15. Fight of wills
The room where the phone was located was a small ground-floor office, decorated with what Lightning sensed was only a small part of Tex’s life. In part, it resembled Doc’s garage: framed newspaper clippings, diplomas, photographs–Although, of course: where dust and rough wood were rampant, here one could see dark varnished oak furniture, a polished and regularly slashed parquet floor, thick curtains opened over the windows, and expensive glass lamps.
Taking a deep breath, Lightning searched for the device but did not find it. At least until his eyes settled on a dial next to a small flat screen. He smiled amusedly.
This Tex–I don’t know what I expected, coming from someone like him.
Certainly not the world’s latest video call. When the device turned on and asked for the dial, the racer obeyed by heart. Doc’s number blinked on the screen several times as the ringing tone sounded until finally a broken voice was heard on the other end:
“Doc, it’s Lightning.”
“Kiddo! What a surprise to hear from you. How’s everything in L.A.? And where the hell are you calling from?”
As grumpy as ever, thought Lightning, realizing how much he missed him.
“I’m at Tex’s,” he explained. “I suppose you heard what happened–”
To his surprise, Doc giggled at the other side, interrupting him.
“You ask me if I heard about it? Kid, you and Sally got the town turned upside down with that trial thing. I understand you’ve been put on the spot, but well–”
Lightning bent down, embarrassed as if Doc could be watching him, but fortunately, he had no camera on his phone, and that saved the racer from further humiliation.
“I had to do it,” he said, more convinced than he knew. “What I didn’t expect was–well–”
The silence fell across the line like a veil, leaving McQueen as tense as a drum skin.
“What are you worried about, kid?” Asked his mentor then, without acrimony.
Lightning nervously bit his lip.
“I’m not sure, Doc,” he finally confessed. “It’s–this case, this town. I don’t know what to do anymore. We need help with this case–and I don’t think the D.A.’s a clean slate.”
“Well, if we’re talking about Alex Mustang, I don’t think I’d ever applied that adjective–“
“Why do you say that? Do you know him?” His student wanted to know, surprised.
“I don’t need to,” said Doc in a sullen voice, “I just need what Sally told me about him–”
“Wait!” Lightning was startled, with a thousand emotions running through his circuits at once. That was new. Doc knew and he didn’t. What was going on? “Sally–told you?”
To his despair, Doc was silent for a few seconds before deciding to respond.
“I see that not to you. Well, I imagine she has her motives,” he reasoned.
“Yeah, I guess so–“, said Lightning in a low voice, though not enough to not be heard by his mentor.
“I know what you’re thinking, kid,” he chided him without a word. “You think Sally doesn’t trust you enough, is that it?”
Lightning had no answer, trapped by Doc’s keen insight. Out of caution, he turned to check that he was still alone and that the office door was closed.
“What makes me angry is that I think I could help her and that in her past is the key to defeating Alex,” he acknowledged, in despair. “If only–”
“Kid, don’t get her wrong,” Doc cut him off, sternly. “If Sally hasn’t brought up her affair with Mustang, it’s not just for pain, which helps for sure in the matter, and she probably knows that can shed some light on all this, I’m not going to deny it. But your girl is also wise enough not to show that ace if she hasn’t to,” he said, before confessing. “She indeed told me in a weak moment, shortly after she arrived in the village. But since then I’ve never heard her complain about it or mention it again,” the old car sighed as if recalling those dark times without meaning to. “It was her way of leaving everything behind, and I found it quite admirable”.
Lightning imitated him. Hit and sunk. On the nail, as always. And yet, as he told Doc, he couldn’t help feeling that everything was over him―the case, the city, Mustang–
“Salt’s stronger than any of us, right?” He asked, surrendering, in front of the silent screen.
“No doubt,” said Doc on the other side. “In fact, between you and me, kid, I know few cars that have been able to rebuild their lives with such passion and conviction. So, for that, trust me–and give her space. When the time comes, I assure you, you’ll be the first to know what happened. But, until then, the last thing you both need is to push each other. Stick together to get through this, no matter what. Okay?”
