The worrying rattling noise coming from Skulker’s Jeep’s engine vanished after two minutes of driving. Oh thank god, he thought. If it keeps getting longer I might have to do something about it. No clue what, maybe Rob can help. At an unreasonably long red light, he twisted in his seat to take check on his passenger. Olivia took up most of the back seats, neck bent at an odd angle. Each wing pressed against the windows for lack of anywhere else to go.
He grinned and said, “Get comfy, we got about forty more minutes of this. Apparently there’s somethin’ out east we need to see. I think it was a little airstrip out in the fields.”
“I thought we were in mountains,” she replied, voice as timid as ever.
“Nope. We’re right at the foothills. East of the city is just empty fuckin’ corn fields, same as the rest of the Midwest.” The light ahead turned green, and Skulker resisted the urge to simply gun the engine into the empty intersection. “This would go quicker if we were on the highway, but cops watch the fuck outta those, so we gotta take little streets. They probably don’t got checkpoints set up where we’re headin’.”
“So what happened to that guy you had? Did he tell you where this was?” she asked.
A chuckle escaped Skulker. I thought she was going to turn a blind eye to that. Maybe she’s finally growing a spine. “Me and him just had a little chat. He ain’t dead, don’t worry. He’s got a nice prison cell right now, havin’ another chat with the cops,” he replied.
“He went to the police? Why would he do that?”
“Here’s the thing. He knows I can do whatever I want with him. So I let him run to the cops instead, in exchange for info. They got laws. They need proof. If I just stabbed him, he’d say whatever he’d think I’d wanna hear, not the truth.” He glanced at the rear-view mirror, catching a look of horror on her face at the casual mention of stabbing.
They drove on, the screaming metal band on the radio at half volume the only sound filling the silence, until Olivia cleared her throat and asked, “Why do you cuss so much?”
Cuss? “What? Like shit an’ fuck?” he said.
“That a problem? They’re just words.”
“No, never mind,” she said, eyes fixed on the window to her right.
Skulker gripped the steering wheel tight in frustration. God damn it. You almost had a personality there! Put some force behind your voice or something. I feel like I’m talking to a bowl of oatmeal.
“You know, you’ve been askin’ all these questions, but I don’t really know anythin’ about you.” She shrank in her seat, shoulders hunched forward. “Tell me about yourself.”
“I don’t know,” she replied, voice barely above a whisper. “I can’t remember.”
“Yeah, that’s just extra bullshit. Who are you? What do you do? What do you like? What opinions do you got?” Silence reigned for a full minute. “Well?” he prodded. These aren’t hard questions.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I’m just me.”
He twisted in his seat to look her dead in the eye. “What does that mean? What do you do for fun?”
“I like flying.”
He nodded. “Great! Good start. What else?” She stayed silent. “Who are you? You just gonna sit around an’ wait for the answer to fall in your lap?”
“I fly around,” she stammered out. “I look for food.”
“That all?” This is like pulling teeth. “You don’t remember anythin’, I get that. Olivia, why’d you pick that as your name? You gotta remember that,” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“It sounded nice. Sorry,” she whispered, eyes fixed firmly on her knees.
“Less apologizin’, more doin’. An’ don’t worry, that ain’t a bad reason.”
Skulker let the topic drop, and they drove through the dark streets in silence as they skirted around the edge of a part of Sanchez’s territory. His mask rested on the seat beside him just in case anyone happened to look through the window, though they’d only come across one or two other cars in fifteen minutes. He flicked a button jury rigged to the radio, swapping out the music with the chatter of the police band. Good, it’s quiet. Less chance for something stupid to happen.
He spotted a couple of women leaning on the wall of a closed bar, phones in hand. One glanced at the car for a brief moment before returning her attention to her little glowing screen. A few minutes later, they drove past a man walking down the street, notable only because there had been no others in twenty minutes. No fear there. Something’s not right. We’re not driving through the heart of gangland here.
A light turned on in the back seat, straining his night adjusted eyes for a moment. “Whoa, turn that off. I can’t see,” he called out.
“Sorry!” Olivia fumbled around, her claws scratching at something plastic, before finally figuring out how to turn off the light. “My head hit the switch,” she added.
He put on the gas, eager to get out of the neighborhood. After a few minutes, a car pulled up behind them, dark blue and low to the ground. From around Olivia, he noticed a second, larger car just behind it, a split second before its high beams turn on and blinded any view behind him. Fuck.
