We are in the story now, aren’t we?! If you are just tuning in, I am posting a full novel, for free, this week. We all need a bit of distraction and stories are my personal floatation devices of choice. Let’s float together!
With deadly penalties, will anyone survive? 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.
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.
All Rights Reserved. This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
by Jamie Aldis
Chapter Three: Penalties
Days Inn, Port Orange, Florida – pre-dawn, Saturday
Jason Williams slipped out of his hotel room, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He did not have a confirmed partner, or even a ride for today’s leg of the race, but hopefully that would not matter. If he could just find the race vehicles he would no longer need a partner. That was his plan, at least. After all, to run a race of this size and magnitude must require a huge support staff. They kept such close tabs on the racers there had to be vehicles that followed the race, personnel who stayed close to the racers. Especially this early in the game when no one had died yet. He had made it to the finals in his race, and by then, not many were still in it, and no one was uninjured. He lost his race, and the day he got out of the hospital he vowed he’d find out who had made him lose everything. For Sarah. To avenge her death. Someone was going to pay.
The support staff that followed the race had to be in the same hotels the racers tended to use. They were on the same route, after all. It seemed reasonable. He had no hope of getting ahead, and finding the people who set things up in advance, but if he could just stay with the race, he had a shot of finding the people who followed it. He just needed to get to the finish lines first, so he could see everyone else come in, watch who came around but wasn’t racing. It was a weak plan, but it was the only one he had. It had taken him years just to find Key West was a starting point the race used more than once. Guess they liked making everyone drive across Florida a couple of times. Jason hated Florida.
He walked the parking lots of the hotels that lined this street, making note of the vehicles, license plates, makes and models, paying particular attention to any vans and other vehicles that could hold a lot of equipment. He found many of the racers, but that was not who he was looking for. He was looking for anything that had been at Casa Marina, and was here, that did not belong to a racer. He was looking for that silver Mitsubishi Eclipse that took out the blue Crown Vic. He suspected that Eclipse was what he learned to think of as a race thug. The muscle that took people out of the race when they, whoever they were, felt the rules were being violated. Not that anyone knew what the rules were in this illegal road race. Jason had long realized that they slapped that term illegal around a lot to keep people quiet about the race. Because the ones who broke the most laws were the people who ran this race, the people who sponsored it; the people who had so much money they thought they could buy someone’s life and play with it like it was some amusing game.
Nothing stood out and he never found the Eclipse. Just his luck. There was no way to know when the race phones would ring with the next clue, so he could not venture too far from where he was to check more distant hotels than the half dozen within his immediate area. He would have to hitch another ride to the next check point, and hope he spotted a car or someone he saw here at the next stop. His plan really sucked, but what else could he do?
He wondered if Anne would take him again. She was used to capitulating to men, if that call with her husband was any indication. Maybe he could find the right buttons to push so she’d give in. Who the hell had sponsored her, anyway? He would never have put money to get her in the race. But she had seemed like an easy mark, and she still was the most likely one to partner up with him.
The sky was lightening and the sun would crest the horizon soon. He walked back to the diner nearest the Days Inn Anne had gotten a room in. He picked a booth with a view of her car and ordered coffee. From his seat he could see her car, and maybe six other racer’s vehicles on both sides of the street. When the race moved on, he would know.
Diner, Port Orange, Florida – dawn, Saturday
Nathan Reynolds sank into the booth with a suppressed grunt of pain. Being a walking miracle hurt like hell most of the time. Sitting in his car for the past four days wasn’t doing his back any favors. The gun was a cold weight in his jacket. He had spent the last few hours driving around town looking for the Eclipse that had sabotaged him. He thought he would blow its four tires for a little payback, and fulfill his penalty. He never found the car. He had found several silver Eclipses, of course, but none he was sure was the bastard who had made him last.
He sucked down coffee and breakfast with an appetite that surprised him, watching the hotels release their collection of racers one by one. Most of them came here for breakfast, and all of them looked a lot more rested than he was. The motorcycle couple pulled up, and Nathan stared when they pulled their helmets off, shocked to see white hair and wrinkled faces underneath all the black leather. They grabbed a couple of seats at the counter. The sorority girls giggled their way into a booth, looking smug and confident. Across the street he saw the parents arguing by their car as they loaded their suitcases. They had a wearied, haggard desperation that would either knock them out early or carry them to the end of the race. A man with grim eyes watched the same racers Nate did. When he looked over at Nate, he nodded acknowledgement. He had not been at the orientation, but that might not mean he wasn’t in the race. When Nate did not look away, the man stood up and walked toward him.
“I see you made it,” the man sat down uninvited and extended his hand. “I’m Jason. I could use a partner, and you must have been up all night getting your tires fixed and getting here.”
Nate glared at him, “What do you know about my tires?” Had the driver of the Eclipse just sat down at his table?
“I was in the car behind you, and saw it all happen. You haven’t seen the car that did it to you, have you?” Jason asked.
“No,” Nate turned back to his plate, now empty of food. “Do you mind, I’m eating breakfast.”
“I don’t mind at all. I had my breakfast already,” Jason said with a cheerfulness that did not match his eyes. “So what do you say about partnering up? I could help with the driving, you could maybe catch a nap. Looks like you could use a nap.”
“Still trying to sucker up a partner, Jason?” The blond he’d watched at lunch yesterday walked past, shaking her head at the stranger sitting in the booth across from him. Was that really yesterday? It seemed like a lifetime ago. She sat and ignored them both, ordering her breakfast.
“You know her?” Nate asked.
“No, not really. I rode with her from Key West.”
“But she’s not your partner?” Nate knew the man wasn’t, because the skittish woman he had watched at dinner would never talk to the man who abused her the way she had spoken to Jason.
“Anne? No.” Jason answered, offering up no further details.
“I’m not a good partner. I was last in, last night.”
Jason paled and sat back, his eyes going wide. “You were last? If you’re here, it must have been a penalty round. What do you have to do?” He leaned forward, whispering the last question.
