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22

IT BEING AUGUST, when the big semi left Pittsburgh to get first up onto Interstate 79 north and then 80 east across Pennsylvania, it was still daylight, though already evening.

The cavernous trailer was empty, but the interstate was a solid road, even through the Appalachian Mountains, so the trailer did very little bouncing around. The driver, alone in the cab, a big-shouldered guy in white T-shirt and black baseball cap worn frontward, kept the cruise control at a steady eight miles an hour above the speed limit and sat there at his ease, listening to one country music radio station after another as he rolled across the state. From time to time, the setting sun gave him photographs of itself in his rearview mirror, and traffic was moderate.

By the time the semi reached the New Jersey border, darkness had long since descended, and the traffic, less than one hundred miles from New York City, was considerably heavier, but for the most part the driver could still let cruise control do all the work. A country station out of Bergen, New Jersey, announced midnight, and not long after that he took the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson River into upper Manhattan, where the easy part stopped.

Big trucks weren't allowed on the through roads in the city, so he had to steer and shift and turn and brake and angle and maneuver and in various ways work his ass off just to get off Interstate 95 and down onto Broadway at 168th Street.

From here the route was straight and simple, but not easy. The driver, who drove big trucks for a living but almost never in major cities, hated Manhattan, as all drivers of big trucks do. Every fifteen inches another traffic light, so you haven't even finished shifting up through the gears when it's time to hit the brakes again.

Also, no matter what the hour of day or night, there was always traffic everywhere in New York City, darting cabs and snarling delivery vans and even aggressive suburbanites in their Suburbanites. Unlike normal parts of the world, where other drivers showed a healthy respect tending toward fear when in the presence of the big trucks, New York City drivers practically dared him to start something. They'd cut him off; they'd crowd him; they'd even go so far as to blat their horns at him. The people operating small vehicles in New York, the driver thought, drove as though they all had a lawyer in the backseat.

Slowly, painfully, bit by bit, the driver lugged his trailer, which now did bounce around like a roulette ball on the pot-holed city streets, southwestward down the long esophagus of Manhattan, staying on Broadway all the way till Ninety-sixth Street — by then it was almost two in the morning, but there was still too much traffic on the city streets — where he took the left turn to go one long block over to Amsterdam Avenue. The right onto Amsterdam wasn't so hard, and the street was a little better, being one-way.

Down Amsterdam he went, able to keep his up-and-down shifting to a minimum because of the staggered lights. He was grateful for that, and for the fact that the streetlights were bright enough to show him the numbers of the cross streets. And there was his goal, lit up but not gaudy, just ahead on the right.

When he hit the brakes while engaged in city driving, the truck tended to emit a sound very like a hippopotamus farting, which it did this time, which alerted the people loitering on the sidewalk down there that he was the one they were waiting for.

He stopped, in the right lane, just uptown from them, to let them clear the way. During the daytime, there was no parking along here, but this evening, as soon as that restriction was lifted, these people had put three cars in place, to be sure he'd have the proper location available to him at the curb. Now three guys among the loiterers, with waves of the hand toward the driver, hopped into these cars and drove off, and he slid the truck neatly into the opening they'd provided. The three cars all went around the block to find someplace else to roost, and the driver switched off his engine, opened his door, and felt unair-conditioned air for the first time since Pittsburgh. Yuck.

Well, this shouldn't take long. He climbed down to the street, hitched his belt, worked his neck muscles a little, and walked around the front of the truck to the group of guys clustered on the sidewalk — about a dozen of them, mostly muscle to carry the goods out of the bar and into the truck, but among them was supposed to be a guy in charge.

"I need somebody named Mikey," the driver said.

"That's me," said a cocky bantamweight featuring so much lush, oiled, wavy black hair lifting over his ears to undulate back around his head that he looked as if he were wearing Mercury's winged helmet. What he was in fact wearing, though it was quite hot and humid out here tonight, was a black satin unzipped warmup jacket with MIKEY in gold script over his heart and, for those who cared to walk around him and read it, EAT ME WORLD TOUR in various bright colors on the back. Under the jacket was a white T-shirt, while ironed designer jeans and huge white sneakers completed the ensemble.

