............................. ...... ..stories



Like most States in the US, Florida preserves much original terrain. Here, vast tracts of forest stretch to perceptual infinity either side along hundreds of miles of freeway. From coastal fringes in the east, the dense sylvan pile spreads inland past swamps and marshes, soon to thin-out as it meets farmsteads where open undulating fields begin.

After two days travelling up from the Keys, Luke Timble drove west through this landscape. At the end of his third day, he entered Sopchoppy State Park, 40-miles south of Tallahassee, and only ten miles from the Gulf Coast. When the sealed road became fine white sand, tightly flanked by coarse grasses, shrubs and occasional soaring tree-trunks, he located a parking bay and stopped his car. Silence, at last.

For all he could tell he was alone. Although unusual, this was understandable so late in the season. His aim was the next day to drive to the coast, where he would go west to Panama City and Pensacola, then on through Alabama and Mississippi to reach Louisiana by the weekend. He had an appointment with a contact in New Orleans for Sunday.

Throughout most of the afternoon, the heat and humidity had grown steadily more oppressive. A great ominous wall of black was building in the southern sky over the Gulf. The warm southerly wind rocked the trees gently, and seemed to growl in the highest fronds. Luke got out of the car and looked up. High above, against the dark backdrop, leaves danced with a strange wild elegance, rippling spookily in the day's final sunbeams. Down below, the light was fading fast, and Luke began his usual preparations for another night on the old mattress in the back of his estate car.

He opened the boot and shook out his sleeping bag. Then he moved various items he'd used that day, and placed the bag on the mattress. He puffed-up the pillow - filched from a motel three weeks earlier - and shut the boot.

'That's real neat!' said a smooth female voice.

Startled, Luke turned quickly, 'Oh, hi.' He said, glaring suspiciously at the young woman who stood watching him from the end of the bay. 'Didn't notice you there.'

'Just across the trail.' She said, indicating with a flick of her long dark hair, 'You can't see 'cause of the bushes. It's a five berth too. A real whopper.'

Luke looked where she'd indicated and suddenly, through a gap in the foliage, he saw the olive-green RV. 'Nicely camouflaged.' He said. 'And as you say, quite a monster.'

She laughed, then a small boy of about seven ran into view and grabbed her waist. He was dressed like his mother in blue jeans and a T-shirt, his with a Spiderman picture. 'This is Mickey.' She smiled. The boy gazed warily. 'Say hi to the man, Mickey.'

He shook his head vigorously, then resumed staring.

'Well, hi to you Mickey.' Said Luke, going round to his passenger door. 'I aim to turn in soon. Got quite a way to go tomorrow.'

'Won't you join us for a beer? I'm Susie.'

'Luke.' He said, going over to her. 'OK, why not? Thanks.'

Mickey ran ahead, and Luke followed Susie.

'You look tired too.' She said, as they stepped in. The interior was tidy and spacious with a long lounge section, a kitchen area, and behind that a bedroom with a double and a single bed. Mickey sprawled on the large bed and lay on his front watching them. Susie fetched a pack of beers from the fridge and pulled one free.

'Here' she said, passing it to Luke, 'Make yourself at home. Pretzels?' She leaned over and from beneath a bench seat withdrew a pack.

'You all alone?' said Luke, sitting, 'I mean…'

'Yep.' said Susie, 'Just me and Mickey. His dad…'

'Hey!' cried Luke, suddenly. Susie turned to see what had alarmed him. Mickey lay on the bed, holding with both hands, and pointing, a big silver revolver.

'You stop that.' She snapped, 'Can't you see Luke is a good guy? Just put it back. Remember, it's just for emergencies.'

Mickey hesitated while his mother glared at him, then slowly he lowered the revolver, pushed it onto a shelf and turned irritably to lay on his side.

'He's protecting me.' said Susie, 'Nervous of strangers. He's not used to people. Dan staked a claim out north west in a place that was isolated and remote. It was on the edge of Olympic Forest not far from Grisdale. He used to make… coffins.'

'You mean…?'

