Free Fiction: Drive Part 2: Last Place

Every day this week I’m posting a chapter of Drive, for free. As I said yesterday, I’m needing some lifelines in the stormy seas right now, and stories are my way to stay afloat. We can float together!

Drive: Last Place by Jamie Aldis

You don’t want to be in last place in this crazy race! 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 without written permission.


Drive

by Jamie Aldis

Chapter Two: Last Place

Casa Marina, Florida – Friday, afternoon

Heather Lewis did not even stop to think. She could think on the road. She always came in first, and one reason for that was she took action when action was required, and thought about it when there was time. She and the girls could always decide they were not going to participate while they were driving. Hand in the race phone at the first checkpoint.

Tiff winked at the young hot rod who had been eyeing them before the meeting started. She was an incurable flirt, and Luc laughed at her. Heather smiled at the two of them. It felt like nothing had changed in the three years since they were last together. She slipped into the stairwell, forgoing the wait at the elevator. Tiff and Luc followed her, unquestioning. Just like old times.

It was not that the other two were followers. Quite the opposite, they were both smart and capable leaders. They had all just learned how to work with each other, when it was time to talk, and when it was time to move. Their bags were packed already, and Heather was glad she had the foresight to suggest that before the meeting. She slung her bag over her shoulder and pulled the handle out of her suitcase to wheel it toward the elevator, remembering the hurried packing she had done three days ago. She and her friends filled the elevator, after it finished disgorging other racers into the hotel hallway.

Three days ago she had gotten an email from Tiff and Luc telling her to pack for an adventure weekend sorority reunion, and meet at the sorority hall back at their alma mater. Not knowing what kind of adventure she was packing for, she had included a little bit of everything. She probably over-packed, but had figured if she needed to pare down, say for a hiking trip, she could do that when she knew where she was going.

She met up with Tiff and Luc at the sorority house, their bags also packed, and the current members in a flutter to have three legendary sorority sisters show up unexpectedly. Tiff had asked her first where they were adventuring. Her blank stare made everyone frown. They had just determined that none of them had originated the email that brought them all back together again when a black cell phone on the foyer table they were standing around had started ringing. Luc had answered it, and waved them all close enough to hear it when the stranger on the other end addressed the three of them by name.

So the adventure weekend was some road race, and she and her former sorority sisters were invited to participate. Definitely unusual. Not something she was sure she wanted to do. Especially if it was illegal. But that would not stop her from at least being in the lead while she made up her mind. She was not even sure which part of the race was illegal. Surely driving was not illegal. But it was a race, and speeding was illegal. But the way that Bright representative had said the word illegal gave it a lot more weight than going ten over on the highway.

She and her sorority sisters lined their suitcases up in the back of her Dodge Caravan with a precision and speed that made her smile. There was a reason the three of them had transformed their unknown sorority, the triple alphas, from its omega status into the most reputable sorority in the Ivy League. They had made everyone eat their a-cup bra jokes and proved that a sorority really could be a force to be reckoned with. Vassar would never be the same; the tri-alphas had raised the bar.

The ignition purred and she backed out of her parking space, trying not to hit the car pulling out behind her, yet still get out of her space first. She smirked when she saw it was the hot rod she had forced to stop and wait for her. She waved cheerfully, with her beauty queen smile, and in the seat behind her Tiff blew kisses at him. She laughed, and pulled out of the parking lot, heading for the highway. The rear view mirror told her they had slipped away before the majority, since the parking lot was rapidly turning into chaos.

The race phone rang and Luc answered it. “It’s a text message,” she said. The three of them waited breathlessly while the message flashed to the screen. “It says ‘Mainland. Go.’” Silence filled the car.

“Well, duh!” Tiff exploded, her expression showing just how stupid she thought the clue was. “I didn’t think we’d be racing the mile to get to the other side of the island.”

Heather snickered as she pulled onto Flagler and flew past the Key West airport. Hot rod was pulling up behind her as she turned onto the 1, so she cut him off, and kept next pace with a truck so he could not get around her. Tiff looked back, when she noticed how much attention Heather was paying the rear view mirror, and laughed.

“That’s right, buddy, eat our dust. That’s for thinking we are just dumb blonds with tits, that you can drool over as you please!”

“I take it we are going to race, then?” Luc said. Lucia Harris had always been the cautious one of the three of them. That was good, she tended to think things through more, and did everything the smart way.

“I figured we could decide that on the road. You know, just in case we do decide to do it,” Heather said.

“It’s just a weekend race, right?” Tiff said, “What’s the harm?”

“For thirty-two million dollars, I am pretty sure there is more to this race than that man was telling,” Luc said. “And if it is cross-country, it will be longer than three days.”

Heather frowned. Her twins were a little too much for her husband to handle on his own for three days, much less for longer. Three year old twin boys were too much for her and her husband to handle together, if the truth be told. She had welcomed the idea of a weekend getaway with the girls.

Behind her, the hot rod slowed down, crossed both lanes of traffic right, and sped on the right hand shoulder past the truck she was pacing. The paint on his car must have been trembling for it’s life, because the shoulder was narrowing dramatically as the highway left land and started the long stretches of bridges that spanned the Florida keys. Heather chewed her lip, sped past the truck, whose driver looked quite startled. It was too late, though. The hot rod had blown past them and was weaving through traffic ahead of her fast enough she would never keep up.

“Let’s see what the first checkpoint is, and decide then,” she suggested. “If nothing else, it is an adventurous weekend, right? And we can always leave come Sunday.”

The way Tiff and Luc both agreed but without much enthusiasm made Heather wonder if maybe their lives, like hers, were not shaping up to be quite the dream they had envisioned when they graduated.

Flagler Street, Key West, Florida – Friday, afternoon

Drew Thompson wondered how the hell a mini-van with a blond bimbo driving had gotten ahead of him. She had sweet tits, but she was still just a chick. Yet there she was blowing through the yellow light, and here he was stuck behind a couple of blue-hairs who clearly felt that yellow lights were quite scary. He banged the palm of his hand on the steering wheel in frustration.

