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Authors: James Sallis

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BOOK: Drive
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Chapter Sixteen

Nothing in the Chevy to lead him anywhere. An empty container, essentially. Impersonal as a carry cup. He’d have been surprised if it were otherwise.

If he had some way to run the registration, nine to one it was bogus. And even if it wasn’t, all it was going to tell him was the car’d been stolen.

Okay.

But the hand had been dealt. He was holding.

When their hard boys didn’t come back—the fat man, the albino—those who sent them would be sending someone in after. Too many loose ends whipping about in the wind, only a matter of time before someone got whacked in the head.

That was the advantage he had.

Driver figured the best thing he could do was move the Chevy. Stow it where it would be hard but not too hard to find. Then hang close by and wait.

So for two days, arm aching like a son of a bitch the whole time, figurative knives slitting shoulder to wrist again and again, ghost axe poised and descending whenever he moved, Driver sat across from the mall where he’d parked the Chevy. He forced himself to use the bad arm, even for the chi-chi coffee he bought, $3.68 a cup, at an open stall just inside the mall’s east entrance. This was in Scottsdale, back towards Phoenix proper, a high-end suburb where each community had its own system of walls, where malls teeter-tottered on a Neiman-Marcus, Williams-Sonoma axis. Sort of place a vintage car like the Chevy wouldn’t seem too far out of place, actually, there among the Mercedes and Beemers. Driver had parked it on the lot’s outer edge in the sketchy shade of a couple of palo verdes to make it easier to spot.

Not that it much mattered at this point, but he kept running the script in his head.

Cook had set them all up, of course. Little doubt about that. Driver’d seen Strong go down—for good, to every appearance. Maybe Strong had been part of the set-up, maybe like the rest of them only a board piece, a shill, a beard. Blanche he wasn’t sure about. She could have been in from the first, but it didn’t feel that way. Could be she was only looking out for herself, keeping her options open, trying to find some way out of the corner she and Driver had been shoehorned into. Far as Driver knew, Cook was still a player. No way Cook had the weight or stones for those hard boys come to collect, though. So he had to be fronting.

Making the question: Who was likely to show?

Any minute a car could pull up with goombahs inside.

Or maybe, just maybe, the bosses would quietly suggest, the way it sometimes worked, that Cook clean up after himself.

Nine-forty a.m. on the third day, every breeze in the state gone severely south and blacktop already blistering, arm hanging from his shoulder like a hot anvil, Driver thought: Okay then, Plan B, as he watched Cook in a Crown Vic circle twice on the outer ring and pull into the lot just past the Chevy. Watched him get out, look around, amble toward the parked car with key in hand.

Cook opened the driver-side door, slid in. Soon he emerged, went around back and popped the trunk. Half his body disappeared beneath the lid.

“Shotgun’s not much good anymore,” Driver said.

Cook’s head banged against the trunk as he tried to straighten and turn at the same time.

“Sorry about that. Blanche isn’t much good either. But I thought a few props might put you in a nostalgic mood, help you remember what went down. Show and tell.”

Cook’s hand rose towards the hoop in his right ear. Driver intercepted it halfway and struck with one knuckle just above the wrist, at a nerve center that shut down sensation and scrambled incoming messages. He’d picked that up on breaks from a stunt man he’d worked with on a Jackie Chan movie. Then, just like a dance step, right foot forward, slide the left, pivot on the heels, he had Cook in a choke hold. Same stuntman taught him that.

“Hey, relax. Guy I learned this from told me the hold’s absolutely safe on a short-term basis,” he said. “After four minutes, the brain starts shutting down, but up till then—”

Loosening his hold, he let Cook drop to the ground. Man’s tongue was extended and he didn’t seem to be breathing. M.E. would call the skin tone blue, but it was really gray. Tiny stars of burst blood vessels about the face.

“Always a chance I didn’t get it quite right, of course. Been a while, after all.”

Shafts of pain shot along Driver’s arm as he fished out Cook’s wallet. Nothing much of use or note there.

Check the chariot, then.

In the Crown Vic he found a clutch of gas-station receipts jammed into the glove compartment, all of them from the downtown area, Seventh Street, McDowell, Central. Four or five pages of scrawled directions, mostly unreadable, to various spots in and around Phoenix. Half a torn ticket from something called Paco Paco, a matchbook from “a gentleman’s cabaret,” Philthy Phil’s. An Arizona roadmap. And a sheaf of coupons bound together with crossed rubber bands.

