The numbers on the in-dash clock were blurry and I blinked, then did it again. 12:28 am. Jesus, where was I? The headlights were trying to cut through a patchy mist but ended up reflecting light back at me. I tried to locate a fog light switch, but I was too unfamiliar with the rental and gave up. I felt the urge to yawn and tried to fight it, but it emerged anyway. I shifted in my seat and took a deep breath while forcing my eyes wide, but it was no use.
This stretch of the highway was more than lonely. I felt as if the road were some kind of treadmill where I wasn't actually going anywhere and just pinning my wheels; nothing passed me going the other way nor trailed behind me. The road varied very little and there were no lights to be seen from local towns - not even a 24 hour gas station. I yawned again and the car began to shake as the tires hit the bumps on the side of the road – doing their job to wake sleeping drivers.
Adrenaline rushed through my system and, for a few moments, I was awake and alert. I contemplated pulling over and just sleeping, but I was in lonely territory and who knew what kind of person or people might pass me? I could disappear out here – or get ticketed for sleeping by a passing statie. No, I just needed to try to stay awake for a few more miles. Maybe when I passed out of South Carolina into Georgia there would be a motel.
The fog swirled and obliterated the road ahead of me, so I slowed down to about 35 – it would be my luck to run into the back of a tractor trailer or a herd of bison. Do they have bison in South Carolina? My attention was caught by a green ghost with glittering letters rising from the mist – a road sign. It read 'Meyers Mill 2 Miles'. Underneath was a smaller sign with the same green background and glittering letters advertising 'gas, food and lodging'. My dilemma solved, I edged the car up to 40 but as I approached the off-ramp the fog grew thicker and I was forced to slow to a crawl.
The road was rough and I wondered if they were doing work to it. Not having seen any signs I wondered if it were paved; the mist obscured my vision so that I could barely see its surface. The stop sign suddenly appearing in front of the car was all but invisible and I had to stomp on the brakes. It was unlikely that there was anyone else about, but if there were I couldn't see them. I also hadn't taken the insurance on the rental, so hitting someone in this mess would be just my luck. I saw lights to my right and turned, maintaining a cautious pace. I certainly felt more awake now that I was close to getting a bed.
The motel was unlike any I'd seen before. It was all on a single level with a flat metal sign, shaped like a fan of fountaining water. The sign flickered, in neon, 'Motel 67'. I snorted. It had probably been a 'Motel 6' at some point and the new owners had taken the easy way out to rename it. Lights shone in hallways and, as I approached, I realized that the doors to the rooms were in glass enclosed hallways, rather than under an open canopy like most motels. As I pulled up to the main doors I noted the mid-century modern aesthetics of the architecture. The motif was present in the door handles, the etched glass in the entryway – everything about this place was wrong for a motel in the middle of Bum Fuck, SC.
The counter was a heavily lacquered wood with brass inlays, three stripes that each ended just shy of the one previous. The desk was curved and two nude brass figures - looking for all the world like the famed 'Oscar' - held globes of light in their upraised hands. A mirror was situated on the ceiling behind the counter, likely to allow observation of cash being handled, much like a Las Vegas casino. I tapped the bell on the counter and a door opened almost immediately. A pale man in a lightweight suit stepped forward, his whiskers showing an ill-advised five o'clock shadow.
“A room, sir?” he asked in a gravelly voice, one that sounded roused from sleep.
“Please, I'm exhausted!” I said while my body stretched involuntarily.
“Of course, sir.” He slid a book toward me, one that had been hidden behind the counter. “Please sign in, sir, and I'll get you a room assignment.”
“A non-smoking room, if you have it,” I replied. I took the pen and tried to write my name, but the nub just dragged uselessly across the page.
“You'll have to dip it,” the clerk said while pushing a small pot of ink to me.
“Wow, really keep this place in character, huh?” I said with a tired smile. I dipped the tip of the steel pen into the ink and made an unrecognizable signature on the page. The clerk took the book back, and with a glance at the page said, “Thank you, Mr. Sinclair.”
“You must be really good at your job to read that scrawl,” I replied. “With that kind of skill you could decipher a doctors' handwriting.”
“Your signature was perfectly clear, sir.” So saying the clerk turned to his right and plucked a key from the assorted hooks on the wall and placed it in my hand. “There is a lounge to your left if you'd care for a glass of spirits before you retire for the evening. Your key will allow you a complimentary drink.”