“Nothing. If I’m last again, I get eliminated.” Nate said, to deflect the man whose intensity and fear suddenly frightened him.
“Eliminated?” Jason suddenly looked even more afraid and wide-eyed. “This is an elimination round?”
“That’s what the guy said,” Nate, trying to sound casual.
Jason leaned close, whispering hoarsely, “Did they give you a weapon, or do you have to come up with your own?”
The gun suddenly felt fifty times heavier in Nate’s pocket. He stared at the man, willing him to leave his booth.
“They mean it when they say elimination round. If you don’t eliminate someone, and they mean dead or as good as, by the end of this leg, you’ll be the one dead on the side of the road. Good luck, man.” Jason slipped out of the booth and seated himself at Anne’s table. She looked like she didn’t want him there any more than he had.
Someone had to end up dead? Or he would be killed? Maybe he should just kill himself, and save everyone the trouble.
Diner, Port Orange, Florida – morning, Saturday
Anne rolled her eyes when Jason sat at her table. “No,” she said, finishing up her breakfast.
“No, what? I haven’t said anything,” Jason smiled his most charming smile. Anne rolled her eyes again.
“No to everything you might say. I’m not interested.”
“I could help you!” Jason insisted.
“I don’t find liars helpful, and I don’t need you or any other partner. Now go!” Something he saw in her eyes must have convinced him she meant it, because he stood. He opened his mouth to say something more when the race phone rang with a new text message.
“Shit,” Jason said, “are you sure I can’t ride with you?” He sounded almost desperate.
“I’m going alone,” she said, thumbing the race phone button as she dropped cash onto the table for breakfast and headed out the door with every other racer in the diner, leaving the staff looking rather bemused. Luckily Jason stayed at the table. He looked so forlorn staring out the window, she almost relented. Instead she reread the next clue.
The text message read, “It’s party time. She’s got a hi-fi chassis, maybe looks a little sassy, but to me she’s real classy.”
“Another riddle,” she muttered under her breath. “Just dandy.”
Motel 6, Port Orange, Florida – morning, Saturday
The ringing of the phone jarred Drew awake. He cursed at it and hit the silence button so he could go back into the sweet dream he was having of those sexy sorority girls at a car wash, and he was the car being washed. Thoroughly washed.
“Oh fuck!” he jerked upright. “That was the race phone! Shit, shit, shit!” He grabbed the phone and desperately searched until he found the clue. He wouldn’t hold it past them to delete the damn clue if he hadn’t read it yet. He checked the time stamp. “Five minutes ago?! Fuck!”
After taking a piss, bouncing up and down to make it go faster, he pulled some clothes on, shoved everything else into his bag wondering how the hell he was going to catch up. He had no fucking clue about these fucking riddles, and he’d planned to follow someone in the lead until the destination became obvious, then he could pull ahead and beat them to the finish line. It had worked better last night than trying to figure out the clue himself. Fucking riddle clues. He’d be first every time if it weren’t for the fucking riddle clues. He had the fastest car out there, by far, and he was easily the best driver. After all, he was the best driver he knew.
He jerked open the room door and stopped in his tracks, glaring at the guy who leaned casually on the driver door of his car. He had a bag slung across his chest, and he looked bored. Drew frowned when he recognized him as the guy who had asked him to partner up last night.
“I can help you figure out the clue,” said Jason.
“I don’t need your fucking help. Get off my car,” Drew said, jerking the handle up when the annoying man moved.
“Everyone has a five minute head start, and I heard most of them say they knew exactly where they were going. Guess if you know what the clue means, you’ll catch up easily.” With that the guy walked off.
Drew turned the key over in his ignition and read the clue again, “It’s party time. She’s got a hi-fi chassis, maybe looks a little sassy, but to me she’s real classy.” He had no idea what the hell it meant. Something about cars, though.
“Shit!” he cursed again. He pulled out of the parking lot, and up next to Jason, who had reached the sidewalk already and was walking casually as could be. “Get in.”
Motel 6, Port Orange, Florida – morning, Saturday
Jason tried to look like he didn’t care one way or the other as he slid into the yellow and black GTO. Relief flooded him and he choked on the urge to laugh with it. Watching all the racers hurry off, and him without a ride had given him a panic he did not want to think about. He needed to get a race phone. Begging for the clues was not helping him one bit.
He had spied the bumblebee at the Motel 6 with a laugh. Leave it to testosterone youth to oversleep and miss the clue. All he had to do was wait. And waiting paid off. Not only did he have a ride to the next checkpoint, but a white van that he suspected had been in Key West had pulled out shortly behind the racers. He had never seen anyone get into it, so whoever was driving was in it already, and watching. Jason wanted to find that van and he suspected it would be just what he was looking for. But facing that without any preparation would be suicide. He needed a gun, and he knew just where to get one. That lump in Nate’s jacket wasn’t a book. Yep, the man was the walking dead, because he clearly didn’t have it in him to take anyone out, and if this was an elimination round, well, Jason might as well benefit from the race phone and the gun that would soon have no owner. He just had to catch up to them.
“So where are we going?” the young kid asked.
“I’m Jason, I didn’t catch your name?”
“Drew. Where are we going?”
“What is the clue?” Jason asked. Drew tossed the phone at him. He frowned when he read the riddle. This would take some time to think, and it looked like the kid was not feeling patient.
“We go north on I-95,” he said, affecting confidence. After all, they were still in Florida, and it was unlikely the race would take them south again.
“And then where?” Drew demanded.
“I can’t tell you all my secrets, or you might decide to go it alone,” Jason prevaricated. Drew fell silent, and turned onto the interstate heading north. Jason frowned at the riddle. Something seemed quite familiar about it.
I-95 northbound, Florida – morning, Saturday
Lucia snapped shut her laptop and disconnected her mobile phone. Both were warm and plugged into the cigarette lighter of the car. She grinned at her friends, “Most of that message is the lyrics from a song, “Tallahassee Lassie,” she said triumphantly.