The cell phone rang, and since he was just sitting at the longest light in the history of Florida he had plenty of time to answer it. “Mainland. Go.” The text message read.

“What the hell does that mean?” he asked the granny-mobile in front of him. “Finally!” he exclaimed as the light changed and the car in front of him took their foot off the brake. They didn’t quite know where the accelerator was, however. The car next to him drove off, so he pulled into that lane, cutting off a motorcycle with two black leather riders, and burned rubber through the intersection, barely managing to keep the motorcycle from hitting him as it fell over. Good, that should slow the rest of the racers up. That thirty-two mil was his. No one could out-drive him.

By the time he got to the 1, he saw the mini-van in front of him again. The babe in the back seat who wanted him bad waved as the bitch driving cut him off and blocked him in. “Shit!” he swore, “Hell, it’s not like I know where the hell I’m going anyway.” So he rode her ass, thinking about how he would ride all three blonds later that night. They wanted him bad, he could just tell.

He was on one of the little islands before one of the longer stretches of water when it finally dawned on him. Mainland. Of course. Screw following the babes, they’d want him even more when they saw him and his car at the finish line that night. Oh yeah. So he cut right before he lost the shoulder to the bridge section of road, and blew past them. “Eat my dust, babes.” He laughed. This race was so his.

Pool, Casa Marina Hotel, Key West, Florida – Friday, afternoon

“We have to go now, Lexi!” David Campbell said to his sixteen year-old daughter. He had three bags strapped around him, and two suitcases in tow behind him, and everything had bits of clothing sticking out from his hurried rush to pack.

“What?” His daughter pulled the iPod earphones out of her ears, and shaded her eyes from the sun that was behind him.

“Now! We have to go now!” he said.

“Why?” She sneered the word the way sixteen year-olds do best.

“They have a bug problem, and the exterminators are in our room, and we need to go! Now!” He gestured emphatically, and started walking away. He was immensely relieved when she caught up to him, carrying her iPod and the hotel pool towel. Now if only she would cover her bikini with the towel, so the tanned and muscled young men around the pool would stop staring at her.

Dave shook his head. Focus, he told himself. He had to get on the road. Already the other racers were pouring out of the parking lot, filling their cars, cursing, and running like mad with half-packed bags like his. “I’m sorry this isn’t quite the vacation I planned,” he said.

“Planned?! You picked me up from school and we ended up on the other side of the country! What part of this was planned?” she trotted beside him, struggling to keep her flip flops on as he raced across the parking lot to their car. What was he going to tell her? Why had that damn phone rung from his glove box when she was in the car? He shook his head again, as he dropped a bag to fumble in his pocket for his keys. He had to figure out something to tell her.

The race phone rang, and he dropped it as he was trying to dig it out from the bags he was putting into the trunk. Lexi, angry with him, climbed into the back seat of the car, and ignored him with her ipod in her ears. At least he had a few more minutes before having to come up with something to explain his erratic behavior the past couple days.

“Mainland. Go.” The text message read. “That’s easy enough,” he muttered to himself. “Now I just have to somehow manage to not be last.”

Flagler Street, Key West, Florida – Friday, afternoon

Nate was five cars back when he saw the motorcycle couple go down, cut off by the jerk kid driving the yellow and black Mustang GTO. Traffic inched by them, gawking, but no one stopped. Sometimes people really were just horrible. He watched the couple check each other’s helmets for scratches and dents, and pull up the 2008 BMW K 1200 LT while he kept inching forward as the cars in front of him allowed. Everyone was trying to merge lanes to the right to get around the downed motorcyclists. He stayed where he was and pulled up behind them. How many times had he pulled up a fire truck behind an accident to give the poor people a little space from the unfeeling monster that was traffic? He rolled down his window. One of the black leather clad cyclists was quick checking the motorcycle, and the other was looking at a race phone. 

“You ok?” Nate shouted over the honking horns, as he stepped out of his car. Both black helmeted heads nodded and the shorter one holding the cell phone slipped it into a zip pocket on her jacket and gave him the OK sign. He heard something muffled, and assumed whoever it was had answered they were fine. “You sure?” He asked again. They looked fine, and he’d seen plenty of people who weren’t, so he wasn’t too worried. But it was always smart to ask more than once. You never knew if people were just trying to be brave. The other rider gave him the OK sign, too, then climbed on the bike. The driver started the engine. They both waved at him, and shot off down the street. Nate smiled to himself. It was good to help again, though he wondered if it would cost him the race. Better to lose a race than to lose himself, he thought. Then he laughed at himself, and the irony of the thought. As if he hadn’t lost himself years ago, and been as lost as he ever could be, sitting on that dark bridge in the middle of the night, ready to throw himself off of it.

He drove like a maniac to make up time. Everyone else was driving like deranged lunatics, so he fit right in with his weaving and bobbing, and cutting people off. If this leg of the race was who got to the mainland first, it was going to be a very cut -throat ride along the Overseas Highway.

He finally crossed the last bridge into the mangrove swamp that marked the start of the mainland. He wasn’t first, but he wasn’t last, and that was good enough for him. He had pulled away from the pack, and could no longer tell if any of the cars within sight were part of the race. That comforted him, somehow. “I’m here, what now?” He said to no one in particular. Just then the race phone rang its distinctive ring. He had a feeling he was going to hate that sound before too much longer. Another text message. “Swell,” he muttered.

The tallest mosquito lights the way.

“Nice and cryptic,” he scowled at the screen. “I hate riddles.”

Everglades, Florida – Friday, afternoon

“Why are you getting off here?” Jenn asked her husband, who was turning off the highway in the middle of the damn swamp. Somehow exiting onto Southern Glades Trail didn’t sound like a good idea.

“We need gas,” he said, his voice tight and flat. The kind of voice he used when he didn’t want to be argued with. To hell with that.

“I told you to get gas in Key Largo!” she snapped.

“I thought I had enough to get to Florida City,” he snapped back.

“Well, you didn’t!”

“Have you figured out that damn message, yet?” he sneered at her. As if it were her job alone to decipher the damn riddle.

