The corpse at the bottom of the pool lies on her back, illuminated like a ceramic mermaid decorating an aquarium. Her serene face tips up, seeking the surface twelve feet above. Her pale, naked limbs look longer than they should, distorted through the water’s strange lens. Her lurid red hair gently snakes out from her head like seaweed. As the sun comes up over the horizon, her chilled blue lips part as if to whisper, good morning, or, goodbye, as she fades away.
Shake had sat in the backseat all during the long drive from New York. His brothers, Carl and Sam sat up front, not speaking for hours at a time. They had always been like that, seeming to know each other’s mind and able to agree on the next action through a glance or a nod. Three or four words strung together with a couple of well-placed grunts made up an entire conversation between them. Shake, the younger brother, the last child, had never been completely fluent in their silent language. He guessed he never would be.
Carl, the elder brother, had done the bulk of the driving as always. Occasionally, he’d relinquish the wheel begrudgingly to Sam, admitting he was, “All tired out.” Shake was never part of the equation, he just sat in the back, thinking and wondering and remembering and forgetting.
His brothers had defined his life. He had belonged to them more than to his parents, or even really, to himself. They had rendered his proper name irrelevant by choosing to call him Shake and making it stick. His hands had always shook, even when he was a little kid. He thought there was more to it then that, though, some specific incident that had inspired them. He tried to recall, but he couldn’t find that detail.
He had no control over the things that were leaving him, no understanding of the logic that decided what remained. Images, patterns, colors, and scents, these things had staying power, but were often incomplete. He remembered the look of the label on their mother’s perfume bottle––gold edged against the fragrant amber liquid inside the atomizer––but not the words that made up its name. The prettiness of the bottle had been so out of place on his father’s bureau. He remembered the scent––warm and full like butter, sharp and floral like orange blossoms––but not the face of the woman who’d worn it, dead these nineteen years.
He was Shake. He still felt like just who he was. He held his hands out before him and he could see them just like he always had, but they were steady as a rock. So that was something different.
Farmland seemed to sit still outside the window, the gentle variance of blue sky to green land lulling his eyes as they rolled on and on. The road spread out forever into the wavering distance, pointing at a small slice of nothing ahead. One moment it was the back of Carl’s head at the wheel, another moment it was Sam. Running alongside his gaze, a town appeared, then nothing, a service station, nothing, a man and a black dog walking beside the road, nothing, a car passing by with people inside staring out their windows and not seeing him. Nothing.
And then after how many days he didn’t know, they stopped outside a roadside motel with a dormant neon sign that read: The Bella Vista Motel.
Carl and Sam peered up at the sign and then gave each other a shrug that Shake took to mean, “This must be the place.”
Carl said, “I’ll do the talking. Don’t want this guy gettin’ the wrong idea.” Sam nodded and said nothing. Shake wondered what wrong idea Carl was worried about.
As soon as the car stopped moving in the driveway Shake was out, eager to be free of his back seat confinement. The upholstered ceiling had really bothered him for some reason. Three massive mutt dogs ran at him, tails wagging, tongues lolling, their toe nails scraping on the cement of the driveway as they skidded to a stop and poked big wet noses at him, sniffing him with interest. He ran his hands over their heads as Carl and Sam got out of the car and were greeted by a dark, handsome young man that Shake vaguely remembered.
“Afternoon, gentlemen,” he said pleasantly.
Carl stepped forward and said, “Romeo. Long time. Heard you were out here.” His gaze shifted to take in the empty courtyard of the motel, the 12 rooms arranged around a pool with an open lounge, a grove of trees out back. “Mr. G told you what happened?”
Romeo nodded. “That was a tough break,” he said.
Carl grunted softly. Sam took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, lit one and leaned up against the side of the car.
“I understand you have a delivery?” Romeo said.
“Yeah,” Carl said, “in the trunk.”
Romeo waited, pointedly, and after a moment of letting him wait, Carl walked around to the back of the car and unlocked the trunk. What he pulled out, was a plain-looking brown leather case, not much bigger than a loaf of bread. It looked old and well used and not very important. He held it out to Romeo who took it, looked around at the empty motel grounds briefly, then set it on the hood of the car and opened it.
At the sight of the case, Shake felt a blunt, powerful smash in the back of his head. Everything that had been in his vision––Carl’s small sparse bedroom, the water-marked blind on the window, the scotch bottle on the bedside table luminous in the light from the lamp, Sam’s narrowed eyes looking just over Shake’s shoulder behind him, the dull blue blanket on the bed, and, sitting on the end of the bed, that case, that case right there, that same god damn case––all these things flooded his eyes, spread out and ran away beyond the edges of his vision. Hot wet liquid coursed down the back of his neck and streamed over his shoulders and back. A pounding sound that went all through him like a big bass drum started loud and heavy then faded to a soft hum. He took a breath and the hum ceased. He was still standing near the car in the driveway of the motel, still looking at a plain brown case that didn’t make any sense to him.
He suddenly wanted to see what was in that case very badly. He felt an almost physical pull from the middle of his chest and started to move toward Romeo when he felt a big meaty hand on his shoulder. Turning, he looked up into a large simple face smiling at him from beneath an undersized Yankees ball cap.
“Hiya, new guy. I ain’t seen you around here before,” the big guy said, friendly as a kindergartner.
“Hello,” Shake answered automatically, but couldn’t keep his eyes off of Romeo as he held up a small glass vial and looked at it briefly in the light. It was filled with a cloudy pinkish-colored liquid. He shook his head and put it back.
“You know all this is ruined, right?” Romeo said to Carl. He moved other things around in the case, the sound of glass and metal gently shifting as he examined the contents.
Carl didn’t respond. Shake stared at Carl’s face, then at Sam’s and saw as clear as anything that they were scared.
