Ms. Maple, Chapter Two
By Garon Whited
We pulled into the parking lot. A bag of snacks wasn’t doing it for me and I was feeling both hungry and ornery. The door brushed the bell and one of the waitresses smiled at me. I took a look around, spotted one of the goons from the previous night, and picked a seat where I could watch him.
He recognized me. I smiled at him and folded my hands on the table.
“Hey, honey,” said the waitress at my elbow—Olina, according to her name tag. She pulled out a pad from her apron and a pencil from her hair-bun. “Know what you want?”
“I’ll start with orange juice, but I’m not sure what I’ll be eating, yet,” I admitted, pulling a paper menu from a three-pronged holder. “Do you have a specialty of the house?”
“The grits ain’t bad, but,” she dropped her voice, “the muffins is a day old. Okay with a lot of butter, maybe.”
“Thanks,” said, equally quietly. “Orange juice for the moment. I’ll see what I like. Can I borrow a pencil?”
She handed me one of hers and went to get the juice. When she returned, I handed her the paper menu.
“That’s quite a list. You expecting company?”
“Nope. I’m peckish. And I’ll take two of those muffins, please. And a lot of butter. And some maple syrup.”
She looked puzzled for a second before her eyes lit up. Syrup? What did I want with syrup and day-old muffins?
When you ask the right question, the answer becomes obvious.
While I waited for the food to arrive, I sipped at my orange juice and stared at my not-friend. His friend came out of the washroom carrying a small bag and took a seat. They chatted for a moment and he turned in his seat to look at me. I pointed my finger at him like a pistol, made a shooting gesture, and mouthed, “Bang!” I kept grinning while they murmured together more earnestly. They both had partial meals in front of them, but didn’t give them much attention.
A third guy came in. I recognized him as the one talking on the phone. He didn’t notice me until he sat down in the booth and had his attention directed my way. His face went through a rapid series. Recognition, surprise, concern, suspicion. He finished by frowning at me.
After a few more words with his friends, he took the little bag and made use of the washroom. Yeah, they were poorly equipped for a cross-country chase.
On the other hand, there were four of them. Aside from stops for food and fuel, they could keep going indefinitely by switching drivers. Ms. Maple would have to stop to rest. Of course, in the dark, on the highway, she would outrace them like the hare to their tortoise. But that race didn’t end well for the hare and probably wouldn’t end well for her, either.
How did they know where to go? They couldn’t see her to chase her. Did they know where she was going? Or a route she had to take?
The three men put money down on their table, put their hats on, and came over to my booth. Two slid in across from me. The third, and largest, forced his way in on my side.
“Who are you?” asked the leader. He was the same one who did the talking before, too.
“No one of consequence.”
“We’ll skip it for the moment. I want—” he broke off as Olina came up with dishes along each arm and Tammy behind her with the rest.
“Eggs over easy, cheesy scrambled eggs, double order of bacon, double sausage, a waffle, cheesy grits, biscuits, sausage gravy, hash browns, ham, sweet potato dumplings in caramel sauce, apple-stuffed French toast, banana-blueberry oatmeal, a plate of fries, chocolate milkshake, vanilla milkshake, fruit salad, aaaaand the muffins. You got syrup, extra butter, and jelly. Need anything?”
“Not right now, Ma’am, but I’m eyeing the pies behind the counter. Maybe after breakfast. And thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome, honey. You boys enjoy.”
She and Tammy whisked away. The leader turned his attention to me. One of the others helped himself to my fries.
“You’re not pretty enough for that,” I told him, sternly. He shot me an insolent look and ate another one.
“Enough. You’re about to tell me who you are and why you’re following us.”
“First off, I don’t answer to you.”
The guy next to me made a familiar clicking noise. Something hard pressed against my ribs.
“Second,” I went on, ignoring it, “you owe me for a plate of fries, a window, and other repairs too numerous to mention. Third, you assume I’m following you because we were both headed in the same direction, you stopped, and I happened to be hungry in the morning. This is the only diner on the highway for how many miles?”
“So are you following us or not? First you say we owe you, then you say it’s a coincidence. Which is it?”
“I should have done it the other way around. It’s a coincidence, but you still owe me for the damages.”
“If we see you again, Big Tom will have to explain why we don’t.”
“If he shoots me in here, there are a dozen customers and a lot of wait staff who have seen your faces. The cook in back will call the cops instantly. Think they’ll be here quick when there’s a shooting at their favorite—maybe only—diner?”
The other two traded looks. The leader never took his eyes off mine.
“Don’t follow us.”
“I promise not to follow you until after breakfast.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“That’s the best you’ll get.”
Big Tom elbowed me in the side, hard. I grabbed his gun hand and pushed it against the edge of the table before elbowing him in the face, hard. His head went back, then rocked forward in reaction. I helped him with a hand on the back of his head. I put his face through my waffle, the plate, and into the table. His head bounced up again, bleeding profusely from his broken nose, and he slumped sideways, onto the floor.
As I elbowed him in the face, I put my foot in Leader’s groin and pushed. It pinned him against the back of the booth and slowed him down. When Big Tom went face-first into my waffle, I already had his gun and held it under the table.
“Don’t,” I snapped, locking eyes with Leader. I made the gun do clicking things. “Hands on the table,” I added, more quietly. “Now.”
French Fry was caught with his hands in plain view. Leader had one hand holding his coat lapel open and the other hand inside. He didn’t draw. My foot may have had something to do with it.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” he stated, softly.
“No, but I mean to find out—now. You’ve irritated me. You’ve got my attention. And that’s your mistake.”
“So I see. Mind moving your foot? And can I put my hands—”
“What the hell is all this about?” asked a large, sweaty man in a greasy apron. He loomed over Big Tom—not hard to do, at the moment—and held a chef’s knife in one hand.
“This nice gentleman,” I said, nodding at Leader, “was about to pay the check. His friend had a nosebleed and fainted. He can’t stand the sight of blood. Sorry about the mess.” I looked at Leader. “I’ll cover the tip.”
His hand came out slowly, with a billfold instead of a gun. There was a lot of cash in it. He paid the check without a word. The cook looked puzzled and suspicious, but money is money and things were now pretty calm. I’m sure he noticed the broken nose, but he chose not to point it out or ask for explanations. Leader and French Fry helped their colleague up and half-carried him from the diner.
Olina checked on me to see if I was okay. I handed her Big Tom’s hat and she hurried it out to their car. I did not receive looks of gratitude from the three coherent ones.
I ate my breakfast in peace. Olina even brought me another waffle. I gave her an enormous tip.
Bronze, aware of what happened in the diner, was deeply displeased with the whole load of them. By the time I finished inhaling my meals, plus two pieces of pie, she already had a plan worked out.
I have no doubt the nicest car in town was a candy-apple red 1959 Cadillac Fleetwood Seventy-Five sedan. I’m certain of this because it’s what Bronze pulled up wearing.
I was about to get in when she told me to take the other car and follow her. I’m not a complete idiot. I took the other car and followed her.
“I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me what you’re planning to do?”
She would rather it was a surprise. I was willing to be surprised.
We pursued the Bel Air with considerable vigor. Bronze’s theory was they would be speeding, so any police would already be on to them. I didn’t argue. It was a good theory, but it wasn’t a certainty. On the other hand, who was going to write her a ticket?
She got some funny looks from oncoming traffic.
When we caught up to the four in the Bel Air, she followed at a distance. I followed her at a greater distance. I wasn’t supposed to get involved.
