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Other titles in the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard series:
Thanksgivingby Michael Dibdin
from Chapter One:
Lucy in the Sky
At night in the desert you can see for ever, which is where Lucy first appears. Taking this old road, a thin red line on the Rand McNally map, seemed a fun prospect at the time, but it isnt working out that way. So far from there being more to see--after dark on a cold October evening? — there is, if anything, less.
Back on the new highway, thered at least be some other traffic to keep you company. But this roads no longer travelled, and you can see why. The untended surface has gone to pieces, patched and potholed, ribbed from the summer heat and infiltrated by a scree of sand blown in from either side, depending on the vagaries of the wind. At the speed you need to make sense of this invisible landscape, you could easily end up spinning out and flipping over if you didnt constantly keep alert. Which isnt easy, hour after hour, with nothing to do but scan the wedge of blacktop which the car drives before it.
So when light appears on the horizon dead ahead, it immediately assumes an importance out of all proportion to its actual magnitude. Just a distant glow is all. A brush fire, it might be, if anything grew out here. An oncoming vehicle, but it would be the first so far. Maybe a town, if there were any. It could be anything, quite frankly. Or nothing.
Problems with the surface aside, the rental car handles like a dream. On Highway 93 you could have set the cruise control to around a hundred and then snuggled down in the heated, ergonomically adjustable seat, finger-tipping the power steering while the radio warbled sweet nothings and the big eighteen-wheelers ate your dust. But you have to work at this bitch of a road. Let one of those craters in the surface catch you fumbling and youd be belly up in the scrub before you could spit. As for music, forget it. Nothing grows in this wilderness of static but ghostly gibberish.
Sometime later, you realize that the light source up ahead has taken on a recognizable form. Human, to be precise. You cant believe your eyes at first, but there comes a time when you have to. Not long afterwards, it becomes apparent that the luminoid is sexed as well, her charms displayed in varying shades of red, the intensity reflecting the erogenous rating of the zone in question, while a continual alternation of three static poses creates an illusion of mobility. At once grandly proportioned and intimately detailed, the female figure shimmers and pulses in the swirling air. All her parts are cosmic. She consumes acres of sky, an erotic constellation.
Once past a certain point the pattern starts to disintegrate again, rapidly losing shape and sense as you close in on it. Under that mass of meaningless lights, you now make out the familiar contours of a gas station with garage and diner attached. The concrete forecourt is cracked and crazed, the office roofless and gutted, the eatery boarded up. In every corner, the wind is busily hoarding dirt. The entire scene is bathed in the suffused light of countless red and white bulbs mounted in apparently random profusion on a painted hoarding attached to a metal tower some fifty feet high, heavily rusted and swaying alarmingly in the wind that moans as the structure troubles for an instant its passage through the enormous darkness.
I opened the glove compartment and slipped the loaded revolver into my coat pocket, feeling faintly ridiculous. By the shifting light cast by the bulbs overhead, I made out a figure walking towards me across the forecourt.
‘Gas? he called out. ‘Youll need to pull over to the pump.
Lucy had apparently taken the family photographs, so while she never appeared, Darryl Bob Allen was in almost every one. The burly physique, the bristling beard, the long hair tied back in a ponytail, the affectless gaze. He always looked slightly ill at ease, as though a photograph might find out the flaw he hid in movement in real life.
Shed told me about a prenatal clinic theyd attended, before Claire was born, where she was thinking about each couple: ‘He did it with her. Her husbands patriarchal pose in those photos was the same. The notional subject, baby Claire or wee Frank, was duly dandled and presented, but their fathers expression was one of detached, impersonal pride, as though to say ‘I stuck it in her and shot my wad, and heres the living proof.
I got out of the car.
‘Hi. Im Anthony.
He looked away to one side.
‘Oh, right. Youre real late. Id just about given up on you.
Lucy had always rated charm and a good voice. Unsurprisingly, Darryl Bob turned out to have both.
I shrugged apologetically.
‘It took longer than I counted on. I thought all the maps in the road atlas were the same, but it turns out Nevada is half the scale of the ones Ive used before. Id figured on about two hours, but it ended up taking more than twice that.
I didnt mention the time Id spent getting used to aiming and firing the revolver.
‘Yeah, well, welcome to America. About the only thing the several states have in common is you have to drive on the right. Plus frankly there aint that much to put on a map out here. Its wall-to-wall sweet fuck all, basically.
I pointed up at the mast with its array of coloured bulbs flicking on and off.
‘Except for this.
He smiled in a diffident, boyish way. Id never imagined this side to him. In those photographs he was always scowling purposefully at the camera. It occurred to me for the first time that he maybe just didnt like being photographed.
