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Meet Gascoyne, a man who spends whole weeks in his car, eating, sleeping, and conducting his business via mobile phone. Gascoyne has found a new preoccupation―hunting down the killer of his business associate (last seen slithering away from the crime scene in a tree-sloth costume), and finding out how the southern California megalopolis has suddenly, despite all his power and prestige, slipped out of his grasp.
“A mix of Sam Spade played by Inspector Clouseau plus Howard Hughes played by Dr. Strangelove—or all of them played by Bill Murray. In 1966 Gascoyne does what everybody does now: spends most of his time in his car talking on the phone . . . Our least-known great comic novel, a novel as prophetic as it is hilarious.” —The Austin Chronicle
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|Publisher:||ABRAMS, Inc. (Ignition)|
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IT all starts when I give the accelerator pedal a couple of pumps and turn the ignition key and the starter growls and finally the engine turns over and comes to life with noises that aren't as regular as they used to be. The old Nash which is the last big one they made back in '55 is getting a little tired but I'm faithful to the end and won't let the buggy out of my hands until it gets to the point where she just won't go anymore. Just then the phone rings.
"GASCOYNE?" says a voice I can't call familiar.
"Who else?" I say. "Who's this?"
"Never mind. Rufus Roughah has just been shot between the eyes out in his country digs."
"Don't say. Why tell me?"
"Thought you ought to be among —" and then there's a gargling noise and the thing hangs up.
This leaves me in a puzzled state because the number of people who've got my phone number I can count on my right hand, and if Roughah's dead it doesn't matter who knows it first or last since nobody's going to bother to clear out their tear ducts over that one.
I slip the thing into drive and squeeze my way into the Bastinado Street traffic mess and run it up to thirty-five, which is what everybody is trying to do in spite of the fact they haven't got around to synchronizing the signals yet. But if you try to go slow they start rubbing the chrome off your rear bumper. Then the phone rings again. It's Marge.
"Hello dear. Say, Ralph brought the Dodge back from the garage and gave me a bill for fifty-two dollars and sixteen cents. Somehow dear I get the idea I'm supposed to pay it."
"Well why not?" I ask.
"Oh. Well you see dear in the past when I've had the car repaired there there haven't been any bills because you said some time ago, Take your car over to Ralph's and I'll take care of the bills."
"Well," I say, "I didn't mean all of the time Marge, after all we've got to sort of share expenses every now and then. Sometimes you are very extravagant, you know."
"Now dear please don't tell me that fifty-two dollars and sixteen cents for automobile repairs is an extravagance. The car had to be repaired. It wouldn't run otherwise. It just sat there and made whistling noises."
"It's true, ask Ralph. Then name me an extravagance I've done lately."
"Well I can't think of one at the moment Marge but I'll think about it and tell you later. Say I just got an interesting piece of news."
"What?" she asks, not very happy.
"Some anonymous guy calls me on the phone and says Roughah's just been shot between the eyes."
"Well that must mean he's dead then. Are they going to make tomorrow a holiday?"
"You're sure he's dead?"
"No, just what Anonymous told me."
"Why don't you call to make sure?" she asks. "I'd hate to celebrate before it's time."
"Good idea. 'Bye Marge."
I hang up and dial Roughah's number.
"Roughah residence. State your name and —"
"GASCOYNE here. Give me Rufus."
I slip into the fast lane on Bastinado to try to catch the next three signals. They're not synchronized yet here either but if you can get through the orange on the first one you can hit green on the second and orange again on the third and it looks like we've got an orange coming up nicely on the first this time.
"GASCOYNE?" says unmistakably Roughah's voice.
"Right. How's things?"
"Cut the crap. What do you want?"
"Seriously," I say, "somebody said you weren't feeling too well."
"So, how are you and what are you doing?"
"GASCOYNE I give you two seconds to shape up."
"Okay, honest, who's there with you now?"
So he hangs up and I squeeze through the orange light at about forty-five which means the second light's all mine. Somebody says Rufus's dead and it's pretty clear he isn't, something's fishy is my verdict, and namely that somebody's planned to bump him off but is behind schedule which happens often enough in this world. But they ought to be back on schedule pretty soon, I'm thinking, and it might be very interesting to be around the Roughah place about as soon as I can possibly get there to see exactly what's going on. But of all the luck, somebody's tampered with the timing of the third signal and all I see is a nice display of red lights. I slam on the brakes and because the right front brake grabs on occasions like this I come to a stop that takes up two lanes and after screeching of tires but no crunching of metal. I back up a little and pull the Nash back into its lane and really bang the accelerator down when the light goes green. According to my memory, this procedure may get me down to Mirindaranda Road without stopping for the two lights in between.
All goes well and I hit the two lights at about fifty and catch the green arrow left onto Mirindaranda Road, which runs east out into the sticks and west square into the Roughah estate where it splits into two other boulevards that go around Roughah's and then through a mess of housing tracts and finally downtown. I'm heading straight for Roughah's now and all the signals are synchronized here so I'm all set. The traffic looks reasonable for the hour and then the thing is six lanes wide so it pretty well handles the shopping traffic, being as it is one of those continuous commercial boulevards with drive-in everything for ten miles, open twenty-four hours a day. I give Chester a ring.
