It ends with the state.
My appeals have run out. I've had my last meal, my last chance to make peace with whatever god exists. But before I sleep the big sleep, dream those pentothal dreams I'll have my say.
Yes, I did it -- all of it, all those terrible things they say I did. It's a matter of public record, proven in court, splattered over television screens and front pages. They know the when, the where, and the who. But the one thing they don't know -- a question they've all asked, yet are unable to answer is why? Why does a man with everything going for him commit such crimes? And that is another matter indeed.
It started with a woman.
Her name was Sherry and I saw her the first time at a party at my boss's home. He lived in Houston's River Oaks -- an area of sprawling estates, oak-draped streets, and genteel southern living. And on that night in early spring, the fragrances of money and power that mingled in air seemed symbols of my success. Being invited to that party was the culmination of twelve years of work -- six spent working my way through college and earning my MBA, then six at the firm slaving seventy, eighty, ninety hours a week, coddling clients, analyzing and studying the markets. But from the moment I gazed across half an acre of manicured lawn and saw her, none of that mattered.
She was standing next to the pool. The water lay blue and deep at her feet, and the light flashing off its surface made her seem illusory, but somehow more rather than less real. Tall and voluptuous she wore a black strapless evening gown of a type I had seen on a thousand women a thousand times before but never the way it looked on her. A savage auburn mane spilled over her shoulders and down her back to hang swaying at her waist. I worked my way through the crowd for a closer look. I was not disappointed. Her eyes were almond shaped and tilted Just enough to hint exotic origins, the emerald irises embedded with flecks of amber that glinted when she smiled. Her skin was smooth as a salesman's promise. And she smelled of Sandalwood.
I noticed one other thing about her, though -- she seemed out place somehow. The rich have a certain air about them. Part pretension, part the confidence money brings, it surrounds them. She didn't have it. Not to say she looked cheap, because she didn't. She just didn't have that air about her.
She was engaged in conversation with Ed Martin, one of the firms Junior VPs. Her voice sounded like falling silk and I -- hesitant to approach for fear of irking my superior -- lingered at their periphery listening to it. But when she saw me watching, she flashed an encouraging smile and I lost all fear.
"Hi, Ed, I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" I said, stepping into their circle. He looked at me and frowned but only for an instant. "No, Randall, not at all. Id like you to meet Sherry ---" He searched for a last name, found none. Then, turning to her, continued, "Sherry, this is Randall Williams -- the firms latest hotshot."
She smiled and held out her hand. Her nails, tinted pale pink, were perfect. "Hello, Ran, it's so nice to meet you,"
No one had called me Ran since my mother died, It was so familiar, so intimate, And the sound of it echoing through my mind filled me with warmth,
Then Ed cleared his throat. "Look," he said, "y'all have fun. I*m going to see if I can round Alice up and get out of here." And he set off in search of his wife.
"So," I said, "what brings you here?" Not very original, but it beat standing there with my mouth hanging open.
She laughed. "Me, I brought me here. It's a hobby I have -- crashing posh parties. It adds a little excitement to my life, and sometimes I meet someone interesting." She searched my eyes. "Are you someone interesting?"
I knew then she was unlike anyone I had ever known and I wanted to know her better. We talked until late in the evening or morning rather. And though she refused my offer of a ride home she gave me her number and promised to see me the following weekend.
The streets being deserted, I was driving home in quiet reflection when a wave of emotion swept over me and I realized I had made an important and serendipitous discovery: I had found that which I had sought without knowing so long.
I spent the next day, Sunday, puttering around the house, dreaming of Sherry, impatient for the day to end so I could bury myself in work 'till the week passed. But when Monday came, thoughts of her were still with me. I wandered around the office in a haze, botched opportunities to land new clients, and couldn't think straight. In fact I couldn't think at all.
I called her Wednesday and she agreed to see me Friday evening. The next two days passed in a blur of ecstatic anticipation.
I picked her up not at her home but at a bar. This, though, didn't strike me as unusual. The world is a strange and violent place and women -- especially beautiful women -- have been forced to take measures to protect themselves. The idea that she may have had some darker reason for the subterfuge never occurred to me.
The sun still burned in a white and brilliant sky when I arrived and, waves of heat rising around me, hurried across the parking lot. A welcome blast of frigid air greeted me at the door and, inside, cavernous darkness. For a moment I stood there, waiting for my eyes to adjust and breathing the odor of stale beer and cigarette smoke. Then I moved into the room. A typical neighborhood bar, it had a pair of pool tables with worn felts, a jukebox next to a token dance floor, and an electronic dart board shoved into an out of the way corner. Across the back wall stretched the bar itself. At it sat a handful of desultory drinkers. Then I saw her -- perched on a barstool, chatting with the barmaid -- incredible in a red Spandex mini. Her legs seemed to go forever. Long and bare and tanned, they snaked down the stool, ending at the foot rest in red stiletto heeled pumps.
The Moody Blues asking, "What is real and what is illusion?" on the Jukebox, I made my way across the room.
