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Excerpt for Highway Shoes by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


COFFEE BREAKS


Volume #3

HIGHWAY SHOES




Copyright Leigh Barker

Published by Leigh Barker at Smashwords





Smashwords Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with others, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


ISBN: 9780463862865




Stories:


Route 50


Ventura Highway


Country Roads


Lincoln Highway


Daylight Pass











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Route 50

Vegas purred like a huge contented beast, a sigh of expectation and awe from some of the forty million people who walk in wonder and hope in the city of joy and broken hearts.

Johnny Seymour liked to be known as Johnny Diamond, and that was okay because nobody knew him, so it never got tested. Nobody walks in LA, but in Vegas everybody walks sooner or later. That or sit in the traffic and watch the taillights of the guy in front watching the taillights of the guy in front of him. Johnny Diamond was walking. He’d have sooner been in a taxi, but that cost money, and that was something he didn’t have, not anymore. Sure, he’d had plenty when he arrived just yesterday, but a day, a night, in Vegas can take a man from the bottom to the top. Or back the other way. And Johnny was walking.

He still had his car, and man, he loved that car. A ’95 Eldorado convertible, red as a hooker’s shoes, white leather seats and whitewall tires and slightly less miles on its clock than Apollo 13. Man, those were wheels to die for. He wished now he hadn’t left it in the parking lot across town, but how was he to know the casino was going to rip him off?

He stopped walking and looked back along the long straight road at the casino glinting in the morning sun, and swore quietly. He’d been holding aces over kings. His winnings at three o’clock in the morning stood at a hundred grand and change. And he’d bet the bundle to scoop the pot. And hell, why not? It was a hand to cheer about.

Except the dealer put down a queen, followed by three others. And took his chips. All of them. Jesus, he was glad he hadn’t tossed in his car keys as well. He’d thought about it.

There’d been near three-quarters of a mil on the table, and his full house should’ve taken it. He could’ve gone back home a rich man. Married his high school sweetheart, Shirley something. Kids maybe, and a house with a white fence. Nothing to do but play golf and watch the world roll by. If only.

Every time it looked like this time he was up, something came along and pulled the rug out from under him. Every fuckin’ time. He’d never cheated in any game in his whole life, but there was always some sharp looking to stiff him, and this time it was the house. He should’ve called the man. Should’ve bounced his head off the table a few times. Called the cops. Got the fuckin’ place raided and closed down. The dealer had an earpiece so the suits up in the roof could tell him to shut this guy down. Take his money. Kick him to the sidewalk. If the big guys hadn’t stepped up behind the card sharp, he’d have cracked his teeth. Seven-fifty thou. He shook his head.

“Hey! Watch where you’re going.”

He looked up to see a tourist in gardenia shorts stretched across his fat gut trying to swerve out of his way.

“Sidewalk not big enough for you?” The fat guy shoved something in a bun into his mouth and waddled away.

“Your ass is taking up most of it,” Johnny said, and forgot about it.

“Fuck you.”

“That’s the only fuck you’d ever get. Lard-ass.”

Fat guy comes back or shoots off his mouth, he was going to—let it go, man, he wasn’t the dealer.

The Caddy was right where he’d left it, in the partial shade of a big old palm tree, shiny and red and welcoming. An old friend. And god knew he had few enough of those.

He touched the Caddy’s door and pulled his hand away quickly while it still had skin. Leather was going to cook his skinny ass. He leaned in and opened the door from the inside, reached behind the seat and pulled out a couple of beaded seat covers, the sort old folks use, but if he was going to drive anywhere soon, this was how he’d have to do it.

He slid in behind the wheel and moved his thigh onto the beads, his chinos leg already wet in two seconds. He adjusted the rear-view, even though nobody except him had driven it. The radio was still tuned to blues he’d been listening to driving in yesterday. Jesus, had it only been yesterday? He turned it off. Depressing songs about guys losing everything.

He put his fingers on the ignition and stopped. Yeah, right. Where you going, man? Annoyed at himself, he fired up the engine and checked the fuel gauge. Well, at least something was on his side. Near full, good for around four hundred miles. To someplace else. He pulled out of the parking lot and headed north towards 95. It joined up to Route 50, and from there it went right across the country to the east coast. Away from here. Though going there made no sense, he’d have no money there just like he’d got no money right here. It was a direction. So he headed for Route 50, the highway of lost souls. He listened to the Caddy’s big-assed V8 burble, and calmed down.

So, man, this is what you’ve come to. No money, no place to go, and nobody to give a damn. He fished out his Ray-Bans from under the dash. Sounds like one of those old blues guys wailing away. But it’s where he was. What had he got? Nothing, and that getting less. They said he looked like a young Steve McQueen, so he guessed that was something, though he’d rather he looked like George Clooney.

He moved over and around an open Porsche driven by some old guy and his woman, both old enough to have gone to school with God.

Yeah, maybe he could find a rich old woman and she could stake him for a big game, get his roll back, his mojo. Back in the game. But he couldn’t do that, man, he just couldn’t do that. Not with an old wrinkly. No amount of money. You sure? No other game in town, you have to play tiddlywinks. Yeah, but really, man? Take money off an old woman. Didn’t seem right. Because it wasn’t right.

Somewhere south of Hawthorne on US-95 his stomach began to remind him it hadn’t had anything except tequila since sometime never. He looked around at the nothing stretching out to the horizon, where more nothing awaited the curious traveller. East coast? Jesus. He could’ve gone to LA, should’ve gone to LA. There’s enough fuckin’ losers there they wouldn’t notice one more.

He’d been holding a full house. It should’ve taken the pot and would’ve if…what was the point of rehashing it? How’d the dealer do it? He hadn’t spotted it, and he always did. He was that good? Must have been, or, Johnny, you’re losing it. Maybe he should—

There was a silver BMW 7 angled into the desert off the highway maybe a mile ahead. Some guy taking a leak. Or in trouble. Nice wheels, he had money and some. And what? You help him and ask him for a handout? Holy God, there wasn’t nothing between him and a hole in the ground if he came to that. Fuck him, he should’ve filled up at the last gas station.