_________________________________

NINO’S PIZZA

(RESTAURANT IN BACK)

719 E. Lynwood

(480) 258-1433

WE DELIVER
_________________________________

Chapter Seventeen

He always had his first few drinks of the day away from the house. There were two choices, Rosie’s up on Main, a long haul without a car, or The Rusty Nail at the corner. He had a car but the driver’s license had gone south years ago and he didn’t like to take unwarranted chances. Rosie’s was a workingman’s bar, open at six a.m. You asked for bourbon or whisky here, the barkeep didn’t have to come back with what flavor, there was only one bottle of each. Man didn’t have to put up with troublesome things like windows, either, since the place was a cave. The Rusty Nail, basically a titty bar, opened at nine. From then till three or so, when the girls started straggling in and the clientele changed (he’d got caught unaware more than once), it was inhabited by mechanics from a truck garage down the street and butchers from the meat-packing house directly across, many of them wearing their blood-spotted aprons. So mostly, those days his legs weren’t too wobbly or his shakes too bad anyway, Rosie’s won out.

All the early morning drinkers were regulars, but no one spoke. Most days the door was propped open with a chair, and whenever someone came through it, heads would swivel that way and occasionally one or another nodded a silent greeting before returning to his drink. Benny would have a double waiting by the time he reached the bar. Missed you yesterday, he might say. Benny’d serve up the first couple of drinks in a highball glass—till his hands steadied. This morning he was later than usual. Bad night? Benny asked. Couldn’t sleep. My old man always blamed that on a bad conscience, Benny said. Well there you go, he figures it’s a bad conscience, I’m thinking it’s got a lot more to do with a bad chicken-fried steak.

Someone tapped his shoulder.

“Doc? You’re Doc, aren’t you?”

Ignore him.

“Of course you are. Buy you a drink?”

Maybe not ignore him.

Benny brings the guy another Bud and pours another double for Doc.

“Thing is, I know you, man. I’m from Tucson. You used to take care of the vatos from the racetrack. Few years back, you patched up my brother after a bank job. Noel Guzman? Wiry and tall? Bleached hair?”

No way he remembered. He’d treated dozens of them in his day. Back in the day, as they said now—and found himself wondering again where that came from. Back in the day. Up in here. You’d never heard these phrases before, then suddenly everyone was using them.

“I don’t do that anymore.”

“Neither does my brother, now that he’s dead.”

Doc threw back his scotch. “I’m sorry.”

“He wasn’t much, mind you—just family.”

Benny was there with the bottle. Be hard for the young man to do other than approve a pour. He watched with something akin to horror as the six-dollar charge came up on the register, then with a shake of his head accepted it. Benny tucked the tab under an ashtray on the bar by them.

“Went down trying to knock off some gook mom-and-pop store. Little guy was over the counter before he knew it, the police said, had him on the floor half a second later, blood supply to his brain shut off. Not the end he imagined for himself.”

“When’s it ever?”

“Not that anyone else was surprised.” He drained his beer and obviously wanted another. Hesitant because that might imply another six-dollar scotch as well.

“This round’s on me,” Doc told him. Benny took away the highball glass and set a shot glass before him, poured. Doc’s hand was steady as he lifted it.

“Same?” Benny asked the kid.

“Whatever you want,” Doc said.

“Bud’s good.”

Benny brought him a can. Doc bumped his empty shot glass against it and the kid drank.

“So…You living up this way now?”

Doc nodded.

“Doing what?”

“Retired.”

“Man, you were retired when I first met you.”

Shrugging, Doc signaled for a drink. Got a little extra in this one, since it was the end of a bottle. It reminded Doc of Sterno. Once as a kid he’d gone out behind the house, into the wilds of pecan trees and hedges and, following a night zipped into an army-surplus unsleeping bag, had attempted to fry bacon over a Sterno can, managing only to cook his thumb.

“Thing is, I have this sweet deal.”

Of course he did. Guys like this, came up to you at a bar, knew you or claimed to, they always had a sweet deal, wanted to tell you about it.

“Not following in your brother’s footsteps, I hope.”

“Hey, you know how it is. Some families turn out doctors, some produce lawyers….”

The kid took off his shoe, pulled back the insole and fished out two hundred-dollar bills, which he laid on the bar. Part of the stash he’d use to make bail, as proof against vagrancy charges, for bribes, or just to get by—an old convict’s habit.

Doc glanced at the bills.

“What’s your name, boy?”

“Eric. Eric Guzman. Think of that as on-call pay.”

“You expecting to need medical care soon?”

“Nah, not me. I’m careful. Plan ahead.”

What the hell, maybe this kid’s whole life was a non sequitur. Beer couldn’t have hit him that hard. Not Bud, and not in the couple hours he’d been sucking at it. Doc looked up and saw the kid’s pinpoint pupils. Okay. Now it makes sense.

“Planning ahead’s what I’m doing. Something does happen, I’ll know where to come, right?”

Kid didn’t know shit. None of them did these days. Fancied themselves outlaws, every one of them. Up in society’s face, down for anything that went counter.

Doc suffered another half-hour of Eric Guzman before making excuses and hauling his own sorry ass off the barstool and back home. Long enough for Guzman to tell him about his sweet deal. They were taking out an electronics store on Central, but way out at city’s edge where the street kind of petered out, with mainly warehouses and the like around. Place was having a blow-out weekend sale, and Guzman figured by Sunday there was going to be one hell of a pile of money on hand. Security guards were all about a hundred and ten. Had his crew together, all they needed now was a driver.

