Free Fiction: Drive Chapter 4: Determination

Loving all those who are reading along! We are getting through this week together! For those just finding us, this week I am posting, for free, a novel! A new chapter every day, and enjoy the ride!

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Anything goes in this deadly game of speed and survival. 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.

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.

Drive

by Jamie Aldis

Chapter Four: Determination

FBI Van, I-10, Florida – late afternoon, Saturday

Jason Williams downed the water bottle in three large gulps. He rubbed his wrists, grateful to be out of the handcuffs, and swallowed against the raspiness of his throat. He had talked fast and hard for hours. His eyes burned from the barely restrained tears, and he felt deeply shaken. He had told everything, absolutely everything, to these FBI agents. He prayed they were not in the race’s pocket, because he was a dead man if they were. If they were genuine FBI he was still in a world of hurt, drawing a gun on a federal officer was a class 2 felony. He took a chance they were legitimately staking out the race, even though they never said a word about it while he spilled his guts. The truth was his only hope.

He told them how his wife had been kidnapped five years ago, and he’d been coerced into the race to get her back. He told how, at the end of the race, he had crashed his car and woken up two weeks later with nothing but a death certificate for his wife. He told them that he had been hunting for the race ever since, and after a few close brushes, he had finally found one of the favorite starting points in Key West. He told about everything he had read on the Bright computer about the other racers, including the names he remembered, the vehicles he remembered, and everything he had seen when looking for clues about race vehicles that may be following the race. He told them how he thought they were the race staff he was looking for. He told them how he got the gun, and what he thought Nathan Reynolds had been asked to do with it.

They sat silently through the entire multi-hour telling, with expressionless faces. The female agent listened to the whole thing while one of the men worked with the equipment and the third agent drove. Jason had no idea where they were going, since he never saw beyond the curtain that separated the driver from the interior of the van, except for the moment when the driver had climbed in front to start driving. The three agents never even communicated their plans with each other, so obviously they were following some script he had barely interrupted.

The van stopped moving, and the driver got out. Jason smelled gasoline and heard some loud thunks and clicks on the exterior of the van. A few minutes later the driver returned, passed some bags of McDonald’s into the back, and resumed driving. The female agent, after peeking inside the bags, handed one to her partner at the equipment, one to Jason, and started eating her own burger.

“We are green-lit,” her partner at the computer said as he chewed around his sandwich. It was the first time he had spoken since Jason had opened the van door, hours ago.

The female agent nodded and after swallowing, she leaned forward, “Can you get one of these race phones for us?” she asked.

Jason choked on his burger.

Olive Garden, Jacksonville, Florida – evening, Saturday

Anne knew she could not return to her husband. He would kill her if he ever found her. The only way she could think to keep away from him was to win the race. Money bought safety. Fortunately, D.C. was far enough away from Tallahassee that Philip would never think to look for her there. The race added a randomness to her movements that she hoped would keep Philip far away.

She had been stupid to keep the cell phone, but at the time, she had thought she was playing one of Philip’s little mind games, and she had needed to keep it. Spilt milk. He had traced the phone to Tallahassee, and there is where he would find it. She felt odd without the electronic leash, the constant umbilical between herself and her husband, who was apt to call frequently and at odd moments, as if he wanted to catch her in the act of doing something he disapproved. He certainly had, at that.

She paid the waiter in cash, counting how much she had left while she waited for her change. Not much. Enough to keep driving for a few more days, but not enough to start over somewhere. Just thinking about trying to start over, stay hidden from her husband, all in time to bring her baby into the world gave her panic. One thing at a time. First she needed to win the race. That money would help her buy a life safe from her husband.

Anne opened the maps she had picked up earlier from the AAA office. The clerk behind the counter had looked at her pretty oddly when she asked for maps of all 48 contiguous states. She wasn’t sure he had even known what that meant, but he gave her the right maps. She opened the map of D.C. and nodded to herself, comparing her dirty cake plate to the map of the city. Just as she thought, that oddly sketched thing in the middle of her cake plate was the Washington Monument. She had to be there by dawn, Mr. Bright had said. She clamped a fist over her mouth to stifle a yawn. It was going to be tough. She was exhausted, hadn’t slept much in days, and she wasn’t so sure she was up to pulling an all-nighter on the road.

