BLACK TRACE - chapter 4


Two years following.

The 1203 Club didn’t belong in Orange County, yet there it was as plain as a thumb in an eye. It should have been built in Riverside or Fontana, in the shadows of a dead steelworks or next to one of the Inland Empire’s auto graveyards. If there was a square drawn out of Santa Ana, Westminster, Garden Grove, and Fountain Valley, the 1203 would have been right in the center of it, just off Bolsa Avenue before it became 1st Street.

“1203” was what they used to label gasoline in those giant mirrored tankers, the rolling bombs going down the freeways, just waiting for a chance to go off. One of them would take out an entire six lanes with the flames, and the oncoming traffic would be shut down so that citizens didn’t kill themselves staring into the boiling smoke and burning concrete. Karla had seen it herself, river of cars frozen at Edinger on the Four Oh Five.

Karla Castillo-Aguilar took the bar over from her father and fought the same battles he did. Crooked cops, well-meaning family types, career-minded council members, heavies squeezing. All of them wanted something from the 1203: money, respect, or just to go the hell away. He hadn’t, not in twenty years, and Karla wasn’t about to either. This wasn’t just a bar, but a home, for a family that might never have had one. All you had to do to walk in the doors was to love. Cars mostly. You could love people who loved cars, that would work too.

The front parking lot was miles of lovingly polished paint and metal gleaming under the banks of LED lightcloud fixtures. But the real action was in the back lot, away from prying eyes. Out back, the real blood would show their current projects. School was conducted back there, where the fresh-faced, should they be lucky enough, could sit at the feet of masters and learn how any damage short of fiery disintegration could be undone. Frames could be unbent, and the crippled could be made to run again. Top fuel, nitrous or pure 93 leaded smuggled up from Baja. All kinds welcome, so long as you show the love.

Of course, love was a tricky thing given the other ties that dug into people’s lives. Sons of the Tiger and Los Coyotes, Spider Sevens and No Tomorrows might love their speed, but they hated each another. And that was without having to worry about all the up-and-comers who hadn’t yet signed compacts and might do something stupid like start a fight so they could earn some teeth. Smart ones didn’t fan any flames. Dumb ones might do it on the grounds once. Nobody had done it twice. Giving up your wheels for a month as atonement, with the option of working for free for a week once the stitches came out, convinced the young ones that there was such a thing as bad attention.

Still, every Friday night was a new trip. And word got out that the 1203 had been featured on some undercover clipshow again. There would be a whole bunch of people who didn’t understand the rules coming through the door. Season would be open.

She poured a whiskey and traded it for a sheet of blue crisp held in a sanded-oak hand, knuckles scarred and enlarged from a lifetime of torqueing. The gearhead stared at the magenta and blue and silver Edelbrock print like it was a centerfold or something holier, then he took half at a gulp.

**

At least Jake was here tonight, she thought as she nodded him through the door. Guy was a mirror; nothing stuck to him and you couldn’t see past him at all. He walked through the brass and swept the room, jutting out his chin at Jason and his ’clave over in the corner. They sat under that giant canvas, the one that Robert Williams called Hot Rod Race, which always felt like disaster, until you remembered that half the cars were going to leave the cops and their big Chevrolet in the dust. The horror of that yellow Ford with the flame job, though, that put a chill in everyone who lingered over it.

Jason laughed at that danger. He relished sitting under the painting, thumbing his nose at the second of weightlessness he might get before tumbling to his death. Jason with his devil smile and almost gold skin and jet black streaks of hair, Jason was going all the way.

“Sit your ass, man. Get you wetted down,” he said with a flash of white teeth.

Jake did so, slow and wary. But that was Jake. He never jumped into anything easily, even friends. So far as anyone knew, he’d been born at age twenty and three, steering wheel in his hand and a toolbox in the seat beside him. Make up any story you like, because it was no closer or further to the truth than he’d ever tell.

“Yeah. Bourbon, clean.”

Jason laughed silently at that. “Like you’d order anything else. Hey, Karla!” He yelled over the noise of the bar. “Get something single-barrel back here!”

