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The first thing Constantine noticed, as the car pulled over and slowed to a stop, was the bumblebee emblem on the grille. The car had been repainted, twice at least, and the paint now covered the stripes and graphics that had originally wrapped the rear quarter panels and trunk. Constantine listened to the big engine idle, checked the dual scoops on the hood. Stripes or no, this was a '69 Super Bee. He had not seen one of those on the road since high school.
The second thing he noticed was the guy driving the car. From what Constantine could make out, a gray flattop and below that a creased forehead barely clearing the top of the wheel, the guy looked small and a little old to be driving a sixties muscle car.
The car appeared to be sound, though, and a ride was always just a ride. Constantine dropped his thumb and lifted the padded strap of his JanSport pack, easing it onto his shoulder, and walked toward the Dodge that was stopped on the berm. He bent forward and leaned his forearm on the lip of the open passenger window.
"Thanks for stopping," Constantine said.
"Sure," the old man said. "Hop in."
Constantine tossed his pack on the backseat and dropped into the passenger seat, shutting the door. The old man threw the Hurst shifter into first, gave the Dodge some gas. The car spit gravel, moved off the shoulder, and accelerated onto the two-lane.
They drove northwest on 260, the interstate densely lined by oak and scrub pine, broken occasionally by odd, isolated residences, sprawling ramblers of brick and stone. The radio was off, but the old man was moving his head rhythmically, a slight, childish smile on his face as he pointed at the low, white-flowering trees that dotted the interior of the woods.
"Wild dogwoods," he said, turning his head briefly to Constantine. The old man's eyes looked blue as the spring sky, his smile broad and genuine, though it was not a smile to cause worry. Constantine looked at the eyes and the tough hands grasping the wheel, and decided at once that these were not the eyes or the hands of a chicken hawk. "Maryland's beautiful this time of year. Beautiful."
Constantine nodded. "Today was a nice one. I was down at Chesapeake Beach this morning, looking out at the bay." He had sat there on a bench, in fact, for several hours, staring out at the sun-whitened water, the bay at that point expansive as the ocean.
"You from down this way?" the old man said.
"Where you coming from?"
Constantine stretched his legs, watched the trees blur by. "I was in Annapolis for a couple of days. Had a line on a job there."
"What kind of work?"
"Driving a man around town. A man who had money. A little bit of caretaking, too. That sort of thing."
"A driver, huh?" The old man looked Constantine over, then returned his eyes to the road. "Didn't work out?"
Constantine checked the old man's windbreaker, his worn Wranglers. "Let's just say the guy wore pants with whales on 'em, wore his sweaters tied around his neck. The old-money-and-marina crowd. It wasn't my stick." He sighed, squinted, and drummed the dash with his fingers. "Hitched out of Annapolis this morning, ended up in Chesapeake. I picked up a map there and saw that I was headed into a dead end. Here I am, looking to get out."
The old man took one hand off the wheel and stretched it to the right. Constantine shook it.
"My name's Polk."
"I knew a Constantine once. A Greek."
"I'm not Greek."
Polk kept on: "Course his own people never called him Constantine. They called him Dean, some of 'em called him Dino. But I always called him Connie, and he didn't seem to mind. You don't mind if I call you Connie, do you?"
Constantine said, "I don't mind."
Polk barked a cough into his hand, then rubbed phlegm off along the leg of his Wranglers. "You wouldn't happen to have a smoke on you, would you, Connie?"
Constantine reached into the breast pocket of his denim shirt and retrieved a thin pack. He pulled out a Marlboro, handed it to Polk, and crushed the empty pack in his fist.
Polk waved. "I don't want to take your last one."
"I can get more," Constantine said. "Take it."
Polk shrugged and flipped the filter between his teeth as he pushed the lighter into the dash. The lighter popped half a minute later and Polk fired the smoke. "You like the car?" he said.
"Yeah," Constantine said. "I like it."
"It's not the quickest one Dodge made. They had a six-pack version that year—"
"I know. Four-forty Magnum V-eight with three Holley carbs. The big scoop on the hood, though, it attracted too much heat. Anyway, this three eighty-three—it'll do."
