Twilight was just a darker shade of fog. I turned my car lights on and drove six blocks to the other side of Masonic and parked. I ate a burger and a shake at the Cable Car Diner on Geary between Presidio and Baker. I read the afternoon paper as a way of not thinking about Terry Danvers. Instead I thought about my marriage and the dusty "X" that marked the spot. But I didn't linger over that old news. I don't like looking back. My ex-wife hooked up with a chiropractor making a hundred grand a year in the Wine County. She had everything she ever wanted in a place God Himself always wanted to live. Me, I missed my kids.
I reached my apartment building after sundown. Truth be told, I didn't see the sun go down, but the fog had blackened. I opened my door, saw all was dark inside. I reached for the light switch.
The jolt unnerved me, sent me flying. My body slammed into the doorframe and I crashed to the carpet. The blast of pain was unnamable and awesomely intense, and I could make no sense of what I was feeling. I was sprawled on the floor, terror the only thought in my head. How'd I get here? I hadn't touched the light switch.
Another jolt slammed through me. My jaw clamped shut, and my teeth tried grinding themselves to shards. My senses were scattered. All that my brain registered were the hairs and fibers on the carpet and the smell of commercial rug shampoo. If the jolt had lasted longer, I would have lost control of my bowels.
After glaring at eternity, I tried to stand. I was jolted again and my fingers clawed the carpet. The shag was long enough, I pulled out two clumps from it. My limbs convulsed violently, uncontrollably. The tears in my eyes made the world unseeable. I was too weakened to do more than shudder and shake without reason.
A large hand grabbed me by the throat and shook me like a puppy being punished. I swear by god my eyes bounced around in my skull like loose marbles in a goblet.
I was pulled to my feet and thrown out of my own apartment. I was shoved down the flight of stairs, and when I reached the bottom, I was kicked in the ribs at least twice. I saw him then. He was wearing the kind of deer hunter's face mask that costs ten bucks at K-Mart or Wal-Mart. The stun gun was in his left hand.
I was shoved outside my building and zapped when I moved too slowly, and I could feel the spittle flying out of my mouth as I convulsed again in agony. He hauled me to my feet and made me reach my car. He pushed me inside, knocked me across the front seat until I was behind the wheel of my own car. While I was desperately trying to catch my wits, the thug climbed into the back seat behind me. With both hands, he reached around over my shoulder and grabbed the shoulder harness of my seat belt. He pulled it up to my neck, making sure the seat belt was pulled horizontally against the soft flesh of my throat.
I didn't recognize the voice when he spoke. I know I'll never forget it. There was a trace of a Latino accent, but he sounded young and overdosed on movie bravado. Which did nothing to lessen my fears.
"Listen, asshole, I'm just grazing you with this zapper. This a Taser, you'd be dead. But if I hold it on you, you won't move or think for five full minutes. You might even die. Do you want to die?" He yanked the seat belt tighter.
I thought he was killing me, but he only wanted my undivided attention. After forever came and went, he eased up. Took me a while to think, find words, and speak.
"I…want…kill…you." I sounded like a palooka.
Maybe I might have fought him, but I was yanked into submission with that hangman's noose of a seat belt.
"Where is Peter Staples?"
"Witness Protection Program," I lied.
"Bullshit! You had him this afternoon. Start the car!"
I took a deep breath and willed myself to survive. I dug for my car keys, found them, then started my car. My hands were shaking.
"Head for Masonic," he told me.
I wanted a weapon. I wanted to fight back. I remembered my tire iron wasn't in the trunk, but was draped across the seat lever of the driver's seat. I dropped my left hand and my fingertips started moving for it.
"Where's Peter Staples?"
"The cops took him downtown for questioning."
"You brung him here."
"And they took him out the back door thirty minutes later."
"Take a left. Where is he going next?"
We drove south on Masonic. Masonic was enveloped in night and fog. The streetlights were looking like some connect-the-dots puzzle. There were few cars out: a cab double-parked by the blood bank, an empty city bus, a motorcyclist throwing himself down the street, an RV with Ohio plates slowing down for green lights.
