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Authors: Patrick E. Craig

The Road Home (6 page)

BOOK: The Road Home
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“Listen, kid,” Shub growled. “When you're dealing with this much money, you always come prepared. Don't worry. I'll be out in about five minutes, and we're outta here.”

Johnny sat in the van and watched as the fog rolled in from the
ocean. The yellow streetlamps became fuzzy glows, barely visible in the dark. Cars whizzed by, headed down the coast or into the city. The neon motel sign flashed on and off, on and off, the green letters flickering strangely in the mist.

A sudden chill ran down Johnny's back. He tensed for a moment but then relaxed and stretched his shoulders. The van's engine puttered quietly away. Johnny's ears perked up when he thought he heard raised voices. At first they were indistinct. He rolled down the window to hear better, and then he heard someone shout, “He's got a gun!”

Then Johnny heard a gunshot, followed by more yells. The door of the room burst open and Shub came running out, followed a few seconds later by a tall man. Shub ran to the van, pulled open the passenger door, and tossed in the briefcase.

“Take off, Johnny! They're on to me!”

Shub started to climb in when three more shots rang out. Shub jerked violently and fell forward onto the seat. His fingers opened and closed stiffly as if he were testing them. He lifted his head and looked at Johnny.

“I…I just want to go home…” he said, and then his eyes glazed over. Shub slid out of the car and collapsed on the pavement, clearly dead.

There was a yell and another shot, and a bullet hit the van, shattering the passenger-side mirror. Johnny jammed the van in gear, tore onto the highway, and headed back to the city. He looked in the rearview mirror and saw a car chasing him.

Johnny sped up, swerving in and out of traffic. He looked in the rearview mirror again and saw that the car was only half a block behind. On and on he drove, the car behind him in hot pursuit—all the way into San Francisco, past San Francisco State. There he saw his chance. Up ahead, a Muni trolley car was starting to cross Nineteenth. Knowing they always blocked traffic when they made the turn from Ocean Avenue, Johnny swerved the van in between the trolley and the edge
of the street with inches to spare. In the side-view mirror, he saw the car try to swing around the end of the trolley, but it ran out of room and slid off the street onto the Muni tracks. Johnny glanced back again and saw two men jump out of the car onto the tracks. Then he was gone up Nineteenth.

He rocketed through Golden Gate Park, made an illegal right turn onto Geary, and headed for the Haight. As soon as he got home, he raced upstairs, threw his stuff into a suitcase, grabbed his guitar, stopped long enough to blurt out a story about a family emergency back in Levittown, and then he was gone, leaving his astounded roommates staring after him.

In twenty minutes he was on the Oakland Bay Bridge heading north on Highway 80 toward Sacramento. An hour later he crossed the Yolo Causeway outside the state capital. Somewhere near Rocklin, the narrowness of his escape finally hit home. He started shaking uncontrollably, partly from the cold and partly from a delayed response to what had happened back at the motel. He pulled over to the side of the road to put on a sweatshirt under his leather jacket, and then he kept on going.

Soon he passed Auburn and started winding up toward the top of the Sierras. The dark canyon walls closed in on him, and the lights of oncoming cars flashed in his eyes over the top of the center barrier. Truckers in their huge eighteen-wheelers steamed by him, crowding him toward the side of the road as they jammed their way up the mountain toward Reno.

Johnny's insides were churning. At one point he realized that tears were rolling down his face. He pulled over at a rest stop and sat with his arms and head on the wheel, sobs shaking his body. After a while he felt calmer, so he pulled out onto the road and pushed on.

The hours crept by as the underpowered Volkswagen labored through the mountains. Finally he saw a faint brush of light in the
eastern sky ahead of him. The light slowly grew around him, and as it did, he began to feel better. By dawn he had topped Donner Summit and was headed down the eastern side of the Sierras. At Truckee, he turned off the interstate and pulled into a truck stop downtown. He filled up with gas and then parked the van and walked into the restaurant.

Johnny ordered breakfast, but he didn't eat much of it. He couldn't get the image of Shub's eyes out of his mind—the way the light had died in them when he was shot. There was a news rack with copies of the San Francisco Chronicle next to the register, so he bought a copy and read it while he drank several cups of coffee. He didn't find anything in the paper about Shub's death, so he folded the paper and headed out to the car.

Then he remembered the briefcase Shub had tossed into the van. He opened the passenger door and found it under the front seat. He picked up the briefcase, wiped some blood off with an old rag, and opened it up. Inside were three large plastic bags filled with white powder. There was also a brown paper bag wadded up and shoved in next to the bags. Johnny pulled out the paper bag and opened it up.

It was filled with money. A
of money. There were big wads of hundred-dollar bills, fifties, and twenties all bundled together. He stared in disbelief and then looked around to see if anybody was watching him. Seeing no one, he began to count the money. There were a lot more hundred-dollar bills than he thought, and when he finished counting, he sat numbly staring at the pile. The bag held fifty thousand dollars!

Johnny started the van and drove out of the restaurant parking lot and down the block. He turned onto a shaded side street and pulled up in front of an empty lot. He looked in the rearview mirror to see if anyone had followed him, and then he opened the bag and looked at the money again. Johnny wondered why Shub still had the LSD. Had Shub tried to steal the drugs back?

He opened the plastic bag and smelled the white powder. Then he licked the tip of his little finger and stuck it in. He took a tentative taste. There was none of the slightly metallic taste of real LSD. The powder was sweet. Then he knew what had happened. The powder was sugar. Shub was going to rip them off, and they must have asked to taste the stuff, so Shub pulled his gun and took the money. What a fool! But now what? Johnny had fifty thousand dollars that belonged to some drug dealers.

