Free Fiction: DRIVE Part 1: The Starting Line

I don’t know about you, but I am needing some big distractions this week. I think I might need a personal floatation device in the current stormy seas of the world, and for me, that’s always been stories. So how about, instead of a short-story this week, I post an entire novel instead? That’s right. A whole novel! Frankly, I need it, so maybe you do, too. We can float together for awhile. I’ll post a new chapter each day.

Drive: The Starting Line by Jamie Aldis

Drive for your life or they will kill you. Hang on to your hats, because this is the story of an illegal road race and the people, willing and unwilling, who must race for their lives.

Drive can be purchased at Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

Copyright ©2017 by Jamie Aldis. First Published in 2007. Published by Valsaga Publishing LLC. Cover Design copyright ©2015 Valsaga Publishing LLC. Cover art copyright © Stevenrussellsmithphotos | Dreamstime. Do not copy or distribute in any form without written permission.

Drive

by Jamie Aldis

Chapter One: The Starting Line

Eugene, Oregon – Wednesday, afternoon

Stony silence reigned in the car. Jennifer Miller was furious with her husband Brian. Even the crisp, new smell of their Navigator failed to please her. He was late. Again. Chelsea would be frantic. Only her second week of school, and she was still very skittish. At six, Chelsea tended to cry if Jennifer was not the first car in the line to pick her up. Brian had sworn he would be on time while Jennifer’s car was in the shop. Chelsea would be distressed, and it was going to take all night to calm her down, much less convince her to come back to school tomorrow. Jennifer fingers tapped the car’s window sill anxiously as she refused to look at her husband.

Brian pulled into the curving driveway of the school. Children were milling around, and Jennifer scanned their faces looking for Chelsea in her bright pink, Disney princesses backpack. There was a lot of pink, but no Chelsea. Brian inched forward as the cars in front of him slowly crept. A flash of running pink caught her attention and her eye snapped to see Miss Waters hurrying out of the building holding Chelsea’s backpack, and scanning the students and the cars. Jennifer rolled down her window and waved. Relief and a big smile flooded Miss Waters’ face, and Jennifer breathed a sigh. Miss Waters reached the car and handed Jennifer the pink bag.

“Oh, I’m so glad I caught you before you left! Chelsea doesn’t usually forget her bag,” Miss Waters smiled and glanced into the back of the car. A slight frown marred her forehead as she spied the empty seat.

“Where is Chelsea?” Jennifer asked.

“She’s not with you?” Miss Waters looked again into the back seat, frowning. “She got into your car just a few minutes ago.”

Jennifer shook her head as an ice pick lodged itself into her chest. She glanced at Brian who was scanning the students in front of the school, looking for Chelsea. “We just got here, Miss Waters, and we haven’t seen Chelsea.”

“I could have sworn I saw her get into your car…” Miss Waters trailed off as she stood and scanned the rapidly dwindling numbers of students. “I’ll check the bathrooms, and cloak room again.” Miss Waters hurried off.

Jennifer could not speak around the fear settling into the pit of her stomach. Brian grabbed her hand soothingly, “I’m sure she just went to the bathroom. She knew it was going to be a long drive to your parent’s house for dinner.” Jennifer clutched his hand. She knew in her bones that Chelsea was not in the bathroom, nor the cloak room.

Schaumburg, Illinois – Thursday, morning

Anne Collins tugged her shirt sleeves down, hoping they covered the five finger-mark bruises on her upper arms. She had not been able to hide the yellowing bruise on her thigh during her exam, but she hoped the doctor had not noticed her arms. The exam had not exposed her stomach or her ribs, so those bruises were still her secret. From this doctor, at least. The young intern at the emergency room who had wrapped her cracked rib when it first broke had given her a stern look. They always thought it should be so easy to leave her husband. No one understood that he was just going through a difficult time right now, and was under a lot of pressure at work. She did her best not to anger him. Things had been getting better lately. Last night he had even brought her flowers. If she had not flinched when he groped her breast, he would never have had to grab her arms so forcefully and drag her upstairs. It was just that her breasts were so very tender right now. That was normal, but the soreness did not vanish when her period stopped, like it usually did. Then again, she was not exactly sure anymore when her period was, since she often spotted for a few days after sex. She had been uncertain if she should mention that to the doctor today. He was a gynecologist, however, and she knew he needed to know things like that. He had frowned at the bruises on her abdomen, but she was grateful that he had not given her that disapproving look so many do. She muttered her usual line about being clumsy and falling into a chair. She was trying to stop gaining weight, like her husband encouraged her to do. Apparently the sight of her slightly pudgy abdomen was affecting his attraction to her, and he was most insistent that she lose the weight. She had even stopped eating most of her meals. She had fainted three times this week already, but the pudge remained. At least her husband had agreed to let her see the doctor, when she suggested something might be wrong with her, since she was not losing the weight like he wanted. So she had muttered explanations of clumsiness which the doctor smoothly ignored, and merely tried to press around the bruise while he felt her uterus, seeking to avoid causing her additional pain. She liked this doctor. She might return here.