At this point, highways tended to run through little towns. Sometimes, there were traffic lights. They even had stop signs in places. Any of those would have done, but the Bel Air stopped at a roadside diner for lunch.
Minor change in plan. I lightened my hair, darkened my skin, changed the color of my clothing, and hopped into the driver’s seat. I backed the Cadillac into a spot next to their car, at an angle. The rear bumper almost touched their front bumper, but there was still plenty of room to open the doors.
While two of them were inside, getting a to-go order, I left the engine running and went in to use the washroom and a mirror.
Bronze, this close to their car, arced. A constant arc crackled between the bumpers as she tip-toed her way from one vehicular suit into the other. She took her time so as not to damage anything, but it’s tricky. There’s real effort involved in doing it slowly, and even more effort when she has to bridge a gap.
When the lunch came out, their car died and wouldn’t start. The lights came on, the starter whirred, everything—but the engine refused to fire.
They spent twenty minutes with the hood up, arguing about it—the driver, I noticed, spent his time in the front seat, eating. It took them twenty minutes to decide they didn’t know how to fix it, didn’t know anyone in town to call, how long it would take…
…and to decide to take the running Cadillac parked right next to them.
I came out, used the phone book in the phone booth, made a couple of calls.
“I want to report a stolen car,” was the gist of them. Highway patrol, local cop shops, everybody I could think of along the road west.
Trap baited and set, I got in the Bel Air as though I owned it, and we cruised back to the one Ms. Maple stuck us with. Bronze was still peevish about the Bat-9-mobile, but she was enjoying the chase, enjoying working on the clunker, and enjoying her little pranks.
A quick switch from the rental car to the former clunker and we were off again, cruising down the highway in moderately-warm pursuit. It was a cold day, but the weather was clear as gin. Miles of blue sky capped the desert. I thought it was actually rather pretty, in a stark, somewhat dusty way. We passed half a dozen wide spots in the road—they probably called themselves towns, but I’m not sure I’d have called them villages.
It wasn’t an hour later when we passed what Bronze had so hoped to see. Pulled over on the side of the road was an enormous, candy-apple red Cadillac. Two Highway Patrol cars, lights flashing, were busy arresting everybody.
I honked and waved as we cruised by. Mr. Leader’s eyeballs tracked me the whole way. Big Tom had a harder time, what with the plaster on his nose and the swelling.
So, what did this tell me? They were willing to threaten, intimidate, and menace civilians. They had money. They were armed. They were willing to steal a car, but not willing to get into a gunfight with police. They were in a hurry, so much so they would risk a stolen car and getting arrested. Did they fear getting arrested? They obviously could be, so they weren’t identifying themselves as federal agents or other law enforcement.
Combined with Ms. Maple’s failure to run for the border, I concluded these were private individuals. Oh, it was possible they were part of some agency, strictly forbidden to clue anyone in on their presence or movements, but it was highly unlikely. Agents wouldn’t rent a car from some—
Hang on. Where did they rent the car? Where did Ms. Maple get this car?
I rummaged around, hunting for a vehicle registration. Back in the old days in my Earth, cars often had an engraved plate mounted somewhere when the car was purchased. This one didn’t, but it had an envelope of papers in the glove box. I shuffled through them and found it was registered to a Clyde Weatherman in Odessa, Texas.
Two minutes later, I had zapped in the paperwork from the Bel Air. It was rented from a car dealer in El Paso two days ago.
How far was it from Odessa to El Paso? Far enough to fly there, rent a car, and try to cut Ms. Maple off?
Okay. This all started in Odessa. Why Odessa? Was she running from something there? Clearly, someone from Odessa was pursuing. So, was she also running to somewhere? I might be misinterpreting. She could be running away, running toward, or both.
There were four men who might be able to explain, but they were in police custody. It would be more trouble than it was worth to interrogate them. But Ms. Maple was still ahead of us.
Bronze asked for a little help. I spun us a Nothing To See Here spell, extending it as far as possible. She sped up another ten miles an hour. You can push a don’t-notice-me spell only so far.
I found Ms. Maple with my scrying spell, zoomed out and up, and determined she was already on the far side of Yuma. She was sticking to the speed limit and, if all went well, she would probably be near El Centro, California, by sundown.
There were a number of paper wrappers in the floorboards and a paper take-out bag on the seat. Clearly, she didn’t stop long for food. Her magical bag was also on the seat and the seat belt was fastened over it. Whatever was in it was important.
Bronze, updated with the position report, asked for alternative routes. I did some road scanning and determined we were on Highway 80, and that was the best we were going to get. She grumbled about pesky rivers being in the way, but used her cruising time to make the car’s body more aerodynamic.
We stopped for fuel and I switched my scrying.
Back in Odessa, someone lost something. Someone who could afford to send four guys in a rental car off into the West, chasing after it. Having ready access to four goons and the cash to sponsor all this implied not only wealth, but something other than a modest house in the ’burbs. I started looking at the fancier houses in the area.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Still, there are tricks. Outside of town, one trick is to look for large lawns, especially if they’re well-mown. Circle driveways are also a good indicator. In town, look for streets that have an interruption. A large house with grounds might occupy two blocks or more without allowing public roads through it. Or look for an entire block occupied by one house, rather than two rows of houses.
I developed another trick. Since I could see where I was aiming, I used a micro-gate on my ring to hunt for stacks of money. A stack of a hundred bills, with a paper wrapper around it, isn’t something you usually find outside a bank. Banks were obvious. But I got hits elsewhere in the vicinity, which narrowed my scrying search to maybe a dozen locations.
After a long afternoon of peeping in people’s kitchens, parlors, and bedrooms, there wasn’t much to recommend it. People were chatting about things, sure, but nobody was pacing and muttering about those idiots. There were no frantic phone calls to get someone out of jail. Life went on as smoothly as it ever does.
Maybe my timing was off. Someone could have got their phone call, a lawyer contacted, and all that dealt with before I dropped a scrying sensor in to spy. Still, on the upside, I had specific places to check if the opportunity presented itself.
Night fell and—once I crawled out of the trunk—so did the hammer. Bronze put the gas pedal on the floor and left it there. The lights were out, the car was black, and the engine noise muffled to a high whine. The only thing to draw attention to us was the way anything we passed was hit with a side-draft of air.
She slowed to a canter whenever we hit a town, but stretched into a gallop again as soon as we left the last streetlight behind.
Tonight, we ran. I crawled into the trunk again and opened the hatch in the base of it. Yep, Bronze included a hinged lid over the gas tank. Why? So I could access the gas tank. I defined a small shift-space on the other side of the top of the tank and dropped a quart of fuel into the tank. Then I did it again. It wasn’t a big space, obviously, but I could put fuel in slightly faster than she burned it.
Would it be more practical to blink a few hundred miles farther along the road? Yes. Was it more fun for Bronze? No. So sprinting through the darkness was how this would go. I was fine with it.
Ms. Maple, on the other hand, had to stop for fuel. The BAT-9-mobile wasn’t a gasoline-golem hybrid anymore. She didn’t have Bronze to run the car like a golem, improving the mileage. It was more aerodynamic, and had a highly-efficient engine, but she didn’t dare drive it the way Bronze would. She wouldn’t even drive it like I would. We gained on her steadily. Not as rapidly as Bronze would have liked, but consistently.