Johnny stuffed the money and the powder back into the briefcase, pushed the briefcase under the backseat, and laid his knapsack in front of it. He drove slowly out of the neighborhood and kept going until he found a freeway entrance.

As he pulled up to the signal directing traffic onto the interstate, a thought occurred to him. What if they were still after him? Fifty grand was a lot of money, and it wasn't likely they'd just let it go. He tried to go over in his mind how they could know where he was.

Maybe they saw my license plate

Then it came to him so clearly he almost laughed. “It's not like my van is inconspicuous,” he said out loud. “Duh.”

This was a no-brainer. They could easily find out where he lived. Anybody in the Haight could tell them where the van parked every day. All they would have to do is pull a gun on his roommates, and they would spill his family history all the way back to Adam. With that much information it wouldn't be hard to locate his father and mother in Levittown. Hershberger was an unusual name in his upscale neighborhood.

Johnny's stomach tightened into a hard knot. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He was freaking out, and rightly so. What could he do now? Where could he go?

Suddenly the brazen blast of a car horn crashed into his panic. His heart jumped into his throat, and he looked in the rearview mirror. A
pickup had pulled up behind him, and he could see the driver pushing hard on his horn and motioning at him.

Is it them?

Then Johnny glanced up and saw that the light had turned green. He put the van in gear and rolled ahead and onto the freeway.

The next several hours slipped by as Johnny kept heading east. His only thought was that he had to get home. By two o'clock he was exhausted. He pulled off the freeway at Burmester and drove a few miles into Tooele, a little town outside Salt Lake City. After he got some gas at a decrepit little station, he drove next door to a motel, where he booked a room. He was getting his things out of the van when it occurred to him that he should be prepared to leave in a hurry. He grabbed the briefcase, pulled a change of underwear and his shaving kit out of the knapsack, left the rest of his things in the van, and went into his room.

He looked around the small room. There was a doorless closet to his left. He set the briefcase inside and then slumped into the chair by the bed. The room smelled of stale cigarettes. Any shag from the worn and dirty rug had long since been scraped off. The early afternoon sun forced its way through bent and dusty Venetian blinds. The queen bed had a worn brown blanket and two pillows. There was an ancient TV with a set of rabbit ears sitting on a dresser in the corner. Paint was peeling off the walls in places, and curtains hung loosely from plastic rings. An old swamp cooler rumbled and clanked from the bathroom window.

Johnny let out a sigh and sat on the edge of the chair, his head in his hands, wondering how in the world he had ended up in this place. The day before he was just a broke hippie on Haight Street, and now he was on the run from drug dealers.

Finally, Johnny got up, went to the small bathroom, and washed his face. Then he pulled the curtains over the windows, slipped off his
jeans, and crawled into bed. As soon as his head hit the pillow, he fell into a troubled sleep.

When Johnny awoke, the room was pitch black, and for a moment he panicked, not remembering where he was. The darkness of the room and the stale smells crushed down on him as if someone were standing on his chest. He gasped for breath, jerked up in the bed, and almost cried out. Then it came back to him that he was in a crummy motel room in Tooele, Utah, and the reality of the past two days flooded in on him, accompanied by a deep sense of hopelessness.

He swung his legs over the side of the bed and knocked his knee against the bed stand. In the darkness, he fumbled for the lamp and finally found the switch. He had to turn it three clicks before the light came on. The small clock by the lamp read three a.m. He had slept almost ten hours, but he didn't feel rested. He did feel hungry, but he couldn't imagine finding a restaurant open at this hour in this tiny town.

He got up and went into the bathroom. He stood in front of the mirror and looked at himself. The face that looked back was haggard, and the eyes were bloodshot. He turned on the tap, filled his hands, and plunged his face into the cold water. He did it three more times until he felt the cobwebs leaving his mind.

Johnny took a shower in barely lukewarm water that spurted rudely out of the rusty shower head. He reached out of the narrow stall, grabbed his razor out of the shaving kit, and gave himself a blind shave. When he was finished, he dried himself off and went back into the bedroom and dressed. Then he grabbed the briefcase, left the room key on the stand by the bed, turned out the light, and went to the door. Johnny cracked it open and peeked out.

The neon sign in front of the hotel flashed a strange orange-pink
light on the courtyard. There was only one other car, an old Chevy, parked down the row. The sky was overcast, and he couldn't see the moon or any stars. A few crickets chirped from the vacant lot next to the motel. Nothing stirred, and there was no traffic on the street. Far off in the distance he could hear compression brakes as a big truck slowed to take the exit off the interstate. The sound carried across the flat desert and fractured the silence.

The motel office was dark, and a green neon vacancy sign glowed in the window. He slipped out, shut the door behind him, and walked through the passage by the ice machine, stopping at the vending machine to buy four Mounds bars and a couple of bottles of Fresca. Then he walked toward the alley behind the motel. His van was parked where he had left it, and he climbed in. The knapsack was still where he had left it, and he slipped the briefcase under the seat and made sure it was well hidden.

Satisfied, he took a deep breath, started up the van, and drove onto the street. In a few miles he came back to Burmester and turned east onto the freeway. He drove awhile, lost in his thoughts, and then he began to pay attention to his surroundings. Off to his left was a deep darkness, and he couldn't quite figure out what it was. Then as a car passed him going west, the opposite side of the road came into view for a moment, and Johnny realized he was looking out over water. It was the Great Salt Lake. He remembered driving past it on the way to San Francisco and thinking it was one of the dreariest places on the face of the earth.

BOOK: The Road Home
7.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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