The Infinite Blacktop
CHAPTER 1 THE CASE OF THE INFINITE BLACKTOP
I fell into consciousness with a sudden, frightening, crash. My eyes popped open into a line of bright white-hot pain. I couldn’t see anything except blinding light. I squeezed my eyes back shut.
I gasped for air—
I guess I screamed, because I heard someone scream and then I felt someone squeeze my hand and say, “You’re OK. You’re OK.”
I stopped screaming.
Thoughts fell into my head. Accident. I’d been in a car accident.
I remembered something huge and metal cracking through the door of my car and started screaming again.
“OK, easy,” the voice said. The voice was a man’s, fairly young, probably white.
I heard more sounds around the voice and felt cool air on my face. I was outside.
I heard another scream. Not me.
“I’ll be right back,” the voice said. “You’re OK, just don’t try to move.”
He let go of my hand and left.
I knew who I was, but I couldn’t form the words to understand it. My name was somewhere in my throat, but couldn’t reach my mouth.
I tried moving. Some parts moved and some didn’t. I tried raising my hand. It took a few tries for my mind to connect with my brain, then with my nerves, muscles, and flesh, but it all started working, and I lifted my hand to my eyes and tried opening them again. I forced myself not to scream. Better, but still painful. My hand was red and black against violently bright light. Pain ripped through my left eye and my eyes squeezed shut again.
Slowly, like ripping off a bandage, I opened my eyes again, and acclimated them to the light and me to the pain.
I looked around. I was in Brooklyn. No. San Francisco. No. Oakland.
Everything in me screamed. Adrenaline screamed the loudest.
Who was I?
Claire DeWitt. I am Claire DeWitt, and I am—
Another memory fell in with a thump:
I’d been on the highway. The 80 to the 880 to—
It was a Lincoln. 1982. That was the thing that came cracking through my door.
Who was driving it? And how did I know that?
The image of the Lincoln hitting me washed over me again, erasing everything else. Everything started to go black again.
I remembered: I am Claire DeWitt.
Didn’t I want to be a detective?
Yes. I wanted to be a detective, and I was.
I was Claire DeWitt, and I was the best detective in the world.
Think, Claire, think.
Was I on a case?
I’d figured out I was on some kind of gurney or bed. I sat up. My left leg and most of my ribs howled in protest. I was in an ambulance. The bright light above me was coming from the roof. The doors were open. I looked out.
The sun had gone down and it was dark. The car I’d been driving was a pile of broken metal and glass. The other screams—the screaming that wasn’t mine—were coming from a woman across the street, who was standing above what was either a pile of clothes or a badly injured person. After another moment I saw that the screaming woman had blood pouring out of her head. An EMT worker, maybe the same one who’d been holding my hand a minute before, was trying to look at the woman’s bloody forehead.
Lights blinked and blared from cop cars and ambulances. The black road glittered with glass and metal scraps. Around the ring of official responders was a circle of a few dozen citizens watching. The air had the smoky, bloody, disorienting smell and haze of a bad accident.
I was Claire DeWitt, the best detective in the world, and someone had just tried to kill me.
I took a deep breath. The woman who was screaming and bleeding—I’d seen her before the accident. She’d been standing across the street when I was hit.
“Holy shit,” she’d said. “He’s gonna kill her.”
My first clue.
I tried to remember the Lincoln without letting the memory overwhelm me. It was a direct hit: the car had driven right toward me, aiming for the driver’s seat.
Not an accident. An attempted murder.
My second clue.
I looked around. I was on a broad street near Fruitvale.
I felt around in my clothes. No gun. Why didn’t I have a gun?
I remembered: It had been in my car, taped under the passenger seat. Safer for driving. No way to get it now.
Then I gasped again and looked around with a start and realized: the Lincoln that had hit me wasn’t here.
That car was a fucking monster. A near-murder would barely ding the chrome on the bumper. Whoever had tried to kill me was probably not too far away, waiting for their next chance.
