Cover image for West on 66
West on 66
Cobb, James H.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Minotaur, 1999.
Physical Description:
264 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
"Thomas Dunne Books."
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



"You have a car, a gun and some nerve," she said."Right now I need all three." September, 1958.On vacation, LA County Deputy Sheriff Kevin Pulaski wasn't looking for anything more than a cup of coffee and a hot meal when he pulled into the lonely truck stop.But what he found was a beautiful and enigmatic young woman, a link to a decade-old multiple murder and a blood and fire-scarred road leading to a lost fortune in gangland money. Lisette Kingman, daughter of the late Chicago gunman, "Johnny 32" Kingman holds in her possession a cryptically marked guidebook to US Highway 66, possibly holding the secret to the location of the $250,000 war chest stolen by her father from his partners.Pursuing her is Mace Spanno, the last survivor of her father's gang, intent on reclaiming both the money and Lisette. In his undercover persona of an easy-going California hot rodder, Kevin Pulaski find himself swept up in a two thousand mile chase down the length of America's legendary Route 66.From the concrete canyons of the Chicago Loop to the desert wastes of the Mojave, Kevin's only allies are a hot '57 Chevy and a hotter Colt .45. In West on 66, author James Cobb has written a classic noir mystery in the tradition of Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane.Climb onboard for an unforgettable ride on the Mother Road.

Author Notes

James H. Cobb, James H. Cobb is the author of the Amanda Garrett techno-thrillers as well as the Kevin Pulaski suspense mystery series.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Switching from futuristic techno-thrillers (Choosers of the Slain; Sea Strike) to a mystery set in the past, Cobb gives readers a shameless ode to the joys of the 1950s muscle carÄand barely enough plot to fill the back of a postage stamp. Vacationing cop Kevin Pulaski guns his '57 Chevy across country, following the fabled Route 66 from Chicago to California, in the tail end of a hot summer in 1958. Occupying the passenger seat is the sultry Lisette Kingman, daughter of Johnny 32, a murdered mobster who stole and ran from his partners. Now Lisette is on the trail of the missing money, some 200 large. She's being helped by Pulaski and tailed by Mace Spano, one of her father's partners. More a period-piece travelogue than a mystery, this extended car chase doesn't offer enough surprises. The tale is as linear and as lonely as a stretch of rural interstate. Mace and his henchmen, plus two members of the Cluster clan, Ira and Jubal, do provide some psychotic color, showing up threateningly along the way. But it's hard to see how this novel will hold the attention of anyone but vintage car buffs and open road enthusiasts hankering for the wide empty spaces of yesteryear. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One ILLINOIS In leaving Chicago on US 66, you will find the route plainly marked through city streets, running southwest from the Loop district ... On the radio, the Platters sang "The Great Pretender" to a lightning static backbeat. It was September in the Year of Our Lord 1957, and a storm was rolling in from Lake Michigan. The heavy overcast had turned the city gray--gray buildings, a gray lakefront, a gray beach with gray waves sullenly nuzzling against it. Only the traffic signal on Lake Shore Drive hadn't been infected yet, and its red didn't look too healthy as the '57 and I rolled up to it.     A porthole-fendered Buick sedan sat in the outside lane. As I waited out the light, I glanced over and noted its business-suited driver gingerly giving us the eye.     I knew what he was seeing. The car, a sleek and souped-up black-and-white Chevrolet hardtop, riding high-tailed and belligerent with an ominous rumble in her twin pipes. The driver, lean and leather-jacketed, with too-long brown hair combed back, a young punk like the writer had warned about in that "This Generation Is Going to Hell" article in Collier's last week.     And was this the reality? Close enough, I guess. I blipped the gas pedal, and the '57 snarled, scaring the eyes of the Buick driver forward again.     Slouching behind the wheel, I wondered again just what I'd hoped to find back here in Chicago. Whatever it was, I hadn't found it. There had been a tract house I'd never seen before and a young sister-in-law who had struggled heroically to be a good hostess to a total stranger. There had been a niece in the toddler stage who didn't have a clue about who this new guy was supposed to be. And finally, there had been an older brother I really didn't recognize anymore.     It was my fault, I guess. Maybe if I'd come to visit a couple of years ago, things could have been different. Maybe if I'd even been able to get back when our folks had died. But that hadn't been in the books, either. I'd been inhabiting a frozen mud bunker just short of the 'thirty-ninth parallel when Dad had been killed in that yarding accident. And when pneumonia had gotten Mom, I'd been working deep cover in a high school out around Glendora, trying to get a lead on a marijuana dealer who was recruiting part-time sales help from the local student body.     