Alyson fought down the panic as she watched the gas gauge get closer and closer to E.
The sun will be up soon. You’ll be able to see where you are. Just keep driving due north, and eventually you’ll get to a city or an intersection with a route number…
How could she have missed the route? She was following 161 East, and then the signs disappeared. Now it was flat scrubland, no lights on anywhere, no street lights. No street signs. Just an endless asphalt road.
Stupid girl, can’t even find a direction without a GPS. Can’t follow a simple route number. Stupid, stupid girl.
She slowed the SUV down and tried to get her bearings. It was three a.m., and the two men were sound asleep. However, the minute she stopped, Earl stirred awake. “Why’re we stopping?”
Earl blinked the sleep out of his eyes and came instantly awake. “Lost? How?”
“I don’t know how! I was following 160. We’re in Missouri, I know that.”
“How fast were you driving? Jesus.” He stretched as much as he could in the van, and yawned. “Any turn offs?”
He glanced at the clock on the radio. “All right. Let’s wait for sunrise, see where we are.”
“That’s what I was going to do,” Alyson said. “You don’t have to wake up.”
Earl glanced at Jim in the back, who was snoring away. “Aly, you have to stop.”
“Stop proving yourself to me.”
“You think I got to prove myself to you?” She snorted.
She pursed her lips in the dark. He was getting close to the bone, she knew it, he knew it. Usually he backed off.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, starting the vehicle. It sputtered, and then died.
They looked at each other. “We have no choice but to wait until sunrise.”
“I guess.” She crossed her arms and threw her head back against the headrest, closing her eyes.
“Stop being so hard on yourself. Like I wouldn’t make this mistake.”
“If I were running it I would have at least made a map of the route we were going to take and planned for gasoline.”
“So you’re saying I have poor planning.”
“I’m saying that you rely on technology too much.”
“Oh, who relies on the technology, little miss gotta-buy-the-iPad-mini-when-it-comes-out?”
“I don’t rely on the technology. I augment it.”
“Show me your compass.”
“I don’t need a compass.”
“Fine, which way is south?”
Alyson got out of the SUV and looked up at the sky. Earl got out of the car and stood at the hood, watching Alyson find the North Star, then do her calculations from there. “That way,” she pointed.
“Good. So you’re heading…”
“160 was heading northeast. How long ago were you heading north?”
“I don’t know.”
Earl sighed. Alyson said, “Look, I’m sorry I got us lost.”
“We’re not totally lost. We should wait until daylight, see if we can find a farm somewhere and pay for some gas.”
“I’m going to take a piss,” Alyson said, and stomped off the road into the bushes. As she was out there, she berated herself for jumping down his throat yet again. She didn’t think she was trying to prove herself. And her priorities were right, they were for herself because some day big brother wasn’t going to be around to protect her anymore.
She came out of the bushes, and Earl went in for his libations. She watched the road, leaning against the hood of the dead vehicle, looking wistfully to the east. She thought she could see a driveway just a short way up the road, but she wasn’t sure. She didn’t want to try it and get herself even more lost down some cow paths in the middle of Missouri.
Earl returned. Alyson said, “I’m not trying to prove myself to you.”
“Then who are you trying to prove yourself to?”
“I’m trying to be myself.”
“Look, Alyson, I know this whole business was your idea, and I tell whoever asks.”
“I don’t need to hear this right now.”
“No, I think you do.”
She threw up her hands and turned her back to Earl.
“You’re the brains of the group, Aly. I know, because if it was me, I never would have taken this job.”
“What? Half a million dollars and you wouldn’t have taken it?”
“Too risky. Why give us a week? Why not a day on a plane?”
“Maybe they’re not ready.”
“Maybe things aren’t on the up and up. Think about it; we’ve been chased by Middle Easterns, Chinese or Japanese or Koreans or Cambodians or whatever, and our own government or possibly some other government’s group - this guy would have been under lock and key at the university, on a private plane back to the Pentagon, and hidden in a bunker somewhere.”
