I stood watching the empty road, and Mr. Whittaker walked up beside me, wiping his hands with a cloth, big grin on his face.
"That girl has a thing for you, son," he say with a grin,"I don't know if you should feel lucky or run for your life."
"Catalina? For me?" I said,"What the hell make you say that?"
"She did a job with you, PAID you your share and left you still standing on both feet.... for Catalina, that's practically a marriage proposal," laughed Mr. Whittaker,"Course, now you've been left with a couple of problems.... you're stuck in the middle of nowhere without a ride and you got one crazy lady out there somewhere, ready to pounce on you when you least expect it.... I can help you with one of those problems though."
"Oh yeah?" I asked, raising an eyebrow and looking him up and down.
"I need to move a shipment of goods to Dillimore," he say,"They're due by five tomorrow morning but got delayed on their way here. The truck arrives about midnight, if you don't mind sticking around, I could use you as a driver, get you some cash AND get you back amongst civilization.... redneck civilization, in any case."
"I gotta get back to Angel Pine," I said,"Some shit I thought I'd dealt with back there ain't done yet... but I can't go back too soon, and I need a legitimate reason for going back. You got any trucking runs going to Whetstone?"
"Not right now, but in a couple of days, sure, you can run shipments for me in the meantime, scratch my back and I'll scratch yours."
"You got yourself a deal, Mr. Whittaker," I said, grinning and shaking his hand, and he did the same back.
"Pleasure REALLY doing business with you," he told me.
I'd napped in Mr. Whittaker's office waiting for the truck to arrive, so once I'd unloaded the goods I headed back to his depot, arriving at seven in the morning and finding him waiting for me with money in his hand and a grin on his face.
"Good work Carl, you saved my bacon getting that delivery done," he said,"If you're interested, I got a run to Montgomery ready to go."
"When it need to be there?" I asked.
"No rush, no rush at all... in fact, the slower the better," he told me, putting his arm around my shoulder and leading me out back where I found myself facing a tanker full of Xoomer Rocket Fuel,"This is volatile stuff, drive it carefully, drive it slowly, take in the countryside, listen to some music, enjoy the ride.... just don't damage that tanker."
With the shipment delivered, I found a motel in Montgomery and crashed out on the bed, sleeping through to the next morning. I didn't dream, or if I did I didn't remember them, and when I woke up I felt good, refreshed. I'd spent most of the drive the previous day thinking about my situation, about what to do about Sweet, about Smoke and Ryder, most of all about Tenpenny.
The more I thought about it, the more I had to believe that Tenpenny was the root of the problem, and the cause of all my worries. I'd been blaming Smoke and Ryder in my head, not able to believe they lied to my face, were in any way involved with Momma's death.... but thinking about it, more and more it seemed to me that Tenpenny probably had them over a barrel just as much as he'd had me. Smoke wouldn't up and turn on a Grove Street brother unless he had no choice, and if anyone could find a way to get at someone, it was Tenpenny. If I could just get back to Santos, find Smoke - Ryder would be useless, he wouldn't be keyed into what was going on behind the scenes like Smoke would be - and just talk to him, I could sort out what needed to be done next. Fuck going back to Angel Pine and this "Truth" motherfucker, I just had to get Smoke and Ryder out of whatever jam Tenpenny had them in and then together we could work on getting Sweet free. Hook back up with Kendl and Cesar, come to some kind of alliance between Grove Street and the Aztecas and take Tenpenny out.
I thought about that all during the drive the day before and thought about it more during the ride back to Whittaker's as the morning wore on into the afternoon. It just made sense to me, I had a feeling like I was on the right track here - all this other shit was just trying to sidetrack me, have me go off chasing false leads and chasing my own tail. Nah, I just had to get back to Santos was all.
"Wanna ride to Santos, Carl?" Mr. Whittaker asked as I hopped down out of the truck.
"Well.... shit," I said, a grin on my face,"Mr. Whittaker, you just read my mind."
He didn't ask what I meant, Mr. Whittaker was a nigga who knew when to keep his mouth shut, he just walked me back to his office and sat me down, closing his blinds and locking the door before turning to look at me.
"Sometimes I don't do business with certain people," he told me,"I don't take money under the table and I don't have my drivers move cargo that isn't in my trucks. I don't have one of those today, Carl, I don't need you to drive to Santos, and I don't need you to worry about 5-0 being on the lookout for your truck and doing everything they can to pull you over and go through the truck.... you get me?"
"I get you," I say, grinning,"You want it to be a pleasure not doing business with me?"
"You'll go far, son," laughed Mr. Whittaker, standing up and clapping me on the shoulder,"Now get out of here, and don't take the red truck sitting outside down to Santos and don't take it to the National Guard Base at the Docks there."
For a second I stopped, remembering the last time I was at the National Guard Base at the docks, and Mr. Whittaker frowned. But then I shook my head and kept moving on - I had to get back to Santos, and this gave me a way to do it.
"Remember, Carl," Mr. Whittaker warned as I settled down into the truck,"The police are looking for what you're not moving, and if they come down on you, they'll come down hard. Be careful."
