Read Part 2 Here
Cochran stopped by the lamplight, and peered toward what was total blackness from where Ruby half-knelt. From somewhere, he had produced a police flashlight, maybe what he had punched her with before he dragged her out of the jewelry shop. The flashlight beam was wide enough that Ruby could no longer doubt her eyes. Earl’s head was queerly turned over his right shoulder, farther than was humanly possible, so that he was facing Ruby, his eyes and mouth agape, that angelic face now grotesque. The realization that Cochran had broken her dead lover’s neck, that Earl may have still been alive when Cochran put his claws on him, filled her with a bolt of rage that started in her loins and spread outward, not just in her flesh and along her spine, but which projected outward and filled the cold dark space between her and Cochran. She found herself on her feet and struggling with Cochran, trying to wrench the gun from his hand, kicking and biting at any part of him she could. Despite all his muscle, Cochran’s smile twisted sporadically from the effort needed to control a wounded, half-crazed animal, which in a way was what she wanted to be now- a noble fearless beast—more fierce and protective than any human – protective even of what she had already lost.
Cochran slammed Ruby to the ground and hammered his fist between her shoulder blades. She felt something dislodge, knocked loose from where it belonged to catch somewhere between her chest and throat, choking off her breath. But Ruby wasn’t trying to breathe, she was trying to kill. With that focused will to destroy, she landed an unlikely punch to Cochran’s groin. Time seemed to drag as he emitted a pathetic shushing sound, like a bullying librarian enforcing silence with a lame but prolonged threat. Cochran’s drew his hands tight over his testicles, a gesture obscenely like prayer. In that frozen moment, Ruby recalled the parable of the wedding feast in the Bible where the unworthy guest who has not dressed for the ceremony is cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The time bubble was ruptured by a crisp popping sound. Cochran muffled a scream, and then bent over to spit out blood and bits of a broken tooth. Ruby envied what he had done on his own, and wished she had done all of that damage directly, with her body’s own weapons or a heavy stone against his face.
Cochran was on her again, trying to bear hug her, but he kept going weak, writhing in pain as though a python was snapping its jaws down on his scrotum and pulsating bone crushing coils around his loins. The flow from the gash above Ruby’s eye momentarily blinded her, like a prizefighter in a final round, but she was close enough to kick at him with all she had. He backed away from her lunges, and in that moment of respite, she instinctively brushed what she though was matted bloody hair from over her forehead. When Cochran reached out for her, Ruby plunged the hair pin she had just rediscovered into his face, just missing his left eye. The three-inch hairpin had come to her hand without any conscious thought. It had to be Earl, her guardian angel, who had guided her hand in that automatic gesture of self-care. And it could have been Earl who tripped Cochran over the embankment into the landfill. One of them had kicked the flashlight away and they were again in total darkness save the amber haze pushing over the quarry edge. Ruby could hear Cochran cursing and moaning somewhere below on the inclined wall of the pit. The sounds were different. He was trying to conceal his helplessness. She had really hurt him with her kicks, the pin had punctured his temple and maybe, as she prayed, the fall had broken his neck.
Ruby was making headway back up the embankment by plying each toe and finger deep into the mud and grit, something she had seen an animal do in a nature film as it tried to escape a predator. She realized that the oversized ring she wore for Earl was now thick with muck, but it at least it was on her finger and at least she had her fingers. She cried uncontrollably and fell face down in the mud, sliding over and over as she tried to keep a foothold. She knew how Cochran down there would think of her if he could see her now – a dumb emotional cunt. The thought helped her pull herself together and try to think about what to do. She could search the area and find the flashlight, which could help her find the gun and her way up to safety. She went back to the area where she had fought off Cochran, imagining that he was crawling up the ledge to grab her. Ten minutes of patting the mud like a raccoon looking for food, her fingers stumbled upon the cold smooth metal of Cochran’s gun. She had not been able to think beyond getting her hands on it, but now she recalled the light reflecting dully off the curved metal wall of the shed. Was there a chance it had a telephone? Did it matter? She felt she might be too weak to try to break into a metal shed get access to it.
When the right course of action occurred to her, she wondered why it had taken so long. She would have to reverse direction, climb back down into that hell hole without sliding into the quarry pit, and take the chance that Corcoran had revived and could trap her in those spider gorilla arms of his and squeeze the life out of her. She had no idea what time it was, but she couldn’t waste time. This was the kind of place where work started just at the crack of dawn and she knew anyone who found them would have to buy a vice cop’s story over that of a black show girl.
She took the climb down slowly, feeling each second was putting her closer in time to being discovered by a trucker or a quarry worker, and each step was closing the distance between herself and a deadly enemy. Ruby followed the gun as if it were a seeing-eye dog tethered to the end of her fully extended arm. She could hear him breathing and threatened to shoot him if he didn’t hand over the phone, although she couldn’t see him clearly, she believed the gun could. “ You dumb cunt, what the hell can you do with a telephone? You don’t have the guts to shoot me or I’d be dead already. If you’re smart you’ll cut a deal with me. You’re still a young woman, pretty and smart. Don’t throw it all away for a dead man.”