‘Oh, thats a little private project. Got it from a beach resort down in La Jolla. There used to be a neon display
in the centre with the name of the place, just below her breasts, but I took that off. Kind of liked it more abstract, know what I mean?
‘Its certainly eye-catching. Especially out here in the middle of nowhere.
‘Theres a ton more. Want to see?
He seemed genuinely eager. We walked over to the concrete garage, opened the door and turned on a light. The entire space inside was filled with huge signs, stacked one against the other. In the corner there was a sink and photographic equipment.
‘Ive got others out back. One thing about living here, you can just leave stuff lying outside, like those planes the Air Force stores round here. I was planning to mount them all, one time. Wire them up, create a kind of neon theme park. Thought it might get some touristic interest going out here. I mean, this is like a lost folk art, you know?
All the while he was taking stock of me, in a surreptitious way. In the days when Allen still lived close to us, hed used to drop by occasionally to take the children out for some Disneyland Dad treat, but Lucy had tactfully arranged matters so that we never met. Hed never seen a photograph of me, of course, and was naturally curious to see what his successor looked like.
‘These must have cost a fortune, I remarked.
Lucy had made a big point of the fact that Allen had never paid her a dime in child support, yet he had apparently been making grand plans for leisure attractions in the middle of the desert.
‘Theyre kind of pricey now, but I was ahead of the curve. People used to see them as scrap. Junk, even. You could pick them up for next to nothing.
‘And that? I asked, gesturing at the photographic equipment.
Allen smiled in an odd, knowing way.
‘Oh, thats another hobby of mine.
I thought of all those amateurish snapshots in the family album, ill-composed and badly exposed, often with a finger creeping over the lens. Those were the ones I had seen, the ones which Lucy had taken. If photography was one of Allens interests, why hadnt he taken any pictures?
‘Yeah, I used to be heavy into photography, he added, closing up the shed. ‘Did it for a living, one time. Plus some of the stuff I took you couldnt exactly take to the drugstore to get developed.
‘How do you mean?
‘I mean it might have got me arrested. Anyway, the quality of that commercial stuff is shit, and you cant crop and home in the way you can if you do it yourself. Saves money, too.
‘Talking of that, you have this on all the time? I asked, pointing up at the mast swaying in the gusts of wind sweeping in out of the night.
‘Twenty-four hours a day. This is a gas station. We never close. We lose a little bit on every sale, but we make up for it in volume.
‘Your light bill must be pretty steep.
‘Comes free. Up on top theres a wind vane I cannibalized from a heating system upgrade. Its hooked up to a generator back of my trailer. As long as the wind blows, the current flows. The tower came from an AM radio station that went out of business. Only cost a couple of hundred bucks, those guys just wanted it out of there. I dismantled it, trucked it out here and put it back up again.
‘Luce always said I was good with my hands.
‘But then she told you the same thing, didnt she?
‘Im hopeless as a handyman. If Ive got a little problem, I write a little cheque. And how can you possibly know what Lucy told me?
‘I just do. When it comes to Luce, Ive been there, done that. Got the whole situation taped, so to speak.
With a broad smile, he jerked his head to one side.
He strode off across the forecourt. I followed, my hand in my right pocket to disguise the sagging bulge on that side. Id bought the revolver that afternoon at a gun show I stumbled into when I took a wrong turning leaving the airport terminal and found myself in one of the halls of a convention centre. The vast impersonal space was lined with home-made stalls covered in lengths of cloth or plastic and decorated with handwritten signs. The event might easily have been an antique market or a used book fair, but these folks were selling weapons. Just about every conceivable form of firearm was on display. I didnt see any tanks or rocket launchers, but I had no doubt that they were available to special order. I did see one old geezer carrying an automatic assault rifle over his shoulder. The paper flag stuck into the barrel read: ‘Only $400. Barely used.
Id bought the revolver on impulse from a morose, tubby man who said he went by ‘Lefty. I gave him a story about needing to defend my home from the scum who were running around these days. He nodded in a sympathetic but slightly bored way. He didnt care what I was going to do with the gun any more than a car salesman cares where you plan to drive. All Lefty wanted to do was make a sale. He proceeded to describe the technical virtues and drawbacks of the various models he had on sale. As he talked me through each one, he picked it up and put it in my hand. It was an odd feeling. I realized that I had never before touched something which was solely and specifically designed to kill.
Once round the corner of the abandoned gas station, the wind was harsh and relentless. Lights were showing in an aluminium trailer mounted on concrete blocks. Darryl Bob Allen leapt up a set of three steps and opened the door.