Glancing towards my left was a neon sign, 'The 67 Lounge', and through it came the strains of Nat 'King' Cole singing 'Mona Lisa'. I was instantly transported to my grandfather's home in 1981. He was lying in his bed, cancer having eaten him whole, while his prized stereo played his favorite music. I recalled looking at the stereo, the kind as large as a refrigerator, and my father coming over to tell me my grandfather had passed. 'Mona Lisa' had been the background to the first time I'd dealt with death.
“You know, a moment ago I would have said I'm too tired. But a small drink would be nice, thank you,” I said. I tipped the point of the key at the clerk and turned towards the lounge. I figured I'd have a drink and then grab my overnight bag from the car. I took a few steps and then turned to ask the clerk when check out was. My eyes caught the sparkling mirror above him and, for just a moment, I could see the back of his head. Only, it wasn't there. Instead there was a ruined crater, flies swarmed the decaying brain and bits of hair clung to the edges of the shattered skull.
I blinked and shook my head before looking again. No, just a trick. His hair gleamed, the reflection showing every hair in place. My eyes met his and he lifted one eyebrow, just the tiniest amount, and I blushed. How silly of me.
“What time is check out?” I asked.
“It's liberal. Would you like a wake up call, sir?”
“Yes, nine please.”
“Thanks,” I said with a nod. I turned back towards the lounge and entered just as Nat's voice faded. A new song started, 'Sentimental Me' by the Ames Brothers. I recalled my grandfathers stereo again and flipping through his records, looking for something that would interest me. We'd spent a week and a half at his home that July, just waiting for the fight to be done, and I'd grown restless. I'd felt guilty about that, too. I thought I should have been more...sad. Consistently sad instead of just here and there. But the boredom, the restlessness of my schoolboy self – lacking in maturity and patience – had won out several times. I'd taken walks, eaten too much and pawed through Grandpop's records. He detested the music of the 60s and on, insisting the best sounds had come well before then. I found some things I liked, but not a ton.
Grandpop didn't care as long as the music didn't stop. Every record he had, he loved, and the music ran straight through that final week and a half – right up until my dad lifted the needle on old Nat.
I stepped into the lounge and felt as if I were on a period piece movie set, one designed to resemble the 1950s. Velvet coated the walls and dim lights were set on each small table. The smell of tobacco smoke was in the air, not recently smoked but not exactly stale either. The small lounge was nearly empty – someone looking like a traveling salesman of yesteryear was chatting up a tired looking barmaid. Behind the counter was a handsome man in his thirties with thick blond hair and a crisp white shirt with a bow tie. He smiled and greeted me.
“Good evening, sir. What may I pour for you?”
“Good evening. I'd like a little whiskey to help give me sweet dreams,” I said with a smile as I took a seat on the bar stool.
“Of course, sir. Just passing through?” he asked while reaching for a glass and bottle.
“Yes, on my way to Augusta,” I replied. He poured a finger of the auburn liquid and placed the glass in front of me. Moments later he set the bottle down near the glass, just in case.
“What's in Augusta? You have a northern accent – you chasing a woman?” He asked with a bright, toothy smile.
“Me? Oh no, I'm not that sort of man,” I said as I wrapped my fingers around the glass. A chair scraped across the parquet floor and I saw the older man in the suit was walking side by side with the barmaid.
“Not exactly professional, is it?” I asked myself under my breath as I sipped the liquor and felt the burn run down my neck and settle into my belly.
“Her shift was over an hour ago,” the barman replied, obviously having heard my mumble. He pulled out a cloth and began to wipe down the bar.
“Still, if I were the manager...well, I'm not so who cares, right?” I smiled and sipped a little more.
“Oh, I understand where you're coming from. But, on the other hand, if two grown folk want to spend some...time together, well – why not?”
“Why not, indeed?” I said and tipped my glass towards him before draining the last of it. As my glass hit the bar top he tippled another finger. I put a hand up, “Whoa, just sweet dreams, not knock me unconscious!”
“You seem to be wide awake, sir,” he replied with another gleaming smile.
“You know, funny you should mention...I actually am awake for the moment,” I admitted.
“It happens frequently, sir. Once people get out of their cars and move around they get a bit of a second wind. It doesn't last that long, of course, but after the monotony of the road...” he smiled again and shrugged, which I found endearing. On a whim I said, “I'll have this second drink if you have one with me.”
