The ever-present sound of sirens greeted me as I arrived in Jameson. I took a deep breath as I opened my eyes. The rancid smell of trash filled the air, causing me to gag. Once I recovered, I peered out of the alley, toward the Yamato building.
A new window had been installed in the days since I’d broken it, and a pair of armed guards now stood watch outside the building. For fear of being recognized, I turned and headed to the opposite end of the alley. I had to get to the north end of town, and quickly, or I might lose my lead.
There were three cars parked on the roadside. My quickest option would probably be to ‘borrow’ one of them. I headed toward the nicest of the three, a slightly sporty looking sedan. Before I could force a way in, I thought better of my decision. A blinking red light on the dashboard told me that I should probably try one of the junkers first.
The run-down old coupe across the street likely wouldn’t have an alarm. Looking through its windows, all the doors appeared locked. I tried them one by one and found that the driver’s side back door was busted and didn’t lock at all.
I climbed over the seat and started messing with the ignition. Hopefully it would be in the same condition as the rest of the car. I tried jiggling the ignition around, but it wouldn’t turn.
Remembering an old trick, I reached into my pocket and pulled a paperclip off of my notebook. I inserted the clip into the ignition, wiggled it around, and gave it a turn. It took a few tries, but finally...
Click, click, vroom.
The ignition unlocked and the engine turned over. These old junk heaps usually had worn out or broken ignition pins. You’d be surprised at the number of old cars you can start with just a screwdriver or a paperclip.
I threw the car into gear and sped away. The broken old engine chugged as it came up to speed. If its owner were home, I’m sure they must have recognized the sound by the time I turned the corner.
An on-ramp to the highway was only a mile away. I wondered if this clunker could even make it to highway speeds. I gave the engine a little more gas. It coughed and sputtered reluctantly, but it did speed up.
Heading northbound, I watched for any road signs that could give me a clue where to go. As the buildings flew by my search felt futile. They could have gone anywhere. I carefully pulled out my notebook, hoping the Devil had given me more to go on.
‘NORTH’ it read, in all capitals. ‘Couldn’t you be helpful for once,’ I thought to myself. Just then, sirens wailed and blue lights flashed behind me. I guess the car’s owner did recognize the sound of it leaving.
I didn’t have time to stop though. I was prepared to give this cop the best chase this junker could manage. I sped up to seventy-five, eighty, and struggled to hit ninety. The engine roared its objection.
I wasn’t sure how long I could keep this speed. I checked my mirror to see if I was keeping any distance from the patrol car behind me. I had to double-take at what I saw. Next to the cop, a shiny black sedan was keeping pace. No, wait, they were gaining on me.
Leaving the cop in the dust, the black car quickly pulled up next to me. Sitting in the driver’s seat was none other than Marco’s hooded bodyguard. There was no one else in the car. The mysterious hooded man gave me a very casual wave, then motioned forward. He pulled ahead, going well over one-hundred miles per hour.
As he drove forward, the now setting sun reflected off his car, almost blinding me. He put a few car-lengths of distance between us before reaching out the window and waving again.
The harsh glare from his car soon faded though, as the entire vehicle began to disappear. While speeding down the highway, the entire car vanished to another realm! As I sat with my mouth hanging open, I forgot for a moment that I was still being chased by the police.
If my enemy could manage a stunt like that, then surely so could I! With the gas pedal to the floor, and the police cruiser gaining on me, I tried to focus on following Marco’s lackey.
While I’d normally close my eyes to focus, that didn’t seem like a good idea while going ninety on the highway. I narrowed my mind, clearing out any thoughts that didn’t pertain to leaving this realm. Now to extend that focus to bringing the car as well...
The usual, calm fade in of the new realm was replaced with a sharp ‘whoosh’. I held on to only a detached steering wheel as I rocketed through the air. Fortunately, the transition seemed to have slowed me down to a less deadly thirty-or-so miles per hour. I crashed onto the ground and rolled forward onto a large paved area.
I must have passed out mid-roll because I awoke several minutes later, face-up on the tar and surrounded by a group of unfriendly looking men. My head pounded as I looked around, trying to get my barrings.
