Drug Run | Chapters 1-7

by Dr. Rocket
with Ms. Gonzo

Editor’s Note: For convenience, we will add new chapters at the bottom, and print the story as one complete narrative. The latest installment is Chapter Seven: Blowout

 

The capacity crowd at Wild Bill’s Saloon were wildly yet amiably drunk that late August night, and some had also gotten high out in the parking lot. All were on their feet. The sweaty young Texas hipsters knew that this was the final performance of Suze’s band, and many in the crowd were her loyal fans that had packed the dive full every Friday for the last three months. They shouted, driven into a frenzy that was electrifyingly tribal.

Suze, inspired, threw every last trick she had at the revelers. Her vocal chops were up, and she felt locked in with the band as they pounded out tune after tune in sequence, barely stopping between the songs. Suze grinned in triumph. They had never sounded better.

“You’ve got to shake your money maker,” she shouted, wagging her rump for emphasis. Most of the men and not a few of the women yowled for joy at her antics as she sang the old blues tune Elmore James had recorded back at the start of the 60’s. “Last tune, let’s give it everything we got,” Suze laughed. The guitar player grinned and responded with a scorching slide guitar riff, making the crowd roar yet again.

Suze and her band were indeed all over after tonight, and she was fleeing her home town of Garland to escape to California for multiple reasons. She belted out her vocals joyously, the band throbbing beneath her soaring voice like a pump. She danced and whirled in a trance, and fed off the music and crowd with gleeful abandon.

“More,” came the chant for an encore, and Suze was ready. “I just wanna say you are the best audience ever, no jive. I love every person here forever, and thanks for outrageous send off.” She paused, and the packed mass of bodies quieted. This was the end of an era.

“There is no doubt about what this encore should be…” Some guy in the back yelled drunkenly, and Suze laughed, along with the crowd, then brashly stood right at the edge of the stage. The drummer kicked in with a Motown fill, and she sang with her most gravelly tone:

“Money, who needs it?
Let me live a life free and easy
Put a toothbrush in my hand,
And call me a travelin’ woo-man!
I’m a road runner baby!”

Saul the sax player wailed the Junior Walker sax line as she teased the audience by leaning over to expose deep cleavage, then jumped back up and into the air, cavorting and prancing. Suze was especially aware of the hungry looks that Rob, the bass player, shot at her. She was momentarily startled by his intense expression, but after all, they had a special plan set up. She grinned at him and turned away back into the spotlight. Everything was just perfect. Just perfect.

“I don’t want no man
To tie me down
I gotta be free, baby
To roam around…”

Aware of her meaning, their shouting mouths roared anew, their arms reached out and up.

“All my life, I’ve been like this
If you love me it’s your own risk..”

Suze sang the verses with emphasis, knowing what was coming. She nodded at Rob.

“Thanks gang, I’ll never forget you. Hey, let’s give the drummer some!”

In response, Mack launched into a furious solo. The crowd ate it up as Suze faded back into the shadows off stage. Rob was ahead of her, quickly packing his Ampeg Fretless into a gig bag, unplugging and wheeling his Fender Bassman into the hall. Suze retrieved her travel purse and they were out the back door. This was The Getaway, her secret plan. Only her band was in on it.

“Quick,” she gasped, looking around the back alley. Nobody yet. Mack’s solo could be heard clearly. Rob unlocked his big ’67 Oldsmobile Delta 88 and loaded his amp and bass in the back seat. “Hurry Rob,” she husked as she jumped into the front. Her suitcase was already in the trunk, her apartment was cleared out and her guitar, and all her other stuff, was in storage. She was ready.

He eased in, smiled lopsidedly, and turned the key. The starter motor turned over, and dashboard lights came on along with the muffled engine. “Ready?” She nodded vigorously and he shifted into gear, taking off fast, his tires squealing just a bit. The brightly lit club faded into the distance.

She let out a big sigh and eased back in the seat. Then she whooped, “California, here I come.” They both laughed in relief.

She mopped her face with a tissue. “Thanks Rob. They’ll be talkin’ about that exit for years!”

Rob heaved a big sigh. “I’m gonna miss this band, damnit. But Suze, listen…”

“Aww. Me too. You guys were kickin’ it tonight! And you and Mack had that psychic rhythm stuff happening. What a way to go!”

“Thanks,” Rob said quietly. She noticed he was biting his lip.

“Oh, before I forget. Your pay for the gig. Wild Bill gave up the money in front for once.” She pulled out an envelope from her purse.

“Keep it.” She frowned at him. Ok, this is weird, a musician turning down money.

He turned, suddenly speaking so rapidly she had difficulty understanding him.

“Suze, something’s come up. I have an offer for ya.” His word were tumbling out over each other. What’s this? Something about driving, and money. Driving to L.A. Driving a van. Full of what? Pot? What was he saying to her?

Suze, now thinking he was joking, laughed. And she kept laughing as he was trying to speak, frustration pissing him off.

She bent over. “Right, a drug run instead of fly to L.A., so I mule a buncha shit west. Cool!” She giggled, and nodded. “Really.” More giggles and finally Rob growled oddly, and very loudly.

“Arrrgwahhh… Damn it Suze!” he barked. “There’s a lot, a lot of money in this for ya, if you’ll hear me out.”

She turned sideways to face him. “Van. Pot. Money.” She snorted in disbelief. “I have a plane to catch, y’all know that, and my mom and sis waiting for me. What the hayyull…” She drawled in her incredulity.

“Our gal driver has vanished. Can’t find her. We needed her, see. So it’s down to you. We need someone who doesn’t fit the profile cops look for.”

“Disappeared.”

“I figure she just chickened out. It’s a damn big load.”

“Drive to L.A. In a pot van?

“Yup, you still get to California, just a few days later is all…”

Suddenly she was close to anger. “No. No way! Too dangerous and scary.”

“A drive in a van. Billy will go along, and give you driving breaks. I’ll be pacing you in the Olds.” Billy, Rob’s brother, was a longtime fan of her music, and had a crush on Suze. Younger than her by a couple years, but devilishly cute. Bit of a hell raiser, though.

She pursed her lips. “Hmm. Say, where was he tonight?”

Rob frowned and ignored the question. He pushed his long rock star hair behind his ear with one hand as he drove. “Listen! Drive with us. It’s just pot. Get this: there’s fifteen thousand bucks in for you.”

Suze froze a second, then looked at him in amazement. He smiled back, and nodded with vigor.

“Got your attention now? Yup, fifteen K! Big payday! Get half now, other half when we get to LA.”

“Wow, fifteen… thousand?” Was Rob for real? His intensity said he was. She stared right ahead, rubbing her chin, then cleared her throat. A bit hoarsely, she said, “Ahhh, ummm, I don’t know. Really, I’m… afraid of jail.”

“Our boss, well, he has top attorneys. Now, nothin’ will happen, right, but if it does, you’d be bailed out and defended, and anyway, if we drive at the limit, nice and easy, it’s a piece of cake. So take the damn money. Here.”

He reached under his seat and abruptly pushed an envelope into her hands, much thicker than the one she had attempted to hand him. So very much thicker. She looked at him, then lifted the unsealed flap. It was packed with hundreds and twenties. She gasped, and stared at it in disbelief.

Money would change everything. Get a car. Get her own place, away from her lovable but bossy sister and mother. Make life bearable, and fun. Suze began to laugh quietly from someplace deep inside.

“All right… why not?” She riffed the bills with her thumb, her eyes narrowed. “Yeah. Why fuckin’ not?

Rob smiled grimly, with a certain satisfaction. He nodded slowly.

“We take the I-40. And we leave tonight.”

 

 

Suze slowly realized just how tightly she clutched the cash-stuffed envelope as she stared out the front window of Rob’s big Delta 88. She fought the urge to count the bills.

