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Authors: James Sallis

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BOOK: Drive
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Chapter Twenty-four

He hitched a ride with the guy in the pickup, whose emergence with an aluminum baseball bat had sufficiently adjusted attitudes among the youthful crew of the van as to send them spinning away into traffic.

“What I’m guessing is you may have good reason not to be around once the Man arrives,” he said when Driver approached him. “Know more than a little about that myself. Get on up here.”

Driver climbed aboard.

“Name’s Jodie,” he said a mile or so down the road, “but nearabouts everyone calls me Sailor.” He pointed to a tattoo on his right bicep. “Supposed to be a bat wing. Looks like a mainsail.”

Professionally done tattoos—the bat, a woman in a grass skirt with coconut shells for breasts, an American flag, a dragon—covered his biceps. Hands on the steering wheel bore another sort of tattoo. Jailhouse tattoos, crudely done with ink and the end of a wire. Most times, that meant a guitar string.

“Where’re we headed?” Driver asked.

“Depends….Town not far up the road has a decent enough dinner. You hungry by any chance?”

“I could eat.”

“How did I know?”

It was a classic small-town noontime buffet, steam trays piled high with slices of meat loaf, shrimp, hot wings, beans and franks, home fries, roast beef. Sides of cottage cheese, three-layer Jell-O salad, green salad, pudding, carrot and celery sticks, green bean casserole. Clientele a mix of blue-collar workers, men and women from offices nearby in short-sleeve dress shirts and polyester dresses, blue-haired old ladies. These last came out in their tank-like cars around one o’clock each afternoon, Jodie told him, heads barely visible above steering wheel and dash. Everyone else knew to get off the streets then.

“You don’t have work you need to be tending to?” Driver asked.

“Nope, time’s my own. Have Nam to thank for that. I’m up for armed robbery, see, and the judge says he’ll give me a choice, I can enlist or I can go back to prison. Didn’t much care for it the first time round, didn’t have any notion it would have got much better. So I slide through basic, ship out, then along about three months in, I’m sitting there having the first of my usual breakfast beers when a sniper takes me down. Spilled the whole can. Fucker’s been up there all night waiting.

“They airlift me to Saigon, take out half of one lung and pack me back Stateside. Disability’s enough to get by on, long as I don’t develop a taste for much more than greasy hamburgers and cheap hootch.”

He threw back the rest of his coffee. The hula girl on his arm shimmied. Spare flesh like a turkey’s wattles swung beneath.

“Had the feeling you might have seen action yourself.”

Driver shook his head.

“Prison, then. You’ve been inside.”

“Not yet.”

“And here I’d of sworn….” He took another try at the coffee cup, registered surprise to find it empty. “What the hell do I know, anyway.”

“How’s the rest of your day look?” Driver said.

Like shit, apparently. And like usual. Jodie’s home was a trailer in Paradise Park back towards the interstate. Abandoned refrigerators, stacks of bald tires and tireless, decaying vehicles sat everywhere. Half a dozen dogs in the compound barked and snarled nonstop. Jodie’s kitchen sink would have been heaped with dishes if he’d had enough dishes to heap. Those few he had were in the sink, and looked to have been there for some time. Grease swam in the runnels of stove-top burners.

Jodie snapped on the TV when they first came in, rooted around in the sink, rinsed out a couple of glasses with tap water and filled them with bourbon. A scabrous dog of uncertain parentage made its way out of the back of the trailer to greet them, then, exhausted by the effort, collapsed at their feet.

“That’s General Westmoreland,” Jodie told him.

They sat watching an old Thin Man movie, then a Rockford Files, steadily downing bourbon. Three hours later, just before Driver rode off in his truck, leaving behind a note that read Thank you and a stack of fifty-dollar bills, Jodie collapsed, too. Just like the dog.

Chapter Twenty-five

It came in a box not much larger than one of the encyclopedias lined up on a shelf in the front room behind dusty figurines of fish and angels. How could such a thing fit in there? A table? Accent table, the ad said, crafted by one of America’s premier designers, assembly required.

It arrived around noon. His mother had been so excited. We’ll wait and open it after lunch, she said.

She’d ordered the table by mail. He remembered being amazed at this. Would the postman ring the bell and, when she opened the door, hand it through? Your table’s here, ma’am. You draw a circle, write a number on a piece of paper and enclose a check, a table shows up at your door. That’s magic enough. But it also comes in this tiny box?

Further memories of his mother, of his early life, drift up occasionally in pre-dawn hours. He wakes with them lodged in his head, but the moment he tries consciously to remember, or to express them, they’re gone.