I jumped off the gurney, then collapsed into a crouch when my legs crumpled from under me.
Think, Claire, think.
I sent my attention down to my legs, which were unwilling to stand. The right seemed OK. It was the left that didn’t want to go anywhere. I put my weight on my right leg and pushed myself up. That was all right.
I stood, and looked around the accident scene again. I could use a gun. I could also use the cop attached to one of them.
Eight patrol officers. I knew plenty of cops in Oakland but I didn’t know any of these cops. Seven men, one woman.
I realized my breath was so fast and shallow I was almost panting. I forced it to slow down. My left eye burned and my left leg screamed. The adrenaline flooding me made the pain tolerable, kept its sharp edges pushing me up and out instead of down and in.
I wasn’t sure exactly where I was, or why, but something smart and mean took over. Something without words. Something that I knew would keep me alive, if I let it.
I looked around for something that would help me walk. I didn’t see anything. I tried to move without help.
Pain shot up my left leg into my hip and I stifled a scream. I stopped. I tried moving my arms a little and they seemed to work OK. I took another step. Almost as bad.
I wasn’t sure I could do it.
Do you want to live? I asked myself. Or do you want to stay here and die?
Swallowing the pain, one eye squeezed shut, I looked around and forced myself to be smart. On the floor of the ambulance was a big blue windbreaker, probably one of the EMTs’.
I looked at the cops. The closest one was the woman. She was standing by the crime scene, making sure no one fucked with my broken rental Kia.
I looked around. Everyone else was busy, most of them with the screaming woman.
I moved my arms a few more times, shook out my legs, grinding my teeth against the pain.
It’s this or die, I told myself. It was an old line, and I’d used it on myself too many times before. But it still worked, because it was true.
I sat back down on the gurney. I looked around, mind racing, and saw a flashlight in a holder on the side of the ambulance. I grabbed the flashlight.
The lights from one of the cop cars flashed against the ambulance, red and blue and white. I took off my jacket and dropped it on the floor behind me, half on top of the windbreaker. There was a thin white sheet on the gurney and I added that to the pile. From a distance it would work well enough.
I stared at the cop and willed her to look at me, silently screaming
to her. Here is your destiny, I screamed. Here is where your eyes were meant to fall.
After a minute she looked at me. When she saw that I was up she opened her mouth to call her coworkers but I put a finger to my lips—shh—and looked terrified. Which was easy, because I was terrified.
I had her eyes now. Half the war was won.
I pointed over my right shoulder, down toward where I’d ditched the clothes and sheet on the ambulance floor. With the uneven lighting, she couldn’t tell what was behind me—a pile of clothes or a person.
He’s here, I mouthed. I kept her eyes locked on mine.
Using the same finger, I cut a clean line across my throat.
He’s going to kill me, I mouthed.
She put her hand on her gun and came toward me, stepping carefully in the dark night. Her skin was smooth and dark, the red and blue lights flashing over her face, beating out their ancient code of help me, help me, help me—
She stepped up to the ambulance slowly. As she got closer she got scared, and drew her gun. She was five feet away, then four, then one.
I put my hand on the flashlight.
I still looked terrified. I still was terrified.
She got to the entrance to the ambulance, gun out in her right hand.
“Don’t scream,” I said. She looked at me, confused—
Using every single ounce of power I could pull from the universe, in one quick quiet motion, I brought the flashlight down on her wrist.
She dropped the gun. God smiled on me. The gun landed on the floor of the ambulance and I grabbed it, struggling against blackness as the pain shot through my leg and up through my ribs as I twisted.
I held up the gun and pointed it at her.
“Don’t scream,” I said. “Don’t say anything at all.”
She looked pissed and scared and I didn’t blame her.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I said. “Unless I have to. And don’t feel bad,” I said. “No one beats Claire DeWitt.”
I couldn’t remember everything. But I remembered that.
Claire DeWitt always wins.
She didn’t say anything but I saw that she was thinking We’ll see. That was about what I was thinking too. We’ll see.