Come on, even if it’s not exactly seven thousand five, it’s more money than you ever had in your life. Plus another payment like it in L.A.!

“Whooo,” she sighed, the sound masked by the engine. Put the stuff away, now, let’s show some dignity.

She tucked the precious mass into her big purse and refocused on her now-former bassist and new boss, who hunched silently behind the wheel, his grim expression dimly visible by the glow of the dashboard. This is a switch, gonna be takin’ orders from ol’ Robbie. Gotta get used to that, I guess.

“Well, what’s next, chief?” She put just enough of a funny inflection in her voice to make Rob’s lips twist upwards a bit.

“Out to the farmhouse to get us the van, and Billy. We are pretty much ready, or should be, if my bro’s on it. He wanted to make the gig, but I told him he hadda finish packing the load.” Rob fell silent a moment, thinking about the music.

“By the way…”

“Yes?”

“You really sang great tonight.”

“Thanks.” I’m gonna miss the compliments, ain’t I.

“What a night. I didn’t think we could do better than that first set. Was I wrong. After the break we tore the roof off.”

“It’s called warming up.” She stopped. Remember, he’s the boss now. Gotta not forget.

“Maybe if you put a band together out in California…” he mumbled, and ground to a halt. How cute, he cares. She was hit by a sudden thought.

“Coffee!” Suze exclaimed. “If we’re drivin’ tonight, I gotta have coffee.”

Rob nodded and pulled into a brightly-lit 7-11. She realized where they were, and opened her mouth to stop him, but it was too late. She looked around the parking lot anxiously. Well maybe he’s not here, that last time was enough, Lord.

One of the main reasons Suze was determined to give up her band and leave Garland was an exceptionally strange and obnoxious former schoolmate named Imants Haselberger. He was obsessed with her, as well as what he called “fighting crime.”

In recent months he often hung out at this very convenience store at night, writing down the license plates of late evening patrons he thought were suspicious. What he did with the plate numbers, no one knew. Suze had run into him here a few weeks back, and it had been an awkward mess.

She’d known him from seventh grade on, and he had been emotionally fixated on her for most of that period. She dreaded seeing him at any time, but under the current circumstances it would be unbearable.

Because on top of everything else, Imants’ father was a high-ranking FBI man.

Imants was earnest but strange-looking, with very thin lips, a narrow face, ears that stuck out and bulging eyes, an appearance not unlike that of the pulp horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. Due to his father’s rigid upbringing, he was aggressively ultra-conservative politically, and a religious zealot.

Suze had done everything possible to discourage Imants’ constant efforts to be around her, but somehow he often found and cornered her. His persistent ability to pop up in her life at random was uncanny.

As she poured her coffee at the self-service bar, a familiar sinking feeling came over Suze as Imants strode in and hurried down an aisle towards the rear of the store. How the hell does he always find me? She paid, hoping to get out before he noticed her, but Imants unerringly approached. She took a deep breath and tossed her blonde hair. One last time, she would try to be polite.

“Imants, what a surprise.”

He blinked at her, still in her low-cut stage dress from the gig. She knew he thought her music was the Devil’s work, and her provocative clothing an outrage. “Suze, I’m so glad to see you,” he finally blurted. “Your phone was shut off and when I went by your apartment they said you had moved.”

Suze, her smile perilously close to a grimace at the thought of Imants questioning her former landlord, spread her hands out palms up. This was going to require outright prevarication, she realized. “Yes, stayin’ with friends until my new place is ready.”

The young Asian clerk handed her the change with a wide grin for his buxom blonde customer. The clerk’s eyes flicked over to Imants, dismissed him, and snapped back to Suze. “Thank you, please come again,” he said, nodding vigorously.

Imants, averting his eyes in ongoing embarrassment from her stimulating décolletage, struggled to speak. “Friends. Ah, I see. May, uh, I have your friend’s number? I want to discuss the church picnic next Saturday. You haven’t been to church since your father died and I am worried…”

Suze hastily interrupted. “Imants, please understand. My personal spiritual beliefs are really none of your business. I believe God loves me whether I go to that church or not.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, but your father…”

“My father is none of your business, either, bless his soul. I won’t… I don’t want to talk about him.”

Imants was numbed by this assertion. Suze had changed. Why? Maybe the shock of her father dying last year had triggered some madness. If Suze doesn’t go to church, she’ll be condemned to hell for all of eternity. I won’t let that happen. I owe it to her father. I do.

“Can we talk about this later? How do I reach you?”

“I, I don’t have the number with me. Maybe I’ll give you a call, been real busy. Hey, gotta go, see ya!” She walked rapidly out into the warm Texas night, trying to remember the last time she had called Imants. Five years, back when she felt sorry for him?

A couple of teenaged boys standing outside gawked at her as she walked quickly towards Rob’s Olds, grateful Imants hadn’t thrust some damn book at her. He was always trying to get Suze to read various tracts and texts including, memorably, a book by J. Edgar Hoover. Suze, who loved books, glanced at a few pages, cursed, and threw away the dog-eared paperback in disgust. “Masters of Deception,” bah. What she knew of the FBI, just from the recent news reports, horrified her.

Undeterred, Imants quickly followed her out the door and right up to Rob’s Olds. He stammered questions about where her friend lived and where she was going at the moment. Suze waved him off, miffed at his annoying creepiness, and hastily but firmly said “Goodnight, goodnight, see you soon,” opened the door to a blast of music, hopped in the front seat, and firmly closed it.

Imants’ bulging eyes stared at Suze, then over to Rob through the window for a moment. A wave of sadness mixed with anger overcame him, and he frowned at Rob, who was listening to a James Brown tune on the radio.

Rob noticed him, as he turned to face Suze. Frowning in turn, Rob stared back at the figure standing outside. Imants turned away, and his groan of despair was lost in the funky bass, blaring horns and thumping drums on Rob’s’ stereo.

Suze settled into her seat and exhaled sharply, shaking her head. Rob grunted, turning the music down. “Who the fuck was that? He looks familiar.”

She glanced over at him. No way I can explain Imants, and if I mention the FBI dad, Rob will bust a gut. Anyway, I’ll never see Imants again! That was an amazing thought, and she beamed, feeling liberated. “A final ghost of my old life.”

“Ghost, eh?”

‘Yessir.” Her voice shifted down a half octave. “Let’s blow this town, baby. Crank that music back up!”

Rob did so, his attempts to figure out the bass pattern forgotten, just in time for James Brown to yell “Hit me!” Rob nodded at her exuberant dance movement to the music, while seated. Somehow, he noticed, she managed to not spill the coffee in her hand as they motored out of the lot. “Poppa don’t take no mess,” sang The Godfather of Soul, and Suze sang along cheerily.

He slowly smiled. This might be the best run ever.

Imants watched from the brightly lit and buggy store entrance as the Olds drove off, his pale face now expressionless, brain racing. Carter, that guy was, Rob Carter. Played evil music in the group Suze sang in. Imants searched his memory. From the high school, right, Carter’s class was two years older. Dad in jail for tax evasion.

That long hair was a clue, some kind of hippie. Devil spawn driving away with Suze, his love.

A passenger jet roared overhead, and Imants shivered. Hate planes, hate flying. One of the teenagers at the edge of the 7-11 lot laughed loudly at something being said, then yelled “Hey Eee-monz, ain’tcha gonna write down that plate number?”

He stared blankly at the kid, and felt something shift in his soul.

Heart beating faster, he walked quickly back to his father’s new ’75 Chevy Monte Carlo sedan. Driving the car, specially modified by the Bureau, always made him feel larger than life.