She jumped when the door opened and the doctor walked in carrying the medical file they had just created for her today. She tended to change doctors frequently.

“Mrs. Gropdich,” the doctor began. She cringed at her married name, which she tried to avoid using whenever possible. But her husband would see this bill, and he tended to get very angry when she used her maiden name. “Congratulations, you are pregnant.”

Anne stared at the doctor, nausea rising hard and strong, burning her throat. He continued to speak, his tone turning stern, his expression concerned. “However, you will likely lose the baby, or it will suffer serious developmental impairment, if your abdomen continues to be bruised like it is.” Tears stung Anne’s eyes and her arms crossed defensively across her belly.

The doctor softened his tone and sat down on the wheeled stool. He placed a hand gently on the table next to her. She thought he wanted to pat her comfortingly, but restrained himself. “If you need help, support of any kind, maybe even a place to go, I can give you the number of people who can help you,” he said kindly.

She closed her eyes, and the tears streamed hot acid down her cheeks. Her husband would find her, like he had the last time she had tried to run away to a safe house. She had spent two weeks in the hospital after he had caught up with her. She shook her head, silently denying the doctor’s assumptions.

“You have the baby’s safety to think about,” his hand moved to her shoulder in a fatherly gesture of comfort. She sobbed, and choked back her tears, shrugging off his hand. Kindness was the one thing she could not stand; it made all the hurts so much worse.

“Th-thank you, doctor. I’ll be fine. I’ll try to be less clumsy,” she said. It hurt to see the darkness cloud his eyes as he gave up on her.

He was all brusque professionalism as he wrote a couple of prescriptions for her. She did not even listen as he explained them, issuing the usual cautions. He encouraged her to schedule a pre-natal exam with the receptionist before she left. His voice rattled in her ear, barely heard. She could not be pregnant. A hopeless black buzzing filled her thoughts, her ears. She muttered agreement, knowing she would never return to this doctor.

She zombied her way through the ritual of payment at the receptionist desk. Clutching her prescriptions and her keys, she crashed blindly into someone as she blinked in the bright sun while leaving the doctor’s office. Her ribs hurt and she cried out, her purse having strewn its contents all over the walkway. Her victim babbled apologies, shoved all her stuff back into her purse, then hurried away. She never even saw a face, or knew if it was a man or a woman.

Anne crawled into her car, her hands shaking. She cried depths of despair at the steering wheel. She just could not be pregnant. It was too awful to think about. You have the baby’s safety to think about. The doctor’s words swam in her head like angry wasps, stinging violently.

Berthoud Pass, Colorado – Thursday, midnight

Nathan Reynolds perched on the safety rail and stared into the pitch blackness of the starry night. One sharp push and he would plummet several hundred feet to the rocky gorge beneath the high mountain bridge. He already knew what it would feel like. At least this time he would die. Maybe landing on mountain rocks felt different than having the World Trade Center fall on him. It could feel different, but he doubted it. Breaking your back was breaking your back whether you were the lander or the landee. He had felt like one of the lucky ones that September 11th. He was one of the few New York firemen first responders who had lived to tell the tale. Of course, no one much wanted to hear his tale from the hospital bed he lived in for months afterward.

His wife had listened, at first, between sobs. Of course, she stopped listening around the second year, when he needed hours of physical therapy to remind his reconnected nerves what they were supposed to be doing. Turned out she wanted to listen to a man who could still walk, and who worked at the hospital where he had been laid up for so long.