We seemed to be in the middle of a manufacturing yard. Several large steel buildings were connected by this paved lot. Off to one side were flatbed trailers for shipping and a crane for loading them.
Turning my head back to center, I saw the group of thugs part to make room for their hooded leader.
“Where’d you learn to drive?” he taunted.
I tried to reply, but hadn’t yet caught my breath. He reached out his hand to help me up. Not left with much option, I accepted his help. I’d be better able to defend myself from a standing position anyway.
“There you go, all better now,” he said, still speaking down to me. I stood in a daze, looking around at his thugs. They didn’t look particularly smart, and there were only about ten of them, if I counted right. I could take them.
I reached down to draw my weapon and my heart sank. Try as I might, I was unable to grasp the empty air where my gun should have been holstered.
“Looking for this?” my hooded adversary asked, holding out my missing weapon flat in his hand. He altered his grip, raising the gun to point it at me. As he did this, his circle of subordinates did the same.
“I don’t get it,” I stated, still dazed. “Why lead me all the way out here just to kill me? You could have taken us out back at Marco’s.”
“No, unfortunately, Marco wants you alive,” he stated, sounding annoyed. “Can’t argue with the big man. However,” he motioned side to side with my weapon and the circle of his underlings parted, “that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun in the meantime.”
“And just what is that supposed to mean?”
“I’ll give you a ten second running start. When I reach ten, my friends here are going to open fire. They’re going to cause you as much pain as they can without killing you. Lucky for you, the boss doesn’t trust them with live rounds, but you’ll find that their non-lethals still pack quite the punch. Also-”
The pavement cracked next to my left foot.
“You’ll find I have pretty good aim too.”
I could feel the twisted smile underneath his hood.
“You can’t be serious,” I replied.
“Two...” he continued. “Cover is that way you know.” With his new weapon, he motioned at the opening of the circle behind me. “Three...”
I looked around. There was nothing here that could help me. No immediate cover, nothing that could be used as a weapon, and no way to fend off this many assailants without getting my ass kicked.
Not having any other option, I had to play along. Behind me was the front gate of the property, and the city streets beyond it. The sun had set and darkness was settling in. I took a deep breath and started running.
“Ha, five.” He was certainly amusing himself at this point. Or, I suppose that I was amusing him.
I was pretty fast when I had to be, clearing the gate before he reached ‘six’. I turned the first corner I came to and began to weave between the buildings.
What was the point of this game he was playing. I could escape now. I should escape now. A few moments to focus is all it would take. But if I left now, I wouldn’t be able to track him down again. I’d lose my only lead. With Marco’s identity revealed, his occupation of the Afterlife was only going to speed up. I couldn’t leave, and my opponent knew this. I was being played, and in more ways than I thought.
He’d likely reached his ten count by now. I could keep running, but I wouldn’t get any answers that way. As I passed a dumpster I noticed something sticking out, propping up the lid. I pulled out what appeared to be a large rod of scrap metal. It was about three feet long with square edges and a sharp bend sheared near the top. A discarded desk or table leg. Not quite the crowbar you’d find in a horror movie, but it should pack a punch anyway.
I took cover behind the dumpster, lying in wait.
Footsteps approached. I couldn’t see anything from my hiding place. I got nervous as the steps grew ever closer. As if on cue, the street lights in the neighborhood lit up. A shadow of my stalker was cast down the alley. At first, I couldn’t see anything distinguishing. Soon, he turned his body back, gazing over his shoulder and out toward the street. This quarter turn was enough to cast a shadow of his weapon onto the pavement.
I leapt from my cover and brought the blunt edge of my bat against the side of his head. Swift and hard. The man hit the ground. I waited for a moment, watching for any sign of combustion. Good, he was still alive. For the moment anyway.
I could hear more footsteps in the distance. Although I’d usually choose to avoid such physical violence, the extra adrenaline rush it provided was appreciated. I grabbed the non-lethal gun from my enemy and continued forward to find a new vantage point. Carrying this gun in my right hand and the make-shift bat in my left, I felt like some kind of escaped murderer, looking for his next victim.