Skulker put on his mask in one fluid motion. “Ready! This is gonna suck,” he shouted. He gunned the engine just as a short, unmarked truck with its lights off shot into the road in front of them. Skulker yanked the steering wheel hard to the left, feeling the right tires leave the pavement for a moment. Olivia, caught completely off guard, slammed into the door with a startled yelp.
His hands desperately twisted the wheel back towards the road, the corner of his Jeep coming within inches of ramming into the curb. With a straight, empty road ahead of him, he shoved floored the gas pedal, leaving the ambush site behind. The muscle car caught up with almost contemptuous ease. Skulker struggled with a brief glance to make out the headlights of the second car past the glare of the muscle car’s high beams
The muscle car pulled up, passenger window rolled down. I’m about to get filled with lead. Just as the muscle car reached the Jeep, he hit the brakes. Two shots whipped past, one breaking his door window. He swerved into the back panel of the muscle car, sending the surprised driver spinning out. Now without high beams burning his eyes in a mirror, he could see a black SUV swerving around his friend.
Even it was more than a match for Skulker’s old, weathered car, though the muscle car had lost precious ground. He slammed the brakes once more, twisted the steering wheel, and gunned the engine down another road. The other cars scrambled to adjust, though not far behind. My car is too shitty. We’re in the middle of the city, no dirt road I can fuck them over with.
“We need to lose these guys.” Someone got off a couple shots, forcing him to duck, though only one hit the car. “Ideas?” he called out. Olivia simply looked at him with fear.
Good talk. OK. Options? Cops might make them back off, but they’ll come after us too. In the rear-view mirror, he spotted a man leaning out the side of the SUV, gun in hand. Skulker faked a turn to the right, than cut hard to the left, down yet another street. It took a moment for the headlights of an oncoming car to register. It blared its horn and swerved out of the way. Glass shattered and metal shrieked as the muscle car, having taken the turn much sharper than the much higher profile vehicles it followed, collided with the oncoming car.
Poor dude. Skulker slammed the gas pedal into the floor, keeping inches ahead of the black SUV as it swerved at him, attempting the same maneuver he’d used on the muscle car. Heart racing, knuckles white on the steering wheel, he felt a wide grin split his face. This is living! He was jolted back to reality when the SUV swiped at them once more, causing him to over correct. For a split second that lasted an eternity, his car drove on two wheels before gravity helped him out. More gunshot went off. Skulker yelled to his passenger, “Keep your head down!”
One more car, he thought, We’ve got room to maneuver. Could we just kill them?
“Can you shoot?” he shouted over the roar of the engine. He leaned over, one hand reaching for his handgun resting on the passenger seat beside him.
“What? No!” replied Olivia.
Great. He rolled down his window, swerving to the side to keep the gunners behind them on their toes. A few bullets his the asphalt near his tires. I can’t hit that shot either. Unless I do this. With the road empty and straight in front of him, he took a deep breath, and time froze.
Everything stopped, color receded. The bleached world around him made no sound, no movement. His head pounded. He reached for his pistol and began to lean out of his car.
Still moving, pistol and arm now out.
The rest of his upper body followed his arm outside. The pulse of his heart sent a lance of pain through his brain.
His free arm grabbed the door, steadying himself. He raised his knee to press against the unmoving steering wheel to keep it nominally under control once time resumed.
He took aim, directly at the driver of the SUV. He didn’t bother firing, one bullet probably wouldn’t get the job done, and any more would freeze in the same spot the moment they left the barrel and collide once time resumed.
His finger rested on the trigger, aim as good as it would get under the circumstances. Blood trickled from his nose.
Time resumed forward progress. Three bullets, aimed perfectly at the driver of the SUV, fired from Skulker’s pistol in quick succession. Without a foot on the gas, his car began to decelerate. The SUV rear ended his car as he was halfway back into his seat, slamming his ribs into the window frame. He dropped his pistol to wrestle back control of his vehicle. The SUV slowed down as Skulker and Olivia hurdled off into the night.
“We kicked a fuckin’ hornets nest. I shoulda known. Too many guns in that warehouse,” Skulker grumbled as they drove meekly down the country road.
All windows were down, airing out the smell of sweat and adrenaline from the car. The trash bag taped over the shattered rear window fluttered in the wind. They’d stopped for a few minutes to cover up the handful of bullet holes and other damage the car had taken as best they could in case they drove past a cop.
“They were watchin’ for us,” he continued. “We were already suspicious, when that light went on they probably saw you.”