He glanced at the wall clock behind the bar and flashed another smile. “The customer is always right.” After pouring he held his glass out to me and I tapped the edges together.
“Cheers,” I said before sipping once more. He did as well and then sucked in a gasp of air.
“Whoa, good stuff!” he said with a smile and a small cough. I smiled back.
“When I was young, I reacted that way too. The burn never goes away, but it does get smoother over time,” I said as I swirled the liquid around the inside of the glass. “Like all things, it takes practice.”
“I've never really understood the appeal of hard liquor,” he admitted. “I know it's popular and people have enjoyed mixed drinks ever since prohibition – I myself like them cut with something.”
“Well, I didn't mean you had to drink what I was having,” I said with a chuckle.
“It's no problem, I enjoy a drink with a customer once in a while. I'm not asked to, often,” he confided.
“Really? With that smile I'm surprised the barmaid went with that sad sack instead of you,” I said and then covered my mouth as my eyes popped open in surprise. “I'm sorry, I don't know where that came from!”
“Oh, that's all right, sir,” he said with a deprecating smile. “Not that she hasn't tried but – what was it you said? I'm not that kind of man.”
I immediately wondered what kind of man he was, exactly. It had been a long time for me, not since Myles had left, in fact. That had come as a shock, initially. The apartment door had been unlocked and his things gone. He'd written a nasty sort of note, very catty. Snide comments were one thing he was good at. Of course, living in New York City and being single meant I couldn't afford the rent on the loft on my own. Augusta had a job and cheaper rent and it was where I was headed. Still, it had taken a few months and a rapidly declining bank account to get things squared and ready to head south.
“Last call, sir,” he said softly while tippling my glass once more. I raised an eyebrow and he did the same to his glass, and his smile stirred feelings best not acted on in small, rural towns.
“How long have you tended bar here?” I asked as I sipped and my throat burned.
“Feels like about sixty years,” he said with a chuckle before sipping from his glass as well. He screwed the cap on the whiskey and returned it to its proper place.
“Yeah. Jobs can get old.”
“Yes, they can.”
I sipped and glanced at his fingers that were loosely wrapped around his glass. I felt the urge to reach out and touch them, to grasp them in a...what? That would be far beyond mere flirtation, wouldn't it? His fingers gripped and lifted the glass and I watched his lips part, so full and ready for kissing. As long as I can remember I'd found a southern drawl attractive and this fellow's drawl was just one of his charms.
His eyes met mine and our gazes locked. I turned my glass on the wooden bar top idly, wondering if I dared. My days of one night stands were long over, I'd thought. But looking into his eyes and seeing his steady gaze and the slight smile curling his lips made me reconsider. When was the last time anyone had looked at me like that?
“I have to cash out my drawer and put a few things away,” he said hesitantly.
“I...can wait for you,” I ventured. His response would tell me if I'd imagined his desire, his intentions.
“Sure,” he said with a smile. “This room gets a little spooky when the lights go out.” He reached for my empty glass, brushing his fingers along the outside of my hand. I turned my hand and our fingers entwined, briefly but knowingly. The nerves sensed how welcome the touch was and his hand, cold from his drink perhaps, gripped mine lightly before curling around the glass and taking them both behind the bar and to the hidden sink.
I stood from my stool, stretching involuntarily and feeling a touch punchy: a combination of being tired, the alcohol and the heat I felt in my chest and groin for this fellow. He moved to the register, one with glass displaying pop up numbers. I knew that, inside, there were cylinders that calculated tax and sales with each keystroke. When had I last seen one? The drawer popped out with a rattle and ding and the 'No Sale' tag appeared behind the glass of the display.
“Be right back,” he said with a smile. He disappeared behind a velvet curtain, no doubt to a small office where the books were done. I decided to walk around the small lounge and took stock of the laughably small stage and dance floor, the smattering of tables for two and the neon lights defining the walls. Approaching the wall I saw pictures and I moved closer to get a better look.
To say they were disturbing would be an understatement in the most British sense of the word. One had a burning cross surrounded by men in white sheets with white conical hats. Another showed a dead African-American lying on a dirt road, clearly having been dragged by a vehicle. People – white trash – stood around the body, much as people today tend to do with the 'selfie' phenomenon. Proof of how little we've changed, I thought.
