It was still dark when Mateo Quinones left Reno with a dead hooker in the trunk of his Caddy. He’d gassed up the car the previous evening so he could get an early start. He hoped to make Salina, Utah by nightfall. He had plenty of time, but he would have to stop along the way to dispose of the body.
He probably should have gotten a truck, something with four wheel drive, something he could get off the road with to do this bit of business, but he liked the black Cadillac CTS with its big motor, its angular form, its trunk where he could keep things like dead hookers hidden from prying eyes. Besides, a Mexican in a pick-up truck was just another fruit picker looking for work. A Mexican in a Cadillac? That was a different story.
The hooker had been an afterthought, but probably inevitable given the fat wad of cash with which he was leaving town. That and his dark predilections. The boys from Xalisco who ran his crew had given him $40 thousand in cash and a half dozen bricks of black tar to get himself set up in Florida. He was supposed to be in Fort Myers in five days. Meanwhile his good fortune seemed to call for a little celebration.
There was another Xalisco crew already at work in Florida, establishing a customer base of former Oxycontin users who were easily enamored of the cheaper and more potent balloons of under-processed heroin. Mateo was going to set up a new base in West Palm Beach.
The money and drugs weren’t a gift. They were a loan. He’d have to pay them back with interest. After that he’d be on his own, an independent business owner well on his way to getting rich if he was careful. He’d made enough in Reno to buy the CTS outright, and that was just from making deliveries.
So, with the Caddy loaded and the cash and bricks stuffed in a gym bag, Mateo had set out to have a little fun on his last night in Reno. He’d found a gringo bitch in a seedy little bar where no one knew him. She didn’t mind being with a Mexican, especially after she saw the Cadillac. He had already rented a motel room, cash in advance. The hooker wanted her money up front too, and Mateo thought it was comical how she walked around with her arm hooked in his like they had something going on between them when they both knew it was about the money.
When they got in bed, she wanted to get right to work. Mateo wasn’t in such a hurry. He liked foreplay. Good foreplay made it so confusing for them when he finally got around to showing them what he really liked. When she started to get impatient, rolling her eyes and sighing like he was going to bust her bank for the evening by trying to be romantic, he asked her if she’d mind being tied up a little.
She acted like she didn’t want to do it, but he figured she’d come around. She was just working him for more money. He put another hundred on the night stand next to the bed. She smiled when he tied her wrists and ankles to the bed frame. She stopped smiling when he pressed the duct tape over her mouth. That was right before he started choking the life out of her.
Mateo liked watching them die. He particularly liked that moment when they realized that they were going to die and they got this look in their eyes, this wide-eyed, pleading look to make him understand that they would do anything, anything, if he would just let them live. Of course by that time, they were already doing the one thing he really wanted them to do.
There was another look when they figured that part out, a kind of surrender to the inevitable, a resignation of will. That’s when he would let them take another breath, get back to that pleading attitude he loved so much. After a few times, they understood that too was just part of the process. The thing they never seemed to grasp was just how long he wanted it all to last.
With the puta in the trunk, it had taken about three hours. It could have been more leisurely and pleasurable, but Mateo knew he had to get up early so he’d cut his fun short. He had folded the hooker’s lifeless form into a big canvas duffel and stuffed her clothes and her phone and the ropes he’d tied her up with in there as well. He didn’t bother to take the tape off her mouth. He’d carried the duffel out to the car and stuffed it into the trunk. The shovel he’d need to bury her was already there. Then he got back in the bed and went to sleep.
Mateo took Interstate 80 out of Reno to Fernley. From there he dropped down to U.S. 50 to continue the journey across Nevada toward Utah. The Nevada Bureau of Tourism had decided to embrace the name, ‘loneliest road in America,’ in the hopes of drawing vacation traffic to other places in the state besides Vegas and Reno. They’d posted signs all along the route to herald their self-deprecating sense of irony. The appellation was apt enough. Once he got into the middle reaches of the state, Mateo knew that traffic would be sparse and mostly local. This suited him just fine. There would be plenty of chances to pull off the road along the way to dispose of his grisly cargo.
