The next morning Crystal and I collected Hank and drove down into the valley. We stopped in a diner in Marysville for breakfast, then headed for the dealership. Over breakfast, we discussed the decision by Hank and Crystal to hold onto their own cars, if that was all right. It was pure hillbilly logic: both the Subaru and the Maverick ran, and you don't get rid of vehicles that run, even if they've been replaced with something better. You hold onto them, just in case. I told them that was fine, they owed me nothing for the "extra" cost (neither had considered tax or DMV fees when pricing cars), I was just happy to get them into something newer and reliable.
We pulled onto the lot of Geweke Ford, the appearance of the Falcon attracting attention. What a trade-in. Walking into the office/showroom, Hank collared the first guy we came to and asked him to point us at a sales-drone named Michael Ellis. This was who Hank and Crystal had spoken to on the phone. We were pointed to a guy at a desk sipping coffee out of a Styrofoam cup. Like all the other drones in the place, he didn't look like a used car salesman: he was in a white shirt, tie, blazer, and slacks. He looked a bit nonplussed at our presence: two punks and what appeared to be an emaciated, elongated version of Neil Young. He put his cup down and asked how he could help.
"We talked on the phone Saturday," said Crystal. "We want to check out the two Taurus SHOs you have on hand."
Ellis looked doubtful, but told us to wait a minute while he collected some keys. We followed him out
into the lot. Sitting with several other Tauruses were the two SHOs, the only real difference in appearance between the SHO and a normal Taurus was an air intake set down low on the chin of the vehicle, and the letters "SHO" at shin level on the passenger door. One black, one blue. Crystal immediately said, "Ooh, I want the black one!" Hank chuckled and said that was fine.
The sales-drone put the keys to each car in their respective doors and invited them to have a look. I was paying for the damn things, so I took a look too. The interiors were clean and well-fitted, with almost no wear. Five speed shifters stuck up from the center transmission hump. I was alarmed to see both SHOs had high mileage for their age, pressing up against 60,000 miles. For three year old cars, that seemed excessive. I asked Ellis about that.
He explained, "They're rental returns.... And before you panic, hear me out. All our cars are inspected and repaired before they go out for sale, in fact both of these got new clutches just as a matter of course. Everything we sell has a one year warranty. If I remember the history of these Tauruses, we picked them up from Avis, and Avis takes good care of their vehicles. I've driven the blue one, it's a dream. Yes, they have slightly high odometers, but they're still in fine condition. We'd be asking another $1500 each if they had lower mileage."
"Hey Crystal, pop your hood," called Hank. Crystal obliged. We stared in at a clean engine bay. Hank frowned and popped off the air filter cover. Clean there too, and an new filter. The manifold and valve cover gaskets were clean and dry, no oil. All the fluids looked fresh. We went and did the same inspection on the blue one.
Having not slept, Crystal was still in the same punkstitute garb she'd been in the night before. She bopped up to the salesman, gave a drug-addled smile, and said, "I wanna drive the black one."
"And I wanna drive this one," added Hank.
"I wish to drive either of them," I told Ellis.
"I'm assuming you're a friend of these two?" asked Ellis.
"You got it. I'm also the guy paying for their cars, so I consider it my business that they get good iron. I'll ride along while they do their test drives."
"I.... See. So you plan on financing two cars today, sir?"
I chuckled. "Nope. I'll be paying cash for both of them. They're gifts, and I got the money."
Crystal started the black one and called to me and Ellis, "Let's roll! I wanna see how this sucker handles."
Ellis took the passenger side, I jumped in the back seat. Crystal powered through the lot, waited for a gap in traffic, and bombed out onto the highway. She hooked a right at the first light and zipped through traffic, to the distress of Ellis. At the mall she spun a u-turn and headed back towards the 99, where she turned north and laid into the gas. When it came to driving, the concept of subtlety was lost on Crystal. We rocketed up two ramps, where she got off.
I instructed her to find a place to pull over, so I could flog the beast a little. I was happy. Shifting was smooth as a Honda's, plus plenty of power. It was no racer, but you didn't have to worry about merging on a short ramp. Other than a mild engine note under acceleration, it was quiet. No rattles. No wind. I got us back to the dealership. As I pulled in the lot, I asked Crystal, "So what do you think?"
She said, "This thing rips. I like it. Can I get it? I'll need to pull the stereo out of the Subaru, but beyond that I'll be happy with this."
I asked Ellis, "So where should we park? We're buying this one."
He smiled back at me and said, "Pull up on the right side of the showroom. We'll have it vacuumed real quick. Let's go see how your other friend feels about his. You said you're paying cash? What bank do you use?"
