HIGHWAY 101 - JIM WINTER
If Brian Selkirk had his way, he'd have slept in this morning. He would not be sitting in his car with the busted air conditioner outside a strip mall in Salinas. He looked at his watch. Noon. If Todd ever got his ass out of the bank, Brian could have him in LA by tonight and be back to the Bay Area by daybreak. Why he agreed to drive Todd to LA, he'd never know.
Nor could he figure out why Todd flew to Oakland instead of going straight to Los Angeles. It wasn't like Brian missed him since the Dayton Correctional Facility.
Todd burst out of the bank, hunched over and sprinting across the street like a running back. He jumped up, slid across the hood, and climbed in through the passenger window.
“Drive,” he said through clenched teeth.
“What?” said Brian.
Todd, wide-eyed with his black hair dancing madly around his skull, hissed at him again. “Just drive.”
Brian turned the ignition and pulled out into traffic. In his rear view, he saw two or three people spill out of the bank looking around. He turned the corner and headed back toward 101. “What did you...?”
He stopped. Todd pulled the bank bag away from himself and tossed it in the backseat. Blood soaked his white T-shirt.
He grinned at Brian. “We're back in business, brother. How fast can we get to Mexico?”
“You're an accomplice. You think you're going to get off driving away a fugitive?”
A sheriff's cruiser and two CHP motorcycles flew past, sirens going. Brian started to slow down.
“You're not doing what I think you're doing?” said Todd. He held a scarred Glock in his lap, the barrel pointed at Brian. “I can't let you end this ride too soon. Not until we get to the border.”
Todd Barker showed up on Brian's doorstep three days before, claiming to be out of prison and looking to start over in California.
“Just like you,” he said.
“You want to tend bar and live in a crappy studio apartment on Treasure Island?” said Brian.
“Actually, I got something lined up in LA,” said Todd. “Think you could hook me up with a ride?”
“I can loan you a few bucks for Cal Train.”
“What the fuck's Cal Train?”
“You can go almost anywhere in California by train.”
Todd laughed, making himself at home in the studio apartment without bothering to ask Brian. “Shit, they keep talking about starting that up in Ohio.”
“Ohio's a dying state,” said Brian. “That's why I came here. But what brings you here? Why not fly straight to Los Angeles?”
“Simple. I got nothing. I barely had enough to fly into Oakland. Thought you could help. Do you know how hard it is to track someone down who's not on parole?”
Brian had deliberately stayed off the radar. It kept the local cops out of his hair and didn't attract unwanted attention from Ohio. The only flaw in that theory was...
“You want to see Marlon.”
Todd grinned. “I miss that old guy. I was hoping he'd be able to hook me up where you work. Where is the old faggot?”
Brian felt ill. The last time he'd seen Marlon, he wondered if he'd ever see the old biker again. “San Quentin.”
“San Quentin. What's he doing there?”
“Pull over on the next exit,” said Todd as they sped down Highway 101. “I need to change.”
Brian looked over at his former cell mate. “Trusting, aren't you?”
Todd smirked. “You won't go anywhere. You're an accomplice.”
“I can cry coercion.”
“An ex-con crying coercion? They'll run your record and decide you're trying to roll on me. Then where would you go to start over?”
Todd shook his head. “Don't think so. You're going in with me.”
Brian pulled off the 101 somewhere north of Gonzales at a gas station so old it still had a Pure Oil sign over the lot. Todd neatly hid the blood and his gun and marched Brian into a dirty bathroom. The john stank, and rust coated the sink. Sure, the cells at the Dayton Correctional Institute were disgusting, but this made them look like a room at the Sheraton. He kept his back turned to Todd as he changed into a fresh T-shirt.
“Next stop, Los Angeles,” said Todd. “Then you tell me where Marlon kept his stash.”
“Can't do that, Todd. I promised Marlon.”
“And Marlon's dying in yet another prison cell. How'd that old faggot get busted again, anyway?”
