I recognized the feeling: Gin and Malted Hops had met up with Taurine and they were doing a number on my gut. A jazzy number, with lots of percussion. And they had called their friend Splittin’ Headache in to play my head like the vibes. They were classy; you had to give them that. Just like the dame serving me drinks last night.
The light in the hotel room was brighter than I was hoping, but I was hoping for cave-in-the-middle-of-the-earth dark, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s a good thing I sleep with shades on. I rolled out of bed and dusted off my rumpled suit. I hadn’t crushed my Lucky Strikes – I lit one up and gave it a deep pull. This was going to be long day.
I wasn’t alone in the room. My heart skipped a quick beat, but recovered well. It’s a hell of a heart, this one. The two other fella’s looked like they had been roughed up by the same gang as me – Splittin’ Headache and the Hangovers. I scratched my head trying to figure out how we ended up in their territory last night, but my brain was clouded thicker than San Francisco in a morning fog. I felt for my billfold and wasn’t half surprised to feel how light it was.
See, the pieces had started falling together once I opened my eyes. The trademarks were all there – strange city, hotel room, half remembered alley ways and bars, and a room full of boys who’d seen better mornings. I’d stumbled into a Bachelor Party.
I assessed the situation. How long had I been here? How much longer did I have to go? Once you been around the block a few times, you learn a few things. And I’d been running laps since I jumped out of the cradle, whiskey in my hand and a magnum in my diaper. And another .44 Magnum in my shoulder holster. These Bachelor Parties can be rough – like trying to jump onto a train that doesn’t want to stop at the station. You slow down, you get picked off. I figured there was only one thing to do, so I headed to the bar.
The stiff drink I found wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Budweiser Diesel? Man can? Wrapped in an American flag? It struck me as gauche, jarring, out of place. But then, I can’t hardly think much without a few slugs in me, alcohol or otherwise. And if you got thrown off by a little outta place-ness, well, you don’t belong in my line of work. The hops started to clear my head a bit and a few more details popped out. I remembered why the Bud made sense – we were in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the eve of a big Nascar race. Damn. It’s a sport I’d tried to avoid like the plague. But when you mess around with the dames I do, sometimes the plague is your best bet. I poured the last of the drink down my throat and tossed the can. Time for another smoke.
I kicked my shoes up on the table and leaned back. They were nice shoes. Italian, of course. An acquaintance got them for me a while back – just make sure you don’t ask no questions, he said. I never ask questions. Asking questions only gets you answers. Or shot. I didn’t want a thing to do with either.
One of the boys started to stir. I tossed him a Diesel, thinking maybe two heads are better than one. Especially two heads without the fog. We got to talking and pieced some of the night together. As near as we could remember, we’d visited a number a gin joints, and had worked our best to welcome in the dawn. Just another night in the business. And there were more of us – about 12 guys in all, one hell of a rowdy crew.
I asked him what he thought about this Nascar business. He looked shaken – this was the guy they called The Bachelor, and his pre-wedding ritual was gonna involve about 800 horses under the hood, a hot track, and a crew of rebels who’d sooner kill ya as look at ya. Yeah, he was gonna have it rough, I figured. He was nervous, but tough. Good. This Bachelor was gonna be joining my family, so to speak. And there’s not much damn room for pansies in the family, unless they’re popping up from some fresh shoveled dirt. That’s why I was here. My older sister, Dame Ruby Tuesday we called her, was getting hitched, and I was here reconnoitering a bit. Make sure left was left and right was right with this guy and his boys.
He told me a van was picking us up in about 58 minutes. Unmarked. Hell of a stoic for a driver, he said. It got me nervous, so I smoked another few death sticks. I’d probably need to pack some extra slugs for the drive. “Never trust an unmarked fifteen passenger white van full of rowdy fellas hopped up on who knows what,” I’ve always said. It’s a bit long, but it suits me fine.
I tried to catch some z’s before the van rolled up, not sure what the day would look like. The Bud had quieted down the Hangovers, so I was feeling better. We cruised down to the lobby after a bit of time, a few more cigarettes and another drink. Met up with the rest of the boys. Jorts and tanks were de rigeur for Nascar, and we had dressed for the occasion. It killed me to doff the hand tailored Italian
wool number I was used to sporting, but, when in Rome. God, if only this were Rome.
We strolled outside, and sure enough, there was the van. I gave a quick scan of the roof tops. Just looking out for monkey’s doing their business. Like I said, I hate to get shot early in the morning. We loaded up and headed out. The
mood was tense. We had to get some ice on the way. Ice? What for? The fella driving said it was for some drinks. I checked on all my organs, just in case.
Like any good private eye, my brain never stopped running – I was thinking over all the things I’d heard about Nascar. None if it looked good. I’d never met a Nascar fan before in real life – just heard about ‘em. This meant one of two things: 1. Nascar fans are zombies who live in cities around the race track. 2. Nascar fans are vampires, and the race tracks are protected from the sun. That explains the average skin tone of the Nascar types. Either way, it looked like we were in a whole lotta trouble. I pulled out a L. Strike and prepared for the worst.
RV’s to the horizon, a track like molasses wrapping around us, shimmering in the heat. The sun was trying it’s best to knock you down a peg or two. So I was wrong about the vampires. This place was a city though. Seats 160,000 lidless Groupies, I’d heard. I added ‘mob stampede’ to the list of things I was sweating. The sun was making that list pretty long.