“A lot goes into harvesting this material, you can’t just go out and buy more from the corner store,” Romeo said.
“There ain’t no reason to go on about this. Shake paid for his mistake,” Carl said.
Romeo gave him a look from under his brows.
Sam cleared his throat and said quietly, “Mr. G said the instruments was important.”
“Yes, they are,” Romeo said, closing the lid to the case and snapping the clasps. He paused, looking first at Sam, then at Carl. “I can’t imagine how your brother managed to pull a fast one on Chester like that. He’s no dummy.”
Sam dropped his cigarette on the ground and crushed it beneath his heel. He glanced at Carl, caught his eye, looked away.
“Shake wasn’t no dummy neither,” Carl said. He spit on the ground and looked off into the distance across the road. “Too smart for his own good.”
“He’s talking about me––” Shake said. “He never talks about me.”
“You wanna meet some of the other guys?” Joe said, taking Shake’s arm and trying to pull him away before he could answer. “Come on, I’ll show you around.”
“I wish I knew what was in that case,” Shake said, moving reluctantly with the man. “I don’t understand what they’re talking about.”
Joe shrugged. “Not like it matters now,” he said. He looked back at Carl and Sam. “Those guys pals of yours?”
“My brothers,” Shake corrected, then added wistfully, “we were never close.”
Joe resumed moving toward the pool. “It’s best to let bygones be bygones, if you know what I mean,” he said.
Shake saw that there were two guys sitting in deck chairs beside the pool, sipping drinks and playing checkers. The lounge behind them, its open interior visible, but oddly dark in the late afternoon light, had a few more guys inside. He could make out a pool table and a bar.
He hesitated again and turned back. He heard Romeo say, “Why don’t you guys come in and get a bite to eat? Madge put out some strawberry pies to cool a little while ago, should be just fine by now.” He saw Carl and Sam consult each other, then shrug and nod. “Yeah, okay,” Carl said as he and Sam followed Romeo into the motel lobby.
“I don’t know,” Shake said, “I think I should stay with my brothers.” But he sounded unsure. Unless they told him to get lost, he was used to following around behind them. Meeting new people always made him anxious. There was that awkwardness that settled over him as he stood off to the side, the new people looking him over expectantly while his brothers acted like he wasn’t there. There would always be that pause as people waited to be introduced to the thin, nervous young man, so unlike his brothers in looks and manner, and then that awful moment when they realized he wasn’t of any importance and didn’t need to be introduced. That was the worst part, when they stopped looking at him and he would cease to be another person. It was like being a ghost.
“Ah, come on,” the big man said, grabbing his arm again and yanking him along. The guys in the deck chair looked up at them as they walked up.
The big man said, “Forgot my manners again. Tony’s always tellin’ me to remember ’em, but I don’t. My name’s Joe.” Joe put his arm around Shake’s shoulders. “That guy there,” he said, indicating a wiry man with sharp shifty eyes and a smart alec curl to his lips, “is our buddy Sal.”
Sal gave a nod, jerked his thumb at Joe and said, “How do you like the welcome wagon? He’s a one-man committee.”
“And that other guy over there,” Joe went on, pointing to a man whose features Shake found vaguely canine, “is Mack, our honorary buddy.”
Mack winked at Shake, skipped his red checker over two of Sal’s black checkers to land in a king spot. Sal glanced at the board and frowned.
Shake heard a rattling sound and noticed a skinny teenaged boy with a dark mess of hair roll a cart near his brother’s car. The boy gave a quick glance around, squatted next to the cart and uncovered something small, mechanical looking. Shake couldn’t really see what it was as the kid grabbed it, and a tool of some sort, laid down and shimmied under the car.
“What’s he doing?” Shake asked.
Joe chuckled. “He likes to play tricks.”
Dark mellow jazz music drifted out of the lounge and Shake saw that it was done up smart with black and red walls like a club back home in the city. A bartender in a white apron behind the bar polished glasses and chatted with a nice-looking brunette woman sitting at the bar. The two guys playing pool looked like rough characters, but were cracking jokes, laughing, tossing back beers.
Then he saw her.
She was amber golden and sleek-limbed. Her skin was lightly bronzed and her hair glimmered like heat waves. Everything about her was warm metal straight out of the earth. She uncrossed her long slim legs, graceful as a spider, and stood up, coming toward Shake with a smile on her lush scarlet lips that momentarily wiped his mind free of all thought. As she stepped up in front of him, he could see that her lips were moving, but that pounding bass drum was at it again, this time in his chest. He stared into her eyes, the green of fresh young serpents unfurling from their eggs and breathed in her scent––full and buttery like hot blood, sharp and floral like orange blossoms––and he swayed while everything solid spun around him.
“Hey kid,” Mack said loudly, tossing a checker at Shake’s chest to get his attention. “This is Eve. She just asked, what’s your name?”
Shake opened his mouth to speak, paused, still staring at Eve and said, “Michael. My name is Michael. Pleased to meet you.”
“Pleased to meet you, Michael,” Eve said. She rolled an assessing glance all over him and asked, “You staying on, or just passing through?”
“I think I’ll stay awhile,” he said, with a shy smile.
He barely noticed Romeo and the boy walk up next to the pool and stand beside it, looking down into the water and talking quietly. Though he did hear Romeo say, “Good. Two hours out’ll do fine. Middle of nowhere––boom.”
Michael sat down in a deck chair and watched Carl and Sam walk out of the lobby and give a nod to Romeo, who smiled and waved. They got into the car, started it up and backed out of the driveway onto the road. He found that he felt no regrets at all watching them leave him behind, and for the first time that he could remember, he felt free.
Pamila Payne is a native Los Angeles writer of noir horror, crime fiction, pulp flash and creator of The Bella Vista Motel.