Chapter 16. A mystery to be solved
The day of the tests dawned clear, opposite to Lightning’s mood―he was as if about to burst out of his nerves. Luckily, the hospital routine was very calm, and Sally was by his side at all times. They also met Naya’s chosen expert, a very nice brown Hyundai Santa Fe with glasses named Morgan. He belonged to the new firm Naya was working at, and he had already helped her out of her predicament in several cases. Since it took about ten or twenty tank changes for jetpacks to disappear, it would be easy to find out who was lying. And they should go alone and with a full tank. However, Lightning felt that he would not be at ease until he confirmed that it had all been a mistake and that he had nothing to worry about.
Time flew by until the next session, between strategies and moments of rest and tense waiting, but what surprised the group most when they arrived at the hall that day was not to see Alex Mustang―but another younger car taking his place. A dark silver Aston Martin that Naya and Sally seemed to recognize instantly.
“David!” The first one was surprised when she called him, making the car turn around. “What are you doing here?”
“Na–Naya”―the young man seemed to be hawking uncomfortably as his nervous gaze drifted to the cars on his back―, “well, y–you see–Alex has–had an emergency and asked m–me to–to–to take over this session today.”
Naya twisted her nose, but she did not reject that statement out of hand. David Aston as she told Sally was Mustang’s new assistant–The same position the Porsche had held at her early lawyer times before it all went south. Meanwhile, Sally approached and greeted him politely:
“David Aston. Long time no see.”
The other one showed half a shy smile.
“Sally–Hi–hello. Yeah, th–that’s right.”
“I see you’ve done well–”, she pointed out without a hint of evil.
He moved with some discomfort.
“Yeah, well–you left the place vacant and–‘it shrank on wheels’. It’s living, isn’t it?”
If Sally was upset by that comment, she didn’t show it at all. On the contrary, she showed a grimace of understanding and added:
“Of course. Good to see you, David–”
Then, coinciding with Brenda Hudson’s appearance on the stand, those attending the trial retired to their benches, and both Naya and Tex settled into their positions. The judge then carefully shuffled her papers, arranging them between her wheels.
Let’s cross the wheels, thought Lightning, anxious. Let’s hope this is the end of this nightmare.
“To begin this new session of the trial, let’s look at the results of the tests done on the racers involved in this case–” ―there was a tense silence as Brenda put the first report aside and focused on it with her windshield closed―: “the analysis made on Mr. McQueen, the reigning Piston Cup champion whose last report was not 100% reliable, turned out to be” ―Lightning held his breath until it was almost painful― “negative” ―the racer snorted, relieved, noticing how the tension of the last few days accumulated in his chassis diluted almost as if by magic. Unwittingly he smiled, and Sally put a trusty wheel on his side and grimaced back―. “I, therefore, decree that both the trophy and the cash prize corresponding to his last victory be returned to him.”
Lightning wanted to jump, scream, and howl with joy.
Yes! he thought to himself. Justice is being done.
However, to add a bitter touch to the announcement, Brenda Hudson then read the results of the other racers, and they turned out to be positive. If Lightning had his way, maybe the other cars wouldn’t have run doped in the Cup final. Dandy, Marlin, Kevin–All those names sounded familiar to him from having met them in the pits, and from having joked with them on the track–But now they were back at square one: how was it possible that Lightning had beaten them all, being clean? McQueen, unfortunately, had no answer for that. Luckily, the trial seemed to put the racer’s business aside to focus on something much bigger. The sources of the problem.
“Lawyers, you may call your witnesses.”
David Aston began with his own. Sally was surprised, or perhaps not so surprised, to see four oil tycoons, coincidentally Texans, passing one after the other to talk trash against Tex in a crude and almost grotesque manner. They presented recordings of conversations with Tex which to an expert ear were clear manipulations. But the work had tried to be as credible as possible. Sally snorted and exchanged a meaningful look with Naya―what was Mustang trying to do? And why was he suddenly sending his ‘puppet’ to do the dirty work? Something didn’t make sense, but the two girls were unable to discern what.
The Hispanic lawyer, when she was granted her turn after lunch, took a deep breath and called her witnesses in order: Martin Brakepad, from Australia; Ander Felger, from Norway. Pierre Caoutchouc, from Canada; and Ángel Rodes, a Catalan living in Mexico who was a close friend of Tex. All of them argued in favor of the old tycoon, either in person as in the case of Caoutchouc and Rodes; or by video conference, as in the case of Brakepad or Felger.
But there was still one witness that Naya was saving for last. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched David Aston’s reaction; he seemed to focus on his papers as if it wasn’t about him, with strange professionalism that almost made anyone forget his stuttering, shy ways of dealing. De la Vega inspired deeply.
Now or never.
“Judge Hudson, I call by video conference my last witness, Sir Miles Axelrod.”
At that moment, David raised his nose as if with sudden curiosity. Sally clutched her windshield. There was something in his attitude–No, it had to be her imagination–
“Good morning–I mean, good night, Miss De La Vega,” said the British tycoon, giving no sign of sleep although he had been awake for a couple of hours, knowing in advance the time he would be called to give his statement.
If it was close to ten o’clock at night in Los Angeles, it was six o’clock in the morning in London. Everyone was exhausted after a whole day of eternal declarations, but Naya still had strength left for that assault and whatever it took.
“Good evening, Sir Axelrod,” greeted Naya respectfully as she turned to Judge Hudson for a moment, “do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth before this court, with the help of the Almighty?”
“Of course,” said the Range Rover, solemnly. “Whenever you want, counsel.”
“How long have you known Tex Cadillac?”
Axelrod seemed to be meditating.
