November 06, 2006

Driving North

I just found John M. Ford's original "Driving North" story. Most of the text was included in the comic book adaptation, published in Captain Confederacy's tenth issue, but since some of Mike's fans don't like stories with pictures, here's the straight version:

Driving North

by John M. Ford

I knew there would be trouble when I saw the car on the side of the road. It was just after one AM, cold for June, and there was fog in all the low spots of Tennessee 28. The car was sitting on the shoulder, crabbed a little because of one ripped tire, surrounded by five motorcycles. Big Harleys with the usual outlaw-biker rig. I didn't see any people.

I pulled over about sixty yards behind the stopped car, and got out to have a look, leaving the key in the ignition and the driver's door open. I have a switch that cuts off the dome light, and there have been times I was glad to have the extra seconds for not opening the door and hunting the key. I'm not worried about thieves.

It wasn't hard to find the party. Certainly not hard to get close to them unheard. It would have been impossible to make more noise than them.

There were five men -- correction, four men and a bulky woman -- in leather and denim and steel studs -- around one small thin man in a light-colored suit. Two of the bikers had four-cell flashlights, the heavy aluminum ones that when held properly make excellent truncheons. There was a steel whip out, and a knife, and the fifth one apparently considered hands and feet sufficient. Had to account for that: sometimes those sorts are right about themselves. The little man was armed with a briefcase clutched in both hands.

The circle was taunting the lone man, telling him to either go down fighting or at least run like a good li'l rabbit, but not to just stand there pissing his drawers. . . . I clicked off. The conversation was irrelevant. Only actions counted now. My hand went into my jacket.

The knifeman was the most immediate threat, so I took him first. One round, ten yards, sternum. The one closest to the victim was second priority. One round, twelve yards, neck hit from sternum aim. I corrected. The one closest to me was next. One from two yards, heart-spine. The flashlights went out. I moved my left thumb and lit the woods back up with a pocket halogen lamp.

The woman next, two rounds, shoulder, head. I was over-correcting. The last man, the one with nothing in his hands, was doing a broken-field run toward me. I had to assume he knew what weapon I was using, so I ejected the magazine. The Gorgas .42 is the best combat pistol in the Confederacy, except only for its skimpy magazine. Everyone who has ever seen an episode of Captain Confederacy or C-Men knows to count six and charge, like this fellow. When I ejected after five, he hesitated, wondering if he'd miscounted.

The fact that he hadn't didn't save him. I let the flashlight drop on its wrist cord, slid the new clip in, and fired twice from barely arm's reach, literally blowing his brains out. Then I still had to sidestep his body, which took three more steps before falling.

The crickets sounded loud again.

The man in the suit said "Who in God's name are you?"

I said "Are you Doctor Charles Brikola?" I knew he was. If he hadn't been, I'd never have interfered here. It wouldn't have been any of my business.

"Yes, but I . . . how did you . . ." He looked frightened. He was trying to guess who I was. What side I was on.
I reached to the pocket of the last man to die, took out his wallet. "Take a look," I said, and showed him a Confederate Bureau of Investigation card.

Brikola's shoulders shook. "Oh," he said, as if to be saying Dear me, why didn't I think of that? "Then you are with the FBI?"

"OSS," I said. "Section A, North American Affairs." Brikola looked expectant. I said "You surely don't expect me to be carrying a card proving that?"

Brikola said "Oh," again. My daddy once told me "That's the trouble with geniuses, son: they can jump like rabbits from one idea to the next, but they can't walk." He should have known. My daddy had an IQ measured at 210 and a doctorate each from Cornell and U. of Chicago. He didn't get along with cars and he hated guns and he never got a handle on me, but oh that man's mind could jump.

I took the money from the dead man's wallet, then did the same with the others. There was nearly two thousand dollars Confederate among them.

Brikola was giving me an odd look. "What's the matter," I said, "`pennies off a dead man's eyes'?"

Brikola said "It does not seem right."

"First, they're dead, and it's no use to any of 'em. If you know that one's an Egyptian pharaoh, point him out and I'll put his back. Second, getting you across the American border may take some palm-greasing and certainly some food and gasoline, and cash is the best way to get all those things." They love it when you're hard and cynical. Who would take a kind, trusting spy seriously? They don't believe in you unless you distill their own paranoia into a credo.

Brikola got quiet then and we went back to the cars. His was useless, the rear axle had cracked when the bikers blew the tire. I looked around for what they'd blown it with: a sawed-off twelve-gauge. I left it. We loaded Brikola's suitcaise into my car and drove on North. The fog kept us down to forty or less on the crooked road.

"I have not thanked you for saving my life," Brikola said. "It was . . . very fortunate."

"I didn't and it wasn't."

"Excuse me?"

