Imperial Valley Downpour
out from the anvil
blinding slashing flash of light
cracks on my windshield
Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.
“Why me?” I asked.
“A mutual friend recommended you. Willy Gancek.”
Willy Gancek, a.k.a Willy the Weasel, was hardly a friend of mine. He was a two-bit punk with the temper of a rattlesnake and the intelligence of a hubcap. He was ambitious, the Weasel was, but he’d burned all his bridges long ago and was only now starting to realize it. That made him desperate on top of stupid. Just the kind of guy a savvy woman could suck in and use and ditch when the time came, but not the kind she could rely on for exercising good judgement. For that, she would have to find someone else, some sap too scared to be a criminal and too honorable to go completely straight. Me, apparently. “It was nice of Mr. Gancek to think of me,” I said. “I’ll have to send him a fruit basket.”
She smiled. “I believe he called you a washed-up hack who will do anything for a drink.”
“He’s smarter than I thought. For the record, though, a pretty face also works.” Hers was more than pretty, but there were some things I was not prepared to do, even for a drink. Dying was at the top of the list.
“Not very much smarter. He offered to drive me to France. He thought it was in New Jersey.”
My turn to smile. “You mean it isn’t?” I put my serious face back on and left my latest drink on the table, to prove a point. “All right then, Mrs. Fanutti, tell me what it is you would like me to do.”
She produced another cigarette and while I was fumbling for a light she said, “I want you to get me out of the pool.”
I struck the match and concentrated on holding it at the correct angle. She leaned slightly into the flame and took her time puffing her cigarette to life. “I’m sorry?” I asked when we were done. The fire had come close to my fingertips by then, but I wasn’t about to let go.
She looked at me through the thin trail of smoke rising from the tip of her cigarette. Turkish tobacco, I thought. Expensive. The kind used by people more worried about impressing those around them than enjoying the smoke. “The pool full of sharks you mentioned before. I want out of it,” she said.
“Have you tried asking them?”
“Believe me, there is no love between me and those people. They would be happier if I wasn’t around. But there are things I know that they would prefer I didn’t mention to anyone. While I am here, they can keep an eye on me.”
“There’s something they want from you, too, isn’t there?”
She seemed surprised that I figured out that a bunch of thugs who had no qualms about murder would need a reason to keep her alive. “Viti had a large pile of money stashed away. They want it.”
I wondered what the definition of large was among those people. Larger than my large, that was for sure. “And you know where it is?”
“If they thought I knew where it was, they’d have started cutting off my fingers already. But they think Viti will lead me to it.”
She hadn’t answered my question, but I let it slide. “That would be quite a trick from where he is.”
“You didn’t know Viti. He planned for this. Sooner or later something will turn up and lead me to the stash. They want to be there when that happens. He even told them that if anything ever happened to me they would never see the money.”
“So he bought you an insurance policy, did he? He must have known it wouldn’t last forever.”
“Of course he knew. He was a smart man.” From the tone of her voice I wasn’t stacking up so well in comparison. “He did it to buy me time to get away.”
“Which is where I come in.”
“I would like you to help me fake my own death. I will pay you handsomely.”
Somehow I knew she was going to say that. It all sounds so neat and clean; no one will look for you because they all think you’re dead. But it’s not so simple. First, there’s the money. Some of it is going to disappear and reappear somewhere else, and these people are exceptionally good accountants. Then there’s the people. Everyone in on the plan is a liability. Third, there’s the body. There’s got to be some stiff to put in the coffin. I could tell that she had been thinking about it for some time, and she probably thought she had the answers to all those problems, but the plan would be complicated, and somewhere it would go wrong.
“Better to just run,” I said. “Plan ahead, but don’t take too long. Get new papers. Get as much cash together as you can, buy a bus ticket and don’t stop until you’re in South America.”
She looked across the table at me. “It’s not that simple,” she said.
“You better make it that simple if you want to live.”
She suddenly seemed smaller than she had before. She had come in with a plan, some kind of fantasy that had given her hope, and I hadn’t even bothered to hear it. I wonder if she had told her plan to the Weasel, and whether he had encouraged her. She should have known right then that it was going to fail. “I—I need to think.” That wasn’t Lola Fanutti speaking, it was a frightened Kentucky girl a long way from home.
“If everyone did that I’d be out of business.” I tried for a reassuring smile, but I think I missed.
Her voice was rushed. She wanted badly to get out of there. “I’ll contact you again. We have to leave separately. They’re watching me. That’s why I didn’t come to your office.”
It didn’t matter; I was made. If they were watching her, they’d seen her come in here, and they’d seen me come in. She wouldn’t come in to a place like this for a casual drink and I was the only regular who could help her. Out there somewhere there was now a bullet with my name on it. When it would arrive I didn’t know but there was nothing I could do to dodge it. I hadn’t even accepted the job, but they wouldn’t bother to find that out. My only way out was to go to them myself and expose her, but I knew I wasn’t going to do that. I was well and truly fixed.