"Chester, you didn't give my phone number to anybody lately, did you?"
"No boss, why?"
"Some anonymous guy called and told me Roughah's been murdered."
"That's good news. No, so far as I know he could have got your number through Roughah himself or O'Mallollolly."
"O'Mallollolly's got it?" I ask.
"He wasn't given it, but I think he could get it if he really wanted to."
"Yeah I suppose you're right Chester."
"Say boss Mark wants to know if you're in or out of the real estate thing."
"Put me in for two thirds," I say.
"No boss, things are pretty quiet today."
"Good. Look Chester, I'm going to take a look around the Roughah place for awhile so don't call me because I might not be in the car."
I hang up and let up on the gas a little to pull the speedometer needle down to forty-three which is what you've got to run at if you're going to make all the signals, once you get in step. I swing into the middle lane to avoid the left-hand-turn crowd and it's the best place to be when you're cruising like this because you can pull right or left when you run into that character going thirty-nine wondering why he has to stop for every red light when he can see them turning green way up there ahead very regularly. The secret is, if you've got anywhere from one to three green lights ahead of you, and Mirindaranda Road is one of those streets you used to be able to see down the whole length of but not anymore, with one to three green lights then you're in step, but with four ahead you've got to speed up or you'll get slapped by an orange and then a red and have to start all over again.
I run by the two big shopping centers at the west end of Mirindaranda Road and instead of turning right or left when the boulevard breaks up I go straight which lands me on a small street of fur shops and jewelry stores and pet stores. The street ends at the main gate of the Roughah grounds and I slowly swing left while taking a gander up their half-mile driveway and their house which looks like Mt. Vernon filled with air and pumped up a little. No cars parked up there, and so I roll down the side street that runs past their garage–servants' quarters and the doors are open and the Rolls and the Cad and the Avanti are there as usual, red, white, and blue.
Things look damn quiet for a murder to be going on but then it could be a family affair. Still something tells me somebody's there who isn't there usually and I'm dying to know who. Since I can't go up the drive without scaring away the wildlife I wonder about finding that back entrance I've always meant to look into but never have. I turn left and then right again onto Mangoldia Street which angles through housing tracts down to the south end of the Roughah layout and then runs along it. Just then I remember a couple of things I forgot and give Chester a ring.
"Chester I forgot to ask what's up on the government surplus auction, you hear anything?"
"Got it all lined up. Three hundred jeeps, and you won't even see the damn things."
"Great. On the Jennings case I just thought of something. I want him trailed with a camera as I told you and her also."
"Her?" Chester asks.
"Yeah I think this one's worth playing both ends. Fat chickens."
"Okay boss. Color or black and white?"
"Joker. Always use color for bed scenes."
About then Mangoldia twists right and starts running along the south side of Roughah's, with his woods to the right and run-down fruit groves to the left they're staking out for housing tracts. I slow down and start looking for a place to stash the car and have the luck to find a bulldozer and one of those earthmovers dumped off the road and in the fruit trees a little. I swing in and stop the car behind them both which doesn't exactly conceal the Nash from the road but gives the impression that we're all one big family.
I slide out and lock the door and wait until a couple of cars go by and then cross the road to the edge of the Roughah woods and peek in but can't see a damn thing. It hits me then that it's a funny game I'm playing — Roughah is in a way a client of mine and it's me who's got to risk my neck to make sure he's being smart with his own interests. Well that's the way life bounces and so I plunge into the woods and hope for the best. In about ten yards I spot the first trip line and crawl under it without setting off the shotgun, and then I have no trouble finding the other two. Now all I have to worry about are the dogs but there at least I've got something of an in since Marge's sister raised one of the German shepherds in the pack. Nothing to stake your life on but every little bit adds up.
I push my way through the foliage in what I hope is a circular route toward a prong of the woods that goes right up close to Roughah's second-story study, about twenty minutes' hike I calculate allowing for the congested state of greenery. Nothing's been cleared or cleaned out in these woods and I keep tripping over branches and getting pokes in the eye. After a spell the trees give way to a large expanse of big thick bushes I've never seen before and I have no idea what they are and don't really care either, but the damn things are thick and leafy and I can't see any more than five feet in front of me. At least they don't have thorns and they're pretty quiet as bushes go so I can't really complain besides the fact it's taking me forever to go I'm not sure where, given now the poor state of my sense of direction.
All of a sudden I stumble right into a large clearing and about drop over to find Police Commissioner O'Mallollolly's limousine parked square in the middle and Maxie his chauffeur and bodyguard leaning against the front fender, smoking a pipe and looking at the sky. His back's to me and just as he begins to turn around to see what the noise is I duck back into the bushes and make the sound of the Wet-Wing Swamp Grouse. To my alarm, Maxie bends down and picks up a large rock and heaves it square at my part of the bushes and in spite of the great pain in the shoulder he causes I manage a passable Swamp Grouse panic chirrup with accompanying wing noises and whirrings, which I cut short by tossing a couple of pebbles under the bushes to my right. Maxie throws the next rock there and when everything's quiet goes back to the front fender and his pipe. My wound is a large bruise with fortunately no blood flowing.