As he got in he reached over and put his hand on his father’s classic dark leather Gladstone Bag on the passenger seat, and felt a strange surge of confidence. The bag, which had belonged originally to his father’s German father, somehow always gave him a mild jolt when he came in contact with it. He clenched his fist. I gotta do this, gotta save her.

He cranked the starter, shoved the automatic transmission into drive, and raced out of the lot, burning rubber down the road after the Oldsmobile. The teens stared in astonished silence.

Imants steered with one hand as he wiped the sweat from his forehead, still accelerating, his eyes searching the darkness ahead. There, those tail lights way up there. He jammed the gas pedal to the floor.

Enough was enough. Time to figure out exactly what that freak Rob Carter was up to with his, well yes, his future wife Suze Benson.

 

 

Rob drove fast on the flat straight road that led to his family farm. The road was usually deserted at night, and he gunned the ’67 Olds up to 80.

“Time for a recent oldie, from early this year, number one across the USA.” Suze grinned as the radio blasted out “Pick Up the Pieces” by the Average White Band. She finished her coffee with a gulp, dropped the cup on the floor mat, and nodded her head to the music vigorously.

“Love it!” she shouted, over the catchy horn riff. Rob, still distracted by his own thoughts, nevertheless smiled. But the smile faded as he looked into his rear view mirror, and he suddenly let up on the gas and turned the radio down. “Headlights back there, comin’ up fast,” he said flatly in response to her look. “Cops don’t ride out here much, but…” Rob stopped talking, and watched his mirror.

Imants’ mania eased as he saw how fast he was catching up to the Delta 88. The speedometer read 105, he realized with a jolt. He was going to blow this surveillance! He took his foot off the gas and hit the brakes. When he had slowed, he pulled over at a wide dirt turnaround and cut the Monte Carlo’s lights.

“Ha, kids going to drink beer and make out,” Rob grunted, refocusing on the pavement ahead and turning the song back up in time for Suze to sing along with the refrain. Another minute brought them to the dirt road turnoff that led to a dimly-lit farmhouse and various structures.

Rob’s parents had left town under unpleasant circumstances concerning a problem with the IRS. He and his younger brother Billy were staying on what was once their grandparents’ family farm ten miles out of Garland. Both of the Carter boys hated farming and they had sold the animals and equipment and let the property go wild, except for the barn and farmhouse which they indifferently maintained.

Lightning again flickered on the horizon as the Olds pulled into the barn. Suze, still singing softly to herself, immediately noticed the white, late model Dodge van which had been backed inside. Her paying ride to the coast. “Good lookin’ van, Rob.”

“’74 Tradesman. Only 20k on it. Heavy duty shocks, new radial tires. Drive ‘er slow.”

“My ex had a van like this, ‘cept older.” That creep. Suze shook her head, then gave him the thumbs up sign. “I’ll be jus’ fine.”

Rob’s brother Billy came out from behind it, blonde hair mussed, clad only in jeans and tennis shoes. Damn. He’s all grown up. “Hiya Suze!” he exclaimed, his handsome face beaming.

She and Rob got out of his Olds as she replied “Hiya Billy.” He came up to hug her. Damn kid smells good. Uh oh. She grinned when he kept hugging.

He had always been in awe of her, and she had often gently teased him. But that was when he was a teenager. Though he was a couple years younger than her, he was 21 now.

He finally let go and she looked around. The old barn smelled of faintly of hay, and something else. Must be the pot, she suddenly realized, with a tingle of excitement. Billy watched her approvingly. “Hope your last gig kicked ass. Would have been there if I coulda.”

“Aw, I know. Yeah, pretty good swan song. I’m proud of my boys, they went out with a bang.” She glanced at Rob, who was looking out the barn door at the distant lightning.

If possible, Billy’s grin was even bigger. “So you’re gonna be our new safety driver. Great call! Our other gal up and vanished on us.”

“I can understand why. She probably had too much time to think about it.”

Rob, expressionless, ignored the talk and went around in back of the van. He examined the interior through the opened doors. He called out, “So this is it, all finished here?”

“Yep, cases are loaded ‘n’ strapped in tight. We could slam on the brakes if we have to, that old load ain’t shiftin’.” Rob carefully closed the rear doors tight, locked them and walked back with a satisfied look.

Suze pointed to the Olds. “Rob could you pop the trunk, I gotta get my suitcase so’s I can change and shower before we go. Also phone the airport, cancel my flight.” She had intended to use the 7-11 pay phone, but a rapid escape from Imants had come first in her priorities.

Rob nodded. “Sure, go in the side door to the kitchen and there’s a hall bathroom. Fresh towel hanging on the rack.”

Billy chuckled. “Kinda fresh, anyway.”

The brothers watched the voluptuous Suze saunter towards the farmhouse, suitcase in hand. They were silent a few moments. “She keeps getting hotter,” Billy finally said quietly, and shook his hand as if it was on fire.

Rob grimaced, “Do not get distracted on this run. We fuck this up… oh man. Our lives are on the line, and mom’s depending on us now.”

“Don’t lecture me, bro.”

Suddenly Rob grinned. “Oh yeah?” Suze looked over her shoulder at the sound of laughter and scuffling to see the brothers wrestling. She watched a moment. The sillies. Well, boys will be boys.

Billy occupied her thoughts, as she walked into the house. His voice got deeper in the last year. Always this cute, little puppy-dog following me around. Hmmmm. When did the puppy turn into this hunky dude?

The kitchen was clean but smelled just a bit moldy. If there was air conditioning, it wasn’t on. Suze picked up the yellow wall phone and called the airport, but they weren’t answering at this late hour. Oh well, money gone. No biggie.

Next, she called her sister, glad it was earlier out in L.A. Sally picked up, and they exchanged greetings and small talk. After a few minutes of chatting about her band’s last gig and her sister’s baby, Suze told her not to pick her up at LAX, and not to expect her for at least a week because she was driving to Los Angeles with friends. Sally went silent, and Suze continued “Mom okay?”

Sally sounded peevish. “Yes, just worried about you as usual. Why the sudden change in plans?” She could hear her mother’s voice in the background, questioning.

“Oh, well, these are some old friends of mine. Rob is the bass player in my band. Just seemed like a good opportunity to see that part of the country. You know…”

A sigh of resignation. “You be careful and call once in awhile, so we don’t worry. Love you.” Suze could hear her mom saying “love you” in the background. A fleeting moment of regret for changing her plans, but then she thought about the money. All that money. Dad didn’t leave mom a lot. I can help her, too.

“Love you both, too. See you soon.”

Imants had motored past the Carter farm and turned around, parked a quarter mile down the road. He had been watching the house with a pair of powerful binoculars that he had found in his father’s Gladstone Bag. Suze was dimly visible as she strode to the farmhouse, stopped, looked back towards the barn, then walked on.

Impatient, and with a sick feeling in his guts, he hastily exited the car and scaled an old barbed wire fence, managing to bloody his hand, and set off across the weed-grown fields towards the dim lights. Wait. Farm dogs? He almost turned around at the thought, but forced himself on. Protect me, Lord. I must do your work here.

In the barn Rob and Billy were dusting themselves off. Rob’s face became thoughtful, and he frowned.

“Now listen here, twerp. I’m serious, be cool. And don’t say a damn thing about extra stuff.”

Billy gave him a phony grin. “Suze? She’s your friend. Why the fucking paranoia?”

“It’s being cautious. Best she only know what she needs to know, right? Better for her, safer for us. This ain’t a damn game, we can get killed in this business and our boss is one hard core scary bastard. Got it?” Billy was silent. “I said, you got it!?”

“If you’re so worried, then why even bring Suze in on this?”

“I’m only worried if you lose focus. Someone’s gotta be the adult around here, twerp.” Rob playfully smacked the back of Billy’s head, and Billy grabbed his arm. They wrestled around a moment again as Imants snuck past in the darkness. He looked back from the deep shadows for a moment at the shiny white van and the figures next to it. Then he moved on.