'Yep, for dead people. And right from scratch. He sawed and felled the trees, cut planks, stored and matured the lumber, and the following year planed and smoothed it. After that he made the boxes as if each one was to be his very own; all with their unique special little emblems and epithets exactly as ordered. Every month he'd ship them in a trailer to Seattle. And that's how we lived for eight years. He was his own boss. And it suited us real fine. In summer we'd go picnicking and hiking and visiting. In winter we'd snuggle down to enjoy each other's company and warmth.' 

'Sounds idyllic.'

She sighed heavily. 'It sure was… Until…'

'Don't tell him Mom.' Cried Mickey, 'You know what Dad said.'

She got up, went over and gave the boy a hug. 'Don't you worry Honey.' She said, sitting on the bed with him, 'You know I'm just about the best judge of character there is, and Luke here is a fine man. See those rugged features of his? They're as gentle as a nursemaid's hands. I can read it in his eyes, his voice, and just by the way he is.

'How can you be so sure?' he mumbled.

'Was I right when I met Dad, or wasn't I?'

'That's different.' moaned Mickey, 'It was a long time ago.'

'Well, now,' she said, getting up, 'so you think I'm losing the knack?'

'I didn't say that.' He said, 'But Dad was Dad, and HE could be anyone.'

She smiled. 'OK Honey, I'll leave him out of it.' She returned to the table forcing a smile. 'One day three hustlers turned up demanding coffins.' She began, 'Neat lookers in sleek city suits, they were. But it was all Dan could do to keep pace with orders from Seattle. The hustlers offered him double, but they wouldn't make a contract. Besides, he didn't like their tone; that was the real reason he refused them. He knew they were some kind of crooks. Twice they tried to persuade him, but he wouldn't give. So they ambushed him - and, weird as it was, paid for what they took. Said if he reported it, they'd go visit his house when he was out, and see how his kid was. The next month he got a couple of local guys, who sometimes helped felling trees, to go with him. Neither of them were ever seen again. That's when…'

'Mom!' cried Mickey, 'You said you wouldn't.'

'OK Honey.' She called, raising her eyebrows, 'In the end,' she continued quietly, 'because he couldn't deliver, he lost the Seattle contract anyway. After that, we were on the run… because of what he knew. It was either him or us, he said, so in the end he gave in: there was no way out except for him to go work for them…'


'Sure Honey. I'll change the subject.'

Luke had noticed an attractive orange sea-shell that stood out brightly between a pair of silver candlesticks.

Susie glanced around. 'That has sentimental value,' she said, 'I'm told I found it on my second birthday. Had it ever since. Pretty, ain't it?'

'It is that.' Said Luke.

Mickey was laying the other way with his head in the pillow.

Luke turned back, 'So I guess you're safe now?' he said, looking serious again.

Mickey slapped the pillow. Susie ripped another beer from the pack and opened it noisily. She pushed it across the table. Then she traced the shape of a coffin on the table, and mimicked holding a machine gun, pointing at the coffin. She crossed her fingers and said, 'While Dan co-operates, I guess.'

She got up and put a light on in the kitchen that dimly illuminated the lounge. 'But what brings you out this way?'

'Money.' He sighed, 'What else? Seems like the troubles of the world visit us all from time to time. To think that a year ago to this day I was nigh on a millionaire. Even three months back I had more than enough to get along. Now look at me. What you see is a broken man. Three quarters through life already, most probably, and only forty seven. Yes, I know many have fared worse. Many have climbed like me then fallen like a rock. A slow haul it was too, getting up there. Was a time, long ago now, when I had ambition, when I wanted to be someone, do something outstanding, invent some gadget that would revolutionise people's lives…'

A crash of thunder echoed outside and the first big spots of rain smacked on the roof. Instinctively they looked up. Susie stood and closed a small perspex ventilation window above them.