No help for it, she sighed as she put away her change. Though maybe Jason had been right, and she did need a partner. It had never occurred to her that the race would not stop each night, as it had the two previous.

She left the restaurant and got into her car. She pulled into the street and suddenly flashing red and blue lights glared in her rearview mirror. A flood lamp lit up her car and a bull horn sounded, “Put your hands out the window, and slowly get out of the car!”

“How the hell am I supposed to open the door with my hands out the window?” she muttered to herself.

The bull horn repeated its blare, and two more police cars pulled in front of her car. The officers hid behind the cars and trained their guns at her.

“What?!” she stuck her hands out the window, and opened her car door from the outside, glad she didn’t have automatic locks.

As soon as she stepped out, a female police officer pushed her roughly to the ground and started feeling her up. “She’s clean,” the officer said as the handcuffs snapped around Anne’s wrists.

“Am I being arrested?” Anne asked, she wanted to rub her scraped face, but couldn’t.

“This vehicle has been reported stolen in an armed car-jacking. You have the right to remain silent, you have the right to an attorney, you have the right…” the officer intoned her rights.

“Philip, you fucking bastard,” Anne muttered as they shoved her into the back of the police car.

Rest stop, I-10, eastbound, Florida – evening, Saturday

The girls stopped for a pee break at the rest area, which was perfect timing for John James, since he had grown bored of meekly following them. He wanted to get ahead and find that thief. So when the three girls went into the bathroom, he jumped under their car and nicked the brake line. Just enough so that their brakes would fail on the highway. When the asshole in the hummer left his door unlocked and the keys in the ignition, John thought he had died and gone to heaven. He climbed into the hummer, called Sarah and told her to send a team to pick up the Eclipse because his car had been marked, and he pulled out knowing anyone racing was surely going to pass his crawling speed very soon.

I-10, eastbound, Florida – evening, Saturday

“Are we never going to leave Florida on this stupid race?” Tiff whined.

“No kidding! Some cross-country race. We haven’t even left the first state, yet. But now we have to drive all night to get to D.C. by dawn?” Luc agreed.

From the back seat Heather, who had decided it was time for someone else to take the wheel, asked, “Do you want to quit?”

Tiff passed a hummer going about 45mph. She looked in the rear view mirror, but saw nothing unusual. The hummer seemed to be keeping pace with her now, so maybe he had just been adjusting the radio or something. They were on a pretty barren stretch of road through what signs said was a National Forest, and Swamp Wilderness area.

None of them liked quitting so silence descended in the mini-van. “No, but I have to admit, the endless and pointless driving back and forth across Florida for two days isn’t exactly my idea of fun,” Tiff said.

“And the last clue wasn’t even challenging,” Luc added.

“Only because you used to live there!” Tiff exclaimed.

“What are we really getting out of this race?” Heather asked. “The promise of 32 million dollars if we win?”

“Ten million would set me up for life, that’s for sure,” Luc said.

“If it’s even true,” Heather said.

“You don’t think it’s true?” Tiff asked.

“Well, if it is true, and we win, they already said it’s an illegal race, so what are we going to do with ten million illegal dollars? If it isn’t true, then what are we even racing for? Seems to me whoever set this up is just jerking our chain to see how far they can push someone. I don’t want to end up like that camaro.” Heather said.

“We wouldn’t, we don’t even know what happened there,” Luc said.

“By tomorrow morning we’ll be in D.C. and a lot more tired than we are now, even taking turns driving. We’ll be spending another night on the road, only to be told to go god knows where else with another riddle.” Heather said.

“What are you really saying?” Luc asked.

“I’m saying I miss my boys, and I’d rather be spending time with you two by the side of a pool with a daiquiri in my hand, instead of arguing about the solution of some stupid riddle in some stupid game, run by I don’t even know who.” 

“A daiquiri sounds good,” Tiff said.

“Sleeping in a bed for an entire night sounds even better,” Luc added.