"That it will." Polk gave Constantine an admiring glance. He dragged deeply on the cigarette and said through the exhale, "So, where you headed?"
Polk chuckled. "South's a direction, son. I mean, where you headed?"
Constantine said, "Just south."
For a minute or so there was only the sound of the big engine, and the wind jetting into the car. Polk tried again: "I didn't mean to pry. But the reason I was asking, see, it happens that I'm heading south as well. Florida to be exact. Thought maybe we'd head that way together."
Constantine looked over at Polk. The old man talked too damned much, but he was all right. Constantine liked him a little bit; at least he liked him enough to share the ride. "That would be good," he said, pushing his hair behind his ear, settling into the bench seat.
Later, when Constantine walked toward the big brick house, the Beat in his head, the grip of the .45 warm in his hand, the siren wailing in the night at his back, he would think that the whole thing started on that road, with the car stopping for his upturned thumb. He would think that the things that happened to a man were put in motion by something just that small, that random. He would think about that, and he would laugh. But he would keep walking.
"I've got to make one stop, Connie," Polk said, "just above Dunkirk. A man there owes me some dough, and I want to collect. Okay?"
Constantine nodded lazily and closed his eyes. He was listening to the purr of the 383, and thinking of the fine free feel of the wind.
Somewhere north of Dunkirk Polk turned off Route 4 and drove down a two-lane blacktop heavily wooded on both sides. The woods broke on the right to an open field bordered by a split-rail fence. Constantine noticed a stable with one black horse grazing just outside its entrance. The field ended and then there were more woods, though the fence continued along the road. After a while the woods ended again to another stretch of open land, where a large brick colonial sat back a hundred yards at the end of a long asphalt drive. Polk slowed the Dodge and pulled off, stopping in front of a black iron gate bookended by two brick columns. He killed the engine and turned to Constantine.
"This shouldn't take long," Polk said. "Want to get out?"
"Okay," Constantine said. "I gotta take a piss."
They opened the doors and exited the car. Constantine unzipped his jeans and urinated into the gravel of the berm, watching Polk walk toward the gate. The old man had a deep limp, and Constantine noticed the creased toe area of his left shoe. It flapped sloppily with each step, as if it had been filled with something less substantial than bones and flesh. Constantine zipped his fly, adjusted his denim shirt, and walked onto the asphalt drive where he joined Polk at the gate.
Polk pressed a buzzer set beneath a speaker on the left brick column, keeping his eyes on the house. Constantine noticed a broad figure move into the frame of the wide second-story window that was centered above the front door and its stone portico. The figure held a pair of binoculars to its face, then disappeared. Some time passed and then a voice came from the box above the buzzer.
"Yeah?" the voice crackled.
The old man looked into the box. "Polk, here to see Grimes."
"What can I do for you, Polk?"
"I'm here to see Grimes, Valdez. Tell him, and open the gate."
"He's not in."
"Tell him, Valdez."
There was no reply. Constantine listened to the wind rustle the leaves on the trees across the road.
The Latin-tinged voice came back, its inflection stirring a faint recollection in Constantine of the Mexicans he had known in the kitchens and bars south of Los Angeles.
"Wait there, Pops."
Some chuckling on the other end, and then the box went dead. Polk's face, his jaw set hard during the entire conversation, did not change.
Constantine patted his breast pocket where his pack of smokes should have been. He looked down the road at the split-rail fence that fell from view at the next curve, and he looked back at the squat brick pillars and the electronic gate. He wondered, Why the gate, when you could just hop the low wooden fence, or drive through it if you had some weight beneath the hood? He stopped wondering when he heard the front door of the house open and shut.
Two men in black suits walked slowly out toward three black cars—a Mercedes, an Olds 98, and a Cadillac—that were parked at the circular end of the asphalt drive. One of the men was tall and heavy. The other looked to be of average height, and skinny. They got into the Cadillac, the skinny man slipping in on the driver's side. He started the car but let it run for a couple of minutes before he slopped the trans into reverse. Constantine thought that they could have walked quicker down the driveway. He shifted his feet as the Caddy rolled slowly toward the gate.
The driver stopped the car ten feet shy of the gate and touched his hand to the visor. The gate opened in, just clearing the front bumper. The engine continued to idle as the heavy one and the driver got out of the car.