He was lucky, they told him, when his back started burning, and screaming agony. His nerves would be ok, despite their multi-month break. It was a miracle. He might not be a paraplegic forever. The doctors patted themselves on the back as his disability ran out, declaring that the physical therapy he needed to rehabilitate his new and angry nerves was optional. After two years of being in a wheel chair, he had nothing else to do but try to walk again, try to get his wife back again, prove he was a whole man after all.

He was lucky, they said, when his legs worked again, and he gave up the old-man walker. It was a miracle. His physical therapist published ground-breaking articles while the fire department refused to keep Nate on in a teaching capacity, or any capacity at all.

He was lucky. At thirty-five he left New York divorced, with an astronomical debt, and moved back in with his parents in his small hometown of Fraser, Colorado. They gave him a hero’s reception, with cheers and hails, then avoided his gaze, and walked on the other side of the street when he approached, with his cane in hand. Earlier that very day he got his letter of rejection from the local volunteer fire department and search and rescue. Apparently his back was too risky for him to sit at that desk and operate the radio in times of need.

He stared into the blackness, feeling the seduction of the open air beneath him. A slight breeze caressed his cheek, like the wind was telling him to free himself of his mortality. Three weeks ago he turned thirty-six. He’d been planning this night since.

He flinched as headlights rounded the last switchback before the narrow bridge where he perched. Light bounced off his remade Crown Vic where it was parked in the pull-off before the bridge. He ducked his head, hoping the car’s lights had not reflected off his face. He was wearing dark clothes, and the night was pitch. He should go unseen. His hope fled as the car slowed on the bridge, then stopped. An engine continued rumbling as a car door opened. Perhaps he should shove off now, but his plan did not include witnesses.

“Nathan Reynolds?” A young man’s voice queried, startling Nate so much he nearly slipped off his perch. His heart hammered in his chest as he gripped tightly and shoved his butt back into place.

“Huh?” Nate’s voice rasped out of his throat.

“Are you Nathan Reynolds? I have a delivery for Nathan Reynolds. Instructions say to deliver it here, tonight, at midnight?” The kid sounded bored, or tired. Nate shook his head. The kid must be too stupid to be curious, because who the hell would deliver something to someone in the middle of the night, in the most godforsaken stretch of this winding, narrow, mountain pass. Come to think of it, who the hell knew he was here? Nate swung a leg around the safety rail, straddling it, and frowned at the kid.

“You ain’t from around here,” he drawled.

“Boulder,” the kid answered. “Are you Nathan Reynolds?”

“Yes, I’m Nathan Reynolds,” he answered.

The kid handed him a metal clip board, a pen, and shined a small flashlight on the paper. “Sign here, please.” Nate signed, and a padded envelope was pushed into his hands as he passed the clipboard back. The kid got in his car without another word and drove off. Nathan watched the car cross the bridge, turn around at the other end, when it widened enough to allow a three point turn, and pass over the bridge going back the way he had come, driving significantly faster than previously. If the kid was not more cautious he would kill himself by falling over the edge. Nathan laughed at the irony.

With the car gone, it was too dark to read the package. Inside was a small, narrow, solid rectangle. Now he had a quandary. Should he continue with his plans, or find out who had delivered what to him at this place that no one knew he visited. He frowned at the package, quite irked that it interrupted his well-planned death dive.

Eugene, Oregon – Wednesday, afternoon

Miss Waters approached the car window saying, “She is not in the school, I looked everywhere. Maybe she walked home?”

“Maybe,” Brian said. His wife looked pale and worried and she clutched at his hand so hard it was starting to hurt. Her anger had been forgotten. “We’ll probably pass her walking home,” he reassured her. She said nothing as they pulled away from the school.

Chelsea was not walking the short distance home, and Brian started to get a sinking feeling when they quickly scanned all rooms of their home and found it empty.

The pink backpack in Jenn’s tight grip rang. Brian and Jenn frowned at each other, confused. Chelsea did not have a cell phone. Brian grabbed the bag and ripped the zipper open, pulling out a black cell phone. He keyed it on.

“Mommy? Daddy?” Chelsea’s voice was loud in his ear, and full of tears and fear. The color washed out of his wife’s face so fast, he knew she could hear everything.

“Chelsea!” He cried out, “Where are you?”

“Mr. Miller, good afternoon.” A few clicks sounded, then a man spoke, his voice calm and cultured, and a little bored, like a history professor.

