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Authors: James Sallis

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BOOK: Drive
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Chapter Nineteen

From a phone booth Driver called the number on the coupons. The phone rang and rang at the other end—after all, it was still early. Whoever finally answered was adamant, as adamant as one could be in dodgy English, that Nino’s was not open and please he would have to call back after eleven please.

“I could do that,” Driver said, “but it’s possible your boss won’t be happy when he finds you’ve kept him waiting.”

Too big a mouthful, apparently.

“It’s also possible that you could pass me along to someone whose English is a tad better.”

A homeless man went by on the street outside pushing a shopping cart piled high. Driver thought again of Sammy and his mule cart laden with things no one wanted.

A new voice came on. “Can I be of service, sir?”

“I hope so. Seems I find myself in possession of something that’s not mine.”

“And that would be…?”

“Close to a quarter of a million dollars.”

“Please hold, sir.”

Within moments a heavy, chesty voice came on the line.

“Nino here. Who the fuck’s there. Dino says you have something of mine?”

Nino and Dino? “So I have reason to believe.”

“Yeah, well, lots of people have stuff of mine. I got a lot of stuff. What was your name again?”

“I’d just as soon keep it. I’ve had it a long time.”

“Why the hell not? I don’t need no more names either.” He turned away. “I’m on the fuckin’ phone here, you can’t see that?” Then back: “So what’s the deal?”

“Recently I had some business with a man from out your way driving a Crown Vic.”

“It’s a popular car.”

“It is. What I wanted to let you know is that he won’t be doing any more business. Nor will Strong and Blanche. Or two gentlemen who checked out for the last time, though it wasn’t their room, at a Motel 6 north of Phoenix.”

“Phoenix is a hard town.”

Driver could hear the man breathing there at the end of the line.

“What are you, some kind of fuckin’ army?”

“I drive. That’s what I do. All I do.”

“Yeah. Well, I’ve gotta tell you, it’s sounding to me like sometimes you give a little extra value for the money, if you know what I mean.”

“We’re professionals. People make deals, they need to stick to them. That’s the way it works, if it’s going to work at all.”

“My old man used to say the same thing.”

“I haven’t counted, but Blanche told me there’s something over two hundred grand in the bag.”

“There damn well better be. And you’re telling me this because?”

“Because it’s your money and your bag. Say the word, both can be at your door within the hour.”

Driver heard something fizzy and sinuous, Sinatra maybe, playing in the background.

“You’re not very good at this, are you?”

“At what I do, I’m the best. This isn’t what I do.”

“I can go with that. So what do you get out of it?”

“Just that: out of it. Once the money’s in your hands, we’re even. You forget Cook and his Crown Vic, forget the goons at that Motel 6, forget we’ve ever had this conversation. No one steps up to me a week from now, or a month from now, with your regards.”

Silence beat its way down the line. Music started up again at the far end.

“What if I refuse?” Nino said.

“Why would you? You have nothing to lose and a quarter of a million to gain.”

“Good point.”

“We have a deal, then?”

“We have a deal. Within the hour…?”

“Right. Just remember what your old man said.”

Chapter Twenty

Doc threw sponges, swabs, syringes and gloves into a plastic bucket produced to fit against floorboards and serve as a wastebasket for cars. Hey, he lived in a garage, right? Lived on an island, he’d use coconut shells. No problem.

“That’s it,” he said. “Stitches are out, the wound looks good.”

Bad news was that his patient wasn’t going to have a whole lot of feeling in that arm from now on.

Good news was, he had full mobility.

Driver handed over a wad of bills secured with a rubber band.

“Here’s what I figure I owe you. That’s not enough—”

“I’m sure it is.”

“Not the first time you stapled my ass back together, after all.”

“1950 Ford, wasn’t it?”

“Like the one Mitchum drove in Thunder Road, yeah.”

That was really a ’51—you could tell by the V-8 emblems, Ford Custom on front fenders, dashboard and steering wheel—but chrome windsplits had been removed and a ’50 grille added. Close enough.

“You crashed into the supports of the freeway approach that had just gone up.”