Frank had followed Dad into railroading. Me, I'd enlisted in the army straight out of high school. Frank had settled down, making Chicago his home. I'd volunteered for Airborne, doing a tour on the line in Korea and then another as an MP in Japan. Frank got married and started a family. I'd taken a liking to police work and had signed on with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department after getting my service discharge.     Somewhere along the line, Frank and I had stopped living in the same world. Now he had the house and the wife and the kid, while I had the stories about making a combat jump out of a C-119, walking a midnight beat in the Ginza, and being one of Marilyn Monroe's bodyguards at her latest movie premiere.     Which one of us had it the best? Hell, I don't know. We just didn't have it the same anymore. I'd taken three weeks off to come back and get reacquainted, but it hadn't worked out so well. Things went fine for the first three days. But by day four, we'd run out of old times to reminisce about.     It's not good to only live in the past with a brother. You need some here and now to balance things out.     This morning, on day five, I'd packed my gear and headed for the door. A big break on an important case out on the coast, I'd said, lying politely. I had to get back. Frank and his wife politely said they were sorry to see me go and promised that next year it was their turn to come out to Los Angeles.     It could happen, I guess.     Before I left town, there were a couple of last things I'd had to take care of. For one, I drove out to Graceland Cemetery and said a private good-bye to Mom and Dad. I owed them an apology for not being there when it was time for them to move on. Dad understood. He was always very big on a man doing his duty. And Mom, she'd forgive you anything. I also promised that Frank and I would somehow find something in common again one of these days. They seemed to be satisfied with that.     Afterward, I'd driven around town for a couple of hours, just to see if I could pick up the feel of the place again. I couldn't. Chicago had never really been a hometown to me. Dad's job with the GM&O had kept us moving from one whistle-stop along the Alton route to another for just about all of my life. Chicago meant only a senior year in high school and a recruiter's station. Then, too, Los Angeles has spoiled me for living in a stacked-up city. The narrow urban canyons along the Loop give me claustrophobia now.     The stoplight went green. For a second I considered respooking the guy in the Buick by breaking traction and burning a little rubber as I pulled away from the intersection. I relented, though, satisfying myself with the '57's clean surge of acceleration.     My gas tank was full. My bags (one B-4, one sleeping) were in the backseat, and there was nothing else in this town that I needed except for a way out.     I found one at the head of Adams Boulevard, a block beyond the entrance to Grant Park. Once it had been called the Old Joliet Road. At another time, it had been the Pontiac Trail. Now it was marked in a flash of black on a white shield. US Route 66     Appropriately enough, Bill Haley and the Comets took over from the Platters with "See You Later, Alligator." A good road omen. It was time to head for home, my real one. I hung a right and aimed us down Adams. The baritone purr of the '57's engine seemed to grow more contented as we followed the shields west through the grimy shade of the city's streets. We cleared Al Capone's old stomping ground in Cicero just ahead of the cresting rush hour traffic, then on around the Joliet bypass, riding the four-lane through Wilmington and past the rail yards and the workingmen's neighborhoods. Out beyond Joliet, the pastures and cornfields began to outnumber the junkyards and the factories along the roadway, and the big-town sprawl became a dissipating smear across the bottom of my rearview mirrors. I edged the speedometer needle five miles over the limit, and the '57 and I began to seriously kill some road.     The '57 is the only major vice I can afford on a deputy's salary. We've been together for close to a year now, ever since I found her sitting forlornly in the county impound yard with a smashed grill and a crumpled front fender. Some doting daddy out Sepulvida way had bought her fresh off the train from Detroit as a birthday present for his teenage son. Three weeks later, carrying a cargo of empty beer bottles, sonny boy had put his new wheels into a palm tree and himself into the hospital. Daddy was going to be tied up with medical expenses and lawyer's fees for a while, so he was more than pleased to let me take over the payments. After I'd gotten the papers signed, I'd had her towed out to Don Blair's legendary speed shop in Pomona. There we started having fun.     Sonny boy might have been a drunk-driving dork, but he'd known something about fast cars. He'd asked Daddy for a One-Fifty Series, two-door centerpost sedan. Most of the stock car teams running Chevys use this model because it's both the lightest and the strongest chassis Chevrolet makes. Then he'd gone down the options list and had checked off the entire Corvette performance package for the new 283-cubic-inch Turbofire V-8:9.51 compression ratio, mechanical lifters, a Duntov cam and valve set, duel exhausts with tuned ramshead headers, and twin Carter four-barreled carburetors on an aluminum competition manifold. The whole nine yards.     