We were most of the way to San Diego and starting to worry about street lights and town cops when we came in sight of her. I had to haul back on the steering wheel and shout “Whoa!” to keep Bronze from throttling up to full speed and damn the police.
“Hold on. Hold on! We’ve caught up to her!”
Bronze protested how we hadn’t caught her.
“I know. But she’s obviously not getting away. We can see her. We can close in, knock bumpers, and you can have the BAT-9-mobile back anytime. I want to know what all this trouble is about.”
The trouble, Bronze argued, was someone stole her car!
“It’s certainly the big issue to us,” I agreed, “but what if she has what she thinks is a good reason?”
There was no good reason to steal Bronze’s outfit.
“You know that and I know that, but does she?”
She would learn, Bronze informed me.
“Yes, she will. But does it have to be this instant?”
Bronze grumbled, spat fire from all four exhaust pipes, and settled into a slow cruise, following her. Sunrise was coming, but from the way she drove and the streets she chose, her destination was in the city. I crawled into the back, folded the rear seat, and hid in the trunk for a while.
Bronze came to a stop a little later. She reported we were parked outside a hospital. Ms. Maple parked the BAT-9-mobile, grabbed her bag, and went inside.
“Fine. As soon as the sun finishes doing its thing, I’ll clean up and go after her. You want to wear the BAT-9-mobile in case she comes out and decides to drive off?”
Bronze was willing, but it would be tricky if I wasn’t going to park the abandoned car.
“Okay. We’ll wait a few minutes, switch your outfit, and I’ll park this one elsewhere.”
It might not be necessary, she informed me.
“Oh? Why not?”
Four guys came out of the hospital, along with Ms. Maple, and one of them carried her bag. From the way they were gathered around her, she wasn’t going willingly. They got into another car and drove away.
Bronze wanted to know if she should follow them.
“If I weren’t stuck in a trunk, I’d say we get your outfit and follow. As it is…”
It would sit in the parking lot for at least a day or two. We could see where they went.
“If you’re okay with it, sure. Let’s go.”
She followed them and I, once I finished with my night-to-day transformation, crawled up into the driver’s seat again. We hung back to avoid notice, but I don’t think they cared too much. They went directly to Lindbergh Field, boarded a waiting DC-6, and flew off into the sunrise.
I watched the plane pull up, lift into the sky, and disappear eastward.
Someone sent four goons on a cross-country chase. Another four were sent to the end of the chase via private airplane—owned? Chartered? I had no idea. Who else was out there, hunting for this one woman and her bag? Were there a dozen more men in cars, running north, south, and east, calling to check in every day?
Which left me with a question. The question. The question that gets everyone and everything into trouble.
As for Bronze, she only wanted to know if this was the end of the chase.
“Let’s go get your outfit,” I decided. “Then we’re going to Odessa. I have a question I want answered.”
Bronze thought about it for second, then asked one more thing. Could she race the plane?
We did not race the plane. While I had zero doubts about Bronze being able to outrun a big, lumbering, prop-driven beast, the plane did not have all the handicaps we did. We had twisty roads, stop signs, other traffic, pedestrians, police—a particularly pesky form of pedestrian—and at least one mountain range. It wasn’t a fair contest.
Instead, Bronze played with her BAT-9-mobile while I found a diner, got a corner booth, and watched the flight. The four men escorting Ms. Maple were a different four from the previous encounters. She was handcuffed to a seat. The pilot and copilot either didn’t know or didn’t care. One of the four men sat across the aisle from her.
Behind them, three men sat around what I presume was a parrot cage. I saw one in the trunk of the other guys’ car, and this was the right shape. I made an inference based on the size and shape, since it was covered with a sizable sack. Straps fastened it to a seat.
So, what was the actual objective? Ms. Maple? Or the cargo? Did she escape from some place in Odessa and grab whatever she could in her departure? Or did she break in and steal something specific? Or did she offer to buy something and make off with the goods in some sort of con? What was her story?
When they landed, they loaded up everyone into the back of a two-and-a-half ton Army truck—commonly called a “deuce-and-a-half”—with a canvas top and bench seating along the sides, in back. It was a pretty impressive truck, I must admit. Judging by the way it accelerated, someone had done a custom job, souping it up to a hotrod version without altering the body. It would be an unpleasant surprise for anyone who thought of it as “just a heavy truck.” Bronze would like it.
I kept track as they left the little airport and thundered off to a private residence.
When I say, “private residence,” I mean someone’s estate. It was one of the places I looked at when I was evaluating possible start points in Odessa, so I was pleased about that. The truck came up to the front gate, was passed through to a length of walled road, followed it around an S-curve, and went through a second gate.
It was very lush, very scenic, well-landscaped, and tasteful.
It was also a deathtrap for anyone who tried to ram their way in. The outer gate was more ornamental, but it was still pretty sturdy. Bashing it down would be simple enough, but anyone ramming it would have to immediately slow down. The S-curve made it impossible to get a good run-up for bashing in the much more businesslike second gate.
I didn’t see any firing positions in the hilly landscaping to either side of this section, but that only means I didn’t find them, not that they weren’t there. If I were designing this, there would definitely be places where a guard could pop open a firing port and discourage the more persistent of unwelcome guests.
Who am I kidding? I’d have land mines under the pavement.
The truck pulled out of the killing zone and into the estate proper. A sweeping circle drive led up to the house. There was no covered area in front, but there was two straight driveways to the rear, off the circle, running along either side of the house. The truck went around to the back and parked between a sizable garage—big enough for three trucks—and a side door of the house. There was an attached three-car garage, as well, but the doors wouldn’t allow a truck to fit.
Everyone but the driver went into the house. The truck backed into the larger garage. I watched as it did so. There were two other trucks in there, along with what I can only describe as an armory. I can’t think of a single reason why anyone would need so much firepower.
But the type of weapons told me a lot. For example, the Thompson submachinegun isn’t a long-range weapon. Its design gives it a lot of firepower, but only on enemies relatively close at hand. The bolt-action rifles, by comparison, don’t pump out a lot of rounds in a short amount of time, but they’re accurate to very long ranges. There were a lot more Thompsons than there were rifles. The Thompsons had mostly stick magazines, but there were a dozen of those huge, rattling, drum magazines, which meant there were a lot of bullets already loaded. There was also a collection of pistols and a few cases of ammunition.
Someone expected to defend the house. Not only defend it, but hold it against all comers.
At first blush, I didn’t have a problem with that. I was always prepared to defend my house, but mostly because Phoebe lived there. I can run away from anyone short of Barry Allen, but if I have something to protect, I prepare to do so.
What was the homeowner protecting? He obviously had henchmen willing to shoot up a bystander’s car, threaten violence, and possibly commit overt physical assault while running errands. I assume they were hired as security, but they also had no qualms about crossing state lines to commit kidnapping.
I think that’s what really made me interested. I’ll stop to help a lady in distress. Being kidnapped counts as distress, doesn’t it?
I closed the makeup compact and looked up. Jolene, the waitress, stood nearby with a coffeepot.
“You want that warmed up?”
“Yes, please. And another of those world-class omelets, please.”
“Same again? Bacon-sausage-ham-extra-cheese?”
“If you would be so kind. And if you’d be so kind as to bring me the check, I’ll pay now. Unless you’d rather I keep putting it on my tab?”
“You’re fine as you are,” she told me, and smiled, leaning over farther than necessary to pour coffee.