“Splashing your chips? Since when do you reach for that top shelf?” His hands rested on the table edge then gripped for a moment and he relaxed.

Jason’s smile pushed his eyes so far closed that they looked like razor slices over his perfect cheeks. “Since I got signed, man.”

“Bullshit.” Jake waited for his drink.

“No joke. Did it this afternoon. Energy Tijuana. Western Pacific circuit. No more underground.”

“Swimming with the sharks. No more small pond,” Jake said as he slapped Jason’s hand then they brushed knuckles like brothers.

Karla set the almost egg-shaped bottle on the table. A pewter horse in mid-stride capped the cork. The seal was still intact. Toppest shelf.

“I’d say on the house, but now you’re all crisped-up so I should make you pay double.” She crossed her arms in front of her chest and the ink on them became a jumble of tattooed gears and pistons over the red cotton tank top.

He sat back arms out and empty, all but pouting. “Oh come on, T. You know I’m good for it.”

Her eyes smoldered at him. “Last time I tried to collect on a debt from an ET driver, I got a bucket full of nastygrams from a lawyer. Cash or go wash glasses for the rest of the night.” Her eyes smiled but her tone didn’t. The black lipstick smirk was evenly balanced between the two.

Jason grumbled and tossed a thin pair of League twenties to her. “Bring your crew back here when you’re in town, big-time,” she said as she tucked the bills into her back pocket. “Just pay when you play.”

He poured out two big, fat ones. Jake eyed his cautiously.

“You know I ain’t finishing this tonight.”

“And you’re still a goddamned baby.” Jason knocked half his back and then tilted his head further, letting the rest drain.

“Sticks and stones, man.”

The crowd was a little rowdier tonight. A lot of folks dressed nice, and not just nice for the 1203. They smelled after-party, too loose for Stone Velvet but way too nice to be here. Their wardrobe implied ownership of wherever they happened to be standing, cut and pressed, the sheen of the new. They spent too long ordering and made a show of the money they spent. Karla stood impatiently in front of a couple who looked as if they were reading the labels one by one and finally told them to tap her once they’d finished.

“So, what’s with the fresh faces?” Jake asked. “They’re not ET legal or fans for you, right?”

Jason shook his head, lips pursed. “You come to them, not the other way around. Karla told me that the Twelve-Oh was on OC Uncovered earlier this week. Clips got passed around a lot. Guess we’re it for tonight.”

“At least it won’t last,” Jake said.

“Never know what’s going to stick until you can’t pull it off.” Jason poured himself another.

“Nah, these kids are just out slumming. They’ll find some other local color for next week. I…” Jake’s voice trailed off.

“Oh, that’s no damn good,” Jason said as he looked at the silently gaping Jake. “Shut your mouth, son. You’re gonna get flies.”

Jake tried to compose himself, but it was like holding onto oiled chrome.

The woman had long black hair that was straight and loose and glossy like the rain on the road. She smiled at the man next to her, but her green eyes were tight at the corners and then the smile evaporated like gas left in the open. It wasn’t the room that bothered her.

“You know her?” Jake asked. “She’s not a regular.”

Jason narrowed his eyes and peered at her. “Don’t think so. She’s a little fancy for the Twelve-Oh and the guy she’s with is… Shit, I don’t know what he is.”

“I’m sure you can find a word. Just try harder.”

The boyfriend wasn’t a big guy, but he stood like it, taking up more room than he needed to. His denim was clean and crisp to the eye, walked out of the store with them on an hour ago. The leather jacket hanging on his shoulders was probably real and equally new. It was as if he’d heard it was dress-up time and ran out for a fresh outfit to show off. The bar light shone off his glowing brow. He was lit already and looking for more.

“So, hey, Jake. Take your eyes off the unattainable for a moment and listen to me.”

“My ears work just fine, Jason. Talk.”

“Look, I wanted to ask if maybe, you know, you’d want to come with me.” He couldn’t even manage it as a question.

Jake picked up the glass and pointed with a finger while bringing his hand around. “What? To TJ? What do they have that’s better than this?” It stopped without a shake at the brunette.

The alcohol had loosened Jason up, but not enough to hide the trace of shame that came at the asking. “You and I, man, we both know who the better driver is.”