The next was a famous scene: a man had been lynched. A white man stood in the foreground with a finger pointing at the body. His expression seemed to say, 'See? See what happens if you get uppity?' The next was a burned out building, possibly a church. Another was an entire family, dead. They were laid out on the lawn of a house – probably their own – with gunshot wounds at close range to their heads. Grotesque did not begin to describe the feeling and I turned away in disgust.
Dimly I heard a pop, like a bottle of champagne being opened in a nearby room. I glanced at the clock over the bar, which read 1:57. Holy cow, had I really spent an hour and a half staring into that mans' eyes? Fatigue started to settle into my limbs and I nearly called the whole thing off and surrendered to my body's desire for rest – but then there he was. The bow tie was undone, dangling around his neck and his collar was open to the second button.
“Sorry, they are real sticklers for counting properly,” he said with an apologetic smile.
I glanced back at the hideous pictures and shuddered. I reached for his hand and he clasped mine briefly, and his touch was like ice. As he pulled his hand back he leaned in and softly said, “The manager won't understand. I have to be careful. You understand?”
“Yes, of course. Should I wait for you in my room?” I asked somewhat breathlessly.
“Yes. I'll meet you there in a few minutes,” he said, a smile blooming on his face. Laugh lines as attractive as dimples framed his mouth.
“Till then,” I said and risked brushing the back of my hand across his cheek. His skin was cool to the touch and slightly rough with a light stubble. I moved past him and into the lobby.
“Did you find the lounge satisfactory, sir?”
I glanced around and spotted the desk clerk. He seemed to loom behind the desk, hands clasped behind him. I experienced a moment of vertigo and blinked a couple of times. He returned to being a normal man and I managed a weak smile.
“Yes, it's very nice. Just what I needed after a long night on the road,” I replied. I moved towards the desk and asked, against my better judgment but unable to help myself, “I couldn't help but notice the photographs. It seems...”
“Yes, very representative of our values,” he murmured in reply. “The photos are quite indicative of the local temperament to those who step beyond the pale. They were placed there by the owner, who is the Grand Giant for our province. He's in one of the photos.”
“Grand Giant?” I asked dumbly. “Is that like a Grand Wizard?”
“Exactly, but on a smaller scale. With this being common, local knowledge, it keeps the riffraff out, largely.” His mouth stretched into a ghoulish smile and he said, “He's a vast improvement on the last Grand Giant. He was tried and convicted of treason by the Grand Council of Yahoos.”
I closed my jaw with a snap. This guy was certifiably loony, speaking as if what the pictures showed was the right and proper way to do things. I realized then what danger my bartender was really in and how desperate he must be for some human contact – male contact – to risk a liaison. I smiled and said goodnight to the clerk and walked out the front door to my car to collect my bag. Reentering the motel I found that the clerk's eyes seemed to be on me, as if he knew that I was about to engage in something his Klan would find deeply offensive. I began to worry.
He bid me goodnight and retreated through the door behind the counter. I headed down the hall to my room, no longer able to enjoy the art deco lamps and wall decorations. I opened my door and as I did there was another champagne pop and I wondered if the people in the room next to mine were celebrating. I shuddered to think what might be celebrated in this grisly anachronism of a motel. I switched on the light which filled the room with a warm glow. The room was in keeping with the style of the rest of the building, the modern streamlined look going from lacquered wooden walls to the brass lines set into the wood for accent.
I closed the door and set my bag on a small bench provided for just that purpose. I took out my toiletries and went to the small bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth. I stripped down to my skivvies and sat on the bed, hesitantly. If the bartender knocked at my door, should I let him in? Would he appreciate that I was trying to protect him by not taking him to my bed? Perhaps he could leave with me! Yes, we could simply walk out the front door and move on to a larger city, someplace he'd be safe.
Energized, I waited for his knock. I pulled the duvet back on the bed and fluffed the pillows and sat, watching the door. I crawled across the bed and turned on the lamp on the opposite side, then I padded across to the switch by the door and turned off the overhead light. Returning to my bed I noticed a photo on the wall, and though I was loathe to look I approached it so that I could remove it from the wall.
I tried not to look, but my eyes were drawn as if by some force outside my being. The air in the room became heavy and it felt as if the walls were closing in as I looked at the image, in black and white, of ragged people with even more ragged clothing standing in a clump. All of them looked like walking skeletons with triangles on their breast. No doubt, had this been in color, those triangles would be pink.