“Forgot it was there. It hadn’t been, the last few times I made that run.”

“Perfectly understandable.”

“Something wonky about the car, too.”

“Might cause a man to take caution who he steals a car from.”

“Borrows a car from. I was going to take it back…. Seriously, Doc: You had my back then and you have it now. Appreciate the heads-up on Guzman. I saw the news. All three of them went down at the scene.”

“Figures. He was basically your purest brand of trouble.”

“Not many that’d crew up with a one-armed driver. I was desperate, I’d have taken on just about anything at that point. You knew that.”

But Doc had drifted off into his own world, as he did sometimes, and made no response.

Miss Dickinson rushed up, front legs stiff and hitting ground together, then the back, like a rocking horse, as Driver was leaving. Doc had told him about her. He let her in and closed the door. Last he saw, she was sitting quietly at Doc’s feet, waiting.

Doc was thinking about a story he’d read by Theodore Sturgeon. This guy, not playing with a full deck, lives in a garage apartment like his. He’s brutish, elemental; much of life escapes him. But he can fix anything. One day he finds a woman in the street. She’s been beaten, all but killed. He takes her back to the apartment and—Sturgeon goes into great detail about provisions for blood drainage, makeshift surgical instruments, the moment-to-moment practicalities—repairs her.

What was it called?

“Bright Segment”—that’s it.

If in our lives we have one or two of those, one or two bright segments, Doc thought, we’re fortunate. Most don’t.

And the rest wasn’t silence, like that opera, I Pagliacci, said.

The rest was just noise.

Chapter Twenty-one

Best job Driver ever had was a remake of Thunder Road. Hell, two-thirds of the movie was driving. That ’56 Chevy, with Driver inside, was the real star.

The production was one of those things that just fell together out of nowhere, two guys sitting in a bar talking favorite movies. They were brothers, and had had a couple of minor money-makers aimed at the teen market. Both pretty much geeks, but good enough guys. The older one, George, was the front man, took care of the production end, finding money, all that. His younger brother, Junie, did most of the directing. They wrote the films together during all-nighters at various Denny’s in central L.A.

They’d been running scenes and lines from Thunder Road for three or four minutes when they both got quiet at the same time.

“We could do it,” George said.

“We could for damn sure try.”

By the next day’s end, with nothing on paper, no treatment, not a single word of script, nary a spreadsheet or projection in sight, they had it together. Contingent commitments from investors, a distributor, the whole nine yards. Their lawyer was looking into rights and permissions.

What tipped it was, they approached the hottest young actor of the year, who turned out to be a huge fan of Robert Mitchum. “Man I wanted to be Bob Mitchum!” he said, and signed on. Driver had worked on the movie that made him a star. He was a little shit even then and hadn’t got any better. Lasted another year or two before he dropped off the face of the earth. You’d hear about him from time to time in the tabloids after that. He’d gone into rehab again, he was poised for a comeback, he was set for a guest spot on some lame sitcom. But right then he was hot property, and with him on board, everything else fell into place.

What a lot of people don’t know about the original is how that Ford used in the crash scene had to be specially built. They put on cast-steel front bumpers, heavily reinforced the body and frame, modified the engine for maximum horsepower, then realized that no regular tires could handle the weight and speed and had to have those specially made as well, of solid sponge rubber. All the moonshiner cars in the movie were real. They’d been employed by moonshiners in the Asheville, North Carolina, area who sold them to the film company then used the money to buy newer, faster cars.

Driver was principal on the film, with a young guy out of Gary, Indiana, Gordon Ligocki, doing most of the rest. He had a duck’s ass right out of the Fifties, wore an I.D. bracelet that had Your Name engraved on it, and spoke so softly you had to ask him to repeat half of what he said.

“( ),” he said that first day as they took a lunch break.

“Sorry?” Driver said.

“Said you drive well.”

“You too.”

They sat quietly. Ligocki was tossing back cans of Coke. As Driver ate his sandwiches and fruit and sipped coffee, he was thinking how if he did that, he’d be calling time out halfway through every stunt to pee.

“( ).”

“What?”

“Said you got family?”

“No, just me.”

