BLACK TRACE - CHAPTER 5
I meant to have a substantial other post up this week, but life interfered.
Also, I may serialize the whole of this novel here. Why not. Not like it was gonna sell anyways.
I may, however, not.
Eight years after.
Jake awoke in the middle of the night, tasting kerosene and smelling burnt bones. It was all that night at the 1203 and all the nights after, good until it went worst. Out of the past, she watched him with green eyes from the corner of the mirror. He couldn’t take the staring any longer, so he burned her picture, even if it was the only one he had.
The plastic took its own time to light. And as it did, it unfolded like black butterfly wings as the ink and varnish bubbled and melted in his sink.
He went out for a drive. A message hanging in his little corner of the weave told him that Chaco wanted to see him any time day or night, so he headed west to Twentynine Palms first.
Chaco had taken over a MexPet station that had been built and then sold at a loss, but a gain to him. He left the signs in place, though the sun had beaten them and the plastic was crazing to a sort of smooth alligator skin composed of shallow curves.
He sat behind the counter, his smooth brown hands resting on glass suspended over a collection of colorful lottery tickets like confetti minus a parade to fall on. His fingers drummed and then he gestured without thought. “I didn’t ever say that the dude lived here,” Chaco explained. “Just that he comes in every couple nights. You were the one who turned it into a guaranteed thing, Almo.”
The bitcaster leaned there, against the rotisserie of shrimp dogs slowly roasting on a row of revolving metal cylinders. They sizzled audibly, or perhaps that was the simmering resentment which radiated out of his corner of the fuel stop. His time was being wasted.
His glassman fingered one of the stack of skin magazines, covers blued with age. Perhaps the inside pages were still vivid. He wore blue-rimmed Satori Smooths, from maybe ten years back. Retro modeled, with rims and earpieces all big and chunky, like the early days of 24/7 camera glasses. The red lights were on, indicating that he wasn’t live. If he was, Chaco would have been over the counter and smacking him with that aluminum baseball bat. Feed the magazines out and they’re worthless.
Chaco had traded a case of Cuerpo Blanco from Jalisco for the old smut, and he was figuring to make a profit out of the deal.
“No touching,” he growled. “Those are pre-Bustout slicks. All those models are like prunes made with human skin now. Dig the photo compression.”
He peered at the picture, looking for the telltale jaggies hidden in the fields of flesh.
“Yes, sir,” Chaco said, launching into his pitch. “Those are all compiled from the original files and worth more than that shooter you’re holding.”
“For jaypeg fetishists maybe. Not me,” the glassman replied.
“ ’Fetishist? We got a scholar here,” he said with a laugh.
“Yo, Snap. Give the man his space or his money,” growled the bitcaster. He tugged at the edges of his yellow-spotted red bowtie, the corners of which looked sharp enough to cut steel.
The glassman sneered but backed away.
“Have I not been good to you, Chaco? Have we not shared in one another’s successes?” The bitcaster pointed to himself with the pious grace of a televangelist. His trousers rode high on his waist and his white hound’s-tooth jacket was cut long, somewhere between solid citizen and Zoot. He had to ride the fine edge between sub cult pandering and mainstream acceptable if he wanted his feed to get siphoned up.
“Hey, Almo, look—”
“Don’t stream me with ‘Hey Almo’!” His face reddened and his lips tightened to an ugly slash before he spoke again. “Five hours out here in the ass end of California, not counting the drive. Five hours of your awful coffee and ibarra. Feel like I’m gonna piss out a worm. And what do I have to show for it?”
Chaco caught the flash of blue hood reflecting the station lights in the corner of his eye. Not on time, but you didn’t hold guys like Jake to a watch and expect anything but a miss.
“Goddammit! The Feds could fire rockets at us from here.”
“Almo, that’s bullshit. Only ever happened that once.”
The glassman watched his boss’ meltdown with a barely concealed glee. He thought about filming some of it, pull some crisp down on the side, but then he valued the regular check more than that.
“Two more minutes and I’m going back to Riverside, you idiot! This is the last time I ever take up a lead from you!”
The door opened with a faint scrape, tracing the arc on the lino tiles of the floor which had been dusty forever.
The tall guy wore denims with weave panels underneath, jacket once black but now a faded smoke color. His hair was short and spiked up by itself, looking for a cut. He was skinny but not like a user, though there was darkness beneath his eyes. They were blue, cold in color but sharp. The guy glanced at the bitcaster, caught in mid-tantrum.