I grabbed the frame in rage and pulled, but the picture stayed fast on the wall. Inside the frame the skeletal figures opened their mouths and placed their hands out to steady themselves against my exertions. I pulled wildly, hoping to cause some damage to the wall and equally sure others found this as horrible as I did if the person who hung it had attached it so securely. I felt pressure on my skin, a sense of being squeezed on my head as if I were underwater at great depth.
A low moan sounded in the room and, with horror, I realized the sound was coming from the photo. The mouths, opened into wide 'O's of surprise were now sounding their fear or anger – I couldn't tell which. My fingers slipped and I scrabbled for purchase on the thin metal frame, digging my fingers behind the picture and pulling with every ounce I could muster. With a scream that sounded like it came from somewhere outside my door the picture flew from the wall and slipped from my hands, the glass shattering on the carpet as I fell to the floor.
The pressure eased and my breathing began to slow to a more normal rate. I sat up and looked around the floor, spotting the picture frame peeking out from under the bed. Gingerly, watching for broken glass, I picked the frame up by a corner. The picture sagged out of the frame, broken glass poking cruelly into the photo paper. Where the glass punched through, blood dripped from the gored bodies that tumbled from the frame, moaning in pain. With a cry I dropped the frame which tumbled to the carpet, face up and intact.
I stared at the photo, my heart hammering in my chest and my mind screaming that it had been broken and I had seen blood and screaming figures! I'd heard them! I jumped at a noise behind me, a gentle tapping. Thank goodness! I scrambled to my feet and glanced down at the photo as I moved to the door – it was gone. I stumbled and reached for the door handle but froze as I saw the picture was back on the wall. I stared in horror, flinching when the tap sounded again. I pulled the door open and the bartender quickly stepped through the doorway, closing the door behind him.
“There is something wrong with this place,” I said to him with no preamble.
“Yes, there is,” he replied quietly. “There is a lot wrong here.”
“We should go,” I said while running a hand across my chin. “We should get in my car and just drive. Head for a big city where they have bigger minds and protection.”
“You want to take me with you?” he asked.
“I couldn't leave you here!” I said to him while pointing at the picture. “That picture is horrid enough, but if that's what they think of people like us then we have to go!”
“Calm down,” he said soothingly, “just hold on a minute.” He extended a hand and ran his fingertips up the length of my arm; his touch cool and dry. “Making love in front of that picture is like poking them in the eye, in a way. Don't you think?”
“We should...we should go,” I said with worry; his logic wasn't helping my nerves.
“I'd love to. But, the timing is bad,” he replied. He reached out his other hand and trailed his fingers from my stomach up across my chest, circling my nipple, and then again he slid his cold hand across my collarbone and onto my shoulder. His fingers moved into my hair, gaining some warmth there.
“What do you mean?” I asked as I dazedly looked at his smiling face with the laugh lines that were sexier than dimples.
“The desk clerk is still up. He's been stealing from the till, you see. He's going to blame me, name me as queer but the Grand Giant will see through him. He'll put a bullet in the clerk's brain for sure, but then he'll look for me just because he'll accept the 'queer' part is true. He's suspected, but with the clerk's statement, he'll think he knows, and if he knows, then he has to do something about it. So we have to sit tight until the desk clerk is done for the night.”
“So we...we wait for a bit.” I couldn't believe I was staying in this hell hole another minute, but what he said was right. If we left and the desk clerk suspected we were two queers running for cover, he'd get a call into the Klan's version of a posse and then we might be the most recent pictures on these walls.
“I'm cold. How about you warm me up while we wait?” he purred. His mouth brushed against my own, his cool – no cold – hands running through my hair and stroking my exposed back. I whimpered into his mouth, pressing my lips to his and feeling his mouth warm from my skin. He must have gone outside to wait and grown cold as he tried to dodge the desk clerk's notice.
That thought carried me through as I ran my fingers through his hair, which felt cold as well. I pulled away long enough to begin undoing the buttons of his shirt as he snatched kisses and forced me back a step per button until the backs of my knees hit the bed and I sat. He undid the final button to reveal his undershirt, which he peeled off quickly. I inhaled as I took in his chest, truly my type. His strong shoulders tapered down to a not-quite-narrow waist. His stomach was flat but not showing individual abdominal muscles and a light dusting of blond hair was spread evenly across his skin and up in between his pectorals. I ran my fingers over his torso, my hands heated from the blood rushing through my body, and found his skin was cold to the touch.