Polk did not move up to meet them. They stopped walking two feet shy of Constantine and Polk, keeping their eyes on Polk. Both of them wore black ties tightly knotted into white button-down collars, with scuffed black oxfords on their feet. The heavy one had a wide brown face and a black mustache, the hairs long and thin, like the whiskers of a cat. His shirt gapped at the belly, and his neck rolled like chicken fat off both sides of his collar. But it would be a mistake to judge him as soft in any sense of the word—Constantine could see the hard bow in his chest, the callused solidity of his meaty hands, and the lazy, uncentered look of his black eyes.
The heavy one said, "It's three o'clock in the afternoon, Pops. You know what that means?"
Polk didn't answer or nod. Constantine figured from the accent that the one doing the talking had been the voice on the box, the one Polk had called Valdez.
"'A Lifetime of Love,'" Valdez said. "Every day I forget all the shit and I sit down in front of the TV set and watch this show. Today is a special show, see, one I been waiting for. This guy they call Taurus, he's the international spy, for a month now he's been trying to nail this brunette, a real piece of ass by the way, like all the ones they get to fall in love with Taurus, before they leave the show to make it in the movies. Personally I figure the guy likes it up the ass in real life, on account of he's an actor, but I root for him to get laid anyway, and today I figure he's gonna nail the brunette. And I been waiting for this to happen, like I say, for a month."
Polk said, "So?"
The skinny one laughed through his nose, the lines deepening on his long, gray face. A gust of wind caught the lapels of his jacket then, blowing them back to reveal the black butt of an automatic wedged into a loosely hung, brown leather shoulder holster. Constantine tried to remember if any cars had passed on the road since they had stopped at the gate.
"So," Valdez said, "I'm a little pissed off with you right now, Pops. You're making me miss my show, all because now we gotta do this dance, even after I told you over the radio box here that Grimes ain't in."
Polk nodded toward the two remaining cars parked in front of the house. "His Ninety-Eight's in. He's in."
"So I'm a liar, then," Valdez said, his eyes getting small. "Is that it?"
"Yes," Polk said evenly. "You're a liar."
Valdez whipped his right hand out and struck Polk's chest with the flat of his palm. Polk went down into the gravel of the shoulder, dust stirring into a cloud around him.
Constantine did not move toward Valdez or the skinny one, and he did not move to help the old man. Whatever this was about, it was Polk's affair. Constantine had taken bad rides before, from drunks, zipperheads, and old homosexuals, and he knew now that he had caught a bad ride today. But the bad parts of those other rides had always passed, and if he stayed where he was, cool and alone, then this bad thing would pass as well.
Polk put his weight on his good foot and stood up straight. He brushed gravel and dust off his windbreaker and Wranglers and walked back toward Valdez without emotion. Through all of it the skinny man had not moved, and neither he nor Valdez had looked directly at Constantine.
"You can keep pushing me," Polk said, "but I'm going to see Grimes. He owes me money."
Valdez laughed shortly as he flicked some loose skin off the bridge of his blunt nose. "You were right, Pops. I lied. And Mr. Grimes told me you wouldn't go away. So he said for you to come back early tomorrow. We'll have a big meeting, talk about your money and maybe a lot more. Ten o'clock. Okay?"
Polk said, "Tell him to have the twenty grand ready, ten A.M."
Polk turned and limped back toward the Dodge. Constantine followed, heading for the passenger side.
Valdez spoke to their backs: "By the way, who's your sidekick?"
Polk answered, kept walking. "My friend's name is Constantine."
The skinny man said, "Some friend."
Constantine slid into the car, their laughter trailing him like a dead leg. Polk got in and fired the engine, reversing the Dodge onto the two-lane without a word. He threw it in drive and headed down the road.
Valdez and the skinny man, who was called Gorman, watched the Dodge take the curve and disappear. They walked to the Caddy and got in, Gorman closing the gate with a touch to the gadget clipped onto the visor. He turned the car around without going off the asphalt and drove slowly back toward the house.
Valdez said, "Step on it, man. I want to catch the end of 'A Lifetime of Love.' I swear to Christ, I been waiting all month for Taurus to nail that brunette. Fuckin' Polk."
