The Taconic Parkway
New York State
Wednesday, June 21
It’s the first day of summer, New York State — a hot clear sun and the trees all greening out under a sky as blue as Bombay gin — this hard case named Pike — Earl V. Pike — he’s doing ninety in a big navy-blue Benz 600, northbound in the cruise lane of the Taconic, listening to a tape of African drums, has it cranked up so loud the windows are vibrating — it doesn’t bother him because his hearing is totally shot — too many years of small-arms fire popping off right next to his skull. The trees and the towns are just black-and-green blurs racing past his window, the incoming lane markers are hot yellow bars that make him think of tracer rounds. Pike is looking at his rearview mirror again, he’s been checking it every few seconds, thinking very hard about a black GMC truck, windows tinted dark, hanging there in the cruise lane, rock steady, floating there like a big fat deerfly in the mirror, seven cars back. He speeds up, the Jimmy speeds up. He slows, the Jimmy slows. Earl Pike does not like this.
He takes a deep breath, lets it out slow, shifts his position. Under the blue dress shirt, plates of heavy chest muscle flex as he moves. He’s got five circular scars big as silver dollars stitched across his belly in an arc from right to left. He can feel them tug like fishhooks in the muscle. His blunt face is seamed and cracked, his white hair short, a military cut, and his hands on the leather-wrapped wheel are corded and thick, the forearms ropy, veined, bared to his rolled-up sleeves. He has the build of a guy who works against the weight of things, but he’s older now and the wear and tear is showing.
As he reaches the Gallatin exit brake lights flash on up ahead, hundreds of ruby lights against the forest green. The cars and vans back up fast and now he’s down to a crawl in a mile-long caravan of cars and trucks. He pulls to the right far enough to get a view up the parkway. All he can see is an endless chain of traffic. Some feckless mutt in a fender-bender, he figures, and then he sees the exit sign for Highway 82. Maybe he can flank this tangle, go north on the back roads, get onto the Taconic somewhere farther on. A man named Jack Vermillion was going to be at the Frontenac Hotel just outside of Albany in the early afternoon. Pike had a four-hour safety zone, but he was a meticulous man, and it has been his experience that the devil who lives in the details never sleeps.
Pike cuts the wheel of the Benz hard and bounces over the curb, accelerates up the ramp. As he reaches the top of the exit and comes to a stop, he sees the same black Jimmy pulling up quickly behind him, a brand-new SLT. It’s up too close for him to get the plates. The windshield is filled with a reflection of leafy branches from the trees all around them. All he can see through the tint are two vague shapes. He has no particular reason to be worried, but it’s an operational habit with him. He tended to notice things like that. The Jimmy has no signal on. Pike waits at the stop sign for a flatbed trailer to pass through and then signals a left turn onto 82 in the direction of Blue Stores. He watches the Jimmy’s lights and sees the turn signals come on. He’s also making a left.
Pike thinks some more about the black Jimmy as he pulls out onto Highway 82 and crosses over the Taconic. The northbound traffic on the parkway was jammed solid as far as he could see. He moves out fast, passing the flatbed in a quarter mile.
In a few minutes he’s far from the sound of the highway and traveling at a steady seventy down a two-lane blacktop that curves and twists over rolling countryside. The Jimmy has also passed the flatbed truck and is now a half-mile back, speeding, closing fast.
Pike keeps his left hand on the wheel and disconnects his seat belt, leans across the center console, flips open the glove compartment, pulls out a worn leather shaving kit, sets it down on the passenger seat. The Jimmy is now less than a hundred feet back.
He zips the kit bag open and lifts out a gray steel Smith and Wesson with his right hand, rebuckles his belt, and holds the Smith on his thigh. The Jimmy is now signaling a pass, so close to his bumper now that all he can see are headlights. There’s a flat stretch coming up fast, and then a long left curve running through a tree-lined section. There is no one else on the road. Pike lifts his foot off the accelerator, lets the Benz slow.
