|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
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A Joe Crow Novel
By Pete Hautman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Pete Hautman
All rights reserved.
I don't care who you are—nothing rides like a fucking Cadillac.
Joseph Caruso Battagno (better known as Joey Cadillac, Joey C. to his friends and customers, Mister C. to his employees, Joe Chicago to his Las Vegas investors, and occasionally referred to as "Stallion" by Chrissy Swenson, his twenty-two-year-old side-squeeze, former Miss Minnesota, recently imported from the frozen wastelands of the north) said that the copy of Batman #3 he held in his chubby right hand was not for reading—it was for investing.
"Oh, come on, Joey," Chrissy whined. "It's just a comic book. Open it up. I want to read about the Batman."
It was Friday night, their night, and they had just finished a late supper—takeout from Tony's—in her Lake Shore Drive condo. Joey was showing off his latest acquisition. Joey always had something new to show her. Sometimes it was a present for her, but more often it was something he had bought for himself. Last week he had brought along his new electronic cigar lighter, which Chrissy thought was the coolest thing ever. Chrissy always made it a point to be impressed by Joey's toys.
"I can't, doll. This here is called a Stasis Shield, see?" He handed her the comic in its rigid Mylar sleeve. "It's, like, permanently sealed in there so the air and the, like, pollution don't get at it. Thing's worth three grand, you don't want to fuck it up."
Chrissy was examining the plastic sleeve, her brow furrowed, glossy lips pushed out past the end of her button nose. "What good is it if you can't read it?"
"Like I told ya, it's worth money, honey. Last year it was worth two grand, this year it's worth three, next year who knows? It's like an in vest ment, dollface. Like you buy gold or something. Or a classic car, y'know? Look." Joey took the comic and pointed out a small card that had been sealed into the plastic sleeve. "See the signatures? That's so you know it's the real thing."
Chrissy looked at the card. "Who's B. Disraeli?"
"That's Ben, the notary, doll. And the other one, Tommy Paine, he's the country's number-one comic book expert. That's who I got them from. What they do, they seal the book in with some kinda special gas so it stays perfect, what they call mint condition, and you can buy and sell it without its getting wrecked by people like you pawing through it."
Chrissy pushed her lips out another quarter of an inch. "I don't paw," she said. "I just wanted to read about the Batman, Joey."
"Well, you can't. I open this up, it loses value. Then I got to pay to have it resealed and notarized and like that." He held the sealed comic with both hands, holding it out like a new baby. "Three large for a comic book. Ain't that something. And I got twelve more like this, three more Batmans and a bunch of other stuff, every one of them worth two grand or more."
"Wow, Joey, that's really cool." Chrissy made her eyes go big. "That's a lot of money." Joey loved it when she got excited by his money. He liked her to be there, sitting behind him, when he used her place for poker night. He liked it when she clapped her hands when he won. When he lost, of course, he was just impossible for the rest of the week. But he still paid her rent.
Joey grinned. "Didn't cost me a dime, babe. I traded the guy one of our demos, a Fleetwood spun back to ten K on the speedometer. Got thirty K in rare comics for a ten-thousand-dollar demo."
Chrissy had the comic again and was looking at the purple cover through the thick plastic. The Batman and Robin running straight at her, looking like they were going to jump right through the Mylar shield. She shook her head and licked her lips.
"You're so smart. How come you're so smart, Joey?"
"I dunno." Joey grabbed a piece of cold garlic toast and pushed it into his mouth, poured himself another glass of Chianti and sucked it down, feeling good about his comics, enjoying this private time with his girl, his Minnesota import with the big front end. At that moment the three K a month she cost him in rent and goodies seemed like nothing, like pocket money. About the same as one vintage comic book. He wiped his fingers on the tablecloth.
"What the hell," he said, reaching for the sealed comic. "You want to read about the Batman, we'll open the fucker up." He could just call the comic guy and have it resealed. What was the guy gonna do—say no to Joey Cadillac? "Make sure your hands are clean, doll." He took a steak knife and pushed the point into the end of the plastic package and tried to slit it open, but the Mylar, twenty mils thick, resisted the thin-bladed knife. He had to saw with the serrated edge to open it all the way along the top, scratching the cover of the comic book in the process. Red-faced from the effort, he handed the open package to Chrissy.
"Oh, Stallion ..." she said in her little-girl voice. "You're so good to me."
Joey poured the rest of the Chianti into his glass, wiped his brow with his bunched-up napkin, then settled back and unwrapped one of his prized Cuban Montecristos. Chrissy slid the comic out of the sleeve, admired it for a few seconds, crinkled her nose at the Stallion, and opened it to page one. Joey bit the end off his cigar and, since he had already worn out the battery on last week's electronic lighter, lit it with the candle on the table. Chrissy was big on candles, always had to have one going. He settled back in his chair to watch his Minnesota import read his three-thousand-dollar Batman comic.