Brian whirled on Todd and planted his foot in the other man's groin. “Because someone like you framed him for a job, just like you're doing me.” He kicked Todd in the knee for good measure. “There's always some loser like you who won't let anyone leave the life.”
Todd started to bring up the gun when Brian lunged and snatched it from him. He shoved the barrel into Todd's nose.
“We're going to LA alright,” said Brian. “But since I'm your accomplice, you're going to do it my way. Understand?”
Todd nodded, his eyes wide. “You leave me, I'll just kill you later.”
“So you don't understand.” Brian pulled the gun away from Todd's face, and checked the chamber. He then popped the clip and got to his feet. “One still in the chamber. Rest stay with me.” He pocketed the clip and waved the gun at Todd. “Let's go. I want to be in LA by tonight.”
Todd shuffled back out to the car, head down. Once in, Brian tossed him the gun.
“Remember, I'm driving,” he said. “You get one shot. You miss, you, the gun, and the money go out the door at seventy miles an hour. If you're lucky, I won't back up over you.”
Todd simply stared at Brian. “Selkirk, you are one crazy motherfucker.”
“I'm a pissed off motherfucker. So don't think that bullet will save you.”
Brian's post-prison life actually began on Marlon's last day at the Dayton Correctional Institute. The old biker, with a week to go, found Brian working alone in the prison laundry. He sat down on a bench and watched Brian work, saying nothing for almost ten minutes.
“You gonna help fold?” asked Brian. “'Cuz I don't work with an audience.”
Marlon heaved himself up and limped over to Brian. “You know that big heist in Sacramento ten years ago?”
Brian nodded. He'd heard the story a hundred times before. Three bikers rolled into a small town in northern California, about twenty miles east of Sacramento. The robbers wore jackets with Hell's Angels emblems on the back. A patrol officer was shot. According to Marlon, it wasn't that particular cop's death that outraged local law enforcement; it was the death of a fellow officer. Some, said Marlon, suspected the town's police force set up the cop.
It didn't surprise Marlon. The dead cop had helped arrange the heist.
“What about it?” said Brian.
“That dead cop's share is somewhere in Death Valley,” said Marlon. “And by now, the FBI knows Hell's Angels had nothing to do with that job.”
“So who did it?”
Marlon clamped Brian on the shoulder. “You wanna see my share? Come on out to San Francisco when you get out.”
Marlon laughed. “My share. My brother and I bought a bar in the Mission District.”
“So why's the dead cop's share in Death Valley?”
Marlon headed out the door. “You gotta put your retirement someplace safe. And these days, that ain't the banks.”
Six months later, Brian showed up at Marlon's, the old biker's Mission District tavern. That night, he started work as a bartender. Six months after that, the Vista City Police showed up with a warrant for Marlon's arrest. They had an anonymous tip Marlon had killed the officer in that bank heist before fleeing to Ohio.
Marlon didn't fight it. With the hacking cough he'd developed, he no longer had the strength.
“You get into trouble, kid,” he said. “Come up to San Quentin and see me. We'll talk about Death Valley and dead cops.”
“You aren't the only he told,” said Todd.
To the west, the sun was plunging toward the Pacific Ocean beyond the hills to the west. Brian kept his eyes on Highway 101, the outskirts of San Luis Obispo looming ahead.
“He used to brag about it. What's the name of that town? Vista City?” Todd took a drag on his cigarette. “Punked the feds and Hell's Angels? But they caught him, man. And you know why?”
“I suppose you're going to tell me,” said Brian.
“Because that old faggot couldn't keep his mouth shut,” said Todd. “Had to brag about killing that cop. He was a dirty cop, but once he's dead, that don't matter.” He looked around. “Hey, why aren't we on I-5, anyway?”
“We're hiding from the Chips.”
“CHP. Highway Patrol. If they're looking for us, they're looking for us to take the fastest route to Mexico.”
