“We’re heading northeast now. Texarkana’s due south.”
Jim shook his head. “I’ve never been to Texas.”
“I hate Texas,” said Alyson, coming back.
Alyson opened the passenger’s side door and climbed in. “You take first shift, then, Earl. Until Amarillo?”
“Let’s go, then.”
Jim got in the SUV and they started back down the road. He texted and played Trivial Pursuit, keeping silent so that Alyson could sleep.
“Have you ever been to Washington?” asked Earl.
“Huh?” This was the first time the man decided to make conversation. “Uh...not since I went there when I was a kid.”
“Where are you from?”
“And you moved to LA?”
“No, they moved me. The government. They said I needed to be in a safehouse.”
“How long ago until you knew what you could do?”
“Most of my life. I knew where the Christmas presents were.”
“That must have sucked. In a way.”
“Nobody can keep secrets from me, or at least hide. I always won at hide and seek.”
“How did they test your range?”
“They brought me to UCal science department and they told me to concentrate on what I could see.” Jim thought for a minute. “I never actually concentrated on one particular person, though. I probably had better range when I was watching for that truck.”
“Is that truck around?”
“I can’t see it.”
“What about the Pakistanis?”
“I don’t see that car anywhere.”
“Good,” said Earl. “Maybe then I can re--”
A truck came at them, head-on.
Earl yanked the SUV right, but the truck clipped them on the side, and make the rear of the car spin right slightly. Because the four wheel drive was still on, it skidded into the dirt on the side of the road and Earl put the brakes on to assess what was going to happen next.
The truck, with a push-bumper, came at them again, like a bull.
Earl scrambled out of the dirt and got back onto the highway. The truck missed, and swerved. Its windows were tinted, so Earl didn’t get a look at was what inside.
Whoever it was, they weren’t quite amateurs, because they also got out of the dirt and started down the highway. Alyson was up and looking out back window; Jim had gotten the hint and was laying down with his seatbelt still on. Alyson undid her seat belt, reached behind her and grabbed the shotgun under Jim’s seat.
Earl yelled, “You didn’t see that coming?”
“I can’t see the future, I told you that!”
“Son of a bitch, who’s in the car?”
“Two men in suits.”
“Men in black,” said Alyson.
“Oh, fuck me,” spat Earl. “That’s all we need.”
“Men in black?”
“But the government is the one who wants me.”
“The DOD wants you. These guys might be CIA.”
Alyson broke in, “Faster, Earl.”
“I’m pushing 90 right now, Aly, and there’s no lights on this damn road.”
“Oh, my God,” whimpered Jim, as the truck got closer.
Earl swerved the car hard to the right, getting into the gravel. He was heading toward a light he saw in the distance, a house, another car, something. The truck followed as they went through the dirt, through a barbed wire fence, and bounced along into a field.
“Can’t get a clear shot!”
“Neither can they,” said Earl, heading for the light. The light flashed onto something head, but he couldn’t see it.
“Wall!” yelled Jim. “Turn right, turn right!”
Alyson shouted, “It’s right in front of--”
Earl didn’t question and turned right and for a split second, was in the path of the truck, and when he parted from the path, the wall was on his other side. The truck slammed on its brakes but a four-by-four works from going, not stopping, and the truck slammed into the stone wall.
Earl kept going down the field, and when he could, he took a left hand turn driving through a wooden gate, and further down into the field. The SUV compass said they were still heading due north. The light Earl had seen was on his west now, as the SUV bounced through the field. Eventually it hit a gravel road and picked up speed. He shut the lights off and drove down the road slowly, following it until it reached the back of a very large dairy farm.
There were a few cars in the driveway of the farm, and Earl kept going until he was stopped by a gate. Alyson got out and went to open the gate.
Alyson found herself in the center of a flashlight, and a man in just a pair of jeans carrying a shotgun stood at the doorway. A dog, a very big German Shepard, sat on the stairs next to him, but his collar was linked.
“Who the hell are you and what’re you doing?”
“We’re being chased by revenuers,” Earl yelled from the SUV.
The man put the gun down. “Why din’t you say so? Go on, git.” The man came down the steps and pressed a button on the house, and the gate slid open. “Be careful!”
“Revenuers?” Alyson asked, getting into the SUV.
“Dry counties nearby.”
“See? I hate Texas.”
“Good morning, I’d like to return this rental.”
The clerk took the paperwork. “Let’s go check it out.”
She went outside, and balked at seeing the rear window blown out.
“I took out insurance.”
“Of course, sir, I see. And you filled out the incident report?”
“Then you’re good to go.”
“I need another one.”
“Another one, sir?”
“Well, I obviously can’t drive this one around.”
“I need to speak with my manager, sir.”
The clerk went back into the place. “They’re not going to let you take another rental,” said Jim.
Earl shrugged. “Enterprise is right down the street.”
The clerk came back out. “I assume you want another SUV?”
“Your insurance payment will go up.”
“Right this way sir.”
Jim looked at Alyson, who only shrugged and followed.