The driver nodded at this Mikey, unsurprised, and gestured at his truck, saying, "It's all yours, I'll just open up the back and maybe go grab me a late-night snack somewheres and—"

"Say, pal," one of the other locals said, "your truck is movin."

"What?" Thinking in-gear, brake-on, engine-off, not-my-fault, the driver turned, and by God, the truck was moving. In fact, it was accelerating, hustling away from the curb and on down Amsterdam Avenue.

"Hey!" the driver yelled, but the truck ignored him and just kept moving farther and farther away.

Two or three of Mikey's associates ran after the truck, trying to grab a door handle or a rearview mirror or something, but without success. One guy did manage to clutch the hasp lock on the truck's rear doors, but the truck was already moving faster than he could run, so he simply fell down in the street and was dragged along until he decided to let go, which was soon.

Meanwhile, Mikey was yelling at the driver, "Who is that?" and the driver was yelling back, "Who's what? I'm alone in the truck!" Then, seeing the traffic light red at the next intersection, and the truck still accelerating directly at it, he screamed, "Not through the red light!" Which the truck also ignored.

Traffic was finally light at this hour on a Sunday night, and in one of those miracles you shouldn't go through life counting on, there were no vehicles rushing out of the cross street to cream themselves against the side of the truck at that particular instant, only a panel truck delivering tomorrow morning's New York Post, and of course those trucks never travel at more than seven miles an hour — union rules — so its operator had plenty of time to stop, to honk, and to deliver, loudly, a monograph on the encroaching miscreant's pedigree.

The three guys who'd taken their cars away were just then returning, but as Mikey screamed at them they reversed and ran off again to get the cars back, while two other guys ran to the little red Audi 900 parked behind where the driver had placed his truck, and Mikey shrieked, "After it! Get it! Get that guy! Get that truck!" — all of which was unnecessary, because that's what they were all doing.

"For cryin out loud," the driver said. "They'll steal anything in New York."

One of the few guys still standing around, not running hither and yon, gave the driver a New York look. "You wanna make a comment?"

"Not me," said the driver, and a large black SUV, a Chrysler Town Country LX, raced past, headed down Amsterdam Avenue. The driver had time to notice that the Chrysler had doctor's license plates, that it was being driven much faster than most doctor-operated vehicles, and that the traffic light was still red at that intersection down there, although just as the Chrysler arrived and the New York Post delivery truck finally cleared out of the way, the light snapped green and the Chrysler tore on through, only then hitting its brakes.

So did the truck, by now almost to the next corner. All those red brake lights flashed on down there, and now the red Audi leaped away from the curb in pursuit.

But the truck was stopping, and so was the Chrysler, right next to it. Whoever was driving the truck now jumped out of it to get into the front passenger seat in the Chrysler, while the Chrysler's right-side rear door slid back to open and a truly huge man-monster climbed out, carrying an axe.

"Holy Toledo!" the driver cried, as the huge man swung the axe twice at the nearest tires on the left rear of the truck, making two sharp reports very much like gunfire. He then turned to heave the axe at the fast-approaching Audi.

To avoid getting an axe through the windshield, the Audi veered into the rear of the truck as the man-monster climbed back into the Chrysler, which immediately hustled around the corner and out of sight, so that when the three cars that had earlier gone away came screaming back around the block, there was nothing to be seen but a disabled truck and, tucked under its tail, an Audi, starting to smoke though not yet to burn, while the two guys who had been in the Audi now kept trying to run away from it but spent most of their time falling down.

The driver and Mikey and some others walked the block and a half to the truck and the Audi, but as they neared the mess, the Audi did start to burn. Stopping, the driver said, "You know, when a car catches fire, what usually kinda happens next is the gas tank blows."

"He's right, Mikey," said one of the others.

So they all turned around and walked the other way, toward the closed but not empty O.J. Bar Grill. As they walked, the driver said, "You know what this means, I hope."

Now it was Mikey who gave him the New York look. "Tell me, pal," he said.

"This means," the driver assured him, "a whole shitpot of overtime."


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