They came for him just after 11:00 on a Saturday morning, two of them. It was hot going hotter; sunlight caught in the fine sheen of sweat on Elsa’s forehead. A hint of movement in the side of his eye as they passed a short side street—and the first one was there. He spun, slamming his foot and the whole of his body weight against the outside of the man’s right knee, and heard it give. By the time the man was down, that same foot hit his throat. He shuddered twice, trying to pull in air through the shattered windpipe, and was still. The second had come up behind by then, but Driver was down, rolling, and behind him, left arm clamped around his neck, right elbow locked over the wrist.
It was all over in minutes. He understood then what had delayed the second man’s attack. Elsa lay against the wall of an abandoned café, blood pumping from the wound beneath her breast.
She had been trying to smile up at him as the light went out of her eyes.
# # #
In movies the guy who almost drowned shoots up out of the water and into sunlight like a porpoise, gulping at the air so long denied him, relief writ large on his face.
When Driver first surfaced, six, seven years ago, it had been like that, only in reverse. Sunlight, air, and freedom—his impulse was to dive back in. He wanted the darkness, safety, anonymity. Needed it. Didn’t understand how he could live without it.
He was 26.
# # #
Now he was 32 sitting at a table on the deck of HIPPIE PLACE, around to the side, away from the street.
“They first set this place down,” Felix was telling him, “it was an in-your-face beachhouse. Sand every which way you looked. Kinda didn’t take in as to how the hood’s full of stray cats? Cats loved it, brought them in from miles around. Biggest sandbox ever, you know? Reassessments were made at the corporate level.” Hands still on the table, Felix leaned back, sleeves pulling to show the lower edge of tattoos gone colorless. No hearts, anchors, women or women’s names here. Knives. A flame or two. A wolf. “Long time back. And you know how few things go the distance around here. The food’s crap, but it’s dependable.”
Driver didn’t know that much about Felix, about his background anyway. Knew he’d been in Desert Storm, a Ranger he figured, from what little Felix said. And sometime before that, a gangbanger back in good old east L.A. Some kind of bodyguard or enforcer. A lifetime of walking through doors into new lives.
They’d met on a job, where it seemed Felix was along mostly to look out for one of the other guys. That’s how Desert Storm came up; Felix and his boy had been in it together. Rule is, once the job’s over, you’re strangers. But something had clicked. Driver and Felix stayed in touch.
And who better to hang with when you went to ground? One way or another, Felix had been off the screen all his life.
“Appreciate your help,” Driver said. The coffee tasted faintly of the fish tacos that were HP’s specialty. Felix’s eyes followed a pair of women being seated by the front railing. Mother and daughter? Twenty, thirty years apart, dressed alike. Same body language, same legs.
“Anything else we need to do?” “Like?”
“Oh, like persuade whoever’s on your trail what a bad idea that could turn out to be.”
“These aren’t the kind of people you step up and talk to.”
“I wasn’t planning on a conversation.”
“You wouldn’t be. But there’s no need. I’ve gone invisible. They can’t see me. It’s over.”
“Invisible, huh? That’s why we’re sitting back here by the dumpster and you came in with a hat sitting halfway down your nose.” He sipped his own coffee, made a face. “Doesn’t smell near as bad as it tastes. That is one cool hat, though.”
The older of the women smiled at Felix. Highland Park, upper East Side, Scottsdale kind of woman. Money, class, privilege. Yet here she was smiling over at this middle-aged hardass with worn-out tats and bad hair. Something about Felix did that to people.
The younger woman glanced over to see what her companion was looking at. Then she smiled too.
“All the same to you, invisible or not, I’ll keep an eye out, watch for flares.” Some ways, Felix never left the desert, anymore than he left L.A. He hadn’t put the weight down; he carried them around inside. “Key’s where it always is. Far as I know, no one’s there. Someone is, you’ll need to have a conversation.—Johnny, my man.”
The server had come to ask if there was anything else he could do for them. Tan, blond, kid that was probably 25, looked 18 and would keep looking it till he slammed into the hard edge of 40, 45.
“We could use a couple of beers. When you get time. No one’s in a hurry here.”
Felix watched Johnny’s back as he walked off, then checked his two women again. “And you have no idea who this deadly duo was?”
“Or why they showed up. None.”
“They wouldn’t be carrying ID.”
“Doubtful. Not that I stayed around to check.”
“You’re sure it was a kill.”
“How they came in, had to be.”
“All the ways you can kill a man, that has to be the dumbest. Too many unknowns, outcome’s in the wind, you’re hanging out there. So why bring it in close?”
“And why take Elsa?”
“Which they did before putting you down. What sense does that make?”