It was a woman, blonde, standing at the side of the road and looking his way. Not today, lady. Places to go.

He slowed down. Maybe for a better look. Telling himself that while all the time knowing he was going to stop.

She stepped up to the side of the Caddy and smiled. “Thank you for stopping.”

She wasn’t bad to look at, bit old, forty maybe, but everything that needed to be there was there and in place. Blonde hair, long and rich, and half-closed tired eyes giving her a sultry look that reminded him of somebody he couldn’t place. She wore a champagne dress, simple crew neck and wrap-around skirt, elegant and completely useless for walking in the desert, but it showed off her body, and that was okay with him.

He looked around as if expecting to see something. “You got car trouble?”

She stood up and stepped away from the car a little, then glanced over her shoulder at the BMW. “No, I thought I’d just stop here in the middle of this—” She raised her arm and pointed at the scrub desert. “Maybe have a picnic or something.”

He smiled. “Sounds good to me.” He put the Chevy in gear. “You look out for the snakes though.”

She looked down quickly, opened the car door and got in.

“Hey, you want a lift to the next rest stop?”

She pulled the beaded cover under her. “Does this thing have a roof? It’s a hundred degrees out here.”

“This thing is a ’95 Cadillac Eldorado.”

“You say so. Has it got a roof?”

“Had one when it was new, but stopped working about ’96.”

“Great. Rescued by a knight on a lame horse.”

He chuckled and checked in his rear-view before bumping back onto the highway. “Never been a knight before.”

“Don’t get used to it.” She tugged the seatbelt from under the beaded cover and snapped it into place. She watched him glance at her. “Like what you see?”

“What’s your name?”

She took a second. Didn’t mean anything. “Shelly.”

“Johnny. Johnny Diamond.”

She raised a perfectly arched eyebrow, but didn’t say it.

He tapped the wheel with his fingers. “Just thought who you remind me of.”

She waited.

“Lauren Bacall.”

“She’s dead.”

“Before she died.”

“What? In her eighties?”

He laughed and closed his eyes for a moment. “Bit before then.”

“You should quit while you’re ahead.” She shook her head as she turned back to the road.

“I’m ahead, then?”

“Not really.” She brushed her hair from her face and let the wind stream it over her shoulders. “Why did you stop?” She pointed her thumb back down the road.

He shrugged. “Seemed like the thing to do.”

“You know how many people passed right on by before you stopped?”

“Folks aren’t very trusting.” He shrugged a little. “It’s twenty-four-hour news, tells you everybody’s out to kill you or something.”

“You stopped. That makes you trusting.”

He flashed her a smile that made him look about ten years old. “Trust isn’t something I cultivate in my business.”

“And that is?”

“Poker.”

She looked around at the car and its tired interior. “You any good?” She sounded doubtful.

He rapped his palms on the white steering wheel as if playing a drum roll. “Got me a Cadillac, haven’t I.”

She made a kind of mmm noise, but said nothing.

“This is a classic.”

“You say so.”

He was silent for a moment, the smile gone; then he held out his hand with his thumb and finger measuring an inch. “I was this far from a mil just last night.”

She mirrored his measurement. “I was this far from a cattle truck back there. Didn’t hit me, so it could’ve missed by a mile, same difference.”

It took him a moment to get it. “Not the same.”

“What were you holding?” She saw his look. “When you were this far from a mil.” She measured an inch with her fingers.

“Full house. Aces and kings.”

She nodded. “Good hand. Worth sticking. Not the best.”

“Not as good as four queens.”

She nodded again, knowingly. “That’ll do it.”

“The dealer cheated.”

She looked over at him and watched his face, tanned and bright, with good cheekbones and ice-blue eyes. Not bad. “How do you know he cheated you?”

“Because I’m good. Learned to play poker when my pa put me in my first high chair. Been playing ever since. I’ve seen every cheat in the book.”

“Not this one?”

“I guess I got cocky, was sure the pot would be in my pocket any minute. Didn’t see him do it.”

“Did you call him on it?”

“Still walking, so no.”

She was quiet again, the road humming under the whitewalls and the sun ruining her skin.

“I don’t think the house cheated.”

He stared at her for long enough he needed to put the Caddy back on the blacktop. When the dust had blown away, he glanced at her again. “Why not? How would you know?”

“I know that if they do that, pretty soon word gets around and they’re out of business.” She gave him a gentle smile. “Maybe you just lost. It happens.”

“Not to—” Now he chuckled again. “Okay, maybe sometimes. But that was a good hand.”

“It was.”

“You play poker?” He sounded as surprised as he felt.

“Why? Don’t you think women can play poker?”

A gunfighter standing in the middle of Main Street asking him if he’s calling her a liar. He wasn’t going to draw.

“Sure, women play poker. Some of them good, better than good. Maybe you’re one of them.”

“Thanks.” She moved his chrome side-mirror and watched her hair getting frizzed. “Good enough to see your tell when you looked me over back there.”

He frowned at her. “I don’t have a tell. Jesus, you think I wouldn’t have noticed?”

“You say so.”

He watched the road and the haze hiding the horizon. “Prove it.”

She turned slowly and let the mirror be. “What, right here?”

“Why not? You say I’ve got a tell and you can play, so prove it.”

“It’s a hundred degrees.” She tilted her head. “You eaten today?”

The question threw him for a moment. “No. No money, remember?”

“Next rest stop, we eat. I’ll pay. And show you your tell.”

“I don’t take money from women.”

“Then you’ll never get on in your chosen profession.”

“I mean I don’t take charity.”

“And I don’t ride for free.”

He thought about it and nodded.

She pointed at the dash. “That the fuel gauge?”

He glanced down. “The one with the gas pump on it. Yeah, that’s the fuel gauge.”

“It always point at zero?”

“Only when we’re out of gas.”

“Thought so. I’ll buy the gas as well.”

