The clouds are madness today, scudding across the sky like tattered blankets lost to an east wind, the unkindest wind of all. The morning sun flashes only momentarily upon the head and shoulders of a windblown figure standing by the side of the road, Basil Lexington, a study in disabled-vehicle geometry, a point on the line of Illinois Interstate 55, nee the celebrated macadam queen, Route 66, the Way West . . . and long before that an ancient American trade route conveying copper, salt, pipestone, obsidian, peyote . . . what ghosts of neolithic businessmen do the salesmen in Buicks and the screaming semi-trailer trucks pass?
The year is 197-, the era, post-sixties, the climate, late spring, early June, summer beginning to prime her vital juices, and Basil (rhymes with razzle-dazzle!), blindly eastbound, is beginning to shiver slightly, not from cold, although the skies indeed are irregular, mottled, fickle, and the wind grabs at the lapels of his sport coat during fitful gusts. No,it is more the situation in which he finds himself, as cloud-shadows race past him and his broken vehicle, a dusty Chevrolet Vega smelling strongly of the heated oil that pools beneath it and marks, in arcing ragged patches on the road behind, the distance from which a piston rod managed to lose its bearings. . . . Each time he becomes conscious of it, the acrid smell, Basil’s heart sinks; he knows it is the mark of death for vehicles. Plus, he stands to lose his man, whom he has trailed for 2,000 miles . . . and he is actually going to be paid two hundred dollars a day plus expenses for this job, just like the big guys. But it now looks like he’s blown it for sure with “Captain” Jimmy long-gone northward in his sleek Ferrari and Basil stuck in this god-forsaken tortilla-flat cornland with a dead Vega, hood open, no garage in sight—must be able to see for hundreds of miles in each direction, too. Basil lights a cigarette, a Camel, with Pop’s precious Zippo, the only object he has that might conceivably be termed an heirloom, and sighs, hates waiting, especially out here in this enormous oppressive emptiness. He has never been in the Midwest before and all this space is getting to him, a southern California boy (L.A.-born), a confirmed bottom-dweller in the vast topaz basin of smog, accustomed to its harsh topography: cars, buildings, bodies at every turn, flowing freeways like ancient rivers of Coronado: San Diego, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Ventura . . . not at all like here: an awesome clarity of angry sky and uncountable acres of wide open land, infinite untrammeled space with not even token hills in the distance, not a one, farm-clusters appearing like isolate islands in wet black seas stretching horizonward, the topsoil rich and dangerous, so deep here he can sink to his thighs in it . . . yes, and all he wants right now is to get out of here, to get to a garage, to get going, the crummy old Vega never more than a piece of junk anyway, transmission was going too, he thinks. Vaguely, more out of desperation than anything else, feeling a little foolish, Basil extends arm and thumb and almost immediately—a ride! Hot Dog! Brake lights burning red, gravel grinding, an enormous Winnebago motorhome lumbers to the berm like a wounded buffalo with an arrow in its flank, slowing, lurching, and not quite rolling over on its side as it stops in a cloud of dust.
The man at the garage tells Basil that his car is beyond repair and that he will take it off his hands for the cost of the towing. Respectfully, Basil is left alone to think this over, sitting on the Vega’s cold orange hood in the windy back corner of the station’s lot among the fading shells of other wrecks whose lives have also ended here, an eternity of rusting oblivion in the infinite flatlands, what a way to go. . . . Basil feels another chill, wonders what he is going to do now. He has a moderate amount of cash, and the waning end of a Master Charge limit to toy with . . . but certainly not enough for another car, and has no idea how much farther or longer this job will take him. Being a private investigator isn’t quite as easy as it looked; he realizes that he isn’t even sure how he should go about the billing on this case, lengthy as it has become. . . . Doesn’t seem quite appropriate to wire back to L.A. for money now, before he has gotten his man—whatever, exactly, even that means—another of the creeping uncertainties that have come with this case, with the profession.