The next SUV was a green 2013 Ford Expedition. He took the key and they climbed into the vehicle, leaving the poor Subaru Tribeca.
Jim sat in the back seat again, stretching out. “How did you do it?”
“I’ve been with Hertz for years. They know I pay five hundred dollars extra for the insurance.” He paused, “I haven’t brought back a vehicle that damaged in a while, though.”
“We should get a Hummer.”
“Too noticeable,” said Alyson, riding shotgun. “We should be through Oklahoma in a couple of hours. After that, I drive.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Earl, and smiled, but he wasn’t going to wake her until she got her full eight hours in, even after they got through Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, Earl thought. First Pakistanis, then Chinese, then Men in Black. They all wanted Jim, and for what he could do, he could understand why. But how did they know where they were?
He glanced at the rear view mirror and saw Jim texting away, and then it hit him. “Jim, who are you texting?”
“Do you tell her where we are?”
He hit his forehead. “Don’t tell me you post it on Facebook, too.”
“Yes, as a matter -”
“Don’t do that anymore!” Earl yelled. “You’ve been hacked. That’s how they know where we are.”
“They can listen to conversations and read texts, so yes, you’ve been hacked.”
“I should tell her--”
“No, we can use it to our advantage. Tell your wife that we’re heading to…” He looked at the GPS, and then at some of the exit signs. “Oklahoma City.” He recalibrated the GPS to follow route 60 until it joined with 81 North, and he would follow that. “Say we’ll have dinner there. I know Alyson knows people in Kansas.”
“Is that where we’re going?”
“We’re getting the hell out of Oklahoma as fast as possible.”
“They’re just like Texans.”
They got to Independence City, Kansas, and were filling up the tank, when a white sedan parked at the pump on the other side of them. The passenger got out, and headed over to Earl. He was dressed impeccably, in a suit, and had dark, Middle Eastern coloring. He had a goatee and pulled on his shirt sleeves, pulling out the cuffs to show the diamond cuff links. The driver and another man got out of the passenger rear, leaning on the door casually. Earl could see that both of them were packing.
“Excuse me, sir,” the man said in a purring Middle Eastern tone, “But we would like to speak with you.”
“I’m not from around here,” Earl said, keeping one eye on the gas gauge, the other on the man at the side of him. If he tried something, he’d spray him with gas.
“I know that, I can see from your license plate. And I can tell by your voice.”
Earl put the gas nozzle back, but kept his hand on it. “I can tell you’re not from around here, either.”
“No, sir, I am not. Yet we would like to have a word with you. Would you please?”
He motioned to the sedan. Earl looked over that way and then crossed his arms. “Do you take me for an idiot? You’ll kidnap me or something.”
Alyson and Jim, meanwhile, were coming out of the store, and Alyson put her hand down to stop Jim from advancing. “Go back in,” she hissed, and turned around, pulling Jim inside with her.
The man near Earl chuckled. “I assure you, sir, we do not wish to kidnap you.”
“All right.” Earl followed the rich-looking man to the car. The man at the back door stepped aside, to the trunk, while the other rich-looking man went to the front. The car wasn’t going to go anywhere, and even if the big man near the trunk could jump over it, Earl would be able to move faster.
Earl bent his head to look into the car. A man with a black and white kufiya and sunglasses, a typical Saudi as Earl could place him, sat in the back with another man who had his arm around the Saudi’s shoulders. “You have given us a merry chase.”
“Good,” said Earl. “Who are you?”
“I am Sheikh Muhammed bin Isa al Mu’alla.”
“Sorry, I don’t know the name.”
“It does not matter. What does matter is that you have a man who I think would be very interested in the things I have to say.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I’m interested.”
The man held out a wad of bills. Even Earl could see they were hundreds. The wad was hugely thick, at least three inches rolled around. “Here, take it. Take it because of how good you are at your job.”
“Sorry, I don’t take tips.” Earl started to get up.
“Ask him when was the last time he spoke with his daughter, Isabel,” said the man from inside the car.
Earl stopped short. “You didn’t.”
“No, we would never stoop so low as to involve a man’s family. But other people, sir, might not be so kind.”
“Don’t involve a man’s family,” said Earl, “Because then it gets personal, and by God, you don’t want it to get personal.”
Earl went back to the SUV, saying goodbye to all that money. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time he let his morals get in the way of business. He drove around the gas pump and as he did, the white sedan pulled up and blocked his way. He sat, waiting. They all sat. Waiting. Earl could see Alyson inside with Jim, looking out the window.
The first man who approached Earl got out of the passenger’s side and went directly into the store. He was heading right toward Alyson. Alyson put herself between him and Jim. It looked innocuous, innocent, but something didn’t feel right to Earl. And when Earl’s gut spoke, Earl listened.
Earl put his foot to the floor and slammed into the white sedan. Alyson turned and dashed down the aisle to the rear of the store. She dove out of a fire door at the side of the aisle as Earl put the car into reverse and drove to the fire door’s exit, or where he thought it was. It was behind the building - as he saw when Alyson and Jim - she was holding Jim by the wrist and literally dragging him with her.