“Our daughter is waiting, and we can’t afford to get lost looking for a gas station in the middle of nowhere!” she yelled.

“You think I don’t know that?” his voice had turned hard and mean. It always did that now, when she mentioned Chelsea.

“There was no sign for a gas station,” she said, trying to sound a little less critical. They were both exhausted, and out of their minds. She didn’t even see an on-ramp to get back onto the highway. He ignored her and turned right onto a road that became dirt and mud very, very soon. “I think this is the wrong way,” she said. He ignored her and kept driving. The road became the briefest suggestion of a path, with many turns, and branches. Within minutes Jennifer had no idea which direction was which, and she knew her husband didn’t either, though he would never admit it. She was more than a little worried when they passed an alligator who slid into the watery world that infiltrated this whole land. She would never have thought one could get so lost, so fast, and so close to the highway. They had to be close to the highway, because they hadn’t left it that long ago. 

Her husband kept driving, his hands at ten and two, his knuckles white. When the car started sliding sideways into the mud, she realized why he had been so white knuckled. He’d kicked it into four wheel drive at some point, but when the wheels spun and spun without releasing them from the muddy ditch, she started to sweat. At least she hoped it was just a water ditch, and not the home of an alligator. She eyed the water just outside her door fearfully while her husband kept shifting the gears and spinning the wheels and trying to get them free. Fortunately, nothing moved in the swamp, or she might have screamed.

Seven Mile Bridge, Florida – Friday, afternoon

Anne saw nothing but the thin ribbon of concrete in front of her and miles of stunningly blue water in every direction. The sign said it was the Seven Mile Bridge, and she believed it. It was a little nerve wracking, actually, to have nothing but decades old engineering between her and certain death. Bridges gave her the creeps. But the view was certainly breathtaking. She wished she had time to enjoy it, as she sped down the highway. Most people seemed to have passed her already, but she just couldn’t bring herself to speed more than 20mph over the speed limit on these damn bridges. She’d been too tired, and it had been so dark last night, she hadn’t realized just how much water there was right here. Somehow she had thought Key West, as the southernmost point of Florida, was still on the peninsula. Until she read her map at lunch before the meeting. The scenery was beautiful, though.

She jumped when her cell phone rang, and fished it out of her purse. When she saw her husband on the caller id, her hands started shaking. She took a calming breath, and answered, “Hi, sweetheart! I miss you so much!” she said brightly, hoping she didn’t sound shrill or fake.

“I miss you, too. Look, hun, I’m going to be busy the rest of the day, so I thought I’d see if you needed anything?”

Relief flooded her and she hoped her husband had not heard the sigh that passed her lips. “So you aren’t coming home today?” she asked, trying to sound disappointed and wistful.

“No. I told you, I’ll be gone a couple days. You aren’t moping, are you?” he asked warningly.

“No. I just miss you, is all. I’m out running errands,”

“Mmm,” he replied, already losing interest. The surest way to end a conversation with her husband was to start talking about what she did in a day. “Don’t forget to pick up my dry cleaning. I’ll need my pinstripe on Monday.”

“Of course, the dry cleaning is my next stop,” she said. A shadow crossed her rear view mirror, and she looked back to see a man filling the entire view. He was so close she could hear his breathing. She screamed so loud it rang through the car, and she jerked the wheel of the car involuntarily. Horns sounded angrily from the car she nearly hit in the lane next to her.

“No, no, no,” the man emerging from her back seat said, his hands raised placatingly, “I’m not going to hurt you! I just needed a ride. Really, I’m not going to hurt you!

“Anne? Anne! Are you alright?” her husband yelled through the phone. She eyed the man in her rear view mirror. He had blue eyes, and brown hair, and there were lines on his forehead and around his eyes that indicated worry, or tragedy had aged him too quickly. “Anne!” her husband’s urgency jerked her attention back to the phone. She jerked the car back into the center of her lane.

“I’m fine. I’m fine,” she reassured him. “A car cut me off, and there was nearly an accident, but it’s all sorted out now, I’m fine.”

“Good. I already pay high enough premiums so you can have a car,” he replied.

Anne scowled, and struggled to keep her voice light, “I better go and pay attention to traffic. Besides I’m nearly at the dry cleaners. Bye, sweetheart, have a good night!” She clicked the phone off and muttered, “Wherever you are.”

She glared into the rearview mirror, “Now who the hell are you and why are you in my car?” Seven miles of bridge, and she had at least five of it left to go.

“I’m Jason. Jason Williams.” He kept looking nervously behind the car. “I, um, needed a partner. For the, um, race?”

“What race?” she replied evasively. If this was a test, she wasn’t going to fail. Her husband had trained her well in not failing tests like this.

“The illegal, cross-country, road race you are in.” He replied, meeting her eyes in the mirror. He seemed reassured now, and stopped looking quite as often to the highway behind.

“I don’t know what you are talking about, and as soon as I can stop, you are getting out of my car.” Anne wondered why she wasn’t more afraid. After all, she had been driving for over thirty miles with a stranger in her back seat, and she hadn’t even noticed. She should be terrified. But somehow, she felt no danger from this sad-eyed man who looked like he was only a few years older than she was.

“No, please. I can help. Really. My car wouldn’t start back at the Casa Marina. Piece of junk. And I do need a partner. So do you. You can’t race alone, no one can. Not and have any hope of winning.” Jason talked fast and urgently. “I can help, what’s the clue?” He reached into her purse and pulled out her race phone.

“Hey!” She yelled, and the car jerked to the right as she tried to grab the phone from Jason’s hands.

“Oh, mainland,” he sounded disappointed. “You haven’t got the next clue yet.”

Anne jerked the car onto the narrow shoulder, snapped on her hazard lights, and squeeled to a stop. “Get out!” she said.

Jason looked behind them, worried and afraid.

“Please, I just need a partner! So do you!”

“Get out. If you really were in the race, you’d have your own phone. Now get out!”

“Ok, ok, I’m not in the race. Not yet. But I will be if you say I am. I can be your partner! I can help.”