“We can turn in the phone on the way through D.C. then go home,” Heather said, her voice catching on the word home.

Tiff looked in the rear view mirror to smile sympathetically at her friends’ homesickness. The bright lights of the hummer filled her vision and she shouted, “No!” just as the hummer rammed into their rear bumper, jerking them all against their seat belts. She spun the wheel to control the fishtailing, and hit her brakes to regain a little control. The brakes squished to the floor uselessly. “Oh my god!” she yelled, as the hummer slammed into them again, hard enough to spin the car around. They stopped moving, and she looked at the fear in her friends’ eyes. All three of them turned in time to see the hummer bearing down on the passenger side of the car as fast as it could. Lights blinded her, and the crush of metal and bones and her own voice screaming echoed through her head just before everything went black.

FBI Van, Jacksonville, Florida – evening, Saturday

“An Anne Gropdich has been arrested for driving a stolen silver 2001 Honda Civic with Illinois license plates. Vehicle reported stolen by Philip Gropdich.” Agent Sinclair said from his station at the electronic equipment.

“Anne?” Jason queried. “I thought her last name was Collins.” As usual, the agents ignored him. Agent Steger hovered over Agent Sinclair’s shoulder as she read the computer screen in front of him.

“Collins was her maiden name,” Agent Steger said idly.

They knew an awful lot about Anne, considering they had never even heard the name before he had spilled it in his confession. They told him very little about what they were doing, but it was clear they were out to bust the people who ran the race, and they had a lot of technological help to do it. So far, they seemed to follow the race mostly by listening into police scanners for speeders and the other accidents common to the victims of the race. Jason couldn’t tell if they were glad he had landed in their laps, or if they considered him a pest, even though they wanted him to become an “informant”. Whatever that meant. They implied it offered him safety and protection, but he knew it really meant they were going to throw him back to the wolves and hope he brought home a bone. If that bone would avenge his dead wife, than he was happy to do it. Of course, Agent Steger had been quite firm on her opinion of his tactics regarding sneaking up on potentially dangerous and unknown vans with a loaded gun, and no back-up. He couldn’t argue with her there, it had not been his smartest moment.

Agent Steger sat back down and eyed him with a calculation that made him feel like he came up very short. She was a single-minded woman determined to bring in the bad guy. That much was obvious. Uncomfortably obvious.

“Will she give you her race phone if you get her out of jail?” she asked.

“Anne? I doubt it. She doesn’t like me much,” Jason replied.

“I can’t imagine why,” Agent Sinclair drawled from his chair.

“Could you steal it from her?” the intense agent asked.

“Probably,” he paused. “I know the phone would be a major asset, but wouldn’t it be more useful to know the clues and try to get ahead of the race, if you want to find the people who are running it?”

“We need evidence, and that phone is evidence,” Agent Steger insisted.

“He’s got a point,” Agent Sinclair added. “We’ve never had a man on the inside, and that could be invaluable.”

“He’s not trained for this,” Agent Steger said.

“I’m right here, and hell if I haven’t been trained for this,” Jason got a little huffy. “I’ve done a far better job getting information about this race than you have. I even found you and your oh-so-stealthy van, so don’t give me any crap about being some incompetent civilian.”

“You are a civilian,” Agent Steger said.

“But I know this race better than anyone alive, who doesn’t actually work for Bright Industries,” he exclaimed.

Agent Steger conferred via silent looks with Agent Sinclair, who merely shrugged. Finally she consented, “All right, run the race, give us the clues. Try to get us a phone and as much evidence as you can. Now, will Anne let you join her if you get her out of jail?”

“How am I supposed to get her out of jail?” he asked.

“Leave that to us.”

Jacksonville, Florida – evening, Saturday

“How about some dinner?” David asked Lexi.

“Sure, where?” she asked, perking up from her boredom. The riddles were kinda fun to solve. Would be more fun if her dad didn’t always know the answer right away. And it was fun to win. Both times they had been first or nearly first, and that was cool. Her dad knew so much. Lexi never thought it paid off to be smart, because the smart kids always got so much crap from everyone else. No one liked the guy who broke the grading curve, so Lexi hadn’t ever really bothered to spend much effort on homework. But she wondered now. Her dad may be a geek, but his smarts was paying off, would pay off in millions. They so had this race in the bag.

