MERcURY OFF COURSE
It was a short flight to Miami—a couple of hours. Short, at least according to my watch. I spent the time absorbing the data Liz sent along about the cyber-spider.
Which was better than trying for awkward conversation over what felt like a hundred years.
Loredana and I didn’t speak for the entire trip, except for her checking into Air Traffic Control and me cracking the occasional
joke. Spoiler alert: I didn’t get any laughs.
In fact, we both did such a great job stewing that I nearly took off a thumb when I slammed the door shut on our rental Lexus.
“For heaven’s sake, if you’ve something to say, out with it,” Loredana snapped.
“Yeah? I figured silent treatment was our new thing.” I made a show of checking my watch. “You know, three months into our marriage.”
“Disputes happen, Mercury, even among spouses. Ours may become more fraught by simple virtue of our complex occupation.”
“Doesn’t make it any more fun.” I glanced at her as I steered us out of the parking lot. The car swerved sharply into the road, earning me a long, irate honk from a moving van that I’d cut off. Served me right for driving angry. “Okay, look, I get that I shouldn’t have locked myself up like I did. It was wrong. We should be talking this stuff through. Together.”
“That is the promise we made. Together, always.”
“Right.” Heat rose to my face as I remembered some of the stuff—as in, epicly stupid stuff—I’d said the night before. “And that was way out of line for me to bring up your stay at Hotel Enemy Fortress.”
Loredana smiled, a small curl of her lips but I’d take it. “No, not your wisest move. For my part, I had no intention of interrogating you. And yes, perhaps I should not have 'walled off,’ as you so delicately stated. I wasn’t acting in my role as handler or head of Operations—I was worried for you. Because I love you.”
“That’s what made it so hard for me to…” I drummed my hands on the steering wheel, like the beat could make the words form faster and make them coherent. “I won’t let you down. Not again. Not like when you were ripped right from my hands into the Interstice. So, when I panicked again, for no good reason, that failure latched back on. I can beat this.”
She put her hand on my leg. “Post-Traumatic Stress is no simple ailment like a headache or an upset stomach.”
“Believe me, I wish it was, because I could pop a Tums and get rid of it.”
“Doctor Becker could have prescribed medication—”
“No.” I grimaced. “I mean, it’s not a bad idea. I just don’t want to rely on a pill to keep me stable.”
“There’s nothing shameful about managing an illness such as yours. It’s easy to think of it as a failing, when in fact what you’re dealing with is as real and worthy of treatment as influenza.”
“I get that.” Movement in the rear-view mirror drew my attention as we rolled out onto the Dolphin Expressway. White SUV. Nothing odd about that, unless you count that its twin was in the next lane over, two cars behind it. “This is me, though—the superhero. I can’t rely on something like that when I’m the one who’s got to go out and fight monsters. No way side effects can come into play.”
“Reasonable. But I don’t want to see you harm yourself out of a misguided sense of masculinity.”
I snorted. “Don’t worry. I kill interdimensional murder-beasts for a living. Not really worried about society’s view of how manly I am.”
Loredana chuckled. My heart jumped—there was the sound that kept me happy. But it occurred to me, that was the point. I had to take care of me, sure. Being run down physically and mentally meant I’d be no good to anyone. Her happiness, though, had to be paramount to mine.
Ramos had taught me that. Well, lectured me.
And I’d seen it firsthand with his family.
“Well, sorry, again, for being a jerk,” I said.
Loredana leaned across and kissed my cheek. “Apology accepted—wholeheartedly, this time.”
“You mean you weren’t sincere last night?” I fanned myself like I was gonna faint. “Heavens.”
She play-punched me below the ribs. “Twit.”
I laughed, then switched lanes without signaling. No honks—seriously, people using their blinkers were in the distinct minority on this road. I checked the mirror.
White SUV Number One changed lanes to match. Its twin changed lanes the opposite direction, then began a slow acceleration.