'Curiously, the first thing that lured me was lightning.' Said Luke, 'Yes lightning. Precisely what's right now skipping and flickering around the tree tops out there. Can you believe that? For years, every time there was a storm, I'd be out on our veranda gazing in awe at every gorgeous unique flash, absorbing its shape and colour and power into my young ignorant brain. At other times I'd bury my head in books on weather, particularly storms, and electricity and everything relating to it. I even set my mind at the age of ten on taking a course in the appropriate subjects so I could learn everything that was known. Some of those strikes can reach tens of millions of volts; and the amperage can top the hundred thousand. Think of it, think of the energy. To harness that was my ambition. Can you imagine anything more insane?'

lighningAs he said this a series of brilliant flickers lit the table for several seconds. Then came an enormous crash and what resembled a retreating symphony of kettle drums.

'Wasn't it Ben Franklin had the same notion?' Said Susie, as the hailstones began their assault. 'But I'd say that to make use of natural resources is a very noble idea.'

Luke nodded, 'As if it hadn't been tried.' He shouted above the din, 'And then only by those who failed to understand the nature of the problem. No, I didn't understand it either. But I aimed to. And when I left school I went to university and studied electricity for three whole years. For me it wasn't for a living or to follow a career, but for passion. A wild passion that went right back to when I was just three.'

He paused for a drink, and to clear his throat. The hail suddenly stopped, only intermittent stones struck the roof, but instead the wind had increased and was now gusting and howling in the trees.

'It was when I witnessed my first storm.' Luke continued, 'The whole event remains clear in my head to this day. We were out in the countryside, on a ridge with stunning views. Then, within minutes, all across the valley the sky became dark. Soon the darkness reached us and I remember a terrifying silence that seemed to embrace everything. There was no birdsong, no rustling of gophers or chipmunks in the scrub, even the grown-ups hardly spoke, and then only in whispers. The atmosphere seemed frozen in tense anticipation. It was as if the world had stopped. I felt it acutely, and was almost rigid with fear. One is so sensitive at that early age; everything is hugely exaggerated and overwhelming; and the senses so keen and sharp, alert to the most minuscule nuance. Then the rain began, at first a few gigantic drops, and we ran to an old hay-barn for shelter just before the deluge. By chance, the side facing the view was completely open, and this great panorama of the storm hung before us like a theatre in the sky, as if it had been specially laid on just for us. Oh, it was something terrific and awesome, I tell you. Just imagine seeing a thing like that for the first time, to have it dominate your entire field of vision, and all your senses. I suppose for the others… well, once the rain began, they talked the whole time… for them the episode was no more than an interlude, a mere delay in our excursion; and quite probably it was a very minor storm on the general scale of storms. But for me it was a spectacle of enormous significance. It completely changed the course of my life. What would I be doing now if it weren't for that storm? Where would I be?'

He paused for another drink. The rain fell steadily, and now and then the thunder banged menacingly, and drowned a word or two.

'But as time went on,' he continued, 'I became engrossed in science. Virtually anything new and inspiring gripped my attention, from laser holography and fluid logic to hypersonic rockets and time travel. You know, I even calculated the amount of current flowing in all the storms that are reckoned to be taking place at any time across the world. Using statistics and an old slide rule, I devoted a full weekend to it. At university, if I couldn't understand something, I'd always dedicate a weekend. If by Monday, I hadn't mastered it, I'd tackle the professor. No, I left nothing undone, nothing did I leave aside because it was too difficult. Oh, I neglected many things, of course, matters that failed to interest me, mundane irrelevancies, as I saw them. Otherwise I'd have shone, and perhaps now would be a leading professor myself. I could have been anything I liked. I could have done anything… if only I had not in the end allowed that most treacherous corruptor… yes, money, I'm talking about money… to displace what I truly aspired to. That's what led me to stray from the destiny I was meant to follow. But I wandered, as so many of us do. And when the fact caught up with me, I was horrified. Then, even the passion for money, false and synthetic as it was, eventually betrayed me. It began in small ways… but before long I could never get enough, and everything I bought, from a magnificent home in California, a big yacht, sports cars… to the trinkets and baubles of personal vanity, one thing after another, everything failed to satisfy or fulfil what I sought. That was the chief trouble: I didn't know what I sought. Not at the time. At first, I began to drift… But I found out; oh yes, I found out all right. It had all been left far behind, like childish dreams and keepsakes. It's clear enough now, so clear that it pains me to remember. But it's too late. Now I am drained of passion, tired of it all. Do I bother to go outside, or even look through the window to stare up at the grand display that plays across the sky right now? Do I care whether I ever see another of these exquisite miracles of nature?' he cried, throwing up his hands, 'I tell you, when you lose your passion, you lose everything. The force of passion is all there is. That's the sole motivation, the sole exclusive reason for human existence.'