He opened his mouth to turn down the offer, but closed it. Not stupid.

The waitress took their order for steak and eggs and poured them coffee as Shelly took the wrapping off a new deck of cards.

Johnny watched her shuffle them one-handed while she smiled at him. Impressive. “What’s your game?”

She shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. We don’t need one to prove you have a tell.”

He looked around as if someone might overhear. “Okay.”

She cut the cards and turned hers over for him to see. “You now, don’t show, just look.”

She repeated the cut three times and then rebuilt the pack, still watching him while he waited, his eyes fixed on her.

“You won the first and second draw. Lost the third. Won the fourth.”

He blinked slowly as he tried to catch up. “Jesus, how did you—?”

“Like I said, you have a tell.”

“What?”

She smiled quickly, calmed her face and raised an eyebrow, just a tiny twitch.

“You gonna tell me or what?”

“Just did.” She did it again.

And he put his head in his hands. “Then I’m finished.”

“Not really.”

He looked up but kept his hands under his chin.

“All you have to do is…sprinkle it around a bit.”

He didn’t get it.

The waitress brought the food and they ate it without speaking, Johnny still frowning and trying to recall how he might have tipped his hand.

Shelly pushed her empty plate aside. “Okay, I’ll have the tell this time. You deal.”

Four cuts later, he nodded. “You got the second and third, me the others.”

She shook her head. “I lost all but the first.”

“But your eyebrow…” He laughed and his face lit up. “I get it. Sprinkling.”

“Exactly.” She tapped the cards. “So you say you’re good. Prove it.”

The waitress came and refilled their coffee mugs, took the empty plates, and glanced at the cards, but said nothing.

Shelly took a sip of coffee and laid her cards down. Sixes and tens. “Two pair.”

Johnny put his down. Jack-high straight. He shrugged and smiled. “You play good.”

“Yes, but you’re better.” She sipped more coffee. “My husband and I ran a casino.”

He picked up his coffee and waited. So what?

“He’s dead.”

“Sorry.”

“I’m not, he was a cheat in every way he could. Casino’s mine now. Thing is, his brother runs the place. A real piece of work. A one for you, two for me kind, you know?”

“Yeah, met a few. He’s a crook, throw him out.”

She gave him a moment, but he didn’t get there. “I’m a woman.”

“I’ve noticed. Have to be blind not to.”

“My husband made sure Larry, his brother, had a share of the casino. There’s one other partner, old, used to be in the mob. He thinks running a casino’s a man’s job.”

“It happens. Some men are like that.”

She nodded towards the window. “See that junction up ahead?”

He nodded.

“That’s Route 50. Left to Reno and home, and right to…” She shrugged and stood up and put fifty dollars on the table. For the steak and for the place to play poker. She stopped and looked down at him, thinking.

“You want to take the biggest gamble of your life?”

He looked at her steadily for long seconds. She was older than him, but every time he looked at her, it mattered less and less. “If you’re thinking of riding east with me, then let’s do it. It’s no gamble.”

“You like yourself, don’t you?”

“What’s not to like?” He brushed the front of his expensive and wrinkled shirt.

True, but no point spoiling the fun and telling him.

“How much of a stake would you need to win…oh, I don’t know.” She frowned and thought about a number. “Three million.”

That was easy. “Hundred thousand.”

She sat down. “Let’s say somebody…I don’t know who, but somebody who knew how to play took on Larry one on one. He wouldn’t back down. He thinks he’s the best.”

“He isn’t,” Johnny said, and knew it.

“No, I’ve seen the best.”

He almost looked around, then smiled and raised his eyebrow. His tell. “Okay, you’ve got my attention.”

“You take on that sonofabitch and push it all the way. Three million will break the bank.”

“Your bank.”

She shrugged. “You don’t think I’m ever going to see any of it, do you?”

His smile broadened. “The casino broke, you’d be able to buy those two partners out for cents on the dollar.”

“I would.” She turned the coffee mug around on the table. “Will you do it? Or maybe you’ve got someplace to be.”

“I had no place when I started out this morning; now I’ve got someplace. A casino in Reno.”

“You do this and win, you keep the hundred grand. Deal?”

He put out his hand and she shook it.

“Deal.” They stood up and headed for the door.

“And the other offer, will that still be on the table when you’re the boss lady?”

“What other offer?”

He gave her his grin and held open the door.








Ventura Highway

Christina Jackson mimed the words her mother was saying as she crashed into the furniture with the vacuum cleaner.

“As long as you live in this house, young lady, you’ll live by my rules.” Her mother turned and saw her daughter paying rapt attention. She turned off the vacuum. “It’s for your own good.”

And here comes the bad news.

“That Louis boy is no good.”

“There’s nothing wrong with him, Mom. He’s just a bit wild, that’s all.”

“A bit wild? A bit wild?” She took a step closer to the sofa her daughter was sitting upright on. “He was arrested last week.”

“The police let him go.”

“They don’t arrest somebody unless they’ve done something.”

“Since when?” Christina tried to keep her tone relaxed. There was no point antagonizing her and making a bad situation even worse. At least her father wasn’t home. With his fists.

“Watch your mouth, or you’ll be in your room.”

“Mom, I’m seventeen. Don’t you think I’m a bit old to be grounded.”

“This is my house, my rules. You’re not to see that Louis boy again. Do you hear me?”

Christina nodded. Of course she could hear her, she’d have to be deaf not to. “Yes.”

“Yes what?”

“Yes, I hear you.”

“Then that’s it settled.” Her mother pulled the vacuum cleaner closer and switched it on. “Let’s just get this clear.” She switched it off again. “You didn’t say you’re going to give him his marching orders.”

Christina shrugged and stood. “Louis is a good friend. I don’t intend ghosting him just because you don’t like him.” She walked to the stairs. “I’ve got college work to do.”

“Let’s see what you say when your father gets home from work. He’ll beat some sense into you, or I’m a liar if he doesn’t.”

