1997 Mercedes SLK230 Kompressor

Lexi was prowling Ile du Soleil with more style and attitude than she’d felt in months.  Her belated birthday present from Ren via Dobie was just the start.  The clothes Dobie had gotten for her ranged from the ill-advised to the reasonably cool.  She wondered who had advised him, or if he’d had someone look at pictures of her and guess what she might wear.  There were no pricetags on anything, but she suspected it was all cripplingly expensive.

Which didn’t stop her from choosing a gothy lacy black dress (with a couture-like knit midsection) and some chunky knee-high black leather-and-silver-buckles boots to wear.  The dress was cut lower than she liked, so she put her antisocial leather jacket on over that, and then it was out into the world.

She expected Victor to be hanging around, but if he was she didn’t see him.  The car key belonged to a Mercedes, which was a good start.  Outside, of course, the hotel’s lot sported more than its fair share of Mercedes, so Lexi pressed the panic button on the keyfob until a brand-new SLK roadster parked close to the door began chirping its horn.  It was bright yellow.  Lexi smiled.  SLKs were the sorts of cars that rich guys got for their girlfriends and wives, but you still couldn’t argue with a supercharged four-cylinder. And it was right-off-the-truck new, too–there were 27 miles on the odometer.  Armed with her cellphone, her birthday briefcase, some CDs that deserved to be played loud, and a fraction of the travel-cash Dobie had left for her (he had left her more money than her father had ever earned in a year, and for some reason that really annoyed her, so she left most of it behind), Lexi lowered the SLK’s retractable hardtop and headed out into Arram.

After calling Molly, she had made a quick call to Eddie as well.  She had been thinking that she’d seen the name on Ren’s handwritten notes in his Ile du Soleil documentary.  Eddie had a memory as good as hers, and informed her that the guy was one of the King Khorbin loyalists interviewed for the documentary, a man who had supposedly been in charge of hiding part of the family treasure.  He had died a year or so ago, and never disclosed the location of the cache he’d been in charge of during the final days of Khorbin’s reign.

Maybe, Lexi thought.  Because the scribbled notes that she had in her birthday present briefcase did seem an awful lot like directions.

With that implication looming large, she had decided to put the matter aside for the day.  The obvious thing to do was to go where the map told her to and see what was there, but there was a gremlin sitting on her shoulder that wanted to be sure that someone wasn’t watching to see if she did just that.  She didn’t think the present was a hoax–it didn’t feel like one, in fact she could almost see Ren collecting the info and filing it carefully in the briefcase, writing his notes here and there–but she had no guarantee that Dobie hadn’t looked at it.  Ren had written some of it in their secret language (which, incidentally, looked just like English but meant completely different things), and she knew she was the only person who could really decipher it. 

It could wait, though.  It would happen, but not just right now.  Right now there was a whole new city to explore.  The name conjured images of some Middle Eastern city on the edge of a desert, but Arram looked more like Pompano Beach, Florida with hints of New Orleans and Tokyo to her.  Everything was insanely clean, as if they’d just painted the lines on the road this morning and were in the habit of vacuuming the streets.  Some of the shops scattered around downtown even had carpeted sidewalks.  The smell of the ocean was strong.  It mingled with diesel exhaust as Lexi crept through downtown behind a bus, and she tilted her head back and enjoyed both scents. 

She wasn’t hungry or in the mood to explore shops, so she amused herself learning the roads around downtown, then began to explore in wider and wider loops the surrounding area.  She left the radio loud, and enjoyed the sound of Siouxsie and the Banshees bouncing off of the buildings when she found a nice narrow alley to squirt down.  She found the freeway, and while she was up there found a cherry-tomato red Porsche 911 turbo to play with.  It ate the SLK without burping, of course, but it was fun to watch.

Much more interesting was a ’53 Mercury, a lead sled painted in black primer with lake pipes and big chrome disk hubcaps.  That one, Lexi pulled a violent U-turn to follow.  She trailed the old hot rod until she was hopelessly lost in Arram’s suburbs, and the guy finally pulled into a restaurant called Bigg’s, which seemed to Lexi to be an Ile du Soleil-style Denny’s that served Hawaiian food in addition to greasy sandwiches.  She’d seen a few of them around.

The guy at the Merc’s wheel was a hard-core twenty-something rockabilly, complete with sideburns and cigarettes rolled into the sleeve of his T-shirt.  Lexi buzzed the SLK into the spot next to his as he was getting out and said, “Nice car.”

He lowered his black Ray-Bans to the bridge of his nose to look her up and down, then nodded.  “You, too.  American?” he asked, presumably meaning her and not the obviously German car.

“Yup.  On vacation.”  Lexi pulled her knees to her chest, turned, and sat on the SLK’s windowsill with her feet on the driver’s seat. 

“Lucky you.”  He put the shades back up.  “I’m Rocky,” he said.  He gave her a sneer that dared her to joke that he didn’t look like Sylvester Stallone.  Oh, no, he was a “Rocky” from a wholly different era, one long before either of them had been born, and she was hip to that.

She couldn’t help but smile.  “I think I’ll do that.  I’m Lexi.  I know it’s a sucky question and completely out of keeping with this happy sunny day, but how’d you keep them from squashing your car?”

Rocky raised an eyebrow, then took his smokes out, flipped one into his mouth (he was so hard-core Lexi almost giggled with delight), and offered her one.  She declined.  “Got a crate 427 from Ford Motorsport.  The motor’s less than five years old.  Screw down at the inspection station gave me a temp tag ‘cuz he didn’t know what else to do.  I got thirty days before I figure they’ll make up some damn reason to take it off the road, and I’m gonna burn as much gas as I can ’till then.”