Susie glared at him, mesmerised. Breathing heavily after his outburst, he glared back. A clap of thunder seemed to shake the RV, and then echo through the woods, followed by another onslaught of hailstones. They waited while the hail abated, staring avidly into one another's eyes. Then Susie leaned across the table and took his hands.

'But passion doesn't belong with such things.' She said, squeezing, 'It's a displacement.'

He moved closer and raised her hands towards him. Then, releasing them suddenly, said, 'It all ends the same way. Passion for science, passion for love, passion for life…'

'Sure,' she replied, looking distraught and drawing still closer, 'but only if you let it.'

'Do we have that choice?' he said, harshly, 'Or is it made for us? I would give my very last cent to regain a mere crumb of that passion. How alive I felt, how vibrant, how vital and charged with energy I used to be. In those days everything was a game, all the world a toy, and everyone my friend. Now something inside me is all but dead. What it is, puzzles me greatly. It is the riddle of my life. That, in short, is why I keep going: to find the truth. You might say it's my new passion. I want to know what it is that dies in people, what inspires hate, evil, despair, suicide. What is it, I ask, that plunges a man from a life rich with contentment and enthusiasm to one besieged by ceaseless indifference?'

'Did you never seek solace in God?' said Susie, frowning as the rain became heavier.

'I could never acclimatise to prop-up religions.' he said shaking his head. He leaned back and spoke calmly now, 'Such distractions seem to infect every generation of the herd, and maybe as a diversion protects them from these elusive matters I speak of. Nor could I take up with the tedious working life that so many of us lead and which also serves to divert. Only matters that gripped me with passion could I attend to and follow… But for what? I am stricken by the curse of truth. Are you immune? Is anyone? Or does it creep up on us all at some point, unless we extinguish first?'

lightenTorrential rain was falling now and outside was completely dark except for an occasional flicker of light from the storm. The rain beat down on the roof with a vengeance.

'I tell you,' said Luke, above the roar, 'Everyone is as isolated in this world as we are right now in this infernal forest. We are as detached from one another, and from everything, as this wagon is detached from the assembly-line it was built on.'

'Nonsense!' snapped Susie, taking his hands again, 'You're depressed. You've experienced difficult times. Things have got on top of you. You're lost and lonely in a big world after being as connected and involved with it as if you were the very oxygen in the air. Think what I've been through. We're almost as far from home as it's possible to be without leaving the country. How can I not be sad too? But I'm full of hope. Those illegal arms men will be caught, and then Dan will return. At worst, I'll visit him in prison if it comes to that. Even if something unthinkable happened and he was… well then, we'd pick ourselves up and get on with life. I know we would. There's always hope. Always!'

'Coffins full of guns.' Said Luke, musingly, 'Sleek suited guys. Did they show any ID?'

'Only saw them the once.' She replied, shrugging, 'Said they were government officials on a special mission. Have you heard of anything more juvenile? As if they expected us to believe that!'

Luke frowned, 'They were probably telling the truth, then.' He said, 'And those coffins were probably destined for Germany, ready for returning dead US military from the Iraq war.'

'What?' she cried above the beating of the rain which had eased slightly now, and then she glanced round to see if she'd woken Mickey. He hadn't moved. 'That's ludicrous.' She added, turning back, 'And besides, why ship arms that way when there's all that military hardware out there with planes and ships and the rest?'

'Arms for the Iraqi resistance.' He said quietly. 'The military turn a blind eye to commercial interests, even when directed against them. Their leaders are in it at every angle up to here.' And he placed his hand on his forehead. 'They don't give a dandy for the foot-soldiers.'

