ZACH’S hands trembled as he popped the Mitsu’s door. He stepped out onto shaky legs and glanced quickly around, his breath coming in shallow, short gasps. Solid concrete buildings on either side of the alley created an artificial canyon. Dust mixed with the stench of burned rubber from his panic-stop swirled around him. A cough worked its way up from his lungs and gravel crunched under his feet as he approached the barricade. The guardrail’s metal was cool under his hands. He leaned over the rail and looked to the right and left, searching for a direction to run.
Windowless rear walls of two-story concrete structures lined his side of the canal for several blocks in either direction. Their stark surfaces backed up to the edge of the tangled brush and small trees that led down the bank to the water, extending to the darkness in either direction. Someone had recently trimmed the leafy, upper portions away, leaving mostly branches and stems. There was no room to run between the unbroken concrete expanse and thick tangle of overgrowth, and nowhere to hide in the waist-high scrub.
Moonlight turned the densely packed vegetation charcoal gray and left only a few inky, impenetrable shadows underneath. Whatever those shadows held, he was certain it wasn’t safety. Nowhere to go except straight ahead. A glance over the metal barrier revealed a concrete seawall where he stood, with a drop of a good six or eight feet to the water below.
From his current vantage point, Zach could see the road he’d been trying for. Two blocks past the far side of the canal, it ran parallel to the road he’d veered off of. The moderate traffic and bright lights only accentuated the quiet that barred his way. A bridge crossing the canal three blocks further north was the road he thought he’d turned onto.
“Dammit.” He slapped a palm on the guardrail in frustration. His heart pounded him toward the brink of panic as he realized there was no way out except the way he’d come.
He turned to face the SUV again. It sat fifty or sixty feet away, angled across the far end of the alley, blocking the entrance. The passenger door of the SUV opened. No interior light illuminated the inside of the truck. A big guy in a black suit stepped out and around the door. In the dim ambient light from a streetlight half a block away, Zach could make out that the big guy had dark, close-cropped hair.
Inside the SUV, a flame flickered. The other occupant of the SUV moved it toward his face and Zach could just make out the similarly dressed driver. He, likewise, had close-trimmed dark hair, and glanced once in Zach’s direction. Zach breathed a sigh of relief when the man stayed where he was. The light went out, and the driver blew a cloud of smoke out through his rolled-down window.
He strained to get a better look at the big guy who stood next the the truck. The man was little more than a silhouette, though. The street lights from behind made him look as big as the vehicle he stood in front of. The man took a step toward Zach, and slid a hand under his open suit jacket. Another wave of fear jolted Zach. He reached in through the Mitsu’s open door and switched off the lights. He pulled the door back and down until it latched, his eyes stuck to the shadow he faced.
“I don’t guess he’s taking out his insurance information,” Zach said to himself. His heart hammered in his ears as he considered going over the barricade and into the canal. He supposed if he leaped from the top of the guardrail, pushing off with everything he had, he might make it half way across, to what was probably the deepest part. He wondered how deep that was.
The water behind him in the canal was black as ink, and it could be anything from an ankle-breaking six inches to fifteen feet of dirty, brackish slime. He was pretty good at holding his breath and swimming underwater, but he doubted he could put enough distance between himself and the big guy to avoid a bullet in the back. A cold chill accompanied the realization that he was going to be found dead in a canal, if he were ever found at all. The link numbers he’d stashed in his shirt pocket this evening flashed through his mind, replaced just as quickly by the image of Special Agent Sara Goode leaning over his desk and smiling at him.
“Fuck.” His shirt turned sticky as he faced his attacker. A couple of blocks away, a pair of headlights reflected off a storefront in the darkness as a car turned onto the street and toward them. Neither of the other two men seemed to notice. The headlights grabbed Zach’s attention, though, because they flicked off. The car they belonged to started to accelerate.
The big man in black squared off facing Zach, and broadened his stance. Zach imagined the bastard grinning at his predicament and his fear turned to ice-cold hatred. In the distance, the lightless car silently sprinted toward them. Zach stared at the surrealistic scene, mesmerized, as much by the sight of the relentless acceleration of the car behind his pursuers as from their ignorance of its approach.
The man from the SUV pulled his hand from under his jacket. He held something fisted there that Zach couldn’t make out in the available light. His arm raised toward Zach, the glint of metal unmistakable. Zach took a step toward the canal as the rapidly approaching car’s high beam headlights split the darkness. He realized what the other driver was planning and he could only stare in disbelief. Caught off-guard, the big man spun awkwardly, turning what Zach could see now was a cannon-sized gun toward the speeding car.