‘Come on in, he said.
The interior of the trailer seemed cramped but cosy. The walls had been lined with some sort of wood facing, the floor was carpeted. Stacks of shelving and cupboards to either side left a narrow passageway which eventually opened into a small living area with a beaten-up leather sofa, a swivel chair, a stereo and a TV. In the centre stood a cast-iron woodstove with a galvanized chimney pipe running up to the roof. The air was warm and pleasantly scented with woodsmoke. A thirties-style wooden standard lamp with a pleated cloth shade stood in the corner, the light wavering and flickering like the bulbs on the sign outside.
‘How bout a little music?
Without waiting for an answer, Allen pushed a button on the tape deck.
I can see, right out my window,
Walking down the street, my girl,
With another guy.
His arms around her like it used to be with me.
Oh, it makes me want to die.
He made a few dance-like steps in time with the music. He clearly danced well, with both grace and power. Another thing Lucy had implied in an unguarded moment was that her ex-husband had been both energetic and eager to please in bed.
‘What you think? he asked.
He was referring to the music, or maybe his stereo rig, but I chose to misunderstand.
‘You dance really well.
‘Not as good as Luce, he said, sitting down in the swivel chair. ‘Man, she was good. Put her whole body into it, but at the same time she was always in perfect control. Know what I mean? You can tell when a womans good, and believe me, she was good.
‘She used to complain sometimes, next morning, that her feet hurt. I said to her, your feet? You like to dance? You ever dance with her?
Here it comes.
Oh here it comes.
Yeah here it comes.
Here comes the night.
Allen turned the tape off abruptly and pushed the rewind button. While the tape was whirring away, he strode off into the darkness at the far end of the trailer, returning with a quart jug of Canadian whiskey and two glasses. The tape clacked to a stop. He stuck it in its box and seemed about to replace it on the shelving stacked with other cassette and VCR tapes. Then he seemed to change his mind and laid it on the table.
‘Want a drink? he asked.
‘No thanks. I have to drive later.
‘Youre heading back tonight? Thats a long way. Hell, I can put you up here. The sofa turns into a bed, kind of.
Still standing, Allen poured a glass for himself. He was swaying slightly, and I realized that he was drunk. Hed probably started early, expecting me to arrive hours ago. So much the better. It would make things easier, when the time came.
‘Nice place youve made here, I remarked conversationally.
‘Its all right. Ive got my tapes, my videos, my photographs.
He smiled in a way I couldnt interpret.
‘No books, though.
‘I have the book. Only one I need.
Oh, so he was one of those, I thought. Lucy hadnt told me about this aspect of his personality. Or maybe hed found Christ after she dumped him.
He pointed out a shelf of about twenty identical, tall, narrow volumes bound in black.
‘The Encyclopaedia Britannica, he declaimed in a parody of an English accent. ‘The 1911 edition, complete in twenty-eight volumes, not counting the index and maps. Im about three-quarters of the way through, so far. Reading about the poet Ovid in a volume entitled “Ode to Pay”. Ovid never wrote a poem called that, as far as they know, and those guys knew everything, but I think it could have been a big hit. Sort of Robert W. Service bar-room ballad stuff. Strong subject. Like I always say, the two oldest lies are “Your cheques in the mail” and “I promise I wont come in your mouth.” You a reader?
‘Must have cost a fair amount, that set.
‘I got it for fifty dollars. The library had a sale. Wanted all new stuff, didnt know what it was worth. I had to make a trip through Carson anyway, get wood for the stove. I go once a year, up into the National Forest other side of Lake Tahoe. Find a couple of fallers, cut them to length with a chainsaw and winch them on to the half-ton. Back here I split and stack em. Lasts me all through the winter.
‘Isnt that illegal?
‘Never got caught yet. Theres not a lot of law out here, and what there is is spread awful thin. So go ahead and have as much booze as you want. Youll never get popped for DWI round here.
He sat back down again, crossed his legs and stared at me directly for what I realized then was the first time. Every eye-contact earlier had been brief, oblique and teasing. This was confrontational. The warm-up was over and the game was about to begin.
‘So, you said you wanted to talk about the kids. How are the little charmers, anyway? Its kind of hard to keep in touch, having to go out to some bar to phone and all. Last I heard Claires husband ran off with another woman leaving her holding the kid, whats his name?
‘But Frank seems to be doing pretty good. Guy takes after me, always did. Hell be okay.
He slurped some whiskey and looked at me.
‘So your point is, Tone? Or should I call you Tony? We all know how toney you Brits are. Like to think you are, anyway. No, Tone sounds right to me. Tone it is.