“Been out here long?”

“Few years. You?”

“Close on to a year now. Hard to get to know anyone in this town. People’ll talk to you at the drop of a hat, just never seems to go much beyond that.”

Although over the next year or two they’d spend time in one another’s company, having the occasional meal together, going out for drinks, that was the longest string of words Driver ever knew Ligocki to put together. Whole evenings could go by with not much at all between “How’s it going” and “Next time,” something they were both comfortable with.

That movie was the hardest Driver ever worked on. It was also the most fun he’d ever had. One stunt in particular took him most of a day to get down. He was to come barreling along the street, see a roadblock, and go for a wall. Had to take the car almost completely sideways without turning over, so the speed and angle had to be perfect. First couple of run-throughs, he rolled. Third time he thought he had it, but the director told him afterwards that there was some sort of technical problem and they’d have to run it again. Four tries later, he nailed it.

Driver didn’t know what happened, but the movie never got released. Something about rights maybe, or some other legal issue, could be any one of a hundred problems. Most things that start out to be movies don’t ever get made. They’d had this one in the can, though, and it was good.

Go figure.

Chapter Twenty-two

Six a.m., first light of dawn, world stitching itself back together out there, reconstituting itself, as he looked on.

Blink, and the warehouse across the way reemerged.

Blink again, the city loomed in the distance, a ship coming hard into port.

Birds skittered from ragged tree to ragged tree complaining. Cars idled at curbside, took on human freight, pulled away.

Driver sat in his apartment sipping scotch from the only glass he’d kept. The scotch was Buchanan’s, a mid-range blend. Not bad at all. Big seller among Latinos. No phone service here, nothing of value. Couch, bed and chairs came with the rent. Clothes, razor, money and other essentials waited in a duffel bag by the door.

Just as a good car waited in the parking lot.

The TV, he’d found sitting beside garbage bags at curbside when he put out his own glasses, dishes and miscellaneous goods for pickup. Why not? he thought. Ten-inch screen, and pretty much banged to hell, but it worked. So now he was watching a nature program in which four or five coyotes chased a jackrabbit. The dogs were relaying: one would chase the rabbit a while, then another would take over.

Sooner or later they’d come after him, of course. Only a matter of time. Nino’d known that all along. They both had. The rest was no more than dancing, fancy footwork and misdirection, figure-eight of the bullfighter’s cape. No way they were going to just let this lie.

Driver poured the last of the Buchanan’s into his last glass.

Guests soon, no doubt about it.

Chapter Twenty-three

In his dream the jackrabbit stopped dead still and turned on the coyote, curling its lips back to reveal huge razor-sharp teeth just before it sprang.

That’s when Driver woke and knew someone was in the room. A change in the quality of darkness at the window told him where the intruder was. Driver turned heavily in bed, as though restless, bed frame banging against the wall.

The man stopped moving.

Driver turned again and kept going, springing onto his feet. The radio antenna in his hand slashed at the man’s neck. There was much blood, and for a moment, two beats, three, the man stood as if frozen. By then Driver was behind him. He kicked the man’s legs out from under and, as he went down, slashed again with the antenna, at the other side this time, then at the hand that was reaching for, presumably, a gun.

Bending down, foot planted on the man’s arm, Driver pulled it out. A short-barrelled .38. As though the poor little thing had had a nose job to help it fit in.

“Okay. On your feet.”

“Whatever you say.” His visitor held up both hands, palm out. “I’m cool.”

Hardly more than a kid, really. Bulked up from workouts and steroids in equal measure. Dark hair cut almost to the scalp on the sides, left long on top. Sport coat over a black T-shirt, couple of gold chains. Small, square teeth. Not like the jackrabbit’s at all.

Driver urged him through the front door and out onto the balcony that circled the building. All the apartments opened onto it.

“Jump,” Driver said.

“You’re crazy, man. We’re on the second floor.”

“Your call. I don’t much care either way. Either you jump or I shoot you where you stand. Think about it. It’s only what, thirty feet or so? You’ll live through it. Any luck at all, you get off with only a couple broken legs, maybe a shattered ankle.”