He finally took a sip out of the glass, lips staying tight after. “Better ain’t the issue, is it? Racers aren’t just about racing, but about the after-show and pre-race-show and the face in the glass, right?”

“Yeah. And I’ve never known someone who dislikes the glass as much as you do. Hell, I can’t even point my phone in your direction without you shooting me the look.”

“I’m camera-shy. Not a big deal.”

“Okay, so then you don’t have to drive. I need a tech who knows the black magic.”

“Bullshit.”

“So what if it is?” Jason reached for the glass and realized it was empty, then veered his hand away like it was hot metal. “Just, man, you’re better than the little day jobs you’ve been pulling down. And I’ve seen you…”

“Seen me what?” Jake asked, wanting to look away, both for the raw nerve being touched and to see the woman back at the bar before she walked out on her boyfriend.

“I’ve seen you throw races. Hell, two months ago on the Criver near the 39. You all but spun out at the end so that douchebag Martin could take first place.” His smile was gone and his eyes were black and wide in the bar’s low light. “I didn’t know why then.”

“But maybe you do now?”

“U-ground Races had lenses there.”

Jake took as big a hit of bourbon as Jason had ever seen. “Whatever you think it is, you’re wrong. And I’ll say ‘thanks, but no’ to your offer. Finally found a place that I fit in. Not real interested in moving anymore.”

“Limited time,” Jason urged.

“And my answer’s still no. Pretty soon I’m going to shave the ‘thanks but’ off it.”

“Okay, okay.” Jason raised his hands as if getting ready to block a punch. “I was just trying to spread the butter around a bit, you know?”

“I appreciate it,” Jake said, eyes sliding back to the bar, back to the unlikely pair. “Just get me some tickets when you’re at Riverside.”

“Riverside? Since when do you go that far east.”

“Since they opened it up as the only no-limit track closer than Rosarita.” He wasn’t looking at Jason anymore. He couldn’t. The show going down at the bar was well-timed. He was done talking and didn’t want to be rude, but he didn’t know how long he could keep saying no without a damn good reason.

Karla eyed the boyfriend as he pointed out a black glass bottle of tequila. He waved a sheaf of money around like he was buying the air. The woman at his side made a face and pushed away from him. She’d had enough, which Jake understood. He wanted to flatten the guy and he’d only been in sight for ten seconds now.

Karla was bringing down the bottle against her better instincts, but those bills would spend fine long after the asshole had blown out of the bar. She pulled up two glasses alongside it.

The boyfriend didn’t bother, popping the cork out of the Mano Negra and taking a pull out of it before looking around, remembering that he hadn’t come in alone. He nudged the black-haired woman and poured two drinks. The tequila was almost clear, only a slight brown tint from the aging hanging in the glass. He leered and then downed the drink.

She refused. And by the time that he figured that out, he began to get angry.

Jake was up and pushing away from the table before the guy understood what was happening. The crowd was loud and chattering, too many tourists with open smiles, shitting like seagulls everywhere they stood. The regulars were beginning to smell it, knowing that this wasn’t so much a safari but a sightseeing trip. Their patience for being the main display was at an end.

The boyfriend was about to become a very convenient target. And while he could afford the bridgework that he was about to have bestowed upon him, Jake wondered if there might be a better way, one less likely to get the Twelve-Oh shut down for a week while OCPD cleaned it up. Jake glanced at Karla and saw she knew it too, but she was also thinking, “So worth it.”

The crowd watched Jake approach and dropped their conversations. The regulars only knew him as a racer, as the guy who built Blue out back, out of desert junk and something approaching love. He’d never started a fight, not once, but maybe he was going to do it now. Out of respect, no money was changing hands, but some onlookers were placing bets in their heads.

Like an occupying army, the visitors kept up their chatter, oblivious as they talked and sketched out the scene on their glowing handhelds. Blue-white LED flashes went off in a nimbus around the room.

The boyfriend was scowling at the woman who’d come with him. She hadn’t touched her drink and he’d half a mind to make her. Instead, she smiled without warmth and splashed the liquor at him. The air in the bar got sucked into a hundred simultaneous breaths.

