An Empty Grave...

Chapter 8: Drive!

We went into the house (I was already thinking of it as "the house" rather than "my house" or "home") through the garage since the front door had been nailed shut--I think by the firemen. Once the garage doors had been pulled open Eric simply stood and gazed at the car for a moment. "It's filthy," he said, accusation in his voice. "You should never let dirt stand on a finish like this. It's not good for it." He ran his hand gently over the fender.

"I think it's from the fire and the water," I said, a little defensively. I mean, I'd hardly been in a position to wash the car over the past ten days.

"You have the keys?" Eric asked, ignoring my tone. "I'd better make sure it's running okay before we put your stuff in it."

I hadn't even thought about the car key. Normally it'd be on the dresser in the bedroom where they got tossed, along with all the other junk in my pockets, when I changed. But of course the dresser no longer existed and my keys would be a charred mass. Rick had had a key, of course, but I had no idea at all where his keys had gotten to. I explained all this to Eric who remained remarkably calm. "I guess I could hot wire it, but I don't really want to," he said. "She needs to be driven as she was intended, not like she'd been abandoned."

We went upstairs so Eric could sift through the rubble in the bedroom and see if he could find and salvage the key. The kitchen looked eerily normal except for the slashed circles and "fag David" painted on the cabinet doors and the front of the refrigerator.

"Who cooked?" Eric asked, looking around.

"Both of us. It was something we liked to do together."

"You must've been serious about it. People who live on Spam and frozen pizza don't have a setup like this." His eyes swept the tan granite counters we'd put in. "Ah ha, and what's this?" He pointed to my briefcase which I'd laid on the counter when I came home that Friday night that seemed so long ago. My keys were sitting neatly on top. I guess I'd dropped them there before I went looking for Rick and Crash.

Eric took the keys and disappeared down the stairs to the garage. A moment later I heard the car purr to life, idle for a while and then shut down. Eric reappeared with a self satisfied grin. "Like a dream, David. She runs like a dream." I glanced at his crotch to see if he'd had an actual orgasm but there was no evidence of it. It must have been all mental.

The closet and dresser were so small that Rick and I had only been able to keep our work clothes in the bedroom; everything else had to be stashed in the den and bathroom. Everything stank of smoke, of course, but a couple of washings would take care of that. Eric stuffed the jeans and tee shirts and stuff that I pointed out into a couple of pillow cases, and that was it.

Downstairs Eric collected a dozen or so books I wanted, Crash's ball, Frisbee, stuffed squeaky mouse and her weighted, stainless steel food and water bowls. We found that my iPod still worked so I had to hunt around for the earphones. While I was doing that, Eric went through my CD collection. He pulled out six or seven and asked if he could borrow them. His taste surprised me: Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and, of all things, the Mahler Second. "This is supposed to be a much better performance than the one I have," he said of the Mahler. "I want to compare them."

I took my briefcase, too, although I didn't know why. Since I was dead it was unlikely that I was going back to work anytime soon.

When everything was stowed in the trunk Eric got me into the car and then carefully backed it out of the garage. When he closed the doors he snapped a new, formidable looking padlock on them. "Les's idea," he said as we backed into the street. "He has a thing about security."

Eric drove slowly, getting the feel of the car. At the bottom of Highland he turned into a filling station. "That right front is about four pounds low," he said, pulling up in front of the air and water station and getting out. Besides the four pounds of air he also put eleven gallons of fuel in the car.

The next stop was the car wash further down Highland. When the car came out of the water tunnel, Eric personally supervised the poor kid assigned to dry it off. Eric pointed out every smudge and missed spot on the finish, making the kid go back over them. They almost got into it when the kid attempted to take a squeegee to the windshield; Eric required hand drying of the glass as well as of the convertible top. When the kid held the door for me to get in all I could do was shrug and slip him a large tip. I'd had no idea that an adult could feel that strongly about a car. I mean, it's a beautiful thing and I spent a lot of time picking it out but it isn't my life.

By the time we'd gone back up to Melrose and gotten on the Hollywood freeway Eric and the car had become as one, each responding to the other with perfect understanding and common purpose. It was actually a beautiful thing to see; I settled back in the seat and watched, letting my mind drift as it wanted. When Eric began to speed up, slow down and then make quick lane changes I figured he was just playing with the car. No such luck.

"I think we have a problem."

"What's wrong?" I scanned the dashboard for flashing lights.

"Behind us." He nodded over his shoulder. "That eighty-seven or eighty-eight Ford station wagon. The ugly green one. It's been with us since Melrose, always three or four cars behind."

I felt a sudden jolt of fear but then logic took over. "Eric, there are thousands of cars behind us."

"But this one sticks there, just like glue. I slow down, he slows down. I speed up, he speeds up." Eric moved one lane to the right. "Let's just have one more little test."

Eric stayed to the middle as we approached the interchange and then, at the very last moment, he swung to the right, onto the Santa Ana freeway. The green Ford made the turn, bouncing over the white bars in the pavement and almost hitting an eighteen wheeler. Eric let out a low "shit."

I turned around on the seat as best I could but managed to get only a glimpse of the green Ford before a van pulled in behind us, blocking the view.

"Sit straight, will you, so I can see out that mirror." Eric's jaw was clenched in concentration. He alternately looked ahead and watched the mirror on my side of the car, studying the traffic behind us.

"Okay, buddy. If that's the way you want to play it..."