But no matter how good something is, you can always make it better. While the bodywork was being straightened out, Dollar-a-Deal Don's guys and I pulled the engine and knocked it down to the nuts and bolts.     We gave her a full porting and polishing job, smoothing the valve seats and widening and buffing the intake and exhaust ports in the heads so she could breathe easier. Junking the factory mufflers, we replaced them with a set of Porter steel packs and installed a crossover pipe. Then we dropped in an aluminum flywheel and added one of Dean Moon's custom dual-point distributor and ignition systems.     We blueprinted the entire mill from the pan up, minutely examining every component for possible flaws and Magnaflux-testing the critical ones. Then we put it all back together, deburring, balancing, and polishing as we went, trueing it far beyond its factory specifications. When we finished closing that engine up again, it was more totally right then anything ever conceived on an assembly line     I went underneath next and did a few things to help keep the rubber on the road. The shifter assembly for the close-ratio three-speed transmission went from the steering column to a Corvette-style floor stick, and the battery was moved to a battery box in the trunk to help centralize the weight distribution. I shod her with Goodyear Blue Streak racing tires mounted on NASCAR-rated six-lug competition wheels, and then I beefed up the suspension--stabilizer bars fore and aft, extra extended-length leaves in the outrigger springs in back, heavier coil springs in front, and stiffer Gabriel shocks all the way around.     Some of these latter items required a little handshaking around the LA County motor pool. They were lifted out of a Chevrolet "Police Interceptor" parts package and were intended for use on official police vehicles only.     Well, hell, I'm officially police.     I'd lived on cornflakes and macaroni and cheese all last winter. It was worth it, though. Car and I have put together something of a reputation out at the drag strips at Pomona and Paradise Mesa. And on other less formal occasions back up in the Hollywood Hills, we've left the owner of more than one Coupe DeVille and SK-model Jag wondering just why in the hell he'd wasted all that money.     More seriously, the '57 has served me well as part of the young badass cover I've built for myself doing plainclothes work for LA County Metro. It doesn't look like a cop car, and most of the time I don't look like a cop. We match.     Pontiac, then Bloomington, the tires thudding rhythmically on the expansion ridges between the concrete road slabs. Flatlands and farms, the fall's harvest being lifted out of the chocolate cake soil. The pretty good Chicago rock 'n' roll station I'd been listening to faded on me, and I made do with some pretty poor country out of Springfield. Funk's Grove and miles of maple forest flamed dully in the dying light of a fall day, the sunset buried behind a wall of clouds.     As I was rolling through McLean, the storm I'd been trying to outrun finally caught up with me, and I turned on my windshield wipers and headlights at the same time. My stomach also reminded me that lunch had been a long time back.     A café on the little town's main street had a sign promising "genuine home cooking" in its rain-spotted front window. And who knows? Maybe they could've actually delivered. However, I preferred the sure thing south of town to the gamble.     Ahead, alongside the big road, there was a low, sprawling clapboard building, a drowsing herd of parked truck and trailer rigs, and a scarlet banner of neon advertising the Dixie Trucker's Home.     The Dixie is an icon on 66. It just might have been the first true truck stop in the United States. A lot of its regular patrons say that it's still one of the best. God knows it's sure one of the busiest. On a good Saturday, a thousand people a night might pass through here. This was a rainy evening in mid week, though, and the stop's broad parking lots were two-thirds empty.     I topped off the '57's tank with ethyl at the car pumps. Then I found a parking place well away from the clustered vehicles around the restaurant. There was no sense in running the risk of having some road-dopey PIE driver back his rig into my wheels. Breathing in the rain-freshened air, I crossed to the restaurant, my old jump boots crunching on the wet gravel.     As I pushed through the door, a blast of warmth hit me along with that unique combination of sights, scents, and sounds that mark a real trucker's "choke & puke": Monel metal and raw diesel, scarred Naugahyde and cigarette smoke, hot bacon grease, and Patsy Cline on the jukebox.     There was also an invisible line drawn down the linoleum of the big, brightly lit dining room. On one side were the mere mortals, the tourist families, the traveling salesmen, and the locals out for a supper away from the home table. On the other were the elite, the long-haul drivers, big, weary men who leaned in over their coffee cups, seeking a break from the kidney-hammering vibration of the highway.     Once, so they say, the Dixie's management had set aside an entirely separate dining area just for truck drivers. The truckers hadn't liked that much. They'd felt as if they were being discriminated against. So the one big room had been restored and the truckers had contentedly gone back to segregating themselves once more, assured of their proper place in the world.     