Suze had peeked into the living room. Most of the furniture was gone, with just a couch and a TV console. The nearly empty house echoed with her footsteps. A bit spooky. She walked back, puzzled.

The bathroom wasn’t nearly as bad, clean and with a nice fluffy bath mat to stand on, and she showered in good spirits. The cool water was invigorating, refreshing, a trigger for Suze who wailed into the echo, “well, since my baby left me, ba-dump, I found a new place to dwell, ba-dump, it’s down at the end of lonely street, at Heartbreak Hotel. I’ll be, I’ll be, I’ll be leavin’, Texas, baby, I’ll be leavin’ Texas, so I don’t die.”

Revived with water and song, she pulled back the shower curtain and stepped carefully out of the claw foot tub, looking at her five-foot-nine body in the full length mirror on the door. As always, just a bit over-critical.

Her lips pursed impishly. Still need to lose ten pounds. But men don’t seem to mind. Their eyes were always on the blonde hair and the boobs. So silly. Handy onstage. I’m not gonna worry about the weight, she decided. Here’s who I am, world. Here I come, L.A. She turned and shook her butt playfully at the mirror.

Imants, still worried about possible farm dogs, slowly crept to the brilliantly lit window, shade down but not all the way, window frame raised open a couple inches. He cautiously peered in, and what he saw seared his brain. For an insane eternity he drank in the forbidden visual, then reeled backward, and stumbled clumsily over a garden hose. Lust. Oh God. Naked. Sinner, I am. Never dreamed… Sweet Lord. Did she hear me? Back to the car. Back. Hurry.

Suze, oblivious to the world outside the bathroom, critically examined the bathroom’s sole towel, which hung on a towel rack and was just a bit damp. Right, Billy must have used it. Rubbing his pheromones all over her. At least they are cute pheromones. Well.

She dried off briskly and put her hair in a bun, then pulled some clothing from the suitcase and dressed. The shorts were a bit provocative, the silk top a bit flimsy for not wearing a bra. Nipples still standing up from the cool water. Damn, the boys will think I’m a tease. But, so warm, must be 85 still. Screw it. Maybe a bit of lipstick…

Indeed, the boys liked what they saw, but choked back their natural reactions in the gravity of the occasion. She got her purse from the Olds as Rob took her suitcase and put it back in the car’s trunk. Suze held the purse wonderingly. My purse has… all that money in it. All that money.

Rob walked back to her, waved in the drug van’s direction. He spoke quietly and urgently.

“You have a full tank, fluids are topped off. I’ll be behind ya. Billy and I will be on the CB. Should be no problems. Billy will navigate. Stay just a couple miles above the limit. Cops think it’s suspicious when you’re doing double nickel exactly. But at least you don’t look like a mule, not at all.” Rob grinned. “Those are music cases, and you are headed for a gig.”

Suze nodded. “I can dig it.”

“Good. If you get sleepy, Billy takes the wheel. Prolly get a motel in a couple hours before dawn.” He paused, walked to the van, opened the front door. “Ever use a CB radio?”

She nodded again. “Yeah.”

“All right. Billy will use it mostly when you’re drivin’.”

She climbed in behind the wheel, then looked around curiously. The back of the windowless van was piled high to the roof with tightly strapped instrument and equipment cases. They looked a bit scuffed up and had various stenciled letters and numbers, giving a strongly plausible music band look. But they were packed with dope, she realized. She felt a sudden shock at the thought of what she was driving.

Billy, carrying a small backpack, had hopped in the passenger door, slammed it firmly, and gave her a huge grin. She observed that he had put on a sleeveless tee shirt that didn’t do much to hide his physique. Hmm.

She sniffed. “That talcum powder?”

He smiled in admiration at her question. “Hey, pretty good detecting. Yup. Powder eats up that ol’ pot smell.”

“Well, that’s mighty smart of ya’ll.” She eyed the load. “Jesus, Billy… How much is there?”

Billy shrugged. “Uhmmm… lots.” Rob’s right. Better not tell her. About a lot of stuff.

Rob was examining the van tires one last time. He approached her window, which was rolled down. He looked at her critically. “You ok?”

She nodded. He leaned in to kiss her cheek. Suze acknowledged his kiss with raised eyebrows, but smiled. He walked away towards the farmhouse mumbling, “All right, all right, off we go.”

Suze started the drug-filled van, put the automatic transmission into Drive and very slowly motored out and across the rutted farmyard to the gravel driveway. They van swayed, and the cases in back creaked and strained. She adjusted her seat a bit closer to the wheel.

Behind them the lights in the house, then the barn winked off.

“Here’s to an easy run to LA,” Billy said resonantly in the darkness. He chuckled. That deep voice. When did it get so deep? Kinda startling here in the dark. Sexy, actually.

Rob’s headlights appeared in her side mirror as the Olds caught up on the long gravel driveway. She took a deep breath. Then she felt a big smile come over her. “Onwards and upwards, Billy!”

“Yes’m!”

The two vehicles reached the paved road, turned right. The tail lights dwindled into the distance, lightning yet again flashing at several points to the north.

Down the road, Imants, still recovering from the heady stolen sight of his beloved Suze nude, was further stunned to see her walk from the farm house with her suitcase, and then when the van and car moved out. Suspicious, so suspicious. He started his father’s modified Chevy up, his thin lips pressed together tightly, and began pursuit.

 

 

“Ten-four, good buddy,” Billy drawled into the CB microphone, exaggerating his Texas accent in his deepest tone. He let go of the hand-held mike switch with a click, and turned towards her, dimly lit in the dashboard light. “With him comin’ along behind us, no cops on our ass, this will be a snap.”

Suze grinned, nodding her head. The brothers had wanted to try out the radios right away, and they had already chosen handles for their identities that suited their tastes. Rob was Rootin’ Tootin’ and Billy’s handle was Wheatbread, which cracked Suze up.

“Why Wheatbread?” she laughed. He looked over at her, and felt a rush of emotion combined with cautionary inhibition.

“Because I made some Swiss Cheese sandwiches before you got to the farm. Got us a cooler behind the seat. Want one?”

“Sure!” Suze suddenly realized she was not only famished, but thirsty. “Got anything to drink?”

“Some soda cans. Rob said no beer.”

“Damn…” He’s right. We got a ton of pot back there.

Billy quietly chuckled. “Truth is, I put some in anyway. Carlsberg Elephant.”

Suze laughed. “You rascal. And imported too!”

They listened to the Dallas radio as they drove through the darkness, munching and swigging their bottles. Billy punched the radio buttons, eliciting “…more scattered thunderstorms, locally heavy in some areas.” Billy grunted, peering up ahead, but the earlier lightning in the north and west had stopped. He took another bite of sandwich.

“Billy why’s this taste so good?”

“Veggies I guess, we had some good tomatoes and bell peppers in the garden.” They chatted on about how delicious home-grown veggies were, compared to store bought, moved on discussing the beer, the beer name, elephants in general, and how sad zoos were. They wound up laughing when the conversation shifted to music. The found they had a lot in common, especially regarding the Blues.

After they got through the Dallas metro area the van and Rob’s Delta 88 exited the interstate and headed west on 380 towards Decatur. The wind was picking up but the van was riding solidly because of the load in back. The chat wound down and Suze had a moment to think about her life, and feel thankful for her freedom.

Imants, sweating as he drove, reevaluated his situation as the miles wore on. His father had not given him permission to drive the souped up Monte Carlo. It was Father’s pride and joy, and he was mortally afraid of the consequences of something going wrong. It wasn’t too late to turn around. But it would mean defeat, bitter and final. Suze appeared to be under the spell of bad people. In that van up there. Evil men. Godless Evil.