He found his place about eight miles south of Eureka. An old mining road jutted off the main highway into the ubiquitous scrub land. He bounced over the eroded gravel track until it dipped into an arroyo. The sides of the wash, indeed everything but the dried creek bed itself, were dotted with sagebrush and shadescale. Mateo parked the car behind a low hill where it could not be seen from the highway. He opened the trunk and heaved the duffel out onto the ground. He used the shovel to scrape a shallow depression into the hillside between two shrubs. The extensive spread of the root systems, essential to desert plants, made a deeper hole impossible. He managed two feet, and decided that would be enough. It was unlikely that the body would be found anytime soon, even if he left it on top of the ground. Best to be cautious though.
He dragged the duffel into the hole he had made, covered it with the sandy dirt, and piled on as many rocks as he could find in the immediate vicinity. When he was satisfied that the grave was as good as he could make it, he wiped down the shovel and carried it a hundred yards down the arroyo where he hurled it as far as he could into the scrub. Then he returned to his car, rinsed his hands with a bottle of water, and ate a sandwich that he had bought at a convenience store in Eureka.
Back on the highway he pointed the car south and east. The rest of his journey would be long and dull, but he was glad to have this one task out of the way. He still had a mountain of cash and too many bricks of tar heroin in the car to feel at ease, but being rid of the corpse was a relief. He would pick up Interstate 70 in Western Utah and stay on it through Denver and Topeka to St. Louis. There he would pick up 24 through Nashville to Chattanooga and Interstate 75 through Atlanta and all the way to Fort Myers.
Jack’s ex-wife called. “Robert’s got a problem with Jill’s car. You need to call him.”
“Nice to hear from you too,” Jack said.
“Don’t start with me, Jack. He’s got a problem. I told him I’d call you.”
“Start with you? You launch right into the trauma of the week without so much as a ‘Hi, how are ya’, and I’m starting with you? Give me a break, Bev. Why can’t Robert call me himself?”
“Because you’re so unapproachable, Jack. Everything is a hassle with you. Everyone’s got to live up to your expectations. He’s afraid to talk to his own father, afraid you’re going to judge him instead of helping him.”
“When have I ever not helped him? When have I ever not done what needed doing?”
“That’s just it, Jack. You do it because you have to, and you let everyone know it. He’s your son. Help him because you love him.”
She was right of course, not that he’d give her the satisfaction of agreeing. He’d always had trouble relating to people, especially his own son. Robert had made him nervous almost from the moment he was born. The bundled source of so much joy and affection for the rest of the family had filled Jack with an overwhelming sense of inadequacy.
He’d sucked it up, filled the void where love should be with hard work and responsibility. He’d done his best under the circumstances—made a life of ease and privilege for his family, provided structure, guidance, and opportunity for them. It had always seemed just shy of ideal though. Something was always missing that Jack couldn’t quite put his finger on, and in the end, it had tipped his little family over into a realm of brokenness and divorce that he had never imagined would be his lot.
“I do love him,” he said. “That’s why I do what I have to. You’ve never given me credit for that.”
“If you believe that, you’re just fooling yourself,” Bev said. “I don’t think you’re even capable of love. Not the unconditional kind that parents have for their children or husbands for wives. Not the real thing. You think about that if you have to. Then call Robert.”
So there it was. A challenge to improve. Be better. Do better. Would he? Probably not. That would mean peeling back layers of ennui to confront the chafing malaise at the core of his being, or worse, listening to Bev’s analyst’s guess as to what was wrong with him.
He knew what was wrong. What was wrong couldn’t be fixed. What he’d do instead was put on an acceptable version of himself, wrap himself up in a familial concern that was as alien to him as a sequinned evening gown, and call Robert in drag. He’d pretend. It wouldn’t solve anything, but it would be way easier than being himself.
Robert’s problem turned out to be not a problem at all, but Jack already suspected that. He couldn’t say it though because Bev had put him on notice that his son thought he was hard to talk to.