I drove down toward the Panhandle and I could feel the belt's edge digging into my fleshy throat. "I told you, he's in the Witness Protection Program, and I swear to god I honestly don't know where he is or where he's going next."
I was jolted again. I convulsed so hard, I ripped at and tore the genuine leather cover from my steering wheel. I almost lost control and took out the tiny Geo Metro next to me. I couldn't blame the Metro for being so heavy-handed on its horn. He had to hop across the double yellow line to dodge me.
But the asshole believed me.
"If he testifies, he's dead," he said.
"Yes, sir, I will tell him that."
"You're getting off the case."
"I'm off, I'm off," I said.
"Turn on Fell Street," the asshole said.
I turned onto Fell Street and joined three lanes of one-way traffic headed downtown. I looked around for help from the other drivers. The woman in the Volvo beside me had her visor down and was putting on her make-up as she drove, while the man in the BMW on my other side was picking his ear wax and singing along with his car radio. The synchronized traffic lights kept us steady at just under thirty, and neither the Volvo nor the BMW looked my way once.
The asshole leaned in, hissed into my ear. "I'm not the one starting this," the asshole wanted me to believe. "But I be the one finishing it." He was bitter, even desperate. I wondered what he meant.
We were approaching the Fell Street on-ramp to the freeway, one of the busiest on-ramps in the Bay Area. Within two blocks I would have to shit or get off the pot.
"Want me to change lanes or climb up onto the freeway?"
He sharply pulled back on the seat belt again, then slowly, cautiously, eased up. "You're going to slow down as you go through the intersection of Fell and Laguna and then you're going to stop at the foot of the on-ramp.
"I'll be rear-ended by a thousand cars!"
He smacked me in the head. "You will do it."
With my heart in my throat, I did it.
As I slowed, I angled my body and this time my fingertips reached and then touched the tire iron--
He yanked brutally hard on the seat belt, choking me, and the tire iron slipped from my fingers.
"Stop the car now!"
I slammed on the brakes, and we fishtailed out of my lane and into the left one. The car behind me had squealing brakes, but missed striking me. Car horns started going off all around me.
The asshole let go of the seat belt and then he was gone. The back door smacked shut behind him. I heard the blare of a car horn dopplering around me as the asshole ran off the ramp.
I had no choice. I was on the on-ramp. I couldn't back down. I could only go forward. The cars and trucks behind me wouldn't let me do anything else.
In the rear view mirror --
A semi barreling straight for me!
I floored it, peeled rubber and was on the ramp. The semi was still coming! I heard no horn blowing. Silence was out to kill me. I punched the pedal twice, and the fuel injection cut in, pushing me back in my seat. The car lunged forward. I said every prayer I had ever heard. I watched in my rear view mirror him coming at me, growing larger, looming over me. I heard his air brakes squealing; he was trying to slow for me.
The semi smacked into my rear end. My body went to slam into the steering wheel. My car banged the rear end of the Volvo in front of me. My airbag blew. I went face-down into it. I lost control of my car and careened off the concrete guard rail on my right. The semi barreled past me, my front fender was clipped by one of his rear tires, then my car ricocheted and flew off across the left two lanes of traffic, narrowly missing a Buick, and I hit the barrier on my left. Scraping the concrete, I still took the curve, listening to the car horns behind me, and then found myself on the freeway headed out. The freeway widened out, opened up, and there was gravel on my side of the freeway.
I managed to pull over and park without dying.
I sat and trembled as the cars and trucks rushed around me. My palms were red and raw from grasping the wheel so tightly. Screwy enough, all I could think about was my auto insurance. Boy, was I screwed now.