He clenched his jaw, brain whirling, and reached into his father’s Gladstone Bag. For all his life, the bag had been his father’s sacred item, always in the FBI man’s possession. Perhaps he had left it for him to find! But even as the thought hit him, he knew it to be untrue. His hand hit something. He pulled it out.

A gun! Imants tossed it back into the bag hastily. This was the opposite of… of… Suze standing delightfully nude as he watched through that farmhouse window. He felt a powerful blast of desire. Suze, so beautiful, a Goddess… bedeviling dream come true. God had made her for him, had shown her to him.

He reached into the bag, pulled out the pistol again. Hefted it, eyes on the distant taillights in the blackness ahead. His member stiff, guts roiling. Jesus, help me. And what about Father? God forbid he should come home and find his car missing. FBI Sector Chief Hasselburger would whip him silly.

In distant Washington D.C., Axel Hasselburger looked at the six other men at the long table. “Make no mistake, this incorruptible bastard is one of the biggest threats we face. So we are unanimous?”

Nods, some enthusiastic, some faint. The man at the far end, in the shadows, spoke slowly. “Taking out a sitting U.S. Senator… does it get any more serious?”

Imants’ father looked up, and repressed several sharp retorts. “Yes,” was his only reply. His listeners found it chilling.

Somehow his questioner found the nerve to speak. “Of course, the Church Committee…” The man stopped, started again. “Will it be done…”

Hasselburger frowned and interrupted. “In a way so that no one will ever know. He won’t last next year. He’ll get a statue or memorial, and the message will be sent.”

Hasselburger began putting documents in his briefcase, signaling meeting’s end. He missed that Gladstone Bag tremendously, he realized again, as the men stood and left. It was in the Monte Carlo, safe in the garage. He thought about troubled, unpredictable Imants, and suddenly frowned. His instinct, so trusty over the years, was kicking in. Something. Something was wrong.

In Texas, aware of the importance and seriousness of their journey, Suze’s musing gave way to the current situation. She felt a surge of optimism, pleased and bemused to be at the wheel of a van loaded to the top with God’s special and wrongfully illegal plants. Her earlier fears had dissipated and Suze became exuberant. “Wooo, we are regular desperados like Cheech and Chong!”

Billy, riding shotgun casually with his feet on the dashboard, looked over at her. Suze had her window down to catch the breeze, and he admired her in the dim light. “If yer finished, gimme that empty.” He flipped both the glass bottles out his passenger window, and grinned. “Less of a bust. Let’s see if Rob starts hollerin’.”

He turned down the car radio, turned to face her, and chatted about music some more and then spoke of her band, which Rob had joined three months previously, at the start of Suze’s blazing run of summer gigs at the Last Chance Saloon. Billy had seen many of those crazy nights, and expressed his fondness in strong language.

“I liked Suze and the Bruisers, too,” he said, speaking of her first band.

She laughed, astonished. “You saw the Bruisers? We were too wild to last. But damn I loved those boys.”

She found herself telling Billy about her earlier experiences. Suze was living with her then-husband and performing at clubs for the first time, but when her dad died, she’d moved back into her family home to help her mom. And had never moved back in with her spouse. The marriage was a miserable experience she was relieved to be free of.

Suze’s sister worked as a nurse in Los Angeles, so a lot of the morbid details of her father’s funeral arrangements fell on Suze’s shoulders. It was eventually decided that her mom move in with her more stable and now-pregnant sister, so Suze had also had to help her mom dispose of a lifetime of stuff and sell the house. The mortgage had taken most of the profit. Suze’s voice tailed off, and she sighed.

Billy knew only a few bits of this, and was horrified by the larger tribulations of her life, of which he had known little. Troubles were a downer, he wanted to talk music to change the mood. “I’m just glad you kept your music going.”

“Only thing that kept me sane.”

“I hear that! Well. Rob and I used to sneak into The Ruby to see you. I was there the night the guitar player fell off the stage.”

Suze giggled loudly, sliding back into a state of amusement. “His last night.” She fell silent a moment as a spatter of rain hit the windshield. “Frank was so unpredictable, but when he was hot, he was the best player I ever had; he could make everyone in the room freekin’ wig out. He had those Mike Bloomfield blues chops down cold.”

“Yeah, I was there the night he stood on top of his Twin Reverb. That was like a fifteen minute solo, right? And he was doing those fills when you were singing…Turn on Your Love Light. So cool. Rockin’!”

Suze giggled again, closer to a guffaw. “Goddamn, I am amazed you saw that! It was a special night.” She looked over him with a look of mock rebuke. “How were you even there? A bit young for The Ruby then, weren’tcha?”

Billy was animated. “Yeah, but Rob knew the bouncer. He knows a lotta people. Anyway, I convinced him to take me, the hardass, and…”

The CB crackled into life. “Watch your speed there, Wheatbread. You’re a bit high.”

They looked at each other and burst into laughter. “His ears were burning! I love it,” Suze said. A sudden spatter of rain hit the windshield as she let up a bit on the pedal.

Billy pushed the handset switch. “Copy,” he said in a quiet tone, let up the switch, and chuckled loudly, “At least he didn’t see those bottles. Better not let him know we’re having fun.”

Hmm. Yes. And that was strong beer. She felt tingly, damn pheromones, huh. She looked over at him again. “Billy. What are ya’ll gonna do after this, in California?”

Billy shrugged in the darkness. “I’d like to try surfing for a day or two. Get shitfaced after this. Buy a cool car, maybe a Stingray! Drive it back to the farm, I dunno. We might have another run like this one in a couple weeks, then I could get my own place in town. Girls don’t like coming out to that ol’ farm; my last girlfriend thought the place was too funky.”

“Last girlfriend huh?” she teased. “What a ladies man!”

“Well, and she was a bit kinky. I didn’t understand lingerie until… and the fur handcuffs, man, and, well, that was just the start.”

Yikes. And I thought he was still a kid. She debated a neutral sounding question or something to tease him with, but he spoke first. “What about you? What are you gonna do when you get there?”

Right, what about me? “Now that I’m sorta rich… get a car, get a place with a view, visit with my mom and sister and my baby niece. I wanna start a new band, write some tunes.” Suddenly a great hunger to do this, and more, grabbed her. Those demo cassette tapes, gotta get ’em out to the right A&R guys!

“Well shee-it. We’re gonna miss ya in Garland. Why ya leaving’ us?”

“Oh God, too much to say. I just need a change.” No way am I going to talk about Imants, any more about the ex and all the rest now. The radio voices sang, if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with – love the one you’re with. Yes, perhaps so. She looked over at Billy to find him looking at her. She felt a surge of, of what? Lust? She had been so shut down since the divorce…

A massive bolt of lightning lit the sky ahead, but there were still only a few drops on the windshield. They rode in silence for a few minutes, until another bright bolt from the sky illuminated the front interior of the drug-filled van, this time with a goodly boom of thunder. “Wow!” they both exclaimed in reaction to the blast.

Rob’s voice crackled again from the CB. “That was close. We better stop at the next motel. Looks pretty hairy up ahead.”

 

 

The phone in his room was ringing, and he hurriedly unlocked the door and rushed in to answer it. He was sure who it was.

Axel Hasselburger had been staying in the Watergate Hotel on his FBI business trips to the capital since the elegant establishment had opened in the late 60’s. He saw no reason to change lodgings because of the infamous scandal that had toppled his hero, Richard M. Nixon.

The events that triggered Nixon’s resignation had all occurred in the adjoining office complex on the sixth floor, not in the hotel itself. Still, he sometimes felt deeply annoyed when hearing the name “Watergate.”

It was indeed who he thought, and the voice asked at once “How did it go?”

“Very well. The Senator won’t be around to retire. It may take a year or so, but that will go by quick.”