The SUV’s driver pitched himself to the passenger side door as the big guy with the gun scrambled to his right for a better shot. Finishing his arc, he brought the gun to bear and pulled the trigger. As Zach crouched, shielding his head with his arms, the gun’s explosion reverberated through the alley and echoed off the buildings lining the canal like a peal of thunder during a lightning storm.
Again. The gun’s blast filled the space.
Zach cowered against the Mitsu, eyes shut tight, teeth clenched, waiting. The collision’s sound was a large, metallic, smacking, crunch, as if a truckload of aluminum cans had all crumpled at once. It rumbled through his shoes and reverberated off the buildings on either side of him. A split-second later, the echo returned to him from across the canal. Almost disinterestedly, a part of him wondered if he was going to be hit by flying debris or bodies. Holding his breath, Zach braced for the impact, waiting for one or the other or both vehicles to pile into the back of the Mitsu and send it and him sailing through the guardrail and into the canal like refuse into recycling.
An awful silence filled the dead-end alley, broken only by Zach’s panting and the occasional faint moan off to his left.
After a few seconds that seemed a lifetime, he opened his eyes. The SUV sat at a forty-five degree angle to the street, a good twenty-five feet closer to where Zach stood. The passenger’s door was flung open, its shiny metal surface wrinkled where the impact force had sprung it too far around for the hinges. Both the driver and the man who’d pulled the gun on Zach were lying on the ground, still as stone, close to the crumpled heap that had been their ride. He was reminded of vids he’d seen of urban carnage during the Water Wars in the twenties, before he was born.
He stood. His heart hammered inside his chest like a drum in the hands of a madman on meth. Numb and barely breathing from shock, Zach stepped slowly past the battered black tank, keeping a wary eye on the two unconscious forms in the street. “Christ,” he said, in disbelief, when he reached the smashed driver’s side of the SUV and turned to survey the damage.
It looked like a plastic toy truck a malicious child had softened with heat and partly folded in half over a knee. The roof was crumpled into a twisted peak at the center. The driver’s side front wheel was bent at an odd angle, and there was no glass left in any of the windows. Inside, a half-dozen airbags had inflated, protecting no one. The older version Auto-Drive system beeped softly. A small, metallic voice repeated, “Accident detected. Do you wish the police informed?”
He slowly shook his head and stared in silence at the wreckage that had been the truck chasing him. “Jesus,” he whispered to himself. “What could those guys possibly want with me?” The realization hit him like a slap — the big SUV, the black suits, the wonky way his Auto-Link had quit working like it was being jammed when the SUV got close enough. The whole scenario could’ve had “government” stamped all over it in big, red, letters. The hair at the base of his neck prickled.
He blew a breath through pursed lips at the other vehicle. It had been a large, antique American sedan, but that was in its former life. That life had ended with its hood bent up in the middle, forming a barrier to his seeing into the occupant’s compartment. The entire front end had tried to fold under the rest of the carriage, tilting the body up at an angle, effectively lifting the bottom edge of the driver’s door almost two feet.
The car’s flattened front wheels pointed in different directions. Steam billowed from the crumpled radiator, hissing into a misty cloud that further obscured the passenger section. The car’s coolant streamed into a shimmering, iridescent green pool on the pavement underneath it and ran toward the edge of the street. A choking, gurgling sound escaped from somewhere deep inside what was left of the engine compartment, making a sound like something dying.
Zach moved to get a better angle on the passenger compartment and his savior. What was left of the windshield was a fine texture of crazed glass, with fracture lines spreading out from two large holes in the driver’s side. A section of the windshield between the holes was missing. A fine haze from the airbag clouded the inside of the passenger’s compartment and hid the driver from view. His stomach lurched as he made out a still, dark form in the driver’s seat.
He put caution aside and stepped to the door. No tones or warning voices issued from the interior of the antique vehicle. His nose wrinkled in reaction to the smell of spent gunpowder from the air bag mixing with the overly sweet scent of engine coolant. The driver’s window was at chest level, allowing him a clear view of the unconscious face in the light from the overhead street lamps half a block away. His breath hitched in his throat at the blood that trickled past Special Agent Goode’s closed left eye. Her head lay back against the partially reclining seat. The deflated driver’s air bag lay spent in her lap like a discarded party balloon.
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