She looked behind again, and saw the yellow and black car was still with them. She’d been right, he was following them. Probably hadn’t recognized the Washington Monument in the drawing. She wondered if she should tell her dad they were being followed. She decided against it. Not like he’d do anything about it anyway.

“How about KFC?” she asked. “I could do with some fried chicken.”

McDonalds, Brunswick, Georgia – sunset, Saturday

Nate watched the haggard couple get out of their car and walk into the McDonald’s. When they had pulled off the highway, he expected them to go drive-through, but apparently they were making a slightly longer pit stop. He had been following the Millers since Tallahassee, and it looked like now would be the only chance he would have to talk to them. With the sun setting, and the sunrise deadline, even Nate was feeling the need to press on, and drive fast for the next destination. He slipped out of his car, locking the doors, and stood in line behind Mr. Miller whose wife was in the restroom. He hesitated, while the next person ordered, and the line got shorter, uncertain how to interject himself into a conversation.

Mrs. Miller walked up, recognition flashing in her eyes as she saw Nate. He’d never have a better opportunity.

“Hi,” he said casually, as if they were old friends.

She nodded warily, and her husband turned to face her, his eyes swiveling to Nate, guided by his wife’s attention.

“You’re in the…” she trailed off, as the word “race” hung in the air unspoken, as she looked around, pale with fear.

“Yes, I saw you at the party,” Nate offered smoothly.

“Can you order my usual?” Mr. Miller said, as they traded places in line and he rushed off to the restroom.

“I overheard you talking with Mr. Bright,” Nate asked as the line got another person shorter. He expected the Miller’s would get their food to go, and be back on the road. “About your daughter?”

“Do you know where she is?” hope lit up her face so much it broke Nate’s heart.

“No, I’m sorry. Is she missing?” he asked.

The darkness reclaimed her features, and her red-rimmed eyes welled with tears. She looked like she was about to say something, when her turn at the register came up. She ordered their food to go, just as Nate expected. She moved to the side where others were waiting for their orders. Nate ordered a Big and Tasty meal, super sized it for the added caffeine and stood next to her.

“Please, can I talk to you about your daughter?” he asked gently. Her husband walked up just in time to hear his request.

“What do you know about my daughter?” the man hissed under his breath.

“I know you keep asking Mr. Bright where she is,” Nate said, holding the man’s eyes steadily. Mr. Miller looked like he was going to throw a punch any second. “Maybe I can help you look for her. Can we at least talk about it over dinner?”

“There isn’t time, we have to get to…” he cut himself off, realizing he was about to give away information. “We have to go.”

“To DC, by dawn. Yes, I know,” Nate kept his voice calm, soothing. Offer trust to gain trust, he thought. “We are ahead of most, and can easily make it by dawn, even if we eat here.”

“You just want to beat us,” Mr. Miller accused. “We have to win!” The man’s voice choked up, and he turned toward the food counter to avoid having Nate see his emotion.

“For your daughter?” Nate asked. What the hell was going on here?

“Yes!” Mrs. Miller started to cry again. “They’ll give her back if we win!” she clutched at Nate’s sleeve..

“Jenn!” her husband hissed warningly, clearly wanting her to say nothing more.

“He said he’d help! We need help!” she started to cry, silent tears slipping down her cheeks, each one a stab into Nate’s heart. One way or another he would find out their story, he vowed to himself. The Miller’s food was ready, and he was running out of time.

“Fifteen minutes,” he urged Mr. Miller. “I’m already in the race,” he dropped his voice on the word, not wanting to make them uncomfortable, “so you aren’t breaking any of the rules to tell me. Please, what happened to your daughter?”

The need to talk warred with his fear, marching across Mr. Miller’s face. Jenn grabbed the bag of food. Nate’s order was called up, and he grabbed his own bag. “Fifteen minutes,” he said gently.

