Peter waited, until they were a mile down the road from Goody Carlisle's hill-top estate. Then, in a low, slow voice, almost as if he didn't want to hear the answer, he said, "Listen. You weren't really going to kill Goody Carlisle, were you?"
Nikki kept her sharp, brown eyes focused exclusively on the narrow country lane in front of her. A long, endless line of old trees flashed by on either side of the twisting road. Beyond the thin screen of trees stretched mile after mile of meadow, and beyond the meadows loomed the forest, deep, dark, and impenetrable, even at midday.
The right corner of her mouth curved upward in a loose smile; she shook her head.
"Nah," she said. "I just wanted to make him sweat a little for all the hell he put me through these last fifteen years."
"Where'd you get that gun? I mean, I know they didn't let you on the plane with it in LA."
"There are still a few places on the south side of Ellentown where you can buy a gun without anyone asking any questions."
"Are you going to keep it?"
"I don't know yet. I'm still deciding."
"Were you really in love with Eddie Lupinski?"
"Yes. But that was long before I met and fell in love with you," she said, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. "And while we're on the subject, who was that beautiful woman I caught you with at the bar?"
"I already told you. She was an editor from Beacon House publishing in New York. That's all. I'll probably never even see her again."
"Well, Mr. Big Shot Writer, if I ever catch you with another beautiful woman like that again, I really will use that gun. On you," she told him in a strong, stern voice. But Peter noticed that her sly, cunning smile had turned into a playful, teasing grin. He relaxed and grinned back at her.
Nikki was silent for a moment. "I tried calling you once," she said. "A month after I arrived in La La Land, I signed with a talent agency and they landed me a photo shoot with---" she named a nationally known adult magazine.
"Nine months later, the agency called to tell me that the magazine with my layout in it had just hit the stands," she said. "I was so excited. I ran all the way down the hill from my one room apartment to the little mom and pop grocery on the corner. There was a big, old, wooden magazine rack at the back of the store and they carried those kind of magazines way up on the top shelf.
"I was so proud of myself. I wanted the whole world to see my pictures. I ran all around the little store and shoved my picture in everyone's face. 'See? Look here. That's me!' Most of the people in the store were shocked and offended and morally outraged.
"Except for this one sweet, little, old lady, who must've been eighty if she was a day. She looked at my picture. Then she smiled at me and said, 'You go, girl.'"
Nikki smiled at the memory.
"I was so high on myself. I ran out of the store without paying for the magazine," she said and laughed. "I ran all the way back to my little dump of an apartment and plopped myself down on my bed, and just stared at myself in those pictures, flipping the pages back and forth, over and over, for hours and hours. I just had to share my good fortune with someone and right away, I thought of you. I called, but your mother said you'd moved out. She wouldn't give me your number or your address."
"About a month after you left town, I moved into an apartment in Autumn Hills," Peter explained to her in an apologetic tone. "I was so mad when she told me you'd called and she didn't bother to get your number. She's always done shit like that because she likes to torment me and she knows I'll let her get away with it. Which was one of the many reasons I moved out when I did. My mother never liked you. She thought you were a slut."
Peter cringed, expecting a violent reaction.
"Well, I don't like your mother, either," Nikki said flatly.
"I saw that magazine with your picture in it," he told her. "About a night or two after you called, I stopped at Hennessy's Pub for a beer on my way home from work."
"But you weren't old enough to drink then," objected a shocked and amused Nikki.
"I know," he said and offered her a mischievous, little-boy grin. "Back then, I discovered that if I let my whiskers grow for a day or two, I could easily pass for twenty-one. I could walk into a place like the Pub and Dell Hennessy, the owner, would serve me a beer, no questions asked.
"Well, like I say, I was sitting there, one night, when Eddy came stumbling through the front door," he went on. "As usual, he was drunk as a skunk and high as a kite and ready for a fight. He sat down at the bar and demanded a beer. Dell served him---don't ask me why. Dell should've known better.
"Eddy took maybe one sip of his beer. Then he pulled out that magazine with your pictures in it that he had folded in his back pocket and waved it high in the air for everyone in the bar to get a good look at.
"'See that?' he growled like a dog with rabies. 'That's my girlfriend. She's out in Hollywood sleeping with everyone but me!'"
"Why, that dirty, little bastard," Nikki huffed, in a sudden, unexpected outburst of self-righteous indignation.
"Dell told him he'd better put that magazine away fast," Peter continued in his smooth, easy, narrator-style voice. "Surprisingly, Eddy did as Dell commanded and stuffed the magazine back in his pocket. And then, he slammed his glass of beer down on the bar so hard that it shattered into about a thousand pieces. Dell whipped out the wooden axe handle he keeps hidden under the bar for emergencies like that and told Eddy he'd better get the hell out of his place before he called the cops.
"I thought for sure Eddy was going to leap right over that bar and rip out Dell's throat. But Eddy just got up off his stool and staggered out of the bar. He slammed the front door so loud and hard that all the windows in the bar rattled in their frames.
"And that was the very last time I ever saw the lovelorn Mr. Edward Lupinski," Peter announced, sadly shaking his head at the frailty and futility of human nature.
He paused to draw in a long, deep breath, relasing it slowly, almost reluctantly.
"The next day, after work, I drove over to that little adult bookstore that Goody Carlisle owns, out on Zimmerman Lane, half-way between Monotoning and Sitrubla, and I finally bought a copy of that magazine," he said to Nikki. "I was so damned excited, I could barely control myself long enough to get home. But I somehow managed to keep it under the limit, so the local yokels wouldn't arrest me for speeding.
