Darby Roach's STEEP belongs to a breed of humorous thrillers with antecedents in the work of Chester Himes, Elmore Leonard and Tom McGuane. Kline McGarr, an amateur climber, is a sixties radical on the run in the mountainous country on the east slope of the Cascades, haunted by his past, living by his wits, and trying to keep his head down. Ray Stone is an inept redneck who fancies himself an ace detective and all-around macho operative, a delusion fueled by the rantings of his favorite talk show host, Rush-clone Mac Garrity. When Ray and his sidekick Coyote Bob, a troubled Vietnam vet, try to rip off McGarr’s marijuana crop, their humiliation sets them on a quest for revenge that unwinds in a series of chases through the story. While eluding Ray and Bob, McGarr happens on beautiful young Jessie, who is inevitably drawn into the intrigue. All the threads of the story come together when Mac Garrity arrives in town to do an "undercover" story on the degenerate goings-on at AlphaStar, a thriving nineteen-sixties theme resort. The climactic chase sequence unfolds as McGarr and Jessie make a series of steeper and steeper ascents, trying to outrun a very determined Coyote Bob. STEEP is an hilarious send-up of redneck culture, right wing talk radio, and the know-nothing mentality that thrives on it, as well as a sober meditation on mortality and fate.

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Excerpts from STEEP

All excerpts copyright©1999 by Darby Roach

It was the irresistible combination of assault rifle, ammunition belt and size thirty-eight Ds that got Ray going.

The August Man of Action had arrived in the morning mail, and now, at a quarter past eleven, he was reading it through for the third or maybe fourth time.

It was a good issue with plenty of photos and Ray took it slow, wetting his finger with his tongue, touching the top of a page and studying each picture carefully before going on. There was a full-color spread of a B-52 trailing a stream of bombs; another one, a grainy black-and-white, showed grinning narco cops posing like trophy hunters with the corpse of a drug lord. It was all terrific stuff, Ray thought, but nowhere near as good as the babe in the camouflage bikini. The SnipeCo Sure-Shot Laser Sight ad had her standing in front of a burned-out Soviet tank—her hip cocked and that big bad M-16 at her side. Ray held the picture at an angle and tried to see down the woman’s top.

Man, she was something.

He turned the page. There was another ad. This one for a combat school someplace down in Georgia. He thought idly that he ought to take the course and have it printed on his card: Raymond T. Stone, Private Detective, Combat Certified. Yeah, he liked that—had a nice ring to it. Or maybe he’d just put the initials C.C. and let people ask what the C.C. stood for. He’d answer them low then throw in a look. "Combat Certified," he’d say and leave it at that. Ray practiced saying the words a couple of different ways as he flipped back to the picture of the girl in the bikini.

He held the page up to the light.

Someday he’d have a secretary with a bod like that.

Ray looked around his cramped little attic room. Someday, he’d have a real office, too, with a mahogany desk and a reception area where the secretary could sit with her big cans and greet his hot-shot clients. She’d dress sexy—oh, nothing liberal-sexy and low-cut like in the picture, but conservative-sexy; high school-cheerleader-sexy in a tight sweater maybe, or a silk blouse buttoned up high around her neck but that you could kind of see her brassiere through.

Ray smiled and nodded, his future all so clear in his mind now. Yes, he was sure it would happen—he’d make it happen. He’d show them all. Heck, he’d already have all that stuff if it wasn’t for the goshdarn small-thinking-big-government-types. The liberals, the blasphemers, the heretics, the fuzzy-thinking one-worlders who had turned America into a permissive cesspool with their commie agendas.

Their social engineering.

Ray shook his head. They’d kept him down with their affirmative action and their drugs and their disgusting sex and that jigaboo rap music and carpool lanes and handicapped parking Ray refused to go along with.

And to think, at one time, he’d been blind to it all.

For so much of his life, Ray had been puzzled at his lack of success. Heck, he’d played by the rules and worked hard, but had never quite got the grip on life most other people seemed to have. Ray had always suspected it wasn’t really his fault. From early on, he’d had a vague feeling people didn’t like him—that they talked about him behind his back. At times, it seemed others were actually plotting against him—heck—going out of their way even to ruin his life.

But why would that be?

It wasn’t until a few years ago, when he discovered talk radio that Ray found out the truth.

Turned out, it was all on account of those . . . those liberals.

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Coyote Bob leaned across the bar and blew smoke at his reflection. He was thinking he used to like the way he looked but didn’t anymore—hadn’t for a long time.

