Authors: Pete Hautman
Tags: #Mystery, #Hautman, #poker, #comics, #New York Times Notable Book, #Minnesota, #Hauptman, #Hautmann, #Mortal Nuts, #Minneapolis, #Joe Crow, #St. Paul
A Joe Crow Novel
after twenty years was a time trip. Joe Crow's world now has a quaint, distant feel to it. The characters own no cell phones, they listen to an ancient storage medium known as “cassette tapes,” they play long-forgotten video games, and their vintage comic books are priced according to the 1991 edition of the
Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide
I considered, for about two seconds, updating
âyou know, like they did to the Hardy Boys books back in 1959? But I think Joe Crow and his friends are happier staying in the early nineties. Also, it was a lot less work for me to leave it as a period piece.
I did, however, make a few changes. I fixed some typos, which I hope will make up for the inevitable
typos introduced by the scanning and reformatting process. I also corrected several author blunders, and added subliminals designed to compel you to purchase multiple copies of my entire backlist for your friends and family. (It's too late. You have already been sublimated.)
Drawing Dead (1993)
is the first of five Joe Crow/Sam O'Gara/Axel Speeter novels. It was followed by
Short Money (1995)
, a prequel that tells of Joe Crow's last days as a cop and first days of getting to know Debrowski, and which was the first novel I ever wrote. The third book,
The Mortal Nuts (1996)
, features Sam O'Gara's best friend, Axel Speeter, a taco vendor at the Minnesota State Fair. Some people think that one is the best book of the four. They may be right.
Ring Game (1997)
, the fourth and last book in the series, brings Axel Speeter, Joe Crow, Sam O'Gara, and a host of other characters together in a slow-motion car wreck of a novel. If I do say so myself.
Mrs. Million (1999)
is included in the series only because the main character, Barbarannette Quinn, is one of Sam O'Gara's many illegitimate children.
I should also mentionânow that you've already paid for the bookâthat this is decidedly NOT a “young adult” novel. It is for grownups. Immature grownups perhaps, but grownups nonetheless.
For Mary Logue
I don't care who you areânothing rides like a fucking Cadillac.
Joseph Caruso Battagno
(better known as Joey Cadillac, Joey C. to his friends and customers, Mister C. to his employees, Joe Chicago to his Las Vegas investors, and occasionally referred to as “Stallion” by Chrissy Swenson, his twenty-two-year-old side-squeeze, former Miss Minnesota, recently imported from the frozen wastelands of the north) said that the copy of
he held in his chubby right hand was not for readingâit was for investing.
“Oh, come on, Joey,” Chrissy whined. “It's just a comic book. Open it up. I want to read about the Batman.”
It was Friday night, their night, and they had just finished a late supperâtakeout from Tony'sâin her Lake Shore Drive condo. Joey was showing off his latest acquisition. Joey always had something new to show her. Sometimes it was a present for her, but more often it was something he had bought for himself. Last week he had brought along his new electronic cigar lighter, which Chrissy thought was the coolest thing ever. Chrissy always made it a point to be impressed by Joey's toys.
“I can't, doll. This here is called a Stasis Shield, see?” He handed her the comic in its rigid Mylar sleeve. “It's, like, permanently sealed in there so the air and the, like, pollution don't get at it. Thing's worth three grand, you don't want to fuck it up.”
Chrissy was examining the plastic sleeve, her brow furrowed, glossy lips pushed out past the end of her button nose. “What good is it if you can't read it?”
“Like I told ya, it's worth money, honey. Last year it was worth two grand, this year it's worth three, next year who knows? It's like an in
ment, dollface. Like you buy gold or something. Or a classic car, y'know? Look.” Joey took the comic and pointed out a small card that had been sealed into the plastic sleeve. “See the signatures? That's so you know it's the real thing.”
Chrissy looked at the card. “Who's B. Disraeli?”
“That's Ben, the notary, doll. And the other one, Tommy Paine, he's the country's number-one comic book expert. That's who I got them from. What they do, they seal the book in with some kinda special gas so it stays perfect, what they call mint condition, and you can buy and sell it without its getting wrecked by people like you pawing through it.”
Chrissy pushed her lips out another quarter of an inch. “I don't
,” she said. “I just wanted to read about the Batman, Joey.”
“Well, you can't. I open this up, it loses value. Then I got to pay to have it resealed and notarized and like that.” He held the sealed comic with both hands, holding it out like a new baby. “Three large for a comic book. Ain't that something. And I got twelve more like this, three more
and a bunch of other stuff, every one of them worth two grand or more.”
“Wow, Joey, that's really cool.” Chrissy made her eyes go big. “That's a lot of money.” Joey loved it when she got excited by his money. He liked her to be there, sitting behind him, when he used her place for poker night. He liked it when she clapped her hands when he won. When he lost, of course, he was just impossible for the rest of the week. But he still paid her rent.
Joey grinned. “Didn't cost me a dime, babe. I traded the guy one of our demos, a Fleetwood spun back to ten K on the speedometer. Got thirty K in rare comics for a ten-thousand-dollar demo.”
Chrissy had the comic again and was looking at the purple cover through the thick plastic. The Batman and Robin running straight at her, looking like they were going to jump right through the Mylar shield. She shook her head and licked her lips.
“You're so smart. How come you're so smart, Joey?”
“I dunno.” Joey grabbed a piece of cold garlic toast and pushed it into his mouth, poured himself another glass of Chianti and sucked it down, feeling good about his comics, enjoying this private time with his girl, his Minnesota import with the big front end. At that moment the three K a month she cost him in rent and goodies seemed like nothing, like pocket money. About the same as one vintage comic book. He wiped his fingers on the tablecloth.