By the time she had finished paying Jake (“One more for Mr. Lowell”) she had recovered her poise. I watched as she swished her way out the door and into the bright furnace of the city. She could swish with the best of them, I’ll give her that.
Tune in next time for: Death in the Street!
Location: Traveloge, Globe, AZ (map)
I knew as soon as I turned up Highway 60 out of Socorro that I had made the right choice. Not only is this a beautiful and interesting stretch of highway, but for me it is filled with history.
Before I hit the open road, however, I took a spin around my old Alma Mater, New Mexico Tech, which back in the old days when I was there went by the moniker New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Two shocking things have happened to the place. One I witnessed myself, the other is hearsay from a fellow alum. First, the campus has been beautified significantly. I almost didn’t recognize my old dorm. It doesn’t look like a Motel 6 anymore. The second thing is (are you sitting down?) there are almost as many female students there as male now. Some of them are even attractive. Contrast this to when Bob challenged me to name seven attractive students at Tech and I got stuck at six. It made me want to go up to each male student and shake him by the shoulders and holler “Do ya know how good you have it here now? Do ya? DO YA?“
But I restrained myself and made my way to the south end of town and the highway. Ah, Highway 60. That critical artery of commerce connecting Quemado, Pie Town (right on the continental divide), and Magdalena. Wide open plains. Rolling hills. Grassland. Forest.
The first fifty miles I could still do in my sleep. I drove it five times a week during the summer of the first bacchanal, 1985. It’s hard to believe that was more than 19 years ago. By the time we reached the VLA the pups and I were ready for a break and a walk, so we spent some time stomping around my old “office”. If the place looks familiar to you, yes, it was on a Nightranger album cover. (It was also in a couple of movies—you don’t want to watch Concact while sitting next to me. The movie’s OK, but the radio astronomy’s complete and utter crap.) Knowing the woeful state of science education in this country, let me put on my Dr. Science cap for a moment and give you the rundown on the VLA. The Very Large Array (Those guys were poets at heart when they named this baby) is a set of 27 antennae set up in the shape of a Y to act as one huge antenna (map – railroad tracks marked indicate the branches of the Y). It is, in fact, an enormous pinhole camera for radio waves. The dishes move on railroad tracks to change the size of the virtual antenna to optimize looking at big, close things (like the Sun) or very distant things (like quasars and white dwarfs. Actually Quasars are pretty honkin’ big, but they are all very, very far away.) This photo and the others over in the album reflect the widest spacing of the antenna, which is when the tiny-thing scientists try to book time. One side effect of the wide spacing on a day with scattered clouds is that it’s almost impossible to get all the dishes in a picture to be in the sun at the same time. Each arm of the Y stretches for miles. The dishes in the pictures are more than a mile apart.
Past the VLA is the continental divide, Pie Town, Quemado, and Springerville, AZ. Ah, Springerville. It was a chilly spring weekend in 1985. It was the weekend of my 21st birthday. A day to be celebrated, to be sure. My birthday was on Sunday, and at that time one could not buy alcoholic beverages on a Sunday in New Mexico. No problem. Being college students, when we learned of this crisis we quickly devised a plan to buy all the necessary beverages ahead of time. Saturday afternoon we stocked up. Saturday night we had a party and drank it all. Sunday dawned, bright and bleary, and we came to the realization that we had invited every female on campus (there weren’t that many, remember, and as a rule of thumb half the women who said they were definitely going to be there would show up, and twice as many men would be there as women. As long as you didn’t invite any men.) and we had no party ammunition. After trying to work a couple of local connections we determined that it was time for an interstate beer run.
Now, you boys back east with your dinky little states probably think nothing of this. It turns out the beer store closest to my dorm room that was open on Sunday was 158 miles away, west on Highway 60 to Springerville, AZ. Glen and I set out in the Alpha Romeo, top down, bundled up against the cold, heater blasting and tunes craking. 316 miles and one speeding ticket later (The State Trooper was bemused by our top-down stance when it was freezing cold. “Yeah, I remember when I was young and stupid,” he said, and it was clear he did. He was a cool cop.) we had our booze and the party was a resounding success, despite the fact that not one single female showed up. Perhaps because of that, things got pretty crazy that night.
Speaking of driving a long way, Highway 60 came into play again a few years later, when I was living in San Diego. It was on the eastward leg of another trip in the Alpha, this time with Bob as copilot, as we set out one Memorial Day Weekend to get Green Chile Cheeseburgers at the legendary Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico (map). The chile isn’t the same every year, but after driving 800 miles I took a bite of the burger and blurted out “This is so good!” I was getting misty with the emotion. It was a damn good green chile cheeseburger. After we ate we drove a few more hours to visit our folks, and after sleeping a bit we headed back to California by a more northerly route (not all of it paved).
Highway 60 was also the road I took when I first drove out to San Diego. The Alpha was running in top form; I outran the raindrops and tasted freedom. It’s my favorite flavor.