The smoke curled against the glass then drifted off. Now he could see himself clearly again, and he examined his features, figuring maybe there’d be some clue. Coyote Bob reached up and ran a finger across his high, broad cheekbone. He turned his head some, three-quarter profile to get a good look at the nose. It was a little much, too wide and flat, like the rest of his face, but straight; not like a lot of white men who had bumps and funny angles. Now he looked into his eyes. People used to remark on his eyes. They weren’t like any other Colocum eyes anyone had ever seen. Some people said they were more Asian. But there had been something else, too. His grandpa once told him there was a gift in there, and if he would only learn to use it . . . "Gift," Coyote Bob mumbled. Those old tribal guys were all the time going around talking that magic stuff. Talking about spells and what you could do with them and how a guy could make things happen by making certain ceremonies.

He took a swallow of beer.

Back when he was a kid, back before Vietnam, back even before he was Coyote Bob and was just Young Bob, he’d believed in what the elders had preached. Hell, he’d even learned some of the potions and ceremonies and words you were supposed to say in the Colocum language and tried them out—and once or twice—he’d thought maybe they’d worked. Like the time he was seventeen and was tracking that five-point buck in a blizzard.

The deer was a big one and old, once it had been a six-point, but a branch of the animal’s rack had broken off—Young Bob figured in a fight maybe or just as a result of his age.

Young Bob had first spotted him from his pickup while driving the highway where it ran low on the bank of the Okanogan. The animal had come down out of the high mountains to feed on the shoots of a young apple orchard and Young Bob saw him, pulled over and grabbed his ott-six and followed the five-point back up into the hills.

The deer was smart, had probably been hunted before, and he’d lost Young Bob a few times. But Young Bob knew the country—had an Indian feel for the land and was always able to pick up the animal’s trail again. Finally, after a day and a half, when the buck was worn out and maybe not so clever anymore, it led Young Bob up a canyon the Indian was familiar with and knew was a blind draw.

So Young Bob was sure now he had him, but when he came to where the canyon ended in a narrow wall so steep he knew the animal couldn’t climb out, the buck’s trail disappeared. The tracks were fresh and clear, one after the other and going along just fine the way they were supposed to, then, all of a sudden, nothing.

It was like the goddamn thing had lifted off into heaven, or like it had been a spirit who’d taken the form of a deer and had lured Young Bob out there in the storm as a kind of joke.

Now Young Bob was standing there in the snow, cold and a little scared and he knew he damn well better get that buck, but it was nowhere to be seen. Young Bob didn’t know what else to do and he’d thought what the hell, and propped his rifle against a tree, and after making the proper shapes in the snow, said the words that were supposed bring the animal out of hiding. And sure enough, that buck had come leaping from a tangle of vine maples not twenty feet away. The goddamn thing had bounded in there, jumped that long distance so Young Bob wouldn’t see his tracks, just like he knew what he was doing. He’d been in there the whole time watching, until he saw Young Bob do the ritual, then the buck knew he was up against a warrior and had made a run for it.

Or maybe the wind had spooked him.

Whatever caused the deer to bolt, Young Bob was quick and ready and he’d grabbed his rifle as the buck leapt past and brought the animal or spirit or whatever it was down with one clean sharp shot to the heart.

When Young Bob got home with the deer and told his story, his grandpa had looked into his eyes and smiled. "You got a gift in there," he’d said, "gift of the hunter, spirit of the Coyote."

"Gift," Coyote Bob said and looked for it in the mirror.

But the eyes that stared back at him today were nothing special. They were dark and mean, and he blew another drag of Marlboro smoke at the glass. "Fuck it," he said.

Pinky, the bartender, was down at the other end, his back to Coyote Bob, and he turned around at the sound of his voice. "Huh?" he said. "You want another one?"

Coyote Bob slapped his beefy palm down on the bar. "Gimme anutherwun goddammer." He’d been drinking since before ten and was nearing his Mean Drunk Stage.

He wasn’t quite there, but he was working on it.

He was thinking he ought to order up a couple of straight shots and see what that would do when Pinky handed him the phone. It was Ray. He was calling from a booth somewhere up by Gapley. Gapley. Jesus, what was he doing way out there?

Ray sounded excited, out of breath, and said he had a deal cooking—quick money, not much work—but they’d have to move fast. Did he want in on it? Coyote Bob said it sounded good, but he’d have to think about it, he had something else going this afternoon.

