Jackson had sweated his way through his dollar-fifty black and gray thrift shop bowling shirt, thought he might be living out his last day. He swore if he got home in one piece he would never be so stupid again.
He’d walked out of his apartment three days ago to see a couple of white guys, some cholos, a skinny black guy, and a girl who looked too young, all jacking parts off his primer gray ’64 Impala. They were loading his battery, trunk mounted spare tire cover, big Holley carburetor, and the two wheels facing the street into a shit brown Dodge van. And laughing. He’d yelled “Hey! What the fuck?” and started towards them. One of the white guys pulled a knife that looked like a machete.
Once they’d gone, like a real pussy, he’d whined to his neighbors in the funky little house next door who’d come out to watch. He could hear everybody from the pajama tux summer. Don’t be a whiner. Don’t be that guy.
Well, he’d been that guy and now he was sitting in a Karpet King van in the parking lot of a new condo complex almost on the ocean in Carlsbad, San Diego County. Everything was new. The monstrous nickel-plated forty-four magnum resting on the window sill of the van fit right in with all the fresh paint, shiny doorknobs and mail drops. Jackson mentally added never tell a neighbor you don’t know very well you need to make some quick cash to his list of rules to live by.
The sharp-dressed man with the gun had folded the van’s mirrors in, told Jackson to turn the rearview mirror to the dash, keep his hands on the wheel and look straight ahead. And don’t be stupid.
“Like bein’ here in the first place?”
“Comedian, yeah? I like it.” Magnum man, casual. Like everyone made small talk with a forty-four magnum in their hand. “You owe the dudes give you this van money or something?”
“No, man,” Jackson said from the back of his throat. “I’m getting paid.”
“Good for you. Clean is the only way, man. You kinda look like a dude could be from Karpet King, you know? So you get stopped, you’re not high, you been layin’ carpet all day, don’t know who put that shit in your truck.” He glanced at the rear of the van for a split second. “Me, I don’t mess with coke no more, ‘cept as business. The only time I ever wanted some was right after I did some, you know? So if I don’t do it, I don’t want it.”
“I knew a girl once who said that about sex. I tried to study on it a couple of times. Didn’t help much. Couldn’t pay attention.”
“Sex or blow?” They both laughed a small, tight, quiet laugh. Magnum man shot the shit with him about how girls shouldn’t put so much stiff crap in their hair like they did, and how short bangs were shit on kids and grown women should forget it. How Art Monk was the only keeper in the first round of the draft. How the nine-and-seven Rams even made it to the Super Bowl just to get their asses kicked was all politics. They both heard the back doors of the van close. The big gun came off the sill of the van, back but still straight on him. Magnum man reached in his sport coat pocket, handed Jackson a postcard from a Santa Barbara motel and a Mapsco page.
“Drive back to El Lay, smart and easy, like the working man you are. Drop the van at the address in the ‘to’ box. The map’s marked up for you, same as how you got here. Park the van, forget where you left it, take a walk. Like a mile or so. Call a friend or a cab.”
Jackson followed the directions to the letter. He didn’t have cab money but his neighbor Star had a POS Pinto that ran okay since he’d worked on it for her, and a soft spot for him since he’d been keeping an eye on her daughter after school and helping her with homework. He called Star, waited for her in an industrial cleaning company parking lot just off the Gardena Freeway in Rancho Dominguez. A perfect place to disappear. Every set of headlights that went by he wondered if that hadn’t been the plan all along.
When he climbed out of Star’s Pinto at their apartment building a young kid in a beanie appeared, handed him an envelope, disappeared back into the night. Inside the envelope was the rubber-banded six hundred dollars in twenties he’d been promised. He’d heard it was worth more, but he hadn’t crossed a border. And he was alive. He peeled three twenties off the top and handed them to Star.