I left the alley and crossed the street, staying out in the open for as little time possible. Dodging between buildings, I heard footsteps again. I peeked around the corner, but it was only a civilian. I waited a moment for them to pass by. I heard a rustling ahead. Expecting another civilian, I leaned into view.
One of the shots bounced off the brick of a building behind me with a dull thud. The other bullet struck my left shoulder. The jolt of pain was enough to cause me to drop my bat. I fired back at my attacker.
Two shots to the chest and one to his forehead was enough to knock him briefly to the ground. He looked up at me with a glare as I delivered a kick to his face. His head hit the ground, knocking him out.
I reached toward his weapon, intent on reloading mine, when I heard others converging on my location. I’d given away my position by using the stolen weapon against him. Two men appeared from the road ahead of me.
“Well what do we have here?” one said to the other.
“Looks like you thought we’d let you get away with picking the others off one by one.”
My right arm and left leg screamed in pain. I dropped my other weapon and did my best to stay on my feet. I turned and tried and run from the two of them. I managed to walk three steps before my escape was cut off by their hooded leader.
The men fired again and several rounds struck my back. I winced in pain and fell to my knees. Even as I looked up at my rival, I could not make out his face under the shadows.
“Good, you caught him. Guess you two win the grand prize,” he congratulated them, though there was an ever-present tone of sarcasm when he spoke.
He pointed a familiar silver handgun at me as I rose back to my feet.
“So your boss wants me alive?” I asked. “Then take me to him.”
“Not today,” he replied with a laugh.
The sting of being hit with live ammunition always takes a few seconds to kick in. I stared down toward my chest looking for blood. I didn’t see any blood. I didn’t see any holes in my jacket. Behind me, two bodies collapsed to the ground.
I stared at my nameless rival, angry and perplexed. A red-orange glow filled my peripheral vision.
“So what do you want from me?” I asked, gritting my teeth.
“I’ve told you before, you’re going to help me. Now, are ready to put away your attitude and listen?”
“It’s not safe to talk here. More of my grunts will be here any minute. They’ll have no doubt called in reinforcements too. There’s an old building across town to the north, an empty warehouse,” he pointed in its direction. “We’ll talk there.”
“And why should I believe that it’s not another ambush? After all your games, why should I trust you now?”
He placed my gun on the ground and slid it over toward me. I retrieved it then lifted it to point at him.
“Not good enough,” I answered.
“Fine,” he sighed, “How about this?” Slowly, he pulled back his hood revealing his face. The first thing to catch my eye was long blonde hair, tucked down underneath his overcoat coat, followed by a pair of strikingly familiar eyes. Rounding off his appearance was a slender, feminine face.
“...Julia?” I stood speechless.
“Sorry, expecting someone else?” she asked, in her normal voice.
“You’re working with them?”
“I told you, we can’t talk here. Meet me at that warehouse.”
“And what are you going to do?” I asked. She removed her coat and tossed it aside.
“I’m going to blow off some steam,” she replied. As she talked, she had vanished in front of me. I followed the sound of her voice out toward the road. Though she had abandoned her hooded coat, she remained just as swift as her alter-ego. “Actually,” she moved again, too quick to follow, and returned to the same spot, “you mind if I borrow this?”
In her hand, she was again holding my weapon.
“I should get myself one of these,” she joked. “Now get moving!” With a wave, she vanished again. As I began to walk away I heard the sound of gunshots in the distance and the pained screams of one of her subordinates.
Shaking my head at the matter, I pressed forward with more questions than ever. My sore limbs ached as I tried to work toward a running pace.
‘She’s working with them.’ The thought wouldn’t leave my mind. ‘I knew I couldn’t trust her! She’s been playing me all this time...’
‘No,’ the argument raged inside me. I tried to clear my thoughts and focus on running. Though I tried, I couldn’t escape thinking about her.
There had to be more to this. I had to trust her. She wouldn’t betray me.
‘But the last time...’ Did I still blame her? It wasn’t her fault. Was the blame justified after all this time? As much as I tried to forget her involvement, on some level, I knew I still blamed Julia for the death of my family.