"Well, you better think quick," Ray had said, "‘cause we gotta do it now."

That was what, couple of hours ago? Coyote Bob had been thinking about it for seven-and-a-half beers now, and he was getting restless, wanting those straight shots bad, but putting them off until he saw what the deal was with Ray.

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Kline McGarr lay on his sleeping bag and watched a hawk describe lazy circles in the sky. It was getting toward evening, the air was cooling off and the light had that special clarity peculiar to sundown in the mountains. The wind began to pick up and a gust blew along the canyon and over the little ridge.

The hawk picked up on the current of air and dipped this way a little, executed a graceful curving turn, then with two strong pulls of its wings, accelerated up and around, looking all gray and silver in the alpenglow.

Kline closed his eyes and pictured what the bird saw. There was his spartan camp directly below on a high spot of ground. To the north and east, the Wohatchie Mountains started out as little hills that rolled along until they got suddenly sharp and steep and ended in snowy points halfway up the sky. To the south, the Columbia River ran as flat as the Wohatchies were ragged. The big river was broad here and wound its way through a deep canyon that cut down through the high plains. To the south, the plains disappeared in the hazy distance. Due west, the Cascade Mountains sprang up like a great snowy parapet—a serious mountain range with peaks over ten thousand feet.

In the shallow canyon that ran to the south of camp Kline visualized the marijuana patch he’d planted a few months before and was going to harvest in the morning. Now he opened his eyes and saw the hawk circling directly overhead. Could it see him? The bird made a couple of tight turns then dropped down toward Kline, looking like she might attack, but pulling up a few feet away and swooping off. He could hear the rustle of her feathers. Maybe she thinks I’m prey. The hawk veered off into another ascending turn. Kline fidgeted. He’d been prey plenty of times before.

The hawk climbed high in the sky, spread her wings to full span and began to glide toward earth in a tight, graceful spiral. Kline sat up and watched. He’d seen the big birds hunt plenty of times, and he could tell by the way the hawk was keeping to one small patch of sky, that she’d seen something on the ground. A rodent, probably. Chipmunk, mouse, could be a rabbit even; whatever it was, the hawk was interested, and that was bad news for someone.

Kline got out his binoculars and scanned the ground directly below where the hawk was circling. She was low now, twenty feet maybe, it wouldn’t be long.

The grass swayed in the breeze and Kline thought he saw something move in the sedge. He held the binoculars steady, and sure enough, there it was. Small and brown and quick, it darted from the protection of a tuft of weeds. Out in the open now, making a break for the safety of its warren, a jack rabbit, going like hell, then suddenly freezing, almost invisible there in the brown grass the same color as its fur.

The rabbit’s ears had been laid back along its body before, but now they were upright. The animal was listening, aware it was being hunted, but not sure by what or from where. Its ears flickered once, then again, and suddenly the rabbit was on the move, starting off in a different direction, making two, now three hops, suddenly changing directions, dodging again and making it a few feet before the hawk was on it.

The bird hit the rabbit with ferocious force, knocking it down, the rabbit tumbling onto its back, then in an instant it was on its feet again, those powerful rear legs launching it in a spectacular leap and for a moment, Kline thought it would get away—but no—the hawk was ready, had anticipated the move and caught the rabbit at the peak of its arc, digging its claws into the thing and carrying it up a few feet then bringing it to earth in a final, deadly plunge.

Kline put the binoculars down. He didn’t need to see this next part. It would hit too close to home.

He thought back to all the times he’d been hunted; someone always after him, hovering there over his shoulder, just out of sight and ready to pounce on him with very heavy manners—tear him to pieces and devour him the way the hawk was devouring the rabbit right now.

And for what?

Was what he’d done so awful?

All he’d ever wanted was to be left alone. Live and let live; that was Kline’s motto. He could never get into telling other people how to live their lives. Tell them who they should hate or kill, even.

The way Kline saw it, everyone deserved a shot at happiness, fulfillment—whatever it was that made their lives worth living. Different people had different ways, that was all. No big deal. No point in judging them evil just because they didn’t happen to agree with you. There was plenty of room for everyone.

And, if you could help a brother or sister along the way, so much the better. Build up some good karma, because Christ knows, we all would need it sooner or later.

No one was perfect.

A ghastly, high-pitched squeal came from near where Kline had been watching the hawk. That would be the rabbit’s death throes. Kline glanced that way and thought it was sad: that the rabbit only found its voice when it was dying.

It waited till the very end to speak, and then of course, it was too late.