"Um.... Wells Fargo, why? I'm paying cash."
Ellis looked confused. "You're not writing a check?" he asked.
I looked confused right back. "Wasn't planning on it. No, I'm paying for both cars with cash. Like, folding money. Greenbacks. Legal tender."
"You're carrying that sort of money on you right now?"
"Lenny is very successful at his day job!" cackled Crystal.
We went out with Hank in the blue SHO. He was a far more sedate driver, which made Ellis happy. Hank declared his happiness and satisfaction with how the car drove, and we returned to the dealership. The black SHO was already being attacked with a Shop-Vac. Crystal joined us, and we went in the showroom to Ellis's desk. I sat down and began unstrapping money belts from my left leg.
Giving me his confused look, Ellis said, "Well, I guess the short answer is $13,330. And you said you're paying with paper money."
I began pulling bundles of hundreds out of the money belts. Five went in a stack. I pulled the wrapper off a sixth and counted off nine bills. "There you go," I said. "I just need $70 in change back."
Ellis stared at the stack of cash, then scooped it up. "I'll be back in just a few minutes." He scurried off in the direction of where the real offices were.
After about four minutes, Crystal complained, "Well, fuck me. What's the hold-up? I wanna cruise my new ride."
Hank said, "I can pretty much guarantee they''re checking for counterfeit bills and counting it all, making sure none of them bundles were short. Shit, I wouldn't trust us damn hillbilly dope addicts either."
Ellis finally returned, showing a wide mushy grin. He said, "I'm sorry for the wait, we're just not used to seeing that sort of cash all at once around here, certainly not to buy two cars. I must ask, what are the circumstances that these cars are being bought under?"
Hank, Crystal and I all glanced at each other. I said, "I knew these two were driving junkers and could use something with a little more life left in them. Crystal here has a '79 Subaru that couldn't go seventy if you dropped it off a cliff, and poor Hank here has a '73 Ford Maverick."
Hank said, "I will say I got my money's worth out of it, I suppose, but I only paid $400 for it to begin with."
Ellis asked me, "And what prompted you to buy them good used cars?"
"They needed them," I shrugged.
"If you don't mind my asking, what do you do for a living?"
Both Crystal and Hank erupted into loud laughter. I smiled and said, "I run a video production company down in San Diego. I've been quite successful."
"He makes really awesome porn," announced Crystal. "I was amazed when I saw his movies, he got everything about them right: the fucking, the dialogue, the characters, everything."
Ellis's smile got even mushier. It was then I realized his tie tack was a Christian cross. I decided to forge ahead for my own amusement. I said, "You ever see a feature called 'Bewitched'? Or 'Dangerous Desires'? Or 'Temporary Pleasures'? Those are some of my movies. The most recent is called 'Succubus,' and is post-apocalyptic action. Hey Crystal, do me a favor, run out to the trunk of the Falcon and get in the cardboard box in there, and grab a cassette."
Crystal trotted out, moving as quick as one can in domme boots. I grinned at Ellis and said, "Yeah, it's a strange plateau of the entertainment world I inhabit, but I've had huge amounts of success. I manage to entertain on multiple levels at once."
Ellis said, "Yes, uh, I've heard of 'Bewitched.' Wasn't there also a sequel?"
"Yes, 'Stroke of Luck.' You've seen them?"
"No-ooo, actually, I was warned to not give into the temptation and view them. Because of the, uh, sexual content in both."
"Well duh, dude, it's porn. That's kind of the idea. That's like being warned off candy because of the sugar. So who was telling you to not see my movies?"
"My pastor. 'Bewitched' became incredibly popular, right? He said it was just sin and filth masquerading as acceptable entertainment, a wolf in sheep's clothing. And you say you made it?"
I grinned and said, "Wrote and produced. Do me a favor and pass on a message to your pastor. Tell him I said I'm sorry he's so disgusted by the beauty that is God's gift of sexuality, but that was the whole point of the exercise. Yeah, I make porn. I've never pretended to do anything else. What sets me apart is that I make porn which actually is intellectually satisfying. I make real movies, not just crap to beat off to. I'm damn proud of what I do, I make adult entertainment you can actually use your brain to enjoy. And the church-going members of my studio, which is most of them, will only shake their heads when told they sin for a living.
