In the near darkness of the highway, the sedan’s cheap faux leather upholstery took on a sickly, blood-clot color that Ruby’s captor probably thought of as burgundy. She was on the back bench seat balanced precariously on her right side and slipping on her own cold sweat. The highway was bad and the sedan’s suspension and shocks were worse. Every few minutes the sedan would bounce, slamming her head against the passenger seat in front of her. The only thing keeping Ruby from falling into the rear foot well was a little bulb of fat on her buttocks, the bulge that she had tried to rid herself of until Earl assured her he wanted all of that and more. She could not use her hands to steady herself because they were shackled to the floor. She had explored every millimeter of the floor within her reach of her fingers and nails, like an animal in a trap, and made out what seemed to be a thick metal ring erupting from a rough slit in the carpet. The ring was probably welded to the car frame and would never pull lose. Whenever she could dare to take on the tearing agony in her gut, Ruby heaved her entire bodyweight onto her left buttock and pushing with all her strength to come to an almost sitting position, but she could only strain against the joints and sinews of her own arms for only a few seconds before collapsing in pain. That was the cost of only a few glimpses out of the driver’s window to see a deep ditch following the shoulder of the road, and a beyond that, dark fields, but she was determined to find out where he was taking her and to not let Cochran believe he had free rein over her.
From Cochran’s perspective, it was absurd and funny, like a carnival duck shoot. Each time his eyes dodged from the dark road to the rear view mirror, he would see Ruby, bouncing on her butt, her head popping into view in the mirror and bobbing from side to side in the farthest arc of his peripheral vision. He steered with his left hand and nonchalantly took random shots at her with the back of his right fist. When his fist made a solid connection right above her collarbone, Cochran emitted a primal grunt that sounded to Ruby like brute satisfaction. That grunt confirmed her guess about why he hadn’t stopped the car and knocked her out cold again, as he had done after she had first regained consciousness and found herself in handcuffs and had tried to prevent him from chaining her to the ring. She knew now that he wanted to hide his pleasure, but he was getting his jollies off from this game of cat and mouse they had stumbled into.
The black ring contraption was something a serial rapist or killer would install, not a Kansas City vice cop like Cochran, but Ruby was sure that Cochran had used the same contraption on Maddie and other B-girls who worked the clubs he prowled in. Almost all of those girls were smaller than Ruby and would have had more room to maneuver, and probably would fit into the foot well and cringe totally out of sight. Unlike Ruby, those girls would not have been doubled over in pain from Cochran’s jab to her gut with either a Billy club or pistol mussel. The unexpected blow had all but blinded her with pain. Whatever he had used, it came in hard enough that Ruby now feared she might be dying of internal bleeding. All those girls that had left the jazz clubs being jerked along by Cochran had returned not showing a scratch, sometimes the same night that Cochran had taken them. Ruby knew that she wouldn’t be going back to Club Mercedes or any of those clubs and she was already pretty scarred up.
The car lurched sharply to the right and was engulfed in darkness. Her torso twisted in the opposite direction, imprinting Ruby’s bruised muscles and organs with a contra coup map of turns off the interstate and onto a road that was so poorly maintained or unpaved. The car veered to the right again, not quite a full turn this time, and began bucking over rough rock that crunched, seemed to collapse, and scoured the undercarriage. The chalky smell of gravel dust seeped through the closed windows so that Ruby thought the alum taste was in her mouth. She had caught sight of a line of widely-spaced, rough-hewn lampposts exuding an anemic amber-colored light. She risked another blow from Cochran’s fist and made out the words sand, white stone, and fill dirt on handmade signs, each with a crude arrow drawn to point ambiguously to narrow unpaved roads, more lanes or paths, covered with loose gravel. Ruby had only a vague idea of what a quarry was, but this was very close to that idea what one might look like at two in the morning. The rock path took them in a wide arch to the left, away from what must have been the access road from the highway. She pieced together that came to a dead end at the last lamppost, near a steel-plated building of the type her uncles used to call a Quonset hut. This area of the quarry, she supposed, was where anything of value had already been taken and the only thing left to sell was the empty, anonymous space—land fill, valuable because nobody cared what went into it.
As soon as the car came to a halt, Cochran turned all the way around, reached over and slapped her. Maybe because she knew something was about to happen the blow shifted her memory into high gear and she was reliving the events that put her there in Cochran’s sedan. Everything was more condensed, like an old-fashioned gangster film run at high speed. Sound effects of guns firing, glass breaking, pearls, diamonds, and glass chips scattering over marble, but there was no music or words, just a terrible, dramatic silence between the shocks of sound and violent action. Earl, the only man she ever loved, was screaming and groaning. A man with a black stocking over his face was using Harry Cochran’s voice to growl out absurdities in the angry inflection of commands. Ruby relived her disbelief that Cochran could possibly be there, unless it was all a nightmare. He had to be three hours away in Kansas City because Earl would never have told him they were planning a job in Des Moines.
The film backed up to the moment just before all hell broke loose, before Cochran appeared. Earl had been smiling generously as in a broad gesture. He swayed his shopping bag toward the diamond neckless and matching wristband that the jeweler was in the process of nestling back on the black satin of the display panel, and moments before had ceremoniously draped over the caramel satin of Ruby’s skin. The jeweler looked like an over-the-hill version of the older Mario brother in the video game, with a broad smile under his thick mustache. He lost his smile when Earl gave him the good news that he would be perfectly safe if he just kept his hands busy placing the merchandise into the leather flight bag Earl was handing to him. That’s when the elderly Mario pitched a comic judo chop toward Earl’s outstretched hand. The anemic chop had seemed to miss by several inches. Ruby expected Earl to use his pistol to break the jeweler’s nose to put him back in line and re-establish everyone’s safety. Blood spurted over the shopping bag, but impossibly, it wasn’t Mario’s blood. The jeweler’s little hand had jutted out from sleeve of his lint-dulled black suit like arm and hand from a gag pistol she had once seen Wiley Coyote firing at the Road Runner, except the one in the cartoon held a “Bang!” flag. Mario gripped a little axe-like thing with an oddly short handle, all nicely wrapped in new beige leather. Who ever heard of a sawed off hatchet?