'I don't believe a word.' She said, 'It's too crazy.'

(Just believe it! Check this from 23.9.08: 'Iraq Awash in "Missing" Weapons': http )

'Maybe.' Sighed Luke, 'Who cares anyway? Those gangsters in DC are a law to themselves anyhow. And none of it alters my position. Nor yours probably.'

She broke off another beer and passed it across, then took one for herself. 'We've been here two months.' She began, more cheerfully, 'So we're due to move on soon. That's what Dan said: move on every two months. I guess if there's any truth in what you say, we're unlikely to be in any real danger. After all, what would anyone have to gain from killing us, especially since Dan co-operated?' she stroked her chin and looked kindly at him. 'I tell you what,' she said, eagerly, 'Why don't you hang out with us for a while, just until you feel a bit better. You'd be good company, help us feel more secure. Me and Mickey could really cheer you up too. He's a great kid, and great fun when you know him. You'd do him so much good… Well?'

Luke, who had been staring down at the table, raised his head and gazed ardently into her eyes. 'It's a nice thought,' he said, 'But I'd drag you down, and the boy. It was long ago when I lost any feeling for play. These days, I can't even enjoy a joke. All I'm doing is surviving, moving from one lousy venture to the next, and then making only enough to scrape by. I've no mortgage, no ties, no obligations, no family or friends… Not a single pathetic chain to hold me to anything; least of all clinging round my neck. I know I should feel fantastic, exuberant even. I know I should be up there with the most contented, deliriously happy people around, bleating the glories of freedom or heaven or some other lofty myth. Because, you see, when I was rich, when I had all the dough anyone could ever need, I was snowed under. I felt that I was carrying a great load like I imagined a really big fat guy would experience in the literal sense. I think it could be almost the same, the way it plays on the mind, the way it drags you down like someone holding you by the throat and suffocating you. I suppose by then my passions had waned without me noticing; replaced by what I unwittingly regarded as responsibilities, and a lust for big money. Yet, now, depleted, almost to my last $100, I still feel that burden, that weight I hauled with me everywhere for a whole decade. Why can't I shake it off? Has it infected me permanently, do you suppose?'

There was a silent pause, then a long stretched out angry roar of thunder that seemed to rattle in a semi-circle around the woods before fading to nothing.

'Maybe it's your conscience.' Said Susie, 'Maybe you did some things to other people you shouldn't have. What you have to do is begin a new life. You have to resolve to place the past behind you and leave it there. You have to regain belief in yourself. And resolve to do good. Only by doing good can you escape your former transgressions. You can't alter what's gone, but you can influence your future.'

'That is all true, I know.' He said, 'And right now, as we sit here cosily with our beers and with the rain and lightning dying away outside, I feel slightly exhilarated by what you say. I'm even confident that I could make the effort to do as you suggest. It's a most appealing plan, and sounds so easy at this moment. I detect already certain little upheavals in my brain that your words have evoked. You put it so simply and straightforwardly, even childishly, that it strikes at my heart. You make it almost laughably undemanding and uncomplicated. Come tomorrow, though, with a new dawn, in the stark bright reality of day, it will all appear as in a dream, I assure you, something that took place elsewhere, in a different universe. I know this from experience. I've negotiated such climes before… You must realise that someone in my predicament is bound to dwell frequently on his circumstances, to see how he can contrive to improve his lot and flee the oppressing currents that hurl him like a fly in a hurricane from one crazed project to the next. If only you were right; if only an iota of what you advise could be made to work. If only it were that simple…'

He trailed off, shaking his head, then swilled down the last of his beer and pushed the empty can aside.

'I figure, you need help to make a change.' She said, smiling warmly, 'You need a good woman and friendly company that doesn't give a paper cup for any dough or responsibility or all those damn burdens that so-called civilised society encumbers people with. That's what you need. A break. Time to let those bad things drift away for good so you can find peace.'