Gorman gave the Cadillac some gas. "What's with the twenty grand?"
"Ancient history," Valdez said. "A job we did six years ago. The old man, he's a hard dick, he comes by every coupla years for this money he says Grimes owes him. We always send him on his way."
"What about tomorrow?"
"Grimes wants to put him on the Uptown job. He's a gimp, but he's a good gun."
"What if he don't wanna go out on the Uptown job?"
"I don't know," Valdez said. "Grimes is getting tired of him. I think maybe this time, the old man pushes it too far, Grimes is gonna have me kill him."
Gorman yawned, then rubbed his cheek. "His friend's got weird eyes, like he don't give two shits about nothin'. You notice?"
Valdez said, "I noticed."
"What are you gonna do about him?" Gorman said.
Valdez shrugged. "If he makes me," he said, "I guess I kill him too."
Polk returned to Route 4 and headed northwest. Constantine glanced at the old man, who was grinning now, humming something through his teeth, as if he had not been threatened, as if fifteen minutes earlier he had not been pushed down into the dirt.
"Listen, Polk, about that back there—"
"Don't sweat it," Polk said. "That was acting. We're all a bunch of actors, understand? Anyway, you played it right."
Constantine watched the signs as they approached 301. He could take that south across the Potomac River Bridge into Virginia, maybe down into the Carolinas, maybe back to Murrells Inlet. He could do that and get away from this, right now.
"I'll get out up ahead," he said.
Polk smiled. "Don't give up on me yet, Connie. We'll swing back and pick up that money tomorrow morning, then shoot south. In the meantime, we'll just head on into D.C. for the night. I've got a girlfriend we can stay with, a swell girl by the name of Charlotte." Polk turned his head and winked at Constantine. "She's got girlfriends, too."
Constantine drummed his fingers on the dash as they passed across 301. The traffic had thickened, and the air had lost its green smell. "Washington—I don't think so, Polk."
Polk looked at Constantine's dour expression, his slightly pale face. "What the hell's wrong with you, son? We drive into town, we spend the night, we're gone in the morning. You can count on it."
"It's no big deal," Constantine said without conviction.
"So what's the problem?"
"There isn't any, I guess. It's just"—Constantine cleared his throat—"I was raised in D.C., understand? And I haven't been back in seventeen years."
Polk and Constantine drove in silence for the next few miles. Finally Polk looked across the bench. "We don't have to go in," Polk said. "Not if you don't want."
Constantine squirmed in his seat, pushed hair away from his face. "Fuck it, Polk," he said. "Just drive."
Polk grinned. "No big deal, right, Connie? We pick up the money in the morning, and then we drift south. That okay by you?"
"Sure," said Constantine. "Long as we keep drifting."
Long as we keep drifting.
That had been Constantine's sole conviction for the past seventeen years.
He had left home at eighteen, a summer graduate of a military high school academy, enlisting immediately for a four-year stint in the Marine Corps. He loathed both the order and the ridiculous concept of uniformed teenagers that marked his high school years, and had in fact possessed both the grades and the SAT scores for entrance into a moderately respectable liberal arts college. But he had enlisted in the corps partly because it was a free, stringless ticket out of the neighborhood, and specifically because it was against his father's wishes.
His father had said, in a rare display of emotion, that "only trash go into the service these days," and Constantine had said, "Is that all you've got to say about it? How about 'good luck'?" His father's only reply was, "You disgust me."
On the last night before he shipped out, Constantine stayed with his girlfriend, Katherine, whom he had met at the Catholic sister school dance the previous fall. They smoked from a bag of Colombian, drank cherry wine, and made love throughout the night on the hill that led to the woods bordering the neighborhood's elementary school. At dawn, Katherine promised to write every week. Constantine kissed her one last time and walked back to his house to get his gear.
His father was up in his own bedroom dressing for work. Constantine retrieved his duffel bag and sat in the dark stillness of the living room, waiting for his father to come downstairs and say good-bye. But his father did not come down the stairs, and after a while Constantine put the strap of the duffel bag across his shoulder and walked out into the street.