“Then we drive to Tallahassee,” Tiff said.
“Where in Tallahassee?” Heather asked.
“Somewhere there is a party, maybe?” Luc replied.
I-95 northbound, Florida – morning, Saturday
The cold gun was heavy in his jacket pocket. Nathan Reynolds drove with one hand, the other sweaty palm twitched occasionally over the gun. He had dedicated himself to saving lives, and they wanted him to take one, just to stay in some stupid race? What kind of race was this anyway? Who put a gun in the hands of a suicidal man? If he just quit now, he would be eliminated, and save himself from becoming a murderer. Or he could put the bullet through his own head first, and save the game masters from “eliminating” him themselves.
On his left Anne passed him. Anne. He had learned her name today. He hit the gas pedal and kept pace with her, though he was not sure why. He was not going to eliminate her. Better he eliminate himself.
His heart calmed, and it took him nearly five miles to realize he had decided. He would get to the next checkpoint, hand back the gun and tell them to stuff it. He’d be out of the race, but his bridge waited for him like a warm blanket on a cold winter’s night. If they killed him to eliminate him, a threat that had seemed quite clear when he was handed the gun, so be it. Bridge or murdered, he’d end up where he started this race, and that was fine with him.
Maybe he’d be able to talk to Anne before that happened. Maybe he could buy her lunch, or a tank of gas, and tell her that no man was worth the haunted look in her eyes. He followed her, content and at peace with his coming death.
I-10 westbound, Florida – mid-morning, Saturday
Jason gave Drew due credit, he drove fast. Once he knew where he was going, he had the car and the driving skills to get there fast. They had passed at least a dozen racers on the way to Jacksonville, including Anne. Jason had cheerfully waved at her as they flew past. She could eat his dust now. They were hauling west toward Tallahassee. He had no idea where in Tallahassee they were supposed to go, but he was planning on finding a telephone book to help answer that question.
He spotted the silver Eclipse moments before Drew changed lanes to pass it. Jason looked right, the Eclipse driver looked left, and recognition flooded both eyes. This was the man who had spotted him coming out of Mr. Bright’s room in Key West when he’d stolen a look at the files. This was the race thug whose assignment was probably to kill him.
“I think that guy we just passed is going to try to race us,” he said as casually as he could manage with his heart in his throat.
“He’s in the race?” Drew asked, his foot already on the gas. Young, dumb, and full of testosterone, this kid was the perfect race partner. Too stupid to ask awkward questions, and any kind of race he could win was fine by him.
“Yeah, I saw him in Key West,” Jason answered, not exactly lying.
As the bumblebee sped up, so did the souped up Eclipse. Drew took to the challenge, and the blood drained from Jason’s face as the speedometer climbed into three digits while they wove in and out of traffic like maniacs. He tugged his seat belt, making sure it was secure. After his last race, he never rode in a car without wearing his seat belt. It had saved his life more than once, then.
Drew raced up the tail pipe of a semi and cut off a dark red Camaro that Jason realized was also in the race. He looked over and saw the angry faces of the pissed off race team. He’d remember their names later when they weren’t flying down the highway at excessive speeds. He turned and watched behind him as the silver Eclipse tried the same maneuver. Only the Camaro had sped up, not wanting to let the bumblebee beat him so easily. The Eclipse cut him off anyway, without enough room, clipped the Camaro’s bumper. Jason gasped as the Camaro spun to the right then flipped, rolling down the lane like a child’s toy. The Eclipse spun out of control to the left, ending up in the ditch next to the highway median. Suddenly the Camaro blew up, shooting flames into the air while the Eclipse driver got out of his vehicle. Jason was too far away to be sure, but he thought the Eclipse driver was looking at him, and not the fiery disaster he had caused.
“Holy fuck!” Drew exclaimed, his knuckles a little white on his steering wheel. He eased the car back into double digit speeds, but kept barreling across the Florida panhandle.
1-10 westbound, Florida – mid-morning, Saturday
“Oh my,” said David Campbell as he inched pasted the burning wreckage of an upside down car. The fire truck blocked the lane, and the ambulance left little room to see, but he could see enough. “Don’t look, Lexi.”
“They are dead, dad,” she said, her voice sounding small, and scared like she used to when she was five and afraid of the dark.
“Let’s not think about that, Lexi,” he said. All too soon he would be dead, too. He had to win this race so Lexi had the college money she would need.
“Do you think it was a racer?” she asked, still gawking as he edged onto the left shoulder as directed by the emergency flares. The road opened back up to all lanes a few hundred yards ahead.
“I don’t know. I do think other racers are stuck in that,” he pointed to the bottleneck of practically stopped traffic behind them. “We have a good shot of winning another leg,” he added, hoping to distract his daughter from the flame gutted vehicle.
“Yeah,” she said. “Just drive safely, ok Dad?”
“Always, my girl, always.” He did always drive safely with her in the car. She was his future now, since the cancer had stolen his.
1-10 westbound, Florida – early afternoon, Saturday
“Tallahassee is in a few miles,” Heather announced loudly to her napping passengers. “We need to come to a consensus about where we are going.” The debate had waged most of the morning, as they sped down the interstate. Not long ago the bumblebee car had passed her, flying by so fast she had to grab the steering wheel with both hands. He had a guy with him she did not recognize. It was time to start paying attention to the other racers and how they did things, if she and her girls were to pull head into an incontestable first place.
“I still think it’s the state senate building,” Luc said, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
“And I think it’s Party City,” Tiff replied, as she had a thousand times on the drive.
“Yes, and I think it’s that party planner place. Now that we all remember our previous stands, let’s make a decision. Missing the right exit because we were arguing won’t do us any favors.” Heather said, exasperated. It was rare that the three of them did not agree. At the worst, only one person had a differing opinion and majority rule was usually correct.