Kline picked a blade of grass and held in his hand, running his fingers absently over the smooth surface as he gazed off at the mountains that looked so majestic and noble and inspirational there in the dying light. He was thinking how odd it was that nature could be so beautiful yet so brutal at the same time, then thought right away, no, don’t judge, it’s not ugly, just different.

The other side of beauty.

It was the law of the universe, Kline thought. The strong ate the weak—no good or bad here—it was the yin and the yang. He sighed. It was inevitable, he supposed. Someone had to die in order for someone else to live. It seemed cold and cruel, but there it was: the hunter and the hunted. The hawk and the rabbit. The problem was, Kline identified more with the rabbit than with the hawk.

The evening was silent, just an occasional rustling of grass in the breeze, and Kline sat listening to that peaceful nothing. Then from far off, a sound; a car was coming. Kline lay down on his stomach in the tall grass and trained his binoculars on the road. Sure enough—a rickety blue station wagon lumbered around the corner then slowed and bounced to a stop. Two men got out. One was big, heavyweight boxer size, Kline guessed. The other, thinner and shorter (more normal human size) and dressed in some sort of military uniform. They scrambled down the embankment and went straight toward his marijuana patch. Hell. Dope rustlers. Kline put the binoculars down. He belly crawled backward, down off the crest of the ridge to a place where he couldn’t be seen from the road, then stood and went to his tent. He grabbed a backpack he always kept ready, and checking its contents, began carefully working his way along a ridge that intersected the road a hundred yards out.

It was true, Kline was used to being the rabbit. But sometimes, he thought, you gotta be the hawk.

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Mother Elvett reread the article for the twelfth time that morning then threw the magazine across the room. It bounced off a wall and landed in a Day-Glo beanbag chair. She walked over, retrieved it, rolled it up and slapped it against her thigh as she paced the room, fiddling with a strand of long blonde hair, twisting it around her finger then tugging on it nervously.

Goddamn Ray Stone.

Now Elvett walked over to the window and looked out. The mid-morning sun was just breaking over the far ridge of mountains to the east of AlphaStar. The lawns, where the sun hadn’t yet touched, was still dewy and velvety-looking, jewel-like in the sparkling light. Elvett sighed. It was beautiful. Beautiful and expensive. Eight-point-seven million dollars. Fifty-two plus acres. One hundred and six rooms, not counting the penthouse.

She stood at the window taking it in and realizing for the first time how close she was to losing it.

And all because of that goddamn Ray Stone.

Elvett unrolled the magazine and opened it again to the article. It was by a photojournalist named Sue Bascom. She’d visited AlphaStar several months ago and had written a scathing condemnation—it wasn’t exactly what Mother Elvett had planned when she agreed to the gig.

Elvett went over it again in her head: Wyatt Williams had been the headliner that week—the Mondo Visiting Lecturer Sue Bascom couldn’t wait to interview. But the interview had gone badly. Very badly. Wyatt had been left on his own long enough to get stinking drunk and stoned out of his mind. By the time Sue met with the great sixties activist, the onetime author, artist, student leader and darling of the intellectual left was a basket case. It wasn’t bad enough that Williams had taken every opportunity to insult Sue Bascom, he’d had to make a pass at her, too. Pass at her? He’d very nearly attacked her. If it weren’t for the fact that he’d been stumble-fall-down-drunk, he’d probably have tried to rape the woman.

And Sue Bascom told it all in word and picture. Elvett looked at the photographs and cringed. Wyatt Williams sitting in a chair, scotch in hand, looking lasciviously into the camera, a cigarette dangling from his lip.

Wyatt Williams stumbling, gesturing wildly and crashing against a table.

Wyatt Williams, the man who led twenty thousand students in protest against the Vietnam War, trying to expose himself, his shirt pulled up to show his enormous white belly. Oh God, Elvett thought, how could this have happened?

She threw the magazine across the room. "Ray Stone, that’s how," she said. "That goddamn Ray Stone."

Elvett kept the Raymond T. Stone Private Detective Agency on a small retainer to handle special projects and called him from time to time when there was a job that fell outside the scope of AlphaStar’s regular security service. The deal with Wyatt Williams had been that kind of job. It had been Ray’s responsibility to keep an eye on Wyatt that day—monitor his intake of booze and dope and keep him presentable long enough for Sue Bascom to get her interview and get out. What had gone wrong? Where had Ray been that afternoon? He’d screwed up good and the result was a black eye for AlphaStar.