“Where is my daughter!” Brian yelled into the phone.

“She is well, Mr. Miller. I have an opportunity for you, the opportunity of a lifetime.” The man’s emphasis on the word life chilled Brian and cold rage flooded his veins. His wife was pale and trembling as she leaned closer, listening to the over-loud phone. “Make your way to Casa Marina in Key West, Florida. You must leave within fifteen minutes or you will be disqualified. You must drive. You may not fly, take a train, or a bus, you must drive a vehicle. Do not call the police. Do not tell anyone, or you will be disqualified.”

“Where is my daughter, you sick fuck?!” Brian screamed.

“Casa Marina, Key West, Mr. Miller. You must leave within fifteen minutes or you will be disqualified.” The voice never wavered, stayed calm and slightly bored, like he was discussing uninteresting weather. “Be there in two days, Mr. Miller.” The line disconnected with a click.

He stared at his wife in the echoing silence while fear sank into his bones.

“We have to go!” Jenn whispered. “They have Chelsea!”

“We should call the police.”

“They said no police. They said we have to leave in fifteen minutes! Brian, we have to go to her!!”

Black rage filled him, chasing all thoughts away. He grabbed a bag and started packing it wildly. His wife, her eyes huge saucers, packed a bag for herself and one for Chelsea. He turned the ignition in the car fourteen minutes later, and squealed the tires as he pulled away from his home.

Schaumburg, Illinois – Thursday, afternoon

Anne was crying into her steering wheel when her phone rang. She jumped and scrambled to pull it out. Her husband rarely called during this time, but if he wanted her to bring him lunch, he would be very angry if she did not answer. She answered the phone, “Hello?” trying to force cheerfulness into her voice. The ringing continued. She looked at her phone, realized it was not what was ringing. Following the insistent noise, she dug around in her purse and pulled out a black cell phone whose only insignia was a colorful corporate logo saying Bright Properties on it. “Hello?” she said into the new phone after hitting the talk button.

“Good morning, Ms. Collins. I have an opportunity for you, the opportunity of a lifetime.” Anne started at the calm male voice using her maiden name. “Make your way to Casa Marina in Key West, Florida. You must leave within fifteen minutes or you will be disqualified. You must drive. You may not fly, take a train, or a bus, you must drive a vehicle. Do not call the police. Do not tell anyone, or you will be disqualified.”

“What? What is this?” she asked, confused.

“The opportunity of a lifetime, should you choose to accept it,” the man said. “You must leave within fifteen minutes, you must tell no one, or you will be disqualified. Casa Marina, Key West, by tomorrow, Ms. Collins.” The line disconnected.

Anne stared at the phone. She tried the code that makes a phone call back the most recent incoming number. When that failed, she tried calling any number with it, and nothing worked. Apparently it only received calls. Was her husband playing a joke on her? Had he arranged a vacation for the two of them? Casa Marina sounded like a beautiful place, and Key West was a vacation spot. But why would he make her drive alone? She better not dally, if he was playing a joke on her. He would be watching her, and if she did not obey his fifteen minute rule, she would pay for it. She had no doubt what “disqualified” meant to her husband.

She turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of her parking space.

Berthoud Pass, Colorado – Thursday, midnight

To hell with this, Nate thought irritably. He pulled back his arm to throw the package far into the jet black night when it started ringing.

“What the hell?!” he ripped open the package and fished out the glowing phone that read Incoming Call. He answered the call. “Who the hell is this?”

“Good evening, Mr. Reynolds. Perhaps good night would be more appropriate? And a happy belated birthday, as well.” Nate did not recognize the snooty, over-educated voice on the other end.

“Do I know you?”

“We have never met, Mr. Reynolds. I have an opportunity for you, the opportunity of a lifetime.” The man said smoothly, just like the greasy lawyers who had told him there was nothing he could do about the medical bills his disability would not cover. “Make your way to Casa Marina in Key West, Florida. You must leave within fifteen minutes or you will be disqualified. You must drive. You may not fly, take a train, or a bus, you must drive a vehicle. Do not call the police. Do not tell anyone, or you will be disqualified.”

“What is this, some kind of joke?”

“No joke, Mr. Reynolds, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. Be at Casa Marina, Key West, tomorrow.”

“Can’t make a drive like that by tomorrow, it’s at least thirty hours away.”