Robert and his wife, Jill, were expecting their first child. They needed to get Jill a new car, and they needed to do it pretty soon. She was due in a few weeks. If the baby was early…well they just might not be able to get it all handled to Robert’s satisfaction. Jill had driven her present car, a little Japanese import, since she was in college. It needed some work. Robert didn’t have time to see to it. He was a fledgling lawyer in a pressure-cooker litigation firm downtown. He didn’t have time to deal with stuff like this. He was working 100-plus hours a week. Jack knew this much to be true because he’d done some consulting work for Robert’s firm. It was a sweatshop, although if you could survive to make partner you were pretty much assured an annual income somewhere north of a million bucks.
Robert was afraid they wouldn’t get what the car was worth if they didn’t get it fixed up a little. He didn’t want to leave any money on the table in a trade. Jack thought that was ridiculous. If the kid lost a couple of hundred bucks, who would really care? In another couple of years, Robert would be spending the price of a new car, and more, just to get his baby into the best private school he could find. Jack thought Robert was acting like a churl over nothing. In fact he wasn’t even sure what Robert expected him to do about it.
“I can give you some money if that will help,” he offered.
“No, Dad. I don’t need your money,” Robert said.
Well at least he’s proud, Jack thought. “Then what do you want?” he asked.
“I want you to help me figure out how to get this done,” he said.
There was a whiny tinge to Robert’s voice that set Jack’s teeth on edge. It reminded him of Beverly. Jack didn’t think anything needed to be done. Trade the car in. Get what you can. Be done with it. That was the way to handle it in the real world, the world that Jack thought everyone ought to inhabit most of the time. That would only take care of Robert’s problem though, a problem that didn’t really even exist, except in Robert’s mind.
Jack’s problem, on the other hand, the one that would turn out to be real if he didn’t solve the problem Robert thought he had, that would be the one to worry about. That problem would be having to listen to Robert and his mother piss and moan for an eternity about how Jack was never available when someone needed him, how Jack was always ready to tell everybody what he thought they ought to be doing, but he wouldn’t ever just take care of something for his family just because they were family. Jack was not ready to face that shit. He would solve Robert’s imaginary problem.
“So how about I buy the car from you?” he said.
“You? What would you do with a little piece-of-crap car like Jill’s when you’ve got that big Audi sedan?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about getting something smaller to run around town, do errands and such,” Jack lied. “Gas is pushing $4.00 a gallon. I’m not getting as much consulting work as I used to. A little economizing would do me good. I’d keep the Audi, but only use it for occasions, meeting clients, stuff like that.”
“That’s crazy, Dad. The thing needs some cosmetic work too. It would probably embarrass you to be seen in it.”
“I don’t worry about stuff like that as much as I use to,” Jack said. “Besides, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll sell it. I’ve got the time to deal with it. I’ll give you whatever you tell me is fair. Then I’ll put my guy, Mike, on it. Get it fixed up. If I like it I’ll keep it. If not, Mike will see to it I don’t lose any money. Win. Win. What do you say?”
So it was done. Jack figured he’d probably lose less than the amount he’d have given Robert anyway. Everybody would feel like they got their due from him. At least Beverly wouldn’t be able to say anything. That in itself was worth three or four times what it was probably going to cost him.
Jack’s girlfriend, Jodie, came by that evening with takeout from a Tex-Mex place she liked. Jack didn’t care for Tex-Mex. Jodie knew that, but it didn’t seem to deter her from suggesting it every chance she got. By the time they were finished eating, the oil and the beans lay in Jack’s stomach like a stone and sapped all his energy for hours. Too bad for Jodie, since the balance of her plans for the evening apparently required him to be more vigorous than he felt.
She had to wake him up in front of the TV to get him into the bedroom. Then he fell asleep again while she was brushing her teeth. She woke him up again when she came to bed, and made him go through the motions, but it just wasn’t working for Jack. Jodie finally climbed on top of him and tried to get the job done herself before she gave up in frustration. She got a little pissy about it, Jack thought, especially since they had had more than one conversation about Jack’s food issues. Jodie wasn’t having any excuses.
“Really, Jack,” she said. “I do my best to be attractive. I’d think you’d show a little more interest.”