“What the hell,” he said, reaching for the sealed comic. “You want to read about the Batman, we'll open the fucker up.” He could just call the comic guy and have it resealed. What was the guy gonna doâsay no to Joey Cadillac? “Make sure your hands are clean, doll.” He took a steak knife and pushed the point into the end of the plastic package and tried to slit it open, but the Mylar, twenty mils thick, resisted the thin-bladed knife. He had to saw with the serrated edge to open it all the way along the top, scratching the cover of the comic book in the process. Red-faced from the effort, he handed the open package to Chrissy.
“Oh, Stallionâ¦” she said in her little-girl voice. “You're so good to me.”
Joey poured the rest of the Chianti into his glass, wiped his brow with his bunched-up napkin, then settled back and unwrapped one of his prized Cuban Montecristos. Chrissy slid the comic out of the sleeve, admired it for a few seconds, crinkled her nose at the Stallion, and opened it to page one. Joey bit the end off his cigar and, since he had already worn out the battery on last week's electronic lighter, lit it with the candle on the table. Chrissy was big on candles, always had to have one going. He settled back in his chair to watch his Minnesota import read his three-thousand-dollar Batman comic.
But Chrissy was frowning. She turned the page, looked at Joey, wrinkled her brow, turned another page, and pouted ferociously. “Oh, you! You were teasing me.”
Joey sat forward, dropping his fifteen-dollar cigar onto his leftover puttanesca sauce. “What?” He reached for the comic, pulled it from her limp fingers, and looked at the inside pages.
“That wasn't nice,” Chrissy was saying as Joey Cadillac stood and roared and threw the comic across the room. Empty, blank pages separated and fluttered to the carpet.
Tom and Ben Show ran out of rock and roll on Interstate 35, five miles north of Clear Lake, Iowa, twenty-six miles east of the cornfield where the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens died.
When Mick Jagger groaned and stuttered during the Sticky Fingers tape, something he had done many times before but never halfway through “
” Tom and Ben looked at the tape deck, then at each other. The song went on to the end with no further interruptions, Tom went back to reading his Spiderman comic, and Ben returned his eyes to the highway, playing the drum part on the rim of the big Cadillac steering wheel. The lemon-yellow Fleetwood slid up 1-35, Cadillac smooth.
Two cuts later, during the long jam at the end of “
Can't You Hear Me Knocking,
” the Stones went into slow time. Ben pressed his foot down on the accelerator, as though by speeding up the Fleetwood he could bring the recording back into phase, but as the digital speedometer counted up, the tape deck moaned and the speakers fell silent. Tom reached out and pressed the eject button. The tape leapt from its slot, followed by a cloud of acrid smoke, which was quickly sucked into the powerful Cadillac climate control vents.
Tom and Ben looked at each other.
Ben lightened his foot on the accelerator and brought the Fleetwood back down to sixty-five miles per hour. A hot plastic reek pierced the climate control's defenses and attacked his nostrils. He sneezed, three times, violently.
“Now what are we gonna do?” asked Tom. “Middle a fuckin' nowhere.” He gestured at the rolling, homogeneous farmland that surrounded them. The land was dotted with rows of small plants. It was early May, planting time, the new growth electric green on the black Iowa soil.
Ben cleared his throat. “Are we on fire?” His voice was deep and cavernous. People who heard him over the telephone visualized him as a big-chested man with a full head of gray hair, a ruddy complexion, and crinkly brown eyes. When he spoke, words took on prodigious meaning. In person, Ben was a less impressive creature. He was six feet three inches tall but weighed no more than one hundred sixty pounds, had both hair and flesh the color and texture of overcooked wheat pasta and eyes like weak, milky tea. An uneven beard was nearly invisible on his face. He wore a gray T-shirt with Mickey Mouse smiling on the front.
Tom, the other half of the Tom and Ben Show, leaned forward and peered into the cassette slot. “It don't look like it,” he said in his smaller, more nasal voice. He shook his head. Shanks of black hair separated, then pasted themselves back together. He picked up the ejected cassette. The case was warped and too hot to hold. He shifted it from one hand to the other, then dropped it back on the floor.
“Please get it out of here.” Ben sneezed again. Tom lowered his window, flipped the tape out onto the highway, and turned to watch it skitter down the pavement after them.
The Tom and Ben Show rolled up 1-35 in silence for almost five minutes before Tom slapped his knee and said, “This is no good. We got to have tunes.”
“Perhaps you could turn on the radio.”
“You kidding me? Do you know where we are? The middle of the fucking prairie, and you want to listen to the radio? You know what kind of shit they listen to out here?”
“Probably the same variety as is listened to elsewhere.”
“Damn straight. We turn that thing on, we might hear Milli Vanilli or Vanilla Ice or something worse, you can imagine that. I might jump out the window, sixty miles an hour. Christ.”
Ben shrugged and kept the Cadillac centered in the right lane. Tom watched a few mileposts flash by, then blew out his cheeks, reached out, and turned on the radio. The speakers crackled and popped. He pressed the station selector several times without results.
“Now the fucking radio don't even work. Where the fuck are we? Where's the fuckin' map?” Tom twisted in his seat and rummaged through the garbage that had accumulated in the back seat. “Where is it?”
“Perhaps you should check your door pocket,” said Ben.
“Son-of-a-bitch.” Tom turned around and found the wrinkled and stained road atlas folded into the passenger-door pocket. He opened it and asked, “Where are we?”
“We passed Clear Lake six minutes ago.”
“What state? Gimme the state.”
“Iowa. Just below Minnesota, west of Wisconsin and Illinois.”
“I know where Iowa is, f'chrissake.” Tom studied the map, running his finger up the blue stripe that represented 1-35. “I'm sick a this, man. I feel like we been on the road a week. This really sucks.”