“That would BE tomorrow, Mr. Reynolds. You must leave within fifteen minutes, or be disqualified. Tell no one.”

“What, are you watching me?” Nate asked. The phone disconnected. He peered into the blackness. Someone had known he was here. Someone had known he was going to be here tonight. Damn creepy shit. Disqualified? He snorted. He had planned to be dead, what did he care about disqualified?

“What the hell,” he shrugged to the night, swinging his second leg over the railing. He walked across the rest of the bridge to his car.

Addison, Illinois – Thursday, morning

Anne Collins pulled into the parking lot of the AAA office. This branch had few amenities, not like the one she usually went to in Arlington Heights, but it was south of where she had been. The thought occurred to her that her husband might not be behind this prank. She did not know what to think. She opened her trunk and pulled out the bag she had hidden next to the spare tire. Her AAA card was still in her maiden name, so she felt safe using it. Occasionally she took her card and got the free maps that was one of the perquisites of membership, and plotted vacations or sometimes even escape routes. She patted the bag that held a few changes of clothes and a decent amount of cash. She had learned at the safe house, before her husband had found her last time, that if she kept her getaway kit always ready, if ever necessary, she would have what she needed. But she was not leaving. Her husband was sending her on an adventure as prelude to a romantic vacation. Just like him to make her jump through hoops, then force her to be grateful for his generosity. She shook her head and walked into the office.

The girl behind the counter smiled helpfully. “How may I help you?”

“I need maps to get to Florida,” Anne said.

“Florida? Ok.” The girl returned with the Florida map.

“And everything in between,” Anne added.

“Between?” The clerk was confused and looked like there was little that would remedy the situation.

“Do you have an atlas of the US?” Anne tried a different tactic. The girl looked relieved. “Oh yes, we do.” She fumbled under the counter for a moment and pulled out an atlas. “Will that be all?”

“Yes, thank you.” Anne smiled. She loved her AAA membership. Something about walking out with free maps always gave her such a rush. The membership had been a gift from her parents back in her college days when road trips were her vacation of choice and they worried about her.

Salem, Oregon – Wednesday, afternoon

“We are wasting time!” Brian growled for the hundredth time.

“It’s faster this way,” Jenn said. “It’s only two hours. And look, we only have 46 more miles to go.”

“Two hours in the wrong direction!” he snarled. “And it isn’t going to take any two hours.”

“The interstate is going to be a lot faster.” They had been arguing since they got in the car. Brian had wanted to go east immediately, but Jenn told him to go north instead. He had capitulated finally, but been complaining about it for the past 64 miles. “On the 20 we would have been up and down, and around the mountains, this way we’ll hit the 84 and have a clear shot southeast, no problem” Jenn explained once again. She knew he wanted to get to Key West as fast as possible and find their daughter, but she was certain she was right and taking the interstates would be the fastest route through Oregon.

“Oh shit!” she exclaimed as they passed a cell tower. She pulled her cell phone open and dialed Sherry, her best friend.

“Hi Sherry, you won’t believe what we’ve done!” she giggled a little too shrilly into the phone. “Brian and I decided at the spur of the moment to take a road trip for the holiday weekend!”

“A road trip?” Sherry said, “I thought you hated road trips?”

“I do!” Jenn laughed again, trying to sound like she was having a good time when her heart felt like it had been ripped out of her chest. “But you know Brian is always after me to go, go, go. So I finally said yes.” She finished lamely. “So we kinda left in a hurry, and I was hoping you’d go by the house for the mail, and water the plants, and stuff?”

“You are on the road now? Already? Don’t you have a hair appointment tomorrow?” Sherry sounded a little suspicious.

“Uh, yeah, but I can reschedule that. Um, can you check on the house while we are gone?” Jenn asked. “We’re passing through Salem now, and I don’t know how far out I’ll get cell service.” Jenn added, trying to hurry the conversation along.

“Yeah, sure, I’ll check the house. You really left in a hurry didn’t you? Didn’t you just pick Chelsea up from school?”

“Yeah,” Jenn’s voice cracked and tears filled her eyes as she choked up. She took a deep breath holding the phone away from her mouth. “Thanks for the help. I should be going. I’ll call you in a couple days.”

“Wait! Where are you going?” Sherry asked.

“Um, Yosemite,” she blurted.

“You are heading north to go to Yosemite?” Sherry asked.