She didn't notice me. I said her name.
She turned and looked at me, her face expressionless. "It's me, Randall Williams. We had a date?"
For a moment I feared she was going to laugh and say, "I had a date with you?" then turn away. But she didn't. Instead she smiled and said, "Why hello, Ran," in that falling silk voice. Then she was up and, taking my arm, she led me back out into the sunshine.
After dinner she wanted to go to a nightclub and have a drink. I was locked in a bitter struggle with the Friday night traffic when a police cruiser swung in behind me and flipped on its lights. I wasn't aware of any infraction, but I moved into the outside lane and prepared to pull over nevertheless.
Sherry touched my arm. "Donned stop."
"Make him catch us -- if he can. It'll be exciting." "But -- "
"But nothing!" she said, eyes flashing. "Are you a sheep or a man?"
Then it happened -- some dark and hidden part of me stirred. It was the part we all keep buried deep inside ourselves -- the part that hates authority.
Why not? it said. And I listened.
An intersection was coming up. The light was green. Yellow. I saw an opening. Jammed the accelerator to the floor. Spun the wheel to the left. Careened across three lanes of traffic. Screamed around the corner. Then checked the rearview mirror. A confused jumble of cars lay in my wake. The cruiser -- trapped in their midst -- struggled to break free. I pushed the accelerator back to the floor.
A side street coming up on my right, I locked the brakes, spun the wheel, and slid into its mouth. Then back on the accelerator. Then another side street -- a left this time. Brake. Spin. Slide. Accelerate. Then back to the right. Then a half dozen more turns, switching back and forth. Left. Right. Left.
We came out on a quiet residential street lined with parked cars. I found a spot and slipped in. Then I turned to look at Sherry.
She was leaned way back in her seat, her legs spread, her skirt hiked up, her hands ramming her body. They lingered at her breasts, then vanished into the darkness between her thighs.
By the time my mind accepted what my eyes told it, she sensed me watching and turned to look at me. Her eyes were glazed and unfocused like a fresh fixed Junkie's."Well," she said, her hands never stopping, "are you going to join me or what?"
Though I didn't see her again that weekend, images of her filled my mind. Thoughts of her emerald eyes and honeyed skin distracted me during the day. Memories of the rising and falling of her breasts as we made love in the car awakened me, sweating, in the night. Then Monday came and I returned to work.
The routine of the office failed to push her from my mind, though. Indeed the desire -- the need -- to be near her grew stronger. I often found myself stopped in the middle of a task, gazing into space and thinking of her, neither remembering nor caring what I had been doing. I called her number several times but reached a machine. When she failed to return my calls, I became agitated.
My agitation became anxiety as the days stretched out one after another, but I waded through them, nevertheless. Then came Friday -- a gray and rainy day, dreary as my mood. Too distracted to work, I left the office early and drove the rain slicked streets home. When I opened my door, I smelled cigarette smoke. And Sandalwood.
I dropped my briefcase and rushed into the living room. And there she was, sitting on the sofa, her feet kicked up on the coffee table, her legs crossed at the ankles. A cigarette smoldered between her fingers, the smoke curling up from it to form a cloud that hung blue and heavy in the gloom. She wore a small gold chain around her left ankle and nothing else. Nothing else at all.
"You know, you really oughta consider getting dead bolts installed."
"I didn't know you smoked."
She took a long pull off the cigarette. Then, crushing it out on the tabletop, tilted her head back and blew a plume of smoke at the ceiling. "Only before or after sex."
The sun cut through he clouds to slant against the windows. The blinds broke the light into bands that played across the floor, yet failed to penetrate the darkness.
"It's cold over here," she said, "cold and lonely."
Her words hovered in the room's still air. Outside the day sweltered with heat and humidity and I could hear the buzzing of insects and the sound of cars rushing along the street.
We must have moved into the bedroom sometime later, for we were in bed, lying apart from each other, catching our breaths when she said, "I think you should know I'm not like other women. I don't need or want or like the same things they do. I like excitement -- lots of excitement. Know what I mean?"
"No, not exactly," I said, though I feared I knew all too well what she meant.
"Like running from that traffic cop the other night. That was exciting. A little." She rolled up on her side. "It wasn't enough, though. I want more, I need more." She fixed me with her eyes. "The question is -- Are you the man to give it to me?"
I wasn't sure if I were that man or not, but I wanted to be, so I nodded.
She reached across the bed and laid her hand on my thigh. "Good. I want you to do something for me. Something exciting."
"Anything you want."
She was quiet for a moment. Then she said, "A robbery -- I'd like a nice little robbery."
"A robbery! That's crazy!"
Anger flashed in her eyes. "No it's not, it would be exciting.
I was silent for a moment, collecting my thoughts. "I can't, I've got too much to lose= a nice car, a home, a good Job, everything I ever -- "
"Wrong -- she got out of the bed -- "you don't have everything you ever wanted. You don't have me." I got up.
"Wait, don't go."