“Come on! Party time, NOT capitalized, has to mean political parties, right?” Luc insisted.
“You only think that because you work for a congressman,” Tiff argued. “Two of us think it’s a party party reference, so I say majority wins.”
“And the senate building is the farthest west, of the three addresses we are considering,” Heather added. They had Googled Tallahassee extensively, narrowed down their three guesses to specific addresses, and had even written down the directions to get to each of them. They were prepared, now all they needed was to agree on a destination.
“That’s true,” Luc said. “In fact, they are all pretty close together, all things considered. So what if we just hit them one at a time, closest first. It’s only one exit difference and Mahan Street goes pretty much where we need it to.”
“We could lose valuable time,” Heather said.
“And that yellow sports car already blew past us,” Tiff added.
“If we argue we’ll lose more time, and so what if that kid is ahead of us. Staying in second until the end is not a bad strategy. We don’t burn out always trying to be first, so we have the energy left to blow the competition out of the water by the end.” Luc said.
A thoughtful silence descended in the mini-van. “Mahan Drive is in two miles, am I taking it?” Heather asked.
“I say take it,” Luc said.
“All right,” Tiff agreed. “But drive fast, if you can. It’s a long stretch of road.”
“Only five miles,” Luc snorted.
US-319, Tallahassee, Florida – early afternoon, Saturday
“You fill the tank, I’ll find a phone book,” Drew ordered. He was sick of the man and his constant talk about getting a damn map. He didn’t need a map, and he didn’t need a partner. The man was just irritating, talking like he knew best, like he knew anything more about this race than the rest of them. What a retard.
“You got a phone book I can look at?” he asked the guy behind the counter. A silent point outside the mini-mart to a phone stall nearby was the only answer he got. After a huge and satisfying piss in the men’s room, he headed to the phone book. Jason went for his own piss.
“Tallahassee Lassie has got to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he muttered to himself. “The man must be pulling my leg. That can’t be a song.” Jason insisted they were going to a bar or some other place called the Tallahassee Lassie because he said that’s what the clue was, song lyrics from some dumb ancient song called Tallahasse Lassie. He was pretty sure the damn clue had something to do with cars. A chassis, after all, was in a car. He didn’t know what the hell Jason was talking about when he said it was a metaphor. There was no damn metaphor in a car chassis. He knew cars, and there was no car part called a metaphor. He shook his head, and flipped through the ratty phone book pages. “What the hell am I looking for?” he asked the dog-eared book.
Points of Interest, the table of contents answered him. “What the hell,” he muttered as he flipped to the page. “Hell yeah!” he shouted out loud, “I knew it!”
“Find something?” Jason said, right behind him. Drew jumped a foot out of his skin, he was so startled.
“Right there, bitch!” He stabbed at the page. “I knew I was right!”
Jason looked at the page and frowned, “You think we are going to the Tallahassee Automobile Museum?”
“Fuck yeah, I do!” Drew started walking to the car. Jason did not follow him. Fine with him, he knew where he was going now. He looked over his shoulder and saw Jason looking hurriedly through the phone book. He reached his car door and was almost disappointed to see the man jogging up to the car. He shrugged and pushed the unlock button on the doors.
“What were you looking up?” he sneered.
“Tallahassee Lassie in the white pages,” Jason said neutrally.
“Because you are going to find nothing at the Automobile Museum except a museum.”
“Whatever, jackass.” Drew burned rubber pulling out of the gas station. Jason would soon be eating his words and telling Drew he was right, had been right all along.
Tallahassee Lassie, Tallahassee, Florida – early afternoon, Saturday
“That’s it, right there!” Jennifer Miller pointed across the street, pulling on her husband’s shoulder. He would have flipped if she had been wrong about where they were going, but there it was in bright colored balloons. The day had gone remarkably well. Other than some slow traffic because of an accident, they had made great time.
“All I see are some balloons,” Brian griped.
“But it’s the color of the balloons,” Jenn said. “Same colors as the Bright Properties logo.”
“How can you be sure?” Despite his disbelief, he slipped into the left turn lane to u-turn so they could pull into the place she had pointed at.
“Trust me, no one uses orange, yellow, green, and purple together like that without a reason,” Jenn explained.
They pulled into the driveway, and Jenn pointed in triumph, “Look! See? Tallahassee Lassie Event Planners, this is it!” Balloons and swag festooned the window and doorway in the colors of Bright Properties. She knew it was the right place, she could feel it in her bones. There were a few other cars in the parking lot, but the event planners shared the lot with the other stores and businesses in the strip mall. After Brian parked, she leaped out and ran to the door only to find it locked. She nearly kicked it in her frustration.
“Look, hun, there is a sign.” Brian grabbed her hand and pulled her to the right. She spotted the small sign he must have seen. Bright Party, follow the arrows. A small, colorful arrow was painted on the sidewalk, curving around the side of the building. They rounded the corner and saw more arrows on little signs and balloons floating above them. They hurried through the alley, past the delivery door to the Tallahassee Lassie, and through a fence whose gate was brightly decorated in the party colors. Past the bushes that crowded the path just the other side of the fence, and over a small bridge that spanned what looked like a flood control waterway, Jenn and Brian emerged into a park. A bamboo fence was set up, more swag and balloons decorating it. Music pulsed from inside. They walked around to the entrance, and saw the bamboo area filled with people partying. They wore costumes and masks. There was music and balloons, food and lots of people pretending to have a good time. At the entrance to the party was the flashing light post of the race marker. A small sign on the post read, Party ‘till you puzzle out a clue.
“So we go in?” Brian asked.
“Looks like,” she said. “I wonder if they have food?”