He can hear the Jimmy’s engine wind out as the driver guns it. The Jimmy pulls out and comes up beside him, the engine a dull roar through the thick glass of the Benz’s window. There’s movement up ahead, a pale-blue pickup pulling onto the highway. It makes a right turn that puts it directly into the path of the Jimmy. The driver floors it, gaining speed. The pickup truck coming in fast, the Jimmy parallel with his car now, Pike looks up at the passenger window, a shiny black screen, now rolling down, the blue pickup flashing its headlights, the driver punching the horn. Pike looks back up at the Jimmy. A young woman, blonde, maybe nineteen, her lips are moving, she’s swearing at him, her face bright red and her mouth twisted and ugly. Pike hits his brakes and opens up the lane, the Jimmy driver cuts the wheel hard, just catching the left front fender of the Benz as he cuts in front, and now Pike sees the Jimmy’s brake lights come on.
The suicidal son of a bitch. He locks up the Benz, the scene bright and clear in his mind, his heart rate steady, no panic. There’s a pale-blue streak at his left shoulder and he hears the horn on the pickup blaring as it goes by. Fifty feet ahead the Jimmy is now pulling away, the driver’s arm is coming out of the window, the fuck-you finger raised, and Pike gets the New Jersey plate number — IMA DV8 — “I’m a deviate”? — but now the Jimmy’s brake lights come on again, and he sees smoke coming from the tires — it veers and comes to a full stop in the middle of the highway. Pike hits the brakes harder, his shaving kit flies into the passenger well, the Smith comes off his lap, lands with a thump beside the brake pedal. He brings the car to a halt less than four feet off the Jimmy’s tailgate.
The driver’s door pops open and a young man wearing a white tank top and tan slacks jumps out of the truck and comes back toward the Benz. His head is shaved and his body packed to bursting with muscle and sinew, a bony Italian face swollen with anger. He comes jogging in, much too fast for Pike to get out of the car and deal with him. As the man clears the left fender, he kicks the Benz hard and Pike hears glass shattering. The man — no older than nineteen or twenty — reaches the side window of the Benz, slams it hard with the flat of his hand. The Benz rocks from the blow. Pike locks eyes with the kid, who leans down into the window space and screams directly onto the glass, his breath clouding on it. Pike sees that the man has several of his rear molars capped, around his thick neck there’s a gold chain with a scapular medal of Saint Christopher hanging on it. The kid’s eyes are very blue, although his skin is olive and his shaved head is tinged with black bristles. His mouth is as ugly as the girl’s. Pike isn’t really listening to the words. He’s busy processing a tactical shift. This is just a random contact with a civilian. This has nothing to do with his work. It looks like the kid has convinced himself that the near miss was Pike’s fault, and is now communicating his displeasure to Pike using all the hip-hop gangster slang his sluggish cortex can process. This element of the contact pisses Pike off. Was this fool so degraded he couldn’t even curse in his own fucking idiom? How did nigger thugs get to dominate the insult landscape in America? Pike feels his temper starting to slip some cables.
He watches the veins pulsing in the kid’s neck. The kid is likely a lifter or some kind of jock and could be in the middle of some sort of steroidal episode. Or he is just a complete asshole. Pike is making a concerted effort to leave the kid alone. He has business to take care of at the Frontenac. He has no time for this jerk. Just move away, he is saying to himself, almost like a prayer. The kid sees his lips forming words, steps back, kicks out at the glass. His sandal slips on the tarmac, he falls on his ass. Hard. This does not improve his mood in any visible way. Pike watches him spring up, approach the car again. This is bullshit, Pike is thinking.
He’ll give the boy one more chance. He knows exactly where the pistol is, down by the brake pedal. One more kick and it’s a nine-mill head canoe coming right up and the carnival band plays a requiem for this buffed-out moron. Then ten minutes for the blonde with the ugly mouth. Maybe less. The kid has more to say, he says it some more, but no more kicks seem to be in the works. The boy is breathing very hard now. He makes another war face at Pike, shakes himself like a dog coming out of the water, walks away, glaring over his shoulder at Pike. Pike, maybe for amusement, at any rate against his own better judgment, gives him a finger-flutter wave, a big happy smile.