"Once I got home, I locked my front door and closed the curtains in the living room and took the phone off the hook. I sat down on the sofa and ripped the celophane off the magazine. My fingers started to shake like I had the palsy or something, as I flipped like a maniac through the glossy pages. And my hard banged so loud and fast, I thought it was going to rip right through the wall of my chest. I felt like I was having a massive heart attack. Remember those old cartoons where it's so hot, the mercury starts to boil over and bursts like Old Faithful through the little, round bubble at the top of the thermometer? Well, that's exactly how I felt when I saw your picture in that magazine.
"There you were, completely and totally naked, the most beautiful woman in the world. And I had to do something about it right away, or else I thought I'd sploded with all that pent-up lust and desire I felt for you. So I...I...well, you know..."
Peter's deep, bass voice slowly trailed away to nothing. He bowed his head, staring at his feet, a disconsolate expression on his handsome face. His broad, smooth cheeks actually seemed to redden a bit, as if he was a little boy in school again and the teacher had caught him doing something naughty in class. Nikki thought he looked so cute and desirable. She experienced a sudden strong desire to reach out and place a comforting hand on his knee. But she quickly suppressed that emotion. Now was not the time or place.
Instead, as if she was talking to herself, she said. "So I corrupted you, too." For a moment, guilt covered her face like a dark shadow.
Startled, Peter lifted his head and looked at her. "Huh?"
"Nothing. Never mind," Nikki replied hastily.
"You didn't corrupt me. Love never corrupts. Lust corrupts. Which was what I was filled with when I saw those pictures."
"Do you still have that magazine?"
"I threw it away a long time ago. It took me quite a few years to grow up and finally figure out that you can't make love to a picture in a magazine. Oh, you can try. But it's just not the same as making love to a real, live, flesh-and-blood woman. Like you," he said and smiled at her.
She removed her eyes from the narrow, treacherously winding road long enough to smile back at him. "Good," she said. "Have you been with many women since I left you?"
"Only a couple. I have to be totally honest and tell you it was nice and I enjoyed myself. But it's never been as good as that one and only time you and I made love to each other. How about you? I guess you made love to plenty of guys out there in Hollywood."
Now it was Nikki's turn to shake her head. A grim expression hardened her sharp, strong features.
"I never made love to anyone out there," she informed him in no uncertain terms. "Not ever. I thought I was at first. But I soon realize that we were just rutting like a pair of pigs in front of a camera for money."
The tiny car suddenly seemed filled with a taut, uneasy silence. She saw Peter's right hand slide slowly up the front of his stiff, shiny shirt. His blunt fingertips briefly touched the small, red-and-white box of Marlboro cigarettes in his breast pocket. Then his hand slipped back down his chest and settled itself in his lap.
She wanted to tell him he could go ahead and light up if he wanted to. But smoking was strictly forbidden in a rental car. It was in the agreement she'd signed at the airport.
Glancing to her right, not far up ahead, she noticed a huge gap between two gnarled trees. "Would you like a cigarette?"
"I could use one."
"Me, too. Let's stop and have one."
She slowed the car to a crawl and turned into the the meadow. The tall grass, weeds and stickerbushes slapped and scratched against the outside of the car. Nikki drove in a short, straight line to her left, so that the ragged line of trees partially screened them from anyone who might happen to pass by on the road.
Nikki switched off the engine, unbuckled her seatbelt, and got out of the car. She blazed a tenuous trail around the little, red car's diminutive trunk and joined Peter, who leaned against the passenger door. A lit cigarette already burned down between two knotted fingers of his right hand.
"Can I bum one of those?" she asked, sounding meek and timid as a mouse. "I left my purse in the car."
His eyes lit up and his lips stretched wide in an easy smiled. "Sure," he drawled, in that friendly, gracious tone of his, which she still remembered from those long ago days at Lazarus High, when he was a tall, geeky senior and she was a year behind him. Despite the horrendous heat, she still felt her athletic body shiver with excitement, the way she'd always done back then, whenever he'd turned and looked at her, and used that charming and disarming tone of voice on her.
He extended the flimsy flip-top box. Using two slender fingers as a pair of pincers, she deftly extracted a cigarette from the box and stuck it in the center of her mouth. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask him for a light; but there was no need for her to do that. He was already touching the tall, spear-shaped flame of his cheap plastic lighter to the end of her cigarette.
"Thank you," she mumbled between quick, hungry puffs.
"You're entirely welcome, beautiful lady."
She smiled at that, laughed and almost choked, coughing out a small, unraveling cloud of ugly, white smoke.
She came and leaned next to Peter, against the side of her car. The car's thin steel shell felt hard and hot as a fire poker against her butt and shoulder blades. Still, she thought, even with the murderous heat, it was a beautiful day. An almost perfect day. The sky high over their heads was bright and clear like a pane of glass and the world around them was quiet, peaceful, and still. For just a second, she found herself vainly wishing that time could somehow seal herself and Peter both in this moment forever.
They stood, side by side, not saying anything, enjoying the moment, smoking and watching the shimmering woods on the other side of the wide meadow.
She was suddenly acutely aware of Peter's eyes on her. Nikki felt herself blush slightly, as she turned her head and found Peter gazing at her with a strange mixture of awe and wonder, and fascination, as if he was seeing her for the very first time. The brilliant summer light danced in his eyes, and he smiled, as he leaned even closer to her. She smiled back at him in breathless anticipation, puckering her lips. They kissed, long and slow, tender and passionate. Nikki's breath caught in her throat. Her heart thudded inside her chest, and she felt a special warmth like soft, golden sunshine suffuse her entire being, from the crown of her head all the way down to the tips of her toes.
This one little moment of sweet surrender more than made up for all the trials, torment, and torture of the last fifteen years. She knew in her heart that she was home again, at last. This time, for good.