Authors: Robert Swartwood
Traffic continued to rush by on the highway, this time a tractor-trailer that sounded like it was shifting gears. The dog, which had been barking this entire time, was now silent.
The cop stood there for a moment, considering, then clicked off the flashlight. From the light of the oncoming cars, I saw him shake his head. “No,” he said, “I’m not going to give you a citation. But just be more careful next time, okay?”
I nodded. “Thank you, officer.”
He stood there, as if waiting on something, and it didn’t occur to me until a second or two later that he was waiting on me. And so I nodded once more, told the cop to have a good night, turned and waited for a break in traffic before I started toward the front. As I did I wiped my hands on my jeans, as if wiping away grease, something that had been absent on my hands but which I hoped the cop had missed. A moment later I was inside the Dodge, turned on the engine, and waited for another break in traffic before pulling out. In the rearview mirror the unmarked car had turned its flashing lights off. But it just sat there, waiting, until the car was nothing more than a dot in the mirror, and then gone.
I didn’t recognize the noise at first. I’d been driving for almost five minutes, having already smoked one cigarette. I had passed through Doyle, which wasn’t much of a town, and now it was just me and the road. This noise had started the moment I first pulled back on the highway, but I figured it was just the Dodge. Then the noise stopped, just to start again a minute later. I was now working on my second cigarette, relishing it even more than the first, when I looked down at the foot well on the passenger side and saw the cell phone lit up.
My left hand on the wheel, I kept the cigarette stuck in my mouth to reach down and grab the phone.
, the screen said. I pressed the green send button.
Simon said, “I’m not sure which was stupider. Your reaction to what was in the trunk or how you handled the cop. Though, I must admit, both were quite entertaining.”
“My reaction? You said it was my daughter in there.”
“Oh, Ben, now you’re putting words in my mouth. I never said it was your daughter. You just happened to ask about your daughter, and I happened to ask if you’d checked the trunk. Simple coincidence.”
I took a long pull of the Marlboro, tried to remain calm. Was having a hell of a time pulling it off, though I was more than relieved that it had just been a mannequin and not really Casey.
“You bastard,” I said. “I thought ... I thought she was dead!”
“Of course you did, Ben. Why else do you think we put it in there? I’ll have to admit, the expression on your face was perfect. But the fact that you then threw up—well, that just made it priceless.”
I didn’t say anything and kept my eyes on the road. It hadn’t really occurred to me before, but at that moment it struck me hard that I was on camera. The only question was, where the fuck was the camera and were there others?
“Ben? What’s wrong? You have a strange look on your face.”
I glanced around the car, at the dash and the rearview mirror and the passenger side foot well. I shook my head. “It’s nothing.”
“No, it’s definitely something. Spill it.”
“I’m just—I’m wondering how you can see me, is all. Like where the camera is and everything.”
“It doesn’t matter how I can see you, Ben. What matters is that I can. Just like how I saw you handle the cop. I must say, while you did do something quite stupid, you handled yourself well.”
The road stretched out before me. The sky had darkened even more. I wanted another cigarette but told myself not yet.
“What did I do that was stupid?”
“The first rule I explained to you was don’t talk to cops. Now in that situation, I can understand you had no choice. But asking him to give you a ticket? Are you joking?”
“Guilty people never ask to be punished. They’re too worried already obsessing over it. Innocent people have nothing to worry about.”
“I see. So your asking for a ticket was your way of pleading innocent. Sure, makes perfect sense. And all the while you weren’t thinking about how maybe the cop wouldn’t help you out?”
“How the hell is he going to help me out? This car’s not even mine. If he ran the plates it would probably come up stolen anyhow.” I paused. “What would happen if he ran the plates?”
Simon said, “I wouldn’t worry about it, if I were you. All you need to worry about is getting to Reno. Should take you less than an hour if you don’t stop.”
“Where am I going to go once I get there?”
“I think you fail to understand our relationship, Ben. You don’t get to ask questions. But to answer you, just this once, I’ll call you when you get there. In the meantime though, I do want to ask you one more thing.”
Finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I grabbed the pack of smokes, stuck one in my mouth, punched the cigarette lighter.
“I’m just wondering,” he said, “has your wife ever let you cum on her face?”
I reached Reno a little over an hour later. I drove straight through, even though the gas gauge told me the Dodge had less than a quarter tank left. I wasn’t worried. By that time I had already concluded that if anything were to happen to the car, Simon would provide. He’d somehow know about it, would give me a call, and tell me to hold on. Who knows, maybe he’d send a limo. Add to the entertainment, whatever the fuck that meant.
Roughly five miles past the Nevada state border I started seeing signs of solid civilization again. Just like when I passed through Redding, the trees dropped away from either side of the highway to reveal the lights of buildings and houses and stores. Even billboards for gas stations and fast food places were lit up along the highway, reassuring any weary traveler that their money is always welcome.
I continued down 395, headed toward the heart of Reno. As I passed over some train tracks the phone started to vibrate. I waited a couple long seconds before picking up the phone. Then I waited another couple long seconds before answering it.
“What’s wrong, Ben?” Simon asked. “Don’t you want to talk to me?”
I said nothing. I’d already smoked two packs of cigarettes. The inside of my mouth felt raw, and I wished I’d bought some gum the last time I stopped for gas.
“The Grand Sierra Resort,” Simon said, his voice now low and serious. “Tell the front desk you’re Romeo Chase. They’ll have a room waiting for you.”
