Dolan's Cadillac nad-1Stephen King
( Nightmares and Dreamscapes - 1 )
Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.
I waited and watched for seven years. I saw him come and go – Dolan. I watched him stroll into fancy restaurants dressed in a tuxedo, always with a different woman on his arm, always with his pair of bodyguards bookending him. I watched his hair go from iron-gray to a fashionable silver while my own simply receded until I was bald. I watched him leave Las Vegas on his regular pilgrimages to the West Coast; I watched him return. On two or three occasions I watched from a side road as his Sedan DeVille, the same color as his hair, swept by on Route 71 toward Los Angeles. And on a few occasions I watched him leave his place in the Hollywood Hills in the same gray Cadillac to return to Las Vegas – not often, though. I am a schoolteacher. Schoolteachers and high-priced hoodlums do not have the same freedom of movement; it’s just an economic fact of life.
He did not know I was watching him – I never came close enough for him to know that. I was careful.
He killed my wife or had her killed; it comes to the same, either way. Do you want details? You won’t get them from me. If you want them, look them up in the back issues of the papers. Her name was Elizabeth. She taught in the same school where I taught and where I teach still. She taught first-graders. They loved her, and I think that some of them may not have forgotten their love still, although they would be teenagers now. I loved her and love her still, certainly. She was not beautiful but she was pretty. She was quiet, but she could laugh. I dream of her. Of her hazel eyes. There has never been another woman for me. Nor ever will be.
He slipped – Dolan. That’s all you have to know. And Elizabeth was there, at the wrong place and the wrong time, to see the slip. She went to the police, and the police sent her to the FBI, and she was questioned, and she said yes, she would testify. They promised to protect her, but they either slipped or they underestimated Dolan. Maybe it was both. Whatever it was, she got into her car one night and the dynamite wired to the ignition made me a widower. He made me a widower – Dolan.
With no witness to testify, he was let free.
He went back to his world, I to mine. The penthouse apartment in Vegas for him, the empty tract home for me. The succession of beautiful women in furs and sequined evening dresses for him, the silence for me. The gray Cadillacs, four of them over the years, for him, and the aging Buick Riviera for me. His hair went silver while mine just went.
But I watched.
I was careful – oh, yes! Very careful. I knew what he was, what he could do. I knew he would step on me like a bug if he saw or sensed what I meant for him. So I was careful.
During my summer vacation three years ago I followed him (at a prudent distance) to Los Angeles, where he went frequently. He stayed in his fine house and threw parties (I watched the comings and goings from a safe shadow at the end of the block, fading back when the police cars made their frequent patrols), and I stayed in a cheap hotel where people played their radios too loud and neon light from the topless bar across the street shone in the windows. I fell asleep on those nights and dreamed of Elizabeth’s hazel eyes, dreamed that none of it had ever happened, and woke up sometimes with tears drying on my face.
I came close to losing hope.
He was well guarded, you see; so well guarded. He went nowhere without those two heavily armed gorillas with him, and the Cadillac itself was armor plated. The big radial tires it rolled on were of the self-sealing type favored by dictators in small, uneasy countries.
Then, that last time, I saw how it could be done – but I did not see it until after I’d had a very bad scare.
I followed him back to Las Vegas, always keeping at least a mile between us, sometimes two, sometimes three. As we crossed the desert heading east his car was at times no more than a sunflash on the horizon and I thought about Elizabeth, how the sun looked on her hair.
I was far behind on this occasion. It was the middle of the week, and traffic on US 71 was very light. When traffic is light, tailing becomes dangerous – even a grammar-school teacher knows that. I passed an orange sign which read DETOUR 5 MILES and dropped back even farther. Desert detours slow traffic to a crawl, and I didn’t want to chance coming up behind the gray Cadillac as the driver babied it over some rutted secondary road.
DETOUR 3 MILES, the next sign read, and below that: BLASTING AREA AHEAD TURN OFF 2-WAY RADIO.