“You're so cold,” I murmured as I leaned forward and applied my tongue to his nipples, each in turn.
“You'll warm me,” he said with assurance. He wiggled as I teased his nipples, toeing off his shoes. I fumbled with his belt while I kept up my ministrations, but he pushed me back onto the bed. Latching his gaze onto mine he pulled the belt out of his pants, seductively running it through the loops until it dangled from his outstretched hand. Dropping it to the carpet he undid his pants and pulled them out at the sides, then dropped them. His excitement was covered by a thin pair of cotton underpants, unflattering in their design but made near invisible by my desire.
He reached out and I took his hand, pulling him to me. His skin was cold, his muscles stiff. I kissed him and stroked his skin while maneuvering us both under the covers. I shared my body heat with him and he began to feel merely cool while his body made my temperature soar. In a rush our remaining garments were cast aside and our hands fumbled in their urgency, mouths moving quickly for pleasure and lubrication. Then he was urging me into him, the heat of my erection meeting the cold of his core, but what my eyes then beheld made it possible to ignore the unnatural feeling of his cold embrace.
The duvet had fallen off my shoulders, piling behind my buttocks. He lay before me, exposed. His beautiful chest heaving and his legs spread wide to give me access. It was an incredibly arousing view - pale skin, hard sex and a scrotum that was tight to his body. Sensing my pleasure at seeing his nakedness he bent his knees, increasing my view, and urged me forward. As I sawed in and out he cried out softly, moans of pleasure urging me to keep going. The longer we moved the warmer he felt and the smaller my unease with his cold core.
I leaned forward and his legs wrapped around my lower back, locking themselves. I moved slower and we met for a passionate kiss that increased the heat between us tenfold. He began to move under me, wiggling his behind and asking for me to fill him, to keep going and warm him. I leaned back again and placed my hands on the soles of his feet, opening him to me and watching my length surge forward and fall back. His head tossed from side to side, his murmurs urging me on coming in a steady liturgy accompanying my lovemaking.
I felt nothing but heat between us as my pace increased. He turned his head to the side, staring at the bedside table and mumbling his urgent need. I grabbed his ankles and pulled up, thrusting with all the passion my body possessed.
“Now! Now! Give your heat to me!” he whispered with such sexual urgency that I felt my end bubbling up and out. Waves of euphoria rolled through me, I thrust convulsively, emptying all I had, and when I thought myself spent, a new keg was tapped and I felt myself fountaining anew, and a crack of thunder raced through me as I spent. For his part his own end had come, hot and sticky across his abdomen – but his face was on the clock. I turned my head, still in the haze of lust and the heat of passion to take in the time on the mechanical-digital clock. The numbers flipped and read '666' then flipped uncontrollably to read '13' and then again until they rested on '2:56'. I felt myself slipping from him as my brain registered confusion and I began to wonder if my fatigue coupled with the drinks had interfered with my lucidity.
Behind me the door burst open and the man from the picture, the one who had been pointing and who had been looking a warning at folks against being uppity stood, blood spatter on his coat and face and gun in hand. I jumped and the bartender scooted back up against the headboard, a hand held out in fear.
“The whore and her john have been dealt with according to Klan Law,” he said calmly, strolling a few steps into the room, his voice deep and his drawl pronounced. “I had a bit of a jaw with William. He tells me you're a queer, Samuel.”
“He...he's just saying that to cover himself,” Samuel replied in an unsteady voice. I was desperately trying to form a plan, to find something to defend myself with from this lunatic. “He's been dipping into the nightly take!”
“Ayup, he sure enough has. I kind of expect it from his kind, not all white folk can be trusted any better than colored. I'm sure disappointed in you, though, Samuel. A queer,” he shook his head and tisked, “You had us all fooled. I don't like being fooled.” He raised the gun.
“No!” I screamed, my hands wrapping around the clock on the nightstand and throwing it at the mad gunman. The clock hit the gun as it went off and the large caliber pistol thundered in the confined space. A huge hole appeared on the wall over the headboard. Sam seemed to be stunned as did the shooter – the Grand Giant – and we all froze for the merest moment. Then I threw the lamp from the nightstand and Sam and I were running for the door as another wild shot aerated a wall.