But Chrissy was frowning. She turned the page, looked at Joey, wrinkled her brow, turned another page, and pouted ferociously. "Oh, you! You were teasing me."
Joey sat forward, dropping his fifteen-dollar cigar onto his leftover puttanesca sauce. "What?" He reached for the comic, pulled it from her limp fingers, and looked at the inside pages.
"That wasn't nice," Chrissy was saying as Joey Cadillac stood and roared and threw the comic across the room. Empty, blank pages separated and fluttered to the carpet.
The Tom and Ben Show ran out of rock and roll on Interstate 35, five miles north of Clear Lake, Iowa, twenty-six miles east of the cornfield where the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens died.
When Mick Jagger groaned and stuttered during the Sticky Fingers tape, something he had done many times before but never halfway through "Brown Sugar," Tom and Ben looked at the tape deck, then at each other. The song went on to the end with no further interruptions, Tom went back to reading his Spiderman comic, and Ben returned his eyes to the highway, playing the drum part on the rim of the big Cadillac steering wheel. The lemon-yellow Fleetwood slid up 1-35, Cadillac smooth.
Two cuts later, during the long jam at the end of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," the Stones went into slow time. Ben pressed his foot down on the accelerator, as though by speeding up the Fleetwood he could bring the recording back into phase, but as the digital speedometer counted up, the tape deck moaned and the speakers fell silent. Tom reached out and pressed the eject button. The tape leapt from its slot, followed by a cloud of acrid smoke, which was quickly sucked into the powerful Cadillac climate control vents.
Tom and Ben looked at each other.
Ben lightened his foot on the accelerator and brought the Fleetwood back down to sixty-five miles per hour. A hot plastic reek pierced the climate control's defenses and attacked his nostrils. He sneezed, three times, violently.
"Now what are we gonna do?" asked Tom. "Middle a fuckin' nowhere." He gestured at the rolling, homogeneous farmland that surrounded them. The land was dotted with rows of small plants. It was early May, planting time, the new growth electric green on the black Iowa soil.
Ben cleared his throat. "Are we on fire?" His voice was deep and cavernous. People who heard him over the telephone visualized him as a big-chested man with a full head of gray hair, a ruddy complexion, and crinkly brown eyes. When he spoke, words took on prodigious meaning. In person, Ben was a less impressive creature. He was six feet three inches tall but weighed no more than one hundred sixty pounds, had both hair and flesh the color and texture of overcooked wheat pasta and eyes like weak, milky tea. An uneven beard was nearly invisible on his face. He wore a gray T-shirt with Mickey Mouse smiling on the front.
Tom, the other half of the Tom and Ben Show, leaned forward and peered into the cassette slot. "It don't look like it," he said in his smaller, more nasal voice. He shook his head. Shanks of black hair separated, then pasted themselves back together. He picked up the ejected cassette. The case was warped and too hot to hold. He shifted it from one hand to the other, then dropped it back on the floor.
"Please get it out of here." Ben sneezed again. Tom lowered his window, flipped the tape out onto the highway, and turned to watch it skitter down the pavement after them.
The Tom and Ben Show rolled up 1-35 in silence for almost five minutes before Tom slapped his knee and said, "This is no good. We got to have tunes."
"Perhaps you could turn on the radio."
"You kidding me? Do you know where we are? The middle of the fucking prairie, and you want to listen to the radio? You know what kind of shit they listen to out here?"
"Probably the same variety as is listened to elsewhere."
"Damn straight. We turn that thing on, we might hear Milli Vanilli or Vanilla Ice or something worse, you can imagine that. I might jump out the window, sixty miles an hour. Christ."
Ben shrugged and kept the Cadillac centered in the right lane. Tom watched a few mileposts flash by, then blew out his cheeks, reached out, and turned on the radio. The speakers crackled and popped. He pressed the station selector several times without results.
"Now the fucking radio don't even work. Where the fuck are we? Where's the fuckin' map?" Tom twisted in his seat and rummaged through the garbage that had accumulated in the back seat. "Where is it?"
"Perhaps you should check your door pocket," said Ben.
"Son-of-a-bitch." Tom turned around and found the wrinkled and stained road atlas folded into the passenger-door pocket. He opened it and asked, "Where are we?"
"We passed Clear Lake six minutes ago."
"What state? Gimme the state."
"Iowa. Just below Minnesota, west of Wisconsin and Illinois."
"I know where Iowa is, f'chrissake." Tom studied the map, running his finger up the blue stripe that represented 1-35. "I'm sick a this, man. I feel like we been on the road a week. This really sucks."
"Consider the alternative," said Ben. "We could be back in Chicago entertaining Joey C. We could be having him and Freddy Wisnesky over for dinner. We could all sit around admiring Freddy's tie. Freddy would appreciate that."
"Freddy and his fucking ties," Tom growled.
"Maybe Joey would fix the tape deck for us. You're Joey's good buddy, right?" Ben said. "I'm sure he stands behind the cars he sells."