I didn’t bother answering him. Just like at the end of our last conversation, it was me who disconnected the call. But instead of throwing the phone down at the floor, this time I tossed it over on the passenger seat. Traffic continued surging around me, cars passing me, me passing cars. I’d become sick of driving hours ago but figured I could do it for a little longer. I didn’t know what was going on but I still had the hope Jen and Casey were both alive. It was what kept me going. It was what kept me from ignoring that urge in the back of my mind to take the gun from the glove compartment and end this once and for all.
To say I was overwhelmed by everything that’d happened in the last twelve hours would have been an understatement, but the moment the Grand Sierra Resort came into view I was completely beset. This was just too much, I kept telling myself, and after I’d parked I stared up at the gigantic white building that rose higher and higher into the night. I couldn’t seem to will myself to blink. From waking in the crummy cramped room of the Paradise Motel, to now this—it just seemed wrong, and it made me think of Jen. She would have felt completely at home in a place like this, having stayed in these types of hotels ever since she was young. She’d stayed in the Plaza Hotel at least two dozen times, she once told me when we visited New York in December, and when I told her I’d never once stepped foot inside the place, she laughed and told the cabdriver to take us to Fifth Avenue.
I cut the Dodge’s ignition, the car immediately going silent except for the soft ticking coming from beneath the hood. I tried to picture Jen’s face every time she laughed. I tried to picture her smile when she led me up the steps to the Plaza Hotel, where the doorman opened the door, and we entered the lobby. She said, “Well, now you can’t say never,” and reached up on her tiptoes, kissed me on the lips. That had been Jen, wanting me to experience everything I possibly could. She always said she envied me, the simple life I’d led, though I never truly believed her.
How long I sat in the Dodge, surrounded by the sea of vehicles much flashier than the one I’d driven almost four hundred miles, I couldn’t say. There were luxury cars made by those foreign companies like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Lexus, as well as what I always thought of as Common People Cars, those made by Ford and Toyota and Honda. And of course there were RVs. All were vacant, their owners inside playing poker or blackjack or keno or the slots, or else maybe taking in a show. I myself had never once been inside a casino, my upbringing in a poor family one that taught me to always save money, to never waste it.
The passenger seat was a mess of trash, all of which I ignored except for a pack of cigarettes and the phone. Those I stuck in my pockets, right there along with the wallet that wasn’t mine. I opened the door but hesitated, thinking about the gun in the glove compartment. I didn’t want to leave it there, thinking it might fall in the wrong hands if someone tried breaking into the car. Then I laughed, realizing out of all the cars surrounding me, this rusted and beat-up Dodge would be the last thing somebody would want to steal.
I headed inside, where I was immediately bombarded with noise and brightness. I kept my head down, wanting nobody to see me. I felt completely out of place in my jeans and black T-shirt, wearing those sneakers that still had the spots of vomit on them. Damn it, I’d forgotten to clean those off. I really hoped nobody would notice, but the fact that it was all I thought about made me certain everyone was seeing it.
At the front desk, a clerk named Jason smiled and asked how he could help me this evening. The look in his eyes said that he’d been trained to use the same smile and expression on every person that walked through the hotel’s doors, no matter how rich or poor or in the middle they happened to be.
I said, “Yes, hi, my name’s Romeo Chase,” feeling at once like a complete jackass, and all of a sudden I realized that this was just another one of Simon’s jokes. Jason might pause to check his computer, but there would be no room waiting under that name. No, there would be no room at all, and then I’d just be standing there, with vomit on the toe of my right sneaker, looking like an idiot. Would they have security escort me out? I thought about the wallet. Was there even enough cash to stay one night in this place?
Just as I’d guessed, Jason began to check his computer. He typed something, moved his mouse once, looked back up at me. The smile never wavered.
“Ah yes, Mr. Chase, we’ve been expecting you. Your bag arrived earlier today.”
I said, “My bag,” completely oblivious. Then quickly nodded. “Yes, my bag.”
“Hold on one second.” Jason picked up a phone. He said a few words and then hung up, gave me another one of his plastic smiles. “It’ll just be another minute.”
I thanked him, started to back away, but thought of something and leaned forward. “I’m sorry, it’s been a long day, but can you tell me how long I’m booked for? I forget what my secretary told me.”
He glanced at the computer screen again. “Looks like two nights.”
I nodded, thanked him again, and started to turn away just as a bellhop was approaching. In his right hand he carried a suitcase—a large black suitcase which seemed to express to anyone who cared that its contents belonged to someone with money, and a lot of it.
“Mr. Chase?” the bellhop asked, and I nodded. “Follow me, sir. I’ll take you to your room.”
He turned and led me to a bank of elevators. We waited along with a few other people until one opened up. An older couple—both who looked as if they’d traveled here via Winnebago—were discussing how much money they’d won playing the penny slots. Ignoring them, I stared forward at the panel of floor numbers. The one the bellhop had pressed was 7.
Eventually we reached my floor. The bellhop stepped aside, motioned for me to step out first. I obliged him then waited so he could lead me to my room. In his other hand a plastic keycard had appeared. He used it on the door, an electronic beeping sounded, and he pushed it open. Once again stepped aside so I could enter first.
The room was large and impressive. I immediately had the sense of someone who’s someplace he really can’t afford to be. Two nights I’d been booked here. What was I going to do in Reno all that time? Shit, what was I doing here to begin with?
The bellhop followed me into the room. He carefully set the suitcase on the luggage rack. Then he stood there, his hands clasped before him, asking if there was anything else I should need.