Dobie saw Victor looking at him in the rearview mirror. The two of them were still sitting in the Land Rover, after Lexi had run off to play in the surf.
“What?” Dobie asked. There was no irritation in his voice, but he was impatient. Victor had been watching him talk to Lexi for the entire drive without saying much, and there was a moderately amused look on his old friend’s face.
Victor shook his head. The slight smile didn’t leave his lips.
“Don’t play all-knowing with me, Victor. What’s that look about?”
“Just watching you play with your new toy. And watching it play with you.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Her,” Victor said, pointing to Lexi.
From their vantage partway up the hill they could both see Lexi jumping from rock to rock in the slowly receding tide, looking down the whole time. She was apparently stalking crabs. He could see storm clouds looming offshore, too. Late afternoon squalls were common on this side of the ridge. He hoped Lexi would come back before it hit. “She reminds me of your monkey. Do you remember?”
Dobie had gotten a capuchin monkey for his thirteenth birthday. That he and Victor had a history that long could be both a blessing and a curse. Kind of like the monkey had been, come to think of it. “I remember.”
“It was cute, and it was amusing, but it was smart, too. And when we turned our backs, it destroyed everything it could reach.”
“What does that have to do with Lexi?”
“Use your imagination,” Victor said. “She’s cute, and she’s amusing, and she’s smart, too.”
Dobie frowned. “Smarter than a monkey, I’ll give her that. But if you’re suggesting that she’s got some hidden agenda…I don’t see it.”
“Of course you don’t.” You’re too busy trying to get her to fall in love with you, Victor thought. He didn’t say this; there were some boundaries that had to be respected. “But it’s my job to see things like this.”
“So what would you recommend?”
“Recommend?” Victor shrugged, his face unreadable. “Caution. The same thing I always recommend.”
“Do you think that bringing her here was a mistake?”
“Here, or to Marjori?”
Victor took a deep breath that would have strained the seams of a lesser jacket. “Depends on if Becka Packard finds out,” he said finally.
Dobie waved the thought away. “I can handle Becka.”
“I know you can. I’d just rather you didn’t have to.” He said nothing for a few moments. Out on the water’s edge, Lexi appeared to be dancing on the rocks. The storm was almost over them.
“Thank you for not asking if I’d considered her request.”
“That’s not my department–oh, dear God, she’s caught one,” Victor said suddenly, leaning forward.
Sure enough, Lexi was on her knees in two feet of water, holding a crab the size of a salad bowl over her head with both hands. She got quickly to her feet and began loping back toward the shore, turning it this way and that to avoid the questing claws and wiggling feet.
“I cannot wait to see the look on Giovanni’s face,” Victor said. He actually sounded amused.
Lexi came to the driver’s side window, which Dobie rolled down as she approached. “Look at how much fun you missed,” she said, beaming. “He almost got away. A hand-caught crab dinner would make this just about the best day I’ve had in months. Shall we build a fire on the beach?”
“No,” Dobie said. “It’s going to rain.”
“It is?” She looked up at the blackening clouds. “I figured they were just threatening. D’you think they’re serious?” She shouted at the sky. “I’m not afraid of you, cloud! You think you’re gonna rain on me? Come on and rain on me! You don’t have the guts!” She looked back at Dobie. “It’s not going to rain–ow! Hold this while I get in.” She dropped the crab in his lap and ran around to her side.
Dobie yelled in alarm and pushed himself up in the seat, trying to keep the crab away from his groin. Victor reached quickly over the seat and grabbed the animal without a hint of self-consciousness at reaching into his boss’ crotch. His hands were large enough that he could easily palm the crab, keeping its claws away from his fingers. “I’ve got it,” he said.
Lexi was inside in a moment. As soon as she closed her door, the sky opened up, and she laughed again. “Taunting them always works.”
“You…you threw a crab on me!” Dobie hissed, raising his voice to be heard over the sudden thunder of rain on the roof.
“It’s okay,” she said lightly, “you don’t get crabs from actual crabs. You get them from girls named after breakfast foods or Disney characters. Don’t be a baby. Victor’s not complaining.” She opened the glovebox and took out the owner’s manual.
“I don’t believe you.” His words were almost lost under the sound of the rain on the top of the truck. The broad ocean vista was obscured by a curtain of silvery raindrops. “And I was right about it raining.”