“Hmm. It will have to do. Did Mister Trouble ask any questions?”

“Several, and was dubious.”

“OK. He’s second guessing too often. Recommendations?”

Hasselburger didn’t pause. “Termination.”

“Noted.” There was a click.

He hung up and sat down on the bed, loosened his tie and kicked off his shoes. An image of Imants came to mind again. This time he acted on it and called the house in Dallas. His longtime maid Magnolia picked up, sounding sleepy.

“Magnolia.” Imants’ father seldom said hello.

“Yass, Mista Hasselburger.” Her voice changed pitch to the cautious deference she used with him.

“Check on Imants. If he’s asleep, don’t wake him.”

“Yessah.” She put the phone down, and in her absence he took off his socks, marveling briefly as usual how good it felt. But his mind snapped back to his train-wreck of a son. His mother had ruined him. Damn her.

On the phone he could Magnolia in the distance calling Imants’ name loudly. Clearly not asleep in his bed. He nodded slowly. His instinct was right again: something was wrong. He’d have to fly back tomorrow, early.

Imants had boldly pulled his father’s Monte Carlo into the motel lot and parked at the far end. Confused by what he had observed so far, and suspicious and jealous of Suze and the Carter brothers, he ground his teeth together.

This is abnormal behavior, he reflected yet again. Why is she doing this? It doesn’t make any sense. Imants felt the familiar burning, churning sensation of angry frustration. Why was Suze doing this to him?

He watched with a confused frown as Suze went into one room and the two men she was with went into the adjoining one. That van she’s driving. Gotta search that van. Better park further away. He fired up the overpowered engine.

Suze hadn’t realized how tired she was until she had shucked off her clothes and gotten between the sheets. But she couldn’t fall asleep at first. She turned over several times.

God, I’m horny. It’s been months. Those sweetly musky Billy smells from the farmhouse towel must have gotten to her. Or perhaps his proximity riding in the van. She thought about touching herself, but the squirming sensation faded, and she drifted off.

She was startled awake by a dream of her father, talking with her as they walked along one of their favorite paths at the old house. “It’s all so much clearer now,” he stated in his firm voice. “I was wrong about a good many things, but I love you, baby, and tried to raise you right. The Golden Rule, that’s the most important one.”

“Yes,” she said, nodding vigorously in agreement. Then it hit her, jolting her into a state of lucidity. “But Daddy, you’re dead.” She started to wake, but fought it, holding on, staring at his dear features. He held a finger aloft, semi-mockingly, a gesture she loved that he only did with her.

“Be careful, Suze. Be very careful.” He faded, still smiling. She awoke with moistened eyes.

Oh Daddy. Was that really you, or me missing you? She became aware of the sound of rain outside, and a metallic noise she couldn’t account for. The van was parked just outside the motel window. The van. She sat up abruptly.

Imants had been semi-tutored in various arts by his father’s visiting FBI co-workers, who found Imants amusing. Lock-picking was one of the skills he had learned, but he wasn’t an adept. Fumbling awkwardly with the picking tool in the steady rain, he had finally got the back of the van open. It’s just music cases. They are a band, going to play some town ahead.

But then Imants caught a faint whiff of an unusual odor. Drugs. He risked a glimmer from his flashlight. Just cases, but still… Drugs, definitely. I need to open one of these cases.

He stood on the bumper and reached into the few feet of free space beneath the van roof to pull on a smaller case, and managed to partially dislodge from it the rest. He hopped down, reached in and pulled harder. Thunder rumbled in the medium distance.

Suze leapt up, trying to find her clothes in the dark. Frustrated, she attempted to pull the bedspread off, but it was tucked extremely tightly. She peeled it back, yanking at it. Another clunking sound from outside. Some damn thief tryin’ to wreck my deal. Enraged, she grabbed a pillow, holding it in front of her nude body, and threw open the motel door.

Imants, confounded by the multiple straps holding the smaller case in place, failed to notice the door opening, the faint sound masked by the rain.

Suze bounded out and shouted “Hey you!” She whapped him in the head with the pillow as hard as possible and Imants froze, his back to her. Suze, infuriated by her lack of impact, yelled again and kicked him as hard as she could with her bare foot, right between his legs.

Emitting a loud, dismal groan, and keeping his face averted, Imants ran off, bent over and limping noticeably, as the light in the brothers’ motel room snapped on. Billy and Rob, the latter with a handgun, ran out cursing; they were stunned at the sight of Suze who stood naked in the rain, pillow in hand, next to their violated craft, as a dark figure shambled away hastily into the dim first light of dawn.

Rob recovered first, pocketing the pistol, looking around at the nearly empty parking lot. “Let’s go. Get dressed, we’ll lock up.”

Suze nodded, suddenly realizing she was both naked and wet from the rain, as well as in shock from the events, and she turned for her open door.

Billy watched, waited until her door closed, and then pointed to the van. “Look which case he was goin’ after.”

A half hour later they were seated at a breakfast cafe a few miles away. The three sat dazed over their waffles and sausages until Billy looked up and spoke quietly in a mock-dramatic movie announcer voice.

“One woman, alone, armed only with her wits and a fully loaded pillow… versus the most dangerous thief in the state of Texas…a vicious menace working under the cover of darkness.” Rob put his fingers to his lips, but struggled to hide his grin. Suze chuckled quietly, and looked around, but the few cafe patrons ignored them.

“Ya missed it, but I got in a kick to his tallywhacker that he’s still feeling.” The brothers nodded in near unison, impressed.

“Well, damn. You just earned your whole salary the first night,” Rob said slowly.

Billy nodded again. “No wonder he was runnin’ so funny. But Suze, how come you ain’t in Playboy Magazine yet?” He tilted his head with a mild leer.

“Oh ya’ll hush,” she said quietly, turning a bit pink in the cheeks. She finished her coffee, pushed back her plate and stood abruptly. “Gonna visit the ladies room.” This time they both watched her go.

Imants sat miserably in his father’s car a block away, watching the doors to the cafe and trying to sit comfortably despite his aching groin. He was numb both that Suze had kicked him in his most sensitive spot, and his growing belief that she had likely fallen in with drug dealers.

His mind grappled with the problem of what to do. He had managed to maintain the tail from the motel to the cafe, but now what? The rain had stopped, some part of his mind registered.

That his worst fears about her were coming true, he had no doubt. But, she needs to be rescued. If only I could speak to Suze, reason with her, show her she is off the true path. His thoughts, as they sometimes did when thinking about her, became chaotic and cloudy.

Imants pulled out the worn picture of his mother he kept in his wallet, the last one of them together, earmarked and worn. He preferred to remember her smiling with her arm around him, a small eight-year-old boy, not the mental picture of his mom leaving, tears streaking her face, her face lined with worry and care, somehow hideously bruised. No, I can’t lose Suze. I can’t.

He became electrifyingly aware of how confused and mixed up his feelings were about Suze.

They had met at the neighborhood church, where Imants had been praying for deliverance with tears streaming down his cheeks. He’d opened his eyes to see Suze standing in front of him, radiant at 13, blonde hair glowing in the light. “You okay?” she asked in concern. I am now. God has answered my prayer. I am to be saved.

Suze hadn’t really wanted to know Imants. She felt some obligation to him because he attended her church, but she instinctively knew he was creepy, and likely creepier than she could imagine. Later, Imants attended the local high school, a year behind her, and she had stood up against the near universal hazing directed at Imants, but it was a losing battle, and only seemed to make his obsession with her get worse.

Imants shook his mind free from his repetitive train of misery. He adjusted his pants again. He knew he had to do something, but had no idea what.