“That won’t be a problem,” he joked. “I assure you.”
“That’s the spirit, rookie.”
“Oh, come on–When will you stop calling me that?”
“Hmmm–Let me think,” pretended to meditate, Doc, in a better mood. “Never?”
Unwittingly, Lightning burst out laughing.
“Be careful, ‘Grandpa’–I hope we’ll see each other soon.”
“Me too, kiddo. Take care–”
“I don’t know, Naya,” Sally hesitated. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Granger, listen to me,” the Mexican insisted, “and it occurred to me when I saw Axelrod. My father has been in the world of oil for a long time; he knows the cars that Tex has rubbed fenders with all his life, for better or for worse. And, frankly, I think there’s nothing to lose by asking them.”
“And your father will agree?”
“Are you kidding? If he could, he’d put himself at the head of the line!”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right–”, Sally smiled for a moment before getting slightly serious again, as she had just seen a red-figure approaching from the east corridor of the house. “Ah. Hello, Stickers.”
He gulped. She would never forgive him for that, especially if she knew what his real motivation was for talking to Doc. But–The racer took a deep breath. He was willing to respect Doc’s advice to the end.
“Hello, Sally,” he said, “what were you talking about?”
“Oh, possibly good news for the trial” Sally dodged it, as if it didn’t matter, or at least not to him.
You’ve earned it like an idiot, Lightning recriminated himself.
Although Sally’s tone expressed no reproach at all, not even when she asked:
“Everything okay with Doc?”
“Yeah, he’s fine. Although he couldn’t help me much–”, he answered, cautiously, as he scrutinized her eyes. If he was looking for signs of anger, he didn’t find them, but the young lawyer’s gaze was serious. “So, you said there’s good news here?”
“Yeah, maybe,” said Naya, not quite sure why the strange tension between the two. “I want to talk to my father first, but I may be able to convince him to have some of Tex’s former acquaintances testify on his behalf.”
“But that’s great!” Lightning was happy, honestly. “I hope that’s the key to ending this.”
“Yeah, let’s hope,” muttered Sally, making Lightning look at her sideways with her heart in a tire.
The conversation with Doc returned to his head, but he forced himself to keep a cool head and apply his teachings until the last circuit hurt. It was almost time to leave, so Tex went out to the lobby to see them all off. However, Lightning did not dare to tell Sally what was burning inside him until they were almost in the bedroom. They spent the whole way in some tense silence, being watched out of the corner of their eye by Naya and the Weathers for a while. They had their residence beyond the foot of the hill and had made a detour a few miles before but said goodbye with love and wishing Lightning luck with the tests.
“Hey, Sal”, he called out to her as she headed for the rest area. “Listen, I–”
“It’s ok, Stickers”, she interrupted him non-abruptly but instead showed a bittersweet grimace on her beautiful blue hood that shrunk the young racer’s entire frame. “I know what you’re gonna say, but I also know that I’m partly to blame,” she looked at him from the distance with a strange mixture of affection and sadness before adding. “I cannot ask you not to have secrets from me when I’ve not been entirely honest with you.”
“I know Doc knows, he told me. But he didn’t enter in any detail, I swear,” he added as he watched her windscreen open in sudden terror. “We both know that would have been neither fair nor appropriate, and–I want you to know that I am not going to insist. I respect that you want to leave that part of your life behind.”
Sally shrank, not knowing what to say.
“I appreciate that.”
He didn’t respond, but little by little his hoods came together until he was left with a badge and his eyes closed. Without kissing, but in peace.
“I want this to end once and for all too,” Sally confessed in a whisper. “And I’m not going to stop until I get Naya to win.”
“We’ll make it,” he promised. “Together.”
“And then–no more secrets,” Sally said with conviction.
“Never again. For real.”