‘Talking about what sounds right, do you want to drop the cornball idiom? “Doing pretty good”, and all the rest of it. Youve got a degree from UC Berkeley, Lucy told me. Dont try playing the hick with me.
‘Why, Im sorry. I guess living out here with the kind of people who live out here, you sort of adapt to the way they talk.
He stood up and stepped towards me. At that moment, the light dimmed for a moment.
‘The wind, Allen explained, looming above me. ‘When it drops, the power goes out. Here, let me take your coat. Its awful hot in here. Awfully hot, I mean. Frightfully hot. Dreadfully hot. Appallingly hot. And all that rot.
‘Believe me, youd be better off without it. Youre starting to sweat.
He paused there a moment, then returned to his chair.
‘Actually, just for the record, I never did go to college. Fact is I was what you might call a high-school drop-out.
‘Thats not what Lucy told me, I said as the light surged back.
‘Well, that makes sense, because its not what I told her. But I was trying to get into her pants, you see, and the first rule of successful salesmanship is “Dont knock the merchandise.” If the customer likes what she sees, and I have to tell you she did, then your job as a salesman is to validate her decision. Reassure her that shes made the right choice. Which I did, with maybe a little hyperbole built in. You ever been to the Hyperbowl, Tone? Its kind of like the Superbowl, only more so.
‘Can we get back to the point?
‘Ive been talking to the children about how we should manage the estate.
‘Luce made a will? Well, Ill be. Never thought shed have gotten around to it. She left everything to the kids, I guess.
‘“Everything” is basically the house. They each get a third, I get the rest.
‘Oh, really? You did all right, then. That place must be worth close to quarter of a million these days. It was a to-
tal fixer-upper when we bought it, but the neighbourhood demographics changed some since then.
Lucy and I had had the house valued a few months earlier. The realtor said we should list it at two-seventy and expect to sell for at least two-fifty.
‘You seem very well informed, I replied.
‘Real estates another little hobby of mine. Anyway, I notice I dont get a cent, so whats all this to do with me?
‘What its got to do with you is that Claire, Frank and I have to decide whether or not to sell up and cash in now - which would of course mean me moving - or wait a while. A factor in that equation is knowing what expectations if any they have from you.
‘How do you mean, expectations?
‘What provisions have you made for your children in your will?
Darryl Bob Allen stretched lazily.
‘Well, tell you the truth I havent actually got around to making out a will just yet. Im planning on hanging in here a while yet.
‘A person never knows? Or I, me, myself, specifically dont know?
‘Im just trying to work out whats the deal for the kids. Im sure we both want the best for them, Darryl.
He sighed and waved his hand around.
‘Well, this is basically all Ive got. If they want it, theyre welcome to it. I mean, theres no one else in the picture.
Theyll get it anyway, will or no will.
‘You have no other dependants?
He shook his head, a single decisive swipe which re-minded me uncannily of Lucy. She must have copied it from him, I realized, or he from her.
‘So thats it? he asked.
‘You came all the way down here for that? Hell, we could have done that when I called you from town.
He refilled his glass.
‘But thats not really why you came, is it?
He beamed at me through his lumberjack beard.
‘You came to see me!
‘Why would I do that?
‘Well, Im just guessing here, admittedly. But youve just lost your wife, right? I lost her too, but that was a while ago. Ive had time to get used to it. Plus I had her for longer in the first place, and in better shape. But for you the grief is still fresh, like they say, and youd only known her for a few years. So the bit of her you knew was like the tip of the iceberg, and now the icebergs sunk. You know that old joke? “Titanic Collides With Iceberg. Iceberg Undamaged.” Where was I?
‘You were asking why I came down here in person. Well, one reason was just to get away. The past few weeks have been quite intense.
‘I imagine. Listen, Im real sorry I couldnt make the funeral.
‘There was no funeral. You need a body for that.
‘Well, the service or whatever. But I sort of felt maybe it wouldnt be right.
‘Very tactful of you.
‘And then of course there was the money angle. I sell a little gas here. Only station for eighty miles in one direction, sixty-two in the other. Problem is, theres hardly any traffic on this road. Then once in a while I do some construction work down in Vegas. Man, you should see that place! You can stand there and watch it grow. Take a lunch break and theres a whole new sub-development.
Once again the lights died quietly, then came back. Allen leant forward and poured some whiskey into the other glass.
‘Come on, Tone, he said. ‘Dont let me drink alone here. Listen, youre welcome to sleep on the sofa. I really mean that. On one condition, and thats that youre not a happy breakfaster. I myself always need a couple of hours to remember who the hell I am, so dont count on any scintillating table-talk. But Ill brew a pot of coffee and pack you on your way in broad daylight, instead of you squinting at some unmarked road for hours on end. Anyway, you want to talk. I know you do.