We sailed through the Santa Monica interchange, and hit the Pomona freeway exit in the wrong lane.

At the very last second he pulled in front of a bright pink van covered with red hearts and the words "Flowers by Anson" painted on the side. Anson stuck his head out the window and yelled something at us, giving us the finger. Eric ignored him.

He drove, eyes on all the mirrors, for a couple of miles and then took the San Gabriel Boulevard exit going north. At Garvey Street he spun into a McDonalds and parked, facing the street. "Where are you, ugly green Ford? On your way to Disney Land or just out there, coming up the street.

Then he turned to me. "You okay?" I nodded and let out the breath I hadn't known I was holding.

"You really think they were following us, don't you Eric?" I found my mouth was dry and had a bad taste in it.

"Don't you?"

"But who would want to do something like that?"

"I don't know, David, but I imagine it's someone who wants to know where you're going. Maybe someone who thought you were already gone."

Oh, Jesus.

The whole thing slowly took on a surreal quality, and I'd pretty well decided we must be imagining things. I mean, what are the chances of taking a drive down the Hollywood freeway, probably the most crowded freeway in Southern California, on exactly the right day and at exactly the right time to spot the guy you thought you murdered a week ago? Ninety nine zillion to one, those are the chances.

Eric glanced at his watch, compared it to the car's digital clock and smiled, evidentially pleased that they were in sync. "You hungry? If you are we can eat here, but if you can wait I know a great little pizza place in Montclair, just this side of the airport. Maybe an hour down the road."

I figured that hour would give me a chance to get my stomach pushed back down where it should be. "Sure, I can wait. And I love pizza."

"Man after my own heart, Davy. Pizza it is."

And good pizza it was, too. Especially with a couple of good, cold beers. I could tell Eric wanted a beer too, but he stuck with iced tea saying he could never endanger that car by being impaired while driving it. As an afterthought he said, "Or you either."

After lunch we got back on the San Bernardino freeway, heading for Palm Springs. "God, I love this car," Eric said patting the steering wheel the way I pat Crash sometimes, when she's been an especially good dog.

I was badly shaken this time. I'd actually seen the car when we were on the Santa Monica interchange and I knew it was the same one we'd seen earlier. At least, both cars had broken radio antennas that had been replaced by bent wire coat hangers. And both were bent the same way, into a square instead of a diamond shape the way most people do. Somebody really was... what? Tracking me? Stalking me? But why? Nobody but Eric, Les, Dr. Langford, and Mrs. Freeze even knew I was alive.

I spent the rest of the drive acting like a paranoid, checking the side mirror every five seconds and then twisting around in the seat to look back and make sure the mirror wasn't lying. I don't know what I'd have done if a green car had come up behind us but of course none did. In fact, since Eric was driving as though he was trying to catch up with the first place car at Le Mans, no car of any color came up behind us. Still, I checked.

By the time we got to Les's, I felt a little better, but I still felt dangerously close to the edge of panic. It didn't help any that I couldn't find Crash right away. We finally found her in the back yard, sitting at the base of the big grapefruit tree, so totally focused on one of the lower branches that she hadn't heard us come in. My first thought was that she'd treed Tux but it turned out to be a large squirrel that probably lived in the tree anyway.

By the time Crash had been greeted and my stuff had been taken into Les's guest room--a room I had begun to think of as `my room'--it was a little after seven o'clock and Dr. Langford arrived. She knew right away that something was wrong. Eric filled her in while I sat at the table and worried.

When Eric finished, Susan turned to me and raised on eyebrow, asking if that's what really happened. When I nodded she thought for a moment and then said, "This thing seems to be getting out of hand. I wonder if maybe it isn't time to make a clean breast of it. To the authorities, I mean."

Eric and I shook out heads at the same time. "Can't now," Eric said. "I mean, those guys obviously know Dave here is alive, but what they don't know is where he is." I offered up a silent prayer that this was true. "If he goes public..." He let the implication of that hang in the air for a while.

"I suppose you're right," Susan said with a sigh. "And actually I suppose he's as safe here as anywhere."

Eric laughed. "With Les's security system? He's safer here than he would be sitting on Chief Jeandron's lap." He dismissed the subject with a shrug and stood up. "You better get to what you have to do. I'm going out and rinse the dust off the car."

Susan changed my bandages and went over my wounds, seeming pleased with the way they were healing. She gave me a set of mild exercises to do and said that I might be able to put some weight on the left leg in another week or two. She also gave me a couple of pills which she said would help if I had trouble relaxing enough to get to sleep.

Just as she was packing up her things Eric came in and asked if she'd be staying for supper. "That's awfully tempting," she said, "knowing how well you cook. But I can't. I'm giving a little talk at the County Medical Society meeting so I get a free plate of tepid rubber chicken and overdone broccoli. Thanks anyway, though." With that she was out the door.

"Well, I guess it's just me and you then," he said. Crash gave a soft bark and Eric reached down and scratched her behind the ears. "Yes, and you too, doggy. Come on, lets us go see what we can find in the kitchen."

It was a good dinner but I didn't pay it the attention it deserved. I was still very shaken, and I couldn't seem to keep my mind on any one thing for very long. Finally I apologized to Eric, took one of the pills Dr. Langford had left for me, and went to bed. I wasn't even aware when Crash called it a night and jumped up on the bed.


Comments always appreciated and always answered.

Greg Bowden