I began to muse on some movie I had seen years before. In this film a band of armed robbers had tricked an armored car into the desert by putting up false detour signs. Once the driver fell for the trick and turned off onto a deserted dirt road (there are thousands of them in the desert, sheep roads and ranch roads and old government roads that go nowhere), the thieves had removed the signs, assuring isolation, and then had simply laid siege to the armored car until the guards came out.
They killed the guards.
I remembered that.
They killed the guards.
I reached the detour and turned onto it. The road was as bad as I had imagined – packed dirt, two lanes wide, filled with potholes that made my old Buick jounce and groan. The Buick needed new shock absorbers, but shocks are an expense a schoolteacher sometimes has to put off, even when he is a widower with no children and no hobbies except his dream of revenge.
As the Buick bounced and wallowed along, an idea occurred to me. Instead of following Dolan’s Cadillac the next time it left Vegas for LA or LA for Vegas, I would pass it – get ahead of it. I would create a false detour like the one in the movie, luring it out into the wastes that exist, silent and rimmed by mountains, west of Las Vegas. Then I would remove the signs, as the thieves had done in the movie.
I snapped back to reality suddenly. Dolan’s Cadillac was ahead of me, directly ahead of me, pulled off to one side of the dusty track. One of the tires, self-sealing or not, was flat. No – not just flat. It was exploded, half off the rim. The culprit had probably been a sharp wedge of rock stuck in the hardpan like a miniature tank-trap. One of the two bodyguards was working a jack under the front end. The second – an ogre with a pig-face streaming sweat under his brush cut – stood protectively beside Dolan himself. Even in the desert, you see, they took no chances.
Dolan stood to one side, slim in an open-throated shirt and dark slacks, his silver hair blowing around his head in the desert breeze. He was smoking a cigarette and watching the men as if he were somewhere else, a restaurant or a ballroom or a drawing room perhaps.
His eyes met mine through the windshield of my car and then slid off with no recognition at all, although he had seen me once, seven years ago (when I had hair!), at a preliminary hearing, sitting beside my wife.
My terror at having caught up with the Cadillac was replaced with an utter fury.
I thought of leaning over and unrolling the passenger window and shrieking: How dare you forget me? How dare you dismiss me? Oh, but that would have been the act of a lunatic. It was good that he had forgotten me, it was fine that he had dismissed me, better to be a mouse behind the wainscoting, nibbling at the wires. Better to be a spider, high up under the eaves, spinning its web.
The man sweating the jack flagged me, but Dolan wasn’t the only one capable of dismissal. I looked indifferently beyond the arm-waver, wishing him a heart attack or a stroke or, best of all, both at the same time. I drove on – but my head pulsed and throbbed, and for a few moments the mountains on the horizon seemed to double and even treble.
If I’d had a gun! I thought. If only I’d had a gun! I could have ended his rotten, m
iserable life right then if I’d only had a gun!
Miles later some sort of reason reasserted itself. If I’d had a gun, the only thing I could have been sure of was getting myself killed. If I’d had a gun I could have pulled over when the man using the bumper-jack beckoned me, and gotten out, and begun spraying bullets wildly around the deserted landscape. I might have wounded someone. Then I would have been killed and buried in a shallow grave, and Dolan would have gone on escorting the beautiful women and making pilgrimages between Las Vegas and Los Angeles in his silver Cadillac while the desert animals unearthed my remains and fought over my bones under the cold moon. For Elizabeth there would have been no revenge – none at all.
The men who travelled with him were trained to kill. I was trained to teach third-graders.
This was not a movie, I reminded myself as I returned to the highway and passed an orange END CONSTRUCTION THE STATE OF NEVADA THANKS YOU! sign. And if I ever made the mistake of confusing reality with a movie, of thinking that a balding third-grade teacher with myopia could ever be Dirty Harry anywhere outside of his own daydreams, there would never be any revenge, ever.
But could there be revenge, ever? Could there be?
My idea of creating a fake detour was as romantic and unrealistic as the idea of jumping out of my old Buick and spraying the three of them with bullets – me, who had not fired a gun since the age of sixteen and who had never fired a handgun.
