Willy edged through the crowd of lunching downtowners at the Grand Central Market, raising one finger for a kebab, when he felt something slide into his other hand. As always, she was too fast, and looking around he only caught the back of her sun hat. He’d never glimpsed more than a flash of dark hair framing oversized sunglasses, but sensed she was pretty, how she moved, with the posture and erotic grace of a woman who took for granted the admiration of men. Like Angelica, before the fire.
He pocketed the familiar envelope and made for the garage, where in the privacy of his car he opened it and removed the banded stack of hundreds to find a cocktail napkin wrapped around a single Blue Tip kitchen match. The napkin showed a crude map, an arrow north, a road he recognized. He tucked the money in the glove, then pulled a out a palm-sized pistol and dropped it into his windbreaker pocket.
He drove along the coast highway, the ocean flat and coppery under a burnt umber sky, then on up the canyon, his lips chapped, eyes stinging in the raspy air, past rambling haciendas and rattling palms to the fire road, crisscrossing the oak-sheltered switchbacks to the ridge line with its scrub and grasses fretting in the dessicating gusts. He pulled over at the appointed spot, the car shaking in the wind as he thumb-nailed the Blue Tip to life and lit a Marlboro. He watched the match burn to the end safely in the ashtray, then stepped out of the car, shielding the cigarette with an eye to the parched vegetation.
As he smoked, Willy looked out over the Pacific, at the late sun burning down into the brown haze swept off the desert, and thought of his first fire, as a kid, the erotic thrill of seeing his uncle’s toolshed curdle under the flames. Then the others, here and there for how long; until a year ago, the one crazed night, his own house. Who knew Angelica’d canceled her dinner with Shelley, the brief shadow crossing the window surely his imagination as he splashed around the gasoline.
How often he’d fought the cravings and failed. But now, the dreaded anniversary sealed his resolve. The kerosene would stay in the trunk. No more rendezvous with the dark-haired woman and whatever her twisted purpose. He stared at the tufts of native grasses that bowed downwind, at the scrub oaks crawling across the baked earth as if begging for mercy. He stood, judge and jury, considering the glowing tip of his cigarette, imagining the smallest flame on the tiniest bit of tinder . . .
Willy pinched the butt between thumb and forefinger and flicked it end-over-end into the brush below. He removed the pistol from his jacket, chambered a single round, and walked down the hill where sour smoke was already threading its way through the compliant sage.