“You keep saying that, and you haven’t helped yet, except to slow me down. Now get out of my car.”

“Anne, please! How about we just make it to the next check point, and I can find a different partner from there?”

A shiver stole her breath. “How do you know my name?”

“I’ll tell you, if you just drive. You can’t afford to lose any more time! Please, I just want in the race. I won’t hurt you. I’ll tell you everything, can we just drive while I talk? Please?”

Cars were zooming by, and the clock was mercilessly ticking away. She just didn’t fear this guy, even if he knew her name. “Get in the front seat,” she said. He startled her by starting to climb through the center of the seats.

“Go, go, don’t wait for me,” he said.

She hit the gas so hard she billowed smoke from her tires. Jason was slammed back into the back seat. She jerked the steering wheel and veered back into the lane, cutting someone off so closely he had to slam on his brakes and turn into the shoulder himself. Jason fell and hit his head on the window.

“Ow!” he muttered. She glared into the rear view mirror. “Ok, maybe I deserved that,” he admitted, and began to climb into the front seat again. He settled down, buckled his seat belt with a rueful, lopsided smirk in her direction, then looked worriedly behind them. “Any, um, racers following you?” he asked.

“Haven’t seen anyone in a few miles,” she replied. “Now, how did you know my name?”

“My friend works at the hotel,” he explained, “and gave me a list of the people attending the Bright properties meeting, and what rooms they were staying in.”

“That’s illegal!” Anne exclaimed.

“Um, yeah,” Jason gave her a quizzical look. “So is this race.”

“Being in a race isn’t illegal!” She protested.

“Speeding is,” he eyed her speedometer as she flew by a family in a rental car who were ogling the vast ocean view of the bridge.

The miles flew by as Jason explained that he had heard about the race from a friend and he had learned that it often started in Key West. So he had moved there and waited, knowing sooner or later the race would come to town, and he could find a partner.

“So you’ve just put your whole life on hold for how long, just to try to get in this race?” Anne scoffed. “That’s no way to live.”

“Five years,” Jason said softly, his voice thick with emotion. He covered it quickly; so quickly Anne didn’t think anyone else would have noticed. She was a master of that kind of dissembling, and she recognized it when she heard it. “Hey, thirty-two million is quite a pay-off. More than worth it.”

“So how did you live in Key West?” she asked. She didn’t really care, but he had told her as much as he was going to, and conversation did keep the bridges and the Keys flying by. They were almost to the mainland now. She considered dropping him off in Key Largo, but maybe he would be useful getting to the next check point. So she crossed the last bridge to the mainland instead. She would decide when she found out where she was going next.

“I delivered pizzas,” he said, once again checking behind the car.

“Probably a good way to get to know the hotel staff at a lot of places,” she said.

“Yeah,” he replied.

The race phone rang. Anne snatched it out of her purse before Jason got to it and frowned at the message.

“What does it say?” he asked.

“It says, ‘The tallest mosquito lights the way.’”

“Oh,” Jason said. Some help he was.

Anne hit the gas pedal and began slaloming around traffic. If she was going to have to stop somewhere to figure out the clue, then she needed to buy herself some time to do it. Besides, she was hungry and Florida City was not terribly far. Sounded like a good place to stop for something to eat and to consult her maps.

A small silver sporty car blew past her so fast her car shook. She was speeding; he must have been breaking the sound barrier.

A few hundred yards in front of her, the silver car cut off a blue cop car. It wasn’t really a cop car, just the same make—royal something or other. When the back doors on the silver car opened, she took her foot off her gas pedal, and stared. Something was tossed out, and scattered all over the road. She heard two pops, saw a puff of dirt, and the blue car swerved violently, showering sparks and smoke. She jerked her steering wheel so far to the left her car was tilting on the dirt shoulder. Jason twisted in his seat, staring at the blue car as she zoomed past. The silver car, it’s damage done, raced ahead so fast Anne knew she would never catch up.

“What the hell!” she exclaimed, as she righted the car into the left lane, and kept on driving. “Who the hell was that?” 

“I don’t know. That silver Mitsubishi Eclipse isn’t in the race, as far as I know,” he said, tapping his fingers on his bag restlessly. “But the blue Crown Vic is. Bad day for him!” 

“The blue car is in the race?” Anne asked.

“Yep, Nathan Reynolds, drives a 1995 blue Crown Victoria, a rebuilt cop car, actually. Got some serious torque under that hood, actually. I figured he’d have been a tough one to beat. Guess someone figured out a way to beat him.”

“How do you know that?”

“He’s on the side of the road, ain’t he?”

“No, about the car and the guy’s name and all.”

“Oh. Um… I just, um, know.” Jason blushed. Clearly he was lying. Anne gripped her steering wheel so tightly her knuckles turned white. Just fifteen minutes to Florida City, and this guy could walk after that.

South Dixie Hwy, Florida – Friday, late afternoon

“Fuck!” Nathan Reynolds pounded the palms of his hands against his steering wheel, adrenalin causing his hands to shake. Cars were slowing, to gawk at him, but no one stopped. Burned rubber scalded his nose and his car was at a precarious tilt against the shoulder. He got out and cursed again as he saw the ragged ribbons of shredded tire clinging to his rims, and strewn behind him on the road. Cars were swerving around the dropped box and it’s deadly load of caltrops that the silver car had dumped right in front of him. He cursed the unlucky fate that made him the only person to drive over those evil things. When he found that Eclipse again, heads were going to roll. A quick trip around his car showed all four tires blown out and shredded beyond repair. He opened his trunk and pulled out a handful of flares then jogged the few hundred yards to where the caltrops began, and cars were creating a huge traffic jam to avoid them. He set the flares in a line guiding cars around the caltrops, the drivers so close to him, he could see their glares as they merged gracelessly into the left lane. Once the flares were in place, he began to pick up the caltrops and place them back into the box that held them. He should leave it for the police, but that would take far too long to try to explain, and might even land him in jail for the night since he couldn’t very well answer the question why someone might want to throw caltrops in front of his car. Besides, he thought of a better use for the evil little metal spikes; once he found that damned Eclipse. Horns honked their anger and traffic backed up. The flares would burn out soon enough.