“Well, I can’t say exactly, but I’d estimate over thirty years. I was only a boy when he had already amassed much of his fortune; I admit that he has always proved to be a model to follow.”
“What do you mean by that, Sir Axelrod?” Naya asked, barely holding back her nervousness.
The millionaire’s face got even more serious.
“Tex has always been a good friend of my family and taught me the basics of this industry,” he said. “We recently reached an agreement to jointly and lawfully exploit a field near Oman. And believe me when I say that my fuel is regularly tested, and I have never, ever, had any indication of adulteration unless it was on an experimental basis, controlled and under strict surveillance,” he said before adding. “Doping is very serious, and we cannot afford to have it continue to be a scourge on society and our races.”
“So you can prove that Tex Cadillac is a whole car?”
“No doubt about it. As you can see, yesterday I sent documents that prove both his investment in my company and the analysis of my tanks are transparent–If you understand me.”
“Of course,” agreed Naya, “thank you very much, Sir Axelrod.”
“Thanks to you, Miss De La Vega.”
The communication cut off, and the defense lawyer, containing the emotion, prepared to project the indicated document. At one point, she looked at David out of the corner of her eye; he seemed serene, although he was belied by the slight tremor of his left front wheel and by the fact that he moistened his lips now and then. Naya and Sally looked at each other with concealed triumphalism. All the tycoons had passed their round of questions correctly. The question was whether Axelrod was breaking the balance or not.
Brenda Hudson thanked Naya for her intervention with a simple gesture, and seeing that David had nothing more to say and that the atmosphere in the room was already almost worthy of a funeral parlor because of the silence that reigned, she chose to dismiss the session until the following week. If Naya or Sally were scolded for this delay, they did not express it aloud. What was surprising, however, was the moment when a somewhat crestfallen David approached them.
“Naya–“, he began, with a shyness that he had not shown when questioning his witnesses at the trial but which, curiously, he always brought out in front of the young Audi. “I, uh–…”, he glanced sidelong at Sally and Lightning who were flanking him. “I nee–uh–I would need to talk to you for a moment, if I may.”
“Of course,” Naya accepted, after a second of hesitation. “What is it?”
He then showed some discomfort, looking at both sides and puffing like a locomotive.
“Not–Here”, he specified. “Somewhere else–More–Well–You know what I mean.”
When she understood, Naya’s hood opened in an ‘O’ of genuine surprise.
“Oh–” ―now the one who felt slightly strange was her. Quickly, she exchanged a glance with Sally, who caught on―, “Okay,” Naya invited Aston, slowly following the other couple. “Let’s go outside.”
“Thank you,” he muttered, though he said nothing again on the way outside. At least until they got to the gate. “Naya, I–W–Well–I know this is going to sound crazy, but–” ―he gulped down oil―, “could we go out for a drink tomorrow night?”
The Latin girl opened her windshield a lot, stunned by that sudden proposal.
“Hey, I–” She tried to speak, but almost couldn´t. “Wow, David. I’m flattered–But–”
“Please,” he asked in an almost inaudible voice, “I have to talk to you about something. I really must.”
Naya swallowed and looked at him, doubtful. Sally and Lightning were a few feet away, leaving them room to talk but not to lose sight of them. Sally sent a questioning gesture, but her friend just nodded gently before turning to David again.
“Well, all right,” she agreed. “Where do you wanna meet?”
Aston showed something that resembled a pleased half-smile.
“How about Hollywood Boulevard around 8:00 p.m.? You know,” he shrank from the wheels with innocence, “for old time’s sake–”
Naya couldn’t help but show a half nostalgic smile. Those years–they were so far away. And Sally was still part of that past. She sighed, eaten up by the curiosity of what David would have to say to her at that point.
“Great,” he smiled, more eagerly. “See you there, then.”
The Aston Martin turned to head in the opposite direction to the young woman, who headed towards her friends with the tank flapping strangely.
“Well, what did he want?” Sally asked, curious.
Naya swooped down from the cloud and tried to focus.
“Well–He didn’t tell me,” she acknowledged, surprised. “He asked me to meet him tomorrow on Hollywood Boulevard to tell me something important.”
“And you said yes?” Exclaimed Sally in disbelief, and at her assent she added even louder. “But–Naya!”
“I know, I know. Keep your voice down,” she said, looking around for any curious people or journalists. Surprisingly, they had dispersed like the fog after the rain, which gave Naya the peace of mind to say to an upset Sally. “Listen to me. We may not get another chance like this.”
“Yeah, sure; I’ve heard that before”, the young Carrera sent a sad look to Lightning, remembering when Alex had tried to blackmail him with Rust-Eze’s debt, “but, Naya, he’s Alex’s assistant, for the love of a mother–”, Sally shook her nose. “You’re not seriously thinking of going to meet him–”
“It’s David,” she said as if that were the most important reason in the world. “Even though–well, you know–he’s become the lapdog of ‘we-know-who’–”, she bit her lip and focused for a moment on the darkness through which that car had disappeared. “I don’t know. I don’t think Aston is like Alex. No, let me finish,” she said, seeing that Sally was going to protest. “I know what Alex is capable of, we both do. But–I promise to keep an eye out, okay? Come on, it’s not like we’re meeting in Palos Verdes–”
Sally watched her with a crooked nose, not convinced at all. Something screamed at her to stop Naya from going. To tie her to a pole or wherever to keep her away from Aston. But, defeated, she realized she had nothing to fight with, not this time.
“All right,” she said quietly. “But promise me–No,” she corrected himself, “swear to me that you will be very, very careful. Please.”
Naya grimaced and replied:
“Come on, Granger. As if you didn’t trust my seduction skills enough–”