I seated myself on the mortal side of the room, and a comfortable-looking middle-aged waitress brought me a cup of coffee as if there weren't any other beverage worth considering on a stormy night on the big road. The hamburger steak looked good, and I said so, with fries.     The waitress hustled away and I took my first contented sip of a hot black brew strong enough to idle a Kenworth on. I was starting to get my vacation back. Being on the move again had erased the dissatisfaction of Chicago.     I'd blitzed Route 66 on the way out from Los Angeles, pushing the '57 and covering the twenty-four hundred odd miles in only five days. I had twice as much time to get back in. What to do with it?     The steak showed up, and the first forkful jump-started my enthusiasm. The old traveler's tale about always stopping to eat where the truckers do might not be valid elsewhere, but it definitely applies to the food at the Dixie.     OK, I had some free days on my hands. Why not wander around some? Why not drink a little beer and listen to a little rockabilly in a few roadhouses? Why not hang around a few speed shops and talk a little car? Why not run a little back road "five dollars a gear" with some of the local talent?     Why not find a girl?     Maybe like the one who just came in through the door.     She was only average height, but she carried herself tall. She had that pale, creamy brunette's skin, and when she flipped back the hood of her car coat I could see that her glossy hair was the color of well-polished saddle leather. Her eyes were dark as well, with an onyx glint to them you could note clear across the room, dominating a face that was both delicate and strong.     She was maybe five years younger than me. Twenty-one to my twenty-six, balanced right on that knife-edge between girl and woman. Youthful enough so that a ponytail still suited her, yet old enough to know how to walk in heels.     She was alone and beautiful, and you could bet safe money that every male eye in that restaurant, including mine, tracked her as she crossed to the counter. But that's all we did, for she radiated an air of cool self-possession that went a long way beyond anything you might expect from someone her age. It was as though she entered that room knowing that there wasn't a damn thing there that was going to impress her. She took the end stool, the one that would let her keep her back to the wall, and slammed down an invisible barrier between herself and the rest of us.     Caging a light for a cigarette from the appreciative counterman, she sat very still for a little while, her eyes lowered and half-closed as if she was marshaling her strength. Then she drew herself up once more, giving her cloak of regal invulnerability a tug back into place. She glanced around the room and took what looked like a stenographer's notebook or sketch pad out of her shoulder bag. Slipping a pencil from the wire coil across the top of the pad, she flipped it open, focusing on it.     Writing? No, not with the way her hand swept across the page. Drawing.     I returned my attention to my hamburger steak, my overt attention anyway. But ignore her? Uh-uh, Jack. Even as I got my glands back under control, my "cop's eyes" began to notice the subtleties.     She'd walked in. Her coat was almost soaked through, and there was mud caked on her expensive pumps, shoes that weren't meant for a hike on a stormy night. Her pleated plaid skirt and matching wine red sweater were new and of high quality. But they had that slightly rumpled and stale look of clothing that's been worn for too long at a single stretch. The girl also carried that slightly self-conscious air of someone who likes to look good but who knows that she's not at her best.     Then there were the shadows under her eyes. Short of sleep. And the careful way she counted the change in her purse before ordering. Short of money.     Most of all, though, I noted the air of wariness about her. When she had entered, she had paused for a moment and carefully "read the room," verifying that there was no one here except for a crowd of harmless strangers. And now, whenever the door opened her head came up, alert for whoever might be coming through.     I'd seen that look before, plenty of times. All lawmen have.     Slum kids and runaways have it. And battered wives. And streetwise prostitutes. It's an ingrained, instinctive kind of wariness that doesn't just come from being afraid. It comes from living a life where the blows can come at you from any direction at any time. It's born out of an existence where dodging and running and fighting isn't anything special; it's just how you stay alive.     It didn't match up with the rest of her. Not at all.     As she quietly ate her sandwich, I found myself accepting a fourth cup of coffee and ordering a piece of cherry pie that I didn't particularly want, just to study her for a little longer.     People are your stock-in-trade when you're a police officer. You constantly find yourself trying to figure how they get to be the way they are, what makes them and what moves them. Something else was going on here, something beyond a pretty girl in a rain-wet car coat. Who was she? What combination of experiences and events had put her together? And what would happen with her next?     