"If those goons had wanted you dead, you'd have never gotten out of the car alive. No, Dr. Brikola, they were just giving you the hoo-raw a little. Maybe break one of your legs, cut you in a couple of places, but nothing serious. They were just going to scare you so badly that you'd think twice-three-times before trying to go North again."

He nodded.

I said "And it wasn't lucky, either. A dead C-Man puts the whole damn network on alert. They know you're running now, they'll know about where you started from, and they'll know you've got help." I glanced at him. He wasn't actually a little man: he was about my height, though much thinner. But the way he carried himself, round-shouldered and furtive, made him seem small. "Which leads us to the last important thing you ought to know . . ." I looked at him first, the road second. "You're our first good crack in a long time at getting the Super-Soldier formula, and naturally we'll be real happy to have you working for us. But if we lose you, or it, we're no worse off than we were. While if we're caught helping you defect, we're a lot worse off. So --"

"So your instructions are to save the formula first, myself second, and failing both . . . you would say, cut and run?"

"That's what I'd say."

"Very well. And I would still like to thank you for your rescue." He loosened his grip on the briefcase. "You could quite easily have allowed them to injure or kill me before intervening. Or even killed me yourself. I am certain that a case of papers is easier to smuggle over a border than a man."

"Truth will out," I said, which is the biggest damn lie there is, and "The men I work for demand full and accurate reports," which is the second biggest. "Besides, I don't like seeing people get beat on."

Brikola nodded, smiled a little. Always soften the cynicism just a little with a frail flame of humanity. It's all part of the hall of mirrors: they all hate their jobs and envy yours, so make them think you hate yours and covet theirs.

* * *

I replayed the scene in my head, Brikola in the circle of thugs, and considered how long it had been since that sort of thing had had any effect on my thinking. At one time it would have. At one time it would have made me crazy as a bull in heat. But that part of me had died eleven years ago, in Pascagoula, Mississippi, on a steambath August night. I killed it with thirty-one blows of a ball-peen hammer, stuffed it into a garment bag and hung it in a closet, to be found six days later when the smell reached the next floor.

I told my boss that I wanted the job to be taken for a madman's work, and he agreed that it was fine, but I could hear him silently agreeing that yes, it was that.

He was right and he was wrong. Before Pascagoula I had been insane. But somewhere between strokes of the hammer I found myself, like the ship in the Kipling story whose parts all learn to pull as one.

My daddy knew thousands of lines of Kipling's poetry. He could also quote Donne and Eliot and Keats, but he loved Kipling and Shakespeare.

My daddy was an engineer and petroleum chemist with Amroco, which at the time was the largest of the Rockefeller oil companies. This was at a time when the USA was terrified that its few fields were nearly sucked dry and its foreign supplies might be cut off. Amroco bought up some coal mines and started working on turning coal to gas, so we got sent to Pennsylvania.

What I didn't know -- wouldn't until years later -- was that Dad's job with Amroco was to solve problems. The company would get itself into some kind of tight place, and Dad would have to invent something to save them.

If the rights to my daddy's inventions had stayed with him, instead of Amroco, his income would have been just under eleven million U.S. dollars a year. The company paid him a lot of money. We were never poor. But it wasn't eleven million dollars a year. I found this out in an Amroco vault that I had to kill two people to enter and four to leave. With the stuff I took out with me Amroco got put out of business for good and all. It didn't do my daddy any good.

See, his last problem, the Pennsylvania thing, was that Amroco had gotten a contract from the US government to deliver a coal-gasification plant on-line in three years. They'd spent half a billion bucks, they had nothing but a pilot plant called Liberty One that hadn't produced a whiff of gas, and there were four months to go.

Dad found the problem. He worked out how to fix it. I remember him drawing on the kitchen tablecloth. And then he found the second problem, the one nobody had known was there. Amroco Liberty One was leaking a methyl compound into the groundwater. There were going to be deformed kids, dead kids. There was going to be a lot of cancer.

I remember Dad looking at me hard one day. I didn't know what was going on, how could I, but I thought he was looking right through me, into my bones and guts. In a way, he was.

When he turned away from me, he went out the door, and to the City Hall, and told the Mayor and everybody else what had come out of Liberty One.

You probably think that the town went wild, but that's because you live in the Eighties, when everyone's always on a short fuse about their environment trying to kill them.

Besides, the local people had an interest in the plant. Oil was through the roof, but coal prices were down, way down. The miners were hungry, and this was going to feed them.

But something had happened to Dad. We stayed in our house, but he put in air cleaners and a big Beckman still, fitted into the plumbing so it processed all our water. He did chromatography tests on our food. I thought he was crazy. I was glad we were a couple of miles out of town, so other people couldn't see him being crazy. I was sixteen and a complete idiot.