She glared at me. "Why not?"
"Because I love you."
She laughed. "There's no such thing as love, it's an illusion -- a trick of hormones and hard-ons." She walked away. The door slammed. She was gone.
I lasted four days before calling her. She answered on the first ring as if she were waiting for my call. Though cold and distant, she agreed to meet me at a restaurant near my office -- but only for lunch.
She was there when I arrived, waiting at the bar, stunning in jeans and a peasant blouse, her hair swept back and tied in a tail.
We argued. She was adamant, but I held my ground, too. And she stalked out, hips swaying, each step seeming to take a piece of me with it.
And though I realized she was insane, it didn't matter. The question was how long could I hold out.
I called her three days later.
I planned the robbery methodically. It took the better part of two weeks. During this time Sherry maintained a distance. We talked on the phone and saw each other in public -- but not private -- places.
I picked a small grocery store as my target -- The NorthSide Superette. It was in a working class neighborhood on a sleepy side street on the opposite side of town. There was a row of vacant lots on one side and three rundown rent houses on the other. The building - - a sixties style art-deco monstrosity -- consisted of a red brick rectangle with rounded corners. Plate glass windows covered with black wrought iron burglar bars faced the street and behind the windows were flyspecked display shelves and one attendant. The next step, finding a gun I could purchase without registering it -- wasn't as easy as the news media says. Perhaps, had I been street wise, it would not have been so difficult. As it were, I searched until I found a pawnbroker more interested in cash than paperwork. I selected an automatic, a nine millimeter Beretta. I liked the way it looked, the way it weighted my hand.
For a disguise I considered purchasing a make up kit from a theatrical supply, but then I remembered reading somewhere that makeup always looks like makeup. Besides I didn't know the first thing about the necessary techniques. So I settled on a baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses and covered instead of disguised.
A getaway car was the sole remaining detail. And I waited until the day of the robbery to take care of that. Then I picked up a five year old Taurus at one of those rent-a-wreck agencies -- the kind of place where the only paperwork required has green printing on it. The car ran good, though, and -- with its faded paint, crushed front fender, and rusted quarter panels -- would blend in well. I used black electrical tape to change the license plate number. And I was ready.
I called Sherry and tried one last time to talk her out of it. But she wouldn't have it. So I told her where and when. She said she'd be there.
The drive was a long one and my anxiety increased with each mile traveled. By the time I hid the Taurus in the spot I had picked earlier, the effects of adrenaline and fear and of something else I could not name or define gave the world a sharp-edged and startling clarity.
I sat in the car in the darkness for a while, looking up at the stars and listening to the sounds of the night. Then I got out and moved into the empty lot next to the store. From its shadows I watched a man buy a six pack of Busch and a pack of Kools, then get in a car and leave.
The cat's taillights flared when it reached the stop sign three blocks away. And I entered the store.
It was empty. Good.
The clerk was bent over, stocking one of the shelves behind the counter. I wondered for a moment if Sherry were nearby watching, then stepped up to the counter.
The clerk stood. "Can I be helping you, sir?"
I hesitated, undecided, my last chance to back out. Then Sherry's words echoed through my minds Are you a man or a Sheep?
And that dark and hidden part of me awakened -- this time never to slumber again I pulled the gun and shoved it in his face. "Yeah, you can start by getting one of those bags" -- I pointed at a stack of paper bags on the counter -- "and emptying the cash drawer into it."
His eyes widened. His facial muscles trembled then went slack. His mouth fell open.
He grabbed a bag and started stuffing bills into it.
Then a flash of movement in the anti-theft mirror behind him caught my eye.
She was standing in the aisle of automotive products. I could see cans of motor oil and Fix A Flat on the shelves behind her. When she saw me watching her, she smiled. I cut my eyes back to the attendant. He hadn't seen her. He was busy stuffing money into the bag and praying. I glanced back at the mirror.
She rubbed her breasts, then lifted her skirt. Naked underneath. She put hand between her thighs and began to rub. Her eyes lost focus, became glazed and heavy lidded -- that fresh fixed junkie look again.
I looked back at the clerk. He had emptied the drawer of bills and was snatching the pennies, nickels, and dimes. "Keep the change," I said.
He kept stuffing and praying.
"Give me the goddamn bag!"
He looked up. Fear clouded his eyes. Tears streamed down his face. He handed the bag across the counter. Then, voice wavering, said, "Please, mister, not be hurting me."I looked in the mirror again. She was gone. And I wondered, Had she really been there or had it been an illusion?
I told the clerk to put his hands behind his head and get on the floor, then turned and ran toward the door, drunk on power.
I knew then that this was only the beginning, a mere taste of the highs waiting to be
experienced. Sherry was right. Excitement was a drug, an elixir. And compared to it nothing
© 1998 Wayne James, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
EDITOR'S NOTE: This work will appear in an anthology of Wayne's fiction and poetry,
schedule for publication in 2000, from Hadrosaur productions. The tentative title is
When Only the Moon Rages.