“They’re not terribly subtle.” Loredana reached into the passenger seat for her bag. “Considering the dearth of other cars.”
“You noticed our caravan buddies?”
She raised an eyebrow, frozen in mid-motion, with that expression she put on that reminded me of an elementary teacher disappointed in a dim student.
“Right.” We were a few miles away from the I-95 exit. “We want southbound, right?”
“Yes. To Miami Beach.” Loredana removed an MP5 and drew a magazine from a side pocket. She could have been consulting her phone for the weather.
“Glad you didn’t try to take that through TSA,” I murmured.
“Having one’s own plane does have its advantages. Operationally speaking.” She prodded my shirt—this time, under the right arm, where the pulsar stave hung in a custom harness designed for concealment. “I daresay there’d be more questions in your case.”
“Touché.” The SUVs changed lanes again, adjusting their travel around the pattern in the cars near us. It left the first SUV one sedan behind us and its buddy approaching on the left, up a clear lane.
Two of its passenger side windows rolled down.
“Hang on.” I peeked right. No cars, just the side of the road. Good.
I slammed on the gas and swerved into the left lane, accelerating ahead of the second truck.
Gunfire blasted through the empty space where we’d been. The first SUV barreled into the lane behind the second, causing a flurry of honks. Glad they didn’t cause a wreck. Not that those guys seemed worried about keeping a low profile.
I changed lanes as fast as I could, one eye on the speedometer as we hurtled through traffic. It was spread out, which was great, until we rounded a curve and hit what I term—technically speaking—as a traffic turd. You know what I mean. A handful of cars bumper to bumper, plodding along, as if the speed limit out on the expressway wasn’t fifty-five.
“Braking.” Loredana rolled down her window. Hot, sticky air roared in.
The SUVs raced up behind us. More gunshots cracked.
Our back windshield and the left rear window shattered, reduced to a crumpled spiderwebbing of holes and cracks.
“Shooting!” I yelled.
Loredana gestured to our left. I swerved into the next lane, the Lexus at a 45-degree angle to everyone else, then cut back to the right—which gave her a nice field of fire.
No messing around, then. Loredana fired a continuous stream of bullets at the first vehicle. In a few seconds she’d emptied the magazine, and the first SUV had lost its driver’s side windows. Gained a jagged pattern of holes along the door, too.
“Not bulletproof!” I shouted over the gunfire and wind and general cacophony of car noises, including our own engine, which growled like an angry bear. “Bonus!”
“Exit approaching!” Loredana let the magazine drop to the floor and slammed in a new one.
I found a gap in the cars ahead and steered through. Thought we’d lose the rearview mirror on my side. The driver whose BMW I almost sideswiped must have thought so, because his passenger, an elderly woman with more fake tan than the president of the United States, stared at us as I zipped by. Southbound exit onto I-95 was a quarter mile ahead.
Bullet zinged off the Lexus’ roof. I veered over two lanes then back one.
“Kindly hold steady!” Loredana was backwards, shooting in short bursts at the second SUV. The first one had fallen behind, parked by the side of the expressway. Men in T-shirts and a combo of jeans and khakis helped an injured person out of the driver’s seat.
Exit lane. I put my blinker on and made for the lane, right before those fun white slashes painted on the concrete roadway.
The second SUV’s engine roared over the rest of the traffic noise as it bore down on us. That guardrail was getting way too close.
“Left!” I yelled.
I swerved in the aforementioned direction, slinging us back into the main travel lane, coming a foot from the bumper of a looming semi. His horn sounded like the anger of God Himself, if, you know, he was prone to shouting.
Didn’t stop there. We careened across the lanes and zipped up the exit ramp northbound, the Lexus bouncing along the pavement and—well, crap, that was the concrete barrier.
I jerked the steering wheel but not soon enough to avoid ripping the rearview mirror on my side clean off the car. Pretty sure I left a stretch of gashes along the doors, too. By the time I’d stopped swerving and the car quit behaving like a jackrabbit on a sugar high, Loredana was hunkered down in her seat.