“Gets home from the bar, more like,” Christina said, and trotted upstairs. That told her. Then why was she shaking as if she had a fever? Two hours, no more, her father would be back, reeking of beer and staggering. And he’d thump up the stairs, bang open her door and lay into her. First with the flat of his hands, and then his fists when he started enjoying it. Never so drunk he’d leave a mark people could see, that wouldn’t do, the good people of Camarillo wouldn’t approve.

Steven Jackson, the storekeeper made good, with a chain of stores now, president of the golf club, and all-round fine fellow. Such a successful and charming man could never beat a woman, and certainly not his only daughter. No, never. The child was attention seeking.

She’d never spoken of it, no point, but now it was getting worse. And there was a new element to it that the good people wouldn’t believe either.

She sat on the edge of her bed and watched the clock moving faster than it ever should. Then as if she were right there, her mother’s words came to her. “As long as you live in this house…” And there was her salvation.

She jumped off the bed, grabbed her backpack from the closet, and rammed clean underwear, jeans and shirts into it, and then as a last minute thought, her trainers. She looked around her room one more time and opened the door a crack to look down the stairs. Her mother was in the kitchen, fixing something for the drunk.

She tiptoed downstairs and for a moment almost dragged open the front door and ran, but that would’ve drawn way too much attention, so she hooked on her backpack, opened the door easily and strolled down the road towards the railway station. Steve Jackson’s little girl off on a hiking trip all on her own. Bless.

She missed the Surfliner by a few seconds and would now have to wait almost an hour for the next one. She sat on a bench near the ticket office, clutched her backpack and watched the cars coming into the parking lot. No sign of her father’s silver Ford, and she wouldn’t miss it because he’d be driving drunk, and angry.

Now the clock moved at half normal speed, as if to compensate for the one in her room. Her old room.

This wasn’t going to work. Her father would be home before the next train came, she could count on that, and he’d guess right off where she’d be. She felt sick in the pit of her stomach, and her hair bristled as fear ran up and down her spine like an electric ripple. She got up and felt the world swim for a moment and had to steady herself quickly. Falling now would just make a fuss that people would remember when questions were asked.

She had no idea what she was going to do, she just knew she had to do it now. She looked up and saw the highway that had been her skyline for most of her life. Ventura. Suddenly her backpack weighed nothing and she set off at a fast walk. Now she knew where she was going.

Minutes later she was at the freeway entrance, at the end of the sidewalk. She turned to face the cars waiting for the lights to change, took a deep trembling breath, and stuck out her thumb. She’d never hitched before and had no idea if she was doing it right; if she wasn’t, her father was going to find her real quick. Please, God, make somebody stop.

A battered blue pickup pulled up on the other side of the safety bollards, and an old guy in pale blue overalls leaned over and pushed open the passenger door with a grinding squeak. Her whole life she’d been warned about what she was about to do. She got in and slammed the door.

The driver didn’t look like a lunatic, rapist, kidnapper, mugger or any of the other bogeymen she’d been told roam the streets looking for stupid girls. He was probably old, she couldn’t tell. Grey hair, skinny with a thin face and a sharp, hooked nose, but soft eyes and a smile. Yes, he was old, she could see that, and tired.

“Thank you,” she said, and pushed her backpack between her feet.

“You are welcome,” the old man said, in an accent that tortured the words. He saw her frown. “My English isn’t good. I am Artur. I am Armenian.”

“Pleased to meet you, Artur,” she said, and never meant it more. “I am Christina.”

“You run away?”

The bluntness of the question threw her for a moment, and she nodded before she could control the reflex.

“From mother or from father? Or maybe both, yes?”

“Mostly father,” she said, and looked away for a moment, ashamed and didn’t know why. “And mother, some.”

“Los Angeles is dangerous city. You are very young.” It was a statement more than a question.

“I’ll be careful,” she said, without knowing how she’d do that.

“You can come to my home.”

She jumped and backed up against the door.

“No, no. Oh dear, my English. I have wife, Milena, very happy woman. And two children, grown now but home.”

She relaxed. “You have a happy life.” She was jealous.

“It has been hard, but we are here in America, not in Yerevan. There it is very hard.” He smiled at her. “We have little, but you stay okay. Milena very happy.”

She returned the smile and for a moment considered his offer, but shook her head. “I have plans.”

“Plans is good. These I had once too.” He shrugged. “We drive Ventura for one hour. Tell me about your plans.”

She didn’t have any until she started to tell him about them.

Hollywood. This was LA, the capital of the world’s movie industry. No decision required. She would go into the movies. Why not? She was tall, five seven, and everybody knows the camera loves tall people, and she was pretty, even if she said so, and not pretty in that boring way, all blonde hair and blue eyes. She had short dark hair and dark eyes and looked like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, and that was going to open doors, she knew it. It was the easiest decision she’d ever made. She was going to be a movie star.

This time next year she’d see her face on billboards and everybody would know her name.

He laughed from time to time, and sighed, and tutted. And eventually nodded. “This is good plan.” He turned in his torn seat and looked her over openly and nodded again. “Yes, like Audrey Hepburn. She was lovely lady, and you are lovely young woman. Good plan.”

They drove for another thirty minutes while he told her everything he knew about the movie industry, which turned out to be a lot more than she would’ve guessed. Artur was a craftsman, a model maker with talent, and he’d seen it all during the twenty years he’d worked in the business. For minimum wage. He was Armenian.

He passed the turning to Little Armenia and carried on down Hollywood Freeway, got off at Chevron and headed south towards Macarthur Park. He stopped outside a three-storey cream-painted house. Smart and clean.

“My friend Min-jun home. She is a good woman. I have known her for many years. She has rooms, cheap and clean.” He nodded as if to encourage her.

She had her purse and credit card, not a big limit but enough, and she would need somewhere to stay until she made it and could buy her own place in Malibu. She smiled and returned his nod.

He got out of the pickup and she creaked the door open. And looked around. Christina Jackson had arrived in Hollywood, or near enough.

She walked around the pickup and followed Artur up the steps to the door to her new home.