Exactly what she couldn’t afford. It was hard enough fending off the wolves even when things went right. Especially with these crazy conservatives running around, just dying for a juicy target like AlphaStar for their sixties-bashing wrath.

Nutty fuckers.

She suspected the real reason The Right hated her so was because they were jealous. They had good reason, too. Elvett was making a bundle. It must drive them crazy, she thought, to see me making money promoting something they so despise: the sixties. She smiled and thought of the latest ad campaign: "Remember those days of the Beatles, Woodstock and the Summer of Love? Well, they’re all here for you at AlphaStar—and be sure to bring the kids."

It was an authentic experience, too. The music, the politics, the decor, even the people. Especially the people. Of course it wasn’t exactly like the sixties. There had to be a few concessions to comfort, like air-conditioning and swimming pools, a four-star restaurant, cable TV and room service. But the idea was there and damn it, so was the spirit.

It worked, too. Elvett brought in "visiting lecturers:" famous figures from the sixties, and people ate it up. Every room at AlphaStar was booked eight weeks in advance and Mother Elvett was raking in the dough. But now, with the publication of Bascom’s article in Pacific Weekly, reservations were tapering off. There’d even been a few cancellations. And the thing had only been out a day.

Damn.

Elvett needed the upper hand again—something big to divert attention from this Wyatt Williams scandal, and she needed it now.

There was a tap-tap-tap on the door and Grace, Elvett’s personal assistant, poked her head in. "Elvett, he’s here." Grace rolled her eyes.

Elvett nodded. "Send him in."

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Mac Garrity sat in his Turbo-Wave Deluxe, Double-Wide AquaSpa and went over the numbers.

Shit, they were down again. "Dion, what the hell is going on here?" The Arbitron report showed Mac’s audience was off in nearly every market, continuing the slide that had begun in late spring.

Dion leaned against the sink and looked at Mac floating in the gurgling water. It made him think of a giant bloated hot dog being boiled. He could never get used to seeing Mac naked. Did the man have no shame? He had breasts, for Christ’s sake. Dion tried not to look directly at his boss. "We’re a victim of our own success, Mac," he said, gazing off at the ceiling.

Mac snorted and threw the report on the floor. "What are you talking about? I’m The Most Listened to Man in America. How could I be too successful? Hell, I’m on over nine hundred radio stations worldwide."

"Eight hundred and forty-three," Dion reminded him. "As of July." He picked up the Arbitron report. "Our TV audience is down, too. Three stations in the Southwest have dropped us since May." He sighed, "Ten years ago, it was you and no one else. Now every town with a twelve watt transmitter has their own conservative talk show host. You know, Mac, the format is overexposed." Dion walked to the bathroom door then turned around. He braced his arms against the jamb. "It’s a single-issue thing and it’s getting harder to come up with original material. Your audience wants to be outraged by the excesses of the liberal establishment, and let’s face it, the ground has been pretty well covered. They’ve heard it all."

Mac was lighting a cigar and when he got it going, blew a cloud of smoke at Dion. "You think I can’t cut it anymore? Is that what you’re saying?"

Dion waved at the smoke and shook his head. "No, not at all, Mac. What I mean is, we need to break new ground. Like you did when you first started. Something dramatic." He could see he was confusing Mac and he paused. "Look, I have an idea, see what you think: you go out into the field, do some investigative reporting, actually get involved in the event. You’ve run every liberal in the country into hiding, now you take the battle to them. Deliver the coup de grace."

Mac gave him a look. He didn’t like the direction today’s briefing was taking. "Investigative reporting." That sounded like it might involve a lot of moving around—walking and getting in and out of cars—that kind of stuff. That was okay for a pipsqueak like Dion, little guy, but Mac was a full-sized man, he wasn’t good getting in and out of cars. He preferred to sit behind the Ivory Microphone of the Golden Truth Broadcasting Network where he felt safe and secure—not spend his time getting in and out of cars.

Leave that aerobics shit to the Jane Fonda, feminazi crowd.

Still, he had to admit, Dion was right about how he’d whipped every weak-kneed, limp-wristed, gutless liberal in the country. Maybe he was on to something. "Tell me more," Mac said, and splashed water onto his hairless chest.

Dion had his briefcase on the floor next to the toilet. He went over, pulled out the latest issue of Pacific Weekly, folded it over to the article about AlphaStar and handed it to Mac.

"What’s this?"

"I’ve got it all figured out," Dion said. "We fire up the Lear Jet, head out there this weekend. Take a video cam and confront this Mother Elvett woman."