“He’s got a wife and two kids.”
“Didn’t you read the dossier?”
“I glanced at it.”
She tossed her head back.
“That’s your job,” he said. “You obviously did it.”
“Oh, very funny. But I see what you’re saying.”
“Why this long trip? Why us? Why are we here?”
“That’s the question of the ages, Earl.” She bit her lip and looked back at Jim, still asleep in the SUV.
“We need to take control here. All we’ve been doing is reacting.”
The sun was starting to come up, and the area was starting to turn gray, not black. Earl walked around the SUV, watching the sun rise. Alyson stood next to him.
Earl put her arm around Alyson, who stiffened for a moment, then relaxed.
The worker looked at them suspiciously as they came up the drive. “We’re lost,” said Earl. Jim looked like he had just rolled out of bed. He hadn’t shaved in two days so was starting to look scruffy.
“That’s Highway T.”
“Do you happen to have a map?”
“Dunno. Come back to the house.”
The three of them trudged up the driveway to a house. The man walked up to the door, opened it and yelled inside, “Sadie. Sadie!”
“Yeah!” came a woman’s voice.
“Sadie, some people here looking for a map.”
“Some people here looking for a map!”
“What are you talking about?” The woman’s voice got closer and an overweight woman opened the door. “Oh.”
“We’re lost,” said Alyson. “And out of gas.”
“If you go down there,” she pointed east, “take a right at O and go about two miles, you’ll find Corso’s farm. They might have gas.”
“You don’t have any?”
“No,” she said, and slammed shut the door.
“Friendly Missourians,” said Jim, watching the worker walk away from them.
Alyson started walking. “Let’s find this Corso.”
They walked across the green field and found the street, taking a right there. Jim had to rest a couple of times, not used to the walking that the Army and Navy had put his protectors through. They finally reached Corso’s farm, a large working farm. Here, one of the workers gave them some water and drove them back to the SUV waiting on highway T. They charged an astronomical amount for the gas and a map, and they were assured they’d get to the end of 288 and a proper gas station.
They followed 288 and stopped at a small diner in Corso for breakfast while their SUV got their tank filled and they planned the rest of the route. “We’ve lost time,” said Earl. “We need to catch a highway.”
“How about from here to Route E?”
“Then along the Mississippi.”
“North, then due east.”
While they debated, Jim said that he was going to the bathroom. Earl got up to follow. “Christ,” snapped Jim. “I can take a piss on my own.”
Earl let him out, and watched him go. He waited a minute, then followed. The bathroom was a unisex single-seater, with a frosted window to the outside. Earl stood outside the door and listened. He heard some squeaking.
He dashed out for a moment, waving his hand at Alyson, who got up from the table and dashed out the door. She went around the building, to the bathroom window, and stood outside it.
The window opened inch by inch, as it had been painted over multiple times. He finally got it open about three inches, and then put both hands underneath and heaved. It budged another inch. He heaved again. It stuck.
Alyson said, “Need any help there, Jim?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake.” Alyson heard him slump against the window, and Earl knocking. “Jim, you okay in there?”
“Yeah. Can’t you guys just leave me alone?” He threw open the door to the bathroom and came face-to-face with Earl.
“We have a job to do, and so do you.”
“I want to call my wife.”
“You can wait until tonight.”
“I want to call her now.”
“Earl,” said Alyson, “Let him.”
She didn’t know what Earl said as she walked back around to the front of the diner. She took out some money and handed it to the waitress as Earl and Jim headed back to the main dining area. Earl escorted him outside, and handed Jim his phone.
Jim dialed a number, like a drowning man grasping at a glass of water. He listened, and then there was a muted sound.
“Who is this?” demanded Jim.
Earl turned to look at Jim. Jim stood, wide-eyed. His eyes flashed up at Earl and he said, “Yes, I’m alone.”
Earl came to the side of Jim as Jim tilted the phone’s speaker toward him. “...where you are,” said a heavily accented voice, “and we will set your wife and daughters free.” Earl tried to place the accent, so he closed his eyes. “There will be a black van to pick you up.”