“Sorry,” Olivia mumbled. She’d shown the glimmer of a personality by jumping at the chance to get out of the car earlier, but now found herself crammed back in, wings bent on either side of her. As always, she’d spoken up only rarely, and then only to ask clarifying questions.
“Ain’t your fault, I shoulda steered us way clear of that. Thought it was just a risky shortcut. Be real fuckin’ careful where you go from here on. They’re gonna be watchin’ the skies too, it’s hard to miss those wings.”
They drove on, Skulker ignoring the new rattling sound coming somewhere from the back of the car. There’s nothing dragging back there when we checked. Not much I can do about it right now. They’d left the city a few minutes ago, and now drove down a deserted country road to the east of the city. Row upon row of desolate corn fields passed them by, punctuated by the occasional sleeping herd of cattle or bison.
“Hey, Ben?” said Olivia, breaking the silence.
So many questions. “Yeah?”
“When they were chasing us, at the end, you teleported, but you didn’t move that much. And your nose was bleeding. What was that?” she asked.
“I froze time for a few seconds,” he replied, ignoring the mounting pressure behind his eyes. “Gonna give me a bitchin’ migraine in about four hours.”
“I’m really sorry,” she mumbled, eyes fixed on her lap. “I shouldn’t have touched that light thing.”
He snorted out a laugh and said, “Hey, it was an accident. We’re both in one piece. I’m pissed about my car, but I’ll live. Let’s get to this place an’ go home.”
After a few more minutes of driving, they finally came to the field the captured gang member had told Skulker about. The sun began its march over the sky, the weak light providing just enough to see. Beyond obvious signs of upturned dirt and tire marks, the place was devoid of any structure of any other feature. Might wanna check on whoever owns this land, he thought as he stepped out of his car. Just behind him, Olivia’s foot twisted and she nearly fell flat on her face as she climbed out of the car.
“You OK?” he asked with a grin.
“Yeah,” she replied, cheeks reddening.
He checked his phone. “This should be it. Thought it was weird he gave us lat long coordinates.”
“Lat long?” Olivia repeated.
“Latitude and longitude. It’s a universal point on earth thing. I’ll show you a map later, it’ll make more sense. Our guy mentioned unwillin’ people comin’ in an’ outta here.”
He looked up from his phone to catch her staring off into the sky. The reptilian eyes made it hard to tell if she was focused on anything.
“What’s up?” he asked her.
She paused, sniffing the air a few more times before replying, “There’s a weird smell here.”
“What’s the smell?”
“I don’t know. It’s almost like oil. There’s nothing else like it out here.”
He thought for a moment. Of course, this is an airstrip. Why is she pointing it out? “Plane fuel?” he asked.
“No,” she replied, shaking her head. “The plane stuff smells similar to car stuff. This is different.”
“Can you track it?” God damn. If she can be a bloodhound too this is gonna be great!
He followed her through the field, keeping an eye out in case anyone else happened to be out in the middle of nowhere at the crack of dawn. She led them about two hundred yards into the dirt, than stopped.
“There isn’t a source,” she murmured. “It just ends here.”
A dull glint caught his eyes. He knelt down and dug up an unfired grey bullet. Not brass? What is this? Oh no. The rifle cartridge had more than a few similarities to the ammo he used for the long rifle on his back.
“Fuck. The kid is gone,” he sighed.
“What? Why?” asked Olivia.
“This casing,” he said, holding it up for her to examine. “Looks like unpolished stainless steel, right? It ain’t. Better than brass, a quarter of the weight, same strength. See how short it is, compared to the other rifle ammo you saw in the warehouse? Less weight again, right? Powder in this is some voodoo alchemy, don’t need much to make the killin’ bit fly. Only Overlord uses somethin’ like this.”
Her head tilted to the side as she asked, “Who is that?”
“The boogeyman. Techie. Real bad news. Probably where Sanchez got those rifles from.”
“Why didn’t we see any of these before?” she asked, motioning to the bullet in his hand.
“Good question. This ain’t for those rifles in the warehouse. He probably just makes shit like that to make ends meet. Well, I say shit, those rifles are probably top of the line anywhere else. Shit for him. This? This is for his real guns. They probably made one to pay off some mob boss or another. Hell, maybe even Sanchez.”
“So what about the kid?”
“He could be halfway across the world by now. Overlord ain’t fuckin’ around.” He lifted his mask and spat on the ground. “Let’s get out of here. We’re done.”