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
I glanced at the diner. It was well after breakfast and just a little too early for lunch. Aside from me, the only other customer was an old, old man, sitting at a table by the window. He didn’t appear to be moving. I might have missed it. I did vaguely remember Jolene adding coffee to his cup, now and again.
“You keep looking at your mirror,” she said, nodding at the makeup case. “Are you looking for something on your face?”
“Oh, no. I…” I thought quickly. “It’s just… well, it used to belong to my wife. There’s a special engraving inside and you have to look at it in the mirror to really see it. That’s all.”
“Oh. Only, you’ve been looking at it for a couple of hours.”
“I miss her.”
“Mmm. Well, you let me know if you need anything more, all right?”
“I certainly will.”
I finished lunch and paid my tab and the tab for the elderly guy at the window. Bronze pulled up outside and I slid into the driver’s seat. We rumbled off.
What was the verdict? Were we running somewhere?
“No. Airplanes cheat because they don’t care about terrain.”
Bronze agreed. Did I want her to steal a plane?
“Would you rather fly or shift?”
Shift. Definitely shift. Were we chasing after them? Where to?
“Odessa. I think I’m going to help a lady in distress.”
“Well, we haven’t exactly helped her much with her problems, now have we?”
Bronze backfired flames. She was of the opinion Ms. Maple earned a couple of new problems—me and her!
“Now, now. We know she was running from the four-man goon squad. You and I can handle such things. She’s much smaller and more fragile. Besides,” I added, as Bronze started to warm up a reply, “it will annoy the hell out of whoever sent the guys who smashed the window, shot the lock on the trunk, and nearly burst my eardrum.”
Bronze didn’t answer immediately. She idled down the street at no more than forty miles an hour, thinking.
She finally agreed to rescue Ms. Maple one more time. But if Ms. Maple wasn’t grateful, Bronze was going to squish the syrup out of her like a ketchup packet under a tire.
We pulled over and I got out to draw on the ground.
At this time, in this version of Earth, Odessa was a booming oil town. The highway came right down the middle and railroad tracks ran off in all directions. Someday, someone would lay a pipeline, but for now it was mostly tanker cars, perhaps leavened by boxcars for incoming cargo and the occasional passenger car. A refinery was going up in anticipation of a long-term oil bonanza. It would be a while before it came on-line, but Odessa would eventually be shipping out more than just crude straight from the wells.
This was good for us in some ways, less so in others. Housing wasn’t an issue. I found a motel, no problem, and set up shop in room eight, on the ground floor. Bronze, on the other hand, didn’t like her parking spot. She was looking really good in her outfit, but also didn’t think it was the best choice. A lady has a right to wear anything she wants, but wearing a sweeping, Paris-fashion evening gown to a rodeo doesn’t take into account practical considerations.
We put the BAT-9-mobile in a garage. Bronze wore a 1951 Ford F1 pickup truck around town. Very practical. Sturdy. It blended right in.
I also had no problem finding a place to eat. There were at least three brand-new diner-style restaurants on the main street. The older ones had new paint on the signs. Half of them were open all night, not that I was going to eat there after dark. After sundown, they didn’t have anything on the menu for me.
The drawbacks, as I saw them, were the oil workers. I’ve got nothing against roughnecks. They’re good people. They work hard in—at best—unpleasant conditions and they deserve to have a good time when they finally go off-duty and unwind. Most of the ones I’ve met are generous, too, tipping their waitress, dropping something in the beggar’s cup, that sort of thing. I wouldn’t ask one to share his food—they’re usually hungry—but I would not be surprised to find one picking up a little old lady and carrying her across the street. Escorting her would be something for a Boy Scout. Like I said, they’re generally good people, if sometimes a bit rough around the edges.
But they can get more than a little rowdy. Sure, it’s expected and understandable. It’s also inconvenient. If they aren’t on duty the next day, they’re out and about at all hours, day or night, and generally making a racket.
My big irritation is the fact they’re also witnesses. Doing anything clandestine in town is difficult. My usual hunting tactic is to lurk around dangerous neighborhoods and see if anyone wants to volunteer by mugging me. Not here! Maybe the local economy was booming to the point that street crime was down, or maybe too many muggers tried plying their trade on a particularly tough class of people, or maybe there were just too many wanderers, walking wherever they pleased, to risk something as blatant as an open-air assault with intent to rob.
Whatever the reason, I found no takers in my midnight meanderings. Oh, well. It wasn’t a pressing concern and wouldn’t be for a while.
I roamed about for a few hours every night, including a brief roam or two around the property of Clyde Weatherman, the man with the greenest lawn this side of Dallas.
The estate—and it was an estate, not just some big house with extra buildings behind it—had a fancy, wrought-iron gate surrounded by brickwork. It looked very nice to anyone who drove by, and the artificial hills between the gate and the road made it more private than one might expect.
Away from the gate, out of sight, the rest of the fencing was six-foot chain link topped with barbed wire. The fence said “Keep Out,” while the barbed wire said, “I Mean It.”
Maybe it was necessary. A couple of drunks could go over a plain fence. The cradle of barbed wire, though, might be insurmountable to anyone drunk enough to be interested. But it did make me wonder who planned the security for the place. Why have an elaborate gate when anyone with a four wheel drive could go cross-country and bash down a length of fence? Sure, it kept out drunk ramblers, but what about drunk drivers?
Wondering why they bothered was the sum total of how it bothered me.
I spent an afternoon arranging for clouds and overcast. Earth’s magical environment isn’t all that powerful, but weather magic comes easily to me. And, a couple of hours after full dark, I hopped over the fence with the same casual ease as stepping up onto a curb.
Wrapped in a Cloak of Darkness™, I strolled across the lawn, minding where I put my feet. They didn’t have motion sensors in this time and place, but they might have land mines. The fence wasn’t a serious barrier, so you never know.
Hey, I buried a net of det cord under my whole front yard. I’m not judging.
I needn’t have been so cautious. No land mines. No spike pits. No ankle-breakers. No sudden flares of lights to spotlight me. Nothing. It was a lawn. There weren’t even any dogs.
I’d already done my due diligence in looking over the house and grounds. The house was a big, sprawling, brick structure. It had two storeys, plus an attic with dormer windows. All the windows were barred, tastefully but effectively, as a security feature. Someone was making an effort, at least, at securing the house and grounds, but their ideas left a lot to be desired.
Given the number of armed men in the house, I felt going through the front door would be needlessly troublesome. So I spidered my way up the wall to the room I wanted. I tapped lightly on the glass and waited. I tapped again. Eventually, Ms. Maple came to see. She looked out, wearing a robe and a puzzled expression. I waved.
She stared at me for several seconds. I motioned for her to lift the window. Since there was a fancy-looking set of wrought-iron bars in the way, she did so. She knelt by the windowsill and I pulled myself up a little so we could converse quietly.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m checking in. Your car is all fixed. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
I don’t know how many questions ran through her mind. Who are you? Why are you here? Did you really fix the car? Did you really come all this way to tell me that? Are you crazy? How did you find me? How did you get here? What the hell is going on? All that stuff.
The question that made it out first, though, was, “How are you holding on to the wall?”
“Practice and natural talent. So, do you need anything else? Or should I buzz off?”
“No! I mean,” she said, more quietly, “no, don’t go. I’m being held prisoner here. Can you get a message to someone for me?”
“Dangerous,” I mused. “If they show up here at all, they’re unlikely to force the issue on my say-so. They won’t search a place this rich without a whole lot of probable cause. You’d need to have blood dripping out the windows and random heads on the lawn before they take real notice. Simply calling them would still leave you stuck and the owner will know you’ve got a friend. Speaking of which, do you have any friends?”
