Shepherd’s Corner, VA
Beauregard thought the night sky looked like a painting.
Laughter filled the air only to be drowned out by a cacophony of revving engines as the moon slid from behind the clouds. The bass from the sound system in a nearby Chevelle was hitting him in his chest so hard, it felt like someone was performing CPR on him. There were about a dozen other late-model cars parked haphazardly in front of the old convenience store. In addition to the Chevelle, there was a Maverick, two Impalas, a few Camaros and five or six more examples of the heyday of American muscle. The air was cool and filled with the scent of gas and oil. e rich, acrid smell of exhaust
fumes and burnt rubber. A choir of crickets and whippoorwills tried in vain to be heard. Beauregard closed his eyes and strained his ears. He could hear them but just barely. They were screaming for love. He thought a lot of people spent a large part of their life doing the same thing.
The wind caught the sign hanging above his head from the arm of a pole that extended twenty feet into the air. It creaked as the breeze moved it back and forth.
CARTER SPEEDE MART the sign proclaimed in big black letters set against a white background. The sign was beginning to yellow with age. The letters were worn and chipped. The cheap paint flaking away like dried skin. The second “E” had disappeared from the word “SPEEDE.” Beauregard wondered what had happened to Carter. He wondered if he had disappeared too.
“Ain’t none of y’all motherfuckers ready for the legendary Olds! Y’all might as well go on back home to your ugly wives and try and get some Tuesday night pussy. For real though, y’all ain’t got nothing for the legendary Olds! She does 60 in second. Five hundred dollars line to line. Huh? Y’all mighty quiet. Come on, the Olds done sent many a boy home with his pockets lighter. I done outrun more cops than the Duke boys in the Olds! You ain’t just beating the Olds, homeboy!” a guy named Warren Crocker crowed. He was strutting around his ’76 Oldsmobile Cutlass. It was a beautiful car. A dark green body with chrome Mag rims and chrome trim that ran across its surface like liquid lightning. Smoked- out glass and LED lights emitted an
ethereal bluish glow like some bioluminescent sea creature.
Beauregard leaned against his Duster as Warren pontificated about the invincibility of the Oldsmobile. Beauregard let him talk. Talk didn’t mean anything. Talk didn’t drive the car. Talk was just noise. He had $1,000 in his pocket. It was all the profits from the last two weeks at the garage after most of the bills had been paid. He was $800 short on the rent for the building that housed his business. It had come down to a choice between the rent or glasses for his youngest. Which wasn’t really a choice at all. So, he had reached out to his cousin Kelvin and asked him to find out where the nearest street race was being held. Kelvin still knew some guys who knew some guys who knew where the money races could be found.
That was how they found themselves just outside of Dinwiddie County ten miles from the fairgrounds where legally sanctioned drag races were held. Beauregard closed his eyes again. He listened to Warren’s car idle. Under the sound of the boasting and dick swinging, Beau heard an unmistakable ticking.
Warren had a bad valve in his engine. That left two possibilities. He knew about it but thought it was an acceptable defect that could be overcome by the sheer power of his motor. Maybe he had a nitrous boost on it and didn’t care about one funky valve. Or he didn’t know it was bad and was just talking a lot of shit.
Beau nodded at Kelvin. His cousin had been milling through the crowd, trying to drum up a big money race. There had already been four contests, but no one was willing to put up more than $200. That wasn’t gonna cut it. Beau needed at least a $1,000 bet. He needed someone who would look at the Duster and see an easy payday. Look at its stripped- down exterior and assume it was a pushover.
He needed an asshole like Warren Crocker.
Crocker had already won one race, but that had taken place before Beauregard and Kelvin arrived. Ideally, he would have liked to watch the man drive before he made the bet. See how he handled the wheel. How he navigated the cracked asphalt on this stretch of Route 83. But beggars can’t be choosers. It had taken them an hour and a half to get out here, but they had come because Beauregard knew no one in Red Hill County would race him. Not in the Duster.
Kelvin moved in front of Warren as he was preening around his car. “My man over there got ten friends that say he can be doing 70 in second while you still trying to drag your ass out of first,” he said. He let his booming voice fill the night. All the chatter ceased. The crickets and the whippoorwills were working themselves into a frenzy.
“Or is all you do is talk?” Beauregard asked.
“Oooooh shit,” someone from the crowd that had gathered said. Warren stopped strutting and leaned on the roof of his car. He was tall and thin. His dark skin appeared blue in the glow of the moonlight.
“Well, that’s a bold statement, motherfucker. You got the paper to back it up?” he said.
Beauregard pulled his wallet out and fanned ten $100 bills out like a deck of cards in his large hands.
“ e question is, do you have the balls to back it up?” Kelvin said.
He sounded like a Quiet Storm DJ. He grinned like a lunatic at Warren Crocker. Crocker tucked his tongue into the inside of his cheek.
Seconds ticked by and Beauregard felt a hollow opening blossom in his chest. He could see the gears working in Warren’s head and for a moment he thought he was gonna pass. But Beauregard knew he wouldn’t. How could he? He had talked himself into a corner and his pride wouldn’t let him back down. Besides, the Duster didn’t look that impressive. It was clean, and the body was free of rust, but the red candy apple paint was not showroom ready and the leather seats had a few rips and cracks.
“Alright. From here to the oak tree that’s split down the middle.
Sherm can hold the money. Unless you want to go for pinks?” Warren said.