I started watching the people around us, making sure I didn’t forget about that “eye” part of Private Eye. I was on the job – for peanuts, but it was a family deal, like I said. And like they say, “blood is thicker than peanuts.” The first gent I met was from Jersey. He’d been around for a while, and his skin was leathery enough to prove it. Sure, he was riding a motorized scooter with a goofy hat on and multi-colored propeller’s spinning behind both ears, but he’d known despair. We chatted a bit. Turns out, he was a Nascar vet. He’d been a bookie back when he was younger, but he’d seen too many good kids get messed up real bad, and wanted out. And the only way outta that business was in a pair of concrete shoes. But he’d made a deal with Fate, and had to follow the Nascar races all over the place, staying in hiding. He’d outfitted his RV with a spinning chair, to watch the cars go ‘round.
A couple of the guys felt inclined to toss some horseshoes around with a country beauty a few spots down. She had a figure that woulda made 3 – 7 grown men weep, and her jean shorts were long on short and short on jeans. The pits were between two old school buses with giant stands welded on top for watching the race, outhouses strapped on the back. Call it a hunch, but I could tell right away that these people had been here before. I stayed outta the game – I can see a hustle comin’ at me a country mile away, which is just a normal mile in Nascar territory. Sure enough, this dame was a ringer. Poor suckers, I thought, as I pulled on my Lucky Strike.
The race started soon enough. It was late in the evening, and the stadium was lit up like my cousin Tino on a Monday morning at about 10. The temperature had dropped a bit, and my sun burned shoulders under the wife beater started to feel a chill. So I lit cigarettes to compensate and started drinking my beer warm. Mr. Jersey invited us on top a his RV to catch a glimpse of the beasts as they drove around, engines at a dull roar on the safety lap. So much power, and nowhere to go. Then the flag dropped. The cars took off like I couldn’t believe. The crowd went wild. If I didn’t know so much about how tough life is, how it’s all just one big mean gag of nothin’ with lots of dark alleys and darker intentions, I mighta felt a glimmer of something. But the only thing that was glimmering was my lit cigarette in the fading light.
The guy they called Jimmie “Jimmie Johnson” Johnson took the early lead. His car shot like a rocket, or a racecar, out from the banked turns and into the straightaways. The competition looked like chumps. There was a bit of scuffling around and some nifty passes, but nothing fazed the guy out front. Then, 20 laps in something happened – everybody slowed down. Darndest thing. I started racking my brain real hard and smoking my cigarette even harder, trying to put two and two together. I kept gettin’ seven. I ain’t much for numbers, but this seemed a bit off. Then, after a few laps, they took off again. And J. Johnson was in dead last. The hair on my neck was at full salute. Somethin’ fishy was going on, I just had to put my masculine finger on what it was.
I did a bit of information gathering from Mr. Jersey – The race was gonna be 90 laps, four sets of 20 and one set of 10. He said Jimmie stopped at The Pits between sets. Must be the pits alright, if it knocks you from first to last, I thought. So I had some intel, but I still didn’t like it. The whole thing didn’t make sense. Questions were running through my head like oil off a ducks back. Why was Jimmie messing around in The Pits? Who was this Dale Jr. guy in front now? Why’d Dale Sr. let his little kid drive? Who was regulating these races? Aren’t there child labor laws? Why all the left turns? Why not throw in some rights? If Jimmie left Penn Station in a train traveling due west at 60 kilometers per hour and Dale left from Guadalcanal in a row boat traveling north-northeast at 3 miles per fortnight, would they cross paths before or after the Chinese New Year? (Assume gravity is constant) So many questions, and only 70 laps to figure it all out.
I kept an eye on Jimmie as the sets passed by. He stayed glued to the back. Up front things were switching around a bit. Dale Jr. kept a good lead, the 22 car made some gutsy passes, Miller Lite showed some verve, and Matt Kenseth avoided collisions. Everything had settled into a groove, but I could see the slime on the surface. Something had to give. The chords had to resolve. The boys up top were playing things, the way I saw it. And the Boy way up top had left us a while ago. My energy was lower than the dame’s neckline from last night, but I had to stick it out. We got through the first 80 laps, and Jimmie was still sitting back. I kept a good grip on my holster and my cigarette, prepared for anything and expecting the worst. They lined up for the final ten – the crowd was hushed, Mr. Jersey’s eyes looked glazed, The Bachelor was at the bottom of a huge beer funnel with a cigar in his ear, and I was developing a Stage Four twitch and a serious case of esophageal cancer. Then they waved the green flag.
The cars shot past, glimmering in the lights and the flashbulbs and the cigarette embers. The track whined, the fences shook, the crowd roared, Mr. Jersey spun in his chair, The Bachelor danced a meringue with Mr. Jersey’s wife… and I’ll be damned if Jimmie Johnson wasn’t in the lead. And making a gap. The ten laps flashed in a blur, no one even challenged. He’d won the whole wheel of cheese.
I was stunned. But I didn’t let it show. I just kept smoking. You see, the way I figured, it couldn’t a happened any other way. Mr. Johnson had found a loophole. He was playing by the rules like you play by a park. And the Dale’s had been in on it, too. I’d put peanuts on it. The whole mess of it had been fixed from the get go. It was all about The Pits. Most people leave ‘em when they should take ‘em. The whole thing was enough to make you look at a gun like you should only look at a bottle of scotch. But I stopped it from getting me down. Besides, I’d closed this Bachelor case. He was ACME fine, grade A. I’d sent the pigeon to Dame Ruby, and my job was done.
The mist had started to roll in. The stands were emptying and I was walking out of the stadium. The light from the moon shone down on the quiet parking lot and I caught a sparkle slipping around the corner of a building in the distance. From what I’d seen, looked like the sparkle only a high slit gown, some heart stopping gorgeous legs and complex emotional issues can make. I grinned and lit a cigarette. I was on the case.
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