“Yeah. No! I mean Yellowstone. I always get those two mixed up.” She laughed a little manically. “Anyway, thanks for looking after the house.”

“Sure,” Sherry sounded uncertain.

“Ok then, have a great weekend! Bye!” Jenn rushed her friend off the phone, her hands trembling violently.

Brian reached over and held her hand, passing a semi so fast her windows rattled in the cross breeze.

Key West, Florida – Friday, early morning

Anne Collins pulled into the parking lot of the rich looking Casa Marina blinking fatigue away. She had driven straight through, stopping only for gas, and keeping her little Honda Civic flying down the road, hoping cops would not trouble her. She was about to find out who was behind her mad cap sprint across half the country. The clock on her dash board read 6:03 but she had crossed a time zone somewhere along the line. She turned the ignition off and rubbed her eyes.

Uncertainty twisted her gut. She had no idea what she would find when she walked into the hotel lobby. Her conversation with her husband the previous afternoon had yielded no clues.

Her cell phone rang while she was driving across some deserted stretch of highway. She had not even been sure what state she was in at the time, but it had still been a couple hours before her husband usually gets home from work. She had answered it cheerfully, though at that point in her drive she was hungry and rather angry at her husband for putting her through this ordeal. “Hello, darling!” She had said.

“Hi,” he sounded distracted. There were voices in the background, but Anne could not hear them clearly over the roar of the road. “I have to go out of town for a couple days.”

“Oh?” she replied neutrally. Was this part of his little game? She could play along. It was safer to play along. The instructions had said tell no one, and she knew he’d be very displeased with her if she broke the rules of his little game.

“Sorry, something came up. You can manage without me for a couple days, can’t you?” he had said. She longed for the sincerity that had once been in his voice when he asked her questions like that.

“Um, yes, I suppose I can,” she had replied. It was never a good idea to sound pleased he was leaving, nor to sound as if she minded his going. Was he catching his flight to Key West, and planned to surprise her there?

“Yes, good,” he paused. “Where are you? It sounds like you are in the car.”

She knew this was a test. Questions about where she was, and what she was doing were always a test. Only this time he was playing a game with her, and if she failed she would be “disqualified”. She did not want to find out what disqualified meant, but she was certain it would hurt. Her heart pounded in her chest.

“Yes. Yes, I am driving,” she had answered carefully.

“Good, good,” he had replied distractedly. “I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. I’ll call you, later.”

“Ok.”

“Bye, then.” With that he had hung up the phone, not even waiting for her to say good-bye. Her stomach had twisted into a brick of anger and fear, frustration and anxiety. He was definitely playing tricks on her. She drove faster, grabbing only a stale sandwich when it was time to put more gas in her car.

Palm trees swayed in the golden amber lights of expensive landscaping. The smell of the ocean was on the air, and she thought she heard the gentle crash of the ocean not far. It looked like the kind of resort that had a private beach. She hid her cash back into the secret bag in her trunk, and rearranged it to look normal. She would likely not have another opportunity before her husband wanted to put his bags in her trunk, or who knew what else he was planning for the day. She just hoped he would let her rest a little, first.

The night lights lit the front of the hotel up like gold. The air was warm despite the hour, and there was no one about. The lobby was beautiful, but she did not linger, and walked to the desk where a clerk managed to look bored yet attentive at the same time.

“Good morning, ma’am,” he said.

“Good morning,” Anne replied automatically. An awkward silence began, and Anne shook her head and smiled nervously, “Um, do you have a reservation for Gropdich?”

“Let me see,” the young man drawled as he tapped on his keyboard, asking her to spell the name. “No, ma’am, we don’t.”

“Not Philip Gropdich, or Anne Gropdich?”

“No, ma’am. No reservations under that name.”

“Hmmm,” she stared at the young man for a moment. He waited, clearly a little uncomfortable, but patient and attentive. This was definitely a quality hotel. Probably even a resort. “This is Casa Marina, isn’t it?”

“Yes, ma’am, it is.”

“Is there another Casa Marina in Key West?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Nothing?”

“No, ma’am, we are the only hotel of that name in Key West.”

What kind of game was her husband playing on her? He told her to drive for nearly an entire day to get here. Clearly he was here already, since his flight would have landed yesterday, but he did not even leave her a key, or a note, or a room reservation?