There is really nothing else to do. From the Vega, Basil retrieves his possessions, a battered leather suitcase and a smaller traveling bag, also of leather, which contains important detective-type equipment: a small cassette tape recorder, a Nikon F1 with an 80×200 zoom lens, a collapsible miniature tripod, a treasured pair of Zeiss 7×35 binoculars he considers absolutely essential, and, of course, his case journal.
“. . . An often overlooked, but extremely valuable portion of an investigator’s equipment is his journal of investigation. Here he will record facts pertinent to his cases, personal observations, happenings in the field, and the like. Often a clue that was missed in field- work will be noticed during careful review of the journal . . .” from An Investigator’s Handbook – A Guide for the Novice, by Franklin “Hawkeye” O’Hara, Schrader Press, Los Angeles, California, 1963.
Impressed by such advice, Basil has diligently plugged away at the thing, which, besides having grown beyond meticulous case scribblings into something more inspired, has also begun to possess a certain hard-bitten style that Basil, aside from anything else, considers efficient. Yesterday, for example:
Kowalske lamming it on to Wisconsin, now, like a scared rabbit who has nowhere else to go but far away from his home hole, or like a weasel with a purpose, on his way to some sort of strange secret rendezvous with destiny, a destiny that lurks somewhere out here in these endless flatlands. Or whatever. I still can’t figure the guy, leaving a set-up like he had going for him. My first instinct is that there’s a broad involved.
* * *
Basil’s next stop, upper Illinois territory, north of Waukegan and south of Kenosha, an essentially neo-primitive sector of Midwestern civilization, where, like a sort of central eye in the swirling confabulation of American destiny, the shining dream has lapsed into something more fundamental and urgent: bawdy roadhouses and billboards, gas stations and trailer parks.
From where he stands on the roadside, where he had been dropped-off by his last ride—a lonely traveling salesman by the name of Bill with a story all his own—he can just see the top of a green and white Sinclair sign about a half-mile or so up the road, and he determines to go there and rustle more smokes and some food, some chips and a Coke, maybe, barbecue chips, if he’s lucky. He’s starving; he hasn’t eaten anything today yet and it is already mid-afternoon.
As Basil scuffles along in the gravel he becomes aware of what must be decades-worth of ankle-deep trash strewn in the narrow corridor of vegetation that fends between the highway and a choking growth of sumac and alder. Lots of it: wadded Kleenex, cigarette butts, styrofoam coffee cups, sodden newspapers, beer cans of Schlitz, Budweiser, Old Style, cracked glass bottles once filled with Rosie O’Grady and Ripple, a child-sized Cubs baseball cap, an old rusted ironing board (how does this stuff get here anyway?), a splintered fishing rod, cracked moldy shoes, condoms, candy wrappers, and, Jeeze, Basil feels a pang as he spots a woman’s black slip floating mutely on top of the weeds, not yet compressed into the inorganic layers, not even yet dampened by rain. The lacy bodice appears to be ripped, split down the middle by some sort of violence and now discarded, ejected from some passing vehicle at terrific speed. Basil quickens his pace, doesn’t look back, the slip is a weird omen, a vestige from his first and actually his only case before this one, just three—or was it now four? lean months ago when the Jack of Hearts Detective Agency had hung out its shingle. When he decided he had to do something, although what is left of the trusts set up for him and then nearly depleted by his parents is still intact, God and the financial managers at Bankamerica willing . . . hasn’t seen them, his parents, for almost a year now, pictures them simmering in Palm Springs in comfortable retirement while their son, their only child, has decided to become a-a private eye! (“. . . Say what, Harold? Did you say he— Let me see that letter. . . .”) Idle roadside ramblings here as thunder-vehicles roar by. . . . But his first job, yes, was a divorce case, or about to be, a wealthy father who suspected his daughter’s husband of philandering, and guess what? it was her instead, and, ha-ha, did she ever, wow, secret meetings all over town with all sorts of scuzzballs—Basil dutifully recorded it all in his case journal from which he then extracted the typed report and presented it and about a dozen 8×10 glossies along with the slip (a black one she had discarded during a late-night tryst on the beach a la From Here to Eternity and then never collected), seemed like a piece of evidence, something concrete to present to Daddy Warbucks who (“What?! Bringing me my daughter’s underwear?!”) was pretty upset, made Basil feel really like the rookie he was, but shelled out $1,350 for nine days work, not bad, but no bonus, should have told mom and dad that, about the money . . . not bad at all for the old Peeper, hey?