Automobile Museum, Tallahassee, Florida – early afternoon, Saturday
Jason kept up with Drew as he raced through the whole museum. It was the wrong place, Jason knew it was the wrong place, though it hadn’t been a bad guess. He hoped Drew would concede that they were not in the right place soon, before they ended up being last. If Jason arrived in the last car, they would surely spot him and wonder who he was. The race did not like strangers getting involved, and it would not take them long to identify him. He was as good as dead if that happened. He needed a smarter partner than Drew. The kid drove fast, and he seemed to arrive at the lead. But then he wasted all his time being stubbornly wrong. Maybe Anne with her maps was a better partner after all.
Tallahassee Lassie, Tallahassee, Florida – early afternoon, Saturday
“Why does everyone follow me?” Anne muttered to herself as she pulled into the festively decorated parking lot. The lot had several cars belonging to other racers. The blue Crown Vic that had followed her all day pulled in behind her. She got out and hurried around the building to the party. He might have followed her, but she’d be damned if he beat her to the checkpoint.
She frowned at the message on the race pole and entered the party. It looked like a Halloween party. There must have been miles of bamboo walls and hay bales set into a large labyrinth. People in masks and costumes partied manically. Anne frowned again.
“Excuse me, where might I find a clue?” she asked a trio of clowns who drank from large colorful bottles. They ignored her completely. She tried asking a few others, as she stumbled around the first curve of the maze, jostled by the closely packed people. Everyone ignored her. She spied a collection of balloons floating nearby, so she pushed her way through. The crowds thinned a little, and Anne could breathe easier. In a dead-end alcove sat a folding card table, decorated with a plastic tablecloth, balloons, and a large bowl with puzzle shaped pieces, each a different color. The hay bales that created the walls here were swagged heavily in the same vibrant colors as the rest of the party decorations.
“It looks like a leprechaun vomited too much grape kool-aid,” a deep voice said behind her. She jumped and spun defensively, automatically cowering, one hand protecting her head, the other her stomach. The tall, handsome man took a step backwards and raised his hands, palms showing. “Easy, I’m not going to hurt you.”
Anne blushed furiously, but ignored her reaction. “You are the one who followed me.”
“Yes,” he said simply. “I wonder how much they paid that leprechaun for his kool-aid spew.” He gestured to the decorations. Anne laughed in spite of herself. She noticed a brief look of satisfaction on the man’s face, as if he had wanted to make her laugh.
“Too much, I’m sure.”
“I’m guessing that’s part of the clue we are supposed to find,” he said, reaching into the bowl. He pulled out a handful of puzzle pieces. Each was the size of the palm of her hand. They were all different colors. The man held up two different pieces, letting the others fall back into the bowl. They both showed a trio of colorful balloons and an H – A, where the A was cut in half. Only the background color differed on the puzzle pieces. He kept a purple one, and dropped the other into the bowl. Anne reached past him and dug around the bowl to verify all the pieces were the same. She ended up selecting a green piece.
“I’m Nate,” he said when she was finished, holding out his hand for her to shake.
“Anne,” she said, moving her puzzle piece to her other hand so she could return the shake. “So you didn’t let Jason ride with you, after all, huh?”
“No,” Nate said. “What is his story, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Look, not to be rude, but I’m sort of in a hurry here.”
Nate chuckled, and his face lit up with his mirth. Suddenly he went from a man with too many sorrows to the most beautiful hunk she had ever laid eyes on. Except her husband. She ripped her eyes away from Nate’s face, and turned away guiltily thinking of the beating her husband was going to give her for even thinking another man was handsome.
“I see another cluster of balloons a short way over there. I’ll bet it’s another table,” Nate said, his tone sounding cautious. Anne surreptitiously wiped the tears from her eyes before she turned around.
“Do you think we need to put together this puzzle, or find the center of the maze?” she asked.
“Knowing these people, both,” he replied.
Anne closed her eyes and shook her head. “Goody,” she said sarcastically.
“I’ll be happy to lend a pair of tall eyes,” he offered. “After all, it only seems fair since you led me to the right party. And I’m pretty good at finding my way through maze-like buildings with limited visibility.”
Anne hesitated. He was probably trying to con her, and when they found the end he’d push her aside.
“I swear on my life, when we find the finish line here, I’ll wait for you to cross it first,” he said. His voice cracked with intensity and a hopeless despair that Anne recognized as similar to her own. She believed him down to her bones.
“Ok,” she said. “You said there was another table you could see?”
“I can see a cluster of balloons,” he clarified. “But it’s as good a start as any.” He took a few steps to the curve, not even bothering to be polite as he pushed aside some costumed partiers. He looked both directions, and eyed first the entrance, then the table, and then he took a very hard look at what little they could see above the tall walls of the maze. She realized he was getting his bearings. Already she felt better about having his help through the maze. Moments later, he nodded to her and chose the route to the left. She stepped behind him, and followed in the wake his broad shoulders made through the sea of loud party goers.
Bright Party, Tallahassee, Florida – early afternoon, Saturday
Drew crowed with triumph when he found the first table with a bowl of puzzle pieces. He turned to say something sarcastic to Jason, but realized Jason was no longer with him. He was still pissed Jason had been right about the museum, and he’d gotten even more pissed with they had arrived at the party and seen so many damn cars already there. Jason had vanished and he was glad to ditch the dead weight. He grabbed a puzzle piece and pushed his way through the crowd wondering how many puzzle pieces he had to find.
Bright Party, Tallahassee, Florida – early afternoon, Saturday
Jason hurried after Nate and Anne. He had spied them just as they rounded a corner. He flew by the table with the puzzle pieces. After all, this wasn’t his race, he didn’t care about the damn puzzle. In fact, it was better if he never made it to the center, where he was sure the finish line would be. He did not want to be recognized by Mr. Bright. Rotten luck that it was same man from Jason’s race. Jason wondered if he knew anything or was he just the hired help? He might have some of the answers Jason wanted. He needed that damn gun before Nate reached the finish line. He needed to get a lot more serious, and be a lot more threatening when he found the people responsible for this cursed race.