“No. Let him hold the money. Who you want to call it?” Beauregard asked.
Sherm nodded at another guy. “Me and Jaymie will call it. You want your boy to go too?” he said. He squeaked when he talked.
“Yeah,” Beauregard said. Kelvin, Sherm and Jaymie hopped in Sherm’s car. A primer- covered Nova. They took off for the split tree a quarter mile down the road. Beauregard hadn’t seen any other drivers since they arrived. Most people avoided this stretch and used the four- lane highway that snaked its way from the interstate up through Shepherd’s Corner proper. Progress had left this part of town behind. It was abandoned just like the store. A blacktop wasteland haunted by the phantoms of the past.
He turned and got in the Duster. When he started the car, the engine sounded like a pride of angry lions. Vibrations travelled up from the motor through the steering wheel. He tapped the gas a few times. The lions became dragons. He flicked on the headlights. The double yellow line down the middle of the road came alive. He grabbed the gearshift and put it into first. Warren pulled out of the parking lot and Beauregard took a position next to him. One of the other guys that was in the crowd walked up and stood between them. He held his arm up and reached for the sky. Beauregard glanced at the stars
and the moon again. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Warren put on a seat belt. The Duster didn’t have seat belts. His father used to say if they ever wrecked the only thing seat belts would do was make it hard for the undertaker to get them out the car.
“You ready?” the guy standing between them yelled.
Warren gave him a thumbs- up.
“ONE, TWO . . . THREE!” the guy screamed.
The secret ain’t about the motor. That’s part of it, yeah, but that ain’t the main thing. The real thing, the thing most people don’t want to talk about, is how you drive. If you drive like you scared, you gonna lose. If you drive like you don’t want to have to rebuild the whole engine, you gonna lose. You gotta drive like don’t nothing else matter except getting to that line. Drive like you fucking stole it.
Beauregard heard his Daddy’s voice every time he drove the Duster. Sometimes he heard it when he was driving for crews. In those moments, it offered him bitter pearls of wisdom. Nonsensical chatter that reminded him not to end up like his Daddy. A ghost without a grave.
Beauregard slammed the gas pedal to the floor. Wheels spun, and white smoke plumed up from the rear of the Duster. G- forces pressed against his chest, crushing his sternum. Warren’s car jumped o the line and the front two wheels left the road. Beauregard jammed the car into second as the Duster’s front wheels grabbed the road like a pair of eagle’s talons.
The trees on both sides of the road were shimmering blurs as he tore down through the night. He glanced at the speedometer. 70 mph.
Beauregard hit the clutch and shifted into third. There were no numbers on the gearshift knob. It was an old 8- ball his Daddy had fixed to fit on top of the shifter. He didn’t need numbers. He knew what gear he was in by feel. By sound. The car shivered like a wolf shaking its pelt.
The leather- covered steering wheel crackled in his grip. He could see Sherm’s car up ahead idling on the side of the road. He shifted into fourth gear. The motor went from a roar to the war cry of a god.
The duals were the trumpets that heralded his arrival. He had the pedal that against the floorboard. The car seemed to contort itself and leap forward like a snake about to strike. The speedometer hit 105 mph.
The Duster had passed Warren like he was mired in glue. The old bisected oak tree was rapidly receding in his side mirror. He could see Kelvin pumping both his fists in the rearview mirror. Beauregard popped the clutch and downshifted until he was back in first. He slowed down even more, executed a three- point turn and headed back to the old convenience store.
by S. A. Cosby
*GUARDIAN BEST CRIME AND THRILLERS OF 2020*
*LA TIMES BOOK PRIZE WINNER 2020*
'BLACKTOP WASTELAND may be the book of the year.' MICHAEL CONNELLY
'Sensationally good' LEE CHILD
'I loved BLACKTOP WASTELAND' STEPHEN KING
'Stunning. Can't remember the last time I read such a powerful crime novel' MARK BILLINGHAM
"Bug" Montage: honest mechanic, loving family man. He's no longer the criminal he was - the sharpest wheelman east of the Mississippi.
But when his respectable life crumbles, a shady associate comes calling with a one-time job promising a huge payout. Inexorably drawn to the driver's seat - and haunted by the ghost of his outlaw father - Bug is yanked back into a savage world of bullets and betrayal.
Like Breaking Bad in a high-speed collision with Drive, this dazzling novel holds up a cracked mirror to the American Dream - and tells the story of one man pushed to his limits by poverty, race and a self-destructive masculinity.
'Every once in a while a writer comes along with an incredible voice...add S. A. Cosby to that list.' STEVE CAVANAGH
'An urgent, timely, pitch-perfect jolt of American noir' DENNIS LEHANE
'A superb character study wrapped up in a high-octane heist novel' Guardian
'The action sequences are superb, the dialogue wouldn't shame Elmore Leonard, and Bug's experiences recall Walter Mosley at his most powerful...fantastic' Sunday Times
'Spectacular....a voice as stark and distinctive as Elmore Leonard's, and a humanity that touches the soul.' Daily Mail
'A delicious slice of country gothic wrapped in smart, hard, contemporary neo noir.' ADRIAN McKINTY
'The book will leave you breathless, but also desperate to know where Cosby will take us next.' LAURA LIPPMAN
'...S. A. Cosby reinvents the American crime novel. Blacktop Wasteland thrums and races - it's an intoxicating thrill of a ride'. WALTER MOSLEY