Then a sonic boom had flung the shop door open and a stuttering tsunami of concussions flattened Mario against the glassy granite floor. Earl seemed to absorb the full recoil of the explosions. Ruby strained to lift his shoulders, trying to keep his big body from crumbling onto the floor, but her arms failed him. She looked down and saw Earl’s upper body covering most of the jeweler’s torso so the two men appeared to be sleeping Siamese twins, one perfectly formed, but sprouting from underneath a pair of shriveled legs, a tiny head that defied clear perception. Beneath them the shining pink granite seemed to be cracked with moving veins of red-brown carnelian that converged to form an opaque puddle. Before she could let understand the message it held, Corcoran was jerking Ruby by the arms and dragging her backward out of the shop.
Her tactile memory of being pulled brought her attention to the current reality of straining against the handcuffs, and this allowed her the perspective to recall how she had experienced her capture. It had been as if she were floating somewhere above it all. She had seen the hysterical woman sliding across the smooth floor, then bumping twice on the metal threshold, first her butt, then her high heels, which came flying off. One shoe got stuck at the bottom of the glass door, so it looked like a novelty doorstop to entertain the store’s fashion conscious patrons, and her jacket had peeled away from her like a discarded cocoon. Then Cochran lobbed the woman into the back seat of his sedan, while she thrashed like a harpooned mermaid. He tossed what she knew was her purse in the thrashing woman’s face, and everything had gone blank.
As the distorted memories subsided, she reminded herself that it all had to make sense. She was not crazy or dreaming. Cochran must have followed them from Missouri, had seen something was going wrong in the shop, and had come in to make sure he’d get the merchandise they had already caught for him, like a jackal rushing in to grab a lion’s kill. Cochran caused Earl to get hurt by breaking in on them and distracting Earl from full focus on what the shopkeeper hands were doing.
She knew that she could not accept what her conscience was telling her, that it was all her fault. That she should have known she was way out of her league when, over a month ago, she had threatened to expose Cochran as a crooked cop. It had been foolish arrogance to imply she could take matters into her own hands. The guilty thoughts invited a knitting needle to stich away at her brain, and every pang felt well deserved. Reflexes propelled her hands toward her head, but she was jerked down again by the penned shackle. She was thankful for the dull thunder that rolled through her mind leaving her thoughtless, except for the image of dark clouds and rain. The pain kept her from lapsing back into sleep or a coma. Worse than the pain was the nagging conviction, which she hoped was only a delusion, that Earl was lying directly behind the car seat where she was chained, in the trunk, either gravely injured or dead.
Ruby’s defiance of Cochran was now a reflex. As soon as she recovered from the his last blow, Ruby sat up as far as she could, which made the blood rush to her head and rekindled the pain. In her stupor, she called him a jackal and a coward. She noticed that her calling him a coward had made him flinch. She went off on a riff about his yellow streak, about him being just another punk who thought a gun made him a big man, about his white man’s short dick syndrome.
For a while he just took it in, and then Cochran turned off the lights and killed the engine. He punched the door open, and the hinges made a buckling sound and sent the door bouncing back toward him. He struck the door again while it was still in motion, this time with the butt of his hand, as though he was fending off an attacking adversary. That discharged enough anger that Cochran was able to recover his casual pace, lift his bulk off the seat with a heavy sigh, come to his feet and reach under his coat for his pistol. He walked slowly behind the car, his heft crushing cinders and grinding grit. He paused as if considering what to do, but he was actually waiting to see if she would break her silence with more curses, or come to her senses and start pleading for mercy. He wasn’t sure which one he wanted, for her to mouth off and make it easy for him to finish the bitch now, or find a way to salvage her for something useful to him later on.
Ruby began to survey what she could see or feel in the back seat. She only found that her purse was there, near her hands in the foot well, as if appearing from that remembered nightmare. It was utterly useless to her. Cochran needn’t have bothered to retrieve it since it couldn’t link her to the scene and contained no valuables. Earl always ordered her to leave her phone, identification, and the gun in their car so they couldn’t be lost during the heist, and so he would know exactly what the only armed person, himself, would be doing with a weapon.
It too only a few minutes for Ruby’s composure to spike Corcoran’s rage. He flung open the back passenger seat door and leaned over far enough to unlock the shackles without a sign of resistance from her, and slid her hands away from ring. He lifted himself up to grab what remained of the top of her dress and pulled her forward, positioning her for a pummeling. Ruby raised up even higher than Cochran and spit down into his face several times with unbelievable speed like a cobra, big viscous globs of spit, splattering into his eyes and mucking his pink lips and stubble chin. Cobra venom paralyzes and burns, but Cochran was only stupefied. Suddenly, his cheek felt like it had cracked open after a severe frostbite. She had slapped him hard and his overloaded nerves could not differentiate intense cold, heat, or pain. The solid contact felt good to Ruby, and she slapped him again, this time even harder with her fully extended palm, hitting him with more force and violence than she had ever directed at anything. She could have used her fists in hope of causing physical damage, but she knew instinctively her slaps would be more humiliating. She also knew that the blows she had repaid him and the spitting would probably get her killed, but in that moment it felt well worth it.