“I can’t get away from these guys. I’m in the bathroom right now.”
“We will get them away for you. You promise to tell us where you are, yes?”
“Let me speak to my wife.”
There was a rustle, and then he heard someone yelling, “Jim! Jim! Please help me!”
Jim looked up at Earl, a confused look on his face. Earl shook his head, “Honey, it’s me! I’ll be there - I’ll do what they say!”
Earl nodded. Jim took the phone back and spoke into it, his voice barely above a whisper, “I’m in Corso.” He lifted his head and yelled, “Yeah, I’m coming!” Back to the phone, “Please don’t hurt her - “ He looked at the phone.
Earl said, “What’s wrong?”
“That wasn’t my wife.”
“Any idea who it was?”
He looked at Alyson. “Get out or fight?”
“Let’s find someplace to protect our subject, if we’re going to fight.”
Earl said, “I don’t like the idea of fighting here.”
“Then let’s go down the road. We can get some mileage and get out of the way of collateral damage.”
“We have three pistols and two shotguns,” Earl said. Then he grinned, “Let’s go.”
They were about fifty miles down the road when Jim said, “They’re coming up behind us.”
“What is it?” asked Earl.
“Two Ryder trucks.”
“Wait...yes, I think so. There’s men inside the trucks as well as in the cab.”
“No chances this time,” said Alyson, glancing in the rear-view mirror. “I see them.”
“Jim, you know what to do.”
“Right.” He put his hand under the seat, took out the shotgun and handed it to Earl. Earl tucked his hand under his seat and took out the ammo, stuffing some into his leg pockets.
Alyson slowed down. She had her pistol in her lap as she drove. “Here they come…”
One truck went into the left hand lane, against any oncoming traffic. It started to pull up on the side of Alyson.
“They all have guns,” said Jim, as the gun started to force them off the road. Alyson went with it, avoiding getting hit, and going off the road into a field. Alyson put the SUV in park, and Jim unbuckled his seat belt, throwing himself to the floor. Earl was already out the door with the shotgun, and he aimed it at the windshield of the second truck that was ready to ram them.
He blew out the windshield, and heard a scream as the truck bounced off the road and came at them. Alyson dove out of the SUV as the truck slammed into the SUV, shoving it a few feet into the field. One man came out of the truck. Earl shot him with the shotgun, at the same time the second truck started coming down.
Alyson shot the tires, but that didn’t help it stop, as it careened into the first truck. The truck stopped and the passenger side door was wedged. Alyson watched one of the men raise his gun at the windshield and spray it with bullets. She ran around to the passenger side of the SUV.
Earl came around the truck and shot the two men in the cab. His gunfire sprayed the second truck, making the men inside duck. The driver opened the door and dove out, heading for the rear of the truck. Alyson picked him off easily. The other passenger sprayed the SUV with bullets, making Alyson duck. He didn’t see Earl move to the rear of the truck and then take a point blank shot at him when he came around the corner.
Alyson watched as the last man in the truck raised his hands in surrender. Alyson walked over calmly, waving at him to get out. The man slid out, leaving his gun in the van.
Meanwhile Earl heard banging coming from both vans. He went to the rear of the van and saw that they had put the handle down, locking the people inside the van. He picked up the Uzi from the three dead men, patted the down for magazines then proceeded to shoot up the rear of the truck along its side. He could hear muffled screams inside. Earl was grinning by the time Alyson got to him. She also had an Uzi that had recently fired bullets.
She said, “One surrendered.”
“Does he speak English?”
“He’s not talking anymore.”
“Oh. Let’s check on Jim.”
“He’s all right.”
“How’s the rental?”
Earl only nodded. “All right, let’s get out of here.”
“Earl, they’re from the Chinese mafia.”
She nodded. “All of them, different degrees.”
“Great,” Earl said.
Jim had not come out from behind the passenger side of the SUV. “You killed them all,” he said when they arrived back from the truck. Alyson backed the other truck away from the SUV so they could move.