"Oh! Also tell him that I've met people in the past who felt they were doing God's work by trying to get rid of pornography. A few have tried to kill me, and I can show you the scars where I was shot. Basically, if he decides he wants to fight a holy war against my studio, he can do so by mail. But I carry a gun, and I've used it to protect myself and my cast and crew. I can guarantee whatever he believes about my spiritual life, he is wrong, wrong, wrong. I rarely attend church, but I have my faith, and I know God's grace. Like I was saying, I believe sexuality is one of God's most beautiful gifts. I just happen to make a living by celebrating it in a very direct manner. Pass that on to him. Hell, give him this...." I handed Ellis an Inana Productions business card. ".... And tell him to feel free to give me a call. I'll explain to him I'm not a sinner, I'm not a pervert, I'm not a pander, I don't exploit women. I'm just a random guy, and a christian, who happens to make a living documenting consensual sexual activity in all its glory. But if he thinks I'm some sort of monster, he's barking down an empty rabbit hole. I'm just some dude."
Crystal returned with the copy of "Succubus" for Ellis. He stared at the cover. Crystal helpfully pointed out, "That chick front and center? That's Lenny's wife."
Ellis read over the cover and suddenly exclaimed, "Oh yes, Becky Page. Um, my pastor doesn't like her either."
Crystal said, "Your pastor can eat me. Becky Page is one awesome chick, I know her."
"Definitely have him call. I'm sure there will be a lot we'll have to agree to disagree about, but I don't like anyone with an audience giving people the impression that my wife and I are creeps," I said. "Shit, you know what it's like to have a job where people think you suck, you sell used cars. What if I'd spent the whole time today acting like you're some kind of sleazy thief, a professional liar?"
A balding guy walked up behind Ellis and said, "So Michael, these are your cash customers, huh? What's that you got there?"
Ellis handed the balding guy the cassette and said, "This is a movie this gentleman made. He wanted to give me a copy."
The balding guy looked at the cover and brightened up. "Hey, 'Succubus!' I've got it on order! Can't wait to see it, it's supposed to be the most out-there adult film ever made. And it's got Becky Page, so it's gonna be great. Who is this gentleman again?"
I stuck a hand out. "Lenny Schneider. Writer, producer, and C.O.O. of Inana Productions. Also husband to Becky Page."
My hand was shook aggressively. "Tom Baxter, new car sales. Wow.... Yeah, now I remember you from that article in Time. Gosh, being married to Becky Page, that must be incredible. So Michael has been helpful? No problems? Any chance you're in the market for a new car?"
Smiling, I said, "Nope, happy with the Ford I got. It's the hot rod Falcon your lot guys and mechanics keep going over to stare at. I just wanted to get a couple friends in a couple fairly late model vehicles, which I have accomplished. I take it you're a Becky Page fan?"
"Hey, who isn't?" beamed Baxter.
"Did you also enjoy 'Bewitched'?"
"That's how I became a Becky Page fan."
I said, "Do me a favor and assure Mr. Ellis here that his soul will not be corroded away by watching either 'Bewitched' or 'Stroke of Luck.' He has been given erroneous information about the movies I produce. Also assure him that Becky Page is not a demon or a harpy."
Baxter frowned down and said, "Hey, Michael, Becky Page is one awesome lady! And those are both great movies, I have them both. I'll loan 'em to you. Tell you what, you loan me this one so I can finally see it, and I'll loan you 'Bewitched' and 'Bewitched II.' Deal?"
"Um.... No problem, Tom. Movies can't steal my soul," said Ellis.
"What's your problem with Becky?" growled Crystal.
Ellis said, "Me, I don't know much about her. My pastor says she uses sex to corrupt, both men and women. According to him, Becky Page wants to remove all morality from American culture. She would destroy marriage. Fidelity and chastity would eventually die out, and everyone would constantly engage in mindless sexual acts with no feeling or meaning."
"I can't wait to talk to your pastor," I said. "Or better yet, Becky talks to him. First of all, Becky Page is married. To me. And happily, too. And Becky hates people who sport-fuck, she thinks they don't have souls, so that rubs your 'mindless sexual acts' statement into the ground. Becky is very sex positive, but when she talks to teens, she always reinforces the idea that they shouldn't do anything they aren't comfortable with. Not ready for sex? Then don't, and don't let anyone pressure you, either. No, Becky Page is not a nymph. Your pastor needs to talk to her and learn what she's really like."
We said our goodbyes and headed to pick up the two new ones. As we walked, Crystal said, "Why the fuck were you bothering to play nice with God-Boy in there? Fuck him, he insulted Becky. You should have told him to suck your dick."
I responded, "Actually, his pastor insulted both Becky and me. He was just parroting him. And if I had laid into him, it wouldn't have done any good. It would have just confirmed that pornographers are heathens. Believe me, I fucked with his mind more by calmly and rationally stating my case and directly challenging his pastor to interact with me, one man to another. I guess I'll find out if this pastor has any stones, if he really believes his own bullshit. Okay, let's caravan to that Chevron station we passed on the way in. I wanna fill both your tanks."