Johnny brought the beers. He wiped the table with a damp rag, then picked up both coffee mugs with his left hand and set the bottles down with his right.
“Nothing recent to tip this,” Felix said. Driver shook his head.
“Something from the past, then.”
“It usually is.”
Felix took a small sip of beer and rolled it around in his mouth before swallowing. “Excellent bloom.” He looked off to the tree where a bird was giving it everything it had, as though Judgment Day or final exams were in an hour. “You think birds gargle?” Then, without looking back, “In the bathroom, cabinet under the sink. Pull all the shit out, there’s a board you can pry up. Just in case it turns out you need it.”
“Nada. Ride light, my friend.”
# # #
Felix called it his warren. Unlike most souls who aren’t nailed down, once he moved on from a place, he didn’t let it go, he kept it. His you-never-know principle, that also being his rejoinder to pretty much whatever life threw at him or anything asked of him: why he did things, the actions of others, what he thought the chances were of the sun coming up tomorrow. There were Felix apartments, nondescript houses and duck-holes, scattered all around Phoenix. This particular cell of the warren was the southeast unit of a quadraplex cut from what had been a respectable single-family house back when what was now the central city had been cozy suburbs. Latticework along one side of the drive held fragments of dead vines. Lizards scampered on the slump-block wall behind. The key was under a brick at the base of the century plant by the two-car garage that now served as storage for tenants. Driver glanced through the window. Dozens of boxes, furniture, a potbelly stove, framed paintings, an ancient Fender speaker cabinet. Looking much as it had the last time he’d seen it, better than a year ago, though chances were good that tenants had turned over two or three times since.
Driver did a quick cockroach count—two in the tub still breathing, six visible in the kitchen and mostly dead—before unpacking. Unpacking took about as long as the cockroach check had. He’d never cared much about possessions, so it had been easy walking away from the house and all the rest. Walking away from Elsa’s body had been the hard thing.
He carried utility luggage, a duffel bag, with utility clothes to match: jeans, khakis, blue dress shirts and a blazer, t-shirts, underwear, black socks, all of it common stock from Target, Sears. He put the clothes away in a bureau the color of maple syrup whose uppermost layers of laminate had worn away in stages, like riverbed rock. The roach count went up by three. Some bird had built its now abandoned nest on the outside ledge of the bedroom window, the nest spilling through a missing chunk of screen into the space between. A tiny fragment of freckled eggshell remained. He’d been living on coffee, air, and nerves since yesterday morning, and he’d seen a diner two streets up, Billy’s or Bully’s, hard to tell from the sign, where the last time he’d been through, there’d been a Mexican restaurant.
Its historic smells had come forward with it to the new ownership. As though chile and cilantro and cumin were additional pigments in the wall’s blue paint. Judging by the row of counter seats, booths and gunnery windows to the kitchen, the place had in some earlier incarnation been a Big Boy’s or Denny’s. An old man with a fringe of dandelion white hair sat at the counter, looking as though he grew there. A waiter stood off at a safe distance, talking through the half-door into the kitchen. Young couple in the back corner booth by the emergency exit, both busily engaged with hand-held devices, iPods, cells, whatever.
Driver sat down-counter from the dandelion, who kept glancing his direction. The eggs were surprisingly good, the bacon thick-cut and rimed with the perfect amount of fat. Coffee fresh, though watery. When the cook peered through the window, Driver gave him a nod and held up his fork.
Someone had scratched the name Gabriel into the counter Formica, with the blade of a pocket knife held sideways from the look of it. Driver found himself wondering during what incarnation of the diner that had happened, about the person who had done the carving, and the story behind it—his name? A friend’s or loved one’s? Thinking, too, about how we all struggle to leave markers behind, signs that we were here, that we passed through. How imprints like this, and like the fanciful tags on walls and buildings and overpasses, were urban equivalents of cave paintings.
He paid up at the register, $7.28, and cut through the parking lot on the way back. Just past, he came across a block of homes, five in a row, that didn’t seem to belong here, so perfectly in order—windows clear, roofs free of debris, lawns freshly barbered, a quarter-inch gap at the edge of foundations, drives and walkways—that he wondered if the same compulsive person owned them or saw to their upkeep. Then, crossing the street, he was back in the real world, back among shambles and make-dos.
And taking note of the car parked across from his house, a sleek Buick sedan in a neighborhood of pickups and make-do’s, single occupant.
The other one would be out back, he figured. Driver cut around to the wall bordering the alley.
Enough stuff back here, piled up along the wall, to furnish five or six homes, parts of all of it gone missing: legs on the furniture, glass in the mirrors, cords and elements on appliances. The gate, he knew from his initial reconnaissance, was held by a chain, one he’d be able to reach through the gap but not without making noise. No problem, though, since the wall was just over six feet and through the gap he could see the other guy leaning against the side of the old garage, looking toward the house.