He hurried around a corner and stopped at a dead-end. “Fuck!” he cursed at the ornate swag in front of his face. Then he gasped and narrowed his eyes as he realized hidden in the copious folds of plastic there was a black eye looking back at him. “Fuck!” he swore again. He grabbed the eye and pulled it out. It was a wireless camera. He shoved it back into the swag, even though he wanted to stomp on it, and backed out of the dead-end. They might not notice him in the video feed if nothing happened to the camera.
He looked around, peering through the milling masked crowds at the walls and the decorations. There were little cameras set up around the maze, most at eye level, masked in the decorations. About waist height at several of the intersections were glowing red sensors. If there were cameras, someone was watching. That someone was undoubtedly close, since he was sure the range on the wireless cameras could not be that far.
He spied Nate again, and hurried toward him. He crashed into the big man, who gasped with pain as he clutched at the wall with one hand, and his back with the other.
“What the hell!” Nate snarled, “Watch where you are going!”
Jason slipped the gun he had just stolen from Nate’s jacket into his own pocket, and helped steady the man. “Sorry man, I didn’t see you there! You ok?” he asked.
“Old injury,” Nate’s voice was clipped and short. He still clutched the wall, his face pale with pain. “It’ll pass.”
“Still causing trouble, I see,” Anne said. She dug around in her purse for a moment, and pulled out a bottle of Advil. “Would this help?” she asked Nate. He nodded gratefully and spilled four pills into his palm and swallowed them dry.
“Look, there is a punch bowl on a table over there,” Anne exclaimed. She and Nate moved toward it.
“Smile pretty for the cameras,” Jason quipped. He pointed in response to their confused expressions, gesturing to the cameras and the other sensors. “We are being watched.” With that, he turned away and headed back the way he had come.
The watchers had to be close, but he doubted they were in the maze itself. He found the exit, passed a few other racers who looked worried about their standing in the race when they saw him leaving. Let them think he was ahead of them. He had a different mission. He circled around the exterior of the huge maze walls. He found the electrical wires sticking out like an umbilical cord. He paused to check the gun. It contained a full clip of bullets, appeared clean, and ready to fire. He put the gun in his hand, and carefully stalked his way around the cluster of bushes that the wires disappeared into only to frown in disappointment when he found the end of the line. He tucked the gun back into his waistband as he eyed the generator and the several other boxes of various electronic equipment, including several large antennas.
This must be where the signal from the cameras was being routed, and probably sent to another receiver. Maybe he could still find it. He jogged back to the Tallahassee Lassie office and tried the doors and the windows. He could not see in at all. He was tempted to break the window, but there was so much traffic on the major road in front of him that was a bad idea.
That’s when he saw it. The white van was parked on the far side of the parking lot. It sat alone toward the end of the row, near the grocery store that sat in the same strip mall. Several antennas poked into the sky from its roof. Jason was sure it was the same van in Port Orange that morning. This had to be it. He pulled the gun from his waistband, flipped off the safety, and keeping low behind other cars in the parking lot, he hurried to the van. Hopefully the occupants were too busy watching the party to notice his approach. Surprise was all he had on his side.
He ran the final distance to the van and threw the door open while his other hand pointed the gun on the inside. He saw blinking lights and enough electrical equipment to satisfy any doubt he may have had. “Don’t move!” he ordered the two men seated in the chairs monitoring the equipment. They stared, unflinching, at his gun aimed at their torsos.
“You will tell me what you did with my wife!” he snarled.
Behind him a loud female voice shouted, “Freeze! FBI, put the gun down!” Cold fear rained icicles through his veins, and his palms became so sweaty he had trouble holding the gun. The man nearest him shifted slowly, unthreateningly, revealing his FBI badge clipped to his waistband.
“I said PUT THE GUN DOWN,” the woman behind him shouted. Jason swore he heard the safety click off her gun. He dropped his gun on the floor of the van and raised his hands.
“There has been a terrible mistake,” he said to the FBI agent who moved so fast to grab Jason’s gun, that he hadn’t seen him leave his chair. He was slammed from behind into the side of the van, his arms twisted behind his back and cold metal encircled his wrists before he even took his next breath. “I can explain,” he muttered into the cold white paint.
Bright Party, Tallahassee, Florida – early afternoon, Saturday
Anne had an entire puzzle. It was comprised of nine pieces, and it looked like a birthday cake that said Happy Birthday! With Nate’s help she had gotten all nine pieces, now they were trying to find their way into the center of the maze. They had walked by it at some point, but without a completed puzzle, the masked thugs with bulging biceps wouldn’t let anyone pass. Anne was glad for Nate’s height and sense of direction, without him she would have been as hopelessly lost as were most of the other racers they ran into in the maze.
Her phone rang, and she had it out and flipped open before it even occurred to her that might not have been the best idea. “Where are you Anne,” her husband’s cold and angry voice echoed through the phone before she even said hello. The threat in his tone chilled her and her hands started to shake. “It’s one in the afternoon on Saturday and I come home from a business trip to find a cold house, no lunch, and no wife. Where are you Anne?” She flinched when the partiers clustered nearby burst into laughter. “Are you at a party? Is that a man I hear?”
“It’s a birthday party barbeque,” Anne improvised. “I’ll be home for dinner, shall I pick up something special?”
“The neighbors say you haven’t been home since Wednesday, Anne. Now get your ass home!”
Anne’s eyes flicked to Nate, who was politely pretending he wasn’t listening while she slumped against the hay bale walls. “There is no man, Philip. I’m at a party, but I’m not WITH a man.” Suddenly a recklessness surged through her, after all he was thousands of miles away. “Who were YOU with these past three nights, that you didn’t call me after 5pm? You’re the cheat Philip, not me, and it’s your own conscience talking.”
A stunned silence filled the phone, and the brief surge of courage fled. She flinched when she heard the crash of glass. “I’m going to find you, Anne, and when I do you are going to regret every thought you ever had against me. You are mine, Anne, and don’t you ever forget it. You’ll learn your place if I have to beat sense into you every day. You will never, ever talk to me like that again, do you understand me, Anne? I’m coming for you. I’m going to find you, and then you will pay. You and whoever I find you with.”