“He might be able to help,” Jenn said quietly, hopefully, her desperation clear. Her husband looked at her. His shoulders sagged with his decision and Nate hoped it was because he’d decided to share his burden.

“Fifteen minutes.”

They grabbed a table in the corner, far from others. Nate introduced himself quickly, getting their first names in exchange.

“What happened to your daughter? Does Mr. Bright know where she is?” he asked.

“He won’t tell us,” Brian growled around his burger.

“On Wednesday we went to pick Chelsea up from school. She just started first grade,” Jenn began, tears spilling down her cheeks. “She was gone. The school said we had picked her up, but we hadn’t.”

“Someone in a car like ours,” Brian added.

“Then we got this call from a phone in her backpack. The man said our daughter was fine, and told us to drive to Florida. When we got there they gave us this,” she pulled out a photograph of a young blond girl holding a newspaper with the word “Win” written over the photo in red marker.

“You think they kidnapped your daughter?” Nate asked, his burger suddenly feeling like a lead brick in his stomach.

“Of course they kidnapped her!” Brian struggled to keep his voice down.

“Why?” Nate asked.

“To make us race, I guess,” Jenn said.

“Yes, but why?” Nate frowned. “Who the hell coerces someone to race, and why?”

“What the hell do I care?” Brian growled, looking like wanted to throw a punch again.

“Because when you can answer that question, you will find your daughter,” Nate answered. “Someone went to a great deal of trouble to compromise you, impair your judgment, and coerce you to play their game. I’m beginning to think the game is more than just a race with a big cash prize. The real question is, why does someone want you that badly, and what do they get out of it?”

Jenn gasped, shocked. “I never stopped to think about it. I haven’t thought about anything except my daughter in four days.”

“That’s exactly what they want,” Nate said.

Jacksonville Police Station, Jacksonville, Florida – late evening, Saturday

Anne was sitting handcuffed to a chair. She’d been fingerprinted, photographed, inventoried, and was now waiting for the final paperwork to be finished so they could put her behind bars. They said her husband had been notified of her arrest and the recovery of his stolen vehicle. Anne wanted to cry. Undoubtedly he would post her bail, and by the morning who knew how many bones would be broken. At least he wouldn’t dare kill her, not with the police wanting her in court at some point.

“FBI, you have a federal fugitive in custody. Here is the warrant to remand her and all evidence pertaining to her into our custody.” Anne turned and watched three FBI agents flashing badges and paperwork sweep into the station and fluster everyone with orders, and a sneering superiority that set everyone’s teeth on edge. It wasn’t until she was pulled from her chair and shoved at the FBI agent, that Anne realized she was the fugitive they were after.

Twenty minutes later she was sitting in the passenger seat of her car, all of her possessions were in a bag on her lap, including her race phone, which the FBI had disappeared with into a van, before returning it to her. Jason Williams sat behind the wheel and with a grin he asked her, “So where am I going?”

Jacksonville Hospital, Jacksonville, Florida – night, Saturday

“Lucia, you must not let them kill you,” her dead mother said. She sat at her grandmother’s old kitchen table back in Puerto Rico. The house had been destroyed decades ago by a hurricane. Her mother sat next to her grandmother and a beautiful glowing woman who could only be the virgin Mary.

“You are the best, and they are threatened,” her grandmother said. “Be what you are, even if they burn you for it.”

Heather appeared at the table; she grabbed Lucia’s hand, “They killed me, Luc! That driver works for them, and they killed me! Don’t let ‘em get away with it! Don’t let ‘em beat us all!”

“You must end the race,” the virgin Mary said. She leaned over and kissed Lucia’s forehead. “End it. I am with you.”

Lucia jerked awake, her heart pounding in a chest that ached fiercely. Stabbing pain swarmed her head, and nausea nearly swept her back into blackness. Her dream faded from memory but the urgency and conviction remained. Tiffany was in the bed next to her, sleeping.

“Tiffany! Wake up! Are you all right?” she asked. It was a foolish question. They were both in the hospital after a fatal car accident, of course they weren’t all right. But somehow, Luc knew in her gut that they were fine. Bruised and battered, but they had to finish the race. The Virgin had said so. Heather had said so.