There was a first time for everything, and maybe this was it. Maybe this was the time I would lose.
“Now give me your radio,” I said.
“What?” she said.
“Your radio,” I said. “You’re going to give me your radio, then I’m going to give you your gun back, and then I’m going to leave. And unless you want everyone to know that I stole your gun, and you want to spend the rest of your life answering phones at a desk, you’re not going to tell anyone about it. You’re going to say you have no idea what happened to your radio. That you must’ve lost it somewhere. Sound good?”
She looked around. She had a look on her face like she wanted to hit me. Like—
A face came into my head. Young. Big liquid eyes. Was that who was trying to kill me? No. A name came with the face with liquid eyes: Andray. I was going to look for Andray when I was hit. Why? The lama had called and said Andray, an old friend, who wasn’t exactly a friend, was in trouble. The lama was another old friend. The lama and Nick Chang and Claude and Tabitha all fell back into my mind. And everyone I’d lost: Constance and Kelly and Paul and—
No. I could think about that later. What was important now was that I’d been going to look for Andray. No one knew except Claude and the lama. Did I trust them?
Yes. I trusted them.
I was going to look for Andray. There would be a change of plans now.
Now, I was very focused on helping myself.
I looked at the cop. She was as angry as she was scared. Maybe more.
“No one’s coming,” I said to her. “No one’s coming and no one’s going to help you because this is what this is. This is what it is and this is exactly what was always meant to be.”
As I spoke my words sounded odd, even to me. My voice was raspy and uneven. A breeze picked up and cool air blew on my face and my hand and the gun in it. My left eye seared and twitched.
But I knew those words were true. This was how it always was and always will be, exactly as it was meant to be.
Meant by who? Or what? That was a question I didn’t count on ever knowing the answer to. At least not tonight. But I could feel it all the same. Right here, with this cop, with this gun, at this scene with blood in the air—
Something was beginning. And even more was ending.
The cop handed over her radio. I stuck it in the waistband of my pants.
“You wanted real life,” I said to her. “Well here it is.”
“Fuck you,” she said, before she could stop herself.
“Fuck you too,” I said. “And now you’re giving me your Taser, too, ’cause I just don’t trust you anymore.”
I made myself get off the gurney and then step down to the pavement.
She didn’t move. I was holding the gun down low, by my side, so no one would see it. Now I pressed it against her femoral artery in her leg. A kill shot.
“Taser,” I said.
This time she handed it over. Her face was red-hot rage under her pretty dark skin.
“Go over there,” I said, and pointed to the side of the ambulance, a good four feet from me. She did it. I crouched down and tossed the gun under the ambulance. I stood up.
“Now it’s up to you,” I said. “You can stop me, and end your career ’cause you let a PI everyone hates get your weapon away from you. Or you can buy a new Taser, let me go, and forget this ever happened.”
“You’re gonna pay for this,” she said.
“I bet you’re right,” I said. I thought, but didn’t say, I already have, and steeply.
She dove for the gun and I ran, or came as close to running as I could—really a kind of fast limping with one straight leg—grinding my teeth against a scream, and didn’t stop until I was four blocks away, in the bathroom of a bar called The Dew Drop Inn, washing blood and glass out of my eyes.
Man. White Lincoln. 1982-ish. Not much to go on.
More of my self, and all that had happened to it, had come back as I ran. I was a detective. I solved mysteries. I had enemies. The Case of the Bird with Broken Wings. The Clue of the Misplaced Penny.
Plenty of people wanted me dead. I’d been a detective since I was a child. I’d solved mysteries no one wanted to solve. I’d cracked cases that had ruined lives and saved others.
But today, I realized, would have been a particularly hard day to kill me. I’d crashed my car a few weeks ago and was driving a rented Kia. I wasn’t on an official case, just a personal one, which made me harder to track. No clients. No clues.
So a lot of people wanted me dead.
The question was: Who wanted me dead today?