Mac looked at the photos of Wyatt Williams. "I remember this sonuvabitch. Jesus, he still around?"

Dion again: "We get some grainy black-and-white tape of her refusing to talk to you, whatever, throw in some stock footage of dope-smoking hippies and war protesters from the sixties. Make up some quotes." Dion was smiling, feeling proud of himself. "You get right in her face, Mac. You know how furious you can make these goddamn liberals, do your thing and maybe even get her to call you a name or throw tofu at you. We’ll put it together and play the audio portion on the radio, then the video later on the TV broadcast. We’ll run a teaser campaign the next few days, get some interest built up and run the stuff on Monday. I guarantee, we’ll gain two shares."

Mac skimmed over the article. AlphaStar, huh? Did such a place really exist? All those freaks in one place? There’s bound to be something there I can use. Mac saw his advertising revenue going through the roof. He puffed on his cigar, thought it over, reached down and absently scratched his scrotum. He did like riding in the jet. It was a real kick getting to order the pilots around like he was an Air Force General or something. And besides, there was nothing his audience liked better than when he battled the enemy mano-a-mano. He looked at Dion, squinted through the cigar smoke and made up his mind. "Okay," he said, mumbling around the stogie, "lets give it a go."

Hell, no telling who he might run into.

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The beach towel was red and green and blue and had a big print of Yosemite Sam on it. Jessie had that draped around her shoulders as she came out to the pool, and when she shagged it off, it got suddenly quiet. The two young guys sucked in their guts, and the body-builder paused for a minute then went from sit-ups to squat-thrusts. Jessie walked past them and took up a position in a lawn chair next to the woman with the book. The woman looked up as Jessie went by and gave a weak little smile then turned back to reading.

Jessie had been thinking the two young guys would be her best bet; horny and easy to manipulate. She looked over in their direction and caught them staring. They giggled and pushed each other, looking away, then back, shy, smiling. Jessie rolled her eyes. God, could it be any easier? Getting money, probably a ride to wherever she wanted, too, would be a simple matter with either one of them. Jessie could see how it would happen. She’d pit them against each other, make them vie for her affections, then split once she’d gotten what she needed.

It would be almost too easy.

Jessie stood and went to the diving board, climbed the ladder slowly, taking her time and giving the poor jerks a show. She walked to the end of the board, bounced once and dove in, cutting the water perfectly. But the board had more spring than she’d accounted for and her feet were a little too far over. She could tell she’d kicked up a good-sized splash and when she surfaced, she looked around, a little embarrassed, hoping maybe it hadn’t been too bad.

That was when she saw the other guy. Soaking wet from her dive, he sat back in his lawn chair, looking past her through tortoise shell Ray Bans like nothing had happened. He’d been there all along, but for some reason, she’d not noticed him. That wasn’t like her. She was observant: not much got past Jessie. Now she treaded water and watched him for a reaction but there was none. Jessie swam to the edge of the pool next to where the man sat still not showing any sign of anything. What was with him? Men fell all over themselves vying for her attention, but what? This guy’s too cool? She’d see about that.

 

 

Kline was close to the edge of the pool, and when the girl dove in, water splashed over and doused him. The two young guys laughed and the muscleman shook his head and smiled. The woman with the book didn’t look up.

Kline lay still, deadpan. He was soaking wet, his beer half pool water.

Now the girl was next to the ladder, pulling herself up onto the concrete, sitting there with her long legs dangling in the water and looking at him. Kline held still, looking past her, but at her, too. She was young, twenty-two or three, he guessed, a real knock-out; long auburn hair down past her shoulders and almond-shaped brown eyes that definitely had something going on behind them. It made him uneasy the way those brown eyes were giving him the once-over, sizing him up. Maybe if he didn’t move, she’d go away. He didn’t feel like being hustled, he just wanted to get drunk.

Jessie watched the man for a few moments then made up her mind. She smiled. "Oh, god, I’m so sorry," she laughed, put her hands to her chest, "I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh, but you do look kind of funny."

He waited a few beats then shrugged. "That’s okay," he said, taking off the Ray Bans and wiping his face with a motel towel. "It actually felt good." He paused, "Listen," he said, not sure why he was doing it, "why don’t you sit down, have a beer? Maybe it’ll keep you out of the pool; you’ll be less dangerous that way."

Jessie gave him a look. "You think so?"

The way she said it—that and her smile—he was beginning to wonder.