Big DriverStephen King
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- 1 -
Tess accepted twelve compensated speaking engagements a year, if she could get them. At twelve hundred dollars each, that came to over fourteen thousand dollars. It was her retirement fund. She was still happy enough with the Willow Grove Knitting Society after twelve books, but didn’t kid herself that she could go on writing them until she was in her seventies. If she did, what would she find at the bottom of the barrel? The Willow Grove Knitting Society Goes to Terre Haute? The Willow Grove Knitting Society Visits the International Space Station? No. Not even if the ladies’ book societies who were her mainstay read them (and they probably would). No.
So she was a good little squirrel, living well on the money her books brought in … but putting away acorns for the winter. Each year for the last ten she had put between twelve and sixteen thousand dollars into her money market fund. The total wasn’t as high as she might have wished, thanks to the gyrations of the stock market, but she told herself that if she kept on plugging, she’d probably be all right; she was the little engine that could. And she did at least three events each year gratis to salve her conscience. That often annoying organ should not have troubled her about taking honest money for honest work but sometimes it did. Probably because running her gums and signing her name didn’t fit the concept of work as she had been raised to understand it.
Other than an honorarium of at least twelve hundred dollars, she had one other requirement: that she be able to drive to the location of her lecture, with not more than one overnight stop on the way to or from. This meant she rarely went farther south than Richmond or farther west than Cleveland. One night in a motel was tiring but acceptable; two made her useless for a week. And Fritzy, her cat, hated keeping house by himself. This he made clear when she came home, twining between her feet on the stairs and often making promiscuous use of his claws when he sat in her lap. And although Patsy McClain from next door was very good about feeding him, he rarely ate much until Tess came home.
It wasn’t that she was afraid of flying, or hesitant about billing the organizations that engaged her for travel expenses just as she billed them for her motel rooms (always nice, never elegant). She just hated it: the crowding, the indignity of the full-body scans, the way the airlines now had their hands out for what used to be free, the delays … and the inescapable fact that you were not in charge. That was the worst. Once you went through the interminable security checkpoints and were allowed to board, you had put your most valuable possession—your life—into the hands of strangers.
Of course that was also true on the turnpikes and interstates she almost always used when she traveled, a drunk could lose control, jump the median strip, and end your life in a head-on collision (they would live; the drunks, it seemed, always did), but at least when she was behind the wheel of her car, she had the illusion of control. And she liked to drive. It was soothing. She had some of her best ideas when she was on cruise control with the radio off.
“I bet you were a long-haul trucker in your last incarnation,” Patsy McClain told her once.
Tess didn’t believe in past lifetimes, or future ones for that matter—in metaphysical terms, she thought what you saw was pretty much what you got—but she liked the idea of a life where she was not a small woman with an elfin face, a shy smile, and a job writing cozy mysteries, but a big guy with a big hat shading his sunburned brow and grizzled cheeks, letting a bulldog hood ornament lead him along the million roads that crisscrossed the country. No need to carefully match her clothes before public appearances in that life; faded jeans and boots with side-buckles would do. She liked to write, and she didn’t mind public speaking, but what she really liked to do was drive. After her Chicopee appearance, this struck her as funny … but not funny in a way that made you laugh. No, not that kind of funny at all.
- 2 -
The invitation from Books & Brown Baggers filled her requirements perfectly. Chicopee was hardly more than sixty miles from Stoke Village, the engagement was to be a daytime affair, and the Three Bs were offering an honorarium of not twelve but fifteen hundred dollars. Plus expenses, of course, but those would be minimal—not even a stay at a Courtyard Suites or a Hampton Inn. The query letter came from one Ramona Norville, who explained that, although she was the head librarian at the Chicopee Public Library, she was writing in her capacity as President of Books & Brown Baggers, which put on a noon lecture each month. People were encouraged to bring their lunches, and the events were very popular. Janet Evanovich had been scheduled for October 12th, but had been forced to cancel because of a family matter—a wedding or a funeral, Ramona Norville wasn’t sure which.
“I know this is short notice,” Ms. Norville said in her slightly wheedling final paragraph, “but Wikipedia says you live in neighboring Connecticut, and our readers here in Chicopee are such fans of the Knitting Society gals. You would have our undying gratitude as well as the above-mentioned honorarium.”
Tess doubted that the gratitude would last much longer than a day or two, and she already had a speaking engagement lined up for October (Literary Cavalcade Week in the Hamptons), but I-84 would take her to I-90, and from 90, Chicopee was a straight shot. Easy in, easy out; Fritzy would hardly know she was gone.