"I can deal with 5-0, Mr. Whittaker," I laughed,"Don't worry about that."
They'd come from nowhere less than five minutes after I'd started rolling, two police cruisers and a fucking helicopter of all things. I twisted the tanker truck to the left and onto the road but they'd kept coming. I didn't know how they knew I was hauling what they were looking for, but I couldn't exactly stop to ask. I floored the gas and powered up the grassy hill onto the railroad tracks, trying to think of a way to lose the cars. The copter flew over and behind the hill the tracks disappeared into and the road ran around, thinking they could get up ahead of me if I got away from the cruisers and back onto the road. The two cruisers overshot and went over the other side of the hill, sirens wailing, and for a second I was alone and unseen again, but that wasn't going to help me. If I went back to the road, the cruisers would soon catch up and even if they didn't, the copter would be waiting for me. About the only place I could go was into the railway tunnel, and I couldn't do tha-
On the other hand....
I'd ridden all the way back into Santos along the railroad tracks, my asshole clenched too tightly from fear that I'd ride into an oncoming train to enjoy the thought of the confused 5-0 back where I'd lost them. I rode out past Unity Station and left the tracks, getting back onto the road and feeling strange. I was back in Santos, but it was wrong, different somehow. I rode down streets I knew so well, but it was like I was in a whole new city. There weren't homies on street corners or playing b-ball or driving around. The streets were too quiet, the people walking down the streets were the wrong kinds of people, all of them with grins on they faces as they enjoyed walking down streets they'd never dared walk down only a couple of months ago.
"Tenpenny," I said, pissed off. The gangs had finally been taken off the streets by giving them what the cops had been trying to keep away from them - drugs. Trouble was it was the eye of the fucking hurricane, the calm before the storm. Cesar was right, this city was a bomb waiting to go off any time now.... poor fucking Smoke, forced to go along with this by Tenpenny, watching his homies brought down low by drugs, I had to help him get out from under Tenpenny.
But first, I had to drive back into a base full of heavily armed soldiers who I'd robbed blind only a few months ago.
I kept waiting for the shoe to drop, but the guards who let me in never said a thing, too busy laughing and being excited as they unloaded the cargo and I finally got to see what I'd brought them.... white lightning.
All that for fucking moonshine? I shook my head then took a closer look at the guards unloaded the truck, and realized they were redneck boys, which explained why they didn't recognize me and why they were so excited for Moonshine. All "negras" looked alike to them, and who cared what a nigga looked like when he had moonshine for them. As they began opening crates and taking swigs, I left them and headed out of the base, back out into a city that I'd lost, regained, lost again and then returned to, only to find it wasn't mine any more.
I stood in the little house I "owned" looking around, dust covering everything, the place basically as unused as it had been before I "bought" it. I thought about how lucky it was I had never gotten around to telling Smoke or Ryder about Morty and my little loophole into buying property. Maybe they would have kept it secret from Tenpenny when he got his claws into them, but maybe not, and now I had a place to hide out in Los Santos while I figured out what needed to be done - how to reach out to Smoke and stay out from under Tenpenny's radar and the Ballas.
I stepped into the bathroom and looked in the mirror, surprising myself with how I looked. No wonder the redneck army guards hadn't recognized me, I barely recognized myself. I'd had the shaggy hair and beard for so long now I'd forgotten I had it, and I'd been wearing my clothes for so long now that they could probably stand up by themselves. I checked the wardrobe and saw the clothes I'd dumped there after "buying" the place were still there, clean and new as the day I'd bought them but musty now. I grabbed out a fresh change of clothes and hung them up on hangers, opening a window to air them out before stripping down and stepping into the shower, where I spent over an hour finally cleaning myself off, washing away the grime and the crap of the last six weeks.
The next morning I got up, showered again and dressed in my new clothes, feeling clean and GOOD. I headed outside into Santos, frowning at the feel of the place, all wrong now. I hopped into a Greenwood I'd "freed" from its parking spot the previous day in the Docks and looked at myself in the mirror, remembering what Catalina had said about my beard being stupid and me being stinky. Well I wasn't stinky no more, but my beard was still there, and it was time to deal with that. I started driving, moving down familiar streets that seemed alien now, empty, the spots where homies usually hung out almost seeming to glow with the emptiness they had now. I drove my way through areas of Santos where Grove Street had always hung, where Ballas had hung, and didn't see any homies, it was fucking surreal shit, and I could feel the hairs on my arms standing up. It was like being outside when a thunderstorm was coming, how could any of these smiling idiots on the street NOT feel the shit that was about to go down? Did people think that gangbangers and street violence just "went away"? Up and disappeared? Fucking idiots.
And finally I found something familiar that still felt the same.
I stepped into Reece's barber-shop wondering if he'd recognize me, wondering how he'd feel having a fugitive and Grove Street OG in his shop. Wondered if he'd throw me out on my ear once I walked in or just sit me down and keep me talking while he called the cops?
"Hey CJ, here's the chair," he said, looking up from sweeping hairs off of the floor and grinning, knowing who I was immediately,"Guess you want some newfangled style?"