Earl slammed on the brakes and Alyson opened the rear passenger door, throwing him in. Then she barely made it inside the passenger side door before Earl slipped the gear into drive and peeled out from behind the building, past the gas pumps and the white sedan, and onto the main street.
“Shit!” Alyson yelled, watching the scene disappear behind them. “What the hell did you do that for?”
“Gut feeling,” Earl said, and pulled down a road.
“The cops will be coming for us now.”
“Don’t think I don’t know that. Shit! I forgot to get a GPS on this thing.”
“As long as we keep heading North…”
“We gotta get out of this county.”
“No cops,” said Jim.
“What?” asked Alyson.
“The cops are heading to the gas station. Nobody’s coming after us.”
“Who the hell was that guy, anyway?”
Earl told them what happened, and what the Sheikh said. Jim blanched and took out his phone and started to dial. Alyson grabbed the phone and tossed it out the window.
“That’s how they’re tracking us, you idiot!”
“We can get a secure line,” said Earl. “You can call her tonight.”
“How do you have secure lines?”
“Pay as you go. Untraceable.”
Jim slouched in the back seat. “My life was in that phone.”
“It’s backed up somewhere, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” Jim moaned.
They drove for miles and hours in silence, with only the radio for noise. Alyson took a nap. They stopped at a very busy IHOP for dinner, so they would be easily forgotten.
Jim asked, “Are we staying at a hotel tonight?”
“No,” said Alyson. “I’m driving us through Kansas.”
Jim was still moping about the loss of his phone, but perked up when they stopped at a Wal-Mart and picked up a disposable phone for him. Earl cautioned, “Don’t say where we are.”
Earl half-listened to the conversation. “Yes, I’m safe. No...no, I can’t. Honey - I know it’s hard. I know - don’t worry, I’ll call - but they took away my phone. I know. Honey, ple-- let me talk to - I know. But you’re safe there, aren’t you? Things are crazy here. Just...crazy. I’ve been chased - I don’t know what they want. I don’t know who they are. Yes, I know the phone says I’m in Kansas. Hon, please don’t - let me talk to Isabel. Oh. Oh, all right. A couple of days. Three more days. That should be it, and - yes. I love you too.”
Alyson had silently come up to them. She had a couple of Red Bulls and Ring Dings from the store in a white plastic sack. Jim sighed and folded the phone closed. “She’s mad.”
“Alyson,” said Earl in a cautionary tone.
“What? I would be more happy to hear that he’s alive, especially after what we’re going through.”
“I can’t tell her what I’m going through,” Jim said. “I can’t tell her what I’m thinking.”
“What are you thinking?” asked Earl, as he got into the SUV.
“Are you my shrink?”
Jim snorted. “I think that this whole thing’s crazy, and that I’m not that important.”
“Let’s discuss that,” said Earl. “We have some Middle Eastern people after you. Some Orientals. Men in Black. And what can you do?”
“See what’s down the road.”
“Let’s imagine that we’re at war. You’re on one side, and you know how many troops are on the other side. You know their weapons, how they’re laid out. Do you know how precious that information is?”
“In war, sure.”
“One is a Sheikh. He’s probably at war at home with another tribe. Or a faction of his tribe. How important would you be to him if you told him what the other man is coming at him with?”
“Important, I guess.”
“Very important. Important enough to bribe or kill two bodyguards over.” Earl looked out the window. “People have their priorities, and to them, you’re their priority because you’re an ace in the hole.”
“What’s your priorities?”
“What if I wasn’t involved?”
Earl glanced at Alyson, who was concentrating on driving, not even listening to the conversation. “My family. My shop.”
“What about yours?”
“Huh?” asked Alyson, glancing back at Jim. “What route are we following, anyway?”
“160 East.” Earl tried to look nonchalant, but he wanted to hear the answer from Alyson anyway.
Said Jim, “What’s your priorities?”
“Getting you to Washington.”
He waved a hand, “Other than that.”
“I’m my first priority.”
Earl sat back. That explained a lot of things. He leaned back, closed his eyes. “Well, thanks, Alyson. Thanks a whole hell of a lot.”
“What?” Alyson said. “Like anyone’s going to look out for me.”
“The Army teach you that?”
“I didn’t need the Army to teach me that.”
Earl snapped open his eyes. “What about me, Alyson?”
“What about you?”
Earl bared his teeth. He was starting to get angry, and he didn’t know if she was intentionally pushing his buttons, or hiding behind a facade so that the subject wouldn’t think anything of them.
“Don’t you think I look out for you?”
“I don’t want you to.”
“But I do. You’re my sister. My partner for Chrissake.”
“Which one, Earl? Because one is business, the other is personal.”
Jim moved back into his seat, trying to be quiet, knowing that this conversation was not for his ears. He moved, and squeaked against the leather, and then Earl turned to see him there. It brought his attention back to the moment. Earl sat back again, leaned his head against the headrest. “I’m going to sleep.”
“I’ll drive,” she said, and popped open the Red Bull.