Jack didn’t want to talk about it. Even though he figured it to be mostly Jodie’s fault for setting him up to fail, it didn’t make him feel any better. Bottom line was things weren’t working for him like they ought. Knowing it was the food didn’t make him feel any better about the situation.
Eventually she got tired of trying to make him talk about their love life. He told her about Robert and the car deal. She was even more skeptical than Robert had been.
“Your going to drive around in a Japanese economy car?” she said. “That’s rich.”
“I don’t know why no one seems to think I’m capable of driving a small car. I used to drive a small car. It’s just like driving a big car, only smaller.”
“Suit yourself then,” she said, “but don’t expect me to ride in it.”
The more he had to defend himself, the more determined he was that he was going to make it work. Sometimes he thought it would be better to just be the prick everyone thought he was rather than always trying to be the good guy and getting himself into these impossible situations. It wasn’t that he couldn’t please everybody. He couldn’t please anybody…not even himself.
The following morning he called his mechanic, Mike, to get the car picked up from Robert’s place and worked on. He’d been using Mike for years, and trusted his judgment in all things automotive.
Mike was more than just a mechanic to Jack. They had gone to high school and played varsity football together. Jack was a running back and Mike an offensive lineman. The day they met, Mike had knocked him on his ass in a scrimmage. Then he’d helped him up and swatted him on the butt. They’d become friends after that, and Mike’s size and surprising agility had helped propel Jack to a modest stardom his senior year. All he’d had to do was follow Mike through the holes he made in the defense.
When they’d graduated, Mike joined the Army and then went to trade school. Jack had gone to University. Neither of them played football after that, but they had remained friends. Jack had been helpful when Mike wanted to open his own garage, and he still gave him occasional investment advice. In return Mike took care of Jack’s cars like they were his own.
After Mike had the car at his garage, he called to discuss what Jack wanted done with it. Mike was more enthusiastic than anyone else had been so far.
“You know this thing’s a turbo with all-wheel-drive,” he said on the phone.
“I don’t even know what that means,” Jack said.
“Yes you do.”
“Okay. Yeah I do, but I’m not sure how that affects me. I’m just doing my son a favor. I’ll probably end up selling the thing anyway.”
“Well here’s the deal, Jack,” Mike said. “The kids love this car. It’s fast as hell right out of the crate. There are a lot of things they can do to it to boost performance. Because of the all-wheel-drive, it’s quick off the line. Makes it a good street racer.”
“Great. I’m going to sell it to some kid who will then have more horsepower than sense. Like as not, he’ll kill me on the streets.”
“Good one, Jack. You’re in top form today. You getting laid regular?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Look, all I’m saying is you can do this cheap, and lose a couple of hundred bucks…or you can spend way more than you think you should, and have something that’s fun to drive and goes like a bat. You’re probably gonna lose some money, but you always wanted a hot car. I remember you talking about it back in high school. Thought it would help you with the girls as I remember.”
“Yeah, I’m serious. You’ve got more money than anybody else I know. Put some of it into a thing you always wanted to do. Live a little.”
So Jack gave Mike free reign on the car. When he delivered the finished product, he brought a bill for $22,500.
“Goddammit, Mike, that’s as much as the thing cost new!”
Mike beamed. “Yeah, but it’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Jack had to admit that it looked pretty good. It didn’t look like anything he’d drive, but it looked pretty good. It was low and menacing with wide tires and a metallic plum paint job that looked as if you could fall into it. Thank God for a mid-life crisis, he thought to himself. Lets you get yourself talked into all kinds of crazy shit. Oh well.
He took it out for a drive on Saturday. Mike had been right about several things. It went like a bat, and the kids loved it. Teenage boys in cars with big rims and loud exhausts would nod as he passed or rev their engines next to him at stoplights. Carloads of high-school girls out cruising the boulevards for boys and fun would slow down to check him out. He guessed they must be thinking they had found themselves a live prospect when they saw the tricked-out little car. Then, when they caught sight of his salt and pepper temples, their hands would flutter up to their mouths to stifle their giggles. He would just grin and wave. Stupid perhaps, but not unpleasant. He decided he liked the car. It would be ridiculous for him to keep it. That’s what everyone would say. Ridiculous. That alone made it worth thinking about.