“No one who can help me.”
“Huh. Well, that’s unfortunate. What, exactly, do you need? If it’s not too much trouble, maybe I can help.”
“I need to get out of here!” she hissed.
“Oh, is that all?”
“The door is heavy, locked from the outside, and probably has a guard. The windows have bars bolted into the brickwork. Yes, ‘that’s all’,” she told me, scornfully.
“I can do that. Go put on your best run-for-your-life shoes and wedge a chair under the door handle.”
She looked blankly at me.
“Go on,” I urged. “When you’ve done that, I’ll move the bars and we can climb down to make our getaway.”
“Are you serious?”
I grasped the head of a masonry bolt between my thumb and forefinger. I unscrewed it, quietly, with a muffled grinding sound, from the mortar and handed it to her.
“I don’t want to drop it. Someone might notice.”
She held the bolt, craned her neck to try and see the hole it came out of, failed, and put the bolt down on the carpet. She moved to the wardrobe and put on her shoes.
I took it as a hint. I unscrewed more bolts while she half-lifted, half-dragged a heavy chair to the door. When she came back to the window, I had the lower and middle bolts removed.
“Do I have time to dress?” she asked.
“We’re not going to dinner and a show. Are you wearing pajamas under that?”
“Yes. It’s a very comfortable captivity.”
“Must be nice. Nobody who ever captured me was so considerate. Come on. Climb out, hang from the windowsill, and I’ll put an arm around you to carry you down.”
I pulled the lower edge of the security bars outward, bending the metal near the top bolts a bit to do so. She slid out and down. I let the grating creak back into place, wrapped an arm around her, and pulled her to me.
“Let go. I’ve got you.”
Feeling me support her, she let go. I edged us down, slowly. It was tricky with the extra weight and only one hand, but I had the advantage of not caring about damage to the brickwork.
Unfortunately, the cracking sounds were louder than I liked. Nobody was going to see us in the pitch-black night, but there were a couple of roving guards. One of them heard the noise and shined his flashlight up.
Well, so much for stealth. Time for the running!
I moved us down with greater speed and less quiet. Ms. Maple touched the ground and I let go, landing hard next to her. Meanwhile, the guard blew a whistle repeatedly, drew his pistol, took careful aim, and shot me.
This told me a few things. First, my estimate of how the police would react to anything at the Rich Man’s House was spot-on. You don’t shoot trespassers unless you’re certain you can get away with it. Second, the guards were decent shots. Third, Ms. Maple was not considered a target. No doubt they knew she was a captive, if not who she was or why, and so the guards would aim at me.
Good. I came prepared to be shot at. My Cloak of Darkness™ also doubles as a particularly bullet-permeable suit—permeable in the sense the bullet goes into a pocket. Pocket universe.
And, since I didn’t bring Firebrand, I brought a pistol. You never know when you’re going to want to throw a tiny rock at supersonic speeds. I put an expanding slug into his center of mass and proved the guards on routine patrol did not wear body armor. Messy.
More whistles sounded, which seemed redundant to me. If someone blows a whistle and it’s followed by gunfire, do you need to blow the whistle any more? Maybe it’s a guard thing. The whistles became inaudible when the siren started up. It sounded like one of those old rotary air-raid sirens. Maybe that’s what the whistles were for.
It’s also possible they started the siren when they saw fire spreading rapidly from the southeastern side of the property. Bronze, in her truck, had kicked through the fence and was laying down a burning line of lawn on her way to me. The siren could have been a reaction to that.
No doubt people reacted to the siren, too. They probably dropped what they were doing and scrambled to respond. Important things were locked away. Important people were surrounded by protection and hustled to secure locations. Stuff like that. I don’t know for certain as it was mostly happening inside a big, brick building. All I know for sure is someone on an upper floor put a shot through Bronze’s windshield, presumably aiming for the typical driver.
Bad move. It annoys her dreadfully. She had no good way to get at the guy on the top floor, so it put her in an especially unfriendly mood.
She swung up to us, spun in a half-circle, and let us jump into the bed of the truck. Instantly, we were pressed against the tailgate as she catapulted forward, tires shedding arcs of blue-green lightning.
There is no such thing as too much horsepower. There is only too little traction. Bronze doesn’t have this problem.
I kept Ms. Maple’s head down as we lay in the bed of the truck and rocketed away. A few shots came near us, but none of them hit anything. Moments later, Bronze braked and slewed left, away from the gate area. Men had come into view and opened fire. Annoyingly, they were on those artificial hills. She wasn’t going up there while she had passengers in the back.
We bore left, following the fenceline and the public road until we reached the end of the roadside ditch. Bronze curved into the fence with a metallic screech and multiple whang! noises as she knocked down fenceposts. Then she spun about again, hit the road, and slowed enough for us to sit up.
“Ow,” Ms. Maple observed. I heard her over the wind and engine noise only because of my sharp ears.
“Sorry,” I shouted back, trying to ignore my hair whipping in my face. “When I throw a lady into a bed, it’s usually onto a mattress. Come on. Climb in the rear window and sit down.”
The rear window had no glass. It was a sort of door, or hatch, hinged at the bottom. I helped Ms. Maple into the cab, climbed in after, and settled myself behind the steering wheel. I reached behind us, grabbed the handle, and lifted the hatch, closing off the rear window.
“Who the hell are you?” she demanded, once the wind noise diminished.
“No one of consequence,” I replied, because I’m a student of the classics.
“Why are you helping me?” she asked, spoiling the exchange. Oh, well.
“Because I’m a sucker for damsels in distress. Let’s get you to your car and you can be on your way.”
As I spoke, Bronze passed the open gates of the estate. Two cars and three trucks, headlights blazing, were in the process of exiting, presumably in pursuit.
I had wondered, fleetingly, why she ran away from the gate, past the ditch, crashed the fence, and then turned around. Now I understood. She was giving them a chance to chase her. Partly because the bozo who put a bullet through her windshield might be among them, but mostly because she enjoys the chase.
“You better put on your seat belt,” I suggested, eyeing the side-mirror and the headlights coming after us.
“We’re being chased.”
She put on her seat belt.
“What about you?” she asked.
I leaned out the driver-side window, took careful aim, and put a couple of rounds into the front grille of the lead car. It wouldn’t stop the car immediately, but it would in a few miles, after all the water boiled out through the leaky radiator.
I sat in the seat again.
“I’m exercising patience. So, while we have nothing better to do, would you like to tell me why these guys chased you halfway across the country?”
“Nothing better to do?” she echoed. She looked pointedly at the steering wheel. She looked at the closed hatch where the rear window would be. “Isn’t a midnight car chase the wrong time to tell our life stories?”
“We’re just along for the ride,” I replied, putting my hands behind my head and leaning back. She looked at the steering wheel again. The pedals were probably invisible in the darkness, but Bronze chose that moment to go off-road. The steering wheel moved on its own. I think she was helping me make my point.
Going off-road made the ride bumpier, of course, and slowed us down. It was okay for us, at least. The cars in pursuit didn’t appreciate it at all. The trucks, on the other hand, took it like champs, bellowing over the flat terrain at full speed. I was right about them being modified. The normal version of those things topped out at forty-five miles per hour or thereabouts.