He was, what?, nine or ten years old? Sitting at the kitchen table dawdling over a peanut butter sandwich while his mother drummed fingers on the counter.

Through? she said.

He wasn’t, there was still almost half a sandwich on his plate and he was hungry, but he nodded. Always agree. That was the first rule.

She swept his plate away, into a stack of others by the sink.

So let’s have a look. Stabbing a butcher knife into one end of the box to rip it open.

Lovingly she laid out components on the floor. What an impossible puzzle. Lengths of cheap contoured metal and tubing, wedges of rubber, baggies of screws and fittings.

His mother’s eyes kept returning to the instruction sheet as, moment by moment, piece by piece, she assembled the table. By the time feet had been fitted with rubber stoppers and the bottom half of legs were in place, the expression on her face, to which he was ever attentive, had gone from happy to puzzled. As she spliced on upper legs, cross-supports and screws, her expression turned sad. That prospect of sadness spread throughout her body, washed out into the room.

Watch closely: that’s the second rule.

Mother lifted the table top out of the bottom of the box and set it in place.

An ugly, cheap-looking, wobbly thing.

The room, the world, got very quiet. Both stayed that way for a long time.

I just don’t understand, Mother said.

She sat on the floor still, pliers and screwdrivers ranged about her. Tears streamed down her face.

It looked so pretty in the catalog. So pretty. Not at all like this.

Chapter Twenty-six

Jodie’s former ride was a Ford F-150, graceless as a wheelbarrow, dependable as rust and taxes, indestructible as a tank. Brakes that could stop an avalanche cold, engine powerful enough to tow glaciers into place. Bombs fall and wipe out civilization as we know it, two things’ll come up out of the ashes: roaches and F-150s. Thing handled like an ox cart, rattled fillings from teeth and left you permanently saddle sore, but it was a survivor. Got the job done, whatever the job was.

Like him.

Driver steered the mostly black beast with patches of Bond-It back down I-10 towards L.A. He’d found a college station playing Eddie Lang-Lonnie Johnson duets, George Barnes, Parker with Dolphy, Sidney Bechet, Django. Funny how so small a victory, finding that station, could change your whole outlook.

At a barbershop on Sunset he had his head buzzed almost to the scalp. Bought oversize clothes and wraparound mirror shades next door.

Nino’s shouldered up against a bakery and a butcher shop in an Italian neighborhood where old women sat out on porches and front steps and men played dominos at card tables set up on the sidewalk. What with supermarkets, Sam’s Clubs and so on, Driver hadn’t known butcher shops still existed.

Two guys in dark suits, in particular, put in a lot of time at Nino’s. They’d show up early in the morning, have breakfast and sit around a while, then leave. Hour or so later, they’d be back. Sometimes that’d go on all day long. One slammed espressos, the other went with wine.

Came right down to it, they were a study in opposites.

Espresso Man was young. Late twenties maybe, black hair cut short and troweled in place with what looked for all the world like Vaseline. Shine UV on that hair, it would fluoresce. Round-toed, clumsy-looking black shoes stuck out under the cuffs of his pants. Beneath his coat he wore a navy blue polo shirt.

Wine Man, fiftyish, wore a dark dress shirt with gold cufflinks but no tie, black Reeboks, and had his grey hair pulled back into a stubby ponytail. Where his young partner walked with the deliberate, measured step, the meatiness, of a bodybuilder, Wine Man just kind of drifted. Like he was in moccasins, or touched down only every third or fourth step.

999

Second day, right after breakfast, Espresso Man stepped behind the building to have a smoke. Inhaling deeply, he drew in a lungful of slow poison, exhaled, then tried to draw in another but it wouldn’t come.

Something around his neck. What the fuck—wire? He claws at it, knowing it’ll do no good. Someone behind pulling hard. And that warmth on his chest would be blood. As he struggles to look down, an ingot of bloody flesh, his flesh, drops onto his chest.

So this is it, he thinks, here in a fucking alley, with shit in my pants. Goddamn.

Driver tucks a Nino’s coupon into Espresso Man’s coat pocket. Earlier he’s circled “We Deliver” in red ink.

999

God damn, Wine Man echoed minutes later. Nino’s bodyguard brought him out here after one of the cooks, emerging to empty a grease trap, tripped over Junior.

Who the hell would name their kid Junior anyway?

Boy was gone, no doubt about it. Eyes bulging, star-patterns of burst capillaries all over his face. Tongue stuck out like a meat cork.

Amazing. Boy still had a hard-on. Sometimes he’d thought that was about all there was to Junior.

“Mr. Rose?” the bodyguard said. What was this one’s name? They came and went. Keith something.