Ramona Norville had of course included her email address, and Tess wrote her immediately, accepting the date and the honorarium amount. She also specified—as was her wont—that she would sign autographs for no more than an hour. “I have a cat who bullies me if I’m not home to feed him his supper personally,” she wrote. She asked for any further details, although she already knew most of what would be expected of her; she had been doing similar events since she was thirty. Still, organizational types like Ramona Norville expected to be asked, and if you didn’t, they got nervous and started to wonder if that day’s hired writer was going to show up braless and tipsy.
It crossed Tess’s mind to suggest that perhaps two thousand dollars would be more appropriate for what was, in effect, a triage mission, but she dismissed
the idea. It would be taking advantage. Also, she doubted if all the Knitting Society books put together (there were an even dozen) had sold as many copies as any one of Stephanie Plum’s adventures. Like it or not—and in truth, Tess didn’t mind much one way or the other—she was Ramona Norville’s Plan B. A surcharge would be close to blackmail. Fifteen hundred was more than fair. Of course when she was lying in a culvert, coughing out blood from her swollen mouth and nose, it didn’t seem fair at all. But would two thousand have been any fairer? Or two million?
Whether or not you could put a price tag on pain, rape, and terror was a question the Knitting Society ladies had never taken up. The crimes they solved were really not much more than the ideas of crimes. But when Tess was forced to consider it, she thought the answer was no. It seemed to her that only one thing could possibly constitute payback for such a crime. Both Tom and Fritzy agreed.
- 3 -
Ramona Norville turned out to be a broad-shouldered, heavy-breasted, jovial woman of sixty or so with flushed cheeks, a Marine haircut, and a take-no-prisoners handshake. She was waiting for Tess outside the library, in the middle of the parking space reserved for Today’s Author of Note. Instead of wishing Tess a very good morning (it was quarter to eleven), or complimenting her on her earrings (diamond drops, an extravagance reserved for her few dinners out and engagements like this), she asked a man’s question: had Tess come by the 84?
When Tess said she had, Ms. Norville widened her eyes and blew out her cheeks. “Glad you got here safe. 84’s the worst highway in America, in my humble opinion. Also the long way around. We can improve the situation going back, if the Internet’s right and you live in Stoke Village.”
Tess agreed that she did, although she wasn’t sure she liked strangers—even a pleasant librarian—knowing where she went to lay down her weary head. But it did no good to complain; everything was on the Internet these days.
“I can save you ten miles,” Ms. Norville said as they mounted the library steps. “Have you got a GPS? That makes things easier than directions written on the back of an envelope. Wonderful gadgets.”
Tess, who had indeed added a GPS to her Expedition’s dashboard array (it was called a Tomtom and plugged into the cigarette lighter), said that ten miles off her return journey would be very nice.
“Better a straight shot through Robin Hood’s barn than all the way around it,” Ms. Norville said, and clapped Tess lightly on the back. “Am I right or am I right?”
“Absolutely,” Tess agreed, and her fate was decided as simply as that. She had always been a sucker for a shortcut.
- 4 -
Les affaires du livre usually had four well-defined acts, and Tess’s appearance at the monthly convocation of Books & Brown Baggers could have been a template for the general case. The only diversion from the norm was Ramona Norville’s introduction, which was succinct to the point of terseness. She carried no disheartening pile of file cards to the podium, felt no need to rehash Tess’s Nebraska farmgirl childhood, and did not bother producing bouquets of critical praise for the Willow Grove Knitting Society books. (This was good, because they were rarely reviewed, and when they were, the name of Miss Marple was usually invoked, not always in a good way.) Ms. Norville simply said that the books were hugely popular (a forgivable overstatement), and that the author had been extremely generous in donating her time on short notice (although, at fifteen hundred dollars, it was hardly a donation). Then she yielded the podium, to the enthusiastic applause of the four hundred or so in the library’s small but adequate auditorium. Most were ladies of the sort who do not attend public occasions without first donning hats.
But the introduction was more of an entr’acte. Act One was the eleven o’clock reception, where the higher rollers got to meet Tess in person over cheese, crackers, and cups of lousy coffee (evening events featured plastic glasses of lousy wine). Some asked for autographs; many more requested pictures, which they usually took with their cell phones. She was asked where she got her ideas and made the usual polite and humorous noises in response. Half a dozen people asked her how you got an agent, the glint in their eyes suggesting they had paid the extra twenty dollars just to ask this question. Tess said you kept writing letters until one of the hungrier ones agreed to look at your stuff. It wasn’t the whole truth—when it came to agents, there was no whole truth—but it was close.