Luke sighed. The storm had almost blown itself out. The wind had moderated and was silent. Occasional random drips plopped and slapped loudly on the roof. Sporadic rumbles echoed distantly and the flashes no longer played their darting patterns on the table.

Luke peered through the window at what resembled a new twilight. The moon shone weakly through a small gap amidst big folds of nimbus that dominated the little area of sky.

'Have you eaten today,' asked Susie, 'You haven't touched the pretzels and you look like you could use a good meal.'

'I'm fine.' He said, 'And it's late now. But tell me… and I hesitate to make this point, do you really think they'll let him go, considering what he knows?'

'I've thought of that. I can only hope they'll figure no-one would believe him, or else they'll place him under some threat to keep quiet.' She shrugged, 'Hope, that's all.'

'How will he find you when his employers are finished with him?

'He'll text my mobile.' She took a mobile phone from her pocket and showed him. 'It's switched off. Only when we go into town do I turn it on, so if they locate us they won't find us out here.'

'Good thinking.' Said Luke, 'You're pretty sharp. And how's the kid with the shooter? He quite scared me when we came in.'

'It's heavy and looks cumbersome, but Dan taught him back up in Olympic. Maybe it'd take a couple of shots, but I figure he'd knock out a beer can at 50 yards. Do you have one?'

'Never carried one.' He replied, 'They scare me. But I'd better get some kip. Maybe we can talk some more in the morning. Whatever happens, Susie, I think you're a remarkable woman; a sensitive, dependable woman, and I give you my word I'll consider your plan. You're out here all alone, or virtually so, with the kid to look after and entertain, and it seems to me you take it all in your stride like it was normal. It's something to be admired.'

At this he got up and smiled at her. Then she went to open the door. The boy must have heard the latch because he immediately sprang to a sitting position and glared with intense malevolence at Luke. Noticing this, Susie quickly ushered Luke out and followed him, closing the door behind.

The wind had dropped, and the moon shone brightly now. A few elongated strands of nimbus remained in the small piece of sky that was visible. Everywhere around was silent and shadowy.

'He's very disturbed.' She said, as they began walking towards his car, stepping over puddles that reflected the moon. 'Been on edge like that ever since we left Olympic. I'm worried about him. Needs a man around.'

Luke said nothing until they came to the end of his bay. 'You shouldn't let him have the gun.' He said, 'A kid that age has no concept of…'

'Maybe.' She said distractedly, taking his hands again, 'Now you sleep well,' she added, suddenly cheery, 'and I'll see you for breakfast in the morning. I'm an early bird, so you just come over when you're ready.' She went to kiss him, but he moved back.

'Thanks.' He said, retracting his hands, 'Thanks. You've been a comfort to me. I wouldn't want to take advantage. Tomorrow then…'

'Tomorrow.' She said. Then she turned, and Luke watched as she vanished in the gloom.

Within five minutes Luke was in his sleeping bag, his mind awash with impressions and emotions. He wondered how long it would take him to fall asleep. Reflecting on what he had said, he began to regret his outspokenness, the way he had exaggerated his circumstances. 'Well,' he thought, 'so what, I'll probably never see her again after tomorrow. Things will appear different, as I said, and we'll be just as two strangers again, strangers whose paths crossed, but heading in entirely different directions. True, she's attractive; true, she'd make a damn good companion; and maybe I should have kissed her… No, better I didn't. As it is I'm free. Don't want to get tied up, not till I get this deal in New Orleans under my belt. Could be worth fifty grand. Bah, money. Why did I tell her all that?'

It occurred to him that he'd left the car unlocked with his wallet there. He reached out and located it then counted by feel the $1000 notes he had, all twenty of them. He pushed it under the pillow.

'But supposing the deal fails.' his thoughts continued, 'Supposing they pull out. Maybe I would be wise to stick with her a while; could lead to something. If it weren't for the kid I'd be under the sheets with her now. He hated me the moment he saw me, that's for sure. Sees me as a rival, no doubt, either to his dad who's probably long dead, or else to himself for his mother's attention. Shouldn't let the little brat spoil things, though. Reckon I could make up with him. I'm not a demanding guy, after all;' he mused, with a smile, 'I wouldn't get between them. And I've always been good with kids. Didn't get a chance with him. Sure, I could get him round. Shouldn't take much. A good woman that. Why spoil my chances for a handful of dough which I could pick up anytime? Yeah, reckon I'll make an effort so they'll both fall in love with me… Yeah, tomorrow…' And he drifted into sleep.