The problem is, even a cop can't go crashing into someone's private life for no good reason. And you can take an across-the-room fascination just so far. The waitress brought my tab, and I paid it there at the table. Tossing a quarter down beside my plate, I stood up to leave.     And she was standing beside me as I turned, studying me levelly out of those dark, expressive eyes. "Excuse me," she said quietly, "but are you headed south? I could really use a lift to Saint Louis if you are."     To Saint Louis? To Miami? To Tierra del Fuego? Oh yeah, I think so.     "Sure. Why not."     Every other guy in that room hated my guts as I led her back out into the night. If they'd known what was waiting for me out there, they might not have been so envious. Her wariness returned as we left the pool of light around the truck stop buildings and headed out across the parking lot. She walked fast, her head turning as she scanned the darkness, acting as though she expected hostility out of the night. The feeling was infectious. I found myself cranking up my own alertness level, suddenly wishing that the '57 wasn't so far back in the shadows.     She had reason to be wary. They were waiting for us. Three of them. Three men moving fast out of the chasm of total blackness between a couple of parked big rigs. A massive form in a dark raincoat loomed in front of me, and a vicious sucker punch drove into my guts.     If he'd taken me totally by surprise, he would have laid me out with a couple of broken ribs. As it was, it felt as if I'd been swiped across the stomach with a two-by-four.     But I'd caught sight of his arm cocking back and I was just barely able to ride with the punch. I think I could have stayed on my feet if I'd really wanted to. However, I didn't. I dropped hard to the sodden gravel, curling into a semifetal position.     I wanted them to think I was out of it. I wanted them to shift their attention elsewhere for a second. But most of all, I wanted the gun under my jacket. Maybe Robert Mitchum or Troy Donahue could duke it out with three guys in a dark alley and win, but I just work around Hollywood, not in it.     My move paid off. Their focus was all on the girl now. While the biggest of the trio had been taking me out, the number two man had been clamping his hand across the girl's mouth, not even giving her a second for a decent scream. Now, despite her frenzied efforts to resist, they were hustling her swiftly back into the shadows.     It was as sweet a snatch as you could have asked for. They'd just gotten a little overconfident.     I rolled to my feet. Drawing the Colt Commander from my belt, I executed a fast MP cock, snagging the front sight on the pocket of my jeans and pumping the automatic's action to lift a shell into the chamber.     All three of the gentlemen recognized the dulcet clang of a .45's slide going into train. They spun to face me, two of them starting moves that looked like they might have guns at the end of them.     But by then, the Colt was leveled.     "Okay, that's it! Let her go!"     The girl didn't wait. She tore loose on her own. Snatching up her fallen shoulder bag, she started to back toward me.     "Lisette." Just one quiet word, almost a whisper, from the big man who had slugged me.     "No!" The girl packed more raw hate into that single-syllable scream than I ever could have thought possible.     What in the hell was going on out here? Obviously a whole lot more than I'd ever conceived in my café fantasizing. OK, Saint George, you were hot to rescue the fair damsel in distress. Well, the dragon's just shown up and he's brought along a couple of buddies. Get with the rescuing.     There was a coiled-spring tension in all three men. My gun was just barely holding them. They were waiting for me to make that one little mistake that would let them regain the initiative. Trying to pat them down out here without backup would be a real bad idea. In fact, some instinct told me that even announcing that I was a cop might trigger an explosion of blood, guts, and feathers all over this parking lot.     The girl and I had to disengage. We had to get out of here before one of these guys got the nerve to try for a weapon, or a passerby mistook me for a stickup artist, or any one of a thousand other little dumb-ass things happened that could get us killed.     "You know how to drive?" I asked quietly.     "Yes," she replied, raking her dark hair back. She sounded like one cool kitten for somebody who had just barely ducked a kidnapping.     "My keys are in my right front pocket. It's the black-and-white Chevy down at the end of the line. Go get it and bring it down here."     She didn't reply, but she passed around behind me, carefully not blocking my line of fire. A moment later, a small, warm hand slid into my pocket, retrieving the keys. A moment more and her light footsteps ran away across the gravel.     I realized there was a very real possibility that she could just steal the '57 and leave me standing here with these goons. But just then I had to trust somebody and my list of available prospects was god-awful short.     "Boy." It was the big man speaking again, the one who had tried to deck me and the one I was beginning to sense was the leader of this show. "You don't know how much trouble you're making for yourself." It was a voice as cold and gray and gritty as wet concrete.     "Yeah? Well, in case you haven't noticed, you're the one standing at the wrong end of the gun at the moment." I'd been slowly panning the automatic across all three of the kidnappers, but gradually my sight picture had come to rest in the center of the big man's chest. That same instinct that had told me to keep my mouth shut about being a cop was whispering another message now. It said that if it came to a fight, I'd have to kill this guy with my first bullet to have any chance at all of getting out alive.     "This is a family affair," he continued. "My family. It's no business of yours."     "You made it my business, man, when you took that swing at me. And if this is a family affair, you'd better tell Uncle Fred over there to quit edging sideways. If he gets out of my line of sight, I'll pull this trigger and then look to see where he's got to."     Oh, I was way ahead on the witty repartee, but I was running short on time. Where in the hell was the girl?     A flash of headlights and a familiar rumbling roar answered me. Tires spun and gravel rattled in the '57's wheel wells as the girl fought with the stiff racing clutch; then she had the car lurching down the parking lane toward us.     She was smart. She didn't pull in behind me. She turned and pulled up alongside, putting the headlights on the men and giving me my first good look at them.     They were like the three bears. Three sizes. Baby Bear, Mama Bear, and Papa Bear.     Baby Bear was my age or maybe a little younger: thin, acne-scarred, and wearing a beat-up army field jacket. He had enough grease in his DA to make the rainwater bead on it. Among the three, he was the only one who looked uneasy staring down the barrel of the Commander.     Mama Bear wasn't all that motherly. Medium height, dark eyes, lean and wiry, hawkish, almost Indian-like features. An Apache warrior in a snap-brim fedora and a trench coat. The only regret he displayed was likely born out of the fact that he couldn't reach that ominous-looking bulge in his side pocket.     Papa Bear was the big man.     He beat my own five-ten by a good four inches, and he probably outweighed me by at least a hundred pounds, damn little of which I suspect was anything but bone and muscle. A gray-black fringe of hair showed beneath the brim of his hat, and his large, angular head sat square on his massive shoulders, like a cinder block balanced on top of a refrigerator. His skin seemed to fit loosely over his skull, as if the cinder block was being carried in a sack of flesh, and his mouth was a lipless slot across the bottom of his face.     The eyes, though, they were what got you. Like some last lingering memory out of a nightmare. Colorless, cold, and without a whole lot of what you would consider human behind them. Those eyes were fixed on me now, promising that next time he wouldn't make the mistake of leaving me alive.     I risked a sideways glance. The girl had the driver's side door open and had slid across to the passenger seat. She watched me for the next move, her face underlit by the dashboard lights. I sidled across to stand behind the open door.     This was going to be the tricky part. We were about thirty feet back from the three men, and I wasn't going to be able to keep them solidly covered and get into the car at the same time.     And they knew it.     I was going to have to be inventive. "Reach over and kick on the high beams," I whispered.     She obeyed and the headlights flared. The three men winced back for an instant in the brightness, and in that instant I dived behind the wheel. I jammed the gun into the crack in the seat back, hit the clutch, and slammed the floor shift into low almost within the same second.     The '57 screamed and lunged forward as I firewalled the gas pedal, her rear tires scrabbling for traction like the claws of a startled cat. The acceleration slammed my door shut, and the three men were barely able to fling themselves out of our way.     Shucks.     I aimed for the dark passage between a parked grain truck and a Texaco tanker, praying there was room enough for us to fit. There was, by about three inches. My radio aerial thwacked loudly against a sideview mirror, and then we were out and clear of the parking area and turning on to the frontage road that looped around the truck stop.     "Are they going to come after us?" I demanded.     "You can count on it," the girl replied grimly.     "What kind of car?"     "A 1957 Chrysler. A black coupe. One of the fast kind."     Fan-damn-tastic. There were maybe three production automobiles built in the United States that the '57 couldn't just walk away from. And the 300-C Chrysler was at the head of the list.     "Any of those three guys know how to really drive?"     "Randy, the youngest one, is a first-class wheelman."     We were batting a thousand tonight, folks.     "There's a seat belt over on that side," I snarled. "Put it on and pull it tight. You might need it."     There was a gap in the traffic on 66, and I blew past the access stop sign and onto the highway. Fishtailing a little, we accelerated hard out onto the four-lane, our tires slashing through the water sheet on the concrete. After an entire evening of drizzle, the sky had to pick right now to really start unloading. Rain roared against the windshield like a pattern of buckshot, and the wipers overloaded in seconds, leaving nothing to be seen but sodden blackness and glare-starred car lights.     