Her nerveless fingers and trembling hands dropped the phone while he was still muttering threats. He meant every word and she was frozen in place. She heard and saw nothing but the fists she had become far too familiar with. She startled and cowered when a light touch brushed her shoulder. Nate handed her phone back to her. It was closed, the connection severed. She looked up at him, and saw him draw back from the fear in her eyes. She pulled the mask back on, and said, “I’m fine, I’m fine.”
“Not all men are like that,” Nate said softly, before he withdrew into pretending nothing had happened. He did it for her; she recognized that. He looked like he had a lot more to say. It was easy for everyone to judge her, but how many of them had their lives in danger every single day?
Her husband was resourceful. He probably would find her. Maybe if she told him she was pregnant he would beat her less. He wanted children. Maybe that would save her. She sank to the ground and cried, unable to stop the tears that scalded her cheeks. Nate reached to touch her shoulder with comfort, but she flinched away. Kindness now would tear all her defenses away and she’d never stop crying. He withdrew his hand. He stood, facing the crowd, shielding her behind him. The gesture sank deep into her, it burned through her tears and into her soul, but she didn’t know what it meant, why it affected her.
With effort, she pulled herself together and stood. She did her best to act as if the past five minutes had not happened. “We have a maze to solve,” she said, gripping her puzzle pieces tightly. “Do you think the colors will matter?” she asked as they continued walking through the crowd. She had chosen all green puzzle pieces, while Nate had chosen a different color for each piece.
“We’ll find out if it does,” Nate replied. After that conversation failed, but they made their way to the center of the maze. True to his word, Nate held back and let her cross the finish line into the fenced off room, past the guards first. He followed close behind, however, and she was oddly glad they would face Mr. Bright together.
“Where is my daughter, you monster?!” a brunette woman was screaming at Mr. Bright. He was seated at a table with champagne and cake. The woman’s husband grabbed her shoulders and pulled his sobbing wife past Anne and Nate, never seeing them.
“Ah, Miss Collins, Mr. Reynolds, how nice to see you,” Mr. Bright said cheerfully. Anne wondered if he had even noticed that woman screaming in his face. She looked back to the doorway. The couple was gone. Nate was frantically patting his pockets with a very worried expression on his face. “Excellent work, Mr. Reynolds, well up from last place, and with your penalty fully discharged. Your sponsor will be very pleased indeed. Are you and Ms. Collins teaming up? In which case, I’ll need one of the phones, and I’ll make note of it for the sponsors.”
“No, no we aren’t,” Anne said hurriedly. When Philip found her, he would kill Nate if he found her with him. “We don’t have to, do we, because we worked the maze together?”
“No, though it is unusual. Most racers do not cooperate,” Mr. Bright said. “Birthday cake? Champagne?” He offered.
Anne accepted the large piece of cake and champagne. Nate was strangely silent, his expression dark and brooding. It unnerved Anne to see such a change in him. “Is it your birthday?” She asked Mr. Bright.
“Not mine, no. It’s the race’s birthday. Fifty years ago today the race first began.”
“The Camaro,” Nate interrupted, his voice sounded choked, like he was having trouble breathing.
“Yes, indeed, Mr. Reynolds. Good work! Well done!”
“Is this the end of the race?” Anne asked.
“Good heavens, no, Ms. Collins. We’ve barely just begun,” Mr. Bright sipped his champagne.
“Then where are we going next?” she asked.
“Eat your cake!” Mr. Bright smiled cheerfully. Anne looked at her cake, took another bite and realized there was something under the confection.
“This is the clue?” she asked.
“Indeed, Ms. Collins. Don’t be late. It’s a long drive and you need to be there at sunrise.”
Nate grabbed a piece of cake, waved to Anne with a muttered, “Good luck,” then left abruptly. A couple in black motorcycle leathers who looked old enough to be grandparents walked in. Anne slipped out while Mr. Bright greeted the Browns. She ate the cake hurriedly, revealing a hand drawn map on the bottom of the plate with no words, legend, or any other indicator. At least, she thought it was a map, it could just be a doodle.
Bright Party, Tallahassee, Florida – Saturday 2007
Nate pushed through the maze looking at every face he saw. Jason had to have stolen his gun, it was the only explanation. Not only was Nate not eliminated, but Mr. Bright thought he was responsible for the accident that took out the Camaro. The very idea of it made him sick. Jason was going to answer his questions one way or another.
The mother’s cries still rang through his ears. In Key West it had been the father being emotional, now it was the mother. Both times they were asking Mr. Bright where their daughter was. As if Mr. Bright would know. As if Mr. Bright had her. Anger bubbled in Nate’s blood.
He spied the kid who had been driving when Jason passed them on the highway. “Hey, where is Jason?” he demanded.
“Hell if I know, he split when we got here.” Drew added, “Glad to be rid of the pest.”
“If you see him, tell him I want to talk to him.”
Nate hurried off. Maybe Jason was in the parking lot trying to con his way into another ride. When the parking lot turned up empty Nate cursed. He had too many questions, all of a sudden, and Jason seemed to be the only one with any answers.
He pulled the dirty plate out of his pocket and looked at the abstract lines drawn on it and cursed his frustration.
Bright Offices, Tallahassee, Florida – mid-afternoon, Saturday
John James pulled into the parking lot of the empty store a few miles from the party and checkpoint. The store looked empty, but it wasn’t. When the company moved out tomorrow, he suspected a Halloween store would start setting up its own temporary business. Empty stores, and empty offices, rented from landlords a little desperate to get even a few week’s worth of rent. Desperate enough not to ask too many questions about what kind of business sets up for only a week or two at a time. Happy enough with the cash bonus on the rent to leave well enough alone when the company moved out. John thought of the company as ghosts. Powerful ghosts, but ghosts nonetheless. These were the people he worked for—ghosts.