He was woken by a sharp bang on the car roof. He leaned up; instantly wide awake. The light was almost blinding but his eyes adjusted and then he could see Mickey's face staring through the open window. The boy's unblinking eyes glared just inches away with a steady heinous concentration.

'Hi Mickey,' said Luke, happily, 'What a fine morning. You wait there, I got a little present for you when I get out of this bag.' And he began pulling the bag away, wondering where he'd stashed the blow-up football he'd acquired in exchange for gas tokens.

'Don't you come anywhere near my mom.' He said, 'Don't you ever touch her. Just get out of here fast. Or else…' And now the gun appeared, and Mickey rested its barrel on the ledge of the open window. Both hands clasping it, arms outstretched, and two fingers whitening on the trigger.

'Sure.' Said Luke quickly. Then added in a quavering voice, 'Sorry you feel that way. But sure; I'll be out of here in five minutes. Don't you worry. Please, take the gun away, and I'll be out of here before you can get back to your wagon.' As he spoke he struggled to free himself of his various encumbrances while keeping his eyes fixed on Mickey who retracted the gun, but now held it aloft and pointing from a few yards away.

As Luke scrambled over into the driving seat, Susie's voice called: 'What are you doing, Mickey?' Luke saw Mickey vanish into the bushes, then he turned to see Susie running towards the car. She came up to his window, 'Won't you come and have breakfast with us, like you said?' she asked, peering around, 'Where did Mickey go?'

'Thanks,' he said in a deadpan voice, 'But I reckon I'll be going.'

'But, yesterday…' she began, obviously disheartened.

'Like I said,' he interrupted, his voice mellowing, 'It's another day. I'd really liked to have stayed, believe me, but I'd have… Anyhow, I think Mickey has decided for us.'

'You know,' she said, 'Tomorrow I take him to stay with my sister down at Tampa. Then he can settle a while, and I'll be able to… Here, take this and call me.' She pulled a card from her pocket with a name and phone number, then reached into the car and put it on the dashboard. 'Remember, now, you call me.'

Before she could retract it, he took her hand, smiled up at her with a series of little nods, then released her and started the engine.

As the car began to move, she repeated, 'You call me, OK.'

'I will.' He said, through the open window, 'I will, for sure. You just sort Mickey out.'

He steered round the edge of the bay and accelerated gently over the fine white sand. It was as he turned onto the sealed road that the bullet hit. And the crack was deafening; it was virtually point blank.

He felt the rush of air. As he accelerated blindly away, now laying across the passenger seat, he glanced up at the roof and at the hole just over the side-window above his head. It must have missed him by less than an inch. With a hollow thud, another shot hit the back of the car, which now accelerated, swerving and buffeting against bushes and bumping along the rough verge. He leaned up slightly and peered over the bonnet. Then he jabbed the throttle and the engine roared, and a few hundred yards later he sat fully upright again, taking another bend and putting half a mile between them in thirty seconds. During this sprint, Susie's card was whisked up and out of the window by the sudden draft. With a groan and shaking his head, Luke turned onto the main highway. 'Just as well.' He told himself, 'The little brat would sure have killed me sometime or other.'

Fifteen minutes later he stopped at the coast. Here, he sorted out his things and tidied the car, then took a stroll on the narrow beach which was strewn with little shells and fine coloured pebbles. As though by magnetism, a small orange shell caught his attention. He picked it up and examined it. It was identical to the one he had seen in Susie's RV. When he returned to the car he placed it on the dashboard. It would remind him of Susie, who he would never see again, and of the wild evening he had spent with her in the forest.

 gulf coast

The nearest Gulf Coast beach to Sopchoppy State Park, Florida.