Crystal said, "Why the Chevron? Their gas is expensive. C'mon Lenny, I know you got money to burn, but no sense in wasting it. Let's just go to the Arco."
"I like Chevron gas. You can burn whatever you want after today, but I want you both to get some of those detergents through the fuel-injected engines you have. Figure they're former rentals, they've had a lifetime of cheap gas. Besides, Chevrons have better mini-marts than Arcos. They'll actually have fresh donuts, you know?"
We fueled and got apple fritters, then headed back towards Camptonville. Crystal was gone like a shot. She had a serious lead foot, and her sense of manners and land discipline reminded me of Italian taxi drivers. She bullied, she hopped lanes, she closed up any open space, and if she made those around her nervous, too goddamn bad. She got back to the Possum Ranch ten minutes before Hank and I. When I got out of the Falcon, she ran over and hugged me tight. "That car rocks!" she declared.
Hank and I smoked a bowl --- Crystal was still plenty high from what she'd shot up that morning --- and me and Crystal headed back to her place. Mojo had taken four phone messages, all from people wanting to do business with Crystal. She called them back (Mojo took surprisingly good messages) and we scheduled them out, to provide samples and hopefully actually move some dope. Crystal set up the scale on the kitchen table and weighed out four ounces and four half ounces. When she finished, she looked down at the table and said, "Jesus. I'd have thought being around this much shit would have made me come in my pants. Working with it, it's just kinda.... there. I don't care."
"Good," I said. "That means you can look at dope objectively. It's only product, it means nothing. You can't be hung up on the crap when you're making your living off it."
"Am I going to be making a living moving shit?" Crystal asked me.
"You tell me. Do you want to? I set you up so you'd have a gross profit of six grand if you do things right. Not bad money for playing with a scale and dealing with tweakers. Turn it around, re-up, keep the ball rolling. If you can handle dealing like a business you'll do fine. Act like it's a party and you'll never get ahead. Spend too much of your own time tweaking, nobody will want to deal with you, because you'll be really fucking unreliable. Watch your personal use, treat it like a business. Watch for people who seem to be setting themselves up for a bust. Be reliable, keep the same hours every day you're available. You've got the best shit around, and I want to see you pull this off. Poverty sucks, especially when your friends suffer from it. Tell me, would Mojo make a good mule? I've never seen her drive a car, but if she can drive, she could be your mule."
"A nice thought, but it wouldn't work. Her behavior would creep people out: the staring, the refusal to talk unless someone else talks to her first, her goddamn airhead smile.... No way. Also, she can't be trusted to handle money. She'll go in a store, buy a candy bar with a ten, and walk off without her change. I'm not trusting her with hundreds of dollars. She can drive, but she's a little slow. Maybe when I start driving to San Diego to re-up, I'll bring her along as a relief driver."
Crystal put the weighed-out dope in a grocery bag, tucked it under the front seat of the Taurus, and we took off. Her driving was now vastly different, she was the model of good manners and lawful behavior. I was guessing the multiple felonies we had in the car rested heavy on her mind. Good. Our first stop was a mobile home park in North San Juan. We parked and walked up to a single-wide, knocking on the tin door.
A dude with a tragic mullet let us in and gestured us onto an abused sofa. "So who's this dude?" he asked, gesturing at me.
"This is Lenny from San Diego, he's a friend. He's been helping me out. So Jeremy, what if I told you I had a line on pharmaceutical-grade shit, fucking rocket fuel and totally clean, and the connection is solid? It kicks ass over everything else out there right now, and my lead on it is set. I can get any volume you want, too. Want to try a sample?"
Jeremy considered me a moment, then said, "Sure, set me up." He pulled a mirror with a razor blade on it from under the coffee table and handed it to Crystal. She extracted the sample bag from her leather and quickly engaged in the task of setting up a couple lines, crushing and chopping. The mirror was handed over to Jeremy, who eyed what was there.
"Good color," he commented. He dipped a pinky into one of the lines and tasted. Then he produced a tooter from somewhere and snorted one up. He got a bit of a surprised look on his face.
"Holy Jesus, that stuff really is clean. Damn. Kicks, too. The fuck did you get it from?"
Crystal smiled and said, "Don't worry about that. Just know I've got volume, and I've got a good line on getting more, I'm going into business. So, you like?"
"I like, I like. Damn. Can't remember the last time I felt something like that, this shit is good enough to smoke. And you say you can get volume?"
"Anything you want, within reason," answered Crystal.
