic violations. But if they knew about his past, they might be inclined to detain him while they searched him and his car. And this time, for once, there was something for them to find – the 0.9 mm Biretta stashed in the vehicle’s console.