Five weeks later, one month before the Government deadline, six kids were born in town. Three were dead and the others should have been. It was like the end of a horror movie, where all the monsters pop up to tear the characters apart, and the more that us high-school kids repeated the story the more like a splatter movie it got. Grownups didn't believe any of this junk back then, of course, but you know better. We only knew about the Wonderful World of the Future. You know about dioxin and babies without eyes.

* * *

Just before two AM I said "There's a truck stop just up there. We ought to get gas. Feel like a cup of coffee?"

"Yes. That would be very nice." I never met a scientist who didn't think so. Then he said "Do you think it is safe?"

"Safer now than later. And a lot safer to have a full tank."

We turned off. I parked a bit of a distance from the place, by a lonely light pole, and we crossed the parking lot to the restaurant. In real life I should have filled the gas tank first, and parked close to the door, in case something unpleasant happened while we were eating. Brikola didn't notice.

He'd seemed like such a careful man.

There must be ten thousand of these places between the Yukon and Yucatan, everywhere roads go, but there's really only one of them. Twangy guitar music. Tough truckers drinking tough coffee. Tables covered with plastic pictures of wood and printed paper placemats. (These had Interesting Facts about the Confederate Presidents. Did you know that Rutledge played the fiddle at his own Inaugural Ball? Sure you did.)

A waitress in a paper cap and a ruffled dress -- yeah, her nametag really said "Dixie" -- brought us hundred-mile coffee and pork-fritter sandwiches. Brikola ate his in about three bites, and then put away a big slice of apple pie with ice cream on top.

He said "Are you paid very well for your work?"

"Well enough to do it."

He didn't loosen up. He tightened. "But you do not work for the money."

Well golly god damn, I could tell the truth. "I'm no patriot."

"No, of course. A foolish notion."

"Last refuge of a scoundrel."

Brikola looked up, wondering where I'd heard that. "Still, money is only how we reach the things we want, correct?"

"I s'pose so."

Dixie refilled our coffee cups. "Roads good tonight?" she said.

"Foggy," I said, from somewhere south of Lexington. "Nobody much out there though."

"What you fellas pushin'?"

Brikola tensed. He was still thinking about CBI men. That was my fault. Then, I did it on purpose. I said "Tufnell Machine Tool Company, at your service, ma'am. I'm in sales. Doc here's with our ree-search division. He's from Switzerland."

Dixie said "I thought'ch'all just made cuckoo clocks."

Brikola said "I am personally a specialist in ball bearings."

Dixie smiled at that. Before Brikola invented any more cover story, I said "And I've been wonderin' if I could interest you in a long-stroke case-hardened hydraulic press with vacuum attachments."

"Fresh," she said, no more angry than necessary, and went away. Brikola blinked at me.

I said "You were talking about things we really want?"

"I want no more than my work requires," he said, back on his horse again. "The ability to continue my work. The resources it demands. I hope your government sees fit to give me these things."

"You think they won't? They're paying enough to get hold of you."

"So, at one time, did the Confederate government. I am sure that other nations would as well."

"Governments and science go right past me," I lied.

"I do not think you are stupid," Brikola lied back. "But I will show you what everyone understands." He pressed his fingertips down on the table. They sank half an inch into the mica top.

"You tested the supersoldier stuff on yourself," I said, not raising my voice, not sounding surprised because I sure as hell wasn't.

"I wish that you would not call it that," he said, meaning that I should do as he wished. "The Ultimate Potential formula stretches every aspect of the human body and mind. To imply that its only use is to create better soldiers is like saying that the purpose of the printing press is pornography." He looked straight into my eyes. "For instance, I have become a functioning telepath. It is difficult now, but it will become simpler as the formula continues to perfect me."

I can read minds too. Off a person's eyes and hands and body. I can read a whole lot off the way a man touches his wedding ring. And it isn't a strain. In fact, if I give a person just an hour alone with me, he'll usually tell me straight out what he's thinking. Like Brikola just had.

Functioning telepath, he said. Well, he sure couldn't have gotten much from me, or we wouldn't still be sitting here drinking coffee like old pals.

In my trade you can't experiment too often. You have to stick to what's proven. But I took the chance. I stared at Brikola, over the cups and the cold fries, and I waited for him to read my mind.

Well, I guess he just wasn't quite perfect yet.

* * *

I told you that my daddy could look clean through me. Maybe the talent runs in the family. But you have to understand it, know how to use it. I knew just what Dad was going to do the morning he did it, and I didn't really believe it. Or maybe I did, but I didn't believe it was going to make any difference to my life. Nobody ever believes that about anything.

What he did, just ten days after those six monster babies were born, was drive to Harrisburg with a satchel full of Amroco papers, all the facts about what Liberty One had done and was doing. He used his oil-company card to get into the governor's office and dropped the whole mess on his desk. Before that he'd made enough noise that there were reporters right behind him to catch it all. It was on television that afternoon and in all the evening papers.

The rocks started coming through our windows before Dad got home that night.