He dropped the caltrops into his trunk, and for the first time he looked around. The road was a ribbon of grey stretching through nothing but swamp. “Shit,” he said, wondering which direction had the closer town.

A semi cut sharply onto the shoulder of the road, engine thrumming, and honked its horn in two short blasts. With a sigh of relief, Nate grabbed his bag, locked his car up, and jogged to the truck.

“Looks like you could use a ride to town,” the mustached and heavy set driver said with a friendly grin.

“I’d be mighty grateful,” Nate agreed as he pulled himself into the high seat, trying not to cringe at the stab of pain in his back. The truck roared and lurched into motion, cars making room for the behemoth or be rolled over. “How far to the next town?” he asked.

“Not far,” the driver said. He clearly wasn’t much of a talker, so Nate fell silent. About twenty minutes later they rolled into Florida City. The trucker pulled off at an outlet mall and let him out. “Good luck to you,” he said.

Nate smiled his appreciation, “Thank you for the lift!” He climbed down, torquing his back again. The truck rumbled off, revealing a tire center across the street, and a Denny’s just up the road. Maybe his luck was changing at long last.

Everglades, Florida – Friday, early evening

Brian shoved the foliage as far under the tire as his foot would go. The place stank, and so did he. The sun was low enough that his shadow was in his way, and he really did not want to be here after dark. Jenn, his wife, refused to get out of the car for anything other than the one time she peed. She even did that in the middle of the small road, jumping at a bird that took off from the swamp around them. She swore she had seen an alligator earlier, but he thought she was just paranoid. He had no idea how long he had been trying to get his car free of the mud pit he’d slid into, but the ache in his muscles, and the growl in his stomach told him it had been a while. He was coated in mud up to his thighs, and his hands were cut and bleeding from ripping the foliage off the local plants bare-handed. He hadn’t slept more than an hour at a time in four days, and he was ashamed that he hadn’t thought of Chelsea once since the car got stuck.

He squelched his way to the driver’s window and tried to ignore the swollen red eyes of his wife. “Ok, Jenn, I want you to put it into gear and slowly give it gas. When it starts to slip again, put it in reverse and try again. Back and forth until it’s free or I say stop.”

“I’m not an idiot, Brian,” she snapped, “I’ve been doing this for a freakin’ hour!”

Brian ignored her like he usually did and stepped back. He’d added a ton of foliage to both sides of all four tires, and hopefully this time it was enough. Jenn rocked the car back and forth pretty well, which surprised him. The tires were slipping, and he realized it wasn’t going to break free. He opened his mouth to tell her to stop when suddenly the tire bit, and the car lurched free. Jenn squeeled and gave it more gas and the car shuddered back onto the slightly drier and more solid surface of the dirt road and out of the slippery shoulder.

“Where you going?” he shouted, when she didn’t stop just a few feet away. She carefully turned the car around using a forty point turn to avoid getting near the soft shoulder. He sighed and waited. Something moved behind Brian, and he turned but saw only dark mud. Suddenly he saw nothing but yellowed teeth and the smell of decaying meat gagged him. He jerked back, slipped but didn’t fall, and ran for the car. The alligator had missed his head by mere inches.

He climbed into the car, not even noticing the towels Jenn had laid over the new upholstery, as he slammed the door shut. 

“I told you there was an alligator,” Jenn said softly. Brian did not answer her, and she put the car back into gear. They drove back the way they had come. Twenty feet later the car sputtered to a stop.

“Out of gas,” Jenn said needlessly. Brian’s eyes burned from the mud and the stench, surely that was all. He rubbed a fist over his cheeks to make sure. After all, men didn’t cry just because they ran out of gas.

Miami, Florida – Friday, evening

Drew Thompson pulled up to the drive thru window of McD’s and after handing over cash for his burger, fries, and coke he asked, “I’m looking for a tall mosquito. Is that like a building or a statue or something?”

The pimply faced kid gave him a blank expression, “I don’t know,” he shrugged.

“Thanks anyway,” Drew sneered and peeled out of the drive thru. He’d stopped and asked about fifty different people and no one knew a thing about a tall mosquito. He was beginning to suspect Miami might not be where he should have gone. In fact, maybe he should have stayed following those blonde babes. But then again, they were probably in the wrong place, too.

Denny’s, Florida City, Florida – Friday, evening

Heather slipped into the booth and waved her friends close. “Wasn’t that chick over there at the orientation?” she whispered.

Her friends each looked, trying to appear nonchalant about it. Tiff frowned, “Who?” she asked, her eyes scanning the crowded diner.

“The one with the maps!” Heather rolled her eyes.

“In the pink blouse, sitting with the hot guy?” Luc asked.

“Yeah, her!”

Tiff nodded, “I think she was at the meeting, you’re right.”

“She seems to know where she’s going. Should we follow her?” Heather asked.

“What makes you think she knows where she’s going?” Luc asked. “Because she has maps? That kinda tells me she doesn’t know where she’s going.”

Heather frowned.

“We have to keep heading north to get anywhere that’s anywhere, I say we do that,” Tiff said.

“And once we are out of the ass end of Florida, and I can get consistent cell service again, I can fire up the laptop and Google the shit out of this stupid clue.” Luc added, “We are damn smarter than that girl, and she clearly doesn’t know where the hell she’s going, and all those maps won’t tell her.”

Heather stared at Luc, who rarely cussed. They were all tired and hungry and none of them were used to not having the answers immediately. Still, she liked Luc’s plan of checking the internet once they could. She should have thought of that. Maybe she would have if she had that kind of cell phone. Good thing Luc did, it would give them a major advantage.

Denny’s, Florida City, Florida – Friday, evening

“There is no Mosquito, Florida,” Anne muttered to herself as she poured over the Florida map on her table.

“You’ve been looking at those for hours,” Jason Williams said, tapping his finger impatiently because the food hadn’t arrived yet. He’d offered to buy Anne dinner, hoping it would buy him some time. Enough time to talk her into letting him partner up with her, at least. Ever since he slipped up in the car, she’d clammed up and gotten suspicious. Stupid, stupid, stupid, he chided himself.