I grinned, and suddenly I just felt all right. Old Reece was a rock, nothing changed him, and I could see in his eyes he was genuinely pleased to see me. I sat down and he walked around looking over my hair and beard, shaking his head and tutting me for letting it get out of control.
"Just.... strip me down to the bones, Reece," I said,"I feel like I'm starting over, so let's do the same to my hair."
"I know just the thing, CJ," he tell me, and then worked his magic.
"Oh that's tight," I said, checking out the fine cut he'd given my hair, smooth and close to the skin. He'd even worked on my beard, trimming it down to a goatee but leaving me some style, I felt like Denzel fucking Washington, goddamn did that feel good.
"Tell Big Smoke he needs a cut," said Reece as I walked towards the door, and I stopped. He'd said it with a laugh in his voice and a grin on his face, not knowing how it would affect me. I stood still for a second, then turned and smiled back at him, not wanting to let this little tiny portion of good feelings in this alien city be soured.
"I'll tell him the next time I see him, I promise."
I drove through the streets feeling good. I was clean, wearing new clothes with a new haircut and felt like I was making a new start. There was just one problem....
What did I do now?
It was one thing to know I had to find Big Smoke, sit him down and find out what the fuck was going on, it was another thing to know how to actually go about doing it. I couldn't go to Grove Street, and Smoke wouldn't be living in his place, he'd have set up somewhere else once word got out he was involved with Tenpenny.
Tenpenny would want Smoke to "run" Grove Street for him like Kane used to run the Ballas for him, and I would have said Glen Park, but Tenpenny probably wouldn't want to set up Smoke there considering how I'd shot the place up not so long ago. Ganton was right out, too many people there would still hold loyalty to Sweet above everything else, too many of them owed him for pulling Grove Street out of the shit all those years ago. He couldn't keep him in Commerce, too much chance of a straight cop seeing Tenpenny and Smoke together there, so it would have to be somewhere secure but not too close to the city centre or East Los Santos, where Cesar or the Aztecas might spot him. Vinewood was too expensive even for a crooked drug running asshole like Tenpenny, but Santa Maria or Verona? Yeah, that was just about perfect.
So I headed out that way, still with no clue how I was going to find Smoke even if he was there. I guess I was relying on fate making a move, like how I'd decided I needed to come back to Santos and Mr. Whittaker had suddenly up and offered me a trucking job there. I hopped out of the Greenwood and moved out onto the boardwalk, moving along looking at house windows, probably looking like a burglar casing joints, but really just trying to find Smoke, maybe spot him sitting out on the balcony, looking out over the ocean wondering like I often did how the fuck he'd let Tenpenny get such a grip on him.
What I found, was Ballas.
Well, shit. The one group of gangbangers actually out on the streets in all of Santos, and it had to be Ballas.... and I had to find them. I ducked down behind the building and looked over them, they looked a little unsteady on they feet, like they'd been drinking or were high. People were walking a wide path around them, and they were shooting the shit a little too loudly, too fucked to realize they were being so loud. This kind of shit was going to become more common in Santos as homies got more and more fucked on drugs. Once they started running out of paper to pay for those drugs, that was when shit was REALLY going to go down.
I couldn't worry about that now though, what I had to worry about was getting past them without them seeing me and recognizing me. Luckily they were so fucked up tha-
My phone rang.
"SHIT!" I hissed, grabbing at it to shut it up as the Ballas turned and saw me ducking just a second too late. Now I just had to hope they hadn't recognized me with my new look, and that they weren't going to come over to see why the brotha was hiding fro-
"MOTHERFUCKER!" shouted one of the Ballas,"THAT WAS CARL MOTHERFUCKING JOHNSON!"
Well so much for that. I shut my phone off and hoofed it.
I could hear them coming, luckily for me too fucked up to be coordinated in chasing me. I ran onto the street, hearing car horns blasting and brakes screeching, a green Emperor skidding to a stop in front of me, two fat touristy looking motherfuckers sitting inside. I pulled the door open and dragged the man out, jumping into the driver's seat, pointing at the fat scared woman staring at me with horn-rimmed glasses and pink hair.
"Get the fuck out," I said.
"MAAAAAARV!" she squealed,"You said Santos was SAAAAAAAAAAFE NOOOOW!"
"GET THE FUCK OUT!" I shouted, reaching across (she grabbed at her purse like I was going to try and steal that and not her car) and opening the door, then kicking her fatass out before flooring the accelerator, pulling away from the fucked up Ballas who'd surrounded it.
"Fuck FUCK FUCK FUCK FUUUUCCCKKKKK!" I shouted, smacking the dashboard and steering wheel as I left the Ballas in my dust. So much for a quiet re-entry into Los Santos, there was no way that I could stay now, if the Ballas knew I was back word would get to Tenpenny, and Sweet would pay the price. I only had one option, I had to make it seem like the Ballas must have been wrong, that they were too fucked up on drugs and hadn't really seen me. The only way to do that was to go back to playing Tenpenny's game, so it looked like I hadn't been back. That meant there was only one thing I could do.
For my lie to work, I had to find "The Truth".