The phone never stopped ringing, and I couldn't go to school, and the obstetrician at the clinic had his car set on fire. Since that time, I've learned that mobs are not always brainless, that there is such a thing as conspiracy, as evil genius.

I looked at my daddy on that last day, and I saw that he knew something too terrible to be understood. He hugged me, not unusual for him, and he went away to work, nothing strange in that.

I went up to the library -- there didn't seem to be anybody at all in town -- and read old Popular Sciences until my mom came for me, riding in a police car.

There was a photograph of the scene in LIFE magazine, taken by W. Eugene Smith, a very great news photographer who was also beaten to death by company thugs, though it was a different company in another country.

In the photograph, the men stand in front of the plant with their picks and clubs raised. in an ordinary picture they would seem quite menacing, but Smith was not an ordinary photographer. Behind the mob of dangerous men is Liberty One, a dark cage of tanks and piping shrouded in its own steam and filth, and it menaces them -- though they do not see it -- it threatens to eat them alive, like the Moloch-machine in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

To the side of the picture is a heavy man with his hands in his jacket pockets. He seems indifferent to the camera; he seems to be smiling benignly on the mob. Well he should. His name was Jefferson Berry, Jr., and his job was turning groups of unhappy people into mobs who would do something discreditable, like beating my daddy to death with coal picks and baseball bats.

Years afterward, I met Jefferson Berry, Jr. I talked with him for just over an hour. This was in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

* * *

I said "We'd better move on. I'll pay the bill, don't want the girl remembering you too well. You need to use the can?"

He did once I'd mentioned it. The bladder is a man's most suggestible organ.

I paid. Then I went toward the back. The truck stop had Members Only Lounges, which is what the New South calls whites-only restrooms. Liberals can use the others. I didn't figure Brikola for a liberal. The guy checking memberships saw that I belonged and let me through.

Brikola was alone inside, washing his hands. He did it as if he expected to be performing surgery.

"Do you wish me to wait for you?" he said.

I got the car keys out, held them toward him. "You might as well go on to the car." As he took a step toward me, I grasped the keys in my fist like a short knife, stabbed at his face. He backed off automatically. I took another couple of jabs toward him, driving him against the door of one of the toilet stalls. Rushing a strong man, even a startled one, is not a good idea. I kicked his left foot out from under him and he fell down, into the stall.

I got on top of Brikola, held his head down in the toilet.

"What are you doing?" he said.

"Like you said, a briefcase is easier to get across a border than a man." I pushed him under. I felt his muscles tense, in crazy patterns. He was strong but he didn't know what to do with it. I let him throw me out of the stall and most of the way across the room. The car keys fell out of my hand and clattered on the tile floor.

We had here what often gets called a moment of truth. I wasn't hurt, but I wasn't seeing quite straight. If Brikola wanted to come over and rip my heart out all I had was the .42 in my coat. Which might not stop him.

But he didn't do anything to me. I'd kept telling him there were scary men coming after us, reminding him we were on the run. He stopped just long enough to get the car keys, and then he ran.

I picked myself up, tidied my clothes. I used the room for its intended function and combed my hair at the mirror.

On the way out, I bought a box of Goo Goo Clusters, a pack of Durham Filters, a couple of Cokes. The cool moist air cleared the rest of the fog from inside my head. I walked to the car.

Brikola was leaning forward against the wheel. The horn did not sound; I had moved the button when I rewired the car. Brikola's face was dusted white, like a clown's. His eyes were shut.

When he tried to start the car without holding in a switch on the left armrest, a canister of NX2 gas in the center of the steering column fired into his face. The original idea had been for a bomb, but bombs are messy, cars are expensive, and you never know when someone is going to want you as a hostage.

I shoved him over, pressed the cutout switch and started the car. We continued north.

Two miles along Brikola stirred. NX2 will put a normal man out for eight hours minimum. I pulled off the road into a foggy little hollow -- holler, that is to say -- got some things out of the trunk and did the job the Confederate States of America had hired me to do.

I don't always do it, you see. A person can't be unkilled. Not that anyone who hires me cares about that; but I care. I want to know that when I do a thing, it's right, and just. It takes about an hour, alone, to find that out.

When I first saw Charles Brikola tonight, he was surrounded, outnumbered, by people who clearly meant him harm. But he wasn't in any danger from them. He was full of his superman formula. He could have run away from them; he could have scared them away. But he didn't do either. He was waiting for a chance to kill them.

They deserved killing, whoever they were, bandits or someone else's hired killers. (That CBI card wasn't real. I know. It was mine.)

At Murfreesboro I turned east. My trade knows no rest.

Sometimes I think I'm the Angel of Death, sometimes the Flying Dutchman. Other times I'm just a commercial traveler with a job to do, down the ends of a thousand roads. Maybe someday I'll meet you; maybe I already have. You never know until the time comes.