“You’re not going to let them scrap it, are you?” she asked, knowing even as she did that the answer would be a switchblade-quick ‘hell nah.’  “The world wouldn’t be a happy place without that beast on the streets.”

He lit his cigarette behind cupped hands and took a long drag.  “You like cars?”

“I live for cars,” she said. 

Rocky nodded, looking at the SLK.  “This ain’t too bad.”

“No, it isn’t.  Does this place serve milkshakes?”  It wasn’t hard to figure out what it was about Rocky that made her want one.

“Healthiest thing they’ve got.  Want one?  It’s free with your tour of the city.”

“Is this the boring, tourist-trap tour, or the one where I get to see where the cool cars hide?”

“Whichever one you want,” Rocky said in his Ile du Soleil-accented greaser drawl. 

Just because he didn’t call her ‘baby,’ Lexi hopped out of her car.  “Lead on,” she said. 

He was true to his word, and more fun to talk to than his Rebel Without A Cause attitude initially suggested.  They had lunch and talked cars, politics, WWII airplanes and television networks in Ile du Soleil and the United States.  Two milkshakes (strawberry), five back-alley repair shops, a grilled-cheese sandwich lunch, one mini-museum, eight more flat-painted rat rods and lead sleds like Rocky’s, two or three new friends and endless clouds of secondhand smoke later, they were at his beachfront house, (the top half of a duplex actually), tangled up on the black velvet couch which stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling seaside windows.  Lexi’s dress was pushed most of the way up to her waist, and Rocky was kissing her neck, one hand drawing a line up her belly toward her collarbone as she arched her back.  None of that was particularly unpleasant or unwanted, so she was almost as surprised as he was when she started crying. 

It wasn’t a subtle, subdued cascade of tears, either.  Lexi felt the tickle in her throat first, and took a deep breath to try and steady herself because she wasn’t going to do this in front of a near-stranger.  Then a voice in the back of her head asked her exactly what she was going to do with this near-stranger, and she thought about Cygnet telling her to find someone disposable for her first after Ren, and then she felt like an amoral, irredeemably selfish whore and that broke the dam and led to a full-keen crying jag.  She couldn’t stop it.  Rocky let her go, confused, and she slid to her knees on the floor in front of the couch with her face buried in her hands.

After a moment, he got up and went to the kitchen.  He returned with a glass of water and a warm, damp towel.  “Hey,” he said, uncertain but sincere.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to go too fast.  Take it easy.”

It felt like the biggest, deepest sob in the world was jammed in at the top of her throat, bigger than her lungs could possibly fuel, bigger than her even.  Lexi threw back her head and screamed at the ceiling, a howl that seemed to vibrate the windows.  It was the quickest way to get it all out.  One single note of ragged, mindless, formless agony tore out of her and took the rest of the tears with it.  If she had enough air, she’d have screamed until her vocal cords snapped, but she didn’t.  Lexi folded forward into a heap on the floor.

Rocky, who probably thought she was completely out of her mind, draped the towel over the back of her neck.  She was halfway to agreeing with him, but she put her hand up to touch his, so he’d realize that it wasn’t him she was upset about, or anything he’d done.  “Hey,” he said again, softly.

“S’okay,” she said, her voice thick.  Oddly enough, she didn’t feel too terrible.  She felt badly for confusing Rocky, and she had no intention of sleeping with him, but underneath the snot and the tears and her rumpled clothes, she was still in a good mood.  It was still being a good day, despite the emotional land mine she’d discovered. 

Rocky was sitting on the couch, elbows on his knees.  “So, ahem, what happened, if you think you’ll have time to explain before the cops break my door down because they think I’m murdering you?”

Lexi wiped her face and took a few more deep, calming breaths.  “I lost someone,” she said.  “My fiancee.  My soulmate.  It wasn’t as long ago as I was pretending it was when I woke up this morning, I guess.”

He nodded.  “I take it this was something…other than the usual breakup?”

“Sudden accidental death counts as ‘something other,’ right?” she said with a bitter laugh.  “And I really wasn’t out to lead you on.  I just wanted to see the cars.  And the sights.”

“And one thing led to another,” he said, cocking an eyebrow and sitting back.  “No harm, no foul.  Although I can’t say I’m not disappointed.”

That made her smile, and sniffle again.  “Me, too.  But I can’t.  My mind will crack.”

Rocky nodded.  “It’s okay.  I may not look like it, but I’m a resilient man, and if there’s one thing I’ve noticed today, it’s that you seem to be worth more than just a trophy fuck.  Tell anyone I said that, and I’ll deny it.”  He winked, and that reminded her of Ren and almost brought the tears back, but Lexi held it down this time.  He said, “In place of wild, mutual degradation, I’m prepared to offer a walk on the beach, or perhaps you’d like to take me for a ride in your little Mercedes.”

“I’d like that,” she said.  “If we were closer to Hamilton I’d suggest doing donuts on Carino Rhoades’ lawn.”

“Sounds like great fun,” he said.  “How long are you going to be in town?  We could plan a road trip.”

“Maybe we could, at that,” she said.  “But not tonight.  Tonight I’m about to burst with crazy and I don’t want to get it on anybody who matters, so I shouldn’t be around anyone important.  And I think you might be important.  Nothing personal.”

Rocky actually smiled, and the look on his face was like a hug.  “Then let me give you a card, and I’ll see you around.”

Lexi returned (alone) to the hotel and took a massive bubble bath.  The faucet was so fancy it didn’t have hot or cold knobs, just a rheostat which allowed her to select a specific temperature.  So she took a 140-degree bath, and stayed in it until it became clear that her eyeballs would poach if she soaked any longer.  She fell asleep as soon as she hit the bed.  Ren’s briefcase and Malice were her only companions.