Tiff emerged from sleep groggy and slow. Lucia wrapped the hospital blanket around her like a thick skirt. She vaguely remembered her clothes being cut off when they arrived in the emergency room. “We have to go, Tiff. We have to get to DC while there is still time! Heather told us we have to go, we have to win.” Lucia kept the part about the Virgin Mary, and her dead mother and grandmother to herself. She didn’t want to sound crazy.

“What? Heather is dead.” Tiff looked up, her eyes a little hazy. Lucia ignored her.

“Can you walk? Can you come with me? We have to win this thing, Tiff! For Heather!” Win wasn’t what the Virgin had said, but it must have been what she meant.

“What?” Tiff was wearing a bandage on her head, so Luc ignored her apparent slowness as she found the box with their personal items, including the race cell phone.

“Tiffany! Can you walk? Are you coming? We have to win the race! For Heather! She told us to!”

Tiffany pulled herself out of bed, wincing with pain as she pulled the IV from her arm. “Ok, ok. Isn’t the car totaled, though?”

“We are going to steal an ambulance! Let’s go, we need to get to DC by sunrise!”

I-95, North Carolina – midnight, Sunday

Jenn blinked at the unrelenting blackness of the highway while Brian slept in the back seat. Anger and hope sizzled in her veins, keeping her awake. The mere fact that someone else knew what happened to her daughter made her feel better. That Nate had been outraged at the injustice and told them he would keep watch for her, gave her an irrational hope. There was someone else on their side. Nate said one of the racer’s he had met knew a lot more about the race than most of them did, and he would see if he could get any information. Any hope of new information was enough to keep Jenn behind the wheel, speeding as fast as she dared on this long stretch of empty highway. She would make the checkpoint by dawn, and maybe her daughter would be there. If not her daughter, then maybe Nate would be there with some more information. She could only hope, and drive.

Washington Monument, Washington DC – early morning, Sunday

Nate pulled into the parking lot of the Washington Monument hours before dawn. The park was closed, but he walked around looking for something. The retired couple on the motorcycle were the only people there before him. They slept on the ground by the gate entrance. The man had woken when Nate walked by, eyeing him warily. Nate merely nodded acknowledgement and moved to walk on. The old man looked at his wife, and tucked the light weight thermal blanket around her.

“You are the one who stopped for us in Key West,” he said softly.

“The motorcycle that hot rod cut off?” Nate nodded. “Yeah, that was me.”

“Thanks for that,” the man said. “What you want is over there.” He pointed across the parking lot to a shadowed corner at the far end.

“Thanks,” Nate said, and jogged across the lot. There he found, nearly hidden at the base of a low hanging tree, a box with yet another version of the Bright logo and colors on it. He opened it and inside were numbered pieces of cardstock and a time punch clock. He took the number 2 card and time stamped it. On the back was written, “At the base. In the morning.” Next to it was what looked like a passport stamp of the monument, and the date.

“Clear enough, I guess,” he muttered to himself. He walked back to his car, pulled out a blanket, and sat next to the old man.

“At least we get a few hours to rest,” the old man said quietly.

“Nate Reynolds,” Nate extended his hand for a shake. The old man’s grip was warm and firm. Something about the crisp handshake and the buzzed hair cut made Nate wonder if the man was military.

“Jack Brown.” Without further conversation, Jack leaned back into the wall and fell asleep. Nate followed his example, after setting his watch alarm to just before sunrise.

Washington Monument, Washington DC –before sunrise, Sunday

Jason leaned against the fence while Anne snoozed next to him. They arrived in the center of the pack, it looked like. That impressed him, since Anne had been delayed by her arrest, after all. Others must have been delayed more, which only helped them. He paid particular attention to the racers and their cars. Everyone was starting to look worn and tired. He figured the FBI were out in the dark somewhere, looking for the people who ran this race. After all, they had officers here who did not have to drive from Jacksonville. His feelings were mixed. If the FBI caught them, it would all be over and he might never get his revenge for his wife’s death. 