His burger arrived, along with Anne’s dinner, and she folded up her map neatly, precisely, nodding to herself as if she had decided where she was going and was confident in her decision. She couldn’t know anything from that damn map. He wondered if he’d made the right choice for a partner. She seemed so mousy. Then again, that’s why he’d chosen her, sure he’d be able to easily talk her into letting him join her, and then he could take over the real work of the racing. She ate her meal in stony silence, cutting each bite carefully. She ate a surprising amount of food, however, and was still finished before he was, even though he was mowing his burger and fries at a champion rate.

“Thank you for dinner, I accept your apology for stowing away in my car. Good luck in your race,” Anne said archly. She stood and was half-way to the door, carrying her bag and her maps, her keys in her hand, before he even swallowed his bite.

He raced after her and reached to grab her wrist. She jerked her hand away, flinching, even though she hadn’t even been looking at him. He raised both hands, spreading his fingers, showing he meant no harm.

“Please, don’t go just yet,” he begged.

“I don’t travel with liars, good-bye.” She turned.

“Ok, ok,” he was obviously going to have to tell her more than he had planned. He didn’t reach for her, since that clearly hadn’t been a good idea judging from the wild-eyed look she gave him. “I’ll tell you how I knew what I knew, if you’ll just sit down while I finish dinner. Five minutes, just five minutes,” he added when she cast a dubious eye to the food still on his plate. She turned and walked back to the table with a quiet dignity that somehow made him feel ashamed of himself, even though he didn’t know why. He sat down and took another bite of food. She arched a single graceful eyebrow at him.

“I read the files,” he said around the food in his mouth.

“What files,” she asked, looking away from his face. Probably so she wouldn’t see his half chewed food. Really impressing this girl, he was. He felt the embarrassment tinting his cheeks. He hated how easily he blushed. Made him a terrible liar.

“The files on the racers,” he swallowed quickly, and hurried to explain. “Mr. Bright left his computer alone, and I read the files.”

“Mr. Bright? The guy who ran the meeting?”

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s his real name, though.”

“You stole his computer?”

“No, I didn’t steal it!” Jason paled. They would have killed him for sure if he had stolen their property. The people who ran this race were mean. He knew that from experience. “I just read it. I got through most of the people racing.”

“What kind of files?” she asked, leaning forward. She was either curious or suspicious, either way she was still talking to him, and that was in his favor.

“Basics, names, where they’re from, what they are driving, stuff like that. There was a lot more information, but it was encrypted and I didn’t have time to crack it.”

“What was encrypted?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he lied.

She narrowed her eyes, and stood up.

“Ok, ok!” he said quickly, hating how bad a liar he was. “Two fields were encrypted. Special skills and Sponsors.”

Anne frowned but said nothing for several long minutes. Jason took advantage of the time and quickly finished his dinner and dropped enough cash to cover the bill and a small tip on the table, just in case she decided to leave suddenly again. Finally she looked him over suspiciously and asked, “Why should I believe you, and why should I partner up with you?”

“You need a partner,” he said. “Everyone does. This race gets brutal, and without someone to share the driving, you are guaranteed to fail. Besides, I know who the other racers are, and some of their strengths. I can help,” he spoke hurriedly, trying desperately to convince her. If she didn’t take him to the next checkpoint, he would never get in the race, never find out what he needed to know. “Like those three girls over there. Sorority sisters driving a Dodge Caravan, and the retirees in that booth over there who drive the motorcycle. He’s retired special forces, so they might be surprisingly competitive. I might not be good at the riddles, but I can help pay for gas, and drive, and who knows what else. You need help in this race, and so do I.”

“You don’t have a race phone,” she said.

“What?” he stuttered, his heart pounding in his chest.

“And you weren’t at the meeting,” she added. “You aren’t in this race.”

“I am, if you say I am!” his desperation swelled out of him before he could bite it back and think of something better to explain his lack of phone. Her eyes narrowed.

“You want in this race? How did you even know about it, since I get the impression it’s invite only. Especially since you say each racer has a ‘sponsor’.” Suddenly she got it, and whatever thought she had lit up her whole face. “You were in the race before,” she whispered, certainty tainting her words. Jason felt his stomach plummet as she said his secret aloud. But not his only secret.

Discount Tires, Florida City, Florida – Friday, sunset

“What do you mean I have to wait to Tuesday?!” Nathan Reynolds yelled at the lazy slob behind the counter.

“It’s a holiday weekend, sir. Tuesday is the earliest we can replace your tires. We are very busy.”

Nathan looked out the window where the tow truck was preparing to lower his car somewhere useful. He looked into the auto bays where there were no vehicles on any of the lifts, and four guys were eating sandwiches and laughing at something on the television. He looked pointedly at the appointment book in front of the lazy slob which was completely empty of appointments. Lastly, he looked at the window which proclaimed the operating hours of this establishment didn’t end for another hour, though it did say they would be closed for Labor Day on Monday. Nate reached over the counter and grabbed the shirt of the man, hauled him close, and yelled into his face.

“My car is right there, and that tow truck driver is ready to put my car into one of your empty bays where those four men who are clearly still on the clock for another hour at least, will change my tires Right. The. Fuck. Now. If you want to go home early for the holiday weekend, you’ll be doing it AFTER I HAVE NEW TIRES, or I’m going to harass the crap out of your boss all weekend, Phil, and let him know the reason he isn’t getting his vacation is all your fault, Phil. Have I made myself clear?”

Phil stammered and quaked, and nearly pissed himself, but he nodded. When Nate set him back on his feet he told the other workers to help get the car onto the lift, and began the paperwork for four new tires.

Florida Turnpike, Florida – Friday, sunset

“Where the hell are you going?” Lexi snarled at her father, breaking the angry silence she’d maintained since dinner in Florida City when he had confessed they were in a road race. She wasn’t pissed that he’d dragged her into a race, that was actually kinda cool. Pretty damned unusual for her wimpy brainiac father, but cool. She was pissed that they had been on the road for days, and days, and he hadn’t told her, and he’d made her manipulate it out of him for over a hundred and fifty miles. She’d needled him the entire time over all those damn bridges. She was almost seventeen, he could stop trying to protect her already.

