On the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.
Twenty-seven miles from Coolman’s destination, an old green Firebird bashed his car from behind. The impact failed to trigger the Buick’s airbags, but Coolman heard the rear bumper dragging. He steered off the highway and dialed 911. In the mirror he saw the Firebird, its grille crimped and steaming, pull onto the shoulder. Ahead stood a sign that read: “Ramrod Key.”
Coolman went to check on the other driver, a woman in her mid-thirties with red hair.
“Super-duper sorry,” she said.
“What the hell happened?”
“Just a nick. Barely bleeding.” She held her phone in one hand and a disposable razor in the other.
“Are you out of your mind?” said Coolman.
The driver’s jeans and panties were bunched around her knees. She’d been shaving herself when she smashed Coolman’s rental car.
“I got a date,” she explained.
“You couldn’t take care of that at home?”
“No way! My husband would get so pissed.”
“Unreal,” said Coolman.
The woman was wearing a maroon fleece jacket and rhinestone flip-flops. On her pale thigh was the razor mark.
“How about a little privacy?” she said. “I’m not quite done here.”
Coolman walked back to the Buick and called the man he was supposed to meet in Key West. “I’ll be a few minutes late. You’re not gonna believe what just happened,” he said on the man’s voicemail, leaving it at that.
The cops arrived and wrote up the red-haired pube shaver for careless driving. Naturally, she had no collision insurance; that would be Avis’s problem, not Lane Coolman’s. A tow truck hauled away the Firebird, which needed a new front end including a radiator. The woman approached Coolman and asked for a ride.
“Tell your ‘date’ to come get you,” he said. One of the police officers had pried the damaged bumper from the Buick, and Coolman was trying to fit it into the backseat.
“He doesn’t have a car,” said the woman, who’d buttoned her jeans. She was attractive in a loose and scattered way. Coolman had a weakness for redheads.
“See, I work for an escort service. We go to where the client’s at,” she said.
“Yes, I understand the concept.”
The woman’s fleece was unzipped and beneath it she wore a black sequined top. Her toes must be freezing in those flip-flops, Coolman thought; the temperature was 55 degrees with a biting north wind, arctic conditions for the Florida Keys.
“My name’s Merry,” she said, “spelled like Merry Christmas.”
“My name’s Bob,” said Coolman, “spelled like Bob.”
“Does that mean you’ll give me a lift?”
“Why not,” Coolman said, the worst mistake he would ever make.
At Mile Marker 22, Merry told him her last name was Mansfield, like the bombshell actress of the Fifties. Coolman stopped at a Circle K where he got a cup of coffee and Merry bought three eight-hour energy drinks, chugging the little purple bottles one after the other.
“You running a marathon?” Coolman asked.
“I’m all about performance.”
At Mile Marker 17, she told him she didn’t really work for an escort service.
“Wild guess—you’re a dancer,” he said.
“On my own time,” she replied. “Not one of those.”
“I didn’t mean it in a bad way.”
“Why didn’t you just say stripper? The games you guys play, I swear.” Her eyelashes were a paler shade of red than her hair.
Coolman said, “Why would you make up a lie about being an escort?”
“ ’Cause I needed a ride, Bob. If I said I was an artifacts appraiser you would’ve left me standing in the road.”
“What is it you appraise?”
“Sunken treasure. Doubloons and cannonballs and so forth. Business is slow right now. I’m an expert on eighteenth-century Spanish maritime.”
“Do you have a real date, or did you make up that part, too?”
Merry laughed. “He’s an Air Force pilot based at Boca Chica. Why else would I be doin’ my trim at sixty-five miles per hour?”
At Mile Marker 8, she blurted, “Did I say Air Force? I meant Navy.” She was buzzing like a flagpole in a lightning storm. “His name’s Rocky.”
“What about your husband?”
“He’s a Rocky, too.”
“Stop,” said Coolman.
“Don’t be judging me. I go for men with strong names.”
The closer they got to Key West, the more Southern her accent became. Coolman was foolishly intrigued.
“What about you?” she said. “What’s your field, Bob? Your expertise.”
“I’m in the entertainment business. I manage talent.”
“Your own, or somebody else’s?”
“Ever seen the show Bayou Brethren?” Coolman asked.
“Little Rocky watches it all the time.”
“That’s your son? Little Rocky?”
“No, it’s what I call my husband. Don’t make me spell out why.”
“Anyway, I manage Buck. You know—the family patriarch? Buck Nance.”
“Leader of the clan,” said Coolman.
“Yeah, Bob, I know what a fucking patriarch is.”
The show was taped in the Florida Panhandle at a swampy location that somewhat resembled a Louisiana bayou. Buck Nance and his brothers were actually from Wisconsin, but the network paid for a Cajun dialogue coach.
Merry said, “So what brings you all the way down here?”
“Buck has a personal appearance.”
“Just being Buck.”
Coolman hoped the guitar player had found the bar. Buck Nance had trouble speaking in public unless he was accompanied by a live musician. For his road gigs the writers at the network had come up with eight or nine amusing redneck stories, what you might call a monologue, and afterward Buck would take questions for ten minutes or so. The questions were printed on index cards distributed in advance to random fuckwits in the crowd.
Coolman offered to take Merry to the show. “We’ll hang backstage,” he added. Like there was a backstage.
“What about my date?” she asked.
“Bail,” Coolman said. “Tell him the truth—you had car trouble.”
“But then I shaved down there for no reason.”
The redhead smiled and shook her head. “For the Zac Brown Band I’d ditch my Navy boy in a heartbeat, but not for some yahoo from the bayou.”
“It’s only the top-rated cable program in the whole country.”
“I prefer the nature channels. You know—penguins and cheetahs. Shit like that.”
“Buck converted his Bentley to an ATV with rifle racks.”
“Why would a grown man do something so ridiculous?”
“America worships the guy. You should come hear him tonight.”
“Another time,” said Merry.
At Mile Marker 5, she made a call on her cell phone. All she said was, “Don’t wet yourself, sugar. I’m almost there.”
At Mile Marker 4, after they’d crossed the bridge into Key West, she flipped open the visor mirror and checked her makeup. Freshened her lipstick. Brushed her hair.
“You look terrific,” said Coolman.
“Damn right, Bob.”
At Mile Marker 3, she exclaimed, “Okay, pull in here!”
It was a small shopping center with a Sears as the high point. Merry directed Coolman where to park. He was surprised when a white Tesla rolled up beside them.
“That’s your boyfriend?” Coolman knew a couple of CAA agents back in L.A. who drove jet-black Teslas. The white model looked pretty sweet. Coolman himself leased a corpuscle-red Mercedes SLK 350 that required no electric outlet.
“I thought you said he didn’t have wheels.”
Merry shrugged. “Must be a loaner.”
The young man who got out of the Tesla was wearing a leather bomber jacket. If not for the gold earring and oily long hair he could have been a Navy pilot.
“It was nice meeting you,” Coolman said to the redhead.
“Oh, you’re coming with.”
“Me? What for?”
The man in the bomber jacket yanked open Coolman’s door and put a pistol to his neck.
“Let’s go, dipshit.”
“Just take my wallet,” Coolman said, breathless. “The Rolex, too, whatever you want.”
“You’re adorable, Bob,” the woman whispered. “Now get out of the fucking car.”
Copyright © 2016 by Carl Hiaasen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.