“Then why aren't they looking for us here?”
“If you just robbed a bank, would you be taking the scenic route to Mexico?”
“Hell, no. But I wouldn't be taking the most famous highway in California.”
“Neither would I if I'd actually planned this.”
Todd threw his butt out the window, lit another one. “So how would you go to Mexico?”
Brian laughed. “I'd have taken the back roads through Fresno, then jumped the freeway in Bakersfield. But we're not going to Mexico.”
Todd brought up the gun and jerked it at Brian. “So where are we going, smart guy?”
Brian grinned. “If I'm not the only one Marlon told, then you know.”
Highway 101 climbed into the mountains as it approached the ocean north of Santa Barbara. By now, the sun sat fat on the Pacific, turning the coastline below a fiery red.
“Looks like one of those wild fires that are always on the news,” said Todd.
“Wrong season,” said Brian. “So Marlon didn't tell you everything.”
“You know he didn't tell me where the stash was.”
Brian sped up as the road became steeper. “Of course not. First thing out of your mouth was 'Where's Marlon?' Now you're holding a gun on me. If you knew where the stash was, you'd have flown straight to Orange or LAX.”
“So you know?”
“I know lots of things.” Brian pushed the car to the crest of the hill.
On Marlon's last day in Dayton, he sat Brian down for a talk. “I need to explain about Officer Carver.”
“The one you shot?” said Brian.
Marlon nodded. “He was our inside man, our partner. He covered for us, let us work, sometimes framed a rival to take him out.”
Brian nodded. “I always worked alone.”
Marlon took out a cigar one of the guards had smuggled him, cut it, and lit it. “That's why you're here. Going straight?”
Marlon pulled on the stogie and blew a smoke ring. “Thought I was, too. Hopefully, my brother invested wisely so I can.” He blew another smoke ring. “That Vista City score was supposed to be my last hurrah. But Carver got greedy and tried to set us up.”
“Did what I had to do to put that life behind me.” He waved the cigar around, gesturing. “See how well that worked out?”
“Why'd you kill him, then?”
Marlon laughed. “I'm here because I came here and got stupid. I'd have killed him no matter what.”
“Did you hate him?”
“Brian, my boy, I loved that man like a brother. Those are the ones you have to look out for.”
Todd barged into the lounge and plunked himself down next to Brian. “So, old man, you finally outta here. Got any good weed hidden?”
Marlon hoisted himself up and shuffled off to his cell. “I gotta get ready. They're kicking me out later.” He looked at Todd, then met Brian's gaze. “Remember what I said.”
Brian gunned the car toward the sharp turn. Grabbing the canvas bag, he opened the door and flung himself to the pavement, never hearing Todd's reaction. A single gunshot fired, but the only pain Brian felt was from hitting the asphalt. He rolled along behind the car as it smashed through the guardrail. The canvas helped slow him to a stop, but he found himself staring over the ledge as the car crashed into the rocks along the coast. Crawling to his feet, he watched as the car's gas tank exploded.
Two hours later, Brian wandered into Santa Barbara and got a hotel room, paying cash. He'd need to get fresh clothes. Several, actually. If the shoulder still hurt too much to move in the morning, he'd find the local county hospital and give a fake name, no ID. After that, he'd have to start hitchhiking.
It was a long way from Santa Barbara to Barstow, and a longer way back to San Francisco. Assuming he went back to his crappy apartment on Treasure Island. They probably already found his car and assumed the body inside was his. It would probably be hard to explain to the police why he was not dead. On the other hand, a dead man who had not actually died could do a lot of things off the grid.
Just like Marlon, he'd been drawn back into the life. It was more than worth Todd's life.
BIO: Jim Winter is a computer technician by day and a writer and 40+ year old college freshman by night. He is a regular reviewer for January Magazine and Mystery Scene. Jim lives in Cincinnati with his wife, Nita, and stepson, AJ.