“Do you have a message for me, perhaps?” Anne asked. “For Anne Gropdich, or maybe Anne Collins?”

The young man tapped on the keyboard again, then looked in a few places behind the counter. “No, ma’am, no messages.”

Anne pulled out the mysterious black phone and frowned at it. She tossed into onto the counter and it slid a few inches, “Does that mean anything to you?” She ran her fingers through her hair, frustrated and uncertain what she should do next.

The young clerk looked at the phone, “Oh, are you here for the Bright Properties meeting?” He tapped away at his computer. “Will you be needing a single bed, or a double?”

Anne stared at him, and blinked. He smiled politely, waiting for her response. “Uh, I’m not sure, my husband might be joining me?” She hoped he would tell her.

“Would a king-sized bed do, then?”

She nodded, then asked, “Bright Properties meeting?”

“Ah yes, the orientation meeting is in the Keys Ballroom tomorrow at two o’clock. Your room is 307,” he pushed the key card at her and gestured to a bank of elevators, “third floor and to your left.”

“How much is the room?” she asked, feeling quite bewildered.

“The room was pre-paid as part of your convention fees,” he replied.

In a daze, Anne walked back to her car and pulled out her only clean change of clothes from her get away bag. She stank, and it looked like her husband would not be here until tomorrow afternoon. She shook her head, nothing was making sense. She grabbed enough money for a meal, and headed to her room.

Fatigue blinded her to the creamy décor and the Caribbean feel of the furniture in her room. She showered, then fell asleep on the bed before her skin was dry.

Key West, Florida – Friday, afternoon

Nathan Reynolds sat in the over-priced, snooty restaurant waiting for his sandwich, soda, and soup to arrive. This was some hotel. The kind of place he tended to avoid, because it was filled with the kind of people who looked down their noses at anyone who was not dripping money. But if the room was paid for, and he had not had to give over a credit card number for it, then he was certainly going to put his lunch on the tab of whoever had jerked his chain across the country.

Bright Properties. The name meant nothing to him. Probably one of those deals where he had to sit through a boring pitch about time shares. They were barking up the wrong tree if they thought he was the kind of guy who could afford a time share. You would think the company would do a little credit check or something. He was so deep in medical debt even if he had his old job back, he would never be able to repay it. Add to that how no one wanted to hire him for even a desk job. So yeah, he would eat his twenty dollar sandwich on the fools who wanted to pitch a time share to a man who had nothing. After all, it was not like he was missing work to be here.

A brunette with a hunted scared look in her eyes kept eyeing the doorway every time someone walked in. She sat at the table in front of him, so he had nothing better to do than watch her and the other people in the gilded restaurant. Most of them were boring, except the young brunette who started at every man she saw, both relieved and worried whenever he was not someone she recognized. That was a girl who felt her life was in danger. He knew the look. He had pulled a lot of people out of burning buildings who had that look. It struck him as very odd that she would have it here, in this sunlit, and golden tropical paradise. Made him want to punch the man who put that look on her face. Her husband, most likely, since she wore a simple gold banded wedding ring, and she kept twisting it on her finger. She repeatedly counted the cash she had, and once she asked the server the time. Nate guessed she was going to the Bright Properties meeting. When his bill arrived, he said over-loudly to his own server that he would put the meal on his room tab. His brashness did the trick, and the brunette put her money away with a look of relief that lasted until the next man walked into the restaurant. He did notice that she signed her lunch tab with a room number, and kept her cash to herself. Nate, hero to the end. He snorted derisively at himself, and moseyed his way to the Keys Ballroom.

He took a seat in the back of the large banquet hall. A podium was set up to the side, and a screen was pulled down in the center front. Curvy wood chairs with velvet upholstery were lined up in tidy rows. Looked like he was going to get a slide show with the sales pitch. He found the brunette sitting in the third row, center. She kept turning to watch the people entering the room. Waiting for her husband, he guessed. A motley group of people were attending this meeting. An elderly couple, who looked newly retired, and the married couple with expensive watches seemed to be the kind of people who should be here. The trio of young women, and the hormone driven barely-old enough to drink boy who kept staring at them from across the room did not. In bits and drabs the seats were taken, and the only thing in common they seemed to have was the look of confusion on their faces. Half the seats had been taken, and every one was spaced out, separating themselves from each other with as many empty seats as possible. No one seemed to know what was going on, and no one wanted to talk with anyone else. His rear row remained empty, just the way he liked it. Perhaps his glower when anyone tried to sit helped.