When I looked back, I saw they had men in the rear compartment. If they were smart, they were standing up and hanging on to something. If not, they were being bounced like so many basketballs in an earthquake. I made a note never to get behind them. They were probably heavily armed. Bronze agreed and promised to be careful.
“Where are we going?” Ms. Maple wanted to know.
“I have no idea.”
“Aren’t you in charge of this thing?”
The truck swung hard right, throwing up a spray of dirt and almost throwing Ms. Maple across the bench seat.
“I think you made her mad. We appear to be heading back to the estate. I’m guessing she intends to park there and let them drag you out.”
“The spirit animating the vehicle. You know, the one who moved from my car to yours and started repairs on it when you were stuck. The one you annoyed by stealing her favorite outfit and leaving her with the clunker. The one who drove this truck through the fence to get in and act as our getaway vehicle. The one you just called a ‘thing’. That one. I’m starting to think she doesn’t like you.”
Ms. Maple stared at me for a couple of seconds. I stayed as I was, hands behind my head as though I hadn’t a care in the world.
“I might have been wrong,” she admitted. Bronze veered a little to the left, but still bounced and rattled toward the fence.
“I may have spoken hastily.”
A little more left.
“I’m kind of scared and I get snappish when I’m scared.”
We veered steadily more to the left. We might clip the fence.
“I apologize for calling you a thing.”
Yep. We missed the fence. Our detour didn’t help us outrun the pursuing vehicles, but I did notice there was only one car still in the chase.
“If I might make an observation,” I suggested.
“By all means.”
She planted her feet on the floorboard and her hands on dashboard and door. Bronze hit the dip at something like thirty miles an hour. It was a soft dip, made of earth, not a hard-pavement sort of thing, but it still jolted everything from tires to teeth.
“She doesn’t like you much,” I added. “Please be polite to the entity trying to help you.”
“Noted,” she replied, teeth clenched. “Ow.”
Behind us, the car didn’t make it through the dip in the landscape. Bronze used her suspension to give us a little bit of an upward bounce before we hit the dip, kind of like having a small ramp to help clear it. The pursuit had no such animating force helping their car.
The front bumper dug in, both the headlights broke, and one of the men in the front seat obviously wasn’t wearing his seat belt. He came straight through the windshield and hit dirt in front of the car. The driver was still inside, along with two other men, but they weren’t going to be pursuing anyone. Steam billowed up from the remains of the front end.
The trucks, on the other hand, had the ground clearance to make it. They slowed, but still roared on through, powering their way up and out, and continued to give chase. I wondered if they were all-wheel drive models or if they only used the back eight.
Bronze didn’t leave them in the dust. She slowed a trifle, sticking to their speed as she led them back to the paved road. They realized where she was headed and thought—correctly—she could easily outrun them on the road. One went slightly right, one went slightly left, and the third truck came straight after us. Whichever way we went when we hit the pavement, they were hoping to cut us off.
I don’t like it when the people chasing me show signs of intelligence. But Bronze wasn’t worried, so I wasn’t.
“By the way, what’s your name? I’m pretty sure you told me when we met, but it’s been a few days since I saw you.”
“Melody. And you’re… Kent. John?”
“That’s me. Nice to meet you again.”
“I hate to be a bother, John—may I call you ‘John’?—but there are still some large, ugly men in large, ugly trucks who are shooting at us.”
“Yes, but the guys in the back can’t while we’re in front of them, so it’s only the guy in the cab, and one of the trucks is blocked by another one. Besides, they’re shooting single shots, not full automatic. It’s also dark and they’re jouncing around at high speed in open terrain, hanging half-out a window. They’re lucky not to shoot each other. I don’t think we need to worry. Hang on again.”
Bronze hit the pavement and skidded through a wheel-spinning change of direction before she locked her tires to the road surface. Melody slammed back in the seat as we launched down the road.
The truck we passed slowed markedly and the cab passenger fired a burst from his Thompson, low, trying for our tires. For all I know, he might have hit them. Bronze would barely notice.
Then it was all three trucks, in a line, all of them running full-tilt down the road in an attempt to catch us. The lead truck’s gunner hung out the passenger window, still waving a Thompson around as he sprayed bullets after us. One even clanged on the rear window-hatch, which was one reason I had a hatch instead of a window.
“See? Not a problem,” I told Melody. She didn’t take it as casually as I did. “So, last I checked, you were running from these guys before. Why were they after you, anyway?”
“I stole something from Mister Weatherman.”
“I saw the bag. At least, I assume it was the bag. He couldn’t have been upset about the car.”
“That’s a complicated story and nobody would believe it. But I still have to get into his house again and get it back.”
“So, you’re not interested in the car? We went to some trouble to put it into good working order.”
“The car isn’t important! I have to get away from these ruffians and plan a way to break in, now. I can’t schmooze my way in, next time!”
“Why’s this theft so important?”
“Because my son is dying, that’s why! It’s the only way to save his life!”
“Oh! Well, that’s different. I thought you were just some thief. Now I’ve got your motivation. What seems to be the problem with your son?”
A lucky burst of gunfire shattered the mirror on her side and stitched three new dents in the window-hatch.
“This is not the time!” she shrieked.
“Hmm?” I glanced at the dimples in the rear hatch. “Oh. Right. One moment.”
I laid my hands on the steering wheel and asked Bronze what her plan was. Bronze asked if we were in a hurry.
No, I decided, we weren’t, but it was hard to interrogate someone while they panicked. They tended to get incoherent at the worst times.
Bronze agreed this was a fair point. Since we were coming up on the town line, there would be some running around in the streets, then she would take care of the problem. Was that fair?
“Okay. We’ll run around town for a bit,” I said, aloud, so Melody could be in the loop. “Big trucks like those aren’t the most maneuverable things.”
“Can we lose them?”
“I think it fair to say they will be lost,” I said, choosing my phrasing carefully.
Bronze promptly ran squares around them. In the open, it would have been circles, but city blocks were something of a limiting factor. She could have gone through quite a few of the buildings, but it would have been rude.
Instead, since there wasn’t any traffic to speak of at this late hour, she slammed around corners in ways conventional physics would not appreciate, came up behind the rearmost truck, and honked. In the back, the canvas flap opened and some gunman presented us with an expression of utter and total disbelief.
I waved. I don’t know if they could see me or not. The streetlights were okay, but Bronze’s headlights blazed three times brighter than usual. She tilted them up, too, to shine directly into the back of the truck.
Before the gunmen could get themselves together, she accelerated and bumped the big truck. There was a bright flash and the truck’s brakes locked up, throwing everyone toward the cab. A few shots went off and somebody screamed. I held on to the steering wheel as the truck in front of us acted to brake us, as well. A moment later, their engine stalled and the whole vehicle juddered to a halt. There was another bright flash and Bronze, once again possessing the pickup truck, backed us up at high speed, swung us around to the right, backfired mocking flames from both her exhausts, and disappeared around a corner.
The other two trucks, meanwhile, continued their pursuit. I caught a glimpse of one on a parallel street. Our engine was loud, the exhausts were bright, and there was almost nobody else on the street. Even so, their response time to our maneuvers was pretty damn good. The third one would be back in the race shortly, but they would have to get it started again.
“I think these guys have radios,” I observed.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean radios, like transmitters and receivers. I think they’re talking to each other.”
“It could? Just how rich is this Clyde?”
“I don’t know. Wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. He can easily afford anything he wants,” Melody informed me.
“Sells a lot of oil, does he?”