“Where is she?” Steve Jackson was standing at the bottom of the stairs and could see Christina’s door was open, and it should be closed with her hiding from him in there. And the inevitable lesson he would give her.

“She’s gone,” his wife said, coming out of the kitchen and wiping her hands on a towel.

He stepped away from the stairs. “Gone where? If you let her go over to that boy’s place, you know what you’ll get.”

“No, she’s gone. Packed her bag and run away.”

He snorted. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard this week. That timid little mouse has run off to the big city.” He laughed and grabbed the wall to catch his balance.

“Should I call the police?”

“Don’t be dumber than you look.” He pushed past her, opened the icebox and took out a beer. “Let her hang out with the drunks and druggies for the night. She’ll be back on the doorstep first thing.”

“I’m worried about her,” his wife said.

He took a pace forward and backhanded her across the face, sending her staggering to sit heavily on the stairs. He leaned over her, his face just inches from hers. She knew better than to flinch or react to the stink of his breath.

“You should’ve thought about that before you let the little tramp leave.”

“I didn’t. She sneaked out. You know what she’s like.”

“Yeah, and when she comes crawling back all sorry and wanting the safety of her room, I’ll make sure she never leaves again.”

“But what if she doesn’t come back?”

Steve stood up and took a pull on his beer. “You know, you are the stupidest woman I ever met. What in hell did I see in you?” He staggered into the living room and turned on the TV. “She won’t last the night out there, trust me.” He fell into his chair and put his feet up on the coffee table to watch the game.



Christina thanked the kind Korean woman, Min-jun, she thought was Chinese and took the bulgogi pasty in a napkin to eat on her journey.

Her journey was a ten-minute walk and she was on Santa Monica Boulevard. Now all she had to do was find a movie to star in. That should be easy, she was in Hollywood.

There were a dozen studios within a half-hour walk, and security at every one of them sent her on her way, some more politely than others. The last one was only the last because the young gate guard gave her some advice she thought made sense. And she took it and went to find a talent agency and let them line up the work. Okay then.

Two hours walking hot streets she’d seen maybe a dozen agency receptionists and got the same message, that being the one the studio guards had given her.

This was harder than she’d imagined, and she decided to try one more then give it up and do something else, scriptwriting maybe. How hard could that be?

She was cutting through from Santa Monica Boulevard to Melrose when she saw the unspectacular entrance to Over the Rainbow Agency. The agency was in a two-storey, tree-shaded building with tinted windows and a simple message on the glass, The Home of the Truly Talented. That would do just fine. She went in.

There was no receptionist to shoo her away, just a neat seating area with a computer monitor and a TV showing old movies. She assumed she was supposed to sit, so sat.

Five minutes passed, and that was long enough for anybody to wait. She stood and listened at each of the four doors leading off the reception area. Nothing.

“You looking for somebody?”

She jumped and pulled her head away from the door. “Errr…I was…you know? Err…”

The tall man with the crewcut hair and orange tan had a cigar in his mouth, which luckily wasn’t lit, or she would’ve just walked right out of there.

“If you’re thinking of the movie industry as a career, you’re going to have to learn to string a sentence together.” He turned and walked back towards a door set back into an alcove, stopped and looked over his shoulder. “Are you coming?”

She thought about it. The man wore a shiny silk suit with pins through the shirt sleeves that stuck out below the cuffs. But it was hot out and she was tired, and this orange man was the first one to speak to her all day. You have to jump in if you want to swim. She followed him into the office.

She didn’t use the word sumptuous, but if she did, that’s how she would’ve described the office. Two white leather sofas facing each other, soft as skin. A desk that filled the space in front of the tinted windows, ten feet if it was an inch. And three of the four walls lined with gold- and silver-framed certificates. There was a statue on his desk, an Oscar, she recognised that. She didn’t recognise the silver disc in a crescent on a block, but the gold plaque said it was a Tony Award, whatever that was.

The tall orange man sat in his sculptured chair and rocked back a little while he looked her over as if she were modelling the latest fashion. She didn’t care, it happened all the time.

“So,” he said at last and leaned forward onto his desk, “you want to be in the movies.”

“Yes. How did you know that?” She wondered if she should sit down on one of the sofas, she was tired, but decided to stand until he said it was okay.

“Honey, you’re in a talent agency.” He dropped his unlit cigar into a silver ashtray. “Or I should say the talent agency.” He nodded at the Oscar. “I’ve got a couple more of those at home.” He shrugged. “Copies, sure, my actors have the real things.” He smiled. Not too bad. “Have you got any experience?”

She thought about lying, but it would come out later when the magazines looked into her life. She shook her head. “Not yet.”

“Okay.” He moved his finger in a circle. “Turn around.”

She turned.

“Slowly.”

She turned slowly.

“How old are you?”

The temptation to lie again. “Seventeen.”

He tilted his head and watched her for a moment. “Pity, there’s a part on my desk that you look good for. You have to be eighteen.”

“Next week.” A lie.

He watched her for several seconds, as if deciding if she was good enough.

“This part…” He frowned. “Spielberg. You’ve heard of Spielberg?”

Probably, the name sounded familiar. “Of course.”

“He’s putting together his next movie, a sequel to Memories of a Geisha. You see that one?”

“No,” she answered before she had time to lie.

“Doesn’t matter.” He was silent again, giving it serious consideration.

“Do you think there’s a part in it for me?”

He took a long breath and let it out slowly. “Might be. You might be too young.” The frown returned. “The Geisha is about Japanese hookers.”

She assumed every country had hookers; there were plenty in LA. “Would I play one of them?”

“The part on my desk is for one of the main ones, but…”

She stepped closer. “Is there a problem?”

“The part calls for some nudity.”

She flinched and licked her lips. Her hands were shaking and she put them in her jacket pockets.

“Look, you’re young, maybe too young. Let’s forget it,” he said with a little shrug. “Unless it doesn’t bother you.” He nodded as if answering a silent question. “It’s not porn, not with Spielberg. Just a long shot in a steam room and maybe a dark bedroom scene. Nothing tacky.” He stood and came around the desk.