The highway and the stream of trash lead him to the Sinclair station which has looming grandly before it an amazingly large concrete dinosaur—maybe twenty feet tall—an entire brontosaurus, its green-painted skin cracked and faded from many seasons of pushing Dino Supreme. Its upward spiraling neck is inclined northward where in a frozen grimace its blank eyes stare out over Wisconsin and Canada, watchful perhaps for the coming of another ice age. Basil briefly pauses to admire the old beast, remembers having miniature plastic dinosaurs as a kid, it was a fad then dating back to perhaps when this baby was created, in the nineteen-fifties, this thunder-lizard the archetype of them all . . . but he never had much time to play with them, denied kidhood, a terrible thing when he thinks about it, wonders, as he hustles up past the pumps if those dinos will ever come back. . . .
“Oh, boy,” intones a cultured voice behind him, “would you please be sure to check the oil, too. After you wash the windshield?”
Basil whirls around, finds himself looking into the deep blue eyes of an extremely attractive young woman. Ooh. A real knock-out, the neurons in his brain detonating like Chinese firecrackers. She is sitting demurely in the white leather interior of a gorgeous maroon Mercedes Benz sports car and although, of course, Basil immediately falls in love with her, he throws in the car too, as if part of a package deal, maybe of the type often transacted here in this once saurian-inhabited wasteland, where men’s values were simpler, or at least more honest: women and cars forming the essential substance of bargains for several thousand years. . . .
“Hey, I’m not the—”
“Oh, I’m sorry, from behind I thought you were—”
Lifting a bag in each hand, he manages to flap the lapels of his sport coat. “Does this look like a gas jockey, hey?” He is somewhat hurt, these days most young men his age are wearing surplus army jackets, and—it has been a long day. “Well, I’m sorry.” The voice more petulant than hurt, petulance not an unknown here, for this is none other than rich, young, pseudo-spoiled Tiffany L’Oreal, woman about town (Chicago), and heiress to the L’Oreal Food Company fortune. Yes, the very same, of the cakes and doughnuts and breakfast cereals, yes, and the famous—or infamous, depending upon your nutritional inclination, Morning Candy Crunch, the company known as LoFoCo, as displayed in the familiar logo on its brightly colored supermarkety packages. But she has nothing presently to do with the firm. She’s an actress—by profession, if something must fill the space marked: occupation—but doesn’t pursue it too hard, which goes along with her affectation of being spoiled; it simply seems like it should be a part of her character, rich and beautiful as she is, and so she plays it that way. Like now, on her way to vacation for the summer in northern Wisconsin where she accepts parts in a small summer stock company up there (she’s got a very big in with the producer), and is in somewhat of a hurry, certainly never bothering with riff-raff along the way. . . . But something piques her interest here; she has been inching up the volume on the Mercedes’ tape player on the drive up from Winnetka, Beethoven’s Ninth, until it has become many hundreds of decibels loud, still ringing in her ears, having made its always amazing metamorphosis from music to pure feeling, and she is currently infused with its power, the Ninth, awesome—it always hits her like this, makes her feel, umm, really powerful and playful, even more than she usually does, operating out in the excessive regions while attached always to the massive anchor of her family’s money. “Say, listen—” she continues, becoming aware of the fact that he is perhaps in need of a ride, but by now Basil has pulled out his P.I. badge and is displaying the gilt ornament to the lovely blonde woman.
“I’m a private investigator, you see, and at this very moment I’m on an important case. But I’ve been hampered by some unfortunate circumstances.”
The girl nearly breaks up. This is going to be fun. With considerable restraint she allows only a broad smile to surface and inquires if he needs a lift.
Basil tells her about the Vega: dead, his immediate direction: north, and, after he quickly rustles up a couple of packs of Camels and brunch: barbecue chips and a Coke, they’re off.