Driver was up, over and on him as a car passed slowly out front, momentarily taking the man’s attention. Manicured fingernails raked Driver’s arm, ruby or bloodstone ring like a fat jelly bean on one finger. A good choke hold doesn’t leave much wiggle room.
It’s not just the breathing, you’re clamping the carotids too, shutting down blood flow to the brain. Work on kung fu movies, you spend hours hanging out with stars and stunt men while waiting to saddle up and drive. You learn things.
Without thinking—he was on some level now where thought and action were a single seamless thing—he slammed the man’s body against the side of the garage, got a drumlike thud, louder than he’d anticipated, then a series of reverberations. He slipped around behind, into the narrow channel between garage and wall.
It took all of three minutes for the other one to show. Came in carrying something in his left hand, gun, slapjack, taser. Spotted his partner and moved slowly toward him. Crouched low, Driver watched through the cracks between boards.
Left-handed then. And carrying about forty extra pounds.
The man drew up close, looked around one last time. Struggled some on the squat, then dropped that left hand to the ground as he eased down.
The moment the man’s eyes shifted, Driver was there, stomping hard on his hand. Still wrapped around the gun handle, fingers cracked. But the man didn’t make a sound. He looked up with blank eyes, waiting to see how this was going to go.
Driver kicked him in the head.
Sirens sounded in the distance, over on McDowell or thereabouts, maybe coming this way, maybe not. Driver looked around. There hadn’t been enough noise to alert neighbors, but three or four two-storeys were within view, someone could have seen and called it in. He listened again for the sirens. Closer? Much as he wanted to talk to these two, to have a conversation as Felix would put it, he couldn’t take the chance.
He was up the alley and around the corner when two police cars swung onto San Jacinto.
# # #
“That’s your idea of laying low?”
“So I’m out of practice.”
“One might surmise that hanging out by dumpsters isn’t going to make it.”
Driver was on a throwaway. Felix was calling back from the message he’d left at the tattoo parlor on Camelback.
“Right. Somehow they got on to me again, and fast.”
“I don’t like it much, either. They found you, chances are good they know more about me than anyone should.”
“Just what I’m thinking, why I’m checking in.”
“You put four of their people down and they’re still on empty. Whatever jones they had for you at first, it’s got way stiffer now. What can I do?”
“I’ll need another place to stay.”
“That’s taken care of.” Old habits hadn’t completely passed with the old life. He had stashes of money, ID, bank cards.
“Might want to give Maurice a call.”
“Your guy who does false documents?”
“Not just documents. He does whole identities— birth certificate, military, degrees. But he’s just as good at erasing them. This juncture, more invisible would be wise.”
“Swing by The Ink Spot in an hour or two. Justin’ll have everything you need. Keys, clothes. Anything else you’re wanting, call me direct.” Felix gave him the number. “That one’s with me and always on.”
“Many thanks, my friend.”
“Nothing. Be cool—”
“—and care. Will do.” Driver hung up.
The second call was the one he dreaded, but he knew he had to make it. Mr. Jorgenson picked up on the seventh ring. Once hello was done, he said nothing further, not when Driver told him who was calling, not when he told him how sorry he was, not when he told him they wouldn’t be hearing from him again.
He and Elsa had always joked about how purely middle-America her parents were. “Toasted cheese!” one of them would say, then the other: “Sectional couch!” “Jello salad!” “Mashed potatoes!” “Lawrence Welk!”
When Driver stopped talking, there was silence on the line for a time.
“Mrs. Jorgenson and I knew from the first that we didn’t have the whole story, Paul. We knew that. But our girl loved you, and you loved her, and whatever we felt, about the strangeness that stood behind you where it couldn’t be seen, about all those things that didn’t quite add up—none of that came to matter much.”
Silence again before he said, “How terribly we will miss her, I can’t begin to tell you.”
Most anyone else, Driver thought, would be dispensing homilies now: she’s in a better place, she’s gone to her reward, her journey’s over. He could see where so much of Elsa had come from. Her spirit, the quiet at her center, her generosity.
“But we will miss you too, Paul. We are your family. What is going on now, once it’s done, however and whatever it is, we hope you’ll come back to us. We’ll be here.…I have to go, son.”
Driver was at America’s Tacos on Seventh Avenue, misters going full, no one else out here on the patio. Mostly couples inside, beyond the windows. Just two men eating alone. One of them young, crested hair, denim shirt with sleeves ripped off, head bobbing to the piped music. The other in his fifties or sixties, staring at the wall as he ate. Lost in reverie? Or to memory?
Leaving, Driver dropped his paper plate, cup, and cell phone in the recycle container.