I caught my wind, but the horns never stopped blaring. As the cars and trucks rushed around me, I realized none of the cars or the semi had pulled over or were coming back. Figuring out why not took the longest time. Why should they come back? Reporting this would increase their auto insurance, and what California driver could afford that grief? That I had been dead-stopped on the on-ramp didn't matter. According to California law, all rear-enders are always the rear-ender's fault. How come you couldn't stop in time? And whose fault was it that you were tailgating in the fast lane?
Some teenagers barreled past and freaked me out of my wits by throwing a paper cup of soda and ice over me and my windshield. My nerves were shot, and I screamed epithets after them, until I realized they weren't there to listen.
I was gasping, coughing, couldn't see for the tears in my eyes. My heart was racing, and I had a splitting headache. The soda and ice dribbled down my windshield. I held my hands out in front of me, and they shook like a dying wino's. I grasped the wheel and held on until I was back in control. I got mad then. I decided to go after the asshole. I decided to back up and then back down the on-ramp and go after him until I found him.
I'd never get him.
Fuck it! I was going for it.
Except my ribs ached.
And I was exhausted.
A drop of something thick and dark went into my right eye, blurred my vision. I wiped at it, discovered it was my blood. I looked at myself in the vanity mirror and I had a gash halfway across the forehead. I must have banged into something when the airbag blew. I looked around the dash and the steering wheel, saw nothing with any blood on it, gave up.
Yeah, I was going to back around the freeway curve, ignoring several hundred cars and trucks, back down and off one of San Francisco's busiest on-ramps backwards, then go chase after a lunatic asshole on foot who had a dozen different directions he could go and every advantage on his side.
I sat on the gravel longer. I counted to twenty, then counted another twenty, until going after the bastard was not feasible. My nerves were too shot for me to be slick.
I glared at my eyes in the rear view mirror and wondered how the asshole had found out Peter Staples had been released from the hospital. Simple tail-job, I suppose. And then he came back after dark.
After I smooshed down my popped airbag, I climbed back on the freeway without being killed or crushed and rode it around the city until I reached the next off-ramp, which was at Fourth Street. I left the freeway, circled the block and climbed back on the Fourth Street on-ramp going west and dead-headed back to Anza Street and my apartment.
Foggy, foggy night on Anza Street. No one walking and no one driving. Damp enough to curl my hair. The streetlights had halos.
After I parked under the brightest streetlight I could find on Anza, I checked out the damage done to my car. The driver's door opened okay, but the driver's side looked like a mountain after a rockslide. I yanked off the chrome that had been ripped and stored it in the back seat. My trunk looked punched in by a giant fist.
But it could still open. I dug out my Browning 9-millemeter automatic from storage in my trunk. I chambered a round, grabbed a couple spare magazines and a halogen flashlight, then trudged toward my building. After my on-ramp adventure, how could a 13-shot clip hurt?
I went upstairs and found how the door lock had been jimmied. I had missed it earlier. I racked the slide on my Browning and took comfort from the sound of metal clashing against metal.
I flicked on the lights and went in slowly, wondering what I'd find, hoping that Dr. Staples was still gone and not dead in a corner. Browning in hand, I hunted from room to room. Every shadow had ominous eyes, and I was ready to blast the first shadow that blinked. I even looked under the bed. I found the place empty and a message on my answering machine.
Before I played the message back, I took stock of my apartment. The asshole had gotten inside. My place had been searched, but thankfully it hadn't been trashed. Vandalism, it seemed, wasn't his game. Nor was theft; everything I owned was where I had left it. Cleaning up took me less than an hour. I was not moving fast. And I kept my Browning close to my hand as I cleaned.
Then I relaxed and had a shot of my best cognac. Then I sat and had another. With loaded Browning in hand, I glared at the cold television like a couch potato after Thanksgiving dinner. After a while, I went into my bathroom and soaked my face with cold wash cloths until my face was chilly and pink. I put hydrogen peroxide on that gash on my forehead, saw it wasn't half as bad as I'd thought in the car, then slapped on gauze and a bandage over the nastiest part. I took off my shirt and glared at the two-pronged bruises from where the stun gun bit me. Ugly suckers were already black and blue.