Jeremy said, "How much you want for two ounces? I can dump this shit overnight."
Crystal smiled and said, "For you, baby, I'll give you two ounces for $1900. Normal is a thousand an ounce, but if you really want it, I'll cut you off a little."
"Just how long to I gotta wait to get it?" asked Jeremy, suddenly suspicious.
"You got the cash? If you do, then as long as it takes me to walk to the car and back. Can you cover what I'm asking?"
"You're set up, huh? And you can keep getting this level of shit? No games? No fake bags?"
Crystal said, "No games. What you tried is what I got. I want to make this an ongoing venture, so I ain't about to play around with people. You know how I hit mine, and one hit lasts me for thirty-six hours. Keep yours clean, you can ask whatever you want, and you'll have people lining up at your door. About fuckin' time somebody got some decent dope up in these hills, and I'm the one who will make it happen."
I fell under Jeremy's gaze again. "So who is this dude again?" he asked.
"He's a friend. He's not really my connection, but he's here to make people play straight with me. Lenny, open your jacket and show him what I mean."
I glared at Crystal, but kept my cool and unbuttoned my jacket, exposing the butt of my Beretta. I told Jeremy, "I don't have a real interest in how Crystal conducts business, that's up to her. But I do want to make it clear that anyone trying to fuck her around is also fucking around other people. I'm just an escort. The other people can be mean, get me? You got the cash, right? Crystal, go grab him his two ounces."
Both of them stood up and moved at the same time. Crystal returned first, setting two ounce bags down on the coffee table and taking a seat. Jeremy was longer. I was expecting him to return with a shotgun in his hand, but he came bearing a large wad of bills, otherwise empty-handed.
Crystal accepted the proffered bundles and began counting. It was mostly twenties, with a couple fifties and some tens mixed in. She knelt on the carpet and sorted bills onto the coffee table, then declared it was all there, plus twenty over, which she handed over to to Jeremy. "Gotta watch that shit, dude, anyone else would have let it ride," she said. "Can I use your phone?"
Calling ahead to our next stop to let them have an ETA, Crystal said to me, "Let's roll, they're waiting. They're curious about what I got."
Jeremy looked slightly annoyed. "So I ain't gonna be the only person around with this shit?"
"You gotta be kidding," said Crystal. "I'm in business now. You think you'd be my only customer? Okay, you start moving two pounds a week, we'll talk. But you're not the only one slinging up this fuckin' mountain, and I gotta make a living."
As we headed for the door, Jeremy grabbed my shoulder and asked, "So am I gonna see you around?"
I gave him a look and said, "Hope you don't. If you see me again, that means you fucked up, and you gotta pay. Tell you what, if you see a new Cadillac Fleetwood pull up in front of your place, you step out onto your steps here with your hands up and empty. We may be able to talk things through, you never know. But a black Fleetwood in front of your door means you pissed people off, get me? You play straight with Crystal, you got nothing to worry about."
Jeremy gave me a sickly grin. "Hey, as long as the product is honest, nothing to worry about here."
"Never worry about the product. We got a business to run. Later."
I got in the Taurus next to Crystal and said, "I put a scare in him. He'll never fuck you over. So where are we headed next?"
Crystal said, "Up on the ridge, then back into Camptonville, then down into Dobbins. We're stopping by my place before we head to the Dobbins address, they were the ones I was expecting to want volume, not Jeremy. Jesus, two ounces, like that. Your shit is magic. I'll be down to re-up in a week at this rate."
"Good. I've dealt with the garbage you people have had to deal with around here, it's poison. If you can deliver decent product dependably, do it. Don't cut. Leave that to other people, you're making good money at the rate you're going."
Adjusting her grip on the steering wheel, Crystal said, "It's weird. I've got all that shit sitting in my house. Part of me wants to dive into it. Like, if I hit big, I will literally come in my pants, then lie on the floor and twitch for ten minutes. But that has no appeal. I've got a job to do. Part of my brain is saying to hit when we get to the house, but a bigger part of me is saying that's stupid, I've gotta keep my wits about me, you know? Am I making sense?"
"You are," I assured. "You're taking on a lot of responsibility, you can't tweak, no matter the temptation. Hold it steady. I know you think snorting and smoking is weak, but that will treat you better. You won't get the head punch you're used to, but you'll be up and alert without tweaking. Okay?"
Crystal considered this, and said, "Okay. After we finish with these three addresses, we're headed to go pick up a pipe. I can deal with smoking it."
"Buy two pipes. They break easy."
And we went to three more addresses and played the same game. Crystal dumped eight ounces of dope before it was dinner. She was the one to take us out to the bar that night.