He was old. She guessed fifties, sixties maybe; it was hard to tell. Once they got over thirty, they all looked the same.

“Thing is,” he said, “a part in a Spielberg movie would put you on the map big time. The offers would pour in. You could write your own ticket. But…” He leaned back against the desk. “You’d have to take your clothes off.” He shook his head. “I don’t think you’d be able to do that.”

“Why not?”

He shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. I’d put you in for it and you’d freeze the second you had to undress. Then I’d look like a third-rate operator. Let’s forget it.”

“I wouldn’t do that. Actors take their clothes off; it’s acting not life.”

“I’m not convinced.” The nod at the silent question again. “There’s one way you could convince me.”

“How would I do that, Mr. Bronstein?”

“That’s a good start, knowing my name.”

It was on the door.

“Okay, look, I’m going to stick my neck out. I like the look of you. But I have to be sure.” He pushed himself off the edge of the desk. “You think you could take your clothes off? Right here, now.” He waved a hand. “You can do that, you’ve got an audition with the greatest director in the business.”

Her heart was beating hard in her chest, and her mouth was dry. “Here? In front of you?”

He shrugged. “It’s just acting, right? And you’re going to have to do it when you’re starring in Memories of a Geisha 2.” He smiled a white smile. “No touching or anything. Well, not much.”

She took a long breath. “Okay.”

He smiled.

“But I don’t want to take my clothes off with anybody watching. It’s so…undignified, you know?” She looked around. “If you were to go and get coffee or something and come back in, say, five, ten minutes, I’d be ready. Is that okay?”

His smile slipped a little, but he recovered it. “Sure, I know what you mean. All that standing on one leg and hopping. Okay. You take off your gear and I’ll go get a coffee.”

He stopped at the door. “All of it. That’s the deal.”

She nodded and watched him close the door, then took her cell phone out of her pocket and turned off the record.

His phone was on his desk and it took her seconds to find his wife’s number. She had her finger over the send button when she made a decision she would remember for the rest of her life.

Three minutes later, she’d synced his phone with hers. Which meant he had her contacts: friends, pizza delivery and Louis. And she had all of his. Everybody who was anybody in Hollywood.

Five minutes to the second he came back, a little breathless, and saw her leaning against his desk, still wearing her black Anne Klein’s dress and white jacket.

“So you couldn’t do it?” He shrugged. “Too bad, you would’ve been good in the part.”

“There’ll be other parts.” She smiled. “I know you’ll be keen to put me up for the best you can find.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. This was a one-shot de—”

His mouth fell open and he stared at her phone playing back his words crisp and clear.

“Oh, I cloned your phone. I hope you don’t mind. It’s just that if I’m going to send this to…Janice, isn’t it? Well, if I’m going to send it to her, I might as well send it to all your friends. And the LA Times.”

“Why you little b—”

“Tut-tut. Is that any way to be speaking to your new best client?”


Country Roads

Ryan Roe’s beat-up Dodge Challenger had started life as the SRT Hellcat, a monstrous seven-hundred-horsepower muscle car capable of near on two hundred miles an hour, a beautiful beast. Until Beamer had got to work on it; now it looked like a piece of crap. The metallic bronze paintwork was now dull silver with more dinks and bumps than a fairground dodgem, except every vulnerable underside part was shielded from rocks and bottoming out on jumps.

Nobody would give it a second glance, and that was just fine with Ryan, because second glances was the last thing he needed when he was running moonshine down from Papa Joe’s still hidden in plain sight up in the mountains. That was Fridays; weekends Papa Joe was a preacher, all hellfire and brimstone raining down on anyone who strayed from the path of righteousness. He was the man.

Today being Wednesday, Ryan was running twelve keys of weed over to Hyden up in Leslie County. Kentucky’s tourist Mecca, if you believed the folks over at Hyden. A bank, a church and a pizza shop, oh, and the frontier nursing university. And there was the auto parts store, where Ryan’s front wheel bearings were waiting. Two birdies and one stone. Deliver the weed to Combes and his crazy brothers then swing by and pick up the parts for Beamer. An hour each way if he used the parkway and stuck to the speed limit. Right. Except he was going to do it in the same time on the dirt roads through the hills. Just to keep his hand in, and to avoid being pulled over by the cops. Okay, that too.

First things first, he checked the rearview and saw the road bending off around the trees, and he saw Burbon’s Service Shop, with its wrecks littering the yard. A great advertisement for the quality of Jimmy Burbon, and an accurate one. But there was no sign of Anna-Beth. He glanced at the dash clock. She was late, but if she was only ten minutes late, then she’d be early, because she was usually a half hour late. He got the logic of that once he’d straightened it out.

He turned in his seat to look back towards James Street, where her house was hidden by the trees. He’d just have to sit and wait, because there was no way he was driving up to her place, not when her daddy might be around. Thing about her daddy was—the rap on the driver’s window had him almost jump through the roof.

He opened the window and tried to smile. “Sheriff Garratt.” The smile was hurting his face, so he gave up on it. “You out for a nice walk?” He looked up at the dark sky. “Nice day for it.”

“You forget what I told you?” the tall policeman said, leaning his elbow on the Hellcat’s roof.

“No, sir,” Ryan said, and shook his head for emphasis. The frown gave him away.

“I said,” the sheriff said, and lowered his head to the level of the window, taking a sniff just in case, “I catch you even looking across the street at my daughter, I’m going to shoot your balls off.” He stood up and pointed at his gun in its holster. “I’ve got a badge that says it’s okay to do that.”

“Yes, sir; no, sir.” Ryan wanted to back off, but there was no place to go. “I was just…” Jesus, what? “I was heading over to Burbon’s to get some oil.”

Sheriff Garratt looked over the car roof at the dump across the street, then leaned down again. “You and this piece of shit car would be right at home there.” He leaned in a little closer. “I’m not going to tell you again. Anna-Beth is going to college and getting the hell out of this place, and away from people like you. My girl is going to make something of herself. You hear me?”