He steeled himself for what was to come, and walked into the seemingly deserted building. He knocked, and was quickly let in by Sarah Myers. She grinned at him conspiratorially, “She’s in a good mood today, so maybe you won’t get too busted.” John didn’t need to ask who She was. She was the battle axe who ran their office.
He grunted and said, “Better get this over with, ring her, will you?”
While Sarah sat down and called the boss lady, John watched the large plasma screen monitor that was hung on the wall. The map it displayed showed many yellow dots moving chaotically near each other. A few of them were beginning to move toward the edges of the map. Thirty-eight yellow dots, John knew, and one of them was his current assignment. Only he hadn’t been following his current assignment, he had been following that rogue bastard who had snuck into the Bright room in Key West when John was supposed to have been watching over the computer. John had slipped out for just a couple minutes to get himself some cigarettes. After all, the racers had been in the orientation meeting. He still didn’t know who the guy was, but John had seen him slip out of the room, and it was obvious he had read something he shouldn’t have. If he wasn’t a racer, then he was dangerous, and it was John’s job to enforce the secrecy of the race. That’s what he told himself as he watched the man hide in Anne Collins’ car. If his Battle-Axe boss hadn’t stopped him in the hallway, he could have taken care of his little problem then and there. But no, she had decided that was when he needed to be briefed on his assignment to take out one of the sorority girls. All the sponsors except theirs thought it was highly unfair that they had three teammates. His job was to level the playing field, by whatever means was necessary.
He had ignored his assignment, following Collins instead, and trying to take her out. He was sure the caltrops would have stopped her. He hadn’t been able to get in front of her car, but she had been so close behind Reynolds that he had been certain she had no chance of avoiding the collision. It had been a simple plan. He would have rushed in to help, and if the thief wasn’t dead from the accident, it was easy enough to snap his neck. But the woman steered her car like a pro.
This afternoon was even worse. Taking out a racer without specific orders to do so made his battle axe boss very cranky. He knew what would happen if she got too cranky with him. It would be the jail cell or the grave, depending on how cranky she got.
He remembered the day he met her. He was in jail for murder one. Just because he had sat and waited for his boss to come out of the restaurant and run him down cold, the district attorney refused to drop the charges to accidental manslaughter. Called it premeditated, because he’d lain in wait. John knew it was a crime of passion. The man had fired him the day before the big race. The race where he would have proved to the world that he was a world-class racing genius. The things he could do behind the wheel of a car would have awed them all. But he got fired for being too reckless. Fuck that. His boss had paid for that decision with his life. The battle axe had offered him a job that first day she visited him in his jail. In exchange his legal problems would go away. Just like that. He took her offer, of course. He rarely let scruples get in the way of what he wanted.
But now that thief still walked, and he’d gone and taken out one of the race cars, and still hadn’t finished his assignment, since all three sorority girls were still together. Yeah, his boss was going to be pissed. The only question now was would he be able to walk out of the office.
Sarah waved him into her office, so with his nerves pulled taut, he crossed the threshold.
“The account says you got new tires in Live Oak?” she said, without looking up from her desk. Her salt and pepper hair was pulled into a tight bun, and her glasses sat near the end of her nose as she read her computer screen and tapped on the keyboard in front of her.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, deciding to take the cautious route and say nothing she didn’t directly ask him about.
“Car twenty-one was taken out just before Live Oak,” she said distractedly.
“Yes, ma’am,” he would play it cool if it killed him. And it might.
She set her hands flat on the desk and looked up at him. Her cold, calculating eyes froze his blood. “You are lucky you got caught in the effects of the elimination round, or I’d be rather cross that you have not yet fulfilled your assignment. See that one of those girls is removed before the next checkpoint. You know what will happen if you don’t.”
He knew. It was jail or the grave. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, leaving the office when she returned her attention to her computer.
Relief flooded him. She thought the accident with the Camaro had been caused by the racer who had gotten the elimination penalty. He wasn’t busted yet. But now that he had lost the thief’s trail, he was going to be hard pressed to find it again. The man was a loose end that had to be eliminated.
“Did it go well?” Sarah asked.
“I’m still alive and free,” he replied. She grinned in response, thinking he was joking. “Where are the sorority girls?” he asked. He might as well fulfill his assignment until he spotted the thief.
Sarah typed on her computer and looked up at the big plasma display. One of the yellow dots moving away from the main cluster started blinking. “Looks like they are headed out of town,” Sarah said. “You better hurry.”
“Shit, I wanted to eat before I hit the road again,” he cursed.
“Take mine,” Sarah handed him her deli sandwich and half-empty soda. “I can get another one on my next break.”
“Thanks,” he said as he headed out the door and back to his silver Mitsubishi Eclipse. It wasn’t a formula car, but the engine was souped up nicely, and she handled well enough. Now all he had to do was figure out how he was going to eliminate one team member without taking them all out. He was better at total destruction. He hit the gas pedal and raced through the streets of Tallahassee. He would follow them for a bit, and see if he couldn’t come up with some kind of plan. He had until dawn, and night would give him more opportunity anyway. Not for the first time he wished one of the other John James’ on the team had been assigned the sorority sisters. They were better at the subtle stuff than he was. But they had their own assignments, he was sure, though he hadn’t seen any of them on the road and wondered where they were. He should have looked at the map more carefully, and found them. They were probably at the party, like he was supposed to have been.
Parking Lot, Tallahasse Lassie, Tallahassee, Florida – mid-afternoon, Saturday
Anne jumped when her phone rang. Caller ID showed it was Philip calling from their home number. “Hello,” she answered cautiously, getting into her car.
“Cell phone company says you are in Tallahassee. What are you doing there? I’m coming for you. You will never escape me, Anne. You are mine.”
Anne threw her cell phone out the window of her car, turned her ignition and drove out of the parking lot. She shook all over, and tears streamed down her face.
“Fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck!” she said over and over again.