Washington Monument, Washington DC – just before sunrise, Sunday

Tiffany Davis pulled into the parking lot and flipped off the lights of the ambulance. In the seat next to her Lucia slept fitfully, twitching and muttering. She frowned at her sleeping friend, wondering if it was the large purple bulge on the side of Luc’s head that had given her the over-bright mad gleam in her eyes and had her raving about Heather talking to her. Heather could not talk—she was dead—killed by that maniac who drove the hummer right into them. Tiff rubbed her eyes, trying to get the vision of the man’s hard-eyed visage out of her mind. She had asked the doctor’s about him, but he had driven off. The hummer had been reported stolen from the rest area near their accident, and had been abandoned in Maclenny, a nearby town. The policeman who questioned her about the accident had been careless when gossiping with the nurses outside her room.

She opened the door of the ambulance, gasping against the pain in her body as she stepped onto the ground. The pain killers had worn off, and her broken ribs were not fun. Ignoring the racers who were lounging near the entrance, she instead headed for where a couple was emerging from the trees. She found the box, pulled out her number and stamped the time. Three numbers were after hers. They weren’t last, and it wasn’t dawn yet, though the lightening sky was saying dawn would be soon. 

“Luc,” she gently shook her friend. “Luc, we need to go.”

Luc’s eyes snapped open, and the feverish glint in them worried Tiff all over again. “Let’s go nap at the base of the monument,” she said.

“Are we here, what’s the clue?” Luc desperately added, “We have to win. Heather says we have to win.”

“I know, Luc. We are at the Washington Monument. I punched a time card. I think this means we have to be at the base of the monument in the morning, but who knows when in the morning, so I think we should go now.”

Luc took the clue from her hand and read it. She nodded and climbed out of the ambulance. “We actually made it?” she whispered, looking like she was talking to someone beside her, though no one was there.

“Yeah, I drove something like 120, with the lights flashing, through the last three states,” Tiff answered, trying to pretend Luc’s question had been directed at her.

Together they snuck into the trees, careful no one saw them. They hurried across the still closed lawn until they were at the base of the monument. Darkness revealed nothing as they circled the immense spire, so they sat down and leaned against each other, wincing as their accident pains made themselves known. Neither of them dared lean against the white pillar, it just seemed sacrilege. But if being at the base first was any advantage, they had it, since all the other racers were waiting by the official gate and ticket window, which would open in the morning at 9:00. Hopefully they would not get thrown out by security before they got their next clue. Or maybe Tiff did hope they would get caught, because she knew both of them still belonged in a hospital. But Luc was adamant, and Tiff would not leave her friend to run this race alone, since her madness and fever dreams clearly had her out of her mind.

Washington Monument, Washington DC – dawn, Sunday

Retired Colonel Jack Brown, Special Forces, made his move as soon as Nathan Reynolds stepped away to relieve himself. His wife, Mary had appeared to be casually packing their sleeping rolls, but he knew she was ready. She was the perfect wife, strong, independent, and always ready to move when he wanted to move. When the call to race had come, she had not even hesitated, though he knew she had been looking forward to his retirement as a time when she could stop moving. He stood swiftly, grumbling silently at the ache age had added into his joints. Walking quietly, not waking the rest of the racers who slept on the ground around them, he and his wife packed their sleeping rolls into the saddlebags on the motorcycle. Jack had every intention of being first at the base of the monument, and nothing as trivial as the opening times for the park was going to slow him down. He would be at the base of that monument the first moment the sun hit it.

He and Mary climbed the fence away from casual eyes and crossed the grey yard. The morning was cool, but still touched by summer. The sun’s rays kissed the top of the monument. He cursed when he saw Mr. Bright standing next to the flashing race finish line pole. Two girls were talking to him. Jack began to run, knowing Mary would catch up as she could.

“I got here before they did,” he interrupted the conversation.

“Good morning, Col. Brown. They got here before you,” Mr. Bright said cheerfully.

“My time stamp is the first,” Jack said, thrusting his card into Mr. Bright’s hands. The young blond girl had stepped to the side, her forehead pinched with pain, while the Puerto Rican girl watched with avid, glittering eyes, soaking in every detail. She looked feverish, and he belatedly realized they were both wearing bandages.