“This is explains so many of the reports I’ve seen you file with regards to automotive damage over the years!” Loredana said.
“Hey! In my defense, most of those were monster-inflicted, and in at least three of them, I wasn’t even driving!”
“Mind the road, will you?” She reloaded again, muttering, “A long gun would have been more useful to pack for such a situation…”
We barreled down the ramp and back onto six lanes worth of vehicles heading north up the Florida coast. You couldn’t have asked for a more gorgeous day—the sky was turquoise and cloud-free. Palm trees shuffled under the influence of a breeze. Even the graffiti festooning commercial flattops off to the right was a rainbow of bold, clean colors, and who doesn’t like a good festooning, am I right?
Downside was, not only had the SUV kept up with us—albeit separated by a couple cars—but a white Nissan Rogue zipped up in the third lane. I’d given it maybe three seconds’ thought of, “Hey, is that another bad guy ride?” when armed men and women fired on us from open windows.
“Cover!” I shoved Loredana’s head toward her knees and ducked, too, as bullets punched through the glass all around us. What I really wanted to do was crank the steering wheel and plow those jokers into the median wall—because I was not getting run off the road by a soccer mom’s ride. But there was more traffic out here, even though drivers seemed smart enough to back off from our crazy chase caravan.
Of course, there was another way to handle this. Up close and personal. My favorite.
“Take the wheel.” The gunfire slackened, presumably so the hit squads could reload and communicate as to whose turn it was to shoot something. I unbuckled and dropped my seat back.
Loredana grabbed onto the steering wheel and contorted herself until her legs were squeezed by mine. Her shoes scrambled for the pedals. I backed out, shimming over the reclined seat into the back. The Lexus swerved and slowed, but only for a moment. Loredana slid the rest of the way into the seat, taking my place, and the seat slammed up against her back. “I would ask what you had in mind, but I will doubtless disapprove.”
“Better to beg forgiveness than have to ask a committee for permission.” I plucked the pulsar stave from its holster under my shirt and powered it up. The blazing yellow-white light surged across the runes, crackling between my fingertips. One more thing. I rummaged in my pocket for a black mask that would cover the lower half of my face. Hey, if it worked for Dominic when he was incognito, why not me?
Besides, I didn’t have time to change into my supersuit.
“One can hardly call me a committee, Mercury.”
I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “Close enough, Your Highness.”
She sighed. “Star Wars?”
“You know it. Stay close.”
I channeled energies into the pulsar stave and blasted the passenger door free.
There was this split second of nothing, like I’d paused a video game—the Rogue full of the hit squad with bullets frozen en route, the door horizontal to the blurred highway, Loredana’s hair twisted in front of her face. Nothing like a moment to examine the situation, courtesy of the stave’s power leaching into my body.
Now would be the time to not screw this up. Don’t know if that counted as a prayer; don’t know if I even needed one. But hanging around Ramos a lot had taught me to not discount the possibility that the Big Man was listening. Ramos sure hung his hat on the fact.
I flung myself across an empty lane, bounced off the ruined car door, and time sped back up.
My timing was awesome. Managed to land square atop the SUV—and much to my delight, the dummies who’d either leased or rented this rolling gas-guzzler had opted for the fancy model. You know, the one that came with a moonroof.
A burly black man and two white women—one blonde, one brunette, stared up at me in that split second before I bashed the glass in with the stave.
I dropped into their midst, which I figured was a great idea, because then they wouldn’t try to shoot me, right? Well, they must have also decided that was a possibility, because extendable batons struck out at me the instant my feet hit the seat cushion.
There I was, standing half out of the broken moonroof, wind whipping my upper body, while my legs got the beatdown. I needed more room to fight.
So, I cranked as much energy as I could from the stave and spun it in a blistering circle right above their heads. Metal and plastic sizzled where the energy blade scythed through the roof supports. Glass melted.