The clock on the wall behind the podium read two o’clock precisely when a short bald man carrying a briefcase and wearing an expensive suit walked through a small door on the side of the room.

“Good afternoon. I’m sure you are all wondering what this is about, so I will get right to the point,” the man said. His voice was the same that had called Nate two nights ago on his deserted bridge in the middle of the night, interrupting his planned suicide. He leaned forward and glared. The lights dimmed, and a Power Point slide lit up the screen. Bright Properties with its red, green, and blue logo glowed in the darkened room.

“You have all been invited to participate, to compete, in a cross-country road race,” the man said. A satellite map of the United States flashed on the screen. “The first place prize is thirty-two million dollars. Tax free.” A mountain of cash was the next slide. “The finish line of each leg of the race will be marked. You must cross the finish line to remain in the race.” On the slide was a pole with a red light at the top. “You will receive instructions on your cell phones.

“I must remind you that you may not tell anyone about this race, as that is grounds for immediate disqualification. This is an exclusive, and secret, illegal cross-country road race. You have each been selected to participate in this opportunity of a lifetime. You will be receiving a message in a few minutes. With that message this race begins. See you all at the finish line.”

The lights turned on, and the room sat in bewildered silence, unmoving. The Bright man turned and picked up his briefcase.

“Is this a joke?” The sloppy blond youth who had stared at the young women shouted. The Bright man turned.

“This is a very serious race, Mr. Thompson, and the prize is very real. Race, or not, it is your decision.”

That statement broke the thrall of the crowd and people all started talking at once, filing out of the room in a wild hurry. Nate watched the couple with expensive watches walk up to the man. They looked exhausted, worried, and confused.

“Where is my daughter!?” The husband’s anger could be seen in every line of his shoulders.

The skittish brunette was walking past Nate. She looked glazed and glassy eyed, and she walked woodenly, while everyone else was clearly racing to be ready to leave when the call came. Nate followed her out, but lost her in the crowd of chaos on the way to the elevators.

He stood next to a potted palm tree and watched them run around like rats in a maze, racing for the elevators, or the stair cases. He was a little dazed and glassy-eyed himself, he realized. Not a time share, but a race. An illegal, cross-country road race. Whose rules, he realized, he had no idea of, only that he had to cross the finish line, each finish line, to remain in the race. A race for thirty-two million dollars. That would pay his medical bills and still have enough left to set him up for life.

What the hell, he thought. He had nothing to lose. He pushed away from the palm and caught the elevator, full of antsy people, eyeing each other, eyeing the competition. This was going to be easy, Nate thought. No one here knew anything about pushing through and making it to the end. He knew more than his share about that. The elevator doors opened on his floor and he hurried to his room, to pack his bag, and win a race.

Keys Ballroom, Casa Marina, Florida – Friday, afternoon

“Your daughter?” Mr. Bright said, sounding a little bewildered.

Brian grabbed the short bald man’s lapels and tie and shook him. Jenn put a hand on her husband’s arm, trying to restrain him. “Please, our daughter, she was taken, where is she?” she pleaded with the man, hoping her husband was still in some control of himself. The room was empty now, so hopefully no one had seen him assault the man.

“Your daughter. Hmm, yes,” Mr. Bright said calmly despite being choked. Brian let him go. Jenn tried to hold his hand, but he would not let her, so she curled her hands around his elbow instead. Mr. Bright straightened his coat and tie, and said nonchalantly, “I really don’t know anything about that.”

Brian surged forward to grab him again, and Jenn held her husband’s arm tightly. Mr. Bright stepped backward slightly. He opened his briefcase and pulled out an envelope and handed it to her husband. He tore it open and paled.

“I suggest you get to your car, Mr. Miller. The race phones will be ringing any minute now to start the race. You never know what you might find at the finish line.”

As if on cue, the phone rang. Jenn jumped, and pulled the hated black device out of her pocket. The display read “Incoming Text”. She pushed the button and read. “Mainland. Go.” She pulled the paper out of her husband’s hands. It was a photograph of her six-year old daughter gagged and crying, holding this morning’s Florida newspaper. In red sharpie marker was written over the photo, “WIN”.

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