As we ran, Sam flipped the bench and my bag into the gunman's shins. He over balanced went stumbling forward. Sam and I were through the door in a flash and running down the hall. We passed the room two down from me and I saw, in the blink of an eye, the dead salesman and barmaid. Arriving in the lobby the desk clerk was slumped over the counter with the top of his head facing us. The ruined crater I'd seen in the mirror was in full evidence, bits of brain matter dropping with horrible clarity on the carpet.
“Stand, boy!” the Grand Giant bellowed and I and saw him filling the door to the lobby, his gun pointed at me. I gaped at him and he fired. I felt the cold slam into me and my vision went red, then dimmed to nothing at all.
The blue lights flashed off the broken plate glass and trailed across the building and the work truck. State Trooper Robert Troutman eased out of his seat and approached the truck. The trucks doors opened and a man stepped out wearing the uniform of the security firm hired by the Savannah River Site. Glancing at the motel and the dusty rental in front of it he knew he wouldn't be home on time tonight.
“Hiya, Bobby,” the guard called in greeting.
“Vern,” Bobby nodded and extended his hand. “What have we got?”
“Spotted it on morning rounds,” Vern said as he started walking towards the car. “No one inside, no ID but it's locked up tight. I didn't want to go in the building, just in case – you know, like last time.”
Bobby grunted in response. Squeezing the button on his shoulder mounted radio he called in to the barracks and requested the plate be run. Then he pulled his flashlight out and approached the ramshackle building whose lobby doors hung open drunkenly.
“Why haven't they just bulldozed this place?” he muttered.
“Something about historical significance, I heard,” Vern answered, stepping into the lobby. “I hear the Smithsonian is making an African-American exhibit, and you can't have a history like that in the States without the Klan being represented. I guess they want an artifact or some...oh, God!” Vern covered his mouth as he gagged and spun on his heel to run back outside.
Bobby pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and placed it in front of his mouth. He took a close look at the victim's face then at his nude body. He was male, the age uncertain due to the trauma – which appeared to be a gunshot at close range. Stepping carefully, the trooper couldn't see any spent cartridges in evidence, but the crime scene folks were better suited for that. He was just the first on the scene. He called in the new information and asked for the coroner's wagon.
Continuing past the body, he moved down the hall, the floor clearly disturbed by the dead man's flight. To be sure, Bobby returned and flashed his beam on the soles of the corpse's feet, verifying their filth and the odd glass fragment. Turning back, he found the broken door of a room with belongings scattered – likely the victim's. He found a wallet and reported it. Glancing around the room he shook his head and walked back out to the entrance where he joined Vern, who had recovered command of his stomach.
“Jesus,” Vern said while making the sign of the cross. “Why do people do that?”
“Every year 'bout this time, it seems,” Bobby agreed. “Can't see the draw; should just knock it all over and be done with it.”
“Was he alone?”
“Near as I can tell,” Bobby replied. “Funny, though, the vic seemed to have had sex shortly before dying, but there was nothing to indicate a second person. Just like last year.”
The coroner showed up and there was a flurry of activity from the crime scene folks as they took samples and searched for clues. Bobby waited, glad he'd brought a thermos of coffee and his lunch. He was even more grateful his wife had stuffed an Elmore Leonard paperback in with it. He sat quietly, turning pages and only pausing long enough to answer any questions anyone had.
Turned out the vic was from New York City. Rental agency said the car was due to be turned in down in Georgia; they'd send someone for it directly. Bobby was grateful to not be saddled with notifying next of kin, being as the vic was from out of state. Even so, the captain could do that – it was why she got the big bucks, after all.
After the last vehicle pulled away, Bobby sat in his cruiser and contemplated the rundown building and, for just a moment, he thought he saw someone watching from inside. Maybe a hand waving, or was there a voice calling out? That was impossible, people had been all over the building all day! No one would have stayed behind, unless they were trying to play a joke. He got back to his feet and walked back to the front doors, a thin fog working its way around his feet. As he stepped into the lobby he was shocked to find the lobby complete and in good repair with a clerk behind the counter. The clerk smiled and waved a bellhop over.
“Take your bags sir?”
Bobby turned, speechless and dumbfounded, as looked into the eyes of his vic.