The kid stops so fast he skids on his sandals, comes back toward the front windshield, leans far over the hood, works his throat and mouth for a few seconds, and spits onto the glass, directly over Pike’s face. Now there’s a shrill call, and the kid turns away. The blonde girl is out of the car, yelling at him.
He looks back down at Pike, makes a kissy face, and walks away with his shoulders rolling and his arms spread out so Pike can see how big his deltoids are. Pike watches through the dribble of lumpy brown and yellow spit running down the windshield as the kid gets back into the Jimmy and slams the door so hard dust bounces off the roof. The blonde looks at Pike blankly for another few seconds and then she gets back inside the truck, the Jimmy’s engine roars and the tires smoke, and the truck accelerates away from the Benz.
Pike looks down at his watch. The whole incident has taken less than two minutes. The ribbon of greasy mucus reaches the wiper blade. He flicks on the blade and a pale amber smear tinged with red blood and solid matter spreads across the windshield. He presses the spray button and watches as the blades work back and forth. The Jimmy is now a quarter mile away, moving very fast, snaking through a tree-lined avenue toward a crest of hill.
In a little while the windshield is almost clear of the boy’s spit. Pike stops the blades, sits for another twenty seconds, listening to the engine muttering and burbling. He hears a deep brassy wail and sees the flatbed trailer coming up behind him. The wall of wind it’s pushing rocks the Benz on its springs. Pike watches the flatbed grow smaller in the distance. Something spidery twitches in his left cheek. He sighs deeply, collects his Smith and the kit bag from the floor wells, puts the Smith carefully back inside the kit bag, replaces the bag in the glove compartment, closes the latch very gently. Then he puts the Benz in gear, lets out another deep breath, and now he feels something feathery and light moving on his upper lip.
He leans forward to look at his reflection in the rearview mirror. A tiny spot of ochre-red is moving downward from his left nostril. As he watches, the dot changes direction and begins to crawl sideways across his upper lip. Another tiny red dot crawls out of his right eye, very near the tear duct, and moves over the bridge of his nose. Then another. The car begins to roll forward. Pike closes his eyes, presses hard on the brake, the Benz lurches to a stop.
More tiny red spiders crawl across the insides of his lids, black silhouettes against the sun glare. They float in his vision, a constellation of pinpricks. They begin to pour out of his ears. He can feel them in their thousands as they race across his skull. He opens his eyes and studies his face in the rearview mirror. Nothing. Still, they are there. This is a thing he knows. He can feel them, thousands of them, a tide of little red spiders the size of pinpoints, crawling along the dome of his skull, moving in steady columns under his skin.
Pike had been told by men he respected — army shrinks at the rehab center in Bethesda — that the spiders weren’t real, that they were a kind of post-traumatic stress reaction to the thing that happened in Ecuador, but right now he still has to deal with the distraction they present. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a plastic container of small orange-and-blue caplets, pops the lid, dry-swallowing two, and then two more. They go down slowly, scraping at his throat: he wishes for water. The Jimmy reaches the crest and disappears. Two more minutes pass. He takes his foot off the brake, exhales and then inhales, rubs the bullet wounds in his belly, and presses down hard on the gas. In less than fifteen seconds he’s doing eighty miles an hour, and ninety by the time he clears the crest of the hill and comes down onto the straightaway on the far side. The flatbed trailer is up ahead.
He tops ninety as he overtakes it and now he sees the black Jimmy far up the road. It’s just a tiny little spot in the hazy blue distance, no bigger than a spider, but at this point it has filled up Earl Pike’s mind completely.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Black Water Transit by Carsten Stroud. Copyright © 2001 by Carsten Stroud. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.