Later that day, his friends Mal and Gary, a couple of spent-heads, drove him to the airport in Mal's '68 Firebird, in part because Constantine said they could finish the rest of his weed before he got on the plane. This they did, and in what was to become an informal pattern, Constantine would desensitize himself with drugs and alcohol before departing for new pastures.
At the airport that day, Constantine bought a magazine from the newsstand. It was the month of October in 1975, and Constantine could always peg the date of his matriculation into boot camp, as at the time he was a mild Springsteen fan ("Kitty's Back" was his and Katherine's song), and Bruce was on the cover of both Time and Newsweek on the rack. Mal and Gary were Bachman-Turner Overdrive freaks, and they teased Constantine about "waxing off" on Bruce's photo in the plane's head. That was their way of saying good-bye, along with a weak promise to write. Of course, they did not write. As for Katherine, she wrote twice, and that was that.
Boot camp was Parris Island. Constantine felt mentally prepared for it—the sterility, the regimentation, even the waxen, brush-cut DIs—and the whole business was a bit of a relief from the morguish, airless atmosphere that had dominated his father's house. Vietnam had "ended" the previous April, so there was little danger of seeing any action, lending an unspoken element of relaxation to the proceedings.
The truth was, Constantine enjoyed that time. He learned to handle firearms and found he was something of a natural marksman. The drills made him hard and lean, and there was seldom time for thought. His relative contentment was not universal—often he would be awakened in the barracks by young men who talked achingly in their sleep, mostly to their mothers. But Constantine's mother had died long ago, and he neither thought nor dreamed of her. In fact, he never dreamed of anything at all.
For the most part, Constantine kept to himself, both at Parris Island and then at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He was not disliked, though at first his rather laconic presence was interpreted as snobbery by his fellow marines. Later, when Constantine began to box (a personal challenge for him that held no reward beyond the challenge itself), his quiet and sometimes terse demeanor would be seen as a kind of post-Beat cool. This newfound respect reached its apex when Constantine fought a young man named Montoya, a reputed middleweight with a steel forehead and a steel jaw. The fight was bet heavily on base, particularly by officers, and Constantine was later surprised to find that the bets were split fairly evenly. In the ring, the bout was active and bloody, and the stories about it circulated for months. He lost to Montoya (that steel forehead) but went the distance; it was his last fight in the service.
Constantine experienced the Beat the first time while stationed at Lejeune. He had gotten a weekend pass, and taken it with a friend named Stewart to Morehead City on the Carolina coast. The two of them had a mutual interest in cars—Stewart was a motorhead and a cracker, and looked the part of both—and that interest had brought them together. Once in Morehead, they found themselves drunk and womanless. Even in civilian clothes, they looked like soldiers, in a time when being a soldier was the least hip thing to be.
Somehow the two of them wound up walking in a residential district at three o'clock in the morning. Stewart had modestly walked to the side of a split-level house to urinate, and then they were both in the backyard of the house looking up at the lit second-story bedroom window, and minutes later one of them had turned the knob on the unlocked back door, and finally they were standing in the pitch-black basement of the house. Later, neither of them could explain or admit why they had walked into a random occupied house in a strange town and stood for fifteen minutes, without attempting to steal one thing, in its basement.
It was in the dark of that basement that Constantine felt what he would call the Beat. At first it had been a weakness of the knees, and then it had been the conscious counter-effort to control the adrenaline that told him to run. Stewart had succumbed to that part of it, tugging at Constantine's shirt, whispering urgently as they both heard the muffled voices above, the tentative steps of the home's residents padding toward their phone. But Constantine stayed in the house well after Stewart had left, and the adrenaline turned into a warm calm, a wash of power, and a distinct awareness of his sex. The Beat was knowing he was into something wrong, and the fear of it, and the point when the fear was no longer there. It was a hot buzz; it was in his jeans and his chest, and it was white hot in his head.
Constantine left the house calmly, walked down the street, and met Stewart at the corner. The cop cars came soon after that, sirenless and without cherries, but Constantine and Stewart were out of sight by then, lying beneath parked cars. Constantine felt the Beat once more as a searchlight passed across his folded arms, and then the cops were gone, and so was the Beat.
- On Sale
- Sep 17, 2013
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Little, Brown and Company