Act Two was the speech itself, which lasted about forty-five minutes. This consisted chiefly of anecdotes (none too personal) and a description of how she worked out her stories (back to front). It was important to insert at least three mentions of the current book’s title, which that fall happened to be The Willow Grove Knitting Society Goes Spelunking (she explained what that was for those who didn’t already know).
Act Three was Question Time, during which she was asked where she got her ideas (humorous, vague response), if she drew her characters from real life (“my aunts”), and how one got an agent to look at one’s work. Today she was also asked where she got her scrunchie (JCPenney, an answer which brought inexplicable applause).
The last act was Autograph Time, during which she dutifully fulfilled requests to inscribe happy birthday wishes, happy anniversary wishes, To Janet, a fan of all my books, and To Leah—Hope to see you at Lake Toxaway again this summer! (a slightly odd request, since Tess had never been there, but presumably the autograph-seeker had).
When all the books had been signed and the last few lingerers had been satisfied with more cellphone pictures, Ramona Norville escorted Tess into her office for a cup of real coffee. Ms. Norville took hers black, which didn’t surprise Tess at all. Her hostess was a black-coffee type of chick if one had ever strode the surface of the earth (probably in Doc Martens on her day off). The only surprising thing in the office was the framed signed picture on the wall. The face was familiar, and after a moment, Tess was able to retrieve the name from the junkheap of memory that is every writer’s most valuable asset.
Ms. Norville laughed in an embarrassed but pleased sort of way. “My favorite actor. Had sort of a crush on him when I was a girl, if you want the whole truth. I got him to sign that for me ten years before he died. He was very old, even then, but it’s a real signature, not a stamp. This is yours.” For one crazed moment, Tess thought Ms. Norville meant the signed photo. Then she saw the envelope in those blunt fingers. The kind of envelope with a window, so you could peek at the check inside.
“Thank you,” Tess said, taking it.
“No thanks necessary. You earned every penny.”
Tess did not demur.
“Now. About that shortcut.”
Tess leaned forward attentively. In one of the Knitting Society books, Doreen Marquis had said, The two best things in life are warm croissants and a quick way home. This was a case of the writer using her own dearly held beliefs to enliven her fiction.
“Can you program intersections in your GPS?”
“Yes, Tom’s very canny.”
Ms. Norville smiled. “Input Stagg Road and US 47, then. Stagg Road is very little used in this modern age—almost forgotten since that damn 84—but it’s scenic. You’ll ramble along it for, oh, sixteen miles or so. Patched asphalt, but not too bumpy, or wasn’t the last time I took it, and that was in the spring, when the worst bumps show up. At least that’s my experience.”
“Mine, too,” Tess said.
“When you get to 47, you’ll see a sign pointing you to I-84, but you’ll only need to take the turnpike for twelve miles or so, that’s the beauty part. And you’ll save tons of time and aggravation.”
“That’s also the beauty part,” Tess said, and they laughed together, two women of the same mind watched over by a smiling Richard Widmark. The abandoned store with the ticking sign was then still ninety minutes away, tucked snugly into the future like a snake in its hole. And the culvert, of course.
- 5 -
Tess not only had a GPS; she had spent extra for a customized one.
She liked toys. After she had input the intersection (Ramona Norville leaned in the window as she did it, watching with manly interest), the gadget thought for a moment or two, then said, “Tess, I am calculating your route.”
“Whoa-ho, how about that!” Norville said, and laughed the way that people do at some amiable peculiarity.
Tess smiled, although she privately thought programming your GPS to call you by name was no more peculiar than keeping a fan foto of a dead actor on your office wall. “Thank you for everything, Ramona. It was all very professional.”
“We do our best at Three Bs. Now off you go. With my thanks.”
“Off I go,” Tess agreed. “And you’re very welcome. I enjoyed it.” This was true; she usually did enjoy such occasions, in an all-right-let’s-get-this-taken-care-of fashion. And her retirement fund would certainly enjoy the unexpected infusion of cash.
“Have a safe trip home,” Norville said, and Tess gave her a thumbs-up.
When she pulled away, the GPS said, “Hello, Tess. I see we’re taking a trip.”
“Yes indeed,” she said. “And a good day for it, wouldn’t you say?”
Unlike the computers in science fiction movies, Tom was poorly equipped for light conversation, although Tess sometimes helped him. He told her to make a right turn four hundred yards ahead, then take her first left. The map on the Tomtom’s screen displayed green arrows and street names, sucking the information down from some whirling metal ball of technology high above.