“The time stamp is excellent, but it is not all, Col. Brown. This is the finish line for this check point. You have done well, first time stamp, second to arrive at the finish line, your standing in the race is improving considerably.”

“What do you mean, standing?” Jack asked. Movement behind him caused him to turn his head, expecting Mary to be reaching them. He frowned when he saw Mary walking with Nate Reynolds. The young, well-muscled man smiled cheerfully, as if aware that his arrival annoyed Jack. Nate handed his time card to Mr. Bright casually, looking far more relaxed than Jack had felt since he had begun this race.

“Good morning, Mr. Reynolds.” Mr. Bright scanned Nate’s card with the same scanner he had used on Jack’s. Somewhere there was a computer registering the time, the time on the card, and who knew what else. Mr. Bright was most likely wired, possibly with video as well as sound. That Bright Industries lapel button he always wore with his crisp suits was probably the device. Jack was beginning to feel like a pawn in a game he did not understand.

“While being first is very important, Col. Brown, over all performance also matters, and affects your standing in the race,” Mr. Bright smiled congenially.

“What does race standing give us?” Nate asked, though his attention seemed focused on the girls instead of on the answer to his question.

“It gives you advantages, Mr. Reynolds, the opportunity to get ahead, and improve your chances to be the first to the final finish line.”

A race phone rang, and all three racers reached into their pockets. Jack was disappointed to see his phone was still dark and silent, but the blond pushed a button on hers. She grinned apologetically and read the message, showing it to her companion.

“Col. Brown, your good standing this leg will give you a chance to move ahead of all the others, should you choose to take the challenge,” Mr. Bright said.

“What does that mean?” Jack challenged.

“All will be explained later.”

The girls began walking toward the trees, which must have been their route onto the lawn. It must be an easier path, judging from the pained way they walked, so Jack decided he would take Mary that route, avoiding the difficult fence. Nate followed the girls, speaking quietly and urgently. Jack scowled. If he was still young and handsome he would have tried to take advantage of the girls as well, and get advanced information.

Suddenly his race phone rang. He exchanged a glace with his wife, who nodded that she was with him. He turned to Mr. Bright, “Good morning, Mr. Bright. See you at the next checkpoint.”

“Good morning, Col. Brown. And good luck on your task.”

Jack frowned at the man, but turned and followed after the girls and Nate. He thumbed the text message open.

Reach for Lelawala’s hair in the winds, behind the bridal veil.

His phone beeped with a second message, and Jack read it with a frown.

Congratulations on your improved standing. When you arrive at your next destination, you will be given the opportunity to skip an entire checkpoint, and zoom ahead of all the other racers. Time is essential, instructions will arrive when you reach the next race marker.

Jack and Mary had just reached the parking lot when everyone’s race phone rang. Dozens of people jerked awake and set the black phone to their ears. Jack turned his phone on, and listened.

“Congratulations to Jack Brown, for arriving first and earning the first reward, an opportunity to jump ahead. Good job Jack!” The phone then registered an incoming photograph which showed him standing there with the phone to his ear, not a minute earlier. The vantage was from above. He turned and spied the camera on the corner of the ticket seller building.

“Jack, I think we should go now,” his wife said urgently, tugging on the sleeve of his motorcycle jacket.

Jack looked down and saw dozens of hostile and jealous expressions on all the racers just awakened from their snoozing. He watched them warily as he and Mary straddled the cycle. He kicked it into gear just as the first of them realized what had happened and began to climb the fence. It was going to get ugly very soon. Jack and Mary roared out of the parking lot. Behind him the girls were in an ambulance, its lights on, but its siren silent. He wondered if Nate had pulled ahead already, since Jack did not see him.

“They are going to be after us now, Mary,” he said quietly into the microphone of his helmet.

“I rather think that was the idea,” his wife said. “We’ll beat them.”

Jack wished he were as confident. The sleep deprivation and hours on the road were beginning to fatigue him. He wondered how long he would be able to handle the bike, since clearly there were no rest breaks in this illegal, cross-country, road race.

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