“Yes, but his wealth isn’t dependent on oil,” she said, and yelped as Bronze spun through a bootlegger reverse and headed back the way we came. The pursuit trucks couldn’t do that.
“How’s he rich, then? Investments? Blackmail? Government kickbacks? A monopoly on bubble gum?”
“Faerie magic,” she answered. “I’m not sure what his exact wish was, but it resulted in riches.”
“Faerie gold would do it,” I agreed. “Get down.”
Melody ducked as the stalled truck—now restarted—came into view. Yes, one of the men in the cab was talking into what looked like a telephone handset. His eyes widened and he dropped it as he saw us coming. He pushed himself up and leaned out the window, leveling his submachinegun.
Bronze faked left and right as she approached, both to keep the driver guessing and to make Melody harder to hit. Neither of us worried about bullets hitting the truck or me. The gunman kept firing until the stick magazine was empty, then we turned right again.
Bronze didn’t like the fact they kept shooting. It was unsporting. This was a game of chase and of tag, not hunting!
I silently agreed with her. If she wanted, I would happily jump into the back of our truck if she wanted to lure them close.
Just to make a point, she agreed.
“Stay down,” I suggested, and opened the rear window-hatch. I clambered through it into the truck bed while Melody flattened herself on the bench seat.
Meanwhile, Bronze slowed, allowing the truck immediately behind us to catch up. I stood up and waited while the gunner finished reloading. He stuck himself out the window again and opened up on me. I raised one fist in front of me, presenting him with my forearm in an obvious “blocking” gesture.
My deflection spell didn’t like dealing with a whole magazine of bullets, considering Earth is a low-power zone. It survived the barrage and not a single round hit me. A couple hit the tailgate, but nothing else.
The gunman gaped. The driver wasn’t fazed; he wasn’t the one doing the shooting. The gunman knew what he aimed at. He knew at least some of those shots were dead-on.
I stepped to the rear, went to one knee, and held on to the upper edge of the tailgate.
Bronze had intended to hit the brakes and force the bigger, heavier truck to rear-end our pickup truck. She didn’t need to bother. The driver of the truck accelerated as sharply as he could, trying to ram us, which was good enough for me. As he closed the gap, Bronze accelerated, cushioning the contact, changing it from a rear-ending to a kiss as our bumpers touched.
Bronze kept driving because now the enemy truck was in range for me.
I struck, using my hand and claws like a spear. I rammed into the front grille, through it and the radiator, hooked my fingers around heat-dissipation fins, and yanked out a handful of metal vanes and piping amid a sudden cloud of steam. I threw the debris through their windshield, just to annoy them, and stayed crouched while Bronze accelerated away in a cloud of smoke and flames.
I also waited while my hand got better. I wasn’t wearing my gauntlets, so the impact wasn’t fun. It was the steam that really hurt like hell, though. I wanted my regeneration to deal with the problem on a cosmetic level, at least, before I climbed into the cab again.
Bronze kept us out of trouble by using her superior cornering ability to keep the remaining two trucks confused and angry. Nobody likes it when their quarry takes the cross street just behind, honking the whole way.
When my hand felt better, I climbed into the cab, making a note for the future. Gunshots in radiators. Swords in radiators. Tools of some sort. Not my hand.
I latched the hatch shut and saw Melody staring at me.
“What the hell are you?”
“That’s a long story,” I told her, and stopped because Bronze came to a screeching halt.
“Why are we stopping?” Melody screamed.
I sprang out, lifted the injured dog from the road, placed him in the bed of the truck, set off a healing spell from my ring, and leaped back into the cab. Bronze roared off again while both of the enemy trucks came after us, side-by-side and firing.
The dog was safe enough, for the moment, but the injury was a bullet wound. Bronze and I agreed. This was a fun chase, but the gunfire wasn’t acceptable in a populated area. Humans generally took cover at the sound of gunfire, and we made a point of staying off their sidewalks. Dogs don’t understand how dangerous the commotion can be.
I asked her what she wanted to do. She shifted up a gear and started to gain distance.
“After this is all over,” I said, to Melody, “can I interest you in an early breakfast? I’d like to ask some questions and it’s difficult to have a coherent conversation amid all these interruptions.”
“Fine! Fine! Whatever you want! Are you aware they are still shooting at us?”
“Do you have a plan?”
“What is it?”
“Breakfast with you, in the morning. All the rest we’ll just play by ear.”
“What are you going to do about the trucks chasing us?” she demanded. She sounded more exasperated than scared, now. Good for her.
“Not a thing,” I told her, and Bronze hooked a sharp left, made all the sharper by the way her wheels gripped the pavement instead of skidding. Melody grunted as she hit the door and I did my best to not hit her door through her.
Bronze suggested I wear my seat belt. I clicked it on again as we left the town behind us, heading down a railroad access road.
Melody, lacking a rear-view mirror, risked sticking her head out for an instant to look behind us.
“They’re still there,” she reported.
“Yep. And they’re probably gaining,” I added, noting the speedometer.
“Because we don’t want to lose them.”
“I don’t know about you wanting to lose them, but my part of we absolutely does!”
“You and I aren’t a we,” I corrected her, but didn’t explain. Bullets banged into the back of the cab.
Bronze reported the dog was still alive and wasn’t further injured. It wasn’t happy about the ride, though. I told her I’d take better care of the dog as soon as we came to a safe stop.
We came to a dirt-road railroad crossing. Bronze downshifted and swung around, slowing so as not to fling anyone upward as we crested the crossing. She roared on into the railyard, straight through it, and into a train graveyard of old cars, old engines, stacks of rotting ties and rusting rails, all the detritus of an old rail line. The trucks continued after us, well back, but still eating our dust in the dark. They weren’t firing at us, but maybe they didn’t like the range. Or maybe they were reloading.
“Why are we headed into a railyard?” Melody asked. I put my hands on the wheel but didn’t try to steer, yet.
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“I don’t understand what you’re doing!”
“You make a valid point. It’s an abandoned railyard,” I corrected, “and we’re going here to drop off a friend of mine, do a couple of skiddy turns, maybe lose those oversized go-karts, and definitely get a bigger vehicle on our side.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
“Yeah, but you’ll piece it together after the fact. For now, hold on. We’re about to sideswipe an old locomotive. The ride will get a lot bumpier after that.”
“Because I’m only the copilot. Grab something!”
She grabbed the dashboard and braced her feet again. Bronze swung parallel to an old locomotive, scraped along it in a shower of sparks, and suddenly I was driving a pickup truck. I gave it the gas and, yes, the ride did get a lot bumpier.
The trucks, of course, kept coming. I don’t corner like Bronze can. When they started shooting, I realized I needed to work more on my combat driving. I made two lefts in quick succession and a sudden right, trying to keep them slowed down with turns in fairly narrow confines. It was like driving through a junkyard, as fast as possible, while anyone who sees you shoots at you.
I had some advantages. I was in a smaller, faster, lighter vehicle and could see perfectly in the dark. They had big, powerful vehicles that required a whole lot more finesse in these tight quarters. They also had human eyes. While they could only see what the headlights showed them, they would definitely see my own headlights and my dust cloud.
Dang. I turned off the headlights. They would still be able to see the dust cloud we raised, but maybe I could do something about that, too. I have an amulet with a spell library in it. I needed a straightaway so I could divert some concentration…
“Can you see anything?” Melody demanded, her voice doing that vibrato thing from the bumpy road surface. I doubted she could see anything but blackness, shadowy shapes rushing past us, and the occasional flare of headlights behind us before we turned again.