Jake was a step or two out of reach. The scene had changed too quickly for him to catch up to. Not that he’d expected anything like this.

Her face was clear and open, not screwed up in panic. She was very direct in what she was doing, ready for a follow-through and even for him to react. Feet apart, she twisted her body into the blow and brought the heavy bottom end of the glass down on the bridge of the guy’s nose. Dulled by the booze and the whatever else, his arms were too slow in coming up and stopped absolutely none of it. He stood there, dripping in three hundred dollar tequila and wondering what the hell had just happened.

When the pain hit, it hit like the Gold Coast Zephyr at two hundred per, gliding on maglev track.

She stepped back out of reach, arms up at her sides, blocking out space to move and react should he do anything other than wonder at how his nose had gotten itself broken. Spilled tequila fell off her, but it didn’t change her focus. She’d just picked a fight with a man who had fifty pounds on her and screwing around wasn’t a winning plan.

He gingerly touched the contusion, so high up it was almost between his eyes and was thinking about maybe getting mad.

“You!” Karla shouted. It split the thick hush of the crowd like the roar of an alcohol-fueled dragster. “You are cut the fuck off. Get out of my bar!”

“Dy dose,” the guy whimpered. “Bish broke dy dose.”

“And you’re lucky that’s all you got,” the black-haired woman said quietly. “So why don’t you do what she said and jet?” She wasn’t bluffed or blustering. She didn’t have the power of six bodyguards in Italian silk at her back, either. Whatever she was pulling down, whatever juice she had, it was all from her.

Jake stood in quiet appreciation. It wasn’t hard to find tough women, even tough girls, out here. But to be so quiet about it, to not mess around and announce what you were going to do, but instead do it, that was worth notice.

The ex-boyfriend scrunched up his face as unpleasantly as he could. It didn’t take much to make him ugly. “Your fader’s godda hear about dis. He’s godda hear!”

She smiled wicked enough to bring Jake right to his knees. “That’s it,” the woman said. “You go cry to my daddy. Go do that.”

The dude looked around as if the room were on fire, tears streaming out of the corners of his eyes, lost quickly in the alcohol glow.

There were a couple snickers, some stifled and some wide in the open.

“Yeah, go cry to my daddy, too,” someone called from the back, giggling.

“Hey, buddy,” Jake said with ease, dialing things back. “Look, why don’t you sit down on your car outside for a minute and sober up before trying to drive home. Cops like to sit on Bolsa and deuce drunks. They like shiny cars best. It’s like catnip for ’em.”

“Fuck you,” he said as if Jake was the waiter who’d brought him a sandwich with half a turd on top. “Fuck all of you lowlifes. I could buy dis place and drow you all oud.”

“Not for sale, champ,” Karla said. She smiled brighter than one of OCPD’s helicopter searchlights. “And certainly not to no crybabies like you.”

The drunk glanced sidelong at the woman, who stood easier now, but hadn’t dropped her guard yet. Then he flinched at her, trying to get her to start something. Maybe he had a weapon, or maybe he was stupid enough to actually think that she wouldn’t beat him right out of his skin. She stood without motion, only pursing her lips at him.

That was enough. He swung, clumsily, wild, fueled by incoherent rage and stung pride and the slow belief that there was only one way for an idiot like him to try and gain face in the eyes of the crowd. She sidestepped and let him stumble into the red vinyl seat just behind her.

He flew forward, trying to adjust his path, to catch up, but she was more steps ahead than he could understand. He fell forward, unable to stop himself at all.

Jake tried to catch him, but the guy snarled and twisted further instead.

She laughed at the ex- as he buried his front four teeth into the glittering plastic seat covering before both he and the chair tumbled to the floor. Metal clattered and rung hollow and he rolled onto his back, one hand on his mouth, maybe trying to keep his teeth there.

“Come on, buddy,” Jake said as he pulled the guy up. He came up, stunned and insensible. He might figure it out by the next morning, but maybe not even then.

The drunk mumbled something, slobbering hard between the syllables. Then he swung again, fist balled up tight.