Son of a bitch, he thought. Son of a bitch.

Not that he cared much for the guy, who could be a royal pain in the ass, all pumped iron, carrot juice and steroids. And enough caffeine to kill a team of horses. But goddamn it, whoever did this had brought it where it never should have come.

“Looks like the boss needs to kick it up a notch or two, Mr. Rose,” Keith-something said behind him.

He stood with his wineglass in one hand, pizza coupon in the other. The circle of red ink. We deliver.

“I’d say that’s already been taken care of.”

Couldn’t have been more than minutes. How far away could the son of a bitch have gotten? But it wasn’t for now.

He drained his glass.

“Let’s go tell Nino.”

“He ain’t gonna like it,” Keith-something said.

“Who the hell does?”

999

Bernie Rose sure as hell didn’t.

“So you’ve sicced the hounds on this guy and the first I hear of it is when he steps up in my own backyard and takes down my partner….Good thing there ain’t no union for our kind of work. That’s my business, Nino. You damn well know it is.”

Nino, who hated pasta of every kind, tucked the last of a chocolate croissant into his mouth and followed it with a mouthful of Earl Grey tea.

“We’ve known each other since we were what, six years old?”

Bernie Rose said nothing.

“Trust me. This was off to the side, not business as usual. Made sense to farm it out.”

“Off to the side’s the sort of thing gets you taken down, Nino. You know that.”

“Times are changing.”

“Times are for damn sure changing when you send amateurs out on a kill and don’t even bother to let your own men know what’s going on.”

Bernie Rose poured another glass of wine. Still called it dago red. Nino’s eyes never left him.

“Tell me.”

If he’d been in films he’d have asked what the back story was. Movie folk had this vocabulary of their own. Back story, subtext, foreshadowing, carry-through. Producers who couldn’t diagram a sentence to save their lives loved to talk about the “structure” of a script.

“It’s complicated.”

“I bet it is.”

He listened while Nino laid it out for him, the mock robbery gone south, this guy who’d taken it personally, the payoff.

“You fucked up,” he said.

“Big time. Believe me, I know it. I should have brought you in. We’re a team.”

“Not any more,” Bernie Rose said.

“Bernie—”

“Shut the fuck up, Nino.”

Bernie Rose poured another glass of wine, killing the bottle. Old days, they’d jam a candle into the neck, put it on one of the tables. Goddamn romantic.

“Here’s how it’s gonna go. I’ll take this guy down, but it’s on my dime, nothing to do with you. And once it’s done, I’m out of here—just a bad memory.”

“Not that easy to walk away, my friend. You’re bound.”

They sat unmoving, eyes locked. It was some time before Bernie Rose spoke.

“I ain’t asking your fucking permission, Izzy.” His use of Nino’s childhood nickname, something he’d never done before in all these years, had a visible effect. “You got your money back. Be content.”

“It’s not about the money—”

“—it’s about the principle. Right….So you’re gonna do what? Write op-ed columns for the New York Times? Dispatch more of your amateurs?”

“They wouldn’t be amateurs.”

“They’re all amateurs nowadays. All of ’em. Carbon-copy Juniors with their goddamn tattoos and cute little ear rings. But it’s your call, do what you have to.”

“I always do.”

“Two things.”

“I’m counting.”

“You send people after me, anyone up the line sends people after me, best keep the loading docks open for regular deliveries.”

“This the same Bernie Rose that said ‘I don’t ever threaten’?”

“It’s not a threat. Neither is this.”

“What?” Nino’s eyes met his.

“You don’t get a free ride for old time’s sake. I look in the mirror and see someone in the back seat, next thing I see—once I’ve taken care of that—is you.”

“Bernie, Bernie. We’re friends.”

“No. We’re not.”

999

What to make of this? Every time you thought you had a take on it, the world thumbed its nose and shifted back to its own track, becoming again—still—unreadable. Driver found himself wishing he had Manny Gilden’s opinion. Manny understood at a glance things others spent weeks puzzling out. “Intuition,” he said, “it’s all intuition, just a knack I have. Everyone thinks I’m smart, but I’m not. Something in me makes these connections.” Driver wondered if Manny’d ever made it to New York or if, as usual, six or seven times in as many years, he’d backed out.

Wine Man came out to look at Espresso, no expression showing on his face, and went back inside. Half an hour later he floated out the door again and saddled up. A sky-blue Lexus.

Driver thought about the way he’d stood looking down, wineglass in his hand, and how he’d looked getting into the Lexus, almost weightless, and understood for the first time what Manny had been talking about.

The guy who went in and the one who came out were different people. Something happened in there to change things.

BOOK: Drive
7.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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