“How? It’s pitch black out there!”
“I ate a lot of carrots when I was a youngster.”
“Lady, I pulled over to help a damsel in distress. It snowballed into a car chase across multiple states into a railroad graveyard. Anytime you want to call it quits, I’ll get out of the truck and let you drive.”
Shots sounded behind us, but I doubt they actually had a target. She ducked anyway.
“No! No! It’s fine!”
“It’s not fine. You’re calling me a liar while I’m trying to do you a favor,” I told her, palming the wheel as I slid us through a drifting turn. “That’s rude in the extreme.”
“I’m sorry! I apologize! Watch out!” she screamed, pointing ahead. The headlights of a pursuing truck threw enough light forward for her to see the dead end coming up. The sky was clouding over, cutting off starlight and moonlight, which pleased me. My weather spell was working.
“It’s an old boxcar,” I said, as we crashed through the side door, out the other door, and kept on rolling. “The wooden ones are practically falling apart. I’m just glad it wasn’t still on its wheels. The big guys will have to circle around it.”
“Possibly,” I answered, palming the steering wheel again to bring us around. I saw a plume of fiery sparks like a lethal accident at a steel mill. They fountained upward, illuminating everything like the finale of a fireworks show. The sparks rapidly turned into a plume of flame and black smoke.
Bronze was finishing her revisions and refitting.
“Reinforcements? You’ve got friends?”
“Shocking, isn’t it? Oh, you mean friends here. Have you not been paying attention?”
As the initial blast of pyrotechnics settled down and the night closed in again, I swung us around and floored it, running down a narrow lane between railroad rails. It was smooth, straight, and took us almost all the way to where I wanted to be. I jinked around another old engine and brought us to a stop behind it.
Melody relaxed, heaving a sigh of relief as the truck sat idling.
“Are we safe here?” she asked. I ignored her. I had my window down and one hand stuck up outside. I concentrated, tapping into the weather spell I’d set in motion and giving it more of my time, concentration, and power. First, the air picked up into a breeze, scattering the dust clouds we left behind. Good, good. Now, preventative measures… A moment later, a light pattering of rain began to fall from high-altitude condensation. The air would be very dry, but more was blowing in as rapidly as possible. Faint sounds of tiny droplets plinked on the metal roof of the truck. That would help keep the dust down, given a few minutes to work.
“I’m getting in the back to look after the dog. Try not to steal my truck.”
“Was that called for?”
“Considering the last time I left you alone with my vehicle?”
“I might deserve that.”
“I’m glad we agree.” I climbed out, climbed into the bed of the truck, and checked on the dog. It was an unhappy dog, hit by a ricochet. The tissue damage wasn’t going to kill it, but the internal bleeding was. The ride hadn’t helped, but the healing spell was reasonably effective as first aid.
Draining the hemorrhage wasn’t a problem. Removing the bullet and stitching the wound up before it bled to death was the problem. With me nearby, at night, even a paper cut can be dangerous. Blood likes me well enough to crawl straight to me. I was pretty sure I managed to seal up everything inside the dog, but there was no way to be sure without a much more detailed—and time-consuming—examination. The dog was still alive, at any rate. Maybe it would stay that way.
I breathed some vitality into it and hoped it would recover.
Meanwhile, the large trucks roared through the junkyard, looking for us. The game had shifted from tag or chase to a game of hide-and-seek. They were cruising slowly, looking for us methodically and staying in contact by radio.
The night broke open with a fresh blast of firelight, accompanied by a sound reminiscent of a steam whistle, but…
You know a steam whistle blows steam through the whistle? Hence the name. Imagine how it would sound if you blew fire through the whistle, instead. That’s what I heard. It was sort of a screaming noise, much more like a voice than the sound steam could—or should—make. An agonized voice. Like the voice of an angel encountering for the first time the touch of burning sulphur.
It almost drowned out the sounds of gunfire. A lot of gunfire. The men in the backs of the trucks finally had a target and weren’t at all shy about shooting it. Truck engines roared and tires spurned earth and gravel. Men and metal screamed as though merging into each other. Moments later, only the men kept screaming—and not all of them.
One of the trucks weaved around the engine we were hiding behind. It was barely under control as it jinked to stay on the dirt path, barreling along at full roar in its top gear, fire from the canvas cover whipping like a flag and what was left of the canvas flapping like it was trying to escape.
Nobody so much as glanced our way. The driver hunched down, whites showing all around his eyes, and clung to the steering wheel with both white-knuckled hands. His passenger held on, screaming, eyes clenched shut. Four men fired wildly behind them, barely concerned about the bouncing that threatened to throw them out. The fifth man, perhaps with more presence of mind than the others, tried to extinguish the screaming, thrashing sixth. The whole scene was lit from behind by a fiery orange-yellow glow.
Then the source came into view and, I must admit, I was impressed.
A locomotive, off the tracks, came thundering after the truck, belching flame from every joint and member. The forward stack fountained black smoke and long, orange-yellow sparks like a pissed-off volcano. Traces of blue-green lightning flickered within this stream of fire and smoke, but thick ropes of it flared and sizzled around all twelve wheels. The unearthly lightning crawled like a living thing from the hubs to the rims, slithering like fingers down from the wheels to lay down a writhing carpet of light and color over the sandy soil and gravel. The locomotive ran on rails of lightning like some fiery ghost from the realms infernal.
The body of the train was dark as night and black as the clinkered sin under the ashes of Hell. It shed sparks from bullets, but those feeble glints were almost invisible amid flares of light the color of a dying sunset and molten lava. The headlamp of the train held dancing flames. I thought I saw shapes, like a shark’s grin, but maybe I imagined it. Jammed in the cow-catcher at the front of the engine was a corpse, on fire and shedding extremities, with most of the flesh burned away from the head already. Rivets pinged, like hammers striking bells, as the body of the train continued to tighten up, sealing the fiery leaks around the boiler. Every puff and chuff of the steam engine—now an engine of fire—vented not clouds of vapor, but blasts of flame like plasma exhaust. The pistons kept pounding and the wheels spun with all the destructive force of the Kali Yuga.
Along the path of this engine of destruction, everything was aflame, from scattered grasses to ancient railroad ties. Twin streaks of deep-carved, melted earth glowed behind, as though the express train to damnation was burning a track to a brand-new station.
The whistle sounded again, an eldritch scream born of white-hot fire venting through metal that should, by rights, have sublimated straight to vapor and scattered in a burning nebula through the night sky.
Melody screamed and covered her ears, scrunching down in the seat until she was curled up on the floorboard. I barely heard her. I didn’t hear the screaming men anymore, but their gunfire was still audible.
Bronze thundered on by, happy to be “It” in their game of Tag.
Hang on, I thought. There were two trucks. If you tagged that one, shouldn’t they be “It?”
She quite reasonably pointed out that if you can’t chase her, it wouldn’t be fair to be “It.”
I had to admit it wouldn’t be sporting.
The locomotive blazed through the night, chasing the sole remaining truck like… like…
You know, I’m not sure there’s a good comparison?
I climbed into the pickup cab and drove after her, taking my time. Melody was still curled up and whimpering from the close encounter of the infernal kind. We would hang back until Bronze was done chasing the truck. Afterward, she would probably be glad to have something else to wear, especially since the engine wasn’t fueled. Animating a locomotive would be tiring.
I’d have to find someplace with a gas pump and food. Breakfast for everybody!