Tom extracted a bottle of Children's Tylenol from the pocket of his black jeans, shook out half a dozen of the purple, grape-flavored tablets, licked them off his palm, and chewed. Ben compressed his thin lips until they disappeared, and waited for his partner to finish chewing.
"We'll be in Minneapolis soon. We can get a nice room, order some food. Joey won't be looking for us there. Nobody goes looking for anyone in Minneapolis. We can make a few calls, get the Galactic Guardians thing in motion."
"So who you gonna call? Who the fuck do we know in Minneapolis?"
Ben looked at his partner, who had both feet up on the seat, chin on his knees, glaring out at the highway. "Tomas, we don't know anyone in Minneapolis. That is why we are going there."
Half a mile later, Tom said, "Yeah, we do."
"Yeah, we do what?"
"Yeah, we do know somebody in Minne-fucking-apolis."
"Who would that be?"
Ben frowned and adjusted his hands on the steering wheel.
"I'm gonna give her a call soon as we get there," Tom said. "Maybe she knows somebody'd be interested in the Galactic Guardians. Maybe her new hubby."
Ben cleared his throat. "Catherine got married? I doubt, then, that she'll take kindly to us going after her meal ticket."
"You think getting married is gonna change anything? You don't know Cat. She likes a good show more'n anybody. Only thing she can't stand is being bored. That's how come you two never got along. Anyways, I don't see you coming up with anything better."
Ben's pallid face turned a deeper shade of beige. "I might be boring, but I thought we had a good arrangement back in Chicago. And we did, until you decided to lay the Stasis Shield routine on Joey C. For a used car that gets ten miles to the gallon." He slapped the steering wheel.
"How was I s'posed to know he was going to try and read the damn things? I told him not to open 'em up."
"And I told you not to get involved with people like that."
"How was I s'posed to buy us a car without I get involved with guys like that? You know anybody sells cars isn't connected?"
They had been having variations on the same argument ever since leaving Chicago. Ben shrugged and kept the Cadillac rolling.
"You don't think Freddy'll show up in Minneapolis?" Tom asked a few miles later. "I don't want to end up eel bait like Billy Yeddis."
"Why would he do that? First, he is not likely to find us there, and if he does, even Joey C. has his practical side. How angry could he get over a few comic books?"
"All Billy did was miss a few car payments."
The Tom and Ben Show listened to the hum of the Cadillac's big wheels on concrete.
"You've got a point there," Ben said.
"You sure?" Joey Cadillac said.
Freddy Wisnesky, slumped in the chair in front of Joey's desk, rolled his mountainous shoulders and looked down at his tie. Today he was wearing his tie with the big red flowers on it. Roses. Real silk. Lots of class. "I been lookin' everywhere, Mister C. I been over to their apartment a bunch of times. I been askin' around everywhere. I don't think they're around no more." Freddy's nose, a flattened, solid mass of healed cartilage, was no longer available as an air passage. His voice sounded like that of a man with a bad cold speaking from the other end of a culvert.
Joey Cadillac picked up a memo pad and started tearing off pages, balling them in his fist, flicking them across his eight-foot-wide desk at Freddy, who let them bounce off his chest, unblinking.
"You know who Diogenes is?" Joey asked him.
Freddy contorted his face. A bit of white spittle oozed from the corner of his mouth. He seemed to swell, then collapse, sinking down a few inches in the chair. He gave his head a shake, then ventured, "One a those Greek guys, has a joint over on Halsted?"
Joey grinned. "That's pretty good, Freddy."
Encouraged, Freddy elaborated, "One a them restaurants over there?"
"Diogenes," Joey said, standing and hiking up his pin-striped linen
trousers, "is this guy who walks around with this lantern looking for an honest man. He did this his whole life, looking for this one honest guy." Joey stopped and looked to see if he was making an impression.
"I musta been thinking of some other guy," Freddy said.
Joey nodded. "Diogenes doesn't own no Greek restaurant. Even a Greek knows he ain't gonna find an honest man in the restaurant business. Anyways, this Diogenes is kinda like me, Freddy. I just wish I could find one honest guy, one guy I could count on. These comic book guys, this Paine and this Disraeli, these are not your honest guys, Freddy. So what I want you to do is like Diogenes with his lantern, only instead of looking for an honest guy, which you ain't gonna find, you go find those comic book guys. You go looking for them guys and you find them, you know what I mean?"
Freddy contorted his face again.
"Never mind," Joey said. "Let me lay it out for you. You find out where they went. There're these stores that sell nothing but comic books, you go ask around there, find out who they know, find out where they went. You know how to do that. Just keep asking and then go find them wherever they are, and when you find them? Do like you did with Billy Yeddis, then bring me my car back."
Freddy went blank for a moment, then he smiled. "I could do that," he said.
Excerpted from Drawing Dead by Pete Hautman. Copyright © 1993 Pete Hautman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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