“We had to,” said Earl. “Or they would have kept on coming.”
“You didn’t have to kill them all.”
“There’s people after you, Jim. Possibly after your family. It’s a war, Jim.”
He shook his head. “I’m not worth it.”
“You obviously are if they’re out to get you.”
“Just because I can see over the hill?”
“Just for that, Jim. People have been killed for less.”
Alyson returned. “You want to take the driver’s seat?”
“Oh, sure, let me drive damaged.”
“We’ll bring it to the rental agency in St. Louis.”
Earl laughed. “They won’t rent to me again.”
“There’s always Hertz.” She got into the passenger’s side, tossing Earl the keys. Earl got into the driver’s side and they started off.
Jim looked back at the carnage they were leaving behind. “How can you be so callous?”
“It was us or them,” said Alyson, “and I’m not going to lay down and die for anyone.”
They got to St. Louis and, true to his word, Earl found that they weren’t going to rent to them. Earl got a taxi and had them take him to the train station.
“You know, maybe we can take a plane now -”
Earl said, “No time for that. Bus or train.”
“Train to where?”
Earl went to the Amtrak board and looked up at it. “We have an all nighter into Washington DC leaving in two hours.”
Alyson nodded. “Get us a bunk so we can all get some sleep.”
Earl said, “I’m running out of money here.”
“Fine, coach.” Then Alyson handed her phone to him. “Call your wife again.”
“They’re going to kill that person. Probably while I’m on the phone.”
“As soon as they do, hang up.”
“My God, you’re crazy.” He started dialing the number. Alyson listened closely, and heard a half-ring before the full ring, and then snapped shut her phone. “They’ve hacked into your wife’s phone. Probably into her texts and everything. She’s not getting any calls.”
“What do I do?”
“Did you ever set up an emergency phrase? Like if you were kidnapped or something?”
Alyson shook her head as Earl returned with the tickets. “What’s wrong?”
Alyson said, “They hacked into his wife’s phone.”
“Call it again. Let it go through.”
“Earl, they’ll trace it.”
“So we throw the phone out. Go on.”
Alyson handed the phone over again. Earl listened. The half-ring happened again, and a woman picked up. “Hello?”
“Julie, is that you?”
There was a scramble, then “Mr. Woods. This is not the line you should be calling on.”
Earl whispered into Jim’s ear, “Act tough, but don’t let on that you don’t know.”
Jim tried to steel his voice, but it came out with a squeak, “Look you!” He tried again. “Look, you’re not going to hurt my wife--”
There was more of a scuffle, and a slap. A scream followed. “Mr. Woods, we already are hurting your wife. Now if you will do as I say one more time, then maybe we will spare her.”
“Let me talk to her.”
“Not unless and until you tell me where you are.”
Jim looked helplessly at Earl, who took the phone from Jim’s hand. “Excuse me, but this is Agent Thomas Jones of the FBI, and we are tracing this very call.”
“Mr. Jones, if you were, you wouldn’t tell me.”
“You’ll see,” said Earl, and hung up.
Alyson said, “What did you go and do that for?”
“Make him scared this time. He’ll have to move. And when he moves, he has to take all his stuff with him, so we bought us some time.”
“That takes care of the Chinese Mafia, but what about - “
“He wasn’t Chinese,” said Jim.
Earl added, “No. No, he wasn’t. He was South African.”
Alyson said, walking away, “I think I’m going to start getting a scorecard for this.”
“Jim, have you ever tried to see what was down the line of a phone?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Maybe we should try that next time.”
“Do they allow phones on the train?”
“Sure, and I got a car with wi-fi.”
“Well, being that I lost my phone somewhere in West Buttfuck, I can’t really use it.”
“My phone doesn’t have wi-fi either,” he said, as he chucked the phone Jim had used into the trash can. “And we’re down to one.”
“Do you really think we’ll get to Washington DC in one piece?”
“It’s nice to believe in magic, Jim.”