When Suze emerged from the shabby restroom, her hair was pinned up and she had put on a bit of makeup, her walk full of confidence. Damn right, I earned my pay. Something horrible happened, that guy she’d kicked… but still. If that’s the worst, this trip will be a blast, especially with Billy boy by my side. But that was a gun Rob had. She pushed the thought away. Onward.

Rob had paid the tab and the brothers stood outside in the sudden bright sunlight. She pushed open the heavy smudged glass door and joined them, smiling with good cheer. Billy grinned back brightly, adjusting items in his shoulder bag: newspapers, a Carlos Castaneda paperback book, bananas.

“All ready?” Rob asked. Her nod was firm and quick. He glanced at her, and then a line of dark clouds on the horizon to the north. He grunted. “I wanna get the hell out of Texas today.”

She nodded again. “Me too. Let’s hit the road, jack.”

 

 

The trouble began almost immediately. Just a few miles out of town traffic slowed to a crawl, then stopped. Ahead of them, people were out of their cars, trying to see what was holding them up. Over a rise in the road, thick clouds of sooty black smoke were billowing into the Texas sky.

Billy and Rob had a brief discussion on the CB with truckers up ahead, who glumly informed them that an oil tanker had jackknifed and was in flames. There was no way around the mess just yet. Emergency vehicles, sirens wailing, tore past in the oncoming lane as Billy scanned his Texaco road map, feet again on the dashboard. The radio droned at low volume, and the air conditioner sighed cool air their way. It was already nearly ninety and getting warmer.

Eight cars back, Imants prayed for deliverance from the Devil. He was sure the Evil One was near, directing events. He felt a burst of fear, hoping Suze would fail to notice his father’s Monte Carlo. It took him a moment to remember she had never seen the vehicle, and there was nothing to worry about. His father, that was something to worry about.

The immediate problem was how to explain to his father on the phone about his taking the car. His father liked to rage, and didn’t like surprises. He was due to return to Texas in a few days from one of his business trips to Washington D.C.. Imants shook his head. If he couldn’t explain his actions to himself, trying to explain them to his irritable progenitor would be impossible. He shivered in befuddled mania. He had to slow down the caravaning vehicles, but how?

Imants’ father sat in the airline seat, reading the Washington Post but unable to concentrate on the story. He was grateful for the empty seat next to him as he folded the paper and put it down. His lips pursed in annoyance, he reviewed the options regarding his missing car and his troubled boy.

If Imants hadn’t returned with his car, he could go to the local and state police with an all-points bulletin. Deeply embarrassing, of course, but there would be more eyes looking than just the Dallas FBI agents. Even telling just his own people was humiliating enough. So that left doing nothing, or… perhaps a secret operation by his core group. Trusted allies to a man. But he hated owing favors. Hasselburger’s fingers closed into fists. He’d get to the bottom of this, and then…

Axel Hasselburger relaxed and sighed. Imants had snapped. It was that degenerate girl.

Far the west, Suze, behind the wheel of the traffic-immobilized van, also sighed. Stuck in a road jammed up, and driving a huge load of pot! She looked at Billy, who was still studying the map. She thought about asking Rob, stopped just behind them, to get the novel she was reading out of her suitcase in the trunk of his Olds. But it might draw attention. Probably a bad idea. She looked over at Billy again, and, feeling her gaze, he looked up and then at her. Slowly, he gave her a wicked grin.

“Yessss?” he drawled in his deep voice. His grin grew even bigger. “You know, you are the hottest woman I have ever seen nekkid.”

“You naughty young man.” She smiled briefly but made a dismissive gesture. But she started to tingle, reminded that he and Rob had indeed gotten quite an eyeful when they had charged out their door at the motel. Change the topic, quick. “Well, do you see a local road around this mess on the map?”

Billy started to explain but the CD crackled to life. “Wheatbread, you have a bogey approaching on foot. Driver’s side.”

A cop. Here’s where those acting classes come in handy. She lowered the window, and studied the approaching officer, who was walking down the center of road. About 50, hair white already around the ears, tired look. Brightening a little at the sight of her. I can do this, he’s just a man.

The patrolman nodded at her politely. “Morning, ma’am. Looks like another 20 minutes or so until we can clear a lane.” His eyes flicked over to Billy, and back to her.

“Is everyone ok?” She listened to herself critically.

“No, ma’am. Couple fatalities. Once traffic resumes, drive safe.” He gazed at her an extra moment, then moved on towards Rob’s Oldsmobile.

“Thanks, officer.” Despite her interior quaking, she felt a sudden surge of compassion. What were her problems, after all? Nothing, compared to some, nothing, nothing.

She rolled the window back up and looked over at Billy, who appeared perfectly calm. “Well that wasn’t too bad,” she said evenly. He raised his eyes high and puffed out his cheeks at her in pretend horror, and they both began laughing. She impulsively reached out to hold his hand, and they laughed harder for some time, nearly gasping as they whooped in relief, safe and sound and just a bit mad in the big white van.

There was no sign of the traffic moving again thirty minutes later, and Rob was becoming increasingly anxious. A detour would take them an hour over farm roads, and he wanted to avoid that. At least the clouds of black smoke were dissipating now, and that fact had to be a good sign. But he shook his head impatiently at how long it was taking.

Rob was aware that he was a bit jealous of Billy, riding with the luscious Suze whom Rob was hoping to seduce at some point during the drive. His decision to have her join them had literally been made at the last moment when he realized his first choice for the mission was not going to show.

Now that he’d driven behind her as she operated the van, he decided she was a solid driver. Maybe drove a bit too fast, though her instincts were probably correct. Most people were driving over 60 anyway. And she had apparently dealt with that patrolman well just now.

He didn’t think Billy was her type anyway, deep down, and he felt that two drivers were safest in the cargo van. Rob hated anyone driving his Olds, especially Billy. So a couple days on the road, and then L.A., the city of dreams and destiny. Who knew what would happen? He allowed himself a moment of pleasant fantasy, but it faded. What was that noise? That comin’ from the van?

It was. Billy and Suze were singing along with the radio, which was playing David Bowie’s hit “Fame.” They sang with the sped up and slowed down hook, with the lyrics and even with with the grooving guitar, cackling with laughter at intervals, not minding the delay a bit. Indeed, Suze was hugely enjoying herself.

Damn, she abruptly realized, I haven’t been this happy with a man since before… her mind pushed that thought away, and she and Billy, both familiar with the tune, sang along with words, “Is it any wonder, I’ll reject you first?” and then off again into gales of laughter.

Further back in the line of stopped vehicles, Imants felt determined to do something, anything. Slowly a course of action formed up. He reached into his father’s Gladstone bag, and felt around. There, that was it. The switchblade. He popped the blade out, opened the car door and walked casually up the line of cars on the dirt shoulder, sizing up the situation. The driver of the car behind the Olds had gotten out and was chatting with a couple other likewise disgruntled drivers who stood across the road. Imants ducked down and, with a knife, slashed several long parallel cuts in the rear tire, not deep enough to pop the tire, but fairly deep.

Rob only noticed Imants in the rear view mirror as he walked away, but didn’t have time to wonder what was going on. The CB had burst into life with Billy’s voice. “Hey, Rootin’ Tootin’, it’s lookin’ like we might be moving on here.”

“That’s a big ten-four, buddy.”

Suze sighed as the pickup truck in front of them started its engine. Why were the fun parts of life so damn short? I really like this kid, stealing a glance at Billy. I know what it is, I feel natural around him. Like I can just be myself. Doesn’t happen very often.

She watched for the traffic to start up, wondering about the nature of being natural. What exactly happened there, and more to the point, why was she getting hot for a boy years younger than her? Better be careful. I guess.