“So you were.”
“What are you doing?”
“Owner’s manual always has rubber bands on some of the books. Unless you’ve read them and taken them off, of course.” She pulled out two manual supplements, each still in shrink-wrap and rubber-banded. Lexi removed the bands and turned around in the seat. “I can cinch his claws for you, Victor,” she said.
While she neutralized the crab’s weapons, Dobie looked out at the rain. “This is a daily occurrence this time of year,” he said for Lexi’s benefit. “Remember that. It’ll downpour for about half an hour, and then the sun comes out again.”
“It didn’t rain yesterday, did it? I didn’t smell rain, and nothing was wet.”
“That’s why we built on the other side of the ridge. The levee, by the way, is liable to fill up with runoff. We’d better cross back or we’ll be stuck here until midnight.”
“Home, James,” Lexi said, turning back around in the seat.
Dobie got the Land Rover turned around and pointed back up the hill. Halfway up, the tires lost purchase and began to spin. Dobie gave it more gas, to no avail. He sawed the wheel back and forth, then backed up and tried again. The truck drove into its own torn-up path and slid sideways, making no more headway.
Lexi let him try for a few minutes, hoping the Land Rover’s ability would make up for his mistakes. After five minutes, the rain hadn’t slackened, and the Land Rover was almost axle-deep in mud halfway up the hill. She tried to be diplomatic. “You need to walk it,” she said.
“Excuse me?” Dobie wasn’t angry, just bewildered. The hill was impassable. They’d have to call a tow truck. Victor would be annoyed at having to walk through the mud, but that was what he got paid for.
“Back and forth. The steering wheel. Turn it gently back and forth, give it a chance to find traction. And–oh, God–put it in four-low, Dobie. Kill the traction control.”
He did as she suggested, and gave the accelerator a gentle prod. The Land Rover clawed an inch or two forward, and then resumed its process of spinning itself into a hole.
“Stop, stop, stop,” Lexi said. “Don’t spin the wheels, that just makes it worse. Back up.”
“No, back up forward, what do you think? Of course, backward,” she said, looking over her shoulder out the back window. “Down ten feet or so, until you have traction again.” Dobie did as she told him. “Now, head up again. With spirit, this time.”
He followed her instructions, and this time the truck was stuck before reaching its previous zenith.
“You’ve got to feel what it’s doing, Dobie. Can you feel the tires? Where’s the traction?”
“There isn’t any,” he said. “We’re on a bed of solid mud.”
“Doesn’t matter. Talk to the Land Rover. They like to talk. Just listen to it.”
“Okay, now you sound like a psychotic.”
“I am immune to your slings and arrows, Cassarole. Turn to the left, a little, and give it some power.” He did so. “Do you feel any difference? The tires grabbing?”
“None whatsoever,” Dobie said. He looked in the rearview mirror at Victor, who was holding the crab in one hand as if nothing were at all unusual. Victor’s calmness bolstered his own, and he took a deep breath. “We’re really stuck, Lexi.”
“May I try?” she asked politely.
“By all means.”
Lexi opened her door and jumped out into the rain, picking her way carefully around the truck so she didn’t fall in the mud. Dobie kept his door closed, and climbed over the console, realizing as he did so that he should’ve told Lexi to stay inside, and gone outside himself no matter what it would’ve meant to his shoes. Somehow he didn’t think chivalry would have mattered much to her, though. Besides, she was already wet from playing in the ocean.
She was back inside and behind the wheel in a moment, dripping wet and none the worse for wear. “Hello, Disco,” she said as she adjusted the seat to her liking. “You don’t get to come out and play much, do you?” To Dobie, she said, “Is this any kind of a wildlife refuge or a protected area?”
He shook his head. “This is trashland. Worthless coast. That’s why the ports are here. I told you that before we came down here.”
She made a mouth with her hand and flapped it at him. “I didn’t ask for a corporate political speech, just a yes or no. Now watch.”