I'm wondering hard all this time what O'Mallollolly's doing here on Roughah's grounds. I suppose there's a first time for everything and there's no sense expecting the earth to shake, but after all O'Mallollolly's an elected official and something maybe big's up when he starts paying social calls to Roughah whose only secret is how he keeps out of the fed's hands. And Roughah himself said he left town during election time three and a half years ago because he couldn't stand seeing O'Mallollolly's picture plastered all over town. So I'm wondering how long they've been palsy-walsy like this and why and I'm pretty pissed off at being left out of this one. Been getting a little careless, I think, and decide to change all that.
Maxie finishes with his pipe and knocks the ashes out on his hobnail heel and then climbs in behind the wheel, slouching down with his cap over his head. Well this is nice and O'Mallollolly's big long Cadillac is super tempting, so I carefully and noiselessly slip the silencer onto the automatic and zero in on the left rear whitewall at such an angle that it'll go through the tire into the gas tank. It does just that with a nice little thunk and Maxie sits up and looks around to the sound of leaking air and gas. As he gets out I slip deeper into the bushes but turn around to watch him crouching and examining the little round hole in the tire. All of a sudden he jumps up with a horrible look on his face and raises his hands and tries to look at all the bushes at once.
I angle my way around in the bushes to where I figure there's a little path leading up to Roughah's palace from the woodsy parking lot. My guess is right and so I go along in the bushes parallel to the path, keeping about four feet away from it and hoping I won't walk into something I won't be able to back out of in a hurry. I go as slow as I possibly can with a minimum of noise picking each bush branch out of the way and stepping on no twigs or excessively dry leaves, not so easy with a bruised shoulder. Then as I go on the mess gets even thicker with the addition of very strong clinging vines which reduce visibility to three feet and make loud rustling noises. I stop awhile and wonder whether it might be smarter to go out and show myself and take to the path, ducking in with signs of danger or life. This I decide is the thing to do in spite of the evident risks so I turn toward the path only to find that I've lost it and have no idea where I am.
I stand there a minute trying to get my bearings but the bushes and vines are so thick I can't even see where the sun is. Whatever I do now is a stab in the dark so I set off in the direction I think I was going in but now making quite a lot of noise. The trouble is my legs and arms and neck get caught in the vines and having nothing to cut myself free with I have to pull which means causing about ten cubic feet of rustling vines and bushes. I have never been in such thick vegetation. The rate I'm going I calculate a half-mile an hour. Still the vegetation seems to get thicker and I get the uncanny sensation that the stuff is actually growing around me. Visibility is now down to the next leaf, which is the one I'm trying to blow out of my face.
Unfortunately I'm not the nature-loving type that really eats this stuff up so I can't say I'm having a good time. Nothing like reinforced concrete to walk on, I always say, vegetables are fine but on a plate only. Aside from a few bird calls and that sort of crap I learned as a Boy Scout, I've been pretty well able to keep my dealings with nature down to a minimum and intend to continue that way. As far as I'm concerned, the guy who invents an insecticide to kill everything living except us humans is really going to make a fortune. Just what I could use now to clear this bush and vine business out of my way.
All of a sudden I find myself stepping on something squirmy so I pull the vines apart so as to be able to see my feet and when a space is clear there's about a foot's worth of fat snake, its head and tail disappearing into the jungle on both sides. It's got one of those nasty diamond patterns on its back and I'm about to blast away at the thing when it occurs to me that it might be best to leave it alone or wait until his head appears. The thing is moving slowly but I can't tell which way, whether its head has gone by or whether it's backing up. I wait and pretty soon the thing starts to get smaller and in a couple of minutes the tail slithers by with the longest set of rattles I've ever seen, about seven inches.
I chew a piece of Wrigley's over that one and then start going again, now without bothering at all about keeping quiet, since I'd just as soon give a little warning to the snakes and whatever else. Then it occurs to me that I might be going in one great big circle and I'm disturbed at not being able to do anything about it. I was never very good at geometry.
Getting through the vines and bushes is like threading ten needles at once and it gets darker and darker because the leaves above are so thick and then suddenly I feel a dampness at my feet and quickly tear away the vines to see what I am standing in, which turns out to be water, about three inches. I think a moment about constructing a small observation tower to see where. I am but the bush branches prove too tough to break and I give up that idea and go on. The water gets deeper so at least I know I'm making progress in one direction. Pretty soon it's up to my knees and then my crotch and fortunately for a good while it gets no deeper. It's not very clean water, filled with black bush and vine leaves and a reddish algae which clings to everything it touches. Visibility increases slightly, up to about three feet again. Around now I think the worst must be over.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Gascoyne"
Copyright © 1966 Stanley Crawford.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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