Such a thing would not be possible without a band of conspirators – even the movie I had seen, romantic as it had been, had made that clear. There had been eight or nine of them in two separate groups, staying in touch with each other by walkie-talkie. There had even been a man in a small plane cruising above the highway to make sure the armored car was relatively isolated as it approached the right spot on the highway.
A plot no doubt dreamed up by some overweight screenwriter sitting by his swimming pool with a pina colada by one hand and a fresh supply of Pentel pens and an Edgar Wallace plot-wheel by the other. And even that fellow had needed a small army to fulfill his idea. I was only one man.
It wouldn’t work. It was just a momentary false gleam, like the others I’d had over the years – the idea that maybe I could put some sort of poison gas in Dolan’s air-conditioning system, or plant a bomb in his Los Angeles house, or perhaps obtain some really deadly weapon – a bazooka, let us say – and turn his damned silver Cadillac into a fireball as it raced east toward Vegas or west toward LA along 71.
Best to dismiss it.
But it wouldn’t go.
Cut him out, the voice inside that spoke for Elizabeth kept whispering. Cut him out the way an experienced sheep-dog cuts a ewe out of the flock when his master points. Detour him out into the emptiness and kill him. Kill them all.
Wouldn’t work. If I allowed no other truth, I would at least have to allow that a man who had stayed alive as long as Dolan must have a carefully honed sense of survival – honed to the point of paranoia, perhaps. He and his men would see through the detour trick in a minute.
They turned down this one today, the voice that spoke for Elizabeth responded. They never even hesitated. They went just like Mary’s little lamb.
But I knew – yes, somehow I did! – that men like Dolan, men who are really more like wolves than men, develop a sort of sixth sense when it comes to danger. I could steal genuine detour signs from some road department shed and set them up in all the right places; I could even add fluorescent orange road cones and a few of those smudge-pots. I could do all that and Dolan would still smell the nervous sweat of my hands on the stage dressing. Right through his bullet-proof windows he would smell it. He would close his eyes and hear Elizabeth’s name far back in the snake-pit that passed for his mind.
The voice that spoke for Elizabeth fell silent, and I thought it had finally given up for the day. And then, with Vegas actually in sight – blue and misty and wavering on the far rim of the desert – it spoke up again.
Then don’t try to fool him with a fake detour, it whispered. Fool him with a real one.
I swerved the Buick over to the shoulder and shuddered to a stop with both feet on the brake-pedal. I stared into my own wide, startled eyes in the rear-view mirror.
Inside, the voice that spoke for Elizabeth began to laugh. It was wild, mad laughter, but after a few moments I began to laugh along with it.
The other teachers laughed at me when I joined the Ninth Street Health Club. One of them wanted to know if someone had kicked sand in my face. I laughed along with them. People don’t get suspicious of a man like me as long as he keeps laughing along with them. And why shouldn’t I laugh? My wife had been dead seven years, hadn’t she? Why, she was no more than dust and hair and a few bones in her coffin! So why shouldn’t I laugh? It’s only when a man like me stops laughing that people wonder if something is wrong.
I laughed along with them even though my muscles ached all that fall and winter. I laughed even though I was constantly hungry – no more second helpings, no more late-night snacks, no more beer, no more before-dinner gin and tonic. But lots of red meat and greens, greens, greens.
I bought myself a Nautilus machine for Christmas.
No – that’s not quite right. Elizabeth bought me a Nautilus machine for Christmas.
I saw Dolan less frequently; I was too busy working out, losing my pot belly, building up my arms and chest and legs. But there were times when it seemed I could not go on with it, that recapturing anything like real physical fitness was going to be impossible, that I could not live without second helpings and pieces of coffee cake and the occasional dollop of sweet cream in my coffee. When those times came I would park across from one of his favorite restaurants or perhaps go into one of the clubs he favored and wait for him to show up, stepping from the fog-gray Cadillac with an arrogant, icy blonde or a laughing redhead on his arm – or one on each. There he would be, the man who had killed my Elizabeth, there he would be, resplendent in a formal shirt from Bijan’s, his gold Rolex winking in the nightclub lights. When I was tired and discouraged I went to Dolan as a man with a raging thirst might seek out an oasis in the desert. I drank his poisoned water and was refreshed.