The '57 didn't like it. She started riding dangerously loose as we passed through eighty. With more water under her tires than pavement, she was hydroplaning like Miss Thriftway. It would be almighty easy to break loose on this road tonight and take a real short drive to hell.     Under these conditions, the guys chasing us had all the edges. I couldn't identify car makes or gauge distances in my mirrors, while they could catch and hold me in their headlights. My first warning of their presence would be when that big 392 Hemi engine came pulling them up alongside. In any kind of a shoving contest, the Chrysler would have the edge as well. It outweighed the '57 by a good half a ton. Well-handled, it could bounce us into the ditch like a Ping-Pong ball.     Most of all, though, the guys behind us would know just how bad they wanted to win this race and how crazy they'd have to drive to do it. I'd have to guess.     The girl sat straight and slim on the bench seat, not looking out into that berserk night but watching me, waiting for me to pull another miracle out of my back pocket.     Ho-kay, the safest place you can be when you are being tailed is behind the guy who's tailing you. The trick was how to get us there. I had to get off the highway and disappear.     A bridge exploded at us out of the night, and we thundered through it like a bullet through the barrel of a rifle. Lights ahead. Town lights. A sign. ATLANTA 1 MILE.     Right! Here we go!     The white numbers on my odometer dial clicked off a countdown like the army missile men use out at White Sands. Nine-tenths of a mile, eight-tenths, seven-tenths ... The tailgate reflectors of a lumbering Campbell 66 Transport tractor-trailer blazed in my headlights.     "Hang on!" There was no time for more words than that.     We snaked around the truck. Gaining a little clearance on the big rig, I cut back in front of it. One-tenth of a mile to the Atlanta turnoff. I stood on the brakes, praying that whoever had been putting up these signs had gauged his distances right.     For a long sickening second, absolutely nothing happened. Finally, as I savagely pumped the brake pedal, we caught pavement and the '57's tires sobbed and grabbed. Behind me, air horns blared as the trucker protested my committing suicide across his front bumper. Then the turnoff materialized on my right and I swerved for it.     We came off 66 hot, way too hot to make a ninety-degree turn on rain-slick pavement with any kind of safety. But then, "safe" wasn't really a consideration at the moment, was it? We were waltzing like a pig on ice, and I pulled us down a gear and leaned on the gas, praying we'd dig through the water and find some traction. For once, I didn't get a celestial busy signal.     I'd used up every inch of both lanes and was hanging on the edge of the ditch when the '57 got her feet back under her again. The Chevy's wicked acceleration canceled out our lateral slide, and we hurled down the narrow frontage road.     The girl sat half-twisted in her seat, looking back. "One set of lights followed us off the highway," she reported calmly. "They're coming fast. I think it's them."     Son of a bitch! I hoped that the rain had cleared the streets of Atlanta, Illinois, because they are about to receive visitors.     We thundered across the T intersection where the frontage road met the main street of the little farm town, the roar of the '57's engine penned up and echoing between the buildings. I had an impression of a set of grain elevators and a stone-sided courthouse outlined in the watery glow of a few weak street lamps. Then we were out the other side and tearing back into the night.     The frontage road started a wide left-handed turn, angling back toward 66. Then a couple of things happened at about the same instant. For one, that malignant quad set of glowing car eyes in my rearview mirror disappeared as we broke line of sight in the curve. For the other, my own lights caught a flash of another sign at the side of the road. Somebody-or-other's farm fresh produce. Just ahead.     This time around, I didn't even have a second to yell a warning before I went for the turnout. We slithered through the produce stand's parking lot with the brakes locked up, shoving a wave of mud and gravel ahead of us. The side of an unpainted plank building loomed ahead, and I got off the binders long enough to aim for a patch of darkness behind it, sincerely hoping it was a driveway or lane or something and not somebody's duck pond.     We lucked out again. A driveway circled the produce shed. We tore around it, broadsiding to a stop just beyond the building and in the shelter of its shadow. Instantly I killed the lights and engine and we lay doggo like a U-boat on the bottom of the ocean.     For about ten fast heartbeats we sat there and the tapping of the rain on the car top was the only sound in the universe. Then a pair of headlights streaked past out on the frontage road, going like a bat out of hell and not slowing at all as they dwindled away into the night.     I recovered the .45 from where I had hastily stowed it. Moving by rote, I ran the pistol through its unloading drill. Clip out of the butt. Shell out of the chamber. Shell back in the clip. Clip back in the gun. Gun back in my belt. Secured. Finally, I glanced up at the girl.     A barn lot are light down the road cast enough illumination to silhouette her, and I caught the faint pale flash of a smile. "Lisette Kingman," she said with a touch of ironic humor in her voice.     "Kevin Pulaski. Pleased to meet you. Cigarette?"     "Thanks," she replied. "I have my own."     Fatima extra-lengths, no less. I guess I couldn't have expected her to smoke anything as plebian as a Lucky Strike.     We shared a light off the glowing car lighter, and I cracked my window, admitting a cool draft of air flavored with cow and wet clover. "Okay, Lisette Kingman," I said. "May I ask who those guys were and why I ended up doing this?"     There was a pause over at the other side of the '57's front seat and a silence except for that inaudible sound of mental wheels turning. By the time she spoke, I knew that I wouldn't be getting the full story, or necessarily the straight one.     "Those men are business partners of my late father. There's a problem concerning an inheritance. They've become kind of pushy about reaching a settlement."     "I guess that's one way to put it."     "That's why I'm going to Saint Louis, to see about part of that settlement. And I still need to get there."     She studied me again, those wheels still turning.     "You might want to consider going by way of the state police barracks in Springfield," I said. "They have ways of taking care of pushy business partners."     She shook her head emphatically. "No. Maybe later, when I have some things worked out. But no police for now, for a lot of reasons."     Well, that answered the question about whether or not to flash the tin on her. Miss Kingman didn't want the cops in on this. Okay, so I'd oblige her and not be a cop for a while. I slouched down behind the wheel and took a drag on my Lucky, pretending to think.     "Okay? Will these guys know that you're heading for Saint Louis?"     "He will."     "The big man?"     "Yes. He's called Mace Spanno."     The girl hesitated as she spoke his name, as if invoking it too often might summon him up like the devil. Lisette Kingman didn't frighten easy. She hadn't even blinked at doing ninety down a storm-wracked road in the middle of the night. But Mace Spanno scared her. I had a hunch he might be the only thing in the world that could.     "What do I call his friends?"     "The other man in a raincoat was Nathan Temple. The one in the army jacket was Randy Bannerman. He's pretty much just a driver. Temple, though, is ... bad."     "As bad as Spanno?"     "Close."     I nodded, matching faces and names in my mind, recalling and burning in the details of heights, weights, postures, and attitudes for later reference.     "Okay, Princess," I said. "Saint Louie it is."     She straightened a little. "You'll still take me?" Then she paused for a moment. "Why?"     She was a girl who could get a lot of mileage out of one syllable. Just now, she was asking me to justify my putting my neck on the line for a total stranger I'd just met along the road.     It was a pretty good question, too.     "Because I said I would. And when I say something, I generally mean it."     I shifted my weight in the seat and got my feet slotted in halfway comfortably between the floor pedals. "It may take us some time, though. We're going to stay put awhile and give your friends a chance to get way the hell out ahead of us."     "When they realize we're not on the highway anymore, won't they come back looking?" she asked.     "I'd doubt it. By the time they figure we've ducked out on them, it'll be too late. We could have cut down any one of a hundred different side roads or town streets around here. Granted these guys know where you're headed, their smart-money move will probably be to try and pick us up there. Do they have any idea about exactly where you're going in Saint Louis?"     There was another flash of that wry smile. "At the moment, I don't even know exactly where I'm going in Saint Louis. That's another of those things I have to work out."     "Okay, Princess. It's your show."     I wasn't going to push any points yet. We'd let this deal solidify a little more first. Reaching over, I turned the ignition key to auxiliary and switched on the radio. The night wave skip was coming in, and a little fiddling with the tuner brought in some blues from downriver. Faint but clear, it was good music to stare out into the night by.     A couple of pieces played through before I glanced at the girl again. Lisette was curled up against the passenger door in her coat, already asleep. A car seat shared with a stranger was apparently the safest haven she'd known for some time.     A lawman, at least any kind of a one that's worth a damn, is always on duty. The mere fact that I was on vacation two thousand miles away from my home beat was irrelevant. I'd just had a hot case dumped in my lap. Why was she being hunted? The real reason, not this crap about an inheritance. I only had fragments to work with yet, but one in particular stuck in my mind. Back at the Dixie, Lisette had said that one of her pursuers was a good wheelman.     Wheelman is the underworld slang name for a fast getaway driver. A very handy guy to have around if your profession happens to involve bank jobs, smash and grabs, and rubouts.     "Car," I asked quietly, "what in the hell have I gotten us into?"     The '57 didn't have any more of an answer than I did.     I lit a second Lucky and sent a stream of smoke out of the half-opened window. Over the radio, the soft cry of Miles Davis's trumpet echoed bleak and bittersweet in the night.