Cochran was humiliated but he was even more angry with himself for putting up with her unpredictability. He decided to eliminate this variable from the equation. No more mister nice guy, he told himself. He retreated from the car and pulled his keys out of his right coat pocket, and deftly maneuvered the fob between his thumb and index finger with dexterity, as if he were habitually fingering the beads of a rosary. He leaned back into the car, not as close to her as before, and punched her hard hitting the back of her shoulder with the a fist that was now a makeshift mace studded with the business end of his keys. He then took his time and moved her limp frame into position for second blow, taking careful aim to spare her pretty lips so that they might still be of use to him. Ruth was anesthetized from physical and mental shock, but she could feel the warm blood well up and begin to overflow from the gash that Cochran had punched into her forehead right above her right eye. “Tit for tat, Bitch,” Cochran said, although he couldn’t be sure she made any sense out of his words. He pulled her out of the car head first, letting her plop full force onto the mud.
“You little stinking bitch. If you want to live you are going to take back everything you just said. I want to see how brave you are. Can you kill a man? Can you drag his ass out here to dump? Can you even stand to see it done? Well you are going to see it. You earned that, you little bitch. I had wanted you not to have to see your fancy gigolo dragged around like a slaughtered pig. But mother fuck if you haven’t changed my mind.”
Ruby and Cochran had no real history until six weeks ago. Before that he was only another part of the seedy periphery the Kansas City’s jazz district, which maintained much of the taste and jazz sensibility of two decades earlier. From a safe distance, she had read this cop as just another man who was bitter at life for not making him tall, handsome and rich. Like the Wizard of Oz, he worked too hard to produce an impression. He would linger at the door to case out who was in the club and to give the bartender and the B-girls – and any amateur hookers hanging out for customers – time to catch the vibe that he was there. He would peacock two doubles on the rocks of the house bourbon that the barman would have already lined up, and then slam the first one down without so much as a nod of acknowledgement. If he spoke at all to the bartender, invariably it was to demand information that put him or her in a bind with people they had to deal with on a daily basis. Over his less than forty years, smoke, free whiskey, and cynicism had etched on Cochran’s face something that resembled an aerial photo of a river canyon gone dustbowl. The B-girls said that he always found some excuse to whisper in their ear, like he wanted people to think the girl was snitching for him, or worse, that she was on intimate terms with him. The way he sat hunkered down and hunched over the bar smoking, Ruby got a feeling, later proved to be a premonition, that if she had sat next to him he might introduce himself by pushing the end of his lit cigarette into her forearm.
Maddie knew more about him than anybody around Club Mercedes where Ruby held court at the piano. Maddie had said little about him, but Ruby had seen more than enough. When Maddie was a B-girl – maybe occasionally something more – Harry had shaken her down more than once. Once Ruby had watched her moving in little nervous geisha steps pulled along by Cochran’s thick arm toward the back door. When Maggie returned, far into the second set, she looked dazed and had the white and rosy look some people get when they’ve been in the cold too long. Maddie had gone in the back and thrown on a sweater, and came out still adjusting a scarf around her neck, but stiffly and cautiously, as if she was wrapping a wound. Ruby had heard that Harry was always looking for some kind of leverage to force a girl to give him a blowjob. After Ruby had found herself shackled to the car frame, she understood Maddie had used the sweater to cover the bruising the shackles had done to her wrists. Cochran had caught Maddie in his spider trap and she had swallowed some of his death venom. That’s how Ruby felt about Harry; he was not quite alive, like the living dead in the horror flicks. He was a great white gorilla-spider that hunted the clubs disguised as a vice cop.
Harry had set a trap for Ruby using her man as bate. Cochran had busted one of Earl’s fences with a shitload of child pornography, something Earl had no idea the man was involved in. To keep his ass on the streets and probably to keep his porn as well, the pervert gave Earl up, along with all the contacts he used to move gems. Now that Harry had this grip on them, Earl’s confidence was wobbling, and she knew it was because he doubted that he could keep her safe. He had proposed leaving the country right away, not a year or so from now, which had been his original plan. But Ruby thought she could make Harry see he had more to lose than Earl did.
Ruby got the bartender to make her a screwdriver with an extra kick to it, pour Cochran a first rank single malt double whiskey, and send him over to her at the piano. The hard booze brought back the old burning in her throat that she knew would be followed by belly aches and diarrhea. Her angry GI track was telling her she was living on the edge again. That ache in her stomach had kept her company almost every night before she met Earl. Now, after a night on the town with Earl, they were having three a.m. breakfasts of steak and eggs or fried chicken and waffles followed by champagne and strawberries, and course after course of laughter and love-making. There was no way she would let Cochran take that from her.
Cochran had sauntered over to her like a wrestler claiming the championship trophy. He had no idea that Ruby was nothing like Maddie – there would be no bargaining with her body or with pretend emotions.
“Nobody threatens a cop, you dumb cunt. I could take you out tonight and that would be the end of it. Do you think if you get prison time you’ll send it with that gigolo of yours? He would just spend a few years working the boys in there. That’s not a problem for Earl, but your ass would be the bitch of some big she-dog. I could make sure of that, sister.”
Cochran saw he had gotten off the first wounding shot. Ruby had never heard anyone call Earl a gigolo before. She wanted to kill Cochran on the spot and she hated herself for not anticipating the near paralysis, the wounded feelings. She didn’t have a good come-back except the one she had never let slip from her hand as he approached the piano. She took the small caliber gun Earl had given her from her purse and moved it to the edge of the piano where Cochran had to look down its black nostrils, which were no bigger than her own, which were now swelled and pulsating with rage. Cochran laughed as though the gun was a joke to him. He walked away fast enough to show he was aware that Ruby wouldn’t be the first love-crazed woman to shoot a cop so he would ease up on her man, gigolo or no gigolo.