Driver marked the moment it changed, saw the moment when the tension went away and his body accepted what was about to happen. The man put one hand on the railing.

“Give my regards to Nino,” Driver said.

Afterwards he collected the duffel bag from inside the door and went down the back stairs to his car. Jumpin’ Jack Flash came on the radio when the engine caught.

Shit.

Obviously the station had, as they liked to say, changed its profile. Bought out? Sold down the river? Supposed to be soft jazz, damn it. Still was, just days ago, when he set the buttons. Now this.

Getting to be where you can’t rely on anything.

Driver spun the dial through country music, news, a talk show about aliens of the extraterrestrial sort, easy listening, country again, hard rock, another talk show about aliens of the earthbound sort, news again.

Concerned citizens of Arizona were up in arms because a humanitarian group had begun installing water stations in the desert that illegal immigrants had to cross to get from Mexico to the U.S. Thousands had perished trying to make the crossing. Concerned citizens of Arizona, Driver noted, came out all in a breath, like weapons of mass destruction or the red threat.

Meanwhile the state legislature was trying to pass statutes barring illegal aliens from free medical care in Arizona’s overburdened, uncompensated emergency rooms and hospitals.

Doc should start up a franchise.

Driver pulled onto the interstate.

They’d sent a single dog after him? And a new dog to boot, not even pick of the litter. That was plain stupid, made no sense whatsoever.

Or maybe it did.

Two possibilities.

One: they were trying to set him up. His designated assassin wouldn’t talk, of course. But if Driver had killed him—as whoever sent him had every reason to expect—police even now would be going door to door and checking apartment-house records. All over California and adjoining states, fax machines would be rousing from slumber to spit out stats of the photo from Driver’s old DMV records and whatever other information about him could be unearthed. There wasn’t a lot; even back then, instinctively, he kept his head down.

The second possibility hardened to reality when a blue Mustang came up around the chain of cars behind him outside Sherman Oaks, lodged in his rear view mirror, and wouldn’t be shaken.

So not only did they have a tail on him, they wanted him to know they had a tail on him.

Driver cut abruptly off the interstate and into a service area, bypassing the inner loop. Pulled in and sat, engine purring, out by the truckers. Nearby, a family spilled from its van with dogs in tow, parents shouting at kids, kids shouting at dogs and one another.

The Mustang materialized behind him, in his mirror.

Okay then, he thought. My game now.

Popping the clutch, he shot along the service road. As he gained speed, his eyes swept constantly from rear view mirror to highway and back again. With a car length to spare, he slid onto the highway between two semis.

But he couldn’t lose the son of a bitch whatever he tried.

Periodically he’d go off-road, blend into local traffic to take advantage of it, interpose traffic lights like blockades between himself and his pursuer. Or back on the interstate he’d accelerate with blinkers going as though to take the off ramp, drop in front of a rig, then, once out of sight, floor it and surge ahead.

Whatever he did, the Mustang hung there behind like a bad memory, history you can’t escape.

Desperate times, desperate measures.

Well out of the city, out where the first of a crop of white windmills, lazily turning, wound sky down to desert, Driver sailed without warning onto an exit ramp and into a one-eighty. Sat facing back the way he’d come as the Mustang raced towards him.

Then he hit the gas.

He was out for a minute or two, no more. An old stunt man’s trick: at the last moment, he’d thrown himself into the back seat and braced for the collision.

The cars struck head-on. Neither was going to leave on its own steam, but the Mustang, predictably, got the worst of it. Kicking his door open, Driver climbed out.

“You okay?” someone shouted from the window of a battered pickup idling at the bottom of the off ramp.

Then the long blare of a horn and a squeal of brakes as a Chevy van skidded to a stop, rocking, behind the pickup.

Driver stepped up to the Mustang. Sirens in the distance.

Gordon Ligocki’s ducktail would never look good again. His neck was broken. Internal damages too, judging from the blood around his mouth. Probably slammed into the steering wheel.

Driver still had the coupons for Nino’s Pizza.

He tucked one into Gordon Ligocki’s shirt pocket.

BOOK: Drive
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