She was much more aggressive than he had been. Lexi backed up past where Dobie had been, almost all the way to the surf, and then floored it. The Land Rover’s engine screamed as they made a running charge at the hill. When they reached the slick area, she kept her foot in it. The engine screamed near redline, and the tires threw gouts of mud into the air on either side of them. Lexi cut the wheel back and forth, rapidly but precisely, as if she were picking a course through a minefield, and the Land Rover’s nose barely moved–but it began to creep up the hill. Their snail’s pace was at odds with the roaring motor, but the truck was definitely moving. In fact, it was tearing the wet surface of the hill away with its tires, digging down to drier dirt beneath and climbing up on that. They were leaving distinct ruts in the scrubby grass behind them.
Lexi didn’t let up. Dobie began to wonder if the engine was going to blow, she was running it so hard. At some point, he expected them to reach traction and rocket up the hill, out of control, but it never happened. The Land Rover crept up the slope, bellowing a V8 song the entire time.
“This is not Treading Lightly, you should know,” Lexi said. “Land Rover would not approve, but we have a levee to get across and a crab to eat.”
They made the top of the hill, and Lexi finally backed out of the gas slightly. The levee was awash with about two feet of slow-moving rainwater, and she hesitated only a moment before driving into it. The front bumper and skid plate threw up a nice bow wave. Dobie took a sharp breath.
“It’s okay,” she said. “A foot of running water will float a car, but this isn’t going anywhere.”
“I was worried about the motor, actually.”
“It’s fine. Discos can ford way deeper puddles than this. And it’ll clean some of the mud off.” They splashed through and were out the other side momentarily. The Land Rover picked its way through the rocky far side of the levee back to the little road they’d come down. “See?” Lexi said, grinning. “That’s why you paid so much for it.”
“I didn‘t pay that much for it.”
“Okay, Dobie, but to most of us, dropping forty thousand dollars on a truck is not something we can do on a lark.”
“On a lark? I’m fully aware of how much it cost. Why do you think I was so reluctant to fill it with mud?”
“No wonder all of your cars are so unhappy. What are you going to do if I wreck one?”
He looked at her and didn’t speak again until they were on the road headed back home. “I’m not sure I can say. Are you planning to wreck one of my cars as an example?”
“What kind of an idiot do you think I am? Of course I’m not. My point, which I obviously didn’t make well enough, was that you’re forgetting that they’re not precious jewels, they’re designed to do jobs, and they’ll never be happy unless they’re doing those jobs.”
“And what is the job of a car, exactly?” Dobie asked. “I think that’s rather hard to define. You can’t say it’s simple transportation. Some cars are as ordinary as refrigerators, and some are rare collectors items. Unless you’re saying that a Ferrari and a Buick have similar purposes.”
“I’m saying exactly that. They’re both about possibility, don’t you understand? And that’s what I love about them. I get drunk on possibility. I live for possibility. A car that’s sitting there in the garage, it’s not an investment, or a work of art. It’s a great big possibility generator. Is it broken? Think of the ways you could fix it, or modify it, make it better, make it different. And the fun you could have doing it. Or the agony, the frustration. Whatever. Is it in perfect condition? Think of the places it could take you, the things you’d see, the people you’d meet.
“Even if you just go on a slow drive in the country, it’s about the things you’ll think, the little adventures you’ll have in every corner. The things the car will say to you. It’s all possibility, and if you don’t do anything with it, it just goes to waste. I couldn’t live without possibility.”
“I can see that in you. One of the mysteries is how you ended up in a long-term relationship,” Dobie said bluntly.
She wasn’t completely in the mood to think about Ren, but wasn’t about to back down from Dobie’s attempt to get her off-balance either. He was just mad that she’d showed him up in front of Victor, on some level. “By all rights, I should punch you in the leaf for saying that, but I’ll tell you how instead. Ren was nothing but possibility. He taught me possibility. Every day–you can do anything that you want. The trick is not to forget that you can do anything. You assume that when I got together with him, the options decreased over time, and they didn’t. Every day we got more powerful. You think I don’t know that we were reaching a point where we transcended politics and class bullshit and gossip?” Lexi looked at him, and her eyes flashed. “I know what people thought of us, the ones who liked us and the ones who didn’t. And none of it mattered. They couldn’t have stopped us from doing anything.”
“What about now?”
“I still have gas in my chainsaw,” she said, looking away.
Dobie glanced back at Victor, who was looking out the window, still holding the crab at arm’s length, and didn’t respond. Once again she’d left him thinking one thing and saying another, and not sure how to reconcile the two.