“Hi, Daddy,” a slim blonde girl said, slipping into Ryan’s passenger seat. “You and Ryan having a little chat?”

“Your daddy was just telling me you’re going to college to be famous,” Ryan said, and hid a grin.

“Daddy wants me to be a big-city lawyer.” She laughed lightly. “Can you see me in a suit in front of a judge.”

“Not unless you’re wearing handcuffs,” Ryan said, and wished he hadn’t. His mother always said his mouth would get him into trouble. He flinched and looked back very slowly.

Sheriff Garratt was watching him through squinted eyes, and his jawbone was clearly visible along his cheek. Ryan guessed he wasn’t happy.

Ryan started the motor and the V8 rattled and clunked like an old tractor, just as Beamer had intended.

The sheriff took a half step back and looked the car over as if it were something that’d crawled out of the sewer and died. “You’re taking my little girl out in this pile of crap?” He shook his head. “Over my dead body. Get out of there, girl.”

Anna-Beth chuckled, light and happy. “Don’t be such a grouch, Daddy. Ryan’s a good driver. I’ll be fine.” She tapped Ryan’s thigh. “Come on, it’s okay.” She leaned a little forward and smiled at her father. “See you later. Oh, don’t forget Mom asked you to pick up a parcel from the post office.”

Sheriff Garratt glared at Ryan and tapped his gun. Message received. Ryan flinched and pretended he was intimidated. No reason to poke the bear. He kept his foot light on the gas and drove away slowly, no wheelspin, no smoke, nothing dramatic.

The sheriff stepped into the road and watched them go, his thumbs tucked into his gun belt. A throwback to simpler times, back when he could’ve just shot the tearaway and everybody would have nodded. But he could wait. That wild kid was up to no good; how else could he live without appearing to do a day’s work? Well, okay, he’d be there waiting when he slipped up. Anna-Beth was going to college.

Anna-Beth looked back and saw her father getting smaller in the distance. “He means well,” she said, sitting back and checking her seatbelt.

“He means well for you,” Ryan said, “maybe a bit less for me.” He blew out is breath in a flat whistle. “If he’d checked the trunk, we’d be having a whole different conversation.”

Anna-Beth sighed and shook her head. “You’re nuts. Anybody ever tell you that? Coming right up to Daddy’s front door with drugs just lying in the trunk.”

He smiled. “Couldn’t put it on the back seat, could I?”

She tutted and stared at the woods zipping past on both sides. They were moving, really moving, but she wasn’t nervous, didn’t even think about it. Ryan could be an idiot sometimes and take stupid chances, but God had given him a talent the best stock-car racers would sell their mothers for. Ryan was a Driver.

She retuned the radio away from the hillbilly music he’d been playing to annoy her. He didn’t listen to banjo stuff, she knew that. Probably. Unless he did when she wasn’t there. Could be. Guy did some funny things, some of them near suicidal.

Ariana was singing ‘My Everything’. She liked that, and glanced at Ryan sitting relaxed behind the wheel as if taking granny for a quiet drive out.

He returned the glance and the smile and then looked back at the road. Seemed like a good idea. “I need to put the scanner on. This is bandit country.” He pressed the button behind the steering wheel and nothing happened except Ariana kept right on singing. It was a quiet day at the sheriff’s office.

Without seeming to slow from the sixty miles an hour they were doing, Ryan slid the Hellcat into the right-hand bend, then floored it and took off down the dirt road with hardly any speed loss. Showing off. Maybe he was, but he was out to beat the freeway time, and that demanded some skills. And some showing off.

Combes was sitting on a bench seat in front of his crappy general store in the middle of nowhere USA. No sign of his brothers, probably off somewhere shooting something that couldn’t shoot back.

Ryan twitched the wheel and slid the Hellcat across the gravel lot right up to the steps up to the wooden porch. And gave Combes a dust bath. Probably the first bath he’d had since JFK was shot.

What beat Ryan’s brain with a stick was that folks bought stuff in that store, stuff to eat. He gave the dust a second to blow away, then got out and touched his eyebrow in a soft salute to his customer. Treat your customers right and they’ll stay right with you. That was his motto, well, it was now, for a while.

He opened the trunk and lifted the big cardboard box out and put it on the first step. “Your dinner service straight from Amazon,” he said, with a grin.

Combes didn’t get it. Smoking too much of his product. A man in a straw hat, seventy years old, or fifty hard ones, it was impossible to tell. He was fatter than a hog born on an acorn farm. And the hog similarity didn’t end there; the fat man had the piggy eyes and bloated lips to go with it.

Treat your customers right. “Looking good, Mr. Combes. You been working out?”

Combes reached down behind the bench and lifted a wide glass jar of clear moonshine with a piece of fruit floating in it. And sucked it for a few seconds without taking his narrowed eyes off the delivery boy.

“Why’d I want a dinner service? If I even know’d what one was.”

Ryan wished he’d kept his mouth shut. “Nothing, Mr. Combes.” He patted the box. “This here’s your weed. Do you want to check it over?”

Combes frowned at him again. “Why’d I want to do that? You shorting me on it?”

“No, sir, I would never do that to you.”

“Meanin’ you’d do it to somebody else.”

“No, sir, meaning I get paid to deliver a box full of weed, I deliver a box full of weed. Not my place to dip into it.”

“Good way to get your head blowed off.” He took another pull on the moonshine without taking his eyes off Ryan. “What your momma say about you wearing your hair like that? All sissy and…” He shrugged, losing his thread and his interest.

Anna-Beth leaned out of the car window and checked out her boy. Nothing wrong with his hair. Close undercut with nice blond curls on top. Okay, he wanted to lose the curls, but she liked them. Natural. Some girls she knew would kill for curls like those.

“Morning, Purvis. Where’s Ava?”

Combes leaned over to see past Ryan. “That you, Anna-Beth?”

“It is. Was hoping to see Ava while I’m here.”