“Hey, Chaco,” he said with the gravel voice of the never-asleep. “You wanted to see me?” He brought his eyes over to Chaco, locked them, then flicked over to the outsider. Eyebrows up.
Chaco shrugged in return, too meek.
“Who’s this guy?” Almo demanded. “Hey, you don’t like my cut? You got a problem with the jacket?”
Jake shook his head slowly. “I could care about your clothes. But your yap is a little shrill first thing in the A.M.”
“Hey, lowlife,” he started. “Nobody wants it.”
The tall man turned away, back to Chaco, who looked as if he’d been watching a pile of money burn up. “So what did you need?”
“I wanted you to, ah, meet someone. You know, meet and talk.”
“Is a favor or a cash money job?” He fished out a slim roll of League bills and put it on the scratched counter. “Here. Fill on five.”
Number five pump was hydrogen that only dispensed liters at a time. It was always a pain in the ass, but it was better than having the whole works go up in a column of fire. Didn’t burn long, but it did burn like a son of a bitch.
“Cash job. Right Almo?” Chaco pointed his voice at the fuming video host.
Jake craned his neck around again to look at the guy. Then he caught the lenses on the glassman’s face. “No,” was all he said.
Almo melted in realization, irritation bled out in seconds, replaced by pleading. “But. Oh, shit. Oh shit. I’m sorry,” he said with a slick politeness. This was the guy. Asphalt justice. Blue driver. The paladin.
He didn’t measure up to the words and video that Almo had seen. This was a guy, a tired guy, a drifter who’d taken root and a shine to driving roads that everyone else avoided.
“Sorry or not. No,” Jake said to the host then turned back to Chaco. “You know better than this, man. I don’t do screens.”
“Always a first time,” he offered. “Listen, Almo is straight up and he’s offering crisp.”
“Yeah, so does RegServ, and they keep their mouths shut. No.”
“Hey, look,” Almo said, fumbling for the reset button. “We got off all mixed. Can we slam the redo button on this conversation?” He offered a hand that held steady, showing no signs of the outburst from a moment ago.
“The minute that those glasses go black, this talk ends,” Jake warned.
“Go ahead. It’s your money,” Jake said. “But talk outside. I got a car to fill.”
They stepped out into the cool of the very early morning. There wasn’t yet a band of light to the east and the strip of the Milky Way glimmered above them until they got to the fuelling bays.
Blue stood there, hood going on forever, broken only by the crescent cut for the gun-barrel’s traverse. Squared lines indicated power over grace. The car rode low, but not like some city creeper that couldn’t even make it over a speed table. The wheel panels had been dropped and flared to make the tires a less tempting target, but not so much that the lines were broken.
“Takes a man with a backbone to drive American these days,” Almo joked.
“Federal you mean, right? They’re still driving American in Havana. Good steel lives forever if treated correct.” Jake walked around to the driver’s side and worked the fuel door, then the cap. The compression chamber let loose with a low hiss as the remnant vented before the fueling coupler was fitted.
“That’s a Challenger, right?” Almo said, pointing at the car then fumbling for the model in his head.
“Charger,” the cameraman corrected, hands at his hip pockets.
“Your man’s right. You aren’t.” Jake took up the hose, rested it on the mount and then turned it so that the clamps activated. The system re-pressurized with a sharp hiss.
“I miss the smell of gasoline,” Almo said.
“You aren’t that old,” he shot back. “Or are they still getting enough up out of TJ to gas up hot rods these days?”
“My unk. He used to be a jammer. Still keeps one in his garage.” He peered under the hood as the taller man opened it up and began to check things.
The engine block was clean enough to perform surgery on.
“Nah,” Almo said. “They got an oldies week. City even pays for him to fill up the tank once and drive around downtown. Lotta cameras out then. Lotta hits.”
Jake bit his lip then spoke. “Good for your unk.” He replaced the dipstick, which was sheathed in a fine amber sheen.
“Dang, that oil’s cleaner than my suit.”
He set his jaw, as if biting his tongue, then ran his fingers over the ammo chute for the three-barrel minigun. The brass glinted in the lightcloud of the bay. He did it all by touch, not looking at the machine as he checked it. “Look, enough with the sweet talk… Almo, right?”