“To the checkpoint,” he said calmly. Lexi rolled her eyes. Her dad was cool and all, but talking to him was a bitch sometimes.

“Yeah, and where is that?” she sneered in her best teen voice.

“You haven’t figured it out yet?” he said. The bitch of it was he wasn’t even sarcastic when he said that. Man was too smart for his own good. It never freakin’ occurred to him that not everyone carried an entire encyclopedia in their head.

“I can’t believe you have, and you won’t even tell me! Making a habit of that, aren’t you, dad?” she snarled.

“Lexi, I’m sorry! I should have told you. It all just happened so fast,” her father explained, yet again. Lexi rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, whatever Dad. I’m over it already, ok?”

He looked at her searchingly, hoping she meant it, and all was well. She sighed, and found to her surprise she really was. “So where are we going already?”

“Where do you think? What does the clue tell you?” he said in his best patient teacher tone. He couldn’t help himself. He was just that smart, and he felt it was his job as a father to teach her how to think. She sighed again.

“It said ‘the tallest mosquito lights the way’,” she said.

“And what does that tell you?” he asked again.

“Nothing!” she exclaimed. “There is no Mosquito, Florida, but everything in Florida has mosquitos!”

“What about the second half?” he asked.

“What? ‘Lights the way’?” she frowned. “Hell if I know.”

“Where are we?” he asked, changing tactics.

“Florida Turnpike, hell if I know where.” Her father frowned at her double use of “hell”. 

“Florida Turnpike, in Florida. What do we know about the terrain of Florida? What does it have a lot of?” her father asked.

“Besides mosquitos?” she quipped. When he nodded patiently, she sighed and gave up being resistant. “Beaches?”

He nodded again, smiling, “And what ‘lights the way’ on beaches?”

“Lighthouses!” she exclaimed triumphantly.

“Yes, that’s right! Very good.”

Lexi warmed in her father’s praise, even as she frowned at the still missing piece of the riddle. “A mosquito lighthouse?” she asked.

“Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse, actually,” her father said, dropping into lecture mode. “Mosquito Inlet was renamed Ponce Inlet, as was the light house there, but it boasts the tallest lighthouse in Florida.”

“Seriously?” Lexi asked. It seemed so simple when he explained it like that. Her father nodded, smiling. “Oh, we are SO going to win this thing!” she crowed.

Tourist Center, South Miami, Florida – Friday, after sunset

“I’m looking for a landmark, I think,” Anne Collins explained to the retired volunteer working the counter. She had been lucky they arrived a few minutes before closing. “At a place called Mosquito something? Maybe?” She pulled her best helpless female routine, which wasn’t difficult considering she had no idea what were the right questions to ask.

“Excuse me?” the volunteer whose name tag called him John frowned in confusion.

“My friend,” Anne laughed nervously, “told me to meet him where the ‘tallest mosquito lights the way’ and I’m afraid I don’t get his little joke. Can you help?”

“Nothing like that around here,” John said.

“Oh no, it would be a ways away yet. Not ringing any bells?”

“At a place called Mosquito, you say?” The retiree frowned. “There is Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse, would that be it?”

“Yes! That must be it!” she said triumphantly, relief flooding her veins with warmth. She pulled out her map and spread it across the counter, “Where is that? I didn’t see that when I was looking earlier.”

“Oh that’s because it isn’t called Mosquito Inlet anymore. It’s the Ponce Inlet now. It’s got the tallest lighthouse in Florida, you know.” John pulled out a brochure advertising the Lighthouses of Florida and handed it to her. She took it with a smile, slipped it into her bag with her other maps, and asked again where it was. He ran his old finger slowly along the coast, peering blindly at the map, clearly unable to read. “Should be, hmm, let me see, should be…” Anne leaned in close, her eyes scanning the map near his finger. “Near Daytona it was, I think,” John muttered. His finger passed Daytona Beach, clearing the map for her to read it.

“There,” she said, “is that it? Ponce Inlet, south of Daytona Beach?” She pointed excitedly to the small red letters on the map.

“Yes, that’s it,” John leaned back, smiling his joy at helping her.

“Excellent!” she said smiling back. “What is the best way to get there?”

“I’d take the turnpike,” he said. It’s got tolls, but you skip all the traffic of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.” He gave her directions for how to get to the turnpike and he even had a roll of quarters she could buy for the tolls.

Anne bounced into the car, grinning at Jason. She still wasn’t sure why she had let him continue on with her, but it was nice to have someone who smiled back and praised her for her decision to find a tourist information center. Her husband always criticized her for her maps and her insistence of stopping to ask questions at tourist centers when they were traveling. Jason smiled easily, relaxing now they had deciphered the clue. There was still something he wasn’t telling her, but she would think about that when she got to Ponce Inlet Lighthouse.

Tourist Information Center, South Miami, Florida – Friday, after sunset

“Yes!” Drew Thompson shouted gleefully in his car as he saw the mousy woman from the meeting get into her car at the information center. After spending several hours asking a lot of clueless people around Miami about tall mosquitos, someone had directed him here to this stupid tourist place, saying if anyone knew it would be here. He was sure he’d be arriving after they closed, and he was right, because he saw the old man inside lock the door behind the chick and turn out the lights. But she was smiling like she owned the world, and Drew pulled out behind her, but not so close it would be obvious that he was following her.

Homestead Toll Plaza, Florida Turnpike, Florida – Friday, after sunset

“A toll booth!” Brian exclaimed, “You have to be fucking kidding me!”

Jennifer Miller dug around in her purse and pulled out the quarters he needed. “I’ve got it, honey,” she said. She’d been throwing change into the bottom of her purse since they had left Oregon. With any luck she had enough to get them all the way. Hopefully some of the toll booths had attendants, so they could pay with bills and get some more change. Brian dropped the coins into the basket and the arm barring their way raised with an agonizing slowness.