In February I began to run every day, and then the other teachers laughed at my bald head, which peeled and pinked and then peeled and pinked again, no matter how much sun-block I smeared on it. I laughed right along with them, as if I had not twice nearly fainted and spent long, shuddering minutes with cramps stabbing the muscles of my legs at the end of my runs.
When summer came, I applied for a job with the Nevada Highway Department. The municipal employment office stamped a tentative approval on my form and sent me along to a district foreman named Harvey Blocker. Blocker was a tall man, burned almost black by the Nevada sun. He wore jeans, dusty workboots, and a blue tee-shirt with cut-off sleeves. BAD ATTITUDE, the shirt proclaimed. His muscles were big rolling slabs under his skin. He looked at my application. Then he looked at me and laughed. The application looked very puny rolled up in one of his huge fists.
“You got to be kidding, my friend. I mean, you have got to be. We talkin desert sun and desert heat here – none of that yuppie tanning-salon shit. What are you in real life, bubba? An accountant?”
“A teacher,” I said. “Third grade.”
“Oh, honey,” he said, and laughed again. “Get out my face, okay?”
I had a pocket watch – handed down from my great-grandfather, who worked on the last stretch of the great transcontinental railroad. He was there, according to family legend, when they hammered home the golden spike. I took the watch out and dangled it in Blocker’s face on its chain.
“See this?” I said. “Worth six, maybe seven hundred dollars.”
“This a bribe?” Blocker laughed again. A great old laugher was he. “Man, I’ve heard of people making deals with the devil, but you’re the first one I ever met who wanted to bribe himself into hell.” Now he looked at me with something like compassion. “You may think you
understand what you’re tryin to get yourself into, but I’m here to tell you you don’t have the slightest idea. In July I’ve seen it go a hundred and seventeen degrees out there west of Indian Springs. It makes strong men cry. And you ain’t strong, bubba. I don’t have to see you with your shirt off to know you ain’t got nothin on your rack but a few yuppie health-club muscles, and they won’t cut it out in the Big Empty.”
I said, “The day you decide I can’t cut it, I’ll walk off the job. You keep the watch. No argument.”
“You’re a fucking liar.”
I looked at him. He looked back for some time.
“You’re not a fucking liar.” He said this in tones of amazement.
“You’d give the watch to Tinker to hold?” He cocked his thumb at a humongous black man in a tie-dyed shirt who was sitting nearby in the cab of a bulldozer, eating a fruit-pie from McDonald’s and listening.
“Is he trustworthy?”
“You’re damned tooting.”
“Then he can hold it until you tell me to take a hike or until I have to go back to school in September.”
“And what do I put up?”
I pointed to the employment application in his fist. “Sign that,” I said. “That’s what you put up.”
I thought of Dolan and of Elizabeth and said nothing.
“You’d start on shit-work,” Blocker warned. “Shovelling hotpatch out of the back of a truck and into potholes. Not because I want your damned watch – although I’ll be more than happy to take it – but because that’s where everyone starts.”
“As long as you understand, bubba.”
“No,” Blocker said, “you don’t. But you will.”
And he was right.
I remember next to nothing about the first couple of weeks – just shovelling hot-top and tamping it down and walking along behind the truck with my head down until the truck stopped at the next pothole. Sometimes we worked on the Strip and I’d hear the sound of jackpot bells ringing in the casinos. Sometimes I think the bells were just ringing in my head. I’d look up and I’d see Harvey Blocker looking at me with that odd look of compassion, his face shimmering in the heat baking off the road. And sometimes I’d look over at Tinker, sitting under the canvas parasol which covered the cab of his dozer, and Tinker would hold up my great-granddad’s watch and swing it on the chain so it kicked off sunflashes.