The bitcaster swallowed hard and ran a hand through his pompadour like he was on a date, nervous, undirected.
“So what is it you want? You need me to escort you guys around for a story or something?” Jake’s irritation was being buried in the litany of tasks that he was finishing up while new fuel got pumped into his car. He dropped the hood down and pressed hard to lock it into place. It sounded solid, like it could drive right through the building behind him.
“Sorta,” Almo said. “We wanted to do a story on you. You know, the paladin.”
Jake couldn’t keep from laughing. “Hate that goddamn word. Comes from a kid’s game, you know that? Older’n both of us put together.” He disengaged the fueling clamp and snapped the hose once, starting the retractor.
“Okay, we won’t use it. We just want to ride along with you for a night, maybe two, depending.” He looked as if he was searching for a way to have said that more elegantly. “I mean, this story blows up, we could all be looking at a big pile.”
“Oh, but then I’d have to be on a screen. A lot of them. Not interested.” He closed the door to the fuel hatch and waited expectantly.
“I’ll make you the same offer I made to that guy Tsui, from Japan. And to Henrietta Walpurgis who came all the way from Stuttgart with her hundreds of devoted viewers. I’ll give you the same offer.”
Almo and his glassman glanced at one another wondering if they were being set up or if maybe this was a real chance.
“You can follow me. But you gotta tell me that you’re doing it.”
“That’s it?” Almo asked. He ran it around behind his eyes. That could be just as good. Maybe it wasn’t putting a face on him, but there were ways around that.
“Sure. You can follow me. But I’m not going to slow up for you. And most likely I’m going east from here. Depends if I get a call or not.”
“Past Joshua Tree?” the cameraman asked. His dark skin lost a little color, but maybe that was the off light from the fueling bay. Lightclouds sucked the color out of things, too clean, too bright.
“Solo?” he asked, trying not to gape but forgetting his manners.
“Jesus, you two are acting like it’s driving into enemy territory or something.” Jake flicked the excess water off the squeegee and it glittered like diamonds for an instant in the high-frequency lights. “Maybe you should go, learn a thing or three.”
“I already know that fire’s gonna burn me if I stick my hand in it,” the glassman said, ready to step back. “We ain’t packing or all that armored.”
“Oh, that’s right. From the big city,” he replied with a smirk, surprised that they made it even as far as they had.
“So what can we shoot?” Almo asked like he was actually going to do it. He looked like he was on stage, standing in those bright lights. And being on stage, all he had to was say things and people would eat them up. He might even believe it himself.
“Whatever you can see,” Jake said. “I’ll drop my plates for the night so you won’t have to post-blur them, or somehow, you know, forget to.”
Almo was drooling. The cameraman saw it and almost lost his lunch. This was crazy talk. It was all fun and games, even as far east as Twentynine Stumps, but further east and Cal-I forgets to patrol.
“Shut up, man! Just shut up.” he stifled another tantrum and then pulled himself together, ready for a close-up. “Sounds good, Jake. Sounds good.”
“‘Mister Culver,’” Jake corrected. “And you can call me anything but that when the video rolls.”
Almo stood there like he was forgetting something. “Hey, you know, we’ve got to sign papers and profit-sharing plans and all that. You know, standard stuff. Looks like the RegServ papers.”
Jake smiled and let it hang. “There ain’t gonna be any profits.”
Almo was incensed for the moment that he could feel it, before he figured out that the rug was being pulled out from under him. “Wh…Why?”
“Well, first rule is there’s never any profits,” he said. “Second is that there’s no story because neither of you are going to follow me when I go out of this parking lot and turn left. But to humor you, I’ll slide the plates down in case you get the guts to go wild.” He opened the door and sat down, watching them standing there. “Go on. Offer not to be repeated.”
Then he flicked the ignition on with a jingling of keys and Blue’s engine rolled low and throaty and sinister, sound echoing off the flat concrete planes of the fuel stop. The car was the color of the night sky before dawn.
The door closed slow, like he had all the time in the world. He pulled out, lingering in the pool of light for a moment before sliding onto the sixty-two and heading eastbound.
He looked into the rear view and didn’t even see them pull out of the lot, much less make that left turn.
Here's the following chapters for ease of consumption.
The whole book should be along in early fall. Hopefully.