Earl had become her man right there in Club Mercedes. One night, Maddie had flitted around tables to the piano to drop something into Ruby’s oversized cognac sniffer that made a mellow, resonant chime that said it was something more than chump change. In the pale salad of loose fives and tens, Ruby caught sight of a thin glint of gold, and then saw the wide-eyed winking of a bright crimson gem. The glint and heat of heart-red ruby, her namesake gem, gave her a rush of – what? It felt like some fairytale wish she had forgotten had finally come true. It was a heavy masculine ring, a ring for a big man, powerful and passionate, unapologetic for being bigger and brighter than life. Earl was an earthbound angel that had dropped in on her performance and brought her his pet goldfish with a giant ruby eye.
Ruby had met other smooth operators like this big man calling himself Earl, but not with the same soft warm and feel of real quality, like fine deerskin gloves that made you feel cozy and secure on a Christmas sleigh ride with your father. Ruby had never gone on a sleigh ride, or ever had her father to herself, which was pretty much all she ever wanted as a child, for Christmas or any other day. So near her fifteenth birthday, she had found herself in a hotel room with two middle-aged white men who had been asking around about girls who wanted to model. When the friend who came with her backed out, Ruby should have known not to go on, but she felt locked into it, like a subway line ran directly from her life to the end of the line in that hotel room. She had felt so fucking helpless but she had wanted to be there too – to be on the older man’s lap. It was obvious to her even then, but knowing it didn’t stop it from being part of her. Neither man went farther than touching her in ways they should not have and urging her to take photographs. She had later had taken steps to make sure that the sorry experience could not be connected to her married name, and then later, to the new image she had created as a singer.
The move to KC had been hard on Ruby. She had started down on the bottom as a B-girl in clubs farther down Compton Street. She had to be seductive and provocative with the costumers at the club and then return to her apartment in the middle of the night to dream of the marriage that had driven her there. Sometimes she awoke aroused and confused and brought herself to orgasm by immersing herself in the fantasy of the man she had fled after only six months of marriage, imagining his touch, his strength, his ability to open her up to such pleasure and sweetness. Before she had finished, the tears would and come, then the sobbing and snot. When she had to go pee, she took care to avoid the mirror, not wanting to see the person she had become – the pretty shell that her abuser believed was his property and just on loan to her. And only then the flashback memories of the beatings and the terrible names he called her and forced her to call herself.
Earl couldn’t have known any of that when he walked into Club Mercedes. Couldn’t have known how he had affected her from the very first moment with that glove-to-hand feeling of the way he poured his presence over her. She knew he understood she would do anything for him, felt her gratitude, but he never asked about what he was making up for, and he graciously allowed her the illusion that he couldn’t guess what it was.
Her devotion to him wasn’t shaken by the discovery of what she liked to call his menagerie, and what made Cochran think he could call him a gigolo. Earl didn’t have a name for it; it was just him being himself. She accepted this in him, but didn’t understand it until a young white man came to the club seeking out Earl – the way someone needing an answer might seek out a seer. Ruby could see the love and desire shining through the young man’s tender idealization, and maybe because it was a man that loved Earl, Ruby had felt no threat to her connection, no jealousy.
This acceptance, which was against everything she had ever been taught, helped her break through a sound barrier; a limit in her music that she hadn’t known was there. Joining so fully with Earl had knocked down a domino line of taboos that had been stacked up over a lifetime to control and contain her. Earl had brought her a new dispensation, one that gave new life to her music and made her the rightful owner of her body for the first time. Earl opened her up to his life, including his crimes and the dangers that came with them, and his plans to gather enough cash and select gems to move permanently to Central America. From that point on, it seemed as if they had started a journey on an enchanted balloon that would take them all the way to the rainforests. They enjoyed each other in a more intense and fulfilling way, ignoring the hassles of life. The menagerie wasn’t even a distraction. They were frequently on the road casing out places, pulling a job, and then returning to KC to spend days analyzing the heist and winding down in bed with bubbly. They cruised through an infinite summer, their balloon propelled by their belief in their ability to outsmart the odds, and by the good luck they brought each other. Then Cochran had forced them to leap over an obstacle greater than any they had ever anticipated.
Now only six weeks later, she was lying in the quarry mud where Cochran had dropped her like a bag of trash. Earl worked like a matador or a gladiator, risking flesh and bone every time, and showing courage and grace in every gesture. Earl dead and this coward alive. This time she had said it out loud, and Cochran shifted his head toward her. “Coward,” she repeated. She couldn’t find the energy to draw the insult out, but her hate, disdain, and defiance were perfectly communicated.
Ruby’s arm felt like it was coming out of its socket. Cochran was dragging her toward the back of the car. Cochran had been caught off-guard by her insult, but now he had the right answer. He lifted Earl’s limp form out of the trunk with apparent ease, dumped the massive heap beside her, and looked down to see her reaction. The dim amber light and her mind’s defenses spared her from seeing Earl’s face, but even that not seeing was horrific, like those nauseating nightmares in which something terrible is happening to or being done by people whose faces you try to see, but dread to see, knowing that identifying them would make the dream just that much more unbearable. Cochran started to drag his catch for the night, a dead Earl and a stunned Ruby, and smeared the mud with them as though they were bags of fish futilely sucking at the air.