And the roof flipped off the Rogue like a kite with cut strings.
The only vehicle impacted by my less-than-safe move was the SUV, which had snuck up on the Rogue’s rear—and got the huge hunk of metal as an extra hood. The SUV’s tires squealed, it jackknifed, and flipped into the median. Last I saw of it was the bent wreckage of a truck.
The four people in the Rogue had wisely ducked my roof-slicing action. I bashed the blonde woman in the head, knocking her senseless. The black guy swung his baton, but I met it stave-first, reducing it to bubbling plastics. He screamed as the sizzling mix burned his hands.
And his eyes widened, giving me a great view of how purple-tinged they were.
“Nice look,” I said, before flipping him into the remnants of the trunk space. Huh. Surprisingly roomy.
The brunette in the front passenger seat managed to get her gun back, a big semi-automatic pistol of a model I didn’t have time to determine, because she shot at me point-blank. News flash: I can’t deflect bullets like a Jedi with a lightsaber. I mean, I probably could, given substantial prep time. But the best I could do was flip up and over onto the hood.
Kudos to the driver for keeping his rig on the road, by the way. He was a lanky redhead whose eyes were black as tar from his tachyon infused Syndax dose.
“Pull over!” I gestured at his roof. “You lost your deposit, anyway!”
He drew a pistol, but I was already moving, onto the bumper. Yes, the front bumper. No, it wasn’t a good idea, but I really did need him to stop.
Because at some point in my ill-advised rampage, he’d swung behind the Lexus and was accelerating to ram it.
We’d already passed an exit. And there were either concrete barriers or metal guardrails making it difficult to get this vehicle slammed against one side of the road or the other without ejecting me. Because, clearly, no seatbelt.
So, I stabbed the pulsar stave into the pavement.
It flashed so brightly I thought I was gonna need LASIK surgery after the fight was done. Chunks of freeway flew up and over. The Rogue started to slow, but the driver pumped the gas in response. The engine thundered in my ear, which was mere inches from the grille.
Good news? We were drifting into the righthand lane, thanks to me using the stave as a makeshift boat tiller.
Bad news? My arms were giving way.
The brunette lifted her gun—and I don’t know where she’d stashed the rifle, but she’d apparently decided an M4 automatic would be more effective. She shot across the hood, missing me.
But blowing out the rear tires of the Lexus.
It swerved from side to side. I had no idea how Loredana could handle it in a pursuit like this. But I was praying, whether you think it was a stupid idea or not.
Because the road bridged a canal a few seconds ahead of us.
The Lexus made it across, scraping its passenger side along the rails of the breakdown lane. Which meant Loredana had either been hurt or survived well enough to steer.
Either way, I wasn’t gonna let these two take her out. I swung the stave up and over, ready to impale the engine—
When an old red pickup with jacked-up wheels rammed the back of the Rogue.
We fishtailed, skidding toward the bridge and the canal just over its edge, right at a gap between barriers meant to prevent what we wouldn’t avoid—taking a swim.
Wasn’t about to stick around.
I leapt up over the last two conscious Syndax goons, hurtled across the pickup’s roof, and bounced into the truck bed. My prosthetic leg gave way on impact because, naturally, I hadn’t braced myself well enough in the hurry.
The Rogue barreled on the wrong side of the railing and nosedived into the canal with a tremendous, steaming splash.
I gasped, trying to catch my breath as I lay on my back and watched greenery whip by at the fringe of my vision. The truck slowed. Its horn honked in the most obnoxious, redneck way. I was expecting “Dixie.”
“Mercury!” Twin backpacks dropped onto me. Loredana’s face, blood streaked down her temple to her jawline, appeared like a vision of an angelic being. “Stay there!”
“Y’all hush and buckle.” A slow, smooth male voice answered her. “We’ve got a rendezvous to keep.”
Don’t move? Accept the free ride?
“Whatever you say, Cletus,” I muttered, and closed my eyes.