Miss Dickinson was waiting for Doc, complaining, when he came up the driveway. She’d wandered in his door a year or so back when he’d had it open late one afternoon, and he’d been feeding her ever since. A mixed breed in which Russian Blue was most evident, she was missing half her left ear and two toes on the left front foot.

“How many meals is this today, Miss D?” he asked. There was a troubling regularity to her visits; he suspected she made rounds from house to house all over the neighborhood. But he opened a can of albacore tuna and set it in a corner where she could get to it and didn’t have to chase it all about the room, though she would anyway, long after it was empty.

He hadn’t cleaned up from the night before. Strips of blood-soaked cloth, four-by-fours, bowls of peroxide and Betadine. Bleach, stainless steel sewing needles, bottles of alcohol.

Good to be useful again.

Before he finished the clean-up, Miss Dickinson downed the tuna and came over to see what he was doing, wrinkling her nose at bleach and cleansers, steering wide of peroxide and Betadine, but showing great interest in blood-soaked cloth, cotton and gauze. She kept trying to paw these out of the serving bowls and plastic bins into which he’d tossed them.

His new patient was coming back for a check-up on Friday. Worried about infection, Doc had told him. Now he was wondering if infection was the lesser danger. He should warn his patient about Eric Guzman.

Chapter Eighteen

For a long time after Standard’s death he didn’t take on any more jobs. Not that he wasn’t approached. Word gets around. He watched a lot of TV with Benicio, cooked huge meals for and with Irina. “Learned out of self defense,” he’d said when she asked how he’d found his way to cooking. Then, as he grated fresh Parmesan, Italian sausages laid out on the cutting board to warm, he told her about his mother. They clicked glasses. A good, inexpensive sauvignon blanc.

Day or two a week, he’d go off to the studio, give them what they wanted, be back before Benicio got home from school. The checks Jimmie sent him each month grew. He could go on like this forever. Nothing gold can stay—he remembered that from a poem he’d read back in high school.

Not that in L.A. you could easily tell without consulting a calendar, but fall had arrived. Nights were cool and breezy. Each evening, light flattened itself against the horizon trying heroically to hold on, then was gone.

Home from her new job as ward clerk at the local ER, Irina refilled their wineglasses.

“Here’s to—”

He remembered the glass falling, shattering as it struck the floor.

He remembered the starburst of blood on her forehead, the snail of it down her cheek as she tried to spit out what was in there in the moment before she collapsed.

He remembered catching her as she fell—and then, for a long time, not much else.

Gang business, the police would tell him later. Some sort of territorial dispute, we think.

Irina died just after four a.m.

999

Driver having no legal rights, Benicio got shipped off to grandparents in Mexico City. For a year or more he’d write the boy every week, and Benicio would send back drawings. He’d put them up on the refrigerator of whatever apartment he was living in, if it had a refrigerator. For a while there he kept on the hop, moving cribs every month or two, old Hollywood to Echo Park to Silverlake, thinking that might help. Time went by, which is what time does, what it is. Then one day it came to him how long it had been since he’d heard from the boy. He tried calling, but the number was out of service.

Hating to be alone, to face empty apartments and the day’s gapping hours, Driver kept busy. Took everything that came his way and went looking for more. Even had a speaking part in one movie when, half an hour into the shoot, a bit player grew ill.

The director ran it down for him.

“You pull in and this guy’s standing there. You shake your head, like you’re feeling sorry for him, this poor sonofabitch, and you get out of the car, leaning back against the door. ‘Your call,’ you tell him. Got it?”

Driver nodded.

“That just goddamn dripped with menace,” the director said later when they broke for lunch. “Two words—just two fucking words! It was beautiful. You should think seriously about doing more.”

He did, but not the way the director meant.

Standard used to hang out a lot at a bar called Buffalo Diner just off Broadway in downtown L.A. Food hadn’t been served there since Nixon’s reign, but the name survived, as did, in patches, the chalk in which the last menu had been put up on a blackboard above the bar. So Driver started being there afternoons. Strike up conversations, stand a few drinks, mention he was a friend of Standard’s, ask if they knew anyone looking for a first-rate driver. By the second week he’d become a regular, knew the rest of them by name, and had more work than he could handle.

Meanwhile, as he began turning down shoots, and went on turning them down, offers declined.

“What am I supposed to tell these people?” Jimmie said the first few times.

Within weeks he shifted to: “They want the best. That’s what they keep telling me.” Even the Italian guy with all the forehead creases and warts had been calling, he said—in person, not just through some secretary or handler. In goddamn person.

“Look,” Jimmie’s penultimate message said. By this time Driver had stopped answering the phone. “I have to figure you’re alive but I’m starting not to give half a goddamn, if you know what I mean. What I’m telling people is I seem to have acquired a second asshole.”

His last message said: “Been fun, kid, but I just lost your number.”

BOOK: Drive
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