‘Talk about what?
‘About Luce, of course. Admit it, youre curious. Thats okay. Youd have to be crazy not to be curious. Oh, it was fine while she was still alive, although I bet even then you must have had the occasional nagging question about this or that. But it didnt matter then. She was here, you were a couple, you hit the sack together every night. Who cared what happened before you met? That was all history.
He reached a box of cigars down from a shelf, stuck one between his lips and lit it with a splinter of wood from the stove.
‘But now shes history, he went on, exhaling a cloud of blueish smoke. ‘Your marriage is history, just like mine. The only difference is that if were talking history, Luce and I had more and better. And youre bound to be curious about that. Who wouldnt be?
He beamed at me again.
‘So go ahead. Slake that curiosity. Ask away. I promise to answer freely and frankly to the best of my ability.
I shifted slightly to move the angular bulk of the revolver off my hip, where it was beginning to ache.
‘Still shy? said Allen. ‘Or “in denial”, like they say these days. Okay, I understand. Look, how about if I kick this one off? For example, I imagine youre probably wondering how we met.
Indeed. I had occasionally tried to get Lucy to talk about her time with Darryl Bob, but she almost always shied away from the topic. ‘I hate the past, shed say.
‘Well, it was at a party. Nothing very original, Im afraid. I was working as a freelance photographer at the time, but I was also drummer in a rock band in the evenings. We used to get some good people stopping by. I can remember jamming with a bunch of guys who were big names even then, and legends now. Garcia, Crosby, Cipollina . . . I always think John was underestimated as a guitarist.
‘Anyway, what with that and the photography, I got invited to a lot of parties, and one night at some house in the Panhandle, there she was. This was, what? Early seventies? I had a nice little three-way deal going at the time. This one little skinny blonde number, and then a real mamma, gallons of oomph, tits bigger than your head, roll-em-in-flour-and-see-where-the-wet-spot-is type, know what I mean? So anyway, what with Liz and Deb I was getting laid pretty good, but I could tell right away that Luce was something special. Great body, but acted like she didnt know it. We got dancing. Luce always loved to dance. You ever dance with her? Oh, I already asked that. Anyway, one thing led to another and we ended up back at her place. She had a nice little room in a funky old Victorian on Haight, just around the corner from the Free Clinic. Must be worth over a million now.
‘What I remember best about it is the way she took her clothes off. A lot of chicks were self-conscious about that part, even back then. They either wanted to be undressed during a scuffle on the sofa, or do a kind of amateur strip-tease routine, or else go into the bathroom and reappear magically naked. Luce just stood there and took off her clothes, completely casual and matter-of-fact, just like she was alone. Which just made it worse. I just about died there and then. No, actually I just about burst into tears. Dumb, huh? I mean, Id been around the block a few times. I must have had forty or fifty women by then. Like they say, whos counting? But when I saw Luce standing there nude, I felt humbled. I really did. Like when you hear some great piece of music or something. I thought, I dont deserve this.
‘Then I thought, but hey, since its come my way I guess Ill grab myself a piece of it anyway.
He looked at me.
‘You know the real problem with fucking? Its not the Darwinian angle. You know, the peak experience that turns out to be a flashy sales pitch by your genes, like the casinos sending a private plane down to wherever to lure some high roller back to the tables and take him for everything hes worth. Thats kind of depressing, once you get it, but its just a mind thing. You can work around that one. No, what always bugged me about the whole thing is you cant look at them and fuck them at the same time. And believe me, Luce was worth looking at, back then. But of course next thing youre squished up together playing hide the salami and frankly it could be anyone down there. I mean you get the occasional glimpse, of course, depending on the position and so forth, but its tough to really get the whole action in perspective, know what I mean? Thats one reason I got interested in the picture angle. Still sure you dont want to take your coat off, Tone? No? Suit yourself, but I have to say youre sweating like a pig. Kind of a strange expression, when you think about it. Ive never seen a pig sweat. Im not even sure they do sweat. Except maybe at the slaughterhouse.
During the drive, I had turned off the highway on to a dirt track which led up into a range of low, rounded bluffs, ending at a disused mine of some sort. There I took a rest break and got in some target practice, firing at an array of cereal boxes Id picked up at a convenience store on the outskirts of the city. Lefty had told me that if that hypothetical intruder entered my home, the upper chest area was the place to go for. I measured a twenty-ounce Cheerios box against my own chest. It seemed about right...
From the Hardcover edition.
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