“She’s over at South Side. The mall.” He shook his head as if he didn’t get why a teenage girl would want to drive two hours to a mall.

“Tell her I said hi,” Anna-Beth said, and slid back into the car.

“You want anything from the shop?”

Ryan shook his head. “No, thank you, Mr. Combes. I’m good.”

“Then why you still here?”

Ryan nodded once, got back into the car, and got out of there before he caught the crazy bug. Over to Hyden and pick up—

“Sheriff, you receiving?” the police scanner said.

Ryan reached over and turned off the radio, and gave Anna-Beth a little smile by way of a sorry.

“Receiving, Sarah. What’s up?”

Sarah was dispatch at the sheriff’s office, and doubled up as his wife. But at work it was all business. Though that didn’t account for the strain that was clear in her voice.

“Armed men held up a bank in Lexington. Killed a guard and shot the teller.”

Anna-Beth stared at him and he raised a finger for her to listen and not speak.

“Took off down I-75. State troopers were waiting, but the bad guys got off at Corbin.”

“And they’re heading this way,” Sheriff Garratt said, his voice calm and matter-of-fact.

“They are. Report says they’re heading for Richmond over in Virginia.”

“Why’d the hell they want to go there?” the sheriff said.

His wife was silent for a moment. “Why don’t you ask them? They’re coming right through town in an hour or so.”

“Okay,” the sheriff said, still calm, “get Otis and John out of Apple Joes and tell them to sober up quick.”

“Already called them.”

Silence for a moment. Long enough for the sheriff and Ryan to know what was coming next.

“Otis says his back’s gone again. Doc told him to lay up for a while. John—” a beat while she took a breath “—he’s been married a couple of months. Baby on the way.” Another silence. “Wants to know if you really need him. Do you?”

“No, I’ll do just fine. Tell him to make sure folks stay off the streets. That’s important work.”

“Tom?”

“Yeah, hon?”

“You’re a good man.”

“Don’t tell anybody.”

“Be careful. These men already killed people.”

“Don’t worry, hon. I’m not people.”

Anna-Beth tried to smile at the joke, but she was numb with fear.

Ryan floored it and the muscle car wagged its tail in its eagerness to do his bidding.

“Where are we going?” Anna-Beth said.

“I’m going to help the sheriff. You’re going to get out before I get there.”

She set her jaw. “You’ll have to throw me out.”

He glanced at her. She meant it. She was staying. “Okay, you can come, but if it looks bad, you have to get out when I say? Agreed?”

She was silent while she thought it through. It was her father standing in the middle of the road back in Leaning Peak. But Ryan was right, if she stayed in the car, he’d worry about her when he should be trying to save her daddy. “Okay. But only if it looks really bad.”

“Good. Don’t worry.” He glanced at her. “The bad guys will probably cut through Tazewell and get on the 81. It makes more s—”

“They passed through Middleboro,” the despatcher said. Sarah, Tom’s wife, Anna-Beth’s mom. Jesus, this was bad.

“Good,” Ryan said quietly, lying to make her feel better.

“They’re heading east, towards Kingsport,” Sarah said.

“Thanks, hon,” the sheriff said, as calm as if she’d just told him the school bus had broken down.

“They’re coming right at you, Tom.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep my head down.”

Ryan glanced at Anna-Beth, who was staring at him, her eyes wide. They both knew the sheriff would stand in the way.

“How far do they have to go?” Anna-Beth said, her voice shaking. “You know? Until they get to Daddy?”

“Corbin to LP? Twenty-three miles.” He didn’t have to think about it; he knew the road, every turn on it.

She licked her lips, ready to ask the question.

“That’s Garrard back there. Thirty miles to go.”

She could do the math; they both could.

“We’re not going to make it, are we?” she said, sounding very young and very frightened.

Ryan put his foot to the metal and they were pressed back into their seats. “We’ll make it.”



The sheriff drove through his town and pulled off the road at the northern end. It took just a few minutes. He’d give the fugitives a while to get closer; then he’d put his Tahoe across the road. Wouldn’t be enough to block it, but it might slow them down some, enough for him to get a shot off.

Before they killed him.

A black and white pulled up behind him, and he got out to meet John as he climbed out. Guy had a baby on the way, but he was still there when he didn’t need to be. Said a lot for him.

“You clear the streets?” the sheriff asked, letting his thanks stay unsaid.

“Everybody’s locked down. Looking out though, you can count on that.”

John was not much older than Anna-Beth, twenty maybe. Tom thought he knew, should know, but couldn’t remember. Too much going on. The kid looked scared enough to mess his uniform. Jesus, this was no place for a boy, even one with stones.

“They still coming?” John said, stepping up onto the bank and looking down the long empty road. “No sign of them.” He looked back at the sheriff. “Maybe they cut west, head back to the 75. Makes sense. Bypass the roadblocks south of Corbin then head for Knoxville. Lose themselves in there easy. Sure, yeah. That’s what I’d do. Right? Coming on through here don’t make no sense. Road’s too narrow. Too easy to get boxed in. Yeah, they’ll be heading back to the 75 while we standing out here with our dicks in our hands. Makes sense. Right?”

“They’re coming,” the sheriff said, and saw the boy’s shoulders sag as if a huge weight had just landed on them.

“How long?”

The sheriff shrugged. “Ten minutes, I figure. Maybe a shade less. Depends how good a driver they got. Like you said, these roads are not built for racing.”

“Christ.” John wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Maybe I’ll call Carol, you know? Just say hey.”

He wanted to run away; Jesus, who wouldn’t? But he was standing.

Tom gave an exaggerated start and opened the Tahoe’s tailgate. “Shit.”

“Problem?”

“Yeah, problem.” Sheriff Garratt slammed the tailgate. “Don’t have the big gun.”

“Shit.” John looked around as if expecting to see it lying on the road.

The sheriff looked back towards the town. “I need that big gun. Only thing got a chance of stopping them. You think you can get back to the office and get it before they get here?”


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