Jake caught it with one hand and it made a meaty slap of skin on skin. With the other, he was heaving and moving the guy off the floor.

“Karla, cab.” Jake said, helping the guy lean against the bar. “Mr. Smooth can trust us with his car, right?”

“So long as he keeps the drool off the bar,” she said with a smirk.

“You can do that, right?” Jake asked, waiting for the guy to nod an answer.

He did.

“Now look, we all don’t take kindly to bullies here,” Jake said, evenly and smoothly. He wasn’t mad but he wasn’t going to let the guy off easy, either. “So don’t ever come back, or we’re going to let your date take a monkey wrench to your face. Not that she needs it,” he said, looking right at her.

She’d calmed down, but was still ready to swing if she had to.

The guy nodded, napkin held to his face showing a long and ragged strip of red where the teeth had been knocked loose.

**

“Hey, what’s your name?” he finally asked her.

She turned her face up from where she’d been peering at the bar, the black bottle still resting there on its side. Not every day that three bills of liquor was spilled but not drunk. No less than five people had taken pictures of her with it, one of them with the still-bloody tumbler in her hand. “Why do you want to know?”

“’Cause I want to make sure I get it right when I tell the story about how you shut that guy down.”

“I shouldn’t have done that.” She pulled at one of the long locks that had fallen over her eyes. “He was just a garden variety asshole with a pedigree.”

“And you run into a lot of guys like that?” Jake finished off the last of his bourbon, that pour having carried him the hour since the crowd carried the guy to the door, everyone in the bar having laid hands on him at least once.

“It’s Madelyne,” she said after a pause, as if she’d come to some kind of private decision. “And yes, I’ve met more than my share of entitled children.” She pushed her own highball around, contemplating it as the light from the backglass fell through it.

“That’s a good name. Maybe a little old-fashioned.”

“Okay, then,” she said with the tug of a grin. “What’s yours? We’ll see who’s more old-fashioned than the other.”

“I got a name, but everyone calls me Jake. Jake Culver.” He extended a hand.

She regarded it cautiously.

“Look, just ’cause I kept from getting the tar beaten out of him doesn’t mean I endorse what he did. But you looked pretty plain to be in charge of the situation.” Jake shrugged his shoulder then swept the room. “The crowd would have turned him into tomato paste and then there would’ve been cops. Nobody needs that.”

Madelyne didn’t know whether to laugh or not. “And yet you didn’t flatten him, even when you had a chance to. He took a swing at you, you know.”

“I was there.” He shook his head. “That wasn’t a swing. That was him feeling useless and shamed. Nothing to be won out of beating up a drunk like that.”

“Except maybe the fun factor.”

He shook his head again. “No fun, even when they’re begging for it. He walked in like he owned the place, and you,” he said, nodding at Madelyne and her green eyes. “And now he has to live with the fact that he doesn’t. That feeling’s gonna creep up on him when he’s alone.”

“And just what is it that you do, Jake Culver, when you’re not saving raving assholes from themselves?”

“Never saved anyone. I fix cars. I drive cars. Sometimes race them.”

“Definitely more old-fashioned than me.” She smiled and didn’t shy away from it. “Racing cars? You ever win?”

“Best I do is second place,” he said without shame.

“I find that pretty hard to believe.”

“Believe it,” Jason interjected from behind them. “He tries real hard, though.”

“Guilty.” Jake raised up his hands.

“Hey,” Jason said. “We’re going to do a recky on the Criver and do a quick couple of runs. You in?”

“You’re gonna show us all how it’s done now that you’re stepping up to the big time? Oh, Madelyne, Jason. Jason, Madelyne.”

“Enchanté.”

Madelyne answered in a very long and very elaborate spate of French, smiling brightly.

“Hey, look. I just do the opener. I don’t really…”

She laughed at his abashment.

“I think you’ve been shut down,” Jake said. “And no, I’m fine right here.

“Just fine.”

Jason and a few others looked at Jake and Madelyne on their way out and understood.

Karla told her that she was welcome back anytime, something not a lot of strangers ever heard.

--

Here's the following chapters for ease of consumption.

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

The whole book should be along in early fall. Hopefully.

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