“Shut up or I’ll shut you up.” Ruby yelled. In that moment, he was right she couldn’t shoot him, not like this. She decided that he wasn’t going to hand the phone over with a threat from a woman. She would have to take it from him. Coming at him at an angle where he should not have been able to get a grip on her leg or foot, her eyes adjusted enough to the darkness to make out that he was holding his right leg in pain, and just below his hands, his thighs buckled upward. He was in no shape to slither toward her, and the look of pain and hate on his face in the amber light told her what he was betting. She circled further from his upper body, made sure of her footing, and then pressed the ball of her bare foot against his thigh. He howled and thrashed about. His shrieks were easily the loudest and most distorted human voice she had ever heard, a sound that could have come from a mountain lion caught in a mutilating trap. She saw an opening and in a mad reflex jumped on and off his chest twice, her full weight on a single bare foot covered in bloody mud that amazingly did not land her on her ass. She was able to look down, after the screaming and wails had stopped. He was shivering and tremors went through his body and quickly subsided, as though a last spark from a high voltage lined had passed through him. Ruby wondered if this was what was called the death rattle. He had vomited and the stuff streamed from his nose and then started down his chin and coat collar in a slow trickle, and as disgusting as it was, it gave her a sense of relief. Then she saw some of the filth flowed the wrong way and she knew he was still taking breaths, shallow sniffles that could barely be called breaths, but he was still alive.
She bent over flipped open his coat and reached into the breast pocket for the phone; sicken as much by the puke smell as by the necessity of touching him without inflicting pain. She rose to her full height with the phone outstretched toward Cochran as if to taunt him, and was disappointed that he was far from fully conscious. Her arm sank with the bitter realization that she now had the power to deny Cochran the ability to call for help, she was powerless to make the only call that could matter to her. The thought of calling Earl left her in tears, but as the tears subsided, the thought of taking Cochran’s keys came to her as though projected from outside her. Until now, the thought of taking the keys that probably still had her blood on them and driving away in the sedan had been literally unthinkable. He had taken everything from her and now she could return the favor. It was easy to manhandle him and pull out most of his pants pocket to dig out the keys.
Hearing the wheezing sound coming from Cochran, Ruby imagined a balloon deflating, stopping and then deflating even more without ever being filled, an absurdity unimaginable without the darkness. The mechanical, impersonal image prevented her from not regretting that when she had stomped on his chest she had had failed to burst the despicable lungs that were still keeping his heart beating, keeping him alive.
She considered firing the gun into his heart, up close, a contact shot. Whatever human coldness had enabled her to torture a wounded human being was no longer with her. Her hatred for the man turned her lifelong fear of dark, wild, abandoned places like this into a wish. Even a place like this, where nature had been stripped to the core, had to still be a suitable habitat for wild animals. If she left him there, he might live long enough to feel the rats or a stray opossum start to feed on him. She would not have to do the torturing herself, or have to see it but she would know it would happen. There was a chance he would die of shock or thirst, and not a small chance that he would be discovered alive before the sun set again, and would send the law after her and Earl.
The police flashlight was lost to the pit below, but she used the smartphone flashlight to search the canvased equipment leaning against the shed. She found an assortment of long handled landscaping tools. She chose a very narrow shovel with a comfortable heft. The shovel sank easily into the wet soil. Cochran was breathing, but he wasn’t playing possum, no one could lie there and let her shovel a thick layer of mud and debris over his shoulders and neck, and stack up sticks and cans to form a barrier around him. When she was finished, she used one of the rakes from the shed to try to cover their tracks, but the raking only made the spot more conspicuous.
There was a large water tank with a large gauge hose, probably used for rinsing trucks off and to wet down loads of dry soil or sand. She dragged the hose as close as she could to Cochran’s shallow living grave, and turned on the hose, taking the chance of drowning Cochran, since she was now too far away to hear him if he was gurgling water and fighting to breathe. The water came out with surprising force, pushing her over the mud and landing her on her butt. She got the hang of handling the hose and finished washing away the tracks.
It seemed to take an eternity to leverage and pry Earl’s body into the back seat. She thought that this was another thing that Cochran would have said she couldn’t possibly do, move a heavyset man that stood a foot over him. Touching Earl, handling him carefully as she could, she felt neither disgust nor fear, only grief and tenderness. She found some paper towels in the trunk and wet them to clean Earl as best as she could. She went through the canvas tarps and found one that was fairly new. She dragged another one over to the tank and spread it out on the ground so she could spray herself clean of mud and then rinse the tarp that would be Earl’s temporary shroud, treating it as gingerly as she could with the ice-cold water, like it was an extension of her body that couldn’t tolerate too much more abuse and strain.
The big sedan tottered monotonously on failing shocks for hours until the sun in the cloudless sky caused pain to arch from yellow white to searing blue across her parched eyes. She doubted if she could continue to stay awake, but she avoided the exits and rest stops until she found a rest stop that seemed to be abandoned. Until that moment, she hadn’t felt safe enough to stop and talk to Earl. Now that didn’t seem urgent, she could simply rest. She knew Earl already knew more about her feelings than she could ever express, more than she could ever know. He knew that she wasn’t going to let herself be the kind of woman that would wallow in self-pity and fear after a dumb ox like Cochran had gored her, cut out her best part. He knew that she had the faith that love could heal her, just as surely as fear and hate had hardened her, and that she could do whatever was needed.