“Don’t be last,” the gas man had said. “It’s bad to be last.” His words had chilled her then, and they still raised the hackles on her neck. The sun had been setting and she and Brian had been arguing about who was going to walk the miles to the highway to hitchhike to a gas station when a tow truck pulled up in front of them. A man had gotten out, asked if they needed help, gave them a few gallons of gas to get to Florida City. After they had thanked him for his timely help, he had said, “Don’t be last. It’s bad to be last.” Gotten into his truck and kept on driving. She and Brian had been more or less silent ever since, only exchanging enough words to deal with filling the gas tank in Florida City, and grabbing fast food for dinner. The silence suited her just fine.

She clicked on the passenger side reading light and opened the Frommer’s Florida guide book she had bought at the gas station in Florida City and set herself to finding the answer to the riddle clue on the race phone.

Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, Ponce Inlet, Florida – Friday, night

David Campbell spied the shining light in the distance. He smiled. He could smell the ocean as they drove down the narrow strip of land to the lighthouse. It had been a smooth trip, and Lexi, sitting quietly listening to her music, seemed to not only have forgiven him, but was enthusiastic about racing with him. He turned onto Peninsula drive which led to the lighthouse, and after a few hundred feet saw the glowing red topped pole that marked the finish line. He pulled up to it, seeing no other cars. He got out of his car, followed by Lexi when he spied Mr. Bright suddenly illuminated by the turn of the lighthouse.

“Congratulations, Mr. Campbell, you are first to the checkpoint,” Mr. Bright said. Lexi squeeled gleefully and jumped up and down waving her hands. David smiled at her joy. “Have a good night’s rest, tomorrow will be a big day. Your phone will ring in the morning. Good night,” Mr. Bright said, then walked away into the dark night. David blinked after him, rather disappointed.

“Does first mean anything?” he called after Mr. Bright.

“Indeed it does. It does indeed,” Mr. Bright paused and turned. “Sometimes there is an extra opportunity given for being first, sometimes, like here, there isn’t, but being first always matters, always counts toward the end. It matters very much.”

“Well, that was cryptic,” Lexi rolled her eyes after Mr. Bright had disappeared from sight.

“Shall we find a hotel room, then?” David said, climbing back into the car. He drove back north toward Daytona Beach, looking for a nice hotel with an ocean view. He had his life savings with him, and since he was going to die within the year, he might as well spend it. They passed several cars on Atlantic Avenue, and David realized that he had been first, but not by much.

Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, Ponce Inlet, Florida – Friday, late night

Jason Williams frowned as he watched Anne walk up to Mr. Bright. The punk kid who had tailed them from Miami on had cut in front of them as they pulled up to the red flashing finish line marker and raced ahead. He wondered if Anne was out of the race. If she was, maybe he should try to partner up with the punk kid. He had thought partnering with a woman would work better, but he was beginning to think Anne didn’t have the competitive spirit, and clearly the kid in the bumblebee did. Jason frowned until the kid’s name came to him. Drew Thompson, yellow and black Mustang GTO, that was it.

He got out of Anne’s car and met the kid before he climbed back into his car to drive off. “Nice ride,” he said approvingly.

“She’s a beauty,” Drew said, patting the yellow and black GTO tenderly.

“Look,” Jason began, “you followed us all the way from Miami.”

“So!” Drew bristled.

“Well, a sweet car like this, you must have been frustrated as hell at the grandma pace that she set.” Jason didn’t actually think Anne had set a granny pace, but a kid in a hot rod probably did. “And you wouldn’t have followed her if you knew where to go, so how about we team up instead?”

“What you talking about?” Drew asked suspiciously.

“I can help you figure out the clues, and you can help me get there a lot faster than her,” Jason jerked his thumb in the direction of Anne who was still talking to Mr. Bright. She didn’t look afraid, so she must not be in last place. Last place was very, very bad, he remembered.

“Hell, no, man. If I get a partner, it ain’t gonna be with some backstabbing bitch!” Drew got into his car and sped off, raining gravel on Jason’s legs.

“What were you talking to him about?” Anne asked, as she walked up.

“His car,” he said. She snorted derisively.

“So, what’s the next clue?” he asked.

“No clue. I’ll get it in the morning,” she replied. Jason noticed her pronoun of choice did not include him.

“In the morning? So we’ve got the night? Are you going to a hotel?” When Anne glared at him he hastened to add, “perhaps you could give me a ride, so I can get a room for myself?” She sighed, but gestured to the passenger seat. He climbed in quickly, before she changed her mind.

Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, Ponce Inlet, Florida – Saturday, early morning

Nathan Reynolds pulled up to the red lit finish line and turned off his engine. Cars were on the grass, and several tents were dotting the grassy field. He was last, he knew it. His only hope, destroyed in half a day by four flat tires, and a clue it took him far too long to solve. Hell, he’d only solved it by sheer luck, having to gas up near a place with a poster for some damned lighthouse tour which ever so conveniently gave him the answer to his clue. Even with the fates helping him out, he still failed. The familiar depression was settling into his bones. It had been fun while it lasted.

Mr. Bright appeared and nodded at him, so Nate turned off his engine, and walked over to the crisply suited man.

“So I’m last, huh?” Nate said first. He just didn’t want to hear it from the other man. “Guess that means I’m out.”

“You are last, but you are not out. Not yet, at any rate,” Mr. Bright said. “There is, however, a penalty.”

“What’s the penalty?” Nate asked.

Mr. Bright handed him a large, heavy envelope. Nate opened it, and out fell a .9mm Glock, heavy and cold into his hand. “It’s a gun,” Nate said, frowning.

“Yes. Tomorrow is an elimination round,” Mr. Bright said casually. “One team must be eliminated, or you will be.”

“Eliminated?” Nate repeated hollowly.

Mr. Bright looked meaningfully at the gun in Nate’s hands. “It is an elimination round, Mr. Reynolds. Your phone will ring in the morning with your next checkpoint. Have a nice night, Mr. Reynolds. Tomorrow is a big day.”

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