“If you have a couple of pizzas in that envelope that can be here before Sky’s bedtime we’re three times better than good for a short run up Long Beach Boulevard.” Star rarely smiled, but she one arm hugged him before going around to her door. “I have a couple of cold beers. Medium pepperoni with extra cheese for Sky and she’ll really think you’re a god. Get you and me something with more than one vegetable, along with this?” She held up the sixty bucks. “I might agree with her.”
The third time the neighbors informed him that he was driving again they told him, as usual, “Tomorrow at seven. Pick up the van out front, deliver the postcard”.
The next morning there was no sign of his neighbors. No cars, no lights, the house quiet. He kept his fingers crossed all day, but at six-fifty-five a white Chevy van from Valorian Commercial Janitorial Services rolled up. A female, her face obscured with a scarf and hooded sweatshirt left the keys and postcard in the seat, walked away.
The address was an apartment complex in Yukaipa, San Bernardino County. A long drive. When he arrived the gun was back.
“This time you’re the dude drops those stinky blue biscuits in the pissers? Fuckin’ truck stinks, my man.”
Jackson stared at some early Halloween decorations children had taped to an apartment window. “It does. And this was a drive.”
“Not much different than the last two, this is just more out of the way. Ex-urban, they call it. Like Uptown. You know, where the fuck is Uptown? Between the ‘burbs and Downtown? And like which way? North? Is south of the 10 Under town? What’s way the fuck past East town?”
“That’s why I’ll miss you, compadre. This is your last run.” He could feel Jackson tighten up from outside the van. “No, dude, you won’t be dead unless you get lost. There’s a toker’s party pack under the passenger the seat for you, no blow because it’s bad for you. Going away present. That girl in your wallet, she special?”
“Used to be. How do you —”
“Been all through your shit. You ever do this again, nothing in your wallet but your license and some cash. Girl that pretty, somebody might get ideas. You’re a good guy, Jackson. You follow directions and don’t talk.” He lit a black and gold cigarette with his non-gun hand. “I gotta let the LB cool for a time. Those badasses hassled my guys livin’ in that house next door to you? They weren’t beginners. Didn’t steal nothing, just scared my guys into shitting themselves, put their minds in diapers. So bad I have to get a new crew.” He popped a couple of smoke rings, studied his smoke.
“Didn’t see those dudes coming, Jackson. I pay, you know, so I see the locals, the government. This was some private fuckin’ army out of nowhere fucked up my crew. Bad motherfuckers, not head cases. Professional, quiet. Kind of guys make shit vanish. Like dictators or coke dealers or anybody pisses them off. So badass they scared me and all I saw was what they left behind. I thought you might be connected, so I went deeper on you. I know, you haven’t ripped me off, lightened your load or made any contact. But maybe you have some friends. Had to check. Business is business.”
“I don’t know —”
“That’s why you get a going-away present. If you did know we’d have to stop being friends. Then you’d be dead. And even if you don’t know nothing about some crew of invisible badasses I’m thinking, you know, maybe I’d be dead right behind you. Two good looking dudes like us? That would break a lot of hearts.” Magnum man held the gun down at his side, patted the door of the van. “Here’s your postcard.” He waved his hand casually as he stepped back. “Whose idea was the piss biscuit truck?”
“I thought you picked them. Like these guys owed you money, you borrowed the trucks.”
“Too much work, too many people. My man Lonnie usually steals them but he took up with a stripper, her boyfriend didn’t think much of him. So I used that red-headed guy this time. He must not like you.”
“Yesterday, when they told me to make this run? He said I looked like a guy who drove a Chevelle SS and stole his girlfriend.”
“He thinks everybody looks like that guy. Wasn’t you, was it?”
“No. Know how he feels. Mine got stolen by an old college in England.”
“You gotta feel better about that, though, than if it had been some skinny dude from Modesto with a SS and perfect hair. That shit could really turn you. Especially the hair. Hard to argue with the SS, but a bitch could let you know you need to up your style before she walks, you know?”