Previous scene: Elisha enjoys a drink after a “triggering event.”
3 · Paris
Light streamed through the motel room window, admitted through a gap in the mauve curtains. It was fine. Elisha couldn’t sleep anyhow. She lie in bed watching shadows dance across the popcorn ceiling. Moths fluttered around the faux nineteenth-century street lantern standing just outside. The lamp illuminated a private silhouette show put on by her own winged troupe, similar to what she and Martha used to enjoy on the old front porch, only there were no zaps and accumulating piles of dead bugs.
The theme of the motel room was Paris in Spring. When the clerk offered her a choice between the only two available rooms, Outer Space or Paris, Elisha chose the latter for reasons hidden from her conscious mind. She wasn’t really surprised at what she found. The wallpaper was fading and peeling in random spots, dotted with cartoon baguettes, berets, and miniature Eiffel Towers. She had tossed stained bedsheets to the foot of the heart-shaped bed, trying hard not to think about the source. The Merry Motel wasn’t what one would call inconspicuous, but in Elisha’s mind, that’s exactly what made it so.
At an unknown hour, most of these thoughts were fading from her mind, struggling against another memory. Elisha tried to remember a book she had read from her mom’s personal library. It wasn’t one story, but a group of stories that her and Martha used to take turns reading. They centered around this man covered in tattoos. Each one told a different tale. What were they about? The pictures took hold, but the details remained fuzzy. She dwelled on the fact that all of those stories were unified by a single man. As she struggled to piece things together and figure out why the memory had popped into her head, the phone rang.
Elisha debated picking it up, but knew it would be useless not to–it would only keep ringing. She held the handset to her ear, saying nothing. For a few moments, there was silence on both ends.
“You’re taking stupid chances.”
Elisha pictured a puff of dust springing from the man’s lips after each word. They had never met in person, but had a long relationship over the phone. She imagined him having come out of the womb clenching a Zippo and pinching a Chesterfield cigarette with the side of his mouth. Who knew if that was the truth. He could have just as easily been born with a Tom Waits timbre.
“You know that, right?” he continued.
“Yes,” she replied testily, “I know.”
“I just wanted to hear you say it.” He took a deep breath. “You have a job and it doesn’t involve her.”
Elisha sensed some hesitation.
He lowered his voice. “Look, I get it. Believe me. I do. But if word gets out that your own agenda is compromising things…”
The warning was subtle, but it was there. Though the man on the other side of the phone was the closest thing Elisha had to a friend, he was far from it. They were professional colleagues and he had a job of his own to perform. She had opened up to him one night, a silly mistake after too much Brown, but it was what it was and she had to deal with the consequences.
“I’ll be okay.”
She hardly believed that herself. Elisha was constantly wandering into unexplored territory. Lewis and Clark had nothing on her. At least everything they encountered had its place in the proper world. They were things. The things Elisha had come to know, the things that every couple screwing in the Merry Motel didn’t know, were something else.
“Well don’t get too comfortable.”
She relented. She was tired. Sleep was far away, but conversation was even further.
“Fine. Where to next?”
Elisha sensed his relief.
“Interestingly enough, not too far. Don’t take this as an endorsement, but it may have worked out that you stayed put. Your next stop is just off I-40, outside of Ludlow. I’m told it’s unrelated to the last job. Still, seems odd.”
Again, odd was up for debate in their world.
“This one is going to be a little more difficult than usual,” he said.
She was was sure he sensed her eyes rolling, because a hackle emerged from the other end of the handset.
“Let me rephrase. This is going to be very difficult. But you’re good. I have faith.”
“Thanks for the sentiment. Okay, just outside Ludlow. Difficult. Is that it?”
“You’ll have to approach this one a little differently. It’s a solitary house, though not so much a house than a shack. It’s five miles up a dirt road from Pisgah Crater.”
“An inactive volcano. Rock hounds love it.”
“Anyway, there is no practical cover when approaching. A vehicle can be seen several miles up the road as he lives in a depression. It’s all dirt and creosote bushes, so you’re going to have to operate a little differently.”
“You mean I’m going to have to hike in at night.”
“You’re the pro. I’ll let you figure that out. I’m just giving you the lay of the land.”
Said like a man who was giving advice without giving advice.
“Do you have a description? Name?”
“Name’s not important, even if it was known. He’s an older gentleman though. Estimated to be in his seventies. Wiry, but past his prime.”
“I don’t get it. Why is this difficult?”
“He’s not the average client…if you catch my drift.”
Not the average client meant only one thing.
“He’s a Drifter? A Mouser? Spit it out.”
“We don’t know. This one came from the top. I wish I could tell you more, but you’re going to have to use your instincts on this one. You’ll do fine. Just don’t do anything stupid.”
“Like hang around too long after?”
“Like hang around too long after.”
She could almost hear him smiling.
“Deadline is in two days. Should give you enough time to size up the situation and draft a game plan.”
Nothing else needed to be said and they’d been through this enough without exchanging useless goodbyes. Besides, neither of them knew when the goodbyes would be final and preferred not to push things. Elisha hung up the phone and stared back up at the ceiling. The moths had ceased their dance. Theirs had come to an end and another was set to begin.
Time for bed, she thought.