Billy gave a moderate whoop. “All right, cars are moving up ahead. We be back on track.” Suze nodded and decided to clear her mind of all the thoughts. Let’s get going, movin’ on. She put the van in drive and joined the slowly moving, many-segmented snake of traffic as it began to crawl. Behind the van, two men in separate cars also started them in motion, and with expressions on their faces that were remarkably similar in their grim determination.

 

 

It was just long stretches of grasslands heading northwest out of Decatur, with the roadside telephone poles and fences stretching out to the infinite vanishing point. Rows of cumulus clouds puffed all around, but the sunrays fell on them, hot and harsh, drying up the rain puddles.

Rob stared numbly at the back of the craft ahead, steering his Oldsmobile casually. In that damn thing, he realized, is almost everything I love in this life. Sweet Suze, his former bandleader boss, now working for him. His wacky brother, loonier than ever. And the load, that represented freedom from a day job, that could give him money to get a decent lawyer for his dad in jail, and that symbolized his contempt for The Man.

He pressed his lips together. Somebody tried to steal the load. Went for the special case. Picked the lock like it was nothing. Need to fix that, put a lock inside, a bar. Hell, weld the damn door shut for the run. But not make it obviously visible. I gotta think smarter. Too much at stake.

In the van, Suze adjusted her sunglasses where they pinched her nose, glanced back at the large drug-filled cases that occupied the back, then focused on the road ahead. She was still enjoying driving, and Billy had playfully been asking her questions that had gotten deeper as they went. “My marriage? It was complicated. My advice to you is avoid it as long as you can.”

“Really? I wasn’t expecting to hear you say that.”

“Look…” Suze paused. How real do I get here?

“You think you know somebody, and you fall in love and get married, and you slowly realize you didn’t know them at all.” Billy remained silent, waiting for her to continue.

She mulled her statement over a moment. “Sometimes… I think it takes years to know somebody, even your own family. Like my sister. Who would’ve thought my uptight sister would defy our dad and follow her crazy boyfriend to LA?” She laughed briefly, just a couple short bursts.

“Wellll…” Billy drawled. “Carlos Castenada says in his books somewhere that once a person learns to see, they find themselves alone in the world with nothing but folly.”

Surprised, Suze turned her head at him, smiling lopsidedly. “I saw your book earlier. I read it last year. You read Casenada? I’m impressed.”

“Yes ma’am.” She gave him a look. He seemed years older, suddenly.

“That line jumped out at me, is all,” he said slowly. “I’m not sure I believe what’s in Castaneda’s books, but it sure is interesting. Wouldn’t mind tryin’ a peyote trip, but so far the mushrooms have given me something to think about, like there must be more to life beyond the daily grind. We’re here for a reason, but it’s hard to remember that most times. The mushrooms are communicating a message.”

Suze grunted softly, surprised again. Young man is quite a bit deeper than I’d supposed. He continued, “You know, the cow pie ones.” He laughed richly. “Damn, it’s like being grabbed by the scruff of the neck and having your soul shaken. I learned the hard way not to eat too many.”

She nodded, turning the wheel to avoid a small dead animal she couldn’t identify, and took a deep breath. “Maybe that was my problem. The one time I did ’em was with Stan. We… Well, we wound up in bed. At first it was a lotta fun, but then later I thought I was dying of horror. And, uhm, well I never thought the same way about him after that. It was like I could read his mind, and, ya know, I didn’t like it.” She heaved a sigh.

Billy bit his lip and nodded. “Same here, with Trudy, that gal I told ya about. Man, crazy sex, but then the realizations set in. You start questioning what it’s about. You wonder what they think you are.”

They passed a herd of cows near the fence line. One of the beasts had stuck its head through the wire to munch a particularly rich clump of grass, straining forward, eyes bulging with an effort so comical that they both burst out in laughter. “Always greener!” Suze chortled. They were interrupted by Rob on the CB.

“Wheatbread, we got a smokey coming up fast behind us, lights on.” Suze hastily checked the speedometer which read a reasonable 57. Still… She eased up on the pedal. The patrol car tore past at high speed, siren wailing. She and Billy watched it as it disappeared over the rise ahead, once again aware of the load of illicit plants behind their seats. Billy held up his hand.

“High five.” Sobered, she reached out and smacked his hand with a neutral expression, then turned back to the road in time to see a hawk flying over the road. Headed west too, well that’s good luck then. Good luck is something I can use.

Several cars behind them Imants squeezed the steering wheel of the Monte Carlo as he drove, making his knuckles ache. His father’s car, driving further and further away from the garage it belonged in. Imants wondered if the family maid, Magnolia, had discovered the car’s absence.

How could that tire he had slashed still not have gone flat? Surely his cuts had been deep enough to have compromised the integrity of the rubber at highway speeds. The hot ball of frustration that so often tormented his stomach flamed into life. The Evil One. Thwarting me again and again.

He thought about his father, and the doubt he expressed towards Imants’ desire to become a Special Agent. “Boy, your four year degree in accounting is helpful for auditing crooked business, but it’s just a start. You have to pass some serious physical testing to get into the Bureau, for one thing. And who ever heard of an agent who was afraid to fly?” He had walked off shaking his head, as Imants hung his head in gut-burning shame.

He rubbed his face ruefully and looked at it in the rear view mirror. Oh Lord, several new pustules. I could grow a beard but then I’d look like a God awful hippie. Why can’t I look good? Like that loser Suze married. At least he’s history now. I still have a chance. I know she wants to be brought back to the faith. Her father. My father. A chance. Please God, help me. Help me get a chance.

Billy was listening to Rob on the CB chatting with a truck driver some miles ahead. They had started with road conditions and progressed to the Dallas Cowboys’ prospects for the coming season. Suze wasn’t a football fan, though she had joined in the general celebration when the Cowboys had won the last Super Bowl. She absently noted the conversation included the incoming LA Rams. LA. Well. Rams huh? Are there Rams in LA, or just football players who ram? So silly. Cart them off after being rammed.

She stayed alert to the road, but was deep in her thoughts. What kind of car should I get in LA? Nothing stodgy, something fun, she decided. A little convertible, maybe. Not a big one, not a gas hog. She could visualize herself cruising along on her way to the beach. Or to a gig. Need a new band, though. Her lips twisted upwards. Like The Average White Band. Some funk, with hot players. Make some records.

Billy tired of the crackly CB conversation and rubbed his jaw, watching the rear of the semi ahead through his aviator style sunglasses. Suze glanced over at him. What’s he thinking, she wondered. Still about football, or something else?

As if reading her mind he turned his head towards her. “Big moon tonight, nearly full. Kind of crazy time to be drivin’, but it’ll be beauteous, if it’s clear. But look at those clouds up ahead. Might be more rain.”

“God I hope not.”

“Let me know if you get tired of driving, and I’ll take over.”

“Okay. I’m good so far.”

“You are good. Even great, and you know, I…”

He was interrupted by cursing from Rob on the CB radio speaker. She focused on the rear view mirror. The Olds was swerving a bit, and slowing down. “Goddamn blowout,” she heard Rob yell. Now a cloud of dust was billowing up in their side mirrors as Rob steered onto the dirt shoulder.

More cursing as the car fishtailed, then silence as Rob evidently wrestled with the wheel. Suze and Billy looked at each other in concern, and Billy anxiously keyed the microphone.

“Rob! You OK? …you want help?”

A few seconds went by. Billy’s face twisted in concern. Finally the radio crackled.  “No, no. I’m fine but I was on the rim, grinding. Keep going, don’t stop. I’m gonna put on the spare, and meet you in Witchita Falls. Copy that, Wheatbread? Get a motel, wait for me there.” Billy whooshed out a breath, and held the unit close to his mouth again.

“Copy, Wichita Falls. First decent motel. See you there.”

